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