She was funny, she was annoying, she was quirky and she terrorized a generation of kids. Her name was Pepper.
Everyone who lived in Santa Rosa between (roughly) 1955 and 1985 knew her, if not through a personal encounter then from Gaye LeBaron’s columns where her antics were often chronicled. And although she passed away in 1992 Pepper has achieved a kind of immortality via social media, particularly in the FaceBook nostalgia groups where stories about her pop up regularly.
(TOP: Pepper Dardon watching the Rose Parade in the early 1980s. This is the last known photo of her. Image courtesy of Linn Eikenberry)
Pepper was called the “town character” but that doesn’t ring quite true, as that usually describes someone genuinely eccentric. In Pepper’s day Santa Rosa did have those sort of people too, such as the woman who burned off nervous energy by walking miles every day wearing ballet tights, a scarf and floppy hat. Or the Russian man who handed out malt balls wrapped in handwritten prayers and liked to perform scenes from Othello.
No, Pepper was better described as the town jester – it was as if she thought the Marx Brothers’ movies were instructional films. She did things she hoped people would think funny. She would yodel in the Exchange Bank or into the microphone at a store’s checkout register. She would stand next to the Post Office and ask people where the Post Office was. She would pretend to direct traffic at the corner of Mendocino and Fourth. She would plop herself in the backseat of cars waiting for a stoplight to change and expect the driver to take her somewhere. Once she pulled that stunt with a convertible and when they drove down the street she royally waved at pedestrians. They waved back.
Another of her hallmarks were the cornball jokes that would only tickle the funnybone of a very young child. “Squirrels are looking for you. They think you’re nuts!” Instead of saying goodbye she might make the lame quip, “If I don’t see you in the mattress, I’ll see you in the spring.” And then there was her perpetual favorite: “Hey, you dropped something. Your footsteps.”
She would be considered a little person today, about the height of a smallish 12 year-old girl. It’s not cruel to say she dressed clownish (but not always) and her usual attire was so garish she appeared to glow radioactive. She wore neon-bright Hawaiian blouses and shirts, muumuus so baggy she could have shoplifted half a store underneath, and invariably had children’s moccasins on her feet with plastic flowers poking out of her hair. After she had gall bladder surgery in 1970 she carried her 45 gallstones in a jar to show people.
Gaye LeBaron wrote a further description in a 2005 column: “She was a sight to behold — built like a fireplug, heavy on the makeup, including glitter and those gold stick-um stars the teacher puts on very good tests; heavier yet on the perfume, which she applied from test bottles on the counters at Rosenberg’s and the several drugstores on Fourth Street.”
LeBaron knew Pepper better than anyone else, and that column is a wonderful tribute which I urge you to read straightaway. “People have always had mixed feelings about Pepper,” she wrote in an earlier profile. “Some people, sad to say, hate her. I have mail to attest to that. But mostly people grin at her, shake their heads in wonder, and pass by amused because that’s just Pepper and everybody knows Pepper.”
Judging by comments on social media over the years the jury’s still out. Folks (like me) who weren’t around in her heyday fifty years ago only know her through anecdotes, so it’s easy for us to view her as a goofball who made downtown Santa Rosa a fun place to be. But to those growing up here a common complaint was “she scared me to death.” To kids Pepper could seem crazy and acted like a police-sanctioned bully.
Pepper already was a downtown denizen for several years by the time Gaye LeBaron formerly introduced her to readers in a February 29, 1960 column. “Pepper fills a number of roles primarily those of town greeter, semi-official courier and court jester,” Gaye wrote. One of her stunts at the time was “shouting good morning to the telephone workers down manholes in such a voice that brings them up out of their hole with their ears ringing.” Pepper sought only a “grin and pleasant word” for her good deeds, but wouldn’t turn down a few coins in thanks:
…she is one of very few citizens around these days, who offers to help old, crippled or blind people across intersections or up and down curbs. She excels as an errand girl, bringing coffee and doughnuts to busy office workers or running to the bank or the post office for a clerk who just can’t get away. Sometimes she gets a tip for her efforts, and immediately spends it on candy to pass out to her friends. A crying child will bring Pepper running from a block away to assist the harried mother with offers of cookies and condolences…
(RIGHT: Pepper Dardon as seen in the February 29, 1960 Press Democrat. Photo enhanced using HotPot AI)
Almost nothing was known about her at the time except she was married; she claimed her name was Florence but wouldn’t give her age. Over time a few biographical tidbits leaked out yet even in her PD obituary many details were wrong or questionable. The dust didn’t clear until Michael Sawyer researched her genealogy (available on Ancestry), thus making him the world’s first certified Pepperologist.
Her name was originally Linda Garcia and was the youngest of eight children when she was born May 2, 1914 in Salinas.1 Sawyer found she was a direct descendant of the Californio family who had the first Mexican land grant in the Carmel Valley (thank them the next time you enjoy Monterey Jack cheese). Her father was an illiterate farm laborer who mainly worked around southern Monterey County.
She was only eight months old when her mother died of cancer. The children were probably taken in by relatives but there’s no evidence of where any of them were until 1920, when Linda and three of her sisters can be spotted in the census at the Santa Cruz Female Orphan Asylum. At age fourteen she and five siblings were listed as half Native American on an Indian census roll.2
Two years later she was living at the Castroville Detention Home. Before jumping to conclusions she was there because of some wrongdoing, consider at that time a “detention home” was more like what we would call a “group home” today. It might house orphans, children who temporarily did not have adults to care for them, and yes, “mild delinquents”.3 Locally Lytton Springs was just such an institution run by the Salvation Army.
Comes the 1930s and she along with all her brothers and sisters were now adults. Those who can be traced were still living around southern Monterey County, mostly near their dad in Peachtree Valley. The exception was Linda. She was sent away to the Sonoma State Home for the Feeble Minded.
Gaye LeBaron says today it was recognized she was intellectually challenged, but locking her up in an institution – particularly the Sonoma State Home, where she was expected to remain for the rest of her life – was no act of kindness.
As discussed here earlier, the medical abuse done on the sprawling campus at Glen Ellen (also known as Eldridge and now called the Sonoma Developmental Center) played a significant role in the eugenics movement in the United States. Linda Garcia, like other women inmates, would have been forcibly sterilized because of a lack of “mental hygiene” and/or being classified as “oversexed.” She was at the Sonoma State Home for at least fifteen years but more likely was there from 1932 to 1951, admitted when she was around 18 years old and staying until her mid-thirties.4
By the late 1940s the institution was hopelessly overcrowded with over three thousand inmates. Benches were pushed together to become impromptu beds, recreation rooms became wards and infants were sleeping two to a crib. There was some state funding available for new construction but not nearly enough. About half of the inmates were committed there for life because of severe mental or physical disability, but it was decided that after training and treatment (especially sterilization) the rest were eligible for release to live with relatives or take jobs.5
And as Gaye wrote in her 2005 column, Linda Garcia was among those allowed to leave: “She lived for a time in a household where she cared for children and did housework.” She also met her future husband, Paul.
Very little is known about Paul Dardon; he was born in Arkansas in 1911 and mainly grew up in small Oklahoma towns. A note on his high school records stated he was “feeble minded” and while he went to school until age seventeen he still may have been illiterate – on his WWII draft registration card he signed his name with an “X”.
He came to Santa Rosa around 1944 and was a member of the Foursquare Gospel Church, attending their national convention at Los Angeles in 1949 as one of two Santa Rosa delegates. He and Linda were married September 1952 by a Justice of the Peace at the old courthouse.
Paul had menial jobs as a restaurant worker and janitor – although he curiously had himself listed as a “horseman” in the city directory during the mid-1950s, when he was really a janitor at the Occidental Hotel. While they didn’t have much, she quit (or lost) her domestic job and reinvented herself as She Who Shall Not Be Ignored. “While Paul was on the job, Pepper was around town, at her life’s work, which was assisting the police in keeping law and order and annoying those who found her annoying,” penned Gaye LeBaron.
“You’d see them walking hand in hand to their apartment on College Avenue when Paul’s workday ended,” Gaye also wrote in 2005. “They made a pair. Pepper was perhaps 4-foot-10 in her shoes. Paul was a loose-limbed 6 feet tall and dressed exclusively in bib overalls.”
Thus “Pepper” was born. And for the next thirty years, the mean streets of Santa Rosa would never be the same. Lizards, beware.
1 Salinas was named on her Social Security application and her mother died there, suggesting the town was where the Garcias sought medical care. Michael Sawyer believes it is more likely she was born in King City or other small unincorporated place in southern Monterey County. Her mother was strongly linked to San Lucas in her obituary. LeBaron and others have broadly stated she was born in the Salinas Valley.
2 The 1928 Indian census roll list them as associated with the “Digger” tribe, which may be shocking because that name was commonly used as a racial slur in the Old West during the 19th century. But there was a federally recognized Digger Reservation in Amador county which is now part of the Jackson Rancheria.
3 Evidence that the Castroville Detention Home was like a group home is shown by three of the 15 residents being children ages 4-8 who share the same last name.
4 The federal census identifies her as being at the Sonoma State Home in 1935, 1940 and 1950. Michael Sawyer believes it is likely she was sent there once she turned 18 (I concur). In March 1951 she applied for Social Security, which would not have been necessary if she were still at the Home. LeBaron has stated variously she came to Santa Rosa and became a domestic worker in 1942 or 1948 and it is possible she returned to Eldridge before 1950, either willingly or not. The Feb. 9, 1949 article in the series discussed in fn. 5 says some inmates were discharged temporarily on “leave of absence.”
5 In Feb. 1949 the Press Democrat produced an excellent three part series on Eldridge written by Phyllis Seidkin (“Inside Sonoma State Home“) which stated 1,313 inmates during 1944-45 were “with relatives or for employment under supervised conditions or for family care in private homes” (Feb. 6). “…life at the institution is aimed at quickening arrival of the time when those patients who are mentally and physically capable, may rejoin the outside community from which they have been separated. Of the total of 3,200 patients, Dr. Porter estimates that about 50 per cent are custodial patients, lower imbeciles and idiots who participate in institution life dances, movies, church services but cannot ever leave the home” (Feb. 9).