SIMPLY THE FINEST EVENING

When I launched this journal in 2007, my ambitions were modest. Here would be articles that mentioned Comstock House, of course, and maybe a few items about the Oates and Comstock families. Three or four posts per year. A half dozen, tops.

But when I actually began wading through the old Santa Rosa newspapers, I found myself increasingly pressing the “print” button on the microfilm reader to capture articles that had nothing to do with the house or its families. These were stories begging to be told again, like the tale of the woman who turned up alive after her family had purchased a coffin, published an obituary, and planned a funeral service. Or the time when salmon were so plentiful in Santa Rosa Creek that a man caught one with his bare hands near downtown, then boarded a trolley car with the fish tucked under his arm. And then there was the holiday season of 1904, when not one, but two, men dressed as Santa Claus caught fire from candles on their Christmas trees.

This blog quickly morphed into a year-by-year history of Santa Rosa as seen from the slow lane – which isn’t a bad way to gain a deeper understanding about American history, either. Writing about the local impact of the Bank Panic of 1907, for example, I strayed into research about the underlying causes, and the heated political battle of the following year to prevent it from happening again. Perhaps most important, I discovered that it was a more interesting topic than I’d ever expected, and found myself wanting to share the insights I had gained.

As I approached the end of writing about 1907, I found myself playing a familiar game: If I had a time machine and could only choose two events to visit from each of these years, which would they be?

Some picks are obvious. I’d have to visit April 18, 1906 to witness the horrors of the great earthquake, if only to seek answers for some of the many unresolved questions about what really happened on that day. Another must-see would be the Battle of Sebastopol Avenue on March 1, 1905; a steam locomotive retrofitted for “fighting purposes” and a human tug-of-war with the body of one of the wealthiest men in town – what’s not to like?

After these no-brainers, the game becomes contemplative. Would I prefer to witness an epic occasion, such as the elite banquet at Bohemian Grove for Teddy Roosevelt’s infamous daughter, or enjoy the personal satisfaction of dropping by a grand party at Comstock House when it was only two years old, and the Oates’ had a string orchestra tucked behind potted ferns in the library? When it all sifts out, however, the events that I’d most like to have witnessed were all very public and rarely historically remarkable; these were simply very sweet moments in the life of a small community.

I’d like to have been in downtown Santa Rosa on a summer’s Saturday night in 1905, when the stores stayed open late, everyone dressed up, and a brass band gave a free concert on the north balcony of the Court House; I’d have liked to be there on July 21, 1906, when the Pavilion Skating Rink opened three months after the earthquake, and Santa Rosans packed the place, eager to blow off their nervous tension; I wish I was around on May 18, 1907 for the special children’s Rose Parade, which was a nice symbol of renewal after the disaster.

My second favorite moment for 1907 was an event so modest that I nearly overlooked it: The quiet evening of December 12, when members of the community came together to read and reminisce about Mark Twain. Selections from his works were read by five local men, all accomplished public speakers; it would have been pleasant listening. But even more interesting is what other treats some of them brought to this literary potluck. Dr. W. A. Finley (father of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley), spoke about Mark Twain’s youth in Missouri, where he also grew up at about the same time. The evening ended with Attorney Dougherty reading one of the best sections from Innocents Abroad, introducing it with the story of when he met the author. Any anecdote that might begin, “I remember when I once had dinner with Livy and Sam Clemens…” cannot possibly disappoint.

The short item in the Press Democrat the next morning was headlined, “Pleasant Evening With Mark Twain”, but I believe I’d have gone farther, and written that it was the finest evening that Santa Rosans had shared in a very long time.

PLEASANT EVENING WITH MARK TWAIN
Presbyterian Brotherhood Have Literary Night With American Humorist for a Subject

The first in a series of literary evenings given by the Presbyterian Brotherhood of the Presbyterian Church took place Thursday evening in the church parlors and proved a great success from every point of view. Mark Twain, his life and writings, was the subject considered. There was a large and appreciative audience present and the readings and stories were all interesting and enjoyable…Arthur Hendrickson read extracts from the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has furnished amusement for thousands.

Dr. W. A. Finley prefaced his reading of the description of “The Coyote,” with some incidents regarding the humorist’s early life in Missouri, and the scenes of many of his stories. Judge Seawell followed with a number of enjoyable selections from the writings of the humorist. The Rev. W. Martin told a number of personal stories of the writer and read extracts from his “Any Old Thing” and was followed by Attorney S. K. Dougherty who told of his being at the same hotel and table with Mr. Clemens and his wife in the White Mountains. He read selections from “Innocence Abroad,” [sic] including the story of how the party refused to enthuse at the many wonders shown them by the guide and the latter’s dismay at their conduct.

– Press Democrat, December 13, 1907

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WHO WAS JESSE PETER?

In a 1983 Press Democrat column, Gaye LeBaron compared him to a real-life Indiana Jones, “Scaling the cliffs of Indian dwellings preserved for centuries in the dry desert air…such is the stuff from which anthropological adventures are made.” When I recently mentioned his name to archeologists, 2 out of 4 dismissed him using the same description: “Pothunter,” which is an insult that ranks at the bottom near “grave robber” (it means an amateur who vandalizes prehistoric sites searching for interesting and/or valuable artifacts). The man was Jesse Peter. He wasn’t Indy, and it isn’t fair to call him a pothunter, either.

From his death in 1944 until recently, his name was on the Santa Rosa Junior College Museum in homage to his driving role in its creation. Jesse Peter was known in the 1930s for his donations of interesting rocks and Indian relics to the Junior College and for leading some field trips to the pueblos of the Southwest with JC students, documented in some very Indiana-Jonesish photos in the school’s collection. His day job was far less glamorous; he taught shop class at Santa Rosa Junior High, where his challenge was guiding pimpled Santa Rosa boys to use hammers for hitting nails and not their thumbs.

Teaching “manual arts” was a midlife career change for him. Born in 1885, he studied at UC/Berkeley, but never graduated. His father – also named Jesse – had been a miner, and he likewise spent his early adult years knocking around mining camps, starting in the Mojave Desert tungsten mines during the boom period when that ore was considered as precious as gold (think: Filaments for those popular, new-fangled lightbulbs). After that came at least five years in the Alaskan gold fields near Juneau. “Jess” also spent some time as a construction worker and contractor. He was good at these jobs and earned a living, but it was a bit of a drifter’s life.

At the same time, Jesse Peter had another identity as a well-known and respected figure in the world of archeology. In 1933 and 1934 he was among the 75 “experienced men” nationwide invited by the National Park Service to join the prestigious Rainbow Bridge/Monument Valley Expeditions. The group trekked into the vast, 3,000 square-mile “Four Corners” region of the Southwest – then accessible only by horseback and mule – to document Navajo culture in the remote area and begin archeological research into the little-known Anasazi people. (There are thousands of photos from the expeditions available here, but participants are rarely identified.)

Closer to home, he documented over 200 archeological sites in the North Bay, more than anyone else of that era. He had an uncommon eye for seeing what other’s couldn’t; his most significant discoveries locally were probably the locations of the enormous obsidian quarry at Annadel State Park and the large Pomo village now covered by Santa Rosa’s City Hall.

That Peter spent his last decade associated with the Junior College and the creation of its museum gives a nice arc to his biography – he was just about the same age as a SRJC student when he made his astonishing debut as an archeologist. In 1907, when he was just 22 years old, he donated to UC/Berkeley a collection of over 600 artifacts that he had excavated near Santa Rosa, apparently on his family’s farm. These “finished and half-completed mortars, spear points, knives, and ceremonial instruments,” according to a university newsletter, included “several pieces of types that have not been discovered before and are therefore of particular importance.” Over three decades later, it was still described as one of the most important private archeological donations ever made to Berkeley.

Given his lifelong interest in the field, it may seem strange that Jesse Peter didn’t become a professional archeologist, but you have to consider his time; had he finished a degree at the university he would have been a member of the class of 1907, when there were few career opportunities in archeology aside from college teaching or working as a museum preparator. There was also less stigma to being an “avocational” scientist in those days; another example from Peter’s generation was John A. Comstock (eldest brother of Judge Hilliard Comstock), who became the acknowledged expert on California butterflies despite having no former education whatsoever. The difference between Comstock and Peter, however, was that Comstock published his research (always the academic yardstick of accomplishment) while nothing by Peter appeared in print – even as his field notes, maps, and artifacts were recognized as important and were being collected by the University of California and other institutions.

(RIGHT: Jesse Peter in the 1930s. Photo courtesy Santa Rosa Junior College Museum.)

Peter’s reputation is further diminished by our modern revulsion over the destructive nature of archeological practices of a century ago. In the photo seen to the right (CLICK to enlarge), he is counting tree rings to calculate the age of a log shaped by Native Americans. While modern scientists have the technology to bore tiny core samples into wood, it appears here that the hewn tip of the log was sliced off with a saw, destroying much of the worth of this object – and possibly the entire site – to future researchers.

And finally there’s the “pothunter” label, which likewise has to be understood in the context of the day, when the belief was that important objects had to be taken away and preserved before they were grabbed by treasure hunters, accidentally destroyed by development, or ended up on someone’s knicknack shelf. “Everyone picked up objects back then,” an SSU anthropologist told me, “including the most well-known names. You can’t point fingers.”

MAKES GIFT TO UNIVERSITY

Jesse Peter, a former well-known young man of this city and a graduate of the high school here, has presented the University of California at Berkeley a valuable collection of prehistoric implements obtained by him principally from the deposits around the warm spring two and a half miles east of Santa Rosa on the Peters place. The specimens were found at varying depths ranging down to more than twenty feet below the surface. The collection includes more than six hundred pieces, of which many are rare objects not commonly represented in museums. It is of special value because all of the material has been obtained from a limited area and the facts relating to the discovery are all available.

– Press Democrat, August 24, 1907

JESSE PETER’S GIFT TO THE UNIVERSITY
Archeological Remains Found Near Santa Rosa Are Given to Museum at Berkeley

The University of California Weekly News Letter acknowledges a gift from Jesse Peter of this city of archaeological remains unearthed near Santa Rosa. The letter says:

“Jesse Peter, of Santa Rosa, California, has presented to the Museum of Anthropology of the University a collection of archaeological remains from the vicinity of Santa Rosa. This collection comprises several hundred pieces, including finished and half completed mortars, spear points, knives and ceremonial implements. There are several pieces of types that have not been discovered before and are therefore of particular importance. Of special interest is a large series of chipped obsidian implements and charm stones, all found in a large spring where they were evidently for a long period deposited as offerings by the Indians of prehistoric times.”

– Press Democrat, February 2, 1908

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FRED J. WISEMAN JUST WON’T SLOW DOWN

Before Fred J. Wiseman discovered he had wings, his hands seemed permanently gripped to a steering wheel. Also, he apparently didn’t understand the concept of brakes.


(RIGHT: Fred J. Wiseman at the wheel of his Stoddard-Dayton race car, 1908 or 1909. The man next to him is probably a mechanic from the auto dealership that employed Wiseman. One mechanic who rode with Wiseman during cross-country races was J. W. Peters, who helped Wiseman build his first plane. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)

We first met Wiseman in 1905, when a Santa Rosa policeman caught him speeding down Fourth street (but Fred got revenge a few days later, forcing the same cop to arrest himself for spitting on the sidewalk). Later that year he appeared as a driver-for-hire, giving James Wyatt Oates and his Civil War-hero brother a drive around Sonoma county (on the final stretch, he opened up the throttle “in a manner which shook the party up”). In 1905 he also opened Santa Rosa’s first gas station/garage, and seemed destined to stay here forever.

But the garage was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and some time in the months that followed, Wiseman moved to San Francisco, where he began working for the J. W. Leavitt auto dealership. We next heard about him in the late summer of 1907, when he was taking a young woman on a spin through Golden Gate park one Sunday afternoon and the car tipped over (not his fault), pinning her beneath. She escaped without serious injury, and they married about a year later.

By the summer of 1908, Wiseman was racing Stoddard-Dayton automobiles sold by his boss. In a vehicle that looks today like a lawn tractor on steroids, he buzzed around a racetrack in Concord at almost sixty (60!) miles per hour; as the Press Democrat noted, “he is foolish to go fast for if something should go wrong it might mean a sacrifice of his life.” A few weeks later, he competed for the “Santa Rosa Cup” in his hometown and won. (This was not the first auto race in Sonoma county, however.) And a few weeks after that, he won big at the Tanforan racetrack near San Francisco. All of these were primarily thoroughbred horse tracks, of course, unpaved and unbanked. The first auto racetrack was built the following year in Indianapolis, where a Stoddard-Dayton won the premiere race.

Wiseman was now an exhibition driver and “head automobile man for the company,” showing off the Stoddard-Dayton throughout Northern California and Nevada. His first race competition in the new year of 1909 came from an open challenge by another dealership for a hill-climbing race on the terrifying peak of 19th avenue in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the newspapers of that day did not specify exactly what they meant by “Nineteenth avenue hill” where the race was held, but for readers outside of the Bay Area, 19th ave is a major north-south traffic artery for the city with fairly gentle hills (think of a roller coaster sanded down by millennia of erosion). Like most races of that day, there were starting trials according to the selling price of the automobiles, and Wiseman and the Stoddard-Dayton easily won the race for cars costing $1,200-1,800. In the climactic free-for-all race, however, Wiseman came in fourth – the winner of that March 28th competition was a Stanley Steamer.

A few weeks later, Fred was again in Santa Rosa to drive in the first California Grand Prize Race. This was no small affair; thousands came out that May 9 to cheer the dozen drivers as they started the cross-country race to Geyserville and back, some 50 miles. The route was grueling; only half of the cars crawled across the finish line a little over an hour later, one of them driving on a rim because his left front tire blew out somewhere near Windsor. It’s a pip of a tale, but it’s not a Fred Wiseman story – he came in third. Honors that day, as well as the breathtaking $500 prize, went instead to Ben Noonan, Wiseman’s old friend and business partner.

Wiseman’s losing streak didn’t last long. On May 16 he set a new speed record for driving from Oakland to San Francisco (via San Jose). As he was going through Santa Clara, his car ran over a fallen telegraph pole that “gave the car such a bounce that it tore the seats off the body,” according to the SF Call. The accident also ruptured a fuel line, and Wiseman had to frequently stop and manually prime the carburetor with gasoline. After it was over, they found he had only about a quart of gas left in the tank.


(RIGHT: Newspaper ads in this period would often mention the type of auto that won a noteworthy race, but never was the driver’s name mentioned, except for this advertisement that appeared in the SF Call, May, 1909)

Attempting to beat his own record over the same course a week later, Fred had a far more serious accident. Wiseman lost control of the car when it encountered a remarkably bumpy stretch of North First street in San Jose. The racer went off the road and hit a tree, throwing Wiseman and his mechanic passenger (“J. M. Peters,” probably the same as J. W. Peters) about 40 feet. Both men were taken to a hospital, but not seriously hurt – although a wire service story claimed both were “probably fatally injured.” The Stoddard-Dayton was demolished by the accident.

Fred apparently did lots of racing in 1908-1909 that wasn’t reported in the papers (or at least, can’t be found in the newspapers that have been digitally indexed). There were grumblings by the American Automobile Association (AAA) that he had “driven in practically every contest of any importance held in California,” including events not authorized by local AAA chapters. The Association, which was trying to cut down on street racing and legitimize auto track racing as a organized sport, had national clout; they could have blocked Wiseman from participating in an important track race in Indiana on June 18. Fred drove in that competition, but came in 16th place didn’t place – after the first three cars passed the finish line, drivers were flagged off the course, turning all other positions into endless saloon debates.

As he was in the Midwest and not far from the Stoddard-Dayton company (also probably his sponsor in the Indiana race), the story goes that he visited their auto plant in Dayton, Ohio – a town that also happened to be the place where a couple of brothers named Wright were building airplanes. Whether he stopped by and met Orville (Wilbur was then in France, preparing for his historic flights later that summer) them is unknown; but that race in Indiana is the last record I can find of Fred J. Wiseman ever being in an auto race. Likely he spent the long train ride back to California dreaming of what the sky may hold.

25 MILES IN 28 MINUTES IN AUTO
Fred J. Wiseman, Formerly of Santa Rosa, Drives Lively Clip in Machine on Track at Concord

A San Francisco paper publishes a picture of Fred J. Wiseman, formerly of this city, driving a Stoddard-Dayton automobile on the Concord track. The picture was taken while Wiseman was driving the car at the rate of twenty-five miles in twenty-eight minutes on a mile track.

Wiseman is one of the most daring and clever riders and in his track racing has demonstrated a thorough control of the machinery. His friends, however, agree that he is foolish to go fast for if something should go wrong it might mean a sacrifice of his life.

– Press Democrat, July 10, 1908
FINE TROPHIES BROUGHT HERE
Won by Fred Wiseman at Concord in Great Race

Two fine trophies are being displayed in the window of the Santa Rosa Cyclery, which are attracting considerable attention, especially among the automobile enthusiasts of this vicinity. They are the silver cups won by Fred Wiseman in the great races at Concord a short time ago, and are among the finest loving cups ever brought to this city. One of the cups was the reward for driving the 25 mile auto race in 28 minutes, and the smaller for winning the ten mile race in 11¼ minutes. The trophies are suitably engraved.

Wiseman drove a Stoddard-Dayton machine in the races in which he won the trophies, and it is stated that he will be here with one of his fast machines for the races Saturday and Sunday of this week. The machine will be entered both days.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 19, 1908
AUTOMOBILE RACES HERE WERE GRAND SUCCESS
Fred J. Wiseman Wins Santa Rosa Cup Sunday Afternoon

…In the race for cars listing over $2500 on Saturday, Wiseman won the event with the Stoddard-Dayton car. He took the lead from the start and never permitted himself to be passed…The last race of the day, the twenty-five mile free-for-all, was taken by Fred J. Wiseman in his Stoddard-Dayton. It was fitting that the Santa Rosa cup, offered by the Chamber of Commerce, and the handsomest cup of the entire lot was taken by a Santa Rosa boy. The only accident of the meet occurred in this race, and it was nothing to speak of. While the Stearns machine was in the lead, one of the hind tires blew out, causing the machine to skid close to the fence while coming around the three-quarter mile pole, and the machine hit the fence. The machine skidded across the track directly in front of Wiseman’s machine, and in the clouds of dust it seemed that a collision had occurred. When Wiseman emerged from the dust everybody breathed easier, and then the Stearns could be seen coming to the judge’s stand with a section of the fence hanging to the machine. No damage was done the machine, but the spectators in the grand stand were given a severe fright. The Stearns at the time was leading Wiseman by a slight margin. Wiseman took the race in 29:54. The little Comet met with an accident to one tire after winning the first mile of this event, and had to stop and put on a new tire. But for this there is no doubt it would have won the event also. As it was, the little machine went a single mile after it started the second time in fifty-eight seconds making a new Pacific coast record…

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 24, 1908
FRED J. WISEMAN NOW A BENEDICK
Well Known Santa Rosa Boy Married to Miss Alice Ferguson in San Rafael on July 2

The many friends of Fred J. Wiseman, son of Mr. and Mrs. A. W. Wiseman, of Melitta, will be interested to know that he is a benedick [married man], and has been one since July 2, when he and Miss Alice Ferguson, a charming and beautiful San Francisco girl, were quietly married in San Rafael.

On the occasion of his visit here last Saturday and Sunday to attend the automobile races just one or two most intimate friends were let into the secret. They lost no time in extending feliciations as many others do now that the announcement of the marriage is made.

The bride is a niece of Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Ferguson of San Francisco, who were present at the wedding. Mr. Ferguson is senior member of the Ferguson-Breuner Company, and is a wealthy and prominent man. For some time she had made her home with the Fergusons. Mrs. John Bruener, who was formerly Miss California Cluff, gave a reception recently in honor of the bride.

Mr. Wiseman is a Santa Rosa boy, and since going to San Francisco he has been with the J. W. Leavitt Company. He is now on the road for them and has steadily risen to a position of trust and importance in connection with their business. He is the head automobile man for the company and his territory extends from Fresno to Eureka and the State of Nevada…

– Press Democrat, August 30, 1908

FRED WISEMAN IN GREAT SPEED RACES
Won Three Great Events at the Tanforan Meet–Don’t Forget the Good Roads Ball at Glen Ellen

Fred J. Wiseman, “the Santa Rosa Boy”, as he is familiarly called when he drives in the great automobile races, certainly made good with his Stoddard-Dayton in the great auto races held on Sunday at Tanforan. Ten thousand people watched him win the three great events of the day, even beating the little lightning Comet, which won so many of the events here. The little Comet won the Novelty race in fast time.

When Wiseman drove here at the time of the auto races he predicted that he would annex more of the trophies when he participated in the Tanforan. He did so.

The members of the Sonoma County Automobile Association are reminded that they are invited to the good roads meeting and good roads ball to be held in Glen Ellen on Saturday night of this week. A number of them are planning to go to show that they are heartily in sympathy with the movement for good roads. By the by, “Good Roads” is the slogan of the Sonoma County Automobile Association.

A particular feature of Wiseman’s triumphs in the races of Tanforan, was his beating Bert Dingley, who drove the specially constructed racing car, Chalmers-Detroit “Bluebird.” He was given a big ovation.

– Press Democrat, September 23, 1908
WISEMAN TO DRIVE IN A GREAT RACE
Will Participate in 2,000 Mile Endurance Run in the East, Driving a Stoddard-Dayton

The many friends of Fred J. Wiseman, the expert auto driver for the J. W. Leavitt Company of San Francisco, will be glad to learn that the Stoddard-Dayton Company has asked him to come east next year and drive in the annual endurance Glidden run of 2,000 miles, The offer is a very flattering one and of course will be accepted by Mr. Wiseman. Wiseman with his Stoddard-Dayton has won all free for all races in the state this season. In addition to participating in the endurance run in the east next year, he will also join in other important racing events.

Mr. and Mrs. Wiseman have been spending a few days with Mr. Wiseman’s folk at Melitta. They have now driven to Lake country for a few days on a vacation outing. They are using the racing car with the exception of course, that the “muffler” is on. Upon their return to San Francisco they will go to Los Angeles.

– Press Democrat, September 30, 1908

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