In 1905, Santa Rosa had two faces – as did its main newspaper, the Press Democrat.

On one side was the sleepy little farm town, where we all met downtown Saturday night to listen to the brass band tootling away on the courthouse balcony as we shopped, and what crime was reported in the newspaper was the likes of an occasional stolen bicycle or attempted burglary. Santa Rosa could’ve been the model for the dear little town in “The Music Man.”

But there was another Santa Rosa that was less sugar and a lot more spice. Downtown was more like a “mining camp” when there were horse races in town, and our small community had a red-light district large enough to service, well, a mining camp. Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley never mentioned that face of Santa Rosa, and didn’t like it when the young lions over at the Santa Rosa Republican published an exposé of the illegal gambling scene and the city’s complicity. In the weeks that followed, the saloonkeepers and others who profited from gambling attempted to intimidate or close the Republican through a subscriber and advertiser boycott. While Finley didn’t openly endorse the call to shut down his rival, he used it as an opportunity to ambush the Republican by renewing a petty feud that he had started earlier in 1905.

For twenty years or more, Santa Rosa’s nasty gambling addiction was kept out of the papers by editors like the Press Democrat’s Ernest Finley and the Republican’s Alan Lemmon. Whether they personally liked gambling (or for that matter, prostitution) is unknown; perhaps they kept mum because they feared exactly the sort of backlash from gambling interests as was faced by the new editor and publisher of the Republican. Most likely, though, the editors and town elders saw wide-spread gambling and prostitution as necessary evils to draw visitors. As transcribed in the previous post, the Sacramento Bee wrote an editorial in support of the Republican noting that this was an argument also made in the state capitol: “The same sort of talk has often been heard in Sacramento – that the majority of the residents favored gambling, at least during the State Fair and at all other times when efforts were made to draw crowds to the city.”

And the number of visitors drawn to Santa Rosa and the amount of money gambled could be substantial. Although the PD usually described racetrack attendance in generalities like “a good sized crowd,” the item below shows that even an off-season race could draw five hundred from San Francisco (that there were so many bordellos is no longer surprising) and that side bets at the racetrack could pay around double the $300 that an average American worker made at the time as an annual wage.

Yes, we had Trouble right here in our River City – With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for ‘ponies’ and ‘prostitution.’ Only we didn’t have a Harold Hill to rouse the town against it until 1905.

Meet Under Auspices of San Francisco Driving Club Proves a Success

The San Francisco Driving Club held a very successful race meet at the track of the Santa Rosa Stock Farm on Sunday afternoon and some excellent racing was witnessed by a large crowd of enthusiastic spectators. The afternoon was not devoid of sensational features and fun.

A special train brought five hundred visitors from San Francisco and a great many more swelled the crowd from this section. Owing to the oncoming of darkness two of the harness races were not finished and it was agreed to complete them and have another meet here next Sunday.

Some good time was made in the free for all, which by the way proved the most interesting event of the afternoon…five horses are entered and each owner puts up $100 apiece and the winner will take the $500 in addition to the club purse…

– Press Democrat, October 17, 1905

1905 “Wide-Open Town” Series
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