It was a small thing, done privately not to draw attention and happened every morning just before Rosenberg’s Department Store opened its Fourth street doors. Clerks paused their fussing with the stock; floor managers stopped setting up cash drawers; accountants in the offices upstairs stopped accounting and janitors let their mops rest in the buckets. Those who were sitting down, stood. A crackly 78 RPM record played over the store’s PA system and they all sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” along with it. They were honoring Malcolm Walt, a member of the family both literally and figuratively – he was the nephew of owner Fred Rosenberg and had been a coworker before enlisting in the Navy Reserve (Malcolm was then serving in Honolulu, a fraught place to be in December, 1941). They were also honoring all the other Malcolm Walts who were in uniform, some of whom were starting to be named in the local newspapers as missing or presumed dead.

In the week after Pearl Harbor, Santa Rosa stumbled down an unmarked path. We didn’t know how to respond to an air raid alert (which were always false alarms) and we couldn’t even settle on what an air raid alert should sound like. It was unclear who was making critical decisions; was it the sheriff, police chief, district attorney or a civil defense committee (which came in city, county, Bay Area and federal flavors) – or the Army? These topics were visited in “CITY OF WAR AND ROSES.”

1941shelter(RIGHT: Red Cross appeal for temporary shelter during a war emergency. The notice appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers December 18, 1941)

During the following week Santa Rosa tapped its long list of citizens who had signed up as civil defense volunteers, creating a network of 1,000 air raid wardens and assistants to patrol their block during blackouts. (When there was no volunteer for a block, mail carriers were asked to make recommendations.) A pair of students used thumbtacks to mark where they lived on a huge map of the city.

The indefatigable women’s clubs held a summit at the Saturday Afternoon Club to plan what each of the 50+ groups in town would do for the war effort. As many women belonged to more than one club, it would be quite a commitment for some, particularly as there was other charity work underway; 200 women were already fanning out through the neighborhoods to raise $18,000 as Santa Rosa’s share of the Red Cross war fund campaign.

It was also the week before Christmas, and everyone wanted to embrace traditions and act as if there was still a semblance of pre-war life. Clubs and fraternal groups had their usual holiday banquets and the Salvation Army orphanage at Lytton held its big annual Christmas party. All kids under twelve were invited to the free show at the California theater; over 1,900 attended and watched Shirley Temple in “The Little Princess,” plus a live appearance by “Little Sugar Dawn, Hollywood’s new western starlet” and her pony, Chiquita. Santa gave away two tons of candy; let Gentle Reader pause for a moment to contemplate the amount of noise inside that theater from two thousand little kids jacked on the highest sugar rush of their lives.

All of that mirrored what was going on in towns across America that same busy week – surely there were even many other businesses where the day began by singing the national anthem, reciting the pledge of allegiance, or similar. What set Santa Rosa apart was that we were the largest city between San Francisco and Oregon, which meant the generals would be stationing soldiers here. Lots and lots of them: Thousands, in fact, which would find us providing military base infrastructure for the duration.

As mentioned in the last article, about 1,200 members of the 17th infantry arrived here right after Pearl Harbor and set up a base at the fairgrounds. Santa Rosa immediately welcomed them by sending over truckloads of magazines, playing cards and board games, opening up the (heated) municipal swimming pool and vowed to bake 1,000 cakes – which ended up being 1,500 instead. But that was just for starters; it’s nearly impossible to believe all that would happen during the seven days before Christmas.

Off base canteen/rec centers were opened in the Episcopal Guild Hall (Church of the Incarnation) and the old Southern Methodist Church building on Fifth street, stocked with coffee, doughnuts and chocolate, staffed by the American Legion Auxiliary. The Auxiliary also threw the first dance where over 150 soldiers danced to live music with local young women. (Does anyone know of any marriages resulting from the 17th infantry being stationed here? I’ve found two possible candidates.)

And speaking of dances, Santa Rosa High School held its annual Christmas dance; admission price was the donation of a pack of cigarettes. Honest, mom, the smokes you found in my jacket were for the soldiers.

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce launched a series of twice-weekly amateur variety shows for the troops at the fairgrounds pavilion. The first program included hula dancing by a local dance teacher, a magician and a ventriloquist; in later shows, a troupe of regulars included “Wayne Beeman and his musical saw,” “the Kate Smith of Healdsburg,” “Cow Country Minstrels” and “King the wonder dog.” King has appeared in these pages before – he could supposedly add/subtract up to five and entertained soldiers by playing dead after being asked to show what he would do to the enemy.

One entertainer should be singled out from that pack of cornball amateurs: Leroy Ross, a 28 year-old African-American man from Burnt Corn, Alabama (!) was a semi-professional singer/guitarist and had comedy acts he usually did with a Black partner. Besides these Army shows, Ross lived in Santa Rosa and was mentioned in the newspapers throughout the 1940s, appearing at taverns with stages and supper clubs such as the Mark West Springs Resort. Before and after the war he was also a popular figure on the “cowboy circuit” playing at rodeos all over California. Although he was forgotten when he died in Cincinnati in 1979, Bill Soberanes wrote a nice profile of his interesting life in the Sept. 4, 1956 Argus-Courier. When they invent the time machines, he’s definitely someone you’ll want to go back and meet.

Another popular entertainment for the soldiers that week was boxing. A standard-size ring was erected at the fairgrounds and the American Legion arranged “four snappy boxing bouts and a wrestling match.” The homefront columnist for the Press Democrat commented, “After the regular bouts, the place was thrown into a turmoil of laughter and cheers when a ‘battle royal’ was staged as a grand climax, with four soldiers in the ring at once, each with one boxing glove and blindfolded. Brother, you missed something!”

Soon there was to be yet another Army camp established just outside of town. “Camp Wikiup” was located on “famous old Rossiter ranch and horse-breeding farm” (-PD) and the 48th Field Artillery would be stationed there, bringing the number of soldiers in the area to nearly 2,000. A stage was part of the construction underway so the Chamber could perform weekly variety shows there as well.

But just before Christmas 1941 the 17th infantry was still the sole object of the town’s affections, and the soldiers thanked Santa Rosa with a military parade on Saturday. Down Fourth street rumbled the heavy transport trucks, artillery including tank guns and the zippy little Jeeps which were often the subject of jokes. Thousands turned out to watch, even though there was pounding rain with hailstones during the first half of the parade.

Dec. 20, 1941 Santa Rosa military parade. PHOTOS: Santa Rosa Republican
Dec. 20, 1941 Santa Rosa military parade. PHOTOS: Santa Rosa Republican

Also that weekend Santa Rosa was nearing peak cake mania. Well and good that your delicious treats would be enjoyed by the soldiers, but would it be so bad if you also got to, uh, show off your bakery skills, too? So there was a “cake preview” at Cheney’s jewelry store at 437 Fourth street before the first “cake shower” donations to the troops on the day after the parade and the “cake day” donations on Christmas Eve. From the Press Democrat:

There were white-frosted gooey ones, hard-frosted chocolate ones, cream cakes, applesauce cakes, fruit cakes, angel cakes, raisin cakes, square cakes, marble cakes, round cakes, cup cakes, cakes fashioned into replicas of Christmas trees, cakes decorated With American flags, red, white and blue icing …

One cake had a message that left everyone wondering: “To the naughtiest boys in camp.”

An array of cakes at the Santa Rosa Moose Lodge on their way to being donated to troops at the fairground. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941
An array of cakes at the Santa Rosa Moose Lodge on their way to being donated to troops at the fairground. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941

Between the afternoon parade, evening banquets, dances, and all that baking (did I forget to mention they were also making enough homemade candy to fill 1,800 one-pound bags?) it’s exhausting just to read about the doings in Santa Rosa that week. But we’re not yet to the end of our 1941 Christmas story. Not even close.

The big excitement in town was over the “Invite a Soldier Home for Christmas” drive. First proposed by the 20-30 Club on Dec. 17, the plan was to have at least two soldiers at the Christmas Day dinner table in every home. So popular was the idea that by the next day about 300 soldiers were paired up with a local host and the Chamber of Commerce had a soldier assigned to their office full time to coordinate the matchmaking. From the Press Democrat:

More than 500 soldiers now stationed in Santa Rosa will have real home Christmas dinners as guests of Santa Rosans. The chamber of commerce office, clearinghouse for the Christmas dinner parties was literally swamped all this week with telephone calls and counter calls from Santa Rosa folks who wished to entertain the boys. At 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon the quota of men who will have leave Christmas Day was reached, and persons calling after that time were told they might have the boys as guests at any Sunday dinner, or New Year’s or in fact almost any other day.

And then on Christmas Eve just before the sun went down came the news: All Christmas leaves and passes for the 17th infantry and other troops on the West Coast were canceled for the remainder of the year. Troops were placed on alert and ordered back to camps because the Army declared it was a “period of special danger” from sabotage. Western governors were told to warn citizens “special vigilance” was required because there were lurking threats.

Santa Rosa and other communities were wrenched back to the terror-filled days just after Pear Harbor, when there were crazy stories of enemy bombers flying over San Francisco and warships storming toward the coast. (For more, see “THREE DAYS OF FEAR ITSELF.”)

As happened then, the PD switchboard once more filled up with panicked callers: “…to show the speed with which the rumors advanced, there was a telephone call to The Press Democrat last night from Vallejo asking if it was true that buildings in Santa Rosa were shaken by gunfire blasts. Equally fantastic tales were topics of gossip in the streets here.”

The Scrooge who killed Christmas was Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt. If his name is familiar, it’s because he was earlier responsible for unnecessarily frightening the public about those fake threats, then refused to admit his West Coast air raid alerts were false alarms. And as mentioned in the “Three Days” article, during the week before Christmas DeWitt was also urging Washington to grant him special authority to “collect all alien subjects.” (His lobbying against Japanese-Americans in particular grew increasingly rabid after the first of the year, which led directly to the internment of 110,000 starting in February, 1942.)

In addition to the disappointed enlisted men and homemakers suddenly finding themselves with two (or more) empty chairs at their tables, there were a couple of dozen wives of Army officers in town because their husbands planned on having Christmas leave. “Why not call the hotels and invite them out to take the place of the soldiers you had planned on?” the PD helpfully suggested.

Although they were denied a home-cooked meal, the soldiers did not suffer greatly. The Army couldn’t have foreseen the Invite-a-Soldier groundswell, and had ordered 130 turkeys to feed all the soldiers at the fairgrounds. The Sunshine Bakery gave Army cooks use of their 12×15 foot ovens to roast the birds.

And after they gorged themselves on turkey and trimmings there was dessert: Cookies and candy. And cakes. Lordy, there were enough cakes to feed a small army. Which, of course, they did.

Privates Warren and Hillebrandt, 17th infantry Company E enjoy some of the 1,500 cakes donated to the troops. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941
Privates Warren and Hillebrandt, 17th infantry Company E enjoy some of the 1,500 cakes donated to the troops. PHOTO: Santa Rosa Republican, Dec. 25, 1941




Read More



Yes, Wyatt Earp was in Santa Rosa! His brother, Virgil Earp, was too! But, uh, not the ones you think – they were the nephews of the famous lawman and gunslinger. Yet it’s also true their legendary uncle Wyatt passed through town at times.

On one of those occasions the Santa Rosa Democrat interviewed the famed man in 1889 and wrote, “Wyatt Earp is little given to talking about himself. And yet he has a reputation as wide as the continent — a fame made by deeds rather than words.” Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (let’s call him “Wyatt B.” for short) may have been modest, but since his death in 1929 there have been hundreds of books, movies and TV shows about him, Tombstone Arizona and the iconic gunfight at the O.K. Corral. A simple Google search on his name currently returns almost eight million hits.

(Above: Lawmen Wyatt Earp and Virgil Earp, uncles to the Earp men with the same names who lived in and around Santa Rosa)

Just scratch the surface of that enormous canon of work and you’ll find there’s lots of misinformation – a common theme includes authors insisting other authors are lazy, liars, if not bonafide idiots – and one of those false claims is that he owned or managed a stable in Santa Rosa, which you’ll even find in his biographical Wikipedia entry. It’s conceivable one of the nephews did so, although there’s no evidence of that either. Here’s what we know of Wyatt B. Earp in Santa Rosa from the newspapers of the time:

While San Francisco was homebase during most of the 1890s, Wyatt B. and his wife, Josie, were traveling and racing his horses. There are several articles available in the 1895 San Francisco Call that mention Earp then had a stable of trotters. Josie described Santa Rosa being on “the California circuit.” She explicitly mentioned winning in Santa Rosa because Wyatt B. was driving his primary racing horse, “Jim Leach,” and they had expected another of their horses in the same race would win instead.

Besides competing in Santa Rosa, Wyatt Earp had another reason to be here: Buying horseflesh. While Jim Leach came from the huge Rancho Del Paso stud farm near Sacramento, Wyatt was at the Santa Rosa racetrack in August 1889 to watch the races because he was “interested in the ownership of several horses,” as he told the Sonoma Democrat.

In an article in the Dec. 9 1896 Call over a lawsuit against him, Wyatt B. told the judge “he had some race horses, but they were leased by him for three years from a woman who lives in Santa Rosa.” That followed his claim of being penniless and owned only the clothes on his back. (If he thought it might work, I’ll bet he would have plead hardship because his poor wife was a widow.)

That’s the limit of what we know for a fact about Wyatt B. in Sonoma county. So what about those nephews who lived in or around Santa Rosa?

The eldest brother of Wyatt B. Earp was Newton Jasper Earp. He had two sons who he named after his famous siblings: Wyatt Clyde Earp (“Wyatt C.”) and Virgil Edwin Earp. As Newton was a half-brother to Wyatt B. the boys were really half-nephews to the lawman.

Wyatt C. (1872-1937) first appeared in local history living in “Mendocino Township, Sonoma” (Skaggs Springs/Dry Creek) in the 1900 census. He and his new bride were staying with her father and aunt. (The census taker mistakenly identifies Wyatt C. and wife Virginia as the farmer’s nephew and niece.)

In the 1903 county directory, Wyatt C. was a Healdsburg laborer, as he was similarly listed in Geyserville, 1905. (UPDATE: In 1904 he applied for a liquor license to open a saloon on Geyserville Road, next to the Petray Brothers’ Stable. h/t Katherine Rinehart.) As Wyatt C. was in his mid twenties in the years while Wyatt B. was racing, that guy could well have operated a livery stable in Santa Rosa. How he felt about his renowned namesake is unknown, but he usually dropped the Wyatt part of his name and went by Clyde. Make of that what you will.

The 1910 census found Wyatt C. farming in Snake River Wyoming (near Jackson Hole), but from the 1920s onward he was a carpenter living mainly around Sacramento. His was apparently a quiet life.

Not so his brother, Virgil Edwin Earp (1879-1959). He was known as Eddie at times but later embraced his “Virgil Earp-ness” with gusto.

earpadulteryHe seemed unable to settle down and had at least five wives 1902-1946. And that’s not counting the incident in 1905, when he ran off with his cousin’s wife.

Virgil took the Santa Rosa woman and her two daughters to San Francisco – although they left her son behind with his father. As he was still married to someone else, an arrest warrant for adultery was issued by our local constable. The papers in the city had a field day with the scandalous story, but the Santa Rosa papers wrote little. The woman reconciled with her husband a week later and returned, but there was no word of what transpired between Virgil and his wife, or even if he ever returned to Santa Rosa.

After that episode Virgil can be traced to Napa, Fairfield, Vacaville, Cloverdale, Washington state and Nevada. Like his older brother Wyatt C. he hovered mostly around Sacramento, although they did not live together.

Because he was in the Army Quartermaster Corps around the turn of the century, Virgil applied for a military pension in 1932 as an invalid and for Social Security in 1941. He seemed on track to end his days as a forgotten, impoverished, and probably friendless old man feeding pigeons on a park bench.

But then in 1958, fate came calling for Virgil Edwin Earp.

What launched this chain of events is unknown, but in March of that year Virgil and his daughter, Alice, found themselves on an airplane for New York City. He was invited to be a contestant on “The $64,000 Question.”

That was the most popular TV quiz show of them all, and there was plenty of competition. According to its Wikipedia entry it even beat I Love Lucy in the ratings; crime rates dropped when the show was on. And for five Tuesday nights Virgil Earp was the star, winning $32,000 for answering questions about the Wild West. One of those appearances can be viewed below.

Those shows turned Virgil into a celebrity – a real, live, rootin’ tootin’ relic of the Old West, and the press swarmed around him. The Sacramento Bee showed him cradling a .38 Colt that supposedly was the last one owned by uncle Wyatt. He talked some about his life (“I was raised right at the knee of Bat Masterson and poor old Doc Holliday”) and how he was gonna write a book someday.

A news service offered a three-part feature series “The Real Wild West” about his life – “a story of fighting men, of liquor and sporting women, stud poker and revenge.” He said he was born in Tombstone, Arizona inside a covered wagon, that he was named sheriff of Paradise Valley Nevada at 18 and killed three men before he reached age 21. He was part of the posse uncle Wyatt B. formed to ride down to Mexico and avenge the death of Morgan Earp. He operated two gambling halls in Sacramento.

It was all complete bullshit.

In truth, he wasted his life bouncing between nondescript jobs – a laborer when he was young, a carpenter, grocer, salesman (both retail and door-to-door selling sewing machines) and collector for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was born at the family home in Kansas, as were his brothers and sisters. Virgil knew about Paradise Valley because his parents lived there when he was a quartermaster; he wasn’t a sheriff or law enforcement officer there or anywhere else. A researcher has put together more details debunking other lies.

No one questioned his fable then (and very few do now, for that matter) and when he died a year after his quiz show glory, newspapers nationwide ran the Associated Press obituary repeating his tall tales and glorifying him as “the last of the fighting Earps.”

Now almost completely forgotten personally, he happened to die when there was enormous interest in the Old West. It’s doubtless some of the widely-printed nonsense he spewed in 1958 about his uncles, their friends and the Genteel Art of Gunfighting seeped into resources about the Frontier West accepted as fact.

The $64,000 Question was cancelled months after his appearance when it was discovered some of the other quiz shows were rigged. Virgil was asked if he had been coached on the answers and he snorted indignantly: “Who could tell me anything about the West?”

Actually, Virgil, you were really no closer to the West than any other salesman or store clerk who read popular cowboy or “historical” magazines and dreamed of being Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock or that great lawman, Wyatt Earp. Unfortunately, people believed everything you said because of that famous name.




Virgil Earp Runs Away From Santa Rosa With Mrs. W. F. McCombs and Her Children

Special Dispatch to The Call.

SANTA ROSA, Oct. 2. — W. F. McCombs returned here from Sacramento last night to find that his wife, Mrs. Maude McCombs, had left the family home on Thursday with his two daughters in company with his cousin, Virgil E. Earp. Earp left a wife here. The couple went to San Francisco, from where Earp sent back $100 of his wife’s money, which he took with him when he left. In the same letter he said he would send later for her clothing.

This afternoon McCombs and Mrs. Earp appeared before Justice A. J. Atchinson and told their story, after which McCombs swore to a warrant for the arrest of the couple. In speaking of the matter McCombs said:

“I am done with my wife and will never take her back, but I want the children, and will fight for them to the last ditch. She took the two girls and left the boy. One of the girls is 2 years old and the other between 6 and 8.”

Mrs. Earp, who is a slender, delicate looking little blonde, said:

“We have found that Mrs. McCombs and my husband left for Petaluma last Thursday and stayed there all night. They then went to San Francisco. From there my husband sent me the $100 of my money which he took away with him when he left. I would not turn my hand over to stop him, but am willing to do what I can to help Mr. McCombs to get his children. I am done with Earp.”

The warrant was placed in the hands of Constable S. J. Gilliam and he will make every effort to capture the runaway couple.

– San Francisco Call, October 3 1905


Has Returned Home

Mrs. Mande McCombs, who eloped from this city last week with Virgil Earp, taking her two children with her, returned home yesterday. Earp is still absent.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 7 1905

Read More