It was the worst fire since the 1906 earthquake, but that’s not what made the Levin Tannery’s destruction a disaster.

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The ferocity of the blaze that afternoon in the early summer of 1910 was astonishing. “Great masses of heavy, black smoke rolled high into the heavens, solid walls of red and angry flame leaped in every direction,” according to the Press Democrat, “explosion followed explosion as oil tanks and acid receptacles were reached, and the hissing of escaping steam from the great boilers added to the unearthly din.”

The fire, at the modern location of 101 Brookwood Avenue, immediately spread from the tannery to the adjacent shoe factory and a couple of houses. And then it was remembered that gasoline was being stored at the building next door. “It was said there was enough gasoline in the place had it exploded, to have wrecked every building within a considerable distance, to say nothing of the probable loss of life,” the PD reported.

Afterwards, there wasn’t much left at all, which in a way was great news; the tannery had a history of being a terrible citizen, stinking up the town and repeatedly poisoning Santa Rosa Creek with illegal discharges. The Levin brothers promised in 1906 and 1909 to clean up their business but never did, as discussed at length in the earlier article, Tannery Town. Good thing: Tannery gone. Bad thing: There were about 140 men working there at the time of the fire, which meant about three percent of the local workforce was now unemployed.*

Soon afterwards the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce held the first of three public meetings on the future of the tannery and shoe factory, the events chaired by Press Democrat publisher Ernest Finley wearing his hat as the Chamber’s president. Curiously, no members of the Levin family or representatives from the owners attended. Some prominent businessmen said they had discussed matters with the Levin brothers, and while hastening to add they were not speaking on the Levin’s behalf, were in fact clearly doing so.

At the first meeting, one of the non-spokesman spokesmen for the Levins stated “plans are already well under way for the immediate re-establishment of the Tannery, but had intimated that if any suitable arrangement should be proposed they might be willing to move to some other part of town, as they were tired of having to fight with their neighbors and carry on business at the same time.” Dr. Bogle suggested the tannery could be rebuilt near the train depot, which sounds similar to the 1908 proposal that Santa Rosa move all the bordellos to the West End Italian neighborhood.

Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

At the next meeting three days later, Finley presented a proposal from the Levins. It was a complicated deal. The shoe factory would be spun off into a separate business after $75,000 was raised by selling shares in the new corporation. Half of the investment would come from the Levins, with local capitalists chipping in the rest. The factory would stay at the same location, with the rest of the land to be sold to the new company for $10,000. The tannery would move – once Santa Rosa found a new suitable location for them. It was never explained whether the city or the Levins would own the property at the new spot.

It was quite the sweetheart deal for the Levins, who apparently had enough insurance coverage to rebuild both businesses anyway. They would net the equivalent of about $5 million today while hanging on to half ownership in the factory. And presumably, the new location for the tannery would come with a city guarantee there would be no further complaints made against them.

The third meeting recapped the proposals and State Senator Walter F. Price reported that investors were really getting excited; they had raised about 20 percent of the funds in just the past 72 hours. Oh, and it had been privately decided it was important for the city to buy the former tannery land for a public park. And thus two weeks later, everything was riding on the City Council approving $5,000 (the investor’s half of the property deal with the Levins paying themselves the other half).

And the Council said no. “The City has no money for such purposes,” a councilman told the Press Democrat.

Newspaper editor Ernest Finley was apparently irate the Council had put the kibosh on the deal negotiated by Chamber of Commerce president Ernest Finley:

At a special meeting of the City Council called for last evening to consider the park proposition upon which also hinged the re-establishment of the shoe factory, the removal of the Levin Tanning Company’s plant from the residence district, its early re-establishment here in another part of town, and the ending of the long and bitter wrangle that has resulted from the maintainence of the tannery at its present location, the entire project was turned down, and with scant ceremony.

In addition to that remarkable sentence which dribbles on for nearly seven dozen words, the PD article closed by naming all members of the Council who were at that meeting. At least he didn’t publish their home addresses and announce the hardware store was having a sale on rope.

That was the end of the tannery removal saga. The Levins began to rebuild the shoe factory and tannery in the exact same locations. Five weeks after the Council refused to appropriate funds, two people sued the Levins, claiming the tannery conditions were damaging their health.

There are two takeaways to the story.

First, it’s highly unlikely the tannery actually could have been relocated elsewhere in Santa Rosa. Tanneries use lots of water and thus need to be near a plentiful supply, such as Santa Rosa Creek, and it’s doubtful there was another creekside location available in city limits – Santa Rosa was so small at the time you could probably bicycle from any end of town to the other within ten minutes. If they left their old location it would make more sense for the Levins to leave Santa Rosa altogether and rebuild somewhere like Petaluma, which already had a large tannery on the river.

Rebuilt tannery in 1944. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The story also shows Santa Rosa’s leaders once again managing to find a way to fail in a win-win situation. This was a pattern during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, as has been discussed here several times. Grand proposals were made for the betterment of the town, only to collapse because there was no political will to follow through, no courage to take risks no matter how good the cause and how eagerly sought the outcome. The Levin Tannery was long recognized as a blight on the town, its bad practices destroying the creek and causing endless complaints about the smell. It does not take a genius to see that its presence seriously hampered the town’s growth. Yet at the second public meeting, the PD reported, “From the first, [Ernest Finley] said, the only object had been to prevent anything being done that might run the tannery out of town and lose its payroll to the city.” More than anyone else, über-booster Finley should have championed letting the tannery leave for the sake of Santa Rosa’s future, even if it meant the loss of a few jobs.

It has to be understood, too, that the tannery drama was playing out at the exact same time as the courtroom case over the downtown lake. As described in the previous item, a group of citizens banded together and created a little lake by damming Santa Rosa Creek. Admired by all for creating a much sought-after park, it was doomed first by the toxic discharges into the creek during the tannery fire, then threatened by a lawsuit from a man who claimed his property line extended into the middle of the creek.

But like the tannery situation, there were no better angels in Santa Rosa to step up and do what was best. Even though the District Attorney was part of the grassroots effort, the city averted its gaze and allowed the dam to be demolished. For reasons unrelated to the ersatz lake, Santa Rosa had reasons to challenge such a claim – it was important to settle legally whether half of the creek was private property or not.

The lake story and the tannery relocation tale ended up being twin failures for the town, the two episodes joined together like the front and back sides of the same plugged nickel. Which was about all Santa Rosa’s leadership was worth.

*The population of the greater Santa Rosa area in 1910 was around 11,000 (see discussion) which would make 4,000 a reasonable guess as to the number of total able-bodied men in the workforce.

Great Excitement Prevailed Tuesday Afternoon while the Flames Held Angry Revel and Threatened Further Destruction
Tannery and Factory Practically Covered by Insurance–Two Cottages Burned–Loss Keenly Felt by the Large Number of Employees–Cause of Fire Unknown

Fire dealt Santa Rosa another hard blow yesterday afternoon, leaving in its wake a mass of smouldering ruins to mark the spot on upper Second street where the big plant of the Levin Tanning Company and the Santa Rosa Shoe Manufacturing plant had stood. Within an hour from the time the alarm was turned in, so fiercely did the fire rage, that damage amounting to more than $150,000 had been wrought, and two of the city’s largest and most important institutions wiped out.

About ten minutes past five o’clock the alarm sounded, and it took but a glance in the direction indicated by the box number to show that a fire of startling proportions had broken out. Before the fire department could reach the scene, the highly inflammable nature of the main tannery building and its contents, accelerated by a stiff breeze blowing from the southwest, had given the flames such a mastery of the situation that it was apparent the big building as well as the one beside it, was doomed.

A Spectacular Conflagration

It was one of the most spectacular fires ever seen here. Great masses of heavy, black smoke rolled high into the heavens, solid walls of red and angry flame leaped in every direction, explosion followed explosion as oil tanks and acid receptacles were reached, and the hissing of escaping steam from the great boilers added to the unearthly din.

The fire started in the main tannery building, which was located right on the creek bank, and at the worst possible point, as far as controlling the flames was concerned. The wind drove the flames directly on and into the big structure, leaping higher and higher in their angry revel, crackling and roaring their defiance. Leaping across the narrow passageway between the main tannery building and the four-story finishing house, they rushed on toward the street and the office building and dwellings standing opposite.

The Shoe Factory Goes

From the first it was seen that the big shoe factory to the east was doomed, and when the long arms of flame reached out and took it in, a fresh touch of the spectacular was lent to the scene already boarding on the tragic. In and out of the many windows the angry flames played and when the wind drove them clear across the street. Just when it seemed that the warehouse and office building must likewise become their prey, the wind again veered and drove the flames back over the already half-demolished factory building.

With the tannery building, finishing house and shoe factory, much valuable machinery and large number of tools, as well as immense quantities of leather and shoe stock, were consumed.

Two Cottages Burned

The cottage occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Day and owned by Mrs. Anne E. Straub, was completely gutted. The Days succeeded in removing considerable of the furniture, but as they held no insurance the loss is quite heavy. This cottage adjoined the tannery on the west. On the east side of the shoe factory the residence owned by John Brennard and occupied by the Misses Anna and Maria Brennard, was also burned. The occupants saved some of their belongings.

Excitement in Neighborhood

The magnitude of the fire occasioned much excitement in the neighborhood and people on both sides of the street in proximity to the burning buildings carried out most of their furniture. Many roofs were wetted down and a number of smaller blazes started by the flying embers were extinguished without much damage resulting.

The residence of Milton Wasserman on upper Third street caught on fire several times, but the flames were fortunately extinguished without any serious damage being done. A grass fire was also started near the residence of John Rinner, but was speedily stamped out when discovered.

Gasoline Warehouse Menaced

The greatest excitement prevailed when it was known that almost in the path of the flames was an old planing mill, in which was stored a large quantity of gasoline belonging to the company represented here by A. D. Sund as local agent. It was said there was enough gasoline in the place had it exploded, to have wrecked every building within a considerable distance, to say nothing of the probable loss of life. Very fortunately the fire did not take the building.

Ben Noonan’s Loyal service

Ben Noonan, in his big Stoddard-Dayton touring car, did valiant and effective service during the fire. When the blaze was assuming dangerous proportions, he raced to the fire station on Fifth street, hitched the auxiliary steamer on to his machine and in on time had it at the scene of action. Again he raced back for a load of fire hose, and again he went back for a fresh supply of coal for both steamers. At one o’clock this morning he drove past the Press Democrat office, pulling the auxiliary engine back to the engine house, for it was not until that hour that the engines were removed. Hosemen were on duty all night, guarding against any possibility of further outbreak of fire.

Fire Origin Not Known

The origin on the fire is not known. It broke out soon after the men had quit work for the night, and before they had all left the premises. Two men still working in the finishing house were compelled to flee in their working clothes.

Carried Good Insurance

Fortunately the plants were well insured, and it is likely the insurance will practically cover the loss. Both institutions were doing a great business at the time, and the fire necessarily hinders that, and at the same time throws many people out of employment. About 140 men were employed at the time of the fire.


– Press Democrat, June 1, 1910

New Site for Tannery and Other Matters Discussed
Chamber of Commerce Committee Named to Investigate Situation Fully and Report Back Monday Evening–Tannery to Resume Operations at an Early Date
At last night’s meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, which took the form of a mass meeting at which tannery matters had been made the special order of business, the matter of rebuilding the Levin Tannery and Shoe Factor was discussed at length, as was that of assisting the institutions in finding a new location in another part of town. The proprietors were not present, but it was stated that plans for the immediate reestablishment of the the Tannery here are already well under way, while the Shoe Factory may also be rebuilt providing some assistance is forthcoming from the community. The Chair was finally authorized to appoint a committee of five to investigate the situation fully and ascertain just what can be done…

Last night’s meeting of the Chamber of Commerce was largely attended, the big rest room adjoining the regular headquarters being used as a meeting place and being crowded to its utmost capacity. President Ernest L. Finley occupied the chair, while Secretary Edward H. Brown was at the desk…

…Under the head of new business, Chairman Finley stated that the special order of business for the evening was the consideration of tannery matters, briefly outlining the situation resulting from the recent destruction of the Levin company’s big plants, and stating that a free and full discussion of the matter was desired.

J. H. Einhorn started the ball rolling by stating that everybody wanted to see the Tannery and Shoe Factory reestablished, because they had been a good thing for the town. The business community could not fail to notice the loss of the company’s big payroll, he said.

M. Rosenberg stated that he had had a talk with Nate and Pincus Levin, in which they both had told him that plans are already well under way for the immediate re-establishment of the Tannery, but had intimated that if any suitable arrangement should be proposed they might be willing to move to some other part of town, as they were tired of having to fight with their neighbors and carry on business at the same time. He said the Levins had further told him that while the Shoe Factory was on a paying basis at the time of the fire, they had not yet made up their minds whether to rebuild it or not. If the community would assist them, however, they would rebuild, and furnish half the capital required. The amount necessary to properly build and equip the Shoe Factory was estimated at between $60,000 and $75,000.

Charles E. Lee said he thought the community could well afford to assist in the establishment of such institutions, and favored as many citizens taking stock as possible.

J. H. Brush said the business community fully appreciated the work that had been done by the two institutions, and wanted to know whether in the event of being asked to take stock it would be in a joint tannery and shoe factory, or merely in a shoe factory operated as a separate concern. Mr. Rosenberg said that as he understood it, the Shoe Factory and Tannery were separate and distinct institutions.

C. D. Barnett said that he had had a talk with the Levins, and while he had no authority to make any statement in their behalf, he understood that they felt that would have their hands full for a while with the Tannery alone, and that if they started the Shoe Factory they would want to put all the details of supervision and management in the hands of a competent manager. On some such basis they would be willing to furnish half the capital required.

Superintendent Gilman of the Shoe Factory was called on, and said that at the time of the fire fifty hands were employed in his department, with a payroll of about $625 per week. The Tannery payroll was much larger, he said, he did not now know just how much so. Orders for about 13,000 pairs of shoes have come in since the fire…

…Dr. S. S. Bogle told of the plan undertaken last year to secure a tract of land near the depot for factory sites, and hoped something could still be done along that line. “Now is the time to settle this matter of location,” he said. He said he would be willing to give $100 toward procuring a new site, and thought the people living in the neighborhood of the old plant would all assist to the best of their ability.

John Rinner said that if the people would help who are continually putting their money into wildcat schemes and senting it away to pay for lots in some new “metropolis” that is going to be built about the bay, they would not only be doing themselves but their town some good…

– Press Democrat, June 18, 1910

New Site for Tannery Favored by the Committee
Citizens Gather and Hear Plan Outlined by Chamber of Commerce Representatives for Re-establishment of Institution Recently Destroyed by Fire

At the mass meeting held under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce Monday evening at the Columbia theatre, the committee named at Friday night’s meeting to formulate a plan of action in the Shoe Factory and Tannery matter submitted its report. The report was adopted, and the committee authorized to proceed and try and work the plan out to a successful conclusion, additional members being added to assist in handing the details.

Briefly stated, the plan proposed is to have a corporation capitalized at $75,000, of which amount the citizens will be asked to subscribe half and the Levin Tanning Company the remainder, said corporation to take over the business of the Santa Rosa Shoe Manufacturing Company and begin operations at as early a date as possible. The Levin Tanning Company agrees to sell to the Shoe Company all [illegible microfilm] at the head of Second street and move its tanning plant to another part of the city for $10,000.

Under this agreement, the Levin people would be paying half of the $10,000 above mentioned, for they would first have subscribed for half of the capital stock of the Shoe Company…

Monday night’s mass meeting under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce was called to order by President Ernest L. Finley, who acted as chairman. Secretary Edward Brown kept the minutes. The meeting was held in the Columbia theatre, the use of which had been tendered by Manager Ray Crone of the Columbia Amusement Company.

In stating the objects of the meeting, Chairman Finley took occasion to refer to criticisms that had been heard when the Chamber of Commerce took up the tannery matter, stating he believed it was the result of a misunderstanding as to the aims and purpose of the organization. From the first, he said, the only object had been to prevent anything being done that might run the tannery out of town and lose its payroll to the city.


– Press Democrat, June 21, 1910

The City Authorities to be Asked to Buy Old Site
Chamber of Commerce Committees Submit Reports at Public Mass Meeting Held at Columbia Theatre Last Night

At the public meeting held last night…President Finley outlined the plan that had been agreed on by the general committee, and told something of the work that had been done to date. Briefly stated, it had been decided to try and form a new corporation to reestablish the shoe factory, said corporation to be capitalized for $75,000, the Levin Tanning Company to subscribe half and local investors the other half. The Levin people had agreed to sell their real estate holdings at the head of Second street to the new shoe company, and move their tannery to another part of town for $10,000…

…W. F. Price reported for the committee named to look out for stock subscriptions, stating that the outlook was encouraging, and that a number of subscriptions had already been received. At the conclusion of his remarks he gave any of those present and desiring to subscribe for stock an opportunity to do so, and about $2,500 was pledged. Up to the present time something like $7,500 has been promised…

…John Rinner called attention to the fact that if the tannery is re-established on its old site, the city will be compelled to expend five or six thousand dollars on a new sewer to accommodate the street sewage, while if the tannery is moved the present sewer will do. This he mentioned as an additional argument in favor of having the city co-operate in the plan now under way to bring about the tannery’s removal.


– Press Democrat, June 25, 1910

Had Endorsement of Chamber of Commerce, Women’s Improvement Club, Park Commissioners, Mass Meeting and Citizen’s Committee

At a special meeting of the City Council called for last evening to consider the park proposition upon which also hinged the re-establishment of the shoe factory, the removal of the Levin Tanning Company’s plant from the residence district, its early re-establishment here in another part of town, and the ending of the long and bitter wrangle that has resulted from the maintenance of the tannery at its present location, the entire project was turned down, and with scant ceremony.

“We declined to endorse the plan — the City has no money for such purposes,” said a member of the Council to a Press Democrat representative after the meeting was over.

The plan as outlined was presented by the Chamber of Commerce, which organization had previously given the project much careful consideration and its unqualified support…The Women’s Improvement Club had promised to donate the sum of $2,500 toward the plan and also to assist the project in other ways. The residents living in the immediate vicinity of the Levin plant had promised $5,000 to help carry the plan to a successful conclusion.

The City was asked to assist to the extend of $5,000, said sum to be paid at any time it might prove convenient, half out of one year’s levy and half out of the next year’s if desired. In return, it had been arranged to have the Levin Tanning Company deed all its holdings at the head of Second street to the City for park purposes.

Present at last night’s meeting were Mayor James R. Edwards, Councilmen C. Fred Forgett, H. L Johstone, Fred C. Steiner, Eugene Bronson and Frank L. Blanchard.

– Press Democrat, July 8, 1910
Mrs. Catherine Bower Plaintiff in an Action Commenced in the Superior Court Here Wednesday

Alleging that she has been damaged in the sum of $2,500 by reason of conditions existing at the tannery that have depreciated the value of her property, and been a menace to her health, Mrs. Catherine Bower has instituted a suit for the recovery of damages and for an injunction against the Levin Tanning Company.

In her prayer the plaintiff asks for a judgment of this court that defendant be forever restrained and enjoined from maintaining, conducting, operating or carrying on a tannery upon the site mentioned, the manufacturing of leather from hides, the handling of hides, the allowing of deleterious matter to enter Santa Rosa Creek and many other things constituting as alleged by Mrs. Bower in her complaint a nuisance.

The injunction asked for is a permanent one. For some time the injunction proceedings have been threatened.


– Press Democrat, August 18, 1910

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They were the movers, the shakers, backslappers and opportunity-seekers, all cheerleaders for progress as long as nothing really changed. They were the members of the 1909 Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley was their president and the town’s Booster in Chief.

(RIGHT: 1909 Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce officers)

To an outsider, it might have seemed as if the Chamber was much ado about not much except for their annual membership dinner. It was civic groups such as the Woman’s Improvement Club that organized the Rose Carnival and other projects that made Santa Rosa a nicer place to live, and the Sonoma County Automobile Association – led by James Wyatt Oates – lobbied for first-ever street paving and other needed infrastructure upgrades. On the flip side, we do have the Chamber mostly to thank for the 107-page “Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity,” which served to beautifully promote the town and remains the most valuable photographic artifact about Santa Rosa from that era. But what the Chamber also sought was to silence critics of the status quo.

Boosterism has a long history in America, going back at least as far as the early 19th century drive to promote Chicago as the commercial hub of the westward expansion. By the end of the 1800s, towns everywhere were puffing up about their specialness to attract new businesses and residents. But the term “knocker” apparently didn’t appear until around 1906*. It quickly devolved from simply meaning someone who didn’t sufficiently boost their town into describing someone who was sabotaging the community, and within a few years, to be a knocker was to being labeled a pariah. A 1910 magazine offered a booster/knocker checklist (which was reprinted in other journals) that included venom such as, “The booster is a loving husband. The knocker is a wife beater…”

There are many examples of Chambers of Commerce promoting this us-versus-them antagonism, although they hardly had a monopoly on the idea. In Babbitt and other novels of the 1920s, Sinclair Lewis pointed out that groups like the Rotary Club and Kiwanis were spending more energy whipping up members to hate skeptics than they were in the performance of good works. But it was at the 1909 Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce dinner where District Attorney Clarence Lea warned that knockers were “instinctively” opposed to any form of change and cut from lesser cloth than “The Progressive Man.” (“Progressive” had dual meaning at the time; where it usually described Teddy Roosevelt-style reforms, it was also conflated with being a pro-progress booster.)

Lea’s speech was rich in willful ignorance or hypocrisy. The very men in his audience were the ones who were actually fighting progress and change; just a year before, they had won the 1908 city elections with a keep-the-status-quo ticket headed by the Chamber’s previous president, defeating a coalition of reformers who wanted to weed out Santa Rosa’s entrenched corruption.

The attendance list for the Chamber’s dinner (CLICK or TAP to enlarge) is also interesting for who did not attend. Missing were James Wyatt Oates and John Comstock; Oates’ absence is not surprising because he had no truck with the Good Old Boy clique that made up most of the Chamber, but Comstock might have been expected to attend, as he and his sisters had recently opened an art gallery on Fourth Street. Also MIA was Luther Burbank, who always stood with the reformers – even as he permitted the Chamber to endlessly tout his name and image to boost the town.

The Press Democrat account of the dinner also includes a detailed description of the 1908 nickelodeon film made about Burbank, which is now presumed lost. A later short, “Nature Study,” was produced by the Ford Motor Company ca. 1917 and is widely available.

*Google Books shows “knocker” being used between 1901-1904 to criticize trade union members who didn’t support their union.
Many Men Interested in Advancement of the City Gather at Festal Board in Brilliantly Decorated Hall
Music, Fine Menu, Oratory and Moving Pictures on Thursday Evening–Excellent Reports of Work and Officers and Directors are Reelected Unanimously–Praise for Woman’s Improvement Club

Two hundred men, representing all the professions and the commercial side of Santa Rosa, met Thursday night around the festal board at the annual banquet of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce at Native Sons’ Hall…

…Every detail of the banquet was admirably carried out. It was expected that this would be the case, seeing that the energetic, clever women of the Improvement Club had taken charge of the arrangement of the tables and the serving of the menu. A committee of ladies was in charge of each table. It was the setting of an alluring picture. The tables were beautifully adorned. Magnificent clusters of chrysanthemums, roses and other blooms–each table offering a different hue, and the whole scheme blending in one effective whole. Adding to the effect were the candelabra from which the soft light of candles filtered through silken shades. A dainty boutonniere at each plate was a Chilean flower–“scyphanthus elegans” kindly donated by Mr. Luther Burbank. In addition to this was a pretty souvenir menu card. The menu was as follows…

…During the enjoyment of the feast the large orchestra, under the direction of Mrs. Joe P. Berry, rendered a number of selections from the balcony. The music was a fine feature and the spontaneous applause of the auditors showed their appreciation. It was a bounteous spread of everything and all concerned earned many compliments for the excellence of the arrangements.

After the cigars had been passed around, President Ernest L. Finley as master of ceremonies, called the assemblage to order. He paid the Woman’s Improvement Club a deserved compliment for the serving of the banquet and the part they had taken in the success of the evening, his words being greeted with prolonged applause…

…With his characteristic force and spirit, the Hon. Clarence F. Lea, District Attorney of Sonoma County was heard in his address on “The Progressive Man.” His plea was for less “knocking” and more “boosting,” and his words on this point had the right ring. He characterized the “knocker” as being “dissatisfied with what is, and instinctively being opposed to any change.” He spoke of the broad vision and aim of the progressive man, and his keen appreciation of advancement that tended for the uplifting and advancement of the community. He spoke enthusiastically of the benefits to be derived from the building of the proposed railroad into Lake county, and gave some good advice to the builders, urging that the route selected should be so arranged as to be of use and service to the entire county…

…Horatio F. Stoll, secretary of the Grape Growers of California, had a very entertaining address. His topic was “Our Experiences at the Seattle Exposition,” dealing with the manner in which the California exhibit and “boosting” was received at the exposition. He said some very good things along the line of future promotion effort. A most interesting part of his remarks was their illustration by a set of excellent views and moving pictures, in which Santa Rosa and Sonoma county were particularly brought to the front. A complete set of these pictures is being shown at the great Irrigation and Land Congress  now in session in Chicago. The pictures created a great deal of enthusiasm at last night’s assemblage. They showed the Luther Burbank residence on Santa Rosa avenue; Mr. Burbank coming out of the door and starting to work in his experimental grounds; his reception of visitors and other interesting features. One of which  Mr. Burbank’s aged mother, who comes out and seats herself on the porch. Mr. Burbank’s secretaries, Miss Pauline Olsen and Miss Swanson. The other picture reproduced the great Italian-Swiss Colony at Asti, Sonoma county; the vineyards and wine-making; the Sbarboro Pompeiian villa and Mr. Sbarboro receiving visitors with the accustomed genuiness [sic] of California hospitality.

After the proceedings were over men and women lingered to discuss the success of the evening in all its varied forms. One could not help remarking what an eye-opener it would have been for an easterner, coming from his November frosts and snows, if he could have looked in upon that festive scene in Native Sons’ hall and viewed those magnificent chrysanthemums, roses and carnations that had been plucked a few hours previously from their blooming in the open air i;n the gardens of the “City of Roses.”


– Press Democrat, November 19, 1909

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Heaven knows that Santa Rosa loves to toot that it’s “business friendly,” and was ever thus. But in 1909 the town provoked a nasty little feud with downtown businesses that ended with a lawsuit and the Mayor trading accusations of lying with one of the top Fourth street merchants.

The cause of everyone’s discontent was the city water billing system. As described here earlier, Santa Rosa had a crazyquilt rate scheme that could only be described as insane. It was 25¢ a month to have a bathtub and 3¢ to water a square yard of “vegetables and strawberries,” but only .0025¢ if you aimed the garden hose at the same-sized patch of flowers or lawn. A liquor store owed $2 a month, but a dentist paid only a dollar above the base rate, and physicians paid nothing.

It also didn’t help that most businessmen flatly refused to pay their bills, viewing the rates as capricious or of the opinion that an unlimited supply of free water was a taxpayer’s due. When others heard that their neighboring businesses were getting away without paying, they began ignoring their bills as well. Thus on a fine spring morning in 1909, Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols marched up and down the downtown streets and shut off the scofflaw’s water. A standoff began, and soon the Press Democrat reported, “For the last few days block after block on Fourth street has been without water.”

(RIGHT: The 1909 rates for the hated Santa Rosa municipal water system. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

To help break the impasse, the Chamber of Commerce held a public hearing that recommended the water be turned back on at once. But in a statement published on the front page of the Press Democrat, the mayor offered nothing in the way of compromise, appealing only for everyone to pay up. “You have invested a large amount of money in your water system,” Mayor Gray wrote. “The plant is a fine one. There is plenty of water, and it is served at high pressure, reaching the upper stories in summer as well as in winter. As a matter of public spirit, I appeal to all who have not done so to comply with the law…” The only alternatives discussed were unworkable: Dig up the streets and install individual connections, or deputize landlords to calculate bills for their tenants according to the nutsy type-of-business-plus usage formula.

After a week without toilets or tap water, about a dozen delinquent businesses paid their bills. At least one major property owner thumbed his nose at the city system and signed with the McDonald Water Company.* But Santa Rosa’s intractable policies placed still other companies in a Catch-22. Most buildings had only a single water hookup, yet there could be more than one business at that address. Under city rules, all water was shut off to the building if any of the businesses there were scofflaws. One company caught in the middle was the main downtown grocery store: Erwin Brothers, at 703-705 Fourth street (next to today’s Arrigoni’s Cafe).

Although the Erwins had stopped paying their water bills after learning that few downtown businesses were in compliance, no one could fault their earnest efforts to resolve the situation in the week of the water shutoff. They lobbied the mayor and city councilmen and walked Fourth street asking business owners to sign a petition requesting the city switch billing to their landlords. They went to city hall to pay every cent in arrears and make a deposit toward future payments. But the city refused to accept their money – there was another tenant in the building who still didn’t want to pay. After nine dry days, the Erwins illegally turned the water on themselves, and filed an injunction against the city to keep it on.

What happened next probably kept the town buzzing for weeks. According to comments from the Erwins published in the Republican, Mayor Gray personally asked them to drop the lawsuit, which would be expensive for the city to defend. He then reportedly said, “Why don’t you connect with the McDonald system and save all this trouble. You are trying to defeat the very plans you have suggested to the council and are working for.” Gray immediately responded via the Press Democrat that he wouldn’t have said such a thing and implying that he hadn’t spoken to the Erwins at all. The grocers countered with their own statement in the Republican, noting even the time the mayor dropped by and including the detail that Gray left his kid waiting in the buggy.

If Mayor Gray indeed told them to take their water business elsewhere, he foolishly placed Santa Rosa in legal peril, given that the Erwin Brothers were litigants against the city over this very issue (UPDATE HERE). Yet it’s likely that he said exactly what the Erwins claimed; Gray appears to have been exceptionally dim when it came to basic concepts of law and language. In a City Council meeting related to the water issue, he wasted time arguing that water service should be restored downtown immediately because “domestic use” meant bathrooms in businesses as well as residences. More time was lost in the following meeting as the City Attorney “cited definitions of the term ‘domestic’ from some of the best authorities.”

* As discussed here before, Santa Rosa had both public and private water systems available in most of the town. The three-decade old McDonald Water Company notoriously had low water pressure and sanitation problems (the water came from Lake Ralphine, which should explain enough). The city water came from deep wells, but was often said to taste and smell foul (MORE). While the city installed meters that billed for how much smelly water was used, the McDonald system offered all the sickening water you could dribble out of the spigot at a flat monthly price.

Street Commissioner Nichols Had a Busy Time With His Turnkey in Business Section

Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols was busy Monday turning off the water from all business houses on Fourth street where the water rates had not been paid according to the water ordinances.

While the step had been anticipated on account of the recent order of the City Council, some of those unprepared for the enforcement of the same were wrathy, but the only remedy was to pay the water bill and then the Street Commissioner had the water turned on again.

The turning off of the water is the outgrowth of the refusal of tenants to pay for water used for other than “domestic” purposes. All attempts to collect were met with either flat refusals or else with excuses to delay the day of settlement. A very few people in the district have paid regularly, but others had not, and the city was getting nothing for the water.

The shutting off of the water in some cases worked hardships on innocent parties, as for instance, where one tenant in a building had refused or failed to pay the water was shut off the same as where all had refused to settle. The advice of City Attorney A. B. Ware was to the effect that property owners who had constructed buildings with only one tapping were responsible for the tenants as they had been informed that separate connections should be put in for each separate tenant.

As it was the first general move to enforce the terms of the ordinance in the business section no charge was made for turning the water on again but in all cases a settlement was forced and repetition of the offense will cost the offender $5 to again secure water. In some cases the city water was given up and the pipes of the Santa Rosa Water Company were connected, but even then the property owners or tenants will be forced to pay the same rate the city asks, as well as pay their share of the taxes going to maintain the municipal system.

Some attorneys say that where a tenant has paid his water bill the city may be subject to a damage suit where the water is turned off to keep others from getting water. They hold that it is up to the city to provide separate means of cutting the water off without interfering with those patrons who do pay. City Attorney Ware declares it is a matter for the tenant and owner alone to settle.

– Press Democrat, March 2, 1909

Discussion and Suggestion at Last Night’s Meeting of the City Council

While the much discussed turning off of the water in a number of the buildings in the business section on Monday, was brought up at the Council meeting last night and discussed again, the matter was left where it is and was without changes.

Mayor Gray asked whether the Council could not construe the meaning of “domestic” in the light that business houses could be give water free for drinking and toilet purposes, and those who use it for commercial purposes, such as hotels, lodging houses, saloons, druggists, doctors and dentists, etc., pay for the same, thus stopping the tearing up of Fourth street and the losing of patrons to the other company. This was his solution of the problem.

Councilman Fred Steiner said he was inclined to construe the word “domestic” to mean the “home.”

City Attorney Allison B. Ware, who has previously upheld the water ordinance, did so again, and advised that any changes in the same should be taken up very carefully. He suggested that the main trouble in the present controversy was that its requirements had not been enforced from the first. It would have avoided considerable trouble and the piling up of a large bill. Several Councilmen concurred in this conclusion of the City Attorney.

In the matter of tearing up of the street it was replied that corporations should be compelled to put the streets back in the same condition in which they found them.

Mayor Gray advocated, in order to prevent the working of hardships on people, who had paid their water bills, in the same buildings with those who had not, with the result that the water was turned off, that separate stopcocks could be placed so as to reach the proper parties.

The Ordinance Committee may endeavor to reach a satisfactory adjustment of the vexed question.

– Press Democrat, March 3, 1909

Much Oratory Results in New Plan Being Proposed
Committee Appointed to Wait Upon Mayor and Common Council, and Also to Interview Fourth Street Property Owners

A mass meeting of citizens. business and property owners was held on Wednesday night at the Chamber of Commerce to consider the situation created by the action of the City Council in turning off the water along Fourth street where consumers had neglected or refused to pay their bills. The situation is a peculiar one by reason of the fact that in many instanced of turning off of the water has alike affected those who have paid and those who have not. As a rule, each building is connected with the city mains by a single tapping and no means has been provided for turning off the supply of any individual consumer. When the order went forth to cut off those who had failed to pay it affected both the just and unjust.” For the last few days block after block on Fourth street has been without water.

By request, President E. L. Finley of the Chamber of Commerce called the meeting to order. Organization by perfected by electing Charles O. Dunbar chairman and Edward H. Brown secretary.

In his opening remarks Chairman Dunbar spoke of the necessity of finding some solution for the problem with which the business portion of the city is at present confronted, and urged that all get together and work for the best interests of the community.

Dr. N. Juell outlined the existing situation at length, incidentally pointing out the fact that many were being solicited to become customers of the McDonald system, and that every customer lost meant a loss of revenue to the municipality. He said he thought many who have not paid would have done so had a collector been sent around, the failure to liquidate being in many instances merely the result of carelessness or oversight.

Fred J. Bertolani said that in many cases it was not the fault of the property owners that the buildings were not supplied with more than one tapping, citing instances where he had attempted to secure individual tappings for some of the Shea buildings without result. He did not regard the plan of trying to provide individual tappings at the present time as practical, as it would entail too much trouble and expense.

William R. Carithers thought that the thing to do was to get the water turned on, and said he had made a proposition to the city authorities to pay the water rent of all tenants in the Carithers building from the 1st of March provided the back bills would be wiped out. He said he did this for the protection of those tenants who had paid, and that in the event of his proposition being accepted, he of course expected to charge the amount so expended back to the renters.

Councilman Fred J. Forgett was called upon, but replied that he was present merely as an interested spectator anxious to see whether any feasible solution of the problem would be suggested.

S. P. Erwin said he had spoken to the Mayor and several of the Councilmen regarding the situation, and all seemed to be fair and have no other desire than to do their duty and protect the interests of the municipality. He believed public necessity demanded that some way be found to have the water turned on, and favored having the landlords pay the bills and charge the amount back to the tenants. He thought that perhaps the City might be willing to rebate the back bills in event of such a plan as that mentioned being adopted.

William Sukalle thought the entire idea of free water was wrong, because his experience had shown him that visitors looking for property investments do not regard it as “good business.” He recited an instance where a friend of his had come here with $12,000, but on account of the tax rate and the fact that some people were being compelled to pay in order that others might get something for nothing, went away and took his twelve thousand with him.

Wirt E. Rushing said that it was very apparent, judging from the remarks of the speakers who had preceded him, that the sentiment of the meeting was friendly to the City, and that while he had heard talk on the street about bringing suit, etc., such a course would only mean multiplying the troubles of the municipality. He also referred to the unnecessary tearing up of the streets that would result in case of any general move to change over to any other system, pointed out the fact that a loss of public revenue in one place would merely necessitate raising the amount somewhere else, and suggested that everybody pay up and start again fresh with a clean sheet.

Tom Gregory thought it would be childish to go to the authorities and promise to “be good” in future if past sins should be forgiven. Referring to the remarks made by a previous speaker, he ridiculed the idea that the non-paying consumers had failed to settle through mere oversight or carelessness. “They did not pay because they thought they would not have to pay,” he said. “We go to the Gas Company’s office and settle up every month without a whimper, having found out that is the only way to keep the light from being turned off.” He did not think the employment of a collector was necessary.

F. E. Barnett was of the opinion that a collector was the thing needed…

After a good deal more of this kind [illegible microfilm] …the meeting then adjourned, and the discussion resumed on the sidewalk outside.

– Press Democrat, March 4, 1909

Business Houses Are Taking Right Move and Nichols Turns on Water Again

The movement against paying for water for business purposes appears to have been at least partially checked. On Monday a number paid up and Street Commissioner W. A. Nichols had the pleasure of turning on the water for four buildings representing some eleven business houses, while four other persons requested him to call Tuesday morning at eight o’clock and receive his money and turn on the water for their properties.

The Con Shea buildings, including the Elks’ hall and business houses on B street, a Main street building, and a building on lower Fourth street, were among those who paid up and are again supplied with city water. It is believed that now that the ice is broken and the matter is better understood that the opposition will melt away.

The sums collected Monday represented bills ranging from $9 to $20 each.

– Press Democrat, March 9, 1909


To the Public:
In order that our position on the water question be not misunderstood, we want to make the following statement:

When the ordinance was first passed by the council making a charge of one dollar a month to business houses, we paid our dues and continued to do so until we found the majority of the consumers were not paying, then we quit, telling the street and water superintendent that as soon as the question was settled we would gladly act accordingly.

There the matter rested until last week, when the water was turned off. After waiting a day or two without water, our Mr. S. P. Erwin spent almost an entire day interviewing the council and the mayor to see if some arrangements could not be made whereby the water could be turned on to all consumers and the matter adjusted. Following that a meeting was called, to be held a the rooms of the Chamber of Commerce, and there a committee was appointed, of which our Mr. S. P. Erwin was a member to interview the property owners along Fourth street, asking them to sign a petition requesting the mayor and council to pass a resolution making the water charge against the property owners rather than the tenant. In that way it could be added to the rent and collected with it, thereby preventing one tenant by refusing to pay having the water shut off the entire building, as at present.

This petition was signed by every property owner but one that was approached–a few being out of the city or not in when called on–and was handed to the mayor, with the request that some immediate action be taken, as the business interests were greatly suffering, and got the council together, hoping something would be done, but nothing came of the efforts.

Finding ourselves still without water and our business interests suffering, Mr. S. P. Erwin went to the city clerk and tendered him all back dues, together with any costs for turning on and dues in advance, and who, on account of another tenant in the building still being in arrears, refused to take the money or allow us the use of the water. Thereupon he was informed that we would turn it on ouorselves, which we immediately did, and then enjoined the city from turning it off.

We have never resisted the water assessment, only holding in abeyance the payment until the matter was adjusted. We have suggested that the water be turned on to all and a civil suit begun against some party in arrears for the collection of dues, and if the ordinance was found valid, there is no question but all would pay at once and continue to pay. But instead the council have elected to make it the most exasperating possible and inconvenience all for the refusal of a few.

After offering to pay and being refused water, we turned it on and then got out papers enjoining the city from turning it off. And there we rest our case, claiming the use of the water, especially when we are now and have at all times been willing to pay for it.

We are not fighting the interests of the city. We want to use the city water and pay our dollar per month into the city treasury rather than follow the mayor’s advice.

Mayor Gray came to us and urged us to connect with the McDonald system and cancel proceedings. We told him that we were property owners and tax payers and did not want to pay $12.00 per year into the McDonald Water Company when it would do the city no good. As we had to pay our proportion of the city taxes, we wanted the money to go to the city. And, again, if his advice were given to all and they should elect to follow, what would be the condition of Fourth street after being cross sectioned every 20 to 40 feet. It is certainly bad advice for the mayor to give to the citizens, but presume he thinks it an easier solution of the question.

We are not fighting the interests of the city, but this seems to us the only way to get some kind of a discussion, so that all would understand and the question be permanently settled.


– Santa Rosa Republican, March 9, 1909

Denies Assertion Made by Erwin Brothers in a Communication They Had Published

Mayor James H. Gray last night issued an official statement denying the assertion made by Erwin Brothers in an afternoon paper to the affect that he (Mayor Gray) had come to them and urged that they connect with the McDonald system and cancel their proceedings against the city, etc. The Mayor emphatically says he did no such thing. His statement appears in another column.

The various members of the City Council, as well as City Attorney Ware and Street Commissioner Nichols, also stated last night that in all his conversations with them, both in private and at the Council meetings, Mayor Gray has taken a position exactly opposite to that charged by Erwin Bros. and has constantly urged that some speedy action be taken that would prevent the general tearing up of the streets and loss of consumers to the city. Mayor Gray is also on record regarding the matter, a public proclamation dealing with the subject having been issued last Saturday and published in both papers. In this proclamation he took the same position the members of the Council all say has been his position from the first.

The communication from Erwin Brothers follows their injunction suit against the City, the Mayor and Common Council, together with the other officials being named in the complaint as representatives of the municipality.

The law makes it incumbent upon the City authorities to turn off the water in all cases where consumers neglect or refuse to pay their water bills, and there is no alternative. It is against the law for any private party to turn on the water without written permissions, after it has been turned off by the Street Commissioner. Because some others had done so, Erwin Brothers allowed their water rent to get badly in arrears, and finally tendered the amount due with the request that the water be turned on at once. Other consumers also in arrears were being served through the same tapping, and consequently it was impossible to comply with the request, so the tendered payment was not accepted by the City. Thereupon S. P. Erwin personally turned on the water that the City authorities had ordered turned off, the firm’s attorneys at the same hour serving injunction papers, which had been previously prepared, asking that the municipality be permanently restrained from again disconnecting the tapping leading to the Savage building, in which the Erwins are tenants.

The sentiment was generally expressed upon the streets last night that, having precipitated the suit, the proper place for Erwin Brothers to define their position is in the courts. The probabilities are that the suit will be a long and expensive one for the municipality.

Mayor Gray and the members of the City Council had a conference on the water question last night…City Attorney Ware again defined and reiterated his position upholding the water ordinance. He also cited definitions of the term “domestic” from some of the best authorities.

– Press Democrat, March 10, 1909

The Council Chambers, Santa Rosa, Cal., March 9, 1909

The statement of Erwin Bros. in this evening’s Republican that I urged them to connect with the McDonald water system, is incorrect, and is exactly contrary to what I did urge them to do.

I have requested and urged to the utmost of my power, all consumers of water to use from the municipal water system.

I refer to the statement published over my signature, both in the Press Democrat and the Evening Republican, which expressed by [sic] views exactly at all times.

James H. Gray, Mayor,

Tell of Incidents Connected With Water Issue

Mayor Gray makes a statement in the Press Democrat denying that he asked us to connect with the McDonald water system.

We want to make a statement of the facts as nearly as possible, which are as follows:

Mayor Gray, accompanied by his son, drove up to our store between 3 and 4 o’clock. Mr. Gray came into the store, his son remaining in front in the buggy. Mr. S. P. Erwin met him in front of the store and they were in conversation ten or fifteen minutes.

Among other things, Mayor Gray said: “Why not turn the water off and wait a few days, when it would all probably be settled.” The reply was that we had already waited a few days, that we needed the water in our wash-basin and the toilet, and could not get along without it. He then said: “Why don’t you connect with the McDonald system and save all this trouble. You are trying to defeat the very plans you have suggested to the council and are working for.”

The reply was, as stated in our letter to the public: “We are property owners and tax payers, and want to pay our money into the city and not into the McDonald water system, as we have to help keep up the city government and want our money to go where it will do the most good.”

These may not be the exact words as passed between Mr. Gray and Mr. Erwin, but they are absolutely correct as to the meaning, and the “Why not connect with the McDonald water system and save trouble” is absolutely correct.

There were no witnesses to the conversation, except as to passing back and forth, but we are willing to leave it up to the people.

We have no fight against the city or any of its ordinances. This was started without malice or feeling, simply to force a settlement of the water question rather than to let it drag for weeks.

We went to the clerk again yesterday and asked to pay our water dues, but under the advice of the city attorney he refused to accept them. We are willing now, and always have been, to pay for the water used. We told Mr. Nichols when we quit paying that we did not want our water turned off, but did not feel like paying if the balance did not, and asked him to come to us and let us know before turning it off, which he said he would do, and we would pay it.

After it had been turned off we asked him why he had not come as agreed. He said we had been notified through the papers and he supposed we had seen it. We do not blame Mr. Nichols for this, as he was doing his duty as advised, but are merely stating our case.


– Santa Rosa Republican, March 10, 1909


John McCormack of San Francisco, owner of the McCormack building on the corner of Fifth and B streets, is in Santa Rosa today, arranging to disconnect his building with the city water system and to get it into communication with the McDonald Water Company. The seven firms doing business in his building had been urging him to do something to obviate the drouth prevailing there, and so he came up in person, and after investigating, decided to make the change of water systems.

Mr. McCormack has had few opportunities to visit his business interests here and he declares Santa Rosa looks like a place with a future. He left this afternoon for the metropolis.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 10, 1909

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