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THE SISTER OF THE WHITEWASH MAN (Hidden Lives II)

Quiz: Name the woman in 1870s Santa Rosa who was a successful real estate investor. Answer: It’s a trick question (sorry!) because we don’t know her real name. Oh, and by the way: She was a former slave.

On her tombstone at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery she is Elizabeth Potter. Legally she was C. E. Hudson, which was the only name on her will and how she bought and sold land – except for once when she identified herself as Charlotte E. Hudson. The 1860 census named her as Elizabeth Hudson, and her death notice in the local newspaper stated she was known as Lizzie Hudson. Whatever her name, Elizabeth/Charlotte Potter/Hudson was a remarkable woman. The reason you’ve never heard of her before is certainly because she was African-American and Santa Rosa’s 19th century Democrat paper had a single-minded determination to erase the presence of its black citizens, only mentioning them when there was a shot at grinding them down with ridicule.

(This is the second installment in the series, “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA.” It will be helpful to read the introduction for background.)

Most of what we know about her comes from her tombstone and mentions in her brother’s obituary (there was no obituary for her – she received only that two-line “Lizzie” death notice, which appeared for a single day). From real estate transactions we can guess her net worth was about $7,000 before she died in 1876; at that time in Sonoma County, $10k was the threshold for being considered wealthy.

Her birth name was almost certainly Elizabeth Potter and she was born a slave in Maryland, 1826. Bondage ended when she escaped a slaveholder in Virginia and somehow made her way to Santa Rosa, California. Speculate if you want that “Hudson” was related to a deceased husband, but note she never once used “Mrs.” with any form of her name, as was the custom at the time for widows.

We first meet her locally as Elizabeth Hudson in the 1860 census, where she is part of the household of civil rights activist John Richards, counted as a servant. (A servant was defined as a paid domestic worker.) She was listed as 37 years old and from Maryland. But a few days later, she was listed a second time as a servant for John H. Holman – but this time from Virginia. A double-count mistake like that is unusual, but not all that rare; the respondent for the household was almost certainly one of the Holmans and not Elizabeth herself.

potterplotRIGHT: The Potter family plot at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

After the Civil War she managed to reach her older brother who had remained in captivity until emancipation, having been sold four or five times in his fifty-odd years. At her urging, Edmund joined his sister here in 1872 and two years later, they became co-owners of 50+ acres north of town next to the county poor farm. Presumably all or most of the $1,200 price was contributed by Elizabeth (this land deal was the only time she used “Charlotte”).

There Edmund and his wife, Martha, made a small farm. Elizabeth may have lived with them as well; it was where she died in 1876.

Elizabeth knew she was dying and a few months prior sold one of her investment properties for the first time, getting $1,700 for a downtown parcel. She also tried to lure more of her family to Santa Rosa; in a poignant bequest in her will, she offered 13 of an even more valuable lot to “any cousin of mine who may come out from the East and attend me in my last sickness and may be here before my burial.” No one came. When she passed away just before Thanksgiving, her 59 year-old brother Edmund – who could read but not write – inherited everything.

Edmund and Martha’s sunset years looked secure. The parcel he inherited was at the foot of Fifth street (where the Post Office would be built decades later) and sold in 1879 for $3,100, which should have been enough for them to comfortably live on for the rest of their lives. The next year the Potter farm was valuated at $1,600, although they had made no improvements – it was still all meadowland. They had a pig and a couple of dozen chickens.

Tragedy struck as Martha died in a 1880 fire (she fell asleep while smoking) and the Democrat newspaper described her agonizing death in lurid detail. This was not at all unusual – the paper routinely spared no ink in describing how African-Americans died; in the following profile it was even reported the old man was found “partially undressed.” It was another routine exercise in racism, as deaths of white members of the community were almost never treated in such a demeaning manner. And it wasn’t limited to the 19th c. Democrat; the same treatment can be found in the Press Democrat as late as 1911.

whitewasherRIGHT: Illustration from “City Cries: Or, a Peep at Scenes in Town” Philadelphia, 1850

What happened during the next few years is a mystery, but apparently he lost his farm and everything else. No legal notice of the property being sold can be found in any newspaper, nor was there any clue as to what happened to his sizable nest egg. He was next spotted in 1884, when the city paid a bill he submitted for $4.02. That likely meant he was now the whitewash man.

Whitewashing was among the lowest menial jobs traditionally held by 19th century African-Americans. It was messy work particularly as ceilings were often whitewashed but it was not dangerous – ignore internet claims that old-time whitewash contained lead – though there were several variations in the formulas (PDF).

He was now living in town at 528 First street and married again in 1890 to Louisa Hilton, a woman 25 years younger who had four daughters. The minister in the ceremony was Jacob Overton (see intro), one of the Bay Area civil rights activists who had earlier kept John Richards and others here in touch with the movement’s progress. There’s no evidence that Potter or his sister (under any of her names) were actively involved in the fight for equality, but it’s still noteworthy he had some sort of connection with a man as hooked-up as Overton.

Living in Santa Rosa proper exposed the Potters to the unquenched racial hatred that still burned here thirty years after the Civil War. In his collection of character sketches “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley recalled being sent on an errand to ask Potter’s daughter for help with housework at his parent’s house. Finley didn’t know the neighborhood and asked Judge Pressley for directions. (Pressley was the Superior Court judge at the time and an outspoken racist, having infamously once said he came to Santa Rosa “to get away from the carpet-baggers, scalawags and ni***rs of South Carolina.”) Naturally, the judge used the boy’s simple question as an opportunity to throw in a racial slur:


One time while a small boy I was sent down to Uncle Potter’s house to notify the aforesaid daughter that her services would be required at our house the following morning. I had difficulty in finding the place, and as Judge Pressley lived in that neighborhood I rang his doorbell and when he appeared, made inquiry. I must have been somewhat embarrassed or confused, for I said, “Judge Pressley, is there a negro lady who lives somewhere near in this vicinity?” Judge Pressley, a southerner of the old school, replied somewhat testily, “There are no negro ladies living around here, but Uncle Potter’s house is just around the corner and I think you will find Mandy or her mother at home.”

His “Uncle Potter” nickname probably emerged soon after he moved to Santa Rosa, and make no mistake, this was not a term of endearment or respect as “Tío” is used in Spanish-speaking cultures. In Jim Crow America, addressing an older African-American man as “uncle” was just the flip side of calling a younger adult “boy.”

As noted in the intro, racism in Santa Rosa’s Democrat newspaper during the later 19th century was usually passive – ignoring the existence of people like Elizabeth Potter and less often flinging around “n word” type slurs. Not so with Edmund Potter; the paper portrayed the 80 year-old man as the town’s laughable resident character.

“Uncle Potter” first appeared in the Democrat on April 13, 1895: “De trouble wid de ladders ob success in use now-er-days,” said Uncle Potter at his home on First street, “am dat they ain’ strong enough in de j’ints. When yoh gets pooty clos ter de top, dey’s liable ter break and drap yer.” Over the following 2½ years there would be dozens more of these aphorisms, metaphors and snarky quips about politicians, all written in pseudo-plantation patois – Gentle Reader may be justly skeptical that a literate man born in Maryland would speak like a Mississippi field hand. More examples:

“De man dat calls hisself a fool will nebbah forgive another for agree!n’ wid him.” “When yoo poke a toad philosophically you can’t tell which way he will jump nor how far, an’ its about the same way wid de avrage jury.” “Politicians am like corkscrews, de mo’ crooked dey am, de stronger their pull.” “De man ain’t been born dat kin live an’ love on bad cookin’. Good cookin’ keeps lub in de house much longer’n good looks.” “Political economy seems to me it’s a sickness kinder like the grip. It comes on with a weakness fer office, and you can’t get shet of it, no way. Bime by it brings on a third-term fit — that’s skeery, I tell you, and there ain’t no economy in that fer po’ folks who do the votin’, and there ain’t no economy for the other fellow, for he ginrally gets beat any way.”

The blame for this shameful “humor” falls entirely on Robert A. Thompson, brother of the paper’s founder and Confederate flag-waver, Thomas L. Thompson. Robert was editor and publisher of the Democrat in those final years before it was sold to Ernest Finley & Co. in 1897. He’s since been portrayed as a serious scholar for having written two important early histories of the county and town.*

What Robert was doing in the mid-1890s was just an updated version of what his brother did with racially-charged language a generation before – titillating the white supremacists in the paper’s audience. Readers would have recognized the “Uncle Potter” dialect and backwoods insights as being in step with the popular “Lime-Kiln Club” stories of the 1880s, several of which appeared in the Democrat and were collected in a 1882 top-selling book, “Brother Gardner’s Lime-kiln Club”. With foolish characters such as Pickles Smith, Boneless Parsons and Elder Dodo, the stories portray African-Americans as dimwitted and/or childlike, seeking (and failing) to mimic whites and white society. And, of course, watermelons were stolen. When teaching about the history of Jim Crow, the destructive impact of this white superiority crap in popular culture merits far more attention than it gets, in my opinion.

potterportraitRIGHT: Drawing of Edmund Potter from the Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896

While the Lime-Kiln Club was fictional, “Uncle Potter” was not. Edmund Pendleton Potter was a very real, very elderly man trying to make a subsistence living to support himself and his stepdaughters – his second wife had died in 1895, just a week after the first “Uncle Potter” item appeared. Everybody in this small town would have known the whitewash man by sight, and it seems likely the clever sayings attributed to him would have made him target for cruel boys and mean drunks seeking to bully someone for sadistic kicks. Any torment could only have gotten worse after the Democrat printed a drawing of him the following year along with a description that “…He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race… He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature…” It was an invitation for people to expect him to perform on request.

Edmund Potter lived to be 91, dying in 1908 and continued whitewashing up to his final day. Obituaries appeared in both the Republican and Press Democrat, although neither paper could be bothered to get his first name right. He is buried in the Rural Cemetery, Main Circle 1, next to Elizabeth and his two wives, although he has no grave marker. His funeral service was conducted by Jacob Overton, the rights activist who had a recurring role in his life which was never explained.


* Robert A. Thompson, brother of Thomas L. Thompson, was County Clerk 1877-1884, then appointed U.S. Merchandise Appraiser in San Francisco 1885-1892. He ran for Secretary of State in 1898 and lost by 0.7% of the vote; he said he would call for a recount but nothing became of it, perhaps due to the expense or because Democratic party officials wanted no part in would have been the first contested office in state history. He first edited the Democrat in 1871 and apparently continued to be involved sporadically until it was sold in 1897. Robert authored two well-regarded local histories and an essay on the Bear Flag Revolt, all of which are available online. At his death he was working on a history of California. Thompson had a renowned library which supposedly contained many unique diaries and other primary sources, but what happened to it is unknown (my personal belief is the family donated it to the California Historical Society in San Francisco and it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake). He died Aug. 3 1903 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery Main Circle 184.

Top photo: Pamela Fowler Sweeney/findagrave.com
 

NEXT: HENRY W. DAVISON
 

sources
HUDSON-Near Santa Rosa, Nov. 21, 1876, Lizzie Hudson (colored), aged about 50 years. Funeral from her late residence tomorrow (Tuesday) at 2 o’clock. Friends are requested to attend.

– Daily Democrat, November 20 1876

 

BURNED TO DEATH.—On Sunday afternoon, May 23rd, Mrs. Martha Potter, wife of Edward Potter, a colored man who lives on a ranch near the Poor Farm, fell asleep with a pipe in her mouth, from which her clothes caught fire, burning her so severely that she died from the effects on Saturday evening. Her husband, who was asleep in an adjoining room, heard her struggling with the flames and going to her assistance, tore the clothes from her person, but she was so severely burned about the abdomen that death resulted as above stated. She was sixty-nine years of age,

– Sonoma Democrat, June 5 1880

 

Mrs. Potter’s Birthday Party.

Mrs. E. Potter celebrated her fifty-second birthday, at her home on First street, Wednesday night. About twenty of her friends and neighbors were present and sat down to a fine supper. Mrs. Potter’s health was toasted and every one wished her many happy returns of the day. Afterwards music and songs were rendered. All those who were fortunate enough to be present at this birthday party will long remember the happy occasion.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 6 1895

 

The above is a picture of Edmund Potter, better known as “Uncle Potter”, a highly respected citizen of Santa Roaa, from an excellent pen sketch made by our artist. Uncle Potter is 76 years old and black as coal but his mind is bright and his heart is as kind as any white man. He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race. Uncle Potter was born in Maryland and came to California soon after the war set him free. He has lived in and around Santa Rosa for a number of years. Many of his bright sayings have appeared at various times in the “Gossip” column of the Democrat. He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature, if he had his way he would colonize all the colored race in Africa where they could work out their own destiny by themselves. Uncle Potter is wonderfully well up in the Scriptures and is a strict constructionist of the word. He has built his house of faith upon the rock and not upon the shifting sands of doubt.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896

 

Edmund Potter, the gentleman of color, better known as Uncle Potter, wants to go to Liberia in Africa, where many men and women of his own race and color are located, who speak the English language. Potter thinks he can do them good and he is circulating a petition to raise money enough for transportation. On his arrival in the dark continent he will devote himself to missionary work.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 13 1897

 

UNCLE POTTER DIES SUDDENLY
Well Known Negro Lived to be 91 Years Old

Edwin Pendleton Potter familiarly known about this city as “Uncle Potter,” the well known negro, passed away suddenly at his home on First street Thursday morning. He was in his usual good health early in the morning and had arisen and was about the house when he was taken with a pain in his back just over the heart. He lay down for a time and seemed to be getting better when he was taken with an attack of coughing and attempted to rise up, but sank back, and his step daughter ran to his side, but it was seen that the end was near. He died in a few minutes and before Dr. G. W. Mallory, who was hurriedly sent for, could arrive.

Deceased was born in Caroline county near Denton, Maryland, and was 91 years of age. He came to California and settled in Santa Rosa in 1872 and has resided here ever since. At the time of the war he had a sister who had been a slave in Virginia, but had run away, and after everything became righted he got into communication with her from this city and it was on her account that he was brought here. He was a slave himself and was sold some four or five times. He was twice married and both his wives were buried in the local cemetery and it was the old man’s wish that he be laid away by their side.

At one time “Uncle Potter” was one of Santa Rosa’s wealthy men and formerly owned the site where the new postoffice is soon to be built. He was also owner at one time of the ranch which is now the county farm and hospital. he was a very active man and right up to the time of his death was engaged in business. He was planning for another job of whitewashing on Wednesday and would have made some of the arrangements about his spray machine today.

“Uncle Potter” was of the Baptist faith but had joined the Holiness band here and was one of Elder Arnold’s great admirers. Hie was a great hand to attend church and took a great interest In religious affairs.

The arrangements for the funeral have not yet been made but will be announced in a day or two.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 4, 1908

 

‘UNCLE’ POTTER HAS GONE TO HIS REST
Aged Colored Man Who Was for Many Years a Resident of Santa Rosa Dies Thursday Morning

“Uncle” Edward Pendelton Potter will no longer be seen trundling his little cart and its whitewash outfit along the streets of Santa Rosa on week days. Neither will he be noticed, dressed in his best black suit and wearing his silk hat, tottering along towards the little Holiness Chapel on Humboldt street where for years he was one of the most regular of Pastor Arnold’s flock on Sunday.

The old colored man, for so many years a noted character about town, is dead. His life of ninety-one years ended suddenly at his humble cottage on First street Thursday morning where a step daughter has kept house for him. A sudden fit of coughing came on, Dr. Mallory was sent for, but before he could reach the house, “Uncle” Potter was no more.

The deceased had lived In Santa Rosa for almost thirty-seven years. Years ago he owned considerable property, but it all slipped through his hands. He was a good old man. and no one could be found about town on Thursday. but what spoke of him kindly, and with words of esteem. He was a Christian and in his humble way he lived his religion. He was a native of Maryland and in the days of slavery he knew what it meant to be sold as a slave four or five times. He was twice married and in the local cemetery he has a family plot where on Sunday afternoon he will he burled. The funeral will take place from Moke’s Chapel at two in the afternoon.

“Uncle” Potter was a very poor man when this world’s gifts are considered. Dr. J. J. Summerfield. as the representative of many of the old man’s friends, who are anxious that he shall be given a decent burial in his own plot, last night started out with a subscription list to collect enough money to have everything neat at the funeral. The people Dr. Summerfield approached last night were only too glad to give a donation towards the burial expenses.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1908

 

“UNCLE” POTTER SLEEPS IN SILENT TOMB

In the family plot in the old cemetery on Sunday afternoon they laid “Uncle” Potter to rest. Many old-time friends of the venerable and respected man gathered at the graveside to witness the last rites. The casket was covered with flowers and these in turn were laid on the newly made grave. The funeral took place from Moke’s chapel and the services were conducted by Elder J. M. Overton.

When the band accompanying the Woodmen’s parade met the funeral procession a halt was called, and while it passed by the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.” The sentiment of the hymn was particularly appropriate in view of the Christian character of the deceased and also because it was one of his favorite hymns.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1908

 

The colored citizens of Santa Rosa offer their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Summerfield and the friends of our departed and much respected fellowman “Uncle Potter,” who so kindly respected his memory with flowers, subscriptions and by giving him a good Christian burial.

The tribute paid by the Santa Rosa band and the W. O. W. touched our hearts. Trying to emulate the life of that grand old Christian, we are, very gratefully.
The Colored Citizens, by
Willis Claybrooks, John W. Dawler, Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1908

 

At the Holiness Chapel at 11 o’clock this morning there will be a memorial service for the late “Uncle” Potter.

– Press Democrat, June 14 1908

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Commandery

THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK

[Editor’s note: You might really be looking for “THE FORGOTTEN GREAT FIRE OF 1870” which describes there was a third firestorm identical to the Tubbs/Nuns Fires which has never been mentioned]

Could this fire happen again? That’s the multi-billion dollar question hanging over everyone who lost homes in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park as they weigh the decision on whether or not to rebuild. There are no good answers; we can’t even be sure our guesses are reasonably good. There’s just too much we don’t know about the world’s changing climate to say this was a freak event or the harbinger of a new terrible normal.

To understand more, I urge everyone to read (or at least, skim) “The Real Story Behind the California Wildfires” by Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass. He makes several important observations I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere, particularly that there were hurricane force winds (96 MPH!) at higher elevations before the fire began to spread. The speed of those winds are unprecedented in our neck of the woods and were a significant factor in creating what he calls a “unique mountain-wave windstorm.” Again, it’s a must-read.

Comparisons are being made to the September 1964 Hanly Fire (that’s the correct spelling, not “Hanley”) which burned over the same route – Calistoga to Franz Valley to Mark West Canyon and then driven down into Santa Rosa, likewise by the powerful, unrelenting “Diablo Winds” on a Sunday night. But it did not grow into the hellish firestorm that raged in 2017; it was stopped on Mendocino avenue just outside the now-lost Journey’s End trailer park.

But forgotten since are the two other major fires specific to Fountaingrove and the Coffey Park areas. Each was the most serious fire of that year in Santa Rosa. It just may be a coincidence that these incidents were at the same locations, but at this point, any additional information about our fire history is good to have.

Major factory fires threatened Santa Rosa’s industrial rim in 1909 and again in 1910, but of all the fires in Santa Rosa history, the Fountaingrove fire of 1908 was the one which might have burned down the town.

The fire was huge, easily visible from Healdsburg because it was nearly at the top of the hill. In flames was the landmark “Commandery,” one of the main buildings from the heyday of the utopian colony founded by Thomas Lake Harris. That was the residence for the colony’s men. The fire began when a kerosene lamp exploded, destroying the place so fast that nothing in the three-story mansion could be saved.

“Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread,” the Press Democrat reported at the time. From a high ridge like that, just a stiff breeze could have easily thrown embers a mile and a half downwind to the county hospital on (the road later named) Chanate – which also came within 100 yards of burning in the 1964 Hanly Fire (and where a developer now has the go-ahead to build a dense subdivision of up to 800 units).

The fire burned itself out quickly; it’s not clear if the Santa Rosa Fire Department did anything. A pasture also ignited and was easily handled. But had a northern wind still been gusting, firebrands from the Commandery might have blown as far as the core neighborhoods across from the modern-day high school, where almost all Victorian homes had shingle roofs.

While Santa Rosa got a lucky break in 1908, Fortuna did not smile as much on the town in 1939, when a wind-whipped fire swept across 500 acres in (what would become) the Coffey Park neighborhood.

That September 20 fire started at the airport. Today probably only the oldest-timers and aviation buffs know that the town had an airport there; when it opened in 1929 it was first called the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, then it became the Santa Rosa Airpark and lastly the Coddingtown Airport, which finally closed in 1971 or 1972. The layout of the runways shifted over the years but the way it probably looked at the time of the fire can be seen in the graphic below. (For much more on all the historic airfields in the Santa Rosa area, see the “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields” site. Don’t miss the commemorative postmark of Luther Burbank looking like an angry muppet.)

Approximate location of the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport runways in 1939

 

The airport fire was completely avoidable, and if not for the serious danger it posed would serve as the script for a Keystone Kops slapstick comedy.

It was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reading 104 – hardly conditions to do weed burning, but that’s what a crew of 10-12 men were doing that afternoon on the runways, dragging burning rags behind a truck.

They were working in the southwestern end of the field when the wind suddenly started blowing from the south, sending the fire towards the modern intersection of Coffey Lane and Hopper Ave. It was moving so fast they could not overtake it in the truck, according to the PD.

Naturally, they were unprepared to handle such a runaway blaze so the fire department was called. A single truck with 150 gallons of water was dispatched and quickly emptied. The fire was now out of control.

A second fire truck arrived, as did a crew and truck from the state as the fire line headed towards several farms. Students from the Junior College joined the fight and were credited with saving at least one home.

“Farmers, passing motorists, airport attendants and others fought side by side, beating out the flames with wet sacks and using portable water pumps in the two-hour battle,” the PD reported.

One farmer lost a small house and farm buildings, including a barn; another lost many outbuildings including chicken houses, where many animals died. Two orchards were burned over, power poles went up in flames and a large stack of baled hay continued to burn into the next day. Altogether 13 buildings were destroyed on five properties.

The idiocy of doing a controlled burn on an extremely dry and hot day aside, it’s jaw-dropping that it spread to 500 acres before a city and state fire crew plus a platoon of volunteers could control it – all in an area that was then undeveloped and just a couple of miles from town. What would they have done if the wind changed again and started blowing towards Santa Rosa?

Again, I hasten to add it’s probably just a Believe-It-Or-Not! coincidence that the big fires of 1908 and 1939 happened at the same places as 2017. Those fires don’t even have anything in common with each other; the airport fire was caused by a sudden change of wind and the Commandery burned like a torch amid no winds at all. One fire was avoidable, one probably not. What they do have in common is that both could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa; the town could not have coped with a serious fire on its border at either time.

After presenting lots’o graphs and colorful maps, meteorologist Cliff Mass concludes with an optimistic view that our computer models are probably able to predict when conditions are ripe for a replay of the Tubbs Fire. That’s good news for sure, but the depressing message from history is that disasters aren’t always so foreseeable in reality. Sometimes life-threatening events comes from scientifically-predictable weather conditions, but sometimes the worst danger is just some fool dragging a burning rag behind a truck.

 

Painting of the Commandery by Fountain Grove colonist Alice Parting as it appeared in the Pacific Rural Press, May 18, 1889

 

Top image of Commandery courtesy Gaye LeBaron Collection, Sonoma State University Special Collections

 

 

BIG RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE AT FOUNTAINGROVE
A Disastrous Blaze Near Town Wednesday Night

The explosion of the lamp resulted in a fire Wednesday night the destroyed the fine old residence at Fountaingrove, which for years occupied a commanding site on the hill overlooking the valley, greeting the eyes of every passerby along the Healdsburg Road. It was the biggest residence on the estate.

In a remarkedly short space of time, so fiercely did the fire fiend to do its work, the splendid building that rose four stories high, was reduced to smoldering embers. The residence was furnished and the contents cannot be saved. In addition a small creamery was also destroyed.

Shortly before 10 o’clock the fire started. The flames lit up the heavens for miles. People in Santa Rosa climbed into automobiles and carriages and left for the scene. At first many people thought the fire was at the old Pacific Methodist College building, and quite a number of them headed in that direction. Then it was said that it was Frank Steele’s residents near town. All these conjectures proved wrong.

The lamp exploded without warning and Mr. Cowie, who resided in the big house, was slightly burned about the face. The fire spread rapidly. The residence, built entirely of wood, was an easy prey. At the first cry of fire the large force of employees on the Fountaingrove estate rallied and did what they could to prevent the spread of the flames to other buildings. Numerous small hose were attached to faucets. Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread. Some flying embers started a fire in the pasture but it was checked.

The house was well built. It had stood for about a quarter century. It was a largest residence on the place. When seen by a Press Democrat representative at the scene of the fire, Kanai [sic] Nagasawa stated that it would be hard to estimate the damage. Probably $35,000 to $40,000 will cover it. It is understood that there was some insurance on the place. Years ago, when the late Thomas Lake Harris published his books, the printing presses and other paraphernalia had aplace in the building destroyed. Of later years it had been used as a residence and for sometime prior to their going away from Fountaingrove Dr. and Mrs. Webley, and the Clarks occupied apartments in it.

There must have been a couple of hundred people in the crowd who drove out from Santa Rosa to the fire. Mr. Nagasawa took in the situation most philosophically, saying while it was too bad it had happened yet he was very thankful no one was hurt, and that there was no wind to scatter the fire further.

The old house will be missed. While it was the largest house it was not considered as fine as that occupied by the late Mr. Harris, which contains some valuable paintings, plate and furnishings. There are many Santa Rosans who have visited the Webleys and the Clarks there, and they will be sorry to learn of the destruction wrought by the fire.

For an hour or more after the fire, and while it was still in progress the telephone line to the Press Democrat office was certainly “busy.” The fire was seen for miles around and inquiries poured into the office.

Mr. and Mrs. Shirley Burris were leaving Healdsburg for Santa Rosa in their automobile at the time the fire started. Its reflection could plainly be seen there, and attracted considerable attention. All along the road people were out watching the flames.

While mention is made of those who went in automobiles and buggies to the fire those who rode horseback and on bikes must not be overlooked. There were many entries in these divisions. Several young ladies galloped on horseback to the scene of conflagration. For his speedy transit to Fountaingrove the Press Democrat representative was indebted to Frank Leppo, who drove his auto. When all the autos returned to town after the fire it made up quite a decent illuminated parade. An effort to reach Fountaingrove by telephone after the fire was met with the information the telephone had been destroyed with the building.

– Press Democrat, June 18 1908

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railroadpreview

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.

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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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