It’s said “there are no second acts in American lives” but Luther Burbank had several of them. In 1912 alone, he had two.

“Burbank Poppies” illustration from The Burbank Seed Book, 1913)

Burbank was a man driven by a single simple goal: He wanted to spend all his time crossbreeding plants in hopes of discovering something that was prettier, tastier, hardier – or might be as significant as his discovery of the russet potato. To do that he needed financial security as well as freedom to concentrate on his work, although for most of his career he had neither. He hated running a wholesale seed business, which was no guarantee of a steady income even though the public revered him as the “plant wizard.” He came to loathe his adoring fans who continually pestered and distracted him in Santa Rosa, wanting to shake hands and boast about their lovely zinnias back home. Oh, if he could just unload the business side on someone else, and/or have some nice people award him a wad of money.

His rescue appeared at hand in 1905 when he was granted a $10,000 annuity from the Carnegie Institution. That deal was cancelled five years later amid bitter mutual recriminations; the Institution had been long dismayed he was working on the side with others on a project to write an encyclopedic series of books describing his “secrets.” The last straw was apparently his short-lived agreement to set up a distribution business with the scabrous Law brothers, who made their fortune peddling dangerous quack medicines. (All of this history is discussed at depth in the four-part “Burbank Follies” series.)

While Burbank received the occasional financial boost – the Carnegie grant, a substantial payment for an exclusive-rights deal from some distributor – he had no open doors leading to a sunny and secure future; rather, he was a 60-something man stuck on a treadmill. Then came the heyday of 1912.

The Luther Burbank Society was created to finally complete and publish the book series, a significant event that will be covered in the following article. But more importantly, that year the Luther Burbank Company was formed to completely take over his sales business. Burbank was elated. “For fifteen years at least I have been endeavoring to make some such arrangements,” he told the Press Democrat. “Henceforth I shall only engage myself in the creation of more novelties in fruits, flowers and plants.”

Burbank was paid $30,000 (the equivalent to about $775,000 today) to be followed by an annual payment of $15,000. When the new company set up offices and incorporated later that year, the PD described what a happy development this was for Burbank:

“I have no time to make money,” he said. “I’ve more important work to do.” Happily the long-desired independence is now achieved. All the desks and typewriters were taken from Burbank’s home yesterday, together with his correspondence files and his account books. No longer will he need the services of secretary and bookkeeper. He can give all his working hours to the labor of his life, and undoubtedly the result will be a new pace of achievement, a greater number of wonders to astonish the world. Henceforth Luther Burbank will have nothing to sell to anybody. The chartered corporation will take possession of his new plant creations as fast as they are produced, and will market them with a facility that Burbank, always busy with other things, could not hope to attain.

The principals in the new company were W. Garner Smith, a San Francisco stock broker, and Rollo Hough, a banker and attorney from Oakland. Luther Burbank was not on the board of directors – it was mostly Oakland capitalists and city boosters, including an officer from the Oakland Bank of Savings where Hough had previously worked. The only members representing Burbank’s interest were his personal San Francisco lawyer and James Edwards, Santa Rosa’s mayor 1910-1912 (and, BTW, Hilliard Comstock’s tennis partner). Hough was named General Manager of the company and Smith was secretary/treasurer. Burbank reserved the right to select the president and picked Edwards.

It may seem a bit odd for the board to lean so far away from Burbank’s Santa Rosa and towards Oakland, but the company was really based in the East Bay. An Oakland warehouse was the shipping point, mainly sending out orders for Burbank’s varieties of spineless cactus, which were being grown near Livermore. The company also purchased 7.5 acres in the “Broadmoor” tract on the southern edge of Oakland (it’s due west of the intersection of MacArthur Blvd. and Hwy 580). Besides replacing Burbank’s seed propagation operations in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, its Bay Area location was hoped to lure Burbank fans away from trekking to Santa Rosa. “A point which will be visited not only by thousands of Californians, but by 90 per cent of the tourists who come to this State,” Hough told the Hayward Review, boasting that 5,000 varieties of plants would soon be grown on the farm. Local realtors were quick to hop on the bandwagon, running ads that building lots were still available close to “Luther Burbank’s Exhibition Garden.”

Peeking a few years forward from 1912, we find the company brought Burbank even greater fame. The next year large ads such as the one seen to right appeared in newspapers nationwide; there was even a color Sunday supplement section produced. They took over the huge Army & Navy store on Market street in San Francisco and renamed it the Burbank Building to showcase his plants. Luther became somewhat an ambassador as well as a company figurehead, traveling to promote the upcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that the company collapsed late in 1915 after it was discovered warehouse workers were shaving spines off regular cactus to sell them as spineless, a fraud that was revealed soon after they were planted. President Edwards and General Manager Hough – both former bankers with no prior experience managing a company of any sort – resigned. Burbank was disgraced in the eyes of many, as each product came stamped with his personal guarantee of quality and authenticity. The company was liquidated soon after Luther Burbank sued the Luther Burbank Company for “recovery of his contract money and his name.” The misadventure ended up being the worst “Act I” period of his entire life. (UPDATE: The Burbank biographies that state a bait-and-switch fraud was discovered are probably wrong. See this discussion.)

Luther Burbank Will Now Devote His Entire Time to Scientific Work Having Disposed of His Business
Big Capitalists Are Interested and Sale Involves Past, Present and Future Creations, and is a Unique Transaction in Many Particulars

A deal of great importance, unique in its character and world-wide in its interest, was consummated in Santa Rosa on Thursday, when Luther Burbank disposed of the commercial end of his great business and will hereafter only devote his attention to the creation of novelties in fruits, flowers and plants, without having to bother about the selling and marketing of the productions.

Negotiations that have been pending for some time were ended on Thursday and papers were signed where the commercial side of the Burbank activities in giving to the work so many things in the realm of horticulture passed to Rollo Hough, banker and attorney of Oakland and W. Garner Smith of San Francisco, recently of Kentucky. These men are backed by some of California’s wealthiest men.

The sale not only includes Burbank’s past creations, but the present and future ones, for as fast as he produces the novelties will become the property of the men interested in Thursday’s transaction. In two or three years the Burbank experimental farm near Sebastopol will also pass into their ownership, it being held in the meantime by Burbank. The home place in Santa Rosa is not included in the deal. The transaction is one of the biggest of its kind ever consummated.

When seen by a Press Democrat representative at his home Thursday, Mr. Burbank confirmed the news of the sale of his business and he expressed himself as being glad to have it transferred to other hands.

“For fifteen years at least I have been endeavoring to make some such arrangements as was consummated today. I have sold all my creations, past, present and future, and henceforth I shall only engage myself in the creation of more novelties in fruits, flowers and plants. It is a big relief as it has been altogether too much of a burden to handle both sides of the business. The papers were signed today.

“I have enough novelties on hand now to keep Messrs. Hough and Smith busy for twenty years,” said Mr. Burbank. He added with a smile, “And plenty more up my sleeve.”

Mr. Burbank did not state the amount of money involved in the sale he had made, but of course, it necessarily involves a very large sum. It is understood that from time to time payments will be paid. But the sale of the novelties is absolute at this time. Mr. Burbank reiterated that he was very glad to be rid of business cares.

– Press Democrat, April 5, 1912
Plant Breeder Sells His Creations to a Corporation
Concern is Adequately Financed, and Will Establish Great Nursery and Seed Farm
Enterprise With Headquarters Here

The formal transfer of the commercial side of Luther Burbank’s business to the new corporation which is henceforth to handle the Burbank seed and plant creations exclusively, was made on Thursday, Rollo J. Hough and W. Garner Smith representing the purchasers. Mr. Hough, who is actively connected with the new corporation, said to a Press Democrat representative yesterday: “The final steps have been made in taking over the commercial end of Luther Burbank’s business. In fulfillment of the conditions of the sale effected last April, Mr.Burbank turned over his business Thursday, and from now on will devote his whole energies to his creative work.

“It is our purpose to push the seed and nursery end aggressively, for we are confident that it is possible to build up a business that will rank with the largest of its kind in the United States. Mr. Burbank has already demonstrated this possibility by establishing a very thriving and profitable business.

” It is likely that Santa Rosa will be made the distributing center, and that seed farms and nurseries will be established in this vicinity, but with the exception of the establishment of the Broadmoor Seed Farm near Oakland, no definite action has been taken in this regard. The business of the company thus far has been conducted from our San Francisco offices.

“The corporation has ample resources to accomplish its purposes, up to $300,000, and is composed of a number of prominent bankers and business men of San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Rosa, a certain portion of stock in the corporation having been allotted to those friends of Mr. Burbank in Santa Rosa, who desired to be identified with the new company.”

Mr. Burbank has frequently deplored the necessity that compelled him to neglect his scientific work for the less congenial task of marketing his creations in order to keep his income up to his needs. “I have no time to make money,” he said. “I’ve more important work to do.” Happily the long-desired independence is now achieved. All the desks and typewriters were taken from Burbank’s home yesterday, together with his correspondence files and his account books. No longer will he need the services of secretary and bookkeeper. He can give all his working hours to the labor of his life, and undoubtedly the result will be a new pace of achievement, a greater number of wonders to astonish the world. Henceforth Luther Burbank will have nothing to sell to anybody. The chartered corporation will take possession of his new plant creations as fast as they are produced, and will market them with a facility that Burbank, always busy with other things, could not hope to attain. The new men in charge will be specialists in business, just as Burbank is a specialist in his line. They will do their part of the work better than ne ever could, and he will do his part still better for having their part taken off his hands.

– Press Democrat, November 2, 1912

A meeting of the Board of directors of The Luther Burbank Company, sole distributors of the Burbank horticultural productions, was held on Monday and much important business was transacted. Mention of the transfer of the commercial end of Mr. Burbank’s great business to The Luther Burbank Company was made some time since. The stock was sold under the name of the Universal Seed Distribution Company, and the latter company is now merged into The Luther Burbank Company.

The directors organized on Monday by electing James R. Edwards, the well known former Mayor of Santa Rosa, and assistant cashier of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa, president; Rollo J. Hough, vice president and general manager; W. Garner Smith, secretary and treasurer; and Leo V. Belden, assistant secretary and assistant treasurer.

The board of directors are all prominent men of affairs in Northern California, men who hold a front rank in the state’s commercial life. The directors are:


The head offices of The Luther Burbank Company will be in San Francisco, with offices also in Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa will be the distributing point and mail order department. The company has leased the entire upper portion of the Hahmann building, adjoining the Santa Rosa bank building on Exchange avenue, and for the past month employees of the company have been busily engaged, answering hundreds of inquiries concerning seeds and plants. The company will undoubtedly handle an immense business.

The deal by which The Luther Burbank Company became the sole owners and distributors of Luther Burbank’s horticultural productions was one of the most gigantic and at the same time the most unique the world has known. The company came into possession of Mr. Burbank’s creations, past, present and future.

The company has, as intimated, already taken up the active work for which it was organized, and has already filled many orders from different parts of the country and world. It has only just commenced the volume of distribution of Burbank seeds and products that will be carried out when its connections are fully established.

The meeting of the directors was held in San Francisco and the full directorate was present. Mr. Edwards returned to this city after the meeting.

– Press Democrat, December 3, 1912

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Aside from earthquakes and airplanes and other headline moments in local history, a goodly chunk of this journal is devoted to the odd little stories that peppered the back pages of the Santa Rosa newspapers more than a hundred years ago. Most irresistible are the ones ending with a twist or some mystery.

For example, it wasn’t particularly interesting that Mrs. Patterson (“a prominent resident of Rincon Valley”) accidentally took a dose of mild poison instead of a laxative, but it made you wonder why anyone would have them in presumably identical, unmarked bottles in a medicine cabinet. It was nice to read there was a benefit to raise funds for one-legged Harold Casey to buy a prosthetic limb; what we really hoped to learn, however, was how he performed his job as the town’s messenger boy using just a crutch. And enquiring minds want to know why a couple in Cotati tied someone up with wire after he began acting crazy, yet didn’t take him to the police until the next day (they originally restrained him with rope, but he “gnawed the rope in two as a rat would have done,” according to the paper).

These peculiar items are fun to read (and write!) but also serve to illustrate how profoundly times have changed in just a century. The batch of crime-related stories from 1912 transcribed below each provides a different glimpse of that different world, starting with a crime wavelet in Santa Rosa where robbers were stealing stuff from cars while the drivers where attending Sunday evening church services. The thefts – which had been “going on for some time” according to the Press Democrat – involved overcoats, lap blankets, and probably umbrellas and other items one might have in a car during winter.

First, it’s interesting to learn Sunday night church was such a popular thing that parishioner’s cars became a dependable target for crooks (it was about another ten years before door locks became a standard item on cars). If it was happening so often, one wonders why the churches didn’t appoint a deacon or someone to hang around the vestibule and keep an eye on the doings outside. But the broader question is why people would be stealing used coats and blankets, which were not exactly high value items; perhaps the thefts were another artifact of Santa Rosa’s perpetually invisible homeless population which was then, as now, centered around the Wilson street soup kitchens operated by religious groups.

Also in 1912 the sheriff and deputies were dispatched to Kenwood where they looked for a man who had “offended women and children in that city by vulgar actions,” which presumably meant indecent exposure. That was certainly unusual (the last case mentioned in the papers was in 1906) but more remarkable here is police were shooting as they chased him.

Guns were also involved in the Dinucci fracas. According to the Santa Rosa Republican – which misspelled the name as “Denucci” – the trouble began when some brothers in the Healdsburg branch of the family were trying to move an old log on their property. “In the melee that followed, one of the brothers was cut in the eye, but he is unable to account for the exact manner in which he was injured, whether he was cut with an axe, struck with a club or fell down and collided with some object.” Irregardless of whether the eye injury was caused by chopping, clubbing or stumbling, one of the brothers next picked up the shotgun which the Dinucci boys apparently carried around whenever they were out and about lifting logs. He fired the gun at one of the others, missed, and ran for the hills. The sheriff came up from Santa Rosa and looked around for the shooter but he was not found, so everyone left and presumed he would show up at home, eventually. What a different outcome from trigger-happy Deputy Barney blasting away at the Kenwood flasher.

There were serious crimes in 1912 not discussed here, the most sensational being 15 year-old Adam Clark poisoning his parents. (The Windsor boy, who reportedly was abused and mentally handicapped, said he planned the murders because his mother was always nagging and “giving him the dickens.”) That story made the Bay Area newspapers, as did the supposed “sale” of Mrs. Seek.

Mrs. Lottie Seek and her husband were driving home to Santa Clara when they were stopped by two men. She recognized one of them immediately – it was her ex-husband, Francis Pettis.*

Heated words followed. Lottie said they were divorced two years earlier. Pettis, a horse trader who lived in Petaluma, insisted they were still married. Claiming his companion was a cop, Pettis demanded she be arrested for bigamy. After rejecting her pleadings and a further threat to have her husband, Louis, arrested for adultery as well, Pettis agreed to drop the matter if they would give him ten dollars (about an average week’s pay at the time).

All was well for the next three weeks. Then one evening, Louis could not find his wife. Lottie turned up the next morning and said “Pettis had compelled her to go to his apartments,” the San Francisco Call reported. Soon after, Pettis is at their doorstep; this time he wants another fifty bucks. Louis Seek went to the police. “He had not purchased her on the installment plan,” The Call wryly remarked. An arrest warrant for Pettis was ordered on cause of extortion.

Once before a judge, however, matters looked murkier. She was not divorced from Pettis after all; while living in Santa Rosa she had paid a Petaluma lawyer $20 for divorce papers, but did not understand – or was not told – a divorce required court hearings. Now facing possible arrest for bigamy, Lottie said she would go back to Pettis.

On hearing that, Louis Seek demanded she be arrested for bigamy.

While Lottie sat in jail, Louis took inventory. “He treated her like a brute,” he told the Call. “I treated her all right. Look at that suit on her. I paid $40 for that. Look at those shoes and that hat. All of them expensive.”

After she spent a weekend behind bars, however, Louis had second thoughts and refused to press charges. They went home together – only to find a subpoena from Sonoma County waiting. It seemed Pettis (still sought for extortion, remember) wanted her as a witness in a suit against a guy named Moretti, whom he claimed was responsible for breaking up his otherwise swell marriage. Alas, the newspapers never reported how the three (four?) cases were resolved, which usually meant charges were dropped.

And finally, someone wrote to the county asking for details about an assault that happened about forty years earlier. In the early 1870s a man was acquitted for stabbing someone in a bar fight; the writer helpfully adds this was the same brawl where the city marshall was shot. Yikes! I take back my scoffing about Santa Rosa ever having the character of a real “wild west” town. It certainly makes the odd little crimes of 1912 look positively modern.

*  My best guess is Francis E. Pettis, born 1868 in Michigan, was her husband. The man was called both H. E. Pettis and F. E. Pettis by Bay Area newspapers, and although Francis was never identified elsewhere as a horse trader, he spent most of his life around San Jose, the scene of this story. Francis left a meager personal record; as an adult he appears in the census only twice – as a clerk in a poolroom in 1910 and an inmate of the Santa Clara County Almshouse in 1930, both of which seem like situations which could involve our guy.

Articles Removed From Automobiles and Other Vehicles Standing Outside Churches

Considerable petty thieving has been going on for some time from automobiles and other vehicles standing outside Santa Rosa churches on Sunday nights. Overcoats, rugs and other articles have been removed. So far the guilty parties have gone undetected but efforts are being made to apprehend them.

One clergyman has asked his parishioners, when they drive up to his church, to carry their coats and rugs into a room in the church for safety. Such thefts are mean and contemptible, to say the least.

– Press Democrat, December 29, 1912

Charged With Selling Wife for Ten Dollars

F. E. Pettis of Petaluma has been arrested at San Jose on the charge of extortion, a warrant having been issued for his incarceration after Judge T. R. Dougherty has listened to one of the most remarkable stories ever told in the local police court.

In effect the charge is that Pettis sold his wife, Lottie Pettis, to Louis Seek of Santa Clara for $10. The price was satisfactory to all concerned, but there was a row when Pettis, having put the money into circulation, demanded more and threatened a disturbance when his demand was refused.

Three weeks ago Seek and the woman were driving on the Monterey road. They met Pettis and a scene ensued, during which the $10 changed hands. Mrs. Pettis told Judge Dougherty that she had believed herself divorced from Pettis, having given $20 to a Petaluma attorney, whose name the police are witholding, for divorce papers. The attorney told her that the payment of his fee was all that was necessary to get a divorce, and she believed him. She came here and went though a proper marriage ceremony with Seek.

That was eight months ago. Three weeks ago, when they met on the public road, Pettis threatened Mrs. Pettis with arrest for bigamy and said he would charge Seek with a statutory offense. Seek considered it a good bargain when they told him they would sell their charges for $10, and paid over the money. He objected, however, when Pettis wanted further installments, and threatened to shoot Pettis. The latter then became so annoying that they came to the police.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 4, 1912
Italian Brothers Have Trouble Over Lifting Log

The brothers Denucci, who reside some miles west of Healdsburg in the Dry Creek section, got into an altercation on Sunday and Sheriff Jack Smith and some of his deputies were called to the scene from this city.

Trouble began over the simple matter of lifting an ancient log, which was on their place. In the melee that followed, one of the brothers was cut in the eye, but he is unable to account for the exact manner in which he was injured, whether he was cut with an axe, struck with a club or fell down and collided with some object.

Finally one of the brothers secured an old shotgun and discharged it at his kinsman, then he skipped out for the hills and has not been seen since.

Deputy Sheriff Ben Barnes went out to the scene of the trouble from Healdsburg immediately after being notified of the shooting, but he could find no trace of the man who wielded the shotgun. Later he notified Sheriff Jack Smith, and the latter took Deputy Sheriff Donald McIntosh and C. A. Reynolds in his auto and hastened to the scene. Barnes joined the party at Healdsburg and went with them to the place where the shooting occurred.

The officers remained in the vicinity until after dark, searching for the man who did the shooting, but were unable to locate him. It is believed he will return to his home Monday and be picked up by the officers.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 11, 1912

 County Official Receives a Peculiar Request

 A prominent county official received a letter on Monday, asking for information which has not been located in the records of the county. It is possible that some of the pioneers of this section may know of the occurrence mentioned, and be able to supply the information desired. The letter follows:

 “I would like to find out the time W. L. Rude was put in jail for stabbing Eph. Baldwin, and the date of his acquittal. This occurred some time in the early 70’s. E. Latipee was sheriff and Willis Mead was the city marshal at the time. This occurred in a fight in Adkins’ saloon. Jim March shot the city marshall, Willis Mead. Please let me know, if you can find out the dates, and oblige.

 “P. S.–George Tupper, who used to run the Occidental Hotel, can tell you about it. So can Clem Kessing or Trib Fulkerson of your city.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 28, 1912

 Sunday the members of the Sheriff’s office were busy, running down a man named Bauducka of Kenwood, who earlier in the day had offended women and children in that city by vulgar actions. He gave the officers a good chase before captured [sic]. Three shots were fired at him before he was arrested.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 9, 1912
How So-Called Honor Among Thieves is Shown

The old saying is that it is no crime to steal from a thief, but how far this will hold in law is a problem, says the Ukiah Press. Sheriff Byrnes of Mendocino county has uncovered a case that would stagger the old soothsayer. It is in connection with the recent robbery of Shimonisky’s clothing store at Willits, for which Jack Kelly was arrested in Santa Rosa last week.

It develops that the robbery was committed by two men, Smith and Wilson, who cached the plunder. Smith, who was a friend of Kelly’s, went to him and told of the robbery and then suggested that they changed the plan and beat Wilson out of his portion. This was done and the plunder moved. Kelly then got to thinking over the matter and decided that it would be no more than right to rob Smith, so he accordingly swiped the goods from his friend and got away with it.

 Wilson certainly deserves no sympathy for being robbed, as he was a thief. Smith should have been robbed for being a thief and also for putting up the job to rob his partner. As a retribution for Kelly’s part in the crime he was the first arrested and caught with the goods. Smith was arrested in Fairfield Monday and Wilson is located and will probably be captured soon.

 The men were all clever thieves, but they figured without a knowledge of Sheriff Byrnes being the cleverest crook catcher in the county.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 21, 1912

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“Black Friday” sales after Thanksgiving are not just about the bargains; we’ve come to expect videos of crowds waiting for hours outside the store, then rushing through the doors in a frenzy. This provides an opportunity for the rest of us to cluck our tongues and moralize. “Oh, look at those uncivilized people pushing and shoving,” we sigh, “people didn’t use to act like that!” Don’t bet on it – great-grandma was willing to trample you to get her hands on a discount teapot.

(RIGHT: F. W. Woolworth ad in the Press Democrat, 1912. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

One of the big events in 1912 Santa Rosa was the opening of the Woolworth 5-10-15¢ store. There were already several homegrown department stores downtown, as well as places where you could buy small hardware items, candy, and whatnot. That Woolworth’s wasn’t locally owned was part of its appeal; it was novel in being the first nationwide chain to set up shop in town. And also nice: Really, really cheap stuff.

The store offered a preview (with live orchestra!) the day before opening, along with a big advertisement announcing the hourly specials. The next morning, a crowd started gathering 90 minutes before the store opened. “When the doors were finally unlocked and the jam was so great that one woman narrowly escaped having her arm broken when she fell before the on rush,” reported the Press Democrat.

“The store filled until those inside could not move about,” the PD added, “while the pressure from without continued.” Surely we can all imagine a store with women packed shoulder to shoulder – but remember this was also 1912, when women’s hats were enormous. There must have been many millinery collisions, and from above it must have looked like a single undulating blanket of ribbons and bows and fake blooming flowers.

Pity, too, the employees trying to serve such a mob. “The women clerks could not wait on the crowd fast enough to satisfy all,” the paper reported, suggesting some customers had ruffled feathers (see again: weird hats) and were snarling at the poor saleswomen. In that era before paper bags, clerks were expected to wrap up the items, but they were too harried to even offer that service. “Many took their articles to nearby stores and secured papers with which to wrap them up. Others carried their purchases home without any wrapping.” What a sight the town must have been that day, with a stream of women, hats askew, trickling away from downtown with their alarm clocks, cake plates and Turkish towels tucked under their arms.

Santa Rosa old timers are probably now waxing nostalgic about the jaw-breakers and comic books they bought at Woolworth’s, just slightly east from Mendocino avenue on Fourth street in the Rosenberg building. But in 1912 the store was elsewhere, directly west of Exchange Bank. And that place is still there – or at least, most of it.

Compare the two photos below. The one taken in 1918 shows five corbels at the top and four fenestrations. The modern building has four corbels and three windows. At some point the building was made slimmer by about fifteen feet. But which side – and why?

The first clue is that the old Woolworth address, 541 Fourth street, no longer exists. The westmost storefront is number 535, which was the late, lamented Caffe Portofino. Offices upstairs are 537 and the beauty shop next to the bank is number 539, which suggests the east side was shaved. Next, the fire maps show the building was built around 1910 and made with reinforced concrete and steel beams. The eastern wall is now brick, which is more evidence that it’s not original. (As an aside, the masonry work looks pretty funky and the inside wall is heavily reinforced with wood trusses.)

So why was the right side of the building chopped off? The answer would certainly be found in a thorough title search, which Gentle Reader is welcome to pursue – far be it for me to deny G. R. a few hours of microfilm fun down at the recorder’s office. Most likely Exchange Bank discovered those few feet of the building were over the property line. Why the owner at the time chose to slice off a section of the building – no mean trick without causing serious damage to the rest of the structure – instead of demolishing the whole thing or paying Exchange for a lot line adjustment is anyone’s guess.

The Woolworth articles transcribed below shows this was once the “Livernash building,” which would mean it was owned by Jessie Livernash, the sister of J. P. and T. T. Overton, two of the wealthiest men in Santa Rosa and landlords for a large chunk of downtown. Jessie died in 1913, and the obituaries reveal she also owned the property directly to the north of the bank; the “Livernash block” mentioned in her obit was apparently that whole end of the block, with a carveout on the corner for Exchange Bank. All of these details would be a yawner if not for the fact she was the ex-wife of Edward J. Livernash, who just may have been the most outrageous character ever associated with Santa Rosa (and that really says something). His tale will appear here in a few weeks.

Bonus item: Below is also a small notice about work starting on the Doyle Building on the corner of Fourth and D streets. This lovely Beaux Arts office and retail building was at the location of the old Athenaeum theater, destroyed in the 1906 quake. It is amazing that this lot remained vacant for over five years, given all the construction downtown at the time.

Historic photos courtesy the Larry Lapeere Collection

Woolworth Place of Business Ready for Inspection

The store established in this city by the F. W. Woolworth Company, in the Livernash building on Fourth street, near Mendocino, will be open for inspection by the public on Friday afternoon from 2:30 until 5:30 o’clock. On Saturday morning the establishment will be opened for business at 9 o’clock and thereafter at 8 o’clock each morning. A glance at the show windows gives the people an idea of what to expect to find on the inside of the mammoth store, but the interior presents even greater surprises.

The establishment of the store in this city demonstrates the remarkable growth of the F. W. Woolworth Company from a small store with a capital of $300, into one of the largest corporations known, having a capitalization of $65,000,000. The company operates 650 stores in the United States and CAnada and each is known officially through a numeral. Santa Rosa is Store No. 614.

It will be the aim of the company to carry in its local store the merchandise which the people of Santa Rosa want…

…With such painstaking efforts to please it is hoped the people of Santa Rosa will appreciate the efforts to serve them well. The mammoth store occupies the lower and upper floors of the Livernash building, giving one of the largest floor spaces devoted to a single business in the City of Santa Rosa. From the appearance of the store it looks as if everything under the sun is carried and nothing in the stock will be over 15 cents in price.

W. E. Ward is the local manager of the business, and he is an experienced man in that capacity, and one who always strives to please. He has until recently been assistant manager of the store at San Diego, and is delighted to have been permitted to make his home in Santa Rosa.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, August 21, 1912

The opening of the new 5, 10 and 15 cent store under the management of the F. W. Woolworth Co., Saturday morning proved quite exciting. The crowd was immense.

Women commenced congregating as early as 7:30 and 9 o’clock when the store opened the sidewalk was blocked and the crowd extended far out into the street. When the doors were finally unlocked and the jam was so great that one woman narrowly escaped having her arm broken when she fell before the on rush.

The store filled until those inside could not move about, while the pressure from without continued. Many wanted special articles which they could not reach. The women clerks could not wait on the crowd fast enough to satisfy all.

Many took their articles to nearby stores and secured papers with which to wrap them up. Others carried their purchases home without any wrapping. All day long the crowds filled the store and at night the counters and shelves showed the result of the day’s business. The firm has a large reserve stock, and by Monday the store will be replenished, ready for all who want to take advantage of the bargains to be found on the counters. And there are some real bargains in the way of prices to be had in the various lines offered.

– Press Democrat, August 25, 1912

M. Doyle, who owns the property formerly occupied by the Athenaeum on the corner of Fourth and D streets, is preparing to erect a two story building. It will be a concrete reinforced structure, and the upper floor will be occupied by a hall and offices, while the lower floor will be devoted to stores.

Company E has talked some of making an armory there, but as yet the matter has not been decided.

The contract has been let out for the iron and work will begin immediately on the building. This will be a welcome addition to the city and will complete the corner that has been vacant ever since the fire.

The building will be first class in every respect and Mr. Doyle will give the work his personal attention. Only the best of materials will be used in the construction.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, April 7, 1911

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