A 1909 visitor to Santa Rosa  probably thought it was a cute little town – except for the godawful stink, of course.

The terrible smell came from the tanneries, which pinched downtown Santa Rosa on two sides. To the west was the Santa Rosa-Vallejo Tannery, which was at the modern location of the Hyatt. Just a few streets down from that on West 6th was the small Max Reuthershan tannery, which was likely the source of the high quality leather used by the Comstock family artisan partnership, “The Companeros.” Even closer to downtown was the large Levin Brothers Tannery at the corner of 2nd and F street.* What they had in common was that each backed on to Santa Rosa Creek, from which they could draw an ample supply of free water – and sometimes illegally discharge waste in it.

(TOP: The leather finishing building of the Levin Brothers Tannery, facing Second street, c. 1908.
CLICK or TAP image to enlarge
BELOW: The rear of the finishing building is seen at left, connected by walkways to the section of the tannery with the vats and dryers. The rear of that building was adjacent to Santa Rosa Creek.)

Most (probably all) of the problems concerned the Levin Tannery, which was warned at least twice in the years before the 1906 earthquake to stop dumping its foul tannery vats into the creek. At a court hearing to address charges brought by a Fish and Game Commissioner, an expert testified that the concentrations of lime from the vats killed fish within a few minutes. Used to remove hair and prepare hides for tanning, lime was often mixed with other highly toxic agents such as cyanide.

That Second street tannery was also particularly lax about hygene, throwing hair and scrapings into an outdoor bin, causing the downwind part of town to smell offal (sorry).  After their 1906 court appearances the Levin brothers vowed to clean up their business, but didn’t.

Come January, 1909, the community said enough was enough, and a group of 144 citizens hired a lawyer to present their petition to the City Council. Rehashed were the usual complaints about the stench and that workers were “…discharging the refuse matter, including poisonous chemicals, from its tannery and vats directly into Santa Rosa Creek.” But this petition included a new line of attack: Since the law said all tanneries were prohibited within city limits, the company should be forced to shut down or move.

The petitioners were right: Santa Rosa Ordinance 179 stated that tanneries were a public nuisance and forbidden in town. But that law had been passed back in July, 1900 to block a fourth tannery from setting up shop; it was apparently presumed that the existing tanneries were grandfathered in. (In truth, we don’t know exactly what Ordinance 179 stated; that page – and many others – can’t be found in the city archives, leaving us with just the paraphrased wording presented by the 1909 petitioners.)

The City Council decided to first visit a large tannery in Stockton where they found a well-run operation free of complaints from the neighborhood. After that tour, they dithered for months. There was discussion of writing a new and more specific ordinance regarding tanneries, and again, the Levins promised to be good and obey the law. Mayor James Gray wanted to resolve the matter by fiat of declaring the public nuisance abated and allowing business to go on as usual. The one thing the Council did not want to do was to get tough with the tannery. The mayor was asked point-blank at a meeting if the city ever intended to enforce the law. “No,” he said.

After six months of punting the ball, the petitioner’s lawyer met with the City Attorney, who made a bizarre proposal that bordered on extortion: If Santa Rosa were to enforce its own law, the citizen’s group would have to first put up a  $50,000 bond to indemnify the city “from any expense or loss.” Needless to say,  the petitioner’s lawyer wouldn’t even consider the idea.

This drama came to a climax at a mid-June Council meeting where the chambers were packed with a large audience. A report was read about the meeting between the two lawyers and the citizens refusal to pay a bond. Immediately following that, a resolution was introduced and passed unanimously: Santa Rosa Ordinance 179 was repealed. The city couldn’t be required to enforce  a law that didn’t exist. “The council then took up other business,” reported the Press Democrat, “and a number of the petitioners present left the council chambers, and gathered in knots of twos and threes to talk over the matter.”

The Council did pass a new tannery ordinance two months later, but in the interim there was no regulation of the businesses whatsoever. Heaven knows what the south side of town stunk like on those warm summer evenings.

New ordinance 260 allowed tanneries within city limits as long as they were not “offensive to the senses or prejudicial to the public health or comfort,” wording loose enough to be meaningless. But at least the new law explicitly required tanneries to remove waste from the plant within two days and banned dumping in the creek – although the latter was apparently no longer an issue anyway, as at the June 15 Council meeting it was mentioned in passing that the tannery was emptying such “big quantities” into the sewer line that it was becoming obstructed.

Gentle Reader may be now wondering why the Council, and particularly the mayor, treated the Levin Tannery with such kid gloves, ignoring both the law and public will. It would have been no mystery to anyone living here at the time; this was the largest business in town, and the only partner in the corporation besides the Levin brothers was John P. Overton, former mayor and undoubtedly the richest man in town. To the clique of good old boys who owned most of downtown and the Chamber of Commerce insiders who controlled local politics, the smell of rotting hides was the smell of money.

The Levin tannery was destroyed by fire in May, 1910, but was quickly rebuilt and continued operations until 1953. I’ve been told that it stank up the neighborhood right up till the end. If Santa Rosa had a Latin motto, it would have to be, “Nihil mutat, ergo nulla res mutat:” Nothing changes, so no things change.

*Today, F street is part of Brookwood Avenue, but in the early 20th century F street ended at 2nd, and did not cross the creek. The Levin Tannery was at the current location of 101 Brookwood Ave (stretching on both east and west sides), extending all the way back to Santa Rosa Creek.


Representing 144 citizens Attorney J. Rollo Leppo presented a petition to the City Council calling attention to the existence of an alleged nuisance, namely, the tanning of hides at the tannery of the Levin Tanning Company on Second street, asking for the enforcement of the ordinance regulating such matters. It was also set forth that poisonous matter is being allowed to run into the waters of Santa Rosa creek, the petitioners stating that the same is very offensive. The ordinance was cited as a part of the ordinance.

Attorney Leppo followed up the reading of the petition by an address to the Council, urging that the alleged nuisance complained of existed in a residence neighborhood and not a manufacturing section.

Professor McMeans said the odor from the tannery had been very disagreeable for several years, particularly at night.

August Ketterlin said no better evidence could be offered than to invite the Concilmen to take a walk up that way. He complained of the unpleasant ordor. He said the petition cast no reflection on the shoe factory near the tannery.

John Hood said he and other property owners had offered to buy the site before the tannery opened.

A. P. Macgregory said the odor at times was unbearable, making it impossible to keep the windows open in houses.

Mayor Gray said the matter was one that the whole Council should consider, and should receive attention. Later in the meeting the Mayor and Council decided that they would visit the tannery.

– Press Democrat, January 20, 1909

Strict Regulations to Be Adopted by City Council–New Ordinance to Be Prepared at Once

The long-drawn-out tannery discussion came to an end last night, when, instead of declaring the Levin tannery a nuisance and authorising suit for its removal, the City Council announced its determination of adopting strict regulations for the conduct of all such places operated inside the city limits.

When the matter came up, Councilmen Burris, Bronson, Forgett and Steiner, who visited the big Wagner tannery at Stockton last week, reported on the result of their inspection. They said they had found the institution located on one of the principal residence streets and surrounded by the very best class of homes, and yet there was no complaint upon the part of anybody. The reason was that the tannery is conducted as it should be. No offal or refuse matter of any kind is allowed to accumulate, and hair is carefully washed and dried and the sanitary arrangements are carefully looked after. As a result of its visit the committee was thoroughly convinced that a tannery when properly conducted is not necessarily a nuisance, and that with care and the expenditure of some money all cause for complaint in connection with the Levin tannery could be removed.

Attorney J. R. Leppo, representing the petitioners who asked for the tannery’s removal, addressed the Council at length, pointing out the existence of the so-called “deadline” ordinance, and urging that the same be enforced. Attorney Thomas J. Geary represented the Levin people, argued that such drastic methods were entirely unnecessary and pledged the institution under discussion to a strict compliance with whatever regulations might be adopted. John P. Overton, one of the stockholders and directors, also gave the council his assurance that this would be done, and at once Mayor Gray stated that while the people living in that part of town are entitled to be protected, he was of the opinion that the plan suggested would give them full relief, and such being the case the abatement of the nuisance rather than forcing the tannery to move was the proper course to pursue.

When Mayor Gray  had taken his seat, Attorney Leppo asked point-blank whether or not the present ordinance was going to be enforced.

“No,” said the Mayor.

It is understood that an ordinance prescribing the manner in which tanneries are to be conducted is to be prepared at once, and that it will be a strict one. It will be based largely upon the insight on the subject gained by the recent Stockton trip. “The Levins will have to run their place properly, and that is all there is to it,” said Mayor James H.  Gray last night after the meeting. “We do not want to see them injured in a business way or unjustly harassed, but the people living up in that part of town are entitled to protection, and we propose to see that they get it.”

– Press Democrat, March 17, 1909

Action Is Taken at the Meeting Last Night

The City Council last night, by unanimous vote, repealed the ordinance in existence for a number of years prescribing the limits in which tanneries could be operated in Santa Rosa. It immediately afterwards passed a resolution calling for the preparatings by the Ordinance Committee of a  new ordinance governing and regulating the conducting of all tanneries, etc., in Santa Rosa. The action taken followed the long drawn out controversy of the Levin tannery.

The rumor that the tannery matter would again be up for consideration attracted a large audience to the council chambers. At a previous meeting the matter had been placed in the hands of the City Attorney, representing the city, for a conference with Attorney J. Rollo  Leppo, representing the petitioners for the removal of the tannery, as to the adoption of a course of procedure, following the vote to estop any further postponement of action on the demanded enforcement of the ordinance.

Mayor Gray called upon City Attorney Allison B. Ware for a report as to the conference held between himself and Mr. Leppo. Mr. Ware stated that he and Mr. Leppo had met and talked over the matter at some length. This was in view of the contemplated enforcement of the ordinance as has already been mentioned. Two propositions were discussed, namely, he said, one of which was for the petitioners to put up a bond of $50,000 to indemnify the city against all damages and handle their own case in the courts through their attorneys, Messr. Cowan and Leppo, for the city to assume all liabilites, require no bond from the petitioners and handle the case entirely through the City Attorney withoug additional legal assistance. Attorney Leppo had stated, he said, that the petitioners would not put up a bond indemnifying the city from all loss or suits and would prefer to have the city enforce the ordinance and take entire charge of and prosecute the alleged violation of the ordinance.

Attorney Leppo, who was present at the meeting, as were also Attorney T. J. Geary and Attorney J. P. Berry, representing the tannery interests, suggested at a previous meeting that the petitioners would be willing to put up a bond to pay “recoverable costs,” such as fees of court reporter and court fees.

Chairman Johnston of the Ordinance [illegible microfilm] handed Clerk Clawson a resolution which he said he desired to offer. Clerk Clawson read the document, which was a resolution repealing the tannery limit ordinance, Councilman Burris moved and Councilman Steiner seconded the adoption of the resolution. Each councilman responded with an “aye,” when his name was called.

Before recording his vote Councilman Fred Forgett stated that he wished to make a little explanation before voting. He said at the previous meeting he voted for no further delay in the enforcing of the ordinance with the understanding as he supposed that the petitioners would give the bond to indemnify the city from all costs or damages that might result. Mr. Leppo said that was not the understanding.

The rule was then suspended and the resolution repealing the ordinance was passed. Then Councilman Barham moved and Councilman Steiner seconded the motion that the Ordinance Committee proceed to draft a new ordinance regulating and governing the conducting of tanneries and factories in the city of Santa Rosa.

The council then took up other business and a number of the petitioners present left the council chambers, and gathered in knots of twos and threes to talk over the matter.

– Press Democrat, June 16, 1909
Levin Tanning Company Must Appear in Superior Court

The Levin Tanning Company, a corporation, was held for trail before the Superior Court Monday by Justice Atchinson on a charge of polluting the waters of Santa Rosa creek. This is the second case against the defendants on a similar charge.

The complaint was made by Deputy Game Commissioner J. C. Ingalls and it charges the defendants with dumping the tannery vats into the creek, despite warnings for a couple of years.

Dr. A. J. Cox of the Stanford University faculty was the principal witness, he having made a number of tests of the water of the creek and experiments and claimed that it would kill fish life. The lime water from the vats killed fish in 14 minutes, while that diluted to four per cent killed them in less than three hours.

– Press Democrat, March 13, 1906
Levin Brothers to Inaugurate New Plan at Their Tannery

Levin Bros., proprietors of the Levin Tanning company, will soon inaugurate a new feature in connection with their business. They are planning to secure a place out of town for the handling of the hair and scrapings that come from the hides in process of manufacture, and after properly drying and curing, it will ship the hair east. There is a good demand for hair of this knd, which is used in the manufacture of various articles, and also in the building trades.

It is the scrapings above referred to which the hair is attached, that cause the disagreeable odor noticeable in the vicinity of so many tanneries. When dumped out and allowed to remain in the vicinity a stench arises, particularly in warm weather. It is possible that the hair output of the other local tanneries will also be purchased by Levin Bros. and carried away daily into the hills and handled with their own. For some time the inauguration of this new feature of their business has been in contemplation by Levin Bros., but they claim that heretofore the amount of hair turned out has not justified the expense of fixing up to properly handle it. The scrapings will be removed daily, and men will be kept constantly employed at the curing grounds to handle it. Levin Bros. say there will be no cause for complaint over any odors in the vicinity of their big establishment here when they inaugurate the new arrangement, and if they succeed in arranging for the purchase of the hair scrapings of the other local tanneries the same thing may be said of them also.

– Press Democrat, March 29, 1906

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