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.
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, 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


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


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


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


The Celebrations at the Different Churches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 29 1877

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

– Sonoma Democrat, December 21 1878

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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




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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going to the circus, boys?”

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

“Could you tell me where the tent is?”

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

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

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

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

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


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Santa Rosa would probably burn down if they didn’t start a fire company, but many didn’t seem to care if it did in 1860.

This is the story of the origins of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, but you could easily say it’s also about the origins of Santa Rosa as a community. In 1860 the town proper had only about 500 residents and it was very much an I’ve-got-mine kind of place. There was no public school in town until the year before; why tax yourself to educate someone else’s kids? Or why worry about your house catching fire since you’re personally always careful with lamps and candles? An attempt to start a volunteer fire company flopped in 1858 because it was presumed fire-fighting equipment might cost too much. “We must have some kind of fire organization,” the Sonoma County Democrat begged. “Santa Rosa is composed almost entirely of wooden buildings, and if a fire should break out in any part of the town, in all probability the whole place would be laid in ashes.”

The paper renewed its call for something to be done after a September, 1860 house fire. Usually Santa Rosa was fighting fires with a simple bucket brigade – everyone who heard the cry of “fire!” grabbed his personal bucket and ran to the scene, where anyone brave enough would try to beat out the flames just using wet blankets or sacks. This homeowner was lucky enough to live next door to Santa Rosa House, the town’s main hotel, where owner Edward Colgan had a hose and a force pump which helped extinguish the fire without too much damage. (This incident also provides a rare glimpse of the remarkable John Richards, an African-American man of wealth who welcomed former slaves into his home and guided them to new lives.)

Not so lucky was the town of Healdsburg, where most of the business district was destroyed a few days later, even though residents tried to make a firebreak by blowing up the cigar store. “Every effort was made on the part of the citizens to suppress the flames, but owing to their having no fire organization all their efforts were of no avail,” the Democrat commented, again jabbing Santa Rosa with an editorial elbow. Still, nothing was done.

The Democrat coverage of those fires was fairly lengthy, considering they occurred in the autumn of 1860 just before the presidential election. Editor Thomas Thompson was squeezing out almost all local news to make space for tirades against for voting for Lincoln, denouncing him as a coward, fool and abolitionist who – horrors, the unthinkable! – was secretly planning to free the slaves once he sneaked into the White House. How it must have galled Thompson to waste those column inches to chide citizens over the importance of fire protection when the precious space surely would have been better used promoting Breckinridge, the candidate upholding the absolute legal right of slavery in the South.

The turning point came in the new year when Dr. Todd’s home on Third street caught fire. It burned with remarkable speed; only by good fortune was a toddler rescued from being trapped inside. The flames lept to the house next door (home to Joel Miller and family, known to readers via the Otho Hinton story) and threatened the building just beyond that, which was the office of the Sonoma County Democrat. Only the doctor’s home was lost and only thanks to an absence of wind.

Coming so soon after the devastation in Healdsburg, it was no longer a challenge to convince our penny-pinching ancestors that something must be done for the sake of the common good. In just a couple of days, Dr. Alban raised over $300 for the purchase of equipment and at the end of the week, meeting above Fen’s Saloon at the corner of Third and Main streets, 25 men signed up to form Santa Rosa’s first hook and ladder company. The date was February 2nd, 1861.

Other meetings followed and those stairs at Fen’s Saloon must have had quite a workout. It was decided that three hundred bucks might buy a very serviceable hook and ladder truck but what the town really needed was a fire engine. So on June 29th they were reorganized as Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, despite having no engine, nor enough money to buy one, nor knowing where to find such a thing. (We know about those developments, by the way, only thanks to tidbits about the company history appearing in the papers during 1870s and 1880s. At the time editor Thompson gave them little mention, as he was now consumed with running wordy commentaries bashing the Lincoln administration and calling for California to join the southern states in seceding from the Union.)

A committee went to San Francisco and found the fire department there had a used engine made by the Hunneman company. An agreement was made: $400 down and three men in town signed a promissory note for the $900 balance. The engine arrived in mid-December. “The ‘boys’ tried her on Monday afternoon,” the Democrat reported, “and rendered a verdict in consequence in perfect accordance with her name – ‘Cataract.'” Then they apparently adjourned to the room above Fen’s Saloon.

The name “Cataract” promised to drown a fire as if it were under a waterfall. Many fire companies at the time gushed boastfully of their engine’s prowess with names such as “Torrent,” “Spouter,” “Cascade” and “Fountain.” (The firemen of Islesford, Maine, however, with their craggy down-easter exactitude, dubbed their fire engine, “Squirt.”)

(RIGHT: An 1850 Hunneman restored at Francestown, New Hampshire, probably the same as Santa Rosa’s Cataract. Photo credit: New Boston Historical Society)

Santa Rosa was lucky to find a used Hunneman engine available; there were probably fewer than a dozen in the state at the time. Today they appear to us like large and fragile toys, but they were quite rugged and considered the standard of excellence for their compact and efficient design, made by a Boston company founded by a coppersmith who apprenticed with Paul Revere. They worked like this:

The engine and a two-wheeled hose carriage arrive at the fire, drawn by horses (which in itself was an innovation in the mid 19th century). The first job is to fill up the “tub;” Santa Rosa’s engine probably held about 200 gallons so a leather hose is hooked up to a fire hydrant, if available, or dropped into a well. Copper nozzles are screwed on to one or both leather hoses attached to spigots on the sides. Firemen take positions holding the two long brass poles on either side of the engine which are called “brakes” (a 18th-19th century name for the handle of a pump) and begin seesawing them like mad. You can watch a video here. Inside the engine, those brakes are operating a two cylinder single acting piston pump. There is also a copper air chamber to produce a steady flow of water but as pressure builds up, the increased resistance makes it harder to pump. Firemen can only work for a few minutes without tiring, requiring them to work in teams. More details of the workings can be found at the New Boston Historical Society.

Note particularly the engine has no “engine” – no steam or other form of power except fireman muscle, and lots of it. It’s a tribute to Hunneman’s design and craftsmanship that the things performed so well; even the smaller model, as seen here, had enough pressure to shoot a stream nearly 200 feet in competitions held elsewhere. The company showed off the “bully Cataract” at a Sonoma mechanical fair later that year but didn’t expect to win any prizes because “our machine is of much less capacity than any engine in the district,” as commented the Democrat.

The provenance of Santa Rosa’s Cataract is fuzzy. There are aficionados who seek to track down the history of every “hand tub” (particularly the Hunnemans), but this one seems to have slipped through the cracks. The Sonoma County Democrat mentioned “the engine has ‘seen service’ in the East, but not enough to injure it,” and according to another paper we bought it off of San Francisco’s Howard Engine Company No. 3, but there is no further genealogy. Possibly San Francisco sold it quickly because it was not as the East Coast seller advertised; with even the smallest model weighing nearly a ton and all shipping to and from the East sailing around the Horn, returns were not as easy as sending a defective gizmo back to Amazon.

The first real challenge for the Santa Rosa company came four months later, at the end of April, 1862 when the Eureka Hotel caught fire. “The flames spread so rapidly through the building that many boarders barely escaped with their lives,” the Democrat reported, “and some made their appearance in the street minus ‘unmentionables.'” The hotel was lost along with an adjoining store, the fire being uncontrolled in part because of an unreliable water supply; their engine drained four wells and its hose was working on the fifth well at the end, the paper noting that moving the hose from well to well cost considerable time. But members of the company bonded over the experience and nearly twenty years later they were still talking about it: “…To hear the old members speak of the excitement and daring of their comrades in vying with one another for bravery and the labor of gaining control of the fiery element, recalls vividly the pioneer days of raging conflagrations in San Francisco.” Their company motto, “Faithful and Fearless” spoke to this pride.

Members of the company were all unpaid, but volunteering was not without its perks. They were exempt from jury duty and militia service – the latter being a particular draw after Congress passed the 1863 conscription act. While California was never required to send a quota to fight for the Union, the pro-Confederacy young men of Santa Rosa probably didn’t want to take chances.

Since the town contributed nothing for equipment or to help retire the amount still owed on the engine, the “ladies” – none of whom were ever named – held annual Firemen’s Balls. The first one in early 1862 was a complete bust so they hit the reset button and held another first annual ball in the summer. That one raised $35, which the company used to buy a “triangle” for sounding the alarm.

Aside from the Fourth of July festivities, these Firemen’s Balls were the only major events in town not hosted by a church. A description is transcribed below, with dancing continuing until 4AM and a break at midnight for everyone to have supper. In a town where rancor over the Civil War ran high (Lincoln received only 18 percent of the vote in Santa Rosa, by far the lowest in the county), these benefits offered a unique, nonpartisan gathering for the whole community.

A crisis came in 1863 because $600 still was due for the engine, while the volunteers were paying interest on the debt plus the rent for the firehouse out of their own pockets. Cataract was about to be sold and the company reformed as hook and ladder. “But at last we see a glimmer of light,” promised the paper. “The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue.” And somehow, they did. In July, 1864 the engine was paid off AND a new firehouse was built with the parcel owned by the company. There was a ceremony and afterwards “the ‘boys’ then entertained those present with some tall ‘playing’ from the machine,” which can be left to Gentle Reader’s imagination.

The 1864 celebration at the new firehouse neatly ends the first chapter of the Santa Rosa Fire Department’s story, albeit with large gaps. There are no photos of our “fire laddies” or the Cataract, although it’s probably safe to assume it was a twin to the engine shown in the photograph above. Maps are scarce for that era so I can’t find the whereabouts of the first firehouse nor the 1864 one – although some digging at the Recorder’s office could probably determine that location since the trustees owned the building. And we’ll probably never know how “the ladies” – with some unspecified aid from Otho Hinton – managed to quickly raise a great deal of money. The first county history stated there was “a fair and a festival” but if such events were mentioned in the newspaper they were small and easy to overlook. Afte all, space was needed to reassure Santa Rosa the war was going really great for the Confederacy.

Ten years later in 1874, the town’s firefighting force doubled with the formation of Eureka Hose Company No. 1. This was a hook & ladder company despite the misleading name (some modern historians have mistakenly thought these were two different companies). Their horse-drawn wagon carried ladders, obviously, along with the hooks, which were long wooden pikes with a cast iron hook at the end to yank down walls or roofing in order to allow water to reach hotspots. These hook & ladder trucks are best viewed as a kind of giant fireman’s toolbox; they also carried buckets, spare hose, parts for emergency engine repair and possibly some basic first aid and rescue equipment – some East Coast trucks even included stretchers. And most important of all, the new company added about two dozen fresh pairs of arms to pump away on the Cataract’s brakes.

Ten years after that in 1884, we can say SRFD’s wild ‘n’ wooly days were finally over. The firemen were still all volunteers, but the town provided them with a firehouse on Hinton Avenue, across from the soon-to-be-built courthouse in the square. The door to the north was for the engine company with a separate hook & ladder door next to it. On the second floor, better seen in the bird’s eye view below, was Santa Rosa’s city hall and first public library combined.

But the most significant change was the decision to upgrade to a modern steam pumper engine – after more than two decades of service here and goddesses know how many years elsewhere, the bully Cataract would be sold to help pay for the new gear. The Democrat announced this decision in an odd article, half promising the old engine still had years of life left in her, and half apologizing for the company still using an undersized antique:

The money received for the old engine, which is to be sold, will of course also be applied to the same use. This is a good opportunity for some other community to secure, for a moderate outlay, an engine capable of doing good service for many years to come, for although it is not of sufficient capacity to be exactly what is necessary in a town of the dimensions of Santa Rosa, it would nevertheless be just the thing in a smaller and less thickly settled place.

Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1 outside Hinton Ave. firehouse, c. 1885


Bird’s eye view of Hinton Ave. c. 1883 showing firehouse nearing completion at right (Photos: Sonoma County Library)


IT MUST BE HAD.–We must have some kind of fire organization. Santa Rosa is composed almost entirely of wooden buildings, and if a fire should break out in any part of the town, in all probability the whole place would be laid in ashes. We learn there has been an attempt made to organize a fire department here, but failed for want of the “one thing needful.” People have an exaggerated idea, as a general thing, of the cost of forming such an association. We think it would be best to have an engine, but as that would involve considerable expense–and some of our citizens would rather take the chances of losing all they have, by fire, than pay fifty or one hundred dollars toward buying an apparatus that might be the means of saving them several thousand, we propose that they organize a Hook and Ladder Company, the expense of which would be trifling, in comparison with the good that might be effected thereby. This matter must be acted upon, and promptly, too. We are not, personally, so much interested in the matter as are a great many other of our citizens, but are ready and willing to put the ball in motion, and hope all will give it a push.

– Sonoma County Democrat, July 12, 1860



On Tuesday morning last, about 10 o’clock, our citizens were suddenly called into the streets by the fearful cry of “fire.” We dropped our “stick,” seized a bucket and hurried to the place of alarm, where we found, as might naturally be supposed, the wildest excitement; for although our citizens will not need heed the old adage, “In time of peace prepare for war,” when the enemy is upon us they try to meet him to the best of their ability. The fire on Tuesday, proceeded from a frame building on the corner of Main and Second streets, owned by a colored man, named John Richards, part of which is occupied as a barber shop. The room adjoining the shop is a bedroom, and a little girl, three years old, the child of one of the occupants of the house, was alone in the room at the time the fire broke out. A box of matches had been left on a table close to the bed where the child was, and it is supposed that the little one in attempting to light a match, set fire to some articles of clothing, which were on the table, and it was soon communicated to the canvas ceiling. The child ran out of the room, screaming, which alarmed the inmates of the house–and on entering the room to see what was the matter, Richards found almost the entire ceiling in flames. He immediately commenced tearing down the canvas, and that together with the force-pump and hose, of Mr. Colgan of the Santa Rosa House, soon extinguished the flames. We could call the attention of those who have ridiculed the idea of having a Fire Engine in this place to the service rendered by the hose of Mr. Colgan, on Tuesday. No particular damage was done to the house, but Richards had his hands badly burned in tearing his hands badly burned in tearing the canvas from the ceiling.

“IN TIME OF PEACE, PREPARE FOR WAR.”–We have several times urged upon our citizens the importance of having some kind of organization to protect our town against fire, and as we have just had another narrow escape from the dangerous enemy, we make one more appeal. Give us something; if the citizens do not feel able to buy an engine, let there be a Hook and Ladder Company organized at once. The cost would be but a trifle in comparison with the good that might arise from such an organization. Almost every one we have conversed with on the subject favors it, and we sincerely hope some of our merchants will call a meeting of the citizens, and do something for the protection of their property.

– Sonoma County Democrat, September 20, 1860


Destructive Fire!

A destructive fire occurred in our town on Monday last. About eleven o’clock A. M., we heard the thrilling cry, and on going to the street, found it was only three doors from us, on Third street, and the residence of Dr. S. S. Todd. As near as can be learned, the following are the particulars of the origin of the fire: Mrs. Todd had stepped out to a neighbors, leaving two children, one about four years and the other eighteen months old, in the house, the older of whom states, that his little brother took a piece of paper, lit it, and set a pile of newspapers on fire, that was in a corner of the room. The house being lined with canvas, the flames spread instantaneously, and in a moment the smoke was seen issuing from the windows and roof. Messrs. J. B. Caldwell and Chas. G. Ames were the first to reach the building, and on entering it, the latter found the oldest child trying to open the front door. Mr. Caldwell, supposing that there was no one in the house, was on the point of leaving it with a piece of furniture, when he discovered the younger child standing in a corner, apparently unconscious of danger. The flames spread so rapidly that it was impossible to save much of the furniture. Dr. Todd informs us that he lost, also, a quantity of silver plate, which was, however, recovered after the fire, in the shape of “nuggets.” He estimates his loss at seven or eight hundred dollars. The building, which was completely burned, was owned by J. Ridgeway, [sic] and valued at one thousand dollars. No insurance.

After the rescue of the children, our citizens turned their attention to saving the adjoining building, part of which was occupied as a residence by Joel Miller, Esq.–and the other part by the DEMOCRAT establishment. There was a space of about thirty feet between the burning house and the residence of Mr. Miller, and but for the superhuman efforts of our citizens, the whole building must have consumed. [sic] Men mounted the roof, and with the aid of blankets and buckets, succeeded in preventing the house taking fire. There was, fortunately, but little wind at the time. Mr. Miller’s furniture was all moved to the street, as well as the contents of our office.

We take this occasion to give hearty thanks to those who so ably and promptly assisted us on the occasion. Owing to the exertions of our friends, our printing material was safely and seasonably deposited on the street. Since the fire we have frequently been asked how much pi was made, and remarks have been made that we sustained considerable damage. This is a mistake. Whenever we think of the occasion we are amazed that our loss should have been so trifling in the pi line.

HOOK AND LADDER COMPANY.–We are gratified to know that since the fire on Monday, our citizens are beginning to manifest an interest in the organization of a fire company. Dr. W. G. Alban has taken the matter in hand, and has already over three hundred dollars subscribed for the purpose. We hope every citizen will lend a helping hand. Much has been said as to the policy of procuring an engine or hooks and ladders. We do not profess to be much of a fireman, and the little experience we have had was with an engine company. But in few of the great scarcity of water and the enormous cost of a fire engine and sufficient hose to answer the purpose in our case, we think it far better to organized a Hook and Ladder Company. Something must be done at once to protect us from the dangerous element, and hooks and ladders with a truck can be procured at about half the expense of an engine. We are requested to state that there will be a meeting at the Court House on Saturday night, at which time a report will be made of the money subscribed, and steps taken to effect the organization immediately. We trust every property holder will be in attendance.

– Sonoma County Democrat, January 31, 1861


HOOK AND LADDER COMPANY.–Pursuant to call a meeting of the citizens of Santa Rosa was held on Saturday evening, for the purpose of taking steps toward the organization of a fire company…[about $350 collected, 25 named as members of the company, no mention of Hinton in article]

– Sonoma County Democrat, February 7, 1861


FIRE ENGINE.–At the meeting of the Santa Rosa Fire Company, Thursday evening last, arrangements were made for the purchase of a Fire-engine. A committee was appointed, who will purchase “der masheen” as soon as possible.

– Sonoma County Democrat, November 14, 1861


A Hunneman Engine has been purchased of the San Francisco Howards, for Santa Rosa.

– Marysville Daily Appeal, December 17, 1861


FIRE MATTERS.–The fire engine just purchased by the new fire company at Santa Rosa, is expected to arrive this week or the first of next week. It was built by Hunneman, the celebrated builder of fire engines, and was purchased by Mr. Frank Whitney, ex-Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department. The engine has “seen service” in the East, but not enough to injure it; indeed, it is in such good condition, that competent judges pronounce it to be “as good as new.”

The Board of Supervisors, at the request of a number of petitioners, appropriated one hundred dollars to assist in purchasing the engine. The sum thus contributed is small, but had it been greater, there can be no doubt that our citizens generally would approve such an act by the Board, though, of course, all would be better pleased if the engine had been bought with money raised exclusively by the citizens. Vigorous exertions might have accomplished this, undoubtedly had our citizens generally concurred in the importance of the end to be attained. All who have been remiss in their duty in this matter, thanks to the Supervisors and their fellow citizens, may have the satisfaction of seeing their property saved from destruction not by their own providence, but through the foresight of others. The Supervisors doubtless thought that it was their duty to do all in their power to secure the property of the county from danger by fire. One thing is certain, they could not have adopted a less costly plan than the one of assisting the fire company at the county seat to purchase an engine.

We shall publish at an early day a full list of the members and officers of the new fire company. If the two companies at Petaluma and others in the county, will forward us a list of their officers and members, together with the matters pertaining, such as the dates of organization, etc., we shall thus be enabled to publish them together, the whole presenting in a convenient form a commendable chapter of local history.

The Santa Rosa Fire Company propose giving their first Annual Ball on the 8th of January next, the proceeds to be devoted toward paying for their engine.

– Sonoma County Democrat, December 5, 1861


FIRE MATTERS.–Santa Rosa Engine, No. 1, received their new (in one sense) machine on–that is to say, it came–Sunday last, together with three hundred and fifty feet of hose. The “boys” tried her on Monday afternoon, and rendered a verdict in consequence in perfect accordance with her name–“Cataract.”..At a meeting of the Company, on Monday night, Andrew Ester was elected 2d Assistant Foreman..An adjourned meeting of the Company will be held in the room adjoining “Fen’s Saloon,” on Saturday evening next, at 1 o’clock, which every member is expected to attend, as very important business will be transacted.

– Sonoma County Democrat, December 19, 1861


RALLY, PUMPS AND HOSE!–The first Annual Ball of the Santa Rosa Engine Company, it should be remembered, will take place on Wednesday next. We bespeak for those who may attend a pleasant time, as the company have made ample preparations to secure the desirable end. The profits of the occasion are to go toward paying for the engine. Let those who delight to “trip the fantastic toe” turn out generally. The supper will be gotten up by Mr. VanDoren of the Eureka Hotel.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 5, 1862


NEW ENGINE HOUSE.–Santa Rosa Engine Company, No. 1, moved their engine into the new house, recently fitted up for them, on Saturday last. The company is now thoroughly organized, and will soon be in a condition to render valuable service in case of a fire…

[excerpts of by-laws, including fines and penalties. “…for bringing liquor near the engine house wile on duty, without the permission from the Foreman…one dollar”]

– Sonoma Democrat, January 9, 1862


FIREMEN’S ELECTION.– [annual meeting to elect officers, all named]

– Sonoma Democrat, February 20, 1862


GOES TO THE FAIR.–Santa Rosa Engine, No. 1–the “bully Cataract”–left town of Tuesday morning for Sonoma, to compete for a prize offered for the best working and worked engine by the Sonoma and Napa county Agricultural and Mechanical Society. Notwithstanding our machine is of much less capacity than any engine in the district, we hope she will meet some competitors, even should she not carry off the prize. But nevertheless, our boys are heavy on the muscle, and go to win.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 9, 1862


LET THEM CLIMB!–Our fire laddies are soon to be the recipients of an appropriate and useful present, from a citizen of Sonoma. Mr. Anthony Krippenstapel, an exceedingly ingenius [sic] workman, has spent much time in constructing for them a fireman’s ladder, which will be formally presented to the company on next Saturday evening. It is twenty feet in length, and every joint is fitted in the neatest and most exact manner; the material has been thoroughly seasoned, and while the ladder is sufficiently strong to support any weight that may ever be put upon it, yet it is so light that it can be handled with ease by one individual. We remember at the time of the burning of the Eureka hotel, such a ladder as this would have rendered material assistance to our firemen, and we doubt not this donation from Mr. Krippenstapel will be properly appreciated by the department.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 7, 1863


Our Fire Department.

Some time has elapsed since we reminded our citizens that our Fire Department is still encumbered with debt. In fact, we hoped that it would never be necessary for us to again make allusion to the subject. Two years ago there was purchased for this community a most excellent Hunnemann Engine, which has been the means at least on one occasion of preventing the total destruction of the town by fire. At the time the Engine was purchased a debt of $600 was necessarily incurred. As is too often the case in small towns, this Department has been mainly supported by those of our citizens who have least at stake in case of a conflagration. We have never seen in any community so little public spirit manifested in regarded to a matter of so much importance as in this. Aside from numerous endeavors to raise by benefits sufficient funds to liquidate the debt, the active members of the Department have been obliged to pay the interest on the $600, and all contingent expenses of the Company, rent, etc, from their own pockets. It is a shame and disgrace to the property holders of the town that this should be so.

But at last we see a glimmer of light. The ladies, (Heaven bless them!) are coming to the rescue. It has been stated that the Engine is to be sold, and the ladies have determined, if within their power, (and what is it they cannot accomplish?) to save our town from the disgrace attendant upon such an event. They propose by means of a series of entertainments, of their own getting up, to assist in relieving the Department of the incumberances hanging over it. If the property holders will pay the $600 due upon the Engine they will provide the Company with a house, and thereby place the Department upon a permanent footing. If it is desired that the Engine shall remain here something must be done at once. 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.

For the benefit of the Department, we re-publish below, from the Statutes of last winter, a law exempting members of this Department from “militia service and jury duty”…

– Sonoma Democrat, October 31, 1863


The New Engine House.

Last Saturday afternoon the new Engine House, built by the ladies of Santa Rosa, was formally presented to the Fire Department, with all the necessary title, papers to property, etc. The Company, in uniform, appeared before the house with their Engine duly decorated at 3 o’clock P. M. The house being well filled with the citizens of the town who had 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. On behalf of the Fire Department, Mr. P. B. Hood made a well termed speech in response to the General, after which cheers were given by the firemen for the ladies, the General and the citizens, and the assemblage were invited to partake of refreshments which had been prepared in the new meeting room by the firemen. The “boys” then entertained those present with some tall “playing” from the machine, and she was duly housed in her new quarters amid the cheers and applause of her members. The ladies have also ordered for the Department new leather hose, which unfortunately, did not arrive in time be presented with the house on Saturday. It will, however, be on hand in a few days, and then we can boast that we have as good Engine, house, hose, and Company, as complete in all their fixtures as may be found without the city of Frisco. Our boys are proud of their Company and well they may be.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 4, 1864


Letter From Santa Rosa.

Eds. Flag:–Your regular correspondent being absent I send you a short account of the Fireman’s Ball held at the Skating Rink on Friday last. I don’t often go to balls; I have only been to one about twice a week, on an average, since I first flung out my shingle to the Santa Rosa breeze. Balls are demoralizing, don’t you think, Mr. Editor? That is the reason I don’t attend more frequently. Having purchased a ticket at half price, I thought I could afford to be very indulgent on this occasion, so I took Amanda Jane along to show her a little of our Santa Rosa society–she not having been out much since we located here. I spent no end of money buying her Swiss over-skirts, paniers, hair, and such fixings, but, with all the outlay, she did not make an impression that night, unless she did it on some of her partners’ feet, and they’ll recollect her if she did, for she do come down frightful heavy. She keeps her own time when dancing, regardless of the music; shows what an independent girl she is; what a wife wouldn’t she make for some of us. Well, to proceed: The ball was a success, socially and financially, and so much encouraged are our gallant firemen with the result, that they propose again to pander to the tastes of an appreciative community next year. Had this ball not been well attended our brethren of the red shirt had concluded to make it the last, as they have been out and injured on the last three or four. Gus Kohle was here, there and everywhere, and, as a friend remarked, looked as if he and the “Cataract” could smother any fire in town if they could only screw on the hose. Jim Clark made a little speech which pleased everybody, and made another little ‘speech which displeased somebody. Wm. O. Lloyd with his “harpist,” assisted by a local violin and cornet, discoursed most pleasant music and kept every one on the hop till near 4 o’clock. At Kessing’s Hotel a fine supper was served about 12 o’clock. Riley & Brendel also had a large party at their restaurant. Had it not been for a certain unpleasantness with regard to where one should go to supper there would not have been a cloud to disturb the serenity of this ball, by far the most successful of any given by the Fire Company for many years. And Amanda reached home a perfect wreck, and wreaked her vengeance on the crockery by playfully seeing if she could hit my head for saying she did not get a partner to dance with her twice…

– Russian River Flag, February 27 1873


ENGINE COMPANY NO. 1–The fire which occurred on Monday night called out the fire company in full force. After the excitement was over many reminiscences were brought up by the old members, and on many points a variety of opinions existed. To refresh certain memories it may not be uninteresting to state that the first meeting for the organization of a fire company was held in the upper story of the brick building now used by Stanley & Thompson as a workshop over what was then known as Fen’s Saloon. It was held on the 2d of February, 1861, and was organized by electing W. H. Crowell President and Thos. L. Thompson Secretary. It was then determined to start as a hook and ladder company. That meeting adjourned for one week. They met again on the 19th of February, 1861, and elected permanent officers as follows…At a meeting held in March 9, 1861, a committee which had previously been appointed to inquire into the cost of apparatus reported that it would cost from $1,200 to $1,500. It was then thought advisable to change from a hook and ladder to an engine company. On the 7th of November, 1861, Thos. L. Thompson, John S. Van Doren and B. Marks, were appointed as a committee to go to San Francisco and negotiate for an engine. The engine was purchased for the sum of $1,350, $400 of which was paid down, and J.P. Clark, B. Marks and A. Bromberger became responsible for the balance, $900. It was then that the ladies of Santa Rosa came to the relief of the company and by a succession of entertainments, fairs, festivals, etc., rendered the company very efficient aid in freeing itself from debt. About this time application was made to Gen. Otho Hinton to devise some plan whereby the company could extricate itself from debt. He took a lively interest in the matter and his personal efforts in its behalf and good counsels enabled the company not only to free itself from debt but to furnish besides a good and substantial engine house, which afterwards sold for $600. 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. This is an accurate account of the early days of Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1, which still exists with the motto adopted in its infancy, “Faithful and Fearless” and which it carries out whenever occasion demands.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1, 1877


Santa Rosa Engine Co. No. 1.

Extensive preparations are being made by the Executive Committee and the members of the Santa Rosa Engine Company for celebrating the 21st anniversary of their organization. They propose giving a grand ball at Ridgway Hall on Washington’s Birthday, and it is the purpose of those having it in charge to make it surpass any of their previous enjoyable entertainments…Apropos of the coming event, through the kindness of the efficient Secretary, Mr. J. Doychert, we are enabled to present our readers a brief sketch of their organization. The Society was formed on February 2nd, 1861, as a Hook and Ladder Company. The list of charter members numbers 30 …[living active founders named]…At a subsequent meeting a constitution was adopted and the members, subscribed the sum of $300 as the nucleus of a fund for the purchase of a hook and ladder truck. After a short time it was deemed advisable to purchase, instead, a fire engine. In accordance with this action the members on June 29th, 1861, reorganized as Santa Rosa Engine Company No. 1. By the aid of money subscribed by the citizens they were able to make a partial payment on the purchase price of an engine from San Francisco, the cost of which was $1,300. Subsequently by the material assistance of the ladies and Gen. Hinton, whose portrait at present adorns the walls of the meeting room, and the recollection of whose friendship will ever remain fixed in the hearts of the firemen, the balance due was paid. On December 22nd, 1861, the uniform of the Company was adopted, and the motto, “Faithful and Fearless” chosen as their emblem of duty. The first ball was given on the evening of July 8th, 1862, and netted some $35, which was applied to the liquidation of the engine debt. Four days later a triangle was purchased and this first means of sounding an alarm in those early days on several memorable occasions brought the Company into active service. During the first year of their existence hey were called upon to extinguish a fire in the old Eureka Hotel. The inflammable material burning fiercely, had enabled the flames to gain great headway, and to hear the old members speak of the excitement and daring of their comrades in vieing [sic] with one another for bravery and the labor of gaining control of the fiery element, recalls vividly the pioneer days of raging conflagrations in San Francisco. With a few exceptions, noticeable among which are the burning of the Santa Rosa Winery upon two occasions and the destruction of the frame buildings of Mrs. Spencer, and others, at all of which they rendered material aid, in the latter case saving adjoining buildings in the face of a raging conflagration, our city of late years has been remarkably free from casualties of this nature. But when occasion demands, the Company responds in a manner creditable to themselves and to the citizens. They have paid for and now own one good engine, two fine hose carts and 1,000 feet of good hose…

– Sonoma Democrat, January 29, 1881



On last Wednesday morning at about one o’clock an alarm of fire roused our citizens from their slumbers. Our reporter, with his usual fiendishness, saw a large blaze in the northwestern part of the city, and tumbling rapidly into his trousers and getting downstairs in the same dignified manner, sallied forth to do honor to his record as a fireman and to his name as a member of the press. Falling over two dogs and gouging out one of his remaining teeth against a picket fence, he rapidly approached the scene of the now raging fire. The burning building was a two-story dwelling house belonging to Guy E. Grosse, situated on the northwest corner of Tenth street and the Healdsburg road. After getting out of the ditch into which he had by some means found refuge, our man took in the situation. A few small boys were gazing at the flames, which were bursting out of every room. In a short time a number of citizens arrived and before a gret while both branches of the fire department were on the grounds. Nothing could be done to stop the flames, which by this time were rapidly consuming the whole building. After some preliminary tactics, a ten-foot stream was thrown onto the porch in front of the dwelling, which in the course of twenty minutes, by the judicious maneuverings of the heads of the two companies, was so augmented that a very respectable stream of the aqueous element could be forced right and left into the crowds of lookers on. Our man succeeded as usual in spoiling a seven-dollar hand-me-down suit of clothes. During the pyrotechnic display, which by the way lasted for an hour, the ceremony was diversified by the falling of two lofty chimneys–one of which came near ending the days of a telegraphically inclined ex-secretary of one of the organizations; had it not been for the agility displayed by him in talking to the “red-shirts,” he would probably have been crushed into an unrecognizable mass of saur-kraut. Among the ludicrous scenes which transpired during the evening, there were some of another nature worthy of mention. The way in which Messrs. Ed. Nagle and Louis Keser fought the flames, after the tardy arrival of the water, was praiseworthy indeed. They did good service, and were it not for the headway gained by the flames, might have prevented a very serious conflagration. Speaking of bravery, we noticed a Republican reporter doing good work on the corner of Tenth and A streets, nobly saving his hands from the fury etc., by keeping them in his pocket. The course of an hour saw the building a mass of cinders. It was an old house, but had been lately repaired by the owner in a substantial manner; a fine outbuilding had been erected, the main structure hard-finished and painted and was about ready for occupancy. Strong suspicions of incendiarism are indulged in regarding the origin of the fire…As it was unoccupied it was undoubtly [sic] set on fire by some of the tramps who of late have invested our city to an alarming extent.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 16, 1881


New Fire Engine.

The citizens of Santa Rosa will be glad to hear that our firemen have definitely decided upon the purchase of a new steam fire-engine to take the place of the one now in use. The new machine, which is one of the many styles, all first-class, built by the Silsby Manufacturing Company, is a beautiful specimen of workmanship, and will cost in the neighborhood of $3,000. This amount is to be made up from contributions and the proceeds of fairs, festivals, etc. The money received for the old engine, which is to be sold, will of course also be applied to the same use. This is a good opportunity for some other community to secure, for a moderate outlay, an engine capable of doing good service for many years to come, for although it is not of sufficient capacity to be exactly what is necessary in a town of the dimensions of Santa Rosa, it would nevertheless be just the thing in a smaller and less thickly settled place. It is to be hoped that the property owners of Santa Rosa will all interest themselves in the matter of securing the new engine, as it is certainly something the importance of which cannot be overrated. The members of our fire department deserve well of their fellow citizens, and the latter should see that they do not lack for proper appliances in their faithful service of guarding property, not to say life, in our community.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 3, 1883


A City Hall.

It is announced on good authority that before long Santa Rosa will possess a “City Hall” with all necessary offices and departments for the accommodation of the city officials and the transaction of necessary business. Roomy and convenient quarters for the Fire Company and their engine and paraphernalia will also be provided in the building. The project has not yet been made a matter of record in the proceedings of the Common Council, the arrangement having been made somewhat informally. Col. Mark L. McDonald, not long since, purchased a lot lying east of the plaza upon which one of the China houses now stands. This he proposed to tear down and erect a building in its stead, the understanding being that the city authorities will take it off his hands as soon as sufficient money accrues from the tax levy to enable them to do so. The execution of this project will serve a double purpose, not only providing our city with fitting and needed accommodations, but also doing away with the miniature “China Town” east of the plaza, and redeeming what should be one of the choicest locations within the town limits.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 14, 1883


It is Dedicated with Appropriate Ceremonies

Os Saturday afternoon the members of the Fire Department, with Fire Marshal S. I. Allen at their head, safely housed the engine hose carts and apparatus of Engine Company No. 1, and concluded their jollifications by partaking of a lunch in their new quarters, where addresses were made and toasts were drank.

In the evening a number of our citizens assembled in the new Council Chamber with the members of the Council and several other city officers, and the new edifice was appropriately dedicated amid stirring speeches and flowing wine.


– Sonoma Democrat, March 8, 1884

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