In another world Luther Burbank would be forgotten today; only in the most comprehensive county history books might you find mention about him as a wholesale purveyor of novelty seeds and saplings and cactus paddles.

In that same world the residents of the Bay Area would recognize Santa Rosa by name but think of it as a smallish county seat like Martinez, or a place you must pass through to go somewhere else.

Here’s the executive summary of how it turned out instead: In the early 1900s, Burbank became one of the most famous people in America and tourists flocked to Santa Rosa for a look at his celebrated gardens.

There’s lots more to the story, of course. It didn’t happen overnight and followed years of hard work by Burbank to produce a steady stream of new hybrids. While Burbank’s name was always well known to readers of gardening newsletters and farm journals, by the mid-1890s he was increasingly appearing in mainstream newspaper and magazines being described as a “wizard” of plants. And once he started being wizard-ized in those Sunday features, Burbank and Santa Rosa became famous together.

Take a look at the graph below which compares how often Santa Rosa was mentioned in an article about Burbank and how many times he was called a wizard – from 1899 onward, they increase nearly in lockstep.1

Newspaper articles about Luther Burbank with mention of Santa Rosa or being a "wizard" between 1890 and 1905
Newspaper articles about Luther Burbank with mention of Santa Rosa or being a “wizard” between 1890 and 1905

That newspapers and magazines dubbed him a “wizard” of horticulture would not have fazed readers at the time because status labels – boss, champ, tycoon, queen, etc. – were often slapped onto important people. Contemporary to Burbank’s years of wizardry, radio pioneer Marconi was routinely described as the “Wireless Wizard.” Since the 1870s Edison had been called the “Wizard of Electricity” or the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” and when he came to California for the 1915 International Exposition the San Francisco Examiner arranged for him to meet Burbank: “We believe that nothing could be more fitting than that the Wizard of the West should extend welcome and greeting to the Wizard of the East on his visit to California” (see “EVERYBODY WANTS A PIECE OF LUTHER BURBANK” for more).

The Wizard-Burbank label was so commonly used it was like a #hashtag on social media today, creating a trail of breadcrumbs for us to track his growing fame. And there certainly was a clamor from the general public for more stories about Burbank. Every new profile of him or article about his latest plants was sure to be reprinted elsewhere; by 1904 newspapers in 35 states had at least one story about him, and frequently more. Also by 1904, over six thousand fans were making the trek to Santa Rosa every year to get a glimpse of the wizard and his garden – much to his dismay.

Two men prepped the groundwork for Burbank’s eventual ascent to celebrity: Edward J. Wickson and Warren Dutton.

In 1881 Dutton – an investor, banker and co-founder of Tomales – had a ranch he called “Roseland” centered on Dutton Ave. (Yes, it’s the same Roseland district and yes, the street was named after him.) He had a notion that Sonoma County could become the prune capitol of the West and asked Burbank if he could produce 20,000 trees in a few months. With Dutton’s backing, Burbank leased a large plot of land next to modern-day Juilliard Park and hired a small army of laborers. By the end of the year he delivered 19,500 saplings ready for planting. A biographer later wrote Dutton called him a “plant wizard” for his amazing accomplishment, and as a result “…Burbank was ‘made’ as a nurseryman as a result of his prune tree exploit. He received a vast amount of favorable publicity, even beyond his home state – the kind of publicity that money will not buy.”2

The bones of the story are true; Burbank really did grow 20,000 trees in less than nine months (the final 500 were delivered a little later). But no evidence can be found of Dutton calling him a wizard or even that the feat received any attention at the time. It seems highly likely it would have been written up in horticultural newsletters at least, but nothing about it can be found in digitized archives today, even within the Sonoma Democrat. Burbank himself only wrote obliquely that the work “fortified a reputation for reliability and resourcefulness.”3

Whether or not the prune project brought him recognition, the Dutton contract gave him a much-needed financial boost; in 1881 his nursery brought in more than $1,000 for the first time. Some of that profit was immediately plowed into large costly ads in the Pacific Rural Press promoting specific seeds and plants he had for sale.

Encyclopedic in its scope, the weekly magazine was a must-read for growers and ranchers throughout the western states. It started mentioning Burbank in articles and in 1884 published his deeply sarcastic essay, “How to Kill Fruit Trees.” (“After several preaching on how to make trees live, I cannot be contented until I have given you the improved method of killing them…”) It was a popular piece which can be found reprinted in mainstream newspapers.

More significant was his introduction to Edward Wickson who held the editor’s desk of “The Rural” for 48 years (he also became dean of UC/Berkeley’s College of Agriculture). Wickson – who we’ll meet again in a moment – became Burbank’s first important booster. He was up here in 1887 and Burbank took him for a buggy ride through Rincon Heights that left the agronomist wonderstruck:

…We never realized before the extent and beauty of Santa Rosa valley proper as dearly as it appeared from the point mentioned; then beyond this were glimpses of the tributary valleys; then one began to search out different features of the landscape; Santa Rosa, with its straight streets, imposing buildings and bowers embowered in green; then the varying hues of orchard and cornfield and vineyard recurring in endless variety as one passes rapidly from one point of view to another. We cannot adequately describe the beauty of the scenes…

1888burbank(RIGHT: Luther Burbank 1888 portrait)

Interest in Burbank and his plants slowly picked up in the late 1880s, including a profile in The American Florist trade journal. An article about his gladiolus from The American Garden magazine was reprinted in many papers. He finally received major national recognition through an 1890 feature in The Rural New Yorker; despite its provincial name, the magazine was read coast to coast as a squishy general-interest “journal for the suburban and country home.” The 700-word article – complete with three illustrations, including a portrait of Burbank – pitched him as a scientific genius: “In this veritable Garden of Eden nothing is impossible, for the science of the masterly gardener has been able to make nature produce any sort of tree or shrub, plant or fruit, almost at will.”

Like other nurserymen, he had a catalog of things for sale to the public – for a few pennies he’d send you something like a graft cutting for a Japanese plum or an Easter Lily bulb. Like the rest of his competitors, he might have shuffled on doing that for the rest of his life, earning a comfortable income. But in 1893 he did something that seemed utterly mad.

He canceled the seed catalog and published instead “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers,” which announced on the first page “this catalogue is not for public distribution.” Prices now ranged from $150 up to $3,000 for a single plant ($3,000 was the equivalent of over $100k today).

This was make-or-break roll of the dice. He was now selling exclusive rights to his hybrids to just a handful of extremely large dealers and betting his reputation was so stellar he could command those prices. His instincts were right, and buyers usually boasted of how much they paid in their ads. As one biographer observed, “The price was the publicity…these companies wanted Burbank to be a wizard so they could sell his magical discoveries.”4

He also mailed New Creations to publications here and abroad. This was another clever gambit; the astronomical price tags made an unstated claim that as a horticulturist he had no peers. Hey, I’m an extremely newsworthy guy, he was saying, and your readers will want to know what I’m doing: “If editors receive a copy it will give me much pleasure to have my work mentioned in a general way, or descriptions given of any or all the new creations…”

And then commenced the wizard year of 1896.

San Francisco Call, March 8 1896
San Francisco Call, March 8 1896

Luther Burbank stepped into the media spotlight at precisely the right time. In the mid-1890s big city newspapers were quickly modernizing formats; gone were pages crammed with long columns of text, unbroken only by display ads and occasional engraved portraits. The new style was more visually appealing, such as the headline above. Photographs were used whenever possible and another thing that set the New Creations brochures apart from others was Burbank’s frequent use of photos. Being able to show readers his plants and fields was another incentive for editors to present stories about him, and it appears Burbank even loaned out the halftone plates from New Creations to make their editorial decision dead simple.

At the same time changes were underway in what Americans were reading and where they found it. That was the golden age of newspaper Sunday supplements, presenting longer articles often written in a more literary style and accompanied with multiple illustrations. Nationwide coffee table magazines were also exploding in popularity, eclipsing the older single interest journals. There any topic was welcome, particularly if it concerned some wonder of the age, such as horseless carriages, modern architecture or x-ray photography. Both the supplements and magazines were fertile ground for writers to hype Burbank’s “Garden of Eden” and those articles were invariably reprinted or excerpted in newspapers around the country.

America was introduced to Burbank the Wizard in an 1896 Sunday feature published by the San Francisco Call.5 (All articles discussed here are transcribed below.) Unlike some of the other writers, this author actually visited Burbank and even toured his Gold Ridge Farm in Sebastopol (although that bit about the town’s “picturesque villas” gives me some pause):

…Though it is barely spring the ground is warm to the feet and the sun streams like a flood from the unclouded east. Upon every hand is an ineffable landscape — a sweep of plain, oak-islanded in fields of emerald grain, round-backed hills, grassy between clumps of trees or wearing a striped livery of grapevines, green notches in the slopes, where picturesque villas nestle, orchards whitening with blooms, and over all a sympathetic calm and softness in the air which adds an almost human tenderness to the lengthening of the March days…

That article centers on a lengthy anecdote about two tourists dropping by and expecting him to give them a garden tour. Mistaking him for a laborer, he played along and told them, “Mr. Burbank is very busy and has given positive orders that he is not to be disturbed, but he will not mind if you look at the flowers.” Later they were chagrined to discover who he was.

Burbank was famously affable with reporters and it’s easy to imagine him amusing her by sketching out such a story, but all the added details and dialog found in the Call article would be considered unethical today. She also lifted a quote from the 1893 New Creations without credit and worse, rewrote it into hick dialect as if Santa Rosans spoke like Jed Clampett’s lesser kin. Asked by a visitor if he knew Burbank, an “old farmer” supposedly said:

I worked fur him once nigh onto a year. He’s a mighty cur’ous chap — sold out a big nursery that was payin’ well, an’ went to raisin’ acres an’ acres o’ stuff, an’ every summer digs ’em all an’ burns ’em. I wouldn’t give a hundered dollars fur the hull kerboodle.

1894burbank(RIGHT: Luther Burbank 1894 portrait)

Besides his wizardry, Burbank was also christened the “Edison of Plant Life.” That can be traced to the Santa Rosa Republican, which also called him the “Wizard of Horticulture” and “Wizard of Agriculture” in the same article for good measure. Oh, and he was like Shakespeare, too. That article was reprinted on the East Coast and the Edison handle became the runner-up moniker for Burbank.

There are too many wizard articles from that period to discuss them all here, and Burbank’s scrapbooks contain some where the source can’t be identified. But a couple of entries stand out because they run neck and neck for the WTF finish line.

The New York Journal was Hearst’s flagship, so you know off the bat to expect some wacky, sensationalist twist to its Burbank profile. (An adjacent story was headlined, “Mexico Used to Have An Edible Puppy.” Yes, dogs were a food source to the Aztecs but it’s more complex than that.)

The uncredited Journal article was written by someone who clearly had not visited Burbank and appears to not have even done any research, aside from scanning a few other articles for plant names. The writer claimed Burbank had plums 12x the normal size and pears as large as watermelons. On his farm could be seen “80,000 unnamed types of lilies,” including some so small they could only be examined with a microscope.

Burbank surely had a belly laugh over the Journal’s claim he hated money. “He works for purely scientific cause, and refuses to receive wealth or court fame. In fact, he so persistently refuses money for his products that he has come to be looked upon as somewhat of a crank.” Like the other Sunday supplement features, this dreck was reprinted widely.

The other problematic Sunday feature appeared in an 1897 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, another Hearst paper. (Starting to see a pattern here?) This time the article names its writer as Allan L. Benson, who was freelancing at the time and later became the Socialist Party’s candidate for President in 1916.

That story has the usual sort of clueless nonsense, such as describing Burbank wearing the “coarse, homely clothing…of a common laborer” when we all know old Luther never touched a shovel without wearing a proper starched collar, tie, and Edwardian waistcoat. Another major gaffe was claiming young Burbank’s “instructor” had been Louis Agassiz, a zoologist/naturalist who was the most famous science educator in America during the mid-19th century. Burbank actually did know the man when he was growing up but as Agassiz was a creationist who rejected the theory of evolution, his views were antithetical to Burbank.6


Five times (and I suspect more) the PD has insisted the Examiner story was the very first major article about Burbank and should be credited with launching his celebrity reputation, sometimes casting it as Burbank being “invented” by a Santa Rosa reporter. Gentle Reader knows the Examiner was far from being the first paper to hail Burbank as someone remarkable. Other errors in the various retellings backdated the feature to 1895 instead of 1897, specified it was a $5,000 contract to breed a tea rose and that the article was a thousand words (it was really about 4x longer). But the greatest mistake was the supposed debut story was authored by PD writer Herbert W. Slater – a false claim which appears in some of the Burbank biographies and even in Slater’s 1947 obituary.7

I’ve always held Slater in the highest esteem among old-time journalists, and not limited to just those working in Sonoma County. When they laid the cornerstone for the new courthouse in 1908, his speech did not underplay the raw horror of the earthquake’s aftermath: “…Delay meant death; death from the smothering dust; death from the cruel weight of beams, planks and stone; and worse than all, death from the cruel flames which were already bursting forth…” Read the speech; it was as close as we’ll come to having an honest picture of what happened in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906. Ernest Finley, his own editor at the PD, could scarcely bear to mention his remarks.

Since it was Benson’s byline on the Examiner article, it was personally distressing to think Slater might have stolen someone’s credit. I discussed this issue with Gaye LeBaron who pointed out he worked on the side as a stringer for the San Francisco paper. (It’s essentially a research job, collecting info and quotes to be folded into an article written by somebody else.) Slater and Burbank were also close friends.

And if you read the article closely, between all the prattle about a fictional tulip there’s a section written in a less overwrought style. It includes lengthy quotes from Burbank about how he would create such a rose hybrid plus a few tidbits about his recent doings. That part of the story adds up to about 1,000 words.

In sum: It appears Herb Slater wrote about a quarter of an article that really wasn’t very important in the Burbank canon.

It’s easy to imagine how the fable was invented over the years, from a mixup over Slater contributing only part of the article to details being munged as they were retold around the newsroom over generations. The story was also impossible to factcheck; the San Francisco Examiner was the elusive Great White Whale of Bay Area journalism archives, with only a single complete set locked away in the Examiner’s offices. The 850 bound volumes were donated to the Bancroft Library in 2006 and only made available on the internet recently.

Herbert W. Slater
Herbert W. Slater

But instead of being the usual (real or fantasy) “Garden of Eden” tour, the Examiner’s story hook was that Charles Hinsdale Perkins – founder of the famous Jackson & Perkins nursery which still thrives today – approached Burbank and offered $10,000 if he could create a yellow rose which would survive East Coast winters.

Freelancer Benson tossed in made-up dialog and description of the event, of course, but what irks is the writer framed the article in a worthless comparison to a minor 1850 historical novel by Alexandre Dumas called “The Black Tulip,” where the protagonist was promised lots of money to create…wait for it…a black tulip.

The novel wasn’t even that popular when it was first published, so why Benson kept looping back to mention it throughout the article is a mystery – unless his goal was really to stretch out the word count. In many ways it brings to mind a 12 year-old ineptly trying to fake his way through a writing assignment: “The book Tom Sawyer is about a boy named Tom. It is short for Thomas who was a disciple in the Bible. The same name is spelled Tomas in Spanish…”

Yet despite its wonky writing the Examiner piece has ended up as the most famous of all the “wizard” articles. Why? Because the Press Democrat built an urban legend based on it starting around a century ago – see sidebar.

As the number of Burbank+wizard newspaper articles ballooned after the turn of the century, it seems likely the same pattern was happening with magazines – but we can’t be sure because there’s no digital database or master index of what was being published in magazine world. But the magazine articles we do know about were particularly important to the rise of his fame.

Most important was a four-part 1902 Sunset Magazine series written by Edward J. Wickson, introduced above as the editor of Pacific Rural Press. It was so popular the publisher turned it into a book, “Luther Burbank: Man, Methods and Achievements.”

Much attention was also paid to a 1904 feature in Scribner’s Magazine. This was a true coffee table-style monthly comparable to The New Yorker today, with contributions from Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton and other top writers. The Burbank article by William Sumner Harwood was illustrated with many original photographs and it likewise became the basis for a book: “New Creations in Plant Life” which went through several printings. Also in this period was a lengthy and more technical article in Popular Science Monthly written by Stanford University president David Starr Jordan and illustrated with photos from Burbank’s brochures.

At the dawn of 1905, Luther Burbank was near the pinnacle of his fame. Many tourists who came to San Francisco for a vacation or convention knew Santa Rosa was only an afternoon side-trip away – and a visit with the plant wizard would impress the garden club back home. Travel bureaus expected him to personally conduct group tours of his gardens. And so the multitudes descended upon him like trainloads of locusts.

It was also a time of great personal satisfaction for him; he was awarded a $10,000 annual grant from the prestigious Carnegie Institution, which seemed to vindicate those who believed he was a man of science.

But by the end of the decade the Carnegie board was wringing hands over what they were calling the “Burbank problem,” and the New York Times carved an epitaph for his popular reputation with the headline, “Doubts Cast on Burbank Wizardry.” The story of all that continues in the Burbank Follies series.


Burbank portraits courtesy the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens Association
Slater portrait courtesy Sonoma County Library


1 The Santa Rosa/wizard graph paints a rough picture but is far from exact. The data comes from what’s available from newspapers.com, excluding publications from Sonoma County but counting reprinted articles. While newspapers.com offers over 23,000 newspapers many important titles have not survived, such as the New York Journal item transcribed below (courtesy the LBH&G archives). Nor does it include magazines.

2 Walter L. Howard; Luther Burbank: A Victim of Hero Worship; Chronica Botanica; Winter 1945-1946; pp. 336-337

3 Luther Burbank Society; Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application; 1915; Vol 12, p. 86

4Jane S. Smith; The Garden of Invention; 2009; p. 120

5 The first time he can be found called a wizard in print was in the Hartford [Connecticut] Courant in 1895, where a local man was interviewed regarding some plants he had purchased from “Luther Burbank of California, who is known as the Wizard of Horticulture.” The article apparently wasn’t reprinted elsewhere.

6 Agassiz was a friend of Luther’s father and sometimes a visitor to the Burbank home, as were other intellectuals in Massachusetts at the time including Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow and Daniel Webster. Agassiz was a white supremacist who believed non-white people belonged to a different species. Yet he was considered a great teacher and mentored a generation of American naturalists, including David Starr Jordan of Stanford. Until 2020 a statue of Agassiz was on the Main Quad at the university, where it famously fell during the 1906 earthquake and landed perfectly upside down with its head buried in the ground.

7 “It was Senator Slater, as correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner, a post that he filled for over 50 years, who first called attention of the world to the great work of Luther Burbank. A story of 1,000 words sent to the Examiner by Slater, and also carried in The Press Democrat, drew the initial spotlight of atttention to the work of the plant breeder and scientist.” – Press Democrat, August 14 1947




How to Kill Fruit Trees.

After several preaching on how to make trees live, I cannot be contented until I have given you the improved method of killing them. The first and most important step is to buy half-dead, sickly, scaly, refuse trees of some honest traveling agent, who, in sweet and mellow tones, will tell you that he is the only person who has a stock of the kind you are looking for, and be sure an get big ones, four years old, if possible. If they have a few boxes ot fruit, all the better; you can sample the fruit, and thus avoid the danger of setting the wrong kind.

The trees will probably be delivered by the aforesaid honest tree agent during some rain storm, when you cannot plant without danger of getting mired, or late in the spring. In either case, expose the roots to the air for a few weeks to harden them, and don’t hurry about planting until the other spring work is done.

Dig an immense hole, say six feet three inches deep…be sure and see that the moon is right before putting the tree in its place. Probably it makes no difference to the moon about the time of digging the aforesaid hole, yet it might be well to be on the safe side…

[…fertilize with green manure…okay to use weeds for ground cover…]

In the fall it will be a pleasant satisfaction to look over the fence at the rank, overgrown trees of your neighbor, and pat yourself on back for your good judgment in following a different plan. LUTHER BURBANK

– Pacific Rural Press, 1884


Fruit-Growers’ Convention.
The Opening Day at Santa Rosa.


An Excursion.

As all things were not ready for a session in the afternoon, the convention adjourned until evening. The writer and P. W. Butler of Placer county had the good fortune to receive an invitation from Luther Burbank to ride with him about the town and over the hills. After viewing the improvements in the way of beautiful residences and grounds, imposing business blocks and miles of well-graveled streets, many of which have been secured since the writer last visited Santa Rosa, a ride was taken eastward, passing the delightful group of residences surrounding the picturesque home of Mark L. McDonald, and thence over the hills into Rincon valley. This pretty little valley we skirted on the west, along a road overlooking it from point to point, until we came to the entrance of the property of Capt. Guy E. Grosse. Thence the course turned westward or toward Santa Rosa, but pursued such a winding way around and among the hills that one could not ask for a drive more varied or picturesque. Capt. Grosse has done a wonderful and important work in reclaiming these rocky and brush-clad hills. He has planted groves of chestnuts, avenues and orchards of olives, and acres upon acres of vines, where a short time ago was a waste of rock and rubbish. The chestnuts so far as we saw were still very small but thrifty. The olives had made a splendid growth and the vines made an excellent show. Here and there is left a strip of land oovered with the most beautiful Douglass spruoe, again a clump of Manzanita, and again a bunch of gnarly old scrub oaks. These breaks of wild nature here and there among the planted growths give a most beautiful variety to the landscape. But the crowning beauty of Capt. Grosse’s enterprise does not appear until one comes to the descent upon the west side of the hills, the first sharp rise above the floor of the Santa Rosa valley. The hillside is so steep that the roadway has to turn sharply upon itself again and again to secure a grade upon which vehicles can safely travel. This coursing to and fro upon the face of the hill gives an ever-changing view of the valley, first, perhaps, far southward to the Petaluma district, then directly westward to the Sebastopol country and then northward in the direction of Healdsburg. We never realized before the extent and beauty of Santa Rosa valley proper as dearly as it appeared from the point mentioned; then beyond this were glimpses of the tributary valleys; then one began to search out different features of the landscape; Santa Rosa, with its straight streets, imposing buildings and bowers embowered in green; then the varying hues of orchard and cornfield and vineyard recurring in endless variety as one passes rapidly from one point of view to another. We cannot adequately describe the beauty of the scenes. We do not know whether Capt. Grosse has a name for this hill or not, but we would name it Panorama Hill, for we can think of no other word which will convey any idea of the extent and variety of its outlook, and this is altogether inadequate, as the highest achievement of the artist is but a far approach to nature’s work.

After descending from the hill, we again crossed the turn and visited Mr. Burbank’s Santa Rosa nurseries, a couple of blocks south of the courthouse. Mr. Burbank has now nearly 40 acres in nursery, and such trees as we had time to examine were surely thrifty and excellent. He is propagating olives extensively, but the demand this year has already caught up with his available stock. We saw the trees of the red-flesh Japan plum which we described recently in the Rural. The tree is a much stockier grower than the Kelsey and ripens its wood earlier. Mr. Burbank has a wonderful walnut, evidently a hybrid between the black walnut and the English walnut, a beautiful tree with a characteristic foliage and an apple scent to the leaves which is remarkable. The tree has not fruited yet; but whatever its fruit, it seems destined to be of note as an ornamental tree.


– Pacific Rural Press, November 12 1887


Luther Burbank — an excellent likeness of whom is presented to our readers at Fig. 66, was born on a farm in Lancaster, Worcester County, Mass., on March 7, 1849. He received a liberal education, and in the fall of 1875 — when a little over 26 years old — moved to California and settled at Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, 60 miles north of San Francisco. Having been from his early years a great lover of fruits and flowers, he bought a tract of land, and started in the nursery business. He also began a series of experiments in horticulture, floriculture and pomology, and so deeply interested did he become in these that, about two years ago, he sold the commercial part of his business in order to be in a position to attend more closely to his cherished experiments. He still retains 42 acres, mostly devoted to experimental purposes. Of this area 12 acres of rich, black alluvial soil 16 feet deep are situated in the town of Santa Rosa. Ten acres of sea-sand at Sebastopol, eight miles west of that place, give, he finds, the best results in comparing and testing new plants. The rest of the land is a mixture of sand and clay — mostly sand — which he finds very suitable for testing fruits.

Mr. Burbank writes us that the results of some of his experiments are as surprising to himself as they are likely to be to others; but just at present he is not in a position to make them known. So short a time has elapsed since he disposed of the nursery department and had ample time to devote to his experimental work that but few things are as yet sufficiently well advanced to justify public mention. One of the best of the 26,000 seedling roses which bloomed on his place for the first time in the spring of 1889, is a very fine new evergreen, ever-blooming, pink seedling Tea Rose, a bush of which is shown at Fig. 68. Mr. Burbank is of opinion that this will prove a valuable variety, though it will be some years before it has become fixed.

At Fig. 67 is shown a branch of the red-fleshed Japan plum, Satsuma, grown on his grounds. This with the new Burbank Plum he finds very valuable and popular everywhere. His crosses between the peach and apricot and Japan plums have curious leaves and growths, but are not yet old enough to bear.

After repeated experiments Mr. Burbank had almost concluded that the common garden bean would not cross with the Lima; but at last success crowned his efforts, and he obtained a pod of four beans by fertilizing the old Horticultural pole bean with Lima pollen, though the form and color of the variety were not changed. When the cotyledons appeared, however, from one-third to two-thirds of the upper end of each of the beans bore the markings characteristic of Lima beaus, while the lower parts had the peculiar markings of the Horticultural pole. The edges of the divisions, like those of uncongenial grafts in trees, were rough and serrated. As the plants grew they were naturally watched with great interest. After a week or more, the separation became complete, the upper or Lima parts dropping off, the plants bearing the usual form of horticultural poles.

Among the curiosities in his grounds are white beans which almost invariably produce black ones, and vice versa. From a cross of two varieties of average growth, some produced vines 20 feet or more in height; while others in the same lot, were so dwarfed that all the pods had to grow horizontally, as otherwise they would have pierced the ground. From seed of the Juglans rupestris fertilized with Juglans regia pollen, he has obtained a walnut with sweet-scented leaves a yard long, having a rapid growth surpassing that of any other known variety of walnut. From present indications, it seems quite likely that further developments of Mr. Burbank’s experiments will greatly interest and benefit both the amateur and professional florists, horticulturists and pomologists of the Pacific coast, and not improbably those of the rest of the country also.

– Rural New Yorker, April 12, 1890


The experimental grounds of Luther Burbank, the originator of the Burbank potato, are within a short distance of Sebastopol, and he is engaged in very important work, which will eventually give to horticulturists superior varieties of Japanese fruits and nuts, upon which with olives, gladiolus, etc, he is devoting all his best energies and a large amount of money in trying to produce from the best already known, kinds that are best adapted to California. Burbank will become as famous in horticulture as Edison in electricity, should his health not become broken by overwork.

– Orchard and Farm, April 15, 1890



CALIFORNIA has a world-noted hybridizer in the person of Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, a man little known on this coast, though hundreds here as elsewhere enjoy the results of his twenty years of devotion to his fascinating art.

Hardly a street-hawker of market produce but oracularly proclaims before our doors the superior merits of the Burbank potato — a variety originated by Mr. Burbank and introduced to farmers by James Gregory of Massachusetts. Then we are all more or less familiar with the extra quality of the Burbank, Wickson, Sweet Botan and Satsuma plums and the delicious honey prune; or have read in Eastern catalogues and horticultural publications glowing descriptions of marvels in hybrid berries sent out from California — the Golden Mayberry, Great American, Primus and Iceberg — all of which are numbered among the “new creations” of Luther Burbank. In fact, the achievements of this scientific specialist in the production of new forms of plant life have made him the wonder of pomologists on two continents. Dr. L. H. Bailey of Cornell University in a recent letter says, “The results of Mr. Burbank’s hybridizations simply astound me,” and Dr. Robert H. Lamborn of New York declares this phenomenal success in plant-crossing to be “the most practical outcome of the Darwinian evolution of thought.” The February number of the American Agriculturist gives an extended account of the life and plant development of this “wizard of horticulture,” and the London Garden takes a lively interest in every new product sent out from the Burbank experimental farm; while a late issue of the Royal Scientific Journal, a Hungarian publication, devotes a sixteen-column article to the “great California plant specialist.”

All this evidence but proves the truth of the old adage that “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” But now that the name of Luther Burbank is honored in all centers of pomological science, Californians are becoming interested in the quiet man who toils early and late on a gentle slope of the Sonoma foothills, his personality almost lost to his nearest neighbors in the prodigious absorption of work to his hand. He was born of Scotch parents in Lancaster, Mass., March 7, 1849, and was sent to school until he was 18, when he learned wood-carving. Afterward finding this work too confining he went to farming on a small scale in Lunenberg. From earliest boyhood he showed a marked aptness for plant study and experimentation, and before he was 21 had sent out the Burbank potato, which was soon widely known as a standard variety. The climate of New England proving too severe for his choicest plants, he sold out in 1875 and came West to Sonoma County, California, which has since been the field of his astonishing labor.

Though kindly disposed and even conciliatory in manner, Mr. Burbank has no mind to have his time wasted by thoughtless visitors, as the following instance will show: One day in June, when there could be seen from the road two acres of hybrid lilies gloriously abloom and other acres of cross-bred gladioli and cannas, all flaming like torches in rows, two ladies alighted from a carriage before the gate and leisurely walked up the garden path. Their exclamations of delight were heard by a man in a stooping posture over an ailing plant. He arose promptly and came forward, dusting his hands meanwhile on a flaring tropical leaf which he plucked by the way. His clothes were of coarse brown tweed, but with a certain neatness about the neck. There was a straightforward look in the blue eyes that faced the unwelcome visitors, and a barely perceptible smile on the pleasant mouth as he bowed gravely. The foremost lady addressed him with airy condescension: “We have driven out from Santa Rosa to have Mr. Burbank show us his lovely flowers. Do please tell him we are here, so we won’t be kept waiting.”

There was no hint of harshness in the gentle but positive answer: “Mr. Burbank is very busy and has given positive orders that he is not to be disturbed, but he will not mind if you look at the flowers.”

And they did look at them, their hands greedily hovering over the strange, splendid blossoms, but not daring to break off a single one while that imperturbable “gardener” kept close to their side.

“I am sorry not to give you a bouquet,” he said, considerately, “but this is the month when people come from great distances to see the nursery, and so we have orders not to cut the flowers.”

His reticence and evident desire to get back to work had the effect of shortening the call, and the disappointed ladies took their departure, each with one rose, which was cut short-stemmed to spare the buds and handed them at the gate as a sort of peace offering. Nor was their chagrin lessened when the driver, an old resident of the country, remarked a little later:

“You ladies was mighty lucky to run across Mr. Burbank the first thing. Most folks as comes oninvited don’t get so much as a sight o’ him — his hull time is so took up with mixin’ plants.”

That was about the truth of it. This “mixin'” of allied species of vegetable life is unquestionably a slow process, necessitating infinite patience and unhindered time. As these experimental grounds are private property, and the plants not for sale at retail, the curious or idle visitor has no justifiable excuse for coming here. On the other hand, an invited guest is sure to meet with a hospitable reception on the part of the master, whose unaffected cordiality and responsive intelligence make him delightful to meet.

An amusing incident is told of how certain local characters regard Mr. Burbank’s erratic methods of running a nursery. A stranger once got off at the nearest railroad station, and, looking about him inquiringly, finally asked a rural-looking individual if he knew Burbank. The old farmer’s answer was graphic and straight to the point:

“You bet yer life I do. I worked fur him once nigh onto a year. He’s a mighty cur’ous chap — sold out a big nursery that was payin’ well, an’ went to raisin’ acres an’ acres o’ stuff, an’ every summer digs ’em all an’ burns ’em. I wouldn’t give a hundered dollars fur the hull kerboodle.”

The stranger, who happened to be the senior member of a large Eastern floral firm, gravely thanked his informant, and the same day went to the Experiment farm, where he selected a half-dozen plants for which he paid $6000.

The Burbank grounds are in two plats; the one on a level ten acres in suburban Santa Rosa, and the other a foothill plantation eight miles west of this lovely valley city, and just outside the quaint crossroads village of Sebastopol. The latter nursery is a veritable wonder garden, covering the eastern slant of a picturesque hill whose summit is tipped with young redwoods and madrones. The choicest plants are grown here, as the place is sheltered from winds and fogs, and the soil is a rich, sandy loam, with an underground seepage that does away with the need of irrigation even in the driest summer, it is not one nor one hundred variations of a plant that is seen, but many thousands of hybrids, all traceable to the same stock and each having more or less of the characteristics of one or both parents. These combinations have been coaxed into being by the patient manipulation of science and the brooding and nurturing of this wizard hill. All countries seem represented here, and in their successive seasons one sees strange, flaring blossoms from Japan, Asia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, with line upon line of their unrecognizable crossbred progeny. There are superb improvements in double clematis, myrtles, giant and dwarf callas, a gorgeous canna that puts to shame the famed “Madame Crozy,” acres of lilies in midsummer, all phenomenal in shape, brilliancy and size. Old species have been broken, cross-fertilized, hammered, as it were, out of former shapes by this “horticultural wondersmith” and made to thrive and flower upon a scale so extensive as to suggest magic rather than the sober work of science. Parent defects are lessened or totally obliterated, and the changed forms embody to a degree of perfection all beauty and desirability in the old. When a flower is too ephemeral the master painstakingly sets about replacing tbe flimsy petals with fleshy, polished ones which are proof against wind and sun. It may take years to eradicate one plant habit or create a new one.

Though it is barely spring the ground is warm to the feet and the sun streams like a flood from the unclouded east. Upon every hand is  an ineffable landscape — a sweep of plain, oak-islanded in fields of emerald grain, round-backed hills, grassy between clumps of trees or wearing a striped livery of grapevines, green notches in the slopes, where picturesque villas nestle, orchards whitening with blooms, and over all a sympathetic calm and softness in the air which adds an almost human tenderness to the lengthening of the March days. A land of opulent orchards, vineyards and gardens, all growing with homely naturalness and not with the artificial luxuriance noticeable in the irrigated portions of California, where nature has always a “dressed-up” air, or, as dear old Alec Macrab of Mendocino puts it, “Nature in a white shirt!”

Here are acres of hybrid berries at Sebastopol farm with every conceivable variation in appearance and habit. A large percentage of these vines are sure to prove comparatively worthless and so will have to be uprooted and destroyed. Out of thousands of seedlings growing here for purposes of selection only a dozen bear the master’s seal of approval in the form of bits of white rag tied to each cane. In speaking of the painstaking operation of testing so many berries Mr. Burbank says:

“Last summer I found the task too much for me alone, so I had one of my men to help. It needs an educated taste to discriminate between slight differences in flavor and one who makes a business of it must have abstemious habits. I make it a point not to hire a man who uses whisky and tobacco.”

When a plant is proved to be of real value it is sold out to wholesale buyers like John Lewis Childs of Floral Park, New York, the Stark Brothers and A. Blanc & Co. of Philadelphia — old firms who have dealt extensively with the Burbank “creations.” A plant novelty of exceptional merit is never a drug on the market and brings a price ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, the originator reserving no rights as to its future propagation. The time has arrived in the history of American horticulture when purchasers of specialties in fruits, flowers, ornamental trees and shrubs are aware that Europe is not the only field open to them, as in late years America furnishes a constantly increasing supply of new and valuable plant novelties.

A late achievement of Mr. Burbank’s, in which he shows pardonable pride, is a thornless raspberry — a cross between the Cuthbert and black cap.

“I have been working for seventeen years to get it, and now you can see for yourself,” drawing slowly through his ungloved hand a polished, leafless vine. “There isn’t a pricker on it, and not a particle of rusty down. Last season it had an abundant crop of mulberry-colored berries of fine quality, though not so large-sized as I would like.”

A moment after he called attention to another “new creation,” which was also in high favor. It was a white blackberry — a vigorous bush of the Lawton type, which bears the snowiest clusters ever known to berry cultivators. The entire stock of this superb novelty, consisting of one strong bush and 300 hardy plants from root-cuttings, was recently sold to an Eastern purchaser.

Among the imported foreign varieties is a magnificent giant blackberry from the Himalayan mountains, the balloon berry from Japan, a showy, inflated shell that bursts with the picking, and which Mr. Burbank whimsically designates “a first-class Japanese swindle,” and the Rubus capensis or Stanley berry, brought here from the interior of Africa. ‘This delicious berry was first described by the famous explorer whose name it bears. Its chief characteristic is its profusion of elegant, brocaded leaves, which make it a striking feature of the grounds.

The best of the Burbank hybrids are produced from crossing standard varieties like Cuthbert, Shaffer’s Colossal and Lawton with the wild berries of this coast. In making selection from the latter it was but natural to begin experiments with the handsomest of these native plants, the thimbleberry (R. Nutkanis), salmonberry (R. Spectabilis), and the Rubus ursinus or wild dewberry. What traveler through the Coast Range but has seen whole mountain sides trailed over with riotous thimbleberries, their large, four-lobed leaves of a fresh, tender green and upholding flatwise white, silklike blooms as big as wild roses. These berry slopes, floating their scarlet, button-shaped clusters in mid June, add unspeakable blitheness to young groves of fluttering oaks and maples. But unfortunately all this suggestive loveliness is proved of no avail to the pomologist; this prettiest of our coast berries is obstinate to improvement, resisting in fact the most indefatigable efforts along lines of pollenization and selection.

Nor is the salmonberry much more amenable to the persuasions of culture, though it is one of the most attractive shrubs of our northern sea-line woods, and certainly worthy of cultivation for ornament. In several instances a cross with the salmonberry has produced a fairly good hybrid, but take it all in ail the results have not been satisfactory. It is reserved for the wild blackberry or dewberry to be the pistillate parent of some of the finest of the new berry strains which, in every instance, excel either parent in size, productiveness and flavor. Oddly enough, too, these dewberry hybrids ripen their fruit several weeks earlier than the original plants, the large spicy flowers being followed in an incredibly short time by rich, glossy berries.

Another attractive line of fruit hybrids are several new varieties of standard quinces, the “pineapple quince.” In speaking of the pineapple quince Mr. Burbank said:

“When it was yet in the seed box I noticed its superiority over its 700 brother seedlings. The leaves had a richer green, and were finer cut and more luxuriant. Last year it showed what it could do in bearing. The fruit was perfect, a beautiful varnished yellow with no touch of the disagreeable fuzziness characteristic of the quince. The grain was fine and entirely free from harsh acid and the flavor a delicious blending of quince with pineapple. It got mellow like an apple and could be eaten raw like one or baked and stewed into sauce.”

In the production of variations in plant life, Mr. Burbank does not stop short of a high rank. He admits that the results of some of his experiments are as great a surprise to himself as they are to others, but is positive no limit can be fixed to improvement in vegetable types if there is a persistent patience and the eye trained to note the slightest deviation in variations. NINETTA EAMES.

– San Francisco Call, March 8 1896



What Shakespeare was to the drama and poetry, Luther Burbank is to the vegetable world. His results are famous in every center of botanical science, not only for their intrinsic value, but for their unusual suggestiveness. Throughout all civilized lands he is known and honored as the “Wizard of Horticulture” and the “Edison of plant life.”

Santa Rosa and the County of Sonoma are better advertised to the world at large by the work which is being quietly carried on by him here than by any other means. He is today recognized by eminent authorities as the greatest scientific horticulturalist of any other age.


– Santa Rosa Republican, June 16 1896 reprinted in Worcester Telegram



The most remarkable farm in the world is in California. Farm it is called, yet it is unlike any other farm that ever existed. It is a magical, ideal spot, where nature is moulded by man; where plants live in a strange, unnatural way. Here giant oaks are made to grow perfect trees, but smaller than the smallest bush; pears are reared as large as watermelons; the gorgeous lily is trained so that it is produced in miniature, so small that it can scarcely be seen, and the marvelous perfection of its delicate make-up must be found with a microscope.

At this farm art has produced such a wonderful change in nature that all the beauties of the world of agriculture and horticulture are shown side by side, but so enhanced, diversified, corrected and changed that in walking through the grounds one comes upon sights that are never seen except in the mystical land of dreams. And yet all this is produced in a most natural way, and is the working out of the ideas of one man.

This scientific farm has been started near Santa Rosa,Cal., and its founder, Luther W. Burbank, has already earned the title of “Edison of Plant Life.” The marvel of it all is that he works for purely scientific cause, and refuses to receive wealth or court fame. In fact, he so persistently refuses money for his products that he has come to be looked upon as somewhat of a crank.

Burbank abandoned a growing nursery business of $10,000 a year to devote his time and energy to scientific research in the world of agriculture. A believer in the laws of evolution, this wizard of agriculture produces his wonders under the theory that all the world is akin, and that the relation between the species is so intimate that by constant artificial selection, which is one of the many steps in the production of new types, the lines of life forces can be changed. Working out this theory to make it practical, Burbank has broken up the old habits of plants, and by a constant struggle inculcated new traits.

The wizard has produced results to startle the scientific horticulturist and farmer of the world. He plants the seed of a known specimen of plant life. Suppose it is that of a common quince, with which he has made vast experiments. It grows and puts forth its fruit. Science is then called upon. Cross-pollination, hybridization follows, and by constant and faithful work the wizard is rewarded by a new and valuable creation.

There are other creations, the usefulness of which is not so readily recognized. In one part of the great garden there is a perfectly formed lily, less than half an inch in diameter, and another snow-white flower of the same variety three feet in circumference. These specimens bloom side by side, yet neither is like any other in the world, and yet they are both of the variety that are seen in normal size every day.

Another change wrought by this pryer into nature’s mysteries is in the prunes, which he has developed to a giant size, six times as large as those in general use, and from which they were derived. A plum twelve times the size of the parent species has also been created, and pronounced by good judges to be the handsomest in existence.

The primus, a creation evolved from the Siberian raspberry and the California dewberry, is a marvel. For in this hybridization the good qualities of the parent berries are devolved a thousand fold to make a growth of immense size, perfect in taste, symmetrical in form, and in appearance more like a painted bit of fruit than a reality.

The common Delaware plum tree has been developed into a bush three feet high, growing a plum which is indescribably delicious. From this stock, also, has been developed the Shipper plum, so large that two of them will fill a Mason fruit jar.

But it is in the flower kingdom that this modern wizard has produced the new creations that have most amazed the world. He has now in blossom over 80,000 unnamed types of lilies, specimens such as the world knows nothing of, but which are the direct outcome of a type known to the merest schoolboy. These unnamed varieties alone represent a value of quarter of a million dollars. Yet the greater number of them will be destroyed, for destruction follows where the created type is not considered superior to the parent stock.

In this veritable Garden of Eden nothing is impossible, for the science of the masterly gardener has been able to make nature produce any sort of tree or shrub, plant or fruit, almost at will. There is a great plot containing the Japanese iris, in which are thousands of these queenly flowers, no two without distinctive points of difference. Every color revealed by the spectroscope, every combination of hues found in the rainbow arch are here mingled in interminable profusion.

The immense garden is conducted so quietly that no one except the great experts of the plant world understand just what is being done. And yet every fruit, as well as every garden vegetable, grass, grain and flowering plant cultivated in the temperate zone is being experimented with, and in thousands of instances new varieties have been evolved or old ones improved upon.

This scientific experimental farm in its situation alone, is quite as wonderful as the creations almost daily developed. It has every condition of soil and climate best suited to the work of propagating plants. There is a gentle slope toward the east, which permits the full benefit of the morning sun. The soil is light and not overcharged with moisture, but in the understratum are many hidden springs, so that the plot of ground is subirrigated.

Conservative as the Edison of plant life is, the benefit already accruing to the world from his new creations in fruits and flowers is incalculable. A potato of his origination, which bears his name, is eaten by Californian and New Yorker, and forms a part of the diet of the peasant of Ireland and the prince of Italy. His plums, pears, apples, prunes and quinces are carried to every country of the world, while rare flowers which he has produced grow in the parks of kings and others are regarded as treasures in the conservatories of millionaires.

– New York Journal, September 20 1896



Cornelius Van Baerle lives again.

In a quaint cottage clad in vines in the outskirts of Santa Rosa resides a man who might well have been the hero of Dumas story “The Black Tulip.” Dumas’ character found his greatest joys and his greatest sorrows clustered about the development of the “grand black tulip,” for which a prize of 100,000 guilders had been offered by the Horticultural Society of Haarlem.

Luther Burbank, California’s great savant, is treading the same path in his efforts to produce a perfect yellow rose of a new variety, the first bud of which will yield him a check for $10,000.

[…much bad prose comparing Burbank to the fictional Van Baerle…]

Luther Burbank is a man whom you might pass without a glance among a crowd of farmers at a county fair. Arrayed in heavy shoes, coarse, homely clothing and a black slouch hat, to the casual observer he looks not unlike any of a thousand farmers who may be seen at any time in the Santa Rosa valley. But if you should catch a glimpse of his clear-cut features and come under the spell of his deep blue eyes your attention would be riveted in a moment. Your first thought would be one of wonderment to know why a man with a face like a philosopher or a college professor should be clad in the garb of a common laborer. If you should speak to him your first sensation of surprise would deepen into utter astonishment. Every intonation, gesture and inflection betokens the student that he is. He seems almost boyish in the diffidence of his manner and the simplicity of his speech. Occasionally he punctuates his epigrammatic sentences with a half-suppressed laugh that lends an additional feature to his peculiar personality.

One cannot talk with Burbank very long without drifting around to the subject of flowers; and then how he will talk! Not that he speaks so rapidly, or that he gives utterance to a great volume of words; but he will tell you in so short a time so many things of which you have never even dreamed about the commonest of plants. And he speaks in such measured sentences, with such exquisite choice of words, that one hesitates to interrupt him even to ask a question. If he were only standing behind the bars of a grated cell one might easily imagine that he were listening to Cornelius Van Baerle in the Buitenhof or in the fortress at Lorvesteln. With a smile playing over his countenance and in a gentle tone he will tell you how red roses may be made to bloom as green a grass, and how the potato has changed through the process of evolution from a small poisonous root to one of the great articles of food.

Such are the characteristics of the man who has undertaken a task the accomplishment of which will place him in the rank of Cornelius Van Baerle and the other great florists of history and romance. A few weeks ago, Charles Hinsdale Perkins, a member of a great firm of New York seedsmen, visited California, and before returning home naturally made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the great wizard of flora. After looking at a number of new varieties of flowers produced by Burbank, Perkins’ eyes lighted up, as if he had suddenly become possessed of a happy thought.

“Burbank,” said he, “here is the greatest opportunity of your life if you care to take it. Back in the East, where it is not always summer as it is here, we have long been awaiting the arrival of a perpetual hybrid yellow rose. Such a rose now exists nowhere in tha world except in tropical or semi-tropical climates. We want a hardy yellow rose of good size and delightful fragrance that will be sufficiently strong to withstand the vigorous climate of the East without being removed to a cellar or a hothouse in the winter. If you will produce such a rose I will give you $10,000 for the first blossom.”

“That’s a bargain,” said Burbank, laconically, and from that moment the perpetual hybrid yellow rose began to take shape in the mind of the man who is to be its father.

Ten thousand dollars for a single rose seems a large price to the uninitiated, but the sum is regarded by Burbank as only fair remuneration for years of toil. In the first place, the fact should be taken into consideration that a perfect yellow rose of the kind required cannot be produced in less than five years. Mr. Burbank will indeed consider himself very fortunate if he should succeed in wresting the secret from nature in that length of time. He believes it more likely that the task will consume ten or fifteen years. And how full will those years be of failures and experiments! Every reader of Dumas’ story remembers how Van Baerle struggled for years to produce the grand black tulip. How carefully he tended the stalk of the flower in the summer and in the autumn laid the bulb away to be divided into suckers in the spring and replanted. Each improvement on the original flower requires a whole season, and at the end of the year the blossom obtained as the result of a whole summer of patient waiting may be found no better than its parent. Years are thus lost in experimenting without securing any substantial results.

[…still more bad prose comparing Burbank to the fictional Van Baerle…]

“The first thing I shall do,” said Mr. Burbank, “will be to try to blend a dark red rose with a white blossom. I will accomplish this blending process by transferring a little of the pollen of the white rose to the red flower. The seedling that I will obtain in the autumn from the combined elements of the two roses will partake slightly of the nature of each, and as a result the flower, that will grow on the bush the next year should be a trifle lighter than the original red rose, and of course a great deal darker than the first white rose.

“Each spring I shall set out all the seedlings of the hybrid plant, adding more of the pollen of some white rose each time. In selecting a new seedling for the experiment of the succeeding year I shall each time select the most promising plant. The bush should be straight, without thorns and covered with leaves of regular shape. Tbe flower should be perfectly double, of large size and possessed of a delightful perfume, All of these points must be taken into con sideration in selecting my seedling.

“The great difficulty is to get a rose to ‘break,’ as we call it. By this I mean to induce the flower to change from the path of its ancestors and show some quality not possessed by them. Of course it is desirable to have the new flower show an improvement over the old, but it is better that retrogression should begin than to have the plant at a standstill. The moment a flower shows a change of any kind it is an indication that the forces outside of nature are at work. With this much accomplished the success of the undertaking is only a question of patience and the intelligent application of the laws governing plant life among other things these laws include the kind of soil needed by the plant; the amount of sunshine required and a thousand and one other details that must be met as they arise.”

All of which looks like a problem as simple as the addition of two and two when you hear Mr. Burbank explain it. But what an infinite number of failures, delays and disappointments are bound up in his words! Think of a man coolly beginning the creation of a new rose, the first blossom of which will require ten or fifteen years of ceaseless toil, with a possibility of failure after all.

The patience required even to begin such a task seems almost Job-like. Yet Burbank was not always patient. On the contrary, he was remarkable in his youth for his impatience. But long years of experience with the inscrutable ways of nature as exemplified in the growth of flowers has made him content to wait for years to see a new petal grow in a rose. So patient has he become that he says he was told a short time ago that if he had lived in Job’s time a new name would have gone down to succeeding generations as the personification of patience.

That patience is a highly desirable attribute of character when combined with certain other mental forces is shown by the fact that Burbank has become wealthy during the last twenty-five years by tending a patch of flowers that never exceeded fifteen acres in extent. Mr. Burbank regards the industry in which he is engaged as merely the concentration of energy into small limits a feat easy of accomplishment if one has the brains. He believes a square rod of land is enough to afford a good livelihood to any one if properly tilled.

“A thousand acres of land are required to support a wild savage,” said Mr. Burbank, “and he does not live on the fat of the land at that. Civilization has taught the farmer how he may exist on a ranch of one or two hundred acres. By concentrating his energy a little more the orchardist is enabled to live in comfort from the proceeds of twenty or thirty acres. The nurseryman goes a step farther and makes as much money as any of the others with five acres of land. By concentrating the native energy of the Indian, who requires a thousand acres of land to support him, my business enables me to live better from the proceeds of a square rod of land.

“While I could live on a patch of land not much larger than a cemetery lot, I prefer to do business on a large scale and make more money. As a result I have under cultivation about fifteen acres of land. I hire men to do all the gardening for me, and I only exercise a general supervision over the business.”

While Burbank has been tending this little patch of land of his in the Santa Rosa valley, he has done more to advance plant life than any other man living. His first achievement was the creation of the Burbank potato, which is now regarded as peerless, from Ireland to the most distant part of any zone in which potatoes may be raised. Most of the best varieties of grapes, plums, pears and peaches are the result ot his genius. Lilies that never gladdened the eye of man before Burbank’s birth now bloom in every land where flowers grow. But roses have ever been his especial pets, as tulips were the favorites of his great prototype.

A few weeks ago he sent a rose to a firm of Philadelphia seedsmen for which he received $500. Seven years were required to perfect the rose; but he persevered until success crowned his efforts.

As a result, of all these years of ceaseless toll and brilliant achievements, the name of Burbank is known wherever men live who admire flowers. No better evidence of his great fame was ever shown than during the World’s Fair, when he addressed a number of assemblages of horticulturists. Audiences that were cold and clammy when most speakers had the floor became wildly enthusiastic when the name of Burbank was announced. And men whose conservatories are in Italy or on the banks of the Nile recognized the name as quickly as his own countrymen and cheered as loudly.

If further proof of Burbank’s fame were needed, the basketfull of letters he receives every day would supply the evidence. Letters of all kinds come from all kinds of people, representing every land under the sun. One correspondent wants to know, perhaps, the kind of wheat that will grow best on the steppes of Russia, while another inquires the name of the cereal best suited to the soil and climate of Southern Africa. Mr. Burbank says he would like to answer all of these letters, but they come in bundles so large that he is already two years behind in the work.

Such is the story of the quiet little man of Santa Rosa, at whose voice all the world listens when he speaks of flowers. The place he occupies in the business of the world is unique, inasmuch as he has no competitor worthy of the name of a rival. From whence he obtained the wonderful knowledge of Nature’s laws that enables him to create new flowers and improve old ones is a mystery. Certainly he did not obtain the secret from Agassiz, his instructor, for there is no proof that Agassiz himself possessed the power to the remarkable degree shown by Burbank. When he was a school boy in Massachusetts he gave no signs of budding genius of an unusual order and a dreary routine of professional life was selected for him by his parents, as best adapted to his capabilities. But if a solution of the mystery of his wonderful genius were necessary, a remark made by his mother, now strong of mind and body at eighty-four, might prove to be the key:

“My boy came from a race of inventors,” she said. “His ancestors were all of as original turn of mind.” ALLAN L. BENSON.

– San Francisco Examiner, January 31 1897

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It took Santa Rosa awhile to realize it was under attack, but a no-holds-barred war was being waged against it by the man in the mansion on the grand boulevard.

You could say the conflict began in May 1893, when voters approved a bond to build a water plant. At the time Santa Rosa was getting its water from a private company owned by Mark L. McDonald; the water came from Lake Ralphine, which the Board of Health said was so fetid that his company was “criminally negligent and indifferent to our welfare as a city.” McDonald offered to sell his waterworks to the city at such a ridiculously inflated price it would be cheaper to start from scratch, even though it meant laying another set of water mains beneath every street. All of those doings were covered in “THE McDONALDS vs SANTA ROSA.”

Stepping up to buy Santa Rosa’s bonds was Robert Effey, a modest investor who happened to be mayor of Santa Cruz. While deciding whether to put the water bond on the ballot, Santa Rosa’s mayor and city attorney had visited that town’s very successful municipal water plant and met him. He offered to buy our bond for $161,000, being the lowest of only two bidders.1

A few days later, a lawsuit seeking to block Santa Rosa from making a deal with Effey was filed by a retired farmer named John D. Cooper. Most unusual about the case was that besides the city, he also sued the City Council as individuals plus the city clerk.2

Another suit to stop the city’s deal with Effey followed shortly. This time a retired rancher named John M. Jones was upset because construction plans had been updated since the bond measure passed. Mr. Jones likewise sued the city and Council members personally.

That was hardly the end of the anti-waterworks lawyering. Less than a month later, William Guisbert Skinner went after the city, the Council, the assessor, treasurer, and tax collector along with Robert Effey. His gripe was the terms of the bond had been slightly changed, and the city was increasing property taxes by 25¢ per $100 to pay for the bonds – although they hadn’t actually been yet sold. (As further explained below, the bond sale was delayed by both these lawsuits and the nation’s economic problems.)

Three different lawsuits over about six weeks is a lot of suin’ for little Santa Rosa. Who were these guys who were so upset about construction of a water plant they wanted to drag everyone into court? It appeared they must be well off, as they were represented by some of the top legal talent in the county: A. B. Ware, Calvin S. Farquar and the infamous Gil P. Hall.3

But Cooper, Jones and Skinner were hardly wealthy Sonoma County movers and shakers; one has to scour the old newspapers to find any mention of them at all, and then it was almost always for some small scale real estate transaction. There can be little doubt, however, they were acting as part of a coordinated attack on building the waterworks by the “Tax Payers’ Protective Union.”

The supposed grassroots organization was formed at the time of the Cooper suit but few members were ever named (usually just A. P. Overton, H. W. Byington and A. B. Ware). The Democrat wrote only it was “composed of well-known and reputable citizens of Santa Rosa” and “members comprise many of the heaviest taxpayers in this city.” Judging from signatures on a later petition, my guess is there were under fifty members, split between the investor class and elderly anti-tax cranks like our litigious trio. Skinner, by the way, didn’t even own property in Santa Rosa, although his suit was the one to complain about the increase in property taxes.

The Taxpayers’ placed an ad in the Democrat to trumpet their manifesto, which is a Thing to Read. It painted the City Council as recklessly draining the city treasury on “official extravagance” such as testing the safety of well water and buying a rock-crusher for street gravel, the Council meanwhile conspiring with Effey to screw over taxpayers because there was no intention to actually sell bonds or build the waterworks. Nice to know (I guess) a faction of our ancestors were just as paranoid and irrational as some wacky loudmouths today.

A later item in the Democrat reprinted a Taxpayers’ resolution revealing the group’s single real objective – demanding the city buy McDonald’s water company. Among their points was that “a water system supplied by gravitation” (meaning a higher source of surface water such as Lake Ralphine, not a water tower) is always better than using water pumped from the ground. Also, the city was to be blamed for “factional strife and expensive litigation” because they hadn’t made a deal with McDonald to take over his service and pay for long overdue upgrades and maintenance. Some brain-busting logic, there.

At this point Gentle Reader might be pondering whether Mark McDonald had something to do with the Taxpayers’ Union – and was he also paying for the lawyers in those many lawsuits?

We get a peek behind the curtain after attorney Farquar filed a lawsuit because he believed he had been shortchanged for his services. But he didn’t sue the litigant he represented: He sued Mark McDonald. The response from McDonald was that the lawyer was mistaken; legal bills were being paid by the Taxpayers’ Union, and Mark knew this because he said he had the receipts – which revealed he had control over their bank account.

This is an important (yet neglected) chapter in Santa Rosa’s history. It’s somewhat tricky to tell, in part because it sprawls over a decade. Also making research difficult: A question raised in a lawsuit sometimes wasn’t resolved until a court hearing for another suit years later; there were six different suits and some were so entangled with each other it can be unclear whether the plaintiff’s original complaint was modified, merged, minimized or dropped entirely. There’s enough material here to write a book but I advise any future scribe to keep a bottle of aspirin handy. Maybe a bottle of scotch as well. Maybe two.

Historians face a further obstacle because newspaper coverage was unusually slanted. Most of the events in and out of the courtrooms were covered only by the Democrat, and the problem wasn’t just that the paper showed heavy editorial bias (which it absolutely did, favoring the McDonald faction) but that it also selectively reported what was happening at City Council meetings. As a result, the overall picture is simply impossible to understand from reading the newspapers alone, making some key actions by the Council seem impulsive and reckless. Fortunately, we now have available thorough coverage of what was said at those meetings to fill in blanks. 4

The last big piece of the puzzle was the national recession, which is discussed in the section below. The banking world had turned upside down in the months between the bond vote and when the city was ready to actually sell those bonds. At one point the city found itself in the odd position of having to rewrite ordinances because there was no longer an agreement on what constituted “legal tender.” The economic system was in complete disarray, forcing our elected officials to navigate a volatile situation which had tripped up even professional bond traders.

For these reasons and more, few historians have even mentioned those events, and what little has been written portray it as a roadbump in the town’s otherwise steady progress towards the future. But I’ll argue the story isn’t about the lawsuits or even the water supply – the crux of it concerns the character of Mark L. McDonald.

52-page PDF file of newspaper articles related to the McDonald water lawsuits

Often during that ten year span Santa Rosa was scurrying to respond to the latest edict from a judge overseeing a particular lawsuit and sometimes there was a crisis because money was simply not to be had. And throughout it all McDonald and his cabal were in the background, hoping the turmoil would steer the city into such great financial peril they would come begging to buy his troubled company – or perhaps the goal was to have the city sell the municipal waterworks to him, cheap. Either turn of events would have proven ruinous to Santa Rosa yet he not only didn’t seem to care a whit, but it appeared that was a key part of his strategy. It was all about money, or power, or whatever else it was that motivated him to wage a dirty war against his own community.

In no way is this article intended to present the whole narrative, but should provide enough detail to follow what really happened. In the SOURCES section below a chronological index is provided, and selected newspaper transcripts can be downloaded in a separate PDF file as shown to the right.


The “Panic of 1893” was a economic crisis in the United States which became a major recession that lasted five years. As summarized on Wikipedia there were several causes behind those woes, among them the crash of overvalued railroad stocks and the collapse of crop prices. As a result there were widespread farm foreclosures, hundreds of banks failed and unemployment lingered at double-digits. The Western U.S. was hit the hardest.

What initiated the panic in April and May of 1893 was fear President Grover Cleveland, who had spoken about wanting a more “flexible currency,” might seek to resolve the growing array of problems by abandoning the gold standard. This started ongoing bank runs as people sought to cash in their paper dollars for hard money and foreign investors sold their stocks and bonds only for payment in gold.

By early 1895 the stockpile of gold held by the Treasury was nearing exhaustion. With only days (maybe hours) to spare before the nation slipped into default, President Cleveland made an emergency deal with financiers to privately buy $62 million of treasury bills at four percent.

Cleveland and his cabinet, who only had been considering the usual sort of advertised bond sale open to the public, were hesitant at first because they weren’t sure it was legal. Financier J. P. Morgan – whose banking career began during the Civil War – assured them Lincoln had signed a statue allowing private bond sales in times of emergency. The attorney general fetched a book of Revised Statutes which proved Morgan’s memory of this long-forgotten rule was accurate. (I encourage you to read the entire account of this episode, as it is a quite remarkable story.)

So far we’ve covered about a year of the story between Oct. 1894 and the following August. It had been a rough ride; aside from the usual court hearings grinding away on the three ongoing lawsuits, part of the Skinner case even reached the California Supreme Court.5

It was now September 1895 and construction was about to start on the new municipal water plant. Santa Rosa mayor Woodward and the attorney for Effey took the train to New York with the mission to resell Effey’s bonds on the bond market. With the economy still very much in a wobbly state, bond traders were not fighting a bidding war over a low-yield muni bond from a pipsqueak farmtown few could probably find on a map. Effey had to sell them for less than the $161k he had paid, losing about $21,000 on the deal.6

No sooner had work began on the new water system that autumn when a fourth aggrieved taxpayer decided he was so darn mad over the water issue that he had to file a lawsuit of his very own. Like the other guys, this fellow was elderly, a retired farmer/rancher, and didn’t seem likely to have deep enough pockets to hire top attorneys.

wesleymock(RIGHT: Wesley Mock. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, June 19, 1897)

And here, ladies and gentlemen, we now commence the entertainment portion of our program. The Wesley Mock lawsuit and court hearings were – to use highly technical legal terminology – bonkers.

Among Mock’s many allegations, both criminal and civil: The entire city administration was engaged in “illegality and fraud” in the sale of the bonds; the bonds were never actually sold; Robert Effey was colluding with the only other bidder, who he would hire to actually construct the waterworks; the city was negligent because the bond offer only attracted two bidders; that Effey’s bid was at least $31,000 (later increased to $41,000) higher than the estimated cost to build the project, and the city knew it; Effey was actually broke, as was the city treasury. Whew!

Once in the courtroom, Mock’s case wandered even farther out into the weeds. There was a day devoted to handwriting analysis intended to show Effey had written the other bid as well as his own (the results were inconclusive). Effey’s lawyer was brow-beaten by the judge into testifying about the New York trip, quite possibly violating attorney-client privilege (he deftly seemed to have forgotten nearly all details). And Mock’s lawyer tried to get the Republican publisher Allan Lemmon held in contempt for writing a “contemptible and scurrilous” editorial which pointed out everyone trying to block the municipal waterworks curiously happened to be a member of the Democratic party, even though it was apparently (?) written tongue-in-cheek.

These were all efforts to gin up controversy and make everything about the water project appear suspicious – if not downright sinister. There was testimony about mysterious sealed envelopes and a late night meeting at a bank where documents changed hands several times. Witnesses were called to the stand but couldn’t be found in the courthouse. There was so much dirt to reveal the Democrat didn’t even attempt to write it up as a regular news article but instead just published the court reporter’s raw notes, something I have never seen in a newspaper from that era.

Representing Mock at these court hearings was a heretofore uninvolved gunslinger: Edward Lynch, a famous San Francisco criminal defense attorney. Lynch also represented Mark McDonald in related water lawsuit matters, including that dustup over whether the money to pay the local lawyers should come from the Taxpayers’ or McDonald, and would also be McDonald’s attorney in yet another lawsuit discussed below.

But never, ever, suggest that someone else was behind Mock hiring such an expensive San Francisco litigator, or the 69 year-old would give you a sound thrashing. “I am acting in my private capacity as a citizen for the good of the community and am not the tool of a corporation,” he insisted to the SF Call. Yeah, sure: Dude, you’re living in a little 10th street cottage near the railroad tracks.

The Wesley Mock hearings went on for over two months in early 1896. Besides hinting darkly at covert skullduggery by Effey et. al. his lawsuit was amended during the hearings to ask the judge to hold the City Council in contempt of court. Angering him this time was the Council passed a motion to accept the waterworks even though the project wasn’t completed.

Of all the charges made by Mock’s lawyer, this accusation seemed to deserve scrutiny. Why the devil would the city pay for unfinished work? Maybe there was something shifty going on, after all.

But it was actually a key example of the Democrat revealing its bias via omission of facts. In the City Council minutes it showed they were concerned about sabotage by “some evil disposed persons” and the construction site needed to be under city control and guarded by a policeman. (This and other cites from City Council minutes come from John Cummings’ study available under SOURCES.) Readers of the Democrat – and modern historians who rely only upon what appeared in that paper – didn’t know there were now threats of violence being made.

The general election two weeks later saw turnover of nearly half of the City Council seats.7 Mayor Woodward’s final remarks regarded “utmost vigilance” will be needed to deter “those that are trying to destroy the efficiency of the new water system.” The new Council was even more determined to fight McDonald’s shills in court and vowed to “combat every suit.”

They wouldn’t have long to wait for that combat. Soon after that the judge in the Mock case approved an injunction to block the city from taking possession of the water plant. To do that, the court required Mock to put up a $4,000 bond which he obviously couldn’t afford – so McDonald and a banker from Santa Rosa Bank put up a surety bond for him. Ironically, this was announced in the same edition of the Democrat where Mock insisted (again) he had no ties to McDonald or his water company.

The municipal waterworks had been partially operational since the start of 1896, and there were still the concerns over someone trying to monkey-wrench the operation. The Council’s end run around the injunction was to pay the guy who built the pump system $400 per month to keep the water flowing.

That was an astonishing monthly salary for then (over $13k today), particularly because it came at a time the city treasury was bleeding dry. Santa Rosa had to hire outside legal counsel to help defend itself in the four lawsuits, especially because the judge allowed Mock’s hyper-aggressive attorney Edward Lynch to turn court hearings into a ten week fishing expedition. As a result, the city found itself borrowing from Santa Rosa Bank to stay afloat.

And then there were five: The same week the Council made the deal to keep the waterworks going during the injunction, Mark L. McDonald stepped out of the shadows as his water company filed its own lawsuit against Santa Rosa. It was mostly a greatest hits rehash of the Cooper-Jones-Skinner-Mock complaints, but it ran on for 125 paragraphs. The Democrat printed every word (of course) with a full month required to dump the whole thing on its readers, the newspaper filling up most of a full page per week. New to this suit was a Donald Trump-like whine that no one respected how much money Mark had spent building his waterworks and that there were dark forces within the government conspiring to hurt him.

daingerfield(LEFT: Judge William R. Daingerfield of San Francisco presided over the Wesley Mock hearings and trial because Sonoma county Superior Court judges recused themselves for conflict of interest. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, Dec. 19, 1896)

The Mock trial began in mid-December and took three weeks. It covered much the same ground as the March hearings with new accusations that the city’s contractors were all fumblebums and chiselers. To refresh everyone’s memory on the background of the case the Democrat published an updated version of the Taxpayers’ Union manifesto on the front page, in all its conspiratorial glory. And as before, the paper printed every detail of the plaintiff’s arguments and little to nothing from the defense – but you can, however, read their coverage and be able to stun guests at a dinner party with your comprehensive knowledge of 19th century pipefitting. The Democrat did at least share the opening statement from the recently elected City Attorney.8

In an extraordinarily forthright courtroom speech, attorney Webber said his primary obligation was to find out for the citizens of Santa Rosa whether or not there was fraud – but regardless of the verdict, all of the litigation must end. We ought to cancel any portion of the water bonds should it be possible, as it would be better to cut the losses than spending another 2-3 years fighting lawsuits.

Equally remarkable were Webber’s subtexts aimed directly at the Taxpayers’ Union: “Hey, don’t you jokers realize that taxpayers are footing the bill for the city’s legal defense in all these nonsense suits coming from your group? And do you really know what you want? For the city to be forced into bankruptcy? For Santa Rosa to abandon the nearly completed waterworks?” (Considering the Taxpayers’ had earlier demanded the city acquire McDonald’s company, their true goals certainly seemed obvious.)

edwardlynch(RIGHT: Mark McDonald attorney Edward Lynch. Drawing from Sonoma Democrat, June 26, 1897)

Judge Daingerfield spent five months musing over the case before issuing his 44-page decision, which “created a great deal of surprise and considerable excitement and comment on the streets,” according to the Democrat. And the winner was… Wesley Mock. Sort of.

By letting Effey modify the plans to hold down construction costs after they had been approved by the voters, the City Council had committed fraud. This meant that while the bonds were valid, they had been unlawfully sold. The judge ruled members of the Council were personally liable for the difference between the actual value of the waterworks and how much was due to repay the bond. The city was to keep operating the system and hold it in receivership until its worth could be determined. All of the the Taxpayers’ wild-eyed nonsense about the bonds not actually being sold, secret meetings and the like were not even given consideration.

The court’s later judgement held that Santa Rosa could keep the waterworks if the defendants coughed up what was due between actual vs. bond value. Otherwise, the sheriff was ordered to sell the water plant to the highest bidder.

And we all know who that would be.

Nearly two years passed before the California Supreme Court ruled on the city’s appeal. During that time the national economy mostly recovered yet in Santa Rosa the outlook remained cloudy.

The city was still relying on its credit line to operate, particularly during the lean weeks before property tax payments were due. Thus the City Council minutes reflects their alarm when bankers suddenly demanded payment of the city’s $5,000 note along with interest. The bank in question was Santa Rosa Bank, which you might remember was the co-signer with Mark L. McDonald of the bond for Wesley Mock.

And still, McDonald continued plowing ahead with his Ahab-like determination to kill (or own?) the municipal water system. This new round of trouble began in 1896 shortly before the Wesley Mock trial with a notice the Fountain Water Company had been formed. Yes, in addition to the McDonald waterworks and the city’s own, Santa Rosa was now to have a third water supply – supposedly.

The water for this project was to be from Peter’s Spring, which at the time was mistakenly believed to be the source of adjacent Spring Creek. (Peter Springs Park is still there.) It was so named because it was on the old Jesse Peter ranch which was now owned by Mark McDonald’s brother James, who also had several stone quarries in the area.9

All was quiet on that front for nearly two years until August 1898, when the McDonalds put up a dam across Spring Creek just upstream from one of the city’s water pumps. Even if the source was actually Peter’s Spring on private property, it was clearly illegal to obstruct such a public waterway.

The newcomer Press Democrat, which did not inherit the old Democrat’s bountiful love for the McDonalds, remarked “…there has been an opinion pretty freely expressed in this city that the action of the Fountain Water company at this time was done so as to diminish the city’s water supply.” That was proven when it was discovered the McDonalds hadn’t just constructed a simple dam; they had made a deal with other property owners to let them dig a ditch to divert the creek around the city pump before rejoining its natural watercourse.

The city waterworks were not dependent upon Spring Creek water at the time so this irksome stunt had no real impact. But some on the City Council may have considered this dummy corporation as the last straw; according to their minutes, there was a discussion about suing Mark McDonald for all he and his gang had done to obstruct the city water project.

But come a year later, the city’s water supply was nearly maxed out and they needed to tap Spring Creek again.10 The mayor and city attorney went to the Fountain Water company in San Francisco (it was not mentioned who they met) to offer to buy the spring and surrounding ten acres. They were told the price would be $100,000. Back in Santa Rosa they countered with a written offer of $6k, but there was no response. So the City Council voted unanimously to pay a fair appraised price and take the land via eminent domain.

Mark McDonald’s response: Total War against Santa Rosa, and damn the expense.

The McDonald water company sued the city again, but this effort was quite unlike their suit from three years earlier (which was apparently still ongoing). This time Mark was represented by Jefferson Chandler, a famed Washington D.C. attorney who had argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. And this time he was filing suit in federal court in San Francisco. There were three points in his complaint:

ENTITLED TO MONOPOLY   In 1874 Santa Rosa had signed a 50 year contract with the water company he acquired. McDonald argued that gave him the exclusive right to provide the city with water until 1924 and the city must immediately cease and desist operating its waterworks, while paying $100,000 in damages. (This part of the suit also rehashed his familiar moaning over how much he spent on construction.)
TAKING PRIVATE PROPERTY   If the city used eminent domain to buy Peter’s Spring it would violate McDonald’s company rights by losing its access to a critical resource (although the company was not yet using the spring and there was no obvious way to pipe the water over to Lake Ralphine).
UNFAIR COMPETITION   The city was unfairly providing residents with “free” water. (Santa Rosa did not have water meters at the time, but anticipated each resident used 115 gallons per day. Instead of charging directly for water, there was an assessment and monthly fee for every water fixture in your home or business, the size of your lawn and garden, etc. See this article for more.)

At the City Council the Mayor urged they file a countersuit to revoke McDonald’s water franchise, according the Cummings review of the Council minutes. “[F]ight to the bitter end,” Mayor Sweet said, “with a view of ascertaining whether the majority should rule or whether a few Capitalists should manipulate the fair City of Santa Rosa.” The Council unanimously agreed.

That moment in early October, 1899, was the nadir of McDonald’s dirty water campaign; it had been five very long years since the launch of his first proxy lawsuit and fighting back had drained the city coffers. Besides the incident when Santa Rosa Bank demanded repayment on the $5,000 credit line, there was also a period in 1897 when the city completely ran out of money and couldn’t borrow any more.

But all that was about to change. Surprisingly, our story has a happy ending – for almost everyone except Mark McDonald.

The new McDonald suit was the greatest threat yet to Santa Rosa. A protracted battle in federal courts – which Mark would probably appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, should he lose initially – could be ruinously expensive and might even force the city into bankruptcy. But whatever might happen there was of less immediate concern than the final ruling on the Wesley Mock lawsuit, as members of the City Council and administrators were to be held personally responsible to pay back any excessive debt on the water bond.

Word from the state Supreme Court came down later that October. There was bad news: The Court upheld Judge Daingerfield’s overall ruling. There was good news: The city, not the individual officials – was to be held liable for the debt. Other parts of the decision allowed the city to take control of the waterworks (which presumably meant they could stop paying that engineer $400/mo to run it) until its value could be determined. Once that was known, the city had the option of paying the difference from the bond price; otherwise, the sheriff would auction off the waterworks (with the proviso that the city couldn’t make an offer). It was considered around town as quite a fair decision.

Next was holding an advisory jury trial to set the value of the waterworks. This was to be held in Santa Rosa with Daingerfield presiding, and those who thought he showed bias against the city during the Mock trial were concerned because he said this jury could only consider the worth of the water plant itself, and not the land it used.

The trial began in January 1900 and took exactly a month. The jury wasted no time and returned with a unanimous verdict after only twenty minutes: The waterworks were not worth the $161,000 amount of the bonds – it was worth far more, valuated at $190,000.

“When the verdict was read the courtroom was crowded and the crowd applauded vociferously. The local papers issued extras and the streets were crowded until a late hour by citizens who discussed the verdict and congratulated the defendants upon the outcome,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

Now the city’s attention turned back to Peter’s Spring, and it began condemnation proceedings against the Fountain Water Company and James McDonald. Court hearings and a trial consumed the rest of the year 1900. The McDonalds again tried to claim the ten acres were worth $100k while Santa Rosa argued the market value was no more than $50/acre. The city won again, and Spring Creek water was finally being pumped into the city’s reservoir, but the case would drag on until 1904 as the McDonalds sought a new trial. It was eventually settled they were to be paid only $4,515.55.11

And also in 1904, McDonald’s last-gasp federal lawsuit was laughed out of court – a private corporation claiming it could dictate the shutdown of a public utility wasn’t even worth consideration. Sweetening the decision, McDonald was further ordered to pay Santa Rosa’s court costs.

So endeth Mark McDonald’s long and often underhanded fight against Santa Rosa’s water system. A couple of takeaways:

Aside from the scale and relentlessness of McDonald’s legal assaults, what he was trying to do was not unique in that era. In 1899 a letter writer to the SF Examiner noted Palo Alto and other cities had faced costly lawsuits from private water companies seeking to block municipal water works.

It’s worth taking a step back and looking over what had really happened here. As I wrote earlier, this story is really about the character of Mark L. McDonald. Over a quarter century, he had lurched from being Santa Rosa’s champion to becoming the town’s pariah, all in his obsessive drive to control what came out of our faucets. Why a man of such wealth and influence would throw away most of the goodwill in the town where his family lived we can only wonder.


1 Robert Effey was mayor of Santa Cruz 1884-1888 and again 1894-96. He was a watchmaker and jeweler by trade. In the 1890s he was a bidder on several California muni bonds but aside from the Santa Rosa water system, the only bonds he seemed to hold were for Stockton’s sewer. His Dec. 1930 obituaries did not identify him as an investor, but mentioned he was the last surviving member of the “Bango club,” which was a ten member hiking and drinking club that regularly walked from Santa Cruz to San Jose or Watsonville. At a prearranged location they would be met by as many as 300 of their friends to engage in “conviviality.”
2 Believe-it-or-not! There were three, maybe four John D. Coopers living in or around Santa Rosa in the late 1890s, all unrelated. This farmer died in 1917 and was buried in the Rural Cemetery; another died in 1925 and was Windsor’s Justice of the Peace; another spent his last years at the County Poor Farm and died in 1909. The most well-known J.D.C. at the time had a Fourth street wine and liquor store along with a saloon. Was he the fellow who died at the poorhouse, or individual #4?
3 In 1895, the year following these events, Gil P. Hall would be indicted for felony embezzlement over $4.6k that went missing during his term as County Recorder.
4 Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings; Prepared for the Department of Utilities, City of Santa Rosa, 2002
5 Skinner v. Santa Rosa concerned how the city was to make interest payments on the water bond. In Nov. 1894 the Council had changed the terms of the bond to make payments in gold only, semi-annually instead of annually, and payable in New York City. The California Supreme Court ruled the Council couldn’t do that unless they issued new bonds, which the city did in Sept. 1895.
6 Robert Effey had planned to use Coffin & Stanton, the New York bankers who had handled the bonds for the Santa Cruz water system. But that firm failed in Oct. 1894, so Effey approached Seligman & Company, one of the largest investment banks in New York City. After buying the bonds at a discount of $144,601.87, the bank tendered them for sale at 538 percent.
7 Two City Council members (both Republicans) lost by a narrow margin and two didn’t run for reelection, but Mock’s attorney Edward Lynch insisted the election results showed public belief of malfeasance.
8 Partial transcript of statement by City Attorney O. O. Webber at the Mock trial, December 18, 1896: “…The complaint on file in this action alleges fraud. I want to say right here if there is any fraud, or any has been committed by the Council or anyone else during all the leading up to, or the construction of the waterworks, or disposition of the bonds, I, as city attorney, representing the taxpayers of the city, want my clients to know the truth of the charge in this case. I am the attorney of the city, which I interpret to be the taxpayers and the city officials, but I believe my first duty lies to that people that had the confidence to place me in that position. I am not forsaking the officials who are the defendants in this action. I have consulted part of them and asked them to tell me if there was anything wrong done by them, or anything that should be covered. They informed me that everything is perfectly straight. I therefore have no alternative but to believe them and I therefore will do all in my power to lay this case before the taxpayers of this city as plainly as I can. The truth is the whole expense of this litigation regardless of who wins or who loses the suit must be borne by the taxpayers of Santa Rosa. The attorneys employed in this litigation must be paid by the taxpayers of Santa Rosa and I believe it is now time that we should begin to realise the true status of this whole affair. This litigation should be stopped. If the bonds can be brought back we can do it today cheaper than we can by litigating two or three years. If they cannot be recovered and the proceedings have all been legal and according to law I want the citizens to know that fact so that they may act intelligently as a community in this whole affair…”
9 The rancher was Jesse Peter Sr., not his same-named son Jesse who became an archeologist and taught at SRJC.
10 The city water works initially had an intake on Spring Creek, but it was disconnected in July 1896 because the volume of water provided by the wells was sufficient.
11 In a surprising turn of events, the city sold Peter’s Spring to McDonald’s waterworks in 1909, with his company intending to pump “water from the spring to an elevated point between it and the present reservoir of the company,” according to a 1911 Press Democrat item.



Besides contemporary newspaper articles, references to the City Council minutes are drawn from Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926 by John Cummings. The chronology below covers most of the key events discussed in this chapter, but there are over 200 items related to this topic just in the Sonoma Democrat/Press Democrat. Transcriptions of selected newspaper articles mentioned there are available for download in a 52-page PDF file


(Dates reflect publication and may lag event by 1-6 days)


6 October 1894 Effey bid accepted

13 October 1894 Cooper suit vs city – not enough money to pay bonds

13 October 1894 Taxpayers’ Union formed
      (C. S. Farquar and Gil P. Hall, Attorneys for taxpayers)

27 October 1894 Jones suit vs council – Effey plans are different

3 November 1894 Taxpayers’ manifesto

24 November 1894 council changes terms of bond to payable in gold

1 December 1894 Cooper, Jones and others file amicus to Skinner
      (William F. Russell atty for Skinner AB Ware and Farquar for others)

8 December 1894 Skinner case only on validity of bonds

15 December 1894 Skinner not in good faith

22 December 1894 change in bond terms valid (Cooper vs. Steadman)

29 June 1895 change in bond terms invalid

6 July 1895 Taxpayers’ resolution for city to buy McDonald’s works

27 July 1895 ordinance 162 adopted: annual interest payment

5 October 1895 Effey contracts with Perkins to begin work

19 October 1895 Mock suit collusion between city and Effey
      (A. B. Ware, C. S. Farquar and Gil P. Hall attorneys)

19 October 1895 construction underway

16 November 1895 J. M Jones dropped

4 January 1896 city accepts unfinished waterworks

25 January 1896 Democrat printed entire Effey testimony

1 February 1896 Mock wants council held in contempt for accepting works

2 February 1896 Mock will thrash

22 February 1896 court hearing: council shouldn’t be held in contempt

29 February 1896 court ruling: council not in contempt

18 March 1896 Lemmon contempt threat

21 March 1896 court hearing: handwriting questions

21 March 1896 court hearing: trip to NYC for bonds – Effey lost money

28 March 1896 court hearing: bonds sold in NYC for $144.6k

4 April 1896 Mock hearing closes
      (election: Woodward, Collins out; Harris and Tupper didn’t run)

30 April 1896 Farquar sues McDonald

16 May 1896 Mock letter: I am not a shill

16 May 1896 restrain orders Perkins to stop city not to accept

20 May 1896 McDonald says Farquar was paid by taxpayer union

12 June 1896 contract with Perkins to maintain and supply water

13 June 1896 McDonald first suit against city

18 July 1896 amended to seek tax refund for illegal tax

14 November 1896 Fountain water company incorporated

28 November 1896 Democrat claims city is running a deficit of $1000-1200/mo

19 December 1896 Mock trial begins

2 January 1897 lengthy account by Taxpayers’ Union

9 January 1897 Mock trial ends

5 June 1897 Cooper v. Steadman suit thrown out

19 June 1897 Mock wins

20 June 1897 Examiner: Mock wins (includes history)

18 December 1897 judgement (city contract with Effey void, bonds were unlawfully disposed of)

17 August 1898 Fountain builds dam on Spring creek

20 August 1898 Fountain dam intended to hurt city

17 September 1898 Fountain diverts water around city pump

6 September 1899 McDonald wants $100k for Spring creek

4 October 1899 McDonald sues city to stop free water for 25 years

21 October 1899 Supreme Court: City cannot buy, Council not liable

10 January 1900 advisory jury trial begins

10 February 1900 Mock overturned – value of work proper – celebration

17 February 1900 fundraising for council defendants

17 March 1900 city sues Fountain to condemn land

13 December 1900 start of condemnation suit

11 March 1902 Fountain land only worth $4k

3 June 1904 court throws out 1899 McDonald suit

15 September 1904 city drops Fountain suit

22 July 1911 McDonald buys Fountain

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There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:

During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”

In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.

He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.

A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.

gumpA recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:

…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…

His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.

Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.

In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.

The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897
The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897

This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.

In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.

Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.

The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).

County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.

A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.

Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.

The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”

I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.

By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.

Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.

As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.

Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!

An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.

The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.

On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.

The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.

Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”

Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”

augustmornThe store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.

(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”

That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.

Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library
Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

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