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THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR

Come August it’s Sonoma County Fair time in Santa Rosa; you can set your calendar by it. Even if you don’t attend the Fair anymore it’s one of those milestones that stubbornly refuse to be ignored, like Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December. One morning the checkout line at the Cash & Carry was taking forever because the people ahead of me were mostly paying with crumpled one dollar bills. Then I noticed what was on their warehouse push carts: The cheapest cooking oil, bags of sugar heavier than a five year-old child, gallons of colorful fruit syrups. Ding! August. County Fair.

But it wasn’t always in August, or in Santa Rosa, and the fairgrounds has a very spotty history of even being a fairgrounds. Nor was there something every year which could be called the Sonoma County Fair; draw a timeline between 1883 and today and randomly pick a year – about a third of the time you’ll come up fairless.

This is a history of how the “Sonoma County Fair” evolved, but just like every evolutionary tree there was no clear, inevitable path from when it took root to where it is now; what we have today is just one branch that won out among several of its kin that didn’t happen to do as well. Some were organized by locals who created an association or society for that purpose; some were an official event of the state’s agricultural district for the North Bay. But even whether the fair was independent vs. government-sponsored doesn’t fully explain how things developed – at different times, what became the “Sonoma County Fair” has been both. The district fairs were mostly exhibits to promote local livestock and produce; the private fairs usually featured professional/semi-professional horse racing. And again, the “Sonoma County Fair” embraced both.

Rightfully Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fair should probably have the County Fair monicker, as it has a longer record (starting in 1867) and has been held most consistently. Even older was the San Pablo Bay District Fair, which began in 1859. It was held in both the town of Sonoma and Vallejo and morphed into what was called the first “county fair” in the newspapers – the fascinating “Sonoma-Napa Mechanical Fair,” which drew Victorian nerds from all over the state (lots of wine drinking, too). That one will get an article here of its own, someday.

But while those other towns were earnestly trying to establish and maintain their annual festivals, in Santa Rosa there was tepid interest in fair-making, and what did exist proceeded in fits and starts for decades. What the City of Roses really wanted was to become the City of Races.

Whenever a town in the Old West rose out of the dust to become something better than just another stagecoach stop, it seemed there was always one guy who did ten times more than anyone else. In Santa Rosa, that was James P. Clark.

Clark arrived here with his brother in 1852, the year before the town was born. Over the next three decades he would be a founding member of the volunteer fire department, sheriff and mayor. As the latter he cast the tie-breaking vote to establish a public library here, the 1884 City Council being split between those who thought libraries were a waste of tax money or not. (Oh, Santa Rosa…) He bought Julio Carrillo’s “stall and buggy shed” and turned it into the Fashion Livery Stable, which became the hub for anything related to horse travel – an operation so big it took up the entire city block where the Roxy movie theater complex is today. He also bought from Julio the first house that was ever built in town, plus another 180 acres which he subdivided into (what would become much of) the West End Neighborhood and Railroad Square.

James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum
James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum

But what interests us here most about J.P. Clark is his interest in building racetracks and founding fairs.

In 1860 a group of local men formed a jockey club – which is to say, they agreed to pay dues of $25/year to construct a racetrack and organize several days of races. Clark built the track near the future Railroad Square depot location (no trains here yet in 1860, remember). Gamblers and horse breeders from all over the Bay Area came to that race, which was a big deal; $1900 in prizes were awarded – about $83k in today’s dollars.

Meanwhile, another group – the Sonoma County Agricultural and Mechanical Society (no connection to that Sonoma-Napa fair) – was starting to organize something like a proper fair for Sonoma county, with livestock exhibits plus a pavilion where locals could show off handiworks and things they grew. The first was held in Healdsburg in 1859, Petaluma the next year which was followed by Santa Rosa, where the fair included the second jockey club event. That 1861 fair was the marred by violence, due to the gamblers who came here for the races. The paper reported there was “but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used.” A local man was shot in the leg outside the fairgrounds and “a fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.”

That violence may have been why interest wained in sponsoring big races here, as the jockey club disbanded and the racetrack was plowed under. No matter, really; there were similar clubs popping up frequently in those years and there were always private tracks where horse lovers could watch the racers train or compete in ad hoc meets. A few years later Clark built a half-mile track at his own ranch, which was close to our modern Costco shopping center.

1867southernfundThe unofficial title of Sonoma County Fair passed between the Agricultural District fairs after the Civil War, switching from Sonoma-Napa to Sonoma-Marin. The Sonoma county fairs were held in Petaluma for years thereafter, although Santa Rosa tried to hijack the name in 1867 for a fundraiser for the “Southern Relief Fund” – in other words, collecting money to send to the former Confederate states. (Everyone together, now: Oh, Santa Rosa…)

There were very few Santa Rosa faces to be seen at the Petaluma county fair meetings, but James P. Clark was Fair Marshal several times during the following dozen years. I can’t determine exactly what that position meant at the time but it was listed directly after president of the society, so apparently it was an important hands-on job and not ceremonial.

Our present Santa Rosa fairgrounds has roots that go back to 1878, when members of the racing crowd formed the “Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association” to buy the original 80-something acres (every account differs as to the exact size). And there was Clark again, not only as treasurer – and later president – of the group but also building the mile track. They began hosting races the following year.

There’s quite an extensive description of the place from 1881 (transcribed below) when JP Clark led a tour. The original grandstand was nothing like we imagine today; it was basically a large 3 bedroom house with dining room, living room, two fireplaces plus a bar room. Upstairs there was seating for 300, but it’s unclear whether this was cantilevered like a typical grandstand; it might have been a big open-air gallery, as the reporter also mentions a deep veranda on the ground floor.

Santa Rosa (or at least, the Democrat newspaper) again claimed the County Fair title in 1883, but it was formally the “first annual exhibit of the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association.” The title really didn’t matter at that point, I suppose, as the fair in Petaluma continued as always, held a week earlier. Newly built at Santa Rosa that year was a big pavilion for a “pumpkin and turnip show,” as such produce and handiwork exhibitions were nicknamed.

Here I must confess to Gentle Reader that I suffer an OCD weakness to completely read every list of entries from those exhibitions; I am equally fascinated by discovering long lost 19th century arts and crafts along with my amazement at some of the absurd stuff people wanted to show off. Among the offerings at that 1883 fair were Mrs. R. McGeorge’s wax dowers (fake pearls or flowers molded out of sealing wax); corn on a stalk from William Moss; Frank White’s mangel wortzels (sic: mangelwurzel, an inedible beet); and from E. W. Davis, brooms. How I could go on…

Even the Petaluma papers tacitly conceded that Santa Rosa’s doings were now the “Sonoma County Fair,” so peg 1883 as the birth year for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds – although it wouldn’t be that for very long.

The latter part of the 1880s were boom years in Santa Rosa, the town propelled forward by easy money and a frenzy of construction. James P. Clark’s racetrack was now called the fastest in the state and the Association joined the northern racing circuit, which meant that almost all of the horses running at the track were from out of the area, and maybe out of the state; gone was any pretense that it was still a county-centric event. Part of the scene was also the opening of “Kroncke’s Park” in 1886, giving Santa Rosa its first real park – albeit one that charged admission. The park often had novelty events on weekends and underwrote fares on excursion trains from San Francisco, which brought up daytripping city folk as well as hoodlums wanting to get drunk and brawl. It’s likely no coincidence that the worst violence seemed to come when an excursion coincided with race week at the fair, as it did in 1887.

It was around this time that Santa Rosa’s history took a dark turn. The professional horse races brought in professional gamblers and the town came to welcome them by throwing out state and city betting laws. By the time this was exposed in 1905, Santa Rosa was a corrupt “wide-open town” where police tolerated criminal activity. Even though local children were found gambling at roulette wheels and crap tables in the backrooms of downtown saloons and hotels, this illegal gambling was condoned, even encouraged, by the City Council – as well as by the Press Democrat. For more, see the “WIDE-OPEN TOWN” series.

1899raceThe racetrack and fairgrounds were privately owned for most of that time, the Association having sold it in 1890 to Ira Pierce, a wealthy San Francisco horseman. Locals bemoaned this meant the end of horse racing in Santa Rosa, as Pierce was mainly interested in using it for training his own stable of horses at first. After several years he began hosting annual Breeders’ Association races around the turn of the century (1898, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1905, 1907 and 1908, if anyone cares, with races at the District Fair filling in the gap years 1900 and 1903).

He formally renamed it the Santa Rosa Stock Farm in 1900. That year the Sonoma-Marin Fair – which had not held since 1896 – was revived and hosted in Santa Rosa, but not at the fairgrounds. Pierce allowed his track to be used for races that one year, but the exhibitions were at Ridgway Hall on Third Street and the livestock were shown at the Fifth street stockyard. The fair repeated in 1901 and 1902 but without the races, and now it was called a “big street fair.” Fourth street was spanned by a canvas tent for free concerts and vaudeville shows.

Pierce and his brother sold the (old) race track (and stock farm) (at Agricultural Park) – among the name variations used by the Press Democrat – in 1911, and the next year it was owned by two local men: C. C. Donovan and his brother, Ney. Their first plan was to subdivide it for homes; it hadn’t been a fairgrounds for nearly a quarter century at that point.

That could have been the final end of this evolutionary branch, but the Donovans had incentives to restore it as a racetrack and fairgrounds. There was $1800 being held by the District Agricultural Fair Association ever since the last one, and the legislature approved even larger appropriations to promote District fairs with Sonoma county getting $4k of that money. So once again Santa Rosa hosted the Sonoma-Marin District Fair in 1913.

This was the first Sonoma County Fair that would seem familiar to today’s fairgoers. From the Press Democrat:


The pavilion in which the great agricultural and horticultural display will be made will be brilliantly lighted, as will the other exhibit stands and places and grounds. There will be something to entertain the crowd all the time. Hoffman of Sacramento will have some good attractions for the “Midway Plaisance.” Spectacular features will be pulled off each night, and two nights of the week an added attraction will be a grand display of fireworks. The electrical effects on the grounds and at the entrance arch are to be something very fine.

This would have been one of the great fairs to attend in a Wayback Machine. Both Jack London and Luther Burbank were on hand (showing cattle and “famed creations,” respectively). The centerpiece of the pavilion was an illuminated globe covered with dried apples and prunes, for some reason. The exhibits included Pomo basketry collections, A. C. Hessell’s corn on stalk, Mrs. G. R. Unzelman’s jabots, Mrs. Hawley’s crochet tidy, and Mrs. Edith M. Davis’ angora and persian cats. There was a “Better Baby” contest. (“There will be no prizes for mere prettiness. The babies will be judged by scientific methods. Not only will they be judged but an endeavor will be made from year to year to raise the standard of babies.”) On closing night there was a “Mardi Gras” on the Midway.

That incarnation of the County Fair lasted until 1916. It was revived with great enthusiasm in 1920; the fairgrounds received a major facelift and they even built a new grandstand which could hold 2,000. That year proved to be ill-fated. On Saturday a stunt pilot crashed his plane and died in front of the audience; on Sunday two race car drivers were killed along with a 7 year-old boy watching outside the fence. And just prior to that Sunday accident a man working at a concession stand noticed flames were licking up one of the support posts of the grandstand, a fire presumably started by a cigarette dropped in the sawdust under the newly-built stands. Quick work by him and a Deputy Sheriff put out the fire with none of the audience the wiser. “Had it become known among the crowd that an incipient fire was burning under the stand it is considered almost certain that there would have been a panic,” commented the Press Democrat.

Those incidents may have contributed to moving the fair to the Cotati Speedway in 1921, followed by two years back in Petaluma as the Sonoma-Marin Fair (featuring Egg Day!) but after that there were no more fairs here by any name for more than a decade. In 1931 the grandstand in Santa Rosa was razed again and a golf course constructed in the middle of the race track. The property was primarily used by a riding club, for horse boarding, and rented by visiting circuses.

And finally came 1936, the year that the Sonoma County Fair & Exposition, Inc. considers Year One, ignoring everything that had happened up to then.

Reviving the fair was a team effort of the Chamber of Commerce and all the other booster groups, with leadership from Joseph T. Grace and Ernest Finley, the PD’s editor-publisher. Finley made it clear in an editorial that there would be no more of this “Agricultural District Fair” crap – this was to be branded as the Sonoma County Fair, by god, and it was gonna make Santa Rosa a force that would command R.E.S.P.E.C.T. His obit said Finley regarded this as his finest achievement along with the campaign for the Golden Gate Bridge.

That fair was unabashedly an excuse for horse racing; there was surprisingly little else to see or do, although there was – significantly – a floral show, where Mrs. H. J. Holtorf of Graton took home an astonishing number of ribbons. Some local bands played concerts (see photo at top, courtesy Sonoma County Library) and there was a talent contest that stretched over several days, the big winner being Vera Potapoff for her dead-on impersonation of Popeye.

How things have changed since then; the races have increasingly taken a back seat to all other entertainments at the Sonoma County Fair in the decades since, and as the Press Democrat recently noted, interest in horse racing has particularly declined sharply over the last decade, and betting along with it.

But there’s still one year back then worth revisiting: 1945. When the gates opened on September 22 to the “Victory Fair,” the air must have been electric with excitement. The fair went on hiatus in 1943, when the fairgrounds were used as Regimental headquarters for the Ohio National Guard 107th Cavalry, which patrolled the North Coast that year. There was no fair in 1944 either, but come September 1945, the war had ended just weeks before; returning soldiers and sailors by the thousands were stepping off ships and airplanes nearly every day in San Francisco. Over 10,000 were jammed into the fairgrounds on the afternoon of that first day and over 11k the next, both remarkable because Santa Rosa’s population was about 15,000. The Press Democrat offered a picture of the grandstand looking down from the high back wall: “Like Sardines,” was the photo caption. “City Overflows With Visitors,” was another headline.

Alas, the PD chose to focus almost entirely on the races – which horse had the best odds, was scratched from the racecard, won the biggest purse. Stuff that no one cared about even a day later. What a lost opportunity; that was surely the happiest Sonoma County Fair in its history, and an unforgettable moment in the lives of everyone there. How rare it is that we can point to a spot on the calendar and say, yeah, that really was the best of times.

Press Democrat, September 22 1945
Press Democrat, September 22 1945

 

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Jockey Club. — All persons who are interested in, or lovers of, Fine stock are requested to meet at the Court House in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, Feb. 22d, at 2 o’clock, p. m., for the purpose of forming a Jockey Club.

 

Mr. Clark, of the Union stable, is preparing an excellent track, and putting up the necessary buildings to accommodate trainers and their stock, which he will have in readiness by the time the sporting season comes on.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 9 1860

 

A VISIT TO THE RACE TRACK. — We had the pleasure a few days since of a visit to the Santa Rosa Race Course, where the Fall races of the Sonoma County Jockey Club are announced to take place in September. The track is a new one just being made by Mr. Clark, of this place. The location is excellent and the grounds good, and the proprietor has displayed both good taste and judgement in the selection. Mr. Clark has erected twelve excellent stalls and is progressing rapidly with the other work in and about the course, and by the time the races come off everything will be in excellent condition….

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

 

CROWDED BUT LIVELY. — Since the Fair commenced, Santa Rosa has been crowded, and presents a lively appearance. The gambling fraternity, as was expected, are largely represented. We have noticed but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used. On Wednesday evening a difficulty occurred in a gambling house between several persons. Harry Howe interfered on behalf of a friend in settling the affair, and after, as Howe supposed, the matter had been arranged, and he was walking down Main street, he was fired upon with a pistol, it is thought in the hands of the person with whom his friend had been quarreling. The ball entered the calf of his left leg. The wounded man was attended by Dr. Green of Napa, who extracted the ball from the instep of the foot. Howe was at last accounts, “doing as well as could be expected.” A fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1861

 

RACE TRACK.—The race track which we spoke of as being under headway a short time since, on James P. Clark’s ranch, about a mile and a half from town, is now finished and in good condition for training purposes. The track is a circle one, half mile in length, and the soil of such a nature that there is no danger of injuring the feet of horses. A number of gentlemen are training their horses at the new track, and it is rumored that in about two weeks the first races will come off. We hope this may prove a success, as it will encourage the raising of fine stock in the county.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1869

 

THE CLARK ADDITION.—This property, belonging to James P. Clark, Esq., consists of some forty acres of as rich land as can be found in the county. It is close by the depot, and has been surveyed and laid off in town lots, the dimensions of which are 40×100. In a short time all will be disposed of, as we understand they are to be offered for sale at a very liberal figure.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1870

 

Race Course and Fair Grounds. —A movement is on foot to establish a race course and fair grounds near this city. The location spoken of is on the lands of Mrs. Hendley, three-fourths of a mile south east of the plaza. The track will be one mile in length, and nearly elliptical in form. A diagram of the grounds and proposed location of the buildings and stands has been made by Captain J. T, Kingsbury.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1877

 

The Agricultural Park.

The talk that has been indulged in for so long by our citizens relative to the construction of an Agricultural Park, has at length culminated in the purchase of a tract of about ninety acres from Mrs. Headley for that purpose. The land was surveyed on Saturday and the bargain closed.

That such an enterprise will be of incalculable benefit is a self-evident proposition, and now that the movement seems to be fairly inaugurated, we hope it will be carried on successfully and to the satisfaction of all.

The probable expense of getting the matter under way, and of fitting up the grounds, can hardly be estimated. A mile track is to graded, leveled and fenced; the entire grounds must be enclosed; a number of sheds for the stabling of stock and storing of feed must be provided; and last and greatest expense of all, a pavilion must be erected.

The means taken to raise the money for the purchase of the land, was by circulating the following petition: We, the undersigned, hereby agree to pay, in gold coin, the respective amounts set opposite our names for the purpose of raising $7,000 tor the purchase of 95 acres of land of Mrs. Hendley, to build and erect an agricultural park. Said land being situated on the south side of the Bennett Valley road, one-fourth mile east of the Petaluma road, and being distant from the Court House three-fourths of a mile. The following fourteen Gentlemen and firms have subscribed $500 each…

No plan for the erection of the buildings and completing the other improvements has been matured. The gentlemen above mentioned will doubtless hold a meeting soon to inaugurate some system, and then let their plans be submitted to our citizens.

We feel assured that the institution will be a success, and we hope that our citizens will aid in the advancement of the enterprise, and hope that the “Sonoma County Agricultural Society” will be one of our best and most promising County institutions.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 7 1878

 

THE FIRST RACES.

The first races over on Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association’s track were held on Thursday, in spite of the short notice and in consequence the meager amount of advertising the races were well attended. The arrangements were not perfected until late late week, and the whole affair may be considered impromptu and by no means the formal opening of the track. The track is still heavy not having had the benefit of a winter’s rain, but is other* wise in excellent condition. ..

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1879

 

Agricultural Park Association.

Prominent among the important enterprises which have been started in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association deserves mention as being one much conducive to business interests and the welfare of our city generally. It was incorporated on January 11th, 1879, the charter members being… During the month of January, 1879, 60 acres of land south-east of Santa Rosa, and lying partly within the city limits, were purchased for $6,000, and work immediately commenced on the construction of a race track and for the beautifying of the grounds. The present stockholders are… The officers are: President, James P. Clark: Treasurer, Geo. P. Noonan; Secretary, Chas. Hoffer…

Last Wednesday, through the kindness of Mr. J. P. Clark, behind Lake and Black Jimmy, a spanking team, we had the pleasure of a drive over the track and grounds of the Association. Leading from the Petaluma road eastward, a short stretch up Bennett Avenue brought us to a drive, having on each side a row of poplars and at the end of which is the main entrance to the grounds. The track, which is one mile in length, and the soil of which consists of loam and sand has been so thoroughly worked that it has remained in good condition, notwithstanding the late very severe storm, is said by experts to be the best in the State, Among the many whose opinions are worthy of note are… all of whom concur in proclaiming that it is unequaled anywhere and is all that could be desired by the most exacting horseman….The grand stand which is a model of architecture, was completed yesterday by our well known builder. Hank C. Paul, at a cost of $2,500. It is situated on the east side of and 50 feet from the track and covers a space of 36×60 feet. It consists of two stories, having an elevation of 28 feet. In the upper portion of the building are comfortable seats for 300 spectators and from which an excellent view of all points of the track may be had. In the lower story on entering the main hall, which is six feet wide, the first room on the right is the sitting room 12½x14 feet; then there are three bedrooms, each of which is 12 feet square; on the left a dining-room 12½x26, a kitchen 12½x14, and a bar-room 12×21 feet go to make up the complement. Besides these there are wide halls throughout the building. The ceilings and walls, the former of which are 10 feet high in the clear, are constructed of grooved lumber. Two fireplaces lend to the comfort of guests and a porch 18×60 feet serves to protect spectators from any inclemencies of the weather. The whole, painted white, surmounted by a flag-staff 32 feet high, and so thoroughly constructed as it is, is one of the most beautiful and substantial buildings in our city and an honor to the contractor, Mr. Paul. There are about the grounds large numbers of trees—ash. maple, poplar, locust and evergreens in abundance, which as yet have not attained a full growth, but which in time will make the whole a handsome picture. Mr. Clark informs us that it is the intention of the Association to plant 2,500 Monterey cypress trees about one foot a part from the first quarter pole to opposite the third quarter pole, and around the fence of the entire grounds an evergreen hedge. North-east of the track there are fifty stables of an improved pattern, having every convenience for attending to the racer in a proper manner. There are two large tanks used as reservoirs for supplying water for sprinkling. A handsome building for the judges has been erected opposite the grand stand and from which an excellent view of the track can be obtained. The drainage system, now very good, is to be improved, and here we might also remark that the City Council propose widening to 60 feet Bennett Avenue, which leads to the grounds…

– Sonoma Democrat, March 5 1881

 

Sonoma County Agricultural Course.

As early as 1860 the citizens of Santa Rosa wore impressed with the idea that a race course would be an advantageous adjunct to the permanent improvement of the town, as well as the improvement of stock in the country around. Accordingly in the Fall of that year through the liberality of James P. Clark, who owned the land about where the depot now stands, and a few enterprising citizens, a course was built and a set of purses given to be contended for, to which contest the neighboring counties of Sonoma, Napa and Marin were invited. During that year, Orphan Bay, owned by Dr. Williams of Mendocino, Dashaway, owned by Achillis Grigsby of Napa, and several running celebrities put in an appearance. The track was kept up until the next year, 1861, when the second Agricultural Fair was held, when it was used as the Fair track and several very creditable races were run. The track was only of a temporary character, not fenced, nor graded, and the public spirit of the citizens not proving adequate to the expense of keeping up a good track, it was allowed to go into decline and was plowed up and turned into a grain field. Afterward it was laid off into lots and now forms a beautiful portion of the incorporated city of Santa Rosa. Scarcely a year has passed since that time, that the subject of the importance of a good race course has not been broached by some of our citizens, until in 1878, a few individuals formed themselves into a joint stock company and inaugurated an enterprise which has culminated in the establishment of one of the finest running and trotting courses in the United States. It is known as the Sonoma County Agricultural Park, is situated about one mile south of the Court House, is equal to and not surpassed by any course in the State. The Association have made arrangements for a meeting in August next, for two and three-year-olds owned in the District, composed of Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Marin, in each of which there are already nine entries. A visit to the Park on Sunday last, took us somewhat by surprise, not only at the conveniences of the track but the number that have taken advantage of them for the purpose of training. We found there the following: In the stable in charge of Guadeloupe Carrillo, a beautiful blood bay, five years old by Bayswater, owned by John Merritt…

– Sonoma Democrat, May 21 1881

 

Our Exhibition.

Frank H. Swett, Superintendent of the pavilion informs us that applications for space are coming in thick and fast, each day, and every arrival of the mail brings new ones. Sufficient applications have already been made to assure the success of the pavilion exhibition. We learn incidentally that Mrs. C. E. Pope is engaged in making a handsome satin and silk bedspread which will be placed on exhibition, and our Artist M. Schramm is prepared to cover over 200 square feet with an exhibition of oil paintings, crayons, etchings and every variety of photographic art. The entries to the races are filling rapidly and will be ready for publication in a few days. Mr. Laughlin Superintendent of the stock exhibition thinks there is not enough stalls to accommodate those desirous of exhibiting. We have already mentioned the fact that Sylvester Scott will place some of his pure bred stock on exhibition, and Wm. Bihler has sent up for space of nine stalls. Many others are coming in. Mr. Laughlin says that Uncle Jerry Beam is keeping a register of persons applying for space in the stock yards, for the convenience of all, as he resides in Santa Rosa and can be readily found at any time.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1883

 

THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR.
The Opening — Prospects of a Successful Fair — Large Number of Exhibits — Banquet in the Evening.

FIRST DAY.

Santa Rosa, August 16th. – The morning of the first day of Fair week dawned deliciously cool and refreshing. The remnants of the heavy fog of the night previous lingered till long after breakfast hour. Nature seemed to smile in her happiest mood as if to sanction the efforts being made at our beautiful fair grounds for the propagation of the industry of our county. Early in the forenoon the carriages and vehicles of all descriptions began wending their way out to the grounds. As we approach the large enclosure the eye is struck with the beauty of the surroundings as viewed from the avenue. In the foreground is the large line of stalls with their coat of white, almost blinding to the eye. As we near the entrance the soft, mellow lowing of the kine, reminding one of the old-fashioned barnyard they love so well to recall. Further on a glimpse of the track is seen now and then, dotted here and there with the flyers destined to afford the visitors so much pleasure in the days to follow. Then there is the pavilion and grandstand looming up high above the surrounding tents and booths. As we near the gate the whole panorama-like scene, alive with busy life, bursts upon the view. At the gate the familiar face of “Gee Whack” meets our gaze, dispelling all sentimental thoughts occasioned by the lovely morning. But, stop! No entrance fee is charged this morning. “Has the enchanting morning rendered the Directors generous?” No, it’s the first day, and things have not settled down to their natural groove — business has not begun. Once inside, one begins to question within himself, which way first. The horses are being exercised, and the question is soon answered, as we find ourself gradually approaching the spectators that are congregated near the grand stand watching the noble animals as they whirl by, and on around the course. The familiar names of the noted trotters are called out as each favorite passes and is followed with glowing eye, until followed by another, and another. Even the horses seem to feel the magical influence of the perfect morning. Their nostrils dilate as they quaff deep draughts of the pure air, direct from the heavens. After watching the course and its occupants for some time we wander on and enter the pavilion. The exhibitors have just begun to arrange their goods, and one is not able to chain his attention to any one thing, so great is the hurry and bustle…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 21 1886

 

The Circuit Is Still Open.

The question has been asked whether, if the Agricultural Park is sold, Santa Rosa will be assigned a position in the northern circuit as formerly. One of the Directors of the Association says that it was only by special request that the Santa Rosa track was given a place in the circuit two years ago, and that it will be admitted on the same conditions if Mr. Pierce, the purchaser, carries out his intention of holding annual race meetings, concerning which there seems to be little doubt.

– Daily Democrat, March 22 1890

 

WHAT WILL BE DONE ABOUT IT?

We quote from the Breeder and Sportsman: “An item under the heading of Turf and Track, informs the public that the Directors of the Santa Rosa Association have had their annual meeting and elected new officers for the ensuing year. So far so good, but there is a line or two at the end of the item which calls for comment. ‘The sentiment of the Board is opposed to holding a fair or races this year, unless a disposition different from that of former years is manifested by the people in this part of the country.’ It seems a shame that such a resolution was passed, and yet the Directors were compelled in justice to themselves to let the people of Santa Rosa know that there would be no more racing at that point, unless the citizens are willing to financially assist the gentlemen who usually have to put their hands in their pockets and pay a deficiency each year. During the year 1889, Napa made money, and Petaluma scored a financial success, but Santa Rosa lost. There Santa Rosa people at the Petaluma race track on one certain day, than there were Santa Rosa residents on any day at the track during the late Santa Rosa Meeting. They seem to have lost all interest in their own town and are all looking for the almighty dollar, without giving the requisite support to those who are trying to keep up the sport of the kings at that point. From the present outlook, Santa will be dropped from the circuit and it is nothing more than is due to the Santa Rosans for the lukewarm manner in which they have supported the late Directors in their efforts to secure good sport. What is to he done in the matter?

It is hardly possible that our horsemen, with all the eclat attaching to them through the fame of Anteeo and his progeny, with other promising developments, will allow the well improved Park course to deteriorate back into a grain field, or be cut up into town lots.

The stock of the association consists of 2,500 shares, the par value of which is $10 per share, making a capital of $25,000. The property embraces eighty acres of land, well improved, part of which is within the corporate limits of the city, 300 stalls for horses and cattle, a grand stand with seating capacity for 3,500 people, a commodious pavilion, water tanks and pipes, a growing park of nut and evergreen trees, and a cypress hedge around three-fourths of the track… Here, it seems to us, is an opportunity for some good conductor of a racetrack to make an investment which properly managed,should pay handsomely. Something should be done at once and we hope our local stockbreeders will give the matter serious consideration. If they do not then, Mr. Breeder and Sportsman, it will be in hand for you to send somebody with capital up to look into the matter.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 25 1890

 

THE RACE MEETING.
Highly Probable That the Matter Will Be Carried Through.

Santa Rosa horsemen are much interested in the proposed races to be held here, Frank Burke, one of the most prominent members of the Breeder’s Association, has signified bis intention of seeing what arrangements can be made about securing the track and giving Santa Rosa a first-class race meeting. There is not time enough for the local horsemen to arrange for the meeting, but the Association, being in the business, could handle the muter with more ease and facility.

The track is in good shape, and but little work would be required to place it in prime form.

There is not a question of the feasibility of the proposition. The races heretofore have always been satisfactory from a pecuniary point of view and the receipts from the meeting would leave a comfortable sum over the expenditures.

A large number of our business men would help raise the necessary money. Every one interested in racing speaks of the favorable condition for a race meeting. The failure of Petaluma to bold the annual race meeting leaves a vacancy in the racing circuit that we can easily fill with the assistance of the Breeder’s Association, who, it is believed, will be willing to take the matter in charge.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 3 1895

 

THE TRACK GOSSIP
Fine Horses and Trainers are Arriving Here Daily
Magnificent String of Racing Stock at the Track Ready for the Great Meet

A good many people were out bright and early at the Santa Rosa stock farm track yesterday and found much pleasure in watching the trotters and pacers work, training for the race meet.

A look at the fine animals at the track now from many places in the state, is sufficient to warrant anyone in saying that the race meet which opens here on Saturday afternoon, will be successful from start to finish.

The track gossip among the trainers and drivers already here is that some records will be established at the meet on a fast track, records which will cause the grand stand to open up with applause… There is no question but that next week will be a great occasion for Santa Rosa and Sonoma county.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1898

 

SANTA ROSA RACES
Nearly Two Hundred Horses Already at the Track
The Fastest Trotters and Pacers in the State Will Start at the August Meeting Here

A scene of great activity is to be witnessed at the Santa Rosa race track every morning when the light harness horses are brought out for their regular work preparatory to the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders Association which will commence on August 14th and continue for one week. More interest is being taken throughout the East in harness racing this year and the meetings on the Grand Circuit there are drawing the largest crowds of people that have attended the races for many years past. With the district fair appropriations restored in California a prosperous racing season is assured fur those interested, and more horses are in training this year than for several seasons past. The prospects are that the meeting at Santa Rosa will show some of the most exciting contests to capture the big purses offered, that have over taken place on this coast…

– Press Democrat, August 2 1899

 

COMING RACES WILL ATTRACT BIG CROWDS

All roads and all trains will lead to Santa Rosa during Fourth of July week, and with the double attraction of a grand celebration on the Fourth and the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders’ association the county seat of Sonoma county will contain several thousand more people than its regular residents. The California Northwestern railway will run excursions from all points on its line to Santa Rosa on the Fourth of July at half fare. The day will certainly be a gala one and a red-letter event in the history of the county…

– Press Democrat, June 27 1900

 

RACE MEET OPENS
Good Day’s Sport At the Local Track
Auspicious Beginning of the First Annual Meeting of the Santa Rosa Racing Association

Lined up against the infield fence at Pierce Bros.’ track yesterday afternoon were most if not all ot Santa Rosa’s swellest turnouts. The occasion was the opening of the first annual meet of the Santa Rosa Racing Association, and the local admirers of the thoroughbred were out in good force.

The ladies were especially in evidence and the fluttering of ribbons and summer fineries added much to the gaiety of the scene. The day was ideal and the track was fast. Music by Parks’ full orchestra filled in the time between heats and, taken all in all, the occasion was a very auspicious one. The attendance was fully up to the average first day’s turnout and considerable money changed hands, the bookies, it is said, quitting losers.

This is the first time in twelve years that Santa Rosans have had the privilege of witnessing running races at the local track, and the interest taken in the bang-tails showed that the oldtime tendency of the public is still there…

– Press Democrat, August 13 1901

 

SANTA ROSA PROUD
LOU DILLON’S GREAT ACHIEVEMENT CAUSES MUCH ENTHUSIASM HERE
The World’s Record Breaker Was Born, Raised and Trained at the Santa Rosa Stock Farm

When the news was received here Monday and displayed on the Press Democrat bulletin board that Lou Dillon, the Santa Rosa mare, had lowered the world’s record to two minutes at Readville, Mass., enthusiasm ran high among the horsemen and citizens generally, who were greatly pleased at the worldwide reputation the City of Roses had gained in producing the fastest trotter in the world.

Lou Dillon, in her wonderful race on Monday, greatly exceeded what the world of sport expected she would do. During the afternoon and evening men gathered in knots of twos and threes and later in greater numbers, and the mare’s achievement was the one topic of conversation. It seemed like a dream to the horsemen. At first it seemed too good to be true.

– Press Democrat, August 25 1903

 

133 ENTRIES FOR SANTA ROSA RACES
THREE BIG EVENTS EACH DAY WITH AN AVERAGE OF OVER ELEVEN ENTRIES IN EACH

[..]

– Press Democrat, June 12 1904

FINE ENTRANCE TO THE RACE TRACK

A fine entrance to the race track and stock farm where the big district fair will be held is being erected, and when completed it will be most attractive. During fair week it will be a blaze of electric globes. In fact, it is planned to string lights from Fourth street to the entrance of the grounds as a part of the exterior decoration.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1913

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A FAR AWAY OUTPOST OF DIXIE

True: Sonoma county was on the Confederacy’s side during the Civil War (mostly). That fact never fails to draw a reaction when it’s mentioned here in an article and someone in the audience always gasps when it comes up in a presentation.

But the situation was also not so simple. Being pro-Confederate in California did not necessarily mean someone was for slavery in the South, and voting against Lincoln did not even reveal the voter was against the Union; there were many issues at play.

To (hopefully) clarify these issues and correct some misinformation that’s been floating around for decades, what follows is an overview of the Sonoma county homefront during the Civil War, using fresh statistical analysis and pointing out some relevant articles that have appeared here earlier.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Lincoln had support in Petaluma and some small hamlets, but never came close to winning the overall Sonoma county vote. In Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma, Lincoln was always strongly opposed – but there is no clear explanation why those communities were so anti-Union before and during the Civil War. Five men from Sonoma county went East and enlisted as soldiers, most of them for the Confederacy. Further details on all these points are discussed below.

 

Although it’s been mistakenly claimed (including in this journal) that Sonoma was the only county in California that never voted for Lincoln, at least eight others cast most of their votes against him in both 1860 and 1864.1

What gave the voting records of Sonoma county significance was that Sonoma had the most people on the coast after San Francisco (Sacramento and counties in the Sierra gold country had the largest populations). Also among the never-Lincoln counties was Los Angeles – but in the early 1860s, Sonoma had more voters than them.

It was joked that Sonoma county tilted so far to the South it was called, “the state of Missouri,” due to so many early residents coming from there and other pro-secession states. But an analysis of the 1860 census for the Santa Rosa Township shows only two out of five were born in a state that opposed the Union. Although the census didn’t record where they lived before coming here, it’s probably fair to generalize and say the majority did NOT come from rebel (or rebel-friendly) places.2

Opposing Lincoln’s Republican party were Democrats taking a wide range of positions. Some hardliners hoped the South would defeat the North militarily or that Washington would give in and recognize the Confederate States of America as a sovereign nation. Moderate Democrats wanted to rejoin the Union with some sort of compromise over slavery. In Sonoma county, there were two big reasons why the Democratic message was unusually appealing – slavery and the idea that federal laws and treaties could possibly be overturned by the state.

Although California was a “free state,” slavery was widely practiced here in the years around the Civil War. One of the very first laws passed by the state legislature had made it legal to arrest Native people “on the complaint of any resident citizen” and auction them off to the top bidder for four months, while their children could be “apprenticed” to whites until they reached adulthood. North of Sonoma county, Indian villages were attacked by white raiders who kidnapped the children in order to sell them. (“The baby hunters sneak up to a rancheria, kill the bucks [men], pick out the best looking squaws, ravish them, and make off with their young ones” – Sacramento Union, 1862.) If that wasn’t bad enough, in 1860 Democrats wrote amendments to the law that kept the children in servitude until they turned 25 years old while any Native adults arrested for simple vagrancy could be sentenced to serve as an “apprentice” for up to ten years. These laws would only be partially repealed in 1863, with the status of those already enslaved not addressed until ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments after the end of the Civil War. (More background.) And unlike the South where African-American slaves cost about $800 in 1860, underage Native American slaves in California were less than $100 and affordable to many households. The Democratic-leaning communities around here appear to have embraced the slavery laws – the 1860 census lists 17 underage “Indian servants” in the Sebastopol area including six year-old “Charley.”

Local farmers may also have been inclined to support the Democratic party because the political hot potato was anger over the government taking years to resolve land claims made by those squatting on properties which were legally still Mexican ranchos. As discussed here, Democrats here promoted their notion of “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. In Sonoma county they piggybacked onto the politically powerful settler’s movement, which had its own definition of sovereignty – namely, it wanted California to proclaim the Mexican and Spanish land grants were “fraudulent.”

Besides election results, another way to take the pulse of a community was to look at its newspaper(s), which in Civil War-era Santa Rosa was the Sonoma Democrat, the direct ancestor of the Press Democrat. Judging by what appeared there, it would appear the town was gung-ho behind the Confederacy, even justifying African-American slavery without hesitation.

Sonoma Democrat editor Thomas L. Thompson’s paper was astonishingly racist and continued being so long after the war. There were hundreds of uses of the “n-word” during his thirty-odd year tenure, and to squeeze that many hateful slurs into a four-page weekly suggests that Thompson was not only an awful person but probably mentally ill. There’s no question he was certifiably nuts when he committed suicide in 1898 – the coroner’s jury ruled he was “mentally deranged” after ranting that the Odd Fellows’ Lodge was out to get him.

There were over a couple of dozen “Copperhead” newspapers in California during the Civil War endorsing pro-Confederacy views, as detailed below. Some (particularly the Napa Echo and Marysville Express) were quoted in the Alta and Sacramento papers as representing the views of the state’s rebel faction – but as far as can be determined by searching historic newspaper pages online, the Sonoma Democrat’s Civil War opinion pieces were almost totally ignored outside of this county, further suggesting what appeared in the Thompson paper concerning the war was not taken seriously.

As the war slogged on, Thompson only became increasingly rabid in his support of Dixie, and by the end was even reprinting propaganda from Southern papers – see “A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR.” A choice line appeared in 1864, when he wrote, “the abolition party who now rule the country have become completely demonized by the infernal spirit of fanaticism with which they are possessed.” That’s a remarkably large gob of spittle to pack into just two dozen words.


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Archive .zip file of Sonoma County census and election reports discussed in this article



But judging from election returns, the people living in Santa Rosa and the other local Copperhead towns were headed in the opposite direction and became more moderate over the duration of the war. Votes are a problematic measure of public opinion (especially back then, when only white males could vote) but it’s the best measure we have.

Before the 1860 election, Thompson told readers that Lincoln was a bumbling fool who would soon cause the collapse of the Union (see “THAT TERRIBLE MAN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT“) and the county seemed to agree with him; overall, two out of three voted against Lincoln.3 In Santa Rosa he only got about half that many votes (18 percent).

That year was an odd four-way election with both Northern and Southern Democrats in the running. Besides Lincoln, the official Democratic Party candidate was Stephen A. Douglas, who thought he could somehow forge a grand compromise to keep the United States patched together; Southern Democrat Breckinridge, who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right; and third-party candidate Bell, who wanted to appease the South by ignoring the slavery issue altogether.

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RETURNS

1860

Lincoln

Breckinridge

Douglas

Bell

For Lincoln

Census Pop.

Santa Rosa

91

205

113

94

18%

1623

Analy

217

273

88

27

36%

1604

Sonoma

84

213

29

18

24%

597

Petaluma

375

223

126

151

43%

1505

As shown in the table above, the hardliner Breckinridge won in every town except Petaluma. Votes in the Analy district seem mixed because it encompassed Bloomfield, which was nearly as large as Sebastopol at the time (!) and where they enthusiastically supported the Union. Note also that Lincoln won in Petaluma, but the combined anti-Union candidates still got the most votes there.

A clearer picture emerges from the 1861 elections, which voted for all top state offices. Now Bloomfield was separated as its own precinct so we can see that Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and Sonoma marched pretty much in lockstep. (Anecdotes about Sebastopol’s Confederate sympathies can be read here.)

The race for governor was a mirror of the previous year’s presidential election. The party-of-Lincoln Republican was Leland Stanford who was opposed by moderate and hardline Democrats: John Conness, the squishy “Union Democrat” who wanted a ceasefire followed by some sort of peace talks, and John McConnell, the (I kid you not) “Dixie Disunion Democrat” who wanted to drink the blood of Lincoln supporters, or something. The radical McConnell won in the pro-rebel towns, but Stanford did far better in those places than Lincoln had.

CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR

1861

Stanford

McConnell

Conness

Pro Democrat

Santa Rosa

164

264

77

68%

Analy

79

117

45

67%

Sonoma

127

218

10

64%

Petaluma

427

173

106

40%

Bloomfield

144

25

29

27%

1862 was a minor election year not discussed here, as there were only candidates for the state legislature – races where personal links may trump political party loyalty. Thompson complained the results were a setback for Democrats.

The 1863 election was another one for top state offices and had an interesting twist: Voters could choose a party slate for all those positions – presumably there were checkboxes for “All State Democrats/Republicans,” or similar. And so they did; county votes for all Democratic candidates hover around 1,715 and around 1,690 for all Republicans.

As shown below, this provides an opportunity to guesstimate party loyalty in the five main communities. Compared to 1860, Confederate support was weakening – even while the Republican majority in Petaluma grew stronger. Twice as many voted Democrat in the Copperhead towns while in Petaluma-Bloomfield, for every two who voted Democrat, five voted Republican.

FULL STATE TICKET

1863

Democrat

Republican

Santa Rosa

272

140

Sebastopol

142

71

Sonoma

162

84

Petaluma

148

363

Bloomfield

44

110

Also in 1863 the remaining wheels on Thompson’s bus began flying off. In his newspaper there was no longer even a (R) designation next to a candidate’s name – now he used (A) for the “abolition” party. His pro-rebel propaganda took on a new urgency; in his paper that year, Gettysburg was reported as a strategic withdrawal and not a Southern defeat.

That was also the peak year of reported activity by the “Knights of the Golden Circle,” a seditious underground rebel group mainly operating in the Midwest. It’s now believed there really was no organization behind it, being instead uncoordinated attacks and other acts of violence by anti-Yankee deplorables – that the KGC was mostly a bogeyman ginned up by Northern papers wanting to write sensationalist propaganda about domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, the fear was real and also in 1863 a “Union League” was formed in California to counter the supposed threat. Meanwhile, the Sonoma Democrat reprinted items about the KGC to bolster its “fake news” claim of grassroots opposition to the Union within Northern states. More on this topic will appear in a later item.

And that brings us to 1864, the year of Lincoln’s re-election. This time he had just one opponent – George McClellan, former general-in-chief of all the Union armies until Lincoln removed him from command after his epic military failures of 1862 including Antietam, where a quarter of the entire Union army was killed or critically injured in a single day. McClellan campaigned as the anti-Lincoln, telling voters he personally knew the president was an oafish clod who would let the the war drag on forever. Lincoln won the election in a landslide.

In Sonoma county, Lincoln fared better than he had in 1860, when two out of three voted against him (66%). This time he still lost in the county overall, with most voters (57%) picking McClellan.4 True to form in printing only good news about the South, the Sonoma Democrat never published Lincoln’s total local vote.

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION RETURNS

1864

Lincoln

McClellan

For Lincoln

Santa Rosa

208

437

32%

Sebastopol

114

191

37%

Sonoma

112

229

33%

Petaluma

559

353

61%

Bloomfield

170

67

72%

When the war began five men from Sonoma county felt strongly enough to enlist. (I am not counting Joseph Hooker, as “Fighting Joe” had not lived here since 1858.) All served as officers and two died from combat wounds. They are:

*

ARCHIBALD CAMPBELL GODWIN was an American settler in the Geyserville area during the early 1850s where he opened the first store. For a time he was the owner of The Geysers as well as the resort hotel built nearby, but it was still years away from becoming a profitable tourist attraction. He returned to his native state of Virginia in the summer of 1861 and rose quickly in the Confederate army ranks, briefly posted as commander of a prisoner of war camp where he was accused of cruelty (see Wikipedia). He saw combat at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg and was an acting brigadier general when he was killed during the 1864 Battle of Opequon (Third Battle of Winchester). Much false information on Godwin has been repeated as gospel in books, articles and on the internet, including the claim he was supposedly an Indian fighter and so adept at dodging arrows that a tribe agreed to sign a treaty with him. Ray Owen, who quite probably is half bloodhound, traced the misinformation back to a single 1920s magazine article about Confederate war heroes, confirming one of his favorite sayings: “Once a mistake gets into print, it takes on a life of its own.”

*

RODERICK MATHESON went East to attend Lincoln’s inauguration and when the war began he was still in New York City, where he was instrumental in organizing the California Regiment (technically, the 32nd Regiment of New York). Colonel Matheson died of injuries from the 1862 Battle of South Mountain and was the second Californian to die in the war. His body was shipped around the Horn back to Healdsburg (“the body has been embalmed, and the features have a very life-like look” – Daily Alta) and buried in Oak Mound Cemetery. His funeral cortege on November 9 from Petaluma to the graveyard was the only occasion during the Civil War when a truce was declared between the armchair warriors of Petaluma and Santa Rosa, the procession stopping in the City of the Roses for lunch and eulogy from “General” Otho Hinton.

*

ROBERT FLOURNOY resigned as Sonoma county District Attorney in July, 1861 to fight for the Confederacy. He was Captain of Company E, Arkansas 13th Infantry Regiment, and the next year the Petaluma Argus printed that his head was shot off by a cannonball (it was more than a year later before that paper reported that his head was indeed still mounted). As the rebel forces fell into disarray and dwindled, his company was consolidated with others from Kentucky and Tennessee. After the war he became an attorney in Louisville, later moving to Los Angeles where he spent the rest of his life.

*

REGINALD THOMPSON stuck close to Flournoy through the Civil War and after. They went East together, enlisted with the same Confederate regiment, and Captain Thompson took command of Company E when Flournoy was reassigned. Years later a story about Thompson was told by his commander: Their brigade was making its way on foot through a heavily-wooded area when a Union soldier stepped out from behind a tree and took dead aim at him. He stopped, stood up straight and told the soldier, “shoot, and be quick about it.” Cowed by Thompson’s bravery, the soldier lowered his rifle and allowed the “little captain” to pass. Following the war he became a Louisville lawyer like his friend Flournoy, remaining there for the rest of his life and where he became a much respected municipal judge. He was a notary public in Santa Rosa before the war but once he left, was never mentioned again in the Sonoma Democrat although he was the brother of editor Thomas Thompson. Biographical materials about Thomas refer just to his two other brothers; only Thomas’s obituary in the Press Democrat names Reginald as “another brother” far down the article in a paragraph listing their sisters. No notice of his death in 1899 can be found in any Sonoma county newspaper.

*

JUDSON HAYCOCK was an attorney in the town of Sonoma but he barely qualifies as a county resident – he lived there for only a year, and apparently came to the area in the summer of 1860 at the behest of Agoston Haraszthy to form the “Sonoma Tule Land Company,” which drained 8,000 acres of marshland on San Pablo Bay (near Sears Point, perhaps?) for farming. Haycock was commissioned as a Union army officer in 1861 thanks to a personal request to Lincoln made by his brother-in-law, California Senator Latham. He mainly served as a recruiter for the 1st United States Cavalry, but a Civil War researcher who wrote a short biography of Haycock found he was frequently AWOL, disappearing for months at a time. He was finally arrested in 1864 and dismissed from the service for “cowardice, drunkenness on duty, and absence without leave.” He returned to California and resumed his legal practice in San Francisco and Vallejo. A newspaper later described him as “a young attorney whose career, though promising at the time, never came to anything above the most severe mediocrity – if that.”
1 Voting against Lincoln in 1860: Calaveras, Colusa, Del Norte, El Dorado, Fresno, Humboldt, Klamath, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Mendocino, Merced, Napa, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Tulare, Tuolumne, Yolo, Yuba (3 counties were incomplete). Voting against Lincoln in 1864: Colusa, Fresno, Lake, Los Angeles, Mariposa, Mendocino, Merced, Sonoma, Tulare (6 counties were incomplete)
2 Of the 1,637 people tabulated in the 1860 census of the Santa Rosa Township, about 654 were born in secessionist states. Missouri and Indiana were also counted because of their weak support for the Union. A more accurate count is possible but would require considerable time because of the poor handwriting and unusual ad hoc abbreviations used by the enumerator, along with misspellings such as “Mare Land” and “Eutaw Territory.”
3 In the 1860 election there were 3,764 total votes in Sonoma county, with 1,236 voting for Lincoln. For the towns shown in the 1860 table above there were 2,327 total votes, with 767 voting for Lincoln.
4 In the 1864 election there were 4,686 total votes in Sonoma county, with 2,026 voting for Lincoln and 2,386 for McClellan.

Cᴏᴘᴘᴇʀʜᴇᴀᴅ Nᴇᴡsᴘᴀᴘᴇʀs Iɴ Cᴀʟɪғᴏʀɴɪᴀ. In answer to a correspondent, the San Francisco Flag gives the following as the list of Copperhead papers in California: Yreka Union, Colusa Sun, Marysville Express, Sierra Standard, Auburn Herald, Snelling Banner, Placerville Democrat, Dutch Flat Enquirer, Sonora Democrat, Amador Dispatch, Mariposa Free Press, Los Angeles Star, Napa Echo, Napa Reporter, Santa Rosa Democrat, Stockton Beacon, and Beriah’s Press, the Monitor, the Gleaner, the Hebrew, Irish News, Echo du Pacifique, L’Union Franco Americane, of San Francisco. There are several of the above-named sheets whose disloyalty is of a very mild form, and some of the balance are so utterly flat, obscure and devoid of any life or influence, that they hardly deserve enumeration as having any political complexion at all.

[Additional Copperhead newspapers not mentioned here were the Mountain Democrat, Merced Banner, San Jose Tribune, Placer Herald and San Joaquin Republican – je/June 2018]

– Marysville Daily Appeal, June 8 1864

Gone East. — R. C. Flournoy, Esq., has resigned the office of District Attorney of Sonoma county, and is on his way to his native State—Arkansas. A. C. Godwin, Esq., of Petaluma, has taken his departure for his native State—Virginia. Reg. H. Thompson, Esq., resigned the office of Notary Public, and has also gone East. The latter is a brother of the editor of this paper and was recently one of its editors. We are sorry to part with so valuable a portion of the community, and trust that they will return at no distant day. But theirs is a sacred mission. They have kindred there—brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers—who will need probably their presence. May they have a safe return.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 18 1861

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PETALUMA VS SANTA ROSA: ROUND ONE

To understand the origin of the rivalry between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, think of the relationship between the Smothers Brothers.

In their classic comedy routines Dick (the one who plays bass) is the smarter of the pair, cool and sometimes smug; Tommy usually plays the man-child, a dumb cluck who becomes flustered and petulant when Dick deflates his goofy ideas. (Yes, I know Tom is actually older than Dick, Tom was the genius behind their legendary TV show, these are just their comic stage persona, &c. &c. so don’t start blasting angry tweets.)

I don’t want to press this analogy too far, but in the late 1850s Petaluma was something like Dick Smothers, needling his kid brother when he would screw up or begin crowing as if he were cock of the walk. And Tom/Santa Rosa would usually be on the defensive, sometimes getting a bit whiny about not getting his due respect even though he was trying really, really, hard.

Santa Rosa was voted to be the county seat in 1854, although at the time it was little more than a camp staked out at a muddy crossroads with only about eight actual houses. The place had no purpose to exist other than to be a county seat; the numerous squatters in the surrounding area needed a centralized courthouse for pressing their shaky homestead claims. For more background on all that, see “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.”

Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859

 

 

Petaluma had a two-year head start. While Santa Rosa was mapping out its first streets in 1854, Petaluma was already an established community with several hundred residents. They had stores and hotels, churches and meeting halls. A sketch of the town from the following year shows a mix of single and two story buildings – simply built, but not shacks, either.

Part of the deal for Santa Rosa to become the county seat required it to provide a courthouse before the end of the year. This courthouse issue would become the town’s Waterloo – or maybe a better comparison might be an albatross around Santa Rosa’s neck. (Arguing whether a bad situation is more like a dead bird or a lost battle would actually be a great setup for a Smothers Brothers routine, but enough of analogies within analogies.)

Santa Rosa’s first actual courthouse was a rush job – a temporary building later described as “a small wooden building built of rough up-and-down boards and ‘battened'” on Fourth street close to D st. Meanwhile. planning began for a permanent courthouse and jail at the current location of Exchange Bank.

Work on the courthouse/jail began in the summer of 1855 and finished just after Christmas. The Board of Supervisors called a special meeting afterward where they refused to pay the contractor, claiming the building didn’t meet specs. “Both sides got mad,” Robert Thompson wrote with considerable understatement in his history, “Central Sonoma.” After weeks of arguing the Board agreed to accept the work, albeit at a much reduced price.

Now shift forward a couple of years: The 1858 county Grand Jury declared the nearly-new courthouse was unsafe, dangerous and a “public nuisance,” with the roof leaking and walls cracked. Those drips and cracks foreshadowed a decade of woes ahead; later repairs and do-overs would about triple the cost of the original construction.1

By now Santa Rosa had its own weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, which charged the Grand Jury had “an unnecessary amount of spite at the courthouse.” Sure, the roof leaked, but it could be repaired. While there really were big cracks in the walls, “…we sincerely congratulate our county that they remained standing long enough to save the invaluable lives of this Grand Jury, and thereby reserved to future generations the vast amount of wisdom contained in their heads, and which thus far has been so sparingly imparted to their less favored fellows.”

While Democrat publisher/editor E. R. Budd pretended to laugh off the building’s problems, the Grand Jury’s findings clearly rankled; two years later – after many had likely forgotten all about it – he dredged it up again, sulking their courthouse remarks were written by “two or three Petaluma men” on a subcommittee.

The Hall of Records and Courthouse with the jail between them, 1875. View from Third street overlooking the west corner of the original plaza. Main photo Sonoma County Library

 

 

Mr. Budd appeared to be a fellow of unusually thin skin for a newspaper publisher as the Petaluma papers teased and taunted Santa Rosa. The same year as the Grand Jury report, the Courier ran a (probably fictitious) story about an out-of-towner visiting Santa Rosa and being unable to find anything that looked like a courthouse. Budd took the bait and reprinted it as part of an editorial titled, “Envy:”

The following specimen of petty spleen, shows how bitterly envious some of the inhabitants of Petaluma are of the place chosen by the people of this county for the county seat…it is quite evident that some of the more selfish denizens of Petaluma have been unable to appreciate Santa Rosa, and would like to make those at a distance look upon it in a similar light…

Budd also complained Santa Rosa was undermining itself. A bit later he wrote a lengthy editorial about his paper not getting the local support it deserved, carping that many local businesses “have not done their part” by taking out ads. There he also made a passing remark that, if close to true, provides valuable insight into how they lived at the time: “…one half the people composing this community go to Petaluma to trade.” As Petaluma was probably 90 minutes away (at least) by buggy or wagon, that shows Santa Rosa was still mostly an outpost in 1858.

But Santa Rosa’s fortunes began looking up the following year. We have an unofficial census of Santa Rosa from 1859 showing the town’s population and an inventory of businesses. (There’s a similar census of Petaluma from 1857, which enables us to neatly compare both towns at their five-year mark.)2

Primary among the new businesses was the Wise & Goldfish general store on the east side of the plaza – Santa Rosans finally had a real place to shop. “Dry Goods, Clothing, Boots, Shoes, Groceries, Hardware, Crockery, Glassware, Fancy Goods, Bonnets, and a general assortment of Ladies’ Goods,” boasted their first ad in July, 1859. Their prices were also the lowest in the North Bay, they claimed. But now that Petaluma’s hegemony over retail sales faced serious competition, the journalistic jibes from that town were no longer quite so brotherly.

Petaluma’s Sonoma County Journal ran an article on that Santa Rosa census which is mostly transcribed below. Read it carefully and you’ll find editor Henry Weston was actually damning Santa Rosa with faint praise.

The article slyly implied land titles in Santa Rosa might be disputed because of legal problems with its underlying Mexican land grant (in truth, the title situation here was among the cleanest in the state, beating Petaluma to approval by eight years). It exaggerated how much had been spent on the county buildings so far while pointing out “their present unfinished state.” And the article noted “the population of the town proper is about 400,” although the federal census the next year would show Santa Rosa was really four times larger after people in the surrounding township were included.

But the worst of it was their long list of Santa Rosa businesses, which included this bit: “…one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop…” (emphasis added).

Needless to say, the actual 1859 census did not include “Jews” as a business category (you can find the entire list in Thompson’s history). This was sheer anti-Semitism by the Petaluma paper and clearly aimed at undermining the Wise & Goldfish store, which was owned by the only Jewish families in town. In the history books H. L. Weston has been admired as the godfather of the Argus and Petaluma newspapering in general, but this calls for his sterling reputation to be reevaluated.

Increasingly nasty potshots between the town papers continued the next year, with the Argus accusing that county taxes were being used to pay for civic improvements in and around Santa Rosa (one of these items can be found below). But the final salvo in this early skirmish was the 1861 effort to move the county seat to Petaluma.3

Very little was written about this at the time or since; it appears neither Santa Rosa nor Petaluma newspapers took it too seriously – and as everyone was preoccupied with the Civil War which had just begun, that’s really not so surprising. The proposal popped up suddenly in California newspapers in March, 1861, as a petition was presented to state legislators. It’s unknown exactly what it said or how long it was circulating. A counter-petition was quickly organized, arguing that it was “unnecessary, unwise and burdensome” to move. The “stay” counter-petition supposedly had far more signatures.

As Sonoma county then was deep in debt, the Santa Rosa paper argued taxpayers couldn’t pay for a new set of buildings, and it was unlikely that Mr. Petaluma was going to open his purse for the honor. “It may be, however, that some wealthy citizen is about to immortalize himself by presenting some ‘noble edifice’ to his fellows! Happy thought! Toodles forever!” The Democrat also sneered Petaluma merchants were mistaken if they expected a windfall from providing “grub, liquor and lodging” to people coming to the county seat to appear in court.

There were no rallies for or against, as far as I can tell, and editorial support for the move in the Argus was tepid, particularly after it was mentioned some subscribers were so opposed to the idea they might boycott the paper. When it came to voting day the measure was soundly defeated, passing in only three of the county’s 18 voting precincts (including Petaluma, natch).

And with that, the bell rang to end the first round of Petaluma vs. Santa Rosa. The next part of the slugfest saw the editors of the Argus and Santa Rosa’s Democrat take off their gloves for bare-knuckle fighting over the Civil War, as told here in “A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR.”

Before wrapping up this survey of 1855-1861, my newspaper readings from those years also turned up some details that may shed light on an important but murky question in Sonoma county history: Why was almost everywhere outside of Petaluma so anti-Lincoln and pro-Confederacy before and during the Civil War?

In 1859 there was a meeting in Santa Rosa to organize a local Democratic party committee endorsing “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. While there were meetings like that nationwide with the general goal of getting pro-slavery delegates elected to state Democratic party conventions, here in Sonoma county it piggybacked onto the politically powerful settler’s movement, which had its own definition of sovereignty – namely, it wanted California to declare the Mexican and Spanish land grants “fraudulent,” in violation of the federal treaty with Mexico that ended the Mexican War. (Interested historians can read the full set of resolutions in the Sonoma County Journal May 20, 1859.)

This fusion of “settlerism” with “popular sovereignty” may help explain why Sonoma county overwhelmingly voted against Lincoln the next year in favor of the Southern Democrat candidate who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right. Maybe it wasn’t so much that the majority of the county was saying “we like slavery,” as “we’ll vote for any guy who might get us clear title to our land claims.” This is an important distinction I’ve not seen historians discuss.

 


1 The courthouse construction in 1855 was just for the first story, not the two story building with cupola seen in all photos. In 1859 the top floor was built and again there was a fight with the contractor. His final bill included a whopping 75 percent cost overrun, presumably related to fixing structural problems with the underlying building. Again it went to arbitration, this time the contractor settling for about a quarter of what he asked. Problems with the original shoddy construction still were not over – the jail had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in 1867, just eleven years after it originally opened.

2 In 1857 Petaluma encompassed about a square mile, with a population of 1,338. Santa Rosa in 1859 was still its original 70 acres, with 400 residents. The decennial federal census of 1860, however, shows Santa Rosa with the larger population: 1,623 compared to Petaluma’s 1,505. This is due to counting people in the entire Santa Rosa Township, not just within city limits. The 1860 census of Santa Rosa proper was 425 residents.

3 One legislator hinted the proposed move of the county seat to Petaluma was (somehow) part of a scheme to have Marin annex Petaluma away from Sonoma county, and just the year before Marin actually had asked the state to expand their border northward and make Petaluma their new county seat. Those two efforts are probably linked but I haven’t found anything further on that angle, or who was behind either effort. It sounds like a good story, tho, and I’ll write more about it should more info surface.
Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859

SANTA ROSA–OUR COUNTY SEAT.– To those who have only heard of Santa Rosa as the county town of Sonoma county, and as being one of the most beautiful and thriving places in the State, the following facts and figures, condensed from the Santa Rosa Democrat, may be interesting:

The town of Santa Rosa is built on the fertile valley or plain of the same name, and on the old Santa Rosa “grant,” midway between Petaluma and the flourishing town of Healdsburg, on Russian River. To the enterprise of Berthold Hoen is the site of the place, and much of its prosperity, due. The site was fixed by him, and by him surveyed and mapped in the spring of 1854. In the year 1855, it was declared the county seat, Mr. Hoen tendering the county a building gratuitously, to be used for county purposes. The entire cost of the county buildings will be about $35,000, and even in their present unfinished state, present an appearance in structure and design creditable to the rich county of Sonoma. When completed, they will, in elegance and design, be surpassed by but few such buildings in the State. The private residence are mostly one-story cottage buildings, and for neatness and comfort will vie with those of any other county village we have knowlege of. The soil of the valley is a rich alluvium…

…Beside the public buildings, there is a fine academy for males and females, (accommodating 250 pupils); a district school, (numbering over 60 children); two churches, two resident preachers, nine resident lawyers, five physicians, two notaries public, one printing office, from which two publications are issued, seventy-five private residences, nine dry goods and grocery stores, one drug store, one hardware store, two hotels, two restaurants, two drinking saloons, two daguerrean galleries, one saddler shop, one barber shop, one tailor shop, one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop, three carpenter shops, two butcher shops, one cabinet shop, six blacksmith shops, one pump shop, one bakery, and two first-class livery stables. The population of the town proper is about 400. The climate is mild and salubrious, not being troubled so much by fogs and head winds, as the towns bordering on the coast. The greatest drawback is the unsettled condition of land titles — not peculiar to our own county — and these are in process of adjustment.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 25 1859

…Below, we give a small specimen of this talk, taken from the Argus of the 13th Jan. The editor goes so far as to call his statement “the prevailing opinion in this section,” (Petaluma):

“That Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa interests are being built up and protected, at the expense of the whole County, and to the detriment of some particular sections. That this has been, and now is, the policy of the citizens of Santa Rosa, no observant man, with any regard for truth, will dare deny. The governing policy for the last four years, has been to concentrate everything at Santa Rosa. No roads could be made unless they centered there. No bridges built, unless they benefit Santa Rosa. No regard is paid to the wants of Sonoma, Petaluma, and Bloomfield. But if Santa Rosa wants anything, even to the fencing of the plaza, the door of the county safe is thrown wide open. It is time these outrages upon the people at large should cease—this squandering of the public money for the benefiit of a few property-holders in and about Santa Rosa.”

We believe that the statement that the above is “the prevailing opinion” in that section, is untrue. That there are a few discontents in Petaluma, who find fault with this, as they do with everything else in and about Santa Rosa, is quite likely ; and that these compose the associates and intimates of the editor of that sheet, is still more probable. But we have no reason to believe that he is ever entrusted with the opinions of respectable men, even of his own vicinity. The quotation above, contains as much bare faced untruth, as we ever saw distilled in so small a space…

[lists county officials from Petaluma and Healdsburg, the 1858 Grand Jury report was the work of “two or three Petaluma men” on a committee]

…It is indirectly assorted, that the county authorities have paid for the fencing of the Plaza. This, of course, is just as reasonable as any other assertion; and yet not one dollar, directly or indirectly, has ever been paid or asked for for any such purpose. Equally false is his assertion of the building of bridges and roads for the exclusive benefit of Santa Rosa. Not one of the kind has ever been made. Altogether, we regard these complaints as very remarkable, even as coming from Pennypacker — certainly, they could come from nowhere else. [J. J. Pennypacker was the first publisher of the Argus 1859-1960 – JE]

Notwithstanding all this Billingsgate we speak of, seems to come from Petaluma, we are happy in the belief that the community in and around that place are not chargeable with them, but that among the respectable portion of that locality, a more liberal feeling exists.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 2 1860

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