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It was like winning the Sweepstakes, or maybe better – Luther Burbank was being asked if he would like to hang out with the most famous man in the world.

“We would appreciate it very much if you would consent to head a Committee to go to Sacramento, to greet Mr. Edison and escort him to San Francisco,” the letter read. “We believe that nothing could be more fitting than that the Wizard of the West should extend welcome and greeting to the Wizard of the East on his visit to California.”

The odd wording might have caused Burbank to wonder if it was a prank, and a followup note would ask him to also meet with the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion. But it was from the San Francisco Examiner, and closed with “…Of course, it is understood that you will be the guest of The Examiner’ in so far as all the expenses are concerned.” Oh, Luther, you lucky duck – it had been a long time since he had been offered something without being expected to make a “donation” in return.

Burbank accepted the offer immediately, writing back “Mr. Edison and myself have been long distance friends for some time,” which was a little white lie. While Burbank may well have mentioned the inventor at some point, there’s no record of any prior correspondence between them in either the Burbank or Edison archives.

It was October, 1915, near the end of what was otherwise a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for Burbank. Although it was not yet publicly known, both the Burbank seed company and Burbank Press were teetering on bankruptcy due to inept management, and after having exploited his name to peddle worthless stock to Sonoma County residents and others. His future was far from secure and it was possible he might have to sell his precious farms as well as the rights to every plant he still owned. If you don’t know that part of the Burbank story or need a refresher, see “THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK, PART III.”

Burbank was to escort Edison to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) – the world’s fair in San Francisco whose legacy can still be seen in the Palace of Fine Arts. He had a small role in the fair’s creation, having been among the hundred notable men who were part of a 1912 junket to Vancouver and back, promoting the upcoming event at all major cities along the way. (He was toasted at a banquet but told the audience he wasn’t much of a speaker unless the topic was about something like “spuds.”)

At the expo he had been honored with a designated “Luther Burbank Day” – although it wasn’t the spotlight some of his biographers have suggested. June 5 was also “Denmark Day” and “American Library Association Day.” Burbank received a commemorative plaque and a few speeches were made at a reception in the Horticultural Palace. So all in all, “Luther Burbank Day” was more like the “Luther Burbank Hour” and thousands of little flower seed packets were donated to the PPIE to give away to visitors.

The Examiner had no role in luring Edison to the expo, and hustling Burbank to Sacramento to intercept the train for the “wizard meets wizard” moment was the newspaper’s clever way of getting its nose into the tent. Hearst’s paper dominated coverage of Edison’s four days in San Francisco to the extent that Gentle Reader would be forgiven for believing they were behind the visit and all related events at the fair. They even printed Burbank’s letter agreeing to meet Edison’s train, which gave Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley a case of the vapors because the letterhead revealed Burbank lived in Santa Rosa. “Both this city and Sonoma county gets notice which is read probably by a quarter of a million people regarding location of wizard’s home,” he gushed.

Burbank must have cringed reading that; more than anything else he wanted to be left alone, but almost daily was already besieged by tourists seeking to meet the “wizard.”

The Chamber of Commerce and Finley were surprisingly insensitive to Burbank’s plight in the run-up to the PPIE. While the Burbank seed company was planning on advertising “Luther Burbank’s Exhibition Garden” near Hayward specifically to attract fans there instead of making a trek to Santa Rosa, the PD was ready to exploit him as a tourist attraction: “many hundreds of strangers will come within our gates, lured here by the fact that Santa Rosa is the home and work place of the greatest of scientific horticulturists, Luther Burbank…”

Given Burbank’s desire to keep out of the limelight and people from tramping around in his experimental gardens, he sent a most unexpected telegram to the PD once Edison arrived:

San Francisco, Oct. 18. Herbert Slater. Santa Rosa: Mr. and Mrs. Edison and sister, and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford will visit Santa Rosa, if possible, on Friday. No bands; no racket. They wish to come quietly. Luther Burbank.”

The Chamber and Finley ignored their wishes, of course, and began planning a blowout reception.

Edison-Ford train arrives in Santa Rosa, Oct. 22, 1915
Edison-Ford train arrives in Santa Rosa, Oct. 22, 1915

Everybody wanted a piece of Thomas Edison, starting with the advertising department of his own company, General Electric.

At the start of 1915 GE announced that October 21 would be “Edison Day,” marking the 35th (or was it the 36th?) anniversary of electric lighting. It was really a nationwide ad campaign to get children under 18 to sell GE lightbulbs in order to get points towards winning prizes, and started in mid-September. Thus while Luther Burbank Day was over in a few blinks, Edison Day stretched on for over a month. Times were different back then.

Oddly, it seems they weren’t planning to include Edison in anything having to do with Edison Day. A few weeks before the date, a PPIE official visited and invited him to come to the Exposition for that day. He demurred, always reluctant to stray far from his laboratory but Mrs. Edison worked on him, and on Oct. 11 it was announced that he was going to California. The Examiner immediately fired off the invite to Burbank and the next day Henry Ford said he would come from Detroit and join Edison for the trip.1

When Edison arrived at the New Jersey train station he told reporters, “I feel like a prince,” and did a little dance. “I’m going to travel to San Francisco like a prima donna. My old friend Henry Ford sent this car for me. He will join us in Chicago.” Somewhere en route his wife bought him a new suit because he had gone to the station directly from his lab, still wearing his work clothes stained with chemicals.

It took four days for Edison’s train car to cross the country, although there may have been a bit of a layover in Chicago to hookup with Ford and get him some new threads. Once they arrived in San Francisco there was a whirlwind of banquets and fair activity.

The Examiner’s motion picture cameras cranked away and recorded Edison’s every step, sometimes capturing Burbank as well, as seen in the clip above. They seemed to be enjoying themselves (San Francisco Examiner headline: “Edison, Burbank and Ford ‘Josh’ Like Boys as They Cross the Bay Together”).

Besides the cameraman there was also an Examiner reporter chasing them around the fair. Alas, that person either couldn’t clearly hear what they were saying or didn’t understand English very well. What appeared in the newspaper had Burbank spouting idiotic dribble to Edison, such as “science is greater than any fairy tale,” and “you have made the impossible possible.” The reporter finally gave up trying and remarked, “the two scientists fell to discussing the ‘dawn of vitality.'” Then there was this snippet of conversation:

“A thousand years,” said Edison, “we have been trying to find out what water is.”

“And we know nothing of it, that is true,” said Burbank.

“Only roughly; nothing of its minutae,” said Edison.

“I begin to believe with Franklin,’ said Burbank, “that it is a fluid form of matter something like electricity.”

(Aside from making them sound like two stoners pondering Deep Things, the Examiner reporter likely garbled whatever Burbank really said about Benjamin Franklin’s analogy, which was that electrical current flows through conductive wire like a fluid.)

At the expo Edison used a telephone for the very first time (!) to speak to his chief engineer in West Orange, New Jersey, and then at the AT&T exhibit he spoke with his son, Charles, in Paris via radio. It was all very exciting and at night, every light in every building around the Bay was turned on in his honor.

The ceremony on the evening of Edison Day included a highlights reel projected by the Examiner from the stage in the Marina. A fireworks display followed (“half a ton of explosive had been touched off in salute to the man of the hour”) and a giant poster was unveiled of Edison holding a globe illuminated by lightbulbs, with “Thomas A. Edison 1879-1915” underneath. Its epitaph-like writing might have given the 68 year-old inventor pause, given there were still several weeks remaining in the year.

Luther Burbank welcomes Thomas Edison to Santa Rosa. Oct. 22, 1915
Luther Burbank welcomes Thomas Edison to Santa Rosa. Oct. 22, 1915

And then there was Henry Ford, and everybody wanted a piece of him, too. Well…not really, and that’s probably why he invited himself to tag along on the trip. Perhaps some of Edison’s good mojo would rub off on him.

Burbank was only at the expo for Edison’s first day, leaving the two famous entrepreneurs to roam the fairgrounds alone (but trailed by two Secret Service agents assigned to Edison). A young man introduced himself and asked for the secret to success. “Work,” said Ford. “Be sure the boss doesn’t fire you,” added Edison.

All the San Francisco papers had warm anecdotes about people wanting to shake Edison’s hand, but that’s the only story about Ford interacting with the public. Ford was deeply unpopular in October 1915 which he knew was dangerous to his business, savvy as he was about the importance of good publicity. The cause of his troubles? His outspoken view that America should remain neutral during WWI.

On the same day Ford announced he would be joining Edison in California, James Couzens, the General Manager and VP of Ford Motor Company, resigned because of Henry’s opposition to fighting the Germans. Couzens was particularly upset at Ford’s position against the U.S. giving a war loan to the Allied Powers, as well as being against a buildup of American military and naval forces in expectation that we would be drawn into the war. “His stand on these and other matters has disgusted me,” said his oldest friend and now former business partner. A few days earlier, the Dodge brothers had dumped $500k of Ford stock for the same reasons.

Ford had been pushing for a peace conference since the summer, boasting, “I can stop this war in Europe in two weeks” if he could only get diplomats to listen to him. Shortly after his Santa Rosa visit, Ford chartered an ocean liner as a “Peace Ship” to take him and an expedition of American peace activists to Europe. Ford tired of the squabbling over the various proposals and returned to the U.S. two weeks later, leaving the activists to argue amongst themselves in some of Europe’s finest hotels, with Ford picking up the tab. (Here’s quite a good article, “The Peculiar Case of Henry Ford” which explains more about this strange episode.)

The sincerity of Henry Ford’s pacifism was widely questioned at the time and has fallen under renewed skepticism as more has become known about Ford’s later personal and business dealings with Nazi Germany.2 Cynics point to self-serving remarks he made about the mission, such as, “If we had tried to break in cold into the European market after the War, it would have cost us $10,000,000. The Peace Ship cost one-twentieth of that and made Ford a household word all over the continent.”

Ford invited Burbank to join him on the Peace Ship, but he declined with a telegram that read only, “my heart is with you,” which could be interpreted in any of a number of ways.


Santa Rosa wanted a piece of Edison, and it wanted a piece of Ford, and it wanted a whopping big slice of the attention Burbank was getting for hosting them. On the morning of October 22. our ancestors opened the Press Democrat to read this:

This will be a day of days for Santa Rosa; Three of the world’s greatest men — one of whom, Santa Rosa’s distinguished citizen and world man, Luther Burbank, has lived here for forty years — will be within the city’s gates. Mr. Burbank has already been mentioned. He is the lodestone, however, who attracts the others here today. The latter are Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most beneficial inventors the world has known, and Henry Ford, also known to fame as philanthropist, inventor and citizen. Santa Rosa is certainly most proudly honored by the visit of these distinguished men. Their coming is in the nature of national importance to Santa Rosa, as the papers of the country will tell millions of readers that Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford came to Santa Rosa, Sonoma county, California, to visit Luther Burbank this day.

The Edison and Ford parties were to arrive at 1:15 at the Railroad Square depot. Burbank and the Chamber of Commerce had sent ahead baskets of Burbank-bred fruits and nuts as well as other treats to be waiting for them on the train. (They were not using Ford’s transcontinental cars, but rather new NWP Pullmans.)

With only three days to prepare, some things slipped through the cracks. Sebastopol grammar school children were told only that morning that class was dismissed for the day and they were going to Santa Rosa to join children from the three grammar schools there in seeing the celebrities. A scramble ensued as kids phoned home to get permission and presumably some cash, as they had to pay their own fares for the electric train. In the end 107 from Sebastopol made the trip.

The train arrived to find thousands lining Fourth street from the train depot to the courthouse. Burbank and the Chamber president greeted them, as everyone piled into borrowed cars for a quick spin around town.

Arriving at Burbank’s home on Tupper street they found still more crowds as well as movie cameramen. The three of them posed and walked to and from the house several times. “Darn those movies,” quipped Edison, the motion picture innovator.

The party went inside and chatted for about an hour until the children arrived at 3. Only the youngest were allowed inside the gate – they were “Mr. Burbank’s pets,” Mrs. Edison told her husband.

The three men stood on the second floor veranda so everyone could see them. The children were “enthused greatly,” according to the Press Democrat, and began singing our (rather awful) state song. The nearly-deaf Edison couldn’t make out the words until his wife told him “They’re singing, ‘I Love You, California.'” He replied, “Are they? God bless them all.”

Burbank gave his guests a tour of the garden, showing off his new tomato and the cactus beds along with whatever else was still noteworthy that late in the year. Then there were more movies and photographs taken. “Everybody agreed they were mighty good to those picture folk,” snarked the PD.

They bravely waded into the huge crowd which had been gawking at them from the street, shaking hundreds of hands (“beginning to feel like a politician,” Ford said). Two inventors approached Ford. One was Thorsten Himle, pastor of the Scandinavian Lutheran church, who showed Ford his patent for an immersion suit with compartments that could be filled with gas for extra buoyancy. Healdsburg’s Ford Motor Co. agent gave him a drawing of a prototype tractor designed by Rush Hamilton of Geyserville. Ford pocketed the drawing. “May I take this along with me?” At the time Ford’s engineers were working on tractor prototypes, so it’s possible Ford received something of value. And Hamilton was no crackpot – he already had several patents, and in 1938 was awarded another for a unique tractor design.

By then the sun was getting low and it was time to leave. After another brief stop in the house they were back at the station for the 5:45 train. Altogether they had been in Santa Rosa for 4½ hours.

Although the visit was about as anticlimactic as it could be, the next morning the PD played it up like it had been the event of the century:

A great day has come and gone. Gone? No! For wherever the country is linked with telegraph, millions read last night and will read today of the gathering of three of the world’s greatest men, in Santa Rosa yesterday. Gone? No, again! Generations will remember the presence of the trio here yesterday. Fragrant memories will run throughout the years. Children’s children will listen to the stories of this memorable day.

Whatever “fragrant memories” children had of Burbank in 1915 are more likely related to the stink their parents made a few weeks later, after Luther Burbank sued the Luther Burbank Company and thereby revealed they had been sold junk stock, despite Burbank’s personal assurances the business was fundamentally sound.

Edison, Ford and Firestone in Santa Rosa, Oct 15, 1915
Edison, Ford and Firestone in Santa Rosa, Oct 15, 1915

There are two obl. Believe-it-or-Not! items connected with the event. The first is the presence of a ghost – rubber tire magnate Harvey Firestone. He came to California separate from the others, arriving just before Edison Day and signed Burbank’s guestbook; Firestone is seen in one of the group photos (he’s the short man on the front left, wearing a lighter-colored coat). Yet no newspaper mentioned he was one of Burbank’s visitors.

A few days later Edison, Ford and Firestone went to Los Angeles, and from there they took an overnight trip to San Diego, driving down the new state highway. The trio were close friends and had taken to calling themselves the “Vagabonds” for their glamping trips around the East Coast, joined with famed naturalist John Burroughs and sometimes celebrities such as Presidents Coolidge and Harding (great set of photos here). Numerous online sites claim Burbank sometimes participated but that’s absolutely not true. (There are even false claims that the entire California visit was one long Vagabond roadtrip, including the stopover in Santa Rosa.)

And while Edison’s trip to the PPIE received lots of national attention – all those big Edison Day ads had to make editors happy – the other surprise is that the visit to Burbank received very little notice outside of the Bay Area. While Finley promised “…papers of the country will tell millions of readers that Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford came to Santa Rosa,” few mentioned it. That was just Edison’s little day trip, after all, to a little town of little interest.

1 Ford and Edison had known each other since 1896 and were close friends, taking vacations and summer camping trips together (see “Vagabonds” above). Their bond formed because Ford credited Edison for wise legal advice on fighting auto engine patents, and when a massive 1914 fire destroyed Edison’s factory and offices, Ford gave him a $750k interest-free loan. This was in addition to a $1.15M advance that Ford had paid for nearly 100,000 Edison batteries that were to be used in an electric car that never made it into production.

2 Henry Ford, infamous for his virulent anti-Semitism, was praised by Hitler in Mein Kampf and the dictator kept a portrait of Ford in his office. Ford also was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938, the highest honor given by the Nazis to non-Germans. Ford personally intervened to cancel a contract his company had to build airplane engines for the RAF as it was fighting the Battle of Britain. Until the Nazis seized his German company Ford-Werke after the U.S. entered WWII, Henry Ford worked with the Third Reich by supplying raw materials and making military vehicles using slave labor. After that the Ford subsidiary in Vichy France continued providing new vehicles and parts to the Nazi war effort. Documents declassified in recent years show that the Justice Department was planning to prosecute Ford’s son Edsel – then president of the corporation – for collaborating with the enemy before his death by cancer in 1943. (MORE)
Edison. Burbank and Ford, Oct. 22, 1915
Edison. Burbank and Ford, Oct. 22, 1915


All images except top movie courtesy Sonoma County Library

October 11, 1915

My Dear Mr. Burbank:

You are, perhaps, aware of the contemplated visit to the Exposition of Thomas A. Edison.

Besides the honor that will be shown him by the Exposition officials, the “Examiner” contemplates an additional celebration as a tribute to the man and his genius.

We would appreciate it very much if you would consent to head a Committee to go to Sacramento, to greet Mr. Edison and escort him to San Francisco. We believe that nothing could be more fitting than that the Wizard of the West should extend welcome and greeting to the Wizard of the East on his visit to California.

Mr. Edison is expected to arrive on or about the 21st of October.

We hope you will see your way clear to join in the Welcome to him.

We have written Mr. Herbert Slater by this mail, and he will apprise you as to the exact date of Mr. Edison’s arrival and other details. Of course, it is understood that you will be the guest of “The Examiner” in so far as all the expenses are concerned.

Hoping for a favorable reply, beg to remain,

Very sincerely yours,
Justin McGrath
Managing Editor.

October 13, 1915

Dear Sir:

Your esteemed letter of October 11 just received and I could not appreciate any honor greater than that of meeting and greeting our beloved Thomas A. Edison at Sacramento as you propose.

Mr. Edison and myself have been long distance friends for some time and as I believe that he has shed more light on the Earth and expedited business, and made home life more comfortable than any other man who has ever trod this Earth Planet, you may be sure that the honor and pleasure of meeting him will be to me one of the pleasantest events of my life.

I judge that Senator Slater has informed you of my pleasure in meeting this great man on this occasion.

Sincerely yours,
Luther Burbank

Both This City and Sonoma County Gets Notice Which Is Read Probably by a Quarter of a Million People Regarding Location of “Wizard’s” Home

“LUTHER BURBANK Santa Rosa. Cal., U. S. A.”

This announcement in the top corner of a letterhead used by Luther Burbank, a facsimile of which appeared with his letter of acceptance to meet Thomas A. Edison. and was published in the Examiner on Sunday morning, was incidentally one of the best bits of advertising Santa Rosa and Sonoma county has ever had.

Mr. Burbank’s letter was published on the front page of the news section and formed an attractive part of several pages devoted to a description of the big welcome that will be given Edison this week in the metropolis.

Several hundred people read that letter and they also read the location of Mr. Burbank’s home and in this way Santa Rosa got advertising, the importance of which cannot be gainsaid.

Used in connection with the Edison visit this simple notice on the Burbank letterhead is as important as a whole year’s work of promotion for this city and county.

– Press Democrat, October 19 1915

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Santa Rosa is tinkering with Fourth street again, hoping to keep its moribund business district from completely withering away during the Age of Coronavirus. The latest effort is to close off traffic on the 500 and 700 blocks (but not the 600 block), allowing restaurants and bars to setup more outside tables. The city will keep the blocks closed at least until January 31, 2021 but according to the PD, over 70% of the businesses on those blocks want the street closure to be permanent.

Go back about four decades, however, and tell people that Santa Rosa was going to block cars from Fourth street in 2020 and expect surprised reactions – because they would have expected the city had already done that.

Our story begins almost exactly 45 years ago in 1975, as the City Council clears the last major obstacle to final planning for the Santa Rosa Plaza Mall. The city would allow the developer to sink Third street so part of the shopping center could be built above it while lower Fifth street and A street would be folded into the mall plans. The matter of a Fourth street passageway between B street and Railroad Square was still unsettled – that’s a major story by itself and will be handled in a future article.

As much of the money to pay for that would come from the federal government, the Housing and Urban Development Dept. (HUD) had to give its blessing to the project. Its report from earlier that same year declared the mall would be generally a good thing for Santa Rosa, but there was concern that having it downtown could suck the life out of the existing business district: “…the older area could lose business, tenants would move elsewhere and the decline of another area of Santa Rosa would begin, possibly recreating a situation similar to that which necessitated urban renewal in the first place.”

To mitigate those concerns, the city and the Downtown Development Association – DDA to its friends – hired a respected San Francisco urban planning company, EDAW Inc. Their mission was to create “a complete, cohesive physical design plan” to “provide the necessary linkage” between the mall and the downtown core. So once again it was time to play Let’s Redesign Downtown – that ever-popular game in the 1960s that had enriched many out-of-town consultants. (Those layouts were discussed here in the series, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.”)

Given what they had to work with, their redesign was innovative. Like earlier plans there was an emphasis on streetscaping with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). There was far more parking than we have today and it envisioned a free “people mover” shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores.

But the highlight was turning Fourth street into a “meandering semi-mall” closed to traffic except for the people mover. Riley street would also become pedestrian only.

1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street "semi-mall" shown in green
1977 Santa Rosa redesign by Charles A. Rapp/EDAW Inc. Fourth street “semi-mall” shown in green

Another unique feature was the absence of traffic lights, which were only found where Mendocino ave. and D street crossed Fourth. There was also a pedestrian bridge across B street, linking the presumed entrance to the mall with Fourth street. Otherwise, traffic flow was completely controlled by roundabouts. The plan further placed an emphasis on preserving and restoring heritage buildings.

The cost for all this would have been $2.7M and during the 1977 presentation, raising that financing didn’t seem to be a worry. Thus: In sum it was a practical and affordable design which would have greatly perked up the old downtown without much disruption (no major realignments of streets or utilities) and might have helped keep the business district competitive, no matter what temptations the future mall might fling at shoppers. The downtown property owners particularly loved the semi-mall and most signed a petition to tax themselves via a special assessment district to help pay for it (the major holdout was the telephone company).

Spoiler alert: Absolutely none of that happened.

While the semi-mall and the rest of the plan remained popular with enthusiastic backing from DDA members, its chances of being built began to slip away with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which shut off city funding – it would have died right there, if not for a ray of hope thanks to Santa Rosa getting a windfall $40M due to Pacific Telephone’s expansion. By 1979 the inflation cost was now $3.3M and some merchants had turned into naysayers, griping that closing Fourth street would eliminate about eighty parking spaces in front of their stores. The death sentence came in 1980, when semi-mall came to just mean there would be wider sidewalks because the street was being narrowed to two lanes. Fourth could sometimes be closed for street sales or other special events. And that’s what we still have today.

The Santa Rosa Plaza opened in 1982, and it didn’t take long for downtown merchants to realize they would not be riding its coat tails to prosperity. The city had given the developer everything he demanded and the downtown ended up with less than nothing, given that Railroad Square was now isolated on the wrong side of the Great Wall of B Street.

In 1988 the City Council hired consultants and formed committees “to figure out something to make the downtown a busy, happy place” and the Press Democrat invited five architects to come up with ideas. Some of the plans weren’t very functional (yes, we really needed an underground art gallery) but Joel DeSilva came up with an innovative design that embraced and enhanced Rapp’s meandering Fourth street. As described in the PD, he thought “parks are the way to invite people into the downtown:”

…He starts with a miniature, tree-lined lake at the entrance of the mall on B Street. The lake feeds a creek that meanders the length of Fourth Street (which he closes to traffic) as far as the library on E Street. There are benches and little restaurants with outdoor eating space along the creek. “There has to be something to draw people out of the plaza and down to the rest of downtown. Something impulsive. You see something there and it looks interesting,” DeSilva said.

DeSilva also followed Rapp in placing a walkway over B Street from the Plaza, as well as a covered skywalk overlooking Courthouse Square.

Joel DeSilva's 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek
Joel DeSilva’s 1988 design for downtown Fourth street, with footbridges over an artificial creek

No mention of Fourth street in the 1970s is complete without talking about cruising, which was either innocent fun or a sure sign that Santa Rosa had gone to wrack and ruin. (I polled a few friends who were here back in the day and FWIW all remembered it as the former, and were shocked when I read some of the details reported in the Press Democrat.) But cruising was intertwined with the semi-mall story, and likely was a big part of the reason the design was abandoned.

Cruising began here c. 1963, with the first letter-to-the-ed in the Press Democrat complaining about youths “tooling Fourth street” in 1965. By the end of the decade it was both Friday and Saturday nights, drawing 200-500 kids each evening. The street was so jammed that sometimes only two cars were able to crawl through a green light.

In 1970 the PD ran a titillating series, “Santa Rosa After Dark” (topless go-go girls at the Stone House, “the home of dirty ankle sex in Santa Rosa”!) that described a scene very much like the movie American Graffiti – which would be partially filmed in Petaluma two years later. It was mainly bored kids who said they were there only because there was nothing else to do in Santa Rosa, so why not watch the street-rod parade while hanging out with the gang and guzzling beer. Written by Dick Torkelson, the colorful prose in the series is best read while imagining the voice of Dragnet’s Joe Friday:

…It’s the scene for the raked rears, the big meats, the high springs, the throaty burble of the glass-pack mufflers. It’s where the Chrysler hemis sometimes vie with the Goats as they call the GTO’s. It’s where the Mustang 390’s and the 428’s snort to a lead foot…Occasionally two cars will pull to a stop, the drivers glance across, size each other up and down like two roosters in a pit. The sign changes and one will hit it in low, lay just a blip of rubber, then ease off. Then the other will nip it, down hard, then up. Just a hint of what there is…

Every year the situation grew more concerning. In April 1977 – just three months after Charlie Rapp made the semi-mall presentation to the DDA – the police barricaded downtown Fourth street for the first time. They soon found out that was a mistake: The action just moved to more residential streets, particularly Summerfield Road with the kids hanging out in the Howarth Park parking lot.

That summer there were about 1,800 arrests and citations, most related to alcohol and particularly underage drinking. Also on the police blotter were cruising while drunk, urinating in public, fighting, noise (cruising involved lots’a honking at friends), hurling bottles, graffiti, smashing store windows, possession of illegal weapons (including sawed-off shotguns) and 18 cases of stolen cars. Driving a stolen car in a parade being heavily monitored by cops deserves its own category in the Darwin Awards.

Costs for policing all this were adding up. By the time the police tried closing the street the city was paying an extra $3,000 every weekend (nearly $13k today), mainly in police overtime. The City Council approved hiring three more officers and purchasing a new patrol car. By Thanksgiving of 1977 there were 21 officers on patrol during Friday and Saturday nights to book up to 50 arrests and write 100 citations.

The crackdown also included new city ordinances. A ban on left u-turns on Fourth during cruise nights proved to be a really dumb idea because the cruisers just used residential cross streets to turn around instead. The City Council added a prohibition on “pandemoniac vehicles” (squealing tires, an ordinance still on the books – sideshow haters, take note). At first the Council balked at restricting Friday and Saturday street parking on the downtown blocks of Fourth, but finally enacted a ban on what Police Chief Sal Rosano quipped were “portable beer dispensing machines.”

But nothing seemed to discourage the partying, which used to wind down around midnight but now went on until 2:30. Prevailing wisdom seemed to be that Fourth street cruising would go on forever and probably get worse.

All that was in the air in 1980, when it came time to decide the fate of the semi-mall. Considering a permanent closure of those blocks to traffic must have now seemed like folly – they had seen how that only moved cruising into the neighborhoods. Keeping the street open but squeezing it into two lanes was a classic technique of “traffic calming” which might (hopefully) discourage cruising through downtown. At least, I presume that was their thinking; nothing about the decision-making was reported at the time. Or who knows? Perhaps the hope was that a narrower Fourth street would give downtown more of its pre-1906 earthquake look, matching the ersatz cobblestones that used to rattle your teeth while driving through Courthouse Square.

Downtown Fourth was closed for six months as the work was done, and sure enough, the police fielded more calls about raucous street parties in residential areas. The PD had a later story that some local cruisers went down to Petaluma to check out the parade on Petaluma Boulevard, but the scene felt too alien. “They were all wearing cowboy hats,” a cruiser said.

When Fourth reopened in November, 1981 there were still police barricades on Friday and Saturday nights, but to the surprise of everyone, very few cruisers showed up – cruising “disappeared just entirely when Fourth Street closed for the mall [construction],” Police Captain Sanderson told the PD in March 1982.

What killed off cruising? More than anything else it was video games.

Video arcades and home game consoles were becoming the rage in later 1981 and exploded in popularity in 1982. Seemingly overnight arcades were everywhere; Aladdin’s Castle in the Plaza was the largest with sixty games, but a machine or three could be found in barbershops, hardware stores and coffee shops. Restaurants cleared out mop closets to make room for Frogger and Donkey Kong. The Safeway on Mendocino Ave. not only had a row of arcade games by the bathrooms but shoppers could pick up an Atari and a few game cartridges as well.

Santa Rosa’s history in the 20th century was marked by a long series of unfortunate planning decisions, and abandoning the “meandering semi-mall” is high among them. Yet it makes for an unusual Believe-it-or-Not! question to ponder: Would it have been built if only the final decision was made a year later, or Pac Man came around a year earlier?

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There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:

During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”

In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.

He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.

A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.

gumpA recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:

…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…

His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.

Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.

In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.

The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897
The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897

This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.

In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.

Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.

The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).

County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.

A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.

Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.

The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”

I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.

By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.

Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.

As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.

Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!

An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.

The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.

On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.

The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.

Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”

Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”

augustmornThe store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.

(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”

That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.

Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library
Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

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