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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AT THE MEXICO BORDER: SANTA ROSA’S NATIONAL GUARD

Wave a flag and cheer, Santa Rosa; your National Guard boys are going off to protect the border with Mexico! The year was 1916 and beneath the cheery patriotism was terror about what might happen – and for good reason. It looked like a full-scale war with Mexico would start at any moment.

While the soldiers going off to fight in Europe in 1917 get lots of attention from historians, the National Guard’s call up for duty a year earlier is lesser mentioned, often just dismissed as sort of a rehearsal for the real show. But it was their departure for the border that had the greater emotional impact on Santa Rosa, being the first time local men had been ordered to active service since the Spanish-American War, a full generation in the past.

The story has obvious relevance to us in 2018 because a president is again sending the National Guard to the Mexican border. But while researching those doings about a century ago, I found the story even more relevant to today than I expected – it was also a casebook study of “fake news.”

That innocent American civilians were killed in the lead-up to deployment was an indisputable fact. But depending upon which newspaper(s) you happened to read – and remember, this was 1916 and before radio or TV, so your daily paper was probably the sole news source available – your reaction might be the indignation someone feels when any fellow citizens are slain by terrorists. Or maybe you’d feel the situation in Mexico was so abominable that the U.S. Army should go down there and take over the whole damn country.

The most irresponsible coverage found anywhere was undoubtedly in the San Francisco Examiner and other Hearst papers, with anti-Mexican racism on a par with President “Some I Assume Are Good People” Trump.* Here in Sonoma county, however, the dailies were the Argus-Courier in Petaluma with the Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat delivered to homes and businesses elsewhere. Of the three, the PD stands out – for making everyone more jittery by portraying Mexico as a lawless wilderness, where life was cheap and outlaws roamed the countryside like packs of feral dogs.

Scan the front pages of the Press Democrat from the start of 1916 and discover there were detailed reports about the war in Europe – albeit mainly good news that WWI was going ever so swell for the Allies and the unpleasantness would be over soon, one way or the other. In sharp contrast, the PD’s account of the Mexico crisis was alarmist and became increasingly histrionic. Despite the enormous number of deaths in WWI, the articles about that had all the immediacy of chess match coverage; when it came to Mexico, PD editor Ernest Finley’s hair was on such fire he could not be troubled to worry about printing the truth.

Trouble loomed not long after the year began: “MEXICANS MURDERED AMERICANS,” read the headline in the January 12 Press Democrat. The incident – which became known as the Santa Isabel Massacre – would continue to dominate the PD’s front page for the remainder of that week, even pushing out most news about the World War.

(RIGHT: ‘Pancho’ Villa, in scene from 1914 docudrama)

In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, about 250 miles from the Texas border, sixteen Americans who worked for a mining company had been robbed, stripped, and murdered execution-style. Two other Americans in the area were killed three days later. The killers were part of the forces under the command of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, northern Mexico’s warlord and leader of a military faction in their ongoing revolution.

When word reached El Paso, the nearest U.S. city to the site of the crime and home to the big Army base at Fort Bliss, soldiers attacked Mexicans downtown, leading to an anti-Mexican riot involving about a thousand soldiers and civilians alike. Martial law was declared and Mexican residents were ordered to leave their homes.

President Woodrow Wilson – who recently had given his blessing to the current Mexican government – rejected calls for a counterstrike, saying he trusted their country to punish those responsible. There was also talk of the mining company and American ranchers creating a mercenary troop to sneak into the country to capture Villa. Provoking an invasion of Mexico by American forces, however, was exactly what he wanted.

At that point the Mexican Revolution had been underway for five or six or seven years (depending on who you ask) with the U.S. meddling at every step. By the mid-1910s it had strayed from its revolutionary goal of upending the country’s old feudalism and turned into a Game of Thrones-like contest for power with several factions locked in a civil war, Villa a major player among them.

As 1916 began, Villa and his once indomitable Army of the North (División del Norte) seemed headed for a small footnote in Mexican history. The previous year, better armed government forces had badly whipped them in three major battles – one of which lasted 38 days (!) – and the Villistas were reduced to a guerilla force unlikely to survive another direct encounter with the Army.

Villa believed the president of Mexico – a former ally of his, natch – was a sellout and conceding too much to American interests because he had some sort of secret deal with Wilson’s administration. (It turned out Villa had been suckered into believing a conspiracy theory.) In Villa’s mind the last hope to unify the country was to start a mouse-that-roared war with the U.S. And as the earlier attack had failed to spur necessary American wrath, he decided to lead his fighters across the border and attack a town in New Mexico. It would be the first time American soil had been invaded since the War of 1812.

Two months after the Santa Isabel Massacre, Villa and his forces targeted Columbus NM, a dusty bordertown about 70 miles west of El Paso. A very thorough and well-written description of the attack can be read here but all we need to know is that it was brutal; 18 Americans were dead and the little town was ransacked. President Wilson immediately ordered troops into Mexico to capture or kill Villa.

 “On the Border” by Donna Neary (Image: Army.Mil)

 

 

From that point on, all newspaper coverage of the crisis can be ranked on a scale. The better papers explained Villa was trying to provoke Wilson into invading, so their readers may have understood that while these were savage acts, they were part of his realpolitik gambit, and there were risks to the U.S. if we played into his hands. Rank the Press Democrat at the other end of the scale with the worst of the yellow press, painting Villa simply as the leader of a ruthless bandit gang on the prowl for horses to steal and gringos to slaughter.

Then there’s the the Press Democrat’s remarkable volume of stories. A week or more might pass without the Argus-Courier or Santa Rosa Republican mentioning Pancho Villa – but from April onwards, something about Villa appeared on the PD front page almost every single day, which by itself made the story appear as important as the World War. Most of those items turned out to be rumors and lies which the paper did not later correct, or made only a token effort to fix. The worst was probably when the PD made a big splash with a story about a Mexican Army general defecting to Villa and taking his 2,000 soldiers with him. When it proved untrue a day later there was a single sentence about it buried near the end of a long update of latest U.S. troop movements.

Even the best newspapers sometimes printed stuff that turned out false, but the PD was like a “fake news” clearinghouse. Villa had narrowly escaped capture, Villa was about to invade the U.S. again, Villa was dead, Villa was walking through passenger trains and murdering anyone he thought was American. Sometimes what was presented to Sonoma county readers slipped into outright propaganda – the PD featured a photo illustration showed a firing squad poised for execution with the caption, “How They Kill a ‘Gringo.'” It was actually a scene from a 1914 docudrama about Villa filmed during the civil war with other Mexican factions.

The crisis came to a head in June – a fact we know because the PD’s banner headline on the 18th shouted, “MEXICAN CRISIS NOW AT THE CLIMAX”. The Mexican president ordered American troops to leave the country. President Wilson refused. Soon after, troops from the U.S. Cavalry were confronted by the Mexican Army, and in the “Battle of Carrizal” 12 Americans were killed with 24 captured. The next day Wilson ordered the entire 145,000 member National Guard called to duty. On June 24, the northern California Fifth regiment was mobilized and ordered to assemble in Sacramento immediately. Santa Rosa was going to war.

“Goodbye Boys! and May God Bless You and Keep You”, cheered the Press Democrat headline on June 25. Half of the front page that day called for a big public turnout at 10:00AM as the local National Guard marched from the armory (Fourth and D streets) to the train station on North street. The other half of the page contained stories suggesting they were probably going to be walking into a trap and be slaughtered.

“The Carrizal battle was only an incident of what was planned to be a general attack on the American command,” one of those PD articles read, citing a report supposedly received in El Paso. “Americans were flanked on both sides by Mexicans who practically surrounded the little detachment,” read another story that described what happened at Carrizal. “In front was a concealed Mexican machine gun trench from which a stream of leaden death unexpectedly poured into the American ranks.”

This upsetting “we salute you who are about to die” theme continued in the PD alongside news about the current whereabouts of our company. Three days later, the PD claimed the “Buffalo Soldiers” captured at Carrizal were expecting to be executed, 30,000 Mexican soldiers were waiting to attack U.S. soldiers and a half million Mexican civilians were heading for the border to repel an American invasion. The Republican printed none of that crap and by contrast,  balanced front page coverage of the National Guard deployment with news about the state political conventions and WWI developments.

Santa Rosa’s Company E, led by Captain Hilliard Comstock (more about that fellow’s soldiering later) had 75 members, one of them Fleming McWhorter, who already had been serving in New Mexico. He returned to join his Company E comrades even though he would be turning around the next day. An impromptu group met him at the train and carried him on their shoulders to the armory. It was a grand moment:

Members of Co. E who have served their time as drummers, secured the drums of the Native Sons’ Drum Corps and headed the column. The company flag was carried and a mascot in the form of a little dog with a white blanket marked “Co. E,” was led in the line. About fifty men were in line and the column made an inspiring sight as it marched along Fourth street. The Santa Rosa Boys’ Brass Band, in full uniform, was at the depot and tendered several selections while the crowd awaited the arrival of the train. As it came in the band played one of its liveliest tunes, arousing the enthusiasm of all present…

Irregardless of the garbage the PD was feeding its readers about hordes of killer Mexicans, the paper’s coverage of their departure the next day was touching, promising it “…will always be remembered as one of the most notable of events that has ever occurred in Santa Rosa, and thousands participated in the many incidents marking the going away.”

No one who was an eye witness will ever forget Sunday morning, June 25, 1916, the time when Company E of Santa Rosa went to the front at the country’s call for the defense of the flag. It was gigantic. It was grand, significant and true…Santa Rosa rallied magnificently in her saying of good-bye. Long before the hour of ten, when the whistles blew and the bells rang, people commenced to congregate in the streets adjacent, to the armory, and when the parade formed with the departing company as the center of attraction, the streets for blocks were lined with one continuous mass of humanity. The bands played and as the parade came along men, women and children fell into line and marched with the soldiers. Winding up the procession were several hundred automobiles carrying for the most part women and children. The line of march was down Fifth street to A then to Fourth, along Fourth to North, and thence out to the depot. All along the line of march the air was rent with cheers. And as the soldier boys passed down Fifth street each was presented with a beautiful bouquet of Burbank’s Shasta daisies, carnations, roses and greenery.

And then the moment of farewell came. “The troops’ train had disappeared around the bend in the track out from the Southern Pacific depot; the clanging of the locomotive bell was now an echo; Santa Rosa’s greatest public demonstration had ended; and the prolonging note of the mother’s prayer, sweeter than all else, for it really echoed the sentiment of thousands of hearts, came at the last.”

Tensions between the United States and Mexico remained high for a few following days but then the Carrizal prisoners were released unharmed, and even the PD grudgingly conceded on July 6 the “condition of [the] Mexican situation is improving.” News about WWI again began to dominate their front page.

And then letters from Company E began arriving back home. They were headed for Nogales, Arizona and in good spirits. It was so hot on the train that most of them stripped down to their underwear. They started a “beauty contest” to see who could grow the best chin whiskers and moustache.

“Dog tents” of the San Francisco company, 5th California Infantry at Nogales (PHOTO: California State Military Museums

 

Mostly they were bored after settling into camp. It was hot and there was lots of rain. They drilled every morning for five hours, then had the afternoon and evening free. They slept six to a tent and Charles O’Bear, one of the cooks, wrote that he and his bunkmates “have all sorts of fun amongst ourselves. We took a lot of freak pictures this afternoon.” (Let’s hope the O’Bears still have their family photo album.) They had brought along that little black dog named “Fox” which they now dressed with a canvas coat reading on each side “Co. E, Fifth.” After a couple of days they adopted another fox terrier as an assistant mascot.

In the letters printed or summarized in the Press Democrat they often described how good and plentiful the food was. There were 2,000 men in the Fifth California Regiment at Nogales and in two weeks they ate 14,000 pounds of fresh meat. “Today’s dinner consisted of cold boiled ham, corn on cob, French fried potatoes, iced tea, chocolate cake with bread and butter,” O’Bear wrote to his friend. The Sebastopol Merchants’ Association sent them a shipment of apples and a thank you note replied, “The apples which you were so kind as to send were, like all Sebastopol Gravensteins. delicious…”

Health was also a big topic; many were bedridden for a few days because of the typhoid vaccinations. They had been mustered up so quickly the men had not been examined by Army doctors here or in Sacramento, so everyone got a physical at the Nogales camp. An average of fifteen percent of the California National Guard failed and were sent home. Company E lost 17 – including Ezra Mortenson, who was too tall. The PD reported that an anti-smoking activist told the Santa Rosa Grange that many in the Guard were rejected because they suffered from “tobacco heart,” leading to a letter-to-the-editor from all of Company E, griping that “people should know what they are talking about before breaking into print.” (The same complaint could have been made about all of the PD’s prior Mexico coverage, of course.)

What they didn’t write about was military service, except for a letter from Al Mead. Nogales straddles the border and there wasn’t a fence between the two sides until after 1918. Mead wrote, “The main street of Nogales forms the international boundary line between the United States and Mexico. American guards, dressed in the customary olive drab uniforms, guard our side of the line, while the Mexican side is patrolled by half-starved, scantily clad Mexican soldiers, dressed mostly in ragged overalls and dirty shirts, the red hat cord being the only distinction between them and the ordinary citizen.”

After about a month at Nogales the Fifth Regiment was told to prepare for a 138-mile march, although they wouldn’t be going into into Mexico; they would be heading to Fort Huachuca which had a particularly good rifle range. But as August was about to end, surprising new orders arrived – they were to pack up and head back to Sacramento to be part of the state fair. Theirs was the only regiment sent away from the border so early.

“Bronzed and campaign-hardened by the active service on the Mexican border, the members of the Fifth Infantry swung into the State Fair grounds today to the strains of martial music and the cheers of thousands of spectators,” reported the Press Democrat. “Erect and with swinging stride of regulars, the men and their officers made a splendid appearance, clearly demonstrating the result of their arduous border service.” They took part in a sham battle where 16,000 rounds of blanks were fired and a prop bridge was blown up.

And that was that. They came home to Santa Rosa on October 7 with another parade and a banquet at the armory. They saw no action whatsoever. Any who dreamed of serving alongside Army regulars chasing Pancho Villa were certainly disappointed, but in truth President Wilson and the generals probably had no intention of letting them see combat – they were there to relieve the Army of policing the American side of the border and (to some degree) intimidate the government of Mexico.

More than anything else, it was an excuse to exercise the newly-enacted National Defense Act of 1916, which transformed the National Guard into an “organized militia” which could be folded into the regular Army during times of war or national emergency. All that drilling also made the experience sort of a pre-bootcamp bootcamp for all those men who would be drafted a few months later when the U.S. entered World War I.

But aside from the bad weather it seems the men of Company E had a fine time, and no one was hurt – except for Private Charlie Torliatt, who was declared to have an injury sustained in the line of duty because he was involved in a Sacramento auto accident in June.

* Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner is not available online, but the Los Angeles Herald was a de facto Hearst paper, particularly when it came to stories like this which relied entirely upon Hearst’s International News Service.

PEOPLE! ASSEMBLE AT 10 FOR BIG SENDOFF PARADE
Company E Will Entrain in Santa Rosa for Sacramento at 11 O’Clock This Morning, and Plans Are Made for a Big Demonstration

 

THE BOYS OF COMPANY E of Santa Rosa go away this morning!

They will entrain here at eleven o’clock. The orders came from Adjutant General Charles W. Thomas last night. Our gallant bovs leave Santa Rosa for the mobilization camp at Sacramento this morning, and the expectancy is that in a short time they will be sent with the other troops to the Mexican border.

Quoting again the sentiment of the headline —“GOODBYE! BOYS, AND MAY GOD BLESS YOU!”—Santa Rosa is with you today and will be with you in kindly thought and in prayer every day you are away.

Individually and collectively, “God bless you!”

GREAT DEMONSTRATION THIS MORNING

The going away of Company E this morning is to be the occasion of a great public demonstration. Every man. woman and child in Santa Rosa and vicinity should turn out to make it so. Gather on the streets outside of the armory, at Fourth and D streets, at ten o’clock and join in the march with the boys to the depot. Wear or carry a flag.

There will be a parade and it will be led by Mayor J. C. Mailer and the members of the City Council. Citizens are asked to follow in line behind the Mayor and precede the gallant officers and men of Company E as an escort. The Santa Rosa band will play for the march. Following the company, automobiles will be in line, and it is asked that in these machines women and children ride. But men are requested to walk with the soldiers to the depot.

LINE OF MARCH FOR THE PARADE

The line of march, as suggested by the committee last night after consulting with Captain Comstock, will be from the armory to Fifth street, along Fifth street to A street, along A to Fourth, up Fourth to North street, along North street to the Southern Pacific depot.

PETALUMA AND SAN RAFAEL, TOO

The National Guard companies of San Rafael and Petaluma will come to Santa Rosa on the special train provided for the troops. The train will connect with the Southern Pacific by means of the “Y” and Company E will embark at the Southern Pacific depot. That was the understanding last night.

Everybody assemble about the armory at ten o clock, and it is the wish of Santa Rosa, as expressed by her Mayor, Hon. James C. Mailer, that this be made one of the greatest demonstrations possible, to show the soldier boys in their departure that Santa Rosa and Sonoma county appreciates them. And the boys in khaki from our sister city will come in for a share of the sendoff. We appreciate them and their good commander, Capt. J. B. Dickson. And the lads from Marin county, all hail to them, too. God bless you all!

– Press Democrat, June 25 1916

 

…Fleming McWhorter, who had been serving in Columbus New Mexico, returned to join his Company E comrades, even though he would be turning around the next day. An impromptu group met him at the evening train Saturday night

Members of Co. E who have served their time as drummers, secured the drums of the Native Sons’ Drum Corps and headed the column. The company flag was carried and a mascot in the form of a little dog with a white blanket marked “Co. E,” was led in the line. About fifty men were in line and the column made an inspiring sight as it marched along Fourth street.

The Santa Rosa Boys’ Brass Band, in full uniform, was at the depot and tendered several selections while the crowd awaited the arrival of the train. As it came in the band played one of its liveliest tunes, arousing the enthusiasm of all present.

When McWhorter alighted from the train he was seized and tossed into the air by his comrades. He came down on the shoulders of A. M. Mead and Wm. Tabor, who carried him through the streets on the return march. The column marched around the courthouse before going to the armory, where McWhorter was cheered lustily. After reporting to the armory he was taken to supper and then returned to the armory, where he donned his uniform and prepared his roll for the return trip to the border. The evening was spent with friends.

While marching up Fourth street, Mrs. Crabtree, the florist, presented the company with a handsome and immense bouquet of red. white and bine flowers, which was carried in the parade and given a prominent place at the armory.

The impromptu parade was witnessed by a large crowd on the street and many followed the boys for some distance. There was much enthusiasm manifested and more interest was shown in the company than at any time since it left the city eighteen years ago for service during the Spanish-American war.

– Press Democrat, June 25 1916

 

VAST THRONG SAYS GOODBYE
Greatest Demonstration in Santa Rosa History When Soldier Boys Depart
Sunday Morning’s Tribute to the City’s Military Organization Will Always Be Remembered as One of the Most Notable of Events That Has Ever Occurred in Santa Rosa, and Thousands Participated in the Many Incidents Marking the Going Away—Cheers Also Given for the Petaluma and San Rafael Companies When They Arrived

“THEY’RE GONE! OH! GOD BLESS THEM!”

It came from a mother’s lips. A few moments previously that same mother had clapsed a soldier son to her heart and had given him a farewell kiss.

The troops’ train had disappeared around the bend in the track out from the Southern Pacific depot; the clanging of the locomotive bell was now an echo; Santa Rosa’s greatest public demonstration had ended; and the prolonging note of the mother’s prayer, sweeter than all else, for it really echoed the sentiment of thousands of hearts, came at the last.

MEMORABLE SCENE

No one who was an eye witness will ever forget Sunday morning, June 25, 1916, the time when Company E of Santa Rosa went to the front at the country’s call for the defense of the flag. It was gigantic. It was grand, significant and true.

Did anyone say that the. fires of patriotism were waning?

That vast outpouring of farewell in Santa Rosa Sunday morning, those marching thousands, flag-bearing and flag-waving cheering hosts; that wonderful moving picture that filled Santa Rosa’s principal streets, answers in behalf of every town and hamlet in this broad land an emphatic “No.”

THERE WERE THE PARTINGS …

CITY RALLIES MAGNIFICENTLY

Santa Rosa rallied magnificently in her saying of good-bye. Long before the hour of ten, when the whistles blew and the bells rang, people commenced to congregate in the streets adjacent, to the armory, and when the parade formed with the departing company as the center of attraction, the streets for blocks were lined with one continuous mass of humanity. The bands played and as the parade came along men, women and children fell into line and marched with the soldiers. Winding up the procession were several hundred automobiles carrying for the most part women and children. The line of march was down Fifth street to A then to Fourth, along Fourth to North, and thence out to the depot. All along the line of march the air was rent with cheers. And as the soldier boys passed down Fifth street each was presented with a beautiful bouquet of Burbank’s Shasta daisies, carnations, roses and greenery. These bouquets had previously been made up with the generous gifts of flowers left at The Press Democrat office, where the committee met to arrange them.

[..]

– Press Democrat, June 27 1916

 

CHARLES O’BEAR IN LETTER TELLS OF COMPANY E LIFE
Something That Will Be of Interest to the Relations and Friends of Our Boys on the Border – Sample Menu Card of a Mean in Company Mess Department

…We are now located in our new camp and like it very much…I’ll send you a bunch of pictures soon. I would have sent them before but couldn’t on account of not having the cash to buy films, as we of the Fifth and Seventh Regiments of California haven’t been paid yet, and we are all broke or badly bent. Believe me, when we do get cashed up we sure will have some time.

We have located on the side of a hill and we all had to dig out and level off a square for our tents so we would not fall out of our bunks.

Every company in all the regiments of the Second, Fifth and Seventh of the California Brigade have nice, big dining rooms and kitchens combined, and all are enclosed with wire screen to keep the flies out. The kitchen where I hash things is screened off from the dining room. It is big, nice and light, well aired, and is some swell kitchen all around.

Today’s dinner consisted of cold boiled ham, corn on cob, French fried potatoes, iced tea, chocolate cake with bread and butter – a regular Sunday dinner, eh? Dine with us? Come on up any time. I’ll serve you.

Everyone has become acclimated by this time and all are hardening up to a regular soldier’s standard and all are feeling fine and are in the pink of condition for the 136-mile hike that we are to take starting September 1 and ending about November some time, as it will take us two weeks to go there, a stay of two weeks while we into [sic] a stiff and continuous round of soldiers’ life, which consists of drilling, target practice on the rifle range, pitching of tents and all other soldier duties that one should do, with a lot of extras thrown in for good measure.

Then we will take two weeks to return to our present camp, and we expected to be on our way back to Santa Rosa some time soon – after six weeks, months or years. I wish it was tomorrow…

…Top Sergeant Campbell, Quartermaster Sergeant Pozzi, Cook Walker and I have a tent all to ourselves next to the cookhouse, and we have all sorts of fun amongst ourselves. We took a lot of freak pictures this afternoon. I’ll send you one when we get them developed.

Give my best to all my friends In Santa Rosa and remember me as your friend.

– Press Democrat, September 1 1916

 

 

Fifth Regiment Takes Part in Sham Battle Thursday in Capital

Bronsed and campaign-hardened by the active service on the Mexican border, the« members of the Fifth Infantry swung into the State Fair grounds today to the strains of martial music and the cheers of thousands of spectators.

Their course through the fair grounds and on the lawn, where they passed in review betore the multitude and Governor Hiram Johnson and his party, was an unceasing ovation. Erect and with swinging stride of regulars, the men and their officers made a splendid appearance, clearly demonstrating the result of their arduous border service. During the afternoon the command, together with apprentices from the United States Naval Training Station at Yerba Buena Island, in San Francisco Bay, and the Engineer Battalion. N. G. C., participated in an exciting sham battle, in which 16,000 rounds of blank ammunition was need by the opposing forces and a bridge was blown up.

– Press Democrat, September 8 1916

 

 

Fine Banquet Is Feature Much Enjoyed by All
Met at the Depot by Band and Citizens and Escorted to the Armory While Vast Crowds Accompany Marching Men—-Words of Welcome Bring a Hearty Response–Ladies Aid Materially in Arrangements and Affair Is a Great Success

Company E came home on Saturday night and Santa Rosa said at the home-coming–“God Bless You Boys! We’re Glad to Welcome You Home Again!”

The city welcomed its soldier boys with band music, cheers, parade, banquet and general enthusiasm…

– Press Democrat, October 8 1916

 

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NELLIE COMSTOCK OF SANTA ROSA

It was rare to find an obituary on the front page of the Press Democrat, but hers was stranger still – she was hardly mentioned in it.

“Nellie H. Comstock Claimed by Death,” read the 1940 headline, followed by “Friend of Elbert Hubbard, Burbank.” A good chunk of the obit was about her father and it twice mentioned Burbank (supposedly) wrote a letter inviting her to move to Santa Rosa. Other than that, the article mostly describes the accomplishments of her children – which she would have liked. “A Distinguished Mother,” read the PD kicker above the headline.

By then, most in town probably knew her only as the grandmother of Helen and Hilliard Comstock’s five Santa Rosa-born kids, or that she had lived for almost a quarter century as a recluse in the big brown house just down from the the high school. A few might have known she was probably the wealthiest person in town, controlling a trust for her children worth the equivalent of $27 million today. She was never a member of any of the town’s many women’s clubs, never active in any civic affairs. She can be found mentioned in the PD only a handful of times in the last ten years of her life, always because some of her illustrious children who lived farther away were here to visit.

(Undated portrait of Nellie Comstock.  Courtesy Carmel Library Historical Archive)

But “Nellie” Comstock was a remarkable person whose intelligence and character were reflected in the accomplishments of her seven children, all educated at home by her. And what we saw here was only the least interesting fragment of her life; if time permits to do the research, there justly should be entries for “Nellie Comstock of Carmel-by-the-Sea” and “Nellie Comstock of Evanston,” because those were the places where her star most brightly gleamed.

Thanks to a 1910 letter donated by grandson Harrison Comstock to the Carmel Library Historical Archive, for the first time we have a deeply personal letter with insight into what she thought of Santa Rosa and its residents shortly after moving here. She also wrote, “I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet.” Hey, can you guess which page of the letter is missing?

After she died, Hilliard donated materials to the Burbank archives including a couple of letters written to her by Oscar Binner, a promoter who around 1910 was sort of a Colonel Parker to Burbank’s Elvis. An accompanying note from Hilliard pointed out Binner had sometimes stayed with their family in Santa Rosa, and Nellie would step in to resolve his disputes with Burbank because she was “an intimate friend of both.” As Binner’s letters  defensively trumpet his opinions of Burbank’s greatness, it’s safe to assume Nellie stood with skeptics who didn’t think Burbank’s work had any scientific merit. Thus the “strictly private” details were probably nothing personal, but rather her views that Burbank didn’t deserve to be held in such high esteem. (More on Binner’s wrestling with Burbank: “SELLING LUTHER BURBANK.”)

The Burbank nod in her Press Democrat obituary was also misleading, claiming she moved her family here because of a “letter from Burbank, a warm personal friend of Mrs. Comstock’s inducing her to come to Santa Rosa was received while the family was visiting in California.” As debunked here previously, her oldest son, John, an authority on butterflies (his 1927 survey, “Butterflies of California,” remains the definitive reference) spent over a week comparing notes with Burbank in 1907. The following year Nellie bought a ten-acre ranch on the edge of town and moved here with five of her children, three of them still in their teens. John was married and had his own house on the corner of Sonoma and Brookwood avenues, the current location of the Santa Rosa police HQ.

Besides being a leading lepidopterist, John and two of his sisters were early members of the American Arts & Crafts movement, having trained at Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Colony in New York state. The Comstock’s particular artisan skill was leatherworking, and at the time leather-making was the predominant industry in Santa Rosa. Moving here in 1908 brought them to the source of their raw materials but also made them pioneers in the West Coast version of the movement which was just taking off. From 1910-1912 they also had an art store on Fourth street selling fine objects produced by themselves and other award-winning artisans, along with items created by the women-only “Arts and Crafts Guild” they founded in Santa Rosa. So while Burbank may or may not have sent Nellie one of his “chosen spot of all this earth” PR notes, it was incidental to the family choosing to settle here.

Nellie’s 1910 letter to her friend was written about eighteen months after they moved to Santa Rosa. (Hilliard and others would later say it was on Hoen avenue, but at the time it was simply Rural Route 5 and adjacent to Matanzas Creek, somewhere around the modern Farmer’s Lane intersection.) We don’t know who the recipient was, although it was a woman in the Midwest she had met at a “sanitarium” – what we’d call a spa resort today.

“The satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children,” she wrote. “Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself.”

She admitted being sometimes homesick for Evanston and her late father’s mansion where she raised and educated her family, but the children would have none of it: They were already born-again Californians. “If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them.”

One of the things that bothered her about this area was seeing so many families trapped in a modern-day kind of serfdom, operating small chicken farms and unable to escape a hard-scrabble life. “I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on…[L]iving in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living…”

Nor did she care much about the way our ancestors were being raised:

Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare.

Amazingly, she even complained about Santa Rosa’s temperate weather: “The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity.”

If all this makes Nellie sound snippy, peevish or downright ugly, join the club. “My mother-in-law was a brilliant woman, but she was tyrannical – in a very sweet way,” Helen Comstock said in her oral history. Little that Helen did while she and Hilliard lived with Nellie was to her satisfaction; she was told that she picked the wrong flowers, didn’t sweep the floor correctly, and even stirred the gravy the wrong way.

“I do not attempt any social life here,” Nellie also wrote in the 1910 letter. “What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness.” So if she disliked the situation in Santa Rosa so much, why the hell did she stay the thirty years until her death? Four of the children came to live in Carmel and she spent summers there; in Carmel she did have friends and a social life. Then why keep coming back to oh-so sucky Sonoma county?

One reason could be the house. When James Wyatt Oates died on December 9, 1915, his law partner Hilliard Comstock was staying with him. Less than a month later Nellie and some of the other children joined in occupying the home on Mendocino avenue. “In this way it will be given proper care and protection,” the Press Democrat said. Her winning bid of $10,000 later bought it from the Oates’ estate and established it as (what would become known as) Comstock House.

With her two daughters and eldest son immersed in the Arts & Crafts movement since at least 1903, surely she shared their appreciation for the unique home which Brainerd Jones had designed for Oates. Though she still hung on to the Victorian mansion in Evanston, she was now living in a bonafide work of art – and there she would stay.

Maybe she also found the early Carmel arts scene a bit too frenetic and exhausting to live there fulltime. Most of the later stories about Nellie mention her frailty, a tiny woman always dressed in white. As a 1934 Christmas gift to Hilliard, his sister-in-law – Hurd’s wife Dora Hagemeyer, who wrote several books of hackneyed poetry before WWII – sent a prose-poem (transcribed in full below) describing the pacific life Nellie led in Santa Rosa. One stanza:

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

“Nellie” Cornelia Hurd Comstock died quietly at her home May 31, 1940. She lived through the entire American version of the Victorian era, being four years old when the Civil War began – but was never one to look nostalgically back; she peered forward always. Like Teddy Roosevelt, she believed in an “American race” not defined by ethnicity or color but by a common willingness to work hard, fight for principles and for parents to instill those values in their children. ” Am I turning sour?” She asked her correspondent, after complaining about how “scuff” she found Santa Rosa youth. “Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.” [emphasis hers]

“…The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased,” she wrote. “Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity…the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.”

For 1910 those were pretty radical views – and still are today, I’ll wager.

As dedicated as she was to her children so they remained to her, with all returning for her 80th birthday on March 8, 1937, when they were captured in the famous family photo.

 

1) Cornelia Matthew   2) Hurd Comstock   3) Catherine Seidneck   4) Dr. John Comstock   5) Judge Hilliard Comstock   6) Nellie Comstock   7) George Franklin Comstock   8) Hugh Comstock

 

Cornelia Matthew and Nellie Comstock, probably photographed during the same 1937 visit shown above. Image courtesy Martha Comstock Keegan

 

 

 MRS. NELLIE COMSTOCK OCCUPIES OATES HOME

Mrs. Nellie H. Comstock and family are moving into the Oates home on Mendocino avenue. Under the terms of the will of the late James W. Oates. His law partner, Hilliard Comstock, son of Mrs. Comstock, was given the use of the house until it was disposed of by the executors.

The family will make their home in the handsome residence pending its disposal, which may be some time. In this way it will be given proper care and protection.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1916

Route 5.
Santa Rosa, Cal.
Jan 23 – 10

My little woman – way off in the cold city of the Middle West –

I employ part of this rainy rainy rain-y day writing to you trying to satisfy your curiosity and friendship. Sunday – all Sundays – remind me of Sanitariums. The advent of our acquaintance. We met in one. I hope we won’t again. I hope both you and I will be sensible enough never to come to that pass of meeting in such a place again.

Let us think that such places are for the people who have not reached a place in life which learning, experience, and something vastly above either, will forever work imminently from.

Now I will look over your list of questions – for it is one of my failings,

I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet and let it follow. No Earthquake shock yet to my knowledge. Have not even thought of Earthquakes.

Now I believe this answers all your questions except the two-two’s.

Maybe you don’t think I get homesick once in a while – and wish I could still [be] in my family house. But I can never think of such a step as going back until the thing I came for is fully accomplished. Then I may be prepared to go back and remain to the end of my days. Coming here was an act inspired. I could never have done what is being done in any other place in time or manner what I have done by just this move I made and just how I made it. Surely such wisdom was not thought out – by my little brain alone. Something greater was back of it, something far seeing.

Now I am not going into all sorts of particulars at the present. I may say that if I sought out my own comfort alone I would not be doing just as I am, but the satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children. Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself. Already I can see why it must inevitably have been like destiny. That is a great thing to be certain of. If I were not certain of it I would be plunged into grief and remorse over my act and would set about it to return and nurture myself and belongings to their former place. There stands the old house ready at my beck and call. It is now mine by the act of division of property, and there stands my ???? at home – that too at my will. I am getting $100.00 per anno, not from that. My place here is paid for (10 acres and nice little cottage all put in the best of order since we came.) My mortgage on Wesley av house [in Evanston] is part paid – I have $2000.00 in pure cash and up in the bank – and am not living up more than 2/3 my income. I have $2000.00 in the business here. So you see I am able to say things have progressed with me, ???? I was deeply in debt about two years ago. That place I have bought here will increase in value from now on. It has already done so. What I paid $150 per acre is now on the market at $400.00 per acre – and the house has nearly doubled in value. My Wesley av property has doubled in value since I took it up – and the entire locality is now under a change for improvement still further. Thus you can see I am getting my worldly affairs in good order – and now at a time when I am desiring to extend opportunity to all my children at an age when they see values, my means are sufficient to that end.

This is my condition from a financial standpoint.

No child will ever be able to see how life looks from the standpoint of the parent. If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them. The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity. It takes a long time to train a country. Its very climate needs modifying, and what cannot be definitively changed must be offset by conditions – artificially constructed. I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on in some foreign properties. I should never have dared do it. I can see things opening up in localities for the future – especially for the energetic youths.

I do not attempt any social life here. What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness. They get study and work and play into their daily living in very good proportions. Mainly I keep the house. I do almost all the work – cooking, scrubbing, sweeping, sewing – sometimes washing – and general ???? . I stay right at the helm. I read some and follow Hugh in his studies. We find such pleasure in the surrounding scenery and in the out-of-doors life during the pleasant weather. The fruits and flowers help to make life more attractive. But living in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living and even those are run at less risk having become largely speculation. This locality is full of chicken farms – small ones. That too is a struggle and tis nasty work. Many women work among the chickens. Husband and wife must both work, the children should work, but do not. The schools do not induce work in the mind and heart of the child. Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare. I do not see men nowadays I can call men. Am I turning sour? Or what is the matter and how is it from your standpoint? Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.

I would like to talk with you – yes – a lot of things. Am glad to learn about your sister’s family. She has had many burdens. How some of those are lifted and she can begin to enjoy her growing family and their families. Marriage is such a critical act in our present age with conditions as they exist. The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased and brought its trials of manly struggle. As a man acquires liberty how is he to use it? That is the question. Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity. Do I maintain that Christianity is a failure? I maintain that in this age we have not enough of it to save us. After all these centuries and all these churches and all these testimonies – the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.

I am glad you tell me of Dr. C. and how noble his constancy in friendship. But I tell you he is sure to appreciate the sterling quality which abides in your soul – for he is one to know Woman and be a judge. I wish I could see him, really. He is quite an unusual man – taking him all in all – worldly enough, tis true, but very human and often tender as a woman. Skillful too in his profession. Nay – he is good enough to be remembered always by one who knew him.

As I say I will tell you more of us before long – and believe me I wrote you more than you say. I have not been so delinquent.

Do not allow yourself to get old and crabbed. Keep your nerves ??? together with a calm mind. Nerves are closely allied to character and what we term the heart.

As ever – your friend – N. Comstock

 

Portrait of your Mother

She is a little lady, frail and with the exquisite delicacy of a flower. She is always dressed in white; clean, cool, fragrant. Her hair is like snow found lying lightly where the fingers of the wind do not disturb it.

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

When you are ill or troubled, her fingers touch your brow…with a feather-weight like a bird’s wing; but through that light caress there comes a power from the spirit of her. For with all her fairy-frailty she has a source of strength that never fails. There is no one who does not feel this; even the news-boy, the gardener, the tramp who comes to her door.

What is her secret? How has she kept so close to the eternal fountain of life, and at the same time clothed herself in the lightest of earthly garments? How can she be so delicate and at the same time so strong? Her tall son and daughters stand around her. They protect her tenderly…yet they must turn to her for strength and counsel.

What is her magic? Is it the quiet poise of a flower, that gives without conscious effort to all who come within its radius of peace and beauty? Or is it the full-fathomed depth of the sea?…the salty humour of the light spray?…the power of the wind?…the healing of the sun?

Dora.
Christmas 1934.

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