The Press Democrat did a cross promotion with KSRO where a newspaper photographer would take a picture of someone during a "Man on the Street" interview. If your face was circled in the photo printed the next day you won a prize (in this case, a turkey) by identifying yourself. Press Democrat, Dec. 15 1937

KSRO IS ON THE AIR

The high school auditorium was packed that Sunday morning in 1937 with people from all over Sonoma county. Uniformed boy scouts ushered the last of the audience to their seats as an announcer hushed the audience. Promptly at 10:30, the speakers crackled to life with a recording of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Waiting at the microphone for the music to finish was a slight 67 year-old man in his customary three-piece suit. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. With the playing of the national anthem, station KSRO, voice of the Redwood Empire, takes the air for the first time.” He continued with the required sign on announcement before ending: “This is Ernest Finley speaking and I now turn this fine new radio station over to the people of the Redwood Empire for their use and enjoyment.”

Finley wasn’t really handing over KSRO to the public, of course – he was the sole owner of the station as well as the two newspapers in town, the Santa Rosa Republican and the Press Democrat, where he was also editor and publisher. The papers would promote the station which would promote the papers. So cozy was this little media empire that the broadcasting studios were in the PD building on Mendocino Ave.

After an invocation by the rector of the Church of the Incarnation and playing a recording of religious music, the live program continued with 15-minute salutes to Marin county and seven communities in Sonoma. Usually the mayor said a few words which were followed by music from someone in that town – there had been talent contests over the previous weeks to choose the artists. Santa Rosa was represented by a singer and Walter Trembley, harmonica virtuoso; Cloverdale sent Glen Bonham, imitator.

There were other live performances that day woven between recorded music before the big dedicatory program at 3:00, where the mayor of San Francisco spoke and the KSRO orchestra performed, along with others. The hour long program closed with an audience singalong.

And that was pretty much the end of the first broadcast day, September 19, 1937. The station signed off at 6PM, having only a permit to operate from dawn to dusk. This was typical of little commercial stations all over the country; night hours were only for the high power clear channel stations that could sometimes be heard for a thousand miles. With its 250 watt (!) transmitter, KSRO reached from San Rafael to Ukiah – but came in as far away as Eureka and San Jose when conditions were ideal.

By 1937 the radio market was well-established in the Bay Area. Probably any radio in Sonoma County could pick up the big stations in San Francisco such as KGO, KSFO and KPO (which became KNBR), which were network affiliates broadcasting all the popular programs we associate with the golden age of radio. During the day there were the soaps, including Vic and Sade, Our Gal Sunday and Ma Perkins; in the evening were the top shows such as Burns and Allen, One Man’s Family, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gangbusters, Jack Benny.

ksro19370924(RIGHT: KSRO schedule for September 24, 1937; local programming highlighted)

Pipsqueak independent stations like KSRO instead relied on a mix of local programming and a transcription service (the one first used by KSRO was NBC’s Thesaurus, upgraded soon to World). A subscribing station would get 16-inch records that played at 3313RPM, which would provide fifteen minutes of content per side. Thus a station operating on the cheap could fill much (even all!) of its schedule using just an engineer and an announcer – who could also be the engineer – to read commercials and announce time/call letters. And as you see by this schedule taken from its first week of broadcasting, that’s pretty much what KSRO did at the beginning.

The problem with transcription services was that their offerings often… sucked. In its earliest weeks KSRO mostly played transcriptions of D-list musicians such as the Mountaineers hillbilly band (who apparently never made a record) and Robin Hood Bowers (somewhat known for a 1919 ditty, “The Moon Shines on the Moonshine”). The station also broadcast generic canned programs with titles like “Melody Time” and “Rhythm Makers.” It was music to do chores by.

Those transcription shows were mostly sustained (unsponsored, except promos for other shows or perhaps Finley’s newspapers) because KSRO didn’t have many advertisers at its outset. The first sponsor was mentioned only a few days before the premiere broadcast – the White House Department Store would advertise on the noon newscast.

Among other early live studio programs were 15 minute weekly shows by The Rincon Valley Ramblers, a quartet which entertained sometimes at lodge or club meetings, and “Songs of the Island,” with Hawaiian melodies sung by the Carroll Boys from Napa: Slip, Arky, Gat and Alky. There was the 30-minute “Mickey Mouse Club” on Fridays at 4, which resurrected the riotous live show that once commandeered the California Theater on Saturday afternoons (see “LET’S ALL YELL AT THE MICKEY MOUSE MATINEE“).

On weekdays the anchoring live show was the mid-afternoon “Time for Tea,” which was completely free form. There were usually announcements from women’s clubs, churches and the like, but you might also hear some kid scraping his bow across a violin string or squeezing an accordion. They sometimes did a “Name That Tune” type game show or brought in an elementary school class to do a spelling bee.

The popular morning “Breakfast Club” opened the broadcast day at 7 (sadistically, by beating a gong that nearly blew out your speaker) and received lots of mail because the host encouraged listeners to send in their birthdates to be announced on air. A farmer from the Sonoma Valley who wanted to sell his ranch wrote that he would come on the show and do his (presumably terrific) imitation of a calf and a squeaky clothesline in trade for commercials.

Gradually over the first couple of months their live programming pushed out more of the transcribed shows. KSRO was becoming a radio station that locals wanted to actively listen to instead of just being a source of ignorable background music.

Remotes were a large reason for the station’s success. They kept their portable transmitter busy; Evelyn Billing’s organ concerts on the grand instrument at the California Theater were always popular, although sometimes she played at the Chapel of the Chimes, which wasn’t exactly a venue where one expected to hear peppy dance tunes.

They broadcast SRHS and Petaluma High football games live from the 50 yard line; Sunday morning church services; KSRO was there for the opening of Rosenberg’s Department Store (now Barnes & Noble). They took the equipment to Healdsburg to cover their Veterans Day celebration: “If the weather is nice you will get a word by word picture of the parade, bands and all. If it rains you will probably get a drop by drop sound of a rainstorm in the Redwood Empire.”

Most of all, they broadcast live every weekday at 12:45 from the Exchange Bank corner downtown. The “Man on the Street” show was easily KSRO’s most popular program of 1937. The very first question asked: “Do you think Santa Rosa should have stop lights at downtown intersections?”

The Press Democrat did a cross promotion with KSRO where a newspaper photographer would take a picture of someone during a "Man on the Street" interview. If your face was circled in the photo printed the next day you won a prize (in this case, a turkey) by identifying yourself. Press Democrat, Dec. 15 1937
The Press Democrat did a cross promotion with KSRO where a newspaper photographer would take a picture of someone during a “Man on the Street” interview. If your face was circled in the photo printed the next day you won a prize (in this case, a turkey) by identifying yourself. Press Democrat, Dec. 15 1937

KSRO wasn’t the first radio station in Santa Rosa, however. Years before – as the radio era was just beginning – there was KFNV, broadcasting with a mighty five watts from March 1924 to October 1925, off on Sundays.

Lennard Drake – yes, that’s the spelling – and his wife Aimee, who ran the Drake Battery and Radio Shop downtown, convinced the publisher of the Republican (not yet owned by Finley) to provide space for an equipment room at the newspaper’s office on Fifth street. They put it together with the aid of local radio entusiasts and using gear unapproved by the government.

Programming at KFNV was mainly phonograph records, a player piano and anyone who drifted in to talk. Their only regularly scheduled program was the “Sunset Matinee,” a 6:30PM children’s program of bedtime stories by “dear oid Uncle Silas.” The Republican radio columnist noted Silas was the father of two and “I know for I have had the pleasure of seeing them” – which is such an odd thing to write that it makes one wonder if there were whispers about the doings over at La Casa Silas.

kfnvIn 1937 Lennard was interviewed by the PD and said the station folded because of lack of sponsorship. “Radio was [considered] just a child’s toy, a fancy of the moment.” Aimee added, “no one, of course, in those days foresaw commercial sponsors.” Apparently the only advertisers were the Drake radio store and the Republican. (By 1937 the Drakes had dropped the radio business and were now selling electrical supplies, including fixtures and wiring for KSRO.)

A dozen years passed between the end of KFNV and birth of KSRO and in that time radio had become an essential part of daily life. By 1937 there were 28,000 households from San Rafael to Ukiah where the radio was on 3-4 hours during the day – all listening to commercials for stores in San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento.

Not having a local station was also a big reminder that the North Bay wasn’t a full-fledged member of the Bay Area. Promoters and developers in Marin and Sonoma counties had pushed through construction of the Golden Gate Bridge primarily to draw tourists and increase property values; when it opened just a few months before KSRO went on the air, Finley spoke of the “untold advantages and development for Santa Rosa” the bridge would bring.

Likewise KSRO wouldn’t be intended only for locals seeking department store sales on tea towels. For those tuning in from the fringes of its reception area, it also would serve as an advertisement for Sonoma county itself – that this was a great place if you were thinking of buying a little chicken farm or looking to escape the city. The homey vibe of shows like “Time for Tea” were a panacea to the slick productions cranked out by the networks and big urban stations.

But Finley et. al. weren’t alone in viewing the region as an untapped market; when the Press Democrat Publishing Company filed for a broadcasting permit from the Federal Communications Commission in early 1935, there was already someone ahead of them in line.

Two men from Berkeley, Arthur Westland and Jules Cohn, had applied for a 100 watt station to cover Santa Rosa alone. They were pioneers in the radio biz and operated KRE in Berkeley, a station which dated back to 1922.

In February of 1935 the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce – always in lockstep with Finley and the PD – sent the FCC a telegram asking them to deny the Berkeley application because Westland had falsely told the Commission “there was no opposition to the proposal.” Two months later an FCC examiner recommended denying Westland and Cohn. The reasons, according to the PD, were that it was “not shown there was a substantial need for additional broadcast service in that area” and that any station was unlikely to be a viable business because there just wasn’t enough interest.

Yet that same April there was a formal hearing on Finley’s application. Presumably he and others attended that meeting in Washington, but it wasn’t mentioned in either newspaper at the time. Final arguments for the permit were made in October 1936, and a month later the FCC denied the Berkeley-ites and granted the license to Finley.

ksroasbestosBoth of Finley’s newspapers covered the 1937 build-out of KSRO obsessively. Readers saw photos of the antenna going up in the Laguna – it was at the corner of modern-day Finley and Leddy avenues – and the transmission “shack” built at its base (it remained there even after the antenna was moved close to Stony Point Road, but burned up in a 1968 fire caused by homeless squatters).

The papers also admiringly described the remodeling done to turn the second floor of the Press Democrat office into broadcast studios (alas, no photos). Since the rooms had to be soundproof there were no windows; there was a gee-whiz astonishment that they were to be air conditioned full time.

They hoped to be running by August 15 so they could broadcast remote from the county fair, but obstacles arose which were not explained. But a month later there was that ceremony where 750 people packed into the high school auditorium.

KSRO was now on the air.

Guerneville during the 1937 flood. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Guerneville during the 1937 flood. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The station may have continued down its uneventful path for years, slowly building an audience as it kept improving local programming. But before it was even three months old its coming of age moment arrived: People’s lives became dependent upon listening to KSRO.

In December 10-11, all of Northern California was saturated by ultra-massive rains. The PD called it “worst storm in all history” and “the greatest havoc ever wreaked in Sonoma County.” Unfortunately, we can’t compare it to other disasters because Russian River flood records are inexact before 1940 – but old-timers insisted it was the worst in 60-70 years. It was the damage caused by this flood that would eventually lead to the construction of the Warm Springs Dam.

Parts of Healdsburg were under ten feet of water and the deck of its railroad (Memorial) bridge was covered. Goats and calves were herded into a church near the town – and then had to be moved again a couple of hours later when the water reached the church. A two story house from Rio Nido was hurled against the Guerneville Bridge. Before the water reached the switchboard, operators at the Monte Rio telephone exchange were wearing hip boots and standing in 40 inches of water.

The Russian River kept rising, first three inches an hour, then four. Five. Electricity was out everywhere and phone service was spotty. Hundreds of families, hungry and cold, were huddled in upstairs bedrooms, in attics, on their roof and nobody knew how bad it would get or what to do – unless you had a battery-powered radio tuned to KSRO.

News bulletins from the station warned listeners to conserve drinking water because well pumps wouldn’t be working for days. There were phone interviews with mayors or other officials in many of the hard-hit towns, updating citizens on the latest conditions. There were road reports from AAA. In Geyserville, the director of relief work announced on KSRO that anyone needing help should fly a white flag from the top of their house. Soon a dozen or more flags were spotted by volunteers with binoculars watching from high ground and they directed rescue boats where to go.

ksro19380806Amazingly, no one died locally during the disaster – and KSRO surely must deserve some measure of credit for that.

(RIGHT: KSRO schedule for August 6, 1938; local programming highlighted. Capitalized shows were sponsored)

In the months that followed the local radio columnists mentioned the growing amount of fan mail being received by “KSRO personalities.” Live programming was now about half the schedule. Added to the schedule were popular new shows such as “KSROlling Along,” the “Italian Program With Guiseppe Comelli,” and the “X-Bar-B Cowhands.” The country-western band was a bit of a coup for the station as they already had a following, having been heard on a San Francisco station for six years before the group moved to the Russian River area.

Finally KSRO gained permission for evening broadcasts and as of August 1, 1938 it was now on the air up to 11 o’clock, midnight on weekends. As before, there was a dedication ceremony (this one featuring 21 year-old Miss Ruth Finley, “concert pianist”) and a short speech by Ernest Finley. He said, in part:

In inaugurating Station KSRO, we were pleased to call it the ‘Voice of the Redwood Empire.’ We feel that it has been just that. Every effort has been made to bring the various communities of the Redwood Empire closer together. Our survey shows that Station KSRO has a listening audience of 150,000 persons. This does not take into account Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, San Francisco or any of the cities about the bay, in many of which reception is fully as good as it is here.

In some ways that moment was as significant as the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge for Sonoma county. KSRO had brought all of us closer together via its news coverage during the flood. And although Finley was thinking of the promotional value of the station luring Bay Area residents, it also meant we could take part of our community with us when we went away.

As your car crossed the beautiful bridge and the northern counties slipped from sight behind the city hills, the signal might become crackly and drift in and out – but it would always be a steady beacon which would later guide you home.

"Night Time Now KSRO Time" Press Democrat, July 31, 1938
“Night Time Now KSRO Time” Press Democrat, July 31, 1938
KSRO Orchestra. Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1937
KSRO Orchestra. Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1937
"KSRO Greets You". Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1937
“KSRO Greets You”. Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1937

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burbank school title

ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR BURBANK

Dear Luther Burbank: Will you please allow us to honor you by putting your name on our new elementary school? Sincerely, The Board of Education.

That was the gist of their February 1906 request, according to the Press Democrat, and a few days later an article followed about Burbank granting permission, “…but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution. My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.”

Sure, old Luther poured on the faux humility a bit too thick, but he really did have a genuine affection for children, although he was never a parent. He wrote and spoke often about education and the importance of nurturing children (including some quirky ideas, such as they shouldn’t begin schooling until age ten). Burbank was famously impatient with adults who dropped by his Santa Rosa garden seeking an audience, but he always gave children his full attention, hoping to spark a lifelong love of nature. And for some reason he oddly felt compelled to entertain them by performing headstands and somersaults.

Why they wanted to name school after Burbank was obvious: In the same Press Democrat article he was called a “great scientist” and “Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen.” The year before, Burbank had been awarded an annual grant of $10,000 by the Carnegie Institution. As the prestigious Institution was known for funding only the pursuit of pure scientific research, Burbank suddenly was cast as a celebrity and a genius of world-class importance instead of merely a nursery man who produced novelty flower and vegetable seeds. (The deal ended bitterly for Burbank in 1909 amid a growing number of scientists calling him a charlatan – see the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series for more.)

But naming a school to tribute a person was a new thing around Santa Rosa. Previously schools were called after the school district – the Lewis district school, Llano district school, Monroe district school, and so on. In town grammar schools were named for the location: Davis street, South Park, Third street. A PD article in 1905 (transcribed below) pointed out that cities were now naming schools after presidents and other prominent men, so besides naming the new school after Burbank, the Fourth street school was renamed Fremont school at about the same time.

Luther Burbank performing somersaults for children at age 70 or 71, circa 1920. Image: Sonoma County Library
Luther Burbank performing somersaults for children at age 70 or 71, circa 1920. Image: Sonoma County Library

Burbank name aside, the school ran into a number of serious problems before its doors opened.

Santa Rosa schools were in poor condition and badly overcrowded; a 1904 muckraking series in the Republican newspaper reported that the 62 sixth graders at the Fourth street school were wedged into a classroom with a capacity for 46. Desks were so tightly packed that kids brushed against the arms of classmates when walking between the aisles of desks, and some didn’t have desks at all, but sat on stools. There was no electricity so the only light came from westside windows; heating was a coal stove in the middle of the room. Not a thing had been upgraded since the school was built in the 1870s.

It was generally recognized that any new school should be south of Santa Rosa Creek, as that area was being developed and growing quickly. A special election for a school bond failed just before Christmas 1904 – likely because the Press Democrat called the reports of overcrowding “gross exaggeration” – but passed the following March.

Nearly a year went by before the Burbank naming and construction started on the eight room schoolhouse. (All grammar schools covered grades 1-8. and this would also have an assembly hall, library, teacher’s lounge and separate boy/girl playrooms in the basement.) But work had barely begun before the project halted amid controversy and threats of violence.

Santa Rosa’s Labor Council called for a general strike in January 1906 and as the school was to be a stone and brick building, union bricklayers walked off the job. The local contractor then brought in scab workers from Los Angeles – without telling them they were coming here to break a strike. Complicating matters greatly was that the non-union, out-of-town bricklayers were African-American.

Instead of directing their anger towards the contractor, white union workers targeted Black men and one of them picked a fight with an African-American named Paul Anderson, unaware that he wasn’t part of the group from LA and actually lived here. According to the Republican paper, a white mob stalked him along Fourth street with Anderson carrying a length of pipe for self-defense in case they attacked. In spite of Anderson filing an assault charge against one of the men, the PD story on the incident cast Anderson as someone who was “looking for trouble” and who “ran amuck.” (The man he accused of assault, BTW, was a popular union leader and elected to City Council two years later.)

Work resumed in late March, but not for long – the great Santa Rosa Earthquake struck April 18, 1906. Suddenly constructing buildings of stone and brick didn’t seem like such a swell idea.

With much of downtown flattened, everyone in town had more pressing concerns than what to do with a barely-started schoolhouse. When the school board finally met with the contractor months later, the building was completely redesigned – it would now be wood frame and only one story, with the top floor to be determined. Apparently the only serious damage to what already had been built was part of the basement wall collapsing.

Plans changed again and the upper story was back; work was supposed to completed by October, then by Christmas, then by February. The doors finally opened on March 7, 1907 – Luther Burbank’s birthday. He gave an earnest address on kindness and happiness.

Luther Burbank School (1907-1940) Postcard image: Sonoma County Library
Luther Burbank School (1907-1940) Postcard image: Sonoma County Library

Years passed and two generations of Santa Rosa’s children were schooled there. All manner of poignant stories about the place can be found in the old newspapers. In 1928, 12 year-old Alta Waters wrote to the Press Democrat about Penny, a collie who lived at the school after being hit by a car; on Saturdays the kids took the dog to the movies with them. At the end of summer vacation “Penny would almost die of joy to see us all again.” There were shows performed for parents nearly every year, and the children ran a “student city” complete with a chamber of commerce, post office, clothing store, bank – and likely because this was Burbank school, there was also a garden club. In the 1930s they had Mrs. Gregg, a beloved principal who taught them puppetry while they made up plays together. I could go on for pages more about all that happened during those wonderful days.

Then in September 1938, a Republican headline read: “Fire Menace at Burbank Emphasized.” The problems were real but not particularly dire – the stairways were somewhat narrow and the fire escapes were rickety. The real incentive to rebuild the school, however, was that a federal grant would pay for 45 percent of new construction. The Republican article continued:

Burbank school erected in 1906, damaged by the earthquake and rebuilt on a substitute plan, is in bad state of repair requiring almost constant remodeling and costly replacement to keep it in usable condition, school officials said yesterday. Eventually because of fire hazard the 32-year-old structure must be torn down and replaced. Sponsors of the bond issue believe that the cheapest and best way to solve the problem is to take advantage of the federal funds now offered as an outright gift…

1938burbank school(RIGHT: The 1938 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect)

The school bond passed easily (six to one). Before the vote both city newspapers featured the preliminary drawing seen here. The designer for that and the school which was built was William Herbert, a local architect who was never accused of originality. Almost everything he produced was in this Spanish Colonial style; the final design was in the Streamline/PWA Moderne style introduced in Santa Rosa years before by Herbert’s former partner, Cal Caulkins.

The original schoolhouse was demolished in June, 1940. On that occasion the Republican offered something of an obituary: “Walls that for more than 33 years have echoed the laughter of happy children, the sing-song chant of students reading aloud their daily lessons, the quick steps of young Americans as they marched to and from their classes, started crumbling away yesterday…”

The article written by V. C. Silvershield ended: “Luther Burbank has passed on but his works will never die. Today Luther Burbank grammar school also will die — but the wreckers’ hammers cannot kill the spirit of Burbank — and like the Phoenix a new Luther Burbank grammar school will spring forth to carry on the traditions of “south of the creek.”

The 1940 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect
The 1940 design for Luther Burbank School, William Herbert architect

 

sources
It will soon be in order for Santa Rosa to follow the lead of Oakland and build some schoolhouses worthy of the city. A school building should be erected south of Santa Rosa creek the coming summer.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 27 1904

 

SCHOOL CHILDREN MUST HAVE ROOM
Trustees Unanimous For a Bond Issue and Want a Durable Building

The members of the Board of Education of Court House School District will hold a special meeting tomorrow evening at the office of Secretary Fred G. Nagle to discuss the matter of providing Santa Rosa with adequate school facilities. At the present time there are practically three hundred children attending the schools for whom there is no provision for seats and desks. It is up to the Board of Education to provide additional room. This can only be done through a bond issue as the revenue of the schools at present is only adequate for the ordinary needs of the district.

At the present time there are one hundred more pupils in the Fourth street grammar school than ever before, and two hundred more than any previous record for this month. January and February are recognized as the heaviest school months and when this influx of pupils arrives the principal and teachers of the schools will be completely swamped…

…[Board Trustee] Albert O. Erwin— “We have pupils enough at the present time to fill five additional rooms and there is a great overflow of pupils from the Fourth-street and Davis-street schools. I believe there should be some arrangement for handling the pupils on the south side of Santa Rosa creek. There is a large and growing population in the south and southwest sections of the city which needs our attention. I should like to see a brick or stone building constructed of about eight rooms…

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 15, 1904

 

Resolved, That in the event of the voting and sale of the proposed bonds, it is hereby declared to be the intention of this board to build two new school buildings of brick or stone, and that it is their intention to locate one of them south of Santa Rosa creek upon such a convenient and central lot as it is possible to secure at a reasonable price…

– Board of Trustees of Court House School District, December 6, 1904

 

NAMES FOR SCHOOLS
Suggestion Made Which Will Receive Consideration

Several times of late reference has been made at the meetings of the Board of Education to the inconvenience of the present method of designating the various schools in the district and suggestions have been made that the schools should each be given a distinctive name as in other cities. With the building of the new school south of the creek has come the suggestion that it shall be known as the “Burbank” school. As to the other schools it has been suggested that names of prominent men might be assigned. Oakland has its Lincoln, McKinley, Garfield and Swett schools, while all other cities have similar names for the schools.

– Press Democrat, November 3 1905

 

NEW SCHOOL HOUSE TO BE NAMED FOR LUTHER BURBANK
Meeting of Board of Education

The Board of Education of Court House School District, at an adjourned meeting last night, decided to honor Santa Rosa’s eminent citizen, Luther Burbank, by naming her best and latest school building in his honor, providing he would consent to the action. The Board decided that the new ten-room stone and brick building at the corner of A and Ellis street, south of the creek should be called the “Luther Burbank School” in honor of the great scientist, and the secretary was directed to write and request Mr. Burbank to allow the use of his name by the school department in this manner.

– Press Democrat, February 14 1906

 

BURBANK WILL ACCEPT HONOR
His Love for Children and Interest in Santa Rosa Excuse for So Doing

The request of the Board of Education for permission to use the name of Santa Rosa’s eminent scientist for its new eight room brick and stone school building being erected near his home, on A street at the corner of Ellis, has been accepted with the following characteristic reply from Mr. Burbank:

“Mr. Hugh C. Coltrln, Secretary Board of Education, Santa Rosa, California.

“My Dear Sir: I cannot be otherwise than highly pleased with the proposition of the Board of Education to name the beautiful new school building, at the corner of A and Ellis streets, the Luther Burbank school.

“I can only say that I feel wholly unworthy of such a compliment, but if this action is pleasing to the Board I shall accept the compliment, but not without many misgivings as to my ability to hold up the reputation of such a fine institution.

“My deep interest in all children, as well as Santa Rosa in general, will be my apology for accepting this honor.

“Heartily yours. Luther Burbank.”

– Press Democrat, February 21 1906

 

SCHOOL BOARD IN SESSION

…A considerable portion of the evening was spent in a discussion of the Burbank school reconstruction. Contractor Kuykendall and Sub-Contractor Nagle were present to confer with the board. At a late hour an adjournment was taken to Friday night…

– Press Democrat, June 27 1906

 

BOARD OF EDUCATION ADJUSTS THE LOSS

The Board of Education of Court House School District met Friday evening and adjusted the loss on the Burbank school building. The gross loss is estimated at $10,000 which will be reduced to one-half that amount by the salvage allowance of Contractor J. O. Kuykendall. On April 18 when the building was damaged there was due and had been paid the contractor the sum of $10,876.45 out of a contract price of $27,496.

The board decided to change the material of the building and instead of brick it will be constructed of wood. It will be a frame building from the basement up and the basement which was damaged will be rebuilt in the weak portions. At the present time only the lower floor will be completed and the building of the second story will be held in abeyance.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 30, 1906

 

WORK IS PROGRESSING ON BURBANK SCHOOL

When driving go by the Burbank school building and note the progress now in evidence there. The frame for both stories is up and the diagonal sheeting is being put on. Contractor Kuykendall is pushing the work as rapidly as possible and he will endeavor to have the structure completed in October.

The frame of the building stands on the inner half of the foundation. This will admit of a curve at the base extending to the outside of the foundation wall and will give the structure pleasing effect.

As soon as the building is completed Colonel Juilliard will extend A street through to Lemmon & Barnett’s addition and the entire street will then be improved and will become a popular drive. This will make that section even more desirable for homes.

The Burbank will be the best ward school building in the city. It will be of handsome design and properly lighted, heated and ventilated. The south side of the town has made splendid progress the past two years and even better things are expected in the future.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 8, 1906

 

SCHOOLS OPEN SEPTEMBER 4

…It is expected that the new Burbank school house will also be open by October if nothing to hinder the progress of the work occurs…

– Press Democrat, August 11 1906

 

TO COMPLETE SCHOOLHOUSE
Upper Story of the New Burbank School Will Be Fitted Up — Meeting of School Board

At the meeting of the Board of Education last night it was decided to finish the upper story of the new Burbank school house on Ellis street. This will provide four extra rooms.

The decision was reached after an extended conference between the members of the board and Contractor Kuykendall. The rooms will be furnished as soon as completed.

– Press Democrat, September 12 1906

 

THE SCHOOLS TO REOPEN MONDAY

…The new Burbank school house will be ready for occupancy, it is hoped, not later than the first of February…

– Press Democrat, January 6 1907

 

THE NEW LUTHER BURBANK SCHOOL IS DEDICATED
Address Is Delivered By Distinguished Scientist
Petite Ruby Randall Raises Flag for the First Time on School Grounds on Thursday Afternoon

If the weather had been made to order for the celebration of the birthday of Santa Rosa’s distinguished citizen, Mr. Luther Burbank, or for the dedication of Santa Rosa’s handsome new schoolhouse named for him — the Burbank school — it could not have been more delightful.

The day broke with radiant sunshine end all Nature looked its best on this occasion. The buds on trees and shrubs burst forth into life and the blossoms unfolded their rich tints on the day marking the birth of the man whose care and genius has done so much to improve plant and flowers, making them give of their best for the use and pleasure of mankind.

For the first time in Thursday afternoon’s sunshine “Old Glory,” the emblem of patriotism, was flung to the breeze from the mast in the schoolhouse grounds, and from it lessons will be drawn by the instructors who labor and will labor in the school in pointing the young idea to the paths that will lead to the after good citizenship of their lives if they heed the lessons given them.

Another special feature of Thursday, aside from the dedication of the schoolhouse occurring on the birthday of the man for whom it was named, was his presence at the dedication and his delivery of an address in which the kindliest of thoughts had place.

Another inspiring thing about those dedication exercises was the blending of child voices In song and chorus. Then is something uplifting in the melody of the child voice when raised on such songs as formed a feature of the dedication. The songs indicated clever rehearsal and response to instruction.

All in all the program was a pleasing one and there was no need for excuse because it was a simple one, robbed of some more pretentious numbers on account of necessary postponements on account of previous bad weather.

At the dedication of the schoolhouse there were some four hundred school children and as many more grown people. They were grouped about the main entrance above which is the gold lettering “Luther Burbank School.” At the outset of the program Principal Leander Good spoke brief words of welcome and spoke of the significance of the occasion. Then a score of school girls, led by Miss Hattie Johnson, sang, “California.” In a few well chosen words Principal Good introduced Mr. Burbank, who spoke as follows:

“My dear young friends — little neighbors — boys and girls:

“I am glad to meet you in this beautiful new house which has been built by your parents and neighbors for you. Do you know why they build school houses for you? My little neighbors did you know that your precious lives hold wonders of wealth, beauty strength, usefulness, your own happiness and the happiness of every one you meet, or sorrow, pain and misery for yourselves and all your friends? This is so.

“This building, these kind teachers and your parents and friends are all to help you to successful and happy lives but you all know that there are two kinds of boys and girls, those who build and those who destroy. Who do you love among your schoolmates? — not those who throw stones at innocent, helpless animals, not those who break and destroy fences, trees and windows, not those who wish to quarrel and fight; but you do all love and respect those who are kind, gentle, unselfish, the peacemakers. Weakling cowards boast, swagger and brag; the brave ones, the good ones, are gentle and kind.

“Now I wish to tell you a secret. I think every one of you, my young friends and neighbors of Santa Rosa, wish to make the best of your precious lives, to have plenty of friends, to be happy and to win success. I will tell you how, just how. Cultivate kind gentle loving thoughts toward every person, animal and even the plants, stars, oceans, rivers and hills. You will find yourself growing more happy each day and with happiness comes health and everything you want.

“I came to speak these words to you because I wish to help you and to prove this I will say that when these grounds about the building are ready, call on Luther Burbank and he will give you all the beautiful young trees and plants you need for ornament and shade.”

At the conclusion of Mr. Burbank’s words he heartily applauded. There was another song and then City Superintendent E. Morris Cox addressed the audience. Mr, Cox dwelt upon the significance of the occasion and paid a glowing tribute to Mr. Burbank and his interest in education. He then explained something about the construction and symmetry of the structure and invited all present to inspect the new schoolhouse named by the Board of Education to perpetuate the name snd work of Santa Rosa’s very distinguished man.

While two or three score of children sang an ode to the Star and Stripes little Miss Ruby Randall commenced to pull the rope and in a short time the flag was floating from the top of the pole and the crowd below shouted their applause and clapped their hands…Several hundred people inspected the building and were well pleased.

– Press Democrat, March 8 1907

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redwoodhighway

YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER (Series Index)

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is a flippant line tossed off in a novel by William Faulkner (don’t bother reading it; I did one college summer, when I thought Faulkner novels were something I just had to learn to appreciate, more the fool I) and that quote reflects the theme of the book, which is about the terrible prices we often pay for long-ago mistakes. In recent years it’s been misappropriated to mean history in general, particularly as an upbeat catchphrase for historic places. That meaning fits the town of Sonoma, with its adobes haunted by Vallejo’s ghosts, or Petaluma, with much of its downtown undisturbed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But Santa Rosa – not so much. Here the phrase has to be used in its original intent, to express the unhappy ways we are dogged by our past.


THE REDEVELOPMENT SERIES

HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…

…AND HOW WE GAINED AN UGLY CITY HALL

HOW WE LOST THE COURTHOUSE

IT WILL BE A RESPLENDENT CITY

TEARING APART “THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING”

WHO OWNED COURTHOUSE SQUARE?

 

This is the 700th article to appear in this journal, which now clocks in at over 1.5 million words (I have statistically typed the letter “e” about 190,530 times but the letter “z” merely 1,110). Normally such a milestone is an occasion for a “best of” recap but I did that not so long ago back at #650 with “650 KISSES DEEP,” so instead I’d like to step back and reflect on some of the reasons Santa Rosa came to be the way it is today.

This is also timely because right now (summer 2019) the city is working on the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan which “seeks to guide new development with a view to creating a vibrant urban center with a distinct identity and character.” The plan calls for wedging up to 7,000 more housing units into the downtown area, which will be quite a trick.

There are limits to what developers can build, in part because this is a high-risk earthquake zone (a 1 in 3 chance we will have a catastrophe within the next 26 years), but a greater obstacle is that Santa Rosa is uniquely burdened by layers of bad decisions made over several decades.

THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN PLAN   Santa Rosa’s prime underlying problem is (literally) underlying. Scrape off the present downtown buildings and we have the same frontier village that was platted way back in 1853, when there was only one house (Julio Carrillo’s), a store, a tavern and stray pigs. It was small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three – 70 total acres from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street.

Now eight score and five years since, our downtown core is virtually unchanged from that original street grid – minus the 40 acres lopped off for the highway and mall – so there ain’t much room on the dance floor for developers to make any sort of dramatic moves.

Not that people haven’t envisioned a better downtown. In 1945 architect “Cal” Caulkins created a plan which eliminated Courthouse Square and turned almost all of the space between First and Third streets into a Civic Center. No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, as I wrote in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.” The plan had universal and enthusiastic support and only needed voter approval of a $100k bond to get started. It lost by 96 votes on a ballot crowded with other bond measures. Attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to revive a modified version of the design in 1953 went nowhere.

Another big attempt to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems came in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was for the public to drive to a parking garage/lot as easily as possible and walk.

Over the following years came a succession of consultants and developers with both detailed schemes and spitballing proposals, mainly focused on revitalizing Fourth street by making it more walkable. (Most innovative was an idea to rip out the roadway and replace it with an artificial creek criss-crossed by little footbridges.) In 1981 it was rechristened the “Fourth Street Mall” and closed to autos on Friday and Saturday nights to squash the local street cruising fad, topics covered in “POSITIVELY PEDESTRIAN 4TH STREET.”

Tinkering does not a city remake, and downtown is still as it always was, an Old West village square. As I’ve joked before, the town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…During the Gold Rush.”

THE PRICE OF PARKING   Or maybe the motto should be, “The City Designed For Buggies.”

For a city with such a small downtown, Santa Rosa devotes a big hunk of that footprint to automobile parking, with nine lots and five garages. Yet should even half of the new residents in those 7,000 proposed apartments/condos have a car, every single parking spot will be taken – and then some.

Santa Rosa has always had a fraught relationship with autos, and it’s again because so much of the core area is unchanged from its buggywhip days. Once beyond the eight square blocks around Courthouse Square many of the old residential streets are so narrow that parking is not allowed on both sides and it’s still a squeeze when trucks or SUVs pass. Again, high-density development would be tough. (The exception is College ave. which is quite wide because they drove cattle down the street from the Southern Pacific depot on North street to the slaughterhouse near Cleveland ave.)

Complaints about downtown parking go back to 1910, when farmers coming to town in their wagons for Saturday shopping found fewer hitching posts available. In 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets as a kind of horse parking lot.

Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection
Fourth street between A and B streets c. 1922-1925. Postcard courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

From the 1920s onward, photos of downtown show seemingly every parking spot taken. There was no shortage of articles in the Press Democrat detailing the latest plans to solve the parking problem – including 1937’s increased fines for every additional violation, which reveals a major drawback of living in a small town where the Meter Lady knows everybody.

The crisis came 1945-1946, when the city introduced parking meters along with Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, both to predictable taxpayer howls. The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the tax and the parking meters and although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of Boston Tea Party protest. On top of that, street parking was dreaded because the city insisted upon parallel parking only, even though merchants had been protesting it for many years. (Those pre-1950 land-yachts did not have power steering, so turning the wheels when the car was not in motion was a helluva workout.) For more on all this feuding see: “CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS.”

2 tons of American steel
2 tons of American steel

Whilst the normally peaceable citizens of Santa Rosa were stabbing their City Councilman dolls with voodoo pins, a guy named Hugh Codding was building a new shopping center he called Montgomery Village. It opened in 1950 with an advertising blitz promoting no sales tax (because it was outside of city limits) and easy, meter-free parking. Shoppers flocked there. Thus closed the first chapter of a big book we might call, “A Series of City Hall’s Unfortunate Events.”

OUR WAY OR NO FREEWAY   City Hall alone was not to blame for all that era’s dreadful decisions; together with the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce they “sawed the town in half,” as a Press Democrat editor put it in the paper’s 1948 end of year wrapup.

As well known from old photos, the Redwood Highway – AKA Highway 101 – used to pass smack through downtown Santa Rosa, around Courthouse Square and up Mendocino ave. This traffic included not only your aunt Ginny running errands across town but big trucks passing through with redwood logs, cattle, farm equipment and such. It may have looked like the City of Roses, but it probably smelled like the City of Diesel.

prop2In 1938 there was a municipal bond measure to fund an alt truck route around downtown. It failed to pass but would have pushed all that heavy traffic over to Wilson street, which was the heart of our “Little Italy” community – although the ads for the bond pleaded it was urgently needed for the safety of our school children, that concern apparently didn’t extend to the Italian kids. Backers also warned this truck route was necessary because the State Highway Commission might otherwise build a bypass and turn Santa Rosa into a “ghost town.”

A couple of years passed. The city’s Grand Poobahs were still stuck on the idea of a truck route but now wanted it a block closer to downtown, on Davis st. (or rather, between Davis and Morgan streets). The state offered no firm counterproposal; maybe they would construct a bypass somewhere west of Santa Rosa or perhaps use the Davis st. route with a short five block overpass, similar to what they were currently building in San Rafael. Anyway, there was no urgency: The state estimated there were only 4,500 daily trips along this stretch of highway 101 (today there are about 100,000).

Come 1941, however, the Press Democrat front page screamed with 72-point headlines – not just about the war against Hitler, but the war against the Highway Commission.

“An insult to Santa Rosa!” raged a PD op/ed after the state announced it was going to build a 13 block overpass through the town, from Sebastopol road to Ninth st. The paper called this a “highway on stilts” and the Downtown Association lawyer said it would “create the impression that the city is nothing more or less than a ‘slough town.'”

Santa Rosa’s response came in another banner headline: “CITY TO BUILD ALTERNATE TRUCK HIGHWAY!” They quickly bought right-of-way from seven homeowners between South A and South Davis streets (moving one of the houses), paved the stub of a road, and because the Commission didn’t grunt in disapproval, the town declared victory. The next thing anyone knew was when a state engineer was found surveying for the overpass and told someone it was “absolutely necessary at this time.”

I will mercifully spare Gentle Reader the full drama of what happened between 1942 and 1948, except to say that the Press Democrat wore out its supply of lead type exclamation marks (“CITY TO FIGHT OVERHEAD HIGHWAY!”) as it breathlessly reported all the good news about how the damned “Stilt Road” was not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. And then another surveyor showed up from Sacramento. Nope.

There were in toto six different routes under consideration by the Highway Commission; unfortunately, not all of them were detailed in any Sonoma county newspapers (as far as I can tell). There was always the threat of a complete western bypass, but it was never mentioned whether that route would have been Stony Point or Wright/Fulton, or both. Serious consideration was given an eastern route from Petaluma Hill road to North street, curving back to Redwood Highway/Mendocino ave. between Memorial Park and Lewis road – which would have brought the highway rumblings within earshot of the tony McDonald ave. neighborhood, of course.

The state finally relented and gave Santa Rosa what the Poobahs wanted – a ground-level freeway that mostly wiped out Davis street (it’s the same route of highway 101 today). There were eleven crossings on it between Sebastopol road and Steele lane so there were plenty of chances to turn off and do some shopping.

Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
Building highway 101 in 1948. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

Our ancestors fought so fiercely for this layout because they believed the downtown business district would wither if there was a bypass – that Santa Rosa couldn’t survive unless shoppers were only seconds away from their favorite stores. But I suspect another reason was because they didn’t actually grasp the concept of freeways. It was the mid-1940s, remember, and the very first one in America (Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) had been constructed just a few years before. From some of the remarks in the PD it appears they thought of an elevated freeway like a bridge, where there was no getting on or off in midspan; when road options were presented at hearings in Petaluma, state officials had to explain that a freeway included a certain number of on and off ramps.

By contrast, when Petaluma’s highway improvements came years later that town had the opposite attitude – the state could not build their downtown bypass fast enough. “Loss of the tourist trade will be more than offset by an increase in local trade,” their City Manager said before work began. Petaluma’s greatest concern was the route be chosen with care to avoid the “poultry belt” because of “the harmful effects of irregular noises, headlights and police sirens on white leghorns,” as a freeway skeptic remarked.

The grand opening of the “Santa Rosa Freeway” was May 20, 1949. Less than two months passed before the first fatality: George Dow was killed in July when a car turning onto West College crossed his southbound lane. After that someone died every ten weeks on the average until the PD wrote a 1950 editorial which began, “A state highway ‘deathway’ runs through Santa Rosa. It is mistakenly called a ‘freeway.'”

Remember the joke that a camel was a horse designed by a committee? This was a freeway designed by shopkeepers. Of the eleven crossings only seven had stoplights. The only turn lanes were on the southbound side for turning east onto Third, Fourth and Fifth streets – to make it easier to get downtown, of course – otherwise drivers shot across oncoming traffic. Crossings at Steele Lane, Fifth St. and Barham Ave. proved the most deadly and the city asked for more traffic lights; the state replied they would study the safety issues concerning the road they told us they did not want to build. Meanwhile, the speed limit was cranked down from 55 to 45 to 35 as the death toll mounted and the city discovered there was more cross-traffic than there were cars using the highway.

Then there was the community impact. The PD sent out a reporter in 1950 to talk to people living on the west side. He was told the freeway made them feel stigmatized – they were on the “wrong side of tracks.” And so they were; there were no parks around there at the time except for a single weedy lot. Their 400+ kids had to walk across the freeway to go to school (mainly Burbank Elementary), so the city built a pedestrian underpass at Ellis Street. It flooded during heavy rains.

There was no whitewashing the fact that the freeway was a disaster in every way, and no doubt about who was to blame for it being like that. But curiously, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the names of the guys it had long praised for standing up to those smarty-pants state engineers just a few years earlier.

Santa Rosa’s City Manager Sam Hood spoke to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 1951 and said the “selfish interests” who were to blame for forcing through the ground-level roadway had come to find the freeway had no impact on their business at all. He added that if a vote were to be held that day – less than two years after the freeway opened – not one merchant would oppose a bypass.

The PD managed to both strongly condemn the freeway (“every intersection is a death-trap”) while making its original boosters – including the paper itself – even more anonymous in a 1956 editorial: “…well-intentioned Santa Rosans, laymen who thought they knew more than highly experienced and qualified engineers, who kicked, screamed and protested until they had their way – and saddled Santa Rosa with a classic example of what happens when local pressure-groups have their way.” So forgiving.

Santa Rosa finally yielded to the state and planning began for what we have today – an elevated highway 101 directly above the old ground level version. When work began the PD printed an Aug. 24, 1966 feature on the detour plans and expressed relief that the end was nigh for our “17-year-old mistake.” The new freeway opened October 1968 and cost $3.8M.

The old Santa Rosa Freeway may be no more but its terrible legacy remains, forever splitting the city between east and west. Whatever happens to this city – a population boom, catastrophic earthquake or fire, sweeping redevelopment or no development at all – that highway will endure and shape what we can do with our future. In Santa Rosa it will always be 1949.

NEXT: HOW WE LOST SANTA ROSA CREEK…
 

 

(Photo at top courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection)

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