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BAD TO THE BONE


THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa

BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES’ THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
    HIDDEN GRAVES

    A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA

Anyone with the slightest interest in local history knows the story: About 100 years ago, a San Francisco gang sexually assaulted some women. Police tracked gang members to Santa Rosa where a shootout killed the Sonoma County sheriff along with two policemen. The gangsters were captured and taken to the county jail. A mob stormed the building and took the men to the Rural Cemetery, where they were lynched from a tree.

But that’s not the whole story – far from it. Parts haven’t been reexamined since events happened in 1920, and many details have never been revealed. And like the twice told tales about the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, too much of what has been written about it over the years is distorted or flat wrong.

It’s also a surprisingly difficult story to tell because it is Rashomon-like, with three quite different ways to frame it. All versions interconnect as their storylines converge around the men who were about to be lynched – but each has people and places which are important to that viewpoint alone.

There’s the San Francisco version, which is mainly about tracking down the Howard Street Gang and prosecuting them. Besides the assorted gangsters the main players are the District Attorney, police and politicians. This story winds up in 1928 with the capture of the last fugitive gang member. To learn more, you can’t do better than “The Fall of San Francisco’s Notorious Howard Street Gang,” which can be downloaded as an e-book for three or four bucks.

The Healdsburg version has a narrow focus on seeking vengeance for the murder of Sheriff James Petray, who was from there and very well liked. Those who raided the jail and hanged the gangsters were not a typical liquored-up lynch mob – they acted with deliberation and precision, leaving many to presume they must have been San Francisco lawmen. Not until 1985 did one of the last surviving vigilantes confirm they were all from Healdsburg and had conducted military-style drills prior to the operation.

And then there’s the Santa Rosa version, which you’re about to read. This story ends abruptly about one o’clock in the rainy morning of Friday, December 10, 1920 when the last of the gangsters twitches and dies in the beams of auto headlights. The main takeaway for this version is that the gangsters hadn’t picked Santa Rosa as their hideout by throwing a dart at a map. One of them – the very worst of the lot – was a hometown boy, who by a quirk of fate just happened to have access to a big empty house here.

Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to meet Terry Fitts.

Left to Right: Terrence Fitts in 1906, 1914, 1917 and 1919
Left to Right: Terrence Fitts in 1906, 1914, 1917 and 1919

Had someone written profiles of the three lynched gangsters and asked which of them would most likely become a cop-killer, there’s little doubt that Fitts would be the prime suspect. If he was not a psychopath he certainly did a darn fine job of imitating one.

When Terry was growing up in Santa Rosa he seemed destined to have a comfortable path through life. Born in 1877, he was the only son of Jonathan Perry Fitts who owned the major lumber yard in town, taking up the whole block at the intersection of North and College (where the YMCA complex is now). His dad was also a partner of T. J. Ludwig, the main building contractor in late 19th century Santa Rosa. Terry worked at the yard while growing up and it’s likely the family expected him to inherit the business.

The Fitts were Catholic so he attended the Ursuline “Convent school,” and the first mention of Terry in local newspapers was him being whipped in 1888 by the principal of the Davis street public school for “having an encounter with one of his pupils.” What exactly 11 year-old Terry did was not explained, although the matter came up before the Board of Education and “the various members were of the belief that they would have acted in a similar manner.”

(At that same meeting the Board heard several other charges against that educator, including objections he was teaching pupils Lincoln’s assassination was justified.1 He was also asked to reply to complaints from two parents for whipping their boys as well – although in one case, a 13 year-old “turned the tables on the Professor and whipped him.” Most relevant to our story is the identify of that teacher who whipped Terry Fitts as a child: He was Henry Calvin Petray – the older brother of murdered sheriff James Petray. That has to be the wildest Believe-it-or-Not! coincidence ever to appear in this journal.)

By his early twenties Terry Fitts was regularly getting into trouble. He was mustered out of the National Guard when his regiment’s service in the Spanish–American War ended in 1899, and within days of being back in Santa Rosa he was in front of justice of the peace Judge Brown pleading guilty to…something. We don’t know what he did because the Press Democrat didn’t print the charge against him or the judge’s ruling.

That wasn’t unusual – his crimes were never mentioned in the paper. And he got special treatment by the courts, too; it finally came out in 1906 that he had been arrested 23 times in Santa Rosa and charged with a felony, only to have each crime knocked down to a misdemeanor.

Here were textbook examples of the power of privilege. The Fitts’ were a socially prominent family in town; a search of the PD and its predecessor finds hundreds of items about Terry’s parents and sisters hobnobbing with other names familiar in Santa Rosa’s small town bluebook.

The news blackout ended when Oakland muckrakers took over the Santa Rosa Republican. They published two stories in early 1905 about Fitts trying to break out of the county jail and going on trial for maliciously breaking a restaurant window. Having been in town only a couple of months, the new editors didn’t know they were supposed to tiptoe around the town’s 27 year-old homegrown monster:

Fitts is the son of highly respectable and prominent parents of this city and his frequent appearances in the police court have been causes of great regret to these parents. Every opportunity has been afforded the youth to make something of himself and he has been given opportunities to start life anew many times. Each time he has fallen into dissolute habits and the temination has been in the police or justice court. His parents have thrown about the wayward son every safeguard which could be for his benefit and these have been ruthlessly thrust aside by him and ignored.

fitts1906(RIGHT: Terrence Fitts, 1906 San Quentin mug shot)

Then later in 1905 Terry and another thug got in serious trouble by trying to rob the operator of a railroad drawbridge in Marin. When they found the elderly man had no money on him “the toughs contented themselves with beating him into insensibility and then leaving.” Later the same paper (Sausalito News) reported “one of the men is Terry Fitts, a well known crook of Santa Rosa.”

The attack on the popular old man – dubbed the “Mayor of Greenbrae” – brought him before a judge outside of Sonoma County for the first time. He was sentenced to 14 years in San Quentin.

That conviction led the Press Democrat to finally break their omertà and remark that Fitts was “leader of the Gilhooly gang of thugs and hold-up men which operates in San Francisco and surrounding towns” (nothing more can be found about them, so it’s likely they were just a bunch of street punks).

From that point on he was mostly a fulltime jailbird, sometimes free for only a few weeks before breaking parole or committing new crimes. Out on parole in 1912, then back to jail for burglary in 1914. (In a lesser Believe-it-or-Not! item, he shot a policeman in the shoulder during that arrest – it was Miles Jackson, one of the two San Francisco detectives later gunned down in Santa Rosa. EDIT: This was a mistake that first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner’s 1920 coverage and has been repeated in years since. Fitts was part of a five member gang planning to rob a jewelry store. Fitts and two others were taken into custody without incident, but the leader of the gang and another man were arrested at another location, where “Forty-Year Smith” pulled a gun and wounded Jackson.)

After being paroled and again caught for a San Francisco burglary in 1917, the San Quentin board of governors declared Fitts was incorrigible, sending him to Folsom where he was placed in solitary. Paroled again (he registered for the WWI draft in 1918 stating he was a plumber) he violated parole once more and was back in Folsom until he was discharged in November 1919. The toll all this took on him can be seen in the photo – he appears to be much older than his 42 years.

fittsprofiles(RIGHT: Terrence Fitts in 1906 and 1919)

What Terry was doing in his last year of freedom is unknown, except he was in Santa Rosa at least some of the time. He obviously still consorted with criminals in San Francisco, as three of them followed him back to Santa Rosa when the manhunt was underway.2

Which brings us to the reason why Terry Fitts – a lowlife who rarely had more than two stolen nickels to rub together – found himself with the keys to a nice house large enough to hide a bunch of his criminal chums.

In late September, 1920, his father sold the famous lumber yard. The new owners would also get Terry’s childhood home at the corner of Stewart and College (now gone, part of the YMCA complex) but the deal allowed the 71 year-old man to continue to live there until the end of the year. Where he intended to go after that is unknown, but there was a married daughter in Bennett Valley with the other in Marin’s Mill Valley.

But his future address became a moot point when he died five weeks after the sale. Until January 1 1921, the sprawling Victorian would be unoccupied.

Terry knew none of this at the time. While he had been around earlier that week, his father’s death was unexpected and the family didn’t know how to contact him – career criminals tend not to leave forwarding addresses.

It was several days after the funeral before Terry again swaggered into Santa Rosa and learned of dad’s death. Terry learned something else surprising: His father had written him out of the will. An earlier version divided the estate (worth about $400k today) evenly between him and his two sisters but it was changed in March, 1920 to leave everything to the daughters while not even mentioning Terry.

The Press Democrat expected Terry to challenge the will in court and he probably would have – except things were about to start moving very quickly. A week later the women would be sexually assaulted by the Howard Street Gang. A week after that Terry would be back in Santa Rosa with his friends who were hiding from the police. And a week after that Terry would be swinging from a rope in the old cemetery.

As events in this tragedy played out over those three weeks, Terrance Joseph Fitts would be a key player in every scene except one – he was never actually associated with the so-called Howard Street Gang.

NEXT: THE WOLVES’ THANKSGIVING


1 A popular conspiracy theory among Confederacy apologists was that Booth’s reason for killing Lincoln had nothing to do with the Civil War – that it was a personal vendetta because Lincoln reneged on a promise to spare his friend from execution by granting a pardon. No part of that story was true (MORE).

2 Besides the two gangsters who were lynched with Fitts, Louis Lazarus was with the group but returned to the city just the day before the sheriff and San Francisco officers were slain. Lazarus was also the Howard Street Gang member who was not captured until 1928.

 

sources

 

CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION.
The Investigation of the Charges Against Prof. Petray.

…The writer also accused him of having punished a lad named Fitts, who attended the Convent, for having an encounter with one of his pupils. In endeavoring to administer a whipping to a 13-year-old lad named McGregor, the communication specified, the lad turned the tables on the Professor and whipped him. This part of the communication was very wordy and pictured the scene graphically, if not a little vulgarly. It was further specified that during the last term Professor Petray had delivered a lecture to his class, taking for his thesis the assassination of President Lincoln, justifying the act of Booth by stating that Lincoln had promised to pardon a friend of Booth’s who was to be executed for attempting to wreck a railroad train. The promise was not fulfilled, hence assassination….

[..]

…As the matter stood, it was the word of Professor Petray against that of one of his pupils. There was no difference of opinion concerning Professor Petray’s act in whipping the Fitts boy. The various members were of the belief that they would have acted in a similar manner.

– Daily Democrat 10 January 1888

 

Terry Fitts, who was a member of the San Rafael company of the Eighth regiment stationed at Vancouver barracks, arrived home last night. When the boys left Vancouver, he says, there was plenty of snow there, and the climate was nothing like as nice as it is here.

– Press Democrat, February 8 1899

 

Terry Fitts Pleads Guilty

Terry Fitts in Judge Brown’s court Tuesday pleaded guilty to the charge made against him. His honor will pass sentence this morning at 10 o’clock.

– Press Democrat, February 15 1899

 

Attempts to Escape

Terry Fitts a prisoner in the county jail made an attempt to escape from that institution last night by prying open the bars at the top of the window of the second story cell in which he was confined. The prisoner who is only a youth was arrested Saturday evening by Officer John M. Boyes and while being placed in a cell at the city prison attacked the officer viciously. The latter responded by striking the prisoner a gentle tap on the cranium with his revolver and the one blow sufficed to take the desire to fight out of the prisoner. The youth’s head was cut by contact with the revolver and blood spurted from it freely.

The prisoner was quite unruly when placed in the big cell with other prisoners and his propensity for making trouble began to assert itself. In order to give him a cell in seclusion he was transferred to one of the front rooms on the second floor. In order to effect his escape the prisoner used a portion of an iron bedstead as a pry with which to bend down the iron bars at the window and was provided with some pieces of rope and his blankets with which to lower himself to the ground. The plan was frustrated by Jailor Serafino Piezzi who chanced to learn what was being done by the prisoner and removed him to a cell in solitary confinement on the lower floor.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 2 1905

 

TERRY FITTS IS FOUND GUILTY

Justice Atchinson Will Impose Sentence Tomorrow on Youth of Respectable Parents

Terry Fitts was found guilty of a charge of malicious mischief this morning by a jury in Justice Atchinson’s court. He demanded a jury trial which was given him. The alleged malicious mlchief was in having broken a window in a restaurant to which Fitts entered a plea that a mythical stranger who was with him on the occasion had broken the pane of glass. Fitts made a poor witness for himself and was unable to give an description of the alleged stranger whom he alleged had broken the glass. The jury consumed a couple of minutes in reaching a verdict.

At the instance of District Attorney Charles H. Pond sentence was postponed until tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock. The maximum punishment for the offence of which he has been convicted is six months and owing to his previous record it is believed Justice Atchinson will give him the limit.

Fitts is the son of highly respectable and prominent parents of this city and his frequent appearances in the police court have been causes of great regret to these parents. Every opportunity has been afforded the youth to make something of himself and he has been given opportunities to start life anew many times. Each time he has fallen into dissolute habits and the temination has been in the police or justice court. His parents have thrown about the wayward son every safeguard which could be for his benefit and these have been ruthlessly thrust aside by him and ignored.

When his term of imprisonment is up there are two other warrants waiting for him. One of these is for resisting an officer and the other for threatening the officer’s life. These will be pressed at the proper time.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2 1905

 

In the tanks of the County Jail at San Rafael Sheriff Taylor has two tough characters who are supposed to be the thugs who robbed and brutally beat aged Felix Sands, keeper of the Greenbrae drawbridge, two weeks ago. Sands has identified the men as his assailants, and they will be immediately prosecuted for a felony. One of the men is Terry Fitts, a well known crook of Santa Rosa, and the other gives his name as Woods.

– Sausalito News, December 16 1905

 

Grand Jury Will Investigate

Attorney Ross Campbell, who has been retained to defend Tom Fitts, who, with Jack Woods, is being held at San Rafael on a charge of assault with intent to kill as the result of an attack on Felix Sands, “Mayor of Greenbrae,” has received a letter saying that the case had not been acted upon before the Grand Jury, but will come up December 27.

– Press Democrat, December 21 1905

 

Fourteen Years in San Quentin

San Rafael, Feb. 23. Terence Fitts, leader of the Gilhooly gang of thugs and hold-up men which operates in San Francisco and surrounding towns, was sentenced today by Judge Lennon to fourteen years imprisonment in San Quentin. The crime for which Fitts was found guilty was assault to commit robbery against Philip Sand of Greenbrae. John Woods, a companion of Fitts, is undergoing trial for the same offense. Fitts formerly resided in Santa Rosa and is an old offender, having been arrested twenty-three times in his native town, charged with a felony, and escaping on each occasion through a reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor.

– Press Democrat, February 24 1906

 

Fitts Lumber Yard Sold to Newcomers

The sale of the J. P. Fitts lumber yard in College avenue, adjoining the Southern Pacific track, has been completed, and the new owners, George B. Fuller and John E. Columbo, took possession Thursday. The Fitts home goes in the deal, but Mr. Fitts will retain possession until Jan 1.

– Press Democrat, October 1 1920

 

CONTEST LOOMS IN FITTS WILL
Mrs. H. W. Pyburn Jr. Files Document for Probate Which Cuts Off the Son, Terrance

Mrs. Hattie Pyburn, wife of Harry W. Pyburn Jr„ filed the will of her father, the late J. Perry Fitts, for probate Saturday in the superior court. The will in hologaphlc, dated March 20, 1920 [ed. note: it was dated Mar. 7], and leaves the estate to the two daughters, Mrs. Pyburn and Mrs. Cecil Riley. It is stated that the estate, consisting of personal property, including money in bank, bonds, promissory notes, etc., is valued at about $30,000.

It is understood that there is another will which makes a number of small bequests to friends and leaves the bulk of the estate to the two daughters and son, share and share alike. The son, Terrannce [sic] Fitts, has not been located since the death of his father, and when he learns of his father’s death he may return to secure his share of the property and fight any will which leaves him without anything.

– Press Democrat, November 16 1920

 

Terrence Fitts Returns

Terrence Fitts, son of the late J. Perry Fitts, has returned home, not having learned of his father’s death until after the funeral. The young man had left here on Saturday prior to the death of his father on Tuesday night, and not having left any address could not be notified.

– Press Democrat, November 16 1920

 

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YOUNG BRAINERD JONES

If it can be said that there was a renaissance period of American architecture, then it had to be San Francisco in the 1890s. The city was vibrant with possibility; buildings were being designed that had never been imagined before. And in the middle of this was a twenty-something young man from Petaluma who was absorbing it all.

(This is the final part of a presentation made at the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum on October 20, 2018. Part one, “THE MAKING OF BRAINERD JONES,” explained how Queen Anne style and Shingle style architecture came about and became the groundwork for his career, and that his early clients were likely hyper-literate about trends in modern architecture because of the profusion of articles in popular magazines.)

Was Brainerd Jones a genius? A genius is not simply a person with a big grab bag of tricks and techniques. Whether he was a genius or not I can’t say – but he was certainly a very fine architect.

Or can we say any of his work qualifies as a masterpiece? A masterpiece is more than the sum of its parts, checking off items from a list of what’s considered attractive and pleasing – at the time. To weigh the merits of a work of nice architecture, I like to play a game called, “How easy would it be to screw this up?”

Today’s Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

 

Instead of bringing sand-colored stone from the quarry at Stony Point, Jones could have used basalt from McNear’s quarry less than a mile north of town. Besides being locally sourced, the dark gray stone would have matched Santa Rosa’s Carnegie Library, which was built in 1903.

 

Santa Rosa’s 1910 post office (now the Sonoma County Museum) is a Beaux Arts-Neoclassical-Spanish Colonial mashup with a tile roof and a portico with Corinthian columns. (MORE)
Why not a clock tower for an important public building like the town library? In 1907, John Galen Howard, one of the top architects on the West Coast, designed a lovely Beaux Arts building for a bank in downtown Santa Rosa. But the elegant architecture became merely a base for the clock tower that harkened back to the too-busy Second Empire style from about forty years before. (MORE)

 

Brainerd Jones was born in Chicago in 1869, moving to Petaluma at age six after his father died. As a teenager he was recognized at the local fair for his drawing skills and his ability in “netting,” which is a kind of crocheting. He supposedly took art lessons from Max Roth, a marble cutter and monument maker who had a yard on Western ave. The first sighting as an adult (at least, that I can find) is as a carpenter in Tiburon in 1892, and a carpenter in San Mateo the year after that. His first known professional gig was as a draftsman in 1896 for the construction firm McDougall & Son. This was not a prestigious place to work; although their main offices were in San Francisco, between 1894-1897 most of their work was around Bakersfield building hospitals, schools and jails. The successor business, McDougall Brothers, became quite important after 1906 and remained so for the next twenty years. That was long after Jones was gone, however.

 

The San Francisco that Brainerd Jones knew was still a gaudy party town, but by the mid 1890s it was quickly developing a reputation for cultural and intellectual advancement. The 1894 Exposition in Golden Gate Park celebrated the city’s progress and drew 2.5 million visitors.

 

This world’s fair also brought the city its first art museum with this odd, neo-Egyptian building which became the de Young after the fair. It was destroyed int the 1906 quake.

 

This was also a time of heated politics and all kinds of activism. Architecture was no exception; In “the Wave,” the leading local periodical of literature and the arts, Willis Polk savagely attacked the popular Queen Anne style, with photos of “monstrosities” on “Chaos Avenue.” After the 1906 earthquake, Polk would play a key role in the “City Beautiful” reconstruction of San Francisco.

 

The excitement wasn’t contained to San Francisco. Berkeley and Oakland were becoming the intellectual centers of the Bay Area, thanks in part to the growth of UC/Berkeley. Like the wildly inventive Shingle style buildings seen in part one, there were plenty of innovative homes being built in Piedmont and the Berkeley Hills. Although Jones only lived four or so years in San Francisco, imagine being twenty-something and having all this swirling around you – there was probably no better time or place in American history to be studying architecture.

 

Just as the Shingle style had architects arguing over “unity,” the byword in artistic Californian circles was simplicity in all things, and living in surroundings as natural as possible. Poet Charles Keeler, whose Maybeck home was shown in part one, wrote: “The home must suggest the life it is to encompass. The mere architecture and furnishings of the house do not make the man any more than do his clothes, but they certainly have an effect in modifying him.” The popular architecture magazines discussed the philosophy of John Ruskin, with “Ruskin Clubs” in America joining the movement already in England. In this photo c. 1901, the man seated on the far right is Jack London.

 

Jones moved back to Petaluma in 1898, where he registered to vote and gave his profession as “glassman,” which presumably meant someone who worked in leaded and stained glass. This window is from the dining room in a 1901 home designed by Jones. In the 1900 census he’s listed as an architect living on English street.

 

Jones’ first known commissions came from sisters Mary Theresa and Helen Burn in 1900 and 1901 (MORE on the Burn family). They lived in Petaluma from 1900 to 1907, but why they came here is unknown; they previously lived in Chicago and were originally from the Kitchener, Ontario area. Mary – who went by the name, “Miss M. T. Burn” – had a business on Main st. where she taught and sold “fancy work” (embroidery). The four cottages they commissioned were scattered on both east and west side lots. One is definitely lost, one can’t be found (and may not have been built) and one has been heavily modified.

 

The best surviving Burn cottage is at 332 Post street and is firmly in the popular Queen Anne cottage style, using spindlework to frame the porch. This was the last of the four Burn commissions, being built in late 1901.

 

The Byce House at 226 Liberty street also dates to 1901. It’s mostly a conventional Queen Anne with a corner tower and the usual fish scale shingles.

 

The window pediments and ornamental molding around the attic window are neoclassical, but all the finials are gothic, as is the metalwork around them on each gable.

 

Compare the Byce House wit the 1904 Harriet Brown House at 901 D st. They share some similarities, such as the porte-cochère, but this house might be his most conservative design. Victorian neoclassical elements are everywhere, from the widow’s walk at the top to the profusion of finials to garlands on the columns. Of interest is the use of two elements that would become Brainerd Jones’ signatures: The “union jack” pattern (actually classical Roman) and deconstructed Palladian windows. Note the bit of whimsy in the attic gable, which has a broken pediment inside another broken pediment.

 

Jumping back to 1901, a third Queen Anne built that year was the Lumsden House at 727 Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. Today the front view is obscured by mature foliage

 

The stained glass seen earlier was from the Lumsden House; here is another example.

 

Like the other two homes we’ve seen from 1901, the Lumsden House is firmly American Queen Anne style. This was probably the busiest year of his career, with no fewer than nine houses under construction. At the exact same time this was being built, the Blitz Paxton House was going up next door.

 

Although the building was torn down in 1969, its footprint can be seen on the old fire maps. Guesstimating from the irregular shape, Paxton House was between 6,500 and 7,000 square feet – the largest residence Jones ever designed (MORE). As far as I know, Jones was the only architect who designed in both the popular Queen Anne style and the more artistic Shingle style.

 

In my opinion, this was based on the 1892 Anna Head school seen earlier. They have the same massing – a wider than usual building with a heavy roof. This view of the Paxton House clips off the southern end, but in the previous image it can be seen there was a significant gabled extension projecting out from the main building. Although the face of both buildings is anything but flat, they share deep eaves and a second floor slight overhang which creates a shadow to emphasize the horizontal lines. Both used decorative corbels to lend an illusion of support for projecting walls. Even if all the similarities were coincidental, they shared an unusual design for the entrances, with the front door recessed several feet and steps coming up sideways, from the left. The porch landing is concealed by a parapet, and we know from the family photos the Paxtons used this as part of their main outdoor living area, which was in keeping with the design principles of the artistic shingle architects.

 

Three years later, Jones designed another Shingle style house for Paxton’s friends who lived two doors down on the same block. Now known as Comstock House at 767 Mendocino avenue, the two houses must have made quite a statement. 

 

Seen here just after completion in 1905, the house had an astonishing number of windows and many whimsical features. Almost everything appears off-center; left/right, front/back views of the house are never symmetrical. The right sides of the gambrel gables are uncompleted (but on the east and south side only) and on south end of the porch is a decorative giant corbel that appears to be supporting the top floors. The deconstructed Palladian attic windows are above another set of deconstructed Palladian windows. In his directions to the contractor Jones even embraced the radical ideals of Wills Polk and specified no paint was to be used on any wood, inside or out; architecture, in this view, a house was no different than fine, artisan furniture.

 

But the design also shows Jones was closely following the new architectural ideas appearing in magazines, particularly Stickley’s “The Craftsman.” In 1904, Jones painted this concept shortly after Stickley published the design seen here inset. These designs would have been structurally unstable because the upper portion of the gambrel roof was too broad; the static load would have predominantly pushed outward instead of downward. As a result, Stickley’s design and this one would have probably flung itself apart under stress – such as the 1906 earthquake. That he copied Stickley’s roof profile makes another point: Jones – and most architects of his day – were terrible engineers.

 

This photo from 2006 before restoration began shows Jones also did not understand the physics of water on this type of roof. Note previous owners installed a rainstop at the end of the roof to slow the deluge in a heavy rain. The problem was that over two-thirds of the water would shoot down the small portion of the roof seen here on the left. The solution was to add gutters twice as wide and deep as the original plus a diverter where the angles change.

 

Several houses Jones designed in the 1910s seem derived from Stickley’s Craftsman Homes, but he was very much in touch with other modern trends. His 1908 design for the Saturday Afternoon Club in Santa Rosa (MORE) was in synch with the the Arts and Crafts movement’s cottage style now called “First Bay Tradition.”

 

Let’s end this survey of young Brainerd Jones with the earliest known picture of him. Here he is, age 39, at the groundbreaking for the clubhouse just mentioned. As you can see, he was a short man and was apparently sensitive about that; in the voter registrations his height kept growing from 5′ 6-3/4″ to 5-7 and then 5-8. But at this point in his life he had designed at least 25 homes as well as commercial buildings and a remarkable public library. Should he have retired on this day he would still have left a towering legacy – but he remained working at his drafting table for another 37 years.

 
So let’s ask again the questions I raised at the beginning.

Was he a genius? It’s jaw-dropping that he accomplished this work with his minimal training and education apparently limited to what he read in magazines and saw on the street. Yes, his lack of engineering caused some of his buildings to be flawed, but so were many of the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Were his designs architectural masterpieces? I would argue the Petaluma Museum qualifies. It’s neoclassical but also original, with yet another take on deconstructed Palladian windows. And then there’s the stained glass dome – something usually found in upscale hotels and businesses or churches. And that raises another “how easy it is to screw up” test; since this is a library and patrons are supposed to be looking down at books, wouldn’t clear skylights and hanging drop lights be more practical?

I believe every home he designed was considered a masterpiece by its original owner. Each was designed to fit their tastes and lifestyle like a glove. Mrs. Brown obviously wanted an old-fashioned design and Jones gave it to her, yet without larding on Victorian ornamentation. Blitz Paxton wanted the biggest house in town so he and his wife could throw lavish parties. And Jones gave him that, plus an ultra-modern look which dialed it up to bring attention to his ostentatious lifestyle.

That, I think, was Brainerd Jones’ real genius; he listened intensely to his clients so as to fully understand what would make them happy. The design became a collaborative effort.

And this also shows he deeply understood the principles of John Ruskin. When you live in a house that has been put together thoughtfully – even a simple California craftsman cottage – it has an impact on your outlook every day. Coxhead, Polk, Maybeck and other California architects at the time also knew this; it was about something deeper than picturesque street views – it was about creating art someone actually lived in.

 

 

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LET’S GO TO THE CIRCUS ON COLLEGE AVE

Hours before dawn, the boys were gathering at the depot waiting for the circus train. They would be playing hooky that day but wouldn’t get into much trouble for it; after all, their fathers did the same thing (and maybe grandfathers, too) and they had heard their elders speak wistfully about the pleasure of it, waiting in the dark with a swarm of kids and grown men for the trainload of marvels speeding their way on the rails.

From the 1916 Argus-Courier: “A monster train of red cars, loaded to the guards with circus paraphernalia and equipment of the John Robinson ten big combined shows, the oldest circus in the world, reached Petaluma Thursday morning, a little late but all safe and sound. There was a good sized reception committee on hand to welcome the showmen. Some were there who declared they had not missed seeing a circus ‘come in’ in twenty years. A few even remembered the last time the John Robinson circus visited California 35 years ago. Some small boys were at the depot as early as 3 a. m. although the circus did not arrive until 8:30.”

Setup in Santa Rosa was easier than many towns, where the fairgrounds were usually outside city limits and far from the depot. Here the show lot was nearly in the center of town – the former grounds of the old Pacific Methodist College (now the location of Santa Rosa Middle School, between E street and Brookwood Ave). Once the college buildings were removed around 1892, the nine acre vacant lot became the temporary home of every show rolling through.

This is the second item about the circuses that came to Santa Rosa and Petaluma as viewed through our local newspapers. Part one, “WHEN THE CIRCUS WAGONS CAME TO TOWN,” looked at the shows before the railroads arrived in the 1870s. With trains available the bigger and more famous circus companies began to come here and by the early 1900s, Santa Rosa could expect a visit from a world-class circus every year. The shows discussed below are only a small sample.

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

A big attraction for the 1883 John Robinson’s Circus was the electric light “as bright as the noon-day sun.” For advance PR they sent newspapers a humor column about “Uncle Jerry Peckum” complaining the “sarkis” tent being too close to his chicken farm: “It’s lit up so brite thet every last one o’ them tarnal fool chickins thinks it’s daylite again’, an’ got up an’ gone to layin.'” The column ended with Jerry deciding to go to the circus because “I’ve heern so much about this ‘lectricity light–an’ we may never hev a chance to see one agin.” The promo piece ran in the Petaluma Argus, naturally, because chicken.

1883 John Robinson’s Circus

The 1886 Sells Brothers Circus was the first mega-show to visit Sonoma County. While both Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers raved about its quality, the Petaluma Argus was outraged admission at the gate was $1.10 instead of the traditional buck.

Speaking of ripoffs: Earlier the Santa Rosa Daily Democrat ran an amusing reprint from a New York paper describing the predator/prey relationship between a circus “candy butcher” (food vendor) and the locals: “…The candy butchers in a circus never work the bottom row of seats. Country bumpkins who easily become their prey always get up on the top benches. They do this because they are afraid of the ‘butchers’ and want to hide from them. The latter move around on the top seats, and when they find a verdant fellow they fill his girl’s lap with oranges, candy, popcorn and fans. If the girl says she doesn’t want them they ask her why she took them, and make the young man pay thirteen or fourteen prices for the rubbish…” The piece continued by describing the pink in a circus’ trademark pink lemonade was a red dye added to conceal how little lemon actually was in the drink: “Strawberry lemonade men make two barrels of the delicious beverage which they sell of ten cents worth of tartaric acid and five cents worth of aniline and two lemons. They make fifty dollars a day each…”

1886 Sells Brothers Circus

I’m sure it lived up to its claim of being the “greatest show on earth,” but when the Ringling Brothers Circus made four visits during the 1900s we were flooded each time with the greatest hype on earth, as the Press Democrat seemingly printed every scrap of PR flackery the advance promoters churned out as “news” articles. “The aerial features of Ringling Brothers shows by far surpass anything of a similar nature ever exhibited in the United States. The civilized countries of the world have been thoroughly searched for the newest and most thrilling acts.” (1903) “Their Acts in Ringling Brothers’ Circus Almost Surpasses the Possible.” (1904) The low point was probably the 1907 article, “Interesting Facts Regarding the Expense of Advertising and Maintaining a Great Circus,” which was neither very interesting nor very factual: “An elephant without plenty of feed is as dangerous as a healthy stick of dynamite.” Yowp!

1900 Ringling Brothers Circus

Santa Rosa schools were dismissed at 11AM on the Thursday morning when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to town, which was a pragmatic surrender of any hope for keeping the kids at their desks once the parade started marching down Fourth street.

There was no Big Top for this show, just a horseshoe-shaped grandstand that could seat 16,000. The audience was apparently immense; the PD reported, “afternoon and evening the vast seating accommodations was occupied with a sea of humanity.”

These 1902 performances were not Buffalo Bill’s “last and only” shows in Santa Rosa. He was back again in 1910 for his “farewell tour,” and also in 1914, after he lost the legal use of the “Buffalo Bill” name and had to perform with the Sells-Floto Circus. For more, see “BUFFALO BILL STOPS BY TO SAY GOODBYE.”

1902 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

“Early in the day farmers from far and near came driving to town with their entire families while special trains brought crowds from points as far away as Ukiah,” reported the Press Democrat in 1904 about the third appearance here by the Ringling Brothers Circus. “By 11 o’clock the streets were thronged with a good natured perspiring crowd prepared to be amused at any thing.”

Unfortunately, Santa Rosa was suffering through a heat wave that September morning: “The Court House proved a very attractive place as it was so cool and refreshing within its walls while outside the thermometer ranged from 100 upward from 10 o’clock. Many of the windows were filled with the families and friends of the county officials, while the steps and shady portions of the grounds were packed with outside visitors. All along the line of march all available windows and other points of vantage were packed, while great throngs moved restlessly up and down the principal streets, and crowded the stores.”

The description of the circus parade was probably rewrite of PR copy, but it’s still fun to imagine a sight like this coming down Fourth street: “Never before in the history of Santa Rosa has there been such a parade as Ringling Bros, gave Thursday. Floats and chariots, half a dozen bands, numerous companies of horseback riders representing various nationalities, both men and women, a drove of thirteen camels, twenty-six elephants and many open cages of wild animals. Altogether there were over 375 horses in the parade. They were ridden, driven two and three tandem, in teams of two,. four, six, eight and twenty-four horses each. One of the most pleasing sights to the younger people were the twenty-four horse team on the band wagon and the twenty-four Shetland pony team on a float.”

1905 Press Democrat cartoon: “In Town for the Circus”

Norris & Rowe’s Circus was a Santa Rosa favorite in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and not just because they reliably showed up every April. “On account of the fact that it is a California show,” explained the Press Democrat in 1905, “the people of this state are naturally interested in its success from year to year, and the enterprise of Norris & Rowe in having advanced in a few years from a small dog and pony show to the growing circus that they now possess, has been highly commended.”

Alas, the show had no end of problems, well symbolized by the photo below showing their 1905 “Grand Gold Glittering Street Parade” in Santa Rosa taking place during a downpour. Their last appearance here in 1909 shocked some by offering “several gambling schemes” and a racy sideshow “for men only.” The circus went bankrupt and closed in 1910. For more see: “BROKE DOWN CIRCUS.”

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The Barnum and Bailey Circus made its second stop here in 1908, and the show was the biggest, best, blah, blah, blah. This trip was notable for an acrobatic act which sounds genuinely risky; the odd-but-colorful description that appeared in the Press Democrat is transcribed below (and was undoubtedly circus PR) but from other papers we can piece together what really went on.

The main performer was 20 year-old Yvone La Raque, who was seated in an “automobile” at the top of a narrow ramp near the top of the tent, about 65 feet in the air. (I can find no claim the little vehicle actually had an engine.) When her cart was released it dropped down the ramp and flew off with enough speed to somehow execute a somersault. She and the little car landed on a separate spring-cushioned ramp several feet away. The entire business took only 4-5 seconds.

Now, Gentle Reader might not think this such a great challenge; all she had to do was keep the wheels absolutely straight and do whatever weight-shifting physics needed to perform the loop-de-loop. But that was in 1907-1908, an age when steering wheels regularly fell off because gearboxes were still an experimental thing and even the best new tires sometimes burst under stress. And, of course, success depended upon workers quickly setting up the landing ramp with absolute precision while circus craziness was underway.

That was 1907 when Yvone was a solo act with a different circus; when she joined Barnum and Bailey her sister (name unknown) was added to the act, following her immediately down the ramp in an identical car and flying across to the landing ramp while Yvone looped above her. By all accounts the crowds went nuts.

I researched them with dread, certain I would discover one or both were killed or horribly mangled, but apparently they retired uninjured at the close of the 1908 season.

The start of this awful act is made from the dome of the tent. The cars ride on the same platform, one behind the other, being released simultaneously. One car is red and the other blue that their separate flights may be followed by the eye that dares to look. The leading auto arches gracefully across a wide gap, being encircled as it does so by the rear car. They land at the same instant. From the time the cars are released at the top of the incline to the landing below on the platform, Just four seconds elapse. Those who have seen the act say it amounts to four years when you figure the suspense, the worry and the awful jolting of the nerves. “You feel like a murderer waiting for the verdict,” says some one who saw the act while the circus was it New York City. “The suspense is awful. You look back over your past life. You regret as many of your sins as you can it four seconds. You want to close your eyes, but you can’t. My, what a relief when they land safely! That’s the jury bringing in a verdict of not guilty. Then you rise with a yell of joy as the young women alight without a scratch. Everybody else yells. Oh, it’s great!”

1908 Barnum and Bailey Circus

And finally we come to the Al G. Barnes Circus. The ad below is from 1921, but his show first appeared in Santa Rosa ten years earlier. I deeply regret having not found much about him beyond a few anecdotes – he clearly was gifted with a rare magnetic personality and both people and animals were drawn to him instinctively. His friend and attorney Wallace Ware tells the story of seeing Barnes throw meat to a fox in a forest, then approaching the wild animal and petting it as if it were tamed. He trained performing animals with food rewards but also by talking to them with genuine sincerity as if they could understand everything he said. Ware’s memoir, “The Unforgettables,” has a section on Al worth reading if you’d like to know more.

(RIGHT: Chevrolet and bear at the Al G. Barnes Zoo, Culver City, 1926. Courtesy of the USC Digital Library)

Barnes also had a private zoo near Los Angeles where he kept animals too old or too wild to be in the circus. It must have been enormously expensive to maintain – supposedly it numbered around 4,000 animals – but kudos to him for not destroying the unprofitable animals or selling them off to carnivals where they likely would suffer great abuses. That was the 1920s, remember; there were no animal sanctuaries for former circus animals, tame or no, and trade newspapers like Billboard and the New York Clipper regularly had want ads of circus animals for sale.

The Press Democrat treated him like a hometown boy although he was from Canada and lived in Southern California when he wasn’t touring. The PD reprinted news items about his circus, his illnesses and reported his marriage on the front page. When he died in 1931 the PD wrote its own obit: “When Al G. Barnes rode into the ring, swept off his hat, bowed and welcomed the crowd, you knew who was running the show…his death will be generally regretted, not only in a personal way but because it marks the passing of a picturesque character, one well known in the west–one of the last of the kind.”

1921 Al G. Barnes Circus

 

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