December 14 should be a red-letter day at the Press Democrat; it was then in 1912 when Ernest Finley married Ruth Woolsey. Not only was this the founding of a little publishing dynasty which would endure until the PD was sold in 1985, but that date serves as a fair marker for the moment Santa Rosa became a one-newspaper town – five days earlier, editor Finley’s old rival at the Santa Rosa Republican, Allan Lemmon, sold his interests in that paper and retired.
(Detail of 1923 photo of Ernest Latimer Finley at his desk in the Press Democrat office. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
Before diving into that history, a few comments about the modern Press Democrat, which just introduced a revamp of the paper. Few may notice the changes – local news on the front page, a weekly outdoors section and more food coverage, amid other tweaks. Publisher Catherine Barnett says over 1,500 commented about what they wanted to see in the PD and her take-away was the readership mainly wanted the paper to keep on doing a fantastic job. She couldn’t even go to a party or wine tasting “without someone wanting to go off in a corner and discuss what mattered most about our coverage.” Apparently the local know-it-alls have mastered the gentle art of flattering criticism to a degree of which I was unaware.
But the real issues are not trivial things such as page layouts or the balance between lifestyle coverage and opinion. That’s a false dichotomy – like asking Santa Rosans whether cinnamon or saffron is their all-time favorite spice. The main problem with today’s Press Democrat is there’s so little of it. The pages are slim and few, with the newspaper nearly disappearing entirely on Mondays and Tuesdays. For years the newsroom has been reduced to an overworked skeleton crew. With rare exceptions – such as the outstanding coverage of the Valley Fire – local news coverage is largely picking low-hanging fruit from press releases, squawks from the police scanner and appeals to readers for story content. Just a few years ago when the PD was flush with profits this would have been called lazy journalism; today you have to feel sorry for everyone involved. Unless Catherine Barnett is able to rebuild the newsroom and offer a more substantial newspaper, she’s only pushing around deck chairs on the Titanic.
Although Santa Rosa was ten times smaller a hundred years ago, the PD still managed to fill three or four pages every day with local news. Some of it appealed to a pretty narrow readership, but better to not risk the item appearing only in the competition. And that was the big difference between then and now: Santa Rosa was a two newspaper town, although that comes with a big asterisk.
Ernest Finley’s Press Democrat was a morning paper focused on Santa Rosa, particularly development and commercial interests. For many years Finley was president of the Chamber of Commerce so it’s no surprise the PD was their voice. Allen Lemmon’s Santa Rosa Republican was a smaller evening paper mostly directed at farmers; every week there was an item covering the doings in each of the small towns in the area.
Until Lemmon’s 1912 retirement, he and Finley were something of Santa Rosa’s editorial odd couple, and not just because of the different Democrat/Republican allegiances. They even looked the part; the two can be seen together in a 1909 Chamber of Commerce group photo with Lemmon looming over Finley’s right shoulder, looking for all the world like a rumpled Walter Matthau, with Finley resembling a tightly-wound Tony Randall.
They were men of different generations. Lemmon was born in 1847 and before coming to Santa Rosa had a career in Kansas, where he was a teacher and superintendent of schools while also editing a weekly paper. He was a progressive in the vein of Teddy Roosevelt and when he bought the Republican in 1887, was a good counterbalance to Thomas Thompson, the Sonoma Democrat editor still nursing a grudge over the South losing the Civil War.
Finley was 23 years younger and had lived in Santa Rosa since childhood. He had no newspaper experience at all when he and two friends began a small paper called the Evening Press in 1895 with him as the publisher and Grant Richards as editor. When the Democrat became available in 1897 the three formed a corporation with bankers Overton and Reynolds and bought it. Less than a year later, Finley became editor of the hybrid Press Democrat after Grant Richards had a nervous breakdown and killed himself with a shotgun.
At the turn of the century Finley was still a young man of 29 and a brash conservative, eager to pick a fight in his paper. The person he most often tried to beat up was poor old Allen Lemmon, while during election years he also defended the status quo and attacked the reformers who wanted to clean up Santa Rosa; for more on those dust-ups, read “THE MANY WARS OF ERNEST FINLEY.”
The last salvos in the Finley-Lemmon battle came in February 1911. Finley ‘dissed the Republican as the “Evening Blowhard” and Lemmon shot back by calling him “Egotist Latitude Finley, whose brightness is never seen in the columns of the paper over which he is called to preside.” A couple of weeks later they both went nuclear over Fred J. Wiseman’s airmail flight in an exchange where they forgot all about Wiseman and just lobbed insults at one another. No one would have been surprised to find either of them setting bear traps outside the other guy’s door.
But after that, peace. Both newspapers supported women’s suffrage in the historic vote later that year and they even made it through the big elections of 1912 without drawing knives. What happened?
Partial credit probably goes to Finley’s bride-to-be Ruth Woolsey – or at least, his desire to marry and settle down. In late 1911 he pushed a wheelbarrow with a bale of hops ten miles to settle a bet, accompanied by an entourage of twenty-somethings including Ruth, and with the money from the bet he treated them to a night out in San Francisco. Or maybe he decided at age 42 it was time to grow up.
Allan Lemmon likely also just lost the heart to fight. He was 65; even though his newspaper was apparently then entirely edited by partner J. Elmer Mobley, it too seemed old and tired.
As the newlywed Finleys left for their honeymoon, a new company took over the Republican. Among the owners were Rolfe L. Thompson, leader of the reformers in town, and head of the new company was none other than attorney James Wyatt Oates, himself a former editor and writer. For a time the Santa Rosa Republican was a lively read and the arguably the better paper in town, but Finley had the greater readership, and with it greater influence. As WWI approached the Republican settled into being more like the paper it was under Lemmon – the loyal opposition to the Press Democrat, which was to everyone’s loss.
How fortunate for us all that Santa Rosa has its EVENING BLOWHARD. If it were not for that enterprising sheet, we might all still be laboring under the mistaken apprehension that the big show was to be pulled off in Kamchatka or “some other foreign seaport.”
“The Chinatown Trunk Mystery,” a wierd [sic] melodrama of the old Central Theatre type–and then some–held down the boards Wednesday evening at the Columbia. The performance was about what was to be expected, considering the lurid character of the paper displayed on the billboards about town. A local Chinaman accompanied by a police officer in plain clothes was on hand, ostensibly to represent the Chinese Vice Consul. The latter feature was only part of a somewhat, overdone advertising scheme, however, and fooled nobody except one bright young man connected with the afternoon paper.
Perhaps the best thing about the performance at the Columbia theater on Wednesday evening was the orchestrations between the acts. Leader Bud Parks and his musicians rendered some lively two steps which were decidedly pleasing. The performance was mediocre, but nevertheless attracted quite a large audience, when the threatening and inclement weather is taken into consideration.
Thee is little chance for acting in the piece, and those who presented it did not attempt the impossible. The protest sent by Consul General Li Young-Yew resulted in Chief of Police John M. Boyes sending an officer with a delegation of three prominent Chinese of the local colony to the theater to see that nothing immoral was permitted. Egotist Latitude Finley, whose brightness is never seen in the columns of the paper over which he is called to preside, by grace of its actual owner, attempted some funny stunts in his “dramatic criticism” of the play, and shows his asinine qualities more than previously.
Some time before the holidays Editor Ernest L. Finley will wed Miss Ruth Woolsey. For some time past the friends of the couple have anticipated the announcement, and now that it is known, they are receiving the congratulations of their wide circle of friends.
Miss Woolsey is the daughter of Frank Woolsey of Woolsey station. She is a social favorite here and around the bay. She is a pretty girl with charming ways, which have made her popular with all who know her.
Mr. Finley is editor of the Press Democrat and needs no introduction to the people of Sonoma county, as he has taken a prominent part in the affairs of this section for some time. He is a member of the Elks and other fraternal organizations.
Owing to death recently in each of the families of the contracting parties, the wedding will be a quiet one.
Articles of incorporation of the Santa Rosa Republican Company have been filed with County Clerk William W. Felt, Jr. The capital stock of the company is fixed at $24,000, and each member of the board of directors of the corporation has subscribed for two shares of the stock.
The board of directors consists of J. Elmer Mobley, James W. Oates, R. L. Thompson, Charles C. Belden and Mrs. Pearl J. Mobley.
It is the purpose of the new corporation to take over the Santa Rosa REPUBLICAN, which Messrs. Allen B. Lemmon and J. Elmer Mobley have conducted since the big fire of 1906 as a co-partnership. The formal transfer of the property will take place in a few days.
Allen B. Lemmon, the well known editor of the Evening Republican, has announced his intended retirement from the newspaper field. On Wednesday articles of incorporation of the Santa Rosa Republican Company were filed with County Clerk. The object of the company is to take over Mr. Lemmon’s interest in the paper above named. The company is incorporated, for $24,000, and the directors named are Rolfe L. Thompson, J. E. Mobley, James W. Oates, C. C. Belden and Pearl Mobley. Each of the directors named has subscribed for two shares of stock. It is understood that formal transfer of the property will be made within a few days.
For more than twenty years-with the exception of a year or so previous to the fire, when the paper was leased to other parties–Mr. Lemmon has presided over the destinies of the Santa Rosa Republican. For some time he has been anxious to dispose of his interests and retire from active newspaper work. He retires with the best wishes of a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and the new owners are wished every success in their venture.
The formal transfer of the Santa Rosa REPUBLICAN newspaper and job printing business to the Santa Rosa Republican Company. a corporation, occurred Monday afternoon. With that date my connection with this paper and business terminated. My entire interest in the plant has been purchased and taken over by the corporation, which is composed of well known residents of Santa Rosa.
Since the big fire of April 18, 1906, the paper has been conducted as a partnership between J. Elmer Mobley and myself. My retirement is due to a desire to be released from the constant strain of newspaper work.
For almost a quarter of a century I have published the REPUBLICAN as a daily and semi-weekly newspaper. The readers of the paper know whether or not the work has been done well.
In quitting the newspaper field, my thanks are extended to the many friends who have given the paper hearty support during the time it has been under my control. The mangement has my hearty good will, friendship and desire for the success that is sure to follow well directed efforts.
ALLEN B. LEMMON.
IN THE soft light of many candles that flared and flickered and cast their shadows over the assemblage of immediate relatives, Miss Ruth Woolsey and Ernest L. Finley plighted their troth for better or for worse on Saturday at high noon at the home of the bride’s father, Mr. Frank Woolsey of Woolsey…
…Miss Woolsey was given into the keeping of her husband by her father, Mr. Woolsey. There were no attendants. Although simplicity marked every feature of the wedding, the bride wore the regulation white satin gown, made en train and draped with beaded chiffon…
…After congratulation had been extended the wedding party were served with an elaborate wedding breakfast in the dining room, where an artistic decoration of mistletoe and white satin streamers had been arranged. The center of the bridal table was a mass of pink carnations and ferns. A tempting menu was served.
Mr. and Mrs. Finley motored to one of the nearby stations, and there took the train for San Francisco. It is understood that Los Angeles and other Southern cities will be the objective point where the honeymoon will be spent.