Dear Luther Burbank: Will you please allow us to honor you by putting your name on our new elementary school? Sincerely, The Board of Education.
That was the gist of their February 1906 request, according to the Press Democrat, and a few days later an article followed about Burbank granting permission, “…but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution. My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.”
Sure, old Luther poured on the faux humility a bit too thick, but he really did have a genuine affection for children, although he was never a parent. He wrote and spoke often about education and the importance of nurturing children (including some quirky ideas, such as they shouldn’t begin schooling until age ten). Burbank was famously impatient with adults who dropped by his Santa Rosa garden seeking an audience, but he always gave children his full attention, hoping to spark a lifelong love of nature. And for some reason he oddly felt compelled to entertain them by performing headstands and somersaults.
Why they wanted to name school after Burbank was obvious: In the same Press Democrat article he was called a “great scientist” and “Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen.” The year before, Burbank had been awarded an annual grant of $10,000 by the Carnegie Institution. As the prestigious Institution was known for funding only the pursuit of pure scientific research, Burbank suddenly was cast as a celebrity and a genius of world-class importance instead of merely a nursery man who produced novelty flower and vegetable seeds. (The deal ended bitterly for Burbank in 1909 amid a growing number of scientists calling him a charlatan – see the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series for more.)
But naming a school to tribute a person was a new thing around Santa Rosa. Previously schools were called after the school district – the Lewis district school, Llano district school, Monroe district school, and so on. In town grammar schools were named for the location: Davis street, South Park, Third street. A PD article in 1905 (transcribed below) pointed out that cities were now naming schools after presidents and other prominent men, so besides naming the new school after Burbank, the Fourth street school was renamed Fremont school at about the same time.
Burbank name aside, the school ran into a number of serious problems before its doors opened.
Santa Rosa schools were in poor condition and badly overcrowded; a 1904 muckraking series in the Republican newspaper reported that the 62 sixth graders at the Fourth street school were wedged into a classroom with a capacity for 46. Desks were so tightly packed that kids brushed against the arms of classmates when walking between the aisles of desks, and some didn’t have desks at all, but sat on stools. There was no electricity so the only light came from westside windows; heating was a coal stove in the middle of the room. Not a thing had been upgraded since the school was built in the 1870s.
It was generally recognized that any new school should be south of Santa Rosa Creek, as that area was being developed and growing quickly. A special election for a school bond failed just before Christmas 1904 – likely because the Press Democrat called the reports of overcrowding “gross exaggeration” – but passed the following March.
Nearly a year went by before the Burbank naming and construction started on the eight room schoolhouse. (All grammar schools covered grades 1-8. and this would also have an assembly hall, library, teacher’s lounge and separate boy/girl playrooms in the basement.) But work had barely begun before the project halted amid controversy and threats of violence.
Santa Rosa’s Labor Council called for a general strike in January 1906 and as the school was to be a stone and brick building, union bricklayers walked off the job. The local contractor then brought in scab workers from Los Angeles – without telling them they were coming here to break a strike. Complicating matters greatly was that the non-union, out-of-town bricklayers were African-American.
Instead of directing their anger towards the contractor, white union workers targeted Black men and one of them picked a fight with an African-American named Paul Anderson, unaware that he wasn’t part of the group from LA and actually lived here. According to the Republican paper, a white mob stalked him along Fourth street with Anderson carrying a length of pipe for self-defense in case they attacked. In spite of Anderson filing an assault charge against one of the men, the PD story on the incident cast Anderson as someone who was “looking for trouble” and who “ran amuck.” (The man he accused of assault, BTW, was a popular union leader and elected to City Council two years later.)
Work resumed in late March, but not for long – the great Santa Rosa Earthquake struck April 18, 1906. Suddenly constructing buildings of stone and brick didn’t seem like such a swell idea.
With much of downtown flattened, everyone in town had more pressing concerns than what to do with a barely-started schoolhouse. When the school board finally met with the contractor months later, the building was completely redesigned – it would now be wood frame and only one story, with the top floor to be determined. Apparently the only serious damage to what already had been built was part of the basement wall collapsing.
Plans changed again and the upper story was back; work was supposed to completed by October, then by Christmas, then by February. The doors finally opened on March 7, 1907 – Luther Burbank’s birthday. He gave an earnest address on kindness and happiness.
Years passed and two generations of Santa Rosa’s children were schooled there. All manner of poignant stories about the place can be found in the old newspapers. In 1928, 12 year-old Alta Waters wrote to the Press Democrat about Penny, a collie who lived at the school after being hit by a car; on Saturdays the kids took the dog to the movies with them. At the end of summer vacation “Penny would almost die of joy to see us all again.” There were shows performed for parents nearly every year, and the children ran a “student city” complete with a chamber of commerce, post office, clothing store, bank – and likely because this was Burbank school, there was also a garden club. In the 1930s they had Mrs. Gregg, a beloved principal who taught them puppetry while they made up plays together. I could go on for pages more about all that happened during those wonderful days.
Then in September 1938, a Republican headline read: “Fire Menace at Burbank Emphasized.” The problems were real but not particularly dire – the stairways were somewhat narrow and the fire escapes were rickety. The real incentive to rebuild the school, however, was that a federal grant would pay for 45 percent of new construction. The Republican article continued:
|Burbank school erected in 1906, damaged by the earthquake and rebuilt on a substitute plan, is in bad state of repair requiring almost constant remodeling and costly replacement to keep it in usable condition, school officials said yesterday. Eventually because of fire hazard the 32-year-old structure must be torn down and replaced. Sponsors of the bond issue believe that the cheapest and best way to solve the problem is to take advantage of the federal funds now offered as an outright gift…|
(RIGHT: The 1938 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect)
The school bond passed easily (six to one). Before the vote both city newspapers featured the preliminary drawing seen here. The designer for that and the school which was built was William Herbert, a local architect who was never accused of originality. Almost everything he produced was in this Spanish Colonial style; the final design was in the Streamline/PWA Moderne style introduced in Santa Rosa years before by Herbert’s former partner, Cal Caulkins.
The original schoolhouse was demolished in June, 1940. On that occasion the Republican offered something of an obituary: “Walls that for more than 33 years have echoed the laughter of happy children, the sing-song chant of students reading aloud their daily lessons, the quick steps of young Americans as they marched to and from their classes, started crumbling away yesterday…”
The article written by V. C. Silvershield ended: “Luther Burbank has passed on but his works will never die. Today Luther Burbank grammar school also will die — but the wreckers’ hammers cannot kill the spirit of Burbank — and like the Phoenix a new Luther Burbank grammar school will spring forth to carry on the traditions of “south of the creek.”
It will soon be in order for Santa Rosa to follow the lead of Oakland and build some schoolhouses worthy of the city. A school building should be erected south of Santa Rosa creek the coming summer.
– Santa Rosa Republican, April 27 1904
SCHOOL CHILDREN MUST HAVE ROOM
Trustees Unanimous For a Bond Issue and Want a Durable Building
The members of the Board of Education of Court House School District will hold a special meeting tomorrow evening at the office of Secretary Fred G. Nagle to discuss the matter of providing Santa Rosa with adequate school facilities. At the present time there are practically three hundred children attending the schools for whom there is no provision for seats and desks. It is up to the Board of Education to provide additional room. This can only be done through a bond issue as the revenue of the schools at present is only adequate for the ordinary needs of the district.
At the present time there are one hundred more pupils in the Fourth street grammar school than ever before, and two hundred more than any previous record for this month. January and February are recognized as the heaviest school months and when this influx of pupils arrives the principal and teachers of the schools will be completely swamped…
…[Board Trustee] Albert O. Erwin— “We have pupils enough at the present time to fill five additional rooms and there is a great overflow of pupils from the Fourth-street and Davis-street schools. I believe there should be some arrangement for handling the pupils on the south side of Santa Rosa creek. There is a large and growing population in the south and southwest sections of the city which needs our attention. I should like to see a brick or stone building constructed of about eight rooms…
– Santa Rosa Republican, November 15, 1904
Resolved, That in the event of the voting and sale of the proposed bonds, it is hereby declared to be the intention of this board to build two new school buildings of brick or stone, and that it is their intention to locate one of them south of Santa Rosa creek upon such a convenient and central lot as it is possible to secure at a reasonable price…
– Board of Trustees of Court House School District, December 6, 1904
NAMES FOR SCHOOLS
Suggestion Made Which Will Receive Consideration
Several times of late reference has been made at the meetings of the Board of Education to the inconvenience of the present method of designating the various schools in the district and suggestions have been made that the schools should each be given a distinctive name as in other cities. With the building of the new school south of the creek has come the suggestion that it shall be known as the “Burbank” school. As to the other schools it has been suggested that names of prominent men might be assigned. Oakland has its Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield and Swett schools, while all other cities have similar names for the schools.
– Press Democrat, November 3 1905
NEW SCHOOL HOUSE TO BE NAMED FOR LUTHER BURBANK
Meeting of Board of Education
The Board of Education of Court House School District, at an adjourned meeting last night, decided to honor Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen, Luther Burbank, by naming her best and latest school building in his honor, providing he would consent to the action. The Board decided that the new ten-room stone and brick building at the corner of A and Ellis street, south of the creek should be called the “Luther Burbank School” in honor of the great scientist, and the secretary was directed to write and request Mr. Burbank to allow the use of his name by the school department in this manner.
– Press Democrat, February 14 1906
BURBANK WILL ACCEPT HONOR
His Love for Children and Interest in Santa Rosa Excuse for So Doing
The request of the Board of Education for permission to use the name of Santa Rosa’s eminent scientist for its new eight room brick and stone school building being erected near his home, on A street at the corner of Ellis, has been accepted with the following characteristic reply from Mr. Burbank:
“Mr. Hugh C. Coltrln, Secretary Board of Education, Santa Rosa, California.
“My Dear Sir: I cannot be otherwise than highly pleased with the proposition of the Board of Education to name the beautiful new school building, at the corner of A and Ellis streets, the Luther Burbank school.
“I can only say that I feel wholly unworthy of such a compliment, but if this action is pleasing to the Board I shall accept the compliment, but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution.
“My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.
“Heartily yours. Luther Burbank.”
– Press Democrat, February 21 1906
SCHOOL BOARD IN SESSION
…A considerable portion of the evening was spent in a discussion of the Burbank school reconstruction. Contractor Kuykendall and Sub-Contractor Nagle were present to confer with the board. At a late hour an adjournment was taken to Friday night…
– Press Democrat, June 27 1906
BOARD OF EDUCATION ADJUSTS THE LOSS
The Board of Education of Court House School District met Friday evening and adjusted the loss on the Burbank school building. The gross loss is estimated at $10,000 which will be reduced to one-half that amount by the salvage allowance of Contractor J. O. Kuykendall. On April 18 when the building was damaged there was due and had been paid the contractor the sum of $10,876.45 out of a contract price of $27,496.
The board decided to change the material of the building and instead of brick it will be constructed of wood. It will be a frame building from the basement up and the basement which was damaged will be rebuilt in the weak portions. At the present time only the lower floor will be completed and the building of the second story will be held in abeyance.
– Santa Rosa Republican, June 30, 1906
WORK IS PROGRESSING ON BURBANK SCHOOL
When driving go by the Burbank school building and note the progress now in evidence there. The frame for both stories is up and the diagonal sheeting is being put on. Contractor Kuykendall is pushing the work as rapidly as possible and he will endeavor to have the structure completed in October.
The frame of the building stands on the inner half of the foundation. This will admit of a curve at the base extending to the outside of the foundation wall and will give the structure pleasing effect.
As soon as the building is completed Colonel Juilliard will extend A street through to Lemmon & Barnett’s addition and the entire street will then be improved and will become a popular drive. This will make that section even more desirable for homes.
The Burbank will be the best ward school building in the city. It will be of handsome design and properly lighted, heated and ventilated. The south side of the town has made splendid progress the past two years and even better things are expected in the future.
– Santa Rosa Republican, August 8, 1906
SCHOOLS OPEN SEPTEMBER 4
…It is expected that the new Burbank school house will also be open by October if nothing to hinder the progress of the work occurs…
– Press Democrat, August 11 1906
TO COMPLETE SCHOOLHOUSE
Upper Story of the New Burbank School Will Be Fitted Up — Meeting of School Board
At the meeting of the Board of Education last night it was decided to finish the upper story of the new Burbank school house on Ellis street. This will provide four extra rooms.
The decision was reached after an extended conference between the members of the board and Contractor Kuykendall. The rooms will be furnished as soon as completed.
– Press Democrat, September 12 1906
THE SCHOOLS TO REOPEN MONDAY
…The new Burbank school house will be ready for occupancy, it is hoped, not later than the first of February…
– Press Democrat, January 6 1907
THE NEW LUTHER BURBANK SCHOOL IS DEDICATED
Address Is Delivered By Distinguished Scientist
Petite Ruby Randall Raises Flag for the First Time on School Grounds on Thursday Afternoon
If the weather had been made to order for the celebration of the birthday of Santa Rosa’s distinguished citizen, Mr. Luther Burbank, or for the dedication of Santa Rosa’s handsome new schoolhouse named for him — the Burbank school — it could not have been more delightful.
The day broke with radiant sunshine end all Nature looked its best on this occasion. The buds on trees and shrubs burst forth into life and the blossoms unfolded their rich tints on the day marking the birth of the man whose care and genius has done so much to improve plant and flowers, making them give of their best for the use and pleasure of mankind.
For the first time in Thursday afternoon’s sunshine “Old Glory,” the emblem of patriotism, was flung to the breeze from the mast in the schoolhouse grounds, and from it lessons will be drawn by the instructors who labor and will labor in the school in pointing the young idea to the paths that will lead to the after good citizenship of their lives if they heed the lessons given them.
Another special feature of Thursday, aside from the dedication of the schoolhouse occurring on the birthday of the man for whom it was named, was his presence at the dedication and his delivery of an address in which the kindliest of thoughts had place.
Another inspiring thing about those dedication exercises was the blending of child voices In song and chorus. Then is something uplifting in the melody of the child voice when raised on such songs as formed a feature of the dedication. The songs indicated clever rehearsal and response to instruction.
All in all the program was a pleasing one and there was no need for excuse because it was a simple one, robbed of some more pretentious numbers on account of necessary postponements on account of previous bad weather.
At the dedication of the schoolhouse there were some four hundred school children and as many more grown people. They were grouped about the main entrance above which is the gold lettering “Luther Burbank School.” At the outset of the program Principal Leander Good spoke brief words of welcome and spoke of the significance of the occasion. Then a score of school girls, led by Miss Hattie Johnson, sang, “California.” In a few well chosen words Principal Good introduced Mr. Burbank, who spoke as follows:
“My dear young friends — little neighbors — boys and girls:
“I am glad to meet you in this beautiful new house which has been built by your parents and neighbors for you. Do you know why they build school houses for you? My little neighbors did you know that your precious lives hold wonders of wealth, beauty strength, usefulness, your own happiness and the happiness of every one you meet, or sorrow, pain and misery for yourselves and all your friends? This is so.
“This building, these kind teachers and your parents and friends are all to help you to successful and happy lives but you all know that there are two kinds of boys and girls, those who build and those who destroy. Who do you love among your schoolmates? — not those who throw stones at innocent, helpless animals, not those who break and destroy fences, trees and windows, not those who wish to quarrel and fight; but you do all love and respect those who are kind, gentle, unselfish, the peacemakers. Weakling cowards boast, swagger and brag; the brave ones, the good ones, are gentle and kind.
“Now I wish to tell you a secret. I think every one of you, my young friends and neighbors of Santa Rosa, wish to make the best of your precious lives, to have plenty of friends, to be happy and to win success. I will tell you how, just how. Cultivate kind gentle loving thoughts toward every person, animal and even the plants, stars, oceans, rivers and hills. You will find yourself growing more happy each day and with happiness comes health and everything you want.
“I came to speak these words to you because I wish to help you and to prove this I will say that when these grounds about the building are ready, call on Luther Burbank and he will give you all the beautiful young trees and plants you need for ornament and shade.”
At the conclusion of Mr. Burbank’s words he heartily applauded. There was another song and then City Superintendent E. Morris Cox addressed the audience. Mr, Cox dwelt upon the significance of the occasion and paid a glowing tribute to Mr. Burbank and his interest in education. He then explained something about the construction and symmetry of the structure and invited all present to inspect the new schoolhouse named by the Board of Education to perpetuate the name snd work of Santa Rosa’s very distinguished man.
While two or three score of children sang an ode to the Star and Stripes little Miss Ruby Randall commenced to pull the rope and in a short time the flag was floating from the top of the pole and the crowd below shouted their applause and clapped their hands…Several hundred people inspected the building and were well pleased.
– Press Democrat, March 8 1907