It’s the “last building” many times over, including being one of the last buildings you would ever think was notable. It was the last work in the North Bay of a great architect, and likely one of his last completed designs. It is the last remaining grand lodge hall in Santa Rosa, a survivor from a time when anyone downtown was only a few steps away from the imposing home of Elks or Eagles or other. It is the last building tied to Santa Rosa’s culture during the early Twentieth Century, when most everyone flocked to weekend dances and big parties. It is still there at 404 Mendocino Avenue, and its doors opened on February 25, 1909.

William H. Willcox was an esteemed architect (introduced here) who created quite a storm in the months before the 1906 earthquake. He presented a vision where Santa Rosa might leapfrog San Jose and other up-and-coming Bay Area communities and become a showcase for modern urban development. Santa Rosa Creek was to be transformed into a waterfront park that would be the centerpiece of an expanded downtown that included a convention auditorium large enough to host statewide and even national events. Investors lined up and he was only weeks (days?) away from having enough funding to break ground for the big pavilion when the quake struck. Money immediately dried up as the bankers and speculators concentrated on rebuilding their downtown holdings. The earthquake and fires not only took 77 lives, but also killed off Santa Rosa’s brightest possible future.

He served as Santa Rosa’s building inspector immediately after the quake, a time when a dozen or so architects in San Francisco and Berkeley were winning contracts to design the town’s new hotels and office buildings. As far is known, Willcox received none of this work (although one building appeared to rip off his convention hall design). It’s possible he had jobs in San Francisco, or was too busy because so much on-site supervision was required of him to enlarge and modernize Hood Mansion at Los Guilicos, which was completed in 1908.

Willcox appeared destined to leave no legacy in Santa Rosa at all, so it was surprising to find in the 1909 newspapers that one of his pre-quake designs was actually built and about to open. The building was the lodge hall for the Native Sons of the Golden West (NSGW, to its friends).

Construction of the building apparently began in late 1907, per the medallion on the wall. It could have started much sooner, had the fraternal society not welcomed Santa Rosa to use their vacant lot as the temporary site of a shantytown for city hall and the rest of the civic center in the sixteen months after the quake. During this time gap Willcox modified the design of the building in several ways, and we’re lucky to have a copy of his original drawing as well as his revision.

All versions of the front face – including what was actually built – were equal parts California Mission Revival Style and Romanesque. With its overhanging tile eaves and Spanish-baroque parapet, the roofline was strongly Mission, particularly when there still was a north tower to showcase more tile. Everything below that is Romanesque, but not busy; even today, the archtop ribbon windows against the smooth stucco wall looks clean and modern-ish. Few architects could blend these very different styles so successfully. “Masterpiece” might be going too far, but it’s truly damned impressive.

TOP: Drawing published 1906 (Mar. 4 Press Democrat)
MIDDLE: Drawing
published 1909 (May 6 Republican)
BOTTOM: Circa 1935 postcard

The roof design evolved the most. Originally Willcox plopped a cupola on the north end to be the base for a flagpole. He did much the same in his convention center design, and those two 1906 drawings even show U.S. and state flags fluttering in the same way over the buildings. In the later NSGW drawing, the cupola became a steep pinnacle over columns suggesting a tower with turrets. The California motto, “EUREKA”, was now in framed relief as part of the wall. In the finished version, the pinnacle became squat and more conventional while the turrets became taller and heavier. If you isolated the profile of the northwest corner as shown in the 1935 postcard, it could be the bell tower of a nice Methodist church. Today the north tower is completely gone and as a result, you can’t look at the building from the other side of the street without thinking how strangely lopsided it seems.

On the south end of the roof, design changes were less dramatic. The parapet was simplified and lost its flagpole. Instead, there was a “brilliant electric star that burned on top of the turret outside,” according to the description below. Solomon’s Seal (not a Star of David; the NSGW wasn’t a Jewish group) remained unchanged through all the versions. On the second floor, the Palladian windows at either end of the building became single windows framed by engaged columns, which nicely complimented the entranceway.

With its large upstairs ballroom and banquet facilities, the hall was an immediate hit with the social set, accommodating parties too large – and maybe, too boisterous – for the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, which was about Santa Rosa’s only other venue for rent. If you danced before 1940, you danced here. Hardly a week went by in following decades without the papers announcing one or two doings down at Native Sons’ hall, and according to “Santa Rosa’s Architectural Heritage,” the Native Sons of the Golden West only sold the place after it was declared unsafe to continue hosting large gatherings.

Sadly, the only interior view we have shows just the lodge room (besides the large image below, the Sonoma County Library supposedly has a partial view taken from another angle, but the details don’t match). While Willcox went through multiple revisions of the exterior until he elegantly simplified the design, this photo shows a Beaux-Arts mess. Under a breathtaking stained glass skylight were walls smothered with fussy ornament, from swags to thick entablature to oversized corbels to ribbon molding over arches interrupted with band molding. There was an architrave in the arch behind the dais, although that’s the sort of detail you normally only find above the doorway of cathedrals.

In sum: It looked like a wedding cake where the baker kept larding on more layers of mascarpone decorations just to jack up the bill. Except for the skylight, maybe it’s not such a tragedy that the interior has been since remodeled to death and apparently retains no original details (some interior views are available via the leasing agent).

Even while Willcox was collecting Santa Rosa’s praise, he wasn’t collecting money from the City Council that he thought was his due. His lawyer threatened suit over $1,630: $1,000 for plans drawn up before the earthquake for the E street bridge, and $630 for a firehouse design. Whether he was paid or even had a legitimate case is unknown, but Empire Building architect John Galen Howard had also submitted plans for a new fire station, so Willcox probably had cause to believe the city was soliciting designs (the City Council decided to go on the cheap and just build a replica of the old 19th century building). As for the bridge, Willcox had already demanded $300 for the blueprints in 1907, which is probably why the Press Democrat dryly noted, “Mr. Willcox’s claims have been heard from before.”

Willcox probably didn’t work again in the North Bay (although he died twenty years later at the Veteran’s Home in Yountville), but the PD had another little item about him in 1909, noting that he had a commission to design the Elks Hall/office building in Stockton. That turned out to be a nice but undistinguished design in a restrained Beaux Arts style (picture here). He stayed active as an architect through at least part of the 1910s, but it’s unknown if he actually built anything after Stockton. If not, the Native Sons’ hall in Santa Rosa will stand as his last great work.

New Structure on Mendocino Street for Which the Plans Have Just Been Adopted

One of the finest structures to be built in Santa Rosa this year is the handsome Native Sons’ Hall which is to occupy a conspicuous lot within half a block of the Courthouse, on Mendocino street adjoining the Riley property. It will be a building worthy of the advancement and progress of the City of Roses and one that will be redound with credit to Santa Rosa Parlor of Native of Sons of the Golden West [sic], whose home it will be, and an attractive ornament to the city.

As stated in this paper the plans for the building were finally adopted at a meeting of the directors of the Santa Rosa Native Sons’ Hall Association  incorporated, and the accepted design is reproduced in the picture above.

Judge Emmet Seawell is the president of the Board of Directors of the Hall Association. The plans were accepted after very careful consideration, the object being to have a structure that would meet all requirements.

Santa Rosa Parlor has a large and growing membership and the securing of such a commodious and comfortable home, with the additional attraction of the social features that the possession of clubrooms will afford is sure to prove advantageous in an increase of membership. While the social and fraternal sides were considered it was also deemed advisable to see that the building should be made a good financial [illegible microfilm] has been given that it will be so.

The plans adopted call for a two story building, modified Mission style, with handsome entrance and wide stairway to the upper floor. The lower floor will be divided into four stores, 20 feet wide in the clear, with modern plate glass fronts and marble base. The upper floor will include the largest and handsomest lodge room in the city, commodious ante-rooms, handsome club rooms, large banquet hall, with kitchen, pantries, and all necessary conveniences. There will be a stage in the banquet room and a fine floor in the hall for dancing. The estimated cost of the building with the furnishings is $30,000. The plans accepted were those prepared by Architect William H. Willcox of this city.

– Press Democrat, March 4, 1906

Santa Rosa Parlor Officers Are Installed

Santa Rosa Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West took formal possession of their fine hall and clubrooms on Thursday night, and right proud are the members over the completion and acquisition of their handsome new home. They have a right to be. The City of Roses is also particularly pleased over the addition of such a noble structure to her newer and greater self.

Thursday night’s installation of the new officers of the Parlor in the new hall was the first regular meeting, for the previous meeting of the parlor held there, was a special one. There was a large gathering of the members present, and they entered heartily into the occasion and its attendant significance. The brilliant electric star that burned on top of the turret outside furnished a suggestion of the welcome inside, and the idea was admired by many who looked up at the lights and were informed of the importance of the gathering within.

Inside and outside the Native Sons’ building presents an attractive appearance. Many citizens have been privileged with an inspection of the building, and have come away expressing their admiration for it. The entrance, with its marble finish, broad stairs and clusters of lights, is very imposing, and a fitting introduction to the fine equipment of the building. The reception hall at the top of the stairs is very neat and right here it can be truthfully said that Architect William H. Willcox planned very cleverly in the arrangement of the building throughout, and is certainly entitled to congratulations. He is personally proud of the successful completion of his plans.

From the hall entrance is gained to the main lodge room, the clubrooms and the dance hall. The lodge room is a beauty. It presents a very attractive picture, particularly with the arch and and dome effects that have been carried out in its construction. The lighting, by stained glass skylight by day, and by a myriad of electric globes by night, is most effective.

The lodge room furnishing is also very tasteful. The mahogany furniture and chairs upholstered in Spanish leather. and the fine Brussels carpet on the floor add a finish that is very pleasing.

Mention has already been made of the dance hall. This will be a thing of beauty and a joy to devotees of the fascinating pastime for years to come. When all is completed and the bevelled mirrors adorn the walls and other artistic furnishings are seen in all their radiance there is no doubt of the popularity of the place for dances and parties. The orchestra will be stationed in the northeast corner of the room.

The same style of elegance that is noted in the other rooms applies to the clubrooms. There is a home-like appearance at once gives the rooms by the large fireplace and its African marble finish. In these rooms there will be billiard tables and other accessories for the pleasure of the members. The possession of this notable home should be the means of bringing into the fold of Santa Rosa Parlor all the available membership.

The banquet room must not be lost sight of, either. It is in the third story, and when fully equipped will be as nice a place for its purpose as could be found anywhere. Then there are the dressing rooms and the other offices, all complete in their details, and designed with the idea of comfort and convenience uppermost.

There is no doubt but that Santa Rosa has one of the finest homes the order has in the Golden West, and there are very few fraternal buildings of the kind to be found anywhere in the state that excell [sic] it.


– Press Democrat, February 26, 1909
Willcox’s Claims

Attorney G. W. Barlett of San Francisco sent a letter stating that W. H. Willcox, the architect, had referred to him his claim for $630 for plans which Willcox says he once furnished to the city for a fire department station, and $1,000 for plans for the E street bridge. The letter was referred to City Attorney Allison B. Ware for consideration. Mr. Willcox’s claims have been heard from before. Bartlett threatened a suit.

– City Council notes, Press Democrat, September 22, 1909

Wm. H. Willcox’s Plans for Stockton Elks Hall are Accepted

The plans for the new $100,000 Elks hall and building in the city of Stockton prepared by William H. Willcox, the well known architect of this city, have been accepted and naturally Mr. Willcox and his friends here are very much pleased at the recognition given. Mr. Willcox has a fine record as an architect and has designed many large and important buildings in this and other states. The building in Stockton is to be a magnificent structure and will be modern and unique in many respects.

Mr. Willcox’s friends among the members of Santa Rosa Elks lodge are very much pleased over the fact that his plans have been accepted. Mr. Willcox is one of the “baby Elks” of Santa Rosa lodge, that is he was one of the last of the new members to be initiated.

– Press Democrat, February 1, 1909

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A well-written Christmas story is a treasure to find, and the Press Democrat’s historical fiction serial, “XMAS SR 06” fulfills that promise.  Each of the seven chapters was created by a different author, and the good news is that the overall writing is excellent, sometimes great. I’ve reread a couple of the more well-turned chapters with envy of the author’s talents with word and phrase.

Less successful was its presentation as a serial. With each chapter constrained to about 1,200 words, plot trumps prose; writers had to begin by resolving the situation from the previous chapter and finish with a setup for the next. That doesn’t leave much room to stretch out and explore a character or subplot. “XMAS SR ’06” suffers because of this, and I would not have enjoyed the series as much if not for finding the extended version of chapter three on the author’s blog. It’s almost three times longer than the printed version and puts flesh on the character’s otherwise thin bones; definitely read it instead of the abbreviation that appeared in the paper and on its web site.

The other significant problem is that “XMAS SR ’06” is supposed to be set in 1906 Santa Rosa, yet there’s very little there there – and for that matter, there’s scant little then there. Change just a few words in each chapter and the story could have taken place after the 1940 London Blitz or the 1864 sacking of Atlanta. The historical aspect of most of the writing comes across as if the authors were playing a game of Mad Libs: Reach into the hat and pull out the name of an old patent medicine, a quaint bit of slang and a name of something or a place associated with Santa Rosa. See you 1,200 words later.

Then there are the factual mistakes. The worst clinker is in chapter one, when the main character walks down Fourth street and comments on the missing courthouse: “I’d passed it 100 times since April, but still I couldn’t get used to seeing that big empty lot.” Surprise! The wreckage of courthouse was still there at the time of the story. Only a few weeks earlier, on Nov. 17, the city had finally awarded the contract to demolish the ruins, and it wasn’t until May, 1907, before the lot was cleared of the last shrubbery. And even when the authors got it right, they got it wrong. A plot point concerns a newspaper ad for an unbreakable doll that was “torn from Grandpa’s precious Press Democrat.” Just such an advertisement really did appear – but only in the rival Santa Rosa Republican, which presumably didn’t meet his standards of preciousness.

(RIGHT: Advertisement from the December 6, 1906 Santa Rosa Republican)

I could quibble further (much, much further), but I’m sure the authors would argue that they had artistic license to write as they please. I completely agree with that. But if it’s called “historical” fiction, it should have more than a homeopathic droplet of true, historical elements. Otherwise, what’s the point? Turn 1906 Santa Rosa into a fishing village and after the earthquake hits, have seagulls attack townspeople. Everyone pecked to death becomes a zombie (wait! a swordfighting zombie!) until Luther Burbank battles the army of the undead with the enchanted silver spade given to him by the king of the garden gnomes.

Because the factual history of Santa Rosa’s 1906 Christmas wasn’t incorporated into the story, everybody lost. Readers missed a rare opportunity to learn something about the town; the writers lost the chance to tell a better tale. If that little girl was morose from passing by an empty lot, for example, imagine how awful she would have felt about scuffling along next to the hulking shambles of the old courthouse – a depressing reminder of the earthquake that stubbornly couldn’t be ignored and wouldn’t be wished away. The writers even had the chance to describe exactly what it was like downtown that month. At a city council meeting the Fire Chief complained about “dangerous holes and planks across sidewalks, projections from buildings and piles of materials on sidewalks.” In other words, the characters would have been Christmas shopping in the middle of a busy and hazardous construction zone. That’s a colorful detail worth a mention, right?

But saddest of all, those who outlined the plot for “XMAS SR ’06” overlooked real events that would have transformed the story into something far more interesting. That same month, Santa Rosa was hotly divided over what to do with the $60,000 that had accumulated in the earthquake relief fund. The popular consensus was that it should be distributed to victims and their survivors, which is surely what donors intended. On the other side was a faction arguing it should be used for the betterment of the town, such as putting it into the Building Fund to pay for the new courthouse. Leading those who wanted to grab the money for city hall was the Press Democrat, which took the position that individuals harmed by the disaster were no longer in distress, so they didn’t deserve anything: “Those who suffered injury are in no need of assistance and those who suffered not at all are really better off than they ever were before,” PD editor Ernest Finley argued, Scrooge-like. Only after a bitter fight was it agreed that the money should go to those who suffered.

For the characters of “XMAS SR ’06,” the outcome of that decision could have been life-changing. If the money were to go to the victims and survivors, the motherless children and widower father stood to be awarded many hundreds, even a few thousand dollars – enough money to restart their pre-quake business and resume something like a normal family life. A happy ending (somewhat). Without the money, the family would continue plodding along its mournful, directionless path. You can bet everyone in the story would have followed every daily turn in the debate with avid and nervous interest as their fates were being decided.

And, of course, it would also have been fun to explore Grandpa’s conflicted relationship with his “precious Press Democrat” once he realized the newspaper wanted to screw over his family. That could have been a chapter in itself: “ANGRY GRANDPA CANCELS HIS PRESS DEMOCRAT SUBSCRIPTION.” I can’t imagine why that wasn’t part of the “XMAS SR ’06” story.

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Seriously ill? In late 19th century Sonoma County there were faith-healers, physicians and quacks. And then there was Mrs. Preston, who was something of all three combined.

From 1876 until her death in 1909, Emily Preston practiced medicine by mail and from her home on the Russian River, two miles outside Cloverdale. Or rather, she didn’t “practice medicine,” as claiming to do so could have got her into a world of trouble, seeing as she had no medical training whatsoever. Instead, she saw patients and diagnosed their sickness, then sold them homemade medicines. Completely different thing, right?

(RIGHT: Mrs. Emily Preston. Undated photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Madam Preston was not a huckster or a complete spiritualist nutcase like Fountaingrove’s Thomas Lake Harris, but she did believe God communicated with her via otherworldly “photographs” and messages written on “walls of light.” Probably thousands of people believed she had cured them via her hotline to God, some devoting their lives in her service. On the large ranch owned by Emily and husband Hartwell, followers built the community of Preston. At its peak c. 1895-1900, there were up to 200 residents with a school, post office, general store, train station, lumber yard, a water system, bottling works and a church where she preached the “Religion of Inspiration.” There was also Emily and Hartwell’s 18-room Italianate home and a 20-room convalescent hospital (both completely destroyed in a 1988 fire, along with most other buildings). In summer the community adjourned for two months to a camp near Preston Lake, where people from Cloverdale joined them for their Fourth of July festivities. Everyone was likewise welcome at Madam Preston’s sermons at the camp’s Church of the Wildwood, where she read to them what she saw mystically written in the air.

Also called the “Preston Colony,” the village (Emily Preston, mayor) and its Prestonites existed to serve the little industry founded by Madam Preston. They filled mail orders for medicine and accommodated a steady parade of pilgrims seeking a consultation from Madam during her Monday office hours, where she offered patients a glass of cordial as she stared at them for several unspoken minutes to diagnose their sickness. Some of the afflicted would stay on for treatment at the Preston hospital/sanitarium or seek boarding at nearby resorts, maybe in a Cloverdale hotel when all Preston beds were filled. Mrs. Preston also kept an office in San Francisco where she saw patients. But most who sought her help did so through writing, and she believed her divine powers allowed her to “diagnosticate [sic] cases at a distance.”

We know nothing about Mrs. Preston’s true diagnostic skills, but we do know a fair amount about her treatment methods, which were spelled out in her pamphlet, “Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them.” Before discussing that topic, it must be said that apparently many who sought her help were considered hopeless cases by the doctors of that time, and many believed they were better for her treatment. Some of that improvement may be due to bed rest at her country sanitarium with lots of exercise, fresh air and clean water, or convictions that her spiritual powers included miracle cures. But if their health actually improved, it certainly wasn’t due to her remedies.

By the time began she treating patients in the 1870s, her school of allopathic medicine was mostly considered backward and downright dangerous, not far from the distain held for the Middle Ages view that bloodletting was a cure for what-ails-you. People became ill, she believed, because some of their blood circulation had stopped (!) or there was inflammation deep within the body. The cure-all was to create a running sore over the affected area and keep it oozing for 2-4 weeks “according as your strength and nerves will allow.” It was also good to do this when you were healthy, just in case, you know.

This technique was called “blistering,” and Mrs. Preston’s main therapeutic tool was her homemade iodine-based liniment. The patient was instructed to rub this stuff on a spot twice a day until blisters form and rupture, then cover it with a “pad” (an oil silk bandage that the Prestons also sold). “The Liniment penetrates the skin and draws the impurities of the body to the surface in the form of a running sore,” the pamphlet explained. “By applying the Liniment on the parts affected, you draw the disease from the inside to the surface. And when you have made sores enough to cleanse and purify the system, you will feel the benefit derived from the treatment…in chronic cases where the disease is located, it takes many sores before you get much relief.”

Preston’s catalog included other items, including cough medicine, “vagina balls,” “gin and garlic,” “fasting paste,” and some sort of lotion available by the gallon. But the remedies usually centered on that liniment; she even recommended that it be mixed with “sweet oil” (olive oil) and swallowed to cure stomach aches. Rub it all over the body once or twice a week as a preventative (which must have given the Prestonites a unique coppery complexion). The Price List also recognized it wasn’t very comfortable having a seeping wound for weeks: “While using the Liniment, if you feel the need of a tonic, take the Wine Cordial, or Blood Medicine, according to the directions on the bottles.” The Prestons would sell you a jug of their fortified wine at $3.50 per gallon. Honest, reverend, I’m a faithful teetotaler but this is medicine.

The liniment treatment was no harmless placebo, despite Mrs. Preston’s promise that “You can make sores on your arms, legs, feet, or anywhere on the body, and they won’t hurt you.” It was a strong formula that could leave scars; Nathan Bowers, the son of Preston colonists, wrote in 1966 “My body, more than sixty years later, still carries the marks where blisters caused by her liniment went so deep as to leave permanent scar tissue.” Mrs. Preston also promised, “While using the Liniment, the privates and eyes are liable to become sore. Poultice them with scraped potato, or onion poultice, and then wash them with hot water. It is only the disease coming out, and need cause no alarm.” Nathan’s father followed directions and went blind – the green onion poultice drew the lens from his right eye.

Yet despite the scarred child and partially blinded father, the Bowers family did not leave Preston. The community and the place were dear to them, as was hearing Madam Preston’s sermons. Some of her followers would have been happier if she dropped the pose of Physician and/or Mystic Seer to simply become Madam Reverend Mayor, and Mrs. Preston likewise knew she was undermining her religious message and endangering the colony’s future by being branded as a fake twice over. She wrote in frustration about her critics in 1902:

If everybody would look at what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to live, and what our object in life is, they would not want to ridicule or make fun of us. They would say, “I would like to know how that is. I would like to feel that on me.”

So why didn’t she do everyone a favor and dial down the crazy talk, particularly the bit about seeing the words of God written in light? She didn’t really believe that, did she?

Emily Preston was born in upstate New York in 1819. This was at the peak of the Second Great Awakening, a period in American history marked by intense religion passion, much of it spurred by the belief that Christ was about to return. New evangelical cults formed overnight; even common folk were primed to debate merits of the latest -ism and weigh the meaning of new epiphanies and visions. And nowhere in the country was this movement more supercharged than the “burned-over district” of Western New York, which spawned Mormonism, Millerism (an apocalyptic cult that led to the Seventh-day Adventist Church), Spiritualism (as in seance communication with the dead) and others. Growing up in a world where the supernatural happenings were commonplace, it seems less odd that she believed Jehovah was texting her.

(RIGHT: “The covered bridge spanned the Russian River at Preston from 1872-1931. Preston’s commercial district was located west of the river, next to the Northwestern Pacific railroad tracks. The Preston residences, school and church were located across the bridge on the east side of the river.” Description and photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Mrs. Preston was confident that her “Free Pilgrims Covenant Church” would survive her death, and left $125,000 to sustain it. Alas, when she died in 1909 her will was undated and unwitnessed; relatives easily had it thrown out. The property went for auction and sold for $19,000, the buyer being Emily’s grand-niece who kept everything as it was, aside from later selling off some land around the edges.

The colony of Preston endured. There were still weekly meetings at the church to sing and pray. There were still jobs at the bottling works. But over the years people drifted away. People died. The train station closed. The post office closed. The bottle works closed. Meetings at the church ended in 1935. Three years later, a reporter from the Press Democrat visited Preston and described the old mansion:

We pushed open the gate and walked through the ruined garden. The house is white and colonial-looking, with a porch clear around it, and dark green trimmings. It looks as if it died long ago everywhere leaves and debris and loneliness. Beyond it tumble-down outbuildings that must have been servants’ quarters. Not a soul, not a sound. We were startled to find three bright silk cushions piled on the step, as if just set there – we went closer and saw they were oriental pottery work. We walked up to the front door and knocked. No answer. We peered through a hole in the shutter and saw a stuffy Victorian parlor, completely furnished, with a paisley shawl on the table and an old-fashioned phonograph with a brass loudspeaker. We knocked and called, but still no answer…now, all quiet, all fallen away. Nothing left but the ghostly, shuttered house, the century plants, the wind in the eucalyptus.

In 1943 a couple bought the property to open a camp and summer school for boys. They unlocked the doors and found her clothes still in the closets, books on the shelf, pill roller on the table. Also gathering dust were 85 boxes of letters addressed to Mrs. E. Preston, Preston, Sonoma Co., California. Madam just stepped out for a spell, and surely would be back soon.

SOURCES AND NOTES: Almost everything in this article specific to Mrs. Preston is drawn from Holly Hoods’ extraordinary thesis, “Preston: History of a Late-Nineteenth Century Religious Community in Sonoma County, California,” which is available at SSU, at the Healdsburg, Cloverdale and central county libraries and at the Healdsburg Museum. It contains much interesting material not covered here, such as how Mrs. Preston answered critics who pointed out that she was functionally illiterate, despite spending decades reading the words of God writ large before her eyes. An appendix includes a reproduction of the 1903 edition of “Price List of Medicines and How to Use Them.”

Hoods’ research is also summarized at the web site for the Preston Historical Research and Restoration Fund, which is welcoming donations to restore the church and other buildings not destroyed in the 1988 fire. There is a 2005 Press Democrat article about the restoration project.

Most information about the Preston Colony comes from “Recollections of 19th- and 20th-Century Communal Life at Preston Ranch,” a project edited by W.M. Sefton. Particularly valuable are transcriptions from local Healdsburg and Cloverdale newspapers. The recollections include descriptions of what happened to Preston after Madam died, including the formation of an artist’s colony in 1969. Warning: Details concerning desecrations of the cemetery are not for the squeamish.

Hoods commented in 2000 that therapeutic blistering “has fallen out of favor in the United States within the last 100 years,” citing an entry in the 1903 edition of Chambers’s Encyclopedia. This was the same printing plate as first used in the 1888 edition (and which continued to be reprinted at least through 1912), so it reveals nothing about 20th century opinions on blistering. Evidence instead shows that the medical community had largely rejected the method even before Mrs. Preston began her medical practice. In an 1869 rebuttal to allopathy, “blood-letting, blistering, cauterizing, physicking, poisoning, freezing, and starving” were denounced as quackery.

Iodine was used medically in the late 19th century as a counter-irritant (1870 reference) and in liniment. A lengthy review of iodine uses in an 1876 handbook of therapeutics specifically warns against iodine solutions strong enough to cause scarring. No references, even Chambers, could be found that describe Preston’s method of using liniment to keep an open sore running for weeks.

Sudden Passing of Famous Woman Yesterday

Dr. Emily Preston, familiarly known as the founder of the Preston Colony near Cloverdale, is dead.

This noted woman was called from life very suddenly yesterday morning shortly after eight o’clock. Death found her as she was gazing out from the little lattice window of the kitchen of her stately residence, upon the delightful landscape dotted here and there by its beautiful homes and its trees and flowers. At the time she was going about her simple household duties. A sudden attack of heart failure and she was gone.

Four-score years was her life span and when the silver cord was snapped the life went out without a murmur and without a struggle. She was prepared for the rest that came to her. Hers had been a busy life, one devoted to the work of making those about her happy and well.

While no arrangements have been made for the funeral she will be laid to rest in the picturesque cemetery at Preston near by the little church in which on every Sunday morning, rain or shine, winter or summer, she was wont to meet and preach to her followers. She will rest beside the loved ones who have gone before.

Madam Preston ministered to the ailments of the body and of the soul. She taught that a pure mind and pure living are essential to the cure of bodily ailments and the administration of her remedies is said to have produced in many people wonderful cures. While not parading as a healer in the way in which most people accept the term, it was acknowledged by her followers that she was possessed of spiritual gifts of healing. Some ranked her as prophetess, and the use of her herb medicines for bodily ills was accompanied by faith. Her religion found many followers. They came from many sections of the state, and from other states, and in addition she had a large correspondence. There are thousands of people in the cities of this country and throughout the state who knew Madam Preston, either personally or by reputation. She was said to be a woman of some eccentricities, but be that as it may she was a good woman with one of the kindest of hearts. Those who knew her well testify to this.

Madam Preston had lived at the Preston health resort for many years. She was a native of New York state. The little, plain old lady was often seen about the Colony grounds and in Cloverdale, where she had many old friends. She took an active interest in the advance of the country about her and was the inspiration for many years of the fine Preston Colony exhibits at the Coverdale Citrus Fairs. On a number of occasions the writer met her and chatted with her in the pavilion during the arrangement of the Colony exhibit.

From friends at Cloverdale yesterday it was learned that she had not been feeling well and had complained of pains in the region of her heart. As if realizing that the shadows were soon to lengthen over the landscape of her life, she predicted that she would pass away in the manner in which she did. Coroner Frank Blackburn went up to Preston and held an inquest over the remains and the verdict was in accordance with facts related.

– Press Democrat, January 23, 1909

Died Suddenly on Friday at Colony She Founded

Dr. Emily Preston, founder of the Preston colony above Cloverdale, and familiarly known to thousands of people as Madam Preston, died there quite suddenly on Friday. She was stricken with heart failure and death came to her in the kitchen of her residence as she was going about her usual household duties. For some days the deceased had not been feeling well, and complained of pains about the heart. This was the only suggestion of illness which she suffered, and she had not been confined to her apartments.

Coroner Frank L. Blackburn went up to Preston Friday evening and held an inquest. A verdict of death from heart failure was returned. It is stated that Madam Preston had predicted to her friends that her death would occur just as it did, and she seemed to realize that the end was approaching for her.

The deceased woman led a splendid life, and while ministering to the physical ailments of the people, she never neglected their spiritual welfare for an instant. She conducted services regularly each Sabbath day, preaching the gospel to her followers in the pretty little church edifice at Preston, where many were wont to gather and listen to her exposition of the Scriptures. Her religious cult drew many persons to Preston, and the devoted followers of the woman claimed almost supernatural powers for her in the curing of human ailments. Her medicines were compounded by herself, and were principally made from herbs, and the good woman is credited with many splendid cures.

All over the State, and even beyond the confines of the State, she was known as a healer. While many hundreds have visited her place above Cloverdale, many thousands have heard of the remarkable woman, and have corresponded with her.

The deceased was eighty years of age, and a native of New York. She had resided at Preston, which she founded as a colony, for many years past. She was actively interested in everything pertaining to the welfare of the vicinity of her home, and each year she and the other ladies of Preston made an exhibit at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. She took more than a passive interest in this annual festival, and always attended to view the exhibits. There are many who will mourn her demise.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 23, 1909

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