Wanna see a man throw a temper tantrum? Return to 1912 and ask Ernest Finley for directions to the park.
Oooooh, but Mr. Finley was steaming mad that spring, as Santa Rosa voters narrowly rejected a bond measure that would have purchased land for the city’s very first public park, just a few blocks east of downtown.
Finley, editor and publisher of the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa’s tireless Chamber of Commerce booster, wanted that park with a passion. It stuck in his craw that the town did not have a single one, while Sebastopol had a park, Petaluma had three and even tiny Graton had a park, complete with a dance floor and a funky little zoo that held monkeys and a bear.
“A public park is a great attraction,” he told readers in one of several editorials in the months ahead of the May, 1912 vote. “The opportunity is now presented whereby this city can secure one of the finest public parks in California. There is no good reason why there should be any opposition whatever to the plan as now proposed.” The PD also printed supportive letters to the editor, articles with testimonials of support from bankers, pastors and other movers ‘n’ shakers including Luther Burbank.
The property for sale is the current location of the Santa Rosa Middle School on the south side of College Avenue, between E street and Brookwood Ave. At the time it was only the overgrown lot that had been the Pacific Methodist College a couple of decades earlier. Finley’s father had been president of that school for many years; now he was on his deathbed – and was soon to pass away, about five weeks after the bond vote – so Ernest had a personal reason to see it preserved and beautified.
“Even in its wholly neglected state – as it has been for many years – the great trees growing untrained and wild, the place is attractive,” wrote “Santa Rosan” to the Press Democrat. “And situated in the center of the city that forest grove is a rare feature – the pride of the citizens and the wonder of strangers, who cannot understand how it happens that those woods, under private ownership, have been long conserved.”
Newton V. V. Smyth, the former City Engineer, wrote up a survey for the PD. He found there were large pines and cypress 35 years old or more with “a channel of an old creek gracefully winding its way through the tract.” He cataloged over 20 large oak trees – several being live oaks – and scores of ornamental trees. He explained, “Years ago, in the flourishing days of the Pacific Methodist College, there was a call for donation of trees. There was a liberal response and native trees of the state were sent in great variety.”
The property was then owned by Mrs. Ella Hershey of Woodland, whose late husband David had been a trustee of the Methodist College. (I find no other Sonoma County connection for them.) It’s unclear when the college building was demolished, but Hershey subdivided the land into 51 building lots in 1892. One of Finley’s editorials explained the town had first approached her about selling three years prior, and the price now on the table was $50,000.
Even though that was about the market rate should the property be developed, Finley rattled on for two months about what a swell deal it was. “It figures something like 57 cents on each thousand dollars” of a property’s assessment, he assured homeowners. “If the tract under consideration is not secured now, it will be cut up and sold off in lots, and then it will forever be too late,” he ominously warned.
Nor was Finley above twisting facts; he consistently claimed it was ten acres although it was actually under nine. He praised the heritage trees even as he proposed it become a recreational area that would necessitate chopping most of them down: “An old abandoned water-course winds its way through the grounds, and with little trouble or expense this might be converted into a beautiful lake for boating. Lawn tennis courts, ball grounds, swings, etc.”
In the Press Democrat never was heard a discouraging word; all that wonderfulness would cost only $50,000 over 25 years at five percent interest. It was left to the Santa Rosa Republican to print an open letter from Mayor John Mercier, who took no position on approval. His Honor pointed out it actually would be quite a bit more expensive and by the end of the bond Santa Rosa would have paid $32,500 in interest. Although Finley promised “the Woman’s Improvement Club has offered to take charge of the work of beautifying the place,” the mayor pointed out there would be a conservative estimate of $10,000 for buildings and other basic improvements. Add in at least $2,000 a year for utilities and general upkeep and the total cost of the park would be a minimum of $142,500 – well over $3 million today.
As voting day approached, the PD regularly used the front page to print endorsements or to report supporting events. On May Day picnic the school district commandeered the grounds, with a thousand children putting on a show, singing and folk dancing along with a maypole, exhibition garland weaving and “Froebelian* nature games.”
The Rose Carnival was coming up and there was an elaborate rose and flower show presented under a tent on Exchange Avenue – the predecessor to our county fair Hall of Flowers. The paper featured a description of one exhibit which was a little park model, complete with a cage of canary “songbirds:”
|It is replete with walks, and trees, a “zoo,” and the other alluring possibilities of a park. The idea is suggested by the fact that on next Tuesday Santa Rosa will vote whether she wishes to take a forward step in the march of progress and secure a public park or whether she is willing to miss one of the greatest public improvements any city of its size should acquire.
And then, voting day: With two-thirds needed to carry, it lost by 48 votes, 1243 to 689.
At first, Finley was gracious: “The Woman’s Improvement Club deserves much credit for the magnificent fight,” the PD reported. “Poll lists were checked up and a score of autos were kept running all over town to secure women or men voters, and get them to the polls.”
A couple of days later, Angry Ernest crawled out. He damned the wards south of the Creek (blue collar workers) and west of the train station (the Italian neighborhood) for the bond’s failure. They made a “grave mistake” in not voting for the bond, Finley barked, and he thought they selfishly opposed it because the park was too far away. “It is manifestly impossible to put the park in front of everybody’s property. Park sites have to be taken where we find them.” Finley did not even acknowledge these were the poorest parts of town and additional property taxes would be a disproportionately greater burden. Nor did he consider those residents might not feel welcome in the upper Fourth street/MacDonald Ave neighborhood where wealthy people like Ernest Finley lived. Italian kids often didn’t even venture downtown until they were eight or ten, Gaye LeBaron wrote in her history of 20th century Santa Rosa.
Finley rejected the outcome calling upon the mayor and city council to promptly hold another vote or otherwise “to see that some way is found, and speedily, to have the expressed wishes of the people complied with.” But nothing came of his hopes to subvert the democratic process and the park issue seemed dead, at least for the immediate future.
Then, Act II: Upstep the women.
|Have you heard the latest? Four fine parks and a city playground, and a civic center on the banks of the creek! These are the things that are coming to Santa Rosa. The women are in the saddle, and their mandate has gone forth. Civic improvement is in the air, and the odor of the rose and the vine comes wafted in every wind. The music of merry childhood’s happy voices is borne on every breeze. The wand of progress is being waved over our city and soldiers of progress are on the march, and the silurians must join the army or be run over by the bandwagon.
That was the intro to a guest column in the Press Democrat authored by attorney Thomas J. Butts. Read his essay – transcribed below – and decide for yourself if it’s a witty W. C. Fields-like jape or the work of someone a little unhinged.
I can only guess what Butts meant by “Silurians” (which he mentions twice) except that was part of the Paleozoic Era, about 430 million years ago; maybe he was suggesting park opponents didn’t have the smarts of a trilobite. He certainly did suggest they would be better off dead: “…as time flows on, one by one of these gentlemen will fall away from the busy walks of life and be borne away to the Silent City to the cold and small room that is the last quiet resting place of each and all.”
With all his chatter about Silurians and the history of old bridges, Butts never got around to mentioning the actual subject of his essay – that the Woman’s Improvement Club was to hold a public meeting in a few days and announce a proposal for not one, but several parks.
Apparently the Club members kept mum about their plans; Butts’ column in the PD and two front page stories in the Republican suggest speculation was rife. And Santa Rosans had years’ worth of park ideas – the old college grounds proposal was only the most recent to fail. Rehashed were three general ideas:
|| THE CIVIC CENTER Santa Rosa also lacked a city hall, so why not combine a park with an administration building? That idea last came up when the Lebanon Hotel was for sale in 1909. The gardens surrounding the place were magnificent, but apparently the deal-killer was figuring out what to do with its 30-room mansion. No bond was ever proposed.
|| THE WATER PARK It was often suggested to make a park on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek or dam the waterway; the most ambitious was the attempt to create Lake Santa Rosa in 1910. A property owner sued over the dam constructed by enthusiasts (lawyer Butts represented the lake builders) and it was dismantled after a couple of months.
|| THE CLEANED-UP DISTRICT Be it water park, civic center or plain ol’ playgrounds, a park was sometimes mentioned as an excuse to wipe out the red light district on First street and Santa Rosa’s tiny Chinatown on Second. During the 1908 mayoral election, the winning candidate unveiled an election eve surprise by announcing he had options to buy part of the tenderloin nearest the creek and would (somehow) turn it into a park. Nothing happened; the announcement was just a dirty political trick.
It’s surprising so much of the speculation in 1912 was centered on the tenderloin/Chinatown area – surprising, in part, because the red light district was supposedly abolished in 1909, and these mentions are the first real proof the ladies were indeed still around. And given some of those properties were owned by Santa Rosa’s wealthiest good ol’ boys (here’s looking at you, Con Shea) it’s also surprising to find voices calling for the town to just grab them if the owners were not willing to sell. From the Republican newspaper:
|It is proposed to purchase the two blocks occupied by Chinatown and the property of the red light district, if this can be done at a reasonable figure. Failing in this, it is proposed to bring condemnation proceedings to secure the property…It is undeniable that Chinatown is an eyesore in its present location and if it could be removed it would be a splendid idea.
With all that buzz, the Woman’s Improvement Club meeting drew a large audience. Dozens spoke, but the main presentation was by Walter F. Price, a local realtor who was best known as an ineffectual and likely corrupt former state senator. According to the Republican, “Mr. Price stated that he had willingly assisted the ladies of the Improvement Club in obtaining a list of available properties for park purposes. This he did free of cost.” Methinks he too loudly proclaimed his charity, and there were certain to be dollars in his pocket should the deal actually go through.
Price’s grand solution included the old college grounds (natch) plus three other properties: One near the racetrack (meaning the fairgrounds), another apparently the current location of Olive Park, and one downwind to the slaughterhouse on West College. The three new offerings were simply large-ish vacant lots with no attractive features except for the future Olive Park, adjacent to Santa Rosa Creek – although in that era it was infamous for being the worst smelling part of the waterway because it was immediately downstream from the town’s worst polluters. It was a token nod to the neighborhoods which had voted against the bond a few months earlier. And the price tag for that terrrrrrific deal was $62,750.
The next morning the leaders of the Improvement Club held a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, and you can bet Finley was at the table. After a “thorough talking over” it was decided to ask the City Council for a new bond election, this time requesting $75,000, apparently because they thought the voters who didn’t want to approve a $50K bond would jump at the chance to pay considerably more.
As Dear Reader can probably guess: Thus endeth another chapter in the Santa Rosa Park Saga.
Looking in about a year later, we find nothing had happened to the old college grounds since the vote, despite Finley’s dire warning it would be otherwise sold to developers. An article in the Republican noted the property was in “unkept, unkempt condition” and being used as a dumping ground. “The fine park is getting filled with rubbish; old cans by the cartload are being brought from a distance and dumped into the grounds; all of which is contrary to city ordinances, made and provided.”
In his later character sketches of Santa Rosans, Ernest Finley mentioned attorney Butts went on to create an ad hoc “South Side Park,” but further details are not known (although I’ll bet he had a “Silurians keep out” sign there somewhere). It wouldn’t be until 1922 that Santa Rosa officially created a public park, and it was only a picnic area in an unused part of the city’s reservoir site, just west of Spring Lake.
|* Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852) created the concept of kindergarten as part of his view that children learned best through play and interacting with their surroundings. It is similar in some ways to the later Montessori Method but less rigid, such as encouraging children to play games for physical exercise instead of performing gymnastics. Where a Montessori teacher might instruct a child “the sky is blue,” a Froebelian might ask a child to “find things the color of the sky.” A modern comparison of the methods can be found here and a 1912 analysis (when the Montessori Method was very new) is available here.
SANTA ROSA’S PUBLIC PARK
All sorts of absurd reports have been circulated regarding the terms of the agreement under which it is proposed for purchase the old College grounds for a public park, and for the benefit of its readers The Press Democrat publishes the text of the agreement in full…
…The possibilities of the site from an artistic standpoint are immense. A great number of giant oaks, to say nothing of many large sycamore and other trees, planted there thirty-five or forty years ago, already give the grounds the appearance of a park. An old abandoned water-course winds its way through the grounds, and with little trouble or expense this might be converted into a beautiful lake for boating. Lawn tennis courts, ball grounds, swings, etc., etc., could all be provided and the place made a public playground for all the people. As the Woman’s Improvement Club has offered to take charge of the work of beautifying the place, the initial cost of purchase is all that would have to be met at this time.
The price put upon the property by the owners is entirely reasonable, in our opinion, if we take into consideration that it is to be devoted to park purposes. Viewed in this light the many beautiful trees, some of which have been growing for hundreds of years, all possess an actual and tangible value, as does even the old abandoned water-course. There are fifty-two building lots contained in the tract. The present owners purchased the property more than twenty years ago for $20,000. Allowing them five per cent interest on the investment and adding what they have paid out in taxes and for street work, etc., the property has cost them several thousand dollars more than they are now offering to sell it for.
…[History of contacts with the owner]…
…The bonds are to run twenty-five years, and the increase in the tax rate will be so slight that nobody will ever know there has been an increase. It figures something like 57 cents on each thousand dollars, taking the present assessment value of property within the city limits as a basis…
…Every town of any consequence has a public park. Santa Rosa has none. A public park is a great attraction. The opportunity is now presented whereby this city can secure one of the finest public parks in California. There is no good reason why there should be any opposition whatever to the plan as now proposed. If the tract under consideration is not secured now, it will be cut up and sold off in lots, and then it will forever be too late. The opportunity will have passed.
This is our chance to secure a public park and secure a good one. We must not let the opportunity go by.
Work for the public park!
– Press Democrat editorial, April 25, 1912
SANTA ROSA GIRLS DESIGN “PARK” FOR ROSE SHOW
The Misses Ruth and Gladys Hodgson have a striking and artistic exhibit in the Rose Show on Exchange avenue. It is replete with walks, and trees, a “zoo,” and the other alluring possibilities of a park. The idea is suggested by the fact that on next Tuesday Santa Rosa will vote whether she wishes to take a forward step in the march of progress and secure a public park or whether she is willing to miss one of the greatest public improvements any city of its size should acquire. The two charming girls who have worked out the scheme have done so faithfully with the use of trees, shrubs, mosses and other embellishments. It is certainly a delightful nook in the exhibit.
The Press Democrat mentioned most of the displays in the rose show on Thursday morning, but then only mentioned them. The display is a delight and all should see it. It is the most delightful ten cents worth you can find anywhere. Flowers and songbirds, the air burdened with the sweetest perfume, and the superb notes of the canaries, the waterfall and the fountain splashing in all the setting of the woodland. The choice gardens and conservatory blossoms blend in color and significant with the wild variety of the woodland…
– Press Democrat, May 3, 1912
SANTA ROSA’S PARKS
By T. J. Butts
Have you heard the latest? Four fine parks and a city playground, and a civic center on the banks of the creek! These are the things that are coming to Santa Rosa. The women are in the saddle, and their mandate has gone forth. Civic improvement is in the air, and the odor of the rose and the vine comes wafted in every wind. The music of merry childhood’s happy voices is borne on every breeze. The wand of progress is being waved over our city and soldiers of progress are on the march, and the silurians must join the army or be run over by the bandwagon.
Santa Rosa can no longer maintain her prestige as one of the most beautiful cities on the Coast unless we do something to justify that reputation. Nature has done much for this city, but the people have done little towards keeping the city beautiful. I came to this city forty-four years ago. At that time it had a most beautiful park in the center of the town. But the Silurians of that day, whose highest conception of the Garden of Eden was that of a “truck patch” and a place dedicated to the growing of beets and cabbage, gave it away to keep from taking care of it.
I was in Santa Rosa when the first iron bridge in the state was built over the creek on Main Street. It had been the custom up to that time for farmers to drive down the bank and ford the creek when coming to town instead of crossing the old wooden bridge. When the matter of building the new bridge came up before the Board of Supervisors, one old gentleman, who was a well-known man in this town and was a trustee of one of the colleges here went before the Board to protest against the bridge, and in his speech he said:
“We don’t need no bridge and if you put that bridge thar, whar are ye goin’ to set yer tire, and whar are you goin’ to water yer critter?”
We find the same class among us today, and when the park question comes up they will say: “We don’t need no park, there is room enough for us on the benches in front of the Court House.”
But these gentlemen will not be compelled to wear out their seats of their trousers on those old benches much longer.
The Woman’s Improvement Club is going to provide parks for this city, where these same gentlemen may rest under the shade of the trees, drink in the fragrance of a million flowers while they figure their interest and knock all civic improvements.
And just here recurs the thought that as time flows on, one by one of these gentlemen will fall away from the busy walks of life and be borne away to the Silent City to the cold and small room that is the last quiet resting place of each and all. Their graves may not be marked by monument or stone, but posterity will not be deprived of the satisfaction of knowing that they are dead.
It was an old saying that “If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the mountain.” And now the mandate has gone forth that if the parks will not come to Santa Rosa, the women of Santa Rosa will go after the parks. They have started already. They are now on the way with a whoop. So, Mr. Reader, just keep your eye on the women, and you will see them bring home the bacon.
– Press Democrat, September 22, 1912
MASS MEETING UNANIMOUSLY FAVORED PUBLIC PARKS
Great Enthusiasm Shown At The Meeting Thursday Night
Not a voice was raised against public parks at the large mass meeting held in Judge Emmet Seawell’s court room Thursday evening, inder the auspices of the Woman’s Improvement Club…
…Four pieces of property that could be secured as park sites were suggested by Walter F. Price. These would cost the city $62,750. Mr. Price stated that he had willingly assisted the ladies of the Improvement Club in obtaining a list of available properties for park purposes. This he did free of cost.
The list he mention consisted of the old Pacific Methodist College grounds at College avenue, North, Fifth and King streets, price $50,000; a block of land bounded by Piner [sic – it was Pine street], Brown and Oak streets, price $4750; land at Orange and Railroad streets on the south bank of Santa Rosa creek, price $2000; and a block on College avenue, between Cleveland and Ripley streets, price $10,000, or portions of this lot could be had at $5000 or $6000 respectfully.
A. H. Donovan stated that M. Menihan of Cloverdale had written to him regarding the Menihan property bounded by A, Seventh and Washington streets, which at one time was greatly urged for a park site. This letter came from the owner unsolicited and stated that the price on the property had been reduced from its former price of $20,000 to $18,000 now, the owners being desirous to sell.
A. R. Buckner and others of the vicinity southeast from the court house presented a plan that they are working on that they believe will prove feasible for a public park proposition in that vicinity.
Mrs. Metzger spoke, setting the price on her property at Washington and Morgan streets at $12,000. She had been requested to set a price on that piece of property. Mrs. Metzger was in favor of the city owning several parks in different parts of the city.
Park Along Creek
In response to a call from the chair Attorney Frances McG Martin spoke eloquently of the possibilities of a park on the banks of Santa Rosa creek. She thought that by cleaning up the property adjoining the creek and clearing away the houses up to second street in and near to the Burbank property, would be an ideal park site and would clean out Chinatown. Mrs. Martin also favored parks in other parts of the city.
– Santa Rosa Republican, September 27, 1912
LET THE CITY CARE FOR THE COLLEGE PARK
The Presbyterian Missionary Society held its annual meeting and dinner Tuesday under the pine trees in the old College park. This wooded block in the heart of the city, even in its unkept, unkempt condition, is an ideal place for any kind of an outing, be it baseball game, Maypole dance, or doll party. The Baptist congregation this summer during the repairing of their church building have held Sunday services under those noble trees. Country visitors in the city frequently lunch and rest in that shade.
In view of this convenience, would it not be a fair return for the city to have some care over this big vacant lot? The fine park is getting filled with rubbish; old cans by the cartload are being brought from a distance and dumped into the grounds; all of which is contrary to city ordinances, made and provided. The health officer might there find some problems for solution. By all means, if the city cannot buy the park, let it care for that splendid place.
– Santa Rosa Republican, August 13, 1913