Well sir, it’s just past 800 articles at the little history blog halfway down on your bookmark list, so it’s a good time to take a look around and see what’s new in the neighborhood.
Our last cook’s tour was five years ago (2018) in article # 650. Since that was just a few months after the Tubbs fire, the most read article was THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK, which described man-made fires in 1908 and 1939 that could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa. That and other articles about historic fires are still the most popular and featured in the list below.
The only technical change to the site is the addition of the RANDOM option in the header, which works as described. It was created during the early days of the Covid lockdown and seems to be well used. I’ve even rediscovered several items I’d forgotten writing about.
The curated list found here mainly contains stories written over the last five years and a different list can be found in article 650 (with one overlap). Articles now tend to be longer and more in-depth; there’s a category below for multi-part series such as the 41,000 word, twelve part examination of the creation of Santa Rosa Plaza. The ever growing number of newspapers and journals available online has also made it possible to dive deeper into research beyond just what appeared in the Sonoma County papers.
FIRE ON THE RIDGETOP
THE 1964 HANLY FIRE A small army gathered to defend the County Hospital on Chanate including firefighters from as far away as Redding. On the line were also National Guardsmen and many teenagers – altogether as many as 600 were braced to make a last stand to save Santa Rosa
THE FORGOTTEN GREAT FIRE OF 1870 The earliest known firestorm that charged over the mountain towards Santa Rosa was simply called The Great Fire by our ancestors. We know it stopped three miles from Santa Rosa and measuring from 1870 city limits, that meant it burned through Fountaingrove – same as the 1964 and 2017 fires
WHEN THE HIGH DRY WINDS BLOW The “Diablo Winds” that push catastrophic fires towards Santa Rosa were apparently not as common in the old days, but might have been more violent and lasted longer
THE PEOPLE WHO WERE INVISIBLE
Blacks, Asians and Native Americans are mostly absent in Santa Rosa history, but not because they weren’t here. For decades the local newspapers ignored their births, marriages and sometimes deaths, yet didn’t fail to mention when someone was in legal trouble or when there were opportunities to make fun of them
THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA In 19th century Santa Rosa, three of the most interesting people to meet were Black: A barber who was a prominent Bay Area civil rights activist, a woman real estate investor with prime downtown property, and a bootblack who had been a leader in the East Coast abolitionist movement. (4 part series)
SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS The Chinese population outnumbered whites in Sebastopol during the late 1880s, and was said to still have about 300 residents through the 1920s. But census takers in that era overlooked them because the count was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year. Nor was there much of an effort to record names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing”
FINDING ISHI No group around the turn of the century was more invisible to whites than Native Americans, with one exception: Ishi, who was portrayed by the press as an “uncontaminated aboriginee.” Papers nationwide took a simplistic view that he was a “Stone Age Man,” a Fred Flintstone or Alley Oop come to life, and there were indeed cartoons that portrayed him as a caveman. But the Press Democrat interviewed a couple who knew him decades earlier and described how Ishi’s family were murdered or abducted by the whites. It was an extraordinary story yet was only reprinted in one small newspaper, and is transcribed here for the first time
A VERY LONG TIME AGO
Over just a quarter century, the Santa Rosa plain underwent rapid change. The Pomo homeland where roamed antelope and elk saw the first large fields of wheat, barley, oats, corn and beans planted by the Californios, followed by Americans who wanted to transform the whole place into a reflection of the Southern and Midwestern towns they came from.
THE FIVE THOUSAND MORNINGS OF THE CARRILLOS Before there was even the concept of starting a town named Santa Rosa there was the 9,000 acre Carrillo rancho. Their great herds of cattle and semi-wild horses grazed on the unfenced oak savanna, puffing clouds of steam in the cool early hours
CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS Once California became a state, no one was happy with the situation over Spanish/Mexican land grants. Nearly everyone, Californio or American, rich or poor, was fretful over keeping their property. Should you build a cabin and plant crops if you could be kicked out before the harvest? Would the ranch supporting your family be taken away by the government, or occupied by squatters?
2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS There absolutely was a gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. There were multiple “shooting affrays” every year although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury. And sometimes the shooters were even women
THE CIVIL WAR AT HOME
With the exception of Petaluma, most of Sonoma County was rooting for the Confederacy to win the Civil War. But being pro-Confederate in California did not necessarily mean someone was for slavery in the South, and voting against Lincoln did not even reveal the voter was against the Union
A FAR AWAY OUTPOST OF DIXIE Local farmers were inclined to vote for Democrats in 1860 because the party promoted their notion of “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. Here the politically powerful settler’s movement wanted California to proclaim the Mexican and Spanish land grants “fraudulent”
THAT TERRIBLE MAN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT Another reason for anti-Union sentiments was because Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat fed its readers a steady diet of anti-Lincoln, anti-abolitionist bile. As the 1860 election neared, the Democrat turned into the sort of rag that might have been published in the Deep South at that time, not only pro-slavery but viciously racist
A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR When the war ended you can bet the editor of the Democrat was nervously peeking out the windows as angry patriots were busting up the offices of disloyal newspapers elsewhere in the state. And given his years of snarkily taunting Petaluma, should he also fear being tarred and Petaluma-chicken feathered? Luckily for him nothing happened – but papers in both towns suggested it was a close call
THE PETALUMA-SANTA ROSA FEUD
Petaluma was already an established community with several hundred residents when Santa Rosa was voted to be the county seat in 1854, even though it was little more than a camp staked out at a muddy crossroads with about eight actual buildings. Soon the rivalry began along with calls from Petaluma to move the county seat there
PETALUMA VS SANTA ROSA: ROUND ONE Petaluma ribbed Santa Rosa mercilessly over its bungled efforts to build a functional courthouse, but the potshots became increasingly bitter with accusations of tax money being wasted to pay for endless courthouse repairs along with civic improvements in and around Santa Rosa
THE WEEKLY FEUD IS ON PAGE 2 Petaluma’s paper was the Sonoma County Journal and its editor offered “the hand of fellowship” to Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat when it was founded in 1857. All that warm and fuzzy bonhomie lasted exactly two months before they started insulting their rivals as “a set of block heads and dolts” and a “pusillanimous little puppy.” Oh, but those guys would have loved Twitter
THE SECESSIONS OF PETALUMA At least nine times Petaluma has proposed to seize the county seat from Santa Rosa, become part of Marin or split off to become the seat of a new county
ORDER IN THE COURT
Santa Rosa courtrooms were the scene of so many unusual and occasionally bizarre proceedings they became a source of public entertainment. Some attorneys were so popular that followers even attended routine hearings so as to not miss a chance there might be theatrics which surely would be the talk of the town the next morning
THE MURDEROUS SOMNAMBULIST Edward Livernash tried to force an elderly man into signing over his property before killing him, but when the plot went awry Livernash claimed he was in a “somnambulistic state” at the time and believed he was the victim of a conspiracy by several reincarnated presidents. The press had a field day covering his trial where he testified while supposedly in a hypnotic trance
OUR VERY OWN PERRY MASON There’s a tale told about Gil P. Hall that’s probably apocryphal, but shows how much his cleverness was held in awe. During Prohibition he defended a man accused of bootlegging and when the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence Hall 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
THOSE ANNOYING NUDISTS NEXT DOOR W. Finlaw Geary was another storied attorney famous for courtroom surprises. In 1944 he was retained by property owners seeking to shut down a road easement through their orchards outside Sonoma city limits. The road was the only way to reach the Sun-O-Ma nudist colony owned by a married couple, and Geary stunned the court by accusing the wife of being an imposter
LAWYER ARGUES AGAINST SELF IN COURT, LOSES During 1911 the same lawyer represented the plaintiff in one case and a defendant in another, with the same legal question pivotal in both cases. This crazy double-edged situation didn’t happen in different places at different times – the attorney was asking for a decision from a judge at the same hearing, simultaneously arguing for and against the same point. This was a man who could obviously walk and chew gum at the same time, and probably whistle as well
MURDER MOST FOUL
Murders run like a scarlet thread through Sonoma County history. Mentioned in the article #650 list were the killings of Cowie and Fowler during the Bear Flag Revolt and the 1886 Wickersham murders, which inflamed anti-Chinese hatred on the West Coast. None in the group below were as historically significant, but had our ancestors dropping their jaws
NEARLY GOT AWAY WITH MURDER “Adam Clark is a boy who apparently never had a chance,” the Press Democrat explained to readers. “He started and looked inquiringly at the Court when he was told something about a mother’s love. He did not know what was meant.” The reporting was unusual because “sob sister” journalism rarely, if ever, appeared in the PD during that era. It was also unusual because the 15 year-old being described so sympathetically had just committed the premeditated murder of his mother
A TALE OF TWO MURDERERS “Most Atrocious Crime in History of Sonoma County” proclaimed the Press Democrat headline describing the gruesome murders of the Kendall family near Cazadero. Suspicion focused on a Japanese handyman, who disappeared after supposedly confessing to the landlord who hated the Kendalls and had been trying to evict them for years
YOU DON’T KNOW ME Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this story: A mysterious mad scientist suspected of killing a well-heeled Park avenue woman with his devious “liquid fire” invention turned out to be a con-man and former German spy. Or was it a case of mistaken identity? It’s a wild tale, complete with a Believe-it-or-not! twist at the end
SAVE A SEAT FOR ME
Want to take the pulse of a town 100+ years ago? Just look at its theaters. The more the theaters, the greater the population; the better the theaters, the greater the investment in the community’s future. Both Santa Rosa and Petaluma had opera houses and later movie palaces plus smaller vaudeville theaters and nickelodeons. Thanks in large part to our proximity to San Francisco there were performers coming through every week until the heyday of motion pictures began
LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD Ah, vaudeville! On any given Saturday you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. There were birdcallers, “rubber girl” contortionists, midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” plus a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. And then there was Roy Crone and his grizzly bear. The manager of the Columbia Theater on Third Street, Crone liked to drive around the state with his uncaged 780 lb. bear sitting in the backseat of his (presumably large and sturdy) car
LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE In Santa Rosa during the 1930s and under twelve? If so, then you were at the Cal Theater on B Street every Saturday for the pandemonium known as the Mickey Mouse Club. They would watch a movie and some cartoons, but mainly they would sing and yell. They would get to yell a lot; pause for a moment and imagine being in a theater with around a thousand kids, all their little volume knobs cranked up to 11. Maybe 12
THE TIME MARK TWAIN CAME TO PETALUMA Mark Twain, that funny guy everyone was buzzing about, made only a few appearances in 1866 before he left for the East Coast and Europe, probably never to return out west. Reviewers had been giddy with delight over his recent appearance in San Francisco: “Taking it altogether, Mark Twain’s lecture may be pronounced one of the greatest successes of the season” gushed the Chronicle. Other SF newspapers sang with similar praise. Thus you can bet Hinshaw’s Hall in Petaluma was crowded with people expecting a jolly evening. Spoiler alert: They hated him
VERY PECULIAR PEOPLE DOING ODD THINGS
There’s no disputing some of the people you find profiled in the old papers were damned peculiar. The grand champion has to be Martin Tarwater, who at age 66 abandoned his family near Mark West Creek and set out for the Yukon Gold Rush. Another traveler from Santa Rosa wrote to the Press Democrat about coming across him sitting alone in the wilderness at night and warbling an old music hall ditty, “How the Miners Made Pancakes in ’49”
THE SHORT CRAZY SUMMER OF DAREDEVIL DOOLEY Of all the events at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds I’ve read about in the old newspapers, there’s one I’d have truly loved to have attended: On July 4, 1918, Ed Dooley and another driver slammed their massive cars together head-on at an impact speed of 100 MPH, the men jumping out at the last second. At age 39, Dooley had never done anything like this before; he was a portly ex-salesman who apparently woke up one morning and decided he was fearless
THE ABDUCTIONS OF GENEVA EAGLESON It’s an old, old story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl to another boy, boys bicker over whom girl truly loves, both boys separately abduct girl and end up in jail. This either sounds like a comic opera, with mistaken identities, deceptions, pursuits, and completely absurd plot twists or a demented episode of Archie Comics
NOT THE SAME WYATT EARP Yes, both Wyatt Earp and brother Virgil were in Santa Rosa. But, uh, not the ones you think; they were the same-named nephews of the famous lawmen. That Wyatt was a laborer in Healdsburg and Geyserville, while in 1905 Virgil convinced a married woman in Santa Rosa to briefly run off with him. More famously, Virgil became a contestant on the hit 1958 TV show, “The $64,000 Question” where he became a celebrity as a living relic of the Old West. He said he had killed three men before age 21 and was “raised right at the knee of Bat Masterson and poor old Doc Holliday.” It was all complete bullshit. (Video of one of his TV appearances in the article)
I SEE BY THE PAPERS
The original name for this blog was “I See by the Papers…” and was intended as a place to share funny, odd and otherwise interesting items from the Santa Rosa newspapers. It outgrew those short pants in about two months, starting with a critical piece on the Press Democrat’s passive racism and how it routinely portrayed the Chinese community as a troublesome, often criminal, underclass. Ever since then, newspaper accuracy and bias have remained central topics
THE TRUE ORIGINS OF THE PRESS DEMOCRAT In the first part of the 20th Century, no one had a greater impact on Santa Rosa than PD editor/publisher Ernest Finley; he was a tireless champion of anything he thought might bring lots of money and attention to the area. But he was also a relentless bully who blocked reforms and hobbled progress by sticking with 19th century attitudes. He was not the paper’s founder, however, and that man was the opposite of the avaricious Finley. Had he not died young Santa Rosa might have followed a different (and I believe, a better) path
HOW TO LOSE A NEWSPAPER The deepest problem for newspapers today is that nobody’s reading them, but as I’ve said for over 25 years: Readers did not give up on newspapers until newspapers abandoned their readers. Even mid-sized dailies such as the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier used to have a bullpen of talented writers who kept subscribers engaged. While researching the 1970s shopping center series I read about 300 PD articles and came to know those city councilmen and other players like family members; every time I finished an article I could hardly wait to find the next development in the story. And that’s the secret of great newspapering: Well-written articles always leave readers hungry to discover what happens next
ON TUESDAY THE MONSTER CAME TO TOWN Fool our readers once, shame on us, but try it again and it’s perfectly okay if you’re a paid advertiser. Examples abound of the old newspapers not hesitating to run deceptive ads disguised as fake news, but in a 1910 case involving a quack doctor some papers investigated and exposed him as a fraud, warning subscribers to stay away. It became a big story in other West Coast papers and by summer there can be no doubt the PD and Santa Rosa Republican knew it was a dangerous con game – but not one word ever appeared in either newspaper to discredit the fake healer who had set up shop here. Censoring the news for big advertisers continues to the present day. Elsewhere, in 1997 I documented how the PD completely ignored a major national news story for months. Subscribers weren’t told one of the region’s top employers (Columbia/HCA) was under federal investigation, with the FBI literally kicking down doors. Hey, could that news blackout have anything to do with the expensive full page ads the corporation was placing in the PD at the same time?
Additional multi-part articles are in the list found in article # 650.
THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID The 1920 lynching of three men at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery hadn’t been reexamined since events happened, and many details hadn’t been revealed before. And like the twice told tales about the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, too much of what was been written about it over the years turned out to be distorted or flat wrong (10 parts)
ROAD TO THE MALL In the 1960s and 1970s, cities across America dreamt of shopping malls as if they were the gateway to the paradise of Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. Malls defined popular culture; we spent more time in malls than anywhere else except for home and work/school. With that motivation, everything fell into place in the 1970s. There was funding for urban renewal – lots and lots of free government money. There was a large cadre of unelected local decision-makers who believed a whopping mall was a once-in-a-century opportunity to transform Santa Rosa into that great metropolis, along with a tax base which would pour an endless river of cash into the city treasury. Then there were enthusiastic downtown shopkeepers, who somehow convinced themselves a giant shopping center next door would bring them good fortune (12 parts)
THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK By 1915, both the Luther Burbank Company and the Luther Burbank Press were dragging his name through the mud. The best thing that can be said about them was that they were run by men who were not very competent, and the worst was that both companies exploited local trust in Burbank himself to peddle worthless stock to Sonoma County residents (4 parts)
The jolly fellow seen at the top is actor Art Van Harvey, who played Victor Gook in the classic radio comedy “Vic and Sade,” which ran from 1932-1944. Using just four characters the small fictional town of Crooper came alive as they chatted about all the goings-on of the odd people in their sphere. Critics have compared the writing of series’ creator Paul Rhymer to Mark Twain, and I’d have to agree. In many ways their world reminds me of Santa Rosa in the same period. There were washrag sales down at Yamilton’s Department Store (think Rosenberg’s) and Vic wore absurd lodge regalia from the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way (no more ridiculous than the Elks’ epaulets and feathered caps). Sade was a member of the Thimble Club (Santa Rosa had 100+ women’s clubs at the time including a Fork Club and yes, a Thimble Club). The menu served at the Little Tiny Petite Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppy included beef punkles, olive root, rutabaga shortcake and scalded cucumber. Those eats actually sound better than the offerings in a cookbook published by the Presbyterian church in Fulton, where recipes include jugged pigeons, pot roast of liver, fish chops and pork cake.