generalhospital

GOODBYE, GENERAL

Another landmark of old Santa Rosa is slated for demolition, so anyone wanting to say farewell shouldn’t dawdle. Newcomers to town during, say, the last forty years, probably don’t know about it; native Santa Rosans who are Baby Boomers (or older) were probably born in it. That place is the old General Hospital at the corner of A and 7th streets, and it still looks almost exactly as it did about a century ago, when it was built in 1922.

It was just the sort of hospital you’d expect to find here during the town’s Shadow of a Doubt years, before and after WWII. The general practitioner doctors patched up farmers gored by bulls and reckless drivers who wrecked their autos on the Redwood Highway. They removed oodles of appendixes and tons of tonsils. So many casts were made for broken arms and legs they probably used enough plaster of paris to plaster every ceiling in Paris.

The tale of Santa Rosa General Hospital neatly breaks down into three acts but before raising that curtain, a few words about why it’s being demolished: That entire block – Morgan to A street, 6th to 7th street – is to be torn down in stages in order to build the Caritas Village Project. The hospital is scheduled to be razed in early 2022 and replaced by one of two large affordable housing apartment buildings and a third large building on the block will be a family and homeless support center. The three buildings have a unified design and are quite attractive; they will surely be an asset to Santa Rosa for decades to come. But there are two really important reasons why the city should not allow them to be built at that location.

Thirty years ago in 1990, Santa Rosa (finally) recognized that much of its unique character had been heedlessly demolished. To save what little was left of its heritage, a few of the old neighborhoods were designated as Preservation Districts, with “St. Rose” being one of the first. New construction has to conform to stylistic guidelines in order to fit in with the overall look. To now exempt an entire block from both letter and spirit of the law is a dangerous precedent which could be used by developers to build anything, anywhere. And since the Caritas Village plans were developed long after this Preservation District was formed, the project backers began with the assumption that they could get away with violating city law.

The other worrisome aspect is the three-story, 42k square-foot building intended to provide one-stop services to the county’s homeless. It’s a noble idea except the location is three blocks from Courthouse Square, which only ensures that our grown grandchildren will still be avoiding downtown because of its vagrant problems. Look, Santa Rosa has a history of making foolish and short-sighted planning decisions – I’m in the middle of writing a ten-part series just about the 1960s screwups leading up to the mega-mistake of approving the shopping mall – but surely city planners recognize it’s not wise to build a magnet for the homeless so close to the city core. Final approval decisions on Caritas Village will be made in coming months (planning reviews start February 27, 2020) so let the City Council know what you think about the project.

In the spotlight for General Hospital’s Act I was Henry S. Gutermute (1865-1958), a man who had his fingers in many pies. We first met him in 1905 when he had the Maze Department Store in Petaluma, on the corner where the Bank of America now stands. Fast forward to 1915 and he’s now president of the Burke Corporation, the new owner of the Burke Sanitarium, which five years earlier had been the scene of Sonoma County’s crime of the century. To scrape away the scandal and relaunch the sanitarium they threw a luxe dinner and dance for 400 movers and shakers. What the store and the sanitarium have in common is that Gutermute liked to heavily advertise – a practice he would continue with General Hospital, although it was unusual to find newspaper ads for actual hospitals.

generaldevoto(RIGHT: The Devoto home at 804 Fourth st. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Meanwhile, in 1914 a large family home at 804 Fourth street, then two doors east of the county library, had been converted into a new hospital. (Compare that lost majestic home to the squat little bank bunker there now and reflect upon why it was necessary to establish the Preservation Districts.) Called the Lindsay-Thompson Hospital/Sanitarium it was similar to the Mary Jesse/Eliza Tanner Hospital, another residence turned small hospital that was a block away. Both included an operating room.

That incarnation lasted just a year before it was taken over by the Burke Corporation, meaning Gutermute and his partners. They incorporated the General Hospital Association and renamed the place “General Hospital.” Presumably their business plan was to offer a package deal with surgery in Santa Rosa and recuperation at their health resort, as many newspaper items reported patients shuffling back and forth.

For the next four years little General Hospital hummed along, with nearly daily ads in the newspapers offering “MEDICAL SURGICAL OBSTETRICAL” services. (Fun fact: In 1916, the McDonald’s and other local nabobs marched their kids over there to have their tonsils removed en masse as a preventative measure before the start of the school year.) Then came the eviction notice – the Devoto family wanted their home back in thirty days. Santa Rosa had a 1919 housing crunch because of all the soldiers returning from WWI.

Instead of renting another large house, Gutermute scrambled to construct a temporary hospital from scratch. A special session of the City Council was called to grant him permissions to build something on the corner of Seventh and A streets – and just six weeks later (!!) the new General Hospital was open for business in January, 1920.

The new hospital was composed of six “bungalow cottages.” Cecil Etheredge, the Press Democrat’s City Editor was an early patient and described the setting. (Etheredge was being hospitalized for serious injuries in the county’s first passenger airplane crash.) “The General Hospital, seen outwardly, is built of bungalows and courts, in units, connected by runways. Every part of the hospital can be connected with any other, or be entirely segregated,” he wrote. Elsewhere the “runways” were described as “covered hallways.”

Because of this design, he noted that a ward for influenza patients could be isolated from the rest of the hospital – the Spanish Flu was still on everyone’s mind, having run its course only a year earlier after killing 67 in Santa Rosa alone. “H. S. Gutermute, when he planned his new hospital, figured the only way was to build it big or capable of being made big enough for emergencies,” Etheredge wrote.

The buildings were designed by William Herbert, a Santa Rosa architect mentioned here several times earlier. (There’s no truth in the story that these were “WWI barracks” moved from somewhere else.) Four of the six cottages were patient wards; there was a separate cottage for surgery and another for the administrators and the kitchen.

Gutermute pulled out all stops for advertising his new hospital in early 1920, with a series of numbered ads in both Santa Rosa papers. The large display ads promised to give invalids better care than could be offered at home and invited the public to come down for an inspection of their new 40 bed hospital with “Automobile Ambulance at your Service.” Each ad ended with the new motto: “The hospital of the open court and spreading oaks.”

1937 ad for Santa Rosa General Hospital
1937 ad for Santa Rosa General Hospital

Work on the buildings continued for the next two years. The covered walkways between buildings were enclosed to become real hallways and make the separate cottages into a unified structure; a new wing was added which included a maternity ward and the exterior was given the stucco walls that are still seen today. It’s unknown if Bill Herbert was involved in these modifications and additions, but I doubt it – when Gutermute hired him in 1919 he was just starting his career and probably worked on the cheap. By 1922 he was a well-established architect in Santa Rosa; I suspect the design was done by C. A. McClure, who was (literally) the new kid on the block. More about him below.

While Gutermute continued to own the hospital until 1945, he was rarely mentioned in association with it anymore. In 1923 he opened Central Garage on Fifth street, which was a used car dealership as well as the main general auto repair shop downtown. He apparently retired after he sold the garage in 1931, listing himself in the 1940 census as “owner General Hospital.”

Also in 1923 the first baby was born in the new maternity ward; a new era began.

Act II showcases the days of Gladys Kay, the long-time manager of General Hospital. What set her apart was being one of the nicest people you could hope to meet – and that the General Hospital staff shared that spirit. Gaye LeBaron once quoted Dr. Frank Norman, who was sort of Santa Rosa’s medical historian: “Tender, loving care. That was General’s secret.”

All together now: So how nice was Gladys Kay? Before she left on a month-long vacation, the nurses threw a we’ll-miss-you party. Whenever the PD ran a letter from someone thanking General Hospital for caregiving of a loved one, Gladys Kay was singled out for kindness – today who can even imagine knowing an administrator, much less expressing personal gratitude to same?

She was promoted to the job in late 1945. Earlier that year Gutermute had sold the hospital for about $50k to MacMillan Properties, a Los Angeles corporation held by five brothers – four of them physicians and surgeons. Shortly after taking ownership they installed a new manager; the nurse who had steered the hospital since 1920, Bertha Levy, said she was tired and wanted to retire (she did, and died just a year later). They replaced her with Maxine Smith, an experienced hospital administrator who had managed two Los Angeles hospitals. She quit six months later and sued the owners, claiming they had broken their promise to give her 2½ of the gross receipts in addition to her salary, room and board.

Gladys was an unlikely pick to follow a woman with such a professional résumé. She had no management training but once was apparently a nurse, although it seems she never worked as one in Santa Rosa. Her experience here seemed limited to running a downtown children’s clothing store and teaching kids to ice skate (after her death, husband Harry said she was a “Pacific Coast figure skating champ in the old days”).

generalswitchboard(RIGHT: Telephone switchboard at General Hospital in 1962. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

When the MacMillans took over she was already working at the hospital, but we don’t know when she began; the first mention in the paper comes from 1944, when she was the night telephone operator. That job was quite a big responsibility – their switchboard was the county Doctor’s Exchange answering service, which was the equivalent of 911 medical emergency today.

Her watchful eyes behind those wingtip glasses saw General Hospital expand to 75 rooms, with two operating and two delivery rooms. The latter was particularly important because the Baby Boomer era was booming; in August, 1948, General set a monthly record of 67 deliveries, the most to date in Santa Rosa history.

Gladys had a knack for promotion. Movie theaters sometimes ran contests or giveaways tied to what was playing, and in 1949 Santa Rosa’s Tower Theater had an unusual stunt for “Welcome Stranger” (according to reviews, a particularly hackneyed Bing Crosby RomCom). Although the plot had nothing to do with childbirth or babies, the theater got local merchants to donate a free set of baby clothes, shoes, portrait, etc. to the first child born on the day the movie began playing here. General Hospital not only made the biggest splash, but it tied in Gladys herself: “IF the first baby born Sunday arrives at the GENERAL Hospital, Mother and Baby will receive FREE “ROOM and BOARD” during their stay at the GENERAL through the courtesy of Mrs Gladys Kay manager of the hospital.” (Alas, baby Gail Elaine Franks was born at the County Hospital instead.)

Her greatest challenge was also PR related: How could General coexist with Memorial Hospital once the 800 lb. gorilla entered the playing field? Memorial was to open on New Year’s Day 1950, and a year before that she began running large newspaper ads (with her name and phone number at the bottom, natch) promoting General as additionally being a long-term care facility for the chronically ill and elderly. Then she announced their eight bed maternity ward would soon be closing because they expected most women would give birth at Memorial once it opened, and sent a letter to all 78 local practicing physicians asking if they had “further need” of General. Intended or not, this was a master stroke. From the Press Democrat:


Earlier reports to the contrary, the surgical and maternity services will be continued “if business continues on like this,” Mrs. Gladys Kay, hospital manager, said. She said the public “phoned and phoned” in answer to a disclosure by her earlier this month that insufficient hospital business in these two services might lead to their discontinuance. She said local doctors also have responded to the dilemma and that things are “picking up.”

Gladys had won the battle; not only did the MacMillans keep it open but added a new surgery and an additional 25 bed, $150k wing designed by Santa Rosa’s leading architect, Cal Caulkins.

Alas, the momentum only lasted so long; the trend in modern medicine was swinging away from General’s casual, homey approach to Memorial’s network of efficient clinicians and specialists (County Hospital, too, had become a major competitor). General Hospital really did close its maternity ward in 1957 when they were down to 20 births a month. Although Gladys didn’t retire until 1963, the hospital’s best days were in the rearview mirror.

General Hospital’s final act began about forty years ago and is still not quite over.

In 1966 the MacMillans sunk $50,000 expanding the hospital staff and adding new equipment; in 1969 the plan was to promote the place as cardiac specialists, with state-of-the-art gear such as an “external pace-maker” and a “mobile coronary rescue ambulance.” (Later they would boast of a “computerized E.C.G. machine, from which heart tracings are transferred by telephone and readings teletyped back within two minutes.”) Come 1971 and the big deal was their new 24-hour emergency room, complete with an emergency phone number (still no 911 services). Finally the MacMillans gave up and sold the whole works to Memorial Hospital in 1979.

generalor(RIGHT: General Hospital operating rooms in 1962. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Gone were the big ads with photos of smiling doctors, laughing nurses and even their orderlies and “Green Lady” volunteers; there were no more promises that the hospital was “purposely overstaffed” (“it is the hospital’s aim to make its patients feel at home during their stay”). All that the new administrator, who was brought in from Memorial, advertised was their new St. Rose Alcoholism Recovery Center with its 3-week program and AA meetings, foreshadowing what was to come.

The staff expected Memorial would eventually close the place; they watched as all their expensive medical equipment was wending its way across town, even if Memorial Hospital didn’t need it – Gaye LeBaron had an item about a resuscitator device for newborns being turned into a tropical fish tank. But it still came as a shock to the 134 employees to discover on May 31, 1984, that Santa Rosa General would be closing in 60 days – and they learned about it from reading the newspaper.

“Honk If You Will Miss Us,” read a heartbreaking banner outside the entrance as the last days ticked by and staff members struggled to find new jobs, a problem made worse because Memorial also canned 40 of its own employees at about the same time. Memorial claimed the closure and layoffs were due to anticipated lower Medicare reimbursements, but Memorial Hospital was also in negotiations with the nurse’s union over hours and an increase in pay, with the administrators being quite clear there would be major cutbacks before they made any bargaining concessions.

For about a year the St. Rose Recovery Center was the only occupant of the old hospital, but even that program was moved in April, 1985 to another building nearby which was also owned by Memorial: 600 Morgan street. For the first time in its 65 year history, General Hospital was now empty and quiet. Memorial considered putting it up for sale with an asking price of $2M; the city floated the idea of leveling the buildings for a 300-space parking lot. Can’t have enough parking meters!

The modern homeless-centric era began in 1987, when the Salvation Army wanted to use the hospital building as an emergency 250-bed winter shelter. When the charity, neighbors and members from the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless toured the facility, they found squatters living there. One of them, Jerry Rioux, a former carny, gave them an impromptu tour. “I am here to set your mind at ease. This is a great place.” Rioux even offered his services to repair the damage he had caused while breaking in to the building.

Although the Board of Supervisors called the county’s homeless problem “staggering,” they balked at the $20,000 startup cost at first, which caused the shelter to delay opening until February, 1988. Even with that money, the Salvation Army lost $30,000 running the shelter for four months and couldn’t afford to offer it again next winter.

And so we arrive at Santa Rosa General Hospital’s last occupant: Catholic Charities. On Christmas, 1989 they opened their year-round shelter, the Family Support Center, which is still there as of this writing.

In the thirty years since, both the city and Catholic Charities have become more invested in concentrating the homeless in that particular block. In 1992, Santa Rosa used $102k in redevelopment funds to remodel 600 Morgan street as Catholic Charities’ homeless service center. That former home and the hospital were still owned by Memorial and used by Catholic Charities rent-free until they were finally sold to CC in 2015. After the last family moved away last year, Catholic Charities now owns the whole block.

According to current plans the first notable building to be torn down will be “Casa del Sol,” the four-unit apartment building at 608 Morgan Street. Although it was built in 1922, the same year General Hospital was finished, it was never associated with the hospital, as the classified sections in the old newspapers frequently advertise the apartments for rent. The architect was C. A. McClure, who was selling blueprints of this same design to others around Santa Rosa. Also in 1922 a developer used the plans to build the two apartment buildings at 422-426 Humboldt street which are still there – in the center of that courtyard the owner had a canary aviary, since the entire nation was inexplicably going canary crazy at the time.

Should the schedule hold, General Hospital will be demolished on February 1, 2022 because as Catholic Charities’ consultant wrote in the DEIR, the place has absolutely no importance: “[It] is not associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of local, regional, or national history…[it] does not meet the criteria for individual significance and is therefore recommended not eligible for listing on national, state, or local historic registers nor as a contributor to the historic district.”

To that consultant all I can say is this: Do better research. Reading the old newspapers I am stunned at the affection our community expressed for that hospital over its 60+ years. If that engagement with the hospital doesn’t show “a significant contribution” to local history, I think you’ve got your criterion screwed on backwards.

But come 2022 and we find bulldozers awaiting, let’s form a caravan of vehicles down A street that morning and give that old dear a last resounding honk. Yes, General Hospital, we will miss you, deeply. Or should.

1941 view of Santa Rosa General Hospital. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
1941 view of Santa Rosa General Hospital. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

2020 view of former Santa Rosa General Hospital
2020 view of former Santa Rosa General Hospital

 

sources
DEVOTO HOME BEING MADE INTO HOSPITAL

The remodeling of the former David Devoto home on Fourth street, to be used as a sanitarium, is in progress. The work is to he completed about the first of October, when Mrs. Margaret Lindsey Thompson, formerly associated with a prominent San Francisco hospital, will conduct a modern sanitarium. The Devotos are at present residing on McDonald avenue.

– Press Democrat, September 15 1914

 

NEW HOSPITAL IS NOW OPEN
The Lindsay-Thompson Sanitarium, Located on Fourth Street, Admirably Arranged

The Lindsay-Thompson hospital, which occupied the former Devoto residence near the corner of E street on Fourth, has been opened, with Mrs. Margaret Lindsay-Thompson as manager. The big place has been ideally fitted up for a hospital and the large, dry and well ventilated rooms have been comfortably furnished according o the most approved methods for hospitals.

The hospital has all the latest appointments required by medical science and this is particularly noticeable in the operating room, which is equipped with automatic sterilizer and everything calculated to be of service and benefit to the sick and injured…

– Press Democrat, September 29 1914

 

ARTICLES OF GENERAL HOSPITAL ASSOCIATION FILED HERE ON MONDAY

In the office of County Clerk W. W. Felt on Monday articles of incorporation of the General Hospital Association were filed. The incorporators are H. S. Gutermute, A. G. Burns and J. C. Hardin. The two former, Messrs. Gutermute and Burns, are at the head of Burke’s Sanitarium here, Mr. Burns being the manager.

As the name of the concern indicates it is for the management of hospitals, etc. Recently it was mentioned that the Lindsay-Thompson Hospital, in this city, had been taken over by the Burke Sanitarium and in this connection the articles of incorporation were probably filed on Monday. The capital stock of the association is $25,000.

– Press Democrat, October 19 1915

 

BUNGALOWS FOR NEW HOSPITAL
Construction Work on Cottages for the General Hospital Will Be Commenced Today on Minnehan Property.

The General Hospital, conducted for several years past by H. S. Gutermute in the Devoto Home on Fourth street, will be quartered in cottages to be erected on the Minnehan tract within another month, if the plans now under way are successfully carried out.

Mr. Devoto, having decided to take possession of his property, has served Mr. Gutermute with notice to vacate within thirty days, hence the hurried decision to prepare a new home.

William Herbert, the architect, has prepared plans for a series of five bungalow cottages, and W. L. Proctor has been given the contract to erect them on the property at the southwest corner of Seventh and A streets.

The plans were approved Monday afternoon by the city council at a special session, and work on construction will be commenced at once. It is expected lumber will begin to arrive on the lots this morning and a large force of men will be put to work, so construction may be rushed to an early completion.

The plans provide for a series of six bungalow cottages of frame type. There will be an administration building in the center facing Seventh street, with a large court in front. This will give office quarters, matron’s room, reception hall and room with dining-room and kitchen.

Leading from this will be covered hallways connecting four other bungalows which will be used as hospital wards, and one which will be devoted to operation and anesthetic rooms, drug quarters and store-rooms. These will be on either side of the administration quarters and constructed in this manner all will get the sun all day and be extremely well lighted.

– Press Democrat, October 28 1919

 

General Hospital Moves To New Location in A St

The work of moving the General Hospital from its location in Fourth street to the new headquarters in A street started Thursday. It will be the middle of next week before the institution is installed in the new cottages, that have been built at A and Seventh streets.

The Devoto home, where the hospital has been established, will be remodeled and the family will occupy it after the first of the year.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 12 1919

 

WHERE THE SICK ARE CARED FOR
By C. W. ETHEREDGE

Some weeks ago Ad-Man Banker strolled over to my desk, struggled simultaneously with his moustache and tongue, and finally asked me if ever I did any special stuff, which may mean anything in a newspaper office.

When he said he wanted me to go down and look at the General Hospital and tell Press Democrat readers what I found there. I assured him he was fishing in the wrong creek, but I’d lend him The Walrus to look things over.

In the course of some days she produced (The Walrus is a she) an article and story which was as good as anyone could do on that kind of an inspection – but now I have been here two weeks in person, and I’m glad to tell Santa Rosa people some of the nice healthy and handy things they have lying around loose, unknown or unappreciated except by those who have been in hospital.

H. S. Gutermute, when he planned his new hospital, figured the only way was to build it big or capable of being made big enough for emergencies. That day has nearly arrived, and a chain of sickness and accidents resulted in nearly every room and ward filled. One thing was certain, there were no spare nurses anywhere, and I felt pretty lucky with my chances in getting a private nurse for a couple of weeks.

The General Hospital, seen outwardly, is built of bungalows and courts, in units, connected by runways. Every part of the hospital can be connected with any other, or be entirely segregated. A “flu” ward can be (doesn’t happen to be, though) located across a court and yardway, and I wouldn’t have as much chance of getting the flu as if I were running around loose.

It is this convenience of operation. connection or segregation, which today makes life cast in happier lines, provided you have to be sick, than before Mr. Gutermute carried his plans to completion.

– Press Democrat, February 22 1920

 

MODERN APARTMENT HOUSE COMPLETED

Santa Rosa’s newest apartment house built by C. A. McClure at 608 Washington street, is completed. and waa thrown open to inspection for the first time Sunday.

The building follows the mission style of architecture, with stucco finish, and is one of the most pleasing in the city. Each apartment has four rooms, and is equipped with all modem conveniences. Hot water is furnished day and night from an electrically heated boiler, which serves all apartments.

– Press Democrat, July 25 1922

 

Building Moved Next To General Hospital

H. S. Gutermute, who recently purchased the one-story building opposite the Press Democrat office, has moved the building to his property next to the General Hospital on A street, and will transform it into a stuccoed – finish store building for rental purposes, he said Tuesday.

The fact that an attractive store building next to the hospital will hide from the view of hospital patients the sheet metal warehouses on A street caused him to place tiie building in its present location, Gutermute said. Land between the store and the hospital will lie planted with greenery.

Gutermute purchased the building from Thomas Sullivan, mover. He intends to place a new wall on the north side of the building and to renovate and plaster the interior.

– Press Democrat, November 22 1922

 

General Hospital Is Improved To Meet Increasing Demands

Santa Rosa now has a bungalow type hospital with more than 17,000 square feet of floor space, with 75 rooms and 50 beds for patients, which has been thoroughly equipped with all modern facilities and conveniences. With its medical, surgical and obstetrical wards it can care for all cases from the city and surrounding country for some time to come.

The hospital is owned and operated by H. S. Gutermute, who built up the Burke Sanitarium into a strong establishment in five years and then came into Santa Rosa, where he established the General Hospital in the old Devoto home in Fourth street. Two years later he was forced out when the war-time demand for houses made it necessary for Mr. Devoto to return to the house to reside.

At that time Mr. Gutermute erected the first unit of the bungalow type of hospital to house the General Hospital. This he has improved and added a second unit and completed the exterior with a stucco finish. The new unit in the form of a wing gives 25 additional rooms and has been set apart to include the maternity ward.

FORM OF CAPITAL LETTER

The hospital, which is in the form of a large letter “E” facing the East, is located on the old Menihan property at the southwest corner of A and Seventh streets. The lot is 300 by 125 feet, and the building is 220 feet long, with the three wings 104 feet each. The lot is large enough to allow a fourth wing to be added at any time in the future there is a demand for additional rooms. The building is nestled beneath the large live oak trees, giving it a very pleasant and inviting appearance.

The main entrance, lobby, reception room and office is between the north and middle wings. In addition there are four surgical, three X-ray, two delivery, three utility and seven staff rooms, besides the dining room, kitchen and store rooms. There are two large utility and numerous private bath rooms throughout the building.

The floors of the maternity wing are double and covered with brown battleship linoleum, while the corridor floors are carpeted with sound-proof rubber. The corridors are heated with gas radiators, and there ate electric heaters in each room. All rooms have running hot and cold water.

The furnishings are all of the best quality. The beds are of the latest adjustable type such as are used in some of the largest and most important eastern hospitals, including that provided by Henry Ford for his hospital at his factory.

The maternity wing has been added at the special solicitation of many physicians, who saw the needs of the city in that direction and the requirements of the future. It is expected the ward will be used more and more now that it is available at really less expense than cases ran be cared for at home.

Mr. Gutermute, in speaking of the hospital and its recent enlargement, said he hoped no one would misunderstand and think he was making a mint of money from the Institution, as, in fact, he said, he had been compelled frequently to take money from other enterprises he is engaged in, to meet hospital bills, as the expenses of upkeep and maintenance steadily grow regardless of the amount of business handled. With the enlarged capacity and facilities it is expected the income will increase accordingly as it becomes more widely used.

The Institution is open to all physicians, and already more than a dozen in this city, Sebastopol and other nearby points are using it in serious cases. The management assures all of the best possible care and treatment.

The new hospital will be thrown open for public inspection Thursday afternoon and evening, when all physicians and the public generally are cordially invited to call and inspect the place.

Mr. Gutermute has gathered a very efficient staff of trained workers about him for handling the work of the hospital. Several have been in his employ for five years or more, while all are loyal, experienced workers.

Miss Bertha Levy, the matron in charge, is a graduate of Lane hospital, San Francisco, and has had years of practical experience in such work. She was one of the first nurses Mr. Gutermute secured and she is considered the best in her work to be found. She is always pleasant and agreeable to all with whom she comes in contact and has proved herself an admirable executive.

Miss Elizabeth Tanner is in charge of the maternity ward. She too is a graduate of Lane’s and has proved her worth by faithful continued service in the institution.

Miss Myrna Ewing, who is head of the surgical yvard, is a graduate of the Mt. Zion hospital, San Francisco, and is faithful and efficient in her work.

Miss Mario Behrns, a graduate of the Alameda county hospital, and Miss Marie Darcy, graduate of the Idaho state hospital, have been with the hospital for several years. Mrs. Swisier is the night nurse while the Misses Naoma Pitkins and May Mendoca are two undergraduate nurses doing faithful work under instruction.

In addition the staff has a cook who has been there for several years, a maid, porter and yard man to keep the place up in proper condition.

It has been well said that a building does not make a hospital any more than a house makes a home. It is the care and treatment afforded by the staff, the kindly and courteous little attentions given patients which goes to make up the hospital as it does the home. All of these are afforded nf the General Hospital.

– Press Democrat, December 10 1922

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WHEN JAPAN BOMBED SONOMA COUNTY

It crashed through the treetops on the Vine Hill farm, and the only reason the bomb didn’t kill the farmer milking a goat was because it got snagged in the branches. Had it exploded, he would have been the first war casualty on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It was January 4, 1945.

The farmer called the sheriff and soon deputies, FBI agents and Army ballistics experts from Hamilton Field were speeding to that West County goat farm. None of them knew what they were handling – they didn’t even realize it was a live bomb, so they took it to the sheriff’s office and put it on display in the lobby.

All they knew was that it probably had been dropped from a balloon. “Hundreds of residents of western Sonoma county had seen the mysterious balloon sweeping inland from the vicinity of Jenner, highlighted by rays of the setting sun,” the Press Democrat later reported.

A couple of days earlier the PD had a front page story about the “mystery spheres” which had been found in Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Oregon. They were believed to be of Japanese origin, but the Army hadn’t confirmed that; all that was known for sure was that they carried incendiary devices. That story repeated speculation that the balloons were carrying enemy soldiers, which was the working theory for a couple of weeks: “There was no actual evidence that the balloon had carried enemy saboteurs but that seemed the only logical explanation for its arrival. It trailed an elastic cable that had been cut, possibly indicating that it once was equipped with a cage capable of carrying a crew of perhaps four or five who, on arriving over the United States, cut themselves free and parachuted to earth in a small-sized ‘invasion.'”

bombs(RIGHT: Balloon bomb exhibit at Canadian War Museum in Ottowa)

The same day the Vine Hill bomb landed, the Office of Censorship ordered a complete blackout of any balloon stories in newspapers and on radio. The curtain of silence remained in place until the war ended in August.

Pity Press Democrat editor Herbert Waters; this was the biggest local war story during WWII and he couldn’t write a word. He must have been gnashing his teeth when another balloon was spotted over Santa Rosa on February 23 and the crew of a Lockheed P-38 from the Santa Rosa Army Air Field (now the Sonoma County Airport) scrambled to shoot it down midair as it neared Calistoga – the first time one of the balloons was brought down by gunners.

Editor Herb surely was hopping mad that the PD couldn’t tell readers that three balloons came down in March – west of Cloverdale, near Guerneville, and close to the Mount Jackson quicksilver mine overlooking the Russian River Valley. Another turned up May 15 near Geyserville. There were probably frustrated screams in the newsroom as Waters learned one of the bombs blew a swimming pool-sized crater in a field near Santa Rosa (with people watching!) and another apparently started a fire close to Cotati. Sonoma Valley subscribers probably were irked because the paper didn’t mention some incident (a fire?) that occurred near the Heins ranch in Glen Ellen, or how El Verano schoolkids were all wound up about seeing that big balloon drifting overhead.

All in all, it’s believed at least ten balloons fell to earth in Sonoma county – more than anywhere else in the state.

Although authorities weren’t exactly sure what was going on, the Vine Hill bomb convinced the government that the U.S. was under some sort of air attack from Japan, and to say that the military in early 1945 was unprepared to handle it was an understatement.

The West Coast had never faced an active threat from Imperial Japan and slipped into a lack of readiness. The Navy and Army air bases in Santa Rosa were just used for general training, as was Hamilton Field; no combat planes were kept on ground alert anywhere on the coast; the long-range radar system wasn’t turned on most of the time; the civilian Ground Observer Corps was disbanded; most anti-aircraft artillery had been mothballed. Had Japan mounted a Pearl Harbor-like attack we would have been defenseless for hours.

The Fourth Air Force at Hamilton Field was suddenly thrust very much back into the war, with the critical mission to figure out what the hell the enemy was doing with those balloons. The very first one landed near San Pedro a couple of months before the Vine Hill bomb and was found to be carrying radio and meteorological equipment. Was it just a weather balloon which had blown off course all the way across the Pacific? A few other balloon fragments were found around the West and they thought they might be coming from Japanese relocation camps in the U.S. (remember, they were also wondering if the balloons were intended to carry a few men). Only when parts of a balloon were found at a bomb crater near Thermopolis, Wyoming did our best military minds realize that yep, this was a weapon.

A War Department memo listed six ways they feared the balloons might be used:

  1. Bacteriological/chemical warfare
  2. Incendiary and anti-personnel bombs
  3. Experiments for unknown purposes
  4. Psychological efforts to inspire terror and diversion of forces
  5. Transportation of agents
  6. Anti-aircraft devices

The immediate and overwhelming concern was not that the devices would blow up Americans but that they might set the great forests of the Northwest ablaze. There wasn’t an issue at the moment because it was still winter with its snow+rain, but if the balloons continued floating over through the spring and summer, it might divert thousands of soldiers from the warfront to fighting fires back home. To prepare, the Western Defense Command launched the “Firefly Project” which stationed 2,700 troops (including paratroopers) along with transport planes at strategic points.

examine(RIGHT: U.S. Navy personnel examine an unexploded bomb)

The other top worry was the balloons could deliver some sort of bioweapon. Although the War Department’s specific fears weren’t listed, a payload of anthrax or plague could kill animals and people while grain smut (fungus) might wipe out America’s breadbasket – and Japan’s military was indeed thinking along these lines, as discussed in the next section.

To counter that threat the “Lightning Project” was launched to create an early-warning system for signs of unusual diseases in livestock or crops. Without explaining why this was so important, the Department of Agriculture quietly asked regional offices to stay in touch with veterinarians and ag workers down to 4-H clubs and report anything amiss. Remedies (presumably fungicides and sulfa drugs) were stockpiled throughout the West.

As weeks passed, an ever-increasing number of balloons were observed high over Sonoma County headed eastward (they were almost impossible to track via radar, as it turned out). They were now being found – usually in fragments after exploding, although also sometimes intact – from Alaska to Baja California. The farthest east a balloon travelled was Michigan, with the most active month being March. After censorship was lifted it was revealed that a group of the balloons were seen heading for San Francisco during the historic United Nations Conference, with one of them eerily hanging over the city for hours before drifting on. (The proper name for a group is a “festival of balloons,” but I applaud the wag who tweeted, “the collective noun for a collection of slow moving things filled with hot air is a ‘government.'”)

The only fatalities caused by the bombs happened on May 5 in Oregon, as the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his wife were leading five children on a fishing trip. An 11 year-old girl found the balloon in the woods and called for the others to come see. It exploded when one of the kids tugged on it, killing all of the children and the minister’s wife, four of them dying immediately. (The site is now memorialized by the Mitchell Monument.)

The government kept a lid on the news until rumors about the incident spread fear among southern Oregon loggers and campers; finally on May 22 the War Department and Navy issued a joint statement admitting the balloon bombs existed, but they weren’t a serious threat because the attacks were “so scattered and aimless.” They also initiated an educational campaign to warn against tampering with strange objects found in the woods. If that saved even one American life, the statement read, “…it would more than offset any military gain occurring to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific.”

Had the Mitchell tragedy occurred a month earlier, it’s possible WWII might have gone on longer – with the United States suffering many civilian casualties, particularly in places like Sonoma county. But Japan had ended the balloon bomb program in mid-April, convinced that it had been a complete failure, mistakenly assuming almost none of the devices actually reached America. In truth, about 10% of the 9,300+ balloons are believed to have reached North America – exactly as the Japanese engineers predicted.

fu go(RIGHT: A Fu-Go balloon inflated by the U.S.)

It turned out that the War Department’s censorship was a brilliant move. The Japanese high command indeed had been scanning media reports from Russia, China and the U.S. looking for any news, but all they found was a single report about that explosion in Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The Japanese military had been tinkering with the idea of a balloon weapon since 1933, considering designs which would drop bombs or shower propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines after flying a fixed distance, as well as a balloon large enough to carry a soldier. Nothing apparently went past the drawing board until the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, which made Japan hungry to inflict damage on the American mainland. The best they could do was starting a minor forest fire near Mt. Emily, Oregon five months later, using a small bomb-carrying airplane launched from a submarine. That morphed into the 1943 plan of using subs off the coastline to inflate and launch balloons with a timer-release bomb. That plan was dropped later in the year as all submarines were pressed into service delivering weapons and food to soldiers fighting on Pacific islands.

The only option left was to launch balloons from Japan itself, 6,200 miles away from North America. Problem was, the jet stream winds were still poorly understood; the estimated time for a balloon to reach the West Coast ranged from 1-4 days, making any sort of timer useless. For more than a year they experimented with a couple of hundred balloons carrying radio transponders, none of them intended to reach the U.S.

The result of their multi-agency research project was the “Fu-Go” balloon bomb (a code name which roughly translates as something like, “Weapon Model B”). It was designed to fly between 30,000-38,000 feet, cutting loose ballast when it dropped too low and releasing hydrogen when it ascended too high. When all the ballast sandbags were gone it released the incendiary and TNT bombs, then blew up the balloon. All of this was done without electronics, of course; Wikipedia has a clear explanation of the balloon’s ingenious control system.

Wikipedia also cites a couple of non-translated documents which apparently state there were plans to use the Fu-Go to release anthrax and plague (Yersinia pestis), although the definitive Mikesh report (see sources) says, “though possible, the Japanese did not consider this aspect.” But as they were preparing to cancel the Fu-Go project thinking it a failure, a plan called “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night” was finalized; this called for kamikaze attacks on the Naval base at San Diego with the planes carrying ceramic jars of plague-infested fleas. The war ended before the operation could be carried out.

While all mention of the balloon bombs was suppressed in America, Japanese propaganda news agencies were telling their domestic audience that the balloons were causing havoc in the U.S. and starting numerous fires plus killing 10,000 casualties. After the Mitchell tragedy was revealed (which happened after the last Fu-Go was launched, remember) they made English-language broadcasts claiming the balloons had been only used on an experimental scale and were the “prelude to something big.”

Finally, Gentle Reader may be surprised to learn there’s even a few Believe-it-or-Not! items to our story because so many found the balloons and/or the ordinance and didn’t know what it was. Authorities in Elko, Nevada, were startled to find an old prospector come into town with a still-inflated balloon tied to his burro – he thought the government “had lost something.” In Yakima, Washington a boy had an anti-personnel bomb which he had been carrying around for several days. Ranch hands at Yerington, Nevada came across a balloon with its attachment; they tied it to the bumper of a car and towed it to a garage. The guys wrote a letter to authorities about it but heard nothing back, so they deflated the balloon and used it to cover a haystack. When the state police finally came calling they found there were still two live bombs.

TOP: Snapshot of a balloon bomb snagged on a tree in Kansas, February 1945

 
sources
 

Details about the Vine Hill bomb and other Sonoma county incidents were released when censorship was lifted and appeared in the Press Democrat on August 16, 1945 and a UP wire service story in the Petaluma Argus-Courier August 17. Details of the Mitchell incident are from the Associated Press datelined May 31. The definitive document on the Fu-Go balloon bombs is Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America by Robert C. Mikesh, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973, and all other details in this article are summarized from his report except as noted.

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pipedreams

SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS

In other times and places they may have been considered twin villages. The two communities brushed against each other, each with a mercantile district, its own places of worship and sometimes populations of roughly the same size. But never did they have equal standing, which is because one of those communities was entirely Chinese immigrants and this was the American West in the 19th century. Specifically, this was Sebastopol and its Chinatown. Its two Chinatowns, actually.

Before diving in, it pains me to admit the tale you’re about to read is incomplete. I’ve pecked away at the history of this fascinating lost world for ages, returning to it whenever another historic newspaper or trove of other data came online. But it’s been a while since anything really significant surfaced; it looks like some sections of the puzzle – critically important sections, at that – will always be missing. So here I’ve put together what I have, in the hope that someday a family memoir, a dusty photo album or a history by one of San Francisco’s Six Companies will appear, allowing scholars of Chinese culture in the West to cement more parts of the picture together.

This project began over seven years ago after finding a remark by West County historian Bill Borba: “Sebastopol had two Chinatowns that must have had in the neighborhood of 200-300 Chinese in them…” Sure enough, I found the fire maps which showed the village seemed to have two Chinese enclaves about a block apart. I soon learned this was a very unusual situation.


“JOHN CHINAMAN” COMES TO SONOMA

The earliest Chinese immigrants probably arrived in Sonoma county around 1855, as they did in Marin; the 1860 census shows about forty, all but a handful living in the town of Sonoma. During this decade the local newspapers fed readers a steady diet of racist stories about the doings of “John Chinaman” in San Francisco or the Gold Country, but little about the men living here. A rare 1868 item from the Santa Rosa paper told of a Chinese man who reported being robbed by two boys – but “several white persons near by when the alleged act was committed” claimed he was lying, so the case was dropped.

By the 1870 census the Chinese population had grown tenfold; 470 men were counted in the county overall with over half (280) living in Petaluma. Salt Point was the third largest Chinese group with 96 (mainly logging camps at Timber Cove and Duncan’s Mills). Five were listed in Bloomfield. In 1871, California Pacific railroad brought in a crew of over a thousand Chinese laborers to begin work on a rail line between Santa Rosa and Cloverdale. Judging by the number of newspaper reports, this decade was by far the most violent for Chinese immigrants, with multiple reports of beatings, shootings and a trend of young white boys shooting them in the face. The most disturbing incidents were when hunters found a body in the Laguna; although the Coroner’s Jury met there and believed the man had been murdered, there was no further investigation and the remains were buried at the site following the verdict. Near Bloomfield, an immigrant supposedly attempted suicide by cutting his throat, followed by splitting his head open with an axe. When the Coroner’s Jury arrived at the scene they found the body some distance away in a potato field; it was decided the injured man stumbled there on his own and there was no foul play involved in any of it. The body remained lying in the field for several days.

Although the 1880 census missed the entire Chinese community at Bloomfield (although there were eight counted in Valley Ford), there were still 901 enumerated in the county, with Sonoma City, Santa Rosa and Petaluma having the largest populations, in that order. The population of the Analy Township was 1,380 with 37 Chinese immigrants, and Sebastopol had 197 residents with only three from China.

Only summaries of the 1890 census exist, but there were 1,173 identified as Chinese in the entire county with 231 in the Analy Township (there was no breakout for Sebastopol), slightly behind Santa Rosa’s leading count of 277.

Was this a single community split between different streets or were these really two separate Chinatowns? Evidence points both ways. Until the last buildings were razed in 1943, the Sebastopol newspaper referred to one as New (or Barnes’) Chinatown and the other as Old (or Brown’s) Chinatown. Each had its own “joss house” (a place of worship) which I’m told was never seen in a town so small. (By contrast, there was no joss house at all in Santa Rosa, although we know there was a room used as a temple.) But did one group have better status, more wealth than the other? Those and other loose threads are tugged below.

Nor do we have any images of the Chinatowns except for grainy photos taken before it was to be demolished. There are no known pictures of any residents – the man seen at the top of this article is from Arnold Genthe’s book on San Francisco’s Chinatown at around the turn of the century.

Even worse, we don’t have an accurate view of how many people were living there at any particular time. Old census data was often problematic when it came to enumerating ethnic minorities, possibly because of racism or language barriers. In the 1880 census there were no Chinese counted in Bloomfield, for example, although there were probably hundreds living there; other census takers in the county that year didn’t make much of an effort to record Chinese names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing.” Complicating matters, the census was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year, dispersed on farms or among work crews where they could be overlooked (or hidden). A more specific example of these problems is below.

Our story begins in 1885, although newspapers had occasionally mentioned Chinese men in Sebastopol over the previous decade. (Most news about early Sebastopol comes from the Petaluma Argus, as older 19th century Santa Rosa papers mostly ignored the village.) That year Aaron Barnes announced he was moving “his China houses” off Main Street; it didn’t happen for several years, as the 1888 fire map shown below still showed a Chinatown with about a dozen buildings, roughly across the street from today’s Copperfield’s store.

Aaron Barnes (1816-1897) was a farmer/real estate investor who owned several lots around downtown Sebastopol, most notably the large corner at Petaluma Ave. and (modern) Highway 12, where the CVS and Benedetti Tire now stand. He had a quirky life, which earned him a profile in “SEBASTOPOL WAS ALWAYS QUIRKY,” but it was never explained why he seemed to have so much devotion to his Chinese tenants. There’s a family story that he liked them better than the white townsfolk because a church had done something to offend him and his first wife. But his cause of death was diagnosed as constipation, which might seem unusual because the cure-all tonics during his era were usually strong laxatives mixed with alcohol. That condition is also famously a side-effect from chronic use of opium.

1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's downtown Chinatown
1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s downtown Chinatown

The situation changed quickly and dangerously in the first weeks of 1886. Anti-Chinese vigilante committees had been running amok on the West Coast for months, terrorizing immigrants into leaving their communities under threats of death. While Sonoma County locals were chanting the popular “Chinese must go” mantra, there was no violence or anti-Chinese activism here. But when members of Petaluma’s Wickersham family were brutally killed in mid-January and their Chinese cook was accused of the deed, anti-Chinese Leagues sprouted overnight in every Sonoma community with intent to expel them. For in-depth coverage on that story, see “THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE.”

Before the end of that January there was a trickle of Chinese coming into Santa Rosa from Cloverdale, Healdsburg and other points north. Some were passing through on their way to San Francisco, but many apparently were lingering in town to see how the situation would develop – the Democrat newspaper reported there were over 600 Chinese in Santa Rosa as the month ended. Sebastopol’s Chinatown swelled at the same time. The correspondent for the Argus wrote “the town has about 360 Chinese and they outnumber about 250 whites.” In the next few weeks, the Chinese population of Sebastopol peaked at an estimated 400-450.


BLOOMFIELD’S “PIGTAIL ALLEY”

Before it became dairy county, Big Valley (Bloomfield + Valley Ford) was known for its potatoes; 100,000 sacks a year were carted down to the Petaluma wharf in the wagons which were jokingly called “spud schooners.” As planting and digging so many potatoes is quite labor intensive, Big Valley was also known for its many, many Chinese immigrants. When they hit Peak Potato around 1880 it’s often claimed 300 Chinese men lived in or around Bloomfield, although local historian Bill Borba always said the number was closer to 600, far larger than Sebastopol’s combined Chinatowns.

Several locations have been identified but none are documented by archaeology; camps were said to be at the current location of Emma Herbert Memorial Park and near the intersection of Roblar Road and Valley Ford Road. Several buildings were rented along Main Street (now Bloomfield Road), with “Pigtail Alley” somewhere nearby. This was probably their Chinatown; a Chinese butcher shop and laundry are mentioned in articles below, so it’s fairly safe to assume there was a business area similar in size to Sebastopol.

In February 1886 an Anti-Chinese Committee was formed in Bloomfield, same as in all other Sonoma County communities. But the situation was different, due to the size of the Chinese community (“there is no town in the state, of its size, where there are so many Chinese” – Sonoma Democrat) and because some Bloomfielders were inclined to vigilante activity. An unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up a Chinese laundry (“result, a lot of frightened Chinamen and a shattered floor”) and a spring that supplied water was salted. That October – months after the anti-Chinese fervor had sputtered out in Santa Rosa and other places – the Argus reported that vigilantes “…have AGAIN [emphasis mine] taken the law into their own hands and have forcibly ejected them from the town.”

Predictably, the farmers found themselves short-handed when potato harvest season arrived in 1887: “It is impossible to get enough white hands. Chinamen are scarce and disposed to boycott the Bloomfield country, from which they were driven a year since.” Potato blight damaged much of the crop in 1889 and by 1891 there were only about 100 acres still planted in potatoes, most of the land converted to dairy pastures.

Many who sought refuge in Sebastopol presumably were coming from nearby Bloomfield, which had the largest sustained Chinese community in the county. Bloomfield was also the site of the only local vigilante activity, which continued for months (see sidebar). But as winter turned into spring even the Chinatowns in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa shrunk greatly, although it’s most likely because of residents melting away into the countryside to take their customary farm jobs now that growing season approached.

After a year passed there was no sign the anti-Chinese furor had any lasting effect in Sebastopol (“there are more Chinamen in Sebastopol to the square foot than in any American town that we know of” – Argus). The Petaluma paper reported boys – and women from Santa Rosa – were coming to the village’s Chinatown to smoke opium, a matter of some irritation to the townsfolk.

The first possible sighting of a second Chinatown appears in 1889: “The Chinese have built a Joss house in town.” That it was built by the Chinese themselves (or perhaps, paid for by them) suggests Barnes was not involved, as he apparently always hired contractors.

This other Chinatown was on property owned by John Brown, like Barnes a farmer/real estate investor, although on a much larger scale – he had some 1,400 acres on the east end of Sebastopol which he leased to others, making him the second largest landowner in the area (the Walker ranch was larger). His cottage still exists on the edge of town and is currently home to the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital.

That became known as Old Chinatown. Then 15 months later, in early 1891, New Chinatown started to appear: “Elliot & Berry are building a fine Joss House for the Chinamen.” Later that year, “a number of China houses are in course of erection on the corner of Petaluma and Bodega avenues by Mr. Aaron Barnes, and the Joss house which has been located near Mr. Barnes’ residence has been moved to the same lot.” (It never ceases to amaze me that they moved houses around like dominoes back then.) To be clear: This Chinatown occupied the entire footprint of the modern CVS and its parking lot.

And so Sebastopol became accustomed to having two Chinatowns in its backyard. One of the rare items in the Sebastopol paper that mentions both describes the comic 1898 efforts to restrain a bull running through the town: “…he concluded to have some noodle soup and charged the restaurant in Barnes’ Chinatown. The boss cook banged a big tin pan against the noodle pot with such effect that his lordship wheeled for Brown’s Chinatown. Whether he wanted to hit the pipe or was looking for a game of fan tan is not known…”

Another episode from the same year shows how fairly the town treated their Chinese residents. During Lunar New Year celebrations Deputy Constable Woodward attempted a little extortion, demanding $5 from each merchant who was exploding firecrackers. As there was no such thing as a firecracker tax, two men began arguing with Woodward; that turned into a fight with the cop pistol-whipping a young man named Ah Woy, who filed a complaint against the constable. During the court hearing a few days later about a dozen Chinese witnesses testified. Woodward’s defense was that he only asked Woy to quiet down and was attacked by Woy while trying to assist him to go indoors. “Some of the Chinese witnesses, however, did not seem to agree with the constable’s version of the fracas,” the Press Democrat reported. “Some of them of the ‘little bit Engleesh’ persuasion just looked daggers at Mr. Woodward.” The court fined Woodward $20 for battery and dismissed Woodward’s assault charge against Woy.

There was probably no happier year in those places than 1898. There were now children in the community and there was a wedding:


“A Chinese bride! A Chinese bride!” The word was passed like wildfire among the crowd at the Donahue depot as the ten o’clock train on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad slowed up there Wednesday morning. Instantly everybody was anxious to catch a glimpse of the celestial maiden, clad in the most fantastic of bridal costumes…When the bride and her party arrived at Sebastopol they were given a great reception by scores of Chinese. In a gaily decorated vehicle adorned with flags and Chinese lanterns, the bride was escorted through the streets. Later in the day the marriage took place amid much pomp. the groom was a “heap high tone” Chinaman employed on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol.

Less happy was 1899; almost all of Barnes’ Chinatown burned down, wiping out 15 buildings including stores, boarding houses, the Joss house and their Masonic hall. There was great concern during the fire because the winds were blowing towards town and no one knew where their hook and ladder truck was (it was found on a vacant lot, someone having borrowed it for personal use). As Aaron Barnes was now deceased, it was unclear whether his son Henry would rebuild. By the end of the year it was reconstructed about 75 feet further east away from Petaluma Ave. One merchant, Quong Wah, was wealthy enough to build his own place.

1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Old Chinatown and New Chinatown
1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Old Chinatown and New Chinatown

In the summer of 1900 the census taker found 77 Chinese in and around Sebastopol, two of them women. Most were in small knots of 3-5 laborers living on farms but about a third were in the Chinatowns, which now had two groceries, two merchandise stores, three laundries and a barber. The two Chinatowns were still about equal size on the 1903 map. John A. Brown died in 1905 and the property passed to his daughter, Birdie, who continued making improvements into the 1920s. It was no longer called Old Chinatown/Brown’s Chinatown but “China Alley.”

Fast-forward ahead another decade; the 1910 census is the only one which recognized two Chinatowns, with about 25 people living in each. Seven were female and nine were born in California. Kim Lee owned a laundry; there were five grocers and eight other stores, which seems like a lot, if there were really only fifty people.

1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown
1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown

And now we come to the 1920s; there’s a druggist who has his own store, two salesmen, and sixteen people under age 20, with two dozen people born in California. The census says there are 84 living in “China Town.” Except that’s apparently not really true. To (somewhat) repeat myself: When it comes to the Chinese, the census data is like a house of cards – touch it lightly and it all falls apart.

Meet Johnny Ginn. He was an old man in the early 1970s when he was interviewed by sociologists collecting oral histories of the Chinese experience in California.* He was the only one interviewed who spoke about Sebastopol, having grown up around there; that 1898 story about the Chinese bride concerned his mother.

Johnny’s father was named Ginn Wall and as the wedding item states, he worked on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol. But according to the 1900 census, there were no Chinese living on or near the William H. Knowles ranch. Same for 1910, 1920. In fact, Johnny and his parents can’t be spotted in any census at all, as far as I can tell, and they were not alone in being overlooked. As he told the researchers, “There were about three hundred Chinese farmworkers up there, and they were all old men…and except for my mother, not a single woman. That was the whole Chinese settlement in Sebastopol.”

Johnny’s mother died in 1929 and his father went broke being a tenant farmer. After saving for the next six years they finally had the $600 to send Ginn Wall back to China by himself. Johnny told the researchers he realized that the farm settlement in Sebastopol was dying:


All those old guys thought about was how they wanted to go back to China. But there’s only about six months work in the year on apples, so they never saved a thing. And the only other thing besides work was gambling. Gambling was the social life, and gambling was the pastime. Everybody hoped to make a few bucks so they could go home in the easy way. The others lost their money and got stuck from year to year.

By then in the mid-1930s it was a bachelor society of elderly men. There was nothing still keeping him there, so Johnny became a migrant worker.

1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Brown ave. and Barnes ave.
1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Brown ave. and Barnes ave.

Our last glimpse of the Chinatowns comes from the 1929 map, which shows the one on Brown Ave. (now Brown St.) in slow decline, while Barnes Ave. has slightly grown. The census in the following year again had a low headcount of 54 residents, but there was also now the eight-member Gin Hop family with their own house on Pitt Ave. (He was a China-born merchant and presumably no relation to Ginn Wall.)


DOWNLOAD
PDF file of transcribed sources discussed in this article (26 pages)



Of most interest to historians is the 1929 map appearance of a Tong Hall at the southernmost end, which raises several intriguing questions. It’s possible it had been there for years, but escaped notice of white cartographers who didn’t understand it possibly represented the foothold of a crime gang. In the late 1890s the Sebastopol paper had several items about highbinders (tong enforcers, sometimes hit men) being in town and a man who supposedly was a local highbinder was himself killed there in 1899. Although the separate Chinatowns began as protectorates of Messrs. Barnes and Brown, it’s possible they soon came under the control of rival tongs. This would explain why two joss houses were sustained the entire time. (UPDATE: Most tongs were not criminal, particularly at this late date.)

It all came to an end in 1943, when Sebastopol condemned the last buildings on Barnes ave. as fire hazards. Press Democrat reporter Pete Johnson described the place as “ghostlike,” although there were some people still living there.

The last celebration of Chinese New Year was apparently 1932 and it was a low-key affair, the usual gaiety dampened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria a few months earlier. “Chinese and Japanese in the settlement here are said to exchange nothing but short greetings, but the situation isn’t acute,” the Sebastopol Times reported. Only a few gathered at the joss house to celebrate because only a few were still around. “Old-timers in the Chinatown here estimate their number to be less than 70…about one-fourth of the population several years ago,” said the Times, the paper at last acknowledging the true size of the historic community.

But earlier New Year celebrations there were always happy times, regardless of their pitiable situations, and it was also the only time of the year when the Sebastopol gwáilóu came over to visit with them. Let’s end our survey with a peek at the celebration in 1920:


Wednesday noon in front of the joss house several strings of fire crackers, each over thirty feet in length, were exploded, much to the delight of Sebastopol’s boyhood. The Chinese had erected a high tripod on which they suspended the long strings of fire crackers by means of a pulley, but the first string had hardly been ignited when the tripod collapsed and the entire string exploded at once, much to the dismay of the Chinese…The rest of the fire crackers were more successful. All afternoon the tom toms and cymbals were kept busy by the Chinese musicians who were stationed in the joss house.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.

* Longtime Californ’: A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown; Victor Nee and Brett De Bary; 1986; pp. 25-29

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