Members of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce were mad as hornets. Electrical service that autumn of 1908 was unreliable; the “juice” might go off for hours in the middle of the day, shutting down factories and stores, even the electric railroad that connected the towns of Sonoma County. Sometimes the power would be on at night, yet the streetlights still would be dark. Or maybe there would be on-again, off-again blackouts, forcing workers to continually reset all those swell newfangled electric clocks that were being installed in offices and hotels around town. You could never tell.

Seeking answers and a forum to vent, the Chamber called the superintendent of the Santa Rosa Lighting Company to their October meeting. Likely they were surprised to hear that he could shed no light on the problems. “All I know is that when we ask what the trouble is we are told that there is ‘trouble on the main line,'” Superintendent Petch told them. “All I can do is suffer like you do.”

Mr. Petch may not have even have been able to tell them who supplied the electricity. Small electric and gas companies had been gobbled up years before, and now the larger ones were being absorbed. Originally Santa Rosa’s power plant was built after the turn of the century by California Central Gas and Electric Company, which was acquired by the Bay Counties Light and Power Company (more commonly known as just the “Bay Counties Company”). This was the company that built the hydroelectric plant on the Yuba River that supplied power to the entire North Bay and East Bay. (Your Trivial Pursuit item for the day: The plant was named “Colgate” after company president E. R. Colgate, apparently no relation to the toothpaste people. You’re Welcome.) Bay Counties was in turn swallowed up by the California Gas & Electric Corp. in 1903, which reorganized five years later into the monster everyone still loves to hate, PG&E. If you’re keeping score, that’s four ownership changes in about six years.

By 1908, Santa Rosa’s power situation was nearly in the complete control of a monopoly that had no particular interest in the town. Regarding the streetlight situation, Mr. Petch told the Chamber that he only did as he was told by a boss in another county. “I receive a message from Napa to cut out the street lights until further notice. Out they go. I must obey orders as a sailor or railroad man if I hold my job. When the order comes to ‘cut the lights in’ they are turned on. There is never any explanation offered when the orders are given us.”

Petch lamented that the town had decommissioned the power plant that had once made Santa Rosa self-sufficient – “If we had a steam plant [like we used to,] I could go crazy” – but as it was, the only hope that we could avoid PG&E’s electrical whims lay in service from the Snow Mountain Water and Power Company, which was formed a few months earlier. Their hydroelectric dam on the south fork of the Eel River supplied electricity to the Ukiah area, and in Sept. 1908, their lines were connected to the grid near Santa Rosa. Alas, it was still six weeks before Snow River could bring power into Sonoma County. The Eel River dam immediately shut down for planned maintenance, probably in part due to damage caused by eels gumming up the works.

Some Inconvenience Caused in a Number of Places

To a forest fire, four miles and a half from Sonoma, and between that place and Napa, that burned over a considerable area on the Poletti Ranch and burned down a number of poles on the potential line of the electric company, must be charged up the inconvenience that resulted yesterday afternoon and up to a quarter to nine o’clock last night in this and other places attendant upon a cutting out of the electric current. This was the information sent over from Sonoma last night. A large number of poles were burned down and the wires were distributed over the ground. Consequently it took some time for the linemen to get to work after things had cooled off and set up a fresh poles and connect up the wires again.

The “juice” went off suddenly about three o’clock and with its disappearance the ,machinery in the factories and other places using it, including the newspaper offices stopped also. The establishments fortunate in being provided with gas engines connected them up and got along as best they could. When night came on and with it darkness in places having no gas connections lamps and candles were put in commission. The streets were dark for some time. At a quarter to nine the lights appeared.

Owing to the absence of the “glim” the places of amusement were dull until the lights came on again. Several fraternal gatherings were late in calling to order, and in at least one instance an adjournment was taken.

The electric railroad was forced to to suspend operations when its auxiliary supply of “juice” ran low. When the current went off a heavily laden car for Sebastopol and other points was standing at Fourth and Mendocino streets. The passengers sat patiently, some of them for nearly an hour, hoping that the motive power would be on at any moment. There would have been enough power possibly to have run the car to Sebastopol, but it would have been taking a chance, and the company did not want to have a car stalled on the road half way between points. So the people left the car and most of them to the steam train to Sebastopol. For a while cars were hauled by the auxiliary supply.

The Sunday school of the Methodist Church at Petaluma held a picnic at Graton yesterday, and on the return trip was were held over at Sebastopol for some time. The latter incident was taken as a joke by the children.

But the inconvenience suffered here also shared by many other places, including Napa, Vallejo, Petaluma, Sonoma and San Rafael.

A message sent from Sonoma to this city at ten o’clock last night stated that the forest fire was under control.

– Press Democrat, July 18, 1908

The Snow Mountain Water and Power Company has made a deal with the Bay Counties Light and Power Company whereby the transmission lines of these two companies will be connected near Santa Rosa. This connection will insure a neverfailing source of power and light, according to the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat. The Bay Counties Company own and operate one of the longest transmission lines in the world, and can furnish practically unlimited power, while the possibilities of the local company are equally as great.

The connection of the two systems will be completed by next Sunday, and then the Snow Mountain Company will shut down its plant to make some needed repairs to the tunnel and pipe line. This will insure to our city a continuous flow of electric current without having resource to the local municipal electric plant, and all patrons of the Snow Mountain Company need have no fear of a shortage of power.

Besides furnishing Ukiah with light and power to the extent of 50,000 kilowatts of power a month, the Asti Colony in Sonoma county are using 40,000 kilowatts every thirty days, and this new arrangement will prove of great benefit to all concerned.

In the past, during the winter months, the Bay Counties Company have had more or less trouble with floods and freshets, and on several occasions all power has been shut off from its subscribers. The plant of the Snow Mountain Company is rated as a safe winter plant and by connecting the two a continuous operation and delivery of power is assured.

– Press Democrat, September 5, 1908

Inefficient Service Causes Comment at Meeting

At the meeting of the Chamber of Commerce on Thursday evening one theme on the occasion was more light and power for the City of Roses. The members of the commercial organization severely criticized the present service being given by the lighting company, and expressed the belief that the inefficiency is causing the city great damage in the exclusion of manufacturing interests that would otherwise come here. One firm was reported to have recently changed over from a steam plant to electric at a cost of several thousand dollars, and then they were compelled to allow their men to stand idle for hours waiting for the “juice.” Manager Petch of the lighting company states that he is as much in the dark about the matter as any of the people here, and whenever the juice fails and he calls up to ascertain the trouble, the answer is “with the main line.” He also reports that he has been ordered to “cut out the street lights” until further notice, and acting upon orders he has obeyed.

There is no doubt but that the trouble lies with the attempt to carry more business than the company has power to supply, and the recent connecting of the Snow Mountain Company with the local local line caused an additional load upon the supply of juice. On Thursday the Eel River Plant was started again and this will help to relieve the congestion and will supply some juice for the local consumers whenever there is “trouble with the main line” below here.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 16, 1908

Uncertainty of “Juice” Supply Made Topic of Discussion at Meeting of the Chamber of Commerce

The Santa Rosa Lighting Company came in for considerable discussion at the regular monthly meeting of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce…

[… duplication of details from above article..]

“All I know is that when we ask what the trouble is we are told that there is ‘trouble on the main line.’ If we had a steam plant and the service was like it was here yesterday I could go crazy, but as it is all I can do is suffer like you do,” [said Superintendent Petch of the Lighting Company.]

“Why are the street lights out when the other circuits are working?” was asked.

“It’s orders. I receive a message from Napa to cut out the street lights until further notice. Out they go. I must obey orders as a sailor or railroad man if I hold my job. When the order comes to ‘cut the lights in’ they are turned on. There is never any explanation offered when the orders are given us.”

The complaints from businessmen, manufacturing plants, and residents has grown from a murmur to a “roar,” which is heard all over town. There is little doubt but that the company is trying to carry too much business with a power available.

For several weeks past the Colgate system which furnishes power and light to the city has been furnishing the new Snow Mountain Company with “juice” for the main line from this city north. The supply for the Snow Mountain was cut off Thursday and the company hopes that in a short time the new company will be able to turn its extra voltage into the lines of the old system which will protect the section of the country when the trouble occurs on the main line in the future.

– Press Democrat, October 16, 1908

Many new electric clocks are being installed by the Western Union Telegraph Company in this city, and there will be a total of thirty-three of these clocks in use here when those now at the office of the company are installed. Those who will install these electric clocks at once are the Rose City Market, Spirito Brothers, Hall & Richardson, C. C. Donovan, Bacon Bros…Donovan is the only one in Santa Rosa who has a calendar clock, telling the day and month, as well as the correct time, and the only one who has a quarter-sawed oak finished timepiece. His clock was made to order from his design.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 23, 1908

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Santa Rosa society, prepare yourselves for nonstop supper parties, elegant receptions and high teas: Anna May Bell is coming to town, and she’s engaged to be married.

Miss Bell lived in Southern California, but spent her summers here as a guest of Mattie and James Wyatt Oates, to whom she was something of a godchild. The parties given in her honor were always the most talked-about of the season; three hundred attended a 1905 reception at the Paxton home, just two doors down from the Oates. And despite the somber mood of the town in the months following the 1906 earthquake, Anna May’s appearance that year inspired the first parties since the disaster. But something was in the winds come 1907; she didn’t visit Santa Rosa at all. Instead, the Oates family spent Christmas and New Years’ at her home in Visalia. Then in the summer of 1908 came the announcement – she was to marry Samuel Cary Dunlap, a Los Angeles grain dealer.

The Oates and her other friends were delighted at the news, and although her 1908 visit lasted less than three weeks, at least four five events were held for her, including the largest party probably ever held at (what would become known as) Comstock House, where two hundred guests filled the rooms. A small orchestra fiddled away, presumably behind potted palms in the library, as had been the entertainment at an earlier party.

The wedding that October received full coverage in the Santa Rosa papers, even though it was held in Anna May’s hometown of Visalia. A local woman was a bridesmaid, traveling with the Oates to the event. But at the last minute, Wyatt bowed out of attending the ceremony, staying home because of the “press of business matters just at this time.”

What was important enough to have kept him here is a mystery. Nothing in the papers around this time suggested that he had critical legal business before a court or that he was closing a big deal. (One possibility is that he was needed to intercede on behalf of the local electric company, which had the town spitting mad over recent power outages; Oates had represented the company a year earlier when they obtained a franchise from the county. See following post for more on the town’s “juice” problem that year.) But when it comes to James Wyatt Oates, it’s easy to always assume the worst – that he refused to go because some incident incited him into a fit of pique, or that he couldn’t bear to be separated from his first automobile, which had just been delivered a couple of weeks before.

Whatever his reason for not attending her wedding, Wyatt and Anna May maintained close ties until the end of his life. She was at his deathbed as he died of double pneumonia, following a visit to her home in Los Angeles.

The marriage of Samuel and Anna May Dunlap lasted over two decades, ending when he died at the age of 64 (he was twelve years older than she). They had one child. Anna May did not remarry, and apparently did not return to academics, although as a 1900 Stanford graduate, she had taught English at the Los Angeles Polytechnic High School. During WWII, she had leadership roles in several Los Angeles war-relief women’s groups, including Bundles for America, the Committee for Navy Reserve, the War Finance Committee. of Southern California, and more. She was also the state president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, being the grandchild of Gen. Tyree Harris Bell, C.S.A.

Anna May Bell Dunlap died on June 14, 1967, ninety years old. Her last appearance in the Santa Rosa newspapers occurred in 1950, when she returned to town to make a donation to the library and commissioned a local student to design a bookplate to be pasted in the books purchased through her grant. The gift was made to the memory of James Wyatt Oates.

LEFT: Anna May Bell at Stanford University graduation, 1900
RIGHT: Engagement portrait, 1908
(CLICK to enlarge)

Colonel Oates Home

Colonel J. W. Oates, who has been visiting with his wife in Visalia and Fresno for a couple of weeks, returned home last night. Mrs. Oates will remain for a longer visit in Fresno.

– Press Democrat, January 4, 1908

Mrs. James W. Oates and Mrs. M. S. Solomon have returned from their visit in Visalia and Fresno. Accompanied by Colonel Oates the ladies went south on December 22. Colonel Oates returned several days ago, and Mrs. Oates and Mrs. Solomon came home Tuesday.

– “Personal Mention” Press Democrat, January 17, 1908

The Los Angeles papers have announced the coming marriage of Miss Anna May Bell in that city. Miss Bell has often visited Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Oates at their home in Santa Rosa and has made many friends here. The groom-elect is Samuel Dunlap, a grain merchant of Los Angeles.

Miss Bell is a charming and delightful girl, who has visited in the City of Roses frequently, and she is popular here in social circles. She is handsome and vivacious and her many friends here will learn with pleasure of her the approaching nuptials. During her visits here Miss Bell has always been the object of great attentions, and many parties were arranged in her honor. She is a decided favorite here with a large number friends.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 9, 1908

Judge James W. Oates and Captain I. T. Bell, the latter of Visalia, left here Friday morning for Guerneville and Monte Rio, and from there they expected to go to Cazadero for the day. On their return they think of coming by way of Occidental and across the electric road at Taylor’s and thus make a complete circuit of the western Sonoma County. Captain Bell is very much elated over the county and climate, and remarked before taking the train that they enjoyed 35 days at this his home this summer during which the temperature registered 110 or over.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 7, 1908

Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates are entertaining Captain Bell, of Visalia, the father of Miss Anna May Bell. Colonel Oates and Captain Bell have enjoyed a couple of days in touring the beauty spots to be found at Guernewood [sic], Camp Vacation, Bohemian Grove, Armstrong Grove, Montrio [sic] and other places. Captain Bell is delighted with the City of Roses and Sonoma County.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, August 9, 1908
Colonel and Mrs. Oates to Entertain in Honor of Miss Anna May Bell and Miss Irma Woodward

On Friday evening, August 21, Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates will entertain at their beautiful home on Mendocino Avenue, in honor of two fair brides-to-be, Miss Anna May Bell, daughter of Captain Bell of Visalia, and the Miss Irma Woodward, daughter of Senator and Mrs. E. F. Woodward. Colonel and Mrs. Oates have issued cards for a reception from eight until eleven o’clock on the evening named. It is sure to be a very delightful event.

– Press Democrat, August 14, 1908

A society event of this week which is anticipated with much interest by those receiving invitations to be present occurs on Friday night at the handsome colonial residence of Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates on Mendocino Avenue. On that evening they will be “At Home” in honor of two charming girls whose engagements were recently announced. Miss Anna May Bell, daughter of Captain and Mrs. Bell of Visalia, and Miss Irma Woodward, daughter of Senator and Mrs. Edward F. Woodward. Both Miss Bell and Miss Woodward are very popular here and deservedly so,. The host and hostess of the occasion are always delightful entertainers, and in consequence their guests know that neither nothing will be wanting that can in any way enhance the pleasure of the evening.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, August 16, 1908

Miss Anna May Bell has arrived here from Visalia, and is a guest at the home of Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates, arrived here last night for a visit with Colonel and Mrs. Oates.

– “Personal Mention” Press Democrat, August 19, 1908
Mrs. Paxton and Mrs. Marshall Hostesses for Tea in Honor of Miss Anna May Bell and Miss Holmes

At the beautiful Paxton home on Mendocino Avenue on Wednesday afternoon Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton and her mother, Mrs. Mary Marshall, were the hostesses at a tea which was attended by a large company of their lady friends. The parlors were beautifully decorated for the occasion, and the ladies entertained in a very charming manner.

Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia, and Miss Ellie Holmes of San Francisco, two very popular young ladies who are visiting Santa Rosa, where the motif for the delightful function.

– Press Democrat, August 20, 1908

An interesting quartet composed of two prospective brides and grooms-to-be was the center of attraction at the delightful “at home” given by Judge and Mrs. J. W. Oates at their residence Friday evening. It was a recepion to Miss Irma Woodward of this city, who will sortly become Mrs. J. Allen Wallis, and Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia, whose title is soon to be Mrs. Samuel Cary Dunlap. Fully 200 guests thronged the beautiful flower-decorated rooms during the evening, meeting and congratulating the two brides and the future partners.

Judge and Mrs. Oates are the most hospitable hosts, and when entertaining neglect nothing that will added to the enjoyment of their guests. During the three hours of the reception an orchestra discoursed exquisite music, a pleasurable feature of the occasion. Throughout the supper hour a number of young ladies waited in serving in the assisted in the serving.

Mrs. Oates was assisted by Mrs. S. S. Solomon, Mrs. E. F. Woodward…

– “Pencil Gatherings” Santa Rosa Republican, August 22, 1908
Reception Tendered by Colonel and Mrs. Oates in Honor of Miss Anna May Bell and Miss Irma Woodward

Reception at the beautiful home of Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates on Mendocino Avenue last night was a brilliant social function. It was in honor of Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia, and Miss Irma Woodward of this city, two very popular brides-to-be. Two hundred invited guests had the pleasure of formally tending very hearty congratulations to them and their prospective husbands, Mr. Dunlap, who is to wed Miss Bell, and Mr. Wallis who is to claim Miss Woodward as bride.

The scene in this richly furnished reception rooms, enhanced with exquisite floral arrangements, was a captivating one, and from eight until eleven the happy throng of guests mingled. The hospitality of the Oates home was never more graciously extended than on this occasion. The minutest to detail that could add in any way to the pleasure of the evening were not overlooked and the host and hostess were highly complemented.

Naturally attention was centered upon the young ladies in whose honor the reception was given and they in turn were most cordial in their acknowledgement of the good wishes extended.

An elaborate supper was served in the dining room and a number of young ladies assisted in serving the refreshments. It was indeed an auspicious occasion in every way.

– Press Democrat, August 22, 1908
Mr. and Mrs. E. F. Woodward Entertain Many Friends on San Francisco Bay

Mr. and Mrs. Edward F Woodward gave a very delightful launch party on San Francisco Bay on Sunday in honor of their daughter, Miss Irma Woodward and Miss Anna May Bell, both brides-to-be. Fifty of their friends from the city and a number of young people from Berkeley were invited guests.

At Tiburon the party embarked on the government launch “Golden Gate,” and first went out o the Heads and inspected Uncle Sam’s battleships of the Pacific squadron. The cruiser Pennsylvania was boarded and the party conducted over the big vessel.

Goat Island was visited and the naval training school inspected. The visitors were in time to see one hundred young, sturdy lads pack up and start for the Pennsylvania for the purpose of entering active service in the Navy. Angel Island and the immigration inspection quarters were also visited.

Aboard the “Golden Gate,” Mr. and Mrs. Woodward entertained their guests at luncheon, and in every way the cruise on the Bay was very pleasant and entertaining. Mr. and Mrs. Woodward were cordially thanked by their guests.

– Press Democrat, August 25, 1908

Mrs. Henrietta A. Hahman entertained two charming brides-to-be at her handsome home on Third street Tuesday evening. Miss Irma Woodward of this city and Miss Anna May Bell of Visalia were the guests of honor, and many were present at the reception.

Cards formed the principal feature of entertainment, five hundred being played during the evening. Mrs. C. A. Wright was successful in capturing the ladies’ first prize, and Miss Bell took second honors. The gents’ prizes went to J. Allan Wallis and Miss Alma Keser, while Miss Woodward secured the slam prize and Mrs. Charles F. Rohrer got the consolation prize.

The Hahman residence was handsomely adorned, a pretty decorative scheme being shown, and the card games took place in a veritable floral bower. The Misses Hahman assisted their mother in entertaining, and Miss Clara Hahman rendered a number of vocal selections during the evening. Following a delicious tete-a-tete supper, served at midnight, a social season followed, and the guests departed for the homes at an early hour Wednesday morning.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 26, 1908

One of the most elaborate functions of the season was the luncheon in honor of Miss Anna May Bell, given by Mrs. John S. Taylor and Mrs. Zana Taylor, on Wednesday at the beautiful Taylor residence on Mendocino Avenue. The decoration scene was carried out with exquisite taste. Pink and white were the prevailing colors, and white and pink roses and pink amaryllis the flowers used. It was a progressive luncheon. In the dining room, where the decorations were in white, five tempting courses were served, while for the desert and confections the guests moved to another room, all in pink. Covers were laid for a dozen guests. The name cards were decidedly unique. They were of “bride” design included a dainty little bride’s veil. A toast to the bride-to-be, Miss Bell was heartily proposed by the guests and some very pretty sentiments were voiced as the handsome loving cup was handed around the table. The cup was handpainted, displaying Miss Taylor’s handiwork. The loving cup was presented to Miss Bell as a souvenir of the occasion. It was a very happy occasion for all present and one that will be fraught with many pleasant memories.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, September 6, 1908

Miss Anna May Bell departed of the first of the week for her home in Visalia after a visit here with Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates, during which she was certain made much of in view of her approaching marriage. Her visit on this occasion served to cement more firmly the ties of friendship that exist between herself and a large coterie of friends in the City of Roses. She is a very charming girl and her great popularity is deserved.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, September 13, 1908

Miss Anna May Bell is to become a bride on October 20 and Miss Irma Woodward will be the bridesmaid at the wedding. This is certainly very nice in view of the large number of joint social functions at which these two popular girls were entertained in the City of Roses.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, October 3, 1908

Col. and Mrs. Oates have received their new automobile. They anticipate enjoying my much pleasure out of the machine.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, October 3, 1908

Mrs. James Wyatt Oates and her mother Mrs. Solomon, and Miss Irma Woodward, left yesterday morning for Visalia, where they will attend the wedding of Miss Anna May Bell, which takes place this evening at eight o’clock. Miss Woodward is to be the bridesmaid for Miss Bell. Mrs. Oates and Miss Woodward will return home Saturday but Mrs. Solomon is to remain in Visalia for couple of weeks. Colonel J. W. Oates was prevented from going to the wedding on account of press of business matters just at this time.

– Press Democrat, October 21, 1908

Cards have been received your announcing the marriage of Miss Anna May Bell and Samuel C. Dunlap which was solemnized last Wednesday night in the M. E. church at Visalia. It was in every detail a brilliant function. Mrs. James W. Oates, Mrs. M. S. Solomon and Miss Irma Woodward, of this city, were among those present, Miss Woodward being one of the bridesmaids. In addition to gifts on her wedding day the telegraph carried many congratulatory messages from the City of Roses. Much was said in the press of the southland about the marriage. Here is one of the accounts:

Miss Anna May Bell, one of Visalia’s most popular young women, was wedded at the M. E. Church South last night to Samuel C. Dunlap of Los Angeles. Rev. J. E. Moore of Fresno officiating. It was a brilliant affair. The bridesmaids were Miss Irma Woodward of Santa Rosa, Msiss Myrtle Harrell of Fresno, and the maid of honor Miss Eva Gray of Los Angeles. The ushers were Messrs. S. S. Stitt, L. H. Allen and G. H. Schneider of Los Angeles. Mrs. H. G. Parish and Mrs. H. H. Holley rendered “Oh, Promise Me,” on piano and violin.

The bride was attired in a dainty imported dress of messaline with point lace trimmings and carried a large bouquet of lilies of the valley. The matron of honor, Mrs. Connick of San Francisco, herself a bride of a few weeks, was attired in a gown of lace. The bridesmaids wore directoire gowns of yellow satin, and carried yellow chrysanthemums.

Following the ceremony the relatives and out-of-town guests repaired to the Bell residents where a collation was served and a reception was held until 11 o’clock, and the newly-married couple left for Tulare by auto and took the Owl for Los Angeles, where they will make their home.

The church decorations, which were arranged by Miss Kate Parsons and Miss Myrtle Harrell of Fresno, were among the most elaborate seen in Visalia in some time.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, October 25, 1908

Colonel and Mrs. Oates and other Santa Rosa friends have received a number of letters from Mrs. Dunlap (Anna May Bell). Mrs. Dunlap always likes to be pleasantly remembered to her large circle of friends in the City of Roses. Mr. and Mrs. Dunlap are now at home to their friends in an attractive residence in Los Angeles.

– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, November 22, 1908

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Never had Santa Rosa seen someone with money like this: Coming to live here was an incredibly rich German aristocrat. When asked about his fortune, the Baron would only offer a long whistle to indicate that it had no end. Trouble was, all that great wealth actually belonged to his wife, who was so frugal that he was forced to sometimes ask his new friends for loans to cover his living expenses.


“Baron Von Senden” was a con-man, of course, and the smooth-talking young fellow fooled Santa Rosa’s real estate agents who hoped he’d buy a large ranch in the area, possibly even the sprawling McDonald property, which was about half the size of Santa Rosa at the time (it was a square-ish plot of land between Summerfield Road and the city reservoir, including all of Spring Lake Park and most of Howarth Park).

But it was the society swells in San Francisco who really got rooked by the “Baron.” who treated him to fine dinners and nights at the theatre, all the while forcing upon him wads of their cash to ease his terribly embarrassing lack of pocket money. As a show of his gratitude, he gifted them with boxes of cherries, fresh butter, and suckling pigs, all from his huge dairy in Point Reyes and his grand orchard in Santa Rosa. In reality, the “Baron” was just buying these treats in the San Francisco markets.

When he finally fled the area with some $900 in his pockets, the San Francisco Call discovered that this charming young man was actually Edward Miller, who came to the United States from Germany around 1890. (Miller probably read the name “Baron Von Senden” in a newspaper; the real man with that title was then an admiral in the German Navy and diplomat. And, by the by, some fifteen years later, another Baron Von Senden, presumably his son, was involved in the Black Reichswehr, the banned pro-Nazi faction inside the German Army as Hitler was rising to power.)

Miller had worked on land owned by the governor of Tennessee, drifted to Michigan, and then the Bay Area in October. 1907. He arrived here just in time for the Bank Panic of 1907, which nearly derailed the entire U.S. economy. He was employed at an Oakland stable for a time, but circumstances apparently forced him to take one of the worst jobs imaginable: He became a San Francisco rat catcher.

(RIGHT: A crew of San Francisco rat catchers pictured in a 1908 magazine article about efforts to eradicate sources of plague. The men were paid per rat captured and killed, with the dead vermin sent at the end of the day to the “ratatorium” where the rats were skinned and examined for signs of infection. CLICK to enlarge)

A little over a year past the great 1906 earthquake, San Francisco was facing another outbreak of bubonic plague. During the first four years of the century, over 100 people had died in the city; now another epidemic loomed. The hero of the day was Dr. Rupert Blue, who mobilized the city’s Bureau of Health into an efficient machine that searched for rats, checked them for disease, and promptly dispatched public health officers to wipe them out. The foot soldiers in this army were the motley crew of rat catchers, men either desperate to earn a dime per rat or just in it for the killing fun. It was a dangerous business that paid poorly, and Dr. Blue tried incentive schemes to motivate them, while his assistant wrote an instruction manual, “How to Catch Rats,” that included the instruction that a chick or duckling should be placed near the trap to offer come-hither cheeps.

The intriguing aspect of this story comes down to the moment that Edward Miller, a rat catcher with the dimmest of futures, decided he would transform himself into the brightly gilded Baron Von Senden. How he gathered the nerve to make that metamorphosis must have required a good measure of desperation mixed with a criminal slant, and maybe a hearty dash of Don Quixote-like madness as well.

Bogus Titled Foreigner Negotiated for Ranch Property But Did Not Come Through With the Coin

A number of Santa Rosans, including the real estate men, read with interest of the disappearance of the bogus Baron Von Senden, alias E. Miller, from San Francisco, leaving a host of unpaid bills in his wake.

It was stated in the metropolitan newspaper that the “baron” had been to Santa Rosa and had negotiated for the purchase of a fine ranch. This statement is true. The baron was here on several occasions and was accompanied by an attractive woman, brunette, whom he introduced as his wife. They stopped at a local hotel and the supposedly titled foreigner gave people the impression that he was a man of considerable wealth.

It was ascertained here yesterday that all the “baron” did was to negotiate but did not invest any of the coin in land hereabouts. He did a whole lot of inspecting of places, particularly the big McDonald ranch, near the city pumping station.

– Press Democrat, October 25, 1908
Edward Miller Cuts Wide Swath and Disappears, Leaving His Creditors to Mourn

With no more capital than a bogus title, an easy manner and a colossal nerve, Edward Miller, a young German, who post as Baron von Senden, was able to win his way into the most exclusive clubs of San Francisco, to gain the friendship of men high in finance and society, and incidentally to extract from them sums of money reaching a total of $900. When he made his final cleanup the young “baron” made a hurried departure to fields unknown. Now the story is being told in the clubs and cafes and those who were in the confidences of the young foreigner are bending every effort to establish an alibi.

There was no limit to which the baron would not expand his riches if occasion demanded. He had been a rat catcher on Dr. Blue’s staff, he had worked in an Oakland livery stable, but after he made his grand entry into society he became, according to his own tales, the owner of a vast dairy ranch in Marin County and a wonderful orchard near Santa Rosa. He sent rolls of butter to his friends from his “dairy”; he sent boxes of cherries tied with pink ribbons from his orchard, and to those for whom he had borrowed the largest sums he sent sucking pigs from his farm–all purchased in lower Washington street with the coin he had coaxed from his benefactors.

He was received at the Pacific Union club, he autoed with Manager Meyerfeld of the Louvre, he drank champagne with Antonio Blanco of restaurant fame, he inspected Marin county with President M. T. Freitas of the Portuguese-American bank, he dined sumptuously with Dr, von Horstman of the German hospital, he rode to the theater in Kelly’s carriages at Kelly’s expense, and he sipped tea with a young society matron from whom he accepted, with many protestations, a temporary loan of $50.

The baron was a devotee of the automobile, the wine supper and the night life of the ocean boulevard. HIs 250 pounds rocked with laughter at every jest, with an entertaining accent he told pleasing stories and the thought that the baron was not the Pierpont Morgan of the kaisers realm never entered the minds of those with whom he dined and motored.

The baron was an artist in his line. His wife, he said, was the wealthy member of the family. She had the money and the baron would give a long whistle to indicate that it had no end. But his wife was frugal and he was “compelled to borrow occasionally” from his friends. The early advances he repaid only to enlarge his credit. The end came when he made his great coup and departed with $900 tucked under his velvet vest.

Miller came to America 18 years ago with the letter of introduction to the governor of Tennessee. He became the manager of the governor’s estate, and while in the South married a young woman of excellent family. She was with him in California, but was ill a great part of the time. From Tennessee Miller drifted to Milwaukee, and came to San Francisco in October of the last year.

At first he worked in an Oakland stable and then joined the rat catching regiment. It was while working in this capacity that be conceived the idea of capitalizing his nerve, with highly successful results.

Meyerfeld was good enough to advance him $250, Bianco thought he was to have a partner in his business and made general contributions to the visitor’s cash account. Freitas also made generous donations. A number of cafe proprietors were on the list for large amounts. In fact, the list of contributors resembles the subscription list for the entertainment of the fleet.

The baron was not satisfied with the local field, but worked the suburbs as well. San Rafael remembered him, as does San Jose and even the pleasant little village of Point Reyes. It was at Point Reyes that the baron had his mythical dairy with 6,000 cows.

The baron was a gifted talker. He could discuss military affairs and politics, but he appears to have been at his best at finance.

– San Francisco Call, October 23, 1908

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