It cut through the summer night like a star fallen to earth, its blue-white flame casting deep unnatural shadows for miles. “I have lived in Petaluma for forty-five years. It was the grandest thing I ever saw,” said Frank Lippitt.

“Put me down as saying we are just on the verge of a new era of prosperity,” Richard Skinner told the Petaluma Morning Courier. “The striking of gas will put Petaluma before the world as the ideal manufacturing center.” Forget the eggs, forget the chickens; soon there will be oil rigs on every farm and field and everyone in town will be as rich as the McNears. Richer.

This is the first of three articles on the Sonoma County speculation oil boom in the early 20th century. Although this installment covers just a single oil field near Petaluma, during those years petroleum prospecting companies were sprouting overnight with their “experts” rushing everywhere, signing oil leases on lands from Occidental to Bennett Valley to Two Rock. So also forget the hops and the grapes, the dairies and the orchards – no more Redwood Empire but rather an Empire of Oil.

But these particular stories are really not about the search for oil. They are about stock swindles and fraud scams – crimes which not only occurred here, but apparently were endemic to oil prospecting all over the country at the time. Then there are related mysteries about how much the local bigwigs and newspaper editors knew about what was really going on and chose to keep quiet. As found below, the Petaluma Daily Morning Courier seemed particularly eager to keep a lid on news that may have raised eyebrows.

Andy Ducker and his family had a 363 acre sheep ranch three-quarters of a mile east of (what’s now) Petaluma Adobe State Park. It was never explained what set the wheels in motion but we can assume in 1907 Andy told someone about the thick black gunk seeping out of the ground in a few places. In August a man named Larimore showed up and he signed a lease to allow drilling on part of his property. If they didn’t strike oil at least he’d get a free water well out of the deal, the 68 year-old rancher said.

Within weeks, prospects were starting to look like a sure thing. “At a depth of only about sixty feet the men have come across strong indications of oil,” wrote the Argus. “Blue soil, which has a strong petroleum smell is being brought up by the auger and there is such a flow of gas that one man was put out of commission on Tuesday.”

With the test drilling over, the project went on hiatus to raise money for purchasing gear and staffing up, so Larimore and others formed the Petaluma Oil and Development Company.* It would control the project on Andy’s farm and another place nearby as well as selling stock. There were 100,000 shares available at one dollar apiece.

Almost a year passed before work resumed on the Ducker farm, but there was much going on behind closed doors. In fact, this is like the point in a good mystery story that Gentle Reader will return to at the end and groan, “aha! the clues were there all along!” To make that easier, I’m highlighting certain names in the following paragraphs. (Spoiler alert: None of them were who they were said to be.)

Unable to woo a sufficient number of Sonoma County investors, Larimore went to the East Coast to pitch a deal. There he met Charles Gregg.

In April 1908 the Morning Courier printed, “An eastern oil syndicate has purchased a controlling interest in the Petaluma Oil and Development Company…” The very next day, the same paper quoted a director of the company denying it. But the Petaluma Argus (which had a different editor and publisher than the Morning Courier) wrote a few weeks later, “…It is an open secret that Mr. Gregg, to whom has been assigned an undivided one-half interest in the lease holdings of the company in [the Ducker ranch] is in reality the chief of the fuel department of the Western Pacific Railway Company, and is representing that company in his dealings here…”

The headline on that Argus story was “WESTERN PACIFIC BUYS OIL LEASES AND WILL BORE WELLS NEAR TOWN”. And again, the Morning Courier said it wasn’t true: “The Western Pacific is in no way connected with the company which is to operate [here]…” It certainly made sense for Western Pacific to invest in oil drilling; the railroad’s California operations were in a bind because they had to buy all their oil from other companies, namely Southern Pacific or Standard Oil.

Although drilling had yet to begin by September, Gregg showed up in Petaluma accompanied by a San Francisco banker named Norton C. Wells who, like Gregg, did not appear to have any experience in the oil business. Together they formed the Ramona Oil Company, with Wells as manager and Gregg as VP. The titular president was a very well-known and respected Southern California oilman who may not have ever visited this area. Within a few months he “retired” and Gregg became the head man.

Ramona Oil subleased half of the property controlled by Petaluma Oil & Development and took control of the project, buying all equipment and contracting Petaluma O&D to do the labor. Any profits were to be split fifty-fifty.

The Petaluma Home Oil Company was among the oil prospecting operations formed near Petaluma in 1909 (Charles Gregg was also VP of this company) and only existed for eight months. This well, which was five miles south of town on the Petaluma creek, did not strike oil or natural gas. Image courtesy Petaluma Historical Library & Museum
The Petaluma Home Oil Company was among the oil prospecting operations formed near Petaluma in 1909 (Charles Gregg was also VP of this company) and only existed for eight months. This well, which was five miles south of town on the Petaluma creek, did not strike oil or natural gas. Image courtesy Petaluma Historical Library & Museum

As boring continued into 1909, the real action was taking place at the county clerk’s office. Besides Ramona and Petaluma O&D, there was now the Petaluma Home Oil Company, the Robinson Creek Oil Development Co. and a half-dozen more new companies. The Argus reported one speculator had 6,000+ acres under lease. “All that can be heard on the streets now is oil and gas and a man who is on the inside, informed an Argus reporter on Wednesday that inside of a year there will be a forest of derricks around Petaluma and that numerous oil wells will be sunk.” And that was all before everyone suddenly went nuts.

On August third the Argus presented a huge, war-is-declared banner headline: “STRUCK A BIG FLOW OF NATURAL GAS”. At about 800 feet Ramona hit a reservoir with enough pressure to blow some equipment a hundred feet in the air. This had actually happened sometime in late spring and the crew was completely unprepared to handle it; the high-pressure gas which was blasting from the well was apparently only partially contained for weeks until a special device arrived from Texas to cap it. Ramona asked the local papers for a news blackout until it was installed, but it was the talk of the town that something big was afoot.

The Morning Courier reported, “Petaluma is teeming with rumors concerning the oil situation on Sonoma countains [sic] and the Ramona and Petaluma Oil Companies but no one really knows anything except the oil men themselves and they are positively non committal. One thing is certain – every day or two a Ramona official pops quietly into town, accompanied by a stranger and just as quietly pops out again…”

After the well was capped the editor of the Argus was invited to the site for a demonstration:

…When this valve was opened and the gas allowed to escape, the writer was standing a few feet away. An instant later he was some fifteen feet away and had his hands over his ears to shut out the noise, which was deafening. The gas escaped from the two-inch pipe with a rush and a roar that was not only deafening but astounding. Nothing could be seen except an occasional misty vapor that was gone immediately, and there was very little odor. Little pieces of wood dropped at the pipe outlet would be instantly caught up and carried through the air a hundred feet or more. The gas was permitted to escape for some minutes during which period of time roar and rush of the mysterious pressure seemed to grow greater rather than to diminish. When the valve was closed, the quiet of the open country was welcome to overtaxed ear drums.

Unlike the Morning Courier, the Argus wasn’t a cheerleader for the project until then: “We must confess that we have all been somewhat skeptical as to the quantity and quality of gas in the Ramona company’s Ducker ranch…” but now the paper was all in. The well could supply enough gas for a city 10x the size of Petaluma, the paper boasted, and a pipeline must be built immediately. “This means a vastly ‘Greater Petaluma’ in a very short space of time.”

A week later, Ramona announced they were going to ignite the gas flow for an evening public demonstration. “When the news became generally known on the streets Wednesday the first thing people spoke of was where they would go to watch the spectacle,” reported the enthusiastic Argus. The next night up to 300 people were at Andy Ducker’s farm to watch the show. Others in Petaluma saw the flame from their porches and windows as far away as D street.

“Oil, oil, oil, is all that can be heard on the streets of this city at the present time, and everyone is enthused over the prospects of striking big ‘gushers’ in this vicinity,” the Argus remarked afterwards, adding “the all prevailing question is ‘Have you any oil stock?'”

Ramona stock was in short supply, but by the end of the month there was a new corporation: Bonita Oil Co. with $1 million in shares at 25¢ each. It would drill on a nearby ranch (Patocchi’s) but Gregg was the head of this operation, too, and Norton C. Wells was called a “heavy stockholder” in both Bonita and Ramona. By the end of 1909 a strong supply of natural gas was also struck in the Bonita well.

Although little actual news developed over the following months both the Courier and Argus kept readers whipped up with a steady flow of oil-related hype. The Ramona well was using its own gas to supply power to a steam engine used for drilling as well as cooking in the work shed! A “flying machine” was spotted and it might have been an oil prospector! A man knocked on Andy Ducker’s door at 10 o’clock at night and wanted to buy his entire property! The Courier remarked, “many new faces are seen on the streets and at the hotels, the owners of said faces being bent on getting in on any oil boom which may suddenly spring up.” One name that started being mentioned in association with Gregg and the Ramona well was John W. Frank, who supposedly had located potential well sites on other ranches. But as we’ll learn in the next chapter, Frank had actually been involved since the beginning.

Come 1910, however, things began happening fast. Both the Ramona and Bonita Oil Companies were sold to an English syndicate, Consolidated Oil Fields of California Ltd. The general manager of all these projects was now J. W. Frank.

There was bad news: In May, a massive wind storm destroyed all the derricks and sheds, setting drilling work back many weeks and costing many thousands, which today would be many hundreds of thousands.

There was good news – no, great news: In early summer a new well on the Ducker ranch finally struck oil.

John Frank managed the announcement like a master showman. Scores of investors, bankers, reporters and state officials were personally invited to come up here on August 15, although no one knew for sure what was to be revealed. Not even Andy Ducker knew exactly what was afoot until he was told to get into a big Buick that pulled up to his farmhouse.

As the group walked towards the new well, pools of oil were seen seeping out of the ground and the acrid stink of petroleum grew stronger. Superintendent McDonald explained the oil sands on the ranch were particularly deep, which was associated with fine quality oil. Once they reached the derrick and a four-inch pipe was lowered into the borehole and when it was pulled up, the pipe was thickly coated in oil.

Cassius M. Webb, the lawyer for Ramona Oil was standing too close and got splattered with the gunk yet could not keep from smiling. It was agreed by all there was indeed oil “in paying quantities” but there was some disagreement as to how much it would produce, with estimates ranging 200-400 barrels per day. Either number would be perfectly fine.

Word spread like lightning once the group returned to town. “The community is stirred up to a high pitch and crowds are swarming that way,” reported the San Francisco Call. They brought buckets and five gallon cans which they dipped into the trench holding the overflow, then at home transferred their liquid gold into bottles and fruit jars to show off as souvenirs.

The euphoria lasted less than a month. A discouraging report from the State Mining Bureau about the oil well was waved off by the Petaluma papers as being no more than an opinion.

But then came the shocker: The Ramona and Bonita oil companies – those sure-fire investments who had locals clamoring to buy stock shares at any price – were secretly controlled by a man who was about to screw over everyone connected with the projects, including investors. And this fellow was no ordinary sleazy businessman: He was an infamous swindler whose financial crimes made him the last man anyone in America would trust with a single penny.




* There was a previous corporation also called the Petaluma Oil and Development Company, which was formed in 1901 with different board members; that business was dissolved in 1906.


Image courtesy Petaluma Historical Library & Museum
Image courtesy Petaluma Historical Library & Museum




John M. Larimore, representing a syndicate has secured a lease of a portion of the Andy Ducker ranch and bore for oil. The gentleman is also negotiating for a lease of one hundred acres on the Murphy ranch.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, August 23 1907


On Saturday articles of incorporation of the Petaluma Oil Development Company were filed with the County Clerk by Lippitt & Lippitt attorneys for the corporation. The new company is incorporated to mine for oil, petroleum, gas, gypsum, asphalt and like-products and the capital stock is $100,000 divided into 100,000 shares at one dollar per share. The directors are J. W. Larimore. J. W. King, J. H. Mossi, J. J. Lopus and G. L. Barry. As is well known the company has a lease on portions of the Ducker and Murphy ranches east of town and some time ago began boring for oil and already have most excellent prospects and feel confident of success. Mr. Larimore, the head of the new company is one of the best oil experts on the coast and gave up a very lucrative position in order to devote his entire attention to the local project. He is confident that there is an abundance of oil here.

– Petaluma Argus, October 26 1907


An eastern oil syndicate has purchased a controlling interest in the Petaluma Oil and Development Company, whose plant is located in Vallejo township near this city. Mr. Smith, one of the new stockholders was here on Sunday looking over the plant. The gentleman is an oil expert and is confident that the yield of oil will be rich. He wanted to lease all the Andy Ducker ranch to bore for oil, but Mr. Ducker did not wish to lease any more of his farm. The new concern will put the work through and will at once begin operations.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, April 15 1908



…It is an open secret that Mr. Gregg, to whom has been assigned an undivided one-half interest in the lease holdings of the company in [the Ducker ranch] is in reality the chief of the fuel department of the Western Pacific Railway Company, and is representing that company in his dealings here. The Western Pacific must have its own oil land in California if it can get them at any price for at present the oil industry including the wells, tanks, pipe lines, cars, etc. are controlled either by the Southern Pacific or the Standard Oil Company.

– Petaluma Argus, July 30 1908


The oil company which recently leased a part of the Petaluma Oil and Development Company’s land near this city will begin to drill for oil in a few weeks. The company organised in San Francisco this week and is composed of prominent oil men who have oil interests throughout the state. Messrs. Gregg and Wells who are members of the new company were in Petaluma Thursday on business in connection with the Petaluma interests…The Western Pacific is in no way connected with the company which is to operate despite the erroneous published report given out some time ago.

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, September 18 1908



The Petaluma Oil and Development Company and the Ramona Oil Company are two different companies. The Petaluma Oil and Development Company first leased the land which is to be operated by the Ramona Co. They have been working on the proposition for over two years.

It was through the efforts of the Petaluma Oil and Development Company that the Ramona people leased a part of the land.

The Petaluma Company had experts at work on the property paying them $70 a day. It was found the sand contained 14½ per cent of oil, the oil being 16 1-8 gravity at 6 feet deep. The local company went to Petaluma people in an endeavor to have them take up the matter but they refused, then they went elsewhere and finally interested C. W. Gregg of New York who came out and took up the matter. After he had his own experts try the ground he consulted the Petaluma company and finally they leased half of their lease to the gentleman and sold him the machinery and equipments for less than one half of what the instruments originally cost them. Mr. Gregg then organized a company which are now working on the same spot where the Petaluma Oil and Development Company placed their derrick. The Petaluma Oil and Development Company still retain half of the land and are independent of the new company but are working in conjunction.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, October 9 1908



Petaluma is teeming with rumors concerning the oil situation on Sonoma countains [sic] and the Ramona and Petaluma Oil Companies but no one really knows anything except the oil men themselves and they are positively non committal. One thing is certain – every day or two a Ramona official pops quietly into town, accompanied by a stranger and just as quietly pops out again,

One other fact is certain, there is no Ramona oil stock for sale. One man in Petaluma – and he, by the way, is not in the confidence of the Ramona Oil Company management – has been trying for some time now to buy stock and has offered as high as two dollars a share but without success.

People generally believe that the oil men know that they have a good thing…

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, July 23 1909


All that can be heard on the streets now is oil and gas and a man who is on the inside, informed an Argus reporter on Wednesday that inside of a year there will be a forest of derricks around Petaluma and that numerous oil wells will be sunk. Already practically all ot the available land from Reclamation to Penngrove has been bonded and one local citizen representing large interests has over 6000 acres under his control.

In addition to the Ramona Oil Co., Petaluma Oil & Development Co., Petaluma Home Oil Co. and the Robinson Creek Oil Development half a dozen companies are being organized to work on lands on all sides of this city.

Farmers in some instances have joined forces, pooled their lands and will work on the co-operative plan, Others are organizing for the purpose of leasing with better results. Already the country is full of oil prospectors and it looks as if Petaluma is on the verge of a big oil excitement…

– Petaluma Argus, August 4 1909



On Thursday the residents of Petaluma and vicinity for miles around will witness a spectacle which those who have never been in the oil fields have never seen. For on that evening the great flow of natural gas which has been tapped by the Ramona Oil Co. at its well on the Ducker ranch will be lighted and a great column of burning gas allowed to burn for several hours. It has been the intention of the company to light the gas and show the people of Petaluma what a supply they have for some time past but the event was postponed until the necessary appliances could be made ready.

The gas will shoot up through a one-inch pipe to a height of twenty feet above the derrick, or about one hundred feet from the ground. On the main pipe above the derrick there are three cross arms, all of which including the main pipe, are perforated and through these perforations the burning gas will shoot forth. On account of the great pressure of gas the flame will be an enormous one and the light will be intense. The sight will be one which everyone should see, and when the news became generally known on the streets Wednesday the first thing people spoke of was where they would go to watch the spectacle…

– Petaluma Argus, August 11 1909



The illumination of the Ramona Oil Company’s gas well on Thursday night was a grand success.

A few persons seemed to be disappointed that the big torch did not flame up into the air 100 or 150 feet.

In regard to this it may be said that the apparatus was not rigged for such a display but that with the right sort of rigging such an effect could doubtless be compassed.

Some fifty automobiles were on thr ground together with 250 or 300 people and a great number viewed the fireworks from their homes.

In regard to the display F. K. Lippitt said: “I have lived in Petaluma for forty-five years. It was the grandest thing I ever saw.”

[15 other comments, including:]

Robert Woods: “We saw the illumination from the City Hall. It showed up good. It’s a great thing for Petaluma.”

Coroner Frank L. Blackburn said: “I can’t tell gas from gasoline. I got ‘burned’ several years ago with oil stock, but for Petaluma generally, and the investors especially, I hope proves an everlasting gusher. It takes just such gambles as this proposition to prove a community’s wealth.”

R. M. Skinner said: “Put me down as saying we are just on the verge of a new era of prosperity. The striking of gas will put Petaluma before the world as the ideal manufacturing center.”

George P. McNear: “It looked fine.”

– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, August 13 1909

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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


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


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


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



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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[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 (EDIT: The Airpark and Coddingtown were nearby, but not the same place). 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



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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