This would be a nice weekend to put some flowers on the grave of your Great-Great Aunt Virginia, who passed away during the Spanish Flu pandemic – so grab some posies and trek over to where she was buried in 1918. Is she still there? Why, yes. A cemetery is a place with people who generally don’t move around much. This is widely considered to be a good thing.

Should you find yourself lost in the cemetery, there’s usually an office (or at least a telephone number) where someone can direct you to Aunt Ginny’s most permanent address. That helpful person would have little trouble finding her because the major cemeteries in central Sonoma county have a map and a master index of names. Sometimes very old records might not be perfect, but overall the picture of who’s located where would be still mostly complete (see sidebar). The sad exception was always Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery.

At some point in the early 20th century the burial listing book for Rural was lost. Or maybe it never existed – there’s no proof it did, although it’s difficult to imagine how the historic cemetery could have functioned otherwise. If Virginia was supposed to be buried in the family plot, it would be a really good idea for the mortician to know exactly where to dig.

So the ultimate mystery of Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery centers on discovering how all its records were destroyed, and when – but until that can be answered (if ever) the adventure lies in trying to recreate the burial listing book.

srrccoverEfforts have been ongoing for nearly a century, and finally in 2021 we have a version that is both rigorously fact-checked and includes far, far more long forgotten burials. For more background on this new book see the interviews with co-authors Sandy Frary and Ray Owen.

What follows are the stories of all the versions that came before. This might seem to be a real snoozer of a topic but along the way Gentle Reader is going to meet several interesting people making heroic efforts to save our history, and we can never read that story often enough.

In each case, a team of volunteers dedicated years to chasing what had been recorded in the original book; that their final product was flawed is not due to anyone’s lack of effort or commitment. As explored in the interviews, the new edition is so much more successful because Sandy and Ray brought along investigative skills and had access to previously unavailable primary source materials. They also spent nearly fourteen years, longer than any other team.

Ray and Sandy additionally had a significant advantage in the cemetery being in its best shape…since ever. The previous article “A CEMETERY SO LONG UNCARED FOR” documents the shameful condition it was in until serious restoration work finally began in the late 1990s. The earlier project volunteers deserve enormous respect and sympathy for pursuing their research despite having to claw through thick underbrush – including poison oak – to simply read what appeared on grave markers.

The first group to do a field survey of Rural was the Santa Rosa Chapter of the D.A.R. in 1934-1941. In that era the Daughters of the American Revolution were better known for venerating their ancestors at Colonial-themed soirées and pushing über-patriotic “Americanism” school programs, but the state D.A.R. also took seriously George Washington’s call for institutions to promote the “general diffusion of knowledge.” Their good works included transcribing the 1852 California census and doing cemetery surveys “…so that if the graves are lost, the records will still be preserved,” as the Press Democrat explained. And they didn’t just tackle the Rural Cemetery – they collected names from all 90 graveyards in the county (there are now about 130 known to exist).

The driving force in the local D.A.R. cemetery efforts were sisters Pauline Olson and Edith Merritt. Pauline had worked for Luther Burbank for a few years both as a secretary and operator of the “Bureau of Information” kiosk on Santa Rosa Ave. which kept Burbank-curious tourists from pestering him. When their research was finished in 1941, she typed up five copies of the entire 320 page book, which must earn her a Believe-it-or-Not! honorable mention. (The D.A.R. paid for the paper, the typing, and hopefully the linament for her aching wrists and fingers.)

Edith Merritt had a deep interest in local history. She was a popular speaker on the topic at women’s clubs and in 1925 directed the Native Sons club in placing signboards at significant historic landmarks around the county. She and husband Edson C. Merritt lived at the beautiful Craftsman style house at 724 Monroe Street (which still exists) and it was there that she and Pauline hosted a 1905 Goth-like “Ghost Party” which had people still buzzing about it months later.


The original burial listings for the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery were apparently lost in the early 20th century. How good was the record keeping at other local historic cemeteries?

Odd Fellows Cemetery (Santa Rosa) is adjacent to the Rural Cemetery and has full records and maps going back to when it was established in 1885.

Oak Mound Cemetery (Healdsburg) is about as old as Rural, with burials dating to the 1850s. The museum has some of the original notebooks but records are only complete from the 1880s onward.

Cypress Hill Memorial Park (Petaluma) was established in 1872 but the first burial was 1866. Records there set the gold standard: They have complete register books and a card catalog organized by plots.

Surely the D.A.R. researchers would have referred to the burial listing book for Rural if it still existed as the project continued through the 1930s, but the only outside sources they credit in the preface are newspaper death notices for burials prior to the Civil War. At the end of this piece I offer a theory that the listing book disappeared in that decade and what I believe might have happened to it.

The 1930s also saw the end of the Rural Cemetery Association, which is discussed in greater depth in the previous article. Although their corporation legally ceased to exist in 1916, they continued selling private deeds to burial plots. Finally in 1938, Santa Rosa came to recognize a harsh truth, as a Press Democrat editorial commented: “Rural cemetery is now and for years past has been an abandoned child…Nobody owns Rural cemetery.”

The 25 years that followed were the darkest in the history of the cemetery. Aside from a disastrous 1951 “controlled burn” there were no efforts at cleanup (much less maintenance) and it grew into an urban jungle. Even worse, the defunct Association had left a poisonous legacy by convincing the town that every grave plot was private property and not a weed could be pulled without explicit permission from descendants.1

The turnaround began after Sara Laughlin was buried there in 1963. When the family tried to visit her grave the trails were so overgrown they could barely get through, so Sara’s 25 year-old grandson Jay McMullen started bringing up a lawnmower on weekends and clearing the roads. Soon his mother, Evelyn McMullen, was joining him in their unofficial cemetery caretaking.

Word spread of what they were doing and others pitched in, with sometimes up to twenty people joining Evelyn’s volunteer crews. In 1965 she and others formed a new Cemetery Association as an affiliate of the Sonoma County Historical Society. The goal was not to claim ownership and sell grave plots but to collect $1/yr. dues – enough to pay for trail gravel.

As the McMullens became known for their cemetery smarts, people began calling them to ask where someone was buried – although it’s doubtful they were able to help that much, as they were going on only their personal experience and the D.A.R. book at the library. And that led to the creation of the “Greenwood Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery” map.

Trained as an architect, Jay began making a hand-drawn map which measures about 3×4 feet. He finished around 1968. Although there are technically four cemeteries there, he grouped them all together as Greenwood – which like “Rural,” was often a generic cemetery name during the Victorian era in America. (Jay said there was a reference to the name being used in Santa Rosa, but nothing can be found in the old newspapers.)

At least three photocopies were made but there’s no evidence Jay ever intended to publish his rough map – it seems that it was just a guide to help those who called the McMullens and maybe a reference tool for volunteer workers. And he added every scrap of information he and Evelyn could find, including records of plot deeds from the recorder’s office. (The map includes handwriting by at least one other person.)

1968mcmullenIn 2015 Sandy Frary, Ray Owen and I took an iPad with Jay’s map to a small section of the cemetery, hoping to determine if tombstones had been lost in the last 55-odd years, whether there were markers for unrecorded burials, and the like. Alas, Jay’s inclusiveness proved to make it a mostly futile exercise.

As shown at right, the entries marked in red were not found. But we don’t know whether the McMullens saw a marker there in the 1960s or not; the grave could have been purchased from the Association and had the deed registered, but ended up never used. (Sandy was later able to determine that four were buried elsewhere.)2 Or maybe the person is at the indicated place, but the family didn’t want to spend money on a tombstone. There are many possibilities.

Yes, it would have been historically more valuable if the McMullens had only recorded what they actually saw, but there’s still a usefulness in knowing someone might be buried at a particular place. Future historians will find it a valuable resource as long as they keep in mind that a percentage of the entries are paper ghosts.

Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Map 1893
Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Map 1893

The McMullen volunteers stopped volunteering as the 1960s came to a close and despite support from the Madrone Audubon Society, the McMullen era was over. Weeds began taking over again and that was the least of the problems. In 1980 vandals were driving 4WD vehicles into the cemetery and using winches and cables to topple large monuments. Someone broke into the holding vault where the cremains of the indigent were stored, dumping the ashes on the floor.

The year before Santa Rosa had declared ownership of the cemetery via eminent domain, but allocated no funds to pay for anything; it was left to the Board of Community Services to fundraise for building a gate and a fence. Nanci Burton – who became a member of the Santa Rosa City Council and mayor later in the decade – led the new cleanup projects. At an April 1980 work session, an estimated 325 volunteers turned out.

The Genealogical Society also pitched in to search out descendants of those buried at Rural. The Society had already published a 1977 second edition of the D.A.R. book with some corrections and additions so it should come as no surprise they decided to use their research skills to produce a book of their own.

And so began the search for the last lost graves. Their list of sources in appendix I is impressive – the Society built a card catalog starting with the D.A.R. material and what they could find in the legacy records of every local funeral home. They copied tombstone receipts from the North Bay Monument Company. They examined death certificates through 1905. They combed through all the deed books. They absorbed all the information that Evelyn McMullen had collected over the years. What the Genealogical Society published in 1987 was an impressive work of scholarship at the highest standards – but it was still far from complete.

As told in the last article, the renaissance of the Rural Cemetery began in 1994 when Bill Montgomery from Recreation & Parks formed a Restoration Committee. Among those volunteers were Margaret and Alan Phinney.

Alan and others did the heavy work that no one had attempted before – relifting fallen tombstones and monuments. (Like buttered bread, it seemed that tombstones always fell face down.) Sometimes the markers had to be pieced back together like giant marble jigsaw puzzles.

The Genealogical Society gave Margaret Phinney the old floppy disks with the text files used to create their 1987 book, which she imported into a database where entries could be easily updated or added.

The database proved critical because new information was pouring in. Members of the Committee and the Society joined in creating the first comprehensive row-by-row field survey, and the Phinneys were feeding Ray Owen a steady list of names needing research. By the time the next edition of the burial listing book was published in 1997, about five hundred names had been added. The 2007 update contained further additions and corrections.

And that brings us, more or less, to today. The Phinneys handed the database over to Sandy Frary, who with co-author Ray Owen has now published the new, exhaustively researched 2021 edition. While there are bound to be some lost graves still to turn up, the numbers should be vanishingly small compared to the 5,515 burials that are now documented.

So what did happen to the original burial records? It’s sometimes said they must have been lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire, but the last recorded sale of a burial plot by the old Association was May 1930, so it’s a safe bet the book (or books) still then existed. My working theory is that it was lost due to some mishandling accident between the D.A.R. and board members of the Rural Cemetery Association.

The local D.A.R. chapter began work in Sonoma county in 1934, although the state organization in Sacramento had launched the project two years earlier. As the headquarters were set up to copy historical records – as per their transcription of the 1852 census – it seems quite likely they would have asked to borrow the burial listing book to make a copy. A search for correspondence with the Association between 1932-1934 in the D.A.R. archives would definitely be worth a look.

I am haunted by a comment made years later, at a 1951 Chamber of Commerce meeting on what to do about awful conditions at the cemetery. The county recorder speculated (or had been told?) that the burial listings were lost because “records were passed around until finally they all disappeared.”

The book with those records was one of the most important documents in Santa Rosa history, so it’s tempting to believe it must have been destroyed in a dramatic event, such as a catastrophic fire. Surely it couldn’t have been simply lost in the mail, or left behind on a Sacramento city bus.

1 The Rural Cemetery Association sold private deeds, but it is unclear whether that included property title. The Cypress Hill cemetery is adamant that their deeds only bestowed burial rights. California laws regarding cemetery corporations left the definition of grave ownership to the bylaws of the corporation, aside from whatever rights of the deed holder becoming “forever inalienable” once there was an interment. The Rural Cemetery Association did not record the deeds they sold with the county, although some people did so at the recorder’s office on their own.

2 Details of Eastern Half Circle survey compared to the Jay McMullen map: Of the twenty map entries where no marker was found in 2015, it was decided half were likely to be buried in the indicated plot; four were either known or very likely to be buried elsewhere; and six had no matching name in the county’s Vital Statistic Death Index, which suggests either the person died outside of Sonoma county or the name on the map is incorrect.



Press Democrat articles:

Apr 26 1922; Mrs. Frank C. Newman president of association
Nov 5 1932; D.A.R. begins
Oct 24 1934; D.A.R. work
Apr 28 1937; Cemetery Association last election
Feb 26 1941; D.A.R. done
Dec 24 1950; D.A.R. book presentation
Mar 28 1951; records were passed around
Apr 7 1965; McMullen Cemetery Association formed
Mar 29 1966; McMullen Cemetery Association 1st annual meet
Apr 26 1966; McMullen map has 1000 names
Aug 3 1969; McMullen Association cleanup work
Aug 17 1969; new incorporation
Sep 19 1977; full page foto spread
Jun 1 1979; Gaye Lebaron on McMullen Association
Jan 11 1980; Gaye Lebaron on eminent domain and vandalism
Feb 24 1980; vandalism of cremains
Jun 2 1980; fence fundraiser

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If a time machine is ever invented, lord help Santa Rosa’s 1960s decision-makers; there will be mobs of howling Facebookers chasing them through the streets for what they did to this town.

Those who hang out in local history and nostalgia social media often write about downtown Santa Rosa in that era as if it were a crime scene; a vintage photo of a picturesque building now demolished, a scene of streets crowded with shoppers will draw tearful emojis and bitter comments. How did all this come to disappear? We know the answer: It was the outcome of the town’s gung-ho embrace of urban renewal schemes, which are the subject of this series, “Yesterday is Just Around the Corner.”

(This article covers only “Phase I” of Santa Rosa’s redevelopment in the 1960s, when the urban renewal area was limited to the 40 acres between Sonoma ave. and Third street, and from Santa Rosa/Mendocino avenues and E street. Events leading to construction of the Santa Rosa Mall were Phase II and III during the 1970s and will be covered later.)

Other cities and towns climbed aboard the redevelopment gravy train – it was free federal money after all, and the government wasn’t too picky about how it was spent. But few communities were willing to go as far as Santa Rosa and gut so much of their downtown core.

One reason this is so crazy-making for us today is because there was no compelling reason to declare most of the downtown “blighted,” which was their excuse for wiping out entire blocks and more than a hundred historic buildings. The movers ‘n’ shakers of Santa Rosa saw the opposite – downtown was economically blighted because their projections estimated the taxable value of the area after redevelopment would be at least three times greater.*

They were also true believers that anything new was better than old. In a 1961 editorial the Press Democrat dismissed all the old buildings as “substandard” and said tearing them down would “…serve the Santa Rosa of today and the future instead of continuing to be a deteriorating hodge-podge that ‘just growed’ over the past 75 years or so.”

Steering the redevelopment ship was the five-member Urban Renewal Agency (URA), which was created by the City Council in 1958. Its executive director and the appointed members wielded enormous power (including the ability to condemn land using eminent domain without a public hearing) yet faced little criticism except from one persistent fellow named Hugh Codding – more about him in a minute. What the public heard instead was enthusiastic approval from the Council and city staff and particularly the PD, which was the URA’s most ardent cheerleader. The paper leaned hard on the notion that the blighted area really was studded with eyesores, and good riddance; there was a photo they liked to use showing a ramshackle house badly in disrepair with a sagging porch – while neglecting to mention one of the first places to be demolished would be Luther Burbank’s house.

Redevelopment programs became infamous for graft and corruption but I don’t find a whiff of that happening here. While the URA was biased toward particular developers and clearly treated Codding unfairly, I fully believe everyone’s motives were well-intentioned – that they expected the result of their labors would truly create a city beautiful. Of course, very little worked out as well as they expected and they ended up creating a city regrettable. To paraphrase the great disclaimer at the start of the movie, Fargo:

This is a true story. The events described here took place in Santa Rosa, California. Out of respect for the survivors of those times and their families, keep in mind the decision-makers back then were not fools, dunderheads or venal crooks, though some of their choices seem glaringly stupid today. But hey, it was the 1960s, when everybody was a little nuts.

Santa Rosa’s Big Urban Renewal Adventure kicked off in 1960, when the city tapped some of the URA’s government money to hire New Jersey urban planning experts to come up with ideas on what they should do with the six blocks to be redeveloped. They developed a model that everyone here loved like a warm puppy – it was so popular they had to schedule showings of it in bank lobbies and store windows.

Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below
Santa Rosa redevelopment area model by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates of Newark, NJ. A detailed drawing can be seen below


Their model shows a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek greenway with the city hall and state building on its southern bank (an earlier drawing shows the courthouse and jail there, before it was decided in mid-1960 to rebuild at the county administration center). There was plenty of parking spaces, a big department store and several mixed retail/office buildings.

Naturally, Santa Rosa threw it all away.

No, strike that – they kept the parking lot next to the library and the parking garage at Third and D.

Without a master plan the URA couldn’t provide a rudder for what should be built and where, aside from vague expectations there should be a new city hall, a major department store (or two) and a “shopping center.” Read that again, slowly: The only planning provided by the city was what to condemn and demolish, leaving it to the developers to shape how downtown would look and function. The Press Democrat had welcomed urban renewal as an opportunity to rid Santa Rosa of its “hodge-podge” appearance, but we were preparing to hodge-podge it up again, only now with plenty of very undistinguished office buildings.

Megapolitan(RIGHT: The 500,000 sq. ft. proposal for downtown Santa Rosa from Megapolitan Corp. The street glimpsed at the top is presumably Sonoma ave.)

In place of the master plan there were four proposals made to the URA in 1963. (A reminder again that this was for the six blocks directly south of Courthouse Square, not the current location of the mall.) Two developers pitched conventional shopping centers with no big anchor stores – one used the top floor for professional offices. An ambitious bid from the Megapolitan Corp. of Los Angeles called for a massive shopping center which was virtually an indoor, self-sufficient town, sans housing. The bizarre plan called for a “European opera house” with seating for 1,500 that “could accommodate full broadway, concert, opera, and ballet productions” a nightclub, two “theater bars,” dance and health studios, laundry and dry cleaning shops, a supermarket, drug store, billiard hall and a “host of specialty tenants.” (Whew!)

The winning proposal in 1964 came from the Santa Rosa Burbank Center Redevelopment Company (called here “SRBCRC” to avoid confusion with all other things Burbank). This was a financing consortium put together by Henry Trione and his friends, not planners or architects – they hired top-notch Bay Area designers to come up with actual plans. Their original presentation included two department stores plus a “Civic Tower” on Courthouse Square straddling a sunken roadway, as discussed in the article on the development of the city hall complex.

That the URA made a sweetheart deal with Trione’s group for ownership of the entire 40 acres irked Hugh Codding no end, mostly because the agreement was made with the price yet to be negotiated at some future date. Once he became a City Councilman, Codding would needle the URA directors by sarcastically asking if SRBCRC had made a downpayment yet.

But despite the URA’s founding promise that redevelopment would draw big-name stores to downtown Santa Rosa, it seemed no companies were willing to take a chance. It was rumored that Macy’s was interested; nope. J.C. Penny? Pass. Emporium? Sorry. SRBCRC hired another set of architects to draw up new layouts. “The success of any of the plans was highly speculative,” Trione wrote in his autobiography. “Potential buyers were very cautious.”

It wasn’t that those companies were cautious about building new stores – it was that they were leery about Santa Rosa’s downtown; their location scouts couldn’t help but notice parking was a headache (and not free). The uncertain status of the redevelopment area meant their future neighbors could range from an upscale jewelry store to a smelly fast food joint, and ongoing construction would keep the area dusty and noisy for years to come. No, a smarter bet would be to build a department store in a spanking new shopping mall with none of those drawbacks. Coddingtown, for example. And so they did.

Looking ahead, Trione and his company built offices, banks and government buildings (which, I imagine, few of us have ever had reason to visit). The only retail space was a new home for the White House department store. Phase I of the urban renewal project did not make Santa Rosa a more beautiful place, nor did it give shoppers more reasons to go downtown, nor did it add appreciably to the city’s tax base.

But in the autumn of 1965, the Press Democrat’s editor Art Volkerts imagined it was the start of a glorious transformation. In a puff-piece “URA Holds Promise in Heart of Santa Rosa” he wrote,

…What will this mean to Santa Rosa? Well, it will mean more tax revenues to help pay for the city’s expanding services. It will mean bright, new buildings rising in an area which was fast becoming a civic blight…it now seems certain that the URA project will indeed be a flower worthy of maturing next to Santa Rosa’s beloved Burbank Gardens.

Others more clear-eyed saw it meant 37 businesses had been displaced and 44 families plus 43 single individuals had lost their homes. For the next few years there would be forty acres of vacant lots scraped down to the dirt waiting for all that greatness which would not come.


* “In its present run-down condition, the Santa Rosa urban renewal area is assessed at $859,000. The least favorable of the several forms which redevelopment could take will result in real and personal values assessed at $2,413,700.” Press Democrat editorial, July 17, 1961. By 1965, the PD was claiming the current value was about $3 million and should be worth over $12M.
1965 model of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC
1965 drawing of the urban renewal area looking SW from the corner of Third and E streets prepared by Welton Becket and Associates for SRBCRC



Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates
Drawing of Santa Rosa redevelopment area by Candeub, Fleissig and Associates



Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency
Undated cartoon of Santa Rosa redevelopment area used in 1974 pamphlet on the Urban Renewal Agency

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After ignoring opportunities to celebrate Santa Rosa’s anniversaries that spanned 64 years, Tom Cox thought, “we should make something of it” in 1968. The real question, however, was whether they would be celebrating one of the events from the town’s early history – or the ongoing obliteration of its past.

(This is part two about Santa Rosa’s 2018 sesquicentennial. Part one covers the town’s 1854 founding and 1868 incorporation, followed by its general indifference to celebrate either event.)

Cox was the long-time head of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and made that suggestion at a 1967 luncheon for the “Congress for Community Progress,” a coalition formed five years earlier by the Chamber, which claimed the Congress represented as many as 445 separate groups. Given that the town’s entire population was then only about 44,000, let us forgive any Gentle Readers who snort skeptically.

Much was made in the 1960s about the Congress, which held occasional all-day assemblies attended by hundreds of “delegates.” While it was touted as an independent citizen’s group, its sheer size made discussion unwieldy and its objectives almost always seemed to mirror Chamber of Commerce and developer’s interests. The 1968 Congress report said Santa Rosa’s highest priorities should be “Payroll and Industrial Needs” and “Downtown Futures and Potential” – way down in the basement was the preservation of parks and historical sites.

During the sixties Santa Rosa was wild about all things modern, and as with many communities, that meant enthusiastic approval of urban renewal projects. We were told it would mostly be paid for by Washington, our property values would skyrocket and we would end up with glorious cities of the future. In 1961 a scale model of a proposed Santa Rosa redesign circulated around several bank lobbies. The model (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) portrayed a downtown designed for pedestrians, with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

It was mostly bait and switch, of course. Prime locations owned by the city were sold to private developers; the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency held sway over forty acres of supposed “civic blight” and much of it was scooped up by investors. Luther Burbank’s old house and gardens survived the bulldozer, but the home he custom-built in 1906 on Tupper street – the one seen in all the pictures of him with Edison, Ford, Helen Keller and other celebs – was deemed worthless, as it was argued that the town had no need for two Luther Burbank landmarks.

By the time Thomas Cox spoke at that 1967 Congress for Community Progress lunch, great swaths of downtown was already scraped down to the topsoil and most of the rest would follow soon. The great courthouse was gone; the Carnegie library already had been replaced by what we have now. The parks were forgotten and their earth was destined to sprout bank buildings and metered parking lots. The lovely, free-flowing creek was entombed in a box culvert. Community Progress!

Cox’s talk came a few days before the dedication of the “plaza on Old Courthouse Square.” The Courthouse Square site had been already split by the street connecting Mendocino Ave with Santa Rosa Ave; what they then called the “plaza” was just the western section between that new street and the Empire Building block. The east side was slated to be sold to private developers for commercial buildings.

Adding insult to injury, Mayor Hugh Codding said the tiny plaza would make citizens “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa,” and a supervisor chimed in this “perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. [Julio] Carrillo” when he donated the land to the public. Uh, no, times two.

The sale of the east side of the plaza was successfully fought by a small band of preservationists – despite being told it must be sold in order to pay off the urban renewal bonds. Sadly, they lost another fight to stop the giveaway to developers of the sheriff’s office and city hall, now the location of the U.S. Bank building. They had hoped one (or both) of the post-1906 quake buildings could be saved to create a Santa Rosa museum.

And now we come to the March 16, 1968 centennial, when Santa Rosa celebrated pretty much everything except its origins.

About 1,000 attended the ceremony in that little plaza. The city councilmen dressed in vaguely 19th century costumes and Mayor Codding introduced a man 100 years old. Some rode old bicycles or drove around in old cars and a barbershop quartet warbled, all more appropriate to a party for 1908 than 1868. State appeals court judge Joseph Rattigan told the crowd they would “shape the history of the future,” and won the prize for awful speechifying that day by saying we should “live as Santa Rosans in every dimension of wisdom and skill.”

Two time capsules were dedicated. (They were originally in front of the Empire building but now are facing the intersection of Third street and Santa Rosa ave). One was intended for 2068; the other was supposed to be opened on March 16, 2018. As our sesquicentennial event isn’t scheduled until about six months later, it only makes the choice of a September date seem stranger.

(RIGHT: Pepper Dardon sitting in front of the time capsules, 1974. Photo: Michael Sawyer/; original Santa Rosa News Herald image via Helen Rudee)

That was just the “Centennial Day;” the “Centennial Week” was the Rose Festival in May, and there wasn’t much of a nod to history there, either. There was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle, a tennis match and a little regatta on Lake Ralphine. A rock concert included local bands “Wonderful Mud” and “Bronze Hog.” During the Rose Parade, the Marine Corps Reserve presented a bizarre little scene in front of the reviewing stand where they enacted flushing a Vietcong soldier out of a rice paddy and shooting him dead, right there on Fourth street. As I always say, these kind of events are really for the children.

While 1968 may have been a bust as a centennial year, it was the definitely the year to celebrate Pepper, Santa Rosa’s lovable or maddening downtown character (depending upon whom you asked and when). When she wasn’t heckling hippies and jaywalkers, she was popping in the backseats of cars waiting for the stoplight to change and expecting the driver to take her somewhere – the Pepper stories are legion.

But Pepper also collected quite a bit of money when local groups were having charity drives, badgering each passerby for spare change. That March she was the guest of honor at a Rotary luncheon and in October she was feted by the Lions Club.

In a Gaye LeBaron column – yes, she was writing a gossip column fifty years ago – she quoted a letter from a reader: “I have a suggestion for the Grand Marshall of the 1968 Rose Parade: Pepper! No kidding—when you stop to think of all the hard work she’s done for almost everyone I think you’ll agree that she’s as deserving as any chosen. If we all get on Pepper’s Bandwagon she just might be selected. Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.”

She was not included in the parade (and someone griped about that in a letter to the PD) but she sat in the VIP bleachers alongside Mrs. Luther Burbank. She was also made honorary town marshal for the Centennial Year, a position she undoubtedly abused with relish.

The time capsules are Santa Rosa’s only real historic legacy from 1968 – and note that the one to be opened this year is mistakenly labeled “Bi-Centennial,” showing no one noticed or cared that wasn’t the right word for a fiftieth anniversary.

The March 17 edition of the Press Democrat offered a fat section of all things it deemed centennial-ish, and reflects the attitudes of the time quite well. The actual history section – meaning the 1906 quake and everything before – isn’t very long and just a superficial rehash from the county history books. However there’s some good wonky stuff about the development of city departments and such in the early 20th century, along with some photos I’ve not seen elsewhere.

But then it rockets to the present day, celebrating the wonders of redevelopment and what a bright future awaited Santa Rosa. There’s even a full-page article titled, “Foresight of Hugh Codding Helped Speed City’s Growth.” (Of course, not long afterwards, Mr. Foresight tied the city up in a decade-long lawsuit to forestall construction of the mall and other retail space, thus causing the downtown to further wither and die.)

So as it turns out, the judge who saw the centennial as “[shaping] the history of the future” probably did hit the right notes for 1968. And in kind of a Believe-it-on-Not! coincidence, we’re grappling with very similar issues today, trying to wrestle with how the town will be reshaped in years to come because of the fires.

There’s one more historic year to mention, for the sake of completeness: 2004, the real sesquicentennial of the year the town actually put down roots. A columnist for the PD complained “no one is celebrating,” and that a fund drive to support the reunification of Courthouse Square was going nowhere.

Well, Courthouse Square is now glued back together. That columnist was Chris Coursey, now Santa Rosa’s mayor. And like his predecessors, I’m sure he’ll steer the sesquicentennial to be more of a rosy view of our future than a contemplation on our rougher past. The date will still be wrong on the time capsule, of course, but Chris could fix that – I’d even provide a little bit of duct tape and a magic marker to change the inscription to read September 9.

Time capsules in Courthouse Square

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