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THE LOST HISTORY OF THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR

Come August it’s Sonoma County Fair time in Santa Rosa; you can set your calendar by it. Even if you don’t attend the Fair anymore it’s one of those milestones that stubbornly refuse to be ignored, like Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December. One morning the checkout line at the Cash & Carry was taking forever because the people ahead of me were mostly paying with crumpled one dollar bills. Then I noticed what was on their warehouse push carts: The cheapest cooking oil, bags of sugar heavier than a five year-old child, gallons of colorful fruit syrups. Ding! August. County Fair.

But it wasn’t always in August, or in Santa Rosa, and the fairgrounds has a very spotty history of even being a fairgrounds. Nor was there something every year which could be called the Sonoma County Fair; draw a timeline between 1883 and today and randomly pick a year – about a third of the time you’ll come up fairless.

This is a history of how the “Sonoma County Fair” evolved, but just like every evolutionary tree there was no clear, inevitable path from when it took root to where it is now; what we have today is just one branch that won out among several of its kin that didn’t happen to do as well. Some were organized by locals who created an association or society for that purpose; some were an official event of the state’s agricultural district for the North Bay. But even whether the fair was independent vs. government-sponsored doesn’t fully explain how things developed – at different times, what became the “Sonoma County Fair” has been both. The district fairs were mostly exhibits to promote local livestock and produce; the private fairs usually featured professional/semi-professional horse racing. And again, the “Sonoma County Fair” embraced both.

Rightfully Petaluma’s Sonoma-Marin Fair should probably have the County Fair monicker, as it has a longer record (starting in 1867) and has been held most consistently. Even older was the San Pablo Bay District Fair, which began in 1859. It was held in both the town of Sonoma and Vallejo and morphed into what was called the first “county fair” in the newspapers – the fascinating “Sonoma-Napa Mechanical Fair,” which drew Victorian nerds from all over the state (lots of wine drinking, too). That one will get an article here of its own, someday.

But while those other towns were earnestly trying to establish and maintain their annual festivals, in Santa Rosa there was tepid interest in fair-making, and what did exist proceeded in fits and starts for decades. What the City of Roses really wanted was to become the City of Races.

Whenever a town in the Old West rose out of the dust to become something better than just another stagecoach stop, it seemed there was always one guy who did ten times more than anyone else. In Santa Rosa, that was James P. Clark.

Clark arrived here with his brother in 1852, the year before the town was born. Over the next three decades he would be a founding member of the volunteer fire department, sheriff and mayor. As the latter he cast the tie-breaking vote to establish a public library here, the 1884 City Council being split between those who thought libraries were a waste of tax money or not. (Oh, Santa Rosa…) He bought Julio Carrillo’s “stall and buggy shed” and turned it into the Fashion Livery Stable, which became the hub for anything related to horse travel – an operation so big it took up the entire city block where the Roxy movie theater complex is today. He also bought from Julio the first house that was ever built in town, plus another 180 acres which he subdivided into (what would become much of) the West End Neighborhood and Railroad Square.

James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum
James Preston Clark (1820-1886) Image courtesy Sonoma County Museum

But what interests us here most about J.P. Clark is his interest in building racetracks and founding fairs.

In 1860 a group of local men formed a jockey club – which is to say, they agreed to pay dues of $25/year to construct a racetrack and organize several days of races. Clark built the track near the future Railroad Square depot location (no trains here yet in 1860, remember). Gamblers and horse breeders from all over the Bay Area came to that race, which was a big deal; $1900 in prizes were awarded – about $83k in today’s dollars.

Meanwhile, another group – the Sonoma County Agricultural and Mechanical Society (no connection to that Sonoma-Napa fair) – was starting to organize something like a proper fair for Sonoma county, with livestock exhibits plus a pavilion where locals could show off handiworks and things they grew. The first was held in Healdsburg in 1859, Petaluma the next year which was followed by Santa Rosa, where the fair included the second jockey club event. That 1861 fair was the marred by violence, due to the gamblers who came here for the races. The paper reported there was “but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used.” A local man was shot in the leg outside the fairgrounds and “a fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.”

That violence may have been why interest wained in sponsoring big races here, as the jockey club disbanded and the racetrack was plowed under. No matter, really; there were similar clubs popping up frequently in those years and there were always private tracks where horse lovers could watch the racers train or compete in ad hoc meets. A few years later Clark built a half-mile track at his own ranch, which was close to our modern Costco shopping center.

1867southernfundThe unofficial title of Sonoma County Fair passed between the Agricultural District fairs after the Civil War, switching from Sonoma-Napa to Sonoma-Marin. The Sonoma county fairs were held in Petaluma for years thereafter, although Santa Rosa tried to hijack the name in 1867 for a fundraiser for the “Southern Relief Fund” – in other words, collecting money to send to the former Confederate states. (Everyone together, now: Oh, Santa Rosa…)

There were very few Santa Rosa faces to be seen at the Petaluma county fair meetings, but James P. Clark was Fair Marshal several times during the following dozen years. I can’t determine exactly what that position meant at the time but it was listed directly after president of the society, so apparently it was an important hands-on job and not ceremonial.

Our present Santa Rosa fairgrounds has roots that go back to 1878, when members of the racing crowd formed the “Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association” to buy the original 80-something acres (every account differs as to the exact size). And there was Clark again, not only as treasurer – and later president – of the group but also building the mile track. They began hosting races the following year.

There’s quite an extensive description of the place from 1881 (transcribed below) when JP Clark led a tour. The original grandstand was nothing like we imagine today; it was basically a large 3 bedroom house with dining room, living room, two fireplaces plus a bar room. Upstairs there was seating for 300, but it’s unclear whether this was cantilevered like a typical grandstand; it might have been a big open-air gallery, as the reporter also mentions a deep veranda on the ground floor.

Santa Rosa (or at least, the Democrat newspaper) again claimed the County Fair title in 1883, but it was formally the “first annual exhibit of the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association.” The title really didn’t matter at that point, I suppose, as the fair in Petaluma continued as always, held a week earlier. Newly built at Santa Rosa that year was a big pavilion for a “pumpkin and turnip show,” as such produce and handiwork exhibitions were nicknamed.

Here I must confess to Gentle Reader that I suffer an OCD weakness to completely read every list of entries from those exhibitions; I am equally fascinated by discovering long lost 19th century arts and crafts along with my amazement at some of the absurd stuff people wanted to show off. Among the offerings at that 1883 fair were Mrs. R. McGeorge’s wax dowers (fake pearls or flowers molded out of sealing wax); corn on a stalk from William Moss; Frank White’s mangel wortzels (sic: mangelwurzel, an inedible beet); and from E. W. Davis, brooms. How I could go on…

Even the Petaluma papers tacitly conceded that Santa Rosa’s doings were now the “Sonoma County Fair,” so peg 1883 as the birth year for the Sonoma County Fairgrounds – although it wouldn’t be that for very long.

The latter part of the 1880s were boom years in Santa Rosa, the town propelled forward by easy money and a frenzy of construction. James P. Clark’s racetrack was now called the fastest in the state and the Association joined the northern racing circuit, which meant that almost all of the horses running at the track were from out of the area, and maybe out of the state; gone was any pretense that it was still a county-centric event. Part of the scene was also the opening of “Kroncke’s Park” in 1886, giving Santa Rosa its first real park – albeit one that charged admission. The park often had novelty events on weekends and underwrote fares on excursion trains from San Francisco, which brought up daytripping city folk as well as hoodlums wanting to get drunk and brawl. It’s likely no coincidence that the worst violence seemed to come when an excursion coincided with race week at the fair, as it did in 1887.

It was around this time that Santa Rosa’s history took a dark turn. The professional horse races brought in professional gamblers and the town came to welcome them by throwing out state and city betting laws. By the time this was exposed in 1905, Santa Rosa was a corrupt “wide-open town” where police tolerated criminal activity. Even though local children were found gambling at roulette wheels and crap tables in the backrooms of downtown saloons and hotels, this illegal gambling was condoned, even encouraged, by the City Council – as well as by the Press Democrat. For more, see the “WIDE-OPEN TOWN” series.

1899raceThe racetrack and fairgrounds were privately owned for most of that time, the Association having sold it in 1890 to Ira Pierce, a wealthy San Francisco horseman. Locals bemoaned this meant the end of horse racing in Santa Rosa, as Pierce was mainly interested in using it for training his own stable of horses at first. After several years he began hosting annual Breeders’ Association races around the turn of the century (1898, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1905, 1907 and 1908, if anyone cares, with races at the District Fair filling in the gap years 1900 and 1903).

He formally renamed it the Santa Rosa Stock Farm in 1900. That year the Sonoma-Marin Fair – which had not held since 1896 – was revived and hosted in Santa Rosa, but not at the fairgrounds. Pierce allowed his track to be used for races that one year, but the exhibitions were at Ridgway Hall on Third Street and the livestock were shown at the Fifth street stockyard. The fair repeated in 1901 and 1902 but without the races, and now it was called a “big street fair.” Fourth street was spanned by a canvas tent for free concerts and vaudeville shows.

Pierce and his brother sold the (old) race track (and stock farm) (at Agricultural Park) – among the name variations used by the Press Democrat – in 1911, and the next year it was owned by two local men: C. C. Donovan and his brother, Ney. Their first plan was to subdivide it for homes; it hadn’t been a fairgrounds for nearly a quarter century at that point.

That could have been the final end of this evolutionary branch, but the Donovans had incentives to restore it as a racetrack and fairgrounds. There was $1800 being held by the District Agricultural Fair Association ever since the last one, and the legislature approved even larger appropriations to promote District fairs with Sonoma county getting $4k of that money. So once again Santa Rosa hosted the Sonoma-Marin District Fair in 1913.

This was the first Sonoma County Fair that would seem familiar to today’s fairgoers. From the Press Democrat:


The pavilion in which the great agricultural and horticultural display will be made will be brilliantly lighted, as will the other exhibit stands and places and grounds. There will be something to entertain the crowd all the time. Hoffman of Sacramento will have some good attractions for the “Midway Plaisance.” Spectacular features will be pulled off each night, and two nights of the week an added attraction will be a grand display of fireworks. The electrical effects on the grounds and at the entrance arch are to be something very fine.

This would have been one of the great fairs to attend in a Wayback Machine. Both Jack London and Luther Burbank were on hand (showing cattle and “famed creations,” respectively). The centerpiece of the pavilion was an illuminated globe covered with dried apples and prunes, for some reason. The exhibits included Pomo basketry collections, A. C. Hessell’s corn on stalk, Mrs. G. R. Unzelman’s jabots, Mrs. Hawley’s crochet tidy, and Mrs. Edith M. Davis’ angora and persian cats. There was a “Better Baby” contest. (“There will be no prizes for mere prettiness. The babies will be judged by scientific methods. Not only will they be judged but an endeavor will be made from year to year to raise the standard of babies.”) On closing night there was a “Mardi Gras” on the Midway.

That incarnation of the County Fair lasted until 1916. It was revived with great enthusiasm in 1920; the fairgrounds received a major facelift and they even built a new grandstand which could hold 2,000. That year proved to be ill-fated. On Saturday a stunt pilot crashed his plane and died in front of the audience; on Sunday two race car drivers were killed along with a 7 year-old boy watching outside the fence. And just prior to that Sunday accident a man working at a concession stand noticed flames were licking up one of the support posts of the grandstand, a fire presumably started by a cigarette dropped in the sawdust under the newly-built stands. Quick work by him and a Deputy Sheriff put out the fire with none of the audience the wiser. “Had it become known among the crowd that an incipient fire was burning under the stand it is considered almost certain that there would have been a panic,” commented the Press Democrat.

Those incidents may have contributed to moving the fair to the Cotati Speedway in 1921, followed by two years back in Petaluma as the Sonoma-Marin Fair (featuring Egg Day!) but after that there were no more fairs here by any name for more than a decade. In 1931 the grandstand in Santa Rosa was razed again and a golf course constructed in the middle of the race track. The property was primarily used by a riding club, for horse boarding, and rented by visiting circuses.

And finally came 1936, the year that the Sonoma County Fair & Exposition, Inc. considers Year One, ignoring everything that had happened up to then.

Reviving the fair was a team effort of the Chamber of Commerce and all the other booster groups, with leadership from Joseph T. Grace and Ernest Finley, the PD’s editor-publisher. Finley made it clear in an editorial that there would be no more of this “Agricultural District Fair” crap – this was to be branded as the Sonoma County Fair, by god, and it was gonna make Santa Rosa a force that would command R.E.S.P.E.C.T. His obit said Finley regarded this as his finest achievement along with the campaign for the Golden Gate Bridge.

That fair was unabashedly an excuse for horse racing; there was surprisingly little else to see or do, although there was – significantly – a floral show, where Mrs. H. J. Holtorf of Graton took home an astonishing number of ribbons. Some local bands played concerts (see photo at top, courtesy Sonoma County Library) and there was a talent contest that stretched over several days, the big winner being Vera Potapoff for her dead-on impersonation of Popeye.

How things have changed since then; the races have increasingly taken a back seat to all other entertainments at the Sonoma County Fair in the decades since, and as the Press Democrat recently noted, interest in horse racing has particularly declined sharply over the last decade, and betting along with it.

But there’s still one year back then worth revisiting: 1945. When the gates opened on September 22 to the “Victory Fair,” the air must have been electric with excitement. The fair went on hiatus in 1943, when the fairgrounds were used as Regimental headquarters for the Ohio National Guard 107th Cavalry, which patrolled the North Coast that year. There was no fair in 1944 either, but come September 1945, the war had ended just weeks before; returning soldiers and sailors by the thousands were stepping off ships and airplanes nearly every day in San Francisco. Over 10,000 were jammed into the fairgrounds on the afternoon of that first day and over 11k the next, both remarkable because Santa Rosa’s population was about 15,000. The Press Democrat offered a picture of the grandstand looking down from the high back wall: “Like Sardines,” was the photo caption. “City Overflows With Visitors,” was another headline.

Alas, the PD chose to focus almost entirely on the races – which horse had the best odds, was scratched from the racecard, won the biggest purse. Stuff that no one cared about even a day later. What a lost opportunity; that was surely the happiest Sonoma County Fair in its history, and an unforgettable moment in the lives of everyone there. How rare it is that we can point to a spot on the calendar and say, yeah, that really was the best of times.

Press Democrat, September 22 1945
Press Democrat, September 22 1945

 

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Jockey Club. — All persons who are interested in, or lovers of, Fine stock are requested to meet at the Court House in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, Feb. 22d, at 2 o’clock, p. m., for the purpose of forming a Jockey Club.

 

Mr. Clark, of the Union stable, is preparing an excellent track, and putting up the necessary buildings to accommodate trainers and their stock, which he will have in readiness by the time the sporting season comes on.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 9 1860

 

A VISIT TO THE RACE TRACK. — We had the pleasure a few days since of a visit to the Santa Rosa Race Course, where the Fall races of the Sonoma County Jockey Club are announced to take place in September. The track is a new one just being made by Mr. Clark, of this place. The location is excellent and the grounds good, and the proprietor has displayed both good taste and judgement in the selection. Mr. Clark has erected twelve excellent stalls and is progressing rapidly with the other work in and about the course, and by the time the races come off everything will be in excellent condition….

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

 

CROWDED BUT LIVELY. — Since the Fair commenced, Santa Rosa has been crowded, and presents a lively appearance. The gambling fraternity, as was expected, are largely represented. We have noticed but little drunkenness, comparatively, but whiskey has been the cause of several fights; among them one in which a deadly weapon was used. On Wednesday evening a difficulty occurred in a gambling house between several persons. Harry Howe interfered on behalf of a friend in settling the affair, and after, as Howe supposed, the matter had been arranged, and he was walking down Main street, he was fired upon with a pistol, it is thought in the hands of the person with whom his friend had been quarreling. The ball entered the calf of his left leg. The wounded man was attended by Dr. Green of Napa, who extracted the ball from the instep of the foot. Howe was at last accounts, “doing as well as could be expected.” A fight occurred at the race track on Tuesday. One of the combatants was badly whipped.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 26 1861

 

RACE TRACK.—The race track which we spoke of as being under headway a short time since, on James P. Clark’s ranch, about a mile and a half from town, is now finished and in good condition for training purposes. The track is a circle one, half mile in length, and the soil of such a nature that there is no danger of injuring the feet of horses. A number of gentlemen are training their horses at the new track, and it is rumored that in about two weeks the first races will come off. We hope this may prove a success, as it will encourage the raising of fine stock in the county.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 29 1869

 

THE CLARK ADDITION.—This property, belonging to James P. Clark, Esq., consists of some forty acres of as rich land as can be found in the county. It is close by the depot, and has been surveyed and laid off in town lots, the dimensions of which are 40×100. In a short time all will be disposed of, as we understand they are to be offered for sale at a very liberal figure.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 19 1870

 

Race Course and Fair Grounds. —A movement is on foot to establish a race course and fair grounds near this city. The location spoken of is on the lands of Mrs. Hendley, three-fourths of a mile south east of the plaza. The track will be one mile in length, and nearly elliptical in form. A diagram of the grounds and proposed location of the buildings and stands has been made by Captain J. T, Kingsbury.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1877

 

The Agricultural Park.

The talk that has been indulged in for so long by our citizens relative to the construction of an Agricultural Park, has at length culminated in the purchase of a tract of about ninety acres from Mrs. Headley for that purpose. The land was surveyed on Saturday and the bargain closed.

That such an enterprise will be of incalculable benefit is a self-evident proposition, and now that the movement seems to be fairly inaugurated, we hope it will be carried on successfully and to the satisfaction of all.

The probable expense of getting the matter under way, and of fitting up the grounds, can hardly be estimated. A mile track is to graded, leveled and fenced; the entire grounds must be enclosed; a number of sheds for the stabling of stock and storing of feed must be provided; and last and greatest expense of all, a pavilion must be erected.

The means taken to raise the money for the purchase of the land, was by circulating the following petition: We, the undersigned, hereby agree to pay, in gold coin, the respective amounts set opposite our names for the purpose of raising $7,000 tor the purchase of 95 acres of land of Mrs. Hendley, to build and erect an agricultural park. Said land being situated on the south side of the Bennett Valley road, one-fourth mile east of the Petaluma road, and being distant from the Court House three-fourths of a mile. The following fourteen Gentlemen and firms have subscribed $500 each…

No plan for the erection of the buildings and completing the other improvements has been matured. The gentlemen above mentioned will doubtless hold a meeting soon to inaugurate some system, and then let their plans be submitted to our citizens.

We feel assured that the institution will be a success, and we hope that our citizens will aid in the advancement of the enterprise, and hope that the “Sonoma County Agricultural Society” will be one of our best and most promising County institutions.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 7 1878

 

THE FIRST RACES.

The first races over on Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association’s track were held on Thursday, in spite of the short notice and in consequence the meager amount of advertising the races were well attended. The arrangements were not perfected until late late week, and the whole affair may be considered impromptu and by no means the formal opening of the track. The track is still heavy not having had the benefit of a winter’s rain, but is other* wise in excellent condition. ..

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1879

 

Agricultural Park Association.

Prominent among the important enterprises which have been started in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Agricultural Park Association deserves mention as being one much conducive to business interests and the welfare of our city generally. It was incorporated on January 11th, 1879, the charter members being… During the month of January, 1879, 60 acres of land south-east of Santa Rosa, and lying partly within the city limits, were purchased for $6,000, and work immediately commenced on the construction of a race track and for the beautifying of the grounds. The present stockholders are… The officers are: President, James P. Clark: Treasurer, Geo. P. Noonan; Secretary, Chas. Hoffer…

Last Wednesday, through the kindness of Mr. J. P. Clark, behind Lake and Black Jimmy, a spanking team, we had the pleasure of a drive over the track and grounds of the Association. Leading from the Petaluma road eastward, a short stretch up Bennett Avenue brought us to a drive, having on each side a row of poplars and at the end of which is the main entrance to the grounds. The track, which is one mile in length, and the soil of which consists of loam and sand has been so thoroughly worked that it has remained in good condition, notwithstanding the late very severe storm, is said by experts to be the best in the State, Among the many whose opinions are worthy of note are… all of whom concur in proclaiming that it is unequaled anywhere and is all that could be desired by the most exacting horseman….The grand stand which is a model of architecture, was completed yesterday by our well known builder. Hank C. Paul, at a cost of $2,500. It is situated on the east side of and 50 feet from the track and covers a space of 36×60 feet. It consists of two stories, having an elevation of 28 feet. In the upper portion of the building are comfortable seats for 300 spectators and from which an excellent view of all points of the track may be had. In the lower story on entering the main hall, which is six feet wide, the first room on the right is the sitting room 12½x14 feet; then there are three bedrooms, each of which is 12 feet square; on the left a dining-room 12½x26, a kitchen 12½x14, and a bar-room 12×21 feet go to make up the complement. Besides these there are wide halls throughout the building. The ceilings and walls, the former of which are 10 feet high in the clear, are constructed of grooved lumber. Two fireplaces lend to the comfort of guests and a porch 18×60 feet serves to protect spectators from any inclemencies of the weather. The whole, painted white, surmounted by a flag-staff 32 feet high, and so thoroughly constructed as it is, is one of the most beautiful and substantial buildings in our city and an honor to the contractor, Mr. Paul. There are about the grounds large numbers of trees—ash. maple, poplar, locust and evergreens in abundance, which as yet have not attained a full growth, but which in time will make the whole a handsome picture. Mr. Clark informs us that it is the intention of the Association to plant 2,500 Monterey cypress trees about one foot a part from the first quarter pole to opposite the third quarter pole, and around the fence of the entire grounds an evergreen hedge. North-east of the track there are fifty stables of an improved pattern, having every convenience for attending to the racer in a proper manner. There are two large tanks used as reservoirs for supplying water for sprinkling. A handsome building for the judges has been erected opposite the grand stand and from which an excellent view of the track can be obtained. The drainage system, now very good, is to be improved, and here we might also remark that the City Council propose widening to 60 feet Bennett Avenue, which leads to the grounds…

– Sonoma Democrat, March 5 1881

 

Sonoma County Agricultural Course.

As early as 1860 the citizens of Santa Rosa wore impressed with the idea that a race course would be an advantageous adjunct to the permanent improvement of the town, as well as the improvement of stock in the country around. Accordingly in the Fall of that year through the liberality of James P. Clark, who owned the land about where the depot now stands, and a few enterprising citizens, a course was built and a set of purses given to be contended for, to which contest the neighboring counties of Sonoma, Napa and Marin were invited. During that year, Orphan Bay, owned by Dr. Williams of Mendocino, Dashaway, owned by Achillis Grigsby of Napa, and several running celebrities put in an appearance. The track was kept up until the next year, 1861, when the second Agricultural Fair was held, when it was used as the Fair track and several very creditable races were run. The track was only of a temporary character, not fenced, nor graded, and the public spirit of the citizens not proving adequate to the expense of keeping up a good track, it was allowed to go into decline and was plowed up and turned into a grain field. Afterward it was laid off into lots and now forms a beautiful portion of the incorporated city of Santa Rosa. Scarcely a year has passed since that time, that the subject of the importance of a good race course has not been broached by some of our citizens, until in 1878, a few individuals formed themselves into a joint stock company and inaugurated an enterprise which has culminated in the establishment of one of the finest running and trotting courses in the United States. It is known as the Sonoma County Agricultural Park, is situated about one mile south of the Court House, is equal to and not surpassed by any course in the State. The Association have made arrangements for a meeting in August next, for two and three-year-olds owned in the District, composed of Sonoma, Napa, Solano and Marin, in each of which there are already nine entries. A visit to the Park on Sunday last, took us somewhat by surprise, not only at the conveniences of the track but the number that have taken advantage of them for the purpose of training. We found there the following: In the stable in charge of Guadeloupe Carrillo, a beautiful blood bay, five years old by Bayswater, owned by John Merritt…

– Sonoma Democrat, May 21 1881

 

Our Exhibition.

Frank H. Swett, Superintendent of the pavilion informs us that applications for space are coming in thick and fast, each day, and every arrival of the mail brings new ones. Sufficient applications have already been made to assure the success of the pavilion exhibition. We learn incidentally that Mrs. C. E. Pope is engaged in making a handsome satin and silk bedspread which will be placed on exhibition, and our Artist M. Schramm is prepared to cover over 200 square feet with an exhibition of oil paintings, crayons, etchings and every variety of photographic art. The entries to the races are filling rapidly and will be ready for publication in a few days. Mr. Laughlin Superintendent of the stock exhibition thinks there is not enough stalls to accommodate those desirous of exhibiting. We have already mentioned the fact that Sylvester Scott will place some of his pure bred stock on exhibition, and Wm. Bihler has sent up for space of nine stalls. Many others are coming in. Mr. Laughlin says that Uncle Jerry Beam is keeping a register of persons applying for space in the stock yards, for the convenience of all, as he resides in Santa Rosa and can be readily found at any time.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 11 1883

 

THE SONOMA COUNTY FAIR.
The Opening — Prospects of a Successful Fair — Large Number of Exhibits — Banquet in the Evening.

FIRST DAY.

Santa Rosa, August 16th. – The morning of the first day of Fair week dawned deliciously cool and refreshing. The remnants of the heavy fog of the night previous lingered till long after breakfast hour. Nature seemed to smile in her happiest mood as if to sanction the efforts being made at our beautiful fair grounds for the propagation of the industry of our county. Early in the forenoon the carriages and vehicles of all descriptions began wending their way out to the grounds. As we approach the large enclosure the eye is struck with the beauty of the surroundings as viewed from the avenue. In the foreground is the large line of stalls with their coat of white, almost blinding to the eye. As we near the entrance the soft, mellow lowing of the kine, reminding one of the old-fashioned barnyard they love so well to recall. Further on a glimpse of the track is seen now and then, dotted here and there with the flyers destined to afford the visitors so much pleasure in the days to follow. Then there is the pavilion and grandstand looming up high above the surrounding tents and booths. As we near the gate the whole panorama-like scene, alive with busy life, bursts upon the view. At the gate the familiar face of “Gee Whack” meets our gaze, dispelling all sentimental thoughts occasioned by the lovely morning. But, stop! No entrance fee is charged this morning. “Has the enchanting morning rendered the Directors generous?” No, it’s the first day, and things have not settled down to their natural groove — business has not begun. Once inside, one begins to question within himself, which way first. The horses are being exercised, and the question is soon answered, as we find ourself gradually approaching the spectators that are congregated near the grand stand watching the noble animals as they whirl by, and on around the course. The familiar names of the noted trotters are called out as each favorite passes and is followed with glowing eye, until followed by another, and another. Even the horses seem to feel the magical influence of the perfect morning. Their nostrils dilate as they quaff deep draughts of the pure air, direct from the heavens. After watching the course and its occupants for some time we wander on and enter the pavilion. The exhibitors have just begun to arrange their goods, and one is not able to chain his attention to any one thing, so great is the hurry and bustle…

– Sonoma Democrat, August 21 1886

 

The Circuit Is Still Open.

The question has been asked whether, if the Agricultural Park is sold, Santa Rosa will be assigned a position in the northern circuit as formerly. One of the Directors of the Association says that it was only by special request that the Santa Rosa track was given a place in the circuit two years ago, and that it will be admitted on the same conditions if Mr. Pierce, the purchaser, carries out his intention of holding annual race meetings, concerning which there seems to be little doubt.

– Daily Democrat, March 22 1890

 

WHAT WILL BE DONE ABOUT IT?

We quote from the Breeder and Sportsman: “An item under the heading of Turf and Track, informs the public that the Directors of the Santa Rosa Association have had their annual meeting and elected new officers for the ensuing year. So far so good, but there is a line or two at the end of the item which calls for comment. ‘The sentiment of the Board is opposed to holding a fair or races this year, unless a disposition different from that of former years is manifested by the people in this part of the country.’ It seems a shame that such a resolution was passed, and yet the Directors were compelled in justice to themselves to let the people of Santa Rosa know that there would be no more racing at that point, unless the citizens are willing to financially assist the gentlemen who usually have to put their hands in their pockets and pay a deficiency each year. During the year 1889, Napa made money, and Petaluma scored a financial success, but Santa Rosa lost. There Santa Rosa people at the Petaluma race track on one certain day, than there were Santa Rosa residents on any day at the track during the late Santa Rosa Meeting. They seem to have lost all interest in their own town and are all looking for the almighty dollar, without giving the requisite support to those who are trying to keep up the sport of the kings at that point. From the present outlook, Santa will be dropped from the circuit and it is nothing more than is due to the Santa Rosans for the lukewarm manner in which they have supported the late Directors in their efforts to secure good sport. What is to he done in the matter?

It is hardly possible that our horsemen, with all the eclat attaching to them through the fame of Anteeo and his progeny, with other promising developments, will allow the well improved Park course to deteriorate back into a grain field, or be cut up into town lots.

The stock of the association consists of 2,500 shares, the par value of which is $10 per share, making a capital of $25,000. The property embraces eighty acres of land, well improved, part of which is within the corporate limits of the city, 300 stalls for horses and cattle, a grand stand with seating capacity for 3,500 people, a commodious pavilion, water tanks and pipes, a growing park of nut and evergreen trees, and a cypress hedge around three-fourths of the track… Here, it seems to us, is an opportunity for some good conductor of a racetrack to make an investment which properly managed,should pay handsomely. Something should be done at once and we hope our local stockbreeders will give the matter serious consideration. If they do not then, Mr. Breeder and Sportsman, it will be in hand for you to send somebody with capital up to look into the matter.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 25 1890

 

THE RACE MEETING.
Highly Probable That the Matter Will Be Carried Through.

Santa Rosa horsemen are much interested in the proposed races to be held here, Frank Burke, one of the most prominent members of the Breeder’s Association, has signified bis intention of seeing what arrangements can be made about securing the track and giving Santa Rosa a first-class race meeting. There is not time enough for the local horsemen to arrange for the meeting, but the Association, being in the business, could handle the muter with more ease and facility.

The track is in good shape, and but little work would be required to place it in prime form.

There is not a question of the feasibility of the proposition. The races heretofore have always been satisfactory from a pecuniary point of view and the receipts from the meeting would leave a comfortable sum over the expenditures.

A large number of our business men would help raise the necessary money. Every one interested in racing speaks of the favorable condition for a race meeting. The failure of Petaluma to bold the annual race meeting leaves a vacancy in the racing circuit that we can easily fill with the assistance of the Breeder’s Association, who, it is believed, will be willing to take the matter in charge.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 3 1895

 

THE TRACK GOSSIP
Fine Horses and Trainers are Arriving Here Daily
Magnificent String of Racing Stock at the Track Ready for the Great Meet

A good many people were out bright and early at the Santa Rosa stock farm track yesterday and found much pleasure in watching the trotters and pacers work, training for the race meet.

A look at the fine animals at the track now from many places in the state, is sufficient to warrant anyone in saying that the race meet which opens here on Saturday afternoon, will be successful from start to finish.

The track gossip among the trainers and drivers already here is that some records will be established at the meet on a fast track, records which will cause the grand stand to open up with applause… There is no question but that next week will be a great occasion for Santa Rosa and Sonoma county.

– Press Democrat, August 17 1898

 

SANTA ROSA RACES
Nearly Two Hundred Horses Already at the Track
The Fastest Trotters and Pacers in the State Will Start at the August Meeting Here

A scene of great activity is to be witnessed at the Santa Rosa race track every morning when the light harness horses are brought out for their regular work preparatory to the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders Association which will commence on August 14th and continue for one week. More interest is being taken throughout the East in harness racing this year and the meetings on the Grand Circuit there are drawing the largest crowds of people that have attended the races for many years past. With the district fair appropriations restored in California a prosperous racing season is assured fur those interested, and more horses are in training this year than for several seasons past. The prospects are that the meeting at Santa Rosa will show some of the most exciting contests to capture the big purses offered, that have over taken place on this coast…

– Press Democrat, August 2 1899

 

COMING RACES WILL ATTRACT BIG CROWDS

All roads and all trains will lead to Santa Rosa during Fourth of July week, and with the double attraction of a grand celebration on the Fourth and the races to be given by the Pacific Coast Trotting Horse Breeders’ association the county seat of Sonoma county will contain several thousand more people than its regular residents. The California Northwestern railway will run excursions from all points on its line to Santa Rosa on the Fourth of July at half fare. The day will certainly be a gala one and a red-letter event in the history of the county…

– Press Democrat, June 27 1900

 

RACE MEET OPENS
Good Day’s Sport At the Local Track
Auspicious Beginning of the First Annual Meeting of the Santa Rosa Racing Association

Lined up against the infield fence at Pierce Bros.’ track yesterday afternoon were most if not all ot Santa Rosa’s swellest turnouts. The occasion was the opening of the first annual meet of the Santa Rosa Racing Association, and the local admirers of the thoroughbred were out in good force.

The ladies were especially in evidence and the fluttering of ribbons and summer fineries added much to the gaiety of the scene. The day was ideal and the track was fast. Music by Parks’ full orchestra filled in the time between heats and, taken all in all, the occasion was a very auspicious one. The attendance was fully up to the average first day’s turnout and considerable money changed hands, the bookies, it is said, quitting losers.

This is the first time in twelve years that Santa Rosans have had the privilege of witnessing running races at the local track, and the interest taken in the bang-tails showed that the oldtime tendency of the public is still there…

– Press Democrat, August 13 1901

 

SANTA ROSA PROUD
LOU DILLON’S GREAT ACHIEVEMENT CAUSES MUCH ENTHUSIASM HERE
The World’s Record Breaker Was Born, Raised and Trained at the Santa Rosa Stock Farm

When the news was received here Monday and displayed on the Press Democrat bulletin board that Lou Dillon, the Santa Rosa mare, had lowered the world’s record to two minutes at Readville, Mass., enthusiasm ran high among the horsemen and citizens generally, who were greatly pleased at the worldwide reputation the City of Roses had gained in producing the fastest trotter in the world.

Lou Dillon, in her wonderful race on Monday, greatly exceeded what the world of sport expected she would do. During the afternoon and evening men gathered in knots of twos and threes and later in greater numbers, and the mare’s achievement was the one topic of conversation. It seemed like a dream to the horsemen. At first it seemed too good to be true.

– Press Democrat, August 25 1903

 

133 ENTRIES FOR SANTA ROSA RACES
THREE BIG EVENTS EACH DAY WITH AN AVERAGE OF OVER ELEVEN ENTRIES IN EACH

[..]

– Press Democrat, June 12 1904

FINE ENTRANCE TO THE RACE TRACK

A fine entrance to the race track and stock farm where the big district fair will be held is being erected, and when completed it will be most attractive. During fair week it will be a blaze of electric globes. In fact, it is planned to string lights from Fourth street to the entrance of the grounds as a part of the exterior decoration.

– Press Democrat, July 26 1913

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CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS

Breaking news: People tend to have very strong opinions about parking meters. Also, this surprise: Those opinions are never favorable.

Yet Santa Rosa still has them, making it among the very few places in Sonoma county where the elusive meters can be spotted in the wild along with their related species, parking garages that charge money. And the reason we have them is because this is the city that time forgot – in Santa Rosa, it is always 1946.

This is the second in a series exploring the missed opportunities and regrettable decisions that have shaped Santa Rosa since World War II. Part one (“THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN“) saw voters narrowly reject a chance to develop part of the downtown core into a Civic Center, which would have kept it the county’s hub during the postwar boom years and after.

Looking back on all the other times the city took a wrong turn, one name keeps popping up: Hugh Bishop Codding. When first planning this series I even considered naming it “How Hugh Codding Destroyed Downtown,” but that’s unfair – our city government and elected officials did the job on their own, advised by a parade of out-of-town “experts.” Yes, old Hugh monkeywrenched the town with lawsuits and sometimes jujitsued the city or county into doing something stupid, but mostly he took strategic advantage of their missteps. And sometimes he didn’t win; for example, there was his odd and long-running quest to convince the city of Santa Rosa to move out of the city.*

No, Codding’s not to blame alone; with remarkable consistency, when challenged to make a momentous decision our trusted civic leaders boldly rose to the occasion and (in my humble opinion) made the worst possible choices. The courthouse was torn down and a street plowed through courthouse square; Santa Rosa Creek was buried in a culvert; prime downtown acreage was bulldozed with most of it turned over to private developers; a shopping mall was constructed which immediately became the Great Wall of B street.

That record of stumbling mistakes began in July, 1944, while Codding was still a Seabee building quonset huts in the Pacific. That month the Chamber of Commerce held a luncheon to discuss the “parking bugbear” with a public meeting following a few weeks later. There the city manager announced he had contacted 200 colleagues in other cities; almost all said parking meters were swell. The Press Democrat thought the general attitude by the end of the meeting was that “they are at least worth a trial.”

Letters began pouring into the PD disagreeing with that. While there were a couple of correspondents who made somewhat reasoned arguments, most teetered on the edge of crackpottery. A few samples:

“Where is our freedom? What are our men fighting for? Now comes it the parking meter…” (Mrs. A. K. Larson). “Parking meters have to be placed on the sidewalks. Our sidewalks are already too narrow. You put a row of posts on the walks in addition to the present stacks of bicycles and there won’t be much room for pedestrians” (“A Taxpayer”). “If parking meters are installed here, we would have buildings going up outside the city limits after the war and the city assessor would have to reduce the taxes on the buildings downtown as there will be many vacancies” (Alfred E. Poulsen). “I believe this to be illegal. Property owners own and pay taxes to the middle of the street” (E.J.F.). “Why charge the motorist all the time? Look up all the hidden taxes he pays. Why not charge pedestrians for standing on the sidewalks? It is just as fair” (Sgt. A. R. Milligan). Bonus crankdom: The letter following Sergeant Milligan’s in that edition advocated that once WWII was over, we should sterilize all German males for the next twenty years to ensure “any children born in Germany would have to be at least half civilized.”

The city installed 510 parking meters in early 1945 and although the city printed  helpful directions on how to use them, on the first day of operation “numerous persons inserted coins ‘just to watch them work’ but in many cases failed to turn the handle far enough to set the ticking device in operation.” When the first monies were collected three days later, the take included four slugs even though the graphic in the PD showed a little window on the meter claiming “SLUGS will show here.” Yeah, no.

Press Democrat, February 11, 1945

 

A nasty squabble immediately arose between the county and city over parking spaces. Santa Rosa had installed a row of meters on the east and west of the courthouse and the county was threatening legal action unless there was free parking for designated vehicles. As neither side was blinking, the county proposed it would turn the south lawn of the courthouse into a government parking lot, requiring chopping down two mature Peruvian pine trees – which were the last survivors from the pre-1906 earthquake courthouse plaza. The PD reported on the backlash: “The number and vehemence of telephone calls coming to this office since announcement of the parking plan indicate that the removal of those trees for the purpose set forth will meet with a storm of protest, like which our county officials have never before heard.” The city caved, but it was a stupid fight to pick; what did they expect? Jurors and judges would dash outside every two hours to move their cars?

Then as Mrs. Larson poetically wrote, now comes it the crisis: the year 1946.

Thousands of soldiers and sailors were returning home to Santa Rosa where they were promised free education and cheap mortgages by the GI Bill – but found jobs scarce and nowhere to live. The housing situation was probably worse than it’s been since the 2017 fires; a special census taken that February found only 74 vacant houses or apartments in all of Santa Rosa, including places leased/sold but not yet occupied and units where residents happened to be out of town. The Press Democrat’s “Wanted to Rent” classifieds were always long, packed with veterans pleading for somewhere with a roof. Sometimes a finder’s fee was offered, including nylons.

With all those additional people on the downtown streets, the traffic situation became nigh impossible. The meters and rigorous enforcement of time limits became essential to avoid gridlock. Yet at a city council meeting the outgoing mayor conceded something had to be done besides writing lots of parking tickets (“I don’t like these wholesale citations”) and that the parking meters “have not accomplished everything wanted.” From the March 6th PD:

The mayor explained that it is “not the fault of the meters” that the parking meters have not completely solved the parking problem, but is due to the “great influx of people into Santa Rosa.” He explained that traffic has become so great that “there just isn’t room for them” in parking space now provided.

Besides sounding a bit like a Stockholm syndrome hostage to the Miller Meter Company, the mayor urged the council to acquire empty lots close to downtown for off-street parking – which would mean buying more meters, of course. (There was at least one all-day parking lot at B street and Healdsburg ave, and it was never mentioned whether the 10¢ required to park there was fed into a meter, handed to an attendant or was a purchased tag.)

To pay for the lots and other civic improvements (including “electric stop-and-go signal equipment for key intersections”), the city council used bond money and authorized Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, to predictable taxpayer howls. 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.

The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the sales tax and the parking meters, to wit: “I (Someone I know) will never shop again in Santa Rosa because I’m mad about a parking ticket (I already pay too many taxes).” But where else were they to go? Spend all that time and gas – now up to 21¢ a gallon! – driving to Petaluma for groceries or all the way to San Francisco for a fashionable hat?

Hello, Hugh Codding.

The very first real article in the Press Democrat about Montgomery Village appeared on April 30, 1950 and included this quote from Codding: “People do not like the inconvenience of looking for parking space, priming the parking meter and then walking several blocks between stores. Montgomery Village abolishes that inconvenience – all within one block of 750-car parking.” It had been a long time since Santa Rosa had heard such sweet and sensible words.

That appeared before the shopping center fully opened, and later ads would feature its other major draws: Montgomery Village was just outside city limits so there was no municipal sales tax and it had diagonal parking.

To understand why diagonal parking was such a Very Big Deal, slip into a Dacron jacket and travel with me back to 1950. Cars and pickups are classy but clunky – as large as boats and heavy as little tanks. And because they don’t have power steering (not available on any car until 1951) they require the muscles of Popeye to turn the steering wheel if the tires aren’t in motion.

Santa Rosa insisted upon parallel parking only, even though downtown merchants had been protesting it for many years. A petition for diagonal parking was presented to city council in 1940, headed by some of the top storekeepers: Lee Hardisty, Leonard Deffner, Donald Carithers and Irving Klein. Deffner, owner of the big Pershing Market between 4th and 5th streets, told the council that customers of nearby businesses were using his grocery store parking lot rather than parallel park on the street (and this is before the meters, remember). Nothing doing, said Santa Rosa – our streets are so narrow that anyone double parked would cause a traffic jam if diagonal was used. Apparently stiff fines for double parking weren’t a consideration. The city clung so hard to parallelism that in 1964 they made every third space no-parking so it would be faster to nose or back in to a spot, thus making the parking shortage 33 percent worse. Dumb decisions like that made Codding look like a genius by comparison.

Montgomery Village ad, February 6, 1955

 

While Montgomery Village was thriving, Santa Rosa seemed to go out of its way to make downtown parking ever more annoying.

In 1951 (840 meters now installed) they made a deal with a company to put frames on the meter poles which could display printed ads. Local merchants hated it, didn’t advertise and the company damaged many of the meters somehow. Two years later the city incurred more public wrath by switching parking lot meters to take dimes only, thus forcing drivers to overpay if their errands took less than two hours. Overtime parking fines doubled, then doubled again.

Other Sonoma county towns followed Santa Rosa’s lead in the 1950s and installed parking meters, then later removed them under pressure from the business community. Healdsburg uprooted its meters in 1964 and the sales tax increase more than replaced lost meter income. Twenty years later Petaluma stopped meter enforcement and their Downtown Merchants Association saw business improve.

Yet Santa Rosa’s confidence in the meters remained unshakable, even while the city continues to tinker with them; a decade ago they tore the meters off most posts because consultants insisted ticket kiosks were ever more efficient and the public really wouldn’t mind hiking from a parking spot to a kiosk and then back again. This year (2018) the city extended metered parking to 8PM while also implementing a zone system, which is able to increase the cost of parking in busy areas during the busiest times – which was done because experts told the city that trick works really well in tourist towns like San Diego.

But still the ungrateful public keeps complaining and today the resentment over paid parking in Santa Rosa is louder and more frequent than ever before – although that may be because the forum has shifted from newsprint to social media, where everything is amplified and unedited.

What’s interesting is how attitudes have not budged a whit between 1946 and now. People still say they no longer go downtown because they (or someone they know) was unfairly dinged with an expensive parking ticket. Businesses still say they don’t have enough customers because of the hassle of parking. And Santa Rosa still says there’s nothing wrong with the status quo – whatever that happens to mean right then.


* There are no shortages of Hugh Codding anecdotes, but here’s a story I’ve not read elsewhere: While Santa Rosa was mulling over where to build the new city hall in 1950, Codding offered space at Montgomery Village – although it was then outside of city limits. According to the Press Democrat: “‘I thought myself it was fantastic until I got to thinking about it,’ he told the astounded [planning] commissioners.” Then as the city still hadn’t decided in 1963, he offered free land near Coddingtown in the unincorporated area. The city council didn’t snap up the deal so a week later he came back with an offer of another place, also on county land near his shopping center. And when they still didn’t bite, he tried to broker a deal to make city hall part of the new county administration center. Did he really believe he could get Santa Rosa to move the city buildings out of the city?

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THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

Fresh back from service in WWII, architect “Cal” Caulkins had a vision: He would fix Santa Rosa. He wasn’t the first to try it – nor the last.

The downtown that Caulkins wanted to fix in 1945 was essentially what still exists now, sans our monstrous mall. It was also mostly the same as it was in August, 1853, when a surveyor named Shakely laid out a grid of a few streets centered around a small plaza. And that’s the problem: Once we scrape away all the built-up crust, the layout of Santa Rosa was – and still is – a mid-19th century village. The town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…in 1853.”

Santa Rosa quickly began to outgrow its modest framework. The next year it became the county seat, which led to a courthouse, county jail and county records building packed around the village square – and even that centerpiece was lost in 1884 when the next courthouse was built in the middle of it. Santa Rosa’s plaza hadn’t been much to look at and there were ongoing problems of stray cows and pigs taking up residence, but at least it was a public open space. Now the village town didn’t even have a park, and it would be 1931 before Santa Rosa had a true public-owned place (thanks to the donation of the nine acre Juilliard homestead).

Nor did Sonoma’s county seat have a building where lots of people could assemble. The Athenaeum opera house was used until it fell down in the 1906 earthquake; afterwards  large public meetings were held at the roller skating rink, a movie theater or at the armory. The Burbank auditorium at the junior college opened in 1940 and could seat 700, but that was pitiable compared to cities like San Jose, which had a civic auditorium that could hold 3,500.

Elected officials and town boosters sought piecemeal fixes, apparently never recognizing the problem was the town’s underlying design. Another gripe concerned the narrow streets; immediately after the 1906 earthquake pulverized much of downtown, Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley pushed hard to widen all principal streets in the business district so they could accomodate electric trolley cars (only two blocks of Fourth street were modified).

Same with the park and auditorium issues; they knew a park with some amusements would draw Bay Area tourists and a large hall which could host conventions were both reliable money-makers. They spent nearly fifty years off and on trying to create a park but it always ended the same ways: The town couldn’t afford the land, they feared voters wouldn’t pass a bond or there was too much heavy lifting involved.

The solution to both problems seemed at hand in early 1906 when architect William H. Willcox proposed creating a waterpark via a dam on Santa Rosa Creek, turning it into an urban lake. It would be the centerpiece of the town with a section for swimming and water sports, benches and paths illuminated with strings of light bulbs (très moderne!) on both banks and a kiosk jutting over the water for bands to entertain. He also had designed a convention-style auditorium that could seat 2,500, which made him the darling of Santa Rosa’s business elite; they had pledged almost the full amount to start construction – and then the earthquake hit. For more on both plans, see “SANTA ROSA’S FORGOTTEN FUTURE.”

It would be almost forty years before someone came along and tried again, and that would be Cal Caulkins – who also tackled Santa Rosa’s underlying problems head-on.

Cal Caulkins’ career up to 1945 was introduced in the previous article, which explained some of the architectural styles he used and offered a walking tour of his typical work. If you haven’t read that piece it’s important to know he was Santa Rosa’s top architect at this time and a well-respected civic leader; anything he proposed would be weighed quite seriously.

The public first saw his design in the August 19 edition of the Press Democrat. The accompanying article in the PD was headlined, “Master Plan Urged for City’s Future.” A second banner over the drawing announced, “A Postwar Vision – ‘Face Lifting’ for Santa Rosa.”

Although the plan was entirely his, the germ of the idea came from Press Democrat editor Herbert J. Waters, who had published an unusual above-the-masthead editorial six months earlier. At the time there was much debate concerning the need to expand the county courthouse, with either an annex somewhere else or via adding a third floor “penthouse on stilts” to the existing building, estimated to cost a staggering $325,000 – with most of that going to reinforce the structure.

Waters was also peeved by an American Legion committee which had just asked the city to use Fremont Park as the site for their future war memorial building. Besides the loss of a scarce public park, he decried scattering new public buildings all over town just because there was land already owned by Santa Rosa. He called instead for a long range plan to create a civic center on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek. “With beautiful Juilliard Park and the famous Luther Burbank Gardens as approaches, such a civic center could be one of the most attractive in the country” – and remember that was in 1945, when the Redwood Highway went through downtown.

Although Waters’ ideas were quite sketchy, Caulkins took that vision and expanded it greatly. What he designed was simply brilliant.

 

Cal Caulkins watercolor of proposed Santa Rosa Civic Center. PD, June 15, 1953
Key to Caulkins’ proposed Santa Rosa Civic Center

 

Cal Caulkins pen and ink drawing of proposed Santa Rosa Civic Center. PD, August 19, 1945

 

He produced both a pen and ink drawing of the plan that appeared in the PD and a large watercolor that he loaned out for display and used as a backdrop during his frequent speaking engagements that autumn.

What he was calling the “Memorial Civic Center” provided Santa Rosa new open space via a walkway to the point between the confluence of Matanzas and Santa Rosa Creeks. The undersize courthouse square was gone, replaced by a landscaped plaza stretching from Fourth street to First (although its roundabout shape might have tempted jalopy racers to think of the Circus Maximus).

Like Willcox he glorified the Creek, turning First street – long the junky part of downtown with scattered shacks, the grimier auto repair shops and farm equipment resellers – into a scenic drive as well as the main connector to the neglected working class southwest neighborhoods.

No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, and all that was needed to start the wheels moving would be for voters to pass a measly $100,000 bond.

What could possibly go wrong?

Seemingly everyone loved Caulkin’s plan. It was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Supervisors, labor unions, service clubs, veteran’s groups, women’s groups and politicians of all stripes. The Press Democrat ran a banner on the front page reading, “Santa Rosa’s Future is at Stake.” It looked like a done deal.

Some of the enthusiasm was surely part of the prevailing “can do” optimism that lifted the nation from the spring of 1945 onward, once it became clear the end of the war was approaching. Everyone was looking forward to making their own little corner of the world not only whole again, but better; in Sonoma county, a committee was formed to explore creating a “Redwood Peace Temple,” which apparently was to be sort of a Bohemian Grove-ish annual summit for world leaders (albeit hopefully without those notables drunkenly pissing on trees).

Nor did there seem to be concerns about how to pay for everything. It was promised there would be cost efficiencies in clustering the federal, state, county and city buildings so close together, with money coming from all four sources. Santa Rosa was already in queue to get $500k for a new post office, there was property tax money to fund war memorials all over the county (thanks to a temporary change in state law) and besides, everything did not need to be built at once; they could start with the war memorial and build the other stuff when the money came in. Pay as you go, postwar style.

To launch the project, Santa Rosa asked voters for a $100,000 bond to acquire the war memorial site. It was a crowded ballot for a non-election year, with seven bonds worth $845k plus four other items, but nothing was pushed harder for approval than the war memorial. In the weeks before the vote hardly a day went by without an item about it in the Press Democrat; we were told it was a good investment because it would attract conventions and the (expected) matching grants would make construction virtually free. A coalition of veteran’s groups formed a joint committee to get the voters to the polls. And although December 4 ended up being a miserable day with a hard rain, half of all registered voters turned out.

It lost by 96 votes.

The PD was editorially silent about the defeat, but it was the #1 topic in letters to the editor for the rest of the month. A single writer cheered its failure; another person begged for someone to explain what happened – but mostly people pointed accusing fingers at the American Legion.

Simply put, there was distrust about the Legion’s involvement with the War Memorial project. This came up right after Caulkins’ plans were published, when County Supervisor Guidotti remarked, “…only recently a group of Santa Rosa legionnaires appeared before our board and their spokesmen, in effect, admitted that they only wanted a building for themselves and to [hell] with anybody else.” Similarly, when the legionnaires earlier proposed the Fremont Park site to the Santa Rosa city council, they were asking the city to use its share of the tax money to build them a meeting hall along with granting a 99-year lease. They would not commit to allowing other veteran’s groups to use the building and it was an open question whether they would even let the general public use it. Leaders from the VFW and the Disabled American Veterans were at the meeting to complain they were locked out of discussions.

One letter writer was generally incensed by the “apparent attitude of the Legion toward veterans of World War II,” noting that the Legion in San Francisco had recently refused the American Veterans Committee (AVC) use of the war memorial there. (Now defunct, AVC was a progressive group focused on problems facing WWII vets, particularly homelessness.) The Legion claimed they denied access because AVC was not “pure” since merchant marines could join, but one might also wonder if that was a sneer at AVC for being racially integrated, while the American Legion had separate posts for white and black veterans.

Whether the legionnaires should be blamed for killing the Civic Center project is moot. Without that $100,000 there would be no war memorial downtown – and with that, the dream of a Santa Rosa Civic Center was dead. Its failure to pass left a county supervisor questioning if taxpayers wanted those war memorials at all. What happened next was covered here in “THE VETS WAR MEMORIAL WARS:” Soon after the county bought some land in the Ridgway neighborhood for the Santa Rosa auditorium, and when that didn’t work out decided to build it across from the fairgrounds.

But Caulkins’ Civic Center was not forgotten; for years, mentions kept popping up in PD letters-to-the-editor as well as in articles and columns whenever the subject of downtown improvements came up. His watercolor was displayed in a window of Rosenberg’s Department Store in 1951. When in 1953 the county began making plans to build an administration center north of Santa Rosa city limits (at its present location), the Chamber of Commerce and others urged the supervisors to consider a scaled-down version of Caulkins’ downtown design. Caulkins told a reporter he was “besieged” with calls afterwards and the PD ran an illustration of his color drawing alongside an article about it.

There were other attempts to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems 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 to improve traffic circulation so the public could drive as quickly as possible to a parking garage/lot and walk from there. In a nod to Caulkins’ work, they proposed the combined county courthouse/jail in a park-like setting on the south side of Santa Rosa Creek.

To their credit, the NJ experts were concerned that Roseland was cut off from the town and wanted a highway 12 exit for Sebastopol avenue/road; to their shame they first proposed eliminating courthouse square, then chose to cut through the center of it. But this is not the time to further discuss the 1960s urban renewal misfires – that will require another lengthy essay or three.

Nothing in the Waters-Caulkins layout survives, except for the removal of part of Second street. (For those like me who have always wondered if that section of the street disappeared in order to wipe out any trace of the old Chinatown, Herb Waters admitted as much in his 1945 editorial: “Our former ‘Chinatown’ in Second street comes as close to slums as anything we have in Santa Rosa, and its removal would certainly occasion little economic loss.”)

But the Santa Rosa that exists today bears little resemblance to what any of those 1960s experts designed, either. Santa Rosa Creek was entombed in a box culvert, although that was the natural feature everyone wanted to highlight; what government buildings that are still downtown are a mishmosh of styles, most already badly dated. While beneath it all, the old grid of village streets from the 19th century still constricts us in the 21st. And no, we can’t blame any of those bad decisions on the American Legion.

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