1895sebastopolFB

SEBASTOPOL WAS ALWAYS QUIRKY

Sebastopol has admirable things in its past as well as the awful, but goddesses help me, the cliché is true: Go back to the earliest years and the town was always quirky. Current Google results on “Sebastopol” and “quirky” – about 95,200.

The town deserves plaudits for being a tolerant and (mostly) welcoming place for ethnic minorities that were hated and persecuted elsewhere in Sonoma county during the 19th century. A Native community endured continuously on the banks of the Laguna through the early 1900s, complete with their own cemetery. The following article shows Sebastopol had a thriving Chinatown going back to 1869, even as Chinese immigrants were elsewhere being driven out of the area. Later Japanese newcomers also found it a good place to bring their families and put down roots.

On the flip side, lots of awful stuff happened in the early 20th century, particularly the child labor camps where boys as young as seven were brought up here from the Bay Area to work in the fields and canneries. Feel free to also rage over the destruction of Lake Jonive, an irreplaceable treasure which the town turned into an open cesspool and garbage dump.

But there was often something different about the people who lived there. They seemed to be the sort that liked to doodle in the margins of a cookbook more than following the recipes – and I measure that by the number of times I’ve read something about the village in the old newspapers and found myself mumbling, “wow, that’s unusual.” What they often did was just…quirky.

Downtown Sebastopol in 1881 (Western Sonoma County Historical Society Collection)

 

They certainly did not take themselves as seriously as some folks during the Civil War. Sebastopol sided with the Confederacy, as did the rest of Sonoma county (except Petaluma) but unlike the clench-jawed fanatics over in Santa Rosa who actually rooted for the North to be crushed, the Southern sympathizers of Sebastopol mostly enjoyed punking the mainstream “Union Democrat Party” – the so-called moderates who wanted peace declared and everything to go back as it was before Secession.

In 1862, with their customary pre-election barbecue and party rally coming up, the Democrats of the Analy District hosted speeches by candidates. One who appeared was a San Francisco politico named Worthington who was apparently obscenely heckled or otherwise deeply insulted by some Sebastopol wiseguy. Whatever was said must have been pretty ripe because the candidate exploded at the audience of voters:

“…[Mr. Worthington] was suddenly brought to a close upon that topic, however, by a remark from some one in the crowd at which he seemed to take umbrage, and closed in a terrific abuse of the citizens of Sebastopol — stating that if he came there to the barbecue, he would take good care to bring his dinner with him.”

The following year the Analy Democratic Club announced they were throwing another party barbecue, and all Democrats in the county were invited. (It turned out to be a very big deal indeed, with speakers speechifying from 10AM until midnight.) Right after it was announced, the Sebastopol pranksters erected a flagpole taller than anything else around, waving a Union flag and a streamer with the upside down word, “Constitution.” The point, I’m guessing, was for them to hang out at the base of the flagpole and mockingly pretend to be namby-pamby Union Democrat moderates.

“They had a grand ‘pow-wow,’ and apparently had a good time generally,” commented the (pro-Union) Petaluma Argus. “The whole affair was evidently got up for the purpose of ‘roping in’ outsiders; but we hope with no effect. The whole affair is so transparent that nobody but very silly people can be deceived.”

The Argus also heard from a Sebastopol subscriber complaining that his newspaper was being stolen by the very people who looked down on its anti-Confederate content as the equivalent of “fake news,” yet were still reading the paper avidly. “This is just like the rebels here. They sneak around get the reading of the paper and then talk all week of the march of vile abolition ideas.”

At least once, though, the joke was on Sebastopol’s anti-Yankee fanboys. During the Civil War, Fort Alcatraz was used as a military prison for Confederate sympathizers charged with seditious acts, and a telegram arrived that “Dr. Harris, Willson and Valentine, three noted rebels of Sebastopol, had been arrested for treason and would be sent to Alcatraz.” Hours later it turned out to be a hoax, and much celebratory drinking followed. What’s interesting about this anecdote, however, is that it seems like a “dog that didn’t bark in the night” story. If some truly innocent men were sent to the slammer for the duration of the war you’d expect an angry outcry from friends and neighbors; here, the attitude seems to have been, “well, we all knew they’d get arrested eventually…”

The final Civil War episode concerns farmer Aaron Barnes, who definitely took his politics seriously. In 1863 a man named Peters came to his farm to buy a wagonload of fruit. A deal was made and Peters was invited to stay the night, as it was getting late. Late that evening – and presumably after a bottle or three had been uncorked – the conversation turned to one of the big controversies of the day: The Vallandigham affair.

Clement Vallandigham was an Ohio politician who was exiled to the Confederate states a few months earlier after rabble-rousing against “King Lincoln” and the government. (Obl. Believe-it-or-Not! factoid: He died in 1871 while defending a man accused of murder, arguing that the victim had killed himself by mishandling a gun. Vallandigham was demonstrating his theory in the courtroom when he accidentally shot himself.) When Peters said he had no sympathy for Vallandigham, farmer Barnes “told him no abolitionist should stay in his house, and that he must leave; which he had to do, team and all, but without the fruit.”

Main Street circa 1898

 

That Aaron Barnes anecdote has weight because so little is known about him except basic genealogy (1816-1897). Yet as discussed in the next article, Sebastopol’s Chinatown mainly owed its existence to him – and what happened during a period of great upheaval in his personal life also became one of the most gossip-worthy tales in the history of the county.

In June of 1885, Aaron’s wife Lydia/Liddy died; he was 69 years old at the time, and within five weeks he was married again, his new wife Jessie being younger than all but one of his children.

“The old gentleman concluded that the term ‘single blessedness’ was a misnomer, and a short time since commenced looking about him for another partner,” the Healdsburg newspaper explained. “He met a musical gentleman named Professor Parks, to whom he proffered $500 in consideration of his finding him a suitable wife. The Professor readily accepted, and in a short time a lady from the East, twenty-seven years of age, attractive and cultured, agreed to share the old man’s wealth.” (Sam Parks was the leader of dance and concert bands around Santa Rosa for about thirty years; a “Jessie Burk” which might be her was arrested several times for prostitution/disorderly conduct in Louisville, Kentucky during preceding years.)

A different paper noted, perhaps tongue in cheek, that after their wedding “the young couple left the following day for Lake county to spend the honeymoon.”

Aaron gave his new bride $14,300 in bank stock when they married, followed by local real estate in 1885, 1887 and 1889. Then in 1892 she deserted him.

He sued her for breach of contract and sought $20,000 in damages, arguing “…she was not a worthy woman at the time of the marriage, and that it was a scheme on her part to obtain possession of his property.” Jessie Burk Barnes freely admitted she had left him, but insisted she had fulfilled the contract by marrying a man old enough to be her grandpa. The court agreed with her.

The case went to the state Supreme Court in 1895 and Aaron lost again. The court ruled, “When a man marries a woman knowing her to be not virtuous, he forfeits his right to allege that fact as an avenue of escape from the ties with which he has bound himself, and it is presumed that when taking a wife a man will satisfy himself as to her character before leading her to the altar.”

Yet that’s still not the end to the story of Barnes’ family eccentricities. Aaron died a few months after losing the suit, and it was discovered that he placed an unusual clause in his will requiring his estate to be left untouched for twenty years, after which his children – some of whom would have been over 70 by then – could divide it up. This was such a bizarre demand I can’t help but wonder if it was intended as an attempt to protect “his” Chinatown post-mortem. The court declared the long waiting period invalid.

There was still the problem that one of his children could not be found. Samuel – the only kid younger than his ex-stepmom – had disappeared while his dad was still married to her. Since Aaron died, Samuel’s share of the estate was held in trust while the family had him declared legally dead in 1901. But just as his sizable inheritance was about to be distributed to his brothers and sisters, he popped up and contacted them for the first time in twelve years. All were happy he was still alive – let’s generously just presume.

 

Sebastopol in 1895 (Western Sonoma County Historical Society Collection)

 

More stories about Sebastopol during the 1890s come from an obscure memoir, “The Tenderfoot Comes West” by Roy McLaughlin, who spent his teen years there.

McLaughlin sketched what the village was like: “What struck me was the dust and cobwebs everywhere…All the streets were merely continuations of the several intersecting dusty roads.” He wrote there were three general stores complete with “a few men [who] sat around the stove and cracker barrel and exchanged news and gossip,” one full-time church, seven saloons (!) and a large winery. In the little schoolhouse seventh and eighth grade were taught together, and “…the front rows of seats were smaller than those in the rear, which were occupied by boys who were almost grown men.”

There wasn’t much for a kid to do; they swam in the Laguna, which at the time was teeming with carp that were introduced by accident after heavy rains caused a couple of commercial fish ponds to overflow. (One of those ponds was owned by… wait for it… Aaron Barnes.) Boys hung around Chinatown – McLaughlin seemed awfully well-versed in the details of opium smoking – but they also tormented the Chinese men cruelly, as described in the next article. Most exciting was the time “…a troupe that accompanied a horse-drawn merry-go-round spent one winter month with us. They were all ham actors, but their performances in the town hall at least served to relieve the tedium during the season when no work could be obtained in harvesting fruit.”

The key Sebastopol story in his book, though, was a description of one of the town’s  quirky drunks:

There were, of course, many fine, respectable people who quietly went about their affairs. But quite in contrast were the drunkards. I have never seen so many sots of different types as were always in view. Some only occasionally got tight; others were periodic performers, and we knew about when to expect to see them on Main Street. One was of such fixed habits that he deserves special mention. This was old Doc Whitson. One could almost set a clock by his two daily appearances. Early in the forenoon he would walk up the street to the winery, and later in the afternoon would weave his course back down the street, always in an angry mood. On one side of Main Street there was an open ditch, dry in the summer and a gushing torrent in winter. The ditch at one place was crossed by a footbridge consisting of a single board. One winter night during a drenching rain our neighbor heard shouts, and the lady of the house said to her husband, a mild-mannered man, “Will, somebody is shouting. You better see what the trouble is.” Will lighted a lantern and went out toward the noise. Near the footbridge he saw old Doc sitting up to his arms in the water. Will politely inquired, “What are you doing, Doc?” The muffled reply was, “The inquisitiveness of a small village is appalling!”

 

Sebastopol in December 1904 (Western Sonoma County Historical Society Collection)

 

Finally, no discussion of the town’s quirkiness is complete without considering how it got its name. It was originally called “Pine Grove” in 1855, as can be verified in a Sonoma County Journal ad from that December.

Trigger alert: Things are about to become very confusing.

Trouble was, there were lots of other Pine Groves in the state, and the one in Amador County got the official nod from the post office in 1856. That same year the USPS also designated “Sebastopol” as the mailing address for a place – in Napa county.

What we were calling Pine Grove here was officially the post office named “Bodega” and it handled every piece of mail between there and the Oregon border. Then in 1857, the residents of Pine Grove decided it would be really cool if the village were now called Sebastopol instead.

The mess was not sorted out until 1868, and presumably not before a whole bunch of letters were returned to confused senders. That year the post office at the place everyone called “Bodega” was designated Bodega, Sebastopol/Napa was officially renamed Yountville, and Sebastopol/Quirky became recognized as Sebastopol, California. All the many other Sebastopols in Tulare, Sacramento and Nevada counties (“Sebastopol” was obviously a very popular name in the 1850s and 1860s) were left to dream up a different ру́сский name.

But why was “Sebastopol” a popular name at all? The indefatigable John Cummings wrote a research paper on the historical military standoff and how it was celebrated in the Bay Area, while the oldest account of why the name was chosen here appeared in Robert Thompson’s 1877 Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California:

…The formidable name of Sebastopol originated in this way: a man named Jeff Stevens and a man named Hibbs had a fight; Hibbs made a quick retreat to Dougherty’s store; Stevens in pursuit. Dougherty stopped Stevens, and forbid him to come on his (Dougherty’s) premises. The Crimean war was raging at that time, and the allies were besieging Sebastopol, which it was thought they would not take. The Pine Grove boys, who were always keen to see a fight–chagrined at the result,–cried out that Dougherty’s store was Hibbs’ Sebastopol. The affair was much talked about, and from this incident the town took its name.

It’s a fun story, but I can’t find any evidence it is true. There were no men with those names found in the 1850 or 1860 census; that “much talked about” fight wasn’t talked about even in passing within any surviving newspapers of the time (at least, currently available online). Methinks author Thompson was probably repeating some retrofitted barroom tale made up in the twenty years since.

Now that story has been accepted without question, even while more details have been larded onto its ribs. Tom Gregory – author of the county’s 1911 history book and a man who could lie like a salesman working on 50% commission – added that Hibbs’ first name was “Pete” and they were slugging away at each other because they were both so, so passionate about the Crimean War which was already over. Gregory’s account further dripped with gooey prose, “…so out from the red flames of the Crimea, out from the bloody rifle-pits of the Redan, out from the fadeless glory of the Light Brigade, and out from the historical scrimmage at Dougherty’s came out Sebastopol. Jefferson and Peter are aslumber on Gold Ridge, mingling their dust with the rich yellow soil, with orchards to the right of them, vine-rows on the left of them, blooming and fruiting.” Lordy, I do so appreciate reference books that are concise.

A letter from a Sebastopudlian published by the Argus in 1865 also didn’t mention the fight, but simply that they chose to adopt the name of “Russia’s renowned Fortress” – in other words, because it was considered a very honorable name. I agree with Cummings that is the most likely answer, as the writer was probably living there around the time.

Cummings is a fellow newsprint spelunker and a first-rate researcher; SSU offers fifteen of his research papers online, and they have proven invaluable to me. But in this case he was incorrect on several points, particularly, “Pine Grove was renamed Sebastopol in the about seven month period between November 1855 and the end of May of 1856.” Since his essay was finished in 2009, an enormous number of historic newspaper pages have come online and are searchable, providing tools he did not have.

The ads published in the Sonoma County Journal show the name change happened in May, 1857 – although there are still no articles to be found about the switch. After May 22 it’s always Sebastopol in advertisements, except for an old display advert from a non-local delivery company that continued listing Pine Grove as late as 1860.

Sebastopol is the only community around here with a colorful story about its name, and personally I love the idea that some joker in Sebastopol may have made it up, most likely to make the place seem less respectable. From that quirky seed grew a tree that looks mostly like others in the forest until you take a closer look – and then you realize it’s really not quite the same. Not the same at all, and that’s something nice to appreciate.

Sonoma County Journal ads: May 8, 1857 / May 22, 1857

 

…[Mr. Worthington] was suddenly brought to a close upon that topic, however, by a remark from some one in the crowd at which he seemed to take umbrage, and closed in a terrific abuse of the citizens of Sebastopol — stating that if he came there to the barbecue, he would take good care to bring his dinner with him. He then thanked those who had given him their attention, and took his departure, feeling pretty well satisfied, we expect, that Sebastopol was not a very good place for an itinerant political preacher to stop at.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 28 1862

 

SECESSION IN SEBASTOPOL. — Last Saturday the Democratic party, which now spells its name “Secesh,” erected a pole 91 feet high, and hoisted the Union flag upon it, surmounted with a streamer, bearing the word “Constitution,” upside down. Then they had a grand “pow-wow,” and apparently had a good time generally. The whole affair was evidently got up for the purpose of “roping in” outsiders; but we hope with no effect. The whole affair is so transparent that nobody but very silly people can be deceived. The conduct of the Secessionists reminds us of what some travellers tell us about the habits of the ostrich. When it is pursued and wishes to escape observation it thrusts its head into the nearest sand heap and leaves its body sticking out. Not until it feels the blows of its pursuer does it find out its mistake. The Union party very plainly see the body of Secession sticking out of all these so called Democratic demonstrations, although its head is hidden; and when the day of next election comes we hope that a vigorous application of boot-toe will emphatically convince the Secesh ostrich that it has deceived no one but itself.

– Petaluma Argus, August 5, 1863

BADLY SOLD.–The Constitutional Democracy were badly sold last Sunday. W. L. Anderson telegraphed from Santa Rosa that Dr. Harris, Willson and Valentine, three noted rebels of Sebastopol, had been arrested for treason and would be sent to Alcatraz. As the despatch came from a rebel, they believed it to be true, and many a long face might have been observed on our streets.

BADLY SOLD Until the evening stage arrived in Petaluma with news that the report was false, the earlier report in the telegram from W. L. Anderson, a rebel from Santa Rosa, was believed – that three noted rebels of Sebastopol, Dr. Harris, Wilson and Valentine, had been arrested for treason and would be sent to Alcatraz. A constitutional expounder in Petaluma offered to bet $500 that the arrests resulted from the lying of the awful fellow, Joe McReynolds. Democracy rejoiced with great joy and the indulgence of “tangle leg fluid” when the initial report was exposed as a hoax.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, July 28, 1864

MEAN

A subscriber of the Argus at Sebastopol complains that he gets very little from his subscription since his Secessionist neighbors read and circulate his paper from house to house and he is seldom able to read his own paper. “This is just like the rebels here. They sneak around get the reading of the paper and then talk all week of the march of vile abolition ideas.”

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, December 1, 1864

Editors Alta:  Yesterday evening a circumstance occurred here which illustrates the principles of the Copperhead Democracy so perfectly, that I must give it to you for the benefit of your readers.  On the 3rd, Mr. Gordon Peters, a Union man, went to the house of Aaron Barnes, a Democrat, for the purpose of purchasing a wagon load of fruit.  Terms were agreed upon between the two for a load, and Peters was invited to stay all night.  In the evening, about 9 o’clock, Barnes commenced talking about the state of the country, and finally asked Peters what he thought of the arrest of Vallandigham.

Peters replied that he thought it was right and proper, whereupon Barnes commenced abusing him, and told him no Abolitionist should stay in his house, and that he must leave; which he had to do, team and all, but without the fruit.  The above facts I had from Mr. Peters himself this morning, and as he is a man of first-rate standing, there can be no doubt about their truth.  Comment is unnecessary.

– Daily Alta California, August 8 1863

ANOTHER SEBASTOPOL – The name of the Post Office at Sebastopol, Sonoma County, has been changed from Bodega to Sebastopol, and John Dougherty has been appointed Postmaster thereof. The name of the Post Office at Smith’s Ranch will be changed to Bodega. These changes have become necessary by the settlement of the country. Bodega Post Office hitherto has been located at the town of Sebastopol, fully ten miles from Bodega Corners, and the Post Office at the latter place has been known as Smith’s Ranch. The names are now made to conform to the localities more nearly than before. The Bodega (now Sebastopol) Post Office was the oldest established in the county except that at Sonoma, and its establishment was the most northern Post Office above the Bay of San Francisco and west of the Sacramento Valley — letters for everyone up to the Oregon line being sent to that office. We now have three Sebastopols in California, but only one of them has a Post Office by that name. The Post Office at Sebastopol, Napa County, is now called Yountsville [sic], and the Sebastopol in Sacramento County had no Post Office at all, so far as we are informed.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, January 23 1868

The wedding of Mrs. Josie Burk, of Santa Rosa, and Aaron Barnes, of Sebastopol, took place on Sunday afternoon of last week at the residence of C. A. Reigels, on Sonoma avenue, in the former place. Smilax and cut flowers adorned the parlors. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. T. H. Woodward, in the presence of the relatives and a few invited friends. After the marriage rites, a wedding supper was served at tete-a-tete tables, where the bridal cake was cut. The health of the bride was drunk by those present in bumpers of sparkling wine. The young couple left the following day for Lake county to spend the honeymoon.

– Daily Alta California, July 27 1885

 

Wedded Again.
(Healdsburg Enterprise.)

Some five weeks ago Aaron Barnes, a very wealthy citizen, of Green Valley, lost his wife. Though on the shady side of life, between seventy and eighty years of age, the old gentleman concluded that the term “single blessedness’ was a misnomer, and a short time since commenced looking about him for another partner. He met a musical gentleman named Professor Parks, to whom he proffered $500 in consideration of his finding him a suitable wife. The Professor readily accepted, and in a short time a lady from the East, twenty-seven years of age, attractive and cultured, agreed to share the old man’s wealth. The latter desired to settle upon his fair young intended $30,000, besides two cottages in Santa Rosa,and her legal advisor pressed her to accept, but it seems she was modest, and would receive but $10,000 in money. On the strength of this they were duly married, and it is stated that few men are prouder to-day than the happy groom.

– Daily Alta California, August 5 1885

 

Aaron Barnes Sues His Wife.

Aaron Barnes of Sebastopol was married to Jessie Burk in 1885, and they lived together as man and wife until August, 1892, when she left him. Previous to tbe marriage the plaintiff deeded to the defendant $14,000 in personal property, and now be wishes to recover $20,000 in damages for breach of contract. The defendant appeared by demurrer Monday before Judge Dougherty, and while she admits the facts of desertion as alleged, sbe denies the conclusion and the breach of contract. In his judgment sustaining the demurrer Judge Dougherty says that as the sole consideration of the contract and transfer of the property was marriage and the marriage had been executed, therefore desertion afterwards could constitute no breach that would effect the property transferred to her, although tbe parties were not living together since 1892. The plaintiff sets up the plea that the defendant was not a worthy woman at the time of the marriage, and that it was a scheme on her part to obtain possession of his property, and that part of the plan of the defendant was ultimately to leave him. To all this the defendant filed a demurrer and the judge sustained the demurrer and granted ten days for tbe defendant to amend.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 13 1894

 

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OUR VERY DIFFERENT CHRISTMASES PAST

Visit Santa Rosa 150 years ago and not much will be recognizable, as you would expect. But people are still people, and aside from their funny clothes and lamentable views on race and gender, the ways they lived and celebrated weren’t all that different. There were still cakes for birthdays, Fourth of July fireworks, a turkey with trimmings on Thanksgiving and in every parlor at Christmas there was a tree with presents underneath. Well, all that’s true except for the Christmas part.

This is a quick tour of Christmases in Santa Rosa and other Sonoma county places in the years around the Civil War. While today it’s a private occasion for families and close friends to draw close, then it was the time of the year for blowout community parties.

Between Christmas Eve and New Years there was a ball or Christmas celebration almost every night somewhere in the vicinity, each promising to be the grandest event of the year. A 50¢ admission was common (in 1876 that was the equivalent of about sixteen bucks today) with children half price. There usually was dancing and an entertainment program, party food (hope you like oysters) and eggnog, spiked or not.

(RIGHT: 1857 ads appearing in Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat)

We can all probably imagine ourselves attending a “Grand Ball” back then; although the doings in Sonoma county surely weren’t as glitzy as what we’ve seen in old movies, there was still a punchbowl, live music, a dance floor and no shortage of young people flirting as if their destinies depended upon it. We would have had trouble recognizing the Christmas festivities, however – as wonderful as they seemed to be, they were unlike anything in our modern experience.

Except for small towns like Geyserville which had no real public gathering space, lodge halls and meeting halls were rented by the town’s different church groups. But it appears there was no religious component in those Christmas festivities; in reviewing 25 years of Santa Rosa and Petaluma newspapers, the only reference I found to religion was one year where the entertainment included “the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer by a number of the infant class.” Otherwise, they were so secular they would have caused Bill O’Reilly to spit nails.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but simply having a Christmas tree was a big attraction. It was always prominently mentioned in the ads and the lighting of the tree’s candles was a key part of the event. In that era, having a tree in someone’s home was so unusual there were newspaper items when it happened. The lack of private trees might have something to do with the danger of lighted candles hanging on the branches of a dead evergreen; years later there was a spate of incidents where men in Santa Claus costumes caught fire – see “The Year of Burning Santas.”

Santa Claus was often in attendance, but we wouldn’t have recognized him either; in Forestville he was seen wearing a swallow-tail coat “looking just as ancient as if he had just made his escape from the catacombs of Egypt after centuries of confinement” (what?) and gave a funny speech after throwing peanuts at the audience.

But the most unusual part from today’s perspective was probably the giving and receiving of Christmas presents in front of the whole community. The gifts which had arrived days before – the newspapers always explained where to drop them off in advance – were handed out as the name on each package was read aloud. Remember, this was not your office’s secret-santa party; all (or much) of the town was there, children and adults, and the distribution could take hours.

Heavy drinking was clearly part of the scene, although not openly at the public events organized by church ladies. At the non-church balls it was a different story; at a Healdsburg dance there were “four jugs of ready-made cocktails for the ladies, while the gentlemen were restricted to whisky straight.”

After Christmas the papers often expressed relief the drinking didn’t get out of hand. “Christmas eggnogs and toddies, we suppose, were drunk, but if there was any one the least boosy, we failed to see or hear of it; and if there were such, they kept off the streets,” it was reported one year. On another, “although the usual libations were indulged in, no rioting or rudeness were manifested.”

That was a special concern because there was always an uptick of violence (including murders and suicides) around Christmas time. In 1857 Healdsburg, a man was killed and others wounded when someone began shooting his revolver at a Christmas dance. The Santa Rosa paper was quick to emphasize “the parties most deeply concerned in the matter were entirely sober” and the real problem was “men who carry deadly weapons, frequently give as their reason for so doing, the necessity of being prepared for self-defense.”

LEFT: 1864 ad (note the spelling of “ladies'”) RIGHT: 1865 ad, both from the Sonoma Democrat

 

During the Civil War there were still balls and Christmas festivals, although sometimes admission was higher because the sponsoring church was using the events as fund-raisers for construction repairs. After the war Santa Rosa’s pro-Confederacy Democrat printed a letter from someone in Sonoma, begging locals to take whatever would be spent on gifts and Christmas dinners and donate it “for the purpose of raising money for the starving people in the South.” Without irony, the author implored us not to be hard-hearted and “blinded by prejudice.” Apparently compassion should be reserved for those “hundreds of young girls in the South-—who are as good and as beautiful as themselves.”

In the 1870s the Christmas celebrations became even more entertainment oriented. The Presbyterian Sunday Schools presented a “Mother Goose” concert one year and another time put on a play, “Waking Up Santa Claus.” Santa was too tired to deliver his gifts, the story went, until the Fairy Queen appeared to help him out. A Presbyterian youth group called the “San Greal Society” was formed to help kids socialize and put on these areligious holiday shows.

The single most unusual Christmas event was the 1876 children’s masked ball in Petaluma. The ad made it seem more like a strange Hallowe’en-Christmas hybrid, with dancing (which probably wouldn’t appeal to little kids) and a visit from Santa (which the teens up to the max age of 16 might have found cringeworthy).

Surprisingly, it seems that the masquerade went off quite well. The 75 children joined in holding up a large American flag as a band played “Hail Columbia,” there was a grand march and quadrille followed by a free-for-all with the lot of them running around the stage in costumes having a grand time. Among the girls there were two fairies, three fairy queens, several “Spanish peasant girls” and Kitty Stanley as “pink of perfection,” whatever that meant. Five of the boys were dressed as firemen, Frank Slugley was a Czar and Jake Bernhard went as a “Ku Klux,” and we all knew what that meant.

The common theme through this quarter century was how much those Christmas celebrations were focused on making children happy. Stores ran large, expensive ads promoting a variety of toys and candies and sweets sure to appeal to kids. The community party with the Christmas tree and gift exchange was memorable, even if it was the one held in a Geyserville storeroom with Santa played by a guy everybody in town saw every day.

ALL of that began changing a few years later. Christmas trees in the home became increasingly common in the 1880s (Sonoma county became San Francisco’s Christmas tree farm) and by the turn of the century we entered an Era of Scrooge, with an emphasis on buying gifts which were practical and useful or “had value” (read: were cheap). Stores advertised juvenile overcoats and flannel nightgowns, not wonderful toys and dolls. Judging from the newspaper ads it wasn’t until 1910 before we seemed to again start buying gifts simply because they were intended to bring enjoyment to children.

I won’t pretend to understand what happened, but it seems as if the generation that enjoyed the happiest Christmases as children somehow forgot how to give that experience to their own children. Maybe it’s significant that it happened when those Christmas trees were no longer such a magical sight, and the gifts were now opened in private, instead of among the community where everyone shared in their joy.

“The Christmas Party” by American artist Robert David Wilkie, 1850

HEALDSBURG, Dec. 27, 1857. The evening of the 24th passed quietly away, and the sun went down on hundreds in Sonoma County, who had matured or were maturing plans to ensure a happy Christmas, and I, in common with the rest, was meditating as to the best mode of acquiring the greatest possible amount of pleasure in a given time, the only obstacle preventing a speedy conclusion being the number of places of amusement. My friend, DAVE, proposed that we should remain in Healdsburg, but when I suggested the fact that we were too well known there to make a splurge commensurate with the occasion, he at once yielded the point. We then discussed the feasibility of hiring a buggy from Messrs. Page & Francis, and visiting Guyserdale and Cloverville, [sic, sic] but the price being eight dollars, we found on examination that our finances were a little short, not having enough by seven dollars—-so that idea was immediately abandoned.

Having heard there was to be a Ball three miles out of town, and tickets only four bits, I proposed to Dave to walk out there and save expense, in which event our funds would be amply sufficient to secure our admittance. My friend was satisfied with this proposition, and as no time was to be lost, we hastened to make our toilet; but “there’s many a slip,” &c., for just as Dave was spreading some castor-oil on his very obstinate hair, an officer stepped in and demanded his poll tax. Here was a dilemma, and when the officer picked up Dave’s coat which was lying on the bed, and declared he would sell it within an hour, my friend’s condition can better be imagined than described. With tears in his eyes, and castor-oil running slowly down his checks, he begged that the case might be postponed—-the officer was inexorable—-my unfortunate friend then offered his promissory note for double the amount with three per cent interest, and myself as security; unavailing effort-—the stern, ministerial agent of the law insisted on the cash or the coat. I knew that something must be done and that quickly, or all our hopes of happiness in the society of beautiful girls, in the enjoyment of good music, and all the solids and fluids that are usually found at a first-rate ball would soon be as the “baseless fabric of a vision.” For one minute and three-quarters I thought intensely, and Dave’s coat was saved! I remembered having seen in the Sonoma County Journal some advice as to the best mode of procedure in such cases, and having said confidentially to the officer (to put him off his guard,) that I would go out and get the money, I ran with all my might to consult with Blackstone Coke, Esq., and in ten minutes more we had served an injunction. Dave was so overjoyed that he invited me to “smile,” and when he had narrated the story to the proprietor and a crowd of admiring auditors, three cheers were given for my friend, and one individual who seemed to have been in a fight, both eyes blacked and an under-bit off his left ear, gave vent to his feelings by throwing down his hat on the floor and poetically exclaiming: “Bugger the hodds, as long as you’re ‘appy.”

We went to the ball, and what we saw and did there will, perhaps, be the subject matter of my next letter. Dave, however, is down on fifty cent balls, and although he is too gallant to express his opinion freely, I think I know the reason of his dissatisfaction. The proprietor of the ball had, very justly in my opinion, provided four jugs of ready-made cocktails for the ladies, while the gentlemen were restricted to whisky straight, and Dave is opposed bitterly to any such distinction being made in a republican, democratic country.
Yours truly, MANZANITA.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

DEADLY WEAPONS.—The occurrence that has recently taken place at Healdsburg, in which one man was killed almost instantly, and two or three of our most esteemed citizens, were severely hurt, in a public ball room, in the presence and in fact in the midst of a throng of ladies, old and young, tender and refined, and in fact, such as make up social assemblies—is a matter for serious contemplation. It has been reported that the affray mentioned was caused or at least aggravated by intoxication. This, we are assured, is not the case, but little if any intoxicating liquor having been used by any of the assembly during the evening; and particularly, the parties most deeply concerned in the matter, were entirely sober. On the contrary, this calamity, for a calamity such an occurrence must be regarded, was the result of a practice but little if any less pernicious than that of intoxication—it is the practice of carrying deadly weapons in company. We regard the carrying of weapons about one’s person in the ordinary walks of life, while in a civilized community, as unnecessary and censurable at best; but when a man presents himself in a ball room, to mix and mingle in the society of refined ladies, armed to the teeth with deadly weapons, we think he commits a wrong of the worst kind. No matter how deadly a hatred two men may have for each other, or how much cause one may have for revenge, certainly such a place is least suitable for the consummation of such revenge, or the settling of personal feuds.

Such lamentable occurrences, in fact, have repeatedly come to our knowledge, in California society, which gives it probably the worst feature it possesses.—-Men who carry deadly weapons, frequently give as their reason for so doing, the necessity of being prepared for self-defense in ease of deadly attacks by highwaymen, or those from whom they expect assassination. Within the last two years these reasons have become too ridiculous for a reasonable man to make use of, as there is scarcely an exception to the fact, that every instance in which men have been robbed on the highway, a Colt’s revolver, ready loaded, has been a portion of the plunder, which the brave possessor dared not use when a necessity for its use presented itself. We hope the day may come soon, when the practice of carrying deadly weapons, now so common, will be abandoned, particularly the practice of taking them into assemblies composed partly of ladies.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

The Ball. —The Ball at the Santa Rosa House, on Christmas eve, was a remarkably agreeable entertainment. There was a good attendance, and everything passed off agreeably. The supper is said to have been one of the best ever gotten up in the place, which did friend Colgan, with all his former popularity as a caterer, great credit. Colgan is celebrated for his good suppers. If you don’t believe it, just give him a trial.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1858

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.–The Santa Rosa Sabbath School will have a Celebration and an Old Fashioned Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve next. All citizens who wish to deposit gifts upon the tree for any person will report themselves to Henry Klute, C. W. Langdon… Appropriate music, vocal and instrumental. Free for all. Tree lighted at 7½ o’clock.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1861

FESTIVAL.–The third Festival, given by the Ladies, will come off at Hewitt’s Hall on Wednesday evening. The programme for that evening is more attractive than any which has been presented. The announcement of a Christmas Tree, is of itself sufficient to attract all the young people. It is the intention we believe to sell a number of toy for Christmas presents.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1863

 

The Southern Poor–Letter from a Lady.

Messrs. Editors: I have been watching with a feeling of deep interest the movement, now being made, for the purpose of raising money for the starving people in the South. I have been anxiously looking for such a step to be taken ever since the close of the war. It appears to me that the good work has not been taken hold of with that feeling of enthusiasm it deserves. While we are thinking and talking about what it is best for us to do, the distressing condition of that unfortunate people is growing worse. Winter is now upon them, and if they are ever to be relieved surely now is the time.

The time is close at hand when our young folks will ho expecting new hats, dresses, toys, candies, cakes, Christmas trees and good dinners, all of which will cost a snug sum of money. Now, if we would explain to our children the condition of those poor children who are crying for bread, and the good that this money would do them, I am confident they would consent to make the sacrifice, and would be made to feel more happy by so doing. And again, if our young ladies, who are thinking that a new dress, hat, shawl, and a number of other little notions are articles indispensably necessary with them, that they may thereby be enabled to keep up with the fashions, would reflect for a moment upon the condition of the hundreds of young girls in the South-—who are as good and as beautiful as themselves-—who have neither clothes nor wood to keep them from suffering with cold and hunger this winter, I think they would content themselves with their present comfortable wardrobes and send the entire sum of money which those articles would cost to comfort some of their suffering sisters, and feel none the poorer for the sacrifice, but, on the other hand, they will feel richer on account of the happiness granted for the charitable act, our young men. and old gentlemen too, show that they can make sacrifices, in their trifling indulgences, that they may give something to the poor. Let them smoke fewer cigars, chew less tobacco, drink not so much wine and lessen the number of their fast rides, and show by their liberal contributions that they hav hearts to feel for the poor. Let the turkeys and pigs that are now being fattened for our Christmas dinners be hastened to market, that the price of them may be forwarded to the starving Southerners. If every man and woman in Sonoma county would deprive himself or herself of only one meal of victuals, and contribute its value to this movement of charity, what a blessing it might prove.

I would ask who is there with heart so hardened, or who has been so blinded by prejudice, as to turn a deaf ear to the calls for help coming from our suffering sisters and their hungry little ones? Let us hasten to their rescue, remembering that words can do good unless followed up by action—-that one good action is worth a whole volume of sympathetic gas.
S.M.N.
SONOMA, Dec 2, 1866.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1866

CHURCH FESTIVAL.— The ladies of St. John’s Church, Petaluma, will hold a Christmas Festival at Hinshaw’s Hall, on Saturday and next Monday evening. An assortment of fancy books and toys suitable for Christmas presents will be offered for sale. On Monday, Christmas Eve, Santa Claus will make his appearance in character, and distribute gifts to all the children of the Sunday School.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22 1866

CHRISTMAS IS COMING.–The ladies of the Congregational Society are making extensive preparations for the Festival which is to come off at Hinshaw’s Hall on Monday and Tuesday evenings next. If energetic effort is a fair criterion, this Fair will be a decided success. The dinner to be served at  Hinshaw’s Hall on Christmas Day, will be well worth a dollar. Go there, everybody.

CHRISTMAS PARTY.–The young men of the “Petaluma Social Club,” have issued their invitations for an assembly at McCune’s Hall on Christmas Eve. The parties of this Club are well conducted, and this one will undoubtedly surpass any of their previous gatherings, in point of pleasure and sociability.

– Petaluma Argus, December 19, 1867

CHRISTMAS.–The great holiday was duly observed in this city. On Christmas Eve, trees were had by the various Sunday Schools. On the day following, services were held at the Episcopal and Catholic churches, and a good attendance had at each. Dinner parties, the reunion of families, and assembling of friends around well spread tables…were some of the noticeable features of the day. And although egg-nog flowed freely, yet there was no special intemperance, and the day went out, leaving no disagreeable occurence behind, and nothing to remember but that which might be fondly cherished and preserved.

– Petaluma Argus, January 1, 1870

…The town remained very quiet, and although the usual libations were indulged in, no rioting or rudeness were manifested.

– Petaluma Argus, December 27, 1872

 

CHRISTMAS.

Christmas, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, passed off in a most satisfactory and pleasurable manner. A Christmas tree was erected in the elegant new store room of Messrs. Chritchfield, Sweeney & Lamb, on which was displayed a profusion of articles from a bon bon, to a silk dress. That illustrious personage known as Santa Claus, was represented by your good-natured friend, Mr. E. C. Sacry, who distributed the various gifts of fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and sweethearts to the satisfaction of all present, and sent many a little boy and girl to their homes, notwithstanding the darkness of the night and pelting rain-storm, deeply grateful for his visit to Geyserville.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1872

 

Christmas Tree.

There will be a Christmas tree in the M. E. Church South on Christmas eve. Although given under the management of the Sunday School of that church, it will not be exclusive. All parents and friends of the children are cordially invited to use the tree as a medium by which to make the little folks happy.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1873

 

Christmas at Santa Rosa.

Christmas was observed in this city with more than usual spirit. The general impulse of everybody to be liberal was stimulated by the fine display of holiday goods made by our merchants. There were Christmas Trees at the Presbyterian, Christian, and both Methodist churches, all of which passed off happily. On Christmas night the Santa Rosa Grange had a Christmas Tree and supper at Hood’s Hall, which was crowded with Grangers and thair invited guests. The presents were first distributed, causing much fun and merriment. The Secretary of the Grange, Mr. Obreen, a worthy and accomplished officer, was presented with a very handsome gold pen. After the distribution came a bountiful supper, of everything one could think of to tempt the appetite.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873

 

Christmas at Forestville.

Forestville, Dec. 25–Supposing that everybody wants to know just how everybody spent their Christinas I will give you a few items from this place. We had a Christmas tree at our school house last evening to begin Christmas with. Everybody was there, old and young. The house was beautifully decorated and lit. The house was filled so there was no room left. The venerable Santa Claus, with his swallow-tail coat and long white hair, looking just as ancient as if he had just made his escape from the catacombs of Egypt after centuries of confinement, made all the little folks happy by sowing peanuts broadcast through the audience, and then delivered quite an original oration to the great amusement of the crowd, who showed their appreciation by their overwhelming applause; then the fun commenced by the various presents being called off by our worthy teacher, Mr. Maxwell, and handed round by the young ladies to the lucky persons, or unlucky, as the joke might be, as somebody was bound to catch it…After the fun was over the young folks adjourned to Mr. Frank Emerson’s, to a social party, where they enjoyed themselves to their heart’s content the remainder of the evening, and to-day everybody is trying to induce his neighbor to take dinner with him and dine on roast turkey, while there still seems to be a large surplus for future eonsumption. I think it would be hard to find a jollier set of good fellows than there is here, and peace and harmony is the order of the day. Respectfully yours, Billy Sildem.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873

 

SEBASTOPOL BRIEFS
Christmas Tree.

The citizens of this place had a Christmas tree at the Presbyterian Church, on Christmas eve, which was heavily loaded from top to bottom with all the innumerable holiday trinkets invented by man. The house was filled to overflowing with old and young; all were well pleased. All this was done for the benefit of of the Sunday school children. It is proving a success will add largely to the school hereafter, and next year they will have a better time.

Christmas was a very quiet day; nothing worth noting transpired through the day except that a number of boys were playing their antics, which created some amusement, until late in the evening, when the people not forgetful of Wilson’s anniversary ball, began to pour in from all directions by the score. There were quite a number from Santa Rosa. The ball went off charmingly; the supper was, par excellence, and the whole thing was, as Harry intended it should be, a success.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 3 1874

 

Christmas at Ridgway Hall.

The Sunday School of the Methodist Church South, will hold a Christmas festival at Ridgway Hall on Christmas eve. There will be a Christmas Tree for the children, and also one for grown-up people. The presents from the children’s Tree will be distributed at 6 o’clock P. M. Those from the Tree for the grown-up people at a later hour. The ladies of the congregation will serve refreshments in the hall during the evening. A good time expected. Parties wishing to furnish presents for their friends will report to the committee at the hall during the day. Admittance free. Invitation general.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1874

 

Christmas In Santa Rosa.

The weather could not have been more propitious than it was Christmas day. A very light frost was visible early in the morning, but the sun rose clear and bright, and the entire day was as pleasant as the most fastidious weathermonger could have asked. But little business was done in any of the stores, except those where Christmas presents were kept, and in the afternoon nearly every store and shop was closed. The usual Christinas eggnogs and toddles, we suppose, were drunk, but if there was any one the least boosy, we failed to see or hear of it; and if there were such, they kept off the streets. In the evening there were Christmas trees at the Baptist Church, the Pacific Methodist College Chapel, Christian College Chapel, and Third Street Methodist Church, and each was well supplied with presents, and at each were large crowds to witness the distribution of the presents. We think very few children in the city were forgotten or neglected, and a great many of the older people received a memento of love from their friends. Christmas in Santa Rosa this year may be set down as a very quiet, but a very delightful and enloyable one.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1876

 

CHILDREN’S MASQUERADE.
Large Attendance–The Little Folks have a Happy Frolic–The Old Folks Look on–Names of the Maskers–The Lights go out and the Dancers go Home.

…The gallery of the Theatre was crowded at an early hour by the parents and friends of the children, while the young maskers were admitted to the stage at the rear entrance of the building. Shortly after 8 o’clock, the band struck up “Hail Columbia,” and the curtain rose upon a tableau composed of masked children, grouped together, supporting an American flag. The effect of the tableau was good, and as the curtain fell the audience testified their appreciation of the same by hearty applause. Then followed the

GRAND MARCH,

which was participated in by about seventy-five children in costume. As the little ones filed upon the floor, they presented a very pretty and pleasing appearance. The column was lead by four fairies, followed by all sorts and kinds of dress…After the grand march and a quadrille, Mr. Ross told the children to have a good time, when all restraint was withdrawn, and the children romped with all the seeming freedom of a play ground. After the unmasking, Santa Claus put in an appearance and gave every child a present. Just as the older people were admitted to the floor, the gasworks in the rear of the Theatre gave out, and everybody hurried away for fear they would be left in the dark…

– Petaluma Argus, January 5, 1877

 

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.
The Celebrations at the Different Churches.

The observance of the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated in fine style in four churches last Monday night.

The Baptist edifice was filled to overflowing. The exercises began at six o’clock, yet some time before that it was impossible to procure seats. The literary exercises lasted a little more than an hour, and then the distribution of the presents from two huge, well leaded trees began. Prof. Dozier and Mr. Baker distributed the gifts that loaded down the branches, making glad the hearts of the young and old. The distribution continued until nearly 10 o’clock, and although the building was crowded and many persons had been on their feet more than three hours, there was not the least sign of impatience nor the least indication of disorder.

The literary exercises at the M. E. Church were very brief. The tree presented a very fine appearance. We noticed that the candies, instead of being fastened to the tree, were attached to a frame behind it, and lighted up both the tree and presents with a flood of light. Rev. E. E. Dodge read the names of those whom the jolly saint remembered, and the presents were distributed by four fair young ladies. A good idea.

M. E. Church South had one tree well loaded. The musical and literary exercises were excellent selections and were well received. The distribution was conducted by Wesley Mock and M. M. Godman. The church was filled to overflowing. One of the most noticeable features of the evening was the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer by a number of the infant class.

The Presbyterians had no tree. The festivities consisted of a concert exercise, followed by the acting tableaux, “Waking Up Santa Claus.” The Superintendent informed the school that Santa Claus had forgotten them, and that he lived in a little bower that had been tastefully fitted up in one corner of the room, and selected three girls to go and see why the omission had occurred. The girls approached the house, and were met by two frightful looking imps, who informed them that Santa Claus was asleep, that he was tired, his reindeers turned out to pasture and all his stock of presents and refreshments were distributed; but the girls persevered until the form of the Saint himself appeared at the top of the chimney. The scene was very prettily finished by the appearance of the Fairy Queen, who, accompanied with the sweetest of music, relieved Santa Claus and the Sunday School from their dilemma.

Mass was celebrated twice by Father Conway on Christmas day. The church was well filled. The Church of the Incarnation was open during the day, and Christmas services observed.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 29 1877

…The Presbyterian Sunday School will not have a Christmas tree, but will have a “Mother Goose” Concert at Ridgway Hall on Christmas eve, under the management of the San Greal Society, an organization composed of the young people of the church and congregation, and organized for the promotion of sociability and good feeling. The concert will be full of new, unique and pleasing features, and will doubtless prove a rare treat to the children….

– Sonoma Democrat, December 21 1878

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WHEN THE CIRCUS WAGONS CAME TO TOWN

Before Thanksgiving or Independence Day were national holidays, there was only one event nearly every American celebrated, regardless of class, race or creed: The day the circus came to town. That two-century tradition ends on May 21 when Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey gives its last performance. Before the Big Top comes down for the last time, here’s a look at what it meant to small towns like Santa Rosa and Petaluma, as viewed through their newspapers.

By no means does this series represent all the circuses that came to Sonoma county – this is only a small sample. It was not uncommon to have two or three every year, and even the shows that returned often were different enough each time to be a considered new.

Because of the number of images involved I’m breaking this article into two parts. This section covers the early circuses travelling by roads and waterways; these wagon shows were dinky affairs compared to some of the monster spectaculars which came here after the railroads were available, as discussed in part two, “LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS ON COLLEGE AVE“.

But regardless of the year or degree of magnificence, every circus day was magic and were the climax of weeks of hot anticipation. The places you had walked past thousands of times – fences with scabby whitewash, streetlight poles, the plain brick walls on the sides of businesses – those drab things were now transformed by beautiful lithograph posters showing flying trapeze women, daredevil animal trainers and other scenes you had never imagined. You know the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opened the door to Oz into a world riot in color? It was like that, only better because YOU were about to enter such a magical place. And you would go there. Nothing on earth could stop you.

(CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge, or see the complete collection on Pinterest)

This is the oldest circus ad I’ve found in the local newspapers, dating to June, 1856. The promise that “The Police Department will be under the supervision of efficient officers” suggests the public believed a circus attracted criminals and troublemakers.

1856 Rowe Circus

 

The 1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus also has the “efficient officers” vow. Note they don’t say much about the acts, but boast at length of their “magnificent, new, and costly” wagons. They promise the Big Top is waterproof and ladies will get cushions for their seats. Classy!

1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus

 

Until the railway reached Santa Rosa in late 1870, circuses with large animals rarely visited Sonoma county in those days. This 1859 show with two elephants was the first exception. As with most circuses seen here in that era, the performance was mainly horseback stunts, acrobatics and a featured clown.

1859 Wilson circus

 

The patriotic theme of the “United States Circus” reflects the national mood in the first months of the Civil War – although it may not have gone over so well in pro-Confederacy Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. “Blondin” was the famed tightrope walker who crossed Niagara Falls.

1861 United States Circus

 

Although there was still no train service to Santa Rosa in 1869, we were on the tour route of Dan Castello’s Circus and Menagerie, the first East Coast show to come to California via the new transcontinental railroad, which had been completed less that four months earlier. “Their immense posters cover half the town, and everybody is anxiously waiting to see the greatest show of the age,” the Democrat commented. It seems the ads exaggerated the number and varieties of animals; their wagon caravan included only ten cages and a couple of elephants and camels. A correspondent to the Russian River Flag wrote, “It was agreed by us that the menagerie was a failure, but the circus part we liked very well.”

1869 Castello’s Circus and Menagerie

 

The 1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome was the first show in Santa Rosa to introduce exotic themes, with an “oriental pagoda” and Roman Empire-style chariot races. The show also included a political angle, with “Horace Greeley, Comic Mule.” That year Greeley was the most well-known among the eight candidates running against incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant and lost by a landslide (in Santa Rosa he came in fourth). Greeley actually had died four days before this Santa Rosa performance.

1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome

 

Montgomery Queen’s 1874 Circus and Traveling World’s Fair drew an audience of 2,800 that night in Santa Rosa – about the same as the official population of the town. Since before the Civil War, the price for an adult ticket was always one dollar, which would be between $30-40 in today’s currency. Even if half this 1874 audience were children, they pulled in about $60,000 (adjusted for inflation) with this one show. While circus life was hard on the performers, crew and animals, it was undeniably very profitable for the owners.

1874 Montgomery Queen’s Circus and Traveling World’s Fair

 

Queen’s Great Moral Circus was here in 1875 and I’m presuming it was not a railroad show, as their route went from Petaluma to Sonoma and there was no rail line running between the towns. Aside from the appearance of a living giraffe and a “hogapotamus,” this visit was special because of a delightful story which appeared in the Sonoma Democrat:

1875 Montgomery Queen’s Great Moral Circus

 

 

GOING TO THE CIRCUS.

Yesterday morning as we were quietly strolling down town, with both hands in our pockets, thinking of nothing in particular, our meditations were disturbed by the loud demand:

“Whar are they a-goin’ to stretch the canvass?”

Looking up, there stood a tall, rawboned fellow with a grizzled beard and sun-burnt face, waiting for an answer.

“Canvas? What canvas?” we answered, all abroad like.

“Why, the circus,” you know, replied the man from the mountains.

We confessed our inability to direct him, and he pursued his way with a compassionate look on his face for our ignorance. Determined to become better posted about the circus, and to take a hand in the fun going on, we had not gone far until meeting a platform of eight small boys stretching quite across the pavement.

“Going to the circus, boys?”

“Yes, sir, answered the eight small boys together.

“Could you tell me where the tent is?”

“Yes, sir,” altogether, and eight small hands and arms pointing in the same direction.

Sure enough, there it was, nearly covering Bill Hardy’s lot with about an acre of canvass, and surrounded with empty circus wagons, loose horses and piles of baggage. The cook stove was smoking through a short pipe, and the cook, a gentleman from Africa, was taking his morning wash in a basin that looked suspiciously like a bread pan.

On the street corners pretty girls, carrying new parasols, were grouped together, looking with admiring glances into shop windows. Along the streets new arrivals of young fellows on horses, and old fellows, just as young within were soberly driving family tumouts, containing mother and the children. As a rule from three to five of the little people contrived always to get on the front seat with the driver.

The circus band struck up the inspiring strains of “Champagne Charley,” and a mingled mass of humanity began winding its way to the “horse opera.” There, from the moment of the grand entree until the close of the performance, the boys and girls seemed spellbound with the Oriental magnificence of its sights and sounds. The venerable jokes of the clown were as new and as keenly relished as, ah, me, so many years ago, when the reporter was a boy. The gaily spangled dresses of the riders, and the fearful perils of the horsemen, held the lower seats, filled with boys, in the same trance of wonder. The eight boys had managed to get seated in a row like so many chickens on a fence, their mouths slightly opened, and their honest eyes protruding enough to be scraped off with a stick. Innocent boyhood enjoying its first pleasures. Most of them had, without doubt, performed unheard of tasks for three weeks to get taken to the circus. At its close, about four o’clock, when the audience began to disperse, they broke into family groups and slowly wended their way down street to their wagons, homeward bound, with heavier hearts and lighter pockets. How many of them wished they had their dollar back? The middle-aged frontiersman of the morning was seen mounted on a cayuse, headed toward Guerneville, riding pensively along, a little sideways in the saddle, trying to urge the pony into an easy lope, doubtless for reasons best known to himself.

How much money the showman took away is a question that cannot be answered. But, judging from the number in attendance, it must have been enough to pay off the debt of either of the Santa Rosa Colleges.

 

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