A year after the Comstocks settled in Santa Rosa, the newspapers began to take notice that a truly remarkable family had arrived.
The first 1909 report on Comstock family members was little more than a “personal mention” item that was probably overlooked by most readers as trivial news: “Hilyard [sic] Comstock…has taken up the study of law. He is reading with Colonel J. W. Oates…” The Press Democrat must be forgiven for not anticipating that this was the launch of a career that would impact Santa Rosa for the next half century; what’s unforgivable, however, is that the PD didn’t explain why this was such a newsworthy story. “Hilyard” was barely 18 years old and had no formal education aside from homeschooling by his mother and tutors, and James Wyatt Oates, a splenetic 59 year-old maverick who had never accepted a law partner, was now taking under his wing a young man whom he had only known for a few months. And for an extra poignant twist, Oates was following in the footsteps of his own brother, who had similarly educated him in the ways of the law when he was about the same age.
The Press Democrat may have misspelled Hilliard’s name, but they were right in noting that he was an avid tennis player. Both he and older sister Cornelia were active in the Santa Rosa Tennis Club, and there were items in both papers about him playing in local competitions. Tennis was apparently a swell way to meet girls; a couple of the sports articles reported that matches drew good-sized audiences, “most of whom were of the fair sex.” The papers weren’t done mangling his name, by the way; he was “Hillyard” in another PD tennis item, and the Santa Rosa Republican sports reporter just gave up and called him “H. Comstock.”
The Republican paper also published a short feature article on eldest brother John Adams Comstock, who was already respected as a word-class scientist – and like all the other Comstock siblings, homeschooled by their extraordinary mother, Nellie. The Republican reporter ooh’ed appropriately at Comstock’s enormous butterfly collection, which was supposedly the best in the nation. (His 1927 survey, “Butterflies of California,” remains the definitive work on the topic.)
John and his sisters were also famed artisan leather workers, trained at the famed Roycroft arts colony. Calling themselves “The Companeros,” their work won highest prizes at state and national competitions, which drew further attention from the 1909 Santa Rosa newspapers.
But the most unusual item on the Comstocks to appear that year was a wire story from Chicago concerning the estate of Judge Harvey B. Hurd, who was Nellie’s father and the grandfather of Hilliard and his six brothers and sisters. Yes, both papers often wrote about inheritances and the value of estates when prominent local citizens died, but I don’t recall any instance where readers were plainly told how much a resident had inherited from someone outside the area. In this case, however, it was a newsworthy story: The Comstocks had real estate in Chicago and Evanston worth about $200,000 which was to be held in trust for Nellie’s children. Projecting the value of that trust in terms of economic status, it would have been worth over $27 million today. In other words, the Comstocks weren’t just richer than anyone else in Santa Rosa – they were worth more than most local banks at the time.
Nellie Comstock and her children were probably the smartest, the most industrious, and the wealthiest family Santa Rosa had ever seen, but were together here only for a few years. John left for Southern California to study medicine; most of the others drifted to Carmel, where they were instrumental in founding the arts scene, endowed with generous donations from the Comstocks. That could have been Santa Rosa’s future instead, and more’s the pity.
HILYARD COMSTOCK IS STUDYING LAW
Hilyard Comstock, one of the Comstock brothers, tennis players, has taken up the study of law. He is reading with Colonel J. W. Oates. Mr. Comstock has many friends who will wish him all success in his studies, and they predict that it will not be long before he can be hanging out his shingle. He means to “dig” and such a determination always augurs for success.– Press Democrat, April 20, 1909
EDWARDS VS. COMSTOCKThe Tennis Championship Between These Two
This afternoon James H. Edwards and H. Comstock are playing the championship set to decide who is entitled to the tennis honors of this city. These two have worked their way to the top, having won all the sets which they have played.
The preliminary games in the Santa Rosa championship tournament were played at the Santa Rosa Tennis Club’s courts Sunday morning and the games brought out some exceptionally good plays. Most of the contests were very close and the court was in ideal condition. The audience which witnessed the games was largely composed of ladies. Much interest centered in the games that James R. Edwards participated in. He was looked upon as a likely candidate for the championship honors.
[..]– Santa Rosa Republican, May 31, 1909
Mrs. Nellie Comstock and daughters, the Misses Cornelia and Katherine Comstock, and Messrs. Hilliard and Hugh Comstock are all encamped at Eaglenest. Hilliard will come over next Wednesday to participate in the finals of the gentlemen’s doubles in the tennis championship, which will be played at 5:30 o’clock in the afternoon.– “Many Social Events in City of Roses”, Santa Rosa Republican, July 3, 1909
PALMER AND COMSTOCKWon the Championship Tennis Doubles
The Santa Rosa tennis championship for gentlemen’s doubles was determined Wednesday evening on the Santa Rosa Tennis Club’s courts. The honor of the tournament and the large silver loving cup was won by George Palmer and Hilliard Comstock. A large number of spectators, most of whom were of the fair sex, were present and watched the final match in which the winners were opposed by Temple Smith and A. W. Scott.
[..]– Santa Rosa Republican, July 8, 1909
PREMIUMS WON BY THE EXHIBITORSIndividual Awards at Sacramento in Addition to the Big Prizes Given the Sonoma County Display
In addition to the big prizes won by the Sonoma County exhibit at the State Fair that has just closed in Sacramento individual premiums were won as follows…
…”The Companeros,” whose establishment is in the Masonic Temple building in this city, won first prize for the best piece of tool leather…
[..]– Press Democrat, September 9, 1909
FINE COLLECTION OF BUTTERFLIESJohn Comstock Has One of Best in United States
A large number of the close friends of John Comstock, manager of the Companeros Gift Shop, even among those who know him quite well, are not aware that he has a splendid collection of butterflies. He has, however, one of the best collections of United States butterflies owned in this country. Mr. Comstock seldom speaks of his collection, but to those who show an interest in the matter he is quite willing to show his collection and explain the differences to be seen in the many different kinds of butterflies.
He was for several years the recorder of the lepidopteral section of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and during that time and for several years afterward he spent a large portion of his spare time and holidays collecting the pretty little winged insects that fly among the flowers. Although Mr. Comstock’s collection is particularly one of butterflies of the United States, yet he has saved a few of the large, beautiful and highly colored butterflies from Brazil and other tropical countries that have come into his possession. These however, he does not count as being in his United States collection.
In his collection there are about three thousand butterflies. Of this number there are five hundred and some odd different species of the butterfly. There are seven hundred and fifty known species of butterflies in this country, so it will be seen that Mr. Comstock’s collection contains a large portion of those in existence. He himself in his research work has discovered four varieties of the butterfly not previously known, and is accredited with these discoveries by lepidopteral scientists. One of these varieties, which lives only in the high mountains of Colorado is worth $10 each.
In nearly all cases he has secured three specimens of each species, a male and female each. The third one is for the purpose of showing the coloring of the under side of the wings.
California, with its long stretch from the north to the south and its high mountains and valleys, contains a very large number of different kinds of butterflies and is considered as the best field of research to be found anywhere in one state. Mr. Luther Burbank has seen the collection and evinced a great deal of interest in the systematic manner in which it is kept. A large part of the collection Mr. Comstock gathered himself, but still a good many he has secured by trading with other collectors.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 24, 1909
PROPERTY IS PLACED IN TRUSTMrs. Comstock Divides Estate Among Children
CHICAGO, Sept. 24–William S. Young has taken title to an undivided one-half interest to eleven parcels of real estate which Mrs. Nellie Hurd Comstock of Santa Rosa, Cal., inherited from her father, the late Harvey H. Hurd of Evanston. Mr. Young, as trustee, is to pay to her during her life the net income, and on her death to pay it to her children. The property includes an undivided one-half interest in 52 and 54 Lake street, 24 by 140 feet, improved with a five story building. The property at 52 and 54 Lake street was valued by the Board of Review at $83,295, of which $10,000 is in the building.
The foregoing dispatch was received Monday, and it was further learned that Mrs. Nellie H. Comstock, having a life interest left her by her father, Judge Harvey B. Hurd of Chicago, in his estate, and after dividing the estate among her seven children, Mrs. Comstock placed it back in trust to her children, retaining only the life interest. This was in accordance with her father’s wishes. William S. Young was one of the trustees appointed by him. A sister of Mrs. Comstock some time ago brought successful suit to secure the fee simple of the estate for Mrs. Comstock. The property consists of real estate in Chicago and Evanston, and is approximately worth $200,000.
The late Judge Hurd was for a long time dean of the law faculty of the Northwestern University at Evanston, and for thirty years was engaged in revising the statutes of Illinois. He was the author of several measures passed by the legislature of that state. One of them was the child labor law authorizing the creation of a juvenile court. Another was the Torrens land law, which obviated the necessity of securing abstracts to title of land on the part of those making purchase of same. This measure was adopted in California, but owing to the way the legislature handled it, it met with indifferent success.
Mrs. Comstock lives a short distance outside of Santa Rosa on a ranch. Five of her seven children reside in this city.– Santa Rosa Republican, September 27, 1909
GIFT SHOP GETS AWARDReceives Gold Medal at Seattle Exposition
The Gift Shop of the Companeros carried off the gold medal and highest award at the arts and craft exhibition of the A. Y. P. exposition.
This is the second honor of its kind that has come to the Companeros, the first being a blue ribbon first award at Sacramento, for art leather work.
These are the only competitive exhibitions that the Gift Shop has entered this year, and the result speaks well for the quality of the work produced.
Since its establishment here the gift shop has attained considerable of a reputation in the far east for its creations in the fine arts. Over fifty of the largest cities in America are included on their list of agencies. They also hold a membership in three of the most exclusive Arts and Crafts Societies in the United States, namely the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, the National Society of Craftsmen of New York City, and the Daedalus Guild of Philadelphia.
This December will see their work entered in five fine art exhibitions, including that given in Berkeley by the Berkeley Art Association, but as these are not competitive, no awards are expected.
The Gift Shop is becoming an object of pilgrimage to many California craftsmen, and is well worth a visit, for those who love beautiful things.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 12, 1909