“Every village has its idiot” they say (although Mark Twain might have quipped that was an undercount) but it’s more likely every village in early America had a bonafide eccentric. Some had crazy ideas and some were outright crazy; some did or said things that seemed bonkers to fellow villagers but might have been seen as reasonable, even inspired, by those in the know.
In Civil War-era Santa Rosa the town eccentric was a guy named John Morrow. He captured birds and then let them go after tying weights to them. He also created a wind-up toy that could fly a short distance. And then there’s this: He patented an invention which could have rewritten the history of aviation.
Before jumping on that story, a reminder that Santa Rosa has been overlooked by historians as a crossroads for many pioneer aviators. Gentle Reader presumably salutes Fred J. Wiseman for making the first airmail flight between Petaluma and here in 1911; lesser known is that one version of his flying machine was among the first handful of aircraft bought by the U.S. military. And although he never flew around Santa Rosa, Blaine G. Selvage made probably the first airplane flight on the West Coast at Eureka in 1909; in the years immediately prior to that he lived here, and is buried (in an unmarked grave) at Santa Rosa Memorial Park.
John Bland Morrow apparently arrived in Santa Rosa during early 1865, then 28 or 29 years old. A letter to his parents from Virginia City survives, where he told them he was earning a good wage although many men there couldn’t find any work at all: “I have an advantage over most of the sharps, for when I get broke, I fall back on Science. So I went to work at Gold Hill Machine Shop at five dollars a day – in Gold.” (He also described to his Pennsylvania folks an unusual plant in Nevada called a “cactus.”)
Morrow signed his letter as the “Secretary of the Nevada Territory Engineers Association,” and always listed his profession as a machinist or mechanic – except in Santa Rosa, where he was a “tinner” (tinsmith). After about three years in town he moved to San Francisco along with his friend Harry Rich.
Nothing about Morrow appeared in the local newspapers while he was in Santa Rosa, but much was printed about him afterward, particularly in Healdsburg’s weekly Russian River Flag:
John Morrow— Formerly of Santa Rosa, but now living, we believe, in San Francisco. Some years ago, our attention was called to this person, by what was then regarded as a somewhat novel eccentricity. He was engaged in catching various kinds of fowl, carefully measuring their wings, estimating the force and velocity of their motion, and loading them with weights, to find what each could carry. Some time afterward. passing through Santa Rosa, we heard of a small machine worked by a spring, that flew through the air like a bird. But few had seen it and by many it was regarded as a doubtful rumor…
That was part of an article that appeared in 1869 after someone from the Flag ran into him in San Francisco, where Morrow had been working for Frederick Marriott and his Aerial Steam Navigation Company. Mainly a banker and newspaper publisher, Marriott had been trying to build a steam-powered dirigible since the early 1840s, and he wasn’t alone; in the mid-19th century there were more than a few engineers and inventors – and yes, eccentrics – who were experimenting with designs for a steerable lighter-than-air airship. Very few had gotten further than building models, but that didn’t stop a man named Rufus Porter from promising in 1849 that his “Aerial Locomotive” would transport 200 passengers from New York to the gold fields of California in three days (“wines included, baggage extra”). Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen.
Marriott’s efforts were taken seriously and reported in the San Francisco papers as well as Santa Rosa’s weekly Democrat. After seeing a small non-working model of the “Avitor” in 1867, respected industrialist Peter Donahue – the man who would soon start to build the railroad to Santa Rosa – gave it his endorsement, and the Democrat swooned that we would soon have transcontinental flights: “The idea of flying from here to New York in from 24 to 36 hours, is enough to to take the breath away from one.” Spoiler alert: Didn’t happen.
More than two years flashed by and it was now mid-1869. John Morrow and Harry Rich were working for Marriott, who had built a 37 foot-long prototype he named “Avitor Hermes, Jr.” Fully inflated, it weighed under ten pounds and had a one horsepower steam engine that turned two stubby fabric propellers.
The aircraft had been designed in the basement of the huge Montgomery Block building (today the location of the Transamerica Pyramid), where Samuel Clemens sometimes helped – or more likely, distracted – Marriott and the others. Once they thought the thing might actually fly it was taken apart and reassembled it at the Millbrae warehouse they had turned into a makeshift hangar.
A writer from the magazine, English Mechanic and Mirror of Science, described the scene after the gasbags were filled with hydrogen: “…the machinery was put in motion and the propellers commenced their revolutions. At once life was imparted to the whole body, and it rose promptly and gracefully and took its flight into the air…”
They moved it outside, and tethered to a long rope the unmanned airship made two half-mile circles both with and against the wind at a speed of about 5 MPH.
It is considered the first powered flight of an airship outside of Europe, where less successful prototypes had been demonstrated.
Photographs of the event circulated, and the Democrat spotted our local boys in the pictures:
Among the spectators of this great experiment in aerial navigation, who appear in the picture before us, the faces of John Morrow and Harry Rich, two young men formerly of Santa Rosa, who have long been identified with this invention, are easily recognizable.
(RIGHT: Another view of the July 2 1869 Avitor demonstration)
Following that, the Avitor was moved to the enormous Mechanics’ Institute Pavilion in San Francisco where visitors paid to watch it fly in scheduled daily exhibitions. That was where someone from the Russian River Flag ran into Morrow, and afterwards wrote that “Marriott’s machine would not rise from the ground” until Morrow improved it.
“This machine was a combination of both Marriott’s and Morrow’s plans,” the Flag reported, “and that portion which made it a success, so far as navigating still air is concerned, was added by Morrow.”
The Marriott airship had several innovations that leapfrogged over previous designs, although it’s almost entirely ignored by aviation historians. The thing had fixed wings, for starters, and at the rear of them were fabric propellers – and not flat paddles but helical blades, which made for better propulsion. Outside of the propellers were planes that are recognizable as primitive ailerons. Combine all this and you had an aircraft which was not only highly steerable – at least, compared to others of its day – but could vertically lift its slightly heavier-than-air frame off the ground by itself.
The person who put all the pieces of this puzzle together must have been a brilliant engineer with a solid understanding of aerodynamics, particularly the concepts of powered lift and thrust – and possibly the only person on earth with all that knowhow was Morrow, who already had a patent of his own. And here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! core of our tale:
John Bland Morrow had invented a jet engine. In 1869. As far as I can determine, it was completely unlike anything else imagined in the 19th century.
To be clear: This was nothing like the jet engines hanging on aircraft today – it was more like a vacuum cleaner. Air was sucked into two pipes in the front of the vessel, compressed by blowers and pushed out pipes in the back.
Also, it wasn’t a dirigible – it was simply an engine to generate thrust. There was nothing in the specification about steering it or carrying people. It was just for “propelling vessels, or crafts through the air,” as he wrote. Presumably he expected the engine (or two of them) would be attached to a gondola or cabin with controls.
The Democrat had a small item about his patent, noting that he had been working on it for about a dozen years – which would have covered his time in Santa Rosa. Now locals knew why he had been fiddling around with birds.
(RIGHT: Morrow’s specification)
His patent was also issued months before Marriott’s patent, which did not list Morrow as a co-inventor. The Flag commented, “…having watched this matter for several years, we can see no reason why Morrow is not entitled to at least equal credit with Marriott.” Apparently they had a falling out between the Avitor test flight in July and when the Flag editor encountered “Johnny” at the Pavilion in September. As mentioned in another article from the Democrat, “…it appears that there had been some trouble between the parties interested in the machine which was lately on exhibition at the Bay City, and they claim to have been ‘froze out.'”
Morrow and Harry Rich were now building something on their own – whether it was the jet engine or a true dirigible was not mentioned. He formed the “Aerial Steamship Company” and in the 1871 San Francisco city directory, his profession was given as “Patentee, Aerial Steamship Company 838 Mission Street.”
Also in 1871 he successfully demonstrated his “air ship,” according to the Flag. “It sailed in the air backwards and forwards under the complete control of the inventor,” and the reference to it going backwards suggests it was the blower-powered jet.
Alas, a followup trial was sabotaged when someone sliced open a gas bag. That was apparently the end of Morrow’s experiments in aviation – a great loss because the Flag had remarked, “…during all these years, with little means, and in the fact of many obstacles, Morrow has been persistently seeking the solution of the problem of aerial navigation, and has probably come nearer the solution than any other man.”
In October 1876 he patented a “water motor,” but nothing more about that is known. In 1879 he was listed in the San Francisco city directory as a machinist, but after that nothing more about him can be found. Anywhere. Genealogists have tried to claim he died in the Ukiah asylum in 1914, but that was a different John Morrow. Turns out his was an extremely common name at the time.
I loathe to leave any story hanging, much less one of historical importance. But let Gentle Reader draw small comfort in knowing I beat every bush I know how to beat. As his patent was filed under the name “William Morrow” I wondered if he had used other names as well. For a time I explored whether he could have become the similar-sounding “John A. Morrell,” who in 1908 was responsible for the worst dirigible accident in U.S. history prior to the Hindenburg (you absolutely must read this story). Nope.
There is, however, much to say about the afterlife of the Avitor. The original burned up while on exhibition at the Pavilion, but a full size replica can be seen at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. There’s a good writeup at the Travel for Aircraft blog and there’s an amateur video showing the propellers turning. Anyone interested in digging further into these doings will want to read Marriott’s hard-to-find patent (PDF).
THE “AVITOR.”— We have received from the projectors, amongst whom are some of our wealthiest citizens, a report of the prospects of the long-talked of air navigating machine, which is to astonish the world by its proposed traveling through space, against the currents and airs of all regions, as high as ten or twelve thousand feet above the ground. The “Avitor” will, it is said, beat anything in the traveling world for speed or “coin,” and if half what its projectors claim for it should come true, the modes of travel now in vogue will soon be obsolete. The machine has been in the hands of an incorporated company for some months, and will in a few days be ready to “put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” The following is the opinion of a practical gentleman Mr. Peter Donahue:
I have followed with great interest, and have personally observed the construction of the “Avitor.” I am so thoroughly convinced of the practicability of the enterprise, and so entirely concur in the forgoing observations respecting the two modifications to be adopted, that I have no hesitation in saying that when these changes are made, the “Avitor” will answer all the purposes of its inventor, and fully realize the expectations of the public. As soon as the elevating power shall, in this way, have been perfected, the work will be completed because the propelling force is simple, the machinery for elevating and for depressing sufficient, the steering apparatus in fine working order, and, in short, the whole of the “Avitor” is fully under the control of the operator.
– Daily Alta California, June 16 1867
The S. F. Call, in speaking of the flying machine called the Avitor, says: “The superintendent informs us that the building at San Mateo for the Avitor, is completed, and the steam flying machine will be put together immediately, all its parts, including engines, being already constructed in this city and ready for shipment to the house. If those engaged in the undertaking have got what they believe they have, the world will be astonished in a few weeks. The public will not. however, have a chance to see the machine unless it proves to be a success. The idea of flying from here to New York in from 24 to 36 hours, is enough to to take the breath away from one, but this is a feat promised, and which those to vesting their money in the Avitor expect to perform. If they are disappointed they will lose their money and no one else will be the worse off: if they are not disappointed the world will be the gainer.”
– Sonoma Democrat, February 9 1867
[Patent number] 88,324 Aerial Car. Wm. Morrow, San Francisco, California. This invention relates to new mode of propelling aerial vessels, and it consists in providing the machine with two large fans or blowers, which are driven by a light engine. The sides of the cases which are ordinarily left open, are closed in those blowers, and are connected by pipes from the front of the vessel, so that the air is drawn in through these pipes. Similar pipes serve for the ejection of the air at the stern of the vessel, so that it is propelled both by drawing in the air and by forcing it out. The steering apparatus may be so arranged as to elevate or depress the machine, as well as to turn it either side.
– The San Francisco Examiner, April 17 1869
Patent Awarded.— We are informed that Mr. John Morrow, formerly a resident of this place, but who has been for the past year or so residing in San Francisco, has been awarded a patent for an aerial car, or flying machine. He commenced this difficult undertaking some twelve years ago, and has spent much of his time and money in order to make it a success. We learn on good authority that he is now superintending the work on one of these machines which measures some one hundred and twenty feet in length. Success to him.
– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1869
Exhibition of tbe Model Avitor. Quite a large number of citizens, including members of the Aerial Steam Navigation Company, scientific men, representatives of the press, etc., assembled at the Mechanics’ Pavilion, on Stockton street, yesterday, to witness an exhibition of the Flying Machine, or Model Avitor. The indefatigable Marriott, of the News Letter, was, of course, on hand. Some little delay was caused by derangement in the machinery, but soon, everything being ready, the “boat” commenced to navigate the air “like a thing of life,” amid the huzzas of the spectators. It was voted a success at least the model was. This steam-car, which is to revolutionize the world, has been so often described, we shall not repeat it here.
– The San Francisco Examiner, July 22 1869
Aerial.— We have received a picture of the new steam flying machine, which recently made a successful trial in San Francisco. It is shaped something like a cigar, has two flanges or wings, three feet in diameter, one on each side, and a rudder at one end, which controls its course. At the recent trial trip, says an exchange, “with the first turn of the propellers she rose slowly into the air, gradually increasing her speed until the rate of five miles an hour was attained.” Among the spectators of this great experiment in aerial navigation, who appear in the picture before us, the faces of John Morrow and Harry Rich, two young men formerly of Santa Rosa, who have long been identified with this invention, are easily recognizable. We wish all parties concerned in it the moat abundant success.
– Sonoma Democrat, July 24 1869
John Morrow and Harry Rich, formerly residents of this place, we learn are now building another flying machine at San Francisco. It appears that there had been some trouble between the parties interested in the machine which was lately on exhibition at the Bay City, and they claim to have been “froze out.” They are now determined to build one for themselves, and as they are both industrious we doubt not but that they will succeed. Good luck to them say we.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1869
John Morrow— Formerly of Santa Rosa, but now living, we believe, in San Francisco. Some years ago, our attention was called to this person, by what was then regarded as a somewhat novel eccentricity. He was engaged in catching various kinds of fowl, carefully measuring their wings, estimating the force and velocity of their motion, and loading them with weights, to find what each could carry. Some time afterward. passing through Santa Rosa, we heard of a small machine worked by a spring, that flew through the air like a bird. But few had seen it and by many it was regarded as a doubtful rumor. Going into the Pavilion in San Francisco, one day last summer, we saw “Johnny” quietly smoking his cigar. while a large porpoise-shaped machine was sailing through the air, propelled by steam, at the rate of about five miles an hour. This machine was published to the world as Marriott’s “Avitor,” but Marriott’s machine would not rise from the ground. This machine was a combination of both Marriott’s and Morrow’s plans, and that portion which made it a success, so far as navigating still air is concerned, was added by Morrow. Having watched this matter for several years, we can see no reason why Morrow is not entitled to at least equal credit with Marriott. During all these years, with little means, and in the fact of many obstacles, Morrow has been persistently seeking the solution of the problem of aerial navigation, and has probably come nearer the solution than any other man.
– Russian River Flag, October 28 1869
In Town.— John Morrow and Harry Rich, former residents of this place, were in town a few days since. Their many friends will be glad to see them.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 30 1869
Patent Candle-stick.— L. D. Latimer and John Morrow, two gentlemen well-known to our citizens, now residing at San Francisco, have lately invented a new candle-stick. Their invention prevents the waste of any portion of the candle. If John doesn’t succeed in flying operations he will in candle-sticks.
– Sonoma Democrat, March 26 1870
The Aerial Vessel. Mr. Morrow’s air ship was recently tried in San Francisco and pronounced a success. It sailed in the air backwards and forwards under the complete control of the inventor. A second trial was intended, but some malicious person cut a hole in the gas holder, which for a time prevented further experiments. The object for which Mr. Morrow has indomitably labored several years seems at last attained, and the navigation of the air may soon be a favorite mode of passenger transit.
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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
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
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.
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.
Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”
I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.
Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)
He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)
There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.
First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.
As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South – but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.
Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.
This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.
In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.
Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.
Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.
The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.
There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.
Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.
Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong and Brumfield was a good guy.*
Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.
Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.
In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.
“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.
“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.
“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”
“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”
Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.
Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.
The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.
The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.
Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.
It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.
And sometimes the shooters were even women.
J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…
That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)
Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.
Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.
John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.
Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.
Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.
So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.
And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.
A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.
* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.
Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.
– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867
Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.
– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867
Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield
– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867
Death of Byrd Brumfield.
– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875
From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.