Confession time: I have never revealed our great-grandparents loved tamales.

In the hundreds of articles about historic Santa Rosa appearing here, never have I mentioned tamales were the favorite fast food in the decades around 1900. Our ancestors ate them on the street, at celebrations, club dances, parties, picnics and every other sort of get-together. There was a tamale stand downtown, the Boston Restaurant at the corner of Fourth and B featured Mrs. Gore’s tamale pie in their newspaper ads, and as described in a somewhat creepy item below, there were even guys roaming around the neighborhoods late at night peddling the spicy meat and cornmeal snack wrapped in corn husks.

(RIGHT: 1894 cartoon courtesy the New York Public Library)

I long ago stopped paying attention to mentions of tamales in the newspapers – until recently when I noticed I wasn’t noticing everyone was wolfing down…tamales?? Nothing wrong with the humble tamal, but today it’s so far off the American food radar it is not even ripped-off by places like Taco Bell.

Sadly, I’ve probably overlooked other interesting details of life back then; it’s all too easy to become so immersed in reading the old papers that one loses sight of how damned peculiar some of those doings were from a modern perspective. For example, I almost scanned past a tiny, understated item in 1912 about a riot at Max Rosenberg’s department store caused by monkeys.

It seems the two monkeys (the article doesn’t mention what kind) escaped their cages at the feed store and invaded Rosenberg’s. “They seemed particularly fond on the girl clerks and there was almost a panic,” reported the Santa Rosa Republican. “Fully a hundred people rushed in to see what was going on and it was some time before the pets were captured. No damage was done, but the girls were given an awful scare.”

It wasn’t the monkey business that really caught my eye, however; animal disturbances were common – horses bolting, dog fights, and so on. No, what made me look twice was the inconceivable claim there were as many as a hundred people once spotted on Fourth street.

These days you don’t hear much about monkeys running amok in department stores, or monkeys in feed store cages, for that matter. Nor do you see many newspaper articles about groups seeking to rent live bears.

The Native Sons of the Golden West, a prominent California social club, put out a call for all “parlors” (their name for local chapters) to find “a good supply of bears” for their upcoming 1913 convention. Although the state symbol was officially the grizzly bear, the NSGW wasn’t picky: “Any kind of bears, brown bears, cinnamon bears, and even grizzlies, if the cubs are not too old, strong and carniverous [sic]…”

The NSGW held its bear-less convention in Santa Rosa the previous year and it brought about twenty thousand to town for the weekend festivities. That was small potatoes compared to the 1913 celebration in Oakland which lasted four days, drew crowds up to 200,000 and included a six mile “electrical parade” plus ongoing band concerts and pageantry around Lake Merritt. Although references to bears abound in the newspaper descriptions, it’s unclear how many were real live bears, people in bear costumes or paintings of bears. Presidio Parlor No. 143 had a tiny bear on the top of their float, and a “big black bear sat serenely” on the float of the Aloha Parlor of Oakland. It also seems animals were used in some of the many “pioneer days” tableaux presented at the park.

I almost missed that item because I presumed the headline, “WANTED–BEARS NOT TOO TAME” could not be literally true. But the opposite happened with stories about “white slavery,” which appeared at every opportunity in both Santa Rosa papers. My earlier article, “WHITE SLAVERY IN SONOMA COUNTY?” explained this was a national hysteria between about 1910-1915 based largely on twice-told tales about young women being forced into prostitution and sometimes shipped off to Chinese opium dens. I presumed it was true that the public really had deep fears that innocent girls were actually being snatched off city streets. I was wrong. To a large extent, it was about soft-core porn.

(RIGHT: Illustration from From Dance Hall to White Slavery, 1912. Bessie, the former telephone operator, gave in to temptation after being “persuaded” by a “villainous looking highball.”)

There was quite a boom of lurid white slavery novels and serialized fiction in those years. As author Amy Stewart described in a fun article, “Your Great-Grandma’s Dirty Books,” the only acceptable excuse for an unmarried woman having sex was because “she must have been drugged, defiled, and sold into prostitution. This tended to happen, we were warned, when girls left home and went to the big city, where the dangers of liquor and dance halls were all too well-known.”

Here in Santa Rosa, we had visiting speakers describing white slavery in 1912 and 1913, both lectures illustrated with slides.

First up was J. C. Westenberg, who ran the “Whosoever Will” mission in San Francisco. Westenberg appeared in many cities around the state in those years showing his slides at the invitation of some local church, with collection plates being passed around afterward. Whether Westenberg was a true believer is uncertain, but he was a big self-promoter and frequently in big trouble. He was investigated by the Church Federation of San Francisco for playing fast and loose with donations to the mission and did not show up when the Charities Commission ordered him to appear with his books. He was jailed at least twice: Once in Berkeley for a soliciting donations without a permit, and after he was found guilty of libel against Oakland’s Chief of Police, who he claimed was among the city’s “white slavers” operating bordellos (also included were Oakland’s mayor and top city officials). He was also sued for saying Dr. Julius Rosenstirn of the San Francisco municipal clinic had collected $50,000 from prostitutes. Rosenstirn was a public health hero for pioneering sex education for prostitutes, particularly teaching them symptoms of venereal disease.

The 1913 speaker was Rosa A. Davis, then at the start of her career as a white slave expert. Davis later found herself warmly endorsed by the temperance movement and expanded her expertise to the dangers of Demon Rum. Before all that, however, Rosa was on the vaudeville circuit narrating a silent film about the bank-robbing Dalton gang, sharing the bill with the Shomers, “a pair of iron-jawed artists performing marvelous feats of strength with their teeth.” It’s a living.

So I almost overlooked great stories about bear rentals and runaway monkeys and the true seamy side of the white slavery industry. (And tamales! I’ve already forgotten about tamales again!) But I almost overlooked one of the best items I’ve ever read in the papers.

In the 1913 Santa Rosa Republican (and on a page which I printed for another article) was the story of a young man who went to the County Clerk for a marriage license. Asked his age, the young man said he was twenty. Told that he had to have his parent’s consent at that age, the young man said he did. Told further that he had to have that consent in writing, the young man “fell over on the counter and then slid to the floor in a dead faint.”

The paper continued, “Deputies in the office rushed to his aid and by applying cold water in large quantities brought the young man back to consciousness. He left with his fiancee, saying that he would secure the necessary consent as soon as possible and return.”


Friday morning wild excitement was caused in the Red Front when the two monkeys kept caged in Roof’s feed store on Fifth street, escaped and ran into the store of M. Rosenberg. They seemed particularly fond on the girl clerks and there was almost a panic. Fully a hundred people rushed in to see what was going on and it was some time before the pets were captured. No damage was done, but the girls were given an awful scare. The monkeys are now safe back in their cages.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 8, 1912
Healthy Cubs that Can Growl For Sept. 9th Parade

The Native Sons’ celebration of Admission Day will be held in Oakland this year and the committees on the coming festivities are determined that September 9, 1913, will be an event, the glory of which will dim the pyrotechnics of all past events. The Committee on Unique Features has requested that a good supply of bears be provided by the parlors of the state. Any kind of bears, brown bears, cinnamon bears, and even grizzlies, if the cubs are not too old, strong and carniverous [sic]. Yet the native son of the bruin family must not be too mild. To qualify for the Oakland dissipation he must “register” some fierceness. The celebration committee’s request was brought up by the N. S. G. W. last meeting and as the organization has no bona fide bears, no real wild bears in its membership, it was decided to appoint a special committee on initiation; suspend all previous rules governing the initiatory ceremonies, and let the committee make, and be governed by, its own rules; this committee is expected to have a large class ready for the great fiesta of the Ninth. There was considerable difficulty in selecting the committee as the members of the parlor present modestly hesitated to qualify as bear hunters, Finally President Marvin Vaughan, President-Elect John M. Boyes (in private, life chief of police) and the late financial secretary, John Calhoun Hoke Smith, were with difficulty selected for the honorable mission. These Native Sons of the Golden West did not rush for the work but were persuaded to volunteer because of the cause and the glory of their beloved California, which demanded the sacrifice if some old dam bear should interfere with the abduction of her cubs…if any person has a tame cub bear in stock and is inclined to lease the animal for parade purposes during several days in September, the committee will be pleased to hear from that person. The Ursus Minor will be accorded a prominent place in the great procession and will get to see Oakland in all the colors of the rainbow, and if he is not scared to death, will enjoy the experience.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 11, 1913
Young Man Startles County Clerk’s Office

So overcome when told that he could not secure a marriage license was a young man from the country that he fainted away in County Clerk W. W. Felt’s office Thursday. He and his bride-to-be appeared at the desk in search of the necessary permit.

After answering a number of questions the young man was asked his age and responded that he was twenty. He was asked if he had his parents’ consent and said that he had. When he was told that the consent would have to be written and filed in the Clerk’s office, and that without this he could not secure the license, he fell over on the counter and then slid to the floor in a dead faint.

Deputies in the office rushed to his aid and by applying cold water in large quantities brought the young man back to consciousness. He left with his fiancee, saying that he would secure the necessary consent as soon as possible and return.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 26, 1913
Father Cassin Pleased With Erection of New Street Light in Front of St. Rose’s Church

The erection of an electric street light in front of the Church of St. Rose, on B street, is much appreciated by the rector of the parish, the Rev. Father J. M. Cassin.

There are two potent reasons why the god father takes kindly to the new lighting system on B street. One is that the light will now illuminate the pathway into the sacred edifice on dark nights; another is that it will put an end to the “spooning” of love-sick couples on the church steps after dark. The church steps have been a popular resting place for couples after a stroll and on more than on occasion Father Cassin has found it necessary to suggest to boys and girls that they select some other place for their whisperings of affection.

Consequently the esteemed spiritual director of affairs of St. Rose’s parish was in good humor Thursday when complimented on the additional comfort the new lamp will give worshippers when entering the church at night.

The efficacy of the new lamp calls to mind a good story that was told by Father Cassin at the time when the world was gazing at Halley’s comet.

About 10 o’clock one night Father Cassin happened to be standing in his dooryard. A tamale man came along.

“Want a tamale?” queried the vendor of the priest.

“Too late, too late, my man,” was the rejoinder.

The man passed along. Just in front of the church he stopped and inquired again.

“Want a tamale?”

The reply was not distinguishable where the priest stood, but it game him a cue. Someone was loitering about the entrance to the church.

The priest stole stealthily to the church steps.

“What are you doing here?” inquired the man of God of two objects he could barely distinguish.

“Watching for Halley’s comet,” came a weak feminine rejoinder.

“You had better go home and take a rest in the meantime,” suggested Father Cassin. “You will not see the comet again for seventy-five years.”

The comet had several nights before [it] became invisible.

The lovers said nothing but went their way, and the priest count not forebear an audible smile as he again entered his residence.

– Press Democrat, August 2, 1912
Will be Given at M.E. Church South Wednesday Night

The White Slave Traffic will be the subject of a meeting to be held at the M. E. church, South, on Wednesday evening at eight o’clock. Rev. W. H. Nelson is the pastor and has made arrangements for this lecture.

All the churches of this vicinity are specially invited to participate in this meeting. This fight is aimes especially at the white slave traffic, the red light district and the social evil. All public officials are invited to attend.

J. C. Westenberg of the Barbary Coast Who-so-ever Will Mission of San Francisco will give his famous stereopticon lecture on the white slave traffic.

Mr. Westenberg was once a gambler and saloon keeper. He will tell a most interesting and thrilling story, in word and picture, showing scenes of the Great White Way, New York; the Chicago Stockade; Views of the White Slave Traffic; Ten years in Rescue Work; the Submerged Tenth; Twice-born Men; the Power of the Gospel in the Slums.

Admission will be free, but a silver offering will be taken. Money received at this meeting will be devoted to the work of suppressing the White Slave traffic in California and to the Who-so-ever Will Mission Rescue Work.

President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University has strongly endorsed Westenberg. It is hoped that a large audience will be present on Wednesday evening.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 18, 1912

Miss Rosa A. Davis will appear again today with her talk on “The White Slave Traffic,” and will also give a short illustrated talk on police graft. A feature of the act today will be a recital entitled, “Five Dollars a Week.”

Miss Davis has won renown on the coast with her interesting and instructive lectures. She is a Southern woman, and has a soft, moderate voice, but it is well regulated, speaking clearly and distinctly with expression. Miss Davis will close her engagement today and those wishing to hear her should not miss the opportunity.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 13, 1913


Read More



And so it came to pass: On election day 1912, a swath of the county declared alcohol welcome no more.

It would be more than seven years before prohibition was imposed upon the entire nation, but the unincorporated parts of the second district voted to ban sale and possession of alcohol, making it one of three areas in the Bay Area that went “dry” in 1912. At the time the second district was a north-south strip west of the Laguna, from Graton to Petaluma. About a dozen saloons and roadhouses were forced to close but the ban did not affect the incorporated towns of Petaluma or Sebastopol, which were also in the district.

(RIGHT: Our first speakeasy? In 1913 the Sonoma County sheriff raided the Electric Hotel in Forestville for having alcohol in the “dry” district. As seen in this c. 1910 photo, the hotel was directly across from the electric railway depot. Image courtesy the Western Sonoma County Historical Society)

Both Santa Rosa newspapers said the vote to ban booze was expected, and not just because of moral objections against alcohol. “Residents of that district believe that prosperity will come in greater quantity with the elimination of the saloons,” the Santa Rosa Republican editorialized. “They anticipate seeing large numbers of settlers becoming their neighbors who object to living in localities where saloons are tolerated.”

This law had a ripple effect; the day after the election, the Supervisors revoked the liquor license for Jacob Kobler’s long-established saloon at Woolsey Station (about the intersection of River Road/Olivet and a stop for the train servicing the Russian River resorts). At the hearing the sheriff testified he had been called there several times because of brawls and fights, but the main charge was that he sold drinks to Indians and “half breeds” – more about this below. And that wasn’t all; someone said they witnessed “four American women get happy through the booze at Kobler’s place,” a double infraction because women were not allowed to visit a saloon, much less “get happy.” Thus the excuse to take away Mr. Kobler’s right to do business was because he failed to discriminate against minorities or women, as the law required.

All of that still might have been overlooked – the Supervisors had tabled a previous complaint against him – but what seemed to stir the Supes into action this time was testimony from two farmers griping they weren’t getting enough work out of their laborers during harvest time because they were lured away by the nearby watering hole. One complained about the “general demoralizing effect the saloon had on the prosperity of that section,” according to the Republican, and “he estimated that thousands of dollars had been lost to the community by permitting Kobler to maintain the saloon there.”

Taken together, the vote to make West County dry and the revoking of Kobler’s license had the same reason – the notion that the saloons and roadhouses were causing financial harm. In West County it was said they were discouraging property sales; Kobler was supposedly reducing productivity. Money, not morality, closed the bars. That was not unusual. In the following years there would be ongoing skirmishes in the Sonoma county prohibition wars, and liquor laws were often really an excuse for someone to make a better profit or provide a reason to restrict something else, such as gambling, prostitution or dancing to popular music.

This conflict began in earnest soon after the 1906 earthquake and while I’ve written about those events piecemeal, going forward it will be good to review the overall backstory and some of the main players in it. To wit:

The first confrontation came when the 1907 Santa Rosa City Council debated allowing bars to stay open until ten at night. The forces of temperance wanted to keep the 8PM closing time plus adding complete shutdown on Sundays. The council meetings were packed; three churches adjourned Wednesday night prayer meetings so the faithful could attend and “watch as well as pray.” From the pastors the Council heard a highly emotional plea. A petition was presented “…on behalf of the 2,000 boys and girls of this city, who are now exposed to the vile language often heard in front of the saloons” and it was widely presumed the churches were creating a blacklist of businesses refusing to sign. The saloons won that round and in the end it turned out to be much ado about not much – only 134 signed the petition.

With 1908 shaping up to be a major election year, there was a showdown between business-as-usual types and the “Municipal League,” a loose coalition of prohibitionists, anti-corruption progressives, and voters angered over Santa Rosa’s legalization of Nevada-style prostitution. Chamber of Commerce president and Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley called them agitators stirring up “hard feelings” in town with a secret agenda to turn Santa Rosa dry. Leading the reformers was Rolfe L. Thompson, an attorney and progressive politician who charged a tight group of “bosses” were controlling the town.

To show church-going voters the good ol’ boys were willing to crack down on booze, they completely banned it for Indians. A county ordinance passed early that year made it a misdemeanor to “give liquor to a person who is even one-fourth of Indian blood, or to any person of Indian descent who lives or associates with persons of one-fourth or more Indian blood.” And although that wording seemed so broad as to be unenforceable, Santa Rosa newspapers were regularly peppered in years following with little items about some guy serving sixty days or paying a steep fine for selling a bottle to a Native American. This was the law that closed Jacob Kobler’s place.

Finley and the status quo won those local elections in 1908, but faced a greater threat three years later when the state passed the Local Option Law (AKA “The Wyllie Act”), which allowed communities “to regulate or prohibit retail liquor business,” and that usually boiled down to an up-or-down vote on whether to go “dry.” Fighting hard to defeat it in the state senate was Louis Juilliard (D-Santa Rosa) who tried to amend the bill so that votes would be only cast by entire counties, which would have probably blocked prohibition passing anywhere in the state. It was the local option law that allowed the second district to vote itself dry, as explained above.

Also in 1911 women in California won the right to vote, in spite of a well-funded opposition campaign by  the liquor industry, which feared suffrage would inevitably lead to passage of prohibition laws. This time Finley and the Press Democrat championed women’s rights and allied with Rolfe L. Thompson along with other suffragists, most whom strongly supported prohibition.

Besides the second district in Sonoma county, about twenty California towns had ballot items in 1912 to decide if their community would go dry. Cloverdale held a series of spirited public meetings; at the weekend rally before the vote, Andrea Sbarboro, the founder of the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, made a rare public appearance to speak against the proposal. In the end the township of Cloverdale voted for leaders who promised to clean up the saloons – particularly gambling and serving liquor to minors – but rejected outright prohibition by an almost 2:1 majority. Overall, about half of the towns voting on alcohol went dry; in the Bay Area, only Los Gatos and Mountain View closed their saloons. Women did not vote as an anti-alcohol bloc after all; “FEMALE OF SPECIES AS THIRSTY AS THE MALE,” quipped the Santa Rosa Republican headline.

Second District to Vote on Abolishing the Saloons

On next Tuesday, June 11, the voters of the Second Supervisorial [sic] district, which is represented by Supervisor Lyman Green, will have an opportunity to declare their preference for a “wet” or “dry” territory. Outside of the two incorporated towns of the district, Petaluma and Sebastopol, all the voters of the district will have an opportunity to express themselves.

There are eleven precincts whose residents will vote on the proposed abolition of the liquor traffic in that section. These include Bloomfield, Blucher, Hessel, Pleasant Hill, Molino, Graton, Forestville, Marin, Wilson, Two Rock and Magnolia. In the district there are fourteen other precincts, eleven being in Petaluma and three in Sebastopol. As these are incorporated towns, their inhabitants cannot vote on the matter.

For some time past both sides of the controversy have been more than active in behalf of their beliefs. Rev. A. C. Bane, the well known Anti-saloon League worker, has been spending some time in the district making addresses against the saloon and telling the people of the importance of abolishing it in their midst. For the other side Secretary F. T. Stoll of the Grape Growers’ Association of California and Senator A. S. Ruth of Olympia, Washington, are making addresses all over the territory. Assisting Rev. Bane in his efforts to defeat the saloon are T. H. Lawson of Oakland, W. P. Rankin of Sebastopol, A. L. Paul of Petaluma and others.

Mr. Stoll’s addresses are on the subject, “The Effect of Local Option on Sonoma County’s Wine Industry.” Those of Senator Ruth are “Prohibition a Failure.” These gentlemen have covered the territory completely and have spoken a number of times in each precinct.

Rev. Bane has been engaged in the work of fighting the saloons for many years past, and is the leader of the opposition to the thirst emporiums. He is a talented and forceful speaker, and his services have been in demand all over the state in the effort to bring prohibition. Mr. Stoll is likewise a bright speaker, and he has done much work to prevent various sections of the state going dry where local option elections have been held in the past.

The prediction is freely made by those who claim to be in close touch with the situation that the district will go into the prohibition column when the votes have been counted.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 10, 1912



The local option election in Supervisor Lyman Green’s district yesterday resulted in a big victory for the “drys.” The “dry” majority was 418. Only one precinct in the district went “wet,” and that was Graton by seventeen. Hessel precinct was a tie vote, 68 to 68.

Before election day it was pretty generally conceded that the supervisoral district would vote for “no license,” and by a safe majority. Within the next ninety days the will of the people as expressed at the polls yesterday will become effective, and the dozen or so bars in the territory in the district outside of the incorporated towns of Sebastopol and Petaluma, including several roadhouses, will go out of business. The vote by precincts was as follows:

Precinct Dry Wet
Wilson 137 50
Two Rock 113 48
Marin 73 59
Magnolia 173 82
Pleasant Hill 83 33
Blucher 109 99
Molino 164 110
Bloomfield 120 96
Hessel 68 68
Graton 119 136
Forestville 155 115
Totals 1314 896


– Press Democrat, June 12, 1912



The result of the local option election in the Second Supervisorial district Tuesday is not surprising to those who know of conditions existing there. It was generally believed that the majority of the district would oppose licensing of saloons. The grape and hop industries play but a minor part in the production of the wealth of that part of the county. The agricultural pursuits of the district run more to apples and berries.

Residents of that district believe that prosperity will come in greater quantity with the elimination of the saloons. They anticipate seeing large numbers of settlers becoming their neighbors who object to living in localities where saloons are tolerated. As a result of Tuesday’s election saloons in the incorporated cities of Sebastopol and Petaluma are the only ones of the district that can continue in business.

– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, June 13, 1912


May Hold Election Throughout the County

The Petaluma Independent has the following to say in regard to the wet and dry question:

“Reliable information has reached this office to the effect that the local option forces in Sonoma county, encouraged by their success in the Second district, are prepared to invoke the initiative to bring about a ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ election throughout the county. Headquarters are to be opened at once in Santa Rosa and a vigorous campaign will be waged by the ‘drys.’ We are not at liberty to disclose at present the source of our information, but we have it from one that is absolutely reliable.

“Indications are that the campaign will be bitterly fought on both sides and neither will lack for funds to carry the fight.

“The elections in the First and Second districts are regarded as merely preliminary skirmishes, designed to test out the strength of the contestants in their respective strongholds. As the ‘wets’ polled a majority of only 254 in the First district against a ‘dry’ majority of 418 in the Second, the advantage is, for the time at least, with the latter.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 14, 1912


Healdsburg People to Propose New Ordinance

The Good Government League of Healdsburg is preparing to have a new ordinance introduced there regulating saloon business and increasing the license to $400 per annum.

Rev. E. B. Ware has prepared the draft of the new ordinance which he has done at the instance of the Good Government League and as its representative. Unless the Board of Trustees shall agree to the adoption of the same, the League proposes to have it adopted through the initiative and will press the matter to an issue at once.

The new ordinance is drafted along similar lines to that at Sebastopol. There will be no frosted windows if it is made effective and all the saloons will have plain glass fronts, that passers-by may see who is drinking at the bar; card playing will be eliminated and other features are incorporated in the new law.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 17, 1912



Sheriff J. K. Smith and Deputy Sheriff McIntosh made a raid Thursday on several saloons being conducted in the dry territory in Sonoma county. One arrest was made and a large amount of beer and liquors were secured. Another arrest will follow later.

Hugh McConnell of the Electric Hotel at Forestville was arrested and charged with selling beer, although he claimed it was near beer. Between twenty-five and thirty bottles of whiskey were also found in the search of the premises, which is a violation of the Wylie [sic] Local Option law in itself without any attempt being made to sell it.

The saloon of C. L. Curtis at Graton was also searched, and while the proprietor was absent two cases of beer were found and several cases of near beer. Mr. Curtis will have the opportunity to explain in court his side of the case later.

McConnell was brought to Sebastopol where he put up $100 cash bail to appear when the case was called. He owns the property, and only a light bail was enacted.

– Press Democrat, February 14, 1913


Read More



The little item in a 1912 Press Democrat was a puzzler. A man in upstate New York had written about seeing a poster that read:

Coming to Plattsburg–An Official Exhibit from Napa, Lake, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, just north of San Francisco Bay, in California, with a monster elephant Shark 36 feet long, weight 10,383 pounds, 460 years old. Also an octopus or devil fish; a California ostrich, and one thousand curiosities from Land and Sea.

It was no hoax; that was part of an ad for an official exhibit traveling the Midwest and East Coast between 1909 and 1915, supposedly introducing hundreds of thousands to the agricultural wonders of Sonoma and other North Bay counties. It never toured in the West and was rarely mentioned in any of the local newspapers; probably only a small number of people here knew about it at all, unless Aunt Myrtle from Altoona visited her Santa Rosa relatives and begged to see an ostrich ranch. And although it was a pricey operation to maintain, probably none of the groups writing checks to support the promotion thousands of miles away realized how damned strange it really was.

Our story began in San Francisco during the 1880s, where “Mon” Leak was president of the very successful Leak Glove Manufacturing Co. Before joking that “Leak Glove” seems like a really poor choice for a company name, understand he came from a family with a history of really poor names choices; not only was Mon’s full monicker “Mondula” but his father was Crapo Leak, having changed his surname as a young man from “Lake.” Perhaps he was unclear which part brought such mirth to sniggering children.

Mon exploited the odd family name in his other business, the Leak Advertising Company. Curious why horse water troughs all over Los Angeles had “Leaks” painted on the side, a reporter tracked down Mon for an 1890 interview and learned he had crews running about painting every available fence, wall or water trough with his name or an ad for one of his six clients. He was something of a advertising genius, insofar as recognizing he could blanket a city with a platoon of low-paid sign painters cranking out the same few ads in a kind of mass production.

(RIGHT: The Leak railcars as seen in newspaper ads from 1909-1915)

It’s likely Mon got the idea for both businesses from his father. The 1860 census lists Crapo as a painter in Johnstown, NY which is next door to Gloversville, where almost everyone in town had some job in the glove-making trade during the 19th century. Crapo was also awarded an 1890 patent for an improved sewing machine part that would make it easier to stitch things like gloves and a couple of years later Mon followed his poppa’s lead again, this time getting his own patent on a railway car outfitted to haul around a crew of painters, with hinged bedding platforms that folded up during the day allowing it to be used to demonstrate advertiser’s products and hand out samples. Best of all it had its own generator, allowing the train car to be brightly lit both inside and out by dozens of light bulbs. It must have caused quite a sensation in the 1890s when the shebang pulled into a rural community where electricity was still something of a novelty. Again, he was kind of a genius.

Here I must interrupt Mondula’s tale to fill in some of the research backstory. When I first read that Press Democrat item I presumed it was a gag – either someone was spoofing the PD or editor Ernest Finley was presenting a “quaint” to give readers a laugh (for more, read “That Can’t be True“). But when I Googled on that odd detail of precisely “10,383 pounds,” I was gobsmacked to find ads that almost exactly matched the item, and through Ben Truwe’s rich archive “Southern Oregon History, Revised” I was introduced to the crafty Mr. Leak. His essay, “Mondula Leak and the Sign on the Wall” provides details which are just sketched here, particularly concerning the years before and after Mon was promoting the North Bay. There are photos of Mon, diagrams of the railcars, the legend of the lucky beans and much more. It’s a good read.

Sources found by Ben Truwe state the luxe railcar cost $30,000 (about $750 thousand today) but it wouldn’t be built until 1891, when Mon landed a sustaining backer: The county of Placer. For five hundred bucks a month, Mon painted “Placer County on Wheels” on the side. Locals visiting the train were shown a gold-flecked rock, Placer County fruit and told what a swell place it was. That, however, was in addition to his regular promotions. An Oregon paper described what awaited those lured in by free hot popcorn and peanuts: “People were admitted to the car and served hot chocolate as an advertisement for the house that manufactures the cocoa, and then after examining the display they were ushered out the other end of the car carrying armloads of samples of baking powder, newspapers, cocoa, germea, axle grease, etc.”

Mon and his wife, Hannah, had a private room at one end but the rest of the train car must have been crowded at nights, with about two dozen men sleeping on their retractable bunks. Besides all the painters there was a bookkeeper, stenographer, electrician and cook. (Did I mention the car also had a coal oil stove which was used in cooking demos? And after a few years of living on the rails he was granted a couple of more patents dealing with food storage on a train.)

There were no further mentions of the painters after 1892, so presumably Mon shut down that side of his operations. No one could blame him; it must have been quite a headache. Besides being in close quarters with so many men for so long there was the logistical problems of running that kind of business from a train in an era when telephones were rare. Mon had no locomotive, so there were ongoing scheduling needs to arrange for the Leak patented car and their baggage car to be hooked up to trains on different railroads. Seeking permissions to paint a fence or side of a barn probably required a savvy advance man, and there had to be a local manager to arrange transit for the painters and handle other services. And while playing California Ambassador would be fun, playing nursemaid to twenty guys with the flu in a rail car without a toilet, would not.

The three-year deal with Placer County ended in 1894 and the train became “Santa Clara County on Wheels” in short order, which it would remain for more than a decade. The major change was that besides county ag products, Mon was only pushing “Schilling’s Pure California Wines” (a San Francisco dealer who relabeled a wide variety of wines produced all over California). Gone were the days when visitors lumbered away with armloads of baking powder, axle grease, etc.

Then in 1897, a single sentence was added to the end of his usual newspaper blurb: “Another car, to which a small admission fee is charged, contains a whale.”

Um, a whale from land-locked Santa Clara County? Well, sure, why not; the premise for the exhibit was that visitors wouldn’t know squat about California. Later ads mentioned it was caught in Monterey Bay, but who is Oshkosh knew Monterey Bay wasn’t in Santa Clara (or Placer, for that matter). And besides, Mon wasn’t claiming it was from the sponsoring county, so it wasn’t his fault if people jumped to the wrong assumption. Right?

Truwe’s history web site offers transcriptions of many ads and articles over the following years showing how things devolved. The whale was rechristened a “monster elephant shark” (it was actually a basking shark) and it began eating up more of the attention; San Jose peaches and prunes were no match to gazing down the yawning maw of a shark that seemingly could swallow you up in a gulp.

Soon ads referred to the second car as the “California Marine Museum” and besides the shark weighing precisely 10,383 pounds (“large enough to feed a multitude of people”) papers said there were “many other rare specimens of marine monsters, such as a man-eating shark, weighing 460 pounds, sea angel or flying shark, sea sturgeon, baboon fish.” Another write-up promised “a monkey-faced owl, an alligator and several monkeys, alive.” For a while there was an X-ray machine, where “one can see the bones in his hands and arms.” It must have been quite the letdown to move to the next train car and find yourself facing a pile of big sugar beets that are supposed to be impressive because.

It was free to see the fruit, but if you wanted to enter the other car with the zoo/freak show “a small admission fee of 10 cents is charged to keep out objectionable characters.” Later it would bump up to 25¢ which was worth about six bucks today, but that’s not a fair comparison; a quarter was the price of premium entertainment – a ticket to the circus or a decent seat at a very good vaudeville theater.

Starting in 1905 the sponsor changed to Stanislaus County, but by then mention of the county was cursory in newspaper ads. The shark was always the headliner, with side attractions including a live alligator (!) a California ostrich (presumably stuffed) and “Peruvian Cavies” (guinea pigs) which he called, “the cutest little animals known of.” Every visitor was given a souvenir, such as a sea shell or lucky bean. And about that: Before the train arrived the local papers often ran a paid story placement about the time his “old sailor friend Seth” was spared by savage South Sea cannibals once they saw he had a rare and sacred sea bean. With that tall tale, it can be said Mondula Leak had fully embraced his inner P. T. Barnum.

From the 1909 Ukiah papers we find word that Mon had signed a contract with the North Bay Counties Association, a kind of super Chamber of Commerce across five counties (in 1925 it morphed into the Redwood Empire Association, growing to nine counties including Josephine in Oregon). To the exhibit was now added “the creations of Luther Burbank” – apparently just spineless cactus – and redwood bark. The souvenir was usually a “novelty made of the California Big Trees”, a pampas plume (then grown commercially around Santa Barbara) or a lucky bean, “People of North of Bay Counties Hope to Please You,” chirped a frequent tagline in the ads.

The contributions from all our local Chambers and trade groups added up to $400-600 per month, but that money was just cake icing; with an admission of 25¢ (15¢ for kids) and several hundred visitors a day, their take must have been around $5,000/mo. Presume the Leaks lived well.

What they needed from the counties, however, was the cloak of legitimacy. With miscellaneous ag products displayed under county and state banners, it could be claimed the exhibit was “educational;” otherwise, it was just oddities better belonging in a carnival sideshow. Some communities even might have banned them.

But here’s the interesting question: Did anyone in the North Bay – or before then, anyone in Stanislaus or Santa Clara counties – know the main attraction was not their lovely produce, but instead a stuffed shark?

(RIGHT: A 1915 ad from near the end of the North Bay promotion)

Three articles in San Rafael and Ukiah papers from 1909 and 1910 offered lengthy reviews of the exhibit culled from midwestern newspapers, undoubtedly provided by Mon Leak. Not one of them mentioned the shark or any other of the curiosities, although every other review found in online historical papers prominently mentions the animal displays, often describing them in detail. One can only assume Mon edited the reviews or wrote them himself to keep his patrons in the dark.

The North Bay promotion ended in 1915, and next up was “Georgia on Wheels.” (Yes, there was still “a monstrous shark,” but its California origin was apparently dropped.) This tour was short lived. The national railway system was near standstill with its heaviest traffic in history because of the run-up to WWI. Also, Mon was now 65.

In 1917 he reinvented himself again, this time turning his advertising model upside down. If he could no longer bounce from town to town, he would stay in one place and expect the towns to come to him via the “Southeastern Exhibit Association,” with its year-round display of Georgia products (no mention of any sharks, though). Announcing their four-story exhibit hall in downtown Atlanta, Mon boasted to a reporter his field organization built a network of enthusiastic supporters eager to promote the state. Unfortunately, when he retired two years later, leadership passed to Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Clarke is credited with reshaping the Klan via a greatly expanded, dues-paying membership – in other words, he followed Mon Leak’s Association model, using a field organization to build a network of enthusiastic supporters eager to promote hate.

Mon and Hannah retired to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he died in 1924. That’s the end of the story, except for several Believe-it-or-Not angles.

His mother, Caroline, was actually the most famous member of the family, being the key witness in the sensational murder trial of Theodore Durrant, an 1895 San Francisco serial killer dubbed “The Demon of the Belfry.” His poppa, Crapo, returned to his old stomping grounds around Gloversville, New York, where he was arrested in 1896 for “enticing young girls into his place for immoral purposes.” Crapo was running a “disorderly house,” according to the local papers, which was usually a polite way of saying it was a brothel. When he was sentenced to five years in prison for abduction all the newspapers in the area called him a “notorious divekeeper.”

And then there was our famous shark; to my astonishment, I was able to discover its origins. Before Mon whipped up that stupid lucky bean story, he used to pay newspapers to print his item about how the shark was caught:

Yesterday as Captain Emanuel Feress of the fishing smack Garibaldi was about to tack and sail for port he had an adventure with a monster shark that the crew will long remember. They had turned toward shore when a commotion commenced in the water, and instantly the ropes holding the net tightened and the smack started off at a rapid gait, the waves washing over the deck. The crew were thoroughly frightened and wanted to cut loose, but Captain Feress kept cool and ordered them to stand ready for whatever it was that had hold of them, and for half an hour no one knew what was going to happen. They could see nothing, but they were going away, and some invisible power had hold of the boat. Then a big black object came suddenly to the top, jumping clear out of the water, trying to loosen himself, then started for the shore, and soon had run into the bar and the tide left him high and dry, and they could then see what it was that had nearly scared the life out of them, a monster shark measuring 36 feet, the largest anyone on this coast had ever seen.

That story supposedly first appeared in the Monterey Herald on April 20, but the year kept slipping forward; in his earliest account it happened in 1887, then 1895, then 1905. But while every single detail was a lie, he did tell the truth about the date at the beginning: It was caught in April of 1887. That was ten years before Mon Leak began hauling it around the country, and when he stopped showing it off the shark had been dead for thirty years.

I could not find out what happened to the shark – likely it went off to a Georgia carnival, saloon or a collector with lots of space over his mantle – but I’m sure Mondula hated to sell. It had inspired nightmares for countless kids, but once upon a time it had inspired a glove maker to become a kind of showman.


Very Like a Whale.

A very large shark was towed into port yesterday by the San Vicente. It was caught in Monterey Bay by the fishing steamer U. S. Grant. It is about thirty-five feet long, measures twenty feet in circumference and weighs nearly five tons. When the huge carcass was brought alongside the wharf it was with considerable difficulty hoisted on a large dray drawn by six horses and taken to Central Park, where it is now on exhibition.

– Daily Alta California, April 29, 1887
Renders the Existence of Policeman Fitzhenry Unhappy

Policeman Fitzhenry filed a complaint yesterday with the Board of Health against the proprietors of the shark that was captured near Monterey last week, and whose cadaver is now on exhibition in a tent at Central Park. As the monster weighs more than five tons and is fully thirty feet long, such a mass of putrescent blubber is offensive to the nose of Policeman Fitzhenry. A posse of reporters inspected the remains yesterday afternoon, and instead of being nauseated by the decomposition of cold shark meat were fumigated with carbolic acid as thoroughly as to pass muster even with the new  Board of Health.

– Daily Alta California, May 3, 1887
Eastern Relative Sends Santa Rosans Copy of Startling Announcement in New York

A card from Jos. Kellogg, brother of F. H. and Chas. Kellogg of Santa Rosa, instructor in agriculture at Cornell University, and who is now putting in his vacation in a walking tour through the New England States, reports that in Plattsburg, New York, he found the inhabitants considerably stirred by posters all over the town bearing the following legend:

“Coming to Plattsburg–An Official Exhibit from Napa, Lake, Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, just north of San Francisco Bay, in California, with a monster elephant Shark 36 feet long, weight 10,383 pounds, 460 years old. Also an octopus or devil fish; a California ostrich, and one thousand curiosities from Land and Sea.”

– Press Democrat, August 11, 1912

Read More