1850preview

OUR VERY DIFFERENT CHRISTMASES PAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

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

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1858

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1861

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1863

 

The Southern Poor–Letter from a Lady.

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

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

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1866

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22 1866

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

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

– Petaluma Argus, December 19, 1867

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

– Petaluma Argus, January 1, 1870

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

– Petaluma Argus, December 27, 1872

 

CHRISTMAS.

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1872

 

Christmas Tree.

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1873

 

Christmas at Santa Rosa.

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873

 

Christmas at Forestville.

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873

 

SEBASTOPOL BRIEFS
Christmas Tree.

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

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

– Sonoma Democrat, January 3 1874

 

Christmas at Ridgway Hall.

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1874

 

Christmas In Santa Rosa.

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1876

 

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

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

GRAND MARCH,

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

– Petaluma Argus, January 5, 1877

 

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.
The Celebrations at the Different Churches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 29 1877

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 21 1878

Read More

frontierpreview

WHEN THE CIRCUS WAGONS CAME TO TOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

1856 Rowe Circus

 

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

1857 ad for the Lee & Bennett circus

 

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

1859 Wilson circus

 

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

1861 United States Circus

 

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

1869 Castello’s Circus and Menagerie

 

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

1872 San Francisco Circus and Roman Hippodrome

 

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

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

 

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

1875 Montgomery Queen’s Great Moral Circus

 

 

GOING TO THE CIRCUS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going to the circus, boys?”

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

“Could you tell me where the tent is?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read More

1947hintonavenue

MOMMY, WHY DO WE CALL IT HINTON AVE?

When General Otho Hinton died in 1865, all of Santa Rosa mourned. Flags were lowered, courts adjourned and a “large concourse of people” attended his funeral, including the fire department in uniform. His obituary in the Sonoma Democrat cataloged the achievements of this civic leader:

…our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained…

Some years later a street was named after him – the only person so honored in the downtown core – and soon Hinton Avenue will spring back to life as part of the Courthouse Square reunification project.

THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF OTHO HINTON

Part I: CALL ME THE GENERAL
Part II: ARREST, ESCAPE, REPEAT
Part III: THE LONG ROAD TO SANTA ROSA
Endnotes for entire series at bottom of this article

Earlier parts of this series traced Hinton’s life of infamy in the 1850s: Robbing the U.S. mail, bail jumping, living as a fugitive while becoming a bigamist. Not a word about any of that ever appeared in Santa Rosa’s weekly newspaper, The Sonoma Democrat – although when he ran for county judge in 1859, papers in San Francisco and Sacramento pointed out that his background as a well-known crook was no qualification to wear a judge’s robe. Losing that election was a rare setback for him; Hinton otherwise glided over every bump he encountered and not because of luck. Otho Hinton seemingly possessed both brains and a hypnotic charm, qualities which made for a perfect con artist – which indeed he was.

But Santa Rosa didn’t bestow a street name because the City Council decided it would be jolly to honor a celebrity criminal; it was presumably because of all the good deeds listed in the obituary – the cemetery, the plaza, the fire department. Yet in the newspapers of the time there is not a speck of evidence that Hinton had a significant role in any of those accomplishments. Never before being someone who hid his light under a bushel, he surely wasn’t stricken with modesty once he actually began doing selfless acts. No, more likely he was given undue credit because he did what he always did: He looked you in the eye, oozed with sincerity and graciously allowed you to think the better of him.

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 Santa Rosa map, showing the Plaza bordered by two unnamed streets. Hinton’s office was on the northeast corner, shown here in a red star)

Evidence of Hinton’s great good deeds should be easiest to find in regards to Courthouse Square, but before getting in to that, a quick tour of Civil War-era Santa Rosa is needed.

It wasn’t called Courthouse Square at the time because the county courthouse was across the street at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino, where Exchange Bank is now. The Plaza was simply a small park criss-crossed by footpaths and surrounded by a fence. The landscaping was haphazard; descriptions mention heritage oaks and evergreens, pampas grass and century plants plus a hedge just inside the fencing. (The complaints today about all the trees lost for the Square reunification project are nothing compared to the howls of outrage when everything was clearcut in 1884 to make way for building the courthouse in the center. “A tree and a bit of grass is worth more than a Court-house,” wrote an out-of-town attorney, “I hope every ___ _____ who has a law suit in the new Court-house will lose it.”)

Sonoma Democrat editor Thomas L. Thompson was forever boasting it was the most beautiful plaza in the state – even while lamenting it was a godawful mess. The year 1881 was particularly fun; in January a stray pig was rooting up the grass and by summer Thompson was moaning the soil was so sun-baked that grass wouldn’t grow, suggesting it would be best to plow it over in hopes that the place wouldn’t look so terrible next year. In between those items he wrote about the “beautiful lawns of blue grass” and compared it to Golden Gate Park. Another time the paper cheered the nice new benches, along with commenting the City Council was now determined to keep the Plaza “free from all objectionable persons.”

(RIGHT: Detail of 1876 bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa looking north, showing the Plaza)

The modern-day Press Democrat gives Hinton credit for all work in beautifying the original Plaza, from planting trees to installing the fencing. But is any of that true? In March of 1859 there was a big public meeting to discuss landscaping, fences and how to pay for it all; Hinton was not on any of the committees formed that night, even though his law office was directly across from the Plaza. Later that year work commenced on the fencing. Was Hinton mentioned? Nope.

All Hinton actually did, according to the 1861 -1863 newspapers, was to pay some guys to do spring cleanups. If there was anything specifically done, editor Thompson – the #1 booster of the Plaza – somehow overlooked it.

A 1876 view of Fourth street looking west from the vacant lot which was the location of Otho Hinton’s office. The Plaza fence and shrubbery can be seen to the left and the cupola on the right was the top of the county courthouse, at the corner of Fourth and Mendocino. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Hinton’s obituary also credits him for “the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery” which is surprising, as Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery did not really exist in 1865. It would be a couple of years before the Cemetery Association was organized to legally sell deeds to burial plots; when Hinton died it was presumably still just an ad hoc graveyard on a hill. (Since there were no deeds prior to the Association we can’t be completely sure he’s buried where his newly-added tombstone stands, although that’s the same place where a family friend and Otho’s wife were later buried.)

In Hinton’s lifetime the Sonoma Democrat reported there was interest in “buying a lot where the present burying ground is, and having it properly surveyed and laid off in lots, fenced, and otherwise improved” but apparently nothing was done for lack of leadership. In 1861 another small item appeared: “Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.”

That terse “please call at Gen. Hinton’s office” is the only thread linking him to the cemetery at all. We don’t know what what he was doing: Forming a committee, signing up volunteer labor, or, lord help them, collecting donations – remember, there is no certainty that folks in Santa Rosa knew his history of stealing money.

There is a traditional story that Hinton did the road layout while August Kohle, a well digger, did the actual work of grading the paths. It’s possible; someone had to mark the trails out around that time, and hammering markers into the ground isn’t exactly heavy lifting. Peg this claim as a maybe.

Finally we come to the fire department, where there’s a chance that the old scoundrel actually did a little something to redeem himself. A side benefit of all this Otho Hinton research is that I’ve accumulated enough information on the origins of the Santa Rosa Fire Department to tell that story, which will appear in the following article. Covered here are only the details related to Hinton’s involvement.

Per usual, Hinton was given undue credit for good deeds. The obituary thanked him “…[for] the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained.” More recently it’s been written he bought the town’s first fire engine, which absolutely is not true.

The Fire Department dates back to 1861, three years after Hinton arrived in Santa Rosa. He was not a charter member of the Association and later that year a handful of leading citizens arranged to buy a used fire engine. Hinton was not among them. Shift forward two years and $600 is still owed for the engine; the volunteer firemen were paying interest on the debt out of pocket, as well as rent for the firehouse. There were plans to sell the engine and return to being a hook & ladder company only.

“But at least we see a glimmer of light,” the Sonoma Democrat gushed in 1863. “The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue…Gen. Hinton, we are pleased to see, has taken the matter in hand, and we hope soon to hear of a response on the part of our ‘substantial’ citizens to the proposition of the ladies.” Then on the Fourth of July, 1864, the paper announced:

Last Saturday afternoon the new Engine House, built by the ladies of Santa Rosa, was formally presented to the Fire Department…The house being well filled with the citizens of the town who have contributed so liberally to the enterprise. On behalf of the ladies, Gen. O Hinton in appropriate and pleasing remarks passed over the property to the Trustees of the Department…after which cheers were given by the firemen for the ladies, the General and the citizens…

Other accounts at the time and over the next few years tells the same story: It was “the ladies” who paid off the debt and financed the firehouse by hosting dances; the first county history in 1880 mentions also “a fair and a festival” and as above, it was broadly hinted they were strong-arming their loving husbands into making contributions. Meanwhile, General Hinton did…something. Everyone just plumb forgot to mention what.

“He took a lively interest in the matter,” it was claimed in an 1877 account of the Department’s beginnings. “On account of his efforts in their behalf his memory is today highly revered by all the old members of the company, and they still keep his portrait hanging in their hall as a mark of the esteem in which he was held.”

Along with Exchange Avenue, Hinton Avenue was born on July 3, 1872 by order of the City Council. Not that anyone noticed; for many years to come the street was unnamed on maps or sometimes called “9th Ave”, which makes no sense in the town’s street layout. Exchange and Hinton appeared in the newspapers very rarely – ads described businesses as being “east of the Plaza” or “in the Ridgway Block” or “across from the Courthouse,” or similar. It’s as if the town were populated by Missouri hayseeds who thought street names were uppity.

Santa Rosa made quite a show of his funeral in 1865 but aside from the street, Hinton’s memory faded quickly; he was not mentioned in any local history until Gaye LeBaron’s “Santa Rosa: a 19th century town.” When his widow, Rebecca, died here in 1882, the Sonoma Democrat didn’t report it and the Daily Republican ran only a one-liner when she was buried. His only lasting presence in Santa Rosa was his portrait, which was apparently destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

But now Exchange and Hinton Avenues are being resurrected – although for some reason, the one-way traffic directions around the Square have been flipped – as part of our new Old Courthouse Square. And soon people will be looking at that prominent street name and be asking: Who was Hinton? Anyone who’s read this series knows that will be an uncomfortable question to answer truthfully: “Well, he was an infamous criminal who apparently bamboozled the town’s founders.”

At the risk of being completely ahistorical, I’d like to make a modest proposal: Should we consider dropping the Hinton from Hinton Avenue?

Maybe we could name it Schulz Ave. or Doyle Avenue (although the other side is already named for his bank). The powers-that-be are itching to name something after recently deceased Santa Rosa nabob Henry Trione, so give him the honor. Or if they are willing to nod towards more appropriate history, call it Muther Avenue, after Santa Rosa Fire Chief Frank Muther who deserves it for saving the town from burning to the ground after the 1906 earthquake, yet currently lies in an unmarked grave. But for the gods’ sake, do we really need to still commemorate a con man who died more than 150 years ago?

1947 street view from the same location as the photograph above. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

THE PLAZA.–Gen. Hinton, as is his custom at this season of the year, has had a number of men at work of late, beautifying and improving our town plaza.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22, 1862

CLEANING UP.– General O. Hinton, to whom our citizens are much indebted for the very pretty plaza of Santa Rosa, has had several workmen engaged repairing the railing of the sidewalk enclosure, and cleaning and otherwise improving the grounds on the inside. The plaza will be much improved this spring.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 17, 1863

SUDDEN DEATH OF GEN O. HINTON — General Otho Hinton departed this life at his residence, in Santa Rosa, last Sunday morning, about 10 o’clock. Our citizens were somewhat startled by the announcement of his sudden demise, as he had been seen upon the streets the day preceding. General Hinton was a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, and was 65 years of age. He had resided a long time at Santa Rosa, and to him it may be said, our citizens are alone indebted for all the public improvements about the place. For our beautiful plaza, the well arranged, beautiful, and tastefully laid out cemetery, and the engine house with the fire apparatus of the department, we are especially indebted, for through his indomitable energy and public spirit these all were attained. His death cast a deep gloom over the community, flags were lowered at half mast and the County Court on Monday adjourned in respect to his memory. His funeral took place on Monday, from the M. E. Church, Rev. T. Frazier officiating, and was attended by a large concourse of people. Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, whom the deceased had so often befriended, attended in uniform, and by them his remains were consigned to their last resting place.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 11, 1865

A GOOD PICTURE. — A life size Paintograph of Gen. O. Hinton, deceased, may be seen at the Engine House of Santa Rosa No. 1. It was drawn by Mr. W. H. Wilson, from a photograph likeness. The picture has been pronounced by all who have seen it an excellent likeness. Mr. Wilson has taken a number of pictures at this place which have given very general satisfaction. His art is a very simple one, being a drawing in indelible ink, the entire work being executed with a common pen and very small brush. He is now at Healdsburg.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 18, 1865

RURAL CEMETERY

Santa Rosa has a beautiful graveyard, and it has been properly named “Rural Cemetery”…We took a walk through its avenues last Sunday. It was in the fall of the dying day, because of its symbolic character. We were alone. There was no one to cheer us “save the low hum of vegetation,” and the music of the wind as it played Aeolean cadences in the branches above and the rens beneath. We paused before a neglected grave. A familiar name was graven on an ordinary slab. It carried us back to the days when Santa Rosa was yet in her infancy. Moss had grown upon the stone, and the name had become dim. Brambles of every description covered the spot, in which lay the body whose name we were then contemplating, and–we felt sad. The name was that of Gen. Otho Hinton. It is as familiar to the old settlers of this valley “as household words.” His very countenance and benevolent expression is, at this writing, as plainly before us as if we had seen him but yesterday. But why is his grave thus neglected? Have the people forgotten the generous and noble hearted man, who in his life, took such an active interest in the welfare of “our future little city,” (as he was wont to call it,) and who sacrificed all health, money and time, during his declining years, for our benefit? His magnanimity and public spiritedness for the public good, should never be forgotten, and his grave should, at least, be kept green as an evidence that we appreciated his many kindness which he did for our future good…

– Santa Rosa Daily Republican, November 10, 1882

ENDNOTES

(available at non-mobile version of blog)

Read More