I don’t think it’s ever good when your name appears in front page headlines next to the words, “Ugly Scandal,” but it’s particularly rough when the newspaper article appears on the eve of your closing the deal of a lifetime. The person was Harrison M. LeBaron; the deal was the sale of Armstrong Grove to become a state park. The scandal was that LeBaron and the state senator from Santa Rosa were supposedly trying to rook taxpayers by grossly inflating the worth of those irreplaceable thousand year-old trees.

The cash value of Armstrong Grove and the nature of LeBaron’s private deal became hotly discussed topics in the 1909 Santa Rosa newspapers. Although dailies of that era rarely printed letters-to-the-editor, lengthy comments began appearing, sometimes two or more a day, sometimes with correspondence from still another person folded into a letter. Even more remarkable, these same letters appeared in both the morning Press Democrat and the evening Santa Rosa Republican – something I’ve not found before. These waters kept roiling for five weeks, making Armstrong Grove unquestionably the #1 local story of the year.

Some of the background was covered in an earlier post, but the need-to-know basics are such:

* THE ARMSTRONG ERA   The 440 acre woods were first owned by Col. Armstrong, who was one of the lumbermen who made a fortune clear-cutting the Redwood Empire of redwoods in the late 19th century. Armstrong apparently always thought of the grove as a showcase; as the Russian River resort scene was just launching in 1887, he discussed setting aside forty acres for a hotel with park land (the rest he was presumably going to log).

* BEGGING THE STATE TO TAKE IT   Strapped for cash in 1891, Armstrong offered to sell the grove to the state without luck (there was no state park system at the time). When he died in 1900, Armstrong tried to deed it to the state in his will, with the proviso that his heirs would act as trustees. The legislature balked, said to be because of the trustee provisions and also because of pressure from timber interests who hoped the valuable woods would now be sold. The property remained in the ownership of Armstrong’s children, Walter and Elizabeth (“Lizzie”).

* THE LeBARON ERA   In 1908, Harrison LeBaron struck a deal with Walter and Lizzie (more about that later). LeBaron controlled the Dairyman’s Coast Bank, which was the primary financial institution in west Sonoma county. The banker immediately announced he intended to chop down the woods and make a big profit – that is, unless the state would quickly agree to buy the property. State Senator Walter Price (R-Santa Rosa) vowed to present a bill that would purchase the grove, but only if LeBaron would please agree to delay logging long enough to get the state to approve. 

Senator Price produced a very nice illustrated booklet about the grove for his fellow legislators, and as the state senators and assemblymen returned to Sacramento for the 1909 session, it looked like a deal was in the bag for the state to purchase the land for $125,000 (equivalent to about $3.25 million today). Then the article appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Call.

The Call was San Francisco’s great muckraking newspaper, so it wasn’t unusual to find it featuring a story about a crooked politician. But anyone who read past the headlines and the illustration of Senator Price’s semi-disembodied head floating in front of trees found the article was charging that Price and LeBaron were in cahoots to sell the land for 3x its true value. Even more scandalous, in the eyes of the Call, was that LeBaron didn’t own the grove at all – he had only paid the Armstrong heirs a few hundred bucks for an option that expired before the end of the year. If the state bought the woods, Lizzie and Walter would split $40k, and LeBaron (and Sen. Price?) would walk away with a cool $85,000 profit for little risk.

A followup article in the next day’s Call backed off from some of the earlier claims. LeBaron’s profit wouldn’t be so obscene after all, the paper now reported, as Walter and Lizzie’s share was $40 thousand each, and LeBaron had already paid Walter in full. The newspaper also cooled down the hysteric tone; LeBaron was now “the patriotic citizen” and there was no further suggestion of a hidden arrangement between Price and himself. LeBaron was called to Sacramento the same day as the first Call article appeared. The Call article was also wrong about LeBaron’s current asking price. Over a dinner with members of the assembly’s forest committee a few days earlier, LeBaron had been questioned about his deal and forced to lower the price to $100,000. Still, a committee of senators and assemblymen would junket to Sonoma County that coming weekend to see the grove for themselves.

Letters and editorials immediately began appearing in the Santa Rosa papers contradicting the Call articles as well as other letter writers. Armstrong Grove was worth the original asking price; it was worth more; it wasn’t even worth $40,000; LeBaron did own the property outright, but hadn’t paid very much for it; LeBaron had paid top dollar for options on the land and would hardly make any profit.   

There were too many letters to transcribe them all, but stumptown’s founding father George Guerne wrote in support of LeBaron and suggested that should spare himself grief by logging the woods, which he thought had a value of $128,000. Guerne’s estimate was disputed by Andrew Markham, another of the old-time timber barons. That lumberman/banker said the grove was worth about $85,000, and by the way, LeBaron would be making an obscene profit because he had only paid $30,000 for most of the land, plus a small option on the remainder owned by Armstrong’s daughter. Markham said he knew these details because Armstrong’s son, Walter, owed him money at the time, which he paid off by the sale of his share of the grove to LeBaron.

 In a letter that appeared in both papers, LeBaron wrote that he wasn’t about to reveal any details about his dealings with the Armstrong heirs. A few days later, he forwarded a letter from Walter Armstrong:

“You are having a time of it with the ‘kickers and knockers,’ I see by the papers. If I can do you any good let me know.

“Markham does not know it all be any means. I did owe him some money and I paid it. He was sore because he did not get the ‘Grove’ on a mortgage, and because I paid up the loan he felt sore…Sam Wright [who had written a letter quoting Markham] has about as much right to know what I and my sister received on that as he would have to know who President Taft put in his cabinet.” 


The same day that State Senator Walter F. Price and other legislators returned from their junket to Armstrong Woods, he introduced his only piece of legislation that actually made it into law: The infamous eugenics law, which allowed for the forced sterilization of anyone in a state hospital or prison and specifically anyone at the California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children in Glen Ellen.

Walter Fitch Price (1858-1946) was a Republican who served two terms in the state assembly and one undistinguished term in the state senate from 1907-1911, where he failed to win passage of the Armstrong Grove bill as well as an Audubon Society-sponsored bill to crack down on illegal hunting. He was a back-bencher in the pocket of Southern Pacific, according to California Weekly, a progressive magazine: “a man who can be counted on to do any political work that the Herrin organization wants done” (William Herrin was the railroad’s top lobbyist).

In his hometown of Santa Rosa, however, he was an important player as the Republican party became ascendant. He was accused of being among the four political “bosses” or Santa Rosa by the reformers who sought to oust the “Good Old Boy” faction in the 1908 city elections. That August the San Francisco Call also claimed Price ran the Republican machine in Sonoma County along with ex-Senator E. F. Woodward (a friend of James Wyatt Oates, by the way). When he wasn’t in Sacramento he could probably be found at the Price & Silvershield office that sold real estate and insurance. His partner, Henry Silvershield, moonlighted as city assessor.

Price also had a number of political patronage jobs. After his tenure in the state assembly, he was appointed as a Deputy Tax Collector of Internal Revenue, a position that caused some discussion when he was elected  senator, as he legally couldn’t hold a federal and state job at the same time. While senator, he was appointed to the Expert State Board of Examiners. Prior to the 1908 elections, Price was to be nominated as the Collector of Internal Revenue for the Northern District of California. This was a job with enormous opportunities for patronage, as the Collector could hire as many Deputies as he desired and review cases of tax evasion that could be forwarded to the Treasury Department for prosecution. “The man with the strongest political strength will be appointed,” the Call reported. “The victor, it is declared, must be a man who is in a position to rally a large force to the support of the republican party next fall.” It appears that Price didn’t get the post (but I can’t be 100% certain), but that he was considered for the job by Republican party leaders shows he had significant political clout.

LeBaron’s own letter blamed all opposition to the deal on “Democrats and Doodle Dees” operating out of “political spite and prejudice toward Senator Price or myself or both,” while reminding everyone that the grove was valuable because it was one of the few stands of old-growth left. He named a couple of similar properties that were now logged out. “As to the Markham tract,” LeBaron wrote,” there have been different mills upon it and there may now be some dams by the mill site, but there is no lumber by a damned sight.”

Markham exploded. “Mr. LeBaron, you are all wrong and I am afraid you are disturbed,” he wrote in a letter the very next day. His 150 acres of virgin timber land was untouched and not for sale, he insisted, and furthermore, he wouldn’t accept Armstrong Grove if it were offered as a gift. “You had better not use my name in this matter again. I do not care whether you, or Price, or any of the real estate men makes a hundred thousand or five hundred thousand, and I hope you will die a very rich man.”


Far less was questioned about Senator Price’s role in the deal. He immediately offered a statement to the SF Call: “I am not, never was, and never will be financially interested in the Armstrong grove…” But as pointed out in an op-ed from the hyper-partisan Press Democrat, the Republican senator was not accused of having a personal investment; “It has by inference been charged, however, and publicly, that he is financially interested in securing the passage of a bill authorizing its purchase by the state.” In other words, there might have been an understanding that if the bill passed, LeBaron would make a generous campaign contribution, offer a zero-interest loan from his bank, or something similar.

The PD also observed that Price had been working unusually hard to achieve passage of this bill. Besides producing a costly illustrated brochure, he had solicited endorsements from civic groups and clubs to demonstrate he had strong local support. “It does not necessarily follow that there was anything wrong about this; but in view of the conspicuous activity displayed by Senator Price in working up public sentiment on the proposition he naturally laid himself open to some criticism besides very materially weakening his right to claim that he introduced his bill solely because of the [e]ndorsement given the project in this country.”

But maybe Price did have his fingers in the pie after all. As mentioned in the earlier post, an article four months earlier in the Santa Rosa Republican had stated, “Senator Walter F. Price has secured an option on the Armstrong Woods, recently purchased by Hon. H. M. LeBaron…Mr. LeBaron has entered into an agreement with Senator Price on the matter.” If accurate, that clearly sounds as if there was indeed a straight-forward (but probably illegal) investment deal between the two. Too bad the muckrakers at the Call didn’t know about that bombshell.

The State Senate approved purchase on Feb. 23, almost three weeks after the controversial article appeared in the Call. The bill went to the governor’s desk awaiting his signature. And there it died at the end of the session, an unsigned pocket veto by Governor Gillett, a Republican.

The future of Armstrong Grove again went into limbo. LeBaron died in 1914, and his eldest son joined with Lizzie in making a new sales pitch, this time to the county. A tax measure was placed on the 1916 ballot and endorsed by both newspapers, Luther Burbank, and conservationists around the state. It passed, with a selling price of $80,000. Adjusted backwards to 1909 dollars, the cost was exactly half of LeBaron’s original asking price. Never has the county had such a deal since.


NOTE: Two of the 1909 articles below use the colloquial phrase, “nigger in the woodpile.” It may have originated in the 1850s as a reference to hiding escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, but by the Lincoln presidency, it referred to there being a hidden purpose in a proposed law. Although offensive today, the articles are transcribed here exactly as they appeared in the papers. The goal of this journal is to provide an unvarnished look at early 20th Century Sonoma County as viewed through its newspapers, where racist terms routinely were used to ridicule people of color (although that’s not exactly the case in this instance). To downplay or outright censor the casual racism that appeared in these “family papers” would be to whitewash the unpleasant aspects of our history. -je

A committee of legislators inspect Armstrong Grove, Feb. 7, 1909
Photograph courtesy Sonoma County Library

Ugly Scandal Threatened in the Legislature Over Bill to Purchase Armstrong Grove
Deal to Preserve Big Trees is Urged by Senator on Sentimental Grounds
President of Dairyman’s Bank of Valley Ford Stands to Clear $85,000
Owners Willing to Sell for $40,000 and Option Will Expire With Session

An ugly scandal is threatened in the state legislature when the bill for the purchase of the Armstrong grove of big trees in Sonoma county comes up for final consideration. The measure is fathered by Senator Walter F. Price, and while its passage has been urged on sentimental grounds, it develops that its promoters stand to clear $85,000 on the deal. The grove can be purchased for $40,000. The state has been asked to pay $125,000. The property is assessed for $12,500.

Between the present owners and the state stands H. M. le Baron [sic], president of the Dairyman’s Bank of Valley Ford in northern Marin county [sic]. Le Baron has an option on the property for $40,000. He demands $125,000 and has interested Senator Price in his scheme. Price has been extremely active in behalf of the measure. In fact, he has organized “sentiment” in his county through the city authorities and chambers of commerce of Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Sebastopol and other cities in that district.

Big Profit Involved

Price has not give publicity to the fact that his friend Le Baron stands to make a cool profit of $85,000 at the expense of the state. Le Baron assumes an air of indifference and says he is not eager to sell even at the price named. Be that as it may, it is perhaps more than a coincidence that Le Baron’s option runs “until the end of the session of the legislature.”

Before he went to Sacramento Senator Price made a tour of Sonoma county and was instrumental in organizing meetings at which resolutions were adopted recommending that the state purchase the grove. Very soon after the session opened Price introduced his bill. It is now pending.

In some quarters there was a disposition to doubt the valuation assumed by Price and an investigation was begun. It was not long before it became known that Le Baron has merely an option on the tract and that he had instituted an advertising campaign in furtherance of the measure.

Capitalized Sentiment

Then came the revelation that the astute banker from Valley Ford had capitalized sentiment with a view to an $85,000 profit. His unique investment was predicated upon the prospect of a gain of something over 200 percent, and this without the outlay of more than a few hundred dollars.

The grove belongs to Walter Armstrong and Mrs. Elizabeth Armstrong, his sister, and it is from them that Le Baron has secured his option. He paid $400 for it, and has made it doubly certain by placing a deed to the property in escrow. Le Baron evidently was not inclined to take any chances, for with his deed safe in a Santa Rosa bank, his friend Senator Price, was busy in Sacramento lining up the members of both houses in favor of the deal.

Death Prevented Gift

The grove, which comprises 400 acres of beautiful redwoods, was owned originally by Colonel Armstrong, a pioneer and father of the present holders of the tract.  Colonel Armstrong had frequently said that he intended that the wonderful trees should be preserved. He had made plans to deed the park to the county or the state, but died before he was able to carry out his intentions.

Upon his death the grove passed to his son, Walter Armstrong, and his daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Jones. They too, desired that it should be preserved. An agreement was made by which Mrs. Jones held title to 205 acres and her brother 195 acres.

Some 18 months ago Walter Armstrong decided to take up his residence in Los Angeles and entered into an agreement to sell his portion of the tract to Le Baron under certain conditions. Recently Mrs. Jones gave Le Baron an option on her part of the tract on the condition that it should go to the state and be forever preserved. A deed was drawn up and placed in escrow in the Exchange Bank of Santa Rosa.

Small Sums for Option

For the option Le Baron paid Armstrong and his sister each $200 or $400 in all. He agreed further to pay for the park in case he decided to purchase a total of $40,000 or $20,000 to Armstrong and a like amount to Mrs. Jones. The option was drawn up to run until the end of the session of the legislature. Under the terms of the option given by Mrs. Jones it appears that Le Baron has the right to sell only to the state of California.

As soon as the thrifty banker had gone through these preliminaries he began his campaign to unload on the state at an $85,000 profit. Senator Price covered the county and Le Baron got busy in his own behalf.

Le Baron does not deny the facts. He simply says that he does not care particularly to sell to the state. He evidently overlooks the fact that his option specifies that he must sell to the state.

“Understanding” Denied

“There is no understanding with any one on this matter,” said Le Baron. “I would like to see this grove preserved, but I would much rather that the state would not purchase it for $125,000, as I can get more for it for the lumber. The grove will make fine lumber, and as there is now a scarcity of redwood I could dispose of it easily to great advantage.”

At her home in Cloverdale MRs. Elizabeth Jones confirmed the reports as to the deal as far as she knew them. She said that she desired to see the grove preserved and had given an option to Le Baron on the express condition that it be sold only to the state. For further facts Mrs. Jones referred to her attorney, John T. Campbell.

Attorney Campbell was not impressed by the size of Le Baron’s prospective profit. He said he believed the grove to be worth $250,000, but failed to explain why with that knowledge he had allowed his client to give an option on her half interest for $20,000. At Campbell’s valuation Mrs. Jones should have received $125,000.

Attorney Talks of Risk

“Mr. Le Baron knew when he went into the matter,” said Campbell, “that there would be expenses for advertising, awakening sentiment, and for examination and other things which would cost something. He figured the cost and then added something for the risk and trouble involved before fixing the price at which he was willing to dispose of the property.”

A few years ago the property was cruised and a report made that for timber purposes it was not worth much more than $20,000. There is a vast stand of redwoods, but the trees are of the variety that requires the most expensive machinery.

There is a decided sentiment throughout the state in favor of the preservation of these wonders of nature. In fact, no people have been quicker than those of California to extend a protecting arm toward the forests which have become famous the world over. The Armstrong grove is recognized as one of the most picturesque in the state, but the attempt to hold up the state for a vast profit for its purchase will come as a shock to those who were earnestly working for the measure in the belief that its promoters were actuated by a laudable sentiment and not be a commercial consideration.

– San Francisco Call, February 3, 1909
Made Eroneous [sic] Statements About Armstrong Grove

A great injustice was done to Sonoma county and the State at large by the publication in a metropolitan morning paper of this date of an article purporting to be the facts related to the Armstrong Grove purchase by the State. A bill has been introduced by Senator Price asking for an appropriation of $125,000 for the purchase of Armstrong Grove. The original bill as introduced in the Assembly also asked for a like amount. Later a conference was held between Senator Price and Assemblyman Whitney in which the facts of the proposed measure were carefully gone over. It was discovered that the appropriation asked for was too high. Mr. LeBaron was called to the capital, and after much persuasion consented to sell the tract for $100,000. The bill as originally filed went up to the Forestry Committee. … A full investigation of the real value of the tract. based on facts show that Mr. LeBaron has an option on one-half of the tract from Mrs. Jones, for $40,000. The assumption is, and cannot be justly controverted, that he agreed to pay an equal amount to the other heir, that would make the amount of Mr. LeBaron’s pledge reach $80,000. The bill provides for State payments on an installment plan, leaving it up to Mr. LeBaron to pay interest on the large amounts of capital required for the term of payments. This will easily bring the expenditure, with the other necessary expenses, as the passing of the abstract, and advertising, to approximately $90,000. On this proposition Mr. LeBaron stands, and doubtful too, to make $10,000; not more than any real estate dealer would ordinarily make on a transaction of this magnitude…

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 4, 1909

The Call’s story regarding the proposed sale of the Armstrong Woods appears to be a strange jumble of fiction and fact…As near as we have been able to ascertain, Mr. LeBaron some time ago purchased Walter Armstrong’s interest in the grove outright, paying therefor in one for or another about $40,000. Later, he secured an option from Mrs. Lizzie Armstrong Jones on her half of the property, agreeing to pay $45,000 for the same, said option running only until the adjournment of the present session of the legislature and being admittedly given with the express idea of furthering the sale of the combined properties to the state. According to the terms of the bill introduced by Senator Walter F. Price to provide for its purchase, the cost of the property o the state is to be $125,000. This leaves a difference, or profit, or percentage, or whatever one is pleased to call it, of $40,000 instead of $85,000 as stated by the Call.

We are hardly prepared to say that $40,000 is too much for a private citizen, laying no claims to patriotic motives, to make on a deal of this character and magnitude. Nor are we prepared to say that $125,000 is too much for the state to pay for the property in question. Considering the use to which it is to be put, and the further fact that such bits of accessible virgin redwood forest are none too plentiful, the probabilities are that the Armstrong Woods are worth every cent the state is being asked to set aside for their purchase.

But $40,000, or $4,000, or $4000, or $40, or forty cents, is too much for a public servant to make on such a deal, or any other deal through graft.

Senator Price has practically been charged by the Call with grafting or attempting to graft on this proposition.

If the facts are as we have them, the only point to be considered seems to be whether or not the very conspicuous interest taken by Senator Price in the matter is personal or impersonal. If his hands are clean, and if all the profit on the deal is to go to the man backing the project, we are frank to say that we fail to see anything in the matter so far brought out that justifies public opposition to the bill. From the public standpoint, it will be unfortunate indeed if the plan to secure this wonder-spot of Nature should be defeated by misapprehension on this point, or unjustly.

It seems to be up to Senator Walter F. Price, patriot and reformer, to make the next move. For his own as well as for his pet project’s sake, he should make his position plain and set himself straight before the people if he can.

– Press Democrat editorial, February 4, 1909

The great Armstrong Woods scandal yarn published in the San Francisco Call last Wednesday and hastily amended the following issue, has so pitifully petered out that to make any further reference to it is like respanking the baby or hitting the house cat another swat. What a lovely story it was! A bee-u-tee-ful story! Red hot off the bat. According to it H. M. LeBaron of this county is unloading a patch of redwood trees on the pee-pul of the State of California for $125,000, a clear gain to the prize real estate man of $85,000. Senator Walter F. Price of Sonoma county is engineering the nice little deal through the legislature.

Around the country a few readers thought they saw this alleged nigger in the Armstrong Wood-pile and were interested in the tale, but most of the Call’s readers saw the cap-and-bells in the story. If the managing editor of that journal had not been so carried away with the beauty of its phraseology and its commercial value as a “story,” he would have noted in time that the alleged amount of the “graft” was too huge, too unwieldy to handle and that the tale was over-colored, over-written. As evidence that he did notice the errors, the following issue of the paper contained an amendment in which was added $40,000 to the sums Mr. LeBaron must pay the Armstrongs for the 400-acre tract of redwoods. This lowered the “graft” from $85,000 to $45,000 and rubbed several coats of black off the conspirators. This amendment is not enough, and the fact that the paper has changed its statement on the principal point has caused the public to lose faith in its “news.” Moreover, H. M. LeBaron is not rated as a dishonest man, nor is W. F. Price believed to be a rascal or a fool. Neither of the men are expected to be found in a transparent “get rich quick” scheme that was reported to transfer $85,000 from $125,000 to their pockets in a minute.

The price which the State is asked to pay for the Woods is $100,000, and not $125,000. The industrious political enemies–both lay and editorial–of Senator Price cannot get away from the bigger figure. To keep the argument alive it must stay at $125,000. Mr. LeBaron dropped $25,000, though he doubtless would have preferred the larger amount, and is there any real estate dealer in this highly moral burg who would not? Now the people of the State of California and the people of the County of Sonoma (even if Price’s Sonoma county friends write “red hot stories” to city sensational papers denouncing him and his work) will get the splendid grove of sequoia for a play ground forever and forever more. Here is another argument: Mr. LeBaron paid Walter Armstrong $45,000 for that heir’s share, and with the $40,000 he must pay Mrs. Lizzie A. Jones for her portion of the tract, if he follows up his option, he will be out $85,000 instead of $40,000, as reported Wednesday. This leaves his putative profit $15,000 instead of $85,000 (vide city paper) and $40,000 (vide local paper). Lord, but it does take a heap of instruction to get some newspapers on the right track. However, if those journalistic opponents of the Armstrong Woods reservation proposition keep on scaling down the amount of alleged graft at the present rate of progress, by day after tomorrow they will have H. M. LeBaron paying the State $40,000 or $85,000 to take the block of trees off his hands. Moreover, if the sale is made, he must wait for his money, which will come to him in installments, causing him an expense in interest on the investment. There will be other expenditures to be made which will perceptibly cut down that so-called graft to an ordinary profit. The Press Democrat, a journal published in this city and county, and whose conservativeness on the subject is marked, says editorially:

“Considering the use to which it is to be put, and the further fact that such bits of accessible virgin redwood forest are none too plentiful, the probabilities are that the Armstrong Woods are worth every cent the state is being asked to set aside for their purchase.”

So, the nigger in the Armstrong Wood-pile turns out to be only the chirp of a juvenile cricket. Nobody has seen the cricket, but one person heard him and several persons who did not hear the vocal insect, told what they would have heard the cricket say, if they had heard the cricket say anything.

The end of this poor attempt to dig a scandal out of the proposition to preserve from destruction the grand trees of the Armstrong Woods near Guerneville, reminds me of the fate of the ambitious skunk that backed up against an approaching train. After the cards had passed all that remained between the rails at that spot was a deficit and a disagreeable smell. TOM GREGORY

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 5, 1909


A great deal of talk has been occasioned by the publication of the Call’s article dealing with the proposed purchase of Armstrong Woods by the state, and Senator Walter F. Price has issued the following statement in reference to his position in the matter:

“I am not, never was, and never will be financially interested in the Armstrong grove to the extend [sic] of one penny, and insinuations that I have introduced this measure on such a motive are unjust and not founded in fact. The people of my district wanted the grove preserved and it was because of their indorsement [sic] that I introduced the measure. I have no positive knowledge of Mr. LeBaron’s dealings in obtaining possession of the grove, but I know that he must have paid at least $80,000 for the property. I was one of the legislators who stood out against him when we were conferring on the price, and made him come down to $100,000.”

It is unfortunate that Senator Price is not more specific. Nobody has charged that he is financially interested in Armstrong grove. It has by inference been charged, however, and publicly, that he is financially interested in securing the passage of a bill authorizing its purchase by the state. If such is not the case, Senator Price ought to say so–and prove it, if such a thing be possible. He says he introduced his bill “because of the indorsement…” given the project by the people of this district. Does he refer to the various resolutions passed here by civic and fraternal bodies? It is no secret that in most instances they were introduced at Senator Price’s personal solicitation. In more than one case the resolutions were personally written and prepared by that gentleman. It does not necessarily follow that there was anything wrong about this; but in view of the conspicuous activity displayed by Senator Price in working up public sentiment on the proposition he naturally laid himself open to some criticism besides very materially weakening his right to claim that he introduced his bill solely because of the “indorsement” given the project in this country.

Senator Price says he has “no positive knowledge of Mr. LeBaron’s dealings in obtaining possession of the grove.” He feels very sure, however, that Mr. LeBaron “must have paid at least $80,000 for the property.” Perhaps it would have been better had Senator Price posted himself on the subject. He then could have discussed the matter more intelligently and convincingly. Senator Price is not usually backward in such matters. As a general thing he is fairly familiar with the details of anything happening in his vicinity. His bashfulness in this instance held him back at a most inopportune time. Positive information on the subject of how Mr. LeBaron secured possession of Armstrong grove is what the public is demanding now, and somebody ought to be able to supply this information. If Senator Price is unable to do so, he must not blame the people for thinking it strange. He is the recognized spokesman for the measure, and should have fortified himself with the facts, and ought to be able to supply them, whether he is or not.

While Senator Price finds himself compelled to plead ignorance as to some of the important facts in connection with his principal bill. The Press Democrat believes it is able to supply them. We are in receipt of some later information which we believe to be absolutely authentic and which states that the final price agreed upon between Mr. LeBaron and Walter Armstrong for the latter’s half of the grove was $30,000. This was when the option was replaced by an actual bill of sale. The original option was for $40,000. If our latest information is correct, of this purchase price of $30,000, only $10,000 has actually been paid. This point is immaterial, however, for the purchaser has obligated himself to pay the balance in two equal installments and nobody will dispute the fact that his obligation is good. The option secured from Mrs. Lizzie Armstrong Jones is for $45,000, and on this nothing has been paid, if we except a possible nominal sum put up to hold the option. On an actual expenditure of $10,000, then, Mr. LeBaron, with the assistance of Senator Price, is swinging a $100,000 sale to the state, the latter figure being the one now agreed on as a price for the property. The cost will be $75,000 and the profit $25,000.

There is not necessarily anything wrong about a proposition of the above character. Many a sale of even greater magnitude and promising far more profit is swung on less money. But why not come out and [illegible microfilm – probably ‘admit the details’]? Hardly anyone will contend that the property is not worth the price now asked for it–that is, to the state and for the purpose to which it is to be put. With the amount of profit to be made, the public is not particularly concerned, providing it is legitimate and is applied to no questionable ends. The people of this county, particularly, are anxious to see the Armstrong property secured by the state and turned into a public park. They fully realize all that it would mean, both to them and to the state generally. There is not desire here to block the proposition. Instead, it is just the other way. So much has been said on the subject of graft, however, that some definite assurances that there will be no graft, will have to be forthcoming. If Senator Price cannot supply the kind of information wanted, perhaps Mr. LeBaron can.

Speak up, Mr. LeBaron!

– Press Democrat editorial, February 5, 1909

Legislators Come and See the Trees Sonoma Wants Preserved

The legislative party from the State capital arrived in this city Saturday night, paid a visit of inspection to the Armstrong Woods near Guerneville on Sunday morning and returned to Sacramento on the afternoon train of that day. The time was necessarily limited to a few hours, but the travelers saw even in that brief period that the salvation and reservation of that last stand of splendid trees should now be assured the people of the State of California. Said one member of the party on his return from the grove, “Every statement, every argument spoken or written by the friends of the measure is true. The question of what the tract of trees has been worth, or what it may be worth now to any private party, or what the present owners may have paid for it, is a woeful begging of the whole question. We believe the Armstrong Woods as a public park for all time are worth the amount asked in the bill.”

[… several legislators compliment the forest and the area …]

Another gentleman said, “The time is passing away when ‘anything’ can be worked through a legislature. The people are demanding that their representatives make good. The public evils that have been blighting the land must go. The ‘sack’ that used to swing through the capitol during the sessions is either not there now, or it swings very low. We are all Missourians and the man with a measure must show us. The race track bill went through because its opponents had against it as argument only spiteful and peevish abuse for its champions. It did not make the poolseller less a blackleg because a clergyman said he was such. And behind the measure were the people of California, and it was so ordered.”


Senator H. M. Hurd of Los Angeles, said if they had the Armstrong Woods in the “Southland,” they would not only preserve them, but they would exhibit the trees to eastern tourists as Burbank creations.

Sunday morning the special train of several coaches carried the entire company of local people and visitors towards Guerneville. A transfer was made around a landslide at Eaglenest and the passengers were soon in the famous Sonoma timber belt. El Rio Russian, swollen to the draught of a battleship, was dashing violently to the sea, as if to show the legislators that she was a navigable stream for other than steam launches and salmon. The hospitable people of Guerneville were ready for the party and seventy-five strong they turned out in their carriages and carried the visitors to the place where the grand trees that Colonel Armstrong so long guarded from the destroyer, stand in their majesty. It was an April-like day–cloud and sunshine over the forest. After the light shower, the golden light falling down through the green boughs gilding the raindrops on the foliage and bronzing the red shafts of the kingly sequoia–noble columns in this temple of God. Through the woody corridors the visitors wandered, voicing their admiration and commending the spirit that has moved the people of the State to preserve these matchless things. From Luther Burbank delving down in the long hidden secrets of seed and pollen, they harked back to the day when the Almighty said let green things appear on the earth. Did these then in their obedience to the Voice spring from the newly created soil? After the centuries shall they now pass away?

Guerneville Entertains

After being caught and cameraed by Photographer John Ross in that splendid forest gallery–and made to look how small a statesman is even beside a tree–the party returned to town and found in the Masonic hall the ladies of Guerneville awaiting with tables spread. And the solons proved to be good trenchermen. “It was not a salad and sandwich spread nor a smart luncheon,” said a hungry man, “but a dinner, a mother cooked dinner; one of the best I ever got loose at. And the waitresses were perfection. If Guerneville wasn’t so far away from Sacramento, I;d try to dinner there every day of the session.”

The party returned to Santa Rosa in the afternoon and later boarded their train for the capital.

The legislature visitors were Senator W. F. Price, Sonoma county…


– Santa Rosa Republican, February 8, 1909
Mr. Cnopius Realized Possibilities Years Ago

Lewis C. Cnopius, the well known owner of Camp Vacation, has been interested in the redwood section of that vicinity for more than twenty years. His ability to see into the future foretold to him the possibilities of that beautiful section as a summer resort, and for the purpose of establishing summer homes there for the purpose of establishing summer homes there for the populace of this vicinity and the cities about the bay. With that vision of the future he invested in that section, and his property is among the most valuable in that vicinity.

In going through some of his private papers recently he found a letter from Colonel J. B. Armstrong, the owner of the Armstrong Woods, written in answer to an inquiry from Mr. Cnopius and dated October 2, 1887. In it Colonel Armstrong spoke of the idea he had in mind, and which he attempted to carry out at one time, regarding the big redwood trees of that section becoming a state park, and which is now before Governor James N. Gillett for his signature. The letter has the following to say regarding the matter:

“Your information respecting my forty acre grove of redwoods being set aside for a park is correct. Also that five acres will be deeded in fee simple to the party who will erect a building for a place of resort.

“The forest will remain untouched by the hand of man for all time, except to bring down from the mountain of water of a large spring for a fountain.

“There will be no restriction on the use of the park for public resort–except that it shall not be a camp ground, for permanent occupation might lead to injury done the timber. It is very beautiful in its present natural state, with immense trees and slopes and glades equal to the finest landscape gardening.”

Mr. Cnopius is especially anxious to have the Governor sign the bill preserving the redwoods to posterity, for he knows the value of those trees and the tract of land, and what an incentive they would provide to attract visitors to this section and country.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 19, 1909

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Hurry if you want to see Armstrong Woods; the new owner intends to chop down the entire grove for timber. Or so the Santa Rosa papers reported in the summer of 1908, when Harrison M. LeBaron bought the last 195 acres of the woodlands from the late Colonel Armstrong’s daughter. LeBaron now owned the entire 400+ acres of magnificent redwood forest, and he knew well its value as lumber; someone was earlier hired to “compute the stumpage.”

(RIGHT: Mrs. Bert Jewett of Forestville and her parents visit Armstrong Woods, c. 1909. Photo courtest Sonoma County Library)

It was no surprise that there was a FOR SALE sign on the grove; after all, Col. Armstrong had tried to get the state to buy it for a park in 1891, and a couple of years later, LeBaron had purchased the largest section from another of Armstrong’s heirs. What was different in 1908 was that the public suddenly cared about its future. Letters to the editor appeared, and at the Guerneville Fourth of July celebration that year, almost all speakers dropped the usual patrotic hooey and pleaded for the trees to be saved. The Press Democrat printed the entire flowery speech delivered by Santa Rosa attorney Joseph Berry (“…towering with all the majesty of an Olympian Jove are 400 acres of virgin redwood mostened with the dews of heaven and mantled with garlands of emerald blue…”) which was notable only in its inclusion of a 227 word sentence (!) and that the speaker asked tourists in the audience to contact their legislators and lobby for it to become a state park.

In October came news that State Senator Walter Price (R – Santa Rosa) had promised to present a bill in the next session of the legislature to purchase the grove, conditional on LeBaron delaying logging. LeBaron had signaled months earlier that he would be willing to wait – at least for a while:

A Press Democrat representative talked with Mr. Le Baron on Thursday concerning his purchase. He was asked if the matter of the purchase of the famous grove could be arranged with the idea of its preservation [if] he could be induced to come to terms. He replied that not only would he be glad to do so, but would assist himself in the project. Otherwise he said it would be necessary to cut the trees up into lumber as the investment was to big to allow it to remain idle.

A later article will show this chapter of the Armstrong Woods saga came to an end in 1909, and without looking too far ahead in the story, LeBaron died about five years later, the grove still untouched and its future still unclear. Why didn’t he follow through with his logging threat? Was it just a bluff to frighten conservationists into lobbying for park status?

Gaye LeBaron apparently covered this history only once, in a January 20, 2008 column – now unfortunately behind the Press Democrat’s pay-per-view firewall – but she wrote with some authority; H. M. LeBaron was the grandfather of her husband. Her view is that ancestor LeBaron was “…the new champion for the colonel’s dream…interested in seeing the Fife Creek forest become a nature preserve…” The 1908 and 1909 papers likewise praised his civic-minded protection of the trees (“Mr. LeBaron is a public spirited man, and he desires the progress of Sonoma county and its betterment far more than he does the accumulation of sordid dollars”).

But it should also be weighed that Harrison LeBaron was an astute businessman, and there was little profit to be made in logging the grove at that time. The U.S. economy was still shaking from the bank panic of 1907, so money was tight and the construction industry was at a near standstill, further depressing the already-low price of lumber. And redwood was not considered a valuable wood – it sold for about the same price as Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine. One of the articles below revealed that the estimated worth of Armstrong Woods as timber was a measly $25,000, which may have been even below LeBaron’s purchase price. As a long-term investment, however, it turned out well for his heirs; the land was finally sold to the county in 1917 for $80,000.

BONUS REDWOOD ITEM: Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley obviously loved it when readers brought natural oddities to his office, and column fillers described things like really big beets, albino trout, and potatoes shaped like ducks. In the midst of the hoopla about the sale of Armstrong Woods, a man brought in a sample of curly redwood, which the PD commented was “a handsome board and makes up into fine decorations.” Some of the trim in Comstock House is curly redwood (photo here) and it is indeed pretty; fine examples can look like tiger-striped oak or have a wavy ripple pattern (the appearance is caused by the tree being under stress as it grows). As the PD item notes, however, it was usually thrown away by the mill, and still is today; it splinters easily, and is notoriously hard to plane into a smooth board.

Armstrong Grove Soon to be Made into Lumber

The famous Armstrong grove, about three miles from Guerneville, is soon to be but a matter of history. It has been sold by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Armstrong to H. M. LeBaron of Valley Ford and will be cut for timber.

The Armstrong grove as it is familiarly called, is said to be the finest tract of standing redwood of its size in existence today and there have been efforts made for several years to preserve the trees for a park, but the sale of the place to Mr. LeBaron means that as soon as the times become more normal, and building operations are resumed again, the timber will be cut up and placed on the market. It is to be regretted that the grove is to be thus destroyed but the timber is very valuable and the purchase of the property by Mr. LeBaron is one of the largest deals that has been consummated in this county for a long time.

At one time Col. Armstrong offered to deed the grove to the state, and at the Fourth of July celebration at Guerneville this year, the whole burden of the addresses delivered there was for the saving of the great grove. It is thought that efforts will yet be made to secure the forest for the benefit of the public and the place should be made into a great park.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 30, 1908

Famous Redwood Trees in Danger Now of Invasion by the Woodsman’s Axe–Immense Lot of Lumber

H. M. LeBaron, the Valley Ford banker on Thursday completed the purchase from Walter Armstrong of Sebastopol of the latter’s 195 acres of the famous Armstrong Grove of gigantic redwoods near Guerneville. It is understood that Mr. Le Baron paid away up in the thousands for the splendid grove.

The property Mr. Le Baron has acquired contains some of the finest specimens of redwood in the State. It is his intention, when the building business resumes activity, to establish a sawmill in the grove and cut up the monarchs of the forest into lumber. He says that the property is to valuable to let the trees stand.

For years it has been the dream of those interested in the preservation of the redwoods, and particularly this famed beauty spot, that some day the State or possibly the national Government would acquire possession of the Armstrong Grove for the purpose of preserving the redwoods and making it a State or National park. The matter has never assumed definite shape.

A Press Democrat representative talked with Mr. Le Baron on Thursday concerning his purchase. He was asked if the matter of the purchase of the famous grove could be arranged with the idea of its preservation he could be induced to come to terms. He replied that not only would he be glad to do so, but would assist himself in the project. Otherwise he said it would be necessary to cut the trees up into lumber as the investment was to big to allow it to remain idle.


It is not even now too late to take some steps to preserve the redwoods, But time is fleeting, and if no more direct action is taken than that in the past which has largely resulted in oratory and suggestion, the woodsman’s axe will invade the famous temple Nature herself fashioned near Guerneville.

– Press Democrat, July 31, 1908
Senator Price Has Arranged So State Can Purchase Same

Senator Walter F. Price has secured an option on the Armstrong Woods, recently purchased by Hon. H. M. LeBaron, and will endeavor to have the state preserve the handsome woods for posterity. For many years past this matter has been discussed, and if the splendid trees are to be spared the woodman’s axe it is necessary to act at once.

There are four hundred acres in the tract, and it contains the largest redwood trees in California. The timber has been cruised and it is estimated that there are 2,500,000 feet of lumber in the grove, which is worth wholesale commercially at least ten dollars per thousand feet clear of all expense. This tract is the largest and best grove of trees in the vicinity of San Francisco, and should be preserved for the future, that visitors may see what wonderful trees grew here in Imperial Sonoma.

Senator Price will introduce a bill in the coming session of the legislature for the purchase of these splendid trees, and convert Armstrong Woods into a state park. It is hoped that the people of the entire state will get behind the measure and see that their representatives are made acquainted with the matter and urged to vote for the passage of the bill. It will be necessary for concerted action, and there is no doubt that Sonoma county residents will lend every assistance in their power to the passage of the bill.

Mr. LeBaron has entered into an agreement with Senator Price on the matter, and will await the action of the legislature in the matter. He has already received an offer for the timer, which would net him more money than he asks for the grove if the state desires to purchase it, but his pride in Sonoma county is greater than his desire for money, and he yields to the wishes of the people if they want the woods preserved. Mr. LeBaron is a public spirited man, and he desires the progress of Sonoma county and its betterment far more than he does the accumulation of sordid dollars. The grove, if preserved, will be a monument to the memory of Colonel Armstrong, and a lasting reminder to the people of the generosity of Mr. LeBaron.

When the woods were purchased by Mr. LeBaron some time since Senator Price was absent from this county. He immediately wired Mr. LeBaron, asking him to hold the matter of a sale of the property in abeyance until such time as he could see him. Senator Price came home as soon as he could, and immediately opened negotiations with Mr. LeBaron for the purchase of the property by the state. Now Mr. LeBaron has consented to the same, and if the property is not purchased by the state, it will be cut up for commercial usages, and one of the handsomest places in Sonoma county will have passed away forever. The people cannot afford to let this property be destroyed and it is practically certain that it will be secured through the energetic action of the people of the state and preserved for posterity.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 5, 1908


The Ladies’ Improvement Club, in its action looking to the salvation of the Armstrong Woods, is deserving the moral and financial support of the county and state.

Senator Price’s proposed legislative measure favoring the purchase of the grove by the state is the most credible thing to date in the Senator’s political career. Mr. LeBaron’s motive in having the state purchase and set it aside as a park, rather than cut into lumber, marks Mr. LeBaron as a public spirited gentleman.

The Armstrong Woods is the finest body of accessible redwood timber in the state. It is but a short distance from the populous and travel center of the coast.

Like the Yosemite and Big Basin, it should logically, justly, belong to the people, a heritage for all time to come.


Years ago when Colonel Armstrong was alive and well, a small party, myself among the number, made a little journey to these trees. The Colonel himself, together with one of his daughters, piloted us through the grove, calling our attention to the beauty of this tree, the size and symmetry of that, the peculiarity of another. He spoke freely and unreservedly regarding his plans, his desires, his hopes for the success of the scheme. There was to be a gateway of stone, a fit entrance to the grove, and a number of trees native to the state, but not growing in the tract, were to be planted in the scantier places.

He spoke of the fitness of the trustees appointed to help carry out his wishes, Luther Burbank and Robert Underwood Johnson of the Century Magazine.

Unfortunately I had not taken notes of his talk, which, if it could be reproduced now, would be to the good of the measure.

To those interested in the good cause I can reasonably guarantee the support of the most influential body of nature lovers on the Coast, the Sierra Club.
Thos. J. Pilkington

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 23, 1908
Curly Redwood Specimen

One of the interesting sights in a visit to the large redwood lumber mills of Humboldt county is the curly and burl redwood, which not being suitable for lumber is thrown aside. A. R. Waters brought several pieces of the curly redwood home with him from the Minor Mill & Lumber Co. mills at Glenwood, of which his sister-in-law is half owner. One of the pieces may be seen at this office, where it is on exhibition for a few days. It is a handsome board and makes up into fine decorations.

– Press Democrat, July 21, 1908

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Impossible to imagine today, but someone was hired to “compute the stumpage” of logging Armstrong Grove in 1907 in preparation of its upcoming sale to loggers. For more background, search the Press Democrat archives for the January 20, 2008 article by Gaye LeBaron (sorry, no permanent link available).

Forest Reservation of the Late Colonel J. B. Armstrong Said to be in Danger of Destruction

One of the only two groves of redwood trees in Sonoma county remaining unmarred by the woodman’s axe is now threatened with the fate of destruction. It is the Armstrong grove of twenty acres near Guerneville, not far from the famous Bohemian grove, famed throughout the world. It is now owned by Walter Armstrong and Mrs. Lizzie Jones, children of J. B. Armstrong.

It is said that men representing the “lumber interests” have been dealing with the present owners of this magnificent woodland, and that an agreement has been reached regarding the price that will be paid for the monarchs of the forest. F. W. Hoffman is now in the grove computing the stumpage.

The grove was reserved by the late Colonel J. B. Armstrong when he sold or cut the timber on the rest of his land, who declared that Armstrong grove should remain the heritage of seceding generations. The trees there are among the best in the state. Some of them were big trees when the pyramids of Egypt were built. They are the few remaining monuments of antiquity of California. Since the despoiler’s axe has cleared away nearly all their noble fellows, these giant redwoods have been one of the great sights of Sonoma county.

Their destruction will be deeply regretted by all who know them. To cut these towering trees into material to build bridges and barns seems an equal sacrilege to the tearing down of the Washington monument and using its stones to pave an alley. Even worse, for a new Washington monument could be built within a year or two; but a new grove of redwoods cannot be grown in less than four thousand years.

– Press Democrat, August 24, 1907
Armstrong Grove Likely To Be Sold At Once

The beautiful grove of redwood timber near Guerneville, known as Armstrong’s grove, is likely to be sold in the near future. It is probable that when the transfer has been made the many handsome trees in the grove will be cut down and made into timber. Men representing lumber interests have been negotiating for the purchase of the timber for some time…Professor Freedom W. Hoffman, in charge of the Sebastopol schools, has been engaged the past week in estimating the quantity of timber in the grove, and when this task has been completed, it is understood the sale of the grove will be consummated.


– Santa Rosa Republican, August 23, 1907

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