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