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HOW THE MALL CAME TO BE

You’re standing at the intersection of Fourth and B streets, next to where the Citibank building is now. It is March 4, 1972 – a day of no particular importance.

Directly across B St. from you is Hardisty’s; that’s where your sister’s wedding china came from. On the north corner is the big Occidental Hotel. Your mom takes grandma there on her birthday for an afternoon tea which she says makes her feel like a debutante again. A few doors farther down from the hotel is the “Cal,” Santa Rosa’s grand Art Deco movie theater. You’ve spent countless hours inside. So did you dad when he was a little kid in the 1930s, participating in the live Saturday afternoon Mickey Mouse Club show.

Detail of 1971 photo showing the intersection of Fourth and B streets, looking SW. Full image at end of this article
Detail of 1971 photo showing the intersection of Fourth and B streets, looking SW. Full image at end of this article

You have passed this exact spot hundreds and hundreds of times and everything before your eyes is as it has been for decades. The “New” Hotel Santa Rosa next to you opened in 1936. The Occidental Hotel was built shortly after the 1906 earthquake. The only slight change is across Fourth Street from you at the NE corner; that was always the White House Department Store but they moved so the building’s now vacant.

Now close your eyes tight as we jump into the future. You are at the exact same spot but it is now March 4, 1982 – precisely ten years later. You cannot believe what you see.

The White House building is still on the corner (it’s really the “Carithers building” and remains there today, albeit heavily altered). B Street – which had been a little-used two lane crosstown street with stop signs – is now a four lane (sometimes five) thoroughfare with traffic lights on nearly every block. But everything else is… gone.

The Santa Rosa Hotel: Gone. You look across the street and find Hardisty’s is gone. The Occidental is gone. The Cal is gone. Facing you is a featureless, 2+ story wall – a fog bank made out brick. It goes on more than three blocks. People stream through an unmarked gateway.

You wonder: Are all the other little businesses that were west of B Street somewhere behind that brick fortress? The sinking feeling in your gut tells you the answer. While you were away, Santa Rosa bulldozed all of it in the name of urban renewal. And this is the result.

How did this happen? Yeah, Santa Rosa had talked about a downtown shopping center since the early 1960s; out-of-town architects and consultants were hired to build models and make presentations. Some of the ideas were pretty good – there was a Santa Rosa Creek greenway combining a government center with a department store and retail/office space. Others were simply awful, such as a mega-mall which included a 1,500 seat “European opera house.” None went beyond the show ‘n’ tell stage.

What those proposals had in common, though, is they were to be built outside the original business district, either on Santa Rosa Avenue or by (or above) the Creek. This Plaza project wiped out roughly a third of the downtown core – it was like the town had been amputated at the knees.

How could this happen? Santa Rosa wasn’t known as a city that moved fast on approving of high-profile, consequential projects. It took five years before trucks began hauling cement loads to build the underwhelming city hall complex, and seven years passed between when the Carnegie Library closed and the new one opened. Yet the entire process to create this mammoth Plaza took less then a decade? Just unbelievable.

But when you peel the onion, it becomes clear this was a project like no other.

In the 1970s and 1980s, 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.* All that shopping made a mall an economic powerhouse because of the tax income it generated, and not having a mall as good as – or more popular than – the one down the road could make or break a city or county budget.

Santa Rosa had its own manic drive to see a mega-mall built here. Since the 1906 earthquake (and arguably back to the 1880s) the bankers, downtown business interests and the Press Democrat had indefatigably boosted the city as on the cusp of becoming a Bay Area metropolis. This led to a history of disastrous short-sighted decisions, the worst being the insistence that Highway 101 cut the town in half, lest Santa Rosa become a “ghost town” for lack of immediate access by shoppers.

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. And not least of all, into town stepped a savvy developer known for building malls in mid-sized West Coast cities and with a talent for dealing with naïve locals.

None of this was inevitable. There were objections, pushbacks from citizen’s groups and lawsuits from rival developer Hugh Codding. Many times Santa Rosa found itself standing at a crossroad which could have led to much different outcomes. The mall footprint could have been smaller, the California Theater movie palace could have been preserved. The place could not have been built at all, and instead the buildings in that part of downtown could have been upgraded for safety and remodeled using available federal funds. Or landowners could have rebuilt new stores at the same locations. There were so many times when Santa Rosa had an opportunity to not lay waste to so much of itself. Yet it didn’t, and here we are.

Crowds await the opening of the Santa Rosa Plaza, March 4, 1982. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Crowds await the opening of the Santa Rosa Plaza, March 4, 1982. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

This is an intro to the story of how the Santa Rosa Plaza was built. Had Gentle Reader lived in town during the 1970s this may be a gut-wrenching episode to rehash; feelings ran high as the city relentlessly pushed the project through with little (often no) public input. Maybe you knew someone who lost their business or was forced to move to a less desirable location because Santa Rosa condemned their property in order to take it via eminent domain. Maybe you knew people who lost their homes and apartments in the same way. Maybe you’re still mad about how the city passed an ordinance making it easier for them to do that.

It’s also the most impactful story concerning the city of the last 50+ years. Even if you personally haven’t been inside the Plaza for ages, that sprawling building and its parking garages continue to shape the town and any possibly better future. It blocks east/west pedestrian and bike traffic, especially when the mall is closed. It disappears Railroad Square from anyone not in the know; it makes planning for improved public transit a cruel joke, as it forms a barrier between the Transit Mall and the SMART depot.

Yet little has been written about the history of how all that came to be, save for stories about the passionate protests to “Save the Cal” and the rescue of the old post office in order to preserve it as the county history museum. The details of what else happened during those years has been reduced to footnotes. Scratch that: Not even footnotes exist because the overall story remains untold – the articles here barely skim the surface of what happened.

This also continues the overall series about Santa Rosa’s redevelopment, “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER” which has thus far only discussed the early years. Links to these chapters about the Plaza also appear on the index found there.

There’s lots of misunderstanding about what was/was not part of the urban renewal projects; on social media it’s blamed for all manner of bad things from the 1950s onward. To clarify the basics of that history before diving into the mall drama, here’s a summary of what happened, excerpted from earlier articles:

In 1958 the Santa Rosa City Council created an Urban Renewal Agency (URA). Besides its five appointed members there was a full-time planner, an executive director and a steady parade of out-of-town consultants making recommendations. The appointed members of the URA had diverse backgrounds that might have served them well on some less critical civic board or committee but as far as I can tell none were knowledgeable about urban planning, architecture or anything else relevant.

The Downtown Development Association (DDA) was formed at about the same time and the two organizations worked in tandem, promoting the idea that much of downtown was a “blighted” area which needed to be demolished and rebuilt. The same year the Council was given a presentation that proposed redevelopment of 140 acres – in other words, wiping out almost every building downtown. The head of the DDA gushed, “we are on the threshold of destiny.”

A federal grant of about $1 million (equivalent to $10M today) was earmarked in 1960 for urban renewal. At the same time another $12M went to the Sonoma County Water Agency for flood control. When a heavy winter storm hit in 1963, the Agency and URA officials joined to push through plans to bury the portion of Santa Rosa Creek that passed through downtown in a culvert – even though all previous planning had insisted the creek remain a greenbelt centerpiece for future development. See “HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK.”

The first redevelopment project the URA tackled was awarding approval to build a new city hall/civic center. Competing developers in 1964 were Hugh Codding and Henry Trione, head of the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (SRBCRC). Trione’s group wanted to buy Courthouse Square and build a 15-story civic tower, but the Square was not included in the part of downtown the URA had declared “blighted.” In 1965 SRBCRC was selected as the developer for the city government complex adjacent to the entombed creek. See “HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL.”

To the ire of Codding, the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for all of what would be called redevelopment Phase I. Despite the URA’s founding promise that big name stores would now be drawn to downtown Santa Rosa, no companies were willing to take a chance. The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store; the rest of the buildings initially built between Third Street and Sonoma Ave. were professional, bank and government offices. Phase I of the urban renewal project did not make Santa Rosa a more beautiful place, nor did it give shoppers more reasons to go downtown, nor did it add appreciably to the city’s tax base. See “IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY.”

It’s commonly misbelieved that the courthouse and Carnegie Library were torn down because of urban renewal. The library was structurally unsound because of poor construction and there was no realistic hope of saving it. Efforts to brace it after the 1906 quake only made problems worse before it was closed in 1960, then torn down five years later. See “WHEN THE GREAT OLD LIBRARY CLOSED FOREVER.” The courthouse suffered cosmetic damage in a 1957 earthquake, followed by years of debate and studies from consultants as to whether repair or demolish it. Ultimately it was decided the building was expendable because it was too small for county needs and would be too expensive to bring it up to code. It was knocked down in 1966. See “HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE.”

The same day courthouse demolition began, the county sold Courthouse Square to the city of Santa Rosa and its URA. This was the URA’s own development project, which in itself probably overstretched the limit of the Agency’s charter. But the URA also began taking on powers that clearly belonged to city departments and/or the City Council, such as the closing of Exchange and Hinton streets and building a four-lane road through the middle of the square. See “TEARING APART ‘THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING’.”

Damage from the October 1, 1969 Santa Rosa Earthquake was not severe and mostly repairable. The city building inspector condemned 14 buildings as completely unsafe including five homes. At a City Council meeting later that month a committee of civil and structural engineers thought 21 downtown buildings should go while the city’s chief building official said 48 were damaged. But the issue really wasn’t which buildings should be repaired – it was whether the city would allow owners to make repairs at all instead of requiring demolition. See “THE QUAKE THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING.”

 


*The ‘Magic of the Mall’: An Analysis of Form, Function, and Meaning in the Contemporary Retail Built Environment” by Jon Goss; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 83, no. 1, 1993

 

NEXT: CITY OF ROSES AND BLIGHT

 

1971 aerial taken from over Fifth and D streets looking SSW. Note the divided Courthouse Square in the lower left. Cropped photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
1971 aerial taken from over Fifth and D streets looking SSW. Note the divided Courthouse Square in the lower left. Cropped photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

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COMMIE CAMP ON THE RUSSIAN RIVER

Great Scott! There was a summer camp in Alexander Valley where kids were brainwashed with Commie propaganda! Under a banner front page headline the Press Democrat reported July 20, 1929, “…boys and girls of tender years are taught the principles of communism and hatred of the American government.”

There were 36 kids there, ages from 8 to 17, and after morning exercises and swearing allegiance “to the Soviet flag, red with a symbolic sledge and sickle, the children paraded behind their flag and sang the Internationale,” the PD continued. Then came “weird ceremonials and class instructions on the river beach,” including an exercise where an instructor took rocks which “he pounded in his hands until one crumpled, [showing] how the ‘workers’ should crush the ‘capitalist’ government of the United States.” On a bulletin board was a poster reading, “Down with the Boy Scouts.”

“Bay Cities’ Pioneer Camp #1” was near the Alexander Valley Bridge and just one of many summer camps on the river.1 According to the PD story, there was “a near-riot” when women and girls from another one nearby “paraded behind the youngsters of ‘Pioneer Camp,’ waving the American flag while singing The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The PD story was picked up by both the AP and UP newswires and proved quite popular, appearing in papers nationwide and usually on page one. While the item was sometimes cut down to a paragraph or two, the editors always had room to mention the camp was on the Russian River. (Oscar Wilde: “The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”)

Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner lied to readers (no surprise, there) by claiming “authorities immediately raided the place and seized propaganda pamphlets and other evidence,” but what the District Attorney actually said was he could do nothing under state law. He passed the matter to the U. S. District Attorney in San Francisco while sending County Detective John W. Pemberton to investigate. A Press Democrat reporter tagged along and the piece that appeared the next day revealed that much of the original article was either made up or grossly exaggerated. That story apparently relied only upon hearsay from Arthur H. Meese, commander of Healdsburg’s American Legion Post.

Press Democrat, July 20, 1929
Press Democrat, July 20, 1929

The PD writer interviewed camp director M. Martin (his name incorrectly given as “Maury” in the first PD article) who insisted there was nothing anti-American about what they were instructing:


“This is a recreation camp for the children of workers, many of whom are communists,” Martin said. He denied, however, that the children were taught hatred for the United States government. “We had a presidential election in this country not long ago. A large majority of the people voted for one man for president. He was elected. Many thousands of people, though, voted against him. But they were not against the government. They were against the principles of the majority party. We, too, are against the present party; but are not against the United States.”

Nor were they pledging allegiance to the Soviet flag; the kids were waving plain red flags, which had been used by leftist political movements more than a century before Russians added their hammer and sickle.

This was the third year of the camp, the reporter was told, and it was run under the auspices of the Workers International Relief organization.2 “One of the main things that we are interested in is fighting race discrimination,” said Martin. That comment may seem opaque, but I’m betting the reporter didn’t capture his full quote. The group also mainly fought antisemitism – and the previous article had identified most of the children being from families with roots in Eastern Europe. Martin added that all of the children were born in the United States, as were most of their parents.

As for the “near-riot” because of the “Star Spangled Banner” singers, Martin said the story was “ridiculous” – they were being teased because some campers were warbling a popular Al Jolson tune. “We had been taking some exercises on the beach, and two of the girls were singing ‘Sonny Boy’ when the members of the other camp interrupted us with singing and noise; but that was all.”

Martin didn’t know what was meant by “weird ceremonials,” and he never ground rocks together to demonstrate how Commies would crush the Capitalist system – although he admired the concept. “Whoever invented it, though, I think it is a clever idea,” he said.

In sum, the nosy Legionnaire got almost everything wrong except for the headcount and number of tents. He was right about the “Down With the Boy Scouts” poster, however; Martin said “We believe that the Scout organization serves the Bosses.”

The AP wire did a followup a few days later when a few kids were sent home for mild cases of scarlet fever, but not one paper mentioned the PD had reported that the original story was largely untrue.

Despite having debunked its own story, the Press Democrat doubled back and kept repeating misinformation. The next story in the paper claimed “…the principles of communism and hatred of the American government are taught. The children, more than two score of tender age, are said to parade daily, swearing allegiance to the Soviet flag, red with a symbolic sledge and sickle.” The PD also printed an editorial denouncing the camp as a “hotbed of communism, where the red flag of Soviet Russia, is paraded and her dangerous doctrines taught.”

But the PD didn’t stop there. The next Sunday they offered a think-piece that reads like the ancestor of Q-Anon conspiracy babble.

Headlined “SCHOOL HERE LINKED WITH NATION PLOT” the article claimed “investigations of the American Legion” and law enforcement revealed the Alexander Valley camp “was but one phase of a nationwide campaign of the Communist Party in the United States to breed revolution among the school children of the United States.”

The PD item quoted heavily from a magazine article by Mrs. William Sherman Walker which appeared in National Republic magazine.3 Among her startling finds were that Soviet parents dedicate their newborns to the Communist cause: “The names of children, when mere infants are inscribed on the cradle roll of revolution.” She added ominously, “Similar ceremonies have been discovered in the United States as taking place annually in various communities.”

Apparently no copies of that article survive (certainly not online) but about a year later she testified before Congress in her role as the Daughters of the American Revolution “National Defense Committee Chairman” (yes, the D.A.R. still has a National Defense Committee) and had lots to say about the camps. A sample:

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  “Little children are being taught the principles of street fighting. They are urged to become proficient enough in such tactics to take over certain parts of the cities”
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  Free school lunches “train children to abhor private property”
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  “In playing hide and go seek children hunt for capitalists and bring them trembling before a soviet tribunal”
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  Campers are given a songbook that shows how religious songs are ridiculed, such as using the melody of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” but changing it to have “vicious, obscene words”

As the Alexander Valley camp was closing as scheduled, federal agents from the Justice Dept. showed up and warned Martin not to come back the following year. “They told me it would be better for me not to engage any more in that kind of business.” And that was the end of Bay Cities’ Pioneer Camp #1, as far as is known.

But just a week after our local furor died down, red-baiting papers worked up a new lather over news of a similar camp being raided in Southern California.

A “miniature Soviet Republic” in the San Bernardino mountains was found to have “forty scantily-clad children, described as Slavs from the Boyle Heights industrial section of Los Angeles,” according to the AP wire story.

The Press Democrat added “in every detail the camp was identical” to the Pioneer Camp here and rehashed the notion of the Communist Party USA trying to “breed revolution,” but there was a twist to the San Bernardino story: The adults running the camp were all Russian nationals. They were jailed until U.S. immigration officers could investigate to determine whether they could be deported.

It will probably come as no surprise to Gentle Reader that much of those accusations likewise turned out to be hogwash. The camp counselors weren’t genuine Soviets after all; the camp director was 19 year-old Yetta Stromberg, a student at USC. Failing to show they had captured Bolsheviks, Stromberg was charged with the misdemeanor of failing to obtain a permit from the county health department. She was also charged under California’s notorious 1919 “red flag” statute, which made it a felony to use a red flag as a symbol of opposition to the government.4

Stromberg was convicted of the felony, and while she appealed the decision she was held in San Quentin. Her case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in a landmark 1931 decision overturned her conviction, ruling the state law was vague and unconstitutional.

 


1 Besides the big summer resort scene on the river, there were many (dozens?) children’s camps that popped up for a week or three. There were several ag camps affiliated with 4-H, camps sponsored by the YMCA, Camp Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMI (Catholic), something called the Institute Club of the Hughson Epworth League (Methodist) and plenty more. The city of Berkeley even had its own year-round camp near Cazadero.

2 Martin said there were about twenty similar Workers International Relief camps around the country; there’s an interesting memoir from a boy who attended a camp in Pennsylvania at about the same time. Many parents stayed at the camps as well, although the adult campsite was separated from their children’s area.

3 National Republic was a monthly magazine catering to conservative women who opposed suffrage (even after the 19th Amendment passed) and anything they considered radical or anti-American, including any form of pacifism. It grew in importance during the mid-1920s after the formation of the Women’s Patriotic Conference on National Defense (WPCND), which was mainly a coalition of the D.A.R. and the American Legion Auxiliary. By the end of the decade the magazine’s focus was on perceived threats to the nation such as subversive books, unpatriotic activities in schools, and particularly Communist plots to subvert American nationalism. For more, see: “‘So Much for Men’: Conservative Women and National Defense in the 1920s and 1930s” by Christine K. Erickson; American Studies, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring 2004)

4 1919 California Penal Code, §403a: “Any person who displays a red flag, banner or badge or any flag, badge, banner, or device of any color or form whatever in any public place or in any meeting place or public assembly, or from or on any house, building or window as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government or as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action or as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character is guilty of a felony.”

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THE ELIOT NESS OF SONOMA COUNTY

When the history of Prohibition in Sonoma County is written, one name will appear more than any other: John W. Pemberton, County Detective – the nemesis of bootleggers and rum-runners and the scourge of anyone with a blind pig or backroom speakeasy.

Technically the County Detective was the investigator for the District Attorney but “Jock” Pemberton was like our resident G-man, on hand whenever federal Prohibition Agents conducted local raids (in the photo above Pemberton is the man on the right next to the feds). He also was often alongside the sheriff or Santa Rosa police chief during harrowing moments while they were trying to apprehend the most dangerous criminals.

Yet the most important moment of his career happened after his retirement, when he gave crucial testimony showing the California Attorney General was so corrupt he was running a protection racket out of his office.

In 1926, the peak year of Prohibition here, Pemberton was appointed County Detective although he seemed an unlikely prospect for the job. He was 49 when he took the position, with no background in investigating crime; his only experience in law enforcement being a dozen years as Santa Rosa constable, ending in 1923. He had the gregarious personality of a salesman, which is what he was before and after being constable (real estate, then autos). Jock held high rank in both the Elks and Eagles; he and wife Maude were constantly mentioned in the society columns for attending or hosting parties and whatnot.

pembertonduck(RIGHT: Duck hunter in a three-piece suit. 1923 photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Not long after being hired, though, he showed his worth. A 27 year-old man named Jasper Parkins was found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to his right temple. The sheriff pegged it as an obvious suicide, even though the dead guy didn’t seem troubled and was about to take a walk along the railroad tracks with his brother and niece. Pemberton argued Parkins had his little target pistol in hand when he bent over to pick something up from the floor and bumped his elbow against the edge of the bed. The coroner’s jury ruled it an accidental death.

A few weeks later came the bust of the most famous bootlegging operation in county history. In March 1927 Pemberton led a raid on the old Kawana Springs resort where he and the sheriff’s department found the long-closed hotel had been retrofitted for a three-story copper still that produced 1,400 gallons of pure alcohol/day. The booze was then trucked to San Francisco and LA where it was processed and bottled as “genuine Gordon gin.”

And that wasn’t all. There were two other stills with 250/150 gallon daily capacity, all fed by mash held in seven 2,000 gallon tanks. The big still had a steam boiler weighing two tons; that and the smaller boilers for the auxillary stills were fueled by gravity-fed oil tanks. It was a massive – and ingenious – operation.

The Press Democrat reported, “Pemberton had had the place under surveillance for some time, and had spent several nights in the vicinity of the resort to make certain of its use before the raid was made.”

The only person arrested was a San Francisco steamfitter named George Darnell, who insisted he was only hired to dismantle the equipment (everything had been drained from the tanks and stills). And no, he didn’t know who had hired him. Darnell was held for a few days and released after paying a $500 fine.

Not resting on his laurels, the same week Pemberton arrested a farmer from Cloverdale hauling thirty gallons of “jackass brandy” – a day after busting bootlegger Joe Garayalde near Sebastopol with 800 gallons of “jack” and three stills.

And that set the pace for the following years. It was a rare week when readers of the PD didn’t see at least one story about Pemberton making a liquor arrest, and it was not infrequent for there to be two or three. Just as he once was a familiar name on the society backpages, he was now a regular on page one. As County Detective he investigated other crimes as well and judging from news coverage, Gentle Reader would be forgiven for mistaking him as being the top lawman in the area.

Pemberton had an uncanny knack for discovering hiding places. He found liquor hidden behind false walls in closets and in secret panels that popped open when a button or push latch was pressed. In one restaurant kitchen, a yank on a roller towel opened a cabinet with cases of whiskey.

He also used his nose to find stills, as fermenting mash has a strong, distinctive odor. In a barn near the Shiloh cemetery in Windsor he found one even larger than the monster at Kawana Springs, and this one was still operating (although not producing as much alcohol). Other places where it was hoped strong smells would mask the stink were chicken coops and old outhouses, sometimes further disguised with open buckets of sheep dip or creosote.

Most of the items about him and the sheriff busting up stills and arresting people aren’t so interesting – unless, of course, you knew the bootlegger, which would have been true for many people in small, rural Sonoma County. Here are a few vignettes from those years that appeared in the PD:

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Dolly Allen of El Verano is a fortune teller. But she failed to see far enough into the future to know that she was going to be raided last night…a party was in progress in Dolly’s place when County Detective John W. Pemberton and Deputy Sheriff W. A. Shulte burst in and seized wine, “jackass” and gin as evidence and confiscated three slot machines. Dolly said afterwards that she had had a “hunch” the raiders were coming, but, according to officers, she apparently didn’t believe enough in her own forecasting power to dump the evidence. (1927)
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“Readin’, ‘Ritin,’ ‘Rithmetic, Rum” – “pupils of a little rural school two miles east of Petaluma carried word to their parents that liquor was being made near the school, and that the odors crept through the windows during class hours, and that one might, if one was careful, sneak up to the windows, of the adjoining house and see forbidden juices dripping from the coil of a little still. County Detective John W. Pemberton and Deputy Sheriff Phil Varner, to whom the children’s tales eventually drifted investigated yesterday and found, they reported, a 50-gallon still, boiling merrily, and about 20 gallons of hard liquor…” (1928)
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Mrs. A. Garayalde, living on the Guerneville highway, yesterday came to the sheriff’s office here to claim an automobile truck picked up Wednesday when it was found abandoned on a roadside near Windsor, loaded with 390 gallons of wine. She asserted that the machine had been stolen from her garage and that she knew nothing about its wine cargo. (1929 – remember the Garayaldes from above, and Joe would be charged again for having a still in 1932)

(As far as I can tell, neither Pemberton nor District Attorney Carl Barnard were temperance zealots or had any moral objections to drinking. Their aggressive number of arrests, however, brought in a substantial amount of money to the county treasury. Fines generally were in the $100-500 range and in 1927, $100 was the equivalent of about $1,600 today.)

As the 1920s wained the adventures of Jock Pemberton began to look less thrilling. There were fewer busts of even middling-size bootlegging operations; what jackass stills he found were usually small and amateurish. Finding a stash of a few hundred gallons of ordinary wine in a farmer’s shed was now considered a big deal. By end of 1929 Pemberton was arresting drinkers caught with a jug (or even a pint) of moonshine and mainly searching the cars and homes of those he knew as repeat offenders, also busting hotel restaurant owners who likewise had been caught before.

His run as County Detective paused for about eight months in early 1931 as a new District Attorney took office and appointed someone else. In that time Pemberton opened a private detective agency out of his house at 435 (West) College Ave. After that D.A. died in a car crash the new prosecutor brought Pemberton back to his old job, where he resumed knocking over little stills and re-arresting The Usual Suspects over petty (but lucrative) quantities of wine or hootch.

The last hurrah of bootlegging here was the 1932 discovery of a 1,000 gallon rum still near Fulton. His final liquor bust was at the end of that year, when 70 year-old Emil Gerhman, a rancher near Healdsburg, was arrested after three five-gallon cans of jack were found in his cellar. He was fined $100.

Once FDR was elected president, Congress easily passed a bill to repeal the 18th Amendment. Pemberton was 55 when Prohibition officially ended in December 1933.

As tempting as it might be to view him as merely a local “Revenuer,” Pemberton packed a gun and acted like any member of law enforcement at the time. During the Prohibition years he and a deputy pumped four bullets into a car with two bootleggers fleeing the site of a still, shattering the rear window and nearly killing one of them. (The County Treasurer was surely grateful he missed.)

In February 1933 two brothers held up the gas station at the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, getting away with all of $27.75. Knowing the pair were ex-cons who lived near Cloverdale, the police chief from there and Deputy Sheriff Harry Patteson joined Pemberton in his “heavy sedan” to search for them. The culprits were spotted in a car on a gravel road and Pemberton gave chase, the officers and the robbers locked in a running gunfight. After the suspect’s auto was hit by five bullets they ditched the car and ran into the brush, pursued by the three lawmen as the shooting continued on foot. After one of the brothers was killed the other surrendered, with Pemberton handling the arrest and taking him to county jail.

As Prohibition was winding down in 1933, the county decided to eliminate the County Detective position – but at the same time create a post for a deputy sheriff charged with criminal investigations. “It was generally understood that Pemberton would be transferred to the sheriff’s staff when his present position was wiped out,” reported the PD. In February 1935 he was appointed investigator for Sheriff Harry L. Patteson, who earlier as a deputy had been something of a partner to him during all those bootlegging arrests.

pembertonaxe(LEFT: Chief Deputy Melvin Flohr, James Charles and John Pemberton, left to right. Photo Santa Rosa Republican, March 17, 1936)

Pemberton was well suited for the investigations he made over the next few years, but it wasn’t exciting work. He found out who was passing bad checks, stealing cars and burglarizing houses; he looked into suicides and a couple cases of bigamy. He served warrants on suspects wanted for crimes elsewhere and often was the guard who transported them back to whence they came.

The most notable event in those years was when he obtained a full confession from James Charles, who had murdered his brother with an axe. (Pemberton got him to talk only by assuring the 28 year-old he wouldn’t be hanged.) An insanity trial was held a week later and after the jury deliberated for ten minutes, Charles was committed to the Mendocino State Hospital for the Insane. The reason for the killing, BTW, was that the brother didn’t come home on time that Sunday and Charles was very upset that dinner was late.

The last chapter in his career began in 1943, when he was rehired as a deputy sheriff. John and Maude had gone into semi-retirement four years earlier when there was a surprise election upset and Sheriff Patteson lost to a forest ranger. The Pembertons rented their Santa Rosa home and went to live at their ranch on route 128 near Kellogg, where they intended to start a large rabbit farm. Once Patteson was elected again they were back in Santa Rosa and life resumed as before. Sort of.

John was almost 65 and his dangerous days of running gun battles were over. Now he was mainly a court bailiff and sometimes a deputy jailer; he apparently took care of the Sheriff’s Office mascot, a black cat named “Black Bart” (yuk, yuk). He retired without fanfare in mid-1948, around the time he turned 70.

And here’s where his story gets really interesting.

Another of Pemberton’s duties in those final years was serving as an escort and driver for visiting law officers, so it wasn’t unusual when a special agent from the Attorney General’s office showed up on October 9, 1947. Agent Charles Hoy wanted a ride to specific places in Occidental and between Santa Rosa-Petaluma he had on a list. All (or nearly all?) were taverns.

After each stop, Hoy returned to the car with an armful of punchboards. Pemberton noted the agent seemed interested in nothing else but those things, so when he couldn’t find a place on the list and popped in to an inn to ask directions, he told the agent, “if it is punchboards you want, they got plenty of them in there.” Hoy replied, “I don’t want them.” Pemberton later said Hoy “showed no interest” in places not on his list. After they had hit all the locations, Hoy dropped the punchboards on Sheriff Patteson’s desk saying, “you can have them now,” and left.1


WHAT’S A PUNCHBOARD?

Punchboards were a common form of gambling in the first half of the 20th century, found in taverns, cigar stores, pool halls, even barbershops and lunch counters across America.

They were like primitive versions of today’s lottery scratchers; a colorful sheet – often with a cheesecake picture or sports theme – was glued on a piece of wood. Punchboards bought by Young had titles including: Big Hit, Win Er Bust, Nice Curves, High Bidder and Gold Bucket.

On each were many tiny holes stuffed with slips of paper. A gambler used a little stylus to punch through the top sheet and hopefully find a winning number. There were myriad variations; sometimes there were few holes but a higher cost to play, or a great many holes to punch very cheaply. But always the odds favored the owner of the board; on the example seen here, the chances of winning anything on a brand-new board was 1 in 50.

The “branding” described here was a crude way to establish a monopoly and says nothing about whether the punchboards were rigged by the manufacturer. Few (or even none) of the winning numbers might be on the punchboard, or they might be sold together with a key to which holes had winners so the gambler could pay extra for a tip as to where to punch.

In California punchboards were illegal “lottery devices” – but as in many states, using them was only a misdemeanor not rigorously enforced. Some owners tried to skirt the law by offering payouts in cigarettes, candy, glasses of beer or trinkets instead of cash.

Vintage punchboard, courtesy S. David O'Shea/Pinterest
Vintage punchboard, courtesy S. David O’Shea/Pinterest

What Pemberton and the sheriff didn’t realize at the time was they had witnessed part of a criminal conspiracy that reached to the top of the state Department of Justice.

Attorney General Fred N. Howser (the “N” stood for Napoleon!) entered office in 1947 vowing to keep organized crime out of California. More likely he wanted to keep other foxes out of his henhouse; he had a long history of corruption involving gaming interests. Knowing this, Governor Earl Warren set up the “Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime.” The final 1950 report has an entire chapter on the “state-wide plan for racket protection under the cloak of the Attorney General’s Office” which is quite jaw-dropping to read.2

Exactly a week before Pemberton was chauffeuring agent Hoy around Sonoma County, a man named Thompson Norman Young was making a deal in San Francisco to obtain a monopoly on punchboards up in the Marysville area. Later he would testify being told at that meeting they were part of a syndicate which gave Howser $50,000 in exchange for a virtual statewide monopoly on punchboards.

Young would also testify how the racket worked. After a dealer bought punchboards from the syndicate, they would be “branded” – meaning a serial number would be burned into the back of the board with an electric woodburning tool. This was for “protection;” should a local sheriff or police chief bust the dealer, the Attorney General wouldn’t prosecute. And as an extra incentive, a special agent from the A.G.’s office would first sweep through the territory confiscating all other punchboards so the dealer would have a monopoly. One of those former agents testified that indeed happened in Marysville, under orders from Howser’s chief enforcement officer.

Besides the cost of the punchboards, Young was told he would have to pay protection money on each. According to him, the sales pitch was, “…it costs you around a dollar and a half for the brand. That is around seven dollars; you can make forty dollars on a board. You can put five or six boards in each location. Each location should bring you a hundred or two hundred dollars a week.”3

After Young agreed to sign up, he drove the syndicate men to Sonoma County. Their destination was the Buckhorn saloon; besides being the first watering hole in Petaluma a thirsty driver encountered, it was where the punchboards were being branded. (The Buckhorn tavern is still there at 615 Petaluma Blvd South. Virtually unchanged since that time and with its walls covered in old photos, stop by for a taste of Petaluma’s colorful history you won’t find on a tour of the West Side’s elegant Victorian neighborhoods.)

All of this came out because Young turned informant on the syndicate after he contacted the Crime Commission, then became the first witness to testify to the Sonoma County Grand Jury in February, 1950. That ended up with indictments of four men on criminal conspiracy, including Mervyn McCoy, owner of the Buckhorn.

On the day of the indictments, Superior Court Judge Hilliard Comstock signed a search and seizure warrant on the Buckhorn, and the surprise raid netted five tons of branded punchboards from a backroom of the bar – so many the county had to rent a moving van to haul them away. They also found a large stash of “winnings” that could be given away to lucky gamblers, including watches, rings and novelty statuettes. “Among the latter was one of a shapely sea-island hula girl, with electrically operated hips,” the Press Democrat gamely reported.

What appears here only barely skims the surface of a complex and gripping crime story that dominated local news almost daily for five months in 1950. All credit to the PD for its excellent coverage of the case – they even printed every word of the Grand Jury transcript on the front page.4

The punchboard investigations and prosecution in Sonoma County also drew widespread statewide and national attention because Howser’s corruption had become household news. After popular muckraking broadcaster Drew Pearson revealed the Attorney General had taken a bribe, Howser sued him for $300,000 damages in libel (Howser would lose the suit).5

Howser also didn’t have the sense to keep his mouth shut and kept drawing attention to the upcoming trial in Sonoma County. He insisted the charges were trumped up and an attempt to “smear” him during an election year, running a full-page ad in the PD denouncing District Attorney McGoldrick for “foul political calumny.”

howserad(RIGHT: Political ad from Attorney General Fred Howser that appeared in the Press Democrat, March 30, 1950)

Nor did it escape attention that Howser was desperately trying to get one of his boys in to “interview” Young without any other witnesses present. D.A. McGoldrick responded by assigning a 24-hour guard for his star witness. Pause for a minute to let that sink in: The District Attorney in little Sonoma County is protecting a prosecution witness from being – bribed? threatened? harmed? – by the Attorney General of the state of California.

The trial lasted exactly a month, spanning June-July 1950. In the dock sat Merv McCoy of the Buckhorn, charged with being a punchboard distributor. Another distributor from Los Angeles was also there, along with an ex-LA cop who worked for him. The fourth defendant was the Chicago punchboard manufacturer who was supposedly the ringleader and the man who gave Howser the $50k bribe.

The prosecution’s case closely followed what had been heard earlier by the Grand Jury, including Pemberton’s testimony of driving agent Hoy around the county to confiscate punchboards at specific places. Items about his testimony appeared in papers across the state, although the UP newswire screwed up badly and implied he was working for the syndicate. “ExDeputy Sheriff Admits Picking Up Punchboards,” read the headline in the Fresno Bee.

The surprise witness was Thomas Judge, an undercover investigator for the Crime Commission who met with McCoy while posing as someone who wanted to get in on the branded punchboard racket. McCoy sold him some punchboards and allegedly said their operation was safe because Howser was “getting a cut out of the scheme.” When Judge scoffed that Howser was personally involved, McCoy told him Howser would send a letter on the Attorney General’s stationery to anyone he wanted – and that McCoy had indeed provided the name of a friend who received such a letter.

It seemed an open-and-shut case, particularly since the defense apparently had no strategy other than sowing confusion. Jurors were told District Attorney McGoldrick and Assistant District Attorney Dennis Keegan would be called as hostile witnesses (they weren’t). That Thomas Judge was completely drunk when he met with McCoy (he wasn’t). That Young was in cahoots with Drew Pearson, who had “nurtured” Young’s story (which the lawyers said he had completely made up). And there was an uproar when a defense lawyer tossed out an odd remark that a witness had a striking resemblance to Pearson, implying the famed journalist was testifying under a fake name.

And then it was verdict time: After debating five hours, the jury announced they were “hopelessly deadlocked,” 10-2 in favor of acquittal.

Comments by Judge Don Geary and D.A. McGoldrick both politely expressed shock at the decision. But the jury foreman told the PD that jurors “didn’t show much interest” in the testimony of either Young or Thomas Judge and “didn’t believe part of Young’s testimony.” In deliberation “very, very little of Judge’s testimony came up.”6

And so it was all over. Howser’s hopes to continue his corrupt career had actually ended a week before the trial began, when he came in a distant second in the Republican primary. His involvement in punchboard and slot machine rackets were part of the Senate hearings on organized crime the following year, but he was never indicted.

Pemberton lived another ten years. The PD ran a nice photo of Maude and John on their Sept. 20, 1953 golden wedding anniversary. His name occasionally appeared in the “this day in history” newspaper columns. Johnson Watson Marvin Pemberton died on June 23, 1961 and is buried in the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery.

 


1 Pemberton testimony to Grand Jury as reported in the Press Democrat, March 25, 1950
2 Howser shamelessly used his staff to support and coverup criminal activity. One outrageous example from the Commission report noted another of Howser’s agents was convicted of attempting to bribe the Mendocino County sheriff to allow slot machines in Ukiah. Before the trial Howser sent more than a dozen investigators there to dig up information helpful for his agent’s defense, evidence which was not shared with prosecutors.
3 Thompson Norman Young testimony to Grand Jury as reported in the Press Democrat, March 26, 1950
4 Only the testimony of ex-agent Charles Hoy was not made public for reasons unexplained, but his attorney commented to the press “he did what his superiors told him to do.”
5 Pearson had even more evidence against Howser which was not made public until decades later. See: “Howser Hit by Kefauver Committee, Loses Libel Action Against Drew Pearson
6 Press Democrat, July 12, 1950

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