GoldenHorseshoeSaloon

THE JEWEL IN THE BOOMTOWN

The first time Santa Rosa had more than a couple of dimes rattling around its coin purse, the town bought itself a present. A really big present.

“It gives us unlimited pleasure to chronicle the fact that a long felt want, in the shape of an opera house is at last to be built in Santa Rosa,” boasted the town’s Sonoma Democrat newspaper in mid-summer, 1884.

That opera house was to be called the Athenaeum (a name usually given to a library or academic/literary salons, not so often public theaters). It filled the western side of D street, from Fourth to Fifth streets and was 80 feet wide. Newspaper readers were repeatedly reminded that it was the largest auditorium in the state outside of San Francisco.

athenaeum1890

The Santa Rosa Athenaeum in 1890. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

Why a farm town of 5,000 needed an auditorium large enough to hold up to half its population was never discussed. But the mid-1880s were boom times for Santa Rosa, and much of the original downtown was being replaced with entire blocks of new buildings. A new city hall was built along with that pretty little courthouse in Courthouse Square. There were forty other projects under construction at the same time as the Athenaeum, almost all of them made out of bricks. Almost all of them would collapse in the 1906 earthquake, including the Athenaeum.

Outside it looked like a nondescript brick warehouse, but the interior drew high praise. Alas, there are no (surviving) pictures of it – a dilemma I often encounter here, so indulge me a short rant: Except for a couple of postcard views of the exterior, there are likewise no photos of the fabled 40 room “Buena Vista Castle” near Sonoma. Jack London’s Wolf House was nearly complete when it burned down, but there is only a single glimpse of the place under construction and most of it is obscured by a horse-drawn wagon in the foreground. There are no images of the inside – all of which is particularly aggravating because London was a photojournalist. I could name scads of other really interesting-but-lost-forever views just in Santa Rosa during the era when Kodak cameras were ubiquitous; I can’t understand why something was considered picturesque or important enough to be described in a newspaper – yet apparently no one thought of whipping out a Brownie camera to take a snapshot.

Fortunately there are multiple descriptions of the theater which paint a pretty detailed picture. I still wanted to find an image of an auditorium that was a reasonably close match and spent much of the last week prowling through hundreds of photos and period drawings of theater interiors here and in Europe. Two finalists were the Memphis TN Lyceum and the Virginia City NV Opera House, but the former is a little too cavernous and the other lacking architectural details. I could find only one theater that fits comfortably in the Goldilocks zone – and may the goddesses forgive me, it’s the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland. All important details and proportions match except the Athenaeum was a few seats wider.

Let’s take a look inside the Athenaeum: Start your virtual tour by standing in front of the lovely 1911 Beaux-Arts style Doyle Building at 641-647 Fourth street. This has exactly the same footprint as the Athenaeum, except the stairway to the upper floor was almost twice as wide. At street level there was always a grocery to the west side of the stairs (more about that below) and in later years the Santa Rosa post office was on the corner side.*

The theater occupied the second and third floors. At the top of the stairs was the foyer with the box office. Wainscotting in the foyer used black walnut – a nice signal that you were entering a space that was posh and as permanent as a bank. Staircases on either side led to the third floor, where there was another larger foyer which took up about sixty feet of the top story. This was called the Society Hall and was rented out for banquets and dances when the theater wasn’t booked.

Beyond the top floor hall/foyer, theatergoers took seats in the balcony which wrapped around three sides of the auditorium. Called the “gallery” at the time, the balcony was both suspended from the ceiling and supported with posts. An item in the Democrat paper suggested some were squeamish over the safety of the overhanging balcony. “Let us whisper to the timid, if any such are left, that each of the seven iron columns under the gallery will support a weight equal to two hundred tons, or fourteen hundred tons in the aggregate.”

The gallery had the cheap seats but anyone who could afford better would sit below. There was the parquet circle directly beneath the gallery; like the balcony there was a baluster rail in front. It was (probably) at stage level, which meant the sight lines and acoustics were better than the main floor. The primary difference from the Disneyland theater was that the Athenaeum had more private boxes overlooking the stage; six on each side at the gallery level, and two on either side of the parquet circle.

The stage lights and everything else in the auditorium was lit by gaslights which were individually controlled by a panel. In the middle of the ceiling was an enormous “sun burner” (MORE info) which brilliantly illuminated the hall when turned up full. But what everyone was buzzing about was the artwork – the ceiling and walls were covered with murals. The Sonoma Democrat had the most detailed description:


About the ventilator in the center is a bit of sky, with clouds piled cumulus like, just as we sometimes see them on the horizon, while trailing vines, laden with blossoms seem to be peeping in the windows of some conservatory. The entire ceiling and gallery walls are hand painted, and at each corner a lyre and sprays of vines retain the eye, with elegantly designed borders enclosing numerous sky blue spaces. At the corners are huge clusters of reeds, conventionalized branches of leaves beneath. The area in front of the top of the stage is resplendent with flowers and sprays, and must be seen to be appreciated.

The stage itself was in the classic proscenium 19th century style, with drapery and an olio painted curtain depicting “a villa in the distance, amidst a beautiful grove with a magnificent garden in the foreground.” The artist was Thomas Moses who later became a top artist in this niche, painting scenic drops like this for theaters all over the country, including Broadway.

The official seating capacity was 1,600 although numbers up to a thousand higher were also mentioned. Theaters like this used wooden chairs, not seats bolted to the floor, so it was only a matter of placing them farther or closer together. (The cheapest gallery seats were apparently fixed in place, however.) Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley wrote an appreciation of the old place in 1932, which was abridged in a book, “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” Finley wrote “The theatre itself seated 1700 persons while 2500 could be and frequently were crowded in.”

Finley, who grew up in Santa Rosa, also recalled the Athenaeum box office was a popular place for kids to money launder any counterfeit coin which “sometimes found its way into their pockets without its spurious character being noticed.”

The Athenaeum’s official dedication was the night of July 9, 1885. After the orchestra gave “a preliminary toot or two,” there were remarks by the president of the Athenaeum association and a San Francisco theatrical manager, then an actress read a really bad poem. (“…Through groves of drooping oak, a glistening stream/ Runs, like a silver thread, through emerald green/ And over all is sunset’s purple sheen./ Another change the Mexican appears/ He seems a centaur, horse and man, and spurs./ Across the unfenced valley, like a bird/ He sweeps, amid his startled sleek skinned herd…”) Once that was suffered through, the curtain went up for the performance of a blood-and-thunder melodrama based on Jules Verne’s novel “Michael Strogoff.”

The Santa Rosa paper enthused over everything about the evening (“It was the first time Don Mills’ mule ever greeted an audience”) but glossed over the detail that the theater wasn’t even half full on its opening night. It appears that it would be more than a year before the Athenaeum was actually filled, and that was for a free October, 1886 speech by the Republican candidate for governor. (Predictably, the highly-partisan Democrat sniffed, “His speech was dry, prosy and wearisome, and elicited very little applause.”)

Thus was the fate of the Athenaeum clouded from its earliest days. Although the theater itself was a jewel by any measure, it’s hard to imagine that a hall which was only open  every week or so – and then usually around half empty – could be profitable. When the entire hall was rented out and open for free admission it was sometimes reported filled: Church coalitions brought in famous bible thumpers, political parties had election eve rallies and small groups held conventions – the State Sunday School Association was scheduled to be there in late April, 1906, with plans cancelled because of the earthquake.

Finley and others wrote of the celebrated performers who appeared on its stage. Yes, John Philip Sousa’s famous brass band played a rousing concert and modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller was here. Heavyweight boxing champ James Jeffries tried to jumpstart a new career starring in a play about Davy Crockett (the audience liked it most when he hit things or flexed his muscles) and San Francisco promoters sometimes booked a slate of classical music artists, mainly opera singers past their prime.

But for every highbrow concert by a “tenor robusto” there were twenty performances of hoary melodramas like “Ingomar the Barbarian” or trite comedies such as “James Wobberts, Freshman.” For every serious debate or lecture by someone like the guy predicting the year 2000 there were a dozen touring comedians such as “Yon Yonson,” “Ole Olson,” or vaudeville acts like “Thirty Educated Dogs.” And there were minstrel shows – lots and lots of minstrel shows.

1900plays1The melodrama “Chimes of Normandy” and the comedy “Wang” both appeared at the Athenaeum in 1900

 

Ridgway Hall was the only other venue downtown for large gatherings and it was mainly used for dances and county conventions, but the Athenaeum was used for local events, too, including commencement ceremonies and school literary exercises. Locals also put on shows at the Athenaeum; Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” was produced here and Santa Rosa Attorney T. J. Butts produced a farce he had written, “Misery, or Three Spasms for a Half.” (A few years later, Butts participated in a lecture series on the topic, “What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?” His position was that “our city government is as good as we deserve,” which gets my vote as our city motto.)

The Athenaeum was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and many commented that it was a good thing it didn’t hit when the theater was occupied. Three days earlier, nearly every kid in town was in there for choir practice before the upcoming Sunday School convention. Ernest Finley wrote the best obit in his 1932 reminisces:


The Athenaeum went down at the time of the earthquake, together with everything else in that entire block…the Athenaeum was built by T. J. Ludwig, active here as a contractor at that time, and its plan of construction was much criticized. Resting on the side walls of the building were great trusses which stretched across from one wall to another and from these the auditorium was practically suspended in air. There was some underneath support, but not too much. There was no regulation of such matters in those days. This type of construction would not now be permitted anywhere. After the building collapsed, investigation showed that certain beams in the great trusses, which were entirely of redwood, had decayed at the edges. It is not improbable that, had the building continued in use many years longer, some of these beams might have given way under the tremendous strain and a holocaust far greater than that occasioned by the earthquake itself might have resulted.

Oddly, some of the early hype about the theater focused on the impossibility of its collapse. The Democrat promised before construction began that it was to be an “earthquake proof building,” and a few days before it opened, the paper offered a commentary on the safety of the Athenaeum and the new courthouse. “This is a good time to kill the idle street talk we hear about one building being unsafe, and another one just ready to topple over…So will Santa Rosa outgrow the little fellows who go whining about the streets. If none of them die until they are killed by the falling of Athenaeum, or the new Court House, they will survive a hundred years, which would be a greater misfortune to the city than the fall of both those substantial and elegant structures.”


*The Athenaeum Grocery was an ambitious effort to create a real food market, complete with canned goods, fresh produce, a butcher and fish counter, and something like a deli offering lunch. “Many a lady dreads the Saturday’s marketing, because she knows that she will perhaps have to walk over the whole town before completing her purchases, but when the new central market is opened it will be different; she may do all of her marketing in the one building, and her purchases will be delivered at the same time.”

athenaeum1906

Santa Rosa Athenaeum, 1906 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

 

Santa Rosa Athenaeum.

It gives us unlimited pleasure to chronicle the fact that a long felt want, in the shape of an opera house is at last to be built in Santa Rosa. A joint stock company with a capital stock of $20,000 has been organized, and incorporated under the laws of this State for of constructing a solid, substantial and earthquake proof building, on the corner of Fourth and D streets, covering that entire lot, extending through to Fifth street, known as the T. H. Pyatt lot. The building will have an eighty foot front on Fourth and Fifth streets, and will be 200 feet in depth. The seating capacity will be from 1,600 to 2,000 people. Two stores will be fitted up on Fourth street, and a society hall will also front on the same street. A gallery will extend around three sides of the building. The main entrance to the auditorium, will be from Fourth street with side entrance from Fifth aud D streets, so that the hall can be quickly cleared in case of a panic. The stage will extend across the Fifth street end of the building, and will be seven feet from the door. On each side will be three dressing rooms for theatrical companies. Under the stage a kitchen with range and all other necessary equipments, and a spacious banquet hall will be fitted up for the convenience and benefit of fairs, festivals, etc. The structure promises to be one of the most convenient and perfect ever built, and fills a long felt want in this community.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 5 1884

The lot for the Santa Rosa Athenaeum, on the corner of Fourth and D street is cleared, and work excavating for the foundation has commenced.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1884

 

Our Opera House.

We strolled into the Athenaeum on Friday afternoon and found the timbers for the gallery being placed in position, and the scantling for the different partitions being erected. The inside is going to present a handsome appearance. The gallery is semi-circular in form, and the timbers for the “circle” are being bent as they are being placed in position, under the immediate supervision of Col. Gray, whom we saw, with hammer in hand, as busy as any of the artisans. We should suppose that there were about thirty men engaged with hammer and saw, and noted that the work was progressing very satisfactorily.

Mr. Mailer, of the firm of W. C. Good & Co., informs us that the tin for the roof is all in readiness in the shop, and that twelve men are putting the work on the roof, as rapidly as possible. A few days fine weather, and the roof will be tinned. This firm have just received a consignment of ninety boxes of tin for the roofs o( other buildings now in the course of completion.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 28 1885

 

Handsome Ornamentations.

We were permitted to take a view of the ceiling of the Athenaeum, on Friday, as the decorative artists had just completed their work. It is a study in art. About the ventilator in the center is a bit of sky, with clouds piled cumulus like, just as we sometimes see them on the horizon, while trailing vines, laden with blossoms seem to be peeping in the windows of some conservatory. The entire ceiling and gallery walls are hand painted, and at each corner a lyre and sprays of vines retain the eye, with elegantly designed borders enclosing numerous sky blue spaces. At the corners are huge clusters of reeds, conventionalized branches of leaves beneath. The area in front of the top of the stage is resplendent with flowers and sprays, and must be seen to be appreciated. We consider it the most elegant finish we have ever seen in so large a building. The theater will be ready for occupation about the first June. In the main auditorium the seating and finishing touches only remain to be attended to, but the stage and the front hall yet remain to be finished.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 16 1885

 

Ambitions Santa Rosa.

The San Francisco Figaro, of a recent date, contains the following: “It may seem strange, but it is true nevertheless, that Santa Rosa will soon have the largest and most magnificent theatre building outside of San Francisco. Though occupying nearly as much space as our Grand Opera House, it will have only two circles, it is decorated in grand style, is called the Athenaeum, and will be finished about the middle of next month. Good for Santa Rosa, which is one of the most delightful cities of the interior, and a growing one, surrounded by a rich farming region, belted by timber lands almost inexhaustible. With a modesty unusual and worthy of note, the owner of the edifice did not give to it his own name.” Come up and see it Bro. Bogardus, and if we don’t give you a hearty welcome for old time’s sake, we will try it. Call soon.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 6 1885

 

The Athenaeum.

We stopped a moment at the Athenaeum, on Tuesday. Preparations are being made to lay the stone sidewalk, by putting in the curbing. Work on the inside is progressing. Painters are priming the woodwork, and graining has commenced. The railing for the boxes and about the orchestra are placed in position. The handsome railing for the stairways leading to the gallery is being put up. The doors about the entrance to the parquette and dress circle are being hung. The racks and slides for the scenery are being put in place and the lower hall is being graveled for cement pavement.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 13 1885

 

Dedicating the Athenaeum.

In response to an invitation of the Board of Directors of the Santa Rosa Athenaeum Company, a number of gentlemen met at the parlors of Occidental Hotel to consult in regard to the formal opening of the building, now so near at hand. In response to this, there were present…

…The building is nearly completed. The seats in the gallery are about finished. At the ends of the gallery circle, nearest the stage, are six compartments on each side the building set apart by railing as mezzanine boxes. Directly below them, at the terminus of the dress circle, are four elegant boxes, two on each side, decorated very handsomely and elaborately.

We have stated that six iron pillars have been placed beneath the gallery, which support it, so that it is no longer suspended from the roof.

The chairs for the boxes, dress circle and orchestra will arrive in a few days. They are on the way. There are 800 of them.

Work laying the scenery is progressing rapidly, and the stage now begins to have the appearance of business.

The painters and grainers are putting the finishing touches to the main hall, and back stairway, and glaziers are preparing the sash for the numerous windows. The wainscotting in the foyer passages, doors and stairways is black walnut. In the banquet, ball and offices, oak.

The patent stone work for the sidewalk and lower portion of the main entrance is completed and is now hardening. Work laying the basalt blocks in the gutter is progressing.

RECEPTION AND PROMENADE CONCERT.

The Committee appointed, as mentioned above, met immediately after the conference adjourned, and adopted the following programme:
1. Overture by orchestra.
2. Prayer by Rev. J. Avery Shepherd.
3. Remarks by the President. B. M. Spencer.
4. Dedicatory by A. B. Ware.
5. Vocal Music.
6. Remarks by R. A. Thompson.
7. Vocal Solo.
8. Closing remarks by Senator G. A. Johnson.
9. Overture by orchestra.
10. Promenade concert and reception.

[..]

– Sonoma Democrat, June 20 1885

 

The Athenaeum.

We were permitted to visit the interior of the Athenaeum on Tuesday, and found Mr. Bumbaugh with a large force of painters at work. The main hall has been most artistically and beautifully adorned, and the work is well done.

We met Mr. C. N. Crouse, who came from Chicago to arrange the scenery and mount it. He showed us the drop curtain, which is the finest we have seen in California, not even excepting the famous one at the Sacramento Theater, “Othello relating his adventures.” It represents a villa in the distance, amidst a beautiful grove with a magnificent garden in the foreground, while the whole is enclosed in gorgeous and elegant drapery. It is superb. Mr. Crouse says that nearly all the scenery is now ready. There are one or two set pieces to be arranged, a bridge forty feet long and a cottage scene.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1885

 

The Opening of the Athenaeum.

On Thursday, Secretary C. A. Wright, of the Athenaeum Company, signed a contract with Al. Hayman, the well known theatrical manager, of San Francisco, to lease our new opera house for three nights, viz; July 2d, 3d and 4th.

There will be presented on these evenings, on the 2d, “Michael Strogoff,” on the 3d, “Lights o’ London,” and on the 4th,the magnificent drama. “The Count of Monte Christo.” The Company of the Baldwin Theater will present the plays, and they will be put on the stage in the best manner possible. The scenery will be superb, all most all new. Mr. Hayman has pledged himself to make the opening a credit to the handsome building, and to sustain the enviable reputation his company has gained. It will all be first class in every particular. The orchestra will consist of seven or eight accomplished musicians.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1885

 

A WORD WITH YOU.

We hate to give advice and absolutely won’t scold, but we wish to say to you that this is a good time to kill the idle street talk we hear about one building being unsafe, and another one just ready to topple over, that the town is overgrown, the land given out, and the bugs have taken the country. In point of fact the croaker is the bug that is doing the most harm just now. His idle talk reminds us of an incident which came under our observation. A plant was growing vigorously in a garden. It was thoroughly in sympathy with the soil in which it grew and the air with which it stretched its limbs, but its young and tender branches were covered with the aphide, a pestiferous parasite that mars the beauty while it sucks the life of the plant upon which it feeds.

Fears were expressed to an old gardener that the “bugs” would kill the plant. “O no,” said he, “it will outgrow those little fellows.”

So will Santa Rosa outgrow the little fellows who go whining about the streets. If none of them die until they are killed by the falling of Athenaeum, or the new Court House, they will survive a hundred years, which would be a greater misfortune to the city than the fall of both those substantial and elegant structures.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 4 1885

 

THE TEMPLE OF ATHAENE
Brilliant Opening of Santa Rosa’s Beautiful Opera House

The youth, beauty and fashion of our fair city were out in force at the opening of the Athenaeum on Thursday evening. It must have been the greatest pleasure imaginable to those of our enterprising citizens who took such a leading part in the construction of the beautiful temple of the muses to hear the exclamations of unfeigned delight which fell almost unconsciously from the lips of nearly all present, most of whom had not seen the interior of the building since the work of ornamentation had begun. The comfortable opera chair, the pleasant Mezzanine and elegant proscenium boxes and the superb decorations on every hand.

THE ATTENDANCE.

Was a pleasing surprise to all. Over one half of the seating capacity was occupied, and we noticed in prominent parts of the foyer representatives of every leading interest in our city, and in the dress circle, parquette and boxes the elegant toilets of our pride, Santa Rosa’s fair ones, lent an air most charming to the most novel and really pleasant scene ever witnessed in the “City of Roses” not less than five hundred persons were present, the gallery was about half filled, and the lower portion more than half filled. The gallery was of anything the most sedate portion of the house.

It was 8:15 when Prof. S. L. Parks’ orchestra gave “a preliminary toot or two,” and then began the first overture, and at its close, B. M. Spencer appeared and introduced Mr. Al. Hayman, who spoke in glowing tones of this new building and referred in eloquent terms to the enterprise of those who built this temple to the muses. He then introduced Miss Phoebe Davies, who read the following prologue:

THE OPENING OF THE ATHENAEUM.
INVOCATION.

[..]

All was enthusiasm. The prologue was read before a scene carefully prepared, and as Miss Davies left the scene, the beautiful drop curtain fell, and was displayed to an audience for the first time. Miss Davies was heartily applauded, and the curtain was the signal for another burst of enthusiasm.

[..]

NOTES.

It was the first time Don Mills’ mule ever greeted an audience.

Sosman & Landers of Chicago painted and prepared the scenery which every one so much admired, and it was mounted by C. M. Crouse, one of the most experienced in the United States, and who was brought here by the Athenaeum Company especially to fit up this stage. He had done his work in the most satisfactory possible.

The drop curtain was designed and painted by a special artist employed by Sosman & Landers, and who devotes his entire time to this class of work. His name is Thomas Moses.

An important feature is the nickel plated gas stand, by means of which the gas in any part of the building can be readily regulated. It was made by H. C. Hickey of Chicago.

The lights are perfection. The huge sun-burner in the center of the ceiling and the numerous side lights illuminate the auditorium perfectly.

Let us whisper to the timid, if any such are left, that each of the seven iron columns under the gallery will support a weight equal to two hundred tons, or fourteen hundred tons in the aggregate. General John A. Brewster says so, and he knows. This is independent of all support from the roof.

Mr. Hayman says we can say for him that we have the prettiest and most commodios [sic] theater in the State outside of San Francisco, and that it is perfect in all its appointments.

The acoustic properties of the building are excellent. Each line was as distinctly heard as could be. There is no difficulty in hearing at all in any part of the building. It is a credit to the architect and contractor, T. J. Ludwig.

The painting and graining by C. M. Bumbaugh, is the best in Santa Rosa.

The drapery about the boxes is splendid and is the work of Doubleday Bros.

We must give credit to Mr. Lyons, who has been the foreman of the construction ever since the foundation was laid, for the evident excellence of his work.

The opening was a brilliant success, and to the Board of Directors and officers…we extend the congratulations and thanks of this entire community.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 11 1885

 

The Athenaeum.

Arrangements were completed on Monday to have a sectional floor put in the Athenaeum, so that balls and parties can be given in the main room. This will make a floor of 100×50, and will contain no seats. It will be completed by New Year’s eve, and has been engaged by the Knights of Pythias for that occasion.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 5 1885

 

New Enterprise.

Mr. O. Howell signed a five years’ lease with the managers of the Athenaeum Saturday morning, for the large storeroom under the west half of the theater, where he will open a central market. It is Mr. Howell’s intention to supply a want long felt, viz: a place where the housewife can do her morning marketing in the one store, or as it should more properly be called, the market. There will be the grocery department, butcher’s stalls, greengrocer’s stalls, fresh fish and oyster department, flour and feed department, poultry and game department and lunch counter, where the farmers and their families, when in town over the dinner hour, can partake of a lunch without the expense of the restaurants and hotels. This market will not only be a great success to its projector, but will be hailed as a solution to the problem of the housewife and busy husband, “What shall I get for dinner?” or supper, as the case may be. Many a lady dreads the Saturday’s marketing, because she knows that she will perhaps have to walk over the whole town before completing her purchases, but when the new central market is opened it will be different; she may do all of her marketing in the one building, and her purchases will be delivered at the same time. Mr. Howell has undertaken no small job in consummating his plans to a successful issue, and he appreciates his situation and enters into it with the determination of making it one of the successful and useful institutions of Santa Rosa.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886

 

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mywifeslovers

THE MAKING OF A CRAZY CAT LADY

Here is another of those important life rules not taught in schools: Should you acquire an extraordinary fondness for cats, once you die you will be remembered forever as a crazy cat person, and only as that.

First corollary: This rule applies only to women.

“Cat lady” has been a cultural touchstone since the Victorian era, even though the most cat-obsessive famous Americans were men. Doubt it? President Lincoln couldn’t keep his hands off any kitty within his reach, enjoyed getting down on the floor to play with them and fed a favorite at the table during a formal state dinner. In 1924 the Washington, D.C. police issued an APB when one of President Coolidge’s four cats went missing while a Secret Service agent broadcast a description over the area’s top radio station. (Imagine the Fox News fury if a President Hillary had done such things.) Sam Clemens could not bear to be without a cat on his Mark Twain lecture tours and took to renting local felines when away from home. Yet curiously, such details of men’s lives are rarely mentioned. Honestly, did you know any of these facts before reading about them here?

Kate Johnson, who died 125 years ago at her mansion near Sonoma, wasn’t known as a cat lady until the end of her lifetime. She was EXTREMELY wealthy (worth the equivalent $70 million today) and spent much of that fortune on philanthropy – most famously, founding what’s now the Seton Medical Center. She was an amateur painter but a professional art collector; for quite a while she owned one of the most celebrated paintings by an American artist, and the collection was so substantial that the auction for the non-museum quality holdings took three days. And on the grounds of the historic Buena Vista winery she and husband Robert built “The Castle,” likely the largest home ever constructed in Sonoma county, centered on a six-story tower with a breathtaking view of the Sonoma valley.

Back to Kate’s cat story in a moment, but there is a book yet to be written about the Valley of the Moon during the Gilded Age, when “San Francisco’s right-fork-conscious new high society” (as Stephen Birmingham called them in “California Rich”) descended upon the valley to build great country estates, where they lived the imagined lives of landed gentry during late 19th century summers. There were stables filled with racing thoroughbreds, private game reserves for hunting and artificial lakes stocked with trout. Grounds were always perfectly tended in competition with Golden Gate Park, which was then being landscaped.

The end of the affluent era was probably marked by the 1904 fire that destroyed Rudolph Spreckels’ mansion at Sobre Vista (although it was rebuilt and in the 1920s-30s mid-1930s his sister-in-law, Alma, again spent lavishly on the estate in a campaign to brand it as the “San Simeon of the North”). But the Gilded Age surely began here in 1880, when Kate and Robert Johnson purchased the 6,000 acre Buena Vista ranch and vineyards at an auction on the courthouse steps in Santa Rosa.

The Johnsons were not interested in wine production, as the sad history of Agoston Haraszthy’s vineyard only demonstrated how risky it was after the grapes on the property were nearly wiped out by Phylloxera. Instead they turned the wine cellars into carriage houses and looked upon the beautiful setting as if it were a fresh canvas. After Kate died, a San Francisco paper described what they had done with the 27 landscaped acres around the house: “…[it] is laid out in the same elaborate style as Golden Gate Park, though on a smaller scale…the fountains plentiful and the flora is the most variegated [sic] in the valley. Babbling brooks run through the grounds. The little watercourses are spanned by rustic bridges of unique pattern…rustic seats ornament the sward at the sides of the walks and drives.”

Postcard of the Johnson mansion at Buena Vista, c. 1900. A later view can be found in the following article

 

 

Then there was the mansion which was completed around 1885 and said to cost $80,000, which would be over $2.5 million today. Alas, there’s little information about it aside from a couple of exterior views. It supposedly had 40 rooms and was “finished in rare and expensive woods.” There is a good chance the state had a set of photographs of how it looked c. 1919, but I am not holding my breath they will ever surface.

Again, this was just their county place; their main residence was in the city at the corner of O’Farrell/Leavenworth streets with 22 rooms – but not that they were there all that much, either. Kate and Robert were often somewhere else buying wonderful things: Art, antiques, and yes…exotic cats.

Kate’s fortune began with her father-in-law, George C. Johnson, a diplomat and industrialist in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. He was the Norwegian-Swedish Consul General until his death in 1872 (one description called him an “unusually pro-Swedish Norwegian,” but I’m unclear if that was a compliment or insult) and among the investors in the Buena Vista winery, being president of the corporation’s board for a year. That was the start of ties between the Johnson and Haraszthy families; before buying the whole ranch, Robert purchased about 100 acres of land in Napa from Agoston’s son, Attila.

Before any of that, George was a sea captain with a bark (a sailing ship with three masts) hauling cargo for the United States government. His last voyage took him far inland to drop off supplies for “Camp Far West,” a small military post on the Bear River near modern-day Wheatland. He ended up berthing his ship permanently at Nicolaus, which was then the Sutter county seat and an important way station for the 49ers. There he became a property developer and agent for the express company shuttling gold dust down to San Francisco. Fifty years later in 1902, a San Francisco gossip newspaper named “Town Talk” printed a tale about how George got his start in Nicolaus; it’s most likely a complete pack of lies, but still a helluva good story:

George C. Johnson came to this city in the early fifties, as captain of a bark loaded with United States commissary stores. He sailed up the Sacramento river as far as Nicolaus, tied her up to the bank, spread out awnings and settled down to take his case. With a whole cargo of stores under deck, and his salary accumulating, he didn’t worry much about the future. There he waited orders for two hole years when inquiry came from Washington as to his whereabouts. Captain Richard L. Ogden was detailed to look him up and the latter found the bark at Nicolaus. The vessel was enclosed with awnings, and going aboard Ogden found Captain Johnson swinging in a hammock, and his wife sitting in a rocking chair. They presented a picture of solid comfort. On inspection the cargo was pronounced worthless for issue. Ogden sold it at public auction. It consisted principally of pork. Captain Johnson bought it in for a dollar a barrel, and after cleaning off the rust and repacking it, he sold it in Marysville for sixteen dollars a barrel. On the capital thus obtained he went into partnership in this city with George W. Gibbs in the hardware business. He became Swedish Consul, was knighted and died worth three million dollars. The wife who in early days had kept a boarding house in Baltimore became one of San Francisco’s Four Hundred. Her only son, Robert C. Johnson, became one of our later day capitalists. His wife, Mrs. Kate Johnson, inherited the estate which had its origin in rusty pork. She was a well known patron of art.

George left an estate worth a million bucks and his son Robert followed the same path, investing in Bay Area real estate and leaving Kate $2 million when he died in Paris in 1889.

Kate’s taste in art seems to have been Roman and Greek antiquities, some Japanese objects and lots of oil paintings, particularly by the romantic ultra-realists who pattered themselves after the Pre-Raphaelites. She did not throw money around like William Randolph Hearst but when she saw something she liked, was known for paying the asking price without dickering. She was said to have paid $50,000 for her most celebrated acquisition: The painting Elaine, which she purchased in 1875 and loaned to a San Francisco gallery, where it was promptly stolen by being cut from the frame. The theft was front page news in newspapers all over the state; when detectives recovered it three days later, crowds mobbed the police station in city hall, leading officers to spread the canvas on a table in front of a window so the throngs could see it. For years afterwards she was referred to in the press as “Mrs. Johnson, of Elaine fame” or similar, and when King Kalakaua of Hawai’i visited San Francisco in 1881 he specifically wanted to visit the Johnson’s home to see the painting.

With such a solid reputation as a patron of the arts, there was probably no surprise in the tightly-knit art world when it became known in 1891 she had given Austrian painter Carl Kahler a generous commission for an oil painting.

The painting was to be a group portrait of her cats.

“My Wife’s Lovers” by Carl Kahler, 1893

 

 

“My Wife’s Lovers” is 8½ by 6 feet and took over two years to complete, as Kahler had to first sketch each of the 42 cats. Also: He had to learn how to sketch cats, having never drawn one before. He was known for portrayals of race horses.

It’s doubtful the painting ever hung on a wall in any of her mansions; the same year it was finished in 1893 it was sent to Chicago to be part of the California building’s “Woman’s Department” at the World’s Fair, which ended just about a month before Kate died of pneumonia at the Buena Vista estate.

The painting must have drawn considerable interest because not long after the Fair opened, an article about painter Kahler and Kate appeared in the Chicago Inter Ocean, which then was one of the most widely read weekly newspapers in the Midwest and West. Here the Crazy Cat Lady myth was born, with its demonstration of the second corollary: Once the C. C. L. premise takes hold, there’s no limit to the exaggerations and outright fibs that can be larded on to prove the craaazzzy.

Written by Hartley Davis – a freelancer who specialized in lightweight articles about vaudeville, the circus and other entertainments – “Kahler, the Cat Painter” was an interview with the artist and included a subhed, “the history of the California cat ranch.” Note the author was so ill-informed as to call the town “Samona”:

The Angoras live in royal splendor at Buena Vista, Mrs. Johnson’s summer residence near Samona [sic]. She has more than three hundred cats with long tails and pedigrees, and there is a retinue of Japanese servants whose sole business is to look after them. To be sure there are several other pets on the big ranch, but they are merely a back ground to the cats. For instance, there is a fine collection of parrots and cockatoos. Their business is to help make life interesting for the cats…Mrs. Johnson has devoted herself to cat raising for a great many years. She has imported cats from Persia, she has bought them whenever they pleased her, and never bothered about the price. Twenty-five of the cats make up her personal court. They are always in attendance upon their mistress…

Shortly after that appeared the San Francisco Call offered its own article on Kahler, headlined “His Queer Ways” and calling him “a very erratic genius.” Included there were anecdotes about Kahler demanding a San Francisco restaurant set up a table for him in the middle of Market street and how he would toss empty wine glasses over his shoulder, building up a pile of broken glassware behind him. The other article described how obsessed he became about painting cats and even took to adding them to his previously finished works. There’s an article about him as a cat painter with other examples showing up from an image search for “kahler cat“.

Kahler may have been eccentric or maybe even outright nuts, but my guess is he was actually trying to project an “artistic personality” for the sake of publicity. And as the sole source for the Inter Ocean’s information on Kate’s cats, it would also been to his benefit to portray the situation at Buena Vista as memorably odd as possible – hey, while you’re at the World’s Fair, be sure to stop by and see my picture of the freakishly pampered pets.

Cat painting is an unusual niche – as well as quite profitable, I’ll wager –  and the Chicago paper described, “now his whole artistic soul is wrapped up in cats.” Kahler died in the 1906 earthquake, but I’ll also bet he never again had to worry about where his next commission would come from. Sad that his good fortune came at the expense of Kate’s reputation.

After she died in 1893 at age 60, the San Francisco Call ran a story on what would become of her “feline family.” According to the reporter – who had no first-hand knowledge of the scene – “the number of these furry beauties exceeds 200” and they “lived placid lives of mouseless but otherwise highly satisfactory luxury and indolence, their every want supplied by attentive servants in delightful apartments of their own under the wide-spreading roof of Buena Vista, her country seat.”

Kate made no accommodation in her will for care of the cats (supposedly she was told pet cats couldn’t legally be considered personal property) but the SF Call mentioned “a certain bequest made in her will is understood by those fitted to ‘read between the lines’ to cover that ground.” The deal was that Helen Shellard, an in-law of her late husband, was to use the $20,000 left to her for care of the menagerie in her San Francisco home.

A profile of Shellard in the Chronicle a few months later found the kitties settled in with her on Telegraph Hill. But there were not 300 of them. There were not 200. There were 32 – still a lot of cats, but nowhere near the epic hoard everyone expected.

In the years that followed, Kate Johnson’s unfair reputation as the Crazy Cat Lady was cast rock solid. The mansion picked up the nickname of “The Castle,” then sometimes the “Cat Castle.” It became widely claimed she had devoted an entire floor of the mansion to her cats. According to a letter that appeared in a 2013 issue of the Bohemian, local tour guides were saying Kate’s prized cats were abandoned and devolved into a feral colony lurking in the corners at Buena Vista.

It’s bad enough that the sketchy 125 year-old cat tales (with new twists added, apparently) are still being told to tourists and written up on the internet, but the real shame is that it has completely overshadowed her real legacy as a pioneer in public health care.

“Kate Johnson, through her own personal experiences, had a keen sense of the suffering of women and children,” says historian and Kate Johnson biographer Barbara Skryja. Through “Mary’s Help Hospital” (which became Seaton) she “specifically directed that all patients were to be treated no matter their religion, race, creed, or nationality” and were to receive the best care available anywhere – free. The hospital had state-of-the-art equipment and she even made sure the architectural layout reflected the most modern thinking. “She researched the latest medical procedures and hospital designs,” Skryja explains.

Unfortunately, what keeps the cat angle in the forefront is that damned painting, which is revered among cat aficionados as if it were something like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Try a Google search for “meowsterpiece painting” and guess what pops up again and again and again.

One reason  “My Wife’s Lovers” is so well known today is because it has been often in the news since the turn of the millenium. (The provocative name might have been another publicity effort by Carl Kahler to sensationalize Kate – although that name appeared in the official World’s Fair report, another 1893 description called it simply, “Cats.”) It was offered for sale in 2002, sold privately later, then bought for $826,000 in 2015. The following year it was exhibited at the Portland Art Museum.

But the painting’s popularity has never wained. After Kate Johnson’s death it was among the finer works sold to the “Palace of Art,” a cafe on Post street which was a must-visit spot for upscale tourists. During the 1906 earthquake it was among the handful of paintings the owner managed to save – although one of the artworks fell on him, causing severe nerve damage to his arm (weighing in at 227 pounds, the cat painting was probably to blame).

In 1917, 20,000 people in San Francisco paid 25¢ to look at it as part of a charity drive for the “Belgian Babies Relief Fund.” In the 1940s it toured the country and remained continuously on display somewhere except for a few years. Along the way umpteen thousands of reproductions have been sold to cat lovers worldwide.

Kate’s mansion near Sonoma sat empty for years, the great white elephant of Buena Vista. It was reported North Bay railroad baron A. W. Foster, president of the California Northwestern, was in talks to buy it for a resort destination but nothing came of it. For a few years after the turn of the century it did become a resort called the “Buena Vista Castle” (rates $10-15/week), then was sold to a man named Henry Cailleaud, who told himself he was a winemaker but wasn’t. The Seventh Day Adventists also toyed with the idea of buying it for a colony.

Then in 1920, when the great mansion was not even forty years old, it found a new use even more controversial than the castle of cats. The state of California bought it for “an institution for the confinement, care and reformation of delinquent women” – which meant housing women convicted of prostitution or related offenses, usually with incurable cases of venereal disease. The town of Sonoma yowled in outrage.

A cablegram states that Robert C. Johnson. of Buena Vista Farm, located in the suburbs of Sonoma, died in Paris on the 6th inst. Last October deceased while traveling abroad, was taken sick in Paris. He immediately cablegramed Mrs. Johnson of his illness, and hastily leaving her affairs in the hands of an agent, she left Sonoma for the bedside of her sick husband. She arrived in Paris the latter part of October and was a constant attendant at his bedside up to the hour of his death. Deceased was a gentleman of large fortune and the owner of one of the finest country estates in Sonoma Valley, upon which he had expended many thousands of dollars for improvements the past few years.

– Santa Rosa Democrat, March 17 1889

 

A NOTABLE WILL.
Generosity of Mrs. Kate Johnson.
MANY LIBERAL BEQUESTS.
One-Third of the Estate To Found a Hospital.
LEGACIES TO HER FRIENDS.
Disposal of an Estate Valued at $2,000,000, In Which Many Claims Are Remembered.

The will of Mrs. R. C. Johnson of this city and Buena Vista, Sonoma County, was filed for probate yesterday. The instrument, which was executed on January 10, 1892, and was witnessed by T. B. Barry, a real-estate man, of San Rafael, and M. Taylor, son of Attorney J. M. Taylor of Oakland, and disposes of an estate valued at $2,000,000, and consisting of real estate yielding a monthly rental of $4500: stocks, bonds and notes valued at $60,000, yielding an annual revenue of $4000; furniture, jewelry, works of art and livestock valued at $40,000, and $2970 in bank. This disposition of this immense property marks both the broad-minded and minute generosity of the late Mrs. Johnson. She was noted for her charities in life, but by the law was enjoined from bequeathing more than one-third of the estate to charity.

The chief munificent bequest consists of the decedent’s city real estate aud art treasures, together with money, making up in all one-third of the estate, to Archbishop Riordan in trust for the foundation and endowment of a free hospital to be located in this city. Thereafter follow handsome legacies to relatives and a long list of friends, the residue of the estate devised to the living sisters and brother of the testatrix and to the heirs of her deceased sister and brothers.

In the list of kindly bequests a number of dependents are handsomely remembered. Among these are servants or former servants, including Annie Goold, Mary and Annie Gill, John Burke, two Japanese domestics, John Goltenburg, John and Maggie Kusel. Helen Shallard, a maiden schoolteacher, comes in for a substantial sum. Joseph Schoer is given a legacy contingent on his adherence to a certain agreement, understood to be a temperance pledge. Each of the servants in the employ of the decedent at the time of her death, twelve in number, is given $100. Father John J Prendergast, James M. Taylor and Benjamin Bangs are nominated executors, with complete authority to realize on the property, and a request that they close the estate within five years after the death of the testatrix. Father Prendergast and Attorney J. M.Taylor have declined to serve, and Mr. Bangs has petitioned the Probate Court to be appointed executor without bonds. Following is the full text of the will: I, Kate Johnson, of the city and county of San Francisco, State of California, do now make, publish and declare this my last will and testament. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Thanking God for bis undeserved mercies and acknowledging my grateful affection for my friend and father-in-law, the late George C. Johnson, through whom I am enabled to make the following gifts I ask all who may receive them to pray for the repose of his soul. I give, devise and bequeath to Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan of San Francisco, Cal., all my pictures and valuable bibelots; also all that certain real property situate in the city and county of Sao Francisco, State of California, and described as follows, to wit: Horner’s Addition blocks numbered 173 and 174, bounded on the north by Twenty-ninth street, on the east by Castro street, on the south by Thirtieth Street and on the west by Diamond street; also my new warehouse, known and deslgnated as the Gibraltar Waiehouse, and the lot on which the same is situated at the southeast corner of Sansome and Gilbert streets; also such a sum of money as will, with the real and personal properly aforesaid, comprise onethird of my entire estate, all ot the same to be held in trust by him to and for the uses. intents and purposes following, that is to say: It being my desire to found and endow a free hospital to be located in said city and county of San Francisco, all said money and property is to be by said trustee paid, conveyed and delivered over to a corporation to be hereafter formed by a society to be composed or the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco and R. C. Tobln, Dr. C. F. Buckley, Dr. W. S. Thorn and Dr. Luke Robinson, or the survivors of them, and such other persons as they or their survivors and successors in their discretion shall elect io fill vacancies la said society; said corporation to be formed under the laws of the State of California; the name of such corporation to be Mary’s Help Hospital; the purposes for which such corporation shall be formed to be to receive endowments and acquire property for and establish, erect, maintain and conduct a free Hospital for all sick women and children of the poor, without regaid to religion, nationality or color, excepting such as the officers of the hospital consider dangerous to other inmates, such hospital to be conducted by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, commonly called tbe Sisters of Charity, under the direction of the board of dlrectors ot said corporation. The place where the principal buslness of said corporation shall be transacted shall be the city and county of San Francisco, state of California, and the number of its directors shall be five and I direct the said trustee, Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan, to pay, convey and deliver over to such corporation when so formed all of the money, property and estate aforesaid.

It Is my wish that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco be a member of said society and ex-offlcio one of the board of directors of said corporation, and that the others of such directors shall at all times consist of one business man and three physicians, and that the medical stiff of the hospital shall have the right to give clinical instruction in the hospital to sludents and graduates of medicine. I give and bequeath my dear sisters, Sarah J. Dlllaye, Elizabeth Henry, Rispah B. Kellogg, and my brother, Herny Birdsall. and to Jane Birdsall. widow of my brother Maurice, the sum of $25,000 each; deducting, however, from portion of Elizabeth Henry the sum of $8000, being the value of a house and for heretofore presented to her. I give and bequeath to Henry Fenton and Brush Fenton, the sons of my deceased sister Adelaide, $7000 each; to Adelaide Birdsall and Ben Birdsall the children of my deceased brother Ben, $12,500 each; to my nieces and nephews, Florence Vann and Florence Vann, her daughter, and Dlllaye Vann. her son; Fenton K. McCreary, Lizzie Welty, Rlspah Phillips, Sarah Feindel, Adelaide Kendal, Elizabeth Bangs, Suzette Birdsall, Kate Birdsall, Grace Birdsall and Bailey Birdsall. $5000 each; to my nieces Adelaide and Katharine McCreary, $10,000 each; to Benjamin Bangs. $5000; to Ida Johnson, the young girl now living with me, $6000, to be invested by my executors and held for her until she shall arrive at the age of 21 years except that they shall give to her from time to time, such sums thereof, as she shall actually require for expenses. I request that Sister Rosalia, the present superioress of the Technical School in San Francisco, be appointed her guardlan, and I give and bequeath to said Sister Rosalia the sum of $5000 to cover all expenses of her living and instruction; I give and bequeath to my frlends. Mr. and Mrs. H. Humphrey Moore, $25,000 if both shall survive me. If only one of them survives me the survivor shall receive one-half ot that sum; I give and bequeath io William Newton of Flint, Michigan, $10,000; io Julia Shaffer Hamilton $8000; to Mrs. Fied Deakin, $5000; to Bertha Kellogg, May Kellogg. Lillian Marsh, Katharine Marsh and Mrs. Grace Gass, $5000 each; to tbe two daughters, if living, of A. H. Ward, deceased, formerly bookkeeper with George C. Johnson & Co., $2500 each; to Julia Steere, if llving, $2000; to Mary and Agnes Cook, daughters of Harriet Cook, $2000 each; to my dear old friend, Annie Goold, $4000; to Mary Gill faithful and true. $5000; to Annie Gill, $3000; to Mrs. Maria Cahlll, $2000; to John Burk of Sonoma, $1000; to lso and Yone Akiyama $3000, io be equally divided between them; to John and Maggie Kusel, $3000 to be equally divided between them; to George, a Japanese boy now in my employ, $200; to Willie, now my gardener, $500; to Lizzie Cunningham, formerly in the service of George C. Johnson, $2000; to Ernest and George Claxton. $1000 each; to Miss Helen Shallard, $20,000; to John Gottenberg, $1000; to all persons who shall be in my service at the time of my death, $100 each; to Father Brennan, now parish priest of Sonoma, $3000; to Father Sasla, $5000; to the Presentation Convent in Sonoma, $5000; I direct my executors to pay to Joseph Schorr $5000 accordlng to the terms of an agreement signed by me March 9, 1802, of which he has a copy. I give, devise and bequeath to my sisters, Sarah J. Dillaye, Elizabeth Henry, Rispah Kellogg, and to my brother, Henry Birdsall, and the heirs of my deceased sister and brothers, Adelaide Fenton, Benjamin Birdsall and Maurice Birdsall, all the rest and residue of my esstate, the said Sarah J. Dillaye, Elizabeth Henry, Klspah Kellogg and Henry Birdsall each to take one-seventh thereof, and the heirs of Adelaide Fenton one-seventh thereof, the heirs of Benjamin Birdsall one-seveuth thereof, and the heirs of Maurice Bhdsail one-seveuth thereof by right of representation. I nominate and appoint Father John J. Prendergast, James M. Taylor and Benjamin Bangs to be the executors of this will, and no bond shall be required ot them or either of them as such executors; and in case Father Prendergast declines to serve as such executor he is hereby authorized and empowerd to appoint some person as executor in his place. I authorize my executors to sell any or all my property, real and personal, which is not hereinbefore specially devised, or bequeathed, either at public or privaie sale, with or without notice, and without any order, supervision or control of any court. 1 request my executors to settle and close my estate within five years after my death. I hereby revoke and annul all other and former wills by me made. In witness whereof, I, the said Kate Johnson, do to this, my last will, sign my name and affix my seal, in the ciiy and county of San Francisco, state of California, this 19th day of July, A. D. 1892. [seal.] Kate Johnson. On this 19th day of July. 1892. the foregoing will was signed, sealed, published and declared by the testatrix therein named, Kate Johnson, as and for her last will. In presence of us and each of us, who, at her request and in her presence and in the presence of each other, do now subscribe our names as witnesses to the same. T. B. Berry, San Rafael. Cal. Montell Taylor, Oakland, Cal.

– San Francisco Call, December 10 1893

 

A FELINE FAMILY.
Fate of Mrs. Johnson’s Many Cats.
WITHOUT LEGAL STANDING.
The Executors of Her Will in a Mild Quandary.
HELEN SHELLARD’S LEGACY
Understood to Cover the Care of the Angora and Other Cat Beauties.

When Mrs. Robert Johnson died, a few weeks ago. she left many behind to mourn her loss. She was a good woman in the truest and broadest sense of the word — good to her family and friends, good to her servants and good to all who, being unfortunate in a worldly sense, appeared to her for assistance.

All these she remembered by generous bequests in her will; large sums of money were left to her relatives; her friends were most substantially remembered; her servants each received a material expression of her good will and appreciation of their faithful services, and as for the poor the fact that she left nearly one-third of her large property to Archbishop Riordan, in trust to build for them a free hospital in our city, shows that they were not forgotten or overlooked.

One thing, however, surprised the community in general when this will, full as it was of loving thoughtfulness for the welfare of others and kindly recognitlon of pleasant relations with her friends, and the humbler members of her household, was made public and that was this: Careful as Mrs. Johnson had been to make provision for so many whom she beloved and valued she had utterly forgotten or neglected to take any legal steps to insure tne future comfort and well being of a large number of dumb friends who had occupied an enviable place in her immediate world during her life.

Not one word was said in the whole carefully considered document regarding the disposal or care of the beautiful Electioneer horses, the valuable Holstein and Jersey cattle, the prize-winning dog, the cockatoos, paroquets and canaries tbat the loving-hearted woman of wealth had gathered around her in her lovely home in Sonoma County. More than this, not one word was said about the little animals which were Mrs. Johnson’s especial pets, the graceful and beautiful cats which lived placid lives of mouseless but otherwise highly satisfactory luxury and indolence, their every want supplied by attentive servants in delightful apartments of their own under the wide-spreading roof of Buena Vista, her country seat.

Of these wonderful cats many tales have been told, but they nave been mostly apochryphal since no Turkish harem is never more jealously guarded from the intruslon of strangers than have always been the rooms devoted to the occupancy of these fortunate feline pets. It has been stated that the number of these furry beauties exceeds 200, and that they are the gentlest, the best trained, the most affectionate and the most altogether lovely of any 200 cats that ever existed, as such they may be since they are the millionaires their kind, and have had every advantage that money could give them since their first advent into this world of cats. Nearly all or them are Angoras — the favorite pet cat of civilization —  but rumor has declared that among them are members not only of the tortoise shell or Spanish family, but of the bluish-gray Chartreuse, the Chinese, with pendulous ears, the tricolored Tobolsk and the twisted-tailed Madagascar breed.

However true this may be, certain is that Mrs. Johnson was very fond of every member of her numerous feline family, and that while she lived they suffered for nothing for which the heart of the most pampered cat could wish. Now, however, that the kind mistress to whom they were each and all so dear is no longer here many have wondered how it will fare with the pets that she can no longer care for. Dogs, horses, cows and birds have a special value both in the eye of the law and in public estimation, but cats are in a way outcasts. They are not legally property and although one can give them away they are notoriously averse to such a procedure themselves, and do not easily transfer their affections to strange people, while strange houses are an abomination in their eyes to be deserted at the earliest opportunity. So it is that cats in wholesale quantities are hard to dispose of satisfactorily, and so it is that the executors ol Mrs. Johnson will find themselves, as one of them expressed it yesterday, “with a lot of white elephants on their hands.”

Although Mrs. Johnson made no written statement in regard to her wishes concerning her cats, a certain bequest made in her will is understood by those fitted to “read between the lines” to cover that ground. Miss Helen Shellard, a connection through marriage of Mrs. Johnson’s family, is a beneficiary to the amount of $20,000, and it is stated that a portion of the income of this sum is to be used by her in caring for the cats and kittens of Buena Vista.

“We are in a rather peculiar position as regards these especial animals,” said one of the executors when inquiry was made concerning them, “Miss Shellard will probably take charge of them eventually, but as it is no small task and expensive to look after and feed so many in the way to which they have been accustomed, it will not be possible for her to do so until she comes into her legacy, which may not be for some months yet, as legal processes are slow. We wish to get an order from the court allowing us a certain sum for their maintenance until the property is settled, as is done in the case of livestock in general, but cats do not come under this head, there are no property rights in such animals, legally they do not exist, therefore it is very doubtful if any such provision can be made for them. Certain its, however, that they will not suffer, as Mrs. Johnson’s relatives would alter nothing of that kind, although as far as the estate is concerned they have legally no right to any share in it.”

– San Francisco Call, December 31 1893
A COLONY OF CATS.
Miss Shellard’s Family of Angoras.
Bequeathed to Her by Mrs. Johnson.
Thirty-two Felines Find Shelter and a Happy Home.

In one of those old residences on Telegraph hill, facing Montgomery street, between Union and Green streets, lives a refined woman, Miss Helen Shellard. Miss Shellard has unwittingly become the subject for gossip in the neighborhood, not because of any special act of her own, but because of the presence in her house of a colony of Angora cats, a sight of which would make a fancier turn blue with envy. There are cats in the parlor, cats up stairs, cats down stairs, cats outside, cats everywhere, presenting in their entirety a collection of felines never before seen in a private residence anywhere.

“Everybody who passes the house,” said Miss Shellard to a CHRONICLE representative yesterday, “stops and tries to get a peep at my pets. When I go to the door the boys yell, ‘There goes the woman with 200 cats and twenty thousand a day!’ The impression has gone abroad that I have 200 cats in my house, but the number is actually thirty-two.”

Miss Shellard explained that the cats had belonged to Mrs. Johnson, the millionaire, who dies some months ago. Long before her death Mrs. Johnson had intended to make some provision for her feline pets in her will, but she was advised that this could not be done, inasmuch as cats were not recognized in law as personal property. This grieved Mrs. Johnson sorely, and she often spoke of her pets to Miss Shellard, a distant relative of the deceased. She expressed the hope that Miss Shellard would take care of the cats after her death. Miss Shellard promised to do so, and in conse- [text missing] she showered with impartial freedom upon them.

“As a luxury,” said Miss Shellard, “these cats are expensive and troublesome. I have been in possession of them only since February 1st, but I have become so attached to them that I would dislike to part with them. People visit me every day with offers to purchase some of them, but I have so far declined all offers. They were a legacy to me, and as such I hold them to be sacred.”

Owing to a report that Miss Shellard had 200 cats on the premises the neighbors were beginning to protest with vigor, but when it became known that the number was actually thirty-two their visions of sleepless nights were soon dispelled, and tranquility was restored.

– San Francisco Chronicle, March 13, 1894
PATRONS OF ART.
Another Feast of Rare Chances.
A Sacrifice of Miscellaneous Art Works Will Follow the Gems in Oil.

The auction sale of Mrs. Kate Johnson’s art collection was resumed yesterday at Golden Gate Hall, with no visible decrease in the two former days’ attendance. If anything there were more ladies present than usual, the sale of rugs, works of art and miscellaneous articles other than oil paintings, being sufficient to draw them thither in large numbers. Most of the paintings disposed of on the day previous had been removed from the hall during the forenoon, and in consequence the exhibition feature of the sale was in a large measure destroyed.

There was no improvement whatever noticeable in the bids offered and accepted. The new-comers were determined to enjoy as big a “snap” as those who had been in attendance from the start, and the latter showed no indication of bidding any higher than usual, even tor the sake of downcast art. One of the paintings passed on thhe previous day was the first to be sold. It was Hugho Fisher’s “Returning to the Fold,” and was purchased by Christian Weiss for the sum of $175. Keith’s productions brought extremely low prices and Tom Hill fared no better. His large canvas, “The Saco River, Maine.” which was valued at $5000. was purchased by Edward Bosqui for $800, and one of Keith’s twilight landscapes became the property of E. E. Potter for $100. Schmitzberger’s painting, “Dogs and Cats,” was one of the gems ot the collection and was purchased by Frank J. Sullivan for $100.

The collection of paintings was disposed of during the afternoon, and the evening was devoted to sacrificing the plaques, Japanese screens and the magnificent Persian and Turkish rugs.

Following are the purchasers of the more valuable oil paintings and water colors: Water color, Summer landscape, by R. M. de Longpre, Mrs. John Wise, for $110. Oil painting, landscape, by Keith, C. W. Tuttle, for $60. Oil paintging, Rustic Bridge, by Wores Mrs. I. W. Hellman, for $28. Oil Painting, A Narrow Escape, by Schmitzberger, F. J. Sullivan, for $190. A. Keith, landscape, H. F. Fortman, for $190.

The following also secured valuable paintings at a sacrifice…

– San Francisco Call,  November 11 1894

 

ART WENT BEGGING.
Bidding Was Not Brisk at the Johnson Sale.

Rare old Roman marbles, quaintly carved Venetian statues, beautiful bronzes, swords of the days when there were Daimos in Japan and each wore two, and rare old clocks— all, all went under tbe hammer at Golden Gate Hall yesterday at figures that must have made the angels weep. An heroic “Mercury” in bronze was ruthlessly knocked down by the auctioneer for a few paltry hundreds, while any number of exquisite cameos went at prices which were cut as artistically as the articles themselves.

Another fashionable crowd attended the sale of Mrs. Kate Johnson’s wonderful collection of the masterpieces of art, and, while the bidding was lively, competition was not nearly as  keen as it might have been. An immense number of smaller articles sold rapidly, and many mansions in San Francisco and adjoining cities will be adorned by bits here and there of this really magnificent collection.

One of the most notable saies of the day was of the two Venetian carved pieces, “Children at Play,” which were sold to Dr. Bingham for $270.

C. de Lange bid in another fine Venetian piece. “The Maskers,” for $230.

Two beautiful Roman lamps were knocked down for $75 apiece to John Hinkel and E. J. Page. Even the beautiful life-size statue by F. Simmons, the “Promised Laud,” only brought the sum of $450.

– San Francisco Call,  November 14 1894

 

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BEFORE THE PHONE BEGAN TO RING

Millenia from now, historians will puzzle over our love affair with phones. Museums will have exhibits where our distant descendants can handle one of the ancient devices (or more likely, a recreation) so they can marvel that such poor quality sound was once acceptable, and how their ancestors even used the things to send text messages, although the device wasn’t designed for it.

Welcome to 1885.

This is the story of how the telephone came to Sonoma county. It happened much earlier than you might expect – before electric lights (and only shortly after gas lighting was available in the larger towns), before Santa Rosa had a sewer system and even before Petaluma hatched its first Leghorn chicken.

It’s not necessary here to rehash who invented it and when; for practical purposes it emerged when Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Almost immediately, it became America’s first must-have gadget.

As few people back then actually knew what it was like to use a phone (spoiler alert: Faint and muffled sound over crackly connections), wild and silly claims were made about how it was about to transform the world. People who were nearly deaf would be able to understand a whisper. The 1876 New York Times lamented this was the end of the Republic because we would soon all stay at home or in “telephone rooms” listening to live music or great sermons. The Santa Rosa paper griped that a major 1878 San Francisco music festival (see ad at right) would be transmitted by “telephonic connection” to Sacramento but not available for our community to enjoy.

(Lest we feel too smug about the old-timers being snookered with unrealistic expectations, anyone over thirty years might remember the TV commercials promoting the early hype about the internet in 1994 and 1995. According to AT&T, every aspect of our lives would be enslaved to the corporation, using AT&T video pay phones and sending each other notes handwritten on AT&T tablets. The old telecom MCI presented its vision of the future which was more Zen, as a little girl scampered around a beach, pausing only long enough to recite a few garbled remarks about “empowering technology.”)

Sonoma county first got its hands on a telephone in 1878, when the telegraph company commandeered the wire between Santa Rosa and Petaluma for a two-hour demo one Sunday night. Papers in both towns gave it a good review; the Sonoma Democrat remarked “conversations and music on flute and piano were distinctly heard” and the Petaluma Courier said it “sounded as though it was but a short distance away.” Before the official start of the demonstration, however, apparently a wise guy in the Santa Rosa office got on the line (the Courier reporter described it as “a voice that sounded something like a little boy speaking from under a bed cover”) and passed on some juicy gossip. The telegraph company supervisor told him to ignore that as “telemischief,” which is a pretty good word that deserves to be revived today.

The earliest telephones in the county were more like intercoms connecting no more than a handful of receivers. First were probably the 1878 lines in Petaluma connecting the McNear’s store with their mill and family homes; the next year there was a network based at a Cloverdaie station reaching the Skaggs Springs resort and Geyserville. (That included a line to the tavern called “Fossville” where daredevil stagecoach driver Clark Foss would speak to Robert Louis Stevenson, the author struggling to use a telephone for the first time – see The Silverado Squatters.) And there was a wire across the west end of the Russian River, so the ferry could be summoned from the Duncans Mills hotel (“just how much unnecessary yelling – and swearing, too – this arrangement saves, will be known and appreciated by persons living up the coast”).

During the early 1880s more of these customized telephones were installed in Santa Rosa and Petaluma (a man named Parshley apparently did most of the work) but it’s unclear if they were all connected together in a single in-town circuit. My guess is they certainly were, and they used a ring code to let someone know whether the call was intended for them. Nothing about this was mentioned in the papers, however.

 

MORE ON OUR EARLY PHONES

FUTURE SHOCK:1907 (includes “How to Telephone”)
NUMBER, PLEASE
TELEPHONE NUMBERS, VERSION 3.0
GREAT-GRANDPA, THE PHONE HACKER

 

Newspapers in Santa Rosa and Petaluma also displayed a near-obsessive yearning for the thing we could not have: Reaching San Francisco and the world beyond. Probably every weekly issue of the Democrat had some reprinted item revolving around telephones. Sometimes it was an element in the serial novel unwinding chapter by chapter each week, but usually it was the catalyst for a funny item which ended up with someone mortified in embarrassment. A NY grocer couldn’t afford a telephone so he had a dummy made and pretended to take big orders to impress his customers – until he was caught faking a call from a hotel which no longer existed. A San Francisco dance hall promoter thought he was ordering racy posters from a printer but was connected by mistake to the matron of an exclusive girl’s school in Oakland. O, Victorian-era humor, thou art such polite gentle fun, teehee.

Sonoma county’s years in the telephonic wilderness ended in the summer of 1884, when a 7-line phone cable (!) was dropped across the Golden Gate. The Sunset Telephone Company signed up enough subscribers to bring the service through Marin to Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Guerneville and Sebastopol. Rates were never mentioned in the papers but it must have been quite expensive; there were few residential customers – although one of the early home subscribers was consummate tech nerd James Wyatt Oates.

But just as Santa Rosa cuddled up to the idea of talking to people far away, the Democrat announced that it was obsolete – in the very near future we would be typing text messages to each other. “Any One Capable of Manipulating a Typewriter May Easily Transmit and Receive Messages,” read a 1885 headline.

 

 

The article reprinted from the NY World explained, “It is not a verbal telephone, but will supersede that instrument by silently and rapidly recording all messages upon paper.” The reporter claimed, “forty to fifty words per minute were easily sent by a person who was not at all an expert, and received automatically at the other end of the line without errors.”

What was being described was an early teleprinter system, and unfortunately the paper did not mention the name of the inventor or company. If the device really worked as described it was far ahead of its time, as there would be nothing like this available commercially for over twenty years.

It may seem hard to imagine why such a device did not catch on; “its simple and inexpensive construction and the ease of operating it” should have brought it widespread appeal. Its Achilles’ heel, however, was the need to have a dedicated line between the teleprinters, and in that era almost every telephone customer was on a party line. Thus if you texted your sister in Pomona about your lumbago, teleprinters in a dozen or more offices or homes near her might also clatter to life. Because of this weakness, the optimistic 1885 article predicted tens of thousands of new telegraph offices would pop up all over the country to send and receive these texts.

But the telephone endured despite its limitations, and the very idea of it continued to fire imaginations. So exotic was the telephone that scores of paper startups called themselves the “telephone” – the closest to us were in Sausalito and Eureka, but there Daily Telephones and Evening Telephones all over the country. A Santa Rosa barber shop in 1885 even offered a free “Telephone bath” with every haircut; what that meant is a mystery, but on Facebook author Elissa DeCaro guessed it could have meant rinsing off with a handheld bathtub attachment. (The “New Orleans Rub” is also a puzzle, but probably was not naughty at all, sorry.)

A later version of the ad mentions, “A Telephone bath or a New Orleans Rub without extra charge. Hair tonic for sale warranted to cure dandruff and all skin diseases”

 

…Recently some very interesting experiments have been tried on the wires in communicating musical sounds. An instrument called the telephone has been invented, which transmits directly the pitch of a sound to a distant station so that, for instance, when an operator at one end of a wire sings or plays any tune on it it will be heard and distinguished plainly at the other…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1869

It is related that deaf persons, who have great difficulty in nearing ordinary speech, find that by applying the telephone close to the ear they can hear even a whisper with distinctness.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 27 1878

Telephone.—Preparations are making to place several cities in telephonic connection with San Francisco on the event of the grand concert to be given in that city in the near future, that other people may have the benefit of the music without the expense of a trip, in addition to the price of a ticket. Why not Santa Rosa be favored in a similar manner? If Sacramento can hear and enjoy the sweet sounds by means of the telephone, why not Santa Rosa?

– Sonoma Democrat, May 4 1878

 

The Telephone.

Yes, we have seen and heard it, and now propose to tell all about it…We were invited to take a seat by a table, on which was a box about the size of a candle box with a lot of loose wire and other things in it. We at once concluded that this must be the telephone, and having determined before we reached the office to act just as though we had been familiar with such instruments all our lives, we pounced into the chair, and placing our ear just over the loose wire above spoken of, were prepared to hear anything that might be passing. Pretty soon we heard a commotion among the wires and a voice that sounded something like a little boy speaking from under a bed cover. It said look out for news from Santa Rosa, and it came about as follows: Major Clark has quit swearing, taken out a license to preach, and will in a few days be married to one of the belles of Santa Rosa (We wanted to congratulate the Major, but the news kept coming.) Mr. Bridge Williams has become a ranting Democrat, and is giving Col. Byington and his former Republican friends particular thunder for their obstinacy in trying to bolster up a broken down party. (We thought, can dose dings be drue? [sic] But on the news came.)…

… Here Mr. Bayly chipped in, and asked us if we were asleep. We said, no but were receiving some wonderful news from Santa Rosa by the telephone. “Telemischief,” said he; “that is our waste box and we get no reliable news from that. Come this way, sir, and I will show you the America speaking telephone.” We found it to be a little oblong box about six inches in length by four in width and over an inch in thickness. This box having been connected with the wire the fun commenced. We were told to talk, and listen at the little bung hole at the side, in which was the vibrator. We confess to a little trepidation as we put the mysterious little box up to our ear, well remembering the the many times we had been deceived by finding in nice boxes ugly jumping jacks, and not forgetting how that old waste box played us earlier in the evening. However, we listened and heard distinctly what was said by parties in the Santa Rosa office. The music of the flute and the flute and piano together was beautiful, and sounded as though it was but a short distance away…

– Petaluma Courier, May 9 1878

 

The Telephone Wonder.

We are indebted to Mr. P. Drake, manager of the telegraph offices in San Francisco, and to Mr. Doychert, of the telegraph office in this city, for the courtesies extended which enabled us to be present and enjoy the pleasure of an exchange of social courtesies with parties in Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, by means of one of those most wonderful human inventions, the telephone. To what extent are we being carried by this power of mind over matter? From the time that Franklin flrst bottled the lightnings from the clouds, what wonderful, awe-inspiring inventions have been brought forth to reduce the lightnings to subjection and render them subservient to the will of man. Morse came with his telegraph, and improvement after improvement followed, until now it spans a continent with its wires, and enables us to annihilate time itself in the transmission of news along its wires through the unfathomed waters of the mighty deep from the eastern to the western, and from the western to the eastern shores of a great ocean. And now comes yet another wonder in the telephone, by which we are enabled to converse, not in character, or simply by sound, but by words actually spoken, which fall upon the ear with a distinctness that satisfies the doubts of the most skeptical.

Mr. Drake brought telephonic instruments to our city with him on Saturday evening, 4th inst., and a trial of their powers was made between the railroad depot and the telegraph office in this city, a distance of about a half mile, with but imperfect success. But Sunday evening communication was opened with Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, with the most perfect success. Conversations and music on flute and piano were distinctly heard at either end, and duly applauded by the clapping of hands, which was listened to with delight on the part of those present. The Mocking Bird, played upon the flute by Mr. Felix Brown, of Santa Rosa, was distinctly heard, recognized and encored by those listening in Petaluma; and the playing of a flute and singing and whistling in Petaluma were distinctly heard and applauded in Santa Rosa. Mr. A. E. Shattuck on the piano, accompanied by Mr. Brown, on the flute, were distinctly heard in Petaluma, and requested to repeat time and time again. In order to test more fully the powers of the wonderful instrument, we were told to read a piece of poetry. In compliance we recited a few lines from that beautiful and affecting poem, “Mary had a Little Lamb,” etc., with a concluding, “How is that for high?” and were gracefully complimented with the response coming back distinctly, “Way up!” These tests were continued for full two hours, when good nights were spoken, and the wonderful machine was disconnected from the wires and all parties retired for the night. We hope in the near future to be able to be present at a test between San Francisco and Santa Rosa. If this wonderful machine will transmit words distinctly sixteen miles, why not at a distance of fifty miles; and if at a distance of fifty miles, why may we not annihilate space and have a direct talk with the Emperor of China relative to the speedy removal of his Celestial subjects from the confines of the golden State? The rushing, pushing, traveling American, has already a world-wide reputation as a talkist. What will be the result when he enters the field fully equipped with telephone and phonograph? (The fact is, we shall be able to talk the stone Sphinx into a perspiration and make him shake his head in wonderment.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 11 1878

…The telephone of which I spoke in my laat letter is now up, and has been in successful operation during the past week between here and Geyserville. This morning connection was made to Cloverdaie and and as there is a telepone from there to the Geysers, we are in speaking distance of those springs. Every word spoken at Geyserville or Cloverdaie is as distinctly heard in the office here as if the persona were in the same room carrying on a conversation.

– Sonoma Democrat letter from Skaggs Springs, July 19 1879

…Those of your readers who have to cross Russian River by the ferry, near its mouth, will be glad to learn that a very good telephone has been placed there. When they come to the river bank, a call, in a natural tone of voice, is instantly heard in and answered from the hotel opposite. Just how much unnecessary yelling—and swearing, too—this arrangement saves, will be known and appreciated by persons living up the coast.

– Sonoma Democrat  letter from Russian River Ferry, April 24 1880

Van Alstine & Swanton, who have put up several of Parshley telephone lines in Petaluma, came up Friday, to put up a line to connect Ludwig’s business office with his lumber yard, but had to postpone the matter in consequence of bad weather. They will return as soon as it clears up, when an opportunity will be given all who wish, to avail themselves of this great convenience.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1 1883

Hello! San Francisco. — Mr. T. J. Gallagher, agent for the Sunset Telephone Company is in this city for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of establishing telephonic communication under the auspices of the company he represents. This company has just completed a circuit which includes Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, Vallejo, and all the adjacent town and villages with the metropolis, and they expect to connect Santa Rosa, with the same general system. Mr. Gallagher has met with great encouragement in Petaluma, and does not doubt that he will secure the requisite number of subscribers here to justify the company in establishing itself here. There is no doubt that the presence of a system of telephones, both here and in connection with San Francisco, would be a great convenience.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 22 1884

The sum of $400 has been raised to construct the telephone line between this city and Sebastopol. The estimated cost is $600.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 22 1884

The Telephone. — The right of way has been secured for the telephone line between here and San Francisco, and the wire will be placed between here and Petaluma in the course of a few weeks. The cable to extend from San Francisco to Point Tiburon is being manufactured. It is expected that by the time the cable is completed, the wire will be up from here to Point Tiburon, and it will only be a month or two until residents here can “hello” to friends and acquaintances in San Francisco or Petaluma.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 26 1884

Messrs. Lawrence and Delaney, of the Telephone Company, are in town, and report that companies of men are at work in three places on the line–one between this city and Petaluma, another between San Rafael and Petaluma, and the third between San Rafael and Point Tiburon. The line between here and Petaluma will be in working order in two weeks. When the line is completed, the cable will be ready and laid, from Point Tiburon to San Francisco. It will contain seven wires, and will be similar in all respects to the one which now connects San Francisco with Oakland.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1884

Hello, Petaluma! The wires for the telephone are being attached to the poles, which are all in position, and it is thought that we can talk with our neighbors this week.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 28 1884

A telephone message to the Democrat, dated Sacramento, January 20th, says: The Republican caucus met to-night and nominated Governor Stanford for United States Senator on the second ballot.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 24 1885
 
ANOTHER TRIUMPH. TELEGRAPHY REVOLUTIONIZED AND THE TELEPHONE SUPPLANTED.
Any One Capable of Manipulating a Typewriter May Easily Transmit and Receive Messages Over a Telegraph Wire—Details. [New York World.]

A new application of electric science has been made here that promises to go far toward revolutionizing telegraphy and supplanting the telephone in popular favor. It is nothing less than the discovery of means by which anybody capable of manipulating an ordinary type-writing machine may, with equal ease, rapidity, and precision, send and receive messages over a telegraphic wire. Should this invention do all that is claimed for it, and, indeed, that it seems fully capable of, there seems to be no good reason why the places of expert Morse telegraphers may not be filled everywhere by girls, clerks, expressmen, station agents and other non-experts, so at once reducing greatly to the public the cost of telegraphy and increasing facilities by the establishment of at least 40,000 new telegraph offices throughout the country in places where they have not heretofore been. For reasons best known to the company controlling this most important invention its operations have until now been kept a secret. The office and operating rooms, have been carefully guarded against reporters and the men interested have been as closemouthed as if it had been a political mystery instead of a step in progressive science that they were concealing. However, the writer found means to be present at a series of exceedingly interesting tests of the practicability of the new system, which constituted an entirely private exhibition.

The distinguishing features of the new system, are the entirely novel transmitter and receiver employed. Those two instruments although put near together here upon a table, have between them about a hundred miles of ordinary telegraph wire coiled about the room, through which their connection is made. In point of fact the transmitter and the receiver are exactly alike, the same machine serving for either use as required. Its front is almost the same as the keyboard of a caligraph or typewriter, the letters of the alphabet and the numerals are in high relief. Behind this is a vertical column, around which blank paper is placed and by a simple mechanical device moved up line by line as desired. The paper almost touches the lettered face of the wheel. A small inking roller governed by a spring supplies color to the lettered wheel. Inside the column is a small hammer that strikes the paper against whatever letter may be directly before it and so prints it upon the surface of the paper. All that seems simple enough.

The mystery is below, in the intricate and delicate electrical attachments which variously graduated currents are led over the thirty-eight or forty wires from the keys to the printing apparatus, and at the same time to a connected instrument far away to record both simultaneously and with perfect accuracy on every key that is struck. The wire connecting the instrument is single, but those graduated currents not only pass along it without confusion, but even meet in opposite directions at the same time. This was fully demonstrated in the tests. The touching of a key instantly produced a letter upon the paper of both instruments, and letter after letter followed as rapidly as a skillful type-writer operator could touch the keys until many messages had been exchanged. It was observed that the wheels, when retrogression in the order of the alphabet was necessitated, whirled clear back to a fixed point each time, as the wheel of a “gold and stock indicator” instrument does, but it moved with much greater rapidity and so little affected transmission that forty to fifty words per minute were easily sent by a person who was not at all an expert, and received automatically at the other end of the line without errors.

One of the gentlemen connected with the new enterprise–one, by the way, of high standing as a practical electrician–said concerning the novel invention: “The distinctive advantages claimed by this system overall other telegraphic, telephonic and typewriting instruments are in its simple and inexpensive construction and the ease of operating it. Any person who can read can transmit and receive messages through it as correctly as could the most experienced expert Morse instrument. It is as rapid as it is accurate, and all messages by it being automatically printed, both at the point of transmission and that of reception, they can be received with safety and reliability in the absence as well as to the presence of the recipient. The recording of messages at both points precludes all questions of errors in transmission. It cannot be read by sound, and is consequently the only method for preserving privacy in electrical communication. It is at once a stock indicator, telephone, and type-printing telegraph. For railroad and express companies, bankers, brokers, marchants, and all commercial purposes—it being adjustable to any system of wire communication and capable of working with any number of tributaries—it is of inestimable value. It is not a verbal telephone, but will supersede that instrument by silently and rapidly recording all messages upon paper. There are no formidable complications in its construction, and it is regarded by expert electricians as a wonderful achievement.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 6 1885
New Telephone Line.

The work of constructing the telephone lines between this city and Sonoma via Glen Ellen will be begin in about thirty days. The enterprise was subscribed to liberally by the citizens of Sonoma and Glen Ellen.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1886

 

Hello, Eureka!

The Sunset Telephone Company is preparing to extend its line clear through from Santa Rosa to Eureka. The poles are heieg rapidly gotten out and the line will Iw* speedily completed. The connection with Eureka will greatly enlarge the telephone business at the Santa Rosa exchange, The Eureka station has 400 subscribers and all their San Francisco business will have to be handled through the Santa Rosa station, which manages all the territory north of Petaluma.

– Press Democrat,  April 23 1898

 

The New Telephone Directory

Telephone subscribers will today receive a new directory card and will find It very useful. The new directory gives the names and “numbers” of every subscriber, together with the names of the agents and’ the public stations in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. During the past year communication by telephone has been greatly increased in both counties, until now almost every place in both counties, in town and hamlet, or neither, there is a telephone station. The efficient manager of this district is J. J. Barricklo of this city. The past year has been a very busy one for him.

– Press Democrat, December 29 1900

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