It was like clockwork: In June the Barlow boys arrived, then a few weeks later came reports of runaways. But after the 1911 season, it appeared the escape attempts stopped. What happened? Boys were still trying to get away, all right – but the Santa Rosa newspapers just stopped reporting about it.
(For those just tuning in: In the early Twentieth Century, California courts usually sentenced boys who committed minor crimes or were deemed incorrigible to spend the rest of their youth at institutions not unlike a modern prison halfway house. One of these places, the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco, struck a deal with the Barlow family of Sebastopol; during summers the boys would camp on the ranch and pick berries and fruit for low pay. Soon other farmers were asking for orphans and it wasn’t long before the Aid Society and similar institutions were sending up hundreds of boys – some as young as seven – to work in West County fields and canneries every year. For more background, see “SEBASTOPOL’S CHILD LABOR CAMPS“.)
We know the escapes continued thanks to the archives of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, which just came online this week via newspapers.com. It’s a huuuuge deal that this trove is simply available, but that it’s also searchable with great accuracy is enough to make genealogists and historians purr and mew.
There are a few possible reasons why the Petaluma paper informed their readers about the runaways while the Santa Rosa papers blacked out the news. Rarely were escapees nabbed around Santa Rosa; usually they were caught in the countryside or en route to San Francisco, so it was more likely the boys would be seen close to Petaluma or Marin. There also might have been editorial bias in keeping quiet about bad news; the use of child labor was a fast-growing part of the West County economy – in 1912 the boys picked 407 tons of berries and fruit, up from 125 tons just five years earlier, showing farmers were lining up to get in on this sweet deal for ultra-cheap juvenile labor. And to be fair, it must be noted that in 1913 the Press Democrat did offer a paragraph on seven runaways being captured and even mentioned the Barlow ranch by name.
(RIGHT: Mess tent for boys working on the Barlow ranch, date unknown. Photograph courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society)
But there was one related story which the local press couldn’t ignore because it made all the Bay Area papers: The 1913 theft of summer earnings by the boys of the Armitage Orphanage – and that the robber was the orphanage’s superintendent.
While it was was rarely mentioned which orphanages and charities were shoving their kids down the Sebastopol berry picking pipeline every June, it comes as a shock to find this outfit was among them. The [Episcopal] Bishop Armitage Orphanage was a pet charity of the San Francisco swells who funded it via lawn parties, balls, country club polo matches and other high society soirees (“Tableaux Vivants to Show Masterpieces – Famous Art Works Will be Staged by Members of the Board” – San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1910).
That orphanage certainly didn’t need any income from the boys; the stolen $3,000 was petty change to its society matron directors and to their credit, they promised to reimburse the children. Well-funded does not mean well-run, however. While the 150 boys were working in the orchards and fields, the orphanage was being closed and their buildings sold, so at the end of summer the Armitage inmates were split up other institutions. The superintendent who disappeared with their money was known as Robert Ellis, although that was not his real name for some reason – and the directors were aware of that. He had been superintendent for a couple of years, the board having raced through four managers in six months before him. There seems to be a quite the scandal unreported there, although the society sections did not speak of such unpleasantries.
On related news, the Press Democrat recently presented a couple of items about the orphanage at Lytton Springs operated by the Salvation Army. The property near Healdsburg is now on the market with an asking price of $24 million.
One PD article nostalgically waxes about Lytton success stories – a pair of brothers who built a successful contracting business and a man who became an important Santa Rosa lawyer. Healdsburg High School welcomed the Lytton kids, according to the PD writer, because the Salvation Army encouraged them to play band instruments and the boys were strong and scrappy from all their farm work.
That’s a very rosy view. The situation may have changed later but in their earlier days Lytton youths were allowed to attend Healdsburg High only if supervisors ruled the child had “capacity for high school training;” per a 1909 article about Lytton, only about 5 percent of their residents were permitted to continue schooling beyond 8th grade. Otherwise, the kid had no choice but to work on the Salvation Army’s commercial farm. As I wrote earlier in “THE CHILDREN OF LYTTON:” The cruelest aspect of the “orphanages” was that wards of the system lost nearly all chance of an education beyond readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. While Santa Rosa High School was then offering typewriting classes and teaching other office skills which were in growing demand, Lytton and other Aid Homes were preparing kids for a 19th century future.
While the institutions could have done more to keep their kids in classrooms, a century ago state law didn’t require it. The Jones-Hughes Act of 1903 made it compulsory for every child in California to attend school between ages 8 and 15, but offered a grabbag of loopholes allowing families to opt out of schooling altogether – children who lived over two miles by road from the nearest school could be claimed as exempt, for example. Those exemptions were removed in 1919 and the compulsory age raised to 16, but that still didn’t mean a child would make it to high school. According to a report that year from the state’s Dept. of Education, most of the students who were to be added to the attendance rosters hadn’t yet finished elementary school by age sixteen.
There were many institutions far, far worse than Lytton, but it wasn’t free of controversy. In November, 1913 the Oakland Enquirer published a series of investigative articles “berating the management of the institution for alleged cruel treatment of children at the institution,” according to a mention of the articles in the Santa Rosa Republican. Unfortunately, not much more can be said about that reporting because the paper is not online and the only known surviving editions from that year are at UC/Berkeley. The Republican added the main incident was “punishment meted out to two boys who stole horses and got away from the institution.”
Sonoma County District Attorney Clarence Lea thought the charges were credible enough to have the grand jury investigate. Oakland Enquirer reporter Fred Williams was summoned, and the mother of the boys also testified, which suggests the pair were at Lytton not for being orphans but having been sentenced there by a court for delinquency.
Jurors visited Lytton and found it was overcrowded, but the children were well cared for and no “unmerited punishments were inflicted.” The grand jury report concluded with praise for the institution, which deserved “support and commendation.” The jury foreman wrote, “in view of the splendid work that is being accomplished at the institution we feel that minor criticisms which might be made would be uncalled for.”
Not so fast, there, mee bucko. Their report did not mention the jury interviewed the boys making the charges although it’s implied (“we investigated all cases called to our attention”). Nor did it explain what the Oakland Enquirer reporter had to say; that was a significant newspaper with a reputation for muckraking – it’s doubtful they would run a series based only on wild yarns from a pair of malcontent kids who apparently had been in trouble with the law.
More interesting is a mention at the end of the jury report that the superintendent and his wife together earned only $14 a week, and no one there was paid more than $400 a year. Those earnings are on the low side for unskilled labor at the time, but not unreasonable. But from a Press Democrat article the previous year, we know that Lytton annually spent about $3,400 on salaries. Now project the numbers: Lytton must have operated with only eight paid staffers, twelve max – to run a 400+ acre commercial farm AND care for about 250 kids full time.
“Mother Bourne,” the beloved figurehead of Lytton may indeed have been worthy of sainthood, but the institution was clearly dependent upon the children to keep the wheels turning. And barely supervising so many kids – most there because they were deemed to be “unmanageable” – is surely an invitation to bullying or even worse forms of abuse.
But as the Santa Rosa papers seemed wanting to tell readers only good news about the Barlow boys, the grand jury wanted to see Lytton as a shining example of noble work. Look how well we are treating these troubled and troublesome youths, our ancestors seemed determined to boast. We have plucked them from nothing and given them something.
TWO BOYS MADE ESCAPE
Two boys whose names are given as Butts and Landingan by Superintendent Turner, escaped from the Barlow berry fields above Sebastopol on Monday afternoon at an early hour and later Deputy Sheriff R. L. Rasmussen was notified.
He kept a close watch on all departing trains and the steamer Petaluma but the youngsters have not yet come to this city.
A watchman was in this city on Monday evening investigating. Both the lads are wearing blue overalls. They are from the Boys and Girls Aid Society which is now at Barlow’s picking berries.
They have only been there two days and during that time the two boys have been trying to get away. They are thought to be in this county yet.
– Petaluma Argus-Courier, June 18, 1912
TWO MORE BOYS MAKE ESCAPE
The local police were notified on Wednesday night that two boys had escaped from the berry pickers’ camp at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol and the officers are keeping a watch for them and examined the outgoing trains and steamers Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
The boys are Harry Herman, aged 18, and Chas. Sargent, age 17, both of San Francisco. The former is 5 feet four inches in height and the latter slightly shorter. Both wore straw hats, blue overalls and dark coats. The former wore a yellow khaki shirt and the latter a light colored soft shirt. Herman is slightly stooped and walks with swinging gait and has dark brown hair and dark eyes.
Sargent is of dark complexion with light brown hair. Both wore heavy shoes. For some reason the custodians of the boys, are unusually anxious to capture these escapes, so it is probably that they are detained fore [sic] more than the ordinary wrong doing.
– Petaluma Argus-Courier, July 11, 1912
THREE BOYS RAN AWAY
Several officers of the Boys and Girls Aid Society were in this city on Sunday morning looking for three runaway boys who made their escape on Saturday evening from Barlow’s station where the girls and boys were picking berries. The officers remained here for a short time and then went to Sausalito where they captured the three runaways who were taken to Barlow’s on the next train.
– Petaluma Argus-Courier, June 23, 1913
HERE AFTER RUNAWAYS
Special Police Officer T. Connolly of San Francisco who is connected with the Boys and Girls Aid Society was in this city on Wednesday seeking Allen Luhra, Joe Fahey, Abe Bernard, Sam Telaxney and Charles Griffin, who escaped from Barlow’s station during the present week. The last four named left on Tuesday afternoon, while younger Luhra left on Monday.
Chief of Police Flohr has been notified of the disappearance of the boys and has been given a good description of them so if they are in this city they are likely to be captured in a short time.
– Petaluma Argus-Courier, July 16, 1913
MANY OF THE BERRY BOYS ARE FOUND AND RETURNED
The Sheriff’s office received word on Thursday that four of the boys who escaped from the berry picking camp on the Barlow ranch had been captured by the Aid Society’s officers, and had been returned to camp. Four boys were found in Forestville, and three in Green Valley. Thursday Mrs. Dick Isaacs telephoned the Sheriff’s office that four of the boys were on a place back of their ranch. Superintendent Turner was notified and went after the boys.
– Press Democrat, July 18, 1913
DECAMPS WITH COIN OF BERRY PICKERS
Thirteen days before the Armitage Orphanage was to pass out of existence and his term of office expire, the superintendent, known in San Mateo as Robert Ellis, disappeared, and is accused of having taken with him about $3,000 belonging to the boys in the institution. Detectives are searching for the former superintendent, but have found no substantial clews.
The orphanage will pass out of existence on October 23, when the property will be taken over by Antoine Borel and Ellis’ employment would have expired on that date. He disappeared last Friday, but the loss of the money was not discovered until yesterday by Mrs. William G. Hitchcock, treasurer of the orphanage.
The money represents the earnings of 114 boys who picked berries at Sebastopol last summer, and was given to the superintendent for keeping. It is said that the boys will not lose by the theft, as the directors will make good the deficit.
Ellis has been superintendent of the orphanage for two years. He went to San Mateo well recommended, and although it was known that Robert Ellis was not his true name the directors made no objection to the masquerading. He is the son of an Episcopal minister in Philadelphia and is married, but separated from his wife.
– Santa Rosa Republican, October 16, 1913