snagged

WHEN JAPAN BOMBED SONOMA COUNTY

It crashed through the treetops on the Vine Hill farm, and the only reason the bomb didn’t kill the farmer milking a goat was because it got snagged in the branches. Had it exploded, he would have been the first war casualty on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It was January 4, 1945.

The farmer called the sheriff and soon deputies, FBI agents and Army ballistics experts from Hamilton Field were speeding to that West County goat farm. None of them knew what they were handling – they didn’t even realize it was a live bomb, so they took it to the sheriff’s office and put it on display in the lobby.

All they knew was that it probably had been dropped from a balloon. “Hundreds of residents of western Sonoma county had seen the mysterious balloon sweeping inland from the vicinity of Jenner, highlighted by rays of the setting sun,” the Press Democrat later reported.

A couple of days earlier the PD had a front page story about the “mystery spheres” which had been found in Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Oregon. They were believed to be of Japanese origin, but the Army hadn’t confirmed that; all that was known for sure was that they carried incendiary devices. That story repeated speculation that the balloons were carrying enemy soldiers, which was the working theory for a couple of weeks: “There was no actual evidence that the balloon had carried enemy saboteurs but that seemed the only logical explanation for its arrival. It trailed an elastic cable that had been cut, possibly indicating that it once was equipped with a cage capable of carrying a crew of perhaps four or five who, on arriving over the United States, cut themselves free and parachuted to earth in a small-sized ‘invasion.'”

bombs(RIGHT: Balloon bomb exhibit at Canadian War Museum in Ottowa)

The same day the Vine Hill bomb landed, the Office of Censorship ordered a complete blackout of any balloon stories in newspapers and on radio. The curtain of silence remained in place until the war ended in August.

Pity Press Democrat editor Herbert Waters; this was the biggest local war story during WWII and he couldn’t write a word. He must have been gnashing his teeth when another balloon was spotted over Santa Rosa on February 23 and the crew of a Lockheed P-38 from the Santa Rosa Army Air Field (now the Sonoma County Airport) scrambled to shoot it down midair as it neared Calistoga – the first time one of the balloons was brought down by gunners.

Editor Herb surely was hopping mad that the PD couldn’t tell readers that three balloons came down in March – west of Cloverdale, near Guerneville, and close to the Mount Jackson quicksilver mine overlooking the Russian River Valley. Another turned up May 15 near Geyserville. There were probably frustrated screams in the newsroom as Waters learned one of the bombs blew a swimming pool-sized crater in a field near Santa Rosa (with people watching!) and another apparently started a fire close to Cotati. Sonoma Valley subscribers probably were irked because the paper didn’t mention some incident (a fire?) that occurred near the Heins ranch in Glen Ellen, or how El Verano schoolkids were all wound up about seeing that big balloon drifting overhead.

All in all, it’s believed at least ten balloons fell to earth in Sonoma county – more than anywhere else in the state.

Although authorities weren’t exactly sure what was going on, the Vine Hill bomb convinced the government that the U.S. was under some sort of air attack from Japan, and to say that the military in early 1945 was unprepared to handle it was an understatement.

The West Coast had never faced an active threat from Imperial Japan and slipped into a lack of readiness. The Navy and Army air bases in Santa Rosa were just used for general training, as was Hamilton Field; no combat planes were kept on ground alert anywhere on the coast; the long-range radar system wasn’t turned on most of the time; the civilian Ground Observer Corps was disbanded; most anti-aircraft artillery had been mothballed. Had Japan mounted a Pearl Harbor-like attack we would have been defenseless for hours.

The Fourth Air Force at Hamilton Field was suddenly thrust very much back into the war, with the critical mission to figure out what the hell the enemy was doing with those balloons. The very first one landed near San Pedro a couple of months before the Vine Hill bomb and was found to be carrying radio and meteorological equipment. Was it just a weather balloon which had blown off course all the way across the Pacific? A few other balloon fragments were found around the West and they thought they might be coming from Japanese relocation camps in the U.S. (remember, they were also wondering if the balloons were intended to carry a few men). Only when parts of a balloon were found at a bomb crater near Thermopolis, Wyoming did our best military minds realize that yep, this was a weapon.

A War Department memo listed six ways they feared the balloons might be used:

  1. Bacteriological/chemical warfare
  2. Incendiary and anti-personnel bombs
  3. Experiments for unknown purposes
  4. Psychological efforts to inspire terror and diversion of forces
  5. Transportation of agents
  6. Anti-aircraft devices

The immediate and overwhelming concern was not that the devices would blow up Americans but that they might set the great forests of the Northwest ablaze. There wasn’t an issue at the moment because it was still winter with its snow+rain, but if the balloons continued floating over through the spring and summer, it might divert thousands of soldiers from the warfront to fighting fires back home. To prepare, the Western Defense Command launched the “Firefly Project” which stationed 2,700 troops (including paratroopers) along with transport planes at strategic points.

examine(RIGHT: U.S. Navy personnel examine an unexploded bomb)

The other top worry was the balloons could deliver some sort of bioweapon. Although the War Department’s specific fears weren’t listed, a payload of anthrax or plague could kill animals and people while grain smut (fungus) might wipe out America’s breadbasket – and Japan’s military was indeed thinking along these lines, as discussed in the next section.

To counter that threat the “Lightning Project” was launched to create an early-warning system for signs of unusual diseases in livestock or crops. Without explaining why this was so important, the Department of Agriculture quietly asked regional offices to stay in touch with veterinarians and ag workers down to 4-H clubs and report anything amiss. Remedies (presumably fungicides and sulfa drugs) were stockpiled throughout the West.

As weeks passed, an ever-increasing number of balloons were observed high over Sonoma County headed eastward (they were almost impossible to track via radar, as it turned out). They were now being found – usually in fragments after exploding, although also sometimes intact – from Alaska to Baja California. The farthest east a balloon travelled was Michigan, with the most active month being March. After censorship was lifted it was revealed that a group of the balloons were seen heading for San Francisco during the historic United Nations Conference, with one of them eerily hanging over the city for hours before drifting on. (The proper name for a group is a “festival of balloons,” but I applaud the wag who tweeted, “the collective noun for a collection of slow moving things filled with hot air is a ‘government.'”)

The only fatalities caused by the bombs happened on May 5 in Oregon, as the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his wife were leading five children on a fishing trip. An 11 year-old girl found the balloon in the woods and called for the others to come see. It exploded when one of the kids tugged on it, killing all of the children and the minister’s wife, four of them dying immediately. (The site is now memorialized by the Mitchell Monument.)

The government kept a lid on the news until rumors about the incident spread fear among southern Oregon loggers and campers; finally on May 22 the War Department and Navy issued a joint statement admitting the balloon bombs existed, but they weren’t a serious threat because the attacks were “so scattered and aimless.” They also initiated an educational campaign to warn against tampering with strange objects found in the woods. If that saved even one American life, the statement read, “…it would more than offset any military gain occurring to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific.”

Had the Mitchell tragedy occurred a month earlier, it’s possible WWII might have gone on longer – with the United States suffering many civilian casualties, particularly in places like Sonoma county. But Japan had ended the balloon bomb program in mid-April, convinced that it had been a complete failure, mistakenly assuming almost none of the devices actually reached America. In truth, about 10% of the 9,300+ balloons are believed to have reached North America – exactly as the Japanese engineers predicted.

fu go(RIGHT: A Fu-Go balloon inflated by the U.S.)

It turned out that the War Department’s censorship was a brilliant move. The Japanese high command indeed had been scanning media reports from Russia, China and the U.S. looking for any news, but all they found was a single report about that explosion in Thermopolis, Wyoming.

The Japanese military had been tinkering with the idea of a balloon weapon since 1933, considering designs which would drop bombs or shower propaganda leaflets behind enemy lines after flying a fixed distance, as well as a balloon large enough to carry a soldier. Nothing apparently went past the drawing board until the Doolittle Raid in April 1942, which made Japan hungry to inflict damage on the American mainland. The best they could do was starting a minor forest fire near Mt. Emily, Oregon five months later, using a small bomb-carrying airplane launched from a submarine. That morphed into the 1943 plan of using subs off the coastline to inflate and launch balloons with a timer-release bomb. That plan was dropped later in the year as all submarines were pressed into service delivering weapons and food to soldiers fighting on Pacific islands.

The only option left was to launch balloons from Japan itself, 6,200 miles away from North America. Problem was, the jet stream winds were still poorly understood; the estimated time for a balloon to reach the West Coast ranged from 1-4 days, making any sort of timer useless. For more than a year they experimented with a couple of hundred balloons carrying radio transponders, none of them intended to reach the U.S.

The result of their multi-agency research project was the “Fu-Go” balloon bomb (a code name which roughly translates as something like, “Weapon Model B”). It was designed to fly between 30,000-38,000 feet, cutting loose ballast when it dropped too low and releasing hydrogen when it ascended too high. When all the ballast sandbags were gone it released the incendiary and TNT bombs, then blew up the balloon. All of this was done without electronics, of course; Wikipedia has a clear explanation of the balloon’s ingenious control system.

Wikipedia also cites a couple of non-translated documents which apparently state there were plans to use the Fu-Go to release anthrax and plague (Yersinia pestis), although the definitive Mikesh report (see sources) says, “though possible, the Japanese did not consider this aspect.” But as they were preparing to cancel the Fu-Go project thinking it a failure, a plan called “Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night” was finalized; this called for kamikaze attacks on the Naval base at San Diego with the planes carrying ceramic jars of plague-infested fleas. The war ended before the operation could be carried out.

While all mention of the balloon bombs was suppressed in America, Japanese propaganda news agencies were telling their domestic audience that the balloons were causing havoc in the U.S. and starting numerous fires plus killing 10,000 casualties. After the Mitchell tragedy was revealed (which happened after the last Fu-Go was launched, remember) they made English-language broadcasts claiming the balloons had been only used on an experimental scale and were the “prelude to something big.”

Finally, Gentle Reader may be surprised to learn there’s even a few Believe-it-or-Not! items to our story because so many found the balloons and/or the ordinance and didn’t know what it was. Authorities in Elko, Nevada, were startled to find an old prospector come into town with a still-inflated balloon tied to his burro – he thought the government “had lost something.” In Yakima, Washington a boy had an anti-personnel bomb which he had been carrying around for several days. Ranch hands at Yerington, Nevada came across a balloon with its attachment; they tied it to the bumper of a car and towed it to a garage. The guys wrote a letter to authorities about it but heard nothing back, so they deflated the balloon and used it to cover a haystack. When the state police finally came calling they found there were still two live bombs.

TOP: Snapshot of a balloon bomb snagged on a tree in Kansas, February 1945

 
sources
 

Details about the Vine Hill bomb and other Sonoma county incidents were released when censorship was lifted and appeared in the Press Democrat on August 16, 1945 and a UP wire service story in the Petaluma Argus-Courier August 17. Details of the Mitchell incident are from the Associated Press datelined May 31. The definitive document on the Fu-Go balloon bombs is Japan’s World War II Balloon Bomb Attacks on North America by Robert C. Mikesh, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973, and all other details in this article are summarized from his report except as noted.

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pipedreams

SEBASTOPOL’S CHINATOWNS

In other times and places they may have been considered twin villages. The two communities brushed against each other, each with a mercantile district, its own places of worship and sometimes populations of roughly the same size. But never did they have equal standing, which is because one of those communities was entirely Chinese immigrants and this was the American West in the 19th century. Specifically, this was Sebastopol and its Chinatown. Its two Chinatowns, actually.

Before diving in, it pains me to admit the tale you’re about to read is incomplete. I’ve pecked away at the history of this fascinating lost world for ages, returning to it whenever another historic newspaper or trove of other data came online. But it’s been a while since anything really significant surfaced; it looks like some sections of the puzzle – critically important sections, at that – will always be missing. So here I’ve put together what I have, in the hope that someday a family memoir, a dusty photo album or a history by one of San Francisco’s Six Companies will appear, allowing scholars of Chinese culture in the West to cement more parts of the picture together.

This project began over seven years ago after finding a remark by West County historian Bill Borba: “Sebastopol had two Chinatowns that must have had in the neighborhood of 200-300 Chinese in them…” Sure enough, I found the fire maps which showed the village seemed to have two Chinese enclaves about a block apart. I soon learned this was a very unusual situation.


“JOHN CHINAMAN” COMES TO SONOMA

The earliest Chinese immigrants probably arrived in Sonoma county around 1855, as they did in Marin; the 1860 census shows about forty, all but a handful living in the town of Sonoma. During this decade the local newspapers fed readers a steady diet of racist stories about the doings of “John Chinaman” in San Francisco or the Gold Country, but little about the men living here. A rare 1868 item from the Santa Rosa paper told of a Chinese man who reported being robbed by two boys – but “several white persons near by when the alleged act was committed” claimed he was lying, so the case was dropped.

By the 1870 census the Chinese population had grown tenfold; 470 men were counted in the county overall with over half (280) living in Petaluma. Salt Point was the third largest Chinese group with 96 (mainly logging camps at Timber Cove and Duncan’s Mills). Five were listed in Bloomfield. In 1871, California Pacific railroad brought in a crew of over a thousand Chinese laborers to begin work on a rail line between Santa Rosa and Cloverdale. Judging by the number of newspaper reports, this decade was by far the most violent for Chinese immigrants, with multiple reports of beatings, shootings and a trend of young white boys shooting them in the face. The most disturbing incidents were when hunters found a body in the Laguna; although the Coroner’s Jury met there and believed the man had been murdered, there was no further investigation and the remains were buried at the site following the verdict. Near Bloomfield, an immigrant supposedly attempted suicide by cutting his throat, followed by splitting his head open with an axe. When the Coroner’s Jury arrived at the scene they found the body some distance away in a potato field; it was decided the injured man stumbled there on his own and there was no foul play involved in any of it. The body remained lying in the field for several days.

Although the 1880 census missed the entire Chinese community at Bloomfield (although there were eight counted in Valley Ford), there were still 901 enumerated in the county, with Sonoma City, Santa Rosa and Petaluma having the largest populations, in that order. The population of the Analy Township was 1,380 with 37 Chinese immigrants, and Sebastopol had 197 residents with only three from China.

Only summaries of the 1890 census exist, but there were 1,173 identified as Chinese in the entire county with 231 in the Analy Township (there was no breakout for Sebastopol), slightly behind Santa Rosa’s leading count of 277.

Was this a single community split between different streets or were these really two separate Chinatowns? Evidence points both ways. Until the last buildings were razed in 1943, the Sebastopol newspaper referred to one as New (or Barnes’) Chinatown and the other as Old (or Brown’s) Chinatown. Each had its own “joss house” (a place of worship) which I’m told was never seen in a town so small. (By contrast, there was no joss house at all in Santa Rosa, although we know there was a room used as a temple.) But did one group have better status, more wealth than the other? Those and other loose threads are tugged below.

Nor do we have any images of the Chinatowns except for grainy photos taken before it was to be demolished. There are no known pictures of any residents – the man seen at the top of this article is from Arnold Genthe’s book on San Francisco’s Chinatown at around the turn of the century.

Even worse, we don’t have an accurate view of how many people were living there at any particular time. Old census data was often problematic when it came to enumerating ethnic minorities, possibly because of racism or language barriers. In the 1880 census there were no Chinese counted in Bloomfield, for example, although there were probably hundreds living there; other census takers in the county that year didn’t make much of an effort to record Chinese names with any accuracy, filling in the census forms with meaningless stubs such as “Lee,” “ah Gus,” “Hong Kong,” or “Sing.” Complicating matters, the census was usually taken during the summer months when Chinese ag workers might be away from where they lived most of the year, dispersed on farms or among work crews where they could be overlooked (or hidden). A more specific example of these problems is below.

Our story begins in 1885, although newspapers had occasionally mentioned Chinese men in Sebastopol over the previous decade. (Most news about early Sebastopol comes from the Petaluma Argus, as older 19th century Santa Rosa papers mostly ignored the village.) That year Aaron Barnes announced he was moving “his China houses” off Main Street; it didn’t happen for several years, as the 1888 fire map shown below still showed a Chinatown with about a dozen buildings, roughly across the street from today’s Copperfield’s store.

Aaron Barnes (1816-1897) was a farmer/real estate investor who owned several lots around downtown Sebastopol, most notably the large corner at Petaluma Ave. and (modern) Highway 12, where the CVS and Benedetti Tire now stand. He had a quirky life, which earned him a profile in “SEBASTOPOL WAS ALWAYS QUIRKY,” but it was never explained why he seemed to have so much devotion to his Chinese tenants. There’s a family story that he liked them better than the white townsfolk because a church had done something to offend him and his first wife. But his cause of death was diagnosed as constipation, which might seem unusual because the cure-all tonics during his era were usually strong laxatives mixed with alcohol. That condition is also famously a side-effect from chronic use of opium.

1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's downtown Chinatown
1888 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s downtown Chinatown

The situation changed quickly and dangerously in the first weeks of 1886. Anti-Chinese vigilante committees had been running amok on the West Coast for months, terrorizing immigrants into leaving their communities under threats of death. While Sonoma County locals were chanting the popular “Chinese must go” mantra, there was no violence or anti-Chinese activism here. But when members of Petaluma’s Wickersham family were brutally killed in mid-January and their Chinese cook was accused of the deed, anti-Chinese Leagues sprouted overnight in every Sonoma community with intent to expel them. For in-depth coverage on that story, see “THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE.”

Before the end of that January there was a trickle of Chinese coming into Santa Rosa from Cloverdale, Healdsburg and other points north. Some were passing through on their way to San Francisco, but many apparently were lingering in town to see how the situation would develop – the Democrat newspaper reported there were over 600 Chinese in Santa Rosa as the month ended. Sebastopol’s Chinatown swelled at the same time. The correspondent for the Argus wrote “the town has about 360 Chinese and they outnumber about 250 whites.” In the next few weeks, the Chinese population of Sebastopol peaked at an estimated 400-450.


BLOOMFIELD’S “PIGTAIL ALLEY”

Before it became dairy county, Big Valley (Bloomfield + Valley Ford) was known for its potatoes; 100,000 sacks a year were carted down to the Petaluma wharf in the wagons which were jokingly called “spud schooners.” As planting and digging so many potatoes is quite labor intensive, Big Valley was also known for its many, many Chinese immigrants. When they hit Peak Potato around 1880 it’s often claimed 300 Chinese men lived in or around Bloomfield, although local historian Bill Borba always said the number was closer to 600, far larger than Sebastopol’s combined Chinatowns.

Several locations have been identified but none are documented by archaeology; camps were said to be at the current location of Emma Herbert Memorial Park and near the intersection of Roblar Road and Valley Ford Road. Several buildings were rented along Main Street (now Bloomfield Road), with “Pigtail Alley” somewhere nearby. This was probably their Chinatown; a Chinese butcher shop and laundry are mentioned in articles below, so it’s fairly safe to assume there was a business area similar in size to Sebastopol.

In February 1886 an Anti-Chinese Committee was formed in Bloomfield, same as in all other Sonoma County communities. But the situation was different, due to the size of the Chinese community (“there is no town in the state, of its size, where there are so many Chinese” – Sonoma Democrat) and because some Bloomfielders were inclined to vigilante activity. An unsuccessful attempt was made to blow up a Chinese laundry (“result, a lot of frightened Chinamen and a shattered floor”) and a spring that supplied water was salted. That October – months after the anti-Chinese fervor had sputtered out in Santa Rosa and other places – the Argus reported that vigilantes “…have AGAIN [emphasis mine] taken the law into their own hands and have forcibly ejected them from the town.”

Predictably, the farmers found themselves short-handed when potato harvest season arrived in 1887: “It is impossible to get enough white hands. Chinamen are scarce and disposed to boycott the Bloomfield country, from which they were driven a year since.” Potato blight damaged much of the crop in 1889 and by 1891 there were only about 100 acres still planted in potatoes, most of the land converted to dairy pastures.

Many who sought refuge in Sebastopol presumably were coming from nearby Bloomfield, which had the largest sustained Chinese community in the county. Bloomfield was also the site of the only local vigilante activity, which continued for months (see sidebar). But as winter turned into spring even the Chinatowns in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa shrunk greatly, although it’s most likely because of residents melting away into the countryside to take their customary farm jobs now that growing season approached.

After a year passed there was no sign the anti-Chinese furor had any lasting effect in Sebastopol (“there are more Chinamen in Sebastopol to the square foot than in any American town that we know of” – Argus). The Petaluma paper reported boys – and women from Santa Rosa – were coming to the village’s Chinatown to smoke opium, a matter of some irritation to the townsfolk.

The first possible sighting of a second Chinatown appears in 1889: “The Chinese have built a Joss house in town.” That it was built by the Chinese themselves (or perhaps, paid for by them) suggests Barnes was not involved, as he apparently always hired contractors.

This other Chinatown was on property owned by John Brown, like Barnes a farmer/real estate investor, although on a much larger scale – he had some 1,400 acres on the east end of Sebastopol which he leased to others, making him the second largest landowner in the area (the Walker ranch was larger). His cottage still exists on the edge of town and is currently home to the Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital.

That became known as Old Chinatown. Then 15 months later, in early 1891, New Chinatown started to appear: “Elliot & Berry are building a fine Joss House for the Chinamen.” Later that year, “a number of China houses are in course of erection on the corner of Petaluma and Bodega avenues by Mr. Aaron Barnes, and the Joss house which has been located near Mr. Barnes’ residence has been moved to the same lot.” (It never ceases to amaze me that they moved houses around like dominoes back then.) To be clear: This Chinatown occupied the entire footprint of the modern CVS and its parking lot.

And so Sebastopol became accustomed to having two Chinatowns in its backyard. One of the rare items in the Sebastopol paper that mentions both describes the comic 1898 efforts to restrain a bull running through the town: “…he concluded to have some noodle soup and charged the restaurant in Barnes’ Chinatown. The boss cook banged a big tin pan against the noodle pot with such effect that his lordship wheeled for Brown’s Chinatown. Whether he wanted to hit the pipe or was looking for a game of fan tan is not known…”

Another episode from the same year shows how fairly the town treated their Chinese residents. During Lunar New Year celebrations Deputy Constable Woodward attempted a little extortion, demanding $5 from each merchant who was exploding firecrackers. As there was no such thing as a firecracker tax, two men began arguing with Woodward; that turned into a fight with the cop pistol-whipping a young man named Ah Woy, who filed a complaint against the constable. During the court hearing a few days later about a dozen Chinese witnesses testified. Woodward’s defense was that he only asked Woy to quiet down and was attacked by Woy while trying to assist him to go indoors. “Some of the Chinese witnesses, however, did not seem to agree with the constable’s version of the fracas,” the Press Democrat reported. “Some of them of the ‘little bit Engleesh’ persuasion just looked daggers at Mr. Woodward.” The court fined Woodward $20 for battery and dismissed Woodward’s assault charge against Woy.

There was probably no happier year in those places than 1898. There were now children in the community and there was a wedding:


“A Chinese bride! A Chinese bride!” The word was passed like wildfire among the crowd at the Donahue depot as the ten o’clock train on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad slowed up there Wednesday morning. Instantly everybody was anxious to catch a glimpse of the celestial maiden, clad in the most fantastic of bridal costumes…When the bride and her party arrived at Sebastopol they were given a great reception by scores of Chinese. In a gaily decorated vehicle adorned with flags and Chinese lanterns, the bride was escorted through the streets. Later in the day the marriage took place amid much pomp. the groom was a “heap high tone” Chinaman employed on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol.

Less happy was 1899; almost all of Barnes’ Chinatown burned down, wiping out 15 buildings including stores, boarding houses, the Joss house and their Masonic hall. There was great concern during the fire because the winds were blowing towards town and no one knew where their hook and ladder truck was (it was found on a vacant lot, someone having borrowed it for personal use). As Aaron Barnes was now deceased, it was unclear whether his son Henry would rebuild. By the end of the year it was reconstructed about 75 feet further east away from Petaluma Ave. One merchant, Quong Wah, was wealthy enough to build his own place.

1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Old Chinatown and New Chinatown
1903 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Old Chinatown and New Chinatown

In the summer of 1900 the census taker found 77 Chinese in and around Sebastopol, two of them women. Most were in small knots of 3-5 laborers living on farms but about a third were in the Chinatowns, which now had two groceries, two merchandise stores, three laundries and a barber. The two Chinatowns were still about equal size on the 1903 map. John A. Brown died in 1905 and the property passed to his daughter, Birdie, who continued making improvements into the 1920s. It was no longer called Old Chinatown/Brown’s Chinatown but “China Alley.”

Fast-forward ahead another decade; the 1910 census is the only one which recognized two Chinatowns, with about 25 people living in each. Seven were female and nine were born in California. Kim Lee owned a laundry; there were five grocers and eight other stores, which seems like a lot, if there were really only fifty people.

1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown
1911 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s China Alley and Barnes street Chinatown

And now we come to the 1920s; there’s a druggist who has his own store, two salesmen, and sixteen people under age 20, with two dozen people born in California. The census says there are 84 living in “China Town.” Except that’s apparently not really true. To (somewhat) repeat myself: When it comes to the Chinese, the census data is like a house of cards – touch it lightly and it all falls apart.

Meet Johnny Ginn. He was an old man in the early 1970s when he was interviewed by sociologists collecting oral histories of the Chinese experience in California.* He was the only one interviewed who spoke about Sebastopol, having grown up around there; that 1898 story about the Chinese bride concerned his mother.

Johnny’s father was named Ginn Wall and as the wedding item states, he worked on the Knowles ranch near Sebastopol. But according to the 1900 census, there were no Chinese living on or near the William H. Knowles ranch. Same for 1910, 1920. In fact, Johnny and his parents can’t be spotted in any census at all, as far as I can tell, and they were not alone in being overlooked. As he told the researchers, “There were about three hundred Chinese farmworkers up there, and they were all old men…and except for my mother, not a single woman. That was the whole Chinese settlement in Sebastopol.”

Johnny’s mother died in 1929 and his father went broke being a tenant farmer. After saving for the next six years they finally had the $600 to send Ginn Wall back to China by himself. Johnny told the researchers he realized that the farm settlement in Sebastopol was dying:


All those old guys thought about was how they wanted to go back to China. But there’s only about six months work in the year on apples, so they never saved a thing. And the only other thing besides work was gambling. Gambling was the social life, and gambling was the pastime. Everybody hoped to make a few bucks so they could go home in the easy way. The others lost their money and got stuck from year to year.

By then in the mid-1930s it was a bachelor society of elderly men. There was nothing still keeping him there, so Johnny became a migrant worker.

1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol's Brown ave. and Barnes ave.
1929 Sanborn map of Sebastopol’s Brown ave. and Barnes ave.

Our last glimpse of the Chinatowns comes from the 1929 map, which shows the one on Brown Ave. (now Brown St.) in slow decline, while Barnes Ave. has slightly grown. The census in the following year again had a low headcount of 54 residents, but there was also now the eight-member Gin Hop family with their own house on Pitt Ave. (He was a China-born merchant and presumably no relation to Ginn Wall.)


DOWNLOAD
PDF file of transcribed sources discussed in this article (26 pages)



Of most interest to historians is the 1929 map appearance of a Tong Hall at the southernmost end, which raises several intriguing questions. It’s possible it had been there for years, but escaped notice of white cartographers who didn’t understand it possibly represented the foothold of a crime gang. In the late 1890s the Sebastopol paper had several items about highbinders (tong enforcers, sometimes hit men) being in town and a man who supposedly was a local highbinder was himself killed there in 1899. Although the separate Chinatowns began as protectorates of Messrs. Barnes and Brown, it’s possible they soon came under the control of rival tongs. This would explain why two joss houses were sustained the entire time. (UPDATE: Most tongs were not criminal, particularly at this late date.)

It all came to an end in 1943, when Sebastopol condemned the last buildings on Barnes ave. as fire hazards. Press Democrat reporter Pete Johnson described the place as “ghostlike,” although there were some people still living there.

The last celebration of Chinese New Year was apparently 1932 and it was a low-key affair, the usual gaiety dampened by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria a few months earlier. “Chinese and Japanese in the settlement here are said to exchange nothing but short greetings, but the situation isn’t acute,” the Sebastopol Times reported. Only a few gathered at the joss house to celebrate because only a few were still around. “Old-timers in the Chinatown here estimate their number to be less than 70…about one-fourth of the population several years ago,” said the Times, the paper at last acknowledging the true size of the historic community.

But earlier New Year celebrations there were always happy times, regardless of their pitiable situations, and it was also the only time of the year when the Sebastopol gwáilóu came over to visit with them. Let’s end our survey with a peek at the celebration in 1920:


Wednesday noon in front of the joss house several strings of fire crackers, each over thirty feet in length, were exploded, much to the delight of Sebastopol’s boyhood. The Chinese had erected a high tripod on which they suspended the long strings of fire crackers by means of a pulley, but the first string had hardly been ignited when the tripod collapsed and the entire string exploded at once, much to the dismay of the Chinese…The rest of the fire crackers were more successful. All afternoon the tom toms and cymbals were kept busy by the Chinese musicians who were stationed in the joss house.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.
1943 views of Barnes Ave. Chinatown (Press Democrat) The Sonoma County Library History & Genealogical Library has another photo with a partial view of the Wing Yuen Tai Co. store and employment office on the corner of Barnes Ave. in the 1920s.

* Longtime Californ’: A Documentary Study of an American Chinatown; Victor Nee and Brett De Bary; 1986; pp. 25-29

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hobojungle

THE CAPITAL OF HOBOHEMIA

Interpreting history is sometimes like assembling IKEA furniture. After an unexpected amount of sweat and cussing you’ve finally got the thing put together and it looks okay – but then you discover an overlooked part which seems as if it must be important. So back you go, pouring over the documents to figure out where the hell it fits in. And that, Gentle Reader, is how we have arrived at the puzzle of Santa Rosa and its hoboes. They had a significant presence here (albeit usually an unwanted one) for decades; where do they fit into the Santa Rosa story? What drew them here and why did they settle in to stay?

Before diving into that history, however, comments on Facebook and other social media about my previous article, “THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOBOES,” suggest many are comparing those 1931 hoboes and their hobo jungle with today’s homeless and their encampments on the Joe Rodota trail and elsewhere. The situations could hardly be more different.

First, the hoboes never considered themselves homeless. Living a rootless life under the sky was theirs by choice; this point came across strongly in the profile of the Santa Rosa hoboes as it does in other primary writings, such as the (highly recommended!) Tales of the Iron Road. They chafed when forced to stay under a roof because of weather or infirmity, itching to get back to the camp fire world they loved.

Despite the hardships, their attraction to hobo life was being part of an extended community where acceptance was unconditional as long as you honored their rules and customs. Since it appears most were cast away at a young age or suffered some form of parental abuse or abandonment, becoming a hobo was like joining the Brotherhood of Lost Boys. The far-reaching hobo network became a new family, and many of those men spent most (or all) of their adulthood in the comfort of belonging among them.

Our modern homeless do share one thing with the hoboes of yore – Santa Rosa’s cluster of “skid row” services on Morgan and Wilson streets.

Hoboing was at its heyday c. 1910 when an evangelical group started a rescue mission on Washington street, near the current location of the Catholic Charities homeless services center on Morgan. That was followed by a shelter for “down and outs” at 117 Eighth street, between Davis and Wilson. In the mid 1960s – even as the hobo life was on the wane – the Redwood Gospel Mission and House of Refuge opened in the same area, with the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen and Catholic Charities following later. It made sense at the time for all those Good Samaritans to operate their charities there because the locations were only steps away from Santa Rosa’s railroad yard, which was where all hoboes came and went.

Indulge me a moment to editorialize about how this is still causing problems today: It’s now been a long time since trains were the hobo express, and continuing to offer those services in that neighborhood only tethers the homeless to the downtown area. Today everyone concerned would be better off if the charities there moved to a designated area where the homeless living in vehicles could park, others could camp and where meaningful humanitarian aid could be coordinated.

Theirs was a distinct American subculture that lasted roughly one hundred years, from the end of the Civil War to circa 1970. At its 1910 peak the hobo population was estimated at 700,000, large enough to make them the fourth largest city in the United States, should they all get an unlikely itch to settle down in a mondo hobo jungle.

In the early years tramps, vagabonds or “vags” were apparently rare in Sonoma county, although they were frequently the subject of little filler items in the local newspapers, usually jokey vignettes reprinted from East Coast journals. The gags were usually that a tramp is ignorant (trying to eat ice cream with a fork), rude (correcting his host’s grammar after receiving a free meal) or deceitful (a haven’t-eaten-for-days tramp begs for a penny and is told the person only has a silver dollar; no problem, says the vagrant, he can make change).

The first mention of drifters in the area came from the Santa Rosa paper in the summer of 1876, when a tramp attempted to sexually assault a 7 year-old girl south of Hopland (he wasn’t turned over to the sheriff, but members of the family beat the man severely). A number of unemployed men arrived the following year when the Long Depression hit California and caused massive unemployment, and the Democrat made the point that these fellows were different that the usual vagabonds found around here: “Many of them are now in this section of the State seeking work, and they are generally designated ‘tramps.’ From the fact that there are every year some persons strolling about the country pretending to be hunting work but really trying to make a living without having to work for it, the name of tramp has become one of opprobrium…” (Transcriptions of this and assorted other articles follow at the end.)

After that the Santa Rosa newspaper was mostly silent about tramps for nearly a decade – but come 1886, there was plenty to report. “The question, ‘What shall be done with the tramps,’ has been frequently asked,” began one story in the Democrat. A reporter counted fifty living in the seasonally-dry bed of Santa Rosa Creek.

“During the afternoon of Wednesday and the forenoon of Thursday, the side streets were almost thronged with these creatures, going from house to house, begging what they could and stealing where the chance offered. And yet this annoyance has no antidote; the County Jail would be inadequate to the demands made upon it were they all arrested,” the article continued. Several more pieces followed, including interviews with some of the tramps.

The influx of tramps traces back to the developments of 1883-1886, discussed here earlier in depth. Those were Santa Rosa’s boomtown years, which began when the courthouse was the scene of a high-profile, two year trial that brought wads of money into town. Then “Kroncke’s Park” opened in 1886, with ultra-cheap subsidized ferry and train tickets from San Francisco. That lured up to 1,500 to Santa Rosa each Sunday, among them pickpockets and “roughs.” A few weeks after it opened, a Democrat article began thus: “The excursion to this city and Kroncke’s Park Sunday, was made up chiefly of hoodlums…” Problems persisted for years, which the city ignored because the park brought in the tourist trade. A surge of articles about aggressive and criminal tramps appeared in tandem (“the tramp nuisance seems to be daily on the increase”), including an item about a policeman shooting a guy in the arm while he was trying to escape arrest for stealing a load of booze.

But a far larger wave of itinerants began arriving in 1888, once the Santa Rosa and Carquinez (AKA Southern Pacific) Railroad was completed. Santa Rosa was now connected to the national rail network. From the North street depot we could ship Annadel basalt, Sonoma county wine and fruit anywhere in the country cheaply; in return we brought in cattle and kerosene and circuses – along with a new style of tramp adept at riding freight cars that came to be called “hoboes.”*

That freight line connected through Napa Junction (now part of American Canyon) and came up through the Valley of the Moon. There soon was an uptick in hobo-related crime along the train route in Napa, which put 43 tramps in jail, and Glen Ellen, where the town constable was robbed. Santa Rosa had a string of burglaries because there was a “centralization of that element of society at the county-seat,” according to the Board of Supervisors, who passed a motion that “all tramps and vagrants confined in the County Jail be fed only good wholesome bread and water.”

Napa valley hobo c. 1920, photographer unknown
Napa valley hobo c. 1920, photographer unknown

Anyone crystal ball-gazing in 1889 might have predicted the hoboes would become a permanent criminal underclass, lurking at the edge of town while plotting to steal your grandma’s candlesticks. But by the early 1890s there were no crimes reported locally aside from the occasional fellow caught sleeping in a barn, with few mentions of hoboes being sentenced to a tour of duty on Santa Rosa’s chain gang. (There were no chains and the work was apparently just sweeping downtown sidewalks and picking up cigar butts.) What changed? I suspect hoboes coming from the East brought with them the new concept of the hobo jungle, with its code of strict intolerance for robbers and other trouble-makers.

And the hoboes certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be banned from Santa Rosa. There were no Railroad Bulls eager to crack hobo heads stationed at our little depot on North street, and the county jail was supposedly quite tolerable, although there were sometimes “tough on crime” spells where prisoners were given only bread and water, or even water alone. Plus it was a short walk across town to the NWP railyard at Railroad Square; from there a hobo could spend his life riding steam trains up and down Luther Burbank’s “chosen spot of all this earth,” never venturing again out of the pleasant valleys of Northern California – and from the 1931 Press Democrat series, we know some indeed did so. But if you still wanted to visit Los Angeles or Seattle or Chicago, the Southern Pacific line was right on the other side of town. It was like Santa Rosa was Grand Central Station for the mythical paradise of Hobohemia.

Once the robberies stopped, the town was also starting to adjust to having a vagrant population. The first sign came in 1892, when a group of boys were fined $5 each (the equivalent of $180 today) for throwing rocks at a hobo – a crime the cops surely would have been ignored a few years earlier, just as kids were never punished for harassing Chinese residents.

By 1894 the Democrat even began publishing stories that poked gentle fun at the hoboes, as if they were merely eccentrics. In January the paper had a fictionalized account of six men who very much wanted the police court to sentence them to jail because of the cold weather. Hoboes always were known by their “road names,” which were monickers like “Fry Pan Jack” or “Cotton Henry.” In the Democrat’s version the men had goofy names such as “Chauncy Hoofsome,” “Insomuch Pillroller” and “Douglas Ticklemush,” which sound more like the cuddly pals of Beatrix Potter than leather-skinned dudes who risked death or dismemberment by jumping aboard moving freight trains.

Later that year the paper attempted to use them as a political allegory (and I do emphasize the word, “attempted”) where the hoboes who hung around Santa Rosa were Republican freeloaders called “Doodoos” (the whole idiotic thing is too long to transcribe; anyone interested can read it here). Still, it shows the hoboes here already shared the comradeship of the later hobo jungles:


…Deputy Sheriff Dougherty, who has made a psychological, phrenological and astrological study of the American tramp, says there are two great divisions of this grand army. One division is called the Doodoos, the other the Blanket-stiffs…The Doodoos are devoted to each other. Dougherty states that when one of them is let out of jail he always returns with tobacco or a Daily Democrat to light up the gloom for his brothers in the cage. He further alleges that they have secret signs by which they recognize each other anywhere…At the present time there are twenty-eight tramps in the county jail, all members of the order of Doodoos. They have a leader, or “judge,” with them, whose nickname is “Aunt Sally.” It appears he made such a success of doing nothing and was such a good judge of whisky that the California branch of the Doodoos promoted him from the bar to the bench…

As years passed both Santa Rosa’s Republican and Democrat newspapers offered stories about the audacious hoboes who passed through the area (see “THE HOBOES COMETH“). A favorite character was “Tennessee Bill,” who set fire to the Petaluma city jail during 1904. Arrested for his usual drunkenness, Bill was foolishly left alone in his cell and soon tore off all his clothes and set fire to them. Asked why, “he answered that it needed fumigation and took it upon himself to accomplish the deed,” according to the Republican. The fire department was called and the cell, along with Bill, were thoroughly hosed down. “A number of ladies were attracted by the excitement and went to the jail door but did not stay long. Tennessee’s vocabulary is not all parlor tongue,” commented the Argus.

Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley was particularly fond of writing about hobo life; under his tenure the PD printed that remarkable 11-part series in 1931, which should be recognized as some of the paper’s most noteworthy journalism. Reading the teasers and blurbs about the series and it seems clear that Finley dearly wished he was thirty years younger and could have written it himself.

Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle began fading away shortly after that. A 1951 Press Democrat article mentioned there were still three near Santa Rosa; it’s not clear if any remained by the time the Wilson street charities opened their doors in 1963.

In 1975 the Press Democrat revisited its legacy of hobo reporting by offering a two-part series by Ukiah bureau writer Vicki Allen on “Hood River Blackie,” the hobo historian. During his 33 years on the Iron Road, Blackie (real name Ralph Gooding) collected details about hoboing going back to the Civil War. “Some people exist and no one pays any attention to them until they are gone,” Blackie told the PD. “I call them the lost generation. It makes me feel so bad that the people of my world are gone. Now, it is like chasing dead men.”

He had retired in 1972 because “nearly all the men I knew and traveled with were gone.” Blackie always planned to write a multi-volume history of their underground subculture spanning a century, complete with 611 biographies of men who spent their lives on the rails. The book wasn’t written, but there are hours of oral history tapes at Columbia and New York University and he can be heard at the vagabond exhibit at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento (don’t know if the exhibit’s still there). A memorable story and song by U. Utah Phillips is all about him.

When Blackie died in Twentynine Palms during 1984 he was 57 and buried in the Joshua Tree Cemetery. Later “True West” magazine did an article about his life and there was a mention in the social column of the Marion Ohio newspaper, Blackie having been born in that town. But apparently only a single paper in the nation printed an actual obituary for him.

It was the Press Democrat.


* Some claim there was a difference between “tramps” and “hoboes,” but I don’t see any distinction in reading the original sources. According to the Oxford Etymologist blog, the origin and meaning of “hobo” is unknown but it first appeared around 1890 in the American West. Locally it can be spotted in a 1893 Petaluma Morning Courier item that also used “tramp” in the same paragraph. A filler the following year in the Sonoma Democrat stated “hobo” originated with French Canadians living in the upper Midwest, an explanation which now seems to have been forgotten. My interpretation is that the names reflect how itinerants supplanted walking (the verb “tramp”) with riding the rails in the 1890s as the main means of travel. Consistently, however, “bum” was used as a derogatory name for drunks and drug addicts.

ABOVE: Chicago hobo jungle, 1931, photographer unknown. Photo Calumet412.com

 

sources
Give Them a Meal. — Owing to a failure of crops in most of the counties south of San Francisco, very many persons are thrown out of employment. Many of them are now in this section of the State seeking work, and they are generally designated “tramps.” From the fact that there are every year some persons strolling about the country pretending to be hunting work but really trying to make a living without having to work for it, the name of tramp has become one of opprobrium, and should not be applied to very many now in this and counties adjoining. Many of these are honest, respectable men, who, by the misfortunes that have befallen them, are compelled to ask for any work that will afford them a living; and whilst it behooves our people to exercise some discrimination as to whom they employ, they will do great injustice by treating all as common tramps and refusing to give them work. And we do hope that whenever application is made for enough work at least to pay for a meal of victuals that the meal at least may not be denied even though there be no work needed. Those who are unworthy may under such pretext obtain their meals, but it is better to give ten meals to the unworthy than to deny one to an honest man who really needs it and is willing to work for it.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 16 1877

 

Blair Hart, who is working with a hay press on the farm of Sam. Agnew, in Sonoma, had his valise stolen from his camp last Tuesday evening by a tramp. The valise contained an Odd Fellows gold pin, some clothing, and two certificates of deposit issued by the Bank of Sonoma valley, one for $120 and the other for $145.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 23 1877

 

Affray at Sonoma.

Last Sunday afternoon about four o’clock, in Sonoma city, Herman Loux, proprietor of the Rail Road Saloon, shot Wm. Moore, a vagabond who had been lying about town for some time. It appears that Moore, being intoxicated, entered the saloon and immediately commenced a series of aggressive insults upon the barkeeper and the inmates. After knocking down an Indian the drunken man seized Mr. Loux by the throat and was doing his utmost to choke him. The proprietor after retreating as far as possible, reached behind the counter and grasping a pistol shot his assailant in the pit of the stomach. It is thought that the wound will prove fatal. Loux was arrested and a preliminary examination took place last Tuesday, in which he was held to answer with bail fixed in the sum of $5.000. He furnished sureties for his appearance on May 3d, when the examination will take place.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 23 1881

 

A Dangerous Vagabond.

Monday afternoon a badly intoxicated young man made himself very conspicuous in the neighborhood of the depot, rushing about with an open razor in his hand with which he said he intended to cut the tail off of every dog in Santa Rosa. He did not confine his blood thirsty attentions to the canine race either, but chased a number of small boys and girls who came in his neighborhood, threatening to cut them all to pieces and badly frightening several. Constable J. J. Lowery finally appeared on the scene and found the drunken fool chasing a cow all around a vacant lot. with the laudable intention of treating her in the same manner as he purposed serving the dogs. When he discovered the officer approaching, he turned upon him savagely, rushing toward him with the razor open in his hand and apparently meaning business. Our friend Jake, however, had no intention of allowing himself to be slashed up to gratify anybody, and when the desperado came within reach he treated him to a blow over the head with his club which laid him out and for the time being rendered him harmless. He was conveyed to the lock-up and left there to get sober. No one appears to know the fellow’s name, but he is said to have “beaten” his way out here all the way from Chicago, and in that case is no doubt a character of the worst type. At the commencement of his spree he had a couple of companions, who also imbibed sufficient “firewater” to render them excessively jolly, though they did not apparently share in his tail-cutting propensities. One of them was subsequently found in the bed of the creek, soundly slumbering in a drunken snooze, and was forthwith carried to the same mansion of rest in which his companion was reposing.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 3 1883

 

TRAMPS.

We are told that there are twenty-five thousand idle white men in California, fifteen thousand of whom are in the city of San Francisco, and ten thousand scattered through the State. These men, with few exceptions are in destitute circumstances and are compelled to move from place to place in search of employment, and those who do not find it are indiscriminately classed as tramps, and set down as a worthless set of vagabonds and treated as such. They are looked upon as little better than thieves, and are driven from the doors of houses where they apply for food to keep them from starving, as if they were dogs. There is something in this that is revolting to our mind—this lumping of the good and bad together and making the innocent suffer for the sins of the guilty. There are many bad men among them no doubt, but when their number is considered, the amount of crime committed by them is very small indeed. No one wishes to be unjust, but the great difficulty is in discriminating. It is often impossible to tell who is worthy and who is not, and the result is that all are treated alike. The effect of this is the manufacture of criminals out of men whose natural impulses are good. Driven from people’s doors, treated as vagabonds and thieves, rudely snatched up by officers and thrown into prison as vagrants,naked and starving, is it strange if they learn to hate their fellow men and become the enemies of society? There is one remedy for this cruel state of affairs and only one. The Chinese must go.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 28 1885

 

About Tramps

The question, “What shall be done with the tramps,” has been frequently asked within the past week and a half, and Thursday morning our reporter heard the City Marshal remark something to the same effect. “Arrest them, and lock them up for a few months,” some one said. “We can’t do it, there are too many of them,” replied the Marshal, and he went on to state that there were fifty tramps encamped on the creek bottom Wednesday night. The creek was dotted with camp fires from the E-street bridge to the cannery, with here three and there five in a group, watching intently the contents of a mysterious iron pot which swung over the flames. The correct analysis of many a serious doubt might have been found in the bottom of their iron kettles. During the afternoon of Wednesday and the forenoon of Thursday, the side streets were almost thronged with these creatures, going from house to house, begging what they could and stealing where the chance offered. And yet this annoyance has no antidote; the County Jail would be inadequate to the demands made upon it were they all arrested, and in many cases nothing could be proven against them, and ladies do not wish to come into a police court and swear that such and such a man came a begging at their doors, and without some such positive proof they cannot be convicted of being tramps or vags.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

An Officer Visits the Tramps.

Officer Charles made a tour of investigation through the willows along the creek in search of the festive tramp Thursday afternoon and evening, but only succeeded in finding nine, two of whom seemed to bo honest working men, the balance however, were as tough looking characters as one can well imagine. The two referred to were busy cooking dinner when visited by the officer, while the seven were scattered around their camp fire in sundry attitudes or laziness and. comfort. All nodded pleasantly at the approach of the officer, questioned him regarding the winter accommodations of the County Jail, number of meals served a day, associations, society, etc. All seemed disappointed on learning there was no library for the use of winter guests, and thought they would prefer the Stockton Jail, where they had been told the prisoners were allowed to attend church once on Sunday, and ail holidays were observed with an extra bill of fare. The officer was invited to join them at their camp fire and give them some idea of the class of citizens populating Santa Rosa. He declined the invitation, but complied with the request in a manner that would somewhat surprise some of our peace-loving citizens. He portrayed them as fire eaters of the most ferocious character that would not hesitate a moment in taking a shot at a midnight visitor to their hen roost or summer kitchen. His account of our people was delivered in such an unassuming, matter-of-fact way that the creatures around the fire were almost ready to believe it, and when be concluded by saying that there was some talk of organizing a vigilance committee, they were about ready to evacuate this neighborhood, and were profuse in their protestations of their peaceable intentions. After a few remarks of kindred nature he strolled on, and came upon another group of four, distributed in picturesque attitudes around the smouldering embers of what had once been a campfire, surrounded by suspicious looking carcasses, which he was afterwards informed were the frames of rabbits. This party was more reticent and less inclined to be jocose with the arm of the law. A little further on he came upon another party of three, all of whom were young men, none of them being over thirty years of age, and large, able-bodied fellows. They told him they had been unable to get work and were just starting out for Oregon, where they intended to take up land and become ranchers on a large scale. The spokesman of the party said that his father and family were in England and well to do, and were distantly connected with the Royal family; he had come to this country on a walking tour, and meeting his companions at the Bella Union, San Francisco, had accepted their invitation to do this county; he had been much impressed with the country they had passed over so far and on returning to his native land would publish a book descriptive of Sonoma county, it resources, wealth and industry, and above all things the romantic scenery along the meandering course of Santa Rosa creek. Another one of the party said that he was at one time a Bank Commissioner, that being unable to support his family on the small salary, had retired and was en route for the Geysers, where he was summering his family. Number three of the party stated that he was an artist and was sketching the scenery along the trip for his friend, the Englishman’s book, and would like to sketch the officer’s profile for a frontispiece. He stated that before the last Presidential election be had been employed on the Judge, but being unable to caricature President Cleveland was bounced for his inability. Altogether the officer was royally entertained at this bivouac, and wishing the merry party a good day he repaired to his regular beat within the borders of civilization.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886

 

Tramps Again.

The tramp nuisance seems to be daily on the increase. On Monday evening one called at the side door of the residence of a prominent citizen on Fourth street, and in a very impudent manner demanded his supper. The lady of the house did not feel like complying with his demand, when he began using threatening language and acted as though he intended coming into the house. The husband, hearing what was going on, came to the door and asked the tramp what he wanted, when he replied that he wanted his supper, in a tone which showed that if it was refused him he would come in and help himself. The master of the house, not caring to dally with the fellow any longer, picked a hatchet up and told him to get away just as quick as —- would let him. He went. This tramp seems to be one of the most cheeky of those who have been foraging in this town for the last two weeks. He has achieved a kind of reputation around in the localities where he has begged for food. He always claims to be in a state of starvation, not having eaten anything for three days. One family, who gave him a good supper, took sufficient interest in his exploits to put a detective on his track in the shape of their little son. The boy heard him tell the same yarn at several other places. When a good warm supper was temptingly set before him, he always did justice to it, generally managing to stow away something behind his blouse for his brave comrades. When he was simply given a cold lunch, however, he preserved the whole, and added it to the collection under his coat, which he in time deposited with his friends who were camped out by the creek, anxiously and tenderly awaiting his arrival.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886

 

An Uninvited Guest.

When policeman Mead went off watch at 5 o’clock Saturday morning and arrived at his room in the Santa Rosa House, he found a strange man in his bed. The man proved to be a tramp who had sneaked in and up to the first vacant room. The sight of the officer paralyzed Mr. Tramp and he evacuated without taking his spare garments.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 13 1886

 

Officer Gardner Shoots a Tramp.

Policemen Gardner and Mead had a very lively and interesting time in arresting four tramps, and landing them in the City Prison Saturday night. There were five in the party when first discovered in the lumber yard, where they were engaged in drinking beer and carousing generally. Policeman Gardner apprehended trouble and at half past eight they sallied forth, and solicited his brother officer’s assistance, On arriving at Tom Duffey’s saloon they found the tramps had moved further up town and were then busily engaged taking Mr. Duffey’s saloon by storm. They had succeeded in driving him to the sidewalk, where the officers found him standing, after having broken a dollar’s worth of glasses in trying to maintain his ground behind the bar. It was what would be termed in common parlance a tough crowd, and the officers knew what to expect and were not disappointed. They succeeded in conducting their prisoners as far as the corner of Fourth and A streets when one of the number broke away from Gardner and started down the street at as high a rate of speed as his cargo of liquor would allow. Turning over the balance of the prisoners to Mead and his assistant Gardner started in pursuit, and after calling to his man to stop several time, fired three shots, the last taking effect in the right arm of the fleeing tramp. This checked his speed somewhat and he was captured, when it was found that the arm was in a shattered condition. The four prisoners were lodged in the City Prison and their wounded comrade was taken to the County Hospital where his wounds received the proper attention.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 15 1887

 

TRAMPS OF HIGH AND LOW DEGREE.– There are quite a number of tramps in Petaluma just now. Some of them are high toned fellows, others are low bred. One of the latter rang the door-bell of the writer the other evening, just at dusk and when the door was opened made the demand. “Give me something to eat!” He was given leave to “take a walk.” Another of the Argus proprietors had a call from one of the tony class whose neat apparel and suavity of manners was such as to secure him his dinner, without any hint, either expressed or implied, that he could take a little manual exercise in the wood house in liquidation for the same. Moral – It even pays tramps to be polite.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, January 29 1887

 

How they get Drunk.

The question is often asked how the tramps, who never do anything in the way of remunerative labor, manage to get enough to purchase liquor with which to get drunk. As they are never found in such a condition alone, but in bands of six and a dozen, it would certainly take $4 or $5 to fill them up. The secret is simple, if one may judge from the frequency of their sprees. One of the police force who has had much experience with this class says, that 25 cents serves to intoxicate ten of the hardest drinkers of their fraternity. The two-bit piece is expended for alcohol, from which they can manufacture a gallon of powerful spirits with the aid of tobacco and a root which grows wild on the commons. Hence it is that the professional tramp seldom asks tor more than 25 cents.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 5 1887

 

H. H. Atwater is ordinarily good natured and willing to furnish his share of provisions to tramps, provided they ask him to hand it out and be the judge of what they shall have. On Tuesday morning he was somewhat “riled” to find his cellar cleared of almost everything in the eating line. They had sat down and eaten a hearty meal from cooked provisions and strawberries – washing it down with some fine old sherry – and then filling a market basket with what best suited them. Mr. Atwater is like the preacher who was glad to get his hat back from an unappreciative congregation – he don’t want anything back but the basket.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, May 14 1887

 

The tramps who have been stopping at the railroad bridge for the past few months, living high on fish and potatoes, have gently folded their tents and crawled into Jim Matthew’s barn to wait till the rain is over.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, November 17 1888

 

We have entirely too many vagabonds in this city and vicinity. The good hearted people will have to quit feeding them or be overrun. It is mistaken charity to give alms to big, strong fellows who are too lazy to work.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, December 1 1888

 

FOOTPADS AND BURGLARS.

[..]

The efforts of the officers to bring the perpetrators of the numerous robberies of recent occurrence to justice, are deserving of commendation. Thursday afternoon Marshal Lowrey and Policeman Jones arrested a man found camping in a sheltered and partially-concealed hollow under the lea of the creek bank, about a half mile beyond Appleby’s saloon on the Sonoma road. The camp presented a neat and tidy appearance somewhat foreign to the bivouac of the average tramp, and was well stocked with provisions. Its presence was detected by a thin wreath of smoke seen curling skyward above the tops of the fringing willows and which proved to have its origin in a fire burning at the door of a small tent. The man was somewhat startled on seeing the officers, but soon regained his composure and assumed to take their visit as a matter of course. After making a few inquiries and a hasty examination of the camp, the officers invited the man to take a seat in the buggy with them and visit the Sheriff’s office. He demurred a little, but attempted no resistance. On arriving at the Sheriff’s office a search was made of his garments and a small bag which had been picked up on leaving the camp was examined. On his person were found a good silver watch, a jack knife, a looking-glass in a Russian leather case, some cosmetics and a few other trinkets valuable only to the owner. The bag was found to contain a complete change of woolen underwear of good texture, several towels and napkins and two or three of those pieces of linen so essential to an infant’s wardrobe. While his effects were being inspected the man exhibited no signs of alarm or nervousness, and merely requested, as he was being taken into the jail, that good care be taken of his watch. He will be held for a few days to await the result of a further investigation of the camp and its surroundings.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 2 1889

 

Windsor Burglaries.

From the latest Windsor occurrence, it seems that Santa Rosa is not monopolizing the attention of the tramp thieves which are apparently infesting this part of the county. On Friday night the store of J. J. Lindsay was broken into and a valuable lot of merchandise stolen. Fortunately the thieves, in their haste or inexperience, overlooked the money drawer which contained quite an amount of coin. On the same night, King’s saloon was robbed. The loss, in this instance amounted to only $5 in money and a few quarts of liquor. The Windsor people are considerably alarmed and willing to endorse the opinion generally entertained, that a band of organized footpads has located in this part of the county. A reward of $130 has been offered for the capture of the thieves.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 9 1889

 

Tramps are becoming quite numerous around town. Extra care should be taken of valuables, as they are a light fingered set of gentry.

– Santa Rosa Democrat, August 9 1889

 

Killed by the Cars.

A tramp, supposed to be Fred Schmidt who recently served a short sentence for vagrancy in the County Jail, was killed by the cars near Glen Ellen Thursday evening. As the evening train was nearing Glen Ellen, Engineer Brown saw the man on the track a short distance ahead of the locomotive and just about to cross a trestle. The man had apparently heard the approaching train and was hurrying to get across the trestle. Several shrill blasts were blown on the whistle, but they had no other effect than to make the man increase his speed. When near the middle of the trestle he slipped between the ties and being unable to regain his feet or make his escape by jumping, the cow-catcher of the swiftly-moving locomotive caught him and rolled his crushed and mangled body along the track for a distance of eighty feet before the train could be stopped. The top of the skull was torn off and the face was a mass of splintered bone and mangled flesh. The clothing was torn to shreds and the body was crushed in a frightful manner. A jury was impaneled by Coroner Tivnen Friday morning and the inquest was held in Glen Ellen. The investigation resulted in a complete exoneration of Engineer Brown who had been arrested on charge of manslaughter and a verdict was rendered in accordance with the facts as above stated.

Sonoma Democrat, August 17 1889

 

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 1889. Mr. Davis introduced a preamble and resolution, setting forth the growing intolerance of the tramp nuisance in the State and the expense entailed on the county by the centralization of that element of society at the county-seat, and resolving that after the passage of the motion all tramps and vagrants confined in the County Jail be fed only good wholesome bread and water during the period of their incarceration. The motion was carried by a four to one vote, the negative vote being cast by Mr. Smith.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 7 1889

 

The tramp nuisance in this part of the State is becoming more and more serious in its import. The little jail in Napa contains forty-three of the gentry.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 14 1889

 

Casey, the vagabond who attempted to steal Will Polson’s horse one day last week, was liberated by the authorities soon after his arrest. No charge had been preferred against him, and he could not he held without an accusation.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 28 1889

 

Officer Yoho has a veritable tramp trap in the box cars at the Southern Pacific station. He has secured no less than four from that quarter during this month.

– Santa Rosa Democrat, December 31 1890

 

C. Crowfoot, the constable of Glen Ellen, was robbed of $97, Tuesday night, by a tramp who had begged a night’s lodging.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 1 1890

 

A Tramp Printer.

Harry Watson, a tramp printer, who subbed a few nights on the Democrat and subsequently held the position of pressman on the Petaluma Courier, is wanted by the officers of the law on charge of defrauding the Union Pacific Railway Company out of a ticket. Watson has quite a remarkable history. It is alleged, so the Petaluma Imprint says, that in Butte City he was arrested for arson, for setting fire to a printing office. About eight years ago he deserted his wife and family in Monterey. He had once lived in Monterey and run a paper there known us the News…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 23 1890

 

Struck by a Locomotive.

A tramp was brought to the county hospital, the other day, suffering from a fracture of the right thigh, sustained by coming in violent contact with a locomotive near Fulton. He is supposed to have been asleep on the track at the time he was struck, and his escape from instant death was almost miraculous. His body was thrown several feet into the air, and landed on an embankment quite a distance from the track. Though badly battered up, Dr. Shearer thinks he will recover.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 31 1891

 

There is no doubt that tramp life prevails more extensively in California than in any other State in the union, but the reasons are not confined exclusively to the glorious climate as so many suppose. While it is true that the climate of this State offers some inducements tor this kind of vagabondism, there is another reason why so many respectable farm laborers are naturally led to follow a rambling nomadic existence. It is an undoubted fact that on some of the large ranches in the interior of the State, the farm hands do not receive the attention that the farmers in other States give to their stock. The houses provided for their accommodation are little better than sheds in many cases and the men are crowded into them like sheep in a freight pen, and are compelled to sleep in bunks filled with musty straw or take their blankets and go outside. The itinerant farm hand in California is forced to carry his own blankets or put up with all manner of inconveniences, and it is but a step to professional vagabondism. It may be that the owners of the large farms are unable to look more after the accommodations of their men, when during the busy season it is necessary to employ so many, but it seems that an effort could be made to separate the respectable, hard-working farmer lads from the Chinamen, and professional tramps. Many young men go from the coast counties to the interior to work during the harvest, and none know better than they how vile the accommodations are in most cases.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1891

 

A lady remonstrated with a tramp who called three times in one day at her house. He explained matters by saying he was accustomed to three meals a day.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 12 1892

 

The south-bound freight Wednesday evening ran into a tramp lying in a drunken sleep on the trestle of the upper bridge, north of Petaluma. The sleeping beauty was lying lengthwise with the track, and was thrown over the rail by the cow-catcher. The train was stopped and an examination disclosed the fact that the victim of the catastrophe had received no injury of a serious nature. The sleeper made an indignant protest at the rude manner in which his slumber had been disturbed, and was left to finish his nap.— Courier.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 9 1892

 

The five boys arrested for stoning a tramp, Wednesday afternoon, were fined $5 each by Justice Seawell Thursday. Three vags arrested in Yandle’s barn Monday night wore sentenced to five days in jail by Justice Brown Tuesday. Two Italians were fined $4.80 each by Justice Seawell Thursday morning for having slept in a box car the night before.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 17 1892

 

The board of supervisors of this county have made an offset to the offense they committed in reducing the salary of the horticultural commissioner so that work to him was, unprofitable, by reducing the diet of the tramp to bread and water. The tramps formerly flocked to our county and were happy inside the jail. In fact, one loafer threw a stone through a bank window and found access to jail in that manner. Now, however, the number of free boarders is gratifyingly small and the hobos make a big circuit when Sonoma befronts them in their wanderings.

– Petaluma Morning Courier, February 21 1893

 

A Remedy for Tramps.

The Board of Supervisors of Sonoma county are bricks. They have solved the tramp nuisance problem. At their meeting this month they passed an order directing the sheriff to hereafter feed all tramps confined in the county jail on bread and water only. Necessity brought about the order, flavored as it is with a taint of the dark ages. Sonoma county got a reputation abroad for the splendid manner in which it fed its prisoners. The consequence was that tramps flocked to that county from far and wide. It did not take them long to find their way into the county hotel, and the longer they were booked for the broader were their smiles as they walked into the sheriff’s kitchen. Every tramp in the State will know within a week of the change in the bill of fare in the hobo department of the Sonoma county jail, and it is safe to say they will make a circuit around that county in their pilgrimages to the northern part of the State and return. The action of those supervisors will probably prove as effective as it is novel. —Tulare Times.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 25 1893

 

Walter C. Taylor, of Portsmouth, 0., writes “The Record” that he read in a recent issue of this paper an explanation offered by one of the Coxey tramps as to the origin of the word “hobo,” and believes it to have been incorrect. Mr. Taylor says that the word “hobo” has long been in use in the West among the floating crowds of roughs. The term “hobos” had its origin among the French Canadians of Western Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and has for many years been a current slang expression there to designate rough characters or tramps, Next!

– Sonoma Democrat May 19 1894

 

Floating Population.

The town has been full of hobos this week, fresh from the hop fields and orchards where they have earned a few dollars which they are not anxious to spend for necessities. There is nothing the genuine hobo likes better than to get drunk and be idle. Several have been arrested by the peace officers, and some are now under orders to leave the city at once. One big stalwart “dago” looking fellow who has been peddling little trinkets without a license has been known to beg his meals and have money in his pockets at the same time. In a few weeks more they will leave Sonoma county on their annual pilgrimage to the southern part of the state where amid the orange groves and lemon orchards they will wander until locked up in some jail for the winter.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier September 26 1894

 

The Tramps.

Santa Rosa had her full share of tramps and vagrants this week. For some time these vagabonds have been holding camp along the Santa Rosa creek, but the floods have driven them out and they are flocking into town.

Last night the officers arrested thirteen. These were marched to the limits of the town today and ordered to leave and never return.

The officers decided that they will not feed any more tramps. As soon as arrested they will be imprisoned, but no meals will be given.

There have been a number of very hard characters arrested lately. the officers had a big battle with three, and were required to use a heavy club and do some shooting to intimidate them.

The authorities are determined that the town shall not be overrun by vagrants, and very vigorous measures are being taken against them. A number of buildings have been broken into recently and the people are considerably alarmed.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, January 11 1895

 

Petaluma Infested.

The tramp army has made a recent march on Petaluma, and at present show no signs of evacuating. The hordes of unemployed that were unloaded on this place from Sacramento have begun to scatter, and neighboring towns are now overrun with the tramp element.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 19 1895

 

A Daring Act.

As a Democrat reporter stood at the Donahue depot Saturday he saw a dilapidated looking man of the genus tramp perform a clever feat, which was also dangerous in the extreme. The train was leaving the depot when the tramp ran along the off-side and swung out over the brakebeam of the smoker and got on the trucks. He forgot to waive a last adieu to the reporter, who was so lost in wonder that his eyes fairly bulged out.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 19 1895

 

A MULTITUDE AT SEBASTOPOL
People Honor the Cause of Bryan and Silver.
It is Estimated Five Thousand Crowd the Gold Ridge City.

[..]

HOBOS HAVE A TIME.

As soon as the people had commenced leaving their positions at the boards which served the double purpose of a fence to keep the crowd beck from where the carvers were at work and a table over which they received the meat handed oat by the waiters — this sort of a corral was invaded by an army of hobos, some with sacks, others with pockets long, lean and lank, and all with an unsatisfied hunger which Weary Waggles and Dusty Rhodes have a faculty of carrying about with them. This army invaded the corral, and when they left an army of locusts could not have made a cleaner sweep. It is said that at least two hundred of them had encamped on the laguna within the last few days in anticipation of a feast.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 10 1896

 

ONLY A TRAMP.

“Hobos arrested” This is the title of a news article in a late Grass Valley paper. There is no day that the story it chronicles is not told in other papers in every county in the state.

A “hobo” is a tramp.

A tramp is a man without home, or money, or employment, or friends that are able to give him food and shelter.

Sometimes the tramp is a woman; but generally women who otherwise would be tramps escape the hardships, the perils, the contumely, the hopeless hoping against hope, the endless despair of a tramp’s life by some forbidden route out of the world, or accept in lieu of them a crueler and deadlier destiny.

The tramp is a vagabond on the face of the earth. Every man’s hand is against him — not every woman’s, thank God! The laws proscribe him. The officers of the law hunt him down — for the fees that are in him! Footsore, weary, hungry, sick at heart, with a pauper’s rags concealing his nakedness, turning always from a hopeless past to a more hopeless future! Only a tramp! Drive him from the door! Send for the constable! In prison he will have time to think of the mother at whose knee he lisped infantile prayers ever so long ago, of the bride of his early manhood, of the little children who dwindled away and died because he was denied the opportunity to earn food for them!

Only a tramp! But he is somebody’s son. He was born to something better. His axe was once heard in the forest. His cheerful voice once urged his team afield. His hammer once made merry music on the anvil. Singing like the lark he once rose with the lark and went amain to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow at whatever came to willing hands. What a distance between those happy days agone and this day of shame and suffering and sorrow setting in the darkness of endless night!

Is it the tramp’s fault that he is a tramp? Let those who have made the laws which make the tramp answer on their conscience as they will have to answer at God’s great day of judgment. Is it the tramp’s fault that the government has taken a large percentage of his earnings to support contractors, office-holders, and bond-holders? Is it the tramp’s fault that protective legislation has enabled privileged manufacturers to increase their swollen profits by the appropriation of a considerable part of his earnings to their own uses? Is it the tramp’s fault that the producers of all the necessaries of life have been permitted to unite in great trusts and thus enabled to exact from his earnings the excessive gains which have made them millionaires? Is it the tramp’s fault that the finances of the country have been so managed by foreign and domestic money lenders as to paralyze industrial enterprise and shut altogether from employment two millions of men who are willing to work and want to work and are driven to the highway by tens of thousands because they are denied the right to work?

The tramp is sometimes a woman. Three days ago, two respectable women in Oakland, unable to find any kind of employment, after pawning their last articles of value for $3, “took the county road as common tramps.” “They have agreed not to beg, borrow, or steal,” the story goes, but will exchange work for food and shelter. “Of course if we can get steady work we will stay with it as long as it lasts,” said one of them. Brave women! Too brave to go to the Bay, Too brave to go to the brothel. Brave enough to take the road! Brave enough to be tramps! But when disappointments come — when they can’t exchange work for food and lodging — when the justice and the constable mark them for fees — when the jail opens to them as tramps — then what? God help the tramps!

– Sonoma Democrat, April 3 1897

 

Judicial Leniency.

Michael Henry appeared before Justice Brown Wednesday to show cause, if any he had, why he should not be summarily dealt with, under a charge of vagrancy. After he had told his little tale of woe and plead for mercy, his honor very considerately sentenced him to ten days’ imprisonment in the county jail. Working the prisoners in the chain gang is giving the tourist hobo a wholesome dread of Sonoma county.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 26 1897

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