Elections in Santa Rosa were wild a century ago: Patriotic rallies and street parties where bonfires and explosions brought out the inner caveman in our ancestors – or the male ones, anyway. It was like the local Rotary Club production of “Lord of the Flies.”

On Election Eve both political parties usually held a big rally. Sometimes there was a marching band tootling a campaign song; before it collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, one of the parties would book the cavernous Athenaeum Theater for rousing speeches. But always, in Santa Rosa and every little town in Sonoma county, there were bonfires and anvils that night.

In Santa Rosa the bonfire was usually in the vacant lot on the corner of Fifth and A streets, but this was no mere marshmallow-roasting campfire – it was a mountain of kerosene-soaked logs that probably burned hot and bright enough to be spotted from space by our alien overlords.

From the 1904 Press Democrat: “The bells rang, the band played as torches blazed, redflre was burned [think of road flares], the logs crackled merrily, anvils boomed, colored balls of fire from [illegible] of Roman candles soared in the air, and cheers went up from a thousand throats.” Wowie!

Aside from the risk of burning down the town, the most dangerous part of the festivities was “firing the anvils,” which involved packing the indentation on an anvil surface with gunpowder and placing another anvil upside down on top. When the gunpowder was ignited, the top anvil flew into the air – hopefully straight up, and not arcing into the crowd – making a deafening boom remarkably like a cannon. Watch a video here where a guy shoots one 200 feet in the air.

Election day was always the same. The PD would mention something about carriages, then later, autos, dashing around the streets all day taking voters to the polls (there was no early or absentee voting). As darkness fell and the returns began to come in via telegraph, people would crowd the street outside the Press Democrat’s office, where the latest results were projected on a screen using a stereopticon (a lantern slide projector). The night usually ended with a torchlight procession to the new mayor’s house to hear his acceptance speech and hopefully be served drinks and some grub.

When the weather was lousy – as it was in 1904 and 1912 – the Press Democrat and the Republican rented a theater where the stereopticon election results were shown between short silent films. But a movie theater or nickelodeon could only hold so many, and there was also the usual problem of the newspapers fending off hundreds of calls that night from people simply asking, “How’s the election going?” There had to be a better way to broadcast the results – and remember, this was the age before Twitter, before TV and even before radio. So in 1912 the Santa Rosa papers arranged to use the PG&E steam whistle to blast out a coded message once the president-elect was chosen: Long toots for Woodrow Wilson, short toots for Teddy Roosevelt, and a long blast, followed by two short ones if  President Taft was reelected.

(Political sidebar: In 1912 it was mainly a three-way race between democrat Wilson and two republicans. The national GOP backed Taft, but the California republicans got Roosevelt on the ballot as their party’s candidate, in part because Teddy had the state’s popular governor as his VP running mate. In Sonoma county Wilson won over Roosevelt by about five points with President Taft receiving only 28 write-in votes, or about 0.2 percent of the ballots cast.)

Expecting the public to listen for a signal wasn’t such a crazy idea. Just the year before, when hometown aviator Fred Wiseman was supposed to fly overhead the Press Democrat told readers to run outdoors and look up as soon as they heard “a succession of bomb explosions” along with all factories and the firehouse blowing their screaming whistles.

And god knows everyone in Santa Rosa was used to hearing toots, blasts and clangs. The Grace Brothers Brewery whistle announced the lunch hour and quitting time, and in times of drought signaled when residents in a particular part of town could water their lawns and gardens. The fire department had its own whistle which used a code to alert our volunteer firemen to drop whatever they were doing, jump on their bicycles and pedal towards a specific neighborhood. (As every kid in town also knew this code, the firemen sometimes arrived at the scene to find the street blocked by a mob of excitable children.) There was another steam whistle over at the power company which apparently was little used by 1912, as the PD had to explain the presidential election signal would sound different than blasts from the coded fire alarm. In 1913 the National Guard announced they would use that PG&E whistle to order members of Company E to report immediately to the armory when they heard a series of twenty-five blasts. Presumably if a guardsman only counted 23 or 24 the county was not about to be invaded by Pancho Villa or Kaiser Wilhelm and everything was okay.

No discussion of local elections in that era would be complete without mention of the wildest election night of all, when in 1908 legendary barkeep Jake Luppold built a pyre in front of his saloon at the corner of Second and Main streets and hoisted a clunker automobile to the top of the woodpile. Once he learned Taft had won the White House he shouted, “Let her burn!” as an enormous crowd roared in approval of the conflagration (read “BONFIRE OF THE HOODOOS“). The boys in “Lord of the Flies” would have recognized that scene and loved it.


(The year 1912 was also the first in modern times when a political party solicited donations directly from the public. This ad from the Democratic National Committee appeared in the Oct. 25, 1912 Press Democrat)
Signal Blasts Will Announce National Election Results
Press Democrat Office Will as Usual Be Headquarters for Election Returns This Evening–See the Figures Thrown on Screen

As usual, the Press Democrat office will be headquarters for election returns this evening. The Associated Press figures covering Sonoma county will be tabulated and sent out from this office, and complete returns wil be received from all over the United States, from every city and county in California, and from every precinct in Sonoma county.

As fast as received, these figures will be displayed by means of a huge stereopticon. Returns will also be shown at the Rose theatre in connection with the regular bill. Additional main line telephones have been installed especially to accommodate out-of-town calls, and every effort will be made to let the result be known as soon as possible.

The Press Democrat has also arranged with the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for a set of signals to announce the outcome of the presidential election to those who do not care to come down town. As soon as the result is known, the big steam at the gas works will announce the fact, In accordance with the following schedule: Wilson, long blasts; Roosevelt, short blasts; Taft, long blast, followed by two short ones. These signals need not be confused with those used to give the alarm of fire, because the whistle used is not the same, and the sound is considerably different. All are invited to come out this evening and see The Press Democrat’s election returns.

– Press Democrat, November 5, 1912


Wilson’s Great Victory Made Known in Santa Rosa Before 7:30 by Means of Steam Siren

The news of yesterday’s great Democratic landslide was known here last night before half-past seven o’clock, when in accordance with the plans announced in these columns yesterday morning the great steam siren at the gas works shrieked out the tidings–a message that rose above the fury of the storm–“Loud long blasts. Woodrow Wilson.”

On account of the heavy storm, the arrangements as first announced for handling the returns here were changed somewhat. It became impracticable to show the returns on the street by means of a stereopticon, and so The Press Democrat and the Evening Republican joined forces, hired the Columbia Theatre, and showed the returns there.

Manager Crone provided some good moving pictures, Mrs. J. P. Berry furnished piano music, and, secure from the fury of the storm, several hundred people spent the evening there in comfort, reading the election news as it was thrown on the great moving-picture screen stretched across the front of the stage.

Full Associated and United Press returns were shown, in addition to detailed returns from the various precincts in Sonoma county. Governor Wilson’s election having been announced early in the evening, the audience concerned itself principally with details, and with watching the outcome of the congressional, legislative and supervisorial contests.

It was after midnight when the words “Good Night” were flashed on the screen. Meanwhile, a crowd had remained at the Press Democrat office ail evening, although it was announced that no returns would be shown here. Until after 3:30 this morning, when the final returns for the night were received and tabulated, many people remained, eager for more news and unwilling to leave while there was a prospect of hearing further details.

Owing to the heavy rain, the gathering of the returns was attended with unusual difficulty. The county was also unusually slow in many precincts, and in some cases it was extremely difficult to get messages through on account of the condition of the wires. But returns were received from practically ail precincts, and the results announced will not be changed by subsequent developments.

– Press Democrat, November 6, 1912
Rain on Election Day Caused Worry and Brought Out Many Vehicles, But Vote Was a Large One

It was a wet election day. A wetter day could not have been. Jupiter Pluvius was most generous, much to the discomfort of the voters, and certainly disquieting to the candidates and managers of the campaigns. It was a rush all day with automobiles and other vehicles to get voters to the polls. In view of these conditions the vote cast was unusually large. The ladies were most enthusiastic, and many of them would not accept proffered rides to the polls, preferring to walk. They also turned out strong in the country precincts.

– Press Democrat, November 6, 1912

The members of Company E, Fifth Infantry, N. G. C., are requested to take notice that in case of a rapid assembly for any purpose, an alarm will be sounded by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s works, First street. The alarm is as follows: Five short blasts of the whistle, to be repeated five times at intervals of ten seconds, making twenty five blasts of the whistle. This alarm will be sounded five times, and repeated if necessary. On hearing this alarm, the members are instructed to repair to the armory immediately and report to their commanding officer.

It is requested that Grace Brothers and other manufacturing concerns in Santa Rosa, sound this alarm when notified to do so by the proper authority.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 7, 1913
 Until After Midnight a Packed House Was Well Entertained and Great Interest Was Taken

The Press Democrat furnished an excellent election bulletin service, and the Novelty theatre in which the returns were thrown on the canvass by a splendid stereopticon. as well as the moving pictures which interspersed the returns, kept the house packed with people until midnight.

The public greatly appreciated the returns and the building rang with applause at first one and then the other favorite’s name and vote was shown on the canvass. Expert Toby Yost managed the machine.

The election passed off quietly in this city although much activity was shown by the political parties in the contest. Carriages were busy dashing here and there all day and the horses and vehicles were adorned with hangings bearing the names of the respective candidates. The polls opened at six o’clock in the morning and closed at five o’clock in the afternoon.

Reports from all over the county show that the election passed off quietly, but the same activity and earnestness was displayed by the respective parties in behalf of their candidates. In addition to the messenger service between the polling places in the business portion of the city an automobile was used to get the returns from the polling places in the other precincts of the city and in those immediately around. The service was quick and those assisting did their work well.

– Press Democrat, November 9, 1904

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