SELLING LUTHER BURBANK

Luther Burbank wants you to go away. No, he does not want to hear about your prize-winning begonias. No, he will not talk to you unless you have an appointment. No, he will not sell you anything.  Can’t you read the sign on his fence? “Any person entering or trespassing on these ground will be prosecuted.” Go. Away. Now.

Burbank was under constant siege from admirers who traveled to Santa Rosa to see the “Plant Wizard” who was profiled in illustrated magazines and newspaper Sunday sections. A visiting friend was astonished to find Burbank “overrun by a horde of curiosity seekers…their endeavors to see him were most annoying. I know of no way of stopping their coming short of a shotgun.”1

The thwarted public probably came away thinking Burbank as rude as he thought they. Couldn’t he spare a single plant from the abundant fields surrounding his house? Can’t they have one damn seed as a souvenir? Unfortunately, the articles that fawned over Burbank rarely mentioned his hybrids were sold exclusively through retailers, such as the Burpee and Stark Brothers seed catalogs and the regional Owl Drug Store chain. So it was very big news when it was announced in 1909 that three men had formed a company called “Luther Burbank’s Products” to sell Burbank’s seeds and live plants directly to the public. 

(RIGHT: 1909 ad for Burbank seeds available through selected Owl drugstores)

For anyone just tuning in, here’s a short summary of what happened up to that point: In 1905, the prestigious Carnegie Institution awarded Burbank a grant of $10,000 a year with the understanding that it would result in some sort of scientific report about his plant-breeding methods. Two years later, Burbank signed a contract with the Cree Publishing Company to create a 10-volume set about his work. Burbank insisted the books for Cree would be aimed at a mass-market audience and not at all in conflict with what he was supposed to be producing for the Institution, but the Carnegie directors were not so sure.

The Santa Rosa newspapers could scarcely contain their excitement over buying directly from Burbank to be bothered with accuracy. They blurbed the deal was “the most gigantic of its kind in the history of the country” (Press Democrat) and “said to have netted Mr. Burbank a couple of million dollars” (Santa Rosa Republican). The San Francisco Examiner also gave the “gigantic business enterprise” headline coverage and devoted nearly an entire inside page to Burbank. Also given much ink was that the main investors were the brothers Herbert and Dr. Hartland Law, who owned the Fairmont Hotel and other blue-ribbon real estate.

In an interview with the Examiner, Dr. Law said the brothers were undaunted, although “we have begun to realize is a greater project than we thought it was when we first took it under consideration.” The tasks ahead were monumental, particularly setting up a global distribution network which would “involve the expenditure of several million dollars.” Let’s hope they didn’t spend too much money up front; less than a month later, Burbank announced that he was breaking the contract – “the proposition was found to be impracticable,” he said in a terse statement to the press. “While it is true that my business has become too extensive and too complicated to be handled by one man, yet, I believe that by having complete control of the entire system I can direct competent men in a way to secure the best results,” Burbank stated.

What was Burbank thinking? It’s understandable he didn’t want to cede all control, but he was also 60 years old and had no talent or interest in building a large operation. No other suitors were courting him – it would be another three years before a similar distribution business was formed. With his chronic bad health, did he really expect to keep up the exhausting work involved with his plant breeding methods as he entered old age, staking his future on profits from far-between windfall sales?

Also unclear in press coverage was the role of the third partner: Oscar E. Binner, whom several San Francisco papers unfortunately and repeatedly misnamed as “Dinner.” Little was written in any of the papers about Mr. ?inner, except the vague description that he was a “wealthy Eastern man.” When Burbank withdrew from the project Binner gave a lengthy statement to the Press Democrat in which he managed to say very little, revealing mostly his talent at public relations.

Binner is an underrated figure in the Burbank canon; in the definitive biography by Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius, he rates scarcely more than Burbank’s secretary, the euphonically named May Maye. But it was Binner who put together the ill-fated deal with the Law brothers, Binner who kept the Burbank book project from collapsing over the years, and Binner who masterminded a national campaign that brought Burbank acclaim greater than he had ever known before. Part manager, part counselor, part promoter, Binner aimed to be the Col. Parker to Burbank’s Elvis and during Burbank’s most successful years, he was something very much like that.

When he met Luther Burbank in January, 1908, Binner was 45 and a respected man with two successful careers behind him. As a youth in the Midwest he had apprenticed as an engraver and printer and by 1895 the Binner Engraving Company was established as a leader in the business. (Which is to say, his company produced very high quality printed material – they were hired by the Smithsonian Institution to produce a book of photographs of the moon, for example.) They were pioneers in commercial illustration; search for “Binner Engraving” on eBay or in Google Books and you’ll find dozens of examples that are today respected as topnotch period art. The trade magazines of the time are filled with mentions of him as a much admired – and sometimes, jealously envied – master of his craft.

Advertising was a big part of the engraving business, and around 1901 Binner opened a branch office in New York City. In particular he cultivated a side career as an advertising director, becoming the head of publicity and promotion of Lever Brothers, an English soap maker. Binner’s campaign to introduce Lifebuoy Soap as a modern, ultra-hygienic American product via photo-realistic ads was a remarkable success, and cemented his reputation as a successful ad man. In 1905 Binner returned to his engraving company in Chicago, selling it to his partner five years later when his attention firmly turned to all things Burbank.

Much of what we know of Mr. Binner at that time comes from two extraordinary letters written to Nellie Comstock. (When she died in 1940, these letters were donated to the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens.) An accompanying note from her son Hilliard pointed out that Binner lived with their family on Hoen Avenue for a time, and Nellie sometimes acted as a diplomat to resolve disputes between Binner and Burbank because she was “an intimate friend of both.” The origin of the connection between Comstock and Binner is unknown, but might trace back to their shared roots in the Chicago area.

Binner came to meet Burbank via Cree Publishing, the Minneapolis company trying to produce the set of Burbank books. His exact status is unclear, but they must have already formed the Cree-Binner Company, which apparently had the sole purpose of wrestling the Burbank project into print. (Cree Publishing continued producing other books under its original imprint.) By 1910, Cree was completely out of the picture and Binner owned all work on the project produced to date.

In his first letter to Comstock, Binner boasted of his terrific working relationship with Burbank and that he scored points by immediately dismissing the entire editorial staff because they weren’t to Burbank’s snuff. His secret in getting results from Burbank was patience and working with him, he emphasized repeatedly in the letter. Over six single-spaced typed pages, Binner testifies to his devotion and defends Burbank’s greatness (it seems Comstock had joined the scientific skeptics who didn’t think Burbank’s work was worth much), along with flogging his own sacrifice in trying to bring Burbank’s message to the world (“Your red headed old hen with the yellow feathers has earned more money the past two years than I have”). With pleadings and bombast he hammers away that soon the world would kneel at Burbank’s shrine and only Binner could make that happen: “[W]hat I have to offer is that which he needs and which he does not know how to produce…I have the talent and ability and desire to give him what he needs most in order to present to the world his story in such a manner as to make it live for centuries. L. B. will see it. Wait.”2

(RIGHT: Oscar Binner c. 1911. Image courtesy Luther Burbank Home and Gardens)

Megalomania aside, Binner was basically right; he possessed a unique skill set that Burbank needed. Burbank was an inept businessman and deal-maker; Binner had single-handedly built one of the leading companies in his field. Burbank expected fawning profiles in the press to lure public interest; Binner was an acknowledged master of reaching out through advertising. But most of all, Binner had a talent for what Burbank really needed most: Marketing Burbank’s unique brand.

You can find Binner’s fingerprints over everything connected to Burbank in the years immediately following. In a why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-that-before flash of genius, Burbank was relieved of the visitor nuisance after a “Bureau of Information” was built on Santa Rosa Avenue in front of the farm where the public was invited to buy seeds, bulbs, and color lithographs of Burbank plants, suitable for framing. Binner produced dozens of pamphlets by and about Burbank and tried to sell shares in the Oscar E. Binner Company (“Luther Burbank’s Publishers”) for the publication of the still in-progress Burbank encyclopedia – “The popular edition will…have a field of about fifty million prospective purchasers,” he gushed. Binner created the Luther Burbank traveling display that toured agricultural shows and exhibitions around the country for two years to high acclaim, ending 1912 on view at the huge American Land and Irrigation Exposition at Madison Square Garden, where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “Ode to Irrigation.”

This chapter of Binner’s story ends in 1912, with the incorporations of the semi-autonomous Luther Burbank Press, Luther Burbank Society and Luther Burbank Company. Binner still had a role in Burbank’s affairs, but that’s a different adventure. Another Binner trail to follow leads to the question of whether he had any part to play in the final breakup between Burbank and the Carnegie Institute in the latter part of 1908. Although Burbank counted on the $10,000 annual sinecure, losing the distraction of the Carnegie obligation would have been greatly to Binner’s advantage. The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archive has a letter to the Institute’s president from Binner that has an unpleasant tone and implies they were exchanging insults in prior correspondence. There’s also an incriminating passage in that letter to Comstock: “L. B. misunderstands himself. When he finds himself, then he will see what is best for him and best for all time and all the world. He will waste no more of his talents and time on [the Carnegie Institute]…”

And finally, there’s the unsolved mystery of why Burbank walked away from the lucrative deal with Law brothers. As it turns out, there are two versions of how it came about. In an interview with the Examiner, Hartland Law described the “peculiar way” the project began with a chance encounter on a train with a man coming to secure rights to “Burbank’s book.” Law expressed sadness that California had little appreciation for Burbank. Some time later, the same man approaches him outside the Fairmont. “This man later on visited Burbank, told him of the interest I had shown in his book, and in the end he was the medium through which my brother and myself met Burbank in this city and discussed the preliminary plans for this later project.”

But in his letter to Nellie Comstock, Binner wrote that there was no lucky happenstance involved. Burbank directed Binner to research potential moneymen and convince them to form a partnership: “…I was to find men of character, reputation and wealth who could handle this project as it should be handled. I worked hard, I traveled much and at last found two men, men whose names and reputation could not be assailed and whose wealth was more than sufficient to finance this project…”

The key to Burbank’s about-face is probably the part about “men whose names and reputation could not be assailed.” Yes, the Law brothers were multimillionaire property owners, and Herbert Law was one of the directors of Wells Fargo. But the paint was still wet on their respectability; not mentioned in the San Francisco or Santa Rosa papers was that the brothers had made their fortune through a quack medicine and pyramid scheme they still owned (this article is a must-read). Singled out by medical journals and muckrakers as one of the worst of all the insidious medical frauds, the money they offered Burbank dripped with blood.

Always thin-skinned about being considered a charlatan himself, it’s unthinkable that Burbank would have entered a partnership with the Law brothers if he knew about their dodgy source of income – or that he would have stayed with them once he discovered the facts later. Yes, the Laws kept their noses mostly clean and gained further respectability as years went on, but from the perspective of 1909, Burbank probably looked upon them as a career-destroying scandal waiting to explode after he discovered who they really were. In the end it was likely the Law brothers that played Burbank and Binner, not the other way around. Should the Laws ever be enmeshed in a scandalous wrongful death lawsuit, what better character witness to call to the stand than their partner and friend, Luther Burbank, one of the most respected men in the nation.


1Samuel Lieb letter to Carnegie Institute President Woodward, August 26, 1908; Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archives
2Oscar Binner letter to Nellie Comstock, February 25, 1910; Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archives
WILL HANDLE ALL PRODUCTS
Burbank Sells Rights to his Future Creations

Arrangements have been made by Herbert E. Law, Dr. Hartland Law, and Oscar E. Binner, millionaires of San Francisco, to take entire control of the commercial aspect of the work of Luther Burbank. The gentlemen have purchased the right to all the new creations of Burbank not otherwise disposed of previously and all those which may evolve through his genius in the coming years.

The deal is one of the greatest ever made on the coast and is said to have netted Mr. Burbank a couple of million dollars, and placed him beyond the necessity of having any care for the material things of earth. He will now be able to lay aside business cares and worries and give his entire time and attention to the propagation of new fruits, flowers and shrubs, to which he has already devoted forty years of energetic work.

The commercial portion of the distribution of the products will be carried on an elaborate scale by the men who have become interested in the matter. They will establish agencies in all portions of the world, and the fame of Burbank will be carried to greater extent in the remote parts of the world than ever before.

Much illustrated and printed matter concerning the Burbank productions will be sent broadcast [sic] all over the world, and the handling of the business will necessitate a large clerical, office and shipping force. The spineless cactus will be sent to all the known arid regions, where it will produce sustenance for man and beast. It is claimed that recently Mr. Burbank has bred properties into this cactus which will make it available for producing sugar and alcohol as a by-product. It is said the sugar from the cactus will rival that produced from beets and that brought from the Hawaiian Islands.

The new company intends to purchase, if possible, the rights which Mr. Burbank has previously disposed of to certain creations and thus have a monopoly of all his efforts. There are many things which Mr. Burbank has accomplished of which the world knows nothing, but in future all these will be given to the public through the new agency established.

Mr. Burbank was recently in San Francisco and had a conference with the men who have purchased the rights to his creations and later they came here and spent some time in looking into the matters.

The arrangement made with the Messrs Law and Binner will not affect the distribution of seeds through the Chamber of commerce. The deal of Secretary Brown will be carried out as arranged and he is already promoting their selling in a number of states.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 27, 1909
TO HANDLE THE BURBANK PRODUCTS

A business transaction of world-wide importance has been consummated in Santa Rosa, whereby Dr. Hartland Law and his brother, Herbert E. Law, the millionaire owners of the Fairmont hotel, the Monadnock building and other valuable property in San Francisco and elsewhere throughout the United States, and Oscar E. Binner, a wealthy eastern man, who has spent several months in Santa Rosa, have secured the rights… [missing lines type and garbled text] …They have formed a company known as “Luther Burbank’s Products, Incorporated,” and have already formulated complete plans for the distribution of the products in all civilized countries.

By reason of the deal consummated Mr. Burbank will henceforth devote his entire time to the scientific development of his great work, while the business and commercial end will be handled entirely by the company. The transaction not only includes the products already perfected but those in course of development.

– Press Democrat, February 26, 1909
BURBANK DISTRIBUTION
Big Work Planned by the Owl Drug Co.

Monday a representative of the Owl Drug Company of San Francisco closed a contract with Edward H. Brown of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce for the exclusive agency of Luther Burbank’s flower seeds for the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Mr. Brown deserves great credit for placing the agency where it will do so much good for our town.

We know of no concern better able to handle the distribution of Mr. Burbank’s seeds on a large scale than is the Owl Drug Co., with its eleven big stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Mr. Burbank himself feels that the Chamber of Commerce need not look elsewhere for agencies as he believes, as do me, that the present arrangement will immediately consume the entire supply.

Other big concerns have been negotiating for the agency, but due to the fact that the Owl Drug Company had better facilities to carry on the distribution thoroughly the agency was given to them.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 22, 1909
RUMOR THAT BURBANK DEAL IS OFF

A month ago, it will be remembered, it was announced that Herbert E. Law, Dr. Hartland Law, San Francisco millionaires, and Oscar E. Binner, a wealthy eastern man, had completed arrangements whereby they would take over the entire charge of the distribution of Luther Burbank’s products throughout the world.

It was rumored here yesterday that the big deal was off and that Mr. Burbank had decided to still remain at the helm of the commercial as well as the creative branches of his work. Mr. Burbank preferred not to discuss the matter at all yesterday. Mr. Binner is in San Francisco,, and could not be seen yesterday.

– Press Democrat, March 24, 1909
LUTHER BURBANK ISSUES STATEMENT REGARDING DEAL
Will Direct His Own Business As Heretofore

This combination was altogether unique–with the exception of Mark Twain, John Burroughs and possibly some other cases–in fact only an experiment, as nothing of just its nature had ever existed. Hence no one could foretell the outcome.

The early developments did not indicate satisfactory future results either to the world or to the parties involved in the transaction.

As no corporation had yet been formed and only a preliminary contract executed, when the proposition was found to be impracticable. It was mutually agreed that it be abandoned.

While it is true that my business has become too extensive and too complicated to be handled by one man, yet, I believe that by having complete control of the entire system I can direct competent men in a way to secure the best results.
Luther Burbank.

On Wednesday Luther Burbank absolutely confirmed the report published in the Press Democrat of that morning that the deal between himself and the Law Brothers and Oscar Binner, had been abandoned. The deal, one of the most gigantic of its kind in the history of the country, involved the sole handling of the Burbank products and their distribution throughout the world, with the exception of two or three small contracts into which Mr. Burbank had already entered. The announcement in the paper Wednesday morning that the deal was off attracted something of the surprise of that of a month ago, which told of the preliminary contract.

A Press Democrat representative had an interview with Mr. Burbank on Wednesday and obtained from him a statement explanatory of the abandonment of the contract. Mr. Burbank intends to be at the helm in the directing of his big business. He believes that with the assistance of competent men this can be done, and the best results secured.

Oscar E. Binner returned from San Francisco Wednesday night. He was associated with the Law Brothers in the transaction mentioned. In discussing the turn things had taken, Mr. Binner in the course of an interview, had this to say among other things:

“For myself and by associates, the Law Brothers, let me say that Mr. Burbank’s absolute happiness and contentment were our first consideration.

“We still believe that to have equipped for Mr. Burbank a world-wide sales organization, such as we had planned, would not only have enabled him to devote more of his precious time to his noble and unique research, but also have been the means of giving to the entire civilized world an opportunity of getting a practical and most valuable benefit of his wonderful achievements. There is no doubt in our mind that with such an organization as we had planned for, consisting of some of the best world’s workers, Mr. Burbank would have greatly extended his marvelous achievements.

“Every plant, fruit, and product of this great genius would through this sales organization have been scattered throughout the civilized world and so become the property of all mankind.

That our project (and when I say ‘our’ I mean Mr. Burbank first of all and the Laws and myself) was one which would have made the world better, is evidenced by the fact that hundreds of leading publications throughout the land recognized it as such, and heartily endorsed it, some even giving editorial recognition. Only one single article decried our project, and the man that wrote it admitted the next day that he had   a ‘grouch’ on and was sorry he had written what he had.

“As further evidence and a most gratifying one are the numerous letters that have been received by us from some of the most prominent and influential men throughout the land. Many from our friends, but many more from total strangers to us, congratulating us on our project and offering us unlimited support and assistance if we would give them the privilege.

“One of the best and most responsible endorsements we received was from a man who, perhaps, is better able to judge and recognize what this great project would have meant to Mr. Burbank and the civilized world. I refer to an old and much admired friend of Mr. Burbank–Prof. E. J. Wickson, whose editorial in the Pacific Rural Press came nearer to our personal views and sentiments than all others.

“However, as already stated, Mr. Burbank’s happiness and contentment was our first consideration, and if this would in anyway be involved by the project we were willing to step aside and annul the contract we entered into together on the 23rd of February.

“Mr. Burbank has many true and loyal friends throughout the world, yet none I feel can be more willing to help and assist him at any time than the Law Brothers. As for myself, I have always given him the best there is in me, and I shall always continue to deem it a pleasure to serve him.”

– Press Democrat, March 25, 1909
BURBANK’S BUREAU WILL OPEN TODAY
Information Will Be Furnished all Visitors Together With Other Details–Open Daily

Luther Burbank’s Bureau of Information will be opened to the public today from 10 to 12 and 2 to 4, and each succeeding day, Sunday excepted. It occupies the neat and attractive little building on Santa Rosa avenue fronting the old Burbank residence.

This branch office is designed for the accommodation of visitors, having been found necessary in order that Mr. Burbank be protected from the constant interruptions which have beset him in the past by those who wished either to meet him or to have to opportunity of securing information or samples, souvenirs, seeds, bulbs, etc. These have note heretofore been generally obtainable except from Eastern dealers.

Some scientifically accurate extremely fine studies of his newer fruits and flowers have been produced by California artists and Eastern lithographers, and these will be available to all.

Rare seeds also, all grown under Mr. Burbank’s personal supervision, will be available.

A big register is being prepared for the names, addresses and remarks of visitors. All are welcome to inspect the new office.

– Press Democrat, May 25, 1910
MANY CALLERS AT BURBANK BUREAU
Many States and Several Countries Already Represented Among the Visitors

The information bureau at Luther Burbank’s private experimental grounds on Santa Rosa Avenue is proving a great thing for visitors in this city, who are desirous of obtaining some information concerning Mr. Burbank’s work and also as to where seeds, plants and literature, etc., can be obtained.

The handsome little building the bureau occupies near the site of the old residence has already been visited by several hundred people from out of town. Some fifteen states are represented among the callers and they are people who have come to Santa Rosa for a visit while making an itinerary of the state. Several countries are likewise represented.

Most of the time Miss Pauline Olson is in charge of the Bureau and no one better qualified or more conversant with the nature of the information desired could occupy that position. Daily some of the beautiful blooms created by Mr. Burbank are artistically arranged in the room and these never fail to attract the admiration from visitors.

The poppies and amaryillis are in bloom in the Burbank gardens at the present time, and the color picture is a very beautiful one.

– Press Democrat, May 25, 1910

Read More

HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT THE COMSTOCKS?

A year after the Comstocks settled in Santa Rosa, the newspapers began to take notice that a truly remarkable family had arrived.

The first 1909 report on Comstock family members was little more than a “personal mention” item that was probably overlooked by most readers as trivial news: “Hilyard [sic] Comstock…has taken up the study of law. He is reading with Colonel J. W. Oates…” The Press Democrat must be forgiven for not anticipating that this was the launch of a career that would impact Santa Rosa for the next half century; what’s unforgivable, however, is that the PD didn’t explain why this was such a newsworthy story. “Hilyard” was barely 18 years old and had no formal education aside from homeschooling by his mother and tutors, and James Wyatt Oates, a splenetic 59 year-old maverick who had never accepted a law partner, was now taking under his wing a young man whom he had only known for a few months. And for an extra poignant twist, Oates was following in the footsteps of his own brother, who had similarly educated him in the ways of the law when he was about the same age.

The Press Democrat may have misspelled Hilliard’s name, but they were right in noting that he was an avid tennis player. Both he and older sister Cornelia were active in the Santa Rosa Tennis Club, and there were items in both papers about him playing in local competitions. Tennis was apparently a swell way to meet girls; a couple of the sports articles reported that matches drew good-sized audiences, “most of whom were of the fair sex.” The papers weren’t done mangling his name, by the way; he was “Hillyard” in another PD tennis item, and the Santa Rosa Republican sports reporter just gave up and called him “H. Comstock.”

The Republican paper also published a short feature article on eldest brother John Adams Comstock, who was already respected as a word-class scientist – and like all the other Comstock siblings, homeschooled by their extraordinary mother, Nellie. The Republican reporter ooh’ed appropriately at Comstock’s enormous butterfly collection, which was supposedly the best in the nation. (His 1927 survey, “Butterflies of California,” remains the definitive work on the topic.)

John and his sisters were also famed artisan leather workers, trained at the famed Roycroft arts colony. Calling themselves “The Companeros,” their work won highest prizes at state and national competitions, which drew further attention from the 1909 Santa Rosa newspapers.

But the most unusual item on the Comstocks to appear that year was a wire story from Chicago concerning the estate of Judge Harvey B. Hurd, who was Nellie’s father and the grandfather of Hilliard and his six brothers and sisters. Yes, both papers often wrote about inheritances and the value of estates when prominent local citizens died, but I don’t recall any instance where readers were plainly told how much a resident had inherited from someone outside the area. In this case, however, it was a newsworthy story: The Comstocks had real estate in Chicago and Evanston worth about $200,000 which was to be held in trust for Nellie’s children. Projecting the value of that trust in terms of economic status, it would have been worth over $27 million today. In other words, the Comstocks weren’t just richer than anyone else in Santa Rosa – they were worth more than most local banks at the time.

Nellie Comstock and her children were probably the smartest, the most industrious, and the wealthiest family Santa Rosa had ever seen, but were together here only for a few years. John left for Southern California to study medicine; most of the others drifted to Carmel, where they were instrumental in founding the arts scene, endowed with generous donations from the Comstocks. That could have been Santa Rosa’s future instead, and more’s the pity.

HILYARD COMSTOCK IS STUDYING LAW

Hilyard Comstock, one of the Comstock brothers, tennis players, has taken up the study of law. He is reading with Colonel J. W. Oates. Mr. Comstock has many friends who will wish him all success in his studies, and they predict that it will not be long before he can be hanging out his shingle. He means to “dig” and such a determination always augurs for success.

– Press Democrat, April 20, 1909

EDWARDS VS. COMSTOCK
The Tennis Championship Between These Two

This afternoon James H. Edwards and H. Comstock are playing the championship set to decide who is entitled to the tennis honors of this city. These two have worked their way to the top, having won all the sets which they have played.

The preliminary games in the Santa Rosa championship tournament were played at the Santa Rosa Tennis Club’s courts Sunday morning and the games brought out some exceptionally good plays. Most of the contests were very close and the court was in ideal condition. The audience which witnessed the games was largely composed of ladies. Much interest centered in the games that James R. Edwards participated in. He was looked upon as a likely candidate for the championship honors.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 31, 1909

Mrs. Nellie Comstock and daughters, the Misses Cornelia and Katherine Comstock, and Messrs. Hilliard and Hugh Comstock are all encamped at Eaglenest. Hilliard will come over next Wednesday to participate in the finals of the gentlemen’s doubles in the tennis championship, which will be played at 5:30 o’clock in the afternoon.

– “Many Social Events in City of Roses”, Santa Rosa Republican, July 3, 1909

PALMER AND COMSTOCK
Won the Championship Tennis Doubles

The Santa Rosa tennis championship for gentlemen’s doubles was determined Wednesday evening on the Santa Rosa Tennis Club’s courts. The honor of the tournament and the large silver loving cup was won by George Palmer and Hilliard Comstock. A large number of spectators, most of whom were of the fair sex, were present and watched the final match in which the winners were opposed by Temple Smith and A. W. Scott.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 8, 1909

PREMIUMS WON BY THE EXHIBITORS
Individual Awards at Sacramento in Addition to the Big Prizes Given the Sonoma County Display

In addition to the big prizes won by the Sonoma County exhibit at the State Fair that has just closed in Sacramento individual premiums were won as follows…

…”The Companeros,” whose establishment is in the Masonic Temple building in this city, won first prize for the best piece of tool leather…

[..]

– Press Democrat, September 9, 1909

FINE COLLECTION OF BUTTERFLIES
John Comstock Has One of Best in United States

A large number of the close friends of John Comstock, manager of the Companeros Gift Shop, even among those who know him quite well, are not aware that he has a splendid collection of butterflies. He has, however, one of the best collections of United States butterflies owned in this country. Mr. Comstock seldom speaks of his collection, but to those who show an interest in the matter he is quite willing to show his collection and explain the differences to be seen in the many different kinds of butterflies.

He was for several years the recorder of the lepidopteral section of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and during that time and for several years afterward he spent a large portion of his spare time and holidays collecting the pretty little winged insects that fly among the flowers. Although Mr. Comstock’s collection is particularly one of butterflies of the United States, yet he has saved a few of the large, beautiful and highly colored butterflies from Brazil and other tropical countries that have come into his possession. These however, he does not count as being in his United States collection.

In his collection there are about three thousand butterflies. Of this number there are five hundred and some odd different species of the butterfly. There are seven hundred and fifty known species of butterflies in this country, so it will be seen that Mr. Comstock’s collection contains a large portion of those in existence. He himself in his research work has discovered four varieties of the butterfly not previously known, and is accredited with these discoveries by lepidopteral scientists. One of these varieties, which lives only in the high mountains of Colorado is worth $10 each.

In nearly all cases he has secured three specimens of each species, a male and female each. The third one is for the purpose of showing the coloring of the under side of the wings.

California, with its long stretch from the north to the south and its high mountains and valleys, contains a very large number of different kinds of butterflies and is considered as the best field of research to be found anywhere in one state. Mr. Luther Burbank has seen the collection and evinced a great deal of interest in the systematic manner in which it is kept. A large part of the collection Mr. Comstock gathered himself, but still a good many he has secured by trading with other collectors.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 24, 1909

PROPERTY IS PLACED IN TRUST
Mrs. Comstock Divides Estate Among Children

CHICAGO, Sept. 24–William S. Young has taken title to an undivided one-half interest to eleven parcels of real estate which Mrs. Nellie Hurd Comstock of Santa Rosa, Cal., inherited from her father, the late Harvey H. Hurd of Evanston. Mr. Young, as trustee, is to pay to her during her life the net income, and on her death to pay it to her children. The property includes an undivided one-half interest in 52 and 54 Lake street, 24 by 140 feet, improved with a five story building. The property at 52 and 54 Lake street was valued by the Board of Review at $83,295, of which $10,000 is in the building.

The foregoing dispatch was received Monday, and it was further learned that Mrs. Nellie H. Comstock, having a life interest left her by her father, Judge Harvey B. Hurd of Chicago, in his estate, and after dividing the estate among her seven children, Mrs. Comstock placed it back in trust to her children, retaining only the life interest. This was in accordance with her father’s wishes. William S. Young was one of the trustees appointed by him. A sister of Mrs. Comstock some time ago brought successful suit to secure the fee simple of the estate for Mrs. Comstock. The property consists of real estate in Chicago and Evanston, and is approximately worth $200,000.

The late Judge Hurd was for a long time dean of the law faculty of the Northwestern University at Evanston, and for thirty years was engaged in revising the statutes of Illinois. He was the author of several measures passed by the legislature of that state. One of them was the child labor law authorizing the creation of a juvenile court. Another was the Torrens land law, which obviated the necessity of securing abstracts to title of land on the part of those making purchase of same. This measure was adopted in California, but owing to the way the legislature handled it, it met with indifferent success.

Mrs. Comstock lives a short distance outside of Santa Rosa on a ranch. Five of her seven children reside in this city.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 27, 1909

GIFT SHOP GETS AWARD
Receives Gold Medal at Seattle Exposition

The Gift Shop of the Companeros carried off the gold medal and highest award at the arts and craft exhibition of the A. Y. P. exposition.

This is the second honor of its kind that has come to the Companeros, the first being a blue ribbon first award at Sacramento, for art leather work.

These are the only competitive exhibitions that the Gift Shop has entered this year, and the result speaks well for the quality of the work produced.

Since its establishment here the gift shop has attained considerable of a reputation in the far east for its creations in the fine arts. Over fifty of the largest cities in America are included on their list of agencies. They also hold a membership in three of the most exclusive Arts and Crafts Societies in the United States, namely the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, the National Society of Craftsmen of New York City, and the Daedalus Guild of Philadelphia.

This December will see their work entered in five fine art exhibitions, including that given in Berkeley by the Berkeley Art Association, but as these are not competitive, no awards are expected.

The Gift Shop is becoming an object of pilgrimage to many California craftsmen, and is well worth a visit, for those who love beautiful things.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 12, 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