Readers of 1909 Santa Rosa newspapers had cause to lament: The funniest man in town finally landed a real job.
For about a decade, Tom Gregory had contributed humor columns and wry news items to both the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican. The editors here recognized him for the treasure he was – a fabulist in the style of Ambrose Bierce, a story-teller like Mark Twain, a satirical political commentator like Finley Peter Dunne – and allowed him a byline, which was a sure sign of his readership popularity. (A bio and full appreciation of Gregory appeared in an earlier essay.) Alas, newspapering pays beans even for the most talented writers, so at age 56, Tom Gregory accepted a position as editor and author of North Bay county history books. Rarely did his name appear in the local papers after that.
A couple of his 1909 articles have appeared here earlier: A colorful news item about a visiting circus and a (mostly) straight-forward account of a visit by state legislators to Armstrong Grove. A pair of other offerings are transcribed below, and are Gregory classics. One is the sort of tall tale sometimes called a “quaint” in old-time newspaper lingo, and tells about a boy who secretly makes a batch of taffy in defiance of his “health faddist” parents. The lad tries to hide the evidence of his crime and soon Dostoevskian complications ensue.
The other piece is clever political satire, but parts make no sense today without background. That week Santa Rosa was in the middle of its latest skirmish of the water wars, and as discussed here before, the town had an unfair and ridiculous rate schedule that charged not just on how much water was used, but on how it was used. It cost far more to turn your hose on a vegetable garden than a flower bed; a home turned into a boarding house paid $10 a month, while a water-guzzling factory like the tannery only paid twice that. In his column, Gregory pokes fun at this hair-splitting via a (somewhat labored) analogy to Ancient Rome: “When Rome was preparing to teach her language to a conquered world she didn’t say what class of building was meant. Upstairs, downstairs, hut or palace, all the same.”
There’s also a bit about the purchase price of a pig bought from H. M. LeBaron. Also at the time a deal with the state to buy Armstrong Grove from banker Harrison LeBaron suddenly became mired in controversy. A San Francisco newspaper published a story claiming that the old-growth woods were worth only a fraction of the price LeBaron was asking, and that led to several heated letter-to-the-editor exchanges between LeBaron and his old rival lumbermen. In one of these letters, LeBaron answered Gregory that he had sold the pig below market price because “it was a China hog and I don’t like China pig-tails.” Sad to say, that little racist yuk likely went far to improve LeBaron’s image among the section of the populace unsympathetic to bankers.
THOUGHT IT WAS METEORSomething for Pure Food Commission to Decide
“Well,” said the traveling man, “I don’t know as I’ve got anything in my head this morning that will do for a newspaper story. Yes, there’s one, only its being true might more or less disqualify it. The story was suggested to me by an account in a ‘Frisco paper telling about a comet or a meteor, or a bunch of stars falling around in Santa Rosa the other day.
“It happened to me when I was a kid in a small town near Chico. From my childhood up I had always had a great propensity for eating candy. Now both my parents were pronounced health faddists and confectionery was of all dietary things what they most abhorred. Hence, about the only candy I ever managed to have access to was what I could steal out of the barrel containing that article in the village store.
“One day when the folks were gone to attend a vegetarian district convention in a neighboring town, I conceived the desperate notion to make some taffy. Having as accessories a cook book, a hot fire, a frying pan and the necessary ingredients, I did it. If I had murdered my little brother–I didn’t have any, by the way–I could not have been more careful in hiding the evidence of my act than I was in the circumstance in question. I cleaned the frying pan and wiped the mouth of the molasses jug–and in fact I had everything as it was save for the presence of the incriminating taffy. I didn’t have time to eat it. Therefore I determined to hide the same. To make the process easier, I rolled the sweetness into a lump about the size of an ordinary cantaloupe. To reduce its volume I rolled and hammered and compressed the thing until for heaviness, hardness and impenetrability, a chunk of reinforced concrete were veritably ooze in comparison.
“Then I interred it in the back yard, which however, I soon saw wasn’t going to do at all. For the neighbor’s dog–a measly cur–promptly dug it up. A brilliant idea next struck me. There was a crevice in our chimney where a couple of bricks were lacking. Here I placed the treasure, though not without considerable risk to my neck and some damage to my trousers. And here the taffy ball remained for many hours, screened from the sight of all save that of the all seeing sun.
“Now, the chunk of candy hadn’t got any softer from its brief stay in the earth, and the smile of the head of the solar system was bringing it around to a state of petrefaction [i.e. turning into stone – J.E.] pretty fast. For in summer time around Chico it’s so hot that a whole barrelful of water has been known to evaporate in a single day, and the barrel itself fall to pieces after the liquid is out from exceeding heat and dryness.
“Somehow or other the taffy roll didn’t nestle very securely in its repository and a sudden gust of wind coming up and shaking the chimney, the thing was dislodged, slid down the roof and hit the street. Now the street ran down hill for about a hundred yards and the taffy too, gaining momentum all the time. It finally stopped in a pile of sand, half burying itself therein.
“It happened that there was a bunch of old timers standing near the place where the projectile had spent itself. An acrimonious controversy in regard to infant damnation was abruptly terminated by the arrival of the strange object. To all of them it seemed that it had dropped out of the blue sky above them. One thought that it was some anarchist bomb or infernal machine that had been shot up in the air from a distance to fall upon and destroy the city hall, which was near by. There were no airships in those days and nobody took the object for a chunk of aeroplane machinery. Sentiment was about unanimous that it was a meteor or a piece of a comet or a falling star. They examined the ball gingerly and declared that the substance was not of this world. One old miner said that he had dabbled with every metaliferous material that the earth’s bosom afforded, and he was prepared to state unqualifiedly that this was something he had never encountered. Another observed that the thing looked just like a meteor that he had seen fall in Arkansas twenty year before. An assault was made upon the mysterious business with a hammer and chisel, and even with a pickaxe, but it couldn’t be so much as dented. It was finally voted to send it to the Smithsonian Institute. This was strenuously objected to by one of the party on the ground that it was his, as he had seen the same first. And he took it and has got it to this day on his parlor table beside the family Bible. He would no more dispose of it than he would the holy sepulchre if he owned the latter.”
– Santa Rosa Republican, September 16, 1909
ON THE WATER WAGON BUT IS NOT SATISFIED
“I’m afraid I’ll have to load up my old wagon and move on,” said the Up Town Citizen, as he came into the REPUBLICAN office to advertise the sale of a dog. “This part of the earth is getting fierce. I settled here fresh from Chillicothy, Mo., a-flying from a violent youth, as it were, ‘long in the fall of ’49. A friend got me to come. Said this was sort of an annex to ‘Old Missoury,’ where a quiet, peace-loving, highly-moral, church-going person could find an ideal life. My friend could sling slithers of poetry words those days, yes. But now, I donno. Of course, I havn’t [sic] any family, and am not in the age when the wild mustard and johnny-jump-ups are bloomin’ all around a fellow, but I’m not receiving bids for bunches of worry, and I’ve got a few more years to use up before I die and pass back over the bridge at Kansas City. Guess I’ll have to wander to some other fireside, where taxes stop on the ground-floor and city parks grow without irrigation.”
After a “sumptuous feast,” to use a copyrighted term of the rural writer, of his mind on the real estate ads in the Los Angeles exchanges on the editorial desk, he put a new record in his talkophone. “It set me to thinking mighty hard,” said he, “when the Appellate Court remarked by wireless that our moral consciences were asleep, and other things too fierce to mention. That message when it sizzled through the air must have scorched the edges of the clouds. (I hope the Chamber of Commerce won’t put that in its next booklet.) I never expected to hear such a hand-down in California. It makes me once more long to hear the happy hogs grunting among the autumn acorns in the Livingston county river bottoms.”
After the U. T. Cit. had gone over the legislative proceedings in the morning papers, he again turned on the current of his observations: “And now, here following the great work of the last city election voter, following the narrow escape of the hop-yards and vineyards from ruin, following the Sbarbaro recommendation of low-proof claret in place of tea, the town has gone dry. Free water for domestic use limited, haunts the water-tax consumed by day, and is the dream mare that gallops over him at night. The word domestic is the storm center of the commotion. The only authoritative decision on the matter has come from Webster, (Noah) L. L. D., who found it among the literature of the Latins in the ‘domus’ house. When Rome was preparing to teach her language to a conquered world she didn’t say what class of building was meant. Upstairs, downstairs, hut or palace, all the same. It didn’t make any difference whether the Roman citizen had an office on the Forum or inhabited a fisherman’s shack down along the Tiber. Caesar’s domus was his house, and whether he lived there, wrote his commentaries there or planned the subjection of empires there, his tongue — the mother of all tongues, saith not. The law interpreters of Santa Rosa say ‘domus’ is a place where folks feed.
“I’m afraid the higher tribunal will again balk if called upon to scrutinize the ‘special legislation’ features of our water dispute. There doesn’t seem to be enough constitutionality in free water for one water-tax paying family which inhabits a certain kind of domus… [missing microfilm]
“Mercy!” said he, after a long breath-catching pause, “what a scolding poor H. M. LeBaron is having handed out to him! First, he was scolded for trying to sell the people of the state of California some nice trees. He was scolded till the scolders learned that they are really nice trees and are truly worth every cent he wanted for them. Then they began to scold because they had not been told how much money the Armstrongs are to get out of the tree-sale. Then they scolded until it dawned on them that it is none of their business. Finally, they began to scold because they did not know whether LeBaron got control of the trees by cash, by note or by option. Wot!
About twenty-five years ago while living near H. M. LeBaron’s ranch, Valley Ford, I bought a hog from him paying him $3.50 for the porker. It was worth $4, and for a quarter of a century I have joyed in the thought that I out-financed the Dairyman’s banker four bits, and might have increased my profit by reselling the shoat instead of eating him. It would have shown practical commercial foresight on my part if I had made LeBaron tell me what he paid, if anything, for the pig. It would have shed more public light on the transaction. I would then have known whether he got it by cash, by note or by option. It may now be too late for an investigation, but I would like to known. LeBaron, how much did you pay for that hog?
TOM GREGORY– Santa Rosa Republican, March 3, 1909
THE SMOKE WAS EXPENSIVEA Single Cigar Costs Tom Gregory Five Dollars
Tom Gregory, the well known newspaper writer and man about town, is fond of luxurious living. Yesterday he smoked a $5 cigar and says the smoke was worth it. It happened in this wise:
At the beginning of the new year Tom, like a good many of his acquaintances, turned over a number of new leaves, among which were the promises that he would refrain from taking his daily toddy (or toddies) and that he would henceforth eschew the seductive weed. With great chunks of virtue sticking out all over his intellectual countenance. Tom dropped into the REPUBLICAN office and, while rummaging through the exchanges, told Perry Allison, the foreman, that he had sworn off smoking and would forfeit a bright five dollar gold piece if he was caught breaking this resolve.
Now, January had thirty-one long, wet, dismal days, and as the month drew to a close it was noticed by Tom’s many friends that he had become somewhat crusty of late, and that a few more wrinkles adorned his high forehead, and a few more crows’ feet had gathered around his eyes. Still, the odor of tobacco was noticeably absent from his breath.
Wednesday the tumble came. Tom had wandered into one of his favorite haunts, a local cigar store, mechanically his hand went into his pocket, and mechanically his fingles closed over a ten cent piece lying there. Mechanically the hand placed the ten cent piece on the counter, and also mechanically the clerk placed before Tom his favorite brand of cigar. He took one, carefully removed the end and applied the match. Puff (oh, what bliss), puff, puff, puff–suddenly Tom remembered–but it was too late. There stood Perry Allison beside him with a grin on his face a mile long. Tom didn’t try to explain. He just smoked. He hasn’t paid that five dollars yet, but says he will gladly, as the smoke was worth it.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 4, 1909
PUBLISH A HISTORY OF SONOMA COUNTY
H. A. Preston of the Historic Record Company of Los Angeles, was in this city Monday. This publishing company is engaged in getting out the histories of the counties of the state, and Mr. Preston is in the county looking over the field in preparation to start his corps of assistants gathering data for the Sonoma county history about the first of next month. The work will be illustrated, beautifully printed and bound and will be an interesting and accurate record of imperial Sonoma from the stirring pioneer period to the present. Among those who will assist in the work will be Tom Gregory, the well known local newspaper writer, who will edit the historical portion of the volume.– Press Democrat, November 11, 1909