OUR ARTIST NO LONGER IN RESIDENCE

It’s nearly Christmas, 1912. Want a nice gift for your spouse? There’s an art auction in Santa Rosa, and the paper says original oil paintings would be sold “at a remarkably low figure.” You might even know the guy who painted those landscapes – he’s S. Tilden Daken, “the Sonoma County artist.”

Other painters blew through Sonoma county with brushes and easels in the first few years of the Twentieth Century, most notably Carl Dahlgren, who was hired in 1908 to paint Burbank creations by one of the publishing groups trying to write a series of books on Burbank’s plant breeding. Dahlgren also found time for at least one landscape painting and some sketching on the river (“oh, in your coundy it iss beautiful, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l!” he raved to a reporter for the Press Democrat in his Danish accent) but he was still a visitor, working out of San Francisco. Daken lived here with his family on Chestnut street (off Sebastopol Ave.) and rubbed shoulders with Santa Rosa’s hoi polloi; when the Press Democrat ran a silly 1909 scavenger hunt contest to promote downtown businesses, there he was as question #91, between the Gamble Brothers grocery store and the Harper Hair Dressing Parlor. “What is the name of the eminent artist who came to Sonoma county three years ago and established a studio and school of art?”

(RIGHT: Samuel Tilden Daken portraits in the Santa Rosa Republican, 1911 and 1912)

The art studio could be found on Fourth street, but there never was a “school of art.” He had moved to Santa Rosa in late 1908 hoping to establish an art institute affiliated with a national association of art schools. Plans never advanced past the drafting board, but he was so convincing the Chamber of Commerce included his architectural drawing of the proposed building in its hyped 1909 “Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity” promotional book. Lack of funding probably killed that project but he stuck around, painting redwoods and valleys and geysers and more. Sonoma county is “b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l,” after all. In summertimes the family, with two baby daughters born here, enjoyed painting excursions to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe.

Daken also was the focus of a 1911 promotional campaign to distribute prints of three of his Sonoma county views to selected parties in the Midwest and Eastern states with the goal to hopefully “induce them to come to this favored section to make their homes.” The printing was done by the Santa Rosa Republican, which patted itself on the back in announcing “This is the most extensive 3-color cut work ever done in Sonoma county…It is superb in every way.” In truth, the printing is terrible; with poor registration and the colors oddly washed out, the prints look like the sort of crappy halftone found on baseball cards from twenty years earlier.

Amazingly, researcher Bonnie Portnoy – Daken’s granddaughter – has a mint-condition copy of the 1911 “Sonoma County Beautiful” portfolio. With permission the prints are reproduced below and a higher resolution copy of the entire brochure is available at the Comstock House digital library (DOWNLOAD). Bonnie writes and curates the tildendaken.com website and has penned articles about Daken for the Sonoma Historian. She has unearthed a trove of information on him and is preparing a full biography.

There was apparently no East Coast tour by the artist following distribution of the art portfolio, but Daken was busy anyway; “For some time past Mr. Daken has been making displays of the Sonoma county scenes throughout the state, at county fairs and industrial exhibitions, particularly the one at San Jose, where he spent some weeks,” the Republican reported. A particularly fine painting, “View of Russian River from Guernewood Heights,” was often exhibited and won awards.

But these must have been lean times; until the 1912 auction, there are few mentions in the papers of paintings sold. One of the few known commissions during these years was a pastoral scene painted on the “drop curtain” for the theater at the Union Hotel in Sonoma (now on display at the Depot Park Museum). Before moving to Santa Rosa he lived in Glen Ellen for a couple of years, and in the Sonoma State archives Bonnie Portnoy found he was sued by a storekeeper there for an amount due of $27.35 – about two weeks’ average household income at the time – and to settle the paltry debt, he had to turn over two paintings. Adding to his misery, he was summoned back to court because he still owed $2.70 in fees.

The 1912 auction marked the end of his reign as “the Sonoma County artist” and the Daken family returned to San Francisco. This was also apparently the year the Comstocks closed “The Gift Shop” in downtown Santa Rosa, where they sold work by members of the local Arts and Crafts Guild as well as artwork from many pioneers of the emerging Arts and Crafts style. It is left to you, Gentle Reader, to ponder why the town’s only two purveyors of fine art both closed studios while Santa Rosa was enjoying its first truly prosperous year since the Great Earthquake.

It turned out his six years in Sonoma county were an idyl in an otherwise bold, tempestuous life. In 1913 he left his family behind and moved to Mazatlan, where he was caught up in the Mexican Revolution, wounded a couple of times and imprisoned as a POW. His marriage ended after he had an affair with Sophie Tucker (“The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”). There were years in Hawaii where he designed a custom diving bell so he could paint underwater landscapes seascapes. He painted headhunters in New Guinea and silent film stars in Hollywood. He wrote short stories based on his restless adventures.

Examples of his art can be viewed at the tildendaken.com website, but he created an estimated four thousand paintings – if it were possible to view them all and spend just one minute looking at each, it would take nearly three days straight. Until he died at age 59 in 1935, his brushes must have been never dry for a single moment.

ELEGANT THREE-COLOR WORK BY REPUBLICAN
Daken’s Art Portfolios Ready for Public Distribution

The REPUBLICAN office has turned out some of the most artistic printing ever done north of San Francisco in an Art Portfolio issued for Samuel T. Daken, the Sonoma county artist. The work is done in three colors, and represents some of the splendid paintings from the brush of the artist. This is the most extensive 3-color cut work ever done in Sonoma county and it shows the ability of the REPUBLICAN mechanical force to do the best work that can be done.

The three pictures which are reproduced in the colors are “Glimpses of the Sonoma Valley,” “Overlooking the Lowlands of Sonoma County,” and “Redwoods at Sunset.” They are among the best works of Artist Daken, and are to be given free to some persons in an effort to raise funds for an exhibit of Sonoma county scenes in eastern cities.

The portfolios are to be sold at one dollar each. The matter has the hearty approval of the Board of Supervisors.

With the funds thus raised for the disposal of these pictures, an exhibition of the famous Sonoma county scenes depicted on canvas by Artist Daken will be made in all of the principal cities of the east and middle west. Mr. Daken will make this exhibit with the handsome scenes which he has transferred to canvas and it will be a matter of the best kind of publicity for Sonoma county to have these beautiful scenes shown in the eastern states.

All persons should secure some of the portfolios, not only for their intrinsic value and the opportunity presented to secure one of the three paintings mentioned, but because it will enable the beauties of this splendid section to be shown in the east. When the edition has been disposed of Artist Daken will arrange the exhibit at once and start on his eastern journey to give the people there an opportunity to view Sonoma county, and induce them to come to this favored section to make their homes.

The color work done by the mechanical department of the REPUBLICAN office reflects great credit on the force. It is superb in every way, and shows how well all classes of printing can be handled on the up-to-date machinery with which the office is equipped.

For some time past Mr. Daken has been making displays of the Sonoma county scenes throughout the state, at county fairs and industrial exhibitions, particularly the one at San Jose, where he spent some weeks. At this display between ten and twelve thousand people attended daily and viewed the beautiful pictures of Sonoma county scenes and landscapes of different sections of the county.

These three pictures, which are to be presented to the persons purchasing the folios, will be placed on display in the Hotel Overton lobby, where they may be viewed by the people.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 13, 1911
INTEREST IN DAKEN DISPLAY
Pictures May Be Seen at Odd Fellows’ Hall Sunday

The elegant display of paintings from the brush of S. Tilden Daken, the well known Sonoma county artist, is attracting much attention. The display is made at the reception rooms of the Odd Fellows’ building on Mendocino avenue, and many visitors are going in daily to inspect the canvasses. The exhibit will be open on Sunday from 10 in the morning until 9 o’clock at night and Mr. Daken will be present during these hours. An invitation is extended to the public to come in and view these elegant works of art.

Daken is the first artist to paint the beauties of Sonoma county scenes, and he has a number of splendid views of this county, including pretty landscapes from various sections. Some of these are from the Pluton [sic] regions, others from the redwood section and still others from the fertile valleys. Persons can find just what they desire in the Daken collection, and these beautiful paintings will make elegant Christmas presents.

Among the canvases displayed are some of the beautiful Yosemite valley, to which place Artist Daken made a number of pilgrimakes [sic], and whose beauties have been transferred to canvass [sic]. The display is well worth seeing, and none should fail to make a visit to it.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 14, 1912
PAINTINGS TO BE AUCTIONED
Daken Collection to Go Under Hammer Friday Eve

The splendid collection of paintings which have been on exhibition at Odd Fellows’ hall on Mendocino avenue, will be offered at auction on Friday evening, December 20th. There are about forty beautiful views in this collection, and it is by far the best that Artist Daken has ever grouped together. It represents a number of beautiful landscapes from Sonoma county scenes and some from Yosemite Valley, which is the ideal spot for artists. In variety the collection is one of the finest that could be found anywhere, and the pictures will be auctioned without reservation. The auction will begin at 8 o’clock sharp and it is more than probable that a large crowd of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county people will be in attendance.

Every one is cordially invited to come in and look over the collection of pictures, whether they purchase or not. The pictures will be sold under the second bid, and this will afford a fine opportunity to get a fine example of Artist Daken’s work at a low figure. Daken is the Sonoma county artist, and has done more with the brush to make Sonoma county popular and prominent than all the other artists combined.

Edward Curtis, the noted art auctioneer of San Francisco, who conducts a studio at 1700 Van Ness avenue, and who is the greatest art auctioneer of the Pacific coast, will conduct the auction of this splendid collection of paintings. Mr. Curtis has conducted large sales of paintings on the Pacific Coast and in the east, and is a noted critic of all the schools of art. One of the large sales which he conducted was that of the collection of the late Colonel Issac Trumbo. This collection of paintings was appraised at $35,000 and was conducted at the St. Francis hotel in the metropolis.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 19, 1912
AUCTION SALE OF PAINTINGS ODD FELLOWS HALL TONIGHT

S. Tilden Daken, whose likeness is presented in the cut printed herewith, is known all over the state as the Sonoma county artist. It was he who first produced on canvass in great numbers the many beautiful scenes to be found within the confines of Imperial Sonoma. This evening at 8 o’clock at the Odd Fellows’ Hall, on Mendocino avenue, an auction of his pictures will take place. This will afford an excellent opportunity to get a splendid Daken picture at a remarkably low figure.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 20, 1912

Read More

LOST: THE ART INSTITUTE OF SANTA ROSA

Did you know Santa Rosa once had an art school? It’s right there in the “Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity,” a 1909 book put together by the Chamber of Commerce and the Press Democrat to promote the town. Granted, the school didn’t get beyond the planning stage and the building was never constructed, but hey, Santa Rosa needed something to show that it could become a classy place.

(RIGHT: Architectural sketch that appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers and the Portfolio as “S. T. DAKEN’S ART SCHOOL, SANTA ROSA CAL.”)

By 1909, the pace of change in Santa Rosa was accelerating. The last of the post-earthquake reconstruction was finishing up and the town’s administrators finally closed the tenderloin district after 30 years. There were now three theaters downtown and almost all of the main streets were asphalt paved. In this burgeoning little metropolis the art school would have fit right in. Located on College Avenue near the current location of the Mission Car Wash, the plans for the school show a very modern design; in some ways it anticipated the streamlined Art Deco style of a quarter-century later, with its rounded corners on the roof above triple-row horizontal banding.

The force behind the planned art school was S. T. Daken, a landscape painter who was in Sonoma County for five years after the 1906 earthquake, living in Glen Ellen near his friend Jack London until he and his family moved to Santa Rosa in 1909. Here he taught art at the Ursuline College and at his studio at 509A Fourth Street, today the location of a pawn shop. Daken’s time in the county has been recently described in a pair of very interesting articles in the Sonoma Historian, the quarterly newsletter from the Sonoma County Historical Society. The author, Tilden Daken’s granddaughter, has a web site devoted to her ancestor, and also in the newsletter tells the tale of Daken and London meeting in a hayloft, the pair of them then hopping trains and riding the rods underneath boxcars from Reno to San Francisco.

The art institute project floundered for almost two years before it was abandoned, apparently due to Daken’s rocky personal finances and inability to find enough investors. His partner in the development plans was local contractor Frank Sullivan, with whom he had other dealings in 1909. Together with Daken’s former landlord, Dr. C. C. O’Donnell, they were hornswoggled by a con man who supposedly planned to build a world-class sanitarium for alcoholics in Glen Ellen. Sullivan and O’Donnell both were scammed, but when he tried to sweet talk Daken into painting a 12-foot canvas, the artist wisely refrained from putting brush to canvas until a deposit was forthcoming – which, of course, it never was.

Both Santa Rosa newspapers wrote of the art school as if it were a fait accompli, and the article transcribed below waxes poetic on the glory of painting local sunsets. Had the place actually been built, students trying to capture twilight’s last gleaming from the studios would have certainly kept school’s westward windows shut, as it was a block away and downwind from the slaughterhouse.

Obl. believe-it-or-not footnote: The item from the Santa Rosa Republican included a snippet of poetry using a word that can’t be found in any dictionary: “Trancid,” which apparently was a mashup between “tranquil” and “placid.” A search of Google Books shows that it was in use from at least 1856 to 1942, but not even the Oxford English Dictionary mentions it. The word most often appears in obscure verse and poetry; really bad poets seemed drawn to it as moth to flame.

(BELOW: Portrait of Samuel Tilden Daken from the Portfolio)

SANTA ROSA TO HAVE AN UP-TO-DATE ART SCHOOL

Santa Rosa is seen to have what few towns of its size can boast–an art school and art gallery. S. T. Daken, the artist, has had plans prepared by J. B. Durand for a building to be devoted to these purposes. It will be located on the corner of College avenue and Ripley streets, and, judging from the plans, will be a decidedly attractive structure.

The style of architecture is along simple, dignified lines and the exterior finish will be something unique in rough cast cement plaster. The building will be a two story and basement heated by a furnace. The first story will be devoted to living rooms, and the entire second floor will be used for class room and gallery purposes. Special attention has been paid to the lighting facilities for the benefit of the art students as well as to show the paintings in the gallery to advantage.

Besides Mr. Daken’s private collection of the works of noted artists, and his own paintings, which will form a permanent display in the gallery, the American Art Association, with which the Daken school will be affiliated, will furnish at various times excellent examples of art, including sculpture and architecture, as well as paintings. This association, whose headquarters are in New York, supplies circulating collections to affiliated schools throughout the United States.

An art library will be at the disposal of the students and lectures by well known artists will be given at frequent intervals. These, with the affiliation mentioned, cannot but be of great advantage to the students. The course will include studio work from models and sketching classes.

In the vicinity of Santa Rosa are many beautiful landscapes, and the cloud effects are especially fine. There are sunsets of exceeding grandeur when the dying rays gleam on St. Helena’s snowy crest, throwing over the dark canyons of the eastern mountains yet darker shadows, and there is beauty too.

“In trancid calm of summer night,
When the cloudless moonlight fills
With chastened splendor, gently bright
The circuit of the hills.”

This city is indeed a fitting location for such an Art School as Mr. Daken purposes to found and there is every reason to believe that the institution will be highly successful.

The construction of the building will be under the supervision of Mr. Durand and work will be commenced as soon as possible after he recovers his health sufficiently to attend to business.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 22, 1909

ARTIST DAKEN DID NOT BITE
Told Williams Deposit Must Accompany Order

Artist S. T. Daken of this city is the only man who was shrewd enough to prevent being “taken in” by Dr. F. Harry Williams, who was also an attorney. Williams, it will be remembered, is the man who came here and purported to purchase the O’Donnell ranch at Glen Ellen for a huge Emanuel [sic] Sanitarium.

After letting contracts with lavish hand and transacting all kinds of business without parting with any coin, Williams determined that he wanted a huge landscape scene of the sanitarium, showing San Francisco bay in the distance, to place on exhibition at the Seattle exposition. He consulted with Artist Daken and ordered from the latter an oil painting six by twelve feet, showing the sanitarium.

In accordance with this order Artist Dakin went over to Glen Ellen and made the preliminary sketches from which to paint the scene, and forwarded these to Williams’ address in the metropolis. In the letters to Williams Mr. Daken informed him that if he wished the work to proceed he would have to enclose a remittance in the return letter as a deposit on the same.

The picture was one that would have had little commercial value to Artist Dakin had it not been accepted by Williams, and he proposed to take no chances with the man, who was an entire stranger to him.

From this it will be seen that in addition to being an artist of renown, Daken possesses the faculty to read human nature in a far greater degree than some other Santa Rasans [sic], who are mourning the time and money lost on Williams.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 29, 1909

Read More

THE COMSTOCKS ARRIVE

In obituaries and family lore there are two stories about why the Comstocks came to California. Neither is truly right.

When matriarch Nellie Comstock died in 1940, the Press Democrat told readers the family moved here because of a “letter from Burbank, a warm personal friend of Mrs. Comstock’s inducing her to come to Santa Rosa was received while the family was visiting in California. After a short stay in this city, Mrs. Comstock decided to move here.” Her daughter-in-law, Helen Finley Comstock, said in an oral history that Nellie and her eldest son, John, came out to visit Burbank in 1907, then “they came out in 1908 for the summer…and they loved it so that they never went back.” First, there was no known friendship or correspondence between Nellie and Luther (son John is another story, as we’ll see), so odds of Burbank arm-twisting are thin. And they didn’t make an impetuous decision after taking Santa Rosa for a summer test drive. It was quite clear that the Comstocks originally settled here with the deliberate goals of obtaining the best raw materials for their handicrafts – plus the chance to join some of the top artists in America in pioneering a bold new movement on the West Coast.

Between April and May, 1908, the Comstocks moved into their home on Hoen Avenue. This was Rural Route 5 at the time so there wasn’t a street number, but we know it was adjacent to Matanzas Creek, somewhere around the Farmer’s Lane intersection. Nellie was 51. Five of her seven children lived at the old farmhouse with her: Catherine (22) and Cornelia (20) along with teenagers Frank, Hilliard, and Hugh. Her son Hurd, who was starting his career in banking, remained behind in Illinois. Eldest son John (25) had a wife and a toddler with another child on the way, so they purchased a house at 965 Sonoma Avenue, on the corner of Brookwood Av. that’s now the Santa Rosa police department. In a bit of believe-it-or-not coincidence, directly across the street was – and still is – one of the handful of homes in Santa Rosa designed by Brainerd Jones, the architect of (what would become known as) Comstock House.

Nellie had homeschooled all of her children, hiring additional tutors as needed. They all possessed remarkable minds, but the blazing star was John Adams Comstock Jr. He was already recognized as an important biologist in the study of butterflies, and the recorder (the position directly below chairman) of the entomological section for the prestigious Chicago Academy of Sciences. It was John who spent eleven days with Burbank the year before – no mention of Nellie, although she often took trips with her other children – where the two self-taught scientists compared notes. The perpetually disorganized Burbank was particularly curious to learn more about Comstock’s system for cataloging a large collection (more on this topic will be discussed in a later item).

But John was far more than a bug-collecting nerd. He was also an accomplished artist, as were his sisters Catherine and Cornelia. Together, the three young people spent some time at the Roycroft Colony founded by Elbert Hubbard. And they were young indeed – all their names appeared on the 1903 Roycroft payroll records, when Cornelia was only fifteen.

THE ROYCROFTERS AND THE AMERICAN ARTS & CRAFT MOVEMENT

For an introduction to Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft community, watch the 2009 PBS documentary “Elbert Hubbard: An American Original,” which can be viewed free. The “Early Artisans” section of that web page also provides a very good overview of the Arts & Crafts movement. But what you won’t learn there is a definition of the Arts & Crafts style.

Even though a century has passed since its peak, work produced by the Arts & Crafts movement can still be tricky to identify, which is all the more remarkable because that same period saw the rise of styles that were easy to recognize – think how easy it is to spot almost anything Art Nouveau or Art Deco. But something that came out of an Arts & Crafts workshop might look as if it were made a hundred, even four hundred years earlier, or it might be something that looks modernistic even today. No visual arts movement had ever peered so deeply into past and future simultaneously.

The artists who created these works were likewise impossible to pigeonhole. Much of it came out of small architectural offices and artisan workshops. To promote and sell their work, those who created handcrafts joined a local Arts & Crafts guild/society, which sponsored annual exhibitions (professionals who sold crafts nationwide, such as the Companeros, also belonged to guilds in other cities). There were a handful of Arts & Crafts utopian colonies that made things while hewing close to the handmade-only ideology of Ruskin and Morris, and on the other end of the scale were companies turning out products in a factory setting, such as United Crafts, owned by Gustav Stickley and which built furniture in his new “mission style.” The popularity of Arts & Crafts-type goods also attracted knockoff artists; one such outfit was the “United Crafts and Arts of California,” which cleverly sounded like a statewide guild merged with Stickley’s respected brand name.

Unique in the Arts & Crafts world was Hubbard’s Roycroft community. No other group approached it in size; thousands worked there over the years (a 1909 magazine article stated over 500 were currently there) although most were paid next to nothing, a frequent point of criticism of the operation. A great variety of objects were created, but no designs compared to Stickley’s mission furniture in artistic importance. Yet the Roycroft Shops made the greatest overall impact on the Arts & Crafts movement by virtue of the army of people who worked there and learned some skills, became imbued with Hubbard’s revolutionary ideals, and then returned to their hometowns as evangelists for the Roycroft creed. The colony survived Hubbard’s death in 1915 and finally closed its doors in 1938, over twenty years after obituaries were written for the rest of the Arts & Crafts movement.

They worked in the the Leather Shop, Catherine and Cornelia as modelers (a description of this kind of work can be found here) and John as a designer. Today, leatherwork might seem an otiose skill, but at the turn of the century leather products were part of everyday life; the Roycrofters had an entire catalog of leather goods. You could even say that leather was in the Comstock blood; when the three were very young, their father was president of the Western Leather Manufacturing Company in Chicago, which made high-quality medical bags for physicians and veterinarians (these antique cases are still available on eBay and elsewhere under the trade name “Welemaco”).

The Roycroft community was something of a finishing school for the Comstocks. Besides the life-changing experience of suddenly living with hundreds of people close to their own age, available to them were top artisans in every field. Roycrofters were encouraged to dabble with new skills in the various shops; mention of John Comstock’s Roycroft experiences that appeared in later academic profiles note that he tried his hand in “furniture design, bookbinding and illustrations, metal work, and jewelry design” (curiously, his years in leather crafting were never mentioned in these thumbnail biographies).

John and Catherine Comstock continued leatherworking after leaving the Roycroft shops, forming a company they named “The Companeros” (always without the tilde ñ), and being closer to their favorite tannery was said to be the main reason they came to Santa Rosa in April 1908. The Republican newspaper reported, “For some time past these talented young people have been using Santa Rosa leather, securing the same through Chicago. It occurred to them that there would be many advantages in residing here…They make this leather into a large variety of useful articles, including ladies’ purses, book bindings of novel effects, and card cases. The process of waterproofing and staining the leather is of their own creation and they are the only persons making this class of goods so far as known at the present time.”

The Companeros wasted no time in establishing a presence on the West Coast, where the Arts & Crafts movement was rapidly gaining belated attention.* The Arts & Crafts show in Oakland that autumn was the first big exhibition west of Chicago, and the Companeros were there with a private booth. In 1909 their leatherwork won a gold medal at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (AYPE) in Seattle, and first prize at the California State Fair. Reference can be found that their leather was sold at the Shop of Fine Arts and Industries in Portland, and probably most other stores nationwide that specialized in professional Arts & Crafts goods. A few years later, Companeros products could be found for sale in over fifty cities.

The Companeros also introduced themselves to Santa Rosa by opening an art store in the Masonic Building at the corner of Fourth and D (today that building footprint is FedEx/Peet’s Coffee plus Stanroy’s). This may have been thought a bit odd at first, as there already were two art stores on Fourth St. But Bruener’s mainly offered utilitarian things for sale such as wallpaper and paint, while Hall’s art store was where you found cheap art and gee gaws, like a framed lithograph to hang over a hole in your wall or a miniature plaster Venus de Milo. What the Comstocks offered was in a different orbit entirely: California landscape paintings by John Gamble and Kate Newhall, copper work from the studio of Dirk van Erp, pottery from the shops of Artus Van Briggle and William Grueby. This was some of the best fine art being produced at the time anywhere, and was already being collected by museums in America and abroad. “Truly, this is a bit of Boston come to town,” gushed the Santa Rosa Republican.

“The Gift Shop” remained in business at least four years, the last and best description of the store appearing in a 1912 promotional insert from the Republican newspaper. John left the company in late 1910 or early 1911 to study medicine in Los Angeles. Around that same time the shop moved to 626 Fourth street (which is currently a gift shop, appropriately enough). Catherine Comstock took over John’s role as as manager and designer of The Companeros, with sister Cornelia as artist.

None of The Companeros’ leather work is known to survive (which isn’t surprising, given that these were objects intended to be used often and not placed on display). All that remains is a small ten page pamphlet printed by them in Santa Rosa, date unknown. The title was “The Soul of the Nation,” and the author was their mother, Nellie Comstock. A PDF copy of the essay is available in the Comstock House digital library, courtesy the Comstock family.


* So great was public interest that the Press Democrat began running Elbert Hubbard’s syndicated column, “Roycroft Philosophy by Fra Elbertus” in August of 1908. Here were Hubbard’s popular and quotable zingers (“do not take life too seriously — you will never get out of it alive anyway”) and tips for the clueless on how to act civilized (“the chewing of gum, tobacco or paper as a jaw-exerciser should be eliminated. The world is pronouncing them vulgar, unbusinesslike and dangerous. Keep ahead of your foreman and the Board of Health in this thing”). Never mentioned in these columns were his earlier and more provocative views, such as proclaiming he was simultaneously a socialist and an anarchist, just like Jesus.
NEW INDUSTRY FOR THIS CITY
The Companeros Will Establish Studio Here

The fame of Luther Burbank and the leather made in Santa Rosa is responsible for the coming to this city of some talented young people of artistic tastes, who will make their permanent home and establish a studio here.

Miss Catherine Comstock and her brother, John Comstock, have been engaged in business in Evanston, Illinois, for some time past, as “The Companeros,” a Spanish word, “companions.” They have processes of modeling leather and staining the same, the modeling and color effects making something decidedly attractive and fine. In this city they will establish a studio, make up the goods, and give employment to young ladies of Santa Rosa who have artistic tastes. With these young people is their brother, Frank Comstock, and in a month the remainder of the family will be here.

As to the permanence of their home here John Comstock has already purchased a ranch out on Hoen avenue, where he has ten acres set out in fruit and where he and the family will make their home and indulge in rural tastes.

For some time past these talented young people have been using Santa Rosa leather, securing the same through Chicago. It occurred to them that there would be many advantages in residing here, chiefly among them being climactic influences, the fact that they would save money in the freight on leather used, and the cost of living being less here than in their Evanston home. John Comstock has for many years been in touch with Luther Burbank’s work and at one time spent eleven days with Mr. Burbank in this city. He was recorder of the entomological section of the Academy of Sciences in Chicago for some time and has the largest collection of bugs outside of Chicago.

The new comers to Santa Rosa have revived the work of remodeling leather, which is a thousand years old, and was found on the saddles of the Assyrians. They make this leather into a large variety of useful articles, including ladies’ purses, book bindings of novel effects, and card cases. The process of waterproofing and staining the leather is of their own creation and they are the only persons making this class of goods so far as known at the present time.

Two trained workers in the business of the Companeros, young ladies, are en route from the east to this city, to take up the work. The new comers have contracts from eastern houses sufficient to make their venture here an unqualified success.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 2, 1908

SANTA ROSANS MAKE EXHIBIT
Articles Shown at Idora Park Attract Attention

At the Arts and Crafts exhibition at Idora Park, in Oakland, last week, a number of Santa Rosans were among the exhibitors…

…The Companeros have a separate booth for the display of their handwrought leather work, which has been adjudged by many of the artists to be the finest, or one of the finest, in the exhibition. It is tastefully decorated in green and their attractive leather shows to good advantage. The work which these young people are doing has already attained a reputation in Boston and the far east as the standard of perfection in leather modeling. Santa Rosans do not realize what is being done in their midst in this line, but the larger cities of the union are in touch with the art.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 28, 1908

GIFT SHOP OPENED HERE
Art Novelties Being Made in Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa is to have an innovation. A real arts and crafts shop is among us. A cozy decorative nook has been erected in the Masonic Temple, rooms 23 and 24, which will be a delight to the lovers of the Rose City; such an out-of-the-way corner as one might except [sic] to run across in the by-ways of London or Berlin.

Here on display one may see quaint bits of metal work, fashioned by hand, beautiful prints, in limited editions, decorated leather such as the Germans delight in, choice exclusive samples of pottery, handcraft jewelry, Christmas cards, colored mottos–the work of skilled and nimble fingers, and a host of clever things that will be found nowhere else. Truly, this is a bit of Boston come to town.

This establishment calls itself the Gift Shop, and is the creation of the Companeros, workers in leather. These young artists have been located for some time in the Masonic Temple. Their work in leather has won for them recognition from the art critics of the country. Wherever one finds a shop where things unique are on display, where the art lovers delight to linger, there one is pretty sure to find their work.

Mr. John Comstock and Miss Catherine Comstock are the designers for the company. The former is a member of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, the National Society of Craftsmen, the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society and other art organizations.

Outside of the bay cities Santa Barbara and Sacramento, Santa Rosa will have the only arts and crafts shop in the State.

Massachusetts is the real home of American arts and crafts, and these quaint and unique shops are the main feature of this center of culture for those who love the beautiful.

John Ruskin and William Morris may be said to be the fathers of this movement, which has grown to international importance. The world owes Morris a debt of gratitude which it is only now beginning to realize. His influence is felt in every truly artistic home in England and America, alike in the scheme of decoration and in the furnishings. The gift shop is worthy of mention in this last respect. In the plan of decoration a rich yellow tint has been used in the ceiling, to give the necessary light to the predominating soft green of the side walls, and antique brown of the woodwork. All the furnishings were made or selected to carry with this color scheme. Around the room runs a bracketed plate shelf, and pendant from this on each side of the doors leaded art glass lamps are hung. Above the plate shelf are a series of colored prints by Jules Guerin, foremost of American colorists, for conventional decorative effect.

Many people have asked the meaning of the word “Companeros.” This is the Spanish word for comrades, and was chosen by Mr. Comstock as a suggestion of the organization, which is conducted for the interests of all the workers.

The gift shop is to have its official opening Wednesday next and an invitation is extended to all to visit the studio and workroom.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 14, 1908
THE GIFT SHOP

Several months ago there was established in Santa Rosa a company of craftsmen, calling themselves The Companeros, whose endeavor was to produce work in hand-wrought leather that would meet the approval of the world’s best critics. Beginning with no visible market, this work has now become known in al parts of the United States and is on sale in over fifty citiies including New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Finding there was a demand in Santa Rosa for fine art productions, the Companeros established the Gift Shop for the sale and exhibition of work in various lines that conform to a high conception of the word art. The Gift Shop, over which Miss Catherine Comstock has charge, is on Fourth street and is one of the most attractive and artistically arranged and furnished places in Santa Rosa. Here is displayed productions of America’s foremost artists and craftsmen–work that is usually to be seen only in large Eastern cities. The exclusive agency is secured on all lines which are carried, and the fact that the Companeros are large producers makes it possible to offer better value on this kind of work than can be found elsewhere. The following are a few things to be seen at the Gift Shop: hand beaten copper by Dirk van Erp, The Handcraft Guild, The Little Craft Shop, The Companeros, and others; pottery, Van Briggle, Grueby, Newcomb and others; hand decorated post cards and booklets; hand wrought leather work by the Companeros; Suede leather work; choice fabrics, including the Companeros’ stencils on hand woven Russian linen crash; Christmas motto and post cards in large variety; art studies in photography; oil paintings by John Gamble, Kate Newhall and others; choice pastels, prints and water colors and a great variety of exclusive novelties. In addition to having charge of the Gift Shop, Miss Comstock takes classes in Santa Rosa and Berkeley. She is an accomplished artist, whose rare ability has won her high criticism from the most noted critics of the country.

– “Sonoma County Development Number of the Santa Rosa Republican,” c. 1912

Read More