darkburbank

THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK, PART II

On September 4, 1915, Luther Burbank met his destiny – or rather, he met the man who would eventually write the book which would define history’s view of his life’s work. Had Burbank somehow enjoyed a miracle of foresight to know that, he might have spent considerably less of the afternoon grousing about how he was being victimized.

“Burbank was thoroughly angry; his resentment had been growing for months,” botanist Walter L. Howard would write some three decades later. “With flashing eyes he declared that the Company had swindled him out of everything he had, which, of course, was an exaggeration but he was crippled financially, with his normal income from sales having been cut off for two or three years.”1

“The Company” was the Luther Burbank Company, which had been formed back in 1912 to completely take over the sales wing of his business, giving Burbank a guaranteed annual income and allowing him to concentrate on plant breeding.2 “I have no time to make money,” he told the Press Democrat. “I’ve more important work to do.” (More background can be found in “BURBANK INC.” – and by the way, have you read, “THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK, PART I“?)

But by that late summer afternoon in 1915 the company had only paid Burbank a fraction of what was owed, and that only after he had repeatedly twisted arms.3 The business was on the verge of collapse; that same month, top management was replaced in a last-minute bid to save it from bankruptcy. Another clue that the company was in serious trouble during the summer of 1915 was that a letter went to stockholders offering to sell them more shares at half the $25 face value, as long as they paid for the stock in cash. But even that was too expensive, commented the San Francisco Examiner, as brokers were offering shares at $8 and not finding buyers.

Looking back, it’s no surprise the Company was circling the drain by then – the real mystery is why it was even formed; there was really nothing in its prospectus except for the exclusive right to use the respected name of Luther Burbank.

They had little to sell at first except for company stock and his spineless cactus, and that only because Burbank already had established a cactus plantation near Livermore. While breeding a new plant he normally only produced a few ounces of seed or a few feet of graft-ready branches before selling the rights to a commercial grower, who would then need a few years to build an inventory of enough stock to sell. In 1912 the Burbank Company purchased a few acres south of Oakland to start its own propagation nursery but by the time the Company produced its first product catalog the following year, descriptions of everything available fit in ten pages, with each page padded out with large photos. Later catalogs were more than three times longer, but only because the Company also began selling standard seeds and bulbs as well. (All of their catalogs can be found under the Luther Burbank section of my internet resource page.)

1914latimesad(RIGHT: Versions of this large ad appeared in newspapers nationwide during 1914)

And then there was the dilemma of the Luther Burbank Company using his name as a guarantee of quality, even while Burbank was distancing himself from anything to do with the Company and its advertising promises. Making this particularly awkward, it was Burbank who had made – and continued making – irresponsible claims about how the spineless cactus was a miraculous animal feed which would grow anywhere. As discussed in the cactus article above, Burbank’s variety was actually more temperamental than its wild forms, impractical for use as fodder and also was not completely spineless.4

Yet when it failed to live up to its promise, customers seemed to blame the Company more than Burbank. Among the complaints about the cactus which were popping up in gardening magazines during those years, a Texas farmer wrote a lengthy and bitter letter to the Houston Post bemoaning that he tried to grow a crop for two years without luck. “Some say I did not receive the best. As to that I have only the word of the Burbank company. They offered me what they called their best.”

The Company was far from blameless for its own decline, however. They wasted a terribly lot of money; while most plant nurseries sold only by mail, the Luther Burbank Company rented prime downtown locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles for retail/office space. They ran the large, costly ads such as the one shown above in newspapers nationwide and year round, not just during pre-planting seasons.

All Burbank biographers agree the Company was badly mismanaged, citing what happened to W. Garner Smith as an example. Smith was co-founder of the Company, its largest investor and secretary-treasurer. He was also their main salesman; in the early months of 1914 he traveled through parts of the East and Midwest, booking orders and signing up dealerships, such as hardware and department stores. When he returned in April, Smith found most of the deals had fallen through because the Company had raised prices without telling him. To the customers this would have looked like bait-and-switch, and Smith immediately resigned from the Company.5

Like the rest of the Company’s directors, he had no background whatsoever in the plant nursery business. He was a 29 year-old “insurance man and stock broker of San Francisco, who became so enthused with the plans that he invested a small fortune in the venture,” according to biographer Howard. His co-founder was another 30-something, Rollo J. Hough, who Howard called “a minor official of an Oakland bank” who was supremely unchallenged by not knowing anything about the plant biz – or business in general:6

Hough gave the impression of being a man who was “stepping out” after a period of enforced suppression of his talents in a sedate banking institution. Self-confident and optimistic by nature, he threw himself into the new enterprise with a bounding enthusiasm that was matched only by his driving energy. Undeterred by the fact that he had no personal knowledge of the seed and nursery business, he evidently felt that talent of this kind could be hired when needed.

Had Howard dug a bit further, however, he might have had an even lower opinion of him – it’s hard to determine if he was a scammer or delusional. In 1910 Hough updated his résumé from teller (assistant cashier) at the Oakland Bank of Savings to attorney at law. Where, when (or if) he studied for the bar is unknown; all we have is that he identified as a lawyer from that year onward, although he apparently never had a law office or joined a firm. The only references we have of his legal career come from 1910 and 1911, when he went East to counsel two nieces of the late industrialist Robert Seaman, who claimed his widow had hoodwinked him into turning over his factories to her. (That widow was Nellie Bly, the first modern investigative reporter and she of “around the world in 72 days” fame.) The suit went nowhere. His only other known case was likewise all smoke, as charges were dropped before making it to a court docket. Although he lived until 1952, the single later reference I can find to his post-Burbank years is a 1921 bankruptcy when he was supposedly an investment broker in Los Angeles.

1914readingad(LEFT: Portion of a Reading, Pennsylvania department store ad, 1914)

Hough acted as General Manager for the Luther Burbank Company and Howard wrote another reason for its failure was “his refusal to see the necessity of employing skilled help to oversee the growing of seeds to keep them true to name and type.”7 Smith saw Burbank’s sweet corn growing side-by-side with standard varieties, which would have guaranteed cross-pollination.

Hough also apparently spent much time scouting for new farmland to buy, despite his general ignorance about growing plants. His last deal was in April 1915 to acquire the Rodgers Ranch in Pleasant Hill, where he told a Martinez paper he would be building a bungalow and wanted it “distinctly understood, that he and not the Burbank company is the owner of the ranch and he plans to convert it into an ideal experimental and demonstration farm.” Whether he planned to lease it back to the Company or create his own rival business is unknown, as he was sacked/resigned a few months later. Afterwards Hough briefly remained in that area selling real estate as the Alhambra Land Company in Martinez.

Some $375k in stock had been sold by the summer of 1915, but the Burbank Company was in perilous condition. An assessment found the Company grossly undercapitalized – it claimed 60 percent of the company’s assets was the intangible value of the Luther Burbank brand. Since their stock wasn’t selling even at the discount prices mentioned above, it’s safe to assume investors didn’t agree that his name was still worth that much.

By the time Hough was replaced in September by one W. S. Pitts, the Company was in crisis. Burbank was confiding to Howard – a man whom he had just met – that the Company had screwed him out of everything. In the weeks that followed, the Board levied stockholders for $2.50 a share, which was in addition to the $1 it had earlier demanded for the reassessment. Holding Burbank Company stock was looking less like a sound investment and more like having a losing hand in a poker game and still raising the ante. But as Howard wrote, “the great majority of the stock purchasers put up their money and held on to their stock because of an abiding faith in Burbank’s products, which, in a final analysis, meant a child-like faith in the man himself.”8

The unraveling continued as Burbank’s personal lawyer apparently began threatening a lawsuit. “The Company has been badly mismanaged, and that is the sole cause of its financial difficulties,” Pitts told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We asked Burbank to give us until March 1st to make up the back payments.” By then, the directors said, the Company would be in the midst of a new sales season and would not only be able to pay Burbank what he was owed but refinance the business. But the situation deteriorated, and was so chaotic by December that Burbank’s old friend Dr. J. H. McLeod of Santa Rosa was acting as mediator between he and the directors. (Ever wilder, McLeod was appointed to the board of directors during this time without his knowledge and consent, according to the Press Democrat, which would have been an act of criminal fraud.)

Then just before New Years’, Burbank pulled the trigger and sued for $9,775.20, being the amount due on two promissory notes which had been earlier signed by Hough (not by James Edwards, the president of the company, take notice).

His attorney told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Burbank has been contemplating such a course for some time, and is now determined to stop all activities of the corporation as far as the use of his name and the exploiting of his work are concerned.” Interviewed by the PD, the lawyer added, “Burbank has been the victim of stock pirates…They paid him the $30,000, sold stock like hot cakes and never paid him another dollar. Burbank had delayed action for a year because of sympathy with the excellent people involved.” Garner Smith objected to being called a pirate and sued the attorney for $10,000 damages.

The suit ended all negotiations with Burbank as well as any talk of bailouts or possible acquisitions. The only options considered were liquidation, giving the Company to Burbank – which was the last thing he would ever consider – or bankruptcy. After a month of discussion, the directors chose bankruptcy. At the time there was only $334 in their bank account.

Luther Burbank’s lawsuit against the Luther Burbank Company garnered widespread news coverage across the country. Some of the interest was probably Schadenfreude at the Company’s troubles, particularly from those who felt misled over the cactus hype. Others apparently thought it pretty funny that a smart guy like Burbank could be bamboozled into making dumb decisions. This item appeared in many papers:


PLANT WIZARD ‘EASY;’ HIRES PRETTY GIRL TO EXAMINE SCHEMES
SANTA ROSA, Cal., Jan. 24 – Luther Burbank, the wizard of things that grow, realizes he is so “easy” for anyone who wants his money for this, that and the other (and plenty of persons do), that he employed pretty little Miss Bessie Waters to scrutinize every proposition offered him, to decide whether it is legitimate. Miss Waters attends all Burbank’s interviews and is asked to giver her advice quite frequently.

It was a gag written by someone locally, although newspaper readers in Kansas and elsewhere wouldn’t know that. Who authored it is unknown, although the Santa Rosa Republican ran it at the top of the front page with this preface: “Among the telegraphic items of news received from the United Press Monday was the following one, telling of the supposed gullibility of Luther Burbank.” It was also the only newspaper that corrected the woman’s name to be “Betty Waters” – the real name of Burbank’s secretary, who had been working for him since 1914 and whom he would marry at the end of 1916. I don’t know whether the correction is an indicator of the Republican’s guilt, or if it’s more suspicious that the Press Democrat ignored it completely.

San Francisco Examiner ad, March 12, 1916
San Francisco Examiner ad, March 12, 1916

 

 

 

1 Walter L. Howard; Luther Burbank: A Victim of Hero Worship; Chronica Botanica; Winter 1945-1946; p. 401. At the time of their meeting, Howard was a new hire at UC/Davis as Associate Professor of Horticulture.

2 Burbank earlier had sold complete rights to many plants to seed companies and nurseries, of course, but the agreement with the Luther Burbank Company was for exclusive rights to all unsold and future creations as well as ownership of the Santa Rosa and Sebastopol farms. For that the company was to pay $300,000 in annual payments of $15,000, plus $30,000 cash (the equivalent to about $780k today) at signing.

3 The Company had given Burbank promissory notes in 1914 and 1915 for only half of what was owed in each year’s annuity, a total of $15,000. But the Company couldn’t even meet that commitment; Burbank had only received $5,920 for those two years. See transcribed article below from the San Francisco Chronicle, December 30, 1915.

 

4 Burbank never declared in print that the cactus was completely spineless, only that the spicules were insignificant enough that it could be eaten by animals; Burbank reportedly used a razor or sandpaper to smooth the cactus paddles shown to visitors. In “A Gardener Touched with Genius” author Peter Dreyer wrote Company workers used wire brushes to remove spines before shipping, and this “fraud” made buyers indignant once the cacti were planted and grew new paddles which had small spicules (2002 edition, pg. 192). Dreyer strongly implied the Company was dishonestly shaving ordinary cactus to fill orders when inventory was low, and in “The Garden of Invention” (pp. 234-235) author Jane S. Smith stated that happened as plain fact while adding speculative details, particularly that this discovery destroyed customer trust in the company. Further, I was once told another variation where this resulted in the resignation of company officers. But Howard doesn’t mention this supposed deception and I find nothing in the newspapers. Neither Dreyer or Smith provide citations. Unless more information appears, I now believe there was no misconduct of this sort and the story evolved from Dreyer’s misunderstanding of a remark made by a plant inspector he quoted, who was naively expressing surprise that “spineless” cactus were not completely free of spines.


5 Howard op. cit. pg. 399. Howard interviewed Smith in 1941 and he apparently said President James Edwards resigned about the same time. This is not true, as shown in Press Democrat items below. It’s more likely Edwards left during the Sept. 1915 shakeup.

6 Howard pp. 394-395.

7 Howard pg. 399.

8 Howard pg. 395.

 

sources
W. Garner Smith of the Luther Burbank Co. arrived in Modesto yesterday to demonstrate the uses of Luther Burbank’s Spineless Cactus to the farmers of this county…

– Modesto Evening News, May 22, 1913

 

W. Garner Smith of San Francisco, who has been spending a few days in Scranton and vicinity, left yesterday for Harrisburg and New York. Mr. Smith is a Kentuckian, one of two young men who financed the Luther Burbank products in California, guaranteeing Luther Burbank $25,000 for life and controlling all the results of his experiments.

– Scranton Truth, March 31, 1914

 

JAMES R. EDWARDS HERE ON A BUSINESS VISIT

James R. Edwards, former mayor of Santa Rosa and former assistant cashier of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa, was in town Friday on business, returning to San Francisco on Saturday morning. Mr. Edwards is the well known president of the Luther Burbank company, with offices in San Francisco.

“Business is fine,” was Mr. Edwards’ cheery response to an inquiry.

– Press Democrat, June 28 1914

 

JAMES R. EDWARDS IS A VISITOR HERE WEDNESDAY

James R. Edwards, a former well-known resident and mayor of this city and for some time president of the Luther Burbank Company, was here Wednesday and met many old-time friends. Mr. Edwards has not been here for some time. He is looking as if the world was agreeing with him. He reports that the company’s business is picking up and a big season is expected from now on.

– Press Democrat, November 5 1914

 

JAMES R. EDWARDS IN SANTA ROSA FDR VISIT

James R. Edwards, president of the Luther Burbank Company, and former mayor of this city, was here yesterday from San Francisco for a visit. Mr. Edwards reports that the year’s business for the Luther Burbank Company has opened up auspiciously and the indications are that the year’s record will be a good one. Mr. Edwards is still very much interested in the welfare of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county, his home for many years.

– Press Democrat, March 3 1915

 

LUTHER BURBANK CO. BUY PROPAGRATION TRACT
Location Near Martinez, Contra Costa County, Is Purchased on Which Plants and Seeds of the Santa Rosa Horticulturist Will Be Raised For the Market

The Luther Burbank Co., of which J. R. Edwards of this city is the president, and which is the exclusive agency for the handling of the Luther Burbank productions, has purchased a tract of land near Martinez, for seed and propagation station. The Daily Gazette of Martinez in announcing the deal says;

“The Luther Burbank Company has purchased the J. E. Rodgers ranch of 38 acres in the Pleasant Hill district near Martinez and will establish there, one of its largest demonstration farms. On this ranch which will be improved at once will be grown thousands of the wonderful Burbank floral creations which now come from Santa Rosa and it will become one of the show places of the bay region.

“The deal was closed Friday when Mrs. Mary H. Flint of Santa Barbara who bought the ranch some time ago from the well known Martinez attorney, sold the property to the Burbank interests, the deal being closed on behalf of that firm by Rollo Hough, manager of the company who is a nephew of Mrs. S. Bennet of Martinez and a former resident of Martinez.

“In some sense the establishing of the Burbank interests in Contra Costa county is the direct result of the county’s exhibit at the Exposition. Representatives of the Burbank company inspecting the county’s exhibit marveled at the products grown here. Hough was well acquainted with the land surrounding Martinez and at once got In touch with J. E. Rodgers of Martinez who, still holding an interest in the property, successfully negotiated the sale.

“The property will be improved at once. A new bungalow will be built there and Hough will make that ranch his home. The wonderful floral creations of Luther Burbank will be propagated there and the whole property will be so planted that it will become one of the greatest show places about the bay. It lies in close proximity to Martinez and is one of the greatest boosts for this part of Contra Costa county that has come in years.

– Press Democrat, April 6 1915

 

 

Burbank Co. Stock Assessed.

The Luther Burbank Company has levied an assessment of $1 a share on its capital stock, payable on or before August 2…Accompanying the notice of the assessment, mailed to the stockholders, is a document, which the directors of the corporation call a “reappraisal of the assets of your company.” In this reappraisal, among the alleged assets stated, appears the following item:

“Value of the exclusive right to use the name of Luther Burbank and to distribute his horticultural productions – $287,500.”

The total assets as stated, including this item, are $487,700.28.

The current liabilities, including notes payable to Luther Burbank of $10,380 for “novelties yet to be delivered” and mortgages payable on real estate, total $73,023.58.

– San Francisco Examiner, July 20, 1915

 

BURBANK SUES NAMESAKE CO. FOR $9,775.20
Desires to Sever Connection With Corporation Bearing His Name
SUM DUE ON TWO NOTES
Present Manager of Concern Admits Financial Difficulties in Business

A sensational climax to the affairs of the Luther Burbank Company, a corporation organized three years ago to exploit the work of the Santa Rosa horticulturist, was reached yesterday, when Burbank, through his attorneys, Otto Irving Wise and Richard O’Connor, filed suit in the Superior Court to collect $9,775.20 from The Luther Burbank Company.

This amount is alleged to be due on two promissory notes given Burbank by the company and signed by R. J. Hough, vice-president, and Leo V. Belden, secretary. The first note was for $7500. The first was dated July 1, 1914, for ninety days at 6 per cent interest. The principal was unpaid and interest was paid only to May 1, 1915, leaving a balance of $7800.

The second note was dated January 1, 1915, for sixty days at 6 per cent interest. On this note $5620 was paid, leaving a balance of $1975.20.

Yesterday’s action was the second step taken by Burbank in a plan to sever himself, his work and his name from the Luther Burbank Company, the first having been taken last Monday, when he served on the company a notice of termination of contract.

According to Attorney Wise, Burbank has been contemplating such a course for some time, and is now determined to stop all activities of the corporation as far as the use of his name and the exploiting of his work are concerned. The company is in arrears to Burbank, Wise said, for from $20,000 to $24,000.

“Burbank has been tied hand and foot for the last three years,” said Wise, “and he has decided to cut loose. The Luther Burbank Company was organized by a group of promoters who made a contract with him under the terms of which they agreed to pay him $300,000 for his property in Sonoma county and for his work.

CAPITALIZED AT $375,000

“They formed a corporation capitalized at $375,000, sold the stock at par and made an initial payment to Burbank of $30,000. They then agreed to pay him $15,000 a year until the balance was paid. The concern was promoted on the strength of some of Burbank’s wonderful productions such as the spineless cactus and the thornless blackberry.

“Burbank has never had any direct interest in the company and owns no stock in it. Some of the best people in this city have been interested in the business, and for them Burbank has a deep feeling of sorrow.”

The promoters of the Luther Burbank Company were R. J. Hough, former assistant cashier of an Oakland bank, and W. Garner Smith, at present an insurance broke of this city. The directors include R. J. Tyson, president of the Seaboard National Bank; George U. Hind, of Hind, Rolph & Co.; I. A. Beretta, of the Chinn-Beretta Optical Company; J. R. Edwards; W. S. Pitts, manager; Dr. E. J. Overand and Harrison S. Robinson of Oakland, and Dr. J. A. McCloud of Santa Rosa.

At the company’s store at 301 Market street it was learned yesterday that Hough has not been connected with the business since last September. He was said to be engaged in the real estate business at Martinez.

MANAGER’S EXPLANATION

W. S. Pitts, who succeeded Hough in the management of the business, said he had no knowledge of the filing of the suit, and that the company had been making a desperate effort to make satisfactory arrangements with Burbank.

“The company has been badly mismanaged, and that is the sold cause of its financial difficulties,” said Pitts. “We asked Burbank to give us until March 1st to make up the back payments, and this action is a surprise to me. We have just levied an assessment of $2 50 [sic] a share in an effort to keep going until we get on our feet.

“Dr. J. A. McCloud of Santa Rosa, one of the directors, is acting as intermediary between the company and Burbank, and we hoped he would succeed in reaching satisfactory terms. If we can hold out until spring we shall be on a sound footing.

“I cannot say that Burbank has been unfair in bringing this suit, for he could have started it last October had he wished. But it is a hard blow to the men who hoped, by legitimate business methods, to make the company a success.”

– San Francisco Chronicle, December 30, 1915

 

MISMANAGEMENT IDLES UP THE BURBANK COMPANY
Compelled to Enforce the Provisions of the Contract, Mr. Burbank Brings Suit – Meeting of the Directors Has Been Called for Next Monday — Statement is issued

After having: waited and waited for The Luther Burbank Company, the concern which look over his seed and other productions, to pay him what he had been owed for a long time, Luther Burbank has commenced a suit against the company in the Superior Court of San Francisco to recover the sum of $9,775 due on promissory notes. Otto Wise of San Francisco is the attorney for Mr. Burbank. Further than this Mr. Burbank has notified the company of his cancellation of the contract which bound him to turn over his creations to the company. In other words, the expected has happened, and what was once one of the most golden opportunities upon which any concern had to build up a tremendous business has been allowed to dwindle owing to gross mismanagement of its affairs.

WILL HOLD MEETING

From San Francisco Thursday came word that Manager Pitts and the directors will put forth every endeavor to get Mr. Burbank to reconsider the course which he has decided upon and for which he cannot be blamed in the least, for his experimental ground expenses do not cease as his great work proceeds. There is to be a meeting between the directors and Mr. Burbank on next Monday, and Mr. Wise will also be present, it was also learned from the company’s offices Thursday. In the event of Mr. Burbank deeming to adopt the course he has outlined and refuses to allow his name or his products to be handled by the company, then there will be nothing to do but to liquidate the concern. It is well known that Mr. Burbank has been willing to do most anything to keep the company in operation if the contract was lived up to. Among the stockholders in Santa Rosa, and there are a number, and elsewhere, there are some of his most intimate friends.

ATTORNEY WISE SPEAKS

“Burbank has been the victim of stock pirates,” said Attorney Wise. “This company was formed three years ago. He has no stock in it and no interest in it. Some of the best men in town have also been made victims.

“The men who secured the contract from Burbank and who promoted the company were R. J. Hough and W. Garner Smith. Stock to the amount of $375,000 has been sold to the public at par.

“The company agreed to pay Burbank $300,000, in terms of $30,000 cash and $15,000 a year. They were to have exclusive rights to sell all his experiments.

SUITS FOR ARREAGES

“They paid him the $30,000, sold stock like hot cakes and never paid him another dollar. Burbank had delayed action for a year because of sympathy with the excellent people involved. He has now cancelled the contract, forbidden use of his name and has brought suit for $10,000. Another suit will be brought, for $15,000. These suits are arrearages.

The directors of the Luther Burbank Company are Pitts, J. R. Edwards, vice-president; I. A. Beretta, optician: George U. Hind, of Hind, Rolph & Co.; Harrison B. Robinson, Oakland attorney; Dr. E. J. Everand of Oakland, and Dr. J. H. McLeod of Santa Rosa. Among the prominent stockholders are R. J. Tyson of the Seaboard National Bank, M. J. Brandenstein and I. W. Hellman.

NAMED WITHOUT CONSULTATION

Dr. McLeod of this city was appointed a member of the board of directors only three weeks ago, and then without his knowledge and consent. He had no connection whatever with the directorate during the mismanagement of the business or during the time when it became involved. This statement is made out of fairness to Dr. McLeod and to avoid any misconstruction of his relationship with the previous management of the company.

THE MANAGER’S STATEMENT

Manager Pitts is still hopeful that with a reduction of the running expenses that the business can be rehabilitated. On Tuesday the stockholders received a notice of their assessment of $2.50 per share. Pitts was named manager after Hough et al. had left. Here are some extracts from his letter sent to stockholders Tuesday:

It was hoped that this assessment might be avoided, the necessary money being raised by re-financing our company along lines as suggested in my recent circular letter. Just at the present time, however, I find it a hard matter to interest prospective buyers of stocks. Money is urgently needed, and hence this request for your cooperation.

At the present time the stockholders’ liability amounts to approximately $5 per share, therefore in payment of this assessment you are in any event simply reducing your liability that much.

It is my belief that by the first of March our finances will be in better shape and it will then be a much easier matter to re-finance the company by interesting outside capital.

We have on file at the present writing unfilled orders to the amount of $20,000. These orders are for shipment from January 1 up until February 15 next. We have shipped already $8,000 worth of business, although it was late when we got started to selling. We have three salesmen on the outside at the present time working the eastern territory. These men are turning in business each day and there is every reason to expect that these three men wall turn at least $25,000 worth of seed agency business between now and March 1 next. In addition thereto we will commence to receive our nursery orders, as this business is usually placed during January, February and early March. This business should amount to at least $10,000.

Figuring, then, that our seed and nursery selling campaign will close by April 1, our total business up to that date should amount to at least $53,000 to $55,000.

At that time the cactus campaign will start, and it would seem that at least $10,000 should be expected from that source, which will give us a year’s turn-over of approximately $65,000.

We have every reason to believe that no difficulty whatever will be experienced in making collections when accounts are due, inasmuch as the trade being sold small quantities of seed with the result they will feel in better humor. The business is likewise being built up for a permanent future.

In securing this future business of approximately $35,000 there will be very little expense. The seed has been harvested and is in our salesrooms being packeted at this time. The growing and harvesting expense has already been taken care of, therefore this future business, basing it on our operating expense alone, should show a profit of approximately 75 to 80 per cent.

SMITH’S MISSTATEMENT

Garner Smith’s statement that in addition to $25,000, Mr. Burbank had been given $75,000 worth of stock is a misstatement. The $75,000 worth of stock was turned back to the promoters for stock bonuses, and it is said that Hough and Smith got a share of the stock themselves. Mr. Burbank did not benefit by the stock whatsoever. At this time it looks as if the liquidation of the company will ensue.

– Press Democrat, December 31 1915

 

ANOTHER PLAN OF THE BURBANK CO.
Proposition to Have Mr. Burbank Take Over the Company Has Been Submitted for Consideration

Another tentative plan for the reformation of the Luther Burbank Company has been proposed and submitted to Mr. Burbank. It is that instead of the company undertaking liquidation, all of the business of the company be turned over to him, whereby he would own and control the company and its business and take over all the unfilled orders and the immense quantity of seed and nursery stock on hand. With new management it is urged the orders on hand and to be filled would make a good beginning. It is probable that a suggestion to liquidate may be abrogated, as it does not represent the opinion of many of the stockholders. It is also urged that with Mr. Burbank at the head of the company personally, new capital could be induced and what is considered, with proper management, could be made one of the greatest businesses of the country, could be refinanced. Mr. Burbank’s decision is awaited with considerable interest.

Manager Pitts’ Statement

“A meeting was held.” said Pitts, “for the purpose of devising ways and means of refinancing and to that end a statement of the company’s business and an inventory has been prepared. Prior to this meeting of the stockholders the board of directors of which I am a member, met and decided to submit a proposal to Mr. Burbank. That is to be presented to Otto Irving Wise, his attorney, and be expect an early consideration from Mr. Burbank.

“The plan is that Mr. Burbank take over the company and run its business from Santa Rosa. An inventory of seeds, novelties and Burbank creations has been turned over to Mr. Wise, and it will be left for Mr. Burbank himself to decide what the future of the business will be. The stockholders have all been apprised of his plan and personally I have gone so far as to state that I would mange the affairs in Santa Rosa. The stockholders have appointed a committee of three to work with a similar committee appointed by the board of directors. The report that liquidation had already been decided upon is untrue and will do the company considerable harm. There are salesmen at work throughout the country, and these reports that the company is preparing to go out of business will naturally put an end to their work.”

Burbank has preferred to leave the business affairs of the company to others and look after his experimental work, according to Pitts. The general manager stated that some of the biggest stockholders have approved of a financing plan, claiming that it would be a pity to abandon much of the early work.

The story in the Press Democrat Thursday morning to the effect that it had been definitely decided to liquidate the company, was published in absolutely good faith. upon information furnished the paper by one of the stockholders who had been told of the proceedings at the meeting in question by another Santa Rosa stockholder who was present the information being believed to be absolutely reliable as to fact.

– Press Democrat, January 21 1916

 

SAYS REPUTATION IS HURT; SEEKS $10,000 DAMAGES

A suit charging libel and demanding $10,000 damages from Attorney Otto Irving Wise was filed in the Superior Court in San Francisco, Thursday, by W. Garner Smith, a stock salesman, who accuses Wise of publishing statements derogatory to his reputation and his business. The suit is the outcome of an action filed by Wise three weeks ago on behalf of Luther Burbank.

The deal by which the Luther Burbank Company was formed was promoted by Smith and Rollo J. Hough. In an interview published at the time of the filing of his complaint. Wise was quoted, It was alleged by Smith Thursday, as mentioning Smith and Hough, and declaring that, Burbank had been “made the victim of stock pirates.”

It is this alleged assertion which Smith resents, and for which he demands damages. Meantime the stockholders will watch the proceedings with interest.

– Press Democrat, February 5 1916

 

Burbank Company Claims Bankruptcy
Notes Given to Horticulturist Are Part of Liabilities Which Firm Cannot Meet.

SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 7. – The Luther Burbank Company, formed three years ago to sell Burbank’s products, filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy today. Assets were given as $108,559.56, much of which was said to be intangible, and liabilities as $73,372.02.

Luther Burbank filed suit against the company December 29, 1915, to collect $9775 on two notes given him. Burbank’s attorneys said the company paid the horticulturist $30,000 and agreed to pay him the remainder of the contract price of $300,000 at the rate of $15,000 a year, for the exclusive right to sell his products.

The directors decided upon bankruptcy at a meeting February 1, it was said, when it was shown that there was $334 in bank and $70 cash on hand in the company’s exchequer.

Listed among the liabilities were Burbank’s notes, $32,000 due the Seaboard National bank of San Francisco, and about $1400 due twenty employees for a month’s wages.

The assets included real estate valued at $24,000 and stock valued at $41,398.

– Sacramento Union, February 8 1916

 

Stockholders Sued For Overdue Rent

The Enright Estate Company filed a stockholders’ liability suit in the Superior Court yesterday against W. Garner Smith, J. R. Edwards and R. J. Hough to recover a total of $5,250 which it is alleged the Luther Burbank Company owe for the ground floor premises at Beale and Market streets.

[Smith owned 1,186 shares of stock in the Luther Burbank Company, Edwards owned 540 shares, Hough owned 806 shares]

– San Francisco Examiner, November 18, 1916

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dawndeed

DAWN OF THE DEED

You lucky, lucky soul; you just won vacation property in Sonoma county! Tell your friends and family so they can rush to buy a lot close to yours!

That was the premise of a con game that swept the nation in the early 1910s. The land existed alright and you actually did own it, as long as you gave the promoters a few bucks for paperwork, sent the county a small recording fee and paid your county taxes. The gotcha was that the property was worthless because it was on a remote, steep hillside. The map showing a neat grid of streets and building lots was a fantasy, which led people in the know to call these “paper subdivisions.” Another name used was “wildcat subdivisions” – they were on land only wildcats roamed.

Sonoma county was dotted with these imaginary little towns, mainly around the Russian River and north of Santa Rosa (outside of Cloverdale there was supposedly Cloverdale Heights, Cloverdale Terrace and Orange City, for example). Very few owners built on their property and almost all stopped paying taxes, letting it default back to the county. But a few years ago a tweak to state law allowed developers to invoke those old deeds as a means to bypass all modern rules and regulations – a crazy story explored here earlier in “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED.” This is the prequel to those events, explaining how the scam began.

Newspapers in the 1910s were virtually homestudy courses in land fraud, with hucksters selling Florida swampland as lakefront property and Montana scrub desert as homesites with exceptionally swell drainage. Much in the news was a particular swindle where conmen made today’s equivalent of $2.25 million/year before they were busted in 1909, selling lots in Boise City, Oklahoma, “the garden spot of the southwest,” promising no home was more than four blocks from the courthouse. “King Corn and King Cotton grow side by side” they boasted in mailers with photos of happy farmers. In truth, the newspapers later said it was an arid “No Man’s Land” and the men didn’t even own the property outright. Over 250 victims came forward to testify against them before they were sentenced to a couple of years in federal prison for mail fraud. The moral of the story, as viewed by other crooked “land sharks:” Better not to document the scam in printed mailers and to rip-off the suckers in person.

Summerland was the most (in)famous and probably the first of the Sonoma County scams, located in the high hills above Guerneville off of Old Cazadero Road (see map). Its origins are murky and might originally have been intended as a legit summer resort, like Rio Nido, Camp Vacation and many others where you could rent a tent-cabin for a week or buy a small parcel and build a bungalow to stay the whole season. The Summerland lots were platted out in 1910 – the year the Russian River resort scene exploded in popularity – and small ads for Summerland appeared in the “Summer Resort” section of Bay Area newspapers over the next several years. No amenities were ever specified except for “sanitary conditions,” which presumably meant outhouses and maybe a well with a handpump.

There was actually more than one Summerland: Summerland Park, Summerland Villa, Summerland Addition #2 and maybe more. Before it was over there would be thousands of lots sold, which would have given the Cazadero area the largest population north of the San Francisco – had anyone lived there.

Behind the deals were three speculators (for reference, they were: the Enright Brothers, banker I. J. Truman and the Guerneville Land Company, all based in San Francisco). We don’t know if any of them were directing the scams, but a man who worked for some/all of them as the representative for Summerland certainly started the ball rolling.

Robert Romer, a former stockbroker who was kicked out of the San Francisco Stock Exchange in 1907, was contacted by the Healdsburg Enterprise about the unusual lottery being held at the M & M movie theater in town. Romer said each night there was a drawing for a “free” lot – although the lucky ticket holder still had to pay the $6.50 county recording fee of course. He explained the goal was word-of-mouth advertising; the winners would be so enthusiastic they would tell all their friends to buy lots nearby at the regular price of $25.00, and they would tell their friends, and so on.

The obvious problem with this scheme was that Healdsburg really ain’t that far from Cazadero – if the winner didn’t know their prize property was in the middle of nowhere, one of the friends they were supposed to sucker into buying a lot probably knew it. So a few days later, an account appears in the Press Democrat about county officials being contacted by lucky ticket holders in Sacramento, wondering about the Summerland property they had just won at the movies.

As the new year of 1912 dawned, the Summerland scam spread over the nation like a flu epidemic. “Letters from other counties, from British Columbia, from Nevada, from Arizona, from Oregon and Washington are pouring in to the Recorder, the Assessor, the Tax Collector and to other officials of Sonoma, pleading for information regarding these peculiar transactions,” wrote historian Tom Gregory at the time.

There were sightings during March reported in Oregon and Washington after police there became suspicious about the movie theater lottery where every attendee apparently “won.” One of the Portland papers looked into the Summerland offering and told readers it was “said to be a mile from Cazadero, Cal., a milk station back in the hills.”

Romer probably wasn’t one of the two men who claimed to be from the “Exposition Developing Company” jumping from town to town in the Northwest making lottery deals with local theater owners. Instead, he was busy in Sonoma county, trying to sell $50,000 in stock for the “Northwestern Hotel and Water Company,” which was going to build a hotel at Summerland with hundreds of rooms plus a complete utility infrastructure suitable for a town of 20,000 residents. According to the Petaluma Courier, Romer told the Board of Control they had already sold about 5,000 lots.

The Summerland movie lottery scam was made a misdemeanor in April 1913 thanks to a bill written by Santa Rosa’s Assemblyman Herbert Slater (it’s still on the books, but was generalized and renumbered to §532c in 1935). But that was only state law, and the scam was running at full steam everywhere except California.

When two Summerland agents were arrested in Kansas City at the end of 1913, they were charged with old-fashioned mail fraud. (Although the state law didn’t apply, the county recorder and surveyor still went to Kansas to testify against them.) A wire service story stated the men had claimed to represent the “Hot Springs Heights Realty Company” of Sonoma county and had been active across the Midwest and South. It was a lucrative swindle – in Muncie Indiana alone, they pulled in up to $1,500 (over $37k today).

The movie theater bunco game fizzled out in mid-1914 – or at least, the Press Democrat reported the poor recorder’s office was no longer flooded with deed filings. That year there was also a long list of these properties on the delinquent tax list, showing many owners had wised up to the property being worthless. Lots were still being sold, however – only now it was the suckers looking for someone to scam themselves. A 1916 for-sale ad ran for quite awhile in the PD offering a lot at Summerland with a 16 x 16 structure (“sold cheap if taken at once”). In Seattle, A. L. DeLong dumped his property on Effie M. Crowley.

The latter sale didn’t involve Summerland, however – it was another of the wildcat subdivisions, called Glen Artney, which began selling bogus lots about the same time that Summerland took off. It was the phony place nearest to Santa Rosa, in the hills south of Calistoga Road (see map) about four miles as the crow flies – but three times that far by road. And that was just to the edge of the property; a man seeking directions dropped by the Press Democrat offices and was “shattered when informed that he could not reach the lot on horseback, and would have a very hard time scrambling to it on foot.”

The Glen Artney hustle is interesting to compare with Summerland. Both used the movie lottery ticket come-on, but the Summerland agents apparently “gave away” lots of lots hoping to sell a few more for about $25, plus picking up a few bucks for providing the paperwork. The Glen Artney hucksters picked just two winners each day and advertised others lots were for sale at $50.00 per – or at least that’s what their ad in a 1912 Montana newspaper stated. That Glen Artney even had print adverts is another major difference from the Summerland guys, who slipped in and out of towns without publicity.

But don’t presume the Glen Artney promoters were any more honest or virtuous; that ad from the “Russian River Resorts Development Company” read, “Glen Artney is a beautiful sloping tract 60 miles from San Francisco, reached by the Southern Pacific railroad and interurban car line. School house on property…” The train and trolley car only went to Santa Rosa, of course, As for the schoolhouse, that was the Pine Mountain district school on St. Helena Road, which was actually suspended in 1911 for lack of any students. Modern maps reveal that “beautiful sloping tract” has an average 40 percent grade.

And while the moneymen behind Summerland were the stereotype big city tycoons and land speculators, Glen Artney seems to have been a strictly local affair. There are three names on the fraudulent map that was recorded; one was John O. McIntosh, up until about then the owner of the popular Grapevine saloon in downtown Santa Rosa. John was well known and well-liked, as was his older brother, Don, a deputy sheriff often mentioned in these pages nabbing wrongdoers.

Enlarge the map below to find the other names are Manville and Frank Doyle, the famous co-founder of the Exchange Bank and his son. Although the notarized statement refers to the “map of our lands,” we cannot say for sure this meant the bank was a partner in the deal – they might have been just the escrow agents. But since the Glen Artney property was so nearby, it’s very difficult to believe anyone really thought a town about half the size of Santa Rosa was going to spring up on the side of a mountain along the twisty county road to St. Helena.

A survey made about thirty years ago suggested there were up to 424,000 lots in old paper subdivisions throughout the state (see the “Living Deed” article for more about this) with the largest percentage of them – about 75,000 – in Sonoma county. We were the highest because of the unusual number of high density fake town/resorts such as Glen Artney and Summerland, which begs the question: Why was our county Ground Zero for land fraud?

We know Summerland was backed by San Francisco money, but there was never any mention in the papers of who was behind these other scams. It came as a surprise to me that Glen Artney had a barkeep’s name on the map, but perhaps many/all of the other schemes were similarly locally grown; after all, 1911 Santa Rosa was a pretty small town and details of the Summerland fraud would’ve been well known, particularly after the out-of-towners who discovered they were cheated came staggering into Santa Rosa saloons to drown their disappointments.

It would be a fun question to dig into further: Between 1911-1914, did Sonoma county have a flourishing cottage industry in scamming outsiders who were foolish enough to buy property here sight unseen? Were our own esteemed neighbors – the bankers, Chamber of Commerce businessmen and real estate wheeler-dealers – quietly running a bunco syndicate?

“…[T]he main reason for stopping the practice was that the county was being given a black eye by reason of the misrepresentations of the lot sellers,” commented the Press Democrat in 1914, when the craze was over – not that it should have been stopped years earlier because it was, you know, unethical. But nobody was ever arrested, except for a few of the traveling movie lottery hucksters; after all, it’s not a crime to sell worthless land – even if it’s on a slope so steep a mountain goat would begin to wheeze before halfway up.

1911 Glen Artney subdivision map
To Market Guerneville Realty

The firm of Enright Brothers & Co., realty brokers of San Francisco, has bought 400 [sic – it was 40] acres of land in the vicinity of Guerneville, and will subdivide it into small holdings, and place it upon the market. There is much fine farming land in that neighborhood, and quite a demand for small farms has lately been manifest; so that Enright Bros, seem to have bought in the right place at the right time.

Press Democrat, February 2 1909

“Summerland” is the name of the newest recreation spot for Guerneville. Mesgsrs. Eright, [sic] the brothers who recently purchased the Sutherland place have surveyed it into lots and already made several sales to the tired folks about the bay who want a quiet, pretty place to spend their hard-earned vacations.

– Healdsburg Tribune, April 13 1910
SUMMERLAND LOTS AT THE M. AND M. THEATER GIVEN AWAY FREE EACH EVENING
The Most Liberal Proposition Yet Offered The Healdsburg People To Secure a Summer Outing Lot

Last Thursday night Mr. Robert Romer gave an interesting sketch on the old and new methods of land subdivision. He explained that his company had allotted Healdsburg a number of free lots in this tract by means of public drawings at the M & M Theater each evening until the allotment has been exhausted. The object in giving those lots in this manner is to create a nucleus tor attracting by means of the winners the vacation and summer home seekers from this district. These winners become agents and a live advertising medium as long as they are deed holders of record. These lots are given away free to winners but they must defray their own expenses in having the title transferred, which amounts to $6.50 which includes the search of title, attorney fees, notary fees, drawing up the deed, etc., the same as any person is forced to do when they inherit a piece of property. He went on to explain that this very feature made their proposition stronger as it eliminated those winners who would look upon the proposition as a Nickelodeon premium and who would have nothing to lose by being inactive. When they pay to have the transfer made, it makes them look into the proposition deeper and is the best sign of good faith that they will become active boosters and attract their friends as buyers and home builders. How can the owners afford to give these lots away, was answered by him in another way. The amount that is generally spent in advertising is turned over to the winners who in turn act as live unconscious agents without pay. The value of any property is determined by the actual amount of deed holders of record which is the only magnet which will draw.

By having the property made valuable by the winners, their friends are glad to pay $25.00 for which these lots are selling. And these buyers in turn attract other buyers which when once started forms an endless chain and they are the ones that actually pay for the lots that are given away. He also made another point to illustrate this which was keen as it is better understood. For instance in a suit club there are generally 25 members, one wins a suit the first month for $5.00 and the second one for $l0.00, but it is the other 23 in number that average up the difference. Some of the lucky winners this week were Mr. C. P. Miller, J. Silberstein, Mrs. H. Sacry, and Fred Boulden who is going to start to improve as soon as his deed is perfected.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, December 2 1911

 

SONOMA COUNTY LOTS WITH PICTURES

A moving picture house in Sacramento is bidding for popularity with its patrons by holding out as an allurement to ticket purchasers an opportunity to secure a “Lot at Summerland, Sonoma county, near Russian River.” When the lucky ones present their tickets, they are told that they must put up six dollars for a deed to the lot. Some of them put up the coin. Others do not. Inquiries are being made of the Sonoma county legislators as to the location of the lots, and as to their worth. But prior to their coming to Sacramento the solons had not heard of the inducements offered.

– Press Democrat, December 6 1911

The Northwestern Hotel and Water Company announces that it will soon erect a hotel large enough to accommodate several hundred summer residents at Summerland near Guerneville, in the near future. The company will also establish a water system for Summerland.

– Healdsburg Tribune, March 14 1912
PHILANTHROPISTS’ SEEK NEW FIELDS
Persons Who Were “Given” Lots in “Summerland Park” Wonder If It’s a Bilk.

Offices of the “Exposition Developing Company” in the Ellers building are closed today. The two strangers, names unknown, who acted as the concern’s representatives, have flown, and a large number of plucked citizens here who paid $6.50 for a deed to a lot in “Summerland Park No. 2,” said to be a mile from Cazadero, Cal., a milk station in the hills of Sonoma county, are wondering whether they were swindled.

The company operated through several moving picture shows here. Theatre patrons were given coupons entitling them to a “free” chance on a lot. Apparently every one won in the weekly “drawing,” as scores of persons were visited by agents of the concern, during the two weeks it operated here…

…Among the motion picture show houses that innocently aided the company were the Rainbow and Cozy theatres on First street.

“The proposition the men made looked good to me,” said G. E. Chamberlain, one of the owners of the Cozy, today. “They told us that all we had to do was to give away the coupons and that our attendance would increase when people learned we were giving away free lots.

“They furnished us with slides showing pictures of the lands they said they owned, and explained that the scheme was to advertise the park so they could later sell lots. We began to get suspicious, however, when every one seemingly drew a lot and we were getting ready to stop giving coupons when the police told us to quit. The strangers got wind of this and left Portland soon afterward…”

– Oregon Daily Journal, March 26, 1912

 

BUNCO-LOWING FOLKS WITH SUMMER FAIRYLANDS

The following is a funny yet plaintive cry of the “bungalow lot victim”–it should be called “bunco-low,” but the humor of the statement must not hide the fact that in the name of Sonoma county this small, cheap bunco game is flourishing throughout our neighboring states. Those worthless patches of real estate are not marketed to the unwary in this county, nor now in this state. The scheme has become too well known except at a distance. And yet nothing can save the investors who are caught by the plausibility of the spielers’ landscape descriptions, and the little coin demanded for such a priceless bit of domain. All these resort lots are worthless as the investor speedily learns after his money has passed. This communication is one of the many such which almost daily adds to Mr. Nagle’s amusement and perplexity, as the writers tell him their troubles after they have been bunco-lowed.

Butte, Mont., Dec. 5, 1912
Mr. F. G. Nagle, County Recorder, Santa Rosa, California.

Dear Sir–We have your not of the second inst., returning the deed from Arthur Annis to E. S. Rodds, which we had sent you in our letter of November 29th for record, and wish to thank you for the information as to the worthlessness of the property.

We are, however, returning the deed with our draft for $1.00 to cover the recording fees, and would ask that you place the same on record.

Mr. Rodda had some information concerning the non-value of this property, before he asked us to send the deed. He is already stung a little, however, and thinks it is worth one dollar more, on the chance that some time petroleum or ginger ale or some other good chase may be discovered in commercial quantities on the land, or that some one might want it for a site for a factory for the manufacture of second-hand tooth brushes. He says he came west to take chances, and he is going through with this, even if it costs him another dollar.

Yours very truly, W. E. Collins,

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 18 1912

 

Fixing It So Can’t Even Give Realty Away in This Place
Bill to Beat Moving Picture Game in Sonoma County Goes Through Assembly.

Up in Santa Rosa moving picture theater owners some time ago conceived the idea of boosting their business by advertising they would give away lots to patrons of their nickelodeons who happened to hold a winning number. This was an alluring bit of advertising, and business trebled within a short time. It was apparent from the start that the theaters were doing it up proper, for many there were who drew a winning number. The lucky person had only to deposit a filing fee to get a deed.

Many deeds were filed. In fact, so many were filed that, the Sonoma county recorder’s office was swamped. Assemblyman Slater was appealed to. He was told the lots were absolutely worthless, and that the moving picture men were getting a corner on all the money in the county. Accordingly he introduced a bill in the lower house the first part of the session making it a misdemeanor for any person to give away worthless lots and collect a fee for transferring or conveying them to the owners of persons drawing lucky numbers.

The assembly heard Slater’s explanation of conditions yesterday, and railroaded the bill through without delay. Tired clerks in the Sonoma county recorder’s office and amusement hall proprietors will probably await with interest the action of the upper house on the measure.

– Sacramento Union, March 14 1913
HERE’S THE END OF ONE SWINDLE
Assemblyman Slater’s Bill to Prevent Frauds Being Perpetrated Is Signed by Governor

The practice of giving away “free” tickets, entitling holders to lots of land, by moving picture shows and other places of entertainment, was checked Thursday when Gov. Johnson signed Assemblyman Slater’s bill, which has added a new section to the penal code. After receiving their “free” tickets, holders have found themselves compelled to pay $6.50 for deeds in addition to paying a fee for recording. Gross fraud has been perpetrated in hundreds of cases, where lots have been said to be located in some sylvan dell and in reality have been perched on some bald rock or inaccessible jungle.

Thousands of deeds have been filed in a number of counties, and, after visiting their land, the deed holders have never returned for their deeds. The measure Introduced by Slater has been indorsed all over the State and was one of his “pet” measures.

The bill is as follows:

Section 1. The penal code is hereby amended by adding a new section thereto to be numbered 532a, to read as follows; 532a. Any person who knowingly and designedly offers or gives with winning numbers at any drawing of numbers or with tickets of admission to places of public assemblage or otherwise, any lot or parcel of real property for the purpose of charging or collecting fees for transferring or conveying the same, or who, under pretense of charging or collecting fees for such conveyance, receives money, labor or property for executing such conveyance, knowing such lots or parcels of real property to be inaccessible, unavailable for the use represented for it, worthless, or without market value equal to such fees, or charges, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

– Press Democrat, April 27 1913

 

Western Lots Are Put on Market at Wholesale

Lot selling was done in a wholesale manner in room 19 of the Metropolital hotel yesterday. The lots were located in Summerland Villa, Guerneville, Sonoma county, Cal…Women folk, lean folk, fat folk of a good natured kind, sleepy folk, and a few other kind, all seemed to be in a hurry to get a piece of California real estate…

…when callers, of which there were many, presented their cards they were informed by a portly appearing gentleman in that in order to get deeds it would be necessary to pay a fee for surveying the lot, and a few minor expenses, and that $8 good cash, earned by the sweat of the face under the beneficent sky of Missouri, would be necessary to have a look-in on the California real estate.

And some paid the $8.00, and some didn’t. Some looked at $8.00 with a longing look, and after much consideration, came to the conclusion that $8.00 in the hand was worth more than a sand lot 2,000 miles away.

– Springfield MO Republican, June 27 1913

 

Alleged Land Shark Arrested.

C. E. Ditto, a reputed land shark, was placed under arrest Saturday afternoon on a charge of beating his board bill…The police, while the man is being held, are making an investigation of a certain land scheme which has been worked in Bloomington of late. The scheme is a new one, but it is thought that some real money was secured in some of the transactions.

The play has been put on at moving picture theaters, a ticket being given to each one who pays to see the show and the one at the close of the day who held the lucky number drew a card entitling him to property. The card states that they “are entitled to a lot in Summerland Villa, Guerneville, Sonoma county, Cal.” The Northwestern Dev. Co., is signed to this card. It is said that several have presented these cards to the agent and are then told that to pay for the deed and abstract, that the sum of $9.60 is necessary. It is claimed that a few, thinking that they will get rich, have paid the sum asked and then gone on their way thinking of the riches which are to come.

The police will continue to make their investigation and Ditto will be held on the other charge until the matter is cleared up. Police officers the confident that Ditto is a swindler [sic]

Bloomington IL Pantagraph, November 17 1913
UNCLE SAM TAKES HAND IN “MOVIES” LAND LOT FRAUD
The Guerneville Lots Figure in Kansas City Arrests

The last session of the Legislature passed the Slater bill which was signed by the Governor and is now the law, which put a stop to moving picture houses and other concerns giving “lucky” tickets to lots of land in Sonoma county and elsewhere In the State, It had become such a nuisance and such a fraud in Sonoma county that the introduction of the measure was framed to check it, particularly as the lots were worthless and located in out of the way places and inaccessible places and-—well, the story has been oft told.

This is by way of introduction. Uncle Sam has come to the assistance of the State of California and has swooped down upon men in Kansas City and their prosecution will doubtless check the operation in “lucky” tickets for Sonoma county lots in other States of the Union, for today County Recorder Nagle is receiving deeds for filing and countless inquiries concerning the lots in question. A dispatcn from Kansas City says:

“Kansas City. Dec. 4.—An alleged land fraud which, according to postoffice inspectors, was conducted in several States through the medium of moving picture shows and the United States mails, led to the arrest here today of W. B. Emrich and N. H. Spitzer of Louisville, Ky. The two were arraigned before a United States commissioner on a charge of misuse of the malls.

“According to the federal charge, tickets were distributed among the spectators at picture shows and the announcement made that the holders of ‘lucky’ numbers would be given a deed to a camper’s lot near Guerneville, Sonoma county, California, It is alleged that the lucky ones’ were then required to pay more for the ‘filing of papers’ than the lots were worth.

– Press Democrat, December 5 1913
CASTLE IN AIR IS CERTAINLY HIS
Man Comes Here With the Idea of Locating on His Moving Picture Ticket Lot

Joe Blakskowski of San Francisco spent $12.50 for abstract deed and filing fees for lot 16, block 17 In “Glen Ertney,” when he drew a free lot is connection with his moving picture show ticket two years ago. The land is a portion of Sec. 23, tp 8 n, r. 7 w., and is located on the mountain side about 14 miles northeast of Santa Rosa off the road to Callstoga.

Mr. Blakskowskl came here this week with the view of settling on his lot and purchasing more for relatives and friends as agents for the tract had interested them with his glowing description. When he arrived here and asked for directions to reach “Glen Ertney,” his castles in the air were shattered when informed that he could not reach the lot on horseback, and would have a very hard time scrambling to it on foot.

Despite his ill treatment in this regard, Mr. Blaks, as he is commonly known, is planning to purchase property here for himself and relatives, and move here to make his home as he has been greatly impressed with the city and its surroundings.

Under the law no more tickets to lots can be given away is this State.

– Press Democrat, January 10 1914
SCORES OF ‘MOVIE’ LOTS NOW ON DELINQUENT TAX ROLL

The evil some time since of the giving away of tickets at moving picture shows to lots in Sonoma county, so much complained of in the past, is again to the fore in the announcement of the delinquent tax list of Sonoma county, prepared by County Tax Collector Frank M. Collins.

There is column after column of delinquents on lots that were purchased by the holders of tickets won at moving picture shows in different parts of the State and in other States. Many of the lot holders, after filing their deeds, placing the property on the assessment roll, have never taken any notice of their duties as landowners in the county, hence they have gone delinquent in payment of taxes, disgusted with their purchase.

At the last session of the Legislature, in 1913, the practice of giving away these lot tickets and the fraud connected therewith was stopped by the Slater bill, which was signed by the Governor, and heartily endorsed by the State Realty boards and other organizations. Hundreds of the lots had been disposed of prior to that time and the result is now shown on the delinquent tax list. This explains the length of the delinquent tax roil in large measure.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1914
LAW HAS PROVED OF MUCH GOOD
Recording of Documents Is Up to Date in the Office of the County Recorder

The copying of instruments in the office of County Recorder Fred G. Nagle has been brought up to dale and the well known county official is pleased to have it thus. Everything has been fine for some time.

It will be remembered that prior to the last session of the Legislature the County Recorder’s office here and in other counties of the state were deluged with the recording of deeds to lots of land as the result of the giving away of tickets with moving picture shows in this state and outside. At the session of the Legislature, Assemblyman Herbert W. Slater of this county, introducing a bill which passed both houses and was signed by the governor which made the giving away of such tickets unlawful. The new law attracted much attention and was complimented in the official papers of the State Realty Board and in other papers as being one of the most useful pieces of legislation. Its effect was soon noticeable in a diminishing of the number of deeds.

Copies of the law were also forwarded by the author of the federal authorities asking for their co-operatlon and this has also proved beneficial in the punishment of persons who used the mails to make false representations concerning prarlically worthless lots in this county.

It was learned Thursday that the deeds for the lots obtained in the manner complained of, are very rare now at the county recorder’s office, there only having been one or two in the past few months, and otherwise the practice has been stopped entirely. This is why the county recorder is breathing easier and why the copying has been brought up to dale to the gratification of those who were unavoidably hindred from recording their documents on time as a result of the deluge.

With hundreds of deeds to the moving picture lots coming in weekly it was impossible to cope with the work of copying them and finally special books had to be provided for their speedy recording. But the main reason for stopping the practice was that the county was being given a black eye by reason of the misrepresentations of the lot sellers and Ihe protest was general.

– Press Democrat, September 18 1914

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LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD

On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. To locals, Santa Rosa was a quiet little farmtown; to some vaudeville players it was another step towards a fantasy of theatrical glory.

That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two stages downtown: The 700-seat Columbia at Third and B streets and the much smaller Rose Theater. With their big electrical marquees (lightbulbs, not neon) they were the brightest spots downtown after dark and the Rose drew particular attention with its animated lights, something never seen in town before.

Both presented shows with three or four vaudeville acts capped off with about a half hour of movies, such as a Bronco Billy western or a chapter from that wildly-popular new series with cliffhanger endings, “The Perils of Pauline.” Their playbills were also generally the same; someone sang popular songs, an acrobat or animal act performed stunts and a comedian barked out corny (and not infrequently, racist or ethnic) jokes. But there the similarity ended.

Whenever possible, the Columbia’s newspaper ad touted a performer’s popularity or that (s)he had just appeared at a San Francisco theater. All well and good until one looked closely; the acts who headlined here were usually near the bottom of a long bill when they played in the City, and “popular” was a tipoff that the act might be a Golden Oldie such as Harry Green, “the old man singer with the boy’s voice,” who had been trodding the boards for about forty years.

When they had no particular act to promote the Columbia ad would sometimes sniff, “No Amateurs Every Artist a Professional” which was a not-so-subtle dig at the Rose Theater, where nearly every evening was like an episode from The Gong Show. Mostly these were likely young people who were big hits at hometown parties where their friends told them, “oh, you should be on stage.” Well, sir, this was their shot at stardom.

One such act is seen at right: Alice Berry and Harry Wilhelm, “the doll comedienne and the Protean artist.” What the act consisted of is unclear; Alice was either a child or a little person, standing four feet tall. She sang while the tailcoatted Harry did…something. Every Friday the Press Democrat offered a little blurb about similar performers appearing at the theaters that week, and one can imagine the poor staff writer straining a muscle trying to say something nice about acts such as these:

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Gilbert Girard, “The World’s Greatest Animal and Instrumental Mimic”, will be heard in fifteen minutes of barnyard humor.
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The “Three Cycling Newmans”, featuring a boxing match on unicycles, will head the show.
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Biele & Girad, “The Englishman and the Swede,” have a great comedy act. There is nothing more comical than an ignorant Swede, and when they are ignorant, like the one in this case, it causes many comical situations, making the most solemn laugh.
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Madelyn Faye, violiniste, charmed everyone with her playing, which was much better than ordinary.
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This afternoon at one o’clock Dixon & Elliott’s hardware store on Fourth street will become the center of attraction when a subject will be hypnotized and started out riding a bicycle. He will continue riding until eight o’clock this evening, at which time he will be removed to the stage of the Columbia Theater, after having pedaled over five hundred miles.
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The Zimmerman Brothers, novelty whistlers, have an act that gives good variety to the bill and one that pleases the most critical.

The list of peculiarities goes on: Birdcallers, “rubber girl” contortionists, midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” plus a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. A female comedy/musical sketch act called “the Seven Whitesides” made the front page of the Press Democrat not for its quality of entertainment but for the women soundly beating up their manager. Some performers had actual talent but were too unconventional for mainstream vaudeville; John C. Payne, “the double voiced man” was an African-American performing in an evening gown (“Mr. Payne’s natural voice is baritone, but he sings a beautiful soprano also and is considered a wonderful singer”).

Mainstays at the Rose were the animal acts. The theater hosted Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses” – Ogle’s Goat Circus in January, 1913 and Sander’s Goat Circus at the end of the same year. Now, Gentle Reader is probably pondering deep questions such as, “how many damn goat circuses were there?” And, “who would pay to see a goat circus?” And, “what did the little theater smell like afterward?” Notable in the publicity photo for Ogle’s is that the name “Prof. Kershner” was inartfully scratched out – thus Ogle bought a used goat act (and of course, that’s probably not Mr. Ogle in the picture). My guess is that Sanders in turn purchased the act after Ogle had enough of traveling with a herd of stinky goats. As for why audiences would attend, the PD noted, “Before the matinee this afternoon, it is announced, Mr. Sanders will throw away ten dollars to the children in front of the theatre.” Sad!

And then there was Roy Crone and his grizzly bear. Roy is high on the list of people from those days I would have liked to meet (he was introduced here earlier) because he went to Hollywood and eventually worked with Fred Astaire and Orson Welles on their most classic films. Back in 1913, however, he was manager of the Columbia Theater and taking a few weeks off to roam the low-rent vaudeville circuit with his 780-pound pet. Trouble was, he and his bear kept getting arrested.

Crone drove between gigs with the uncaged bear sitting in the backseat of his (presumably, large and sturdy) car. At least twice he was pulled over by cops for speeding and totally not because he was driving around with a seven-foot bear. Stopped outside of Merced, Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger was walking around to the passenger side of the car to write the ticket when the bear reached out and whacked him with a paw, knocking the officer down. “Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone,” reported The Stockton Mall. “The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff.” A few weeks later the pair were in trouble again, this time in Chico both for speeding and “occupying an automobile in a street exhibition,” which probably meant the sight of a bear sitting in a car was stopping traffic.

The vaudeville scene in Santa Rosa slowly faded away after 1914. The Columbia mostly dropped it the following year and by 1916 the Rose was offering vaudeville only every other week. What happened to the performers?

A search of the old newspapers finds that most of the amateur wanna-be’s who played the Rose only lasted that season. Some of the has-been professionals who were at the Columbia continued drifting around small Bay Area theaters for awhile and a few can be spotted trying to reinvent themselves far away in the frontiers of Australia or British Columbia. Otherwise, if you weren’t good enough to be booked on a traveling circuit, what probably awaited you beyond Santa Rosa was Old West music halls in backwater towns, mining and logging camps without electricity and saloons with a small raised stage. Resorts like Fetter’s Hot Springs sometimes advertised they had vaudeville without naming any acts.

What killed vaudeville was the explosive growth of celebrity motion pictures. Now all that was needed to pack a theater was showing the latest movie by Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Ethel Barrymore and other stars; miss seeing the picture and miss out on part of the shared social experience – and not only with family and friends here, but with people you knew in distant towns.

As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone; lost was the tolerance for everyday people to entertain each other for an evening without expecting perfection. After all, if the novelty whistlers weren’t to your taste all you had to do and wait a few minutes until their act was over, and then out would come the violinist whose playing was much better than ordinary. Maybe you’d like that better.

Ogle’s Goat Circus

The Seven Whitesides present an office scene play, which leads into some good singing and dancing. All of the 875 people who attended last night’s entertainment were well pleased with the high class show.

– Press Democrat, November 22 1912
CHORUS GIRLS DO UP THE MANAGER
Lively Fracas When Soubrettes Think Their Cash is Likely to Go Aglooming

The fair members of a theatrical troupe, appearing In “vodvlll” in a local theatre Saturday night, were fearful, so they said, that their manager, a man, was not going to make a cash settlement with them and suspicious that possibly he might take an earlier train from town than they, made up their minds that they would have nothing of it. In consequence they demanded their pay. When their requests were met with refusal they started to take the law into their own hands, and goodness knows what they would have done to that manager had not the commotion in a down town apartment house, and a hasty call for a policeman, sent Police Officer I. N. Lindley hurrying to the scene. And “Ike” made some dash, too. At the time the officer came upon the scene, one of the girls was making a punching bag out of the manager, where another girl had left off. The girls of the troupe took all the money he had, fourteen dollars. He should have had much more, as the girls say they had a salary roll of eighteen dollars apiece coming to them. The manager was allowed to retire to his room for the night, and at an early hour Sunday morning the chorus girls were wondering how to divide up the fourteen dollars.

– Press Democrat, November 24 1912

 

SKATING BEAR IN ROSE VAUDEVILLE TONIGHT

Miss Livingstone and her trained bear will appear in tonight’s vaudeville at the Rose. This animal act, as previous ones, will win the favor of the Santa Rosa public. This performing bear waltzed, when seen by the management, which brought many rounds of applause.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 3, 1913

 

STRONG VAUDEVILLE BILL AT THE ROSE THEATER TONIGHT

A strong vaudeville bill of high class acts will be presented to the public at the Rose theater tonight, headed by Ogle’s Goat Circus. These goats are very highly valued, partly because there are very few performing goats in the state and through the long time patient training which has made them the greatest of all goat acts. The management announces this one of the highest salaried acts that they have ever secured. The children will be invited on the stage after the matinee tomorrow, to learn something of the training of goats and have a chance to pet their favorites.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 24, 1913
SANTA ROSAN IS ON VAUDEVILLE
Ray Crone Making Tour of Circuit With Tame Bear Act Which Has Taken Well

Ray Crone, the well known manager of the Columbia Amusement Co.’s local interests, is taking a few weeks off duty and touring the vaudeville circuit with an animal act of his own. Reports from points he has visited speak of the success of his work.

Mr. Crone is one of the best known young men of Santa Rosa owing to his work in connection with the Nickelodeon moving picture show house first, and afterwards with the Columbia theater and Theaterette, which were added one after the other to the activities of the firm, of which he is a part.

The success of the young man will be pleasing to his many friends here and in the bay cities. He has a trained bear, known as “John L. Sullivan,” which does a number of remarkable feature tricks which Mr. Crone has trained him to do. Animal feature in vaudeville always proves attractive to young and old and are in great demand by the booking agents. Frank Weston is here from San Francisco looking after the Amusement Company’s interest in the absence of Mr. Crone.

– Press Democrat, April 27 1913
CRONE AND BEAR CAUSE TROUBLE
Well Known Santa Rosan and His Trained Animal Arouse Much Interest at Stockton

Roy Crone, the well known Santa Rosan who Is making a tour of the vaudeville circuit with a large trained bear, is receiving some very flattering press notices. The Stockton Mail In speaking of his first performance In that city, says:

Bear Is Almost Human

Five bright new acts greeted the large Sunday crowds at the Garrick yesterday, and the show from start to finish was excellent in every respect. A remarkable exhibition of animal intelligence was displayed by John L. Sullivan, the world-famous educated bear. This is the largest bear ever seen on the stage and one of the largest in captivity. It stands over seven feet tall and weighs 780 pounds. The bear is well trained, and his trainer has complete control over him at all times. He performs a number of clever and amusing antics, the climax coming when some small boys attempt to ride him. One little chap succeeded in riding him, but the others were politely unseated by Mr. Bruin.

In an issue several days before he opened in Stockton the papers published a good story relative to Crone and his bear. The story in the Mall was as follows:

Bear Defends Master

To be knocked down by a blow from the paw of a big black bear which was sitting in the rear seat of an automobile, is the curious accident which happened to Deputy Sheriff Nicewonger yesterday afternoon. And, as a result of the collision with the hoof of Bruin, Deputy Nicewonger narrowly escaped serious injury. The blow, which was a glancing one, caught him on the right side of the neck, and was delivered with so much force that it unceremoniously floored the county official.

J. R. Crone, who is the owner of the bear, was en route from Merced with his hairy passenger in an automobile. Crone left Merced yesterday morning. As he was speeding along the highway between Rippon and Calla, Deputy Nicewonger happened to discover that Crone was exceeding the speed limit. He immediately hailed the man and his curious cargo. Crone stopped at once. Deputy Nicewonger read the ruling of the county ordinance and informed Crone that he was under arrest. Crone was about to give his name and address when Nicewonger, in order to secure the data, chased around to the right side of the machine. Just as the county highway guard was passing the rear seat the bear, with one vicious swoop, let fly with his paw. Deputy Nicewonger heeled over instantly. Rising to his feet. Nicewonger was about to commit bloody murder when Crone quieted the angry beast and pulled the deputy out of the danger zone. The bear actually stood on his hind feet a few moments later and roared at the deputy sheriff. This morning the deputy appeared before Justice Parker and secured a warrant for the arrest of Crone for encroaching upon the speed ordinance of the county. The bear, says Crone, is tame.

– Press Democrat, May 16 1913

 

CRONE AND HIS BEAR ARRESTED ONCE MORE

Friends of Ray Crone, former manager of the Columbia Theater will read the following with much amusement. Although the dispatch does not give Crone’s name he is known to be on the circuit through Chico and his bear was dubbed “John L.” The dispatch follows:

CHICO, July 13.–John L. Sullivan, a big grizzly bear used in a local theatre, was arrested last night by Policeman Field and booked with its owner on a charge of violating the city’s traffic ordinance. In police court the owner put up $20 bail to appear with the bear tomorrow. They were occupying an automobile in a street exhibition and the machine went too fast to suit the police. When the arrest was made the grizzly tried to escape, but was induced by the owner to go along to the police judge’s court.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 15, 1913

 

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