James Wyatt Oates purchased his first car in 1908, which gives us a likely date for the most infamous story told about him. The complete tale is reprinted below, but here’s a summary, for the purpose of discussion:

Late one evening, a man came to the home of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley to warn him about death threats made by Oates. “If I were you, I would get out of town for a few days. Take a trip to San Francisco until Oates cools off. He says he is going to cut your heart out.” Finley cooly replied, “[G]o back and tell Oates, tell him for me that I said he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts. Tell him I said he had been talking around here for thirty years about killing people, but in that time the only man he ever tackled was a cripple, and then if the crowd had not been prevented, the cripple would have beaten him to death with his crutch.”

It’s a spiteful little story intended to make Oates look a fool, but the joke was on Finley – he didn’t know Oates actually had killed a man. From a biography of Oates’ brother, we learn that he shot someone dead in a fit of anger when he was sixteen, and was acquitted only after his brother paid a “considerable sum of money” to the prosecutor – who happened to be the father of the victim. Apparently no one in the West knew of his crime; in her oral history, Helen Comstock said the story was told that Oates had shot a man, but not fatally.

(RIGHT: A previously unknown portrait of James Wyatt Oates that appeared in the San Francisco Call, October 23, 1900)

Finley’s tale appeared in “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” a compilation of profiles he penned for the newspaper which were gathered together into a book after he died in 1942. Oates was the only “pioneer” he disparaged, and the essay rankled Hilliard Comstock, who told his family he thought it was mean-spirited of Finley to insult the memory of an honorable man.

While there’s no doubt that Oates was a hothead of legendary proportions, Finley certainly confused facts, and might have confabulated parts of the story. Finley’s late night visit could not have happened before Oates bought his first car in August, 1908 – yet the event that supposedly sent Oates into a rage was Finley’s criticism of “his” city charter, which had been adopted back in 1904 (the PD editorial mentioned by Finley appeared on Sept. 14 of that year). Also, he claimed this all happened when Oates was city attorney, which was in 1912. And lastly, Finley misidentified his brother as a senator instead of a congressman.

Finley’s lack of factchecking aside, I’m unable to find evidence the other two anecdotes he mentioned even happened. Finley wrote that Oates once led the local delegation to the Democratic party state convention, but stormed out when “he could not have his way.” Oates was a delegate for many years, but only was Sonoma County chairman in 1892. No mention of an incident like that can be found in local or state papers.

I also can’t find any account of Oates being beaten by a “cripple,” although that story is harder to sleuth because no year is mentioned. John M. Carter was a Santa Rosa councilman from 1896 to 1904, but Finley wrote vaguely that the incident happened when he was “a member or perhaps a former member of the city council.” While it wouldn’t be surprising to learn there was a scrap (see above, re: Oates, hothead), I doubt it was nearly as dramatic as Finley claimed. Like Sherlock’s “dog that didn’t bark in the night,” the lack of evidence is evidence itself. Newspapers of the day loved this kind of juicy story, often giving it front-page coverage. (In fact, I stumbled across just such an item while researching 1892 politics: Following election primaries in Los Angeles, a man named Ignacio Bilderrain cracked a political foe’s head open with his cane.) If a man as prominent as Oates really had been badly beaten with a crutch, it undoubtedly would have been reported far and wide.

Why Ernest L. Finley felt the need to posthumously whack James W. Oates is a mystery. They didn’t appear to be bitter personal enemies; Finley attended a 1906 card party at (what would become known as) Comstock House. Won first prize, even.

My guess is that clues can be found in Finley’s opening sentence: “Oates came here as a young lawyer from Alabama, expecting to control Democratic policies in Sonoma County.” Yes, Oates wanted to launch himself into politics, but Sonoma County’s political world was controlled by a “good ol’ boy” clique. Oates lacked the temperament to be a cog in anyone else’s political machine, and famously always said he had no interest in dealing with people who he felt weren’t “square” with him. Oates also didn’t have the Missouri pedigree that greased entry into the clique. In all ways, he was the unwelcome black sheep.

By contrast, Finley was always the defender of the good ol’ boys, and his Press Democrat was their official organ. His editorials viciously attacked anyone who challenged the status quo, much as he savaged Oates in this profile. Perhaps here Finley was settling (very) old scores related to Oates’ threat to their power. Or perhaps Finley simply didn’t like black sheep who didn’t get along with his pals.

Colonel Oates is one of the latest devotees of the automobile and he has purchased a fine machine. For a long time the Colonel has had the “auto fever” and finally the impulse to own a car became irresistible.

– Society Gossip column, Press Democrat, August 30, 1908

James Wyatt Oates came here as a young lawyer from Alabama, expecting to control Democratic policies in Sonoma County. A man of many fine qualities, he possessed none of the attributes of political leadership and died a disappointed man. He could not brook opposition in any form, and when opposed either developed a violent fit of temper or gave up the fight.

He once went to a state convention in Sacramento as the head of a delegation from this county, and he could not have his way jumped on the train and came home, leaving the delegates to work out their salvation alone.

Oates came out of a prominent Alabama family, a brother being governor of that state and afterwards United States senator. He talked a great deal about the South, and frequently boasted about being a great fighter, but he usually managed to keep the peace.

One night about 11:30 o’clock, a then well-known automobile salesman here drove up to my house, rang the doorbell and said he wanted to talk to me. I had not yet retired and we went for a drive. It appeared that he had sold Oates an automobile and delivery had been taken that day in San Francisco. When he and the salesmen were driving home together, Oates, then city attorney, had begun talking about the new city charter at that time up for adoption. We did not consider it much of an improvement over the old one and had said so editorially. Oates considered himself responsible for the charter, having prepared a good part of it, and he had argued himself into the belief that the paper’s opposition was prompted by personal feeling. This was not true, but as he talked he grew extremely angry and became greatly excited.

“If I were you, I would get out of town for a few days,” said the automobile man. “Take a trip to San Francisco until Oates cools off. He says he is going to cut your heart out.”

“Do you want to do something for me?” I inquired with grade apparent solicitude.

“I certainly do,” replied my friend.

“Then go back and tell Oates, tell him for me that I said he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts. Tell him I said he had been talking around here for thirty years about killing people, but in that time the only man he ever tackled was a cripple, and then if the crowd had not been prevented, the cripple would have beaten him to death with his crutch.”

Not too long before Oates had passed John M. Carter, a member or perhaps a former member of the city council, while the latter was seated in his buggy. Some altercation arose and Oates attempted to strike Carter. The latter, a one-legged man, jumped clear out over the buggy wheel and onto the sidewalk, brandishing and striking out with his single crutch in a deadly fashion. He was an angry man, but bystanders prevented serious casualties.

No man could have been more courteous and charming in his own home than James W Oates. He entertained extensively, and had many warm friends. He could be a delightful companion wanted he chose, but he possessed an unfortunate disposition that in time caused him disappointment and sorrow, and brought pain and anguish to some who were extremely near and dear to him. Oates enjoyed a good law practice here for many years, confining himself largely to probate practice. He would have gone further and gotten much more pleasure out of life if his had been a less tempestuous nature.

– “Santa Rosans I Have Known” by Ernest L. Finley, pg. 29-30

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Not long after the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake, plans were underway to build a replacement courthouse and firehouse downtown, both critical buildings destroyed by the quake or fire. For the courthouse, which also held the offices for county officials, no expense was spared; financed by a whopping $280,000 bond, the building was artistic and grand, even palatial. For the firemen, an adequate replacement building would have to do.

Plans for a state-of-the-art firehouse and adjacent City Hall were drawn up by John Galen Howard, one of the most respected architects on the West Coast, who had recently designed the Empire Building (then the Santa Rosa Bank) downtown. From the drawing that appeared in the newspapers, the design was in the same style as that building – sans the out-of-scale retro clock tower.

Alas. Santa Rosa went on the cheap. John Galen Howard’s buildings were to be funded by a $75,000 public bond, but a bond issue was never placed before the voters. The City Council quietly decided instead to build a modest firehouse at the old Fifth Street location, using only the $11,000 in the town’s building fund.

As explained by the Press Democrat, selling firehouse bonds was actually Plan B. The original idea was that local banks would jointly provide a special loan to the city to be paid back through the general fund over many years. But lenders everywhere turned skittish after the Bank Panic of 1907, which nearly brought about the collapse of the U.S. economy.

There also may have been political problems. The new firehouse/city hall was to be on the corner of Third and Main Street – now the B of A building, but at the time it was the former location of the Grand Hotel, and owned by the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. This bank was controlled by the current mayor (J. P. Overton) and Con Shea, who separately owned much of the prime real estate downtown. The bond called for paying them the rather large sum of $18,000 for a parcel that nobody else apparently wanted; in 1908 it was still mostly a vacant lot, with a small Salvation Army chapel. Buying the land and building there became somewhat of an issue during the 1908 city election campaigns, when reformers trying to oust the “good ol’ boys” questioned the wisdom of bonding the town for another $75,000 and purchasing overpriced land when the city already owned the old firehouse site on Fifth St. and the former City Hall site on Hinton Ave.

Another factor might have been that some felt the Third and Main Street location was also on the “wrong” side of town, adjacent to the little Chinatown on Second and the red light district on First Street. And directly next door, the unsightly earthquake wreckage of the Eagle Hotel still remained, despite complaints to the City Council.

But the John Galen Howard plans were abandoned sometime in early 1908, becoming yet another of Santa Rosa’s lost opportunities. The new firehouse/city hall would have been kitty-corner from Howard’s Empire Building, and the three buildings together would have given the neglected side of downtown something of the elegant feel of UC/Berkeley, which was being created by Howard at the same time.


The above picture shows the proposed new city hall for Santa Rosa and also the proposed new fire station from the plans adopted by the City Council and prepared by Howard & Galloway, engineers and architects of San Francisco. Both buildings are to replace those destroyed in disaster of the memorable morning of April 18, 1906.

Both buildings are confessedly much needed, and the City Council has decided to submit the question of voting bonds in the sum of $75,000 for the purchase of the site, erections of buildings etc. The buildings will cost not to exceed $60,000. The matter of issuing bonds will be submitted to the voters of Santa Rosa at the municipal selection to be held in this city in April.

The city hall will be a commodious building, two stories high, and will be built of steel and reinforced concrete. The steel frame will be a massive one. It will contain the offices for the several city officials, police department, Jail, council chambers and public hall. The public hall will be located in the second story. The Mayor, members of the council and the architect in the consideration of the plans have arranged to have the building modern in every particular and one of which the citizens and taxpayers will be proud.

The fire department building (the smaller of the two shown in the picture) will be located on the same site as the City Hall. The ground floor will be used for the firefighting apparatus, and the stabling of the horses. The upper story will be devoted to the sleeping and living quarters of the firemen. Like the city hall the new fire station is an absolute necessity and much time has been spent by fire chief Frank Muther, the mayor and council and the architect in having the department housed in a building that will be second to none in point of usefulness and modern equipment in the state.

As is well known it was first planned that the financing of the erection and equipment of the municipal buildings should be undertaken by a combination of banks in Santa Rosa, and when completed the city was to pay them back in yearly installments from the general tax fund. With this idea in view the city council is making the tax levy for this year set aside $10,000 which is now in the building fund. Owing to the recent financial flurry, however, the banks did not feel at liberty at this time to assume the obligation.

– Press Democrat, February 2, 1908

Councilman Forgett stated that he had expected to have the plans for the steel frame of the new fire house on hand, but one of the firms had failed to come through and he desired that the matter go over. Mr. Kirby had was present and explained his plans for an all-steel frame building. The building on these plans was not to cost over $11,000.

– “Council has Long Session,” Santa Rosa Republican, June 4, 1908

Plans Adopted for Building on Fifth Street at Last Night’s Meeting of the Council

Plans and specifications have been adopted for the fire department station on the city slot on Fifth street. Action was taken at last night’s meeting of the city council. Bids were also invited for construction of the same. The building will be of steel and brick.

Separate bids were invited for the supplying and erection of the steel frame and for the brick work and completion of the building. Mrs. Sadie McCann prepared the plans under the direction of the structure committee of which Councilman Forgett is chairman. They provide for a neat and imposing building.

– Press Democrat, June 17, 1908

Chairman Forgett of the structure committee declared flushes were required in the fire department houses for the stalls. Is necessary to flush these stalls frequently and cause fresh water to remain in the traps to be sanitary. He reported good progress being made on the fire house structure. The council deemed the flushes a necessity and referred the matter to the structure committee with powers to act.

– “Business of the City Council,” Santa Rosa Republican, October 7, 1908

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Once upon a time there was a ranch outside Boonville where they raised special pigeons for their down, which was used to make the finest cloth. Tended by 75 mountain men who never left (and who doubtless only spoke Boontling), the flock was so enormous that it would obscure the sun for hours when the birds took flight. Really!

No, not really. It was a tall tale – a once-popular genre of newspaper stories sometimes called “quaints” that were intended to fool readers (and if possible, reporters and editors) as introduced in an earlier essay. Here, traveling salesman I. F. Ramacciotti pulls one over on The Denver Post, the hoax mirthfully reprinted by the Press Democrat.

(RIGHT: A pre-plucked pigeon. Photo courtesy Patty Hiller)

The PD’s introduction suggested that “Rammi” was familiar to locals, although I suspect he was a seasonal visitor known mostly to the businessmen who idled in the downtown saloons. He had no direct ties to Santa Rosa, living most of his adult life in San Francisco; I can find only a single reference of him being in Sonoma County, and that appeared in an advertisement just a year before his death. When he died in 1911, neither paper mentioned his passing, so it’s safe to assume he had no family or deep frendships here.

But the more I stirred around through his dust, the more he intrigued. He was such a fine example of a guy who struggled his hardest to make a go of it in the late 19th century West, yet never found traction. He couldn’t leverage his good connections back East, and apparently couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tap relatives for a grubstake. In California he became a hustler who could obviously spin a swell yarn; he owned a business (briefly); he was also a deputy, and after that allegedly a crook. He was truly the spiritual ancestor of poor, damned, Willy Loman, the everyman supremely confident that fortune would fall into his lap if he only kept plugging away.

Italo Francis Ramacciotti was born in New York City in 1855, the third of five children to father Francis Ramacciotti, who found a way to make a better piano bass string. Such an invention might invite a good yawn today, but until the birth of the amplified loudspeaker in the 1920s, pianos were the primary source of musical entertainment. Papa Ramacciotti’s company and a few others became so powerful that in 1913 there were Congressional investigations into piano string price fixing to see if their monopoly on the valuable commodity was a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. (Take a moment to cringe for having drifted from funny phony pigeon farms to the forlorn weeds of century-old House Ways and Means Committee hearings.)

Italo was settled in San Francisco by the time he was thirty with a wife and two young children. Voter records list him as a “manufacturer” in 1886, a clerk two years later, then an “agent” in 1889. The next year he was a deputy sheriff, assigned as bailiff for a Superior Court judge. Asked why the sheriff had replaced the existing bailiff, he was quoted in the SF Call as saying he believed Ramacciotti was a better man.

For the next twenty years his trail is cold, except for 1896, when he was arrested on three counts of forgery and one of obtaining goods under false pretenses. He was charged with passing forged checks made out to himself to two San Francisco grocers, and passing another fake check in Los Angeles. None of the amounts were over $25. According to the Call newspaper, Ramacciotti was “a small politician” and recently “a traveler for the well-known St. Lous brewers, Anheuser & Busch.” One of the articles sneered, “Ramacciotti is well known in this City and has held various positions of trust, but on more than one occasion was found wanting.” Was he behind bars at the turn of the century? Of all the millions of newspaper pages and old documents now available through the Internet, nothing can be (currently) found.

Except for this pigeon nonsense, we don’t hear again of him until 1910, when opportunity’s door appeared to open. Thanks to his father and elder brother who took over the string-winding biz, the family name was famous in the music world, and now I. F. Ramacciotti became president of the Manufacturers’ Piano Company, San Francisco. Both the job title and company name were misleading, however.

The Manufacturers’ Piano Company actually manufactured nothing – it was a nationwide retailer based in Chicago, and “president” I. F. Ramacciotti owned something like a franchise. They sold obscure brands of generally poor quality – yet the company prospered for about thirty years, thanks to a unique business model. Piano stores at the time were like awful car dealerships; no prices were marked, and unless you were foolish enough to pay the arbitrary price quoted by a salesman, you dickered over the cost. At a Manufacturers’ store, however, there was a sticker price posted on every piano.

Ramacciotti’s store seems to have had everything going for it, including a prestigious address on San Francisco’s Sutter Street “piano row,” but he couldn’t make a go of it; the display room opened in February and was closed by July. The trade press then reported he was traveling East to “settle all existing obligations, for which ample funds will be provided.” It sounds like it may have been an expensive trip – maybe ruinously so.

The last we hear about Italo is in Santa Rosa, appropriately enough. A couple of months after his store closed, he was in town to liquidate the stock of the Barrett & Decker music store at 250 B Street. The ad that appeared in the Republican paper called him a “factory representative.”

I. F. Ramacciotti died on Nov. 9, 1911, his minimalist obituary published in the San Francisco papers by his Elks lodge. He was 58. He likely died a salesman still, even though success always eluded. Hopefully for him it was enough that there would always be something that he could find to sell, and a real corker of a story he could tell along the way.


Commercial Traveler Gives Interview to Reporter of the “Denver Post”–Santa Rosa Gets Mention

Here is “Rammi’s” latest. “Rammi,” as he is familiarly known to his friends in Santa Rosa, and in the commercial traveler’s world on the Pacific Coast, is I. F. Ramacciotti, of San Francisco. His latest was told to a reporter of the Denver Post, while he was a visitor in the Colorado city recently. A copy of the Denver Post has been received at the Press Democrat office. He gave Santa Rosa and Mendocino County a “boost” in his interview, which is as follows:

“I. F. Ramacciotti of San Francisco, one of the principal owners of a unique industry, is at the Oxford. He has a pigeon farm of 10,000 acres situated on an almost impenetrable mountain top, not far from Boonville, Mendocino County, California. 30 miles from the Pacific coast. The company has 80,000 pigeons and the down is mixed with Australian wool and a cloth of the finest texture made. The wool is bought by the Oregon Wool Company, which pays $2.90 per pound for the down to the owners of the pigeon farm.

“The industry is the result of a secret discovered by George Maxwell, Santa Rosa, Cal. The feed given the pigeons makes the down valuable. There is a trick in the shearing of them that no one else in the world is said to know except the employees of this particular farm. Mr. Ramacciotti says it has cost a fortune to start the unique industry, but it is now on a paying basis.

“The farm had its inception from a flock of about 300 fancy imported pigeons brought to America from Australia by Mr. Maxwell. They cost about 60 cents each and the duty and other incidentals run the cost of each pigeon up to $1 before they were installed in California. The average loss in the number of pigeons about 3 per cent in shearing. In the past it has been the practice to kill the pigeons after they were sheared about three times and bury them instead of selling them for squabs, as they were too old.

“Each pigeon gives from 2 to 3 ounces of down at each shearing. They are breeding so rapidly that the owners cannot keep track of them. The pigeons are allowed to fly about the farm and never leave it. And most of them are in action the sun is obscured for hours.

“There are about 75 employees on the farm and many of them have never seen a railroad train. They were born in the mountains and are content to live their lives as caretakers of the big flock of pigeons. The farm is worth about $4 per acre. It was established five years and in that time only one man has visited it. He promised on honor not to reveal anything he saw. Two of the men with shotguns guard the place at all times of the day and night.”

– Press Democrat, May 19, 1908

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