mendocinoview

SANTA ROSA’S PALM TREE FRENZY

Here’s how the Chamber of Commerce wanted to beautify Santa Rosa in 1912. Step #1: Get rid of those big trees lining Mendocino Ave. Step #2: Replace with palms, all the same size and the same distance apart.

(RIGHT: The present corner of Mendocino Avenue and 7th Street looking in the direction of College Avenue, c. 1905. The large house nearest the camera would be the current location of the Trek Bicycle Store. Photo courtesy Larry Lepeere collection)

Santa Rosa has always shown a willingness – nay, eagerness – to trash its own heritage when it stands in the way of progress. Sometimes “progress” is the justification for following a popular trend and as palm trees were quite the rage at the time, the Chamber of Commerce promoted a plan to fill the entire length of Mendocino Avenue with them.

“Mendocino avenue is the main thoroughfare north and south through the city and has on it some of the handsomest homes in the city, so it is only natural that is should be made one of the best so that strangers passing through town will take away a fine impression of the city,” the Press Democrat cheered. Apparently PD editor Ernest Finley feared motorists would go home and tell their friends, “Santa Rosa’s an alright place, I guess, except there’s not enough contrived landscaping to my taste.”

This wasn’t the first local case of palm tree fever. The year before, the Board of Supervisors endorsed a scheme to plant date palms all along the highway that was then in the planning stage. As Mendocino Avenue would be a portion of this new highway, it makes a certain bit of sense that it should match. But unlike portions of the road that would pass through farmlands, the plan here was to tear out mature trees. Click or tap on the photo to the right to enlarge and some of the trees in the distance must be 30+ years old – and the picture probably was taken years before the palm frenzy peaked.

That image also shows, however, why it could be argued the plan was somewhat forgivable; people were planting palm trees anyway and doing a bum job of it. Three, maybe four varieties are seen in the photo ranging in style from squat to spindly, which together makes it look like a patch of tall weeds (no argument from me there). And this sort of willy-nilly palm planting was underway all over Santa Rosa during the early years of the century; there’s hardly a street scene snapshot to be found from this period where there is not some forlorn palm or three to be spotted by the curbside (here’s another example from about a block away).

One of the articles transcribed below mentions the work should be done soon in order for the town to look its best for the upcoming Panama-Pacific Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. This is the first mention of Santa Rosa specifically planning for the 1915 mega-event, and “the attraction Santa Rosa will be for the great crowds of visitors during the exposition year.” What “attraction” the Chamber of Commerce hoped would draw hordes of tourists here was not spelled out, but it’s a safe bet they were thinking of Luther Burbank. If so, they were about to be disappointed; Burbank’s company was planning on advertising “Luther Burbank’s Exhibition Garden” near Hayward specifically to lure fans away from trekking to Santa Rosa and bothering the famous man. (UPDATE: A 1913 PD article confirms that yes, the Chamber was expecting Burbank to be the town’s star attraction, with tourists also drawn “on account of the fame the city has gained as the scene of many rose carnival triumphs in the past.”)

While here, though, out-of-towners could admire our new palm trees, all exactly alike. Visitors could scratch their heads and wonder why a town like this was trying so hard to look like it was next door to San Diego or somewhere else with a semi-tropical clime.

TREES GIVE WAY TO SHOWY PALMS
Improvements Being Carried Out on Mendocino Avenue North of College Avenue

Property owners on Mendocino avenue from College avenue to the city limits are planning to improve that street this summer. Already those on the west side of the block from College to Carrillo have removed most of the large elm trees and planted out palms which will make the thoroughfare a palm avenue if the work is continued.

Now the property owners, R. W. Peterson, H. H. Elliott, D. J. Paddock and W. H. Lumsden have begun the work of laying a concrete curb and gutter. This part of the work will be extended rapidly on both sides of the street as the city is assisting in the work by furnishing the gravel required and hauling away the dirt which it is necessary to remove. Other property owners have already signified their intention of continuing the work as soon as the first block is completed.

Mendocino avenue is the main thoroughfare north and south through the city and has on it some of the handsomest homes in the city, so it is only natural that is should be made one of the best so that strangers passing through town will take away a fine impression of the city. With the bitumen from the courthouse to College avenue extended to the city limits the street will be one of the most desirable residence sections of the city and make it a popular drive. At present the street north of College avenue is anything but inviting for driving, owing to its roughness in dry weather and muddy condition in wet seasons.

– Press Democrat, March 21, 1912
PALM PLANTING ENDORSED BY THE IMPROVEMENT CLUB

The further beautifying of Santa Rosa by the planting of palms along the streets, at uniform distance, and of uniform variety, met with very hearty endorsement at the meeting of the Woman’s Improvement Club, of which Mrs. Herbert H. Moke is president, held in this city on Monday afternoon.

Dr. P. A. Meneray and Max Rosenberg addressed the Club on the subject of palm planting and pointed out the charms of parking in the beautifying of any city. At the last meeting of the Chamber of Commerce the plan was endorsed.

Mrs. Moke and Mrs. John Rinner were named a special committee to call upon Luther Burbank and ask for his opinion regarding the best variety of palm to plant. The Club will also district of the city [sic] and have committees call upon property owners and solicit their co-operation in the campaign for palm planting. They will ascertain the names of those who will be willing to pay for the planting and purchase of the showy foliage. The plan is to plant one palm every fifty feet so that it can be readily seen that the cost will be very little.

With the approach of the Panama-Pacific Exposition and the attraction Santa Rosa will be for the great crowds of visitors during the exposition year, it is conceded that the making of the city as attractive as possible by that time should commence as soon as possible, and the planting of palms is a good start. With the backing of the energetic women forming the Improvement Club the scheme is sure to be successful.

– Press Democrat, December 10, 1912

WILL PLANT PALMS FOR THE BEAUTIFYING OF THE CITY

A great plan of beautifying the city by the systematic planting of palms along the sidewalks, producing a park effect that will at once be a delight and an inspiration, is to be impressed upon the people of Santa Rosa through the co-operation of the Woman’s Improvement Club and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. The idea is to have Santa Rosa look as attractive as possible by the time of the holding of the 1915 Exposition when many hundreds of strangers will come within our gates, lured here by the fact that Santa Rosa is the home and work place of the greatest of scientific horticulturists, Luther Burbank, and also on account of the fame the city has gained as the scene of many rose carnival triumphs in the past.

The suggestion for palm planting in Santa Rosa has been urged for a long time but recently was given fresh impetus…the committee decided to recommend the Dracena, commonly known as the “Dragon palm” as the best for sidewalk planting. Another suggestion is that the Canary palm or orange or lemon trees are suitable for the yards so as to produce a tropical and delightful effect.

The joint committee hopes that people all over Santa Rosa will co-operate in this plan for the adornment of the city. They hope, too, that orders for the palms and trees will be left with the Chamber of Commerce. The palms can be obtained at a considerable reduction of cost if purchased to large quantities by the Chamber of Commerce for the purposes named.

Not only is Santa Rosa preparing to beautify for the world’s fair crowds but all over the State the same idea prevails and in many other places just such spirit prevails.

– Press Democrat, February 15, 1913

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1913tamalpais

HUGE WILDFIRES, DROUGHT, RECORD HEAT: THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913

Anyone who lived through that week probably never forgot it. Wildfires were driven by drought conditions and unbearable temperatures, with newspapers reporting some new calamity nearly every day. Thousands of acres burned in separate incidents around the Sonoma Valley and near Petaluma while a large block in downtown Napa was lost in a fast-moving blaze. And that was just the second week of July, 1913.

The most dramatic of the fires happened as that week began. “Shortly before midnight the fire on Mount Tamalpais gained great headway approaching Mill Valley,” reported the wire service story that appeared in the Press Democrat on July 9. “[T]he flames are within half a mile of the city boundary. If the wind veers, Mill Valley and Larkspur are doomed.” Evacuation orders were issued for Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera and the little community called Escalle.

The fire had started a day earlier and was not considered a serious threat; the cute little train that putted along the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” continued bringing guests to the hotel and the tavern near the peak of the mountain, one of the Bay Area’s top tourist attractions with panoramic views. There was little concern at first when visitors were told the train wouldn’t be running for a while because the flames were near the tracks but when the phone line went down and the fire could be seen from the porch, people began to panic. As the sun was about to set and guests were threatening to take their chances walking down the mountain, it was agreed they would try to get through on the train. With the passengers wrapped in wet sheets, the train slowly chugged down the rails with its many switchbacks, now less picturesque as trees burned on either side. The train car caught fire at least once. The engineer stopped and shouted he would no longer take responsibility for what happened and some passengers got off. “Windows cracked and broke,” according to a first-hand account that appeared in the San Francisco Call. “Sparks flew in through the broken windows and set fire to clothing. Slowly the train rolled through the banks of fire. Every minute seemed an hour.” Two women were unconscious when the train finally pulled into the Mill Valley station after dark.

All Bay Area National Guard companies were mobilized, including Santa Rosa’s Company E as shown in the Press Democrat front page to the right. They joined 8,000 soldiers, sailors and firemen from San Francisco along with volunteers. Thankfully the winds calmed, but it still took them three days to beat out the fire using only simple hand tools and wet sacks.

The Mt. Tamalpais fire wasn’t the only major disaster in the Bay Area that season. After it was well under control, Lt. Hilliard Comstock and some of the others from Company E were sent to Santa Cruz. They could well have spent weeks chasing regional fire threats. Nor was Tamalpais even the worst; in September about 80,000 acres burned in Napa County, cutting a swath from Lake Berryessa to the Delta – which at the time was the worst wildfire in California history, although now it doesn’t even rank in the top 20. It was also the summer that Jack London’s incredible Wolf House burned before he was able to sleep in it a single night.

A major cause of the high fire risk that year was California’s suffering through a second year of drought, which was particularly bad in the North Bay. The Sonoma County average rainfall – as measured in Santa Rosa – is about 30 inches per season. The 1911-1912 rain year was 18.44 inches, or about sixty percent of normal; in 1912-1913 it was a little over 24 inches, which was down in the low-normal range. (A thorough discussion of local historic rainfall can be found in an earlier item, “WATER CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.”)

For Santa Rosans, the worst of the worst came on the afternoon of Friday, July 11. Everyone was probably breathing a sigh of relief because the morning Press Democrat reported the Tamalpais blaze was contained. Then at noon the fire bell sounded; two houses were aflame on lower Seventh street in the Italian neighborhood. The SRFD was able to save one house but the other was a complete loss. Afterwards, someone checked the city reservoir – and found that fighting those fires had drawn water levels dangerously low to just five feet.

The mayor contacted both the PD and Santa Rosa Republican, asking them to alert the public: No lawns or gardens should be watered through the weekend, and “be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible.”

Nearly everyone in Santa Rosa ignored his plea.

“A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled,” the Republican grumbled. Those inclined to conspiracy theories apparently thought the mayor was crying wolf because water wagons were still hosing down the streets – essential because many people still used horses – and both papers had to explain the wagons didn’t use city water, instead sprinkling what the McDonald Water Company supplied from (what’s now known as) Lake Ralphine.

But we shouldn’t judge the water wasters too harshly. July 11 was also remarkable for setting the all-time record for the hottest day in Santa Rosa history – 113 degrees at one o’clock, with 126 recorded in direct sun (see historical temperatures). It was hotter in Santa Rosa than Phoenix (110) or Fresno (108). Because of the scorching heat the Petaluma Argus reported hundreds of chickens died; any apples hanging on the south and west side of trees turned brown.

It was an age before refrigeration and air conditioning, of course, and aside from splashing on some water from the tap or garden hose, relief only came from the ice plant at the Grace Brothers’ brewery on Third street. The place was mobbed, with five men required to serve the long line of sweaty Santa Rosans. The PD noted, “Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.”

The heat wave passed but by the end of the month Santa Rosa enacted emergency water measures, as seen in the notice shown here. It was a throwback to the water rationing prior to 1907 discussed in the link above, except then the borderlines were east/west of Mendocino avenue with watering allowed every day at different times. The new edict was north/south of Fourth street on alternating days which was ever so much better because. Everyone was allowed to go nuts with their hoses on Sunday nights and a few neighbors probably even had water fights, wasteful though they be.

MAYOR MERCIER SAYS USE WATER SPARINGLY
The Supply is Too Low to Trifle With and Irrigation Should Stop For Few days

“The city water supply is too low to permit irrigation of lawns and leave sufficient for fire protection and even scant domestic uses.”

This statement was made in the office of the REPUBLICAN today by Mayor J. L. Mercier, directly after his return from the noonday blaze on Seventh street. The situation became apparent when water was needed to fight the blaze to which the department had been summoned.

“The reservoir was practically empty at the close of the day yesterday and after the pumps had worked all night there was but 5 feet of depth in our 15 foot reservoir.

“The water is simply–not there. We may as well admit the fact before loss of property–perhaps life–by fire drives the information into our hearts–or pockets.”

The mayor wished the REPUBLICAN to inform the people of the facts and beg them in their own interests–for their own protection to USE NO WATER FOR IRRIGATION PURPOSES until Monday at the earliest and to be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible until a full reservoir shall give the property of the citizens the protection of a supply for possible use at fires.

Santa Rosa is not the only city thus situated. Stringent rules have been proclaimed in many California cities and in others citizens have been warned and cautioned–are continued daily.

Your home may be lost if water is squandered in careless domestic use, and, more especially if it is wasted in trying to save a few lawns.

It is up to the citizens and theirs will be the responsibility if serious trouble results from a neglect of this warning.

RECORD FLIGHTS OF MERCURY
Hot Stunts of the Local Thermometers

The “oldest resident” with his record of long ago hot spells was not around today, or if he was visible nobody met him. Thursday, July 10th, was the “hottest day,” with a maximum of 105, but this day, the 11th, at 11 A. M. the small god with the winged heels flew up to 107 degrees above zero. This is the registration of the big mercury machine of Lawson & Rinner on Fourth street, and while the peculiar position of the recording instrument may add two degrees over the government reading, this is the correct heat record on Fourth street, Santa Rosa. Today is the fourth transit of the mercury across the 100 line in this locality this year…The official maximum reported for Friday by the weather observer was 111 1-2 in the shade. In the sun 126 1-2.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican,  July 11, 1913
WATER WARNING GOES UNHEEDED
Citizens Fail to Realize the Danger of Famine

Property owners of the city who use the city water were very slow to respond to the urgent warning given out Friday by Mayor Mercier concerning the sprinkling of lawns and the general wasting of water. People in general do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. There is more water available today (Saturday) than there has been for the past two days, but the danger line is not passed by any means, and the city may face a water scarcity that will be of a lasting nature unless the citizens are willing to co-operate with the authorities in the matter of conserving the supply.

The sprinkling of the streets has been carried on an usual, and this has led to an opinion expressed many times that the warning against the waste of water is a cry of “wolf, wolf.”

This is not the truth as the city is buying water used on the streets from the McDonald company and is spending money to keep the streets in fair condition and the dust partly laid, that the comfort of the people may not be lacking.

If, on the other hand the citizens will show as much consideration for themselves in refraining from the useless waste of water at a time when danger threatens, the famine will easily be avoided. A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled. As Mayor Mercier tersely expressed it, “Rather your lawn burn than your house.” A few days of rest and the thirsty lawns may drink again and in the meantime the people may sleep more securely in the knowledge that the fire pressure will defend their homes.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  July 13, 1913
WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE ICEMAN?
He’s Kept Might Busy These Days–Several Ice Men on the Job

Grace Brothers ice plant at the brewery has been having a heavy run the past week. Business has been brisk at the brewery itself. Owing in the warm weather beginning the Fourth, there has been a steady increasing demand for ice from all parts of town and the ice man has been unable to keep up with the demand.

For several days past many people have been going to the ice plant personally and securing what ice they wanted and carrying it away. Yesterday the place was fairly thronged and several men were engaged in getting out the ice and waiting on customers.

At 1 o’clock there was a long string of people lined up waiting their turn and no less than five men waiting on them. Yet the line was constantly lengthening.

Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.

– Press Democrat,  July 12, 1913

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NARY A PARK TO PLAY IN

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

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