That huge white house was the first thing you’d notice when driving into Santa Rosa during the early twenties; it stood right on the northern city limit with a three-story turret like a lighthouse, marking the transition from Redwood Highway to Mendocino avenue and the route downtown. Out-of-towners probably assumed it had been built by a prominent family wanting to make an ostentatious show of wealth. Maybe it was the grand house was out there on the edge of town because they threw riotous parties and did not want to disturb close neighbors. Those assumptions were completely wrong – the home was built by a modest Quaker woman who lived there quietly with her brother until both died in the 1910s. Not that they were uninteresting people; it was said by some in Santa Rosa he kept a fortune buried somewhere on their property, and it was widely believed she was long dead.
These were the children of Jeremiah Ridgway. Not much is known about their father; he was profiled in only one of the Sonoma County histories although bits and pieces about him can be found in a few other places. Ridgway was fifty in 1854 when he arrived in California via wagon train with neither a specific trade nor fortune. But he prospered once he came to Santa Rosa three years later and by the boom times in the 1870s, “Jerry” Ridgway was among the wealthiest men in town, owning property on three sides of Courthouse Square. Most significant was the Ridgway Block, which was the eastside of Third street between Courthouse Square and B street. Next to the current location of the Empire Building he built Ridgway Hall, the hotspot for public dancing in late 19th century Santa Rosa.
It seems out of character that he settled here, as Santa Rosa was not known for having a Quaker community and Ridgway’s faith was important to him. “[He] used the Quaker form of speech,” Press Democrat publisher Ernest Finley wrote later in a character sketch for the newspaper. “He would say ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ rather than ‘you’ and ‘yours.'” Except for a stay in Sacramento, every other place he is known to live had a large and well-established Quaker presence, including LaPorte Indiana, where the Ridgways lived before heading west. It was there he would die in 1885 during a visit to his oldest son, Jeremiah Jr.
LaPorte was also the place 20 year-old Judith, the middle child of the Ridgway family, met and married her husband in 1850. Simeon Seymour Todd was a recent graduate of the medical school there and after a few years practicing in Kentucky the young couple joined her parents in heading to California in 1854, apparently on the same wagon train (or at least, the general dates match).
Todd set up an office in the Gold Country and later wrote the doctoring business was lucrative, but he utterly failed in his attempts at gold mining: “I managed to dodge prosperity at every threatened point and keep poor as a rat.” After a couple of years of patching up miners the Todds moved to Santa Rosa, about in tandem with her parents. It might well have been Dr. Todd who paved the way for the Ridgways; here he formed a partnership with college classmate, Dr. J. F. Boyce.1
In Santa Rosa Judith gave birth to two sons (a couple of other children had died in infancy). Rush Boyce Todd – note the middle name of his partner – was born in 1857, and Frank Seymour Todd in 1859. It was around the time Frank was conceived that the doctor began beating her.
For this chapter of the story, all credit goes to historian and cemeterian Jeremy Nichols, who has extensively documented Dr. Todd, even photographing his Missouri tombstone. Most importantly, Jeremy dug through old court records which can be a nightmare, poorly indexed (if indexed at all) and available only on often illegible microfilm. This is the root canal of local historical research.
Judith asked for divorce in June, 1861, citing spousal abuse and frequent intoxication. She told the court he choked her in October, 1858 and struck her in her face in September, 1860. She and the boys had moved in with her parents three months before the suit was filed.
Todd denied everything; he wasn’t a drunk and never abused or threatened her. She had “abandoned him in a period of stress due to the burning of their home and due to a ‘difficulty’ with her brother”. Further, he complained, his father-in-law Jeremiah Ridgeway “hates Defendant and verbally abuses Defendant in front of the children.” The doctor’s lawyer, by the way, was the notorious Otho Hinton, recently admitted to the California bar and starting life anew, having avoided federal prosecution for mail theft. Long story.
As discussed in an article about another local divorce case around the same time, divorce then was unusual but not unheard of. California had a divorce for every 355 marriages, close to double the national rate in 1870 (the first year statistics were collected). While divorce wasn’t forbidden among the Society of Friends it was exceptionally rare and considered to be a breakdown of the Quaker community – although for what it’s worth, Dr. Todd was not a Quaker. The divorce was granted in 1863, almost exactly two years after she filed suit.
While divorce proceedings were underway Todd was in the Union Army, serving as a hospital administrator and surgeon in California. At the end of the Civil War he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he quickly rose to become a respected physician and prominent citizen. There he told everyone he was a widower – and he was making no vague remarks of once having an unnamed wife who died sometime long ago; he precisely stated she was Judith Ann Ridgway, daughter of Jeremiah Ridgway of LaPorte, Indiana and that she passed away in 1861.
It’s unknown whether the Ridgways knew that Judith’s ex had pronounced her prematurely dead. But the audacious claim appeared in at least four Missouri histories and in his 1899 front page obituaries, so it’s hard to imagine that not a single person who knew the Santa Rosa family did not stumble across his lies over three-plus decades. The deception continues still; every online genealogy I find for that branch of the Todd family notes first wife Judith died in 1861. (He married twice again and the second wife, Thirza – likewise a Quaker – really did croak on him.)
Free of the odious Dr. Simeon Seymour Todd in 1863, the Ridgways of Santa Rosa flourished over the next 20+ years. Judith raised the boys, grandpa Jerry’s real estate empire grew and Joseph, her younger brother, did…well, it’s not quite clear what he ever did. More about him later.
It’s certain they all lived together during those years, but we can’t be sure where; neither the 1870 or 1880 census report lists a street address for them. It appears the only residential property they owned was the north end of the block between Glenn street and Healdsburg avenue (now Mendocino ave). There’s an 1885 bird’s-eye view of Santa Rosa – a portion of it can be seen here – and it shows a modest house apparently surrounded by a garden. On the keymap shown to the left, it’s the smaller red dot. There are also a few other buildings closer to the avenue which could be homes; it seems likely the Ridgway family lived somewhere in this group.
Across the street was their crown jewel – the 160 acres that Jerry had purchased soon after moving to town, shown here outlined in green. Judging by the 1885 map it was still peppered with mature valley oak trees. It was the largest untouched parcel of land on Santa Rosa’s borders.
Come 1885 and Jerry Ridgway passes away, his will slicing the estate equally between his three children. Jeremiah Jr. presumably received much of value in the East, as it appears he inherited nothing in Santa Rosa. There were many other properties divided up but youngest son Joseph got the north end of the 160 acres that ended on Elliott avenue with Judith taking the southernmost half. With her inheritance she built that grand house on the corner, the largest red dot on the keymap.
Seen to the right is a detail from the 1897 bird’s-eye view, showing her castle-like home and grounds, nearly the size of a city block. (There was no development there on the 1885 map, proving she built everything after her father’s death.)
In the big white house little apparently changed over the next quarter century except for the boys growing up and moving away. Judith did not remarry, but changed her status from divorced (1880 census) to widowed (1900 census). Apparently the only souls shuffling through the hallways of that enormous manse were her and brother Joseph, an Asian servant and Annie Mathias, a woman the same age as Judith about whom nothing is known. The only thing noteworthy about those years is that Judith kept growing younger. She was actually born in 1830, but shaved between 4 to 27 years off her age in every census report between 1860 and 1910. As a result Joseph – born nine years after her – vaulted waaaaay back in time to become her much older sibling.
Then in 1912 Joseph died, nursed by Judith through months of declining health. He was 54; except for the eleven years of her marriage to Dr. Todd, Judith and her bachelor brother had lived together their entire lives.
We really don’t know much about Joseph Ridgway; he’s listed as a farmer in city directories and every census, but many people who never touched a plow claimed that profession. Even the urbane and fabulously wealthy Nellie Comstock told the census taker she was a “farmer” by way of living in the Hoen avenue rural district at the time. In another of Finley’s character sketches found in “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” he wrote Joseph made personal loans:
Joe Ridgway was much like his father. He used to loan a good deal of money and I have been told on good authority that very frequently when he made a loan, which was usually in gold coin, the latter showed every appearance of having been buried. Ridgway is believed to have kept much of his money secreted in the ground, as did certain others at the time.
It’s hard not to wonder if he claimed to be a farmer as his little joke about planting and harvesting gold coins, which would befit a man who might have been a tad eccentric. The obituary below remarks “he had his own way of doing things” (an odd thing to write in an obit) and Dr. Todd blamed some “‘difficulty’ with her brother” as being a significant reason for their split. Whatever his personality and relationship with his sister, he died wealthy, leaving an estate worth today about $6 million entirely to Judith (there was no bequest to brother Jeremiah Jr. whom he thought had “ample fortune”).
Judith died at home five years later at age 87 – although in accordance with the last age she told a census taker, she was a sprightly 69.
Our final chapter begins on November 15, 1921. Judith’s oldest son Rush was then living in the great house with his extended family. From their third floor front windows it’s likely they saw the flames shooting from the high school, three blocks away on Humboldt street. As it continued burning through the night with the unnerving thunder of occasional explosions, there were fears burning embers flying over the rooftops might set the neighborhoods on fire, according to first-hand accounts in Lee Torliatt’s “Golden Memories of the Redwood Empire.”
The school was a total loss. Nothing could be done for the 485 students except to scramble finding them temporary classrooms in churches, office buildings and whathaveyou, but planning for the construction of a new high school had to begin immediately. But where should it be? In a remarkably swift two weeks – with the Thanksgiving holiday in the middle – a deal was struck with the Todds. The banner war-victory sized headline in the December 2, 1921 Press Democrat: “BUY 30-ACRE TRACT FOR HIGH SCHOOL” (transcribed below).
It was no great surprise that officials turned first to the Todds. Rush and Bertha had recently sold another thirty acres directly north of the designated school site to the city and Chamber of Commerce which was intended to become the “Luther Burbank Creation Garden.”2 And although the PD article is vague on specifics, it appears the Chamber was also negotiating with Todds for an option to buy the 65 acres to the west as a future home of a junior college or possibly an agricultural branch of the University of California.
Even though the high school plans were cooked up in just a few days, much of the description sounds like what we have today. It envisioned a campus with the main building facing the street (then part of the Redwood Highway) with parking lots and ball fields behind. It would be so modern there would even be space for “the new school bus transportation system” then under development.
The surprise in the deal was the carve-out of seven acres on the corner for the “old Ridgway mansion” as a continuing family home. And indeed they stayed. The 1936 obit for Rush Todd reported he died “at the old home in Mendocino avenue that had been the residence of the pioneer Todd and Ridgway families for more that half a century.” His widow, Bertha, can be spotted there still in the 1940 census with a niece and grandson. She lived until 1972 although the house certainly did not survive that long.
At some point Berry lane was renamed Ridgway avenue, a token nod to history lost on students racing in and out of the parking lots. Where once Judith’s grand house stood are now windowless squat buildings and satellite dishes, unquestionably the ugliest part of the high school campus. It’s hard to believe this bleak corner was once among the prettiest in Santa Rosa, or that it meant so much to a family who left their land mostly untouched for decades until it was given up for higher and better use.
|1 Dr. J. F. Boyce had a storied reputation as a heavy drinker who bolted down up to thirty shots of liquor each day, according to Finley’s sketch found in “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” Every morning Boyce would walk down to the butcher shop and cut off a piece of raw meat in order to have “something for the whisky to work on.” Boyce had a beautiful house built after the Civil War which still can be seen at 537 B street.
|2 Despite its name, the “Luther Burbank Creation Garden” had very little to do with Burbank, aside from a promise he would contribute some plants. It was really the latest installment in the perennial melodrama over Santa Rosa’s efforts to create its first public park, this time with the good juju of Burbank’s famous name and intentions that it would someday include a community auditorium, another benefit the town lacked. Nothing much came of it (although they passed the hat at events for years, seeking donations) and the property was sold in 1930 to become the basis of the new Junior College campus.
BUY 30-ACRE TRACT FOR HIGH SCHOOLRegional Junior College Planned ForTodd Property is Selected As Site of School Center
Location of the new Santa Rosa District High School on a thirty-acre site on the highway just north of the city limits, has been assured with the purchase from Mr. and Mrs. Rush B. Todd of the sixty-five acre property lying between the site highway and Cleveland avenue, Berry lane and the Southern Pacific railroad.
Deeds transferring the property to a committee of trustees jointly representing the Santa Rosa High School Board and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce were signed Thursday and are held in escrow pending the perfection of the abstracts and certificates of title.
Simultaneously with the execution of the escrow and trusteeships, articles of agreement were signed for the protection of the school board’s right to take over the property, or such portion of it as may be needed for high school purposes, when the present legal status of the high school district is determined and arrangements perfected for the construction of the new high school.HANDLED THROUGH CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Negotiations of this transaction followed a joint meeting of the board of directors of the chamber of commerce and the board of education, together with City Superintendent Jerome O. Cross, on November 16th, the afternoon following the burning of the Santa Rosa high school building. Its details have been handled by a joint committee representing the two bodies, comprised of Hilliard Comstock, R. A. Belden, Frank P. Doyle and Glen E. Murdock and Wallace L. Ware, the latter two representing Mr. and Mrs. Todd.TODD RESIDENCE SITE EXCEPTED
Transfer of the property to the trustees named makes available for high school purposes a 600-foot frontage on the west side of the Redwood highway beginning at a point 390 feet from the corner of Berry lane. The articles of agreement provide for excepting from the sale a seven-acre parcel of land on which the old Ridgeway [sic] mansion stands, and which is located at the corner of Berry lane and the highway. This the Todds wished to retain as it is the site of their home. The seven acres extend westward to a point corresponding with the extension of Glenn street.WILL WIDEN BERRY LANE
Arrangements provide for widening Berry lane to eighty feet, the entire length of the tract, west from the state highway to Cleveland avenue and for the extension of Morgan street, north through the sixty-five acre property, and thence on across the Southern Pacific railroad and along the western line of the Luther Burbank Creations Garden site, owned jointly by the chamber of commerce and the city of Santa Rosa.MODERN SCHOOL GROUP PLANNED
It is proposed to use the east half of the property for the high school site, on which will be built the new building group, along lines of the most advanced plans for modern high school institutions in the United States. This contemplates a group of modern, fireproof buildings on a campus, units being added from time to time as the need arises. The rear portion of the thirty acres will be utilized as an athletic field for baseball, football, and other athletic activities, ample parking space for automobiles and the new school bus transportation system that will be developed with the perfection of the new high school district administration.
The new school will be erected according to present plans on that part of the tract now used by the baseball diamond and will face the state highway.AGRICULTURAL STUDY GARDENS
Agricultural studies will be facilitated by using a portion of the thirty acre high school site or the necessary experimental and practical demonstration plots…farming and agriculture work in the Santa Rosa district will be greatly benefited as a result of thus combining the two phases of instruction in the new Santa Rosa District High School.REGIONAL COLLEGE ON WEST HALF
The western half of this splendid sixty-five acres tract will be held in trust by the chamber of commerce committee pending arrangements, already under way or location of a regional junior college at Santa Rosa. This has been quietly worked on by a joint committee and the board of education for more than six months, and is practically assured.
Already negotiations have been entered into by City Superintendent Jerome O. Cross with the authorities off the University of California or the development of an agricultural plan of sufficient strength to warrant the hope that some day a branch of the agricultural department of the university will be established in Santa Rosa.
This hope is justified by the proximity of the new site to the Luther Burbank Gardens, which will be the most important in California, if not in the United States.
Location of regional colleges is provided for in recent legislation, and Santa Rosa’s claims for consideration as the place or such an institution have been presented in a most effective manner by the joint committee representing our aggressive civic-commercial organization and the board of education. It will provide here in Santa Rosa two years of college education, and is designed to relieve the main institution at Berkeley of the crowded conditions that are beginning to make educational work there so difficult.
[editorializing on the hopes it will become a regional educational center]BEAUTIFY TODD RESIDENCE
Beautification and improvement of their seven-acre homesite is being planned by Mr. and Mrs. Rush B. Todd, as an additional attractive feature of the transaction. This will include the removal of all old fences and buildings now on the property, and the landscaping of the portion adjoining the house on the highway.
[Santa Rosa baseball association agrees to not challenge lease on ball diamond]TODDS ARE PRAISED
Those who have been working on the matter highly praise Mr. an Mrs. Todd for the public-spiritedness and co-operation. They went more than half way in assisting the trustees, and it is felt that through their help the district will have the best possible site for its new high school.– Press Democrat, December 2, 1921DEATH OF JOS. W. RIDGWAYWell Known Pioneer Resident of Santa Rosa Dies at His Healdsburg Avenue Home
At five o’clock Monday night amid the familiar scenes of fifty-four years Joseph W. Ridgway’s eyes closed in death.
The well known pioneer died at the beautiful suburban home out on Healdsburg avenue, where he and his sister, Mrs. Judith Todd, had resided together for many years.
For several days before the end Mr. Ridgway had been in a very critical state and in a comatose condition. Prior to his final illness Mr. Ridgway had not been a well man for months, and had failed perceptibly.
During all of his illness he was devotedly ministered to by his sister, Mrs. Todd. The bond between brother and sister was very strong, and now that the ties are broken the sister is almost prostrated with grief.
Mr. Ridgway was a son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah Ridgway, early pioneers of this state. He came to this state in 1856 and two years later came to Santa Rosa. Both his parents are buried in the local cemetery.
The deceased was a just man, and his integrity in dealing with his fellow man was never questioned. He had his own way of doing things, and he was never known to swerve from what he considered right. Those who knew him best said this of him Monday night.
The deceased owned considerable property here and in the east. He was a very wealthy man. In addition to his sister, Mr. Ridgway is also survived by a brother Jeremiah Ridgway of Indiana. He once lived there, and is now on his way from the east to Santa Rosa, having been apprised of his brother’s death. Upon his arrival the funeral arrangements will be made.
The deceased was a native of Pennsylvania, and was seventy-three, nine months and twenty days old. He came of an old Quaker family in Pennsylvania.– Press Democrat, November 12, 1912A KINDLY WOMAN GOES TO REWARDDeath Thursday Morning of Mrs. Judith R. Todd After a Long and Trying Illness.
The soul of a quiet, kindly woman, Mrs. Judith R. Todd, was called from its earthly tenement just before daybreak on Thursday morning.
In the passing of Mrs. Todd, Santa Rosa has lost one of her oldest and much esteemed residents, for those who knew Mrs. Todd best were aware of many kindnesses to friends and many a kind deed, not of record in the outside world, but of that sweetest of virtues, the charity done without ostentation.
Mrs. Todd died at the fine family residence out on Healdsburg avenue. Mrs. Todd had been ill for many weary weeks and had suffered much pain, so that the silent messenger came as a harbinger of peace.
Mrs. Todd was a woman of fine character and her heart was full of goodness. Her life span had extended seven years more than four score. A long life it was and about sixty-two years of that life were spent in Santa Rosa.
Mrs. Todd was born in the state of New Jersey and when she was a young woman she came with her father the late Jeremiah Ridgway, and other members of the family, to this state in 1854. They first settled in the Sacramento region, remaining there until 1856, when they came to Santa Rosa. For many years Mrs. Todd and her brother, the late Joseph Ridgway, lived together in the family home on Healdsburg avenue, standing as it does at the edge of the 160 acre estate adjoining. She continued to live there after her brother’s death.
Mrs. Todd was a very wealthy woman and owned, in addition to te residence and 160 acres of land on Healdsburg avenue, the big lot on Hinton avenue, adjoining the City Hall, and the lot on Exchange avenue the site of the former Ridgway hall. In addition she owned the block of store buildings on Third street, as well as the big lot on the opposite side of the street and other property.
Mrs. Todd came from an old Quaker family. She was a member of the Friends’ church. Mrs. Todd is survived by her two sons, Rush D. Todd of Santa Rosa, and Frank R. Todd of Oakland, two grandsons, Addison and Roland Todd, and a brother, Jeremiah Ridgway of La Porte, Ind.– Press Democrat, June 1, 1917