Had I the chance to visit 1908 Santa Rosa, I know exactly how I’d want to spend my day. First I’d ask James Wyatt Oates for a spin in his fine, new touring car; with any luck, I could convince him to drive over to Hoen Avenue so we could say hello to the newly arrived Comstock family. I’d drop by Frank Muther’s cigar shop on Fourth Street and thank the Fire Chief for saving our town from burning down after the Great Earthquake. Should Fred J. Wiseman happen to be loafing around the Santa Rosa Cyclery with old friends, I’d ask if he thought airplanes had much of a future. But come the end of my visit, I’d like to have a beer and hang out with Tom Gregory.
(RIGHT: Portrait of Tom Gregory from “History of Sonoma County”)
Next to Luther Burbank, Tom Gregory is probably the most famous person who ever lived in Santa Rosa, by one measure: His “History of Sonoma County” (available to read online or download here) became the de facto reference on local history almost from the day it was published in 1911. In genealogy circles, he’s particularly viewed as a superstar because most of the volume is filled with 558 biographies of local movers and shakers (who each paid something around $50 to be memorialized as a m&s). But in a believe-it-or-not twist worthy of Robert Ripley (another of Santa Rosa’s famous sons), Gregory is famous for the wrong reason; he likely contributed little besides editorial touch-up to the biography section, where only occasional flashes of his hallmark writing style can be found.*
In the twilight of his life, Tom was a history-writing machine. After the 1911 Sonoma County volume, he followed with county histories for Solano and Napa (1912) and Yolo (1913). Truth be told, however, his histories really aren’t very good. He wrote in a style more florid than precise; rarely are sources cited, and there are more than a few passages where he added colorful details that leave Gentle Reader wondering how such bullshit ever made it into print. (He made the absurd claim, for example, that the word “gringo” was coined by Mexicans who heard Americans endlessly singing the old folk tune, “Green Grow the Rushes.”) And although he was an eyewitness to the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, he offered a mere three pages describing the day of the disaster and its immediate aftermath. That’s almost unforgivable.
But Tom Gregory wasn’t a scholar or historian; he was a storyteller and newspaperman. He spent his life writing about people and matters he knew about first hand, not long-distant events researched at a library. Instead of his flawed histories, he should be celebrated for the decades of entertaining, often hilarious, writings that appeared in the San Francisco and Santa Rosa newspapers.
He was the only writer in the early 20th century Santa Rosa papers to be given a byline or allowed to sign his articles, and he appeared in both the Press Democrat and the Republican. Before the 1906 quake he had an occasional column in the PD called “One Man’s Opinion” or “Individual Opinion.” For the Republican after the quake, it was “Pencil Gatherings Among the Social and Other People” (it would later be called the even more irreverent “Unclassified News of the Social and Other Things”), which was a staff-written society gossip column that took sarcastic pokes at local snobs when Gregory contributed.
The February 22, 1908 “Pencil Gatherings” was particularly good fun. Responding to a reader who hoped the newspaper would reproach “certain lady [card] players who are more anxious to win prizes than they are to play fair,” Gregory wailed in mock despair, “My! my! I am jarred out of all think…I have worked so hard uplifting society to a higher moral plane, spying out and eliminating every element of the earth earthy, we find that our labors have been in some respects in vain.” Card cheaters risked the launch of “horrid war…in the ethics of game there is no redemption for the gamester who falls from honor.” Later in the same column, he oozed unctuously over the fashions at a sorority dance instead of offering the customary fawning praise:
It was indeed a bright phalanx of fair Grecians that came to the dance of the Lambda Theta Phi Friday evening in the Occidental. If one may refer to them in the scholastic and classic lore of Hellenic days, he may write that no more charming company of girls ever gathered to the Olympian games that these Minervian maidens of the West. Their gowns were not just the draperies seen on the graceful marble goddesses of the Parthenon, but they were dainty, pretty, and fetching…
Tom dabbled in Santa Rosa civic affairs in 1906 with his customary humor. When there was a kerfuffle over sidewalks being used by bicycle riders and roller skaters, he proposed the city should encourage scofflaws, the better to issue tickets that could be used to rebuild the earthquake damage. Policemen could even expedite the fines by selling coupon books in advance: “Under this beautiful system a cop could grab a wheelman, tear off a coupon, and let him ride on. No delay, no bother.” He ran that year for city clerk (see below for an amusing anecdote), and when he didn’t win, his Press Democrat column laughed at his own defeat: “I have not yet found the central cause of my ‘pass in the night’ of April 3. I fancy, however, that it may be attributed to lack of votes.” A friend comforted him by saying that he lost only because “after my opponent finished at the ballot box there was not enough votes left to go around.”
In a 1908 “Pencil Gatherings” column, Gregory introduced his fictional (?) nemesis, a blowhard he called the “up-town citizen” who would stop by the newspaper office and wax his ill-informed opinions, then stealing a paper as he left. Another episode is transcribed here, but this one will make less sense to those not familiar with events that have been discussed in earlier posts. When the windbag says, “[W]hat is this report about settin’ the proposed city park down in the crick…I was asked what the crick was assessed at, bit I don’t think it has any taxable value since the fish died,” the references are to an election-year promise to create a park on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek, although it was well-known that the waterway was now so polluted that the fish were vanishing.
Alas, there’s no index of Tom Gregory’s writings in the Santa Rosa papers, so stumbling across an unknown item is always a treat. There are undoubtedly many more gems to be unearthed, although his contributions seem to slack off after 1908 as he began writing the histories. A look at older papers should prove fruitful; he moved to town in 1898, when he was already an acclaimed writer.
Tom Gregory was born in California in 1853 and joined the U.S. Navy at 17. Although he had only a rudimentary education he read constantly, and when his ship was monitoring the war between Bolivia, Chile and Peru in 1879, he made his debut as a war correspondent for the San Francisco Call. For most of the rest of his life his focus drifted between the sea and the newsroom. He left the Navy to become a newspaperman, then later re-enlisted to run the Navy recruiting station in San Francisco during the Spanish-American War. He wrote for the old Alta California and the San Francisco Call, where “he was assigned to the waterfront and became famous for his waterfront stories,” the obituary in the Santa Rosa Republican noted. “Some of his exploits in search of news are traditions in the Press Club of California.”
(RIGHT: Featured poem in the SF Call, February 9, 1896. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)
By at least 1895, he was highly regarded as a poet and writer of human interest stories about life at sea. Historic newspaper archives for the San Francisco Call show a couple of dozen stories or poems that appeared in the fat Sunday editions between 1895 and 1899, often featuring an illustration drawn specifically for it. Obits in both local papers stated that the poems in particular were widely reprinted nationwide. A Call article referred to him as the “chief staff poet” and after a Friday night romp in the Bohemian district with other reporters, there was a laugh because Gregory was back at his desk at midnight “…searching a dictionary of rhymes for something to go with ‘-izzle.'” Now, that’s dedication. Or something.
Tom Gregory died on Sept. 8, 1914, at his home at 930 Cherry Street (which still stands, on the corner of Cherry and E) and his remains were taken to San Francisco and there cremated. Rest in peace, Tom; it would have been nice to have known you.
* Although nothing specific is known on the practices of the “Historic Record Company” of Los Angeles, the publishers of these “mug books” typically hired a local newspaper editor or scholar to write (or supervise the writing of) the histories, but sent a salesman from the home office to sell the subscriptions that underwrote the publication. The salesman also collected the all-important biographical data from subscribers. As an example, the 1889 “Illustrated History of Sonoma County, California” is attributed to Petaluma Argus editor Samuel Cassiday, but a man named William Buckline from the Lewis Publishing Company in Chicago was in the county the previous year for interviews and taking pre-orders. The main author sometimes hired a local writer for the biographical sketches, and other times subscribers sent their autobiographical details directly to staff writers at the company. Regardless of how these books were assembled, they were enormously profitable. As the books typically included 500+ biographies, the publisher had a risk-free publication that brought in about $25,000 – a princely sum for the day.
COLONEL GREGORY’S PETITION
Colonel Tom Gregory petitioned for an electric light on King street, to relieve the situation on that thoroughfare. By reason of the large pine trees growing in the old college grounds the Colonel declared it could easily be termed “darkest Santa Rosa.” He prayed for relief from the situation. Referred to street committee.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 7, 1906
UNIQUE CAMPAIGN CARDS
Advertising Legend Brings Out Good Joke at Tom Gregory’s Expense
Tom Gregory shows his newspaper training in the unique character of his advertising campaign cards. His penwork is as striking as it is funny, and attracts attention wherever it appears.
In the windows of several stores the reader is told to “get a quick meal on one of our stoves early April 3rd and vote for Tom Gregory.” Lou Dillon’s famous sulky in a well-known harness store is adorned with this statement: “The fastest sulky on Earth, puled by Lou Dillon in 1:58. Tom Gregory’s run for City Clerk is equally marvelous.”
One of these election legends brought out a joke at Tom’s expense which is as good as one of his own: A grocery window held a card which said, “Ask your grocer for Tom Gregory.” “What is it?” queried a curious customer. The information was given by the proprietor.
“Oh, I thought it was a new breakfast food,” the customer replied.– Press Democrat, March 23, 1906
THINGS HEARD ABOUT TOWN
A New Society Formed— A Political Rumor
“These here fine, sunny days just drags everything and everybody out of the shell,” said the up town citizen, leaning over the counter and cheerfully confiding to the entire office force, “I reckon society will just turn on ‘high speed’ this nice weather and crowd the dates with functions or whatever you call ’em, before Lent turns out the lights. Speakin’ of society, I must tell you about a new social club we have organized, though I must not tell you where it is located, because the police is awful fierce now, it bein’ purtty close to election. It is the Paradox Bean-Poker and Debating Society, Limited. We found in the dictionary that paradox is something a person would think aint but really is, so we though it a good name. Bean poker I guess you ‘sabe.’ The debatin’ comes in when the members are a-growlin’ over five of a kind before the draw, and the limit is in ‘five hundred’ and euchre professionals. When we get more coin in the kitty we are a-going to federate with other clubs and then we will have the angtray into the select circles of the hoi polloi. Better let me take your name in? What say?”
Nobody said anything, and he continued: “But there is one thing not out yet, and that is the candidate. I’ve been a-hunting for the bunch who want to serve the public, and I can’t flush a single bird. I did catch one stickin’ his head out of the grass, but before I could get a camera on him he ducked back. He had ‘councilman’ and ‘goodness’ written all over him, but he was skeery. There’s to be six men and a city hall with a fire house on the side voted for, and the only thing yet in sight is the place where the hall and house is to be if it is to be.
“The folks in and out of town don’t ‘pear to like the mositness in the streets. They keep a’askin’ me to dry up the mudholes. I tell them with so much free water, natcherly lots of it will get splashed around a good deal. Just as soon as the summer comes and people begin to wet down their lawns and find roses so the Chamber of Commerce can truthfully tell what a gardin spot Santa Rosay is, the free water idea will evaporate, leaving excess bills in its place. I was up to the city council t’other night and heard a cry going up to thet cloudless skies. If was for free water for revenue only. I hear they are a-goin’ to make the old water company put in meters so it can’t work no cut rate job on the city business, I’ll be goshdurned if this water question isn’t gittin’ complerkated.
“Haven’t got a late Lost Ang’lus paper have you? I had a visitor from the sunny south the other day. He belonged to some Chamber of Commerce down there and said what was needed to make this state have a settler on every fifty-vera lot of it was more harmony and less ‘knocking’ between the different sections. Pretty soon he sets down on the hammer he had in his back pocket and hurt himself real painful.,
“The court house deputies is a-pickin’ out their offices in the new county building and askin’ the architect to put sunny south windown on the north side. Say, what is this report about settin’ the proposed city park down in the crick? Geminy, it would take more money to fix up the place, put in dams, walks, gondolas, submarines, like Healdsburg had, than it would take to build a battleship. The citizens could never stand for it without a bond issue. I was asked what the crick was assessed at, bit I don’t think it has any taxable value since the fish died.
“Speakin’ of aquatic matters reminds me that the big fleet is in the Pacific and will soon be up here. Bein’ a society man, I’m goin’ to leave my card aboard Evans’ flagship and have the Admiral up to Santa Rosy and get up a reception. We are well acquainted with each other–I was ship’s cook with him once. One day he gave me five days in double irons for burning the beans. I’ll make Fightin’ Bob honerary member of the Paradoxes. Guess I’ll take a paper home with me, the carrier might fergit to leave me one.”– Santa Rosa Republican, February 13, 1908