srrc1964

A CEMETERY SO LONG UNCARED FOR

It is where you might dream when you dream of Elysium. A gently sloping hill, dappled sun through the wild oaks, trails likely following the paths of cows that wandered there before the Civil War, greenery trimmed (but certainly not manicured) bestowing the peace of woods in its scent and hush.

Today this is the state of Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery but until the late 1990s it was decidedly unlovely, choked with weeds, sapling trees, vetch and poison oak. Stories about the cemetery’s abysmal condition are legion. It was said to be so overgrown at times that a hearse could not reach gravesites and caskets had to be carried in. A worker clearing brush came across someone’s home – a vagrant had burrowed deep into a bramble patch and set up camp.

The cemetery has seen its moments of drama and chaos; there’s the mass grave of 1906 earthquake victims and just steps away is the scene of the 1920 lynchings. But mostly it has been an uneventful place – although it also has mirrored the city’s maddening pattern of chronic mismanagement.

This chapter about the Rural Cemetery tells the story of its changing conditions; the following article covers the extraordinary efforts made over a century by volunteers to document who lies there, and where.

Aden Congleton headstone and nearby graves at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, 1970; Don Meacham, photographer. TOP: Davis family marker, 1964.Both images courtesy Sonoma County Library
Aden Congleton headstone and nearby graves at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, 1970; Don Meacham, photographer.
TOP: Davis family marker, 1964.Both images courtesy Sonoma County Library

In November 1854, Thompson Mize drowned in a small pond near Santa Rosa. He was drunk. Why the 31 year old father of four had brought his children and pregnant wife here a few weeks prior is unknown. Perhaps he was a gold bug who heard the rumors about prospectors mining on the Russian River earlier that year. But there wasn’t much reason for anyone to be in Santa Rosa at the time; it consisted of all of five buildings, including a tavern which probably led to his undistinguished demise.1 Yet Mr. Mize still made a blip in our historical timeline because he was the first recognized burial in the Rural Cemetery. But here’s the Believe-it-or-Not! twist – in 1854 there was no Rural Cemetery, and it would not come to exist until seven years after he ended up face down in (what was most likely) a very large puddle.

Over the next few years “many citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity” were also buried there, according to an 1859 Cemetery Committee report, although it was still private land owned by a man named John Lucas.2

Although they hadn’t yet committed to buying three or four acres from Lucas, a survey was done on the area where there were already graves.3 Committee chair Dr. James W. B. Reynolds took leadership in approaching Lucas and setting up the deal (in later years Otho Hinton would be falsely credited as being something of the “father” of the cemetery). But the Committee dithered over the price and whether Lucas should give them a discount for the existing graves. Finally in late 1861 a portion of what we now call the Rural Cemetery was purchased. (See the sources section below for transcripts of that item and other newspaper articles.)

Ad hoc burials apparently continued until 1866, when the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association was incorporated to legally sell deeds to burial plots. There were no exemptions for those already in the ground; notices appeared in the Democrat warning that unless families of the deceased paid up, “bodies will be exhumed and reinturred [sic] in portions of said grounds set apart for that purpose.” It’s not believed they carried out the threat, however.

But just a couple of years after the Association was formed, an item in the Democrat newspaper revealed the place was already starting to slip into neglect: “The Cemetery has not only been allowed to grow up in weeds, but the fencing around it has received no attention; horses, cows and hogs have been permitted to wander over the grounds and among the graves.”

It seems that when it came to caring for the Rural Cemetery, our Santa Rosa ancestors did a lot more moaning than mowing.

Complaints continued through the 19th century: It was “overrun with weeds and tangled grass” (1878) “if those unsightly weeds that abound in all parts of the enclosure could only be removed, our cemetery would present as neat an appearance as any in the State” (1879) “some plan [needs to] be devised to improve the appearance of the Rural Cemetery” (1896). There are probably more references I missed, and I did not even peek at the Santa Rosa Republican.

In the first half of the 20th century, some years there would be cleanup efforts before Memorial Day to collect tin cans and liquor bottles and make the trails passable, the work done by service groups such as the Woman’s Improvement Club and the boy scouts. But over those fifty years you could count the number of those day projects on your hands – and still have enough fingers left over to hold a soup spoon.

The only significant cleanup during that era was done during late 1931 – early 1932. A crew of about 25 men on Relief worked there for a month or more, being paid in credit for groceries at the food bank. “All weeds have been cleared out, tombstones straightened, rubbish cleared away, garbage cans painted and new grass planted,” the Press Democrat reported.

But don’t take the good news too literally. An earlier PD item on the project mentioned, ” …it is proposed to work similarly at the Stanley cemetery”, so the work didn’t necessarily encompass all gravesites on the hill. That article also stated “only the pathways will be cleaned unless work on the plots is authorized by the plot owners. Those wishing such work are urged to communicate with the relief council.”

That edict about authorization came from the Rural Cemetery Association president and threw ice water on hopes that the cleanup could morph into an ongoing maintenance program. How many owners could give permission? The original owners of those old plots were likely dead themselves; there might not be any family members still in the area or who even knew they had an ancestor in an overgrown grave. It was suggested the families of all those buried there could organize and hire a caretaker (imagine the exciting Thanksgiving dinner squabble over who owes how much for upkeep on Great Uncle Fletcher’s gravesite).

And what was the status of the Association, anyway? The standard expiration for a corporate charter is fifty years, which meant that it should have ceased to exist in 1916. Yet they sold the last new deed in May 1930 and continued to hold meetings to elect officers at least until 1937. The Association’s lack of standing was finally noted in a 1938 Press Democrat editorial:4

Established some time in the ’50s, before the idea of perpetual care had even been heard of, at least in the west, Rural cemetery is now and for years past has been an abandoned child. The association’s charter expired fifteen years ago, and has never been renewed. Nobody owns Rural cemetery, it had no board of trustees, and since no public body holds title, it is ineligible to WPA or other aid of like character.

At the time, PD editor Ernest Finley and others in the city were begging voters to approve a “Cemetery district” which would create a small property tax for the upkeep of both the Rural Cemetery and the Calvary Cemetery. That idea had been first proposed and spoken of approvingly more than a decade before, but now that it was on the 1938 ballot a loud opposition was heard. It lost by almost a 4-to-1 margin.

After WWII the situation grew steadily worse. Its neglected condition drew tramps and delinquents who trashed it further, knocking over large monuments and smashing marble tombstones. Fine statuary was stolen. It became the meet-up place for drinking parties.

These problems did not go unnoticed, with letters and news items more frequently lamenting the terrible conditions in the Press Democrat. But the city’s position was that nothing could be done – the legacy of the Association was to instill the notion that everything outside of the trails was private property and could not be touched without explicit family approval. City workers could not even spray for weeds.

But by 1951 something had to be done. It was so bad the Santa Rosa City Manager called it a fire risk because the matted undergrowth was “about two feet thick.” They decided to do a controlled burn which did not work out so well, as it also destroyed historic wooden markers and blackened monuments (see “BIG BURN AT THE CEMETERY“). There was no followup maintenance so in a few years it was again a thicket, as seen in the photos above. The cemetery was becoming like the village in the musical “Brigadoon,” revealing itself ever so often before again disappearing.

In 1965 the Rural Cemetery Association was reformed under the wing of the Sonoma County Historical Society and the old place saw its first work crew since the Relief men during the Great Depression. This group still lacked support from the city, though, and by the end of the decade the volunteers had drifted away.

The city finally began taking some responsibility for the conditions in 1979 when it declared eminent domain over the entire burial ground and put up a fence. But the restoration didn’t really begin until 1994, when the Recreation & Parks Dept. began providing mowers and other material support for a new crop of volunteers. City crews were also made available to provide heavy labor, such as dealing with fallen trees. This effort is still ongoing.

Despite this being an all-out campaign to restore the Rural Cemetery, things didn’t immediately turn around. Some sections of the weed forest remained mostly untouched for years. Vandalism continued to be a problem and the troublemakers even targeted the newly repaired gravestones. An information kiosk built near the entrance included a Merit Award to the restoration committee from the city – until someone broke into the display and stole the award.

So many people have devoted great amounts of time and energy to bringing the cemetery back to life that even an abridged list would test Gentle Reader’s patience (if such a list could even be constructed). But there are a few who must be singled out for honors.

There can be no question that Bill Montgomery has done more to rescue the cemetery than anyone in its history. He was deputy parks director at Recreation & Parks in 1994 when he put out a call for volunteers and led members of the Cultural Heritage Board and others from the city on a tour. He started the “Adopt a Pioneer Gravesite Program” and drew attention to the cemetery via a couple of featured stories in the Press Democrat. In essence, he reintroduced the Rural Cemetery to the public – it was so little known at the time that the PD felt compelled to add a map illustration to one of the stories to show where it was. Bill continues to be actively involved with everything having to do with the graveyard.

Laurels also must be given to the late Alan Phinney, who managed the volunteer work parties for 20+ years and launched “The Tombstone Trio,” which still meets Tuesday and Thursday mornings to repair and clean markers. Also to be honored was Evelyn McMullen who organized volunteers in the 1960s, continuing to work even after there was no one still interested except for herself and son, Jay. More about her and Alan will appear in the following article.

Over the years the cemetery has also drawn mavericks who worked independently on the place just for the love of it. There was Larry Leathers – well known as the spokesman for the County Fair and Fairgrounds in the 1980s and 1990s – who tackled the Fulkerson section by bringing in his own lawnmowers. He wore out three of them.

But a special salute goes out to Roland Gevas, a 55 year-old Spanish-American War vet who worked on the cemetery during the summer of 1929. Roland was none-too-subtle in hinting that he hoped someone would pay him $1,200 a year (!) to work there full time, be it the city, the Cemetery Association, a service club or some benefactor. In a lengthy letter to the PD, it seemed like he might have been expecting donations from the public.5

“I have done all that was humanly possible,” he wrote. “I have put in every day at the cemetery and have cleaned more than 95 per cent of the rubbish away, have kept free water at all times, cleaned all lots free of charge around the main entrance and the approach to it.” After working for six weeks and receiving just $21.50 (from whom?) he was bitter at Santa Rosa’s indifference:

I am sorry to state that the public, unlike myself, are not much interested in the City of the Dead. I have come to the conclusion that all those loving carved words on tombstones and monuments are a living lie to the dead, that forgotten and so pitifully alone, stand as a shame to the living.

“The cemetery is a naturally pretty one, well located and with many stately monuments, some of them real works of art,” he concluded, before begging the public to come see all that he had done:

I would like to have you come to look at the place if you have not seen it since before Decoration Day. You will see some real changes in the view looking up from the McDonald avenue entrance, and if I could only have a little support the Rural Cemetery would not be a disgrace, nor would people have to be ashamed of their home of the dead.

There was nothing more in the newspaper about Roland Gevas at the cemetery, so one might assume that was the end of that. But when the census-taker came around the next April, Roland opened the door of his Olive street home and answered the questions about what he did for a living. Industry: Cemetery. Occupation: Sexton.

How long that lasted we don’t know. It’s unknown who paid him – or if he was even paid at all. But at least for awhile the old sailor was at the cemetery he cared about, doing what he could. A small victory is a victory still.

 


1 Although the streets were already platted out in their current layout, there are no reliable descriptions of Santa Rosa in the key year of 1854. Almost all sources blur together 1854-1856 as being the years the village was formed. Confounding matters further is that some of the housing stock was being moved in from Franklin (such as Sterling Coulter’s building) so some places could have been in both towns during the same year. Aside from an 1876 sketch, there are the two books Robert Thompson wrote about Santa Rosa and the county. His most detailed description is in the 1877 county book, not the 1884 book on the town. See: Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California, pp. 72-75

2 In 1850, Julio Carrillo sold 640 acres near the Carrillo Adobe to Oliver Boulieu, who established the short-lived village of Franklin. Boulieu sold parcels to Commodore Elliott (100 acres in 1853), Richard Fulkerson (94 acres in 1856), Emmanuel Light (11 acres in 1856) and the remaining 435 acres to John Lucas in 1857. Source: “Oliver Beaulieu and the Town of Franklin” by Kim Diehl, 2006; pg. 19

3 Surveyor W. A. Eliason surveyed part of the cemetery (at least) twice, in 1859 and 1872. The 1859 survey is lost but probably just showed rough boundaries, as the Cemetery Committee had not yet made a decision whether to purchase 3-4 acres from Lucas. After having purchased an additional 3½ acres in 1867, the survey of 1872 was apparently to plat out the lot lines.
4 Press Democrat, September 11 1938
5 Press Democrat, August 11 1929

 

NEXT: IN SEARCH OF THE LAST LOST GRAVES
 

sources
Inquest. — We learn from the Sonoma Bulletin that an inquest was held at the town of Santa Rosa, on the body of a man named Mize, who was found dead in a pond of water a short distance from town. He was intoxicated, which accounts for the accident verdict accordingly.

– Sacramento Daily Union, December 5 1854

 

Santa Rosa Cemetery.

Ed. Democrat — Dear Sir: I am glad that you anticipated me in your remarks about the Cemetery, in last week’s issue. It is high time something should be done by the citizens of this place and vicinity, in regard to this matter. While we are continually taxing both head and hands in efforts to secure homes for the living, and spending our time and money for public and private convenience and show, let us not forget the spot, beneath which, sleep our silent dead! True, their spirits rest not in the cold, cold clay; nought but the mouldering forms which contained them are left behind. But, we cherish a daguerrotype or painted likeness of the dead. Then, how much more should we revere the sacred resting place of the loved companions, whose smiles cheered us on in the race of life — or the dear child, that sat in prattling innocence upon our knee.

But I know it is unnecessary to make any appeal to the sympathies of the generous hearted citizens of Santa Rosa, to induce them to assist in securing, and suitably embellishing a home for the dead. Indeed, my principal object in writing this article was to suggest the propriety of immediate action, and the necessity for having a general meeting of the people, so as to arrange some definite plan.

In a conversation with Mr. Lucas, who owns the land on which the present burying ground is situated, he informed me that he would willingly sell to the citizens any number of acres they might require for the purpose, and for a lower price than he would dispose of it for any other object. He also informed me, that under the existing state of affairs, he was deprived of the use of 150 acres of pasturage; and, unless something was done by the citizens, soon, ho would be compelled to turn the graveyard out of his enclosure. As it is, every grave, not specially protected by a railing, is liable to be trampled upon by cattle and horses.

Having understood that Mr. Eliason has surveyed the premises, and now has a complete plot of the same in his office, there remains but little to be done, but to raise a sufficient amount to pay for the land — the expense of surveying and enclosing it, and ordering a public sale of lots; or, by placing them in the hands of Trustees to sell privately.

But, I am anticipating, and giving a detailed opinion, which would properly belong to the citizens when they meet, which I respectfully suggest, may be next Saturday evening, the 3d of Dec., at the Disciples’Church, at 6 1/2 o’clock, p. m.

Santa Rosa, Nov. 28. J. W. B. R.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1 1859

 

CEMETERY MEETING.

Met pursuant to adjournment on the 13th of December, 1859, at 7 1/2 o’clock P. M.

On motion of Otho Hinton, S. T. Coulter was elected chairman of the meeting, Whereupon the committee appointed at the previous meeting, make the following report, the same being read, and on motion accepted:

REPORT OF CEMETERY COMMITTEE.
The committee to whom was referred the duty of ascertaining the most suitable location for a Cemetery, the price of the land, and any other information which they might deem pertinent to the subject, beg leave to submit the following report, viz:

Whereas, the present grave-yard, (on the land owned by Mr. Lucas) is a beautiful site for such purpose, not subject to overflow in time of high water — is in a reasonable distance of the town, easy of access — and more particularly, as many citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity already have relatives and friends buried there — we do not hesitate to give this location the preference over all others.

We have ascertained on inquiry, that the present owner (Mr. Lucas) of the ground in the vicinity, is willing to sell any number of acres the community may require for a Cemetery, at Fifty Dollars per Acre. And your committee would recommend the purchase of four or six acres of said land at the sum above specified – excepting one acre, including the present graves, for which your Committee are of opinion the owner should take cost price, and reasonable interest on the same to the time of purchasing.

As to the mode of purchasing, &c., your committee recommend that eight responsible citizens of Santa Rosa and vicinity be appointed by the present meeting, who shall organize under the general corporation law, with instructions to purchase such quantity of land as may be agreed upon, and to give a joint note of the company. — Therefore, payable at such times, and in such installments as may be mutually agreed upon between them and the owner of the land. Said company shall be known and designated by the name of the “Santa Rosa Cemetery Company.”

It is further recommended by your committee, that said company, after organizing, shall appoint three or five of their number, whose duty it shall be to have the grounds surveyed, and a plot made thereof; provided, said plot shall be drawn in such way and form as to preserve the natural character of the scene; and provided, further, that said plot shall in no wise interfere with the graves already on said grounds.

Finally — Your committee would recommend that said company be requested to organize, and fulfilling their duties at as early a date as possible, report to an adjourned meeting at such time and place as may be agreed upon.

All of which is respectfully submitted.
James W. B. Reynolds, Chairman.

On motion of Wm. Churchman, the proceedings of the meeting and copy of the report of the committee as accepted, be published in tho Santa Rosa Democrat, and that the meeting stand adjourned until next Tuesday evening, Dec. 20th, 1859, at the Baptist church, and that the ladies be especially invited to attend.

S. T. Coulter, Ch’n. Wm. H. Bond, Sec’y.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1859

 

Efforts are making to purchase a tract of land near Santa Rosa, a part of which has been used as a burying-place by people of that town, to be set apart exclusively as a Cemetery. Those who favor this excellent project will please call at Gen. Hinton’s office.

– Sonoma County Democrat, November 21, 1861

 

CEMETERY. The grounds for the Santa Rosa Cemetery having been purchased, it is particularly necessary that the friends or connections of the deceased buried there previous to the purchase should secure lots immediately. Such and all others who desire burial lots in the Cemetery may secure them of Gen. Hinton.

– Sonoma County Democrat, November 28, 1861

 

THE CEMETERY INCORPORATION. —An adjourned meeting of citizens, for the purpose of incorporating the Cemetery Grounds, was held at the Court House, on the evening of Dec. 3rd., H. P. Holmes acting as Chairman and Thos. H. Pyatt Secretary, pro tem. The meeting agreed to incorporate under the name of “Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Association.” The number of Trustees was fixed at seven, and the following gentlemen were duly elected as such…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1866

 

SANTA ROSA RURAL CEMETERY ASSOCIATION. —That such an organization has had an existence in the past we, of Santa Rosa and vicinity, do most positively know, but that it now exists we cannot speak with so much certainty. For several months nothing has been done by this Association — a meeting has not even been held. The Cemetery has not only been allowed to grow up in weeds, but the fencing around it has received no attention; horses, cows and hogs have been permitted to wander over the grounds and among the graves. But worse than all no steps have been taken to give the owners of lots deeds of the same, so that improvements could be made and the graves properly taken care of. The evil can be remedied, and the necessary steps in that direction should be taken at once. In this connection, we are requested to say that a meeting of the citizens will be held at the Court House on next Saturday afternoon, the 26th inst., at 2 p.m., for the purpose of taking this matter in hand. We hope to see every one interested turn out, as something must be done.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1868

 

CEMETERY NOTICE

THE TRUSTEES OF THE SANTA ROSA Rural Cemetery Association, having, in company with W. A. Eliason, surveyor, and G. Kohle, sexton, visited the grounds and tied by location the numbers of the lots, down on the adopted plat and survey — now all persons having paid for lots in said grounds will, within forty days of the date of this notice, file with the Secretary of this association his evidence of purchase and payment, and receive the necessary title. Persons who have buried their dead in said grounds, and not yet purchased or paid for their lots, will, within the above period, pay the Treasurer of the association, J. M. Williams, for the same, and file his receipt with the Secretary. A neglect of claimants or purchasers to comply with either of the above requisitions, for the above period, will be deemed a voluntary abandonment of all claim to lots in said grounds, and in isolated interments on single lots the bodies will be exhumed and reinturred in portions of said grounds set apart for that purpose.
By order of the Board of Trustees.
HENDERSON P. HOLMES, President.
Attest: W. Churchman, Secretary.
Dated this 21st day of September, 1872.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 28 1872

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hobocamp

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOBOES

Santa Rosa was filled with bums; there were panhandlers on Fourth street and drunks hanging out in the park, there were petty thefts and burglaries and vegetable gardens raided. The Press Democrat said the Police Chief and Sheriff were working together on “a new drive to rid the city of all ‘undesirables,’ especially the canned heaters.” Uh, “canned heaters?” Everyone knew those were the most screwed-up addicts – in 1931.

If there’s any year in Santa Rosa’s history to NOT visit in your time machine, it’s 1931 (see sidebar). Prohibition was still very much a thing and that year about 800 people were arrested in Santa Rosa, more than half of them for something to do with booze. Money was tight and pockets were empty; farmers and chicken ranchers were lucky to break even and only prunes and Gravensteins made any profit at all. In the Press Democrat’s classifieds, the Help Wanted section was usually entirely missing – while the Real Estate section filled several columns. (“For Sale at foreclosure: 5 acre; modern 5-rm house, chicken equipment. Near town, $3,800.”)


HOW BAD WAS IT IN 1931?

That year was when the Great Depression scraped bottom; those photos we see of long breadlines and former stock brokers selling apples on Wall Street were most likely taken in 1931. There was no safety net whatsoever – no Social Security, no state or federal welfare, no unemployment insurance. Santa Rosa and other cities set up Relief Committees that appealed for anyone who still had a job to donate one day’s wages along with employers asked to donate one day’s profit.

The Santa Rosa Relief Committee saw requests for aid skyrocket from 25 needy families to 300 by the end of the year, which represented 750 men, women and children – seven percent of the town population. Emergency family housing was built at Veterans Park, the corner of McDonald and Pacific avenues (now the site of the First Presbyterian Church). Donated food and clothing were given away at the relief store on Fifth street, as well as any firewood split by hoboes or prisoners in county jail.

Add a few more points to the misery index because of the influx of hoboes that spring. There were several well-established “hobo jungles” along the railroad tracks in Sonoma County: on Lakeville in Petaluma, near Cotati, under the Healdsburg Railroad Bridge, by the Laguna in Sebastopol and close to Fulton. But the best known jungle of all was in Santa Rosa – and that’s where many hoboes went in March, after a murder in the Petaluma jungle led to a police crackdown. The same month Marin authorities ordered every jungle in that county cleared out “for keeps” after a robbery at the San Rafael railroad station. The PD reported that sent about 150 denizens headed north.

The uptick in petty thefts and problems with the “canned heaters” led the Sheriff to declare prisoners in county jail henceforth would have to work on a chain gang. Much ado about this announcement was made in both Santa Rosa newspapers, with particular emphasis that it would scare hoboes away from here. But the program was apparently shut down a month later when the Labor Council protested that it was an affront to exploit free convict labor when there were hundreds of local men desperately looking for any kind of work.

Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle was also frequently in the news because police were making arrests there; it was suspected that vagrants were behind a string of burglaries around town (yup, indeed they were). It was during such a raid when they found Ada Calahan, a 22 year-old woman dressed like a man. Just a month earlier she and husband Frank had married in Reno and although they had the wedding certificate to prove it, they were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail while the cops attempted to contact her parents in Yuba City. “Why drag my family into this? I’m not kicking about living in the jungles,” the adult woman groused.

With all this going on, the Press Democrat sent a reporter to live undercover in the tumultuous camp for 72 hours. Despite the possible dangers, the assignment went to 19 year-old cub reporter Herbert Waters Jr. He did more than just prove his mettle; Herb – who would go on to become the PD’s editor-in-chief following the death of Ernest Finley in 1942 – filed an 11-part, 13,000 word series. In 1931 it was a novelty serial that could be considered voyeuristic; today, it’s a valuable historic document because we’re still grappling with some of the same problems over homeless encampments.

About an hour after sunset on that early September night, Herb Waters started walking west along the railroad tracks to Sebastopol (now the Joe Rodata Trail), looking like what he thought a proper hobo should look like.

Although he had expected to come across campfires, it was completely dark and silent; then near Dutton ave. a path to the left led to the back of a warehouse. This was the old Petaluma-Santa Rosa railroad freight terminal, then just used for storing prunes. Here was the heart of Santa Rosa’s hobo jungle.

The opposite side of the building was unobtrusive, set far enough back from Sebastopol Road for large trucks to back into the loading dock. Waters found about forty men sleeping there. “As I reached the front of the building, which has a long loading platform covered with a roof, I saw a continuous row of bodies stretched out on the wooden floor, like a ward in a hospital, or, it seemed to me in the silent darkness, corpse in a morgue.”

The next morning he found the others on the railroad side of the warehouse cooking breakfast over a row of campfires. A closer look revealed more evidence that this was a long-established hobo jungle: “The dozen or more fireplaces were all different – some elaborately built brick ovens, some built from scraps of iron from neighboring dumps, some set in dug-out hollows – but all permanent fireplaces used time after time by the itinerants, never destroyed, but left for the next user.”

A search of the Press Democrat archives turns up a mention of this hobo jungle going back to 1925, when police raided the camp looking for the men who had robbed the White House department store. The building was owned by fruit packers Libby, McNeil & Libby, who used it as a prune warehouse – during Waters’ brief stay a truck came by to pick up a load. Besides the loading dock, men could sleep underneath because the building was elevated several feet off the ground. The company apparently tolerated the hoboes as unpaid watchmen and during winter when the prunes were gone, allowed it to be used as a “hobo hotel” as long as there was no drinking or smoking inside.

He quickly learned these men were homeless drifters and not migrant workers. The “fruit tramps” lived in tents near the fields where they worked, following the harvest seasons up and down the coast; these fellows didn’t work at all if they could help it and particularly turned up their noses at anyone who did field labor.

Looking over what the others were cooking, Herb was astonished how well they were eating; “anything you might see in a restaurant during breakfast.” No one was in a hurry to leave. “Everything has a lazy atmosphere. Eating is a slow process and quite a social occasion. They linger over the meal, trading jokes and banter, calling remarks from one fire the other.”

Aside from the breakfast hobnobbing, Herb soon was introduced to their other major pastime: “The hoboes are happy on two occasions: when they are eating and when they are drunk.”

Unable to buy liquor from a store because of Prohibition and without the money or local connections to score a jug of moonshine or jackass brandy, they were drinking denatured alcohol and Sterno (“canned heat”) – which is to say, they were drinking poison. During his three days of hobo life Herb encountered several men who were expected to soon die. Descriptions of some others strongly imply that Herb believed they were brain-damaged. He met one drug addict who screamed at night and was said to be using “snow,” which at that time likely meant some form of speed.

Herb quickly learned their code of conduct expected – even required – that you shared whatever you had. That included the dangerous ersatz hootch; if a bottle was being passed around you had to take a swig (Herb claimed he faked it). “I was now one of the gang – I had friends – hoboes, to be sure – but friends. They would fight for me, ‘divvy up’ food or money with me, and accept me in any of their plans. I had been tested and found a ‘good guy’ – it would have been an unforgivable insult to refuse to drink when invited.”

In the jungle he found a remarkable spirit of cooperation and comradeship. The men liked and helped each other; they nursed and fretted over their sick and frail. He met a barber, a cobbler and a man who collected bruised fruit that he canned. It was an oasis of equality where African-Americans and Hispanics were welcomed, the jungles being free of racial discrimination (at least in the West, he was told). “All seem tied together by a common sympathy and understanding and one race or color is as good as another as long as you prove yourself a ‘square guy’ according to the code of the jungles.”

For most of them Santa Rosa was a stopover before heading to someplace else, although not necessarily very far away – one hobo later told the PD he had not been outside of the North Bay for over 20 years. While they were here, most hung out at Depot Park in Railroad Square during the day rather than staying around the jungle. “The park is a meeting place and general headquarters during the daytime, although they return to the jungles at night. Transients stop off there to look for friends before continuing their journey.”

"Napa Valley", December 1938 photo by Dorothea Lange
“Napa Valley”, December 1938 photo by Dorothea Lange

Some were also here permanently. “Santa Rosa, I learned, is really a popular town. The bums get good treatment here, plenty to eat, and have a good place to flop in the jungles.”

It appears the welcome mat was first rolled out in 1909 when California and other western states witnessed a surge of vagrants, as told here earlier in “THE HOBOES COMETH.” An evangelical group started a rescue mission near the current location of the Catholic Charities homeless center on Morgan st. which was followed by a W. Eighth st. shelter for “down and outs.” Presumably other Good Samaritan efforts based near the train tracks came and went, unmentioned by the local newspapers; the Salvation Army had a constant presence on the western end of the downtown district and in 1930 a soup kitchen was established on the SW corner of B and Second street.

The main draw, however, was that local residents were an easy touch, despite the hardships of the Great Depression. It had been part of a long standing social contract that a vagrant could knock on a kitchen door and earn a sandwich or slice of pie in exchange for a few minutes of weeding or other light work, but the hoboes who Herb met bragged that a good sob story was all they needed. Although Herb often witnessed them display such great compassion and generosity with each other, the people of the town were clueless suckers who deserved to be scammed.

After one of the men described the “lacing” he had received from a woman after begging for food, another hobo asked for directions to the family’s house. “And sure enough, less than fifteen minutes later, hardly time to walk to the house and no time to have done any kind of work for the food, he returned with a good sized arm load of assorted food – eggs, bread, some cold meat, sandwiches, and some jam. It looked like he had completely cleaned out the lady’s pantry shelves.” He proudly re-enacted for them the melodramatic bullshit that won him the payload.

The Relief Committee asked residents to stop giving handouts to beggars, saying they were doing more harm than good. Like the Salvation Army, the Relief office on Fifth street would give someone a meal ticket after they put in a 30 minute shift at the city woodpile (the wood was mainly from the orchard recently chopped down to create Juilliard Park). It appears few hobos took them up on the work-for-food deal; another PD article said hoboes laughed and cussed at relief volunteers who suggested it. The soup kitchen even printed a notice that their operation was “strictly free from the Salvation Army.”

Stealing food was also common. Herb was told of a chicken farm not far away that stored eggs in an unlocked shed, the hoboes being careful not to take enough to be noticed. Another day they ate hamburger after one of the gang begged a butcher to grind as much meat scraps that 10¢ would buy. “While the soft-hearted butcher was in the back of the shop fixing up much more than a dime’s worth of hamburger and considering himself doing charity work, Williams helped himself to choice pieces of meat behind the counter.”

Another hobo scam that Herb exposed was chimney sweeping. “The chimney sweeps work in pairs, with one always seeking entrance into the house on some pretext. While working around a fireplace from inside the house he invariably picks up any odds and ends he might use himself or peddle to pawn shops. Then they charge the customer $5 for the privilege of having his house robbed and go away leaving the chimney about as dirty as before.”

A small class of hoboes were hardened criminals, called “yeggs” by the press (nobody knows where the term came from – it just popped up in the early 1920s). These burglars and thieves lived apart from the hobo jungles; the pair responsible for about a dozen break-ins around Santa Rosa had a secluded camp on the Creek. Also not welcome in the jungle were hoboes who had been busted for drunkenness in town. After sobering up overnight in jail, the hoboes were routinely given “floaters” by the judge – 30-day sentences which were suspended as long as they got out of town. If they were arrested again during that time there was a risk the police would descend on the jungle and kick out everyone.

Herb met up with a handful of convicted floaters lounging and drinking in the tall grass farther down the track, near where it crossed Stony Point road. Holding court there was “Slippery” Williams, a popular character who actually preyed upon his companions: “He joked and they laughed. He sang and they applauded. And he makes his living in just that manner hooking up with moneyed bums awed by his manner, until he had spent what money they had and then shedding faked tears as he left them, He wasn’t a bit ‘dumb’ like the usual run.”

Then this happened:


I was suddenly startled by a crackling sound and the grass behind me burst into flames. A carelessly tossed cigarette butt had started a fire, with dry grass all around. Instead of putting the fire out, the hoboes surprised me by yelling ‘Beat it’ and starting running away, afraid of getting caught if the fire got burning good. In a few seconds I smothered the blaze with blankets they had forgotten to take in their haste. A few minutes more and it would have been a bad fire.

That little incident is revelatory because vagrants were almost always the prime suspects whenever there was a fire of mysterious origin. They lavished Herb with praise when they returned and discovered he had easily put out the small fire. “‘Gees, yu saved us kid’ said Slippery. Most of them know that tough penalties are dealt out for incendiarism and are afraid of starting fires.”


DOWNLOAD
Abridged transcript of the 1931 series (PDF)



Not everyone Herb met was a suicidal alcoholic or light-fingered scammer. He found the hoboes well-read and knowledgeable about current events, although most had simplistic views. One of the permanent residents of the Santa Rosa jungle maintained a library of newspapers and magazines on the loading dock because everyone read voraciously.

Nor should we forget that being among the “knights of the open road” was still somewhat considered an honorable, even noble, activity. In 1925, 53 year-old Dudley Kinsell, a Superior Court judge in Oakland resigned from the bench and bummed to Florida. He called it one of the greatest experiences of his life, as it taught him to take joy in the simple things.

Herb spent most of one installment on a respected older hobo’s thoughtful predictions of a coming second world war (and remember, this was 1931): “War, a horrible war, is coming. It will be a world war of size hard to imagine…The war will be unlike any other in history – it will combine revolutions with battles between every nation in a huge slaughter.” Our Nostradamus of the loading dock left his audience rattled, but now we know he got all the prophecies wrong; instead of war with Germany and Japan, he imagined a second American Civil War where Russia steps in to undermine the side fighting to preserve the U.S. government (come to think of it, maybe he was foreseeing the 2010s and not the 1930s.)

When his three days were over, Herb wrote a final piece on what he had learned. Don’t generalize about the hoboes; the men were both good and bad, no better or worse than those in any other group. Permanent jungles with running water should be allowed in every town, preferably indoors, and the camps should have routine inspections. Provide medical care and an employment agency so they can try to find jobs. Never give them money without working for it. Some (all?) of these suggestions probably came from Herb Waters Sr. who was among the leaders of the Relief Committee.

“Hoboes will come and hoboes will go, but as long as a community gives them an opportunity to live fairly decently it has done all that should be done,” he concluded.

There are a few postscripts to our story, and Gentle Reader should be forewarned that none are pleasant.

As everyone in the jungle was a keen reader, you can be certain they absorbed every word in the series as soon as it was available. The Press Democrat blurbed it for two days before the first installment appeared, so I imagine there was angry gossip along with great fear as to who had been the spy in their midst.

While the series was running, there were two fires near the Santa Rosa jungles, and on the day the last of the series appeared, a hobo named George Peterson was found drowned in the shallow Santa Rosa Creek. Foul play was suspected, but no one was charged.

The day after the series finished, deputies raided and cleared out all known hobo jungles near Santa Rosa.

The Santa Rosa jungle at the warehouse endured until 1940. That year a heavy storm caused the building to collapse, killing nine who had sought shelter beneath it.

It’s a bitter coincidence that the location of Santa Rosa’s famous hobo jungle was just steps away from the recent Roseland homeless camp behind the Dollar Tree store. Known as Camp Michela or Last Chance Village, it was cleared out by authorities in 2018 – because making this subculture go away is so, so easy, as history shows.

Sebastopol hobo jungle underwater during the 1940 storm. Photo: Sonoma County Library
Sebastopol hobo jungle underwater during the 1940 storm. Photo: Sonoma County Library

Top: Hobo camp in the 1920s; Town of Sodus (NY) Historical Society

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LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE

In Santa Rosa during the 1930s and under twelve? If so, then you were at the California Theater every Saturday at 12:30 for the pandemonium known as the Mickey Mouse Club.

A quarter century before the Mouseketeers donned their plastic ears and gleamed sparkling smiles on our TV screens, hundreds of movie houses nationwide were filled to capacity with small children on Saturday afternoons. They would watch a movie and some cartoons, but mainly they would sing and yell. They would get to yell a lot – pause for a moment and imagine being in a theater with around a thousand kids, all their little volume knobs cranked up to 11. Maybe 12.

Gentle (and cynical) Reader might presume this was a marketing ploy by the Disney Empire to exploit our children, but the company actually had a light hand in its doings. According to an article on the Mickey Mouse Club origins by unofficial Disney historian Jim Korkis, a movie theater owner seeking to boost attendance broached the idea to Disney in 1929. It proved such a hit Disney Studios hired the guy to create a network of licensed theaters across the country. At its peak, there were over 800 clubs and over a million card-carrying Mousers.

For 25 bucks a year, participating theaters received a manual and a bimonthly newsletter with promo ideas. Disney also sold theaters all sorts of Mickey Mouse Club swag at (or near) cost; buttons, masks, custom membership cards and posters and for $16.50 a theater could own the official club cartoon, “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” a sing-a-long with Walt Disney himself providing Mickey’s voice (spoiler alert: The tune is pretty catchy and Walt’s voice is pretty creepy).

Theater owners found they had a ready audience; In November 1931, the Press Democrat ran a small “coming soon” notice and “[California Theater] Manager Gurnette is already being besieged by a small army of youngsters wanted to know all about the Mickey Mouse club – what it is, what it means, and for the boys and girls who join, etc.”

Disney also encouraged theaters to partner with local retail businesses. In exchange for donating contest prizes and other goods (historian Korkis says local bakeries would donate a free cake to be shared by club members with a recent birthday and florists sent flowers to sick ones) the merchant would display a window card announcing it was an “Official Mickey Mouse Store.”

In Santa Rosa, Rosenberg’s department store was the only place boys and girls could get their free membership card. Before the theater club debut, Rosenberg’s took out two half-page ads in the PD promoting the first club meeting, promising Santa Claus would greet the kids at the theater and then take up residence at “Toyland” on the store’s mezzanine.

A reported 1,500 children packed the California Theater on Nov. 21 for that first gathering, which was free for any child who had filled out the membership form (admission thereafter was 5¢ for anyone wearing the official club button). Petaluma followed suit three months later with a club at the California Theater in their own town.

Press Democrat, November 20, 1931

 

The shows could fill the entire afternoon with a mixture of films and live doings on stage. An American flag would be brought out and everyone would sing a verse of “America.” They would recite the Mickey Creed: “I will be a squareshooter in my home, in school, on the playgrounds, wherever I may be. I will be truthful and honorable and strive always to make myself a better and more useful little citizen. I will respect my elders and help the aged, the helpless and children smaller than myself. In short, I will be a good American.”

Everybody would join in for five or six “peppy songs and yells” which usually started with “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” and ended with “Happy Days are Here Again.” There would be a new cartoon and a chapter from a serial which was most often a western, although they also watched “The Lost Special” starring Santa Rosa football hero Ernie Nevers. Once at Petaluma there was a “Backwards Party” where a cartoon was shown in reverse “those who have seen this novelty claim that it is exremely funny and some of the craziest noises are heard.”

Every week there would be also shown a short feature movie approved by the California PTA. The first approved film shown here was an Amos ‘n’ Andy comedy – which is to say it starred two middle-age white men in blackface.

In the mix were also contests, drawings, “stage stunts,” musical and dance performances by other kids and everything wrapped up with Minnie’s Yoo Hoo.

In less than three years, the Mickey Mouse Clubs had become as large as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts combined. What caused this explosive growth? Certainly a part of it was Mickey Mouse mania; kids couldn’t get enough of Mickey and Minnie but aside from crude handmade stuffed dolls, there were no toys, games, or other Mouse stuff to buy until Christmas 1932. Let me restate that again, in italics, so it really sinks in: For four years, the Walt Disney company owned the most popular cartoon character in the world but had no idea how to merchandise it. Tempora mutantur.

The other appeal of the Clubs was probably that they were not rigidly organized like the scouts – it was more like the lodges and social clubs that most parents belonged to. The children elected their own officers, among them a Chief Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a Master of Ceremonies, a Yell Leader and others. (The 1932 Santa Rosa lineup is found below in a footnote, which will probably give some genealogist a case of the vapors.)* Although there were adults involved it was more like boys and girls were putting on the show themselves and not unlike what we saw in the “Our Gang” shorts, with adorable tap dancing girls and Alfafa’s unfortunate warbling.

Both the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier would occasionally describe programs. In Santa Rosa, Esther Walker’s downtown “School of the Dance” usually had students as young as five performing and George Trombley (founder of the Santa Rosa Symphony) would bring up one of his music pupils for a solo. Trombley also formed the Mickey Mouse Orchestra with apparently any child who could read music, and the ensemble varied between 25-40 members. In Petaluma the grownups involved were “Kathleen Budd’s Kiddies” (she was a high school student who taught dance) and Percy Stebbing at the pipe organ.

The contests were traditional birthday party fare except the audience got to cheer for the contestants. There were races with silly handicaps such as rolling a metal pie plate across the stage. There were competitions for the best harmonica player and the best Hallowe’en costume. There were games to see who could accurately drop the most beans in a milk bottle (“from the looks of the stage, not very many hit the bottle”), eat a bowl of ice cream the fastest, whistle with a dry mouth (“everybody gets a big laugh out of seeing the boys and girls spray cracker crumbs when they try to whistle”) or chew the biggest jawbreaker (maybe that’s where Dr. Henry Heimlich, who was young enough to be a Mouser at the time, got his inspiration).

Roller skates were the most common prizes given out each week, probably also courtesy Rosenberg’s. There were also drawings for more valued items such as electric train sets and bicycles.

Tommy Ware with the bicycle won in a Mickey Mouse Club drawing. Photo at his home in Santa Rosa, July 13, 1933 and courtesy Sonoma County Library

 

The peak for both Santa Rosa and Petaluma clubs came at their one-year mark during the winter of 1932/1933. In Santa Rosa there was a special matinee at Thanksgiving and Christmas (“be sure to remind Mother that the place to leave you is at the New California theater while she does her last minute Christmas shopping”) followed by “Mickey’s Revue” at 9PM – a variety show put on by the kids with the Mickey Mouse Orchestra.

Petaluma saw 900 kids at their first anniversary, but they had really turned out a few months earlier for the special Friday morning show before Christmas in 1932. Members of the orchestra from Santa Rosa were guest performers and 1,200 children descended on the theater, some squeezed in two to a seat. The Argus-Courier reported there were policemen and firemen on duty; “a few kiddies in the gallery started throwing hats to the orchestra floor and there were several other actions that the police had to curb” and there was a precautionary firehose attached to the nearest hydrant with a fire engine standing by.

The Petaluma club sputtered out by late 1933, as did many of the clubs around the country. Disney would no longer license new clubs and stopped underwriting membership materials. The company did not foresee there would be blowback from non-club theaters in the same community. Later a Disney representative explained to a theater owner “…We ran into all kinds of difficulties and controversies over the Clubs and finally decided to do away with any connection with them. A great many theaters are still running such clubs, but they are doing so entirely on their own, and without help or references from us.”

What happened in Santa Rosa is less clear. The California Theater had long interchangeably advertised the Mickey Mouse Club and a Mickey Mouse Matinee for Saturday afternoons, and in the middle of 1933 the club was no longer mentioned specifically. The Mickey Mouse Matinee continued into 1935 when it became the Popeye Matinee, that being the year when the muttering sailor eclipsed the squeaky rodent in popularity.

It’s unknown whether the onstage activities and audience participation continued here after 1933, although they probably did – because the Mickey Mouse Club was resurrected by name in 1937, both at the California Theater and as a radio show on KSRO.

This is not the place to extol the glories of KSRO in that era, except to say it was truly community radio. Everything heard at 1310 on your dial was locally produced live – from the “Man on the Street” interviews to “Italian News with Joe Comelli” to “KSROlling Along” to the “Redwood Empire Quizzing ‘B.'” The bulk of the airtime was music on records, but there were hours of talk and interview shows every day. Anyone who had something to say or could play an instrument could find a few moments of AM radio fame. If there were kids performing at a downtown theater it was only natural they’d be invited to KSRO.

The 30-minute show aired Fridays at 4:00 and was sometimes sponsored by the Sonomaco Ice Cream Company. There were often contests (where the prize was an ice cream brick) and George Trombley sometimes conducted a juvenile orchestra. Performers were rarely mentioned, although “Three Fiddling Bobs” and Healdsburg ventriloquist Charley Perry with “Dummy Dan” seemed to be popular regulars.

The Press Democrat promoted KSRO with a daily column so it’s a bit surprising that more wasn’t written about the program. What did appear were stories about the kids pissing off station management:

Perhaps I shouldn’t mention it, but yesterday about a quarter to three the Big Boss of KSRO, himself [presumably Ernest Finley] stepped into the studio and saw the gang of youngsters assembled. I guess it was the first time he had ever seen the Mickey Mouse Club performance… anyhow, the sight of children draped all over the furniture for lack of chairs may be the means of another load of chairs being added to the studio.

A month later, the station manager found “about 100 kiddies making rough-house around the place” and threatened to not broadcast the show unless the children arrived only a half-hour before the show and sat quietly until air time. (“Boy! Was he burned up!”) Apparently the gang headed for the station as soon as school was over at noon, and hung out in the studio for the four hours before the show to ensure they’d be on it.

The California dropped the children’s matinee in 1938, and KSRO announced it was reorganizing the club itself, with a membership application form printed in the PD. The Mickey Mouse Club was cut to a 15 minute program in 1939 and then cancelled two weeks later. There were 1946 plans to revive the club at the California Theater but nothing came of it.

Today the 1930s Mickey Mouse Club is lost history – even the Disney Corporation, which venerates its mousy past, says little to nothing about the club. But it was celebrated by an enormous number of children in the early ’30s, and I’ll bet there still would be more than a few smiles of recognition at any large senior center or retirement home upon hearing the unforgettable chorus of Minnie’s Yoo Hoo.

 


* 1932 Mickey Mouse Club officers for Santa Rosa: Chief Mickey Mouse (Bob Quarry), Chief Minnie Mouse (Nancy Hesse), Master of Ceremonies (Charles O’Bear), Sergeants-at-Arms (Evelyn Henshaw and Bonnie Jean Harbald), Yell Leader (Bobby Vulkerts), Color Bearer (Wallace Constable) and Courier (Bruce Karn).

 

Undated photograph and location unknown

 

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