He was Santa Rosa’s top lawman by day, top scallywag by night: Around the turn of the last century, Charlie Holmes was both Town Marshal and leader of the Squeedunks. It’s as if Bruce Wayne split his time between Batman and performing Monty Python skits.

This is the fourth and final chapter in the story of Charles H. Holmes Jr., who was surely among the most…colorful people to come from Santa Rosa. While this article is centered on his Squeedunkery, here we also find how all those loose threads introduced earlier were resolved during the 1910s, when Charlie was in his fifties.

Charlie always craved attention and as a kid he saw the Squeedunk’s Fourth of July antics were the biggest hit at the town’s celebrations. Having an audience with everyone you ever knew laughing and cheering because of a silly speech seemed an easy route to popularity, and for him it was. The first newspaper item about him appeared in 1894, when the 30 year-old Charlie stood on the corner Fifth and Mendocino streets and yapped about politics and bugs. In keeping with the spirit of nonsense, the editor commented “thunderous applause greeted his apostrophes” and joked he didn’t shut up until someone “brought the muzzle of a six-shooter on a level with his open mouth.”


Charles H. Holmes Jr. was surely the most talked about person in Santa Rosa 120 years ago, and that wasn’t always a good thing.


Now flash forward six years to 1900. Charles Holmes is a Spanish-American War vet (although his National Guard company never left the Bay Area), elected and then reelected as marshal, a popular afterdinner speaker and comic entertainer, and not the least of it, chairman of the “Ancient Order of Squeeduncks.”

The Press Democrat – which adored the Squeedunks and Charlie in equal measure – devoted much coverage to their planning sessions for the upcoming Fourth of July. The meetings were held at City Hall (probably in his marshal’s office) and mainly concerned which of the guys would be elected Squeedunk Queen. Dressing in women’s clothing was always a major part of the Squeedunk shtick, and that’s enough said about that. The most interesting element in those articles is that about two dozen members were named, revealing both how large the group was and how it cut across divisions by age and social status.

That version of the Squeedunks was entirely dependent upon Charlie, as witnessed by the group going dormant when he wasn’t around or wrapped up in his own troubles. From 1901 to 1908 they weren’t mentioned in the papers at all.

(Quick recap of those years as detailed in chapters two and three: 1901, office robbed of tax money, wife almost burned to death; 1902, not reelected, began working as plasterer in San Francisco; 1903, family house burned down; 1904, charged with rape for living with 14 year-old girlfriend; 1905, defends family against neighbor’s accusations of wife being abused; 1907, wife committed to asylum.)

Charlie kept a low profile in Santa Rosa between the time of his arrest for statutory rape and when his wife was locked away. Once Margaret went to the asylum for the rest of her life he began being mentioned in the local news again as active in his trade union and forming a company here to do plaster work. Notably, he and his crew would do all of the plastering in the post-earthquake courthouse. (It’s possible they were also responsible for the shoddy work on the exterior which would become a major excuse for tearing the building down.)

Come 1908, however, Charlie Holmes was here for good, and it was time to get the gang back together. That Fourth of July celebration in Santa Rosa was going to be peak Squeedunk.

“Holmes is a ‘cracker jack’ when it comes to being a funmaker on Squeedunk Day,” gushed the Press Democrat, resetting the clock to eight years earlier, before the scandals of his sordid relationship with a child, institutionalizing his wife and the suspicious robbery of his own office.

Indeed, Charlie and his pals put on the most spectacular Squeedunk show the town had ever seen, as detailed here earlier. They organized a separate parade, complete with elaborate floats managed by the “Committee on Freaks and Skates.” One wagon had a bush sprouting eggs and umbrellas as a poke at Luther Burbank; another made fun of the suffrage movement by portraying a woman enjoying a bicycle ride while men toiled at housework. There was a sea serpent (likely a Chinese parade dragon) labeled “What They Found in the City Water.” They produced and sold their own broadside, “The Truthful Lyre.” And keeping with tradition there were plenty of men in dresses and a float bearing their all-drag royal court.

The 1908 Squeedunks, Charles H. Holmes presumably wearing the circus ringmaster jacket. Photo courtesy the Sonoma County Library, title colorized using palette.fm
The 1908 Squeedunks, Charles H. Holmes presumably wearing the circus ringmaster jacket. Photo courtesy the Sonoma County Library, title colorized using palette.fm

That was the last hurrah of the Santa Rosa Squeedunks. The following year there was only a scaled-down Squeedunk parade in Sebastopol which was directed by Charlie, credited as “the grand keeper of the bale rope and oyster cans of the Squeedunks.”

Not that the boys completely retired to rest on their drunk and disorderly laurels. Later in 1909 Charlie and a bunch of them initiated a new member with a snipe hunt near the Rural Cemetery, newsworthy only because their sentry ran away after getting spooked someone was shooting at them.

Charlie lost interest in the Squeedunks after that and nothing more was said about a Santa Rosa chapter for years. The baton passed to Healdsburg and mainly Petaluma, where the “Growlers” came out for the July Fourth there. (I can find nothing on the meaning of the name, but it was originally formed by vets from their National Guard Company C.) The 1910 Growler parade was a complete Squeedunk clone: “The floats were ridiculous and amusing; the costumes – well some fit too soon, and others didn’t fit at all…The City Fathers were not forgotten by the Growlers and floats with banners telling their misdeeds were much in evidence.” (Petaluma Daily Morning Courier)

Perhaps he grew up (well, a little) in 1910 after he had married Nellie, his formerly teenage girlfriend who was 20 years old now. They kept house in a little place on Hendley Street for the rest of his life.

Squeedunk or no, Charlie still had to be the big cheese. His focus shifted to taking more respectable roles. Between 1911 and 1922, he served as Grand Marshal of either the Labor Day or Memorial Day parades at least seven times and when he wasn’t doing that he was marching as the Commander of the Spanish-American War vets. But the most significant change in his later years was becoming a leading figure – and perhaps the top leader – in the North Bay labor movement.

He was mentioned often in connection with union doings, starting with being here at a 1907 dinner for the Bricklayers and Plasterers’ Union soon after his wife went to the asylum. For much of the 1910s and 1920s he was president of the Sonoma County Building Trades Council and represented the area at meetings all over the state. This was a very important chapter in both his personal story and local history – but to be honest, I only have a general knowledge about the labor movement and am not qualified to opine about his role in it.

But his identity as a prominent labor activist came into play in 1920 when he ran for mayor of Santa Rosa. It was a curious bid, as Holmes had not held a public office since his term as City Marshal ended 18 years before, nor did he seem to be interested in party politics. Perhaps he would have reconsidered had he known it would lead the Press Democrat to hold him up to ridicule and shame.

The paper wasn’t openly anti-labor but it was always the voice of the Chamber of Commerce, so news about major strikes, picket line violence and Socialistic goals were reported in the scariest ways possible, often using screamer headlines. Even though the PD had been Charlie’s most enthusiastic cheerleader going back to the 1880s when he first began entertaining in minstrel shows and telling afterdinner jokes, the notion that an organized labor leader might be elected to run the city clearly gave business poobahs the nervous jibbers. So – friendships be damned.

The attack on Charlie was a scorching op-ed unlike anything I’ve read in the PD, before that time or after. It was shockingly personal and reached back to 1901, when the tax payments were stolen from his office (see chapter two). Editor Finley didn’t merely criticize Holmes for poor record keeping – which was a valid point – but went farther to call him dishonest, implying he had gotten away with stealing the money himself: “[T]here are some things which no self-respecting community can be expected to stand and one of them is to have a man who has already been tried in public office and has failed of his trust.”

Holmes’ response was also unique, writing a lengthy, rambling statement published in both the Press Democrat and Republican. The letter breaks down into three general themes:

I’M A GOOD CITIZEN   “I have strived to impress every man I met with my honesty of purpose; I have always been public spirited, and very favorable mention has your paper given me, as your records will show…Before I was a candidate, my influence was sought, my hands were clean enough.”
GIVE ME A SECOND CHANCE   “I have been told that the crowning glory of man does not consist that he never has fallen, but for every time he has fallen he has the manhood to rise again. If I had been the greatest of criminals I would have been entitled to the support and respect of right-thinking men. Societies are formed now to take the discharged convict and help him to become once more an honorable member of society. Why am I without the pale except when my services can be used gratis?”
I DESERVE PITY   “At that time I was just recovering from an operation. My father, whom I was supporting, was in the same condition. My mother had broken her shoulder. I had a wife partially insane, a crippled sister to support…God only knows how I struggled for years. Finally I lost father, mother, sister and wife in 38 months; alone I faced the world.”

The whole thing is so odd I encourage Gentle Reader to take a look at the transcript below. Other than seemingly confessing to the theft, his pity-me lament was shameless. His “crippled sister” Minnie was married to an Oakland police officer so while Charlie possibly helped with bills when she was dying of TB, it’s doubtful he was her sole support. As for his partially (!) insane wife, let’s not forget he dumped her in a state-run asylum. And as tears welled up in his eyes while writing about facing the world alone, I guess his teenage girlfriend somehow slipped his mind.

In the race for Santa Rosa mayor, Charles H. Holmes Jr. came in last among four candidates. As the job only paid about $17/wk ($266 in today’s equivalent) with no expense account, being mayor wasn’t about money or launching a political career – it was more like winning a popularity contest. It must have come as quite a shock for Charlie to discover the hometown crowd was cheering no longer.

After losing his bid to be mayor, Charlie continued parading but not as often. When he did appear in the papers it was nearly always a labor issue. His young wife Nellie was mentioned more frequently for involvement with charity work where she rubbed shoulders with Santa Rosa’s society women.

Nellie worked as a practical nurse (the portrait in the previous chapter shows her wearing a nurse fob watch) although it was never clear how much education she had – we don’t know if she attended Santa Rosa High, but if so, she did not graduate from it. She had her own car in the 1920s.

But all was not peaceful at the little house on Hendley Street. In 1924 they seemed headed for divorce and Nellie waived her rights to all property. The couple reconciled, but did not rescind the agreement.

Charlie died in 1926 after falling down stairs at the Elks Building where he was plastering. He was 62. The body was barely cold when a legal fight began over those papers Nellie signed a couple of years before.

Both Nellie and his sister Clara sought to be administratrix of the estate which included the house and three other lots in town, everything worth about $1,800 – less than a year’s average income. Nellie’s lawyer argued the property waiver was void because “she and her husband settled their differences and resumed marital relations which continued until his death,” as the PD put it. The court thought otherwise and Clara won.

Nellie moved to San Francisco where she continued to work as a nurse, eventually moving back to Sonoma County before WWII and remarried. She died in Santa Rosa in 1959 and is buried in Memorial Park as Nellie Holmes Fessler. Her death records again confirmed her age was 14 (at least) when she began living with Charlie.

Charlie was 30 years past his heyday by the time he died, and few likely worried over whether or not he would have a tombstone at the Rural Cemetery. As a benefit to veterans the federal government will carve and ship a standard headstone free of charge as long as the proper paperwork is submitted, including proof of military service. Clara filled out the application and the marker arrived here in 1928.

All well and good, tho it’s curious the Press Democrat printed a story about the marker arriving – an unusual topic for an article, to be sure. The item continues by noting “Captain Holmes served for many years with Company E, and also saw service in the Philippine Islands during the Spanish-American war and Filipino insurrection.” Yes, Charlie was a lieutenant (the gravestone properly states “Lt.” as he wasn’t boosted to captain until later) in National Guard Company E when it was mustered for the Spanish-American war. So he was indeed entitled to a government tombstone.

But Company E never left the Bay Area during their six months in the Army, so everything about them going to the Philippines wasn’t true. Who made up that part of the story? A PD cub reporter not bothering to check facts about something that happened so long before? Or was Clara spinning tales to “punch up” his service record?

It’s really not all that important to finger who got the facts wrong, although this serves as a good example of how easily the historical record can be corrupted. Still, we should be grateful his sister went to the trouble to get him a gravestone at all, given he likely wouldn’t have one otherwise. (Her own grave is next to Charlie and has a simple wooden marker.)

But the real problem is that the military epitaph, “Lt. Co. E. 8th CA Inf. Span-Am War”, says the very least about him. In a better world perhaps Clara could have twisted arms of his old pals and admirers to chip in for something more appropriate. Imagine taking a stroll through the old Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery and coming across a tombstone that read,


You’d say to yourself: By golly, that’s something you don’t see every day.




…The greatest feature of the celebration was the Squeedunks’ parade. The grand marshal of the day was W. F. Wines, who has the faculty of always doing things satisfactorily…The exercises after the parade consisted of an oration at corner Fifth and Mendocino streets by the orator of the day, Charles Cicero Holmes. It was an effort worthy of the occasion. He turned the calcium light of the oratory upon every conceivable subject. He got up and roared about Russian liberty and American tyranny. He talked with great tautology and with a phraseology that made every head swim. He talked of opolypods and thunderous applause greeted his apostrophes. The speaker evidently knew all about the protozoa and things men never knew before were luminous to him. He worked his long ears and talked like a “boss” at a Republican convention. He would have been talking yet had not some one in the crowd called him a sterilized liar and brought the muzzle of a six-shooter on a level with his open mouth.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 7 1894


…The Squeeduncks held high carnival in the afternoon. Some of the get-ups were very funny and some were rather vulgar. The best feature was the delivering of the orations and poem by Messrs. Holmes, Bradley and Orr, which contained many good local hits. Charley Orr as Susan B, and John McMinn, Jr., as the be-queen, were killing…

– Sonoma Democrat, July 11 1896



The Ancient Order of Squeeduncks met in adjourned session at the city hall Thursday evening with Chairman Holmes presiding.

The chairman announced that he had with the authority vested in him appointed the grand marshal of the parade on the Fourth, and that he being unable to attend the meeting, had requested him to announce the following named as his aides: Herman Bayer, Bill Swank, Jim Johnston, Jake Joost, Ed Kaelin, Henry Grama, L. Blum, Frank Brown, T. J. Dunn, A. O. Prentiss, Walt Middleton, J. J. Krawetzki, W. Schmid, Bill Beckner, Lon Roberts, M. McNamara, J. W. Seegelken, John Scoggans, “Dutch Ed,” Jake Lowrey, Hugo Hadrich, Billy Orr, John Stump, J. J. Giloolly, J. H. Lawrence, Charles Krause and J. H. Fowler.

On motion it was unanimously agreed that the Squeedunck queen be balloted for and that ballot boxes be placed at the “Bon Marche,” “The Elite” and “The La Grande,” and that the cost of the votes be one cent apiece, or five for a nickel, the proceeds to be applied to the expenses of providing the queen with a wardrobe.
It was agreed that $10 be appropriated for prizes for features in the parade, $5 to the best local hit and $5 to the best special feature, the judges to be announced later. The chairman announced that, owing to the late plague that had struck the town he would appoint the following committee on quarantine: Charles Lomont, Frank Powers, Robert Banbury O’Connor and Major Pye.

Mr. Holmes also announced that owing to the lack of proper restraining methods to keep his brother Squeeduncks in the path of rectitude pending the celebration, he would appoint the following committee on morals: William Healey, Gallant Rains, W. B. Griggs and Major Barnes.

The proposition as to whether the usual literary exercises or a meet of the A. B. H. T. C. P. should be held, provoked much discussion, but the matter was disposed of for future settlement.

A resolution was passed that the “dig-up” committee assume their duties as soon as possible, after which the meeting adjourned to meet in the city hall next Tuesday at 8 o’clock.

– Press Democrat June 16 1900


Will Downton Chosen Queen

The advent of several ladies into the meeting of the Squeeduncks at the city hall Thursday evening caused some consternation until it was discovered that they were desirous of joining the order.

Chairman Holmes quickly recovered his composure and in the name of the order gave them a hearty welcome.

The following were elected honorary members, each to contribute $2O to the fund: Joseph Ridgway, John Cooper, Thos. Hopper and Robert Forsyth. It was decided to have the singing of the Pedigo-Brown-Woodward-Keenan quartet the concluding number of the literary program, thus enabling those who wish to avoid that part of the program to do so.

E. C. Parker was appointed drum major of the Squeedunck band.

The ballots for queen were opened and it was discovered that the coveted position had been won by Will Downton, he leading by great odds.

At the last moment an attempt was made to stuff the ballot box by Wm. Rohrer in favor of John Berrano. The illegal ballots were identified and thrown out. Similar treatment was meted out to the voter.

The following will be maids of honor to the queen: Charles Kirsch, Ray Poat, George Riddle and William Plover.

It being observed that the street cars run nearly as well off the tracks as on and at any old time, it was decided to have them in the parade. Meeting then adjourned to meet Saturday evening at the city hall.

– Press Democrat June 30 1900


The Squeedunck’s Committee Granted More Funds

Major Juilliard presided at the meeting of the Fourth of July committee held Monday night. Some very satisfactory reports were made which tended to show that the visitors here will be well entertained. Chairman C. H. Holmes of the Squeedunck committee was present and spoke relative to the part the Ancient Order of Squeeduncks will play. Another appropriation was given the committee and all that is now wanted to make this entertaining feature a success is the co-operation of the young men of the town whose help is needed.

– Press Democrat, June 27 1900


Chas. H. Holmes Has Declined Appointment

Charles H. Holmes of this city, who headed the list of civil service eligibles, was recently offered the appointment of instructor in plastering and military drills at the Preston School of Industry at Ione, but was compelled to refuse it, owing to being under obligations to a number of contractors for work they had figured upon based upon his estimates for plastering.

Mr. Holmes is now working with a force of men at Middletown, where he is doing the plastering on the Odd Fellows’ building. The large Herrich merchandise store and the Herrich hotel being erected by George Norris. He also has other work pending.

– Press Democrat, June 30 1918



Charles H. Holmes, whose candidacy for the office of Mayor was recently announced, owes it to the fair name of Santa Rosa as well as to the cause he is supposed to represent, to retire from the race as gracefully as possible and allow the incident to be forgotten while it may. There is no disposition here to rake up old scores or revive unpleasant memories. Let sleeping dogs lie. But there are some things which no self-respecting community can be expected to stand and one of them is to have a man who has already been tried in public office and has failed of his trust.

Mr. Holmes is announced as the candidate of organized labor. He is not representative of organized labor as we have known it. While there may be some differences of opinion regarding its wisdom, the question even now being one that is under active discussion in the labor world, there can be no real argument as to the right of organized labor to enter politics if it so desires. Labor has that right, and no one will deny it. But it must come with clean hands, and present as its candidates men who are capable and worthy of public confidence. Mr. Holmes should be withdrawn, and some man of different repute sustituted [sic] in his stead.

– Press Democrat, March 13 1920




Charles H. Holmes, candidate for Mayor, has sent The Press Democrat the following reply to its recent editorial suggestion that he retire from the race:

Santa Rosa, Cal,. March 15, 1920.

Mr. Monitor of The Press Democrat;
Dear Sir — You did not finish about “Sleeping Dogs,” although you gave a very broad hint.

About eighteen years ago I was City Marshal and Tax Collector. At that time the City Tax Collector’s office was robbed twice, once when I was in Vallejo, placing a boy in the navy for his parents, and once while I was in town. As soon as I could pull myself together I assured the city that no one should lose one cent through me. I raked, begged and borrowed $559; I asked my bondsmen to put up $750.00, which I would return to them. At that time I was just recovering from an operation. My father, whom I was supporting, was in the same condition. My mother had broken her shoulder. I had a wife partially insane, a crippled sister to support. I sold my home for enough to pay the city and bond company, put my helpless family in the street without a roof, pawned my watches for enough money to place my old father in San Francisco, where I worked, and starved and my family lived in privation and want until my father died, blessing me. Both he and my mother insisted on the money being paid that their son. as they thought, could look every man in the face; God only knows how I struggled for years. Finally I lost father, mother, sister and wife in 38 months; alone I faced the world. I have strived to impress every man I met with my honesty of purpose; I have always been public spirited, and very favorable mention has your paper given me, as your records will show. I offered my life to my country three times, commissioned in 1898 and ordered to the last training camp, notwithstanding my age, offered a first-class sergeantship with foreign service, which I refused because I expected my commission. One year ago took the civil service examination for teacher of masonry and drill master in the state schools, passing first in the State of California, refusing a position repeatedly on account of the salary and H. C. L. [“High Cost of Living” – ed.]

After the robbery I let my name go before the Democratic convention the third time and came within five votes of being nominated on the first ballot. Your paper did not then refer to “Sleeping Dogs,” as I had not committed the crime then of being a laboring man’s candidate.

I have been told that the crowning glory of man does not consist that he never has fallen, but for every time he has fallen he has the manhood to rise again. If I had been the greatest of criminals I would have been entitled to the support and respect of right-thinking men. Societies are formed now to take the discharged convict and help him to become once more an honorable member of society. Why am I without the pale except when my services can be used gratis? In forming the new ordinance for prevention of cruelty to animals, could you not include men? If it is any satisfaction to send a man who was always your friend home in agony and shame to find his wife – in tears, you have it, and the fact that you have said that which you did, proves that I am a law-abiding citizen. As to the right of the laboring man to enter politics. I failed to find where the laboring man loses any of his rights to citizenship by becoming a laboring man. Your efforts to capture the labor vote reminds me of a man catching a horse, a pan of corn in one hand (fair promise), a halter in the other for his neck. Before I was a candidate, my influence was sought, my hands were clean enough. I even signed one candidate’s petition, which I do not regret as he impressed me as a man of honor. Organized Labor invited the candidate to come before them because they thought some of them might be elected, and they wanted to know what manner of men they might be. As to me, not representing labor, let me say, in a mass meeting of delegates, representing every union man in town, after I had repeatedly refused, even stating that I had signed a candidate’s petition, I was unanimously nominated; they would not I take “No” for an answer. I was as much surprised as the other candidate.

I have lived in Santa Rosa forty-eight years. The people are intelligent enough to decide for themselves without any mud-slinging. I will leave the case in their hands. I feel, Mr. Monitor, that my heart is as pure as my hands, except from honest toil, as clean as yours. As to “Sleeping Dogs,” let the man without sin cast the first stone. I am not unmindful of the fact that there are sleeping dogs in every man’s life. Let both confess and cancel. I stand for anything that a patriotic American stands for: an economic administration, building for time, buying not the cheapest but the best, good schools and all that go with them, including salaries that will enable the teachers to live under American conditions, the encouragement of everything that will make a payroll in Santa Rosa, good streets and every form of modern improvements, consistent with our circumstances, the retaining in office of any public servant faithful to his trust; that all men, organized or unorganized, to be paid a wage that will enable them to live decently. Finally that all the taxpayers’ money shall be spent that every part of the city will get its pro rata.


– Press Democrat, March 16 1920


Charles H. Holmes, former City Marshall of Santa Rosa, Spanish-American war veteran and captain of Company E. N. G. C. of this city in the days of the old “Dandy Fifth” as the Regiment was then known, died early yesterday in the General Hospital as the result of injuries received last Saturday in a fall down the steps of the new Elks Building.

Holmes death came as a shock to many old time friends in Santa Rosa. He was about sixty-two years of age and was born in Nevada county of pioneer parentage. He was one of the oldest Native Sons in Santa Rosa and a member of Santa Rosa Parlor. He belonged to other organizations. By trade he was a plasterer.

Many of the old-timers will remember that Holmes took an active part in the Fourth of July celebration of the years ago. He also took a prominent part in Union Labor movement here and elsewhere.

The deceased is survived by a wife Mrs. Nellie Holmes and a sister, Miss Clara Lee Holmes. The body is at the parlors of Lafferty and Smith pending funeral arrangements.

– Press Democrat, March 9 1926


Two Seek Property Left by Charles Holmes, Local Plasterer

The widow and sister of a Santa Rosa man, killed recently in an accident, appeared in the superior court yesterday to contest for control of his estate. Both are seeking letters of administration in the $2,000 estate of the late Charles Holmes, Santa Rosa plasterer. The sister, Clara Lee Holmes, contends that the widow, Nellie Holmes, surrendered her rights to the estate through a property settlement more than two years ago.

Mrs. Holmes admitted in court that she and her husband had, in February, 1924, entered into a written property settlement in anticipation of a separation. But, she contended, this agreement was set aside when later she and her husband settled their differences and resumed marital relations which continued until his death.

W. L. Ware and George W. Murphy appeared as counsel for Mrs. Holmes while the sister was represented by A. W. Hollingsworth. The case was submitted to Superior Judge R. L. Thompson on briefs.

– Press Democrat, May 19 1926


The estate of the late Charles H. Holmes, former Santa Rosa plasterer, in which his sister, Clara Lee Holmes, was recently successful over the widow, Nellie Holmes, in a contest for letters of administration. is valued at $1,797.63, according to an appraisal filed in the superior court yesterday. The property includes a house and three lots in this city, worth $1,650, and personal property aggregating $147.63. A. W. Hollingsworth is attorney for the administratrix. Donald Geary, state inheritance tax appraiser, made the inventory.

– Press Democrat, June 10 1926


A property settlement agreement entered into more than two years ago by the late Charles Holmes, Santa, Rosa plasters, and Nellie O. Holmes, his wife, was binding and final, according to an opinion filed yesterday by Superior Judge R. L. Thompson, denying the wife’s plea for letters of administration in the $2,300 estate and granting letters to a sister, Clara Lee Holmes. In the recent contest for control of the estate Miss Holmes contended that the settlement closed her sister-in-law’s interest in the estate, but Mrs. Holmes held that resumption of marital relations, after drafting of the, agreement in contemplation of separation, had annulled the agreement. A. W. Hollingsworth was attorney for the sister, who is put under $500 bond as administratrix.

– Press Democrat, May 27 1926


Tombstone Supplied by U. S. Government for Spanish War Veteran’s Grave

Recognition of the services he performed as captain of infantry during the Spanish-American war and as a militia captain in old Company E of this city has come in death to Captain Charles Holmes, Santa Rosa contractor, who died about three years ago. An impressive tombstone to be placed above his grave in a local cemetery was received yesterday by Clara Lee Holmes, his sister, from the surgeon general’s office of the United States army after a year of effort. Captain Holmes served for many years with Company E, and also saw service in the Philippine Islands during the Spanish-American war and Filipino insurrection. In Santa Rosa, he maintained an active interest in military, and patriotic affairs, and was instrumental in securing the cannon and shells that stand silent guard over the cemetery in which he sleeps.

Miss Holmes yesterday expressed her appreciation to the American Legion, United Spanish War Veterans, union labor organizations and others for their assistance in procuring the tombstone from the government.

– Press Democrat, September 7 1928

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Note to Santa Rosa: When things are so bad that you’re on the opposite side from the Women’s Auxiliary, you might want to rethink your position.

It was 1923 and the smell of tort was in the air – among other things. Pressure was coming from neighborhood groups, which were either threatening suits against the city or demanding Santa Rosa sue its worst polluter. The state Board of Health was sending threatening letters to city hall because nothing was being done to fix serious violations of public health laws. And then there was the lawsuit filed early that year by a man who charged the city was responsible for his young daughters being sickened with typhoid and diphtheria.

What all of these complaints had in common was that they involved Santa Rosa Creek in some way – either something bad was being intentionally dumped into it or the city’s inadequate sewer farm was overflowing and flooding the adjacent creek with raw waste.

None of these were new problems. Complaints to the City Council about the abuse of Santa Rosa Creek dated back over thirty years, to 1891. Ordinances against pollution were passed but not enforced and court orders were ignored – as for the sewer farm contaminating the creek, the city was violating a perpetual restraining order going back to 1896.

Last month (Feb. 2021) I was part of a Historical Society of Santa Rosa webinar about Santa Rosa Creek. My portion, “The Stink of Santa Rosa Creek,” which begins in the video at the 32:00 mark, covers much of the history of pollution in the decades around the turn of the century, but I did not have time to discuss the pivotal year of 1923, when prospects greatly improved. This article is a companion to that presentation and wraps up the story.

Before we wade into that muck, however, first the fun stuff: Lake Santa Rosa, take III.

In early 1923, the Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon for an expert in urban planning and development to tell them how to best turn its city-owned property north of town – now the Junior College campus – into what was intended to become the “Luther Burbank Creation Garden.”* Seemingly to their surprise, his focus was instead on beautifying Santa Rosa Creek.

Thus inspired, come that spring Ward W. Von Tillow, head of the Chamber’s “Clean Up committee,” announced plans to restore several miles of the creek to its natural state. But the committee wasn’t going to stop there; they would build dams to create “ole’ swimmin’ holes” for the town’s youth. They also wanted to ask property owners along the creek to give away their strips of land immediately adjacent to the creek so “walkways, tennis courts, bath and boat houses can be built.” In short, they wanted to turn the creek into a full-blown waterpark.

This proposal probably led many in town to wistfully recall that about a dozen years earlier there was a short-lived effort to dam the creek to create “Lake Santa Rosa.” That plan was sabotaged both by upstream pollution and an obstinate landowner who maintained his property line extended fully into the middle of the creek. (Legally true, but meaningless in practice.) And even before that there was a proposed 1906 waterpark that included a bandstand, but that design was quickly forgotten after the Great Earthquake struck.

The 1923 ambitions likewise went nowhere. The creek revitalization by the committee was not mentioned again, as they turned to their routine springtime duties in getting the town “dolled up” for the upcoming Rose Festival. Homeowners were asked to sign a pledge to make their house and yard as presentable as possible, while volunteer crews and Boy Scouts picked up trash in alleyways and vacant lots, painted old fences and such.

Perhaps the Clean Up committee was so distracted by its pre-festival chores that it plumb forgot about creating a waterpark with “ole’ swimmin’ holes,” but it’s more likely they were discouraged by the outcome of a meeting that happened on exactly the same day. City Manager Abner Hitchcock held a summit between city leaders, the Women’s Auxiliary and the Chamber of Commerce directors. The topic: What to do about the public nuisance caused by the Levin Tannery.

There were then three tanneries in Santa Rosa (see “TANNERY TOWN“) and the largest was the Levin Tannery, which was at the current location of 101 Brookwood Ave. extending all the way to the creek – larger than a typical square city block.

Pity anyone who lived downwind of that place; the stench was offal (sorry, old pun). The tannery also dumped the untreated refuse of its tanning vats into the creek and the concentrations of lime and other highly toxic agents, including cyanide, quickly killed what few fish still ventured into the waters. Complaints about these problems dated back many years and were ignored until the new threat of lawsuits against Santa Rosa itself brought City Manager Hitchcock to call the meeting. Still, he included the proposed waterpark as an agenda item: “Beautiful parks, roses, swimming pools, wistaria vines and tannery dumps do not mix,” he conceded.

Predictably, nothing came from the meeting except for an agreement to meet again at some point to discuss zoning. (Probably meaning they wanted to rezone that entire section of town as industrial, making it easier for the city to justify ignoring odor complaints from nearby residents.)

The Levin Tannery got away with being the town’s worst water and air polluter because it was also its largest employer. Yes, the tannery discharges into the creek were illegal and yes, the company was sued over that as well as the smells. Each time the tannery promised to be a better citizen but did nothing, and the city let them get by with it out of fear they would take their hefty payroll to Petaluma or somewhere else.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on Santa Rosa’s remarkable degree of cognitive dissonance in that era. On one hand the town and its Chamber heavily leaned into PR that this was Luther Burbank’s garden paradise and the lovely city of roses, hoping to attract visitors and new residents. But at the same time, they were aiding and abetting the tannery in its ongoing destruction of the creek and its blanketing the town’s air with stomach-turning smells.

The State Board of Health had no interest in coddling the tannery’s illegal dumping, however, and sent Santa Rosa a blistering letter charging that pollution of the creek was “beyond any that exists anywhere else in the state,” and if the city didn’t take immediate action the Board would file injunctions against the polluters itself.

(A little Believe-it-or-Not! sidenote: The waterpark plan announcement, the summit meeting over the tannery smell and the arrival of the letter all took place during a single week in early April.)

As the Press Democrat noted at the time, the town had to prevent at all costs the state from taking action against the polluting industries, as “it would mean the losing of these plants to Santa Rosa, since they could not dispose of their own sewage and compete with competing plants more favorably situated.”

Santa Rosa was now faced with promptly solving a crisis thirty years in the making. Naturally, the city did what it’s always done: It hired an out-of-town consultant – and then mostly ignored his advice.

Sewage disposal cartoon ("the blot on the fair city of Santa Rosa") by city engineers Frank Comstock and Paul Green. Press Democrat, February 9, 1924
Sewage disposal cartoon (“the blot on the fair city of Santa Rosa”) by city engineers Frank Comstock and Paul Green. Press Democrat, February 9, 1924

As I emphasized in my presentation, almost all of the creek’s problems were linked to the town not having an adequate sewer system until 1925.

Santa Rosa Creek was an open sewer until the first city sewer main was built in 1886, with “numerous” privately owned redwood sewers dumping raw sewage into the creek from downtown hotels and other large businesses. Some of those private lines were still in use until 1902, when they were banned by the city. (Aside from sources transcribed below or found in related articles on the creek, most of this older research comes from “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” by John Cummings.)

That first city sewer poured into the creek just west of Railroad Square (it’s always polite to welcome visitors with something fragrant) until 1890, when a sewer line was extended out to the newly constructed sewer farm, about where the Stony Circle business park is today. It was purposely built next to the creek so any overflow from the evaporation ponds or other parts of the system would spill into there along with the semi-filtered wastewater gushing from the outflow pipes.

The sewer mains were undersized from the start and upgrades always seemed to be about ten years behind current needs. Around the turn of the century, every winter Second and Fifth streets backed up with sewage seeping out of manholes during storms.

Being perpetually at full capacity (or beyond), for years Santa Rosa limited which businesses or industries could hook up to the sewer. The city allowed only one laundry to connect and even that sometimes overtaxed the sewer main on Second. The other laundries presumably just discharged their soapy alkaline water into the creek, although they were supposed to be using large cesspools.

The Levin Tannery never used the sewer system but the city’s other major creek polluter, the cannery, finally connected in 1925. Before then the sewer farm could not have possibly handled its waste, which was about 100,000 gallons per day during peak canning season. California Packing Company’s Plant No. 5 on West Third Street (survived by that big brick wall just past Railroad Square) also created a terrible stink in the west end of town due to its enormous garbage heaps of food waste allowed to rot along the banks of the creek.

C. G. Gillespie, director of the bureau of sanitary engineering of the State Board of Health wasn’t threatening action over Santa Rosa’s inadequate sewer lines in 1923, however. Besides the cannery and Levin dumping waste into the creek near downtown, the object of his fury was the sewer farm, where he wrote in his letter there were “utterly intolerable conditions.”

That was because in 1895 the sewer farm moved its wastewater outflow pipes farther west. As a result, several farms downstream were flooded that winter. The city paid damages but Mrs. M. A. Peterson took the city to court and won a perpetual restraining order, “prohibiting the city or its officers, agents and employees from polluting or poisoning the waters of Santa Rosa creek by discharging any sewage, garbage, filth or refuse matter in the creek from the sewer farm.”

Come 1923 and her son, Elmer, sued Santa Rosa for $12,000 damages (about $183k today) to cover medical expenses for his daughters allegedly having contracted typhoid and diphtheria because of the contaminated creek water. Another case at the same time which was apparently settled quietly had a Laguna farmer claiming creek water had killed thirteen of his cattle.

Unbelievably, it seems that the city actually stepped up the volume of discharges as the Peterson case awaited court hearings. The Petersons claimed that the sewer farm discharges were now continuous, and the judge ruled for the city to be held in contempt of court.

And despite further nastygrams from Director Gillespie (“conditions are getting more unbearable than ever before”) the city still did nothing about the dumping situation. Finally in November the state Board of Health dropped the hammer on Santa Rosa and declared the pollution of Santa Rosa Creek a “serious public nuisance and menace to health” and the city in violation of the Public Health Act.

The deadline for the city to fix everything was Jan. 1, 1925 – about thirteen months away.

"Before and After" cartoon by city engineers Frank Comstock and Paul Green. Press Democrat, February 8, 1924
“Before and After” cartoon by city engineers Frank Comstock and Paul Green. Press Democrat, February 8, 1924

The city moved quickly to schedule a special election for February 1924, asking voters to approve $165,000 in bonds to build a new sewer plant. It passed easily, with about 83% approval.

Director Gillespie followed that immediately with a letter to City Council. His message: The state doesn’t trust you to do the right thing.

“I am convinced that the seriousness of the sewer farm conditions is not generally realized in Santa Rosa,” he wrote. “…We must compel your attention to your own shortcomings in this particular, and look to you for an energetic and business-like solution of the utterly intolerable conditions which have been perpetrated too long.” He closed with another swipe that “the city pollutes Santa Rosa creek to an extent beyond any that exists anywhere in California.”

And surprise, surprise, surprise: Gillespie was right. We did screw it up.

Right after the sewage plant bonds were sold there was a big turnover in Santa Rosa’s government. Three new councilmen were elected (one of them also being named as the new mayor) and the city manager and city attorney resigned. Ideas which were considered and rejected a year earlier – such as “sewering to the sea” – were reconsidered. Doubts were raised over whether an entirely new plant was needed or the existing one just could be improved.

What the city then did could be considered underhanded: They sent the Board of Health plans for a modern sewage plant the city never intended to build. Instead they just added a couple of new wooden septic tanks and six more ponds to increase capacity.

Gillespie was spitting mad. He condemned “the inadequacy and futility of the makeshift efforts vou have been attempting at the sewer farm this past summer” and continued:

…Your accomplishments and prospects of abating this nuisance are wholly unsatisfactory to us and an imposition upon the right of others in that vicinity. We expect you to forthwith carry through the program for building a real sewage plant as proposed by those in authority in Santa Rosa last spring and for which bonds were duly voted.

Clearly the city was playing a game of chicken with the state, betting that Gillespie would back off as long as they showed progress was being made. The sewer farm began chlorinating wastewater before it was discharged. The Levin Tannery stopped dumping into the creek – it’s unknown what they began doing with their toxic waste, or why they couldn’t have started doing that decades earlier – and the cannery installed a grinder to chop up peelings enough to wash them down the drain.

The showdown came after the January 1925 deadline. The state sent a chemist to take a sample from the creek while two local chemists did the same. The state report found the water still highly dangerous; the Santa Rosa boys pronounced the samples free from contamination.

The Peterson family wrote to Gillespie asking if the water flowing through their property was now safe. He replied that “…Santa Rosa Creek is considerably polluted by this sewage. It is dangerous above the farm, fully 100 times more dangerous below and about 50 times more dangerous at your place, than above the farm.”

As for the Peterson lawsuit, it was decided in February 1924, about the same time that voters approved the sewer farm bond. He won the decision, but Judge Preston from Mendocino county dismissed damages related to the medical care for Elmer’s two daughters because the municipal corporation was not responsible since there was no “willful violation.” (I’ll pause here for Gentle Reader to scream in outrage.) But hey, the judge said Elmer could still sue city employees personally for negligence. He refiled his case to get a jury trial, but died of a heart attack before it came to court.

Santa Rosa’s wastewater finally met the state’s minimum standards, although it took until September 1926. But although the worst was over, the creek was still far from recovery. During the dry months Santa Rosa Creek near downtown was considered a fire hazard because of all the everyday rubbish still being dumped into the creek bed and upon its banks. (The fire dept. was called to put out such a fire in the summer of 1924.)

Also, the sheriff’s department apparently believed it was exempt from state pollution laws. That was the era of Prohibition and the cops were seizing enormous quantities of hootch, which they poured directly into the creek downstream from the sewer farm. In November 1926 alone, they dumped 1,730 gallons, mostly hard liquor including over a thousand gallons of jackass brandy. There were also 600 bottles of beer and the county detective and deputies  “practiced up on their shooting until broken glass, foam and odor was all that remained.”

*  Despite its name, the “Luther Burbank Creation Garden” had very little to do with Burbank, aside from a promise he would contribute some plants. It was really the latest installment in the perennial melodrama over Santa Rosa’s efforts to create its first public park, this time with the good juju of Burbank’s famous name and intentions that it would someday include a community auditorium, another benefit the town lacked. Nothing much came of it (although they passed the hat at events for years, seeking donations) and the property was sold in 1930 to become the basis of the new Junior College campus.




Luther Burbank, Santa Rosa’s plant wizard, and Dr. Carol Aronovici, city planning expert of Berkeley, and a member of the University of California extension bureau, will be guests of the Luther Burbank Park committee of the chamber of commerce at a dinner to be served this evening in Edward’s Restaurant…

…Dr. Aronovici is noted throughout the States and nation as a leading beautification consultant. He has published numerous books dealing with the question and is a most interesting talker. Maps showing how Santa Rosa can be cleaned up and beautified and how Santa Rosa creek may be made into one of the beauty spots of the city will be exhibited.

– Press Democrat, January 25, 1923



Santa Rosa Revives Interest in City Beautification; New Plans Are on Foot

IS “Santa Rosa guilty of indecent exposure of its civic mind?” Go down and look into Santa Rosa creek before you answer that question. Go over to the old College grounds for an expose.

The beautification committee of the auxiliary has answered that question. It has called in an expert for consultation over the ruins that litter our highways and fill our creek beds. Under the aggressive determination of Mrs. Gray that committee will eventually cause beauty to flourish where tin cans now hold sway. Through their splendid co-operation the creek will some day wind through verdant banks.

The conference with Dr. Aronovici is crystalizing the plans that have been formulating during the past year. Gathered about the luncheon table Thursday, the women of the beautification committee discussed their troubles, unfolded their hopes and plans and were inspired anew by this expert’s advice.

But does the community generally want its civic mind to improve? Will it see that its own dooryard reflects only the peace of order and beauty? Shall Santa Rosa’s arteries to the rural districts run clean and healthy. Do you think it pays to be beautiful?

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 27, 1923



$12,000 Claim Against City Alleges Breaking Of 27-Year Injunction

Alleging that the city has violated an injunction granted his mother twenty-seven years ago by permitting polluted water to flow from the sewer farm into Santa Rosa creek, Elmer Peterson, who lives near the sewer farm and through whose property the creek runs, has filed a $12,000 claim for damages against the municipality.

Peterson, acting through Attorneys W. F. Cowan and J. Rollo Leppo, contends that his two children have had typhoid fever and diphtheria because of the city’s alleged failure to obey the injunction.

It was also reported Thursday that people living along the Russian river, particularly at some of the resorts, plan to take action through the State board of health to enforce observance of the injunction.

Those who are protesting the present situation say that sewage has been diverted from the septic tanks at the sewer farm into the creek, whence it flows into the laguna and then into the Russian river near Mirabel park.


One farmer in the laguna district is said to have reported that thirteen of his cattle had died from disease contracted through drinking the creek water.


– Press Democrat, February 9 1923



City Manager Asks Discussion as Result of Complaints Reaching His Office; Matter to Come Up Monday.

City Manager Abner E. Hitchcock on Wednesday took official cognizance of complaints which have reached his office about alleged offensive odors from the local tanneries.

In a statement issued by the city manager the chamber of commerce and the woman’s auxiliary are incited tn discuss the problem in an effort to find a solution to the problem.

As result of this communication the directors of the chamber and the executive committee of the auxiliary will take up the matter at a joint supper meeting to be held Monday evening.

City Manager Hitchcock’s statement of the situation follows:

Complaints are coming to the office of the city manager accusing these industrial concerns of being the source of some very obnoxious conditions, which interfere with the comfort and health of the homes situated in the vicinity of the plants.

Upon Inquiry I learn that these plants have been the cause of much contention at different times during a long period of years.

The offensive conditions have been complained of on the one hand by those who suffer by being near-residents about the plants. And the plants have been permitted to remain on the other hand by the business enterprise of the city by reason of the large pay-roll maintained and the substantial output from the business. As the city represents all classes, this subject must be taken up from the various angles.

The city manager therefore submits the problem as a referendum to these two bodies, viz:

The Chamber of commerce, representing the business enterprises of the city.

The Women’s Auxiliary, representing the welfare of the homes.

In order to receive, if possible, suggestions as to what should be the wise attitude to assume.

– Press Democrat, March 29 1923



Committee Plans Natural Park in Santa Rosa Creek

A natural park, several miles long, running clear through Santa Rosa, is the dream for the future of the Clean Up committee of the chamber of commerce, headed by Ward W. Von Tillow, well known Santa Rosa booster.

Von Tillow states that the Clean Up committee, which was voted permanent at a recent meeting, will center all activity in the near future on cleaning up and beautifying Santa Rosa creek, which, with a very little expense and effort, can be made one of the most beautiful streams in the state, but which, at present, is said to be one of the most unsanitary carriers of disease in the state, thanks to the various factories that are said to be using the stream as a garbage dump.

“The Clean Up committee has taken hold,” said Von Tillow this morning, “and we’re like a flock of bull dogs, we won’t let go until our aim is accomplished.”

The committee has as its aim the cleaning up of the entire creek, the finding of new methods of disposing of the scrap leather and tannin from the tanneries here, the cleaning out of all underbrush that is at present growing in the course of the stream, and the building of a series of dams in the creek so that a series of “ole’ swimmin’ holes” can be had for the youth of the city.

It is planned to approach the property owners all along the creek and try to get them to either donate or sell their rights to the creek to the city, so that the dream of the committee can be accomplished.

Property owners all along the creek own to the creek center and this property is not used by one out of 40 of the land owners, since it cannot be turned to any use as the creek now stands. The committee members hope to prevail upon the land holders to give their right up to the stream, in some instances including strips of land running back from the banks where walkways, tennis courts, bath and boat houses can be built. In a great many instances the city may buy large lots on the creek banks for picnic grounds, etc.

“The full intent of this aim of the committee,” stated Chairman Von Tillow this morning, “will give to Santa Rosa what no other city has.” He went on to state how his natural park will be the means of holding hundreds of tourists here each season, who otherwise will go on north to the river resorts or to the springs. This will mean much in revenue to the merchants of the city, it was stated, “and besides,” continued Von Tillow, “the cleaning up of the creek will greatly improver property values of the city.”

A joint meeting of the chamber of commerce directors, women’s auxiliary, the mayor and city manager will be held in the chamber of commerce office this evening to discuss the co-ordination of the program of work of the chamber of commerce and to take some action on the tanneries, which are said to be polluting the waters of Santa Rosa creek.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 2 1923



Commerce Board Takes No Action On Tannery Dumps

The board of directors of the local chamber of commerce failed to take any action on the tannery matter after the subject had been given considerable discussion at the joint meeting of the board of directors, the woman’s auxiliary the mayor and city manager last night in Edward’s restaurant.

Manager Hitchcock told of a great many complaints he had received from residents in the vicinity of the tanneries and told how the water of Santa Rosa creek becomes discolored each season from the scraps of hide and seepage from the tanning tanks on the banks of the creek.

The matter was taken up before the chamber of commerce directors at the request of City Manager Hitchcock in the hope that that body could assist in getting the tanneries to find some other method of disposing of their waste.

It has been stated that unless the tanneries comply with the sanitary requirements the city will bring action against them. Several individuals residing near the tanneries have suggested suits against the tanneries to declare them public nuisances on account of the offensive odors and the unsanitary condition of the creeks.

The major part of the meeting last evening was taken up with a discussion of the aims of the clean-up committee in making a public park out of Santa Rosa creek. To do this the committee must first clean up the creek, it was pointed out and this to a great extent means cleaning up the tannery dumps.

“Beautiful parks, roses, swimming pools, wistaria vines and tannery dumps do not mix” stated Manager Hitchcock.

The necessity for immediate action for the protection of the city’s future as a residence center as well as preserving the permanent industrial locations. The only agreement reached at the meeting was when both boards favored city zoning. A conference will be held on this subject in the near future to take up the matter further. Those at the meeting were:


– Santa Rosa Republican, April 3 1923



Complete Remedying of Disposal Plant Foreseen Following Receipt of Hot Letter From State Board of Health.

As the result of a communication from the state board of health virtually delivering an ultimatum to the city over the condition of the sewage disposal system, the city council last night voted to bring Clyde Smith, of Berkeley, an expert, here to study the situation and make recommendations for a complete remedy.

The expert’s services will cost the city $25 a day and expenses.

The letter, signed by C. G. Gillespie, director of the bureau of sanitary engineering of the State Board of Health, declared that the “utterly intolerable conditions” at the local disposal plant have been “perpetuated too long,” and it accuses the city of never having done one thing in all its existence toward keeping pace in sewage disposal systems. There are no extenuating circumstances here as there are in some other cities, the letter adds.


The state board declares further that the Santa Rosa creek must be cleaned, and the sewage from tanneries and canneries taken care of and that should the city renounce this obligation these industries will also have to be enjoined, with the probability that it would mean the losing of these plants to Santa Rosa, since they could not dispose of their own sewage and compete with competing plants more favorably situated.

The city pollutes the creek “beyond any that exists anywhere else in the state,” the letter charges.

A suggestion for running a sewer line to the ocean is characterized as fanciful and impractical, while the suggestion to extend the disposal system to the laguna is described as having some advantages, but as not necessary. The plan for building a flume to the upper end of the sewer farm is approved only as a temporary measure.


The state board suggests that a bond issue for a new disposal system be submitted to the people and that if it fails to pass that the work be done by assessment under Improvement Act Proceedings.

After declaring that the seriousness of the situation evidently is not realized in Santa Rosa, the letter concludes with this:

“This communication puts on record the stand and opinions of this board. The problem is, so far as we are concerned, squarely up to you.”

– Press Democrat, April 11 1923



Tannery Odor Drive Is Made by Owners

The Santa Rosa-Vallejo Tanning Company is doing everything in its power to make its place of business sanitary to do away with all obnoxious odors and to prevent any deleterious matter going into the waters of Santa Rosa creek. This is vouchsafed by the sanitary inspector who has been overlooking the manufacturing plants of this city.


– Santa Rosa Republican, April 16 1923



Injunction Sought To Save Land From Damage By Creek

Suit for a restraining order to prevent J. J. Flynn, E. H. Crawford and Milton Wasserman from dumping more refuse in Santa Rosa creek was started in the superior court Saturday by Charles B. Kobes against the firm. Kobes, through his attorney Harry T. Kyle claims that his land will be damaged in high water by the refuse and earth thrown by the firm in building their new garage in First street through the diversion of the channel causing the water to tear out part of Kobes’ land…

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 16 1923



Tannery Owner Held For Polluting Stream

A complaint charging Nate Levin, owner of the Hermann Tannery in West Sixth street, with pollution of the Santa Rosa creek was filed in the police court here, Thursday by City Sanitary Inspector E. J. Helgrin. Levin is charged with maintaining a nuisance by pouring refuse from the tannery into the stream. The case was brought before Judge Collins. Levin has been released pending hearing of the case.

– Press Democrat, September 7 1923




Dear Press Democrat:

Why is a tannery? Or, rather, three of them? When I first came to live on (pardon me in) Santa Rosa avenue, I boasted, unfortunately neglecting to knock on wood, that here at least was one part of our dear city not affected by tannery odors. But alas! Times have changed, or perhaps it is only the direction of the wind.

Borne on gentle zephyrs, toward the wee sma’ hours of morning, when all prudent people, and many others, are getting their very best slumber, comes a horribly insistent, unpleasant and penetrating odor, creeping through our homes, and gradually into our senses, till we waken, startled. (And they say the sense of smell is the hardest to arouse!)

Not having been reared to regard the night air as poisonous, my first thought is that perhaps some usually kind and considerate neighbor is nursing a grouch and burning the bones, remaining from Fido’s lunch of yesterday. But no. that could never, never be, not at the hour of 4:30 a. m.

Tannery smells may not be actually unhealthful, but dear me. how can one feel really fit and ready to face a busy day with happy smiles and a sweet disposition, minus one’s usual nine hours of pleasant slumber?

I suppose in time the problem of tanneries will be met and properly disposed of, for I have a wholesome respect for our city dads, C. of C. and all busy boosters and progressives. But God speed the day!

In the meantime let’s all lay in a supply of insense [sic]. Then on retiring at night, place it conveniently at hand, and if the occasion arises (and I admit it some times doesn’t) we are fully prepared with a counter-irritant, as it were, and can soon drift back to pleasant dreams, telling our sub-conscious that day by day – well, anyway, Santa Rosa is growing better and better.

Very truly, MRS. JAY. E. BOWER. [Amy Bower – Ed.]

– Press Democrat, October 19 1923




Judge Rolfe L. Thompson issued a citation Thursday directing Mayor L. A. Pressley, the six members of the city council, City Manager Abner E. Hitchcock and City Manager [sic – City Engineer] G. F. Comstock to appear before him December 7, and show cause why they should not be punished for contempt of court in violating the perpetual restraining order issued to Mrs. M. A. Peterson May 14, 1896, prohibiting the city or its officers, agents and employees from polluting or poisoning the waters of Santa Rosa creek by discharging any sewage, garbage, filth or refuse matter in the creek from the sewer farm.

The order was issued on affidavit of John L. Peterson, successor to the interests of Mrs. Peterson, who alleges that since April 18, 1922, the city of Santa Rosa and its officers, agents and employees as named have discharged and caused to be discharged, large quantities of sewage, garbage, filth and refuse matter into Santa Rosa creek from the city sewer system and sewer farm. It is also alleged that this discharge of sewage has been continuous since September 4, 1923, in direct violation of the restraining order.


– Press Democrat, November 23 1923




…Taking up the letter first it will be of interest to again publish an extract of what Mr. Gillespie says in making his demand for action on the city council. The letter in part says:

“I am convinced that the seriousness of the sewer farm conditions is not generally realized in Santa Rosa. Because the legislature has intrusted to this board the protection of streams against willful and unnecessary pollution and the disposal of sewage. In a reasonably inoffensive manner, we must compel your attention to your own short comings in this particular, and look to you for an energetic and business like solution of the utterly intolerable conditions which have been perpetrated too long.

“The city of Santa Rosa cannot be given credit for having done in all its existence one single serviceable thing toward keeping pace in its sewage disposal. You must realize that cities the country over are evolving new and better means of getting rid of their sewage, such that the laws of decency and health are better served.

“In your own case selection must rest between these two types of works, the Imhoof tank with sprinkling beds and the activated sludge system. Anything less is purely a makeshift and will not be acceptable to this board.

“Surrounding tbe farm, due to the intense growth of the vicinity you have created an obnoxious and abatable public nuisance. At other seasons, the city pollutes Santa Rosa creek to an extent beyond any that exists anywhere in California.

“There are still some regrettable violations of the law in sewage disposal in the state, but they are rapidly being corrected, usually by pressure within the community.”

– Press Democrat, February 9 1924

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There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:

During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”

In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.

He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.

A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.

gumpA recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:

…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…

His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.

Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.

In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.

The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897
The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897

This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.

In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.

Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.

The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).

County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.

A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.

Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.

The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”

I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.

By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.

Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.

As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.

Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!

An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.

The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.

On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.

The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.

Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”

Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”

augustmornThe store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.

(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”

That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.

Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library
Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

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