It was rare to find an obituary on the front page of the Press Democrat, but hers was stranger still – she was hardly mentioned in it.

“Nellie H. Comstock Claimed by Death,” read the 1940 headline, followed by “Friend of Elbert Hubbard, Burbank.” A good chunk of the obit was about her father and it twice mentioned Burbank (supposedly) wrote a letter inviting her to move to Santa Rosa. Other than that, the article mostly describes the accomplishments of her children – which she would have liked. “A Distinguished Mother,” read the PD kicker above the headline.

By then, most in town probably knew her only as the grandmother of Helen and Hilliard Comstock’s five Santa Rosa-born kids, or that she had lived for almost a quarter century as a recluse in the big brown house just down from the the high school. A few might have known she was probably the wealthiest person in town, controlling a trust for her children worth the equivalent of $27 million today. She was never a member of any of the town’s many women’s clubs, never active in any civic affairs. She can be found mentioned in the PD only a handful of times in the last ten years of her life, always because some of her illustrious children who lived farther away were here to visit.

(Undated portrait of Nellie Comstock.  Courtesy Carmel Library Historical Archive)

But “Nellie” Comstock was a remarkable person whose intelligence and character were reflected in the accomplishments of her seven children, all educated at home by her. And what we saw here was only the least interesting fragment of her life; if time permits to do the research, there justly should be entries for “Nellie Comstock of Carmel-by-the-Sea” and “Nellie Comstock of Evanston,” because those were the places where her star most brightly gleamed.

Thanks to a 1910 letter donated by grandson Harrison Comstock to the Carmel Library Historical Archive, for the first time we have a deeply personal letter with insight into what she thought of Santa Rosa and its residents shortly after moving here. She also wrote, “I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet.” Hey, can you guess which page of the letter is missing?

After she died, Hilliard donated materials to the Burbank archives including a couple of letters written to her by Oscar Binner, a promoter who around 1910 was sort of a Colonel Parker to Burbank’s Elvis. An accompanying note from Hilliard pointed out Binner had sometimes stayed with their family in Santa Rosa, and Nellie would step in to resolve his disputes with Burbank because she was “an intimate friend of both.” As Binner’s letters  defensively trumpet his opinions of Burbank’s greatness, it’s safe to assume Nellie stood with skeptics who didn’t think Burbank’s work had any scientific merit. Thus the “strictly private” details were probably nothing personal, but rather her views that Burbank didn’t deserve to be held in such high esteem. (More on Binner’s wrestling with Burbank: “SELLING LUTHER BURBANK.”)

The Burbank nod in her Press Democrat obituary was also misleading, claiming she moved her family 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.” As debunked here previously, her oldest son, John, an authority on butterflies (his 1927 survey, “Butterflies of California,” remains the definitive reference) spent over a week comparing notes with Burbank in 1907. The following year Nellie bought a ten-acre ranch on the edge of town and moved here with five of her children, three of them still in their teens. John was married and had his own house on the corner of Sonoma and Brookwood avenues, the current location of the Santa Rosa police HQ.

Besides being a leading lepidopterist, John and two of his sisters were early members of the American Arts & Crafts movement, having trained at Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Colony in New York state. The Comstock’s particular artisan skill was leatherworking, and at the time leather-making was the predominant industry in Santa Rosa. Moving here in 1908 brought them to the source of their raw materials but also made them pioneers in the West Coast version of the movement which was just taking off. From 1910-1912 they also had an art store on Fourth street selling fine objects produced by themselves and other award-winning artisans, along with items created by the women-only “Arts and Crafts Guild” they founded in Santa Rosa. So while Burbank may or may not have sent Nellie one of his “chosen spot of all this earth” PR notes, it was incidental to the family choosing to settle here.

Nellie’s 1910 letter to her friend was written about eighteen months after they moved to Santa Rosa. (Hilliard and others would later say it was on Hoen avenue, but at the time it was simply Rural Route 5 and adjacent to Matanzas Creek, somewhere around the modern Farmer’s Lane intersection.) We don’t know who the recipient was, although it was a woman in the Midwest she had met at a “sanitarium” – what we’d call a spa resort today.

“The satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children,” she wrote. “Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself.”

She admitted being sometimes homesick for Evanston and her late father’s mansion where she raised and educated her family, but the children would have none of it: They were already born-again Californians. “If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them.”

One of the things that bothered her about this area was seeing so many families trapped in a modern-day kind of serfdom, operating small chicken farms and unable to escape a hard-scrabble life. “I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on…[L]iving in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living…”

Nor did she care much about the way our ancestors were being raised:

Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare.

Amazingly, she even complained about Santa Rosa’s temperate weather: “The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity.”

If all this makes Nellie sound snippy, peevish or downright ugly, join the club. “My mother-in-law was a brilliant woman, but she was tyrannical – in a very sweet way,” Helen Comstock said in her oral history. Little that Helen did while she and Hilliard lived with Nellie was to her satisfaction; she was told that she picked the wrong flowers, didn’t sweep the floor correctly, and even stirred the gravy the wrong way.

“I do not attempt any social life here,” Nellie also wrote in the 1910 letter. “What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness.” So if she disliked the situation in Santa Rosa so much, why the hell did she stay the thirty years until her death? Four of the children came to live in Carmel and she spent summers there; in Carmel she did have friends and a social life. Then why keep coming back to oh-so sucky Sonoma county?

One reason could be the house. When James Wyatt Oates died on December 9, 1915, his law partner Hilliard Comstock was staying with him. Less than a month later Nellie and some of the other children joined in occupying the home on Mendocino avenue. “In this way it will be given proper care and protection,” the Press Democrat said. Her winning bid of $10,000 later bought it from the Oates’ estate and established it as (what would become known as) Comstock House.

With her two daughters and eldest son immersed in the Arts & Crafts movement since at least 1903, surely she shared their appreciation for the unique home which Brainerd Jones had designed for Oates. Though she still hung on to the Victorian mansion in Evanston, she was now living in a bonafide work of art – and there she would stay.

Maybe she also found the early Carmel arts scene a bit too frenetic and exhausting to live there fulltime. Most of the later stories about Nellie mention her frailty, a tiny woman always dressed in white. As a 1934 Christmas gift to Hilliard, his sister-in-law – Hurd’s wife Dora Hagemeyer, who wrote several books of hackneyed poetry before WWII – sent a prose-poem (transcribed in full below) describing the pacific life Nellie led in Santa Rosa. One stanza:

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

“Nellie” Cornelia Hurd Comstock died quietly at her home May 31, 1940. She lived through the entire American version of the Victorian era, being four years old when the Civil War began – but was never one to look nostalgically back; she peered forward always. Like Teddy Roosevelt, she believed in an “American race” not defined by ethnicity or color but by a common willingness to work hard, fight for principles and for parents to instill those values in their children. ” Am I turning sour?” She asked her correspondent, after complaining about how “scuff” she found Santa Rosa youth. “Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.” [emphasis hers]

“…The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased,” she wrote. “Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity…the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.”

For 1910 those were pretty radical views – and still are today, I’ll wager.

As dedicated as she was to her children so they remained to her, with all returning for her 80th birthday on March 8, 1937, when they were captured in the famous family photo.


1) Cornelia Matthew   2) Hurd Comstock   3) Catherine Seidneck   4) Dr. John Comstock   5) Judge Hilliard Comstock   6) Nellie Comstock   7) George Franklin Comstock   8) Hugh Comstock


Cornelia Matthew and Nellie Comstock, probably photographed during the same 1937 visit shown above. Image courtesy Martha Comstock Keegan




Mrs. Nellie H. Comstock and family are moving into the Oates home on Mendocino avenue. Under the terms of the will of the late James W. Oates. His law partner, Hilliard Comstock, son of Mrs. Comstock, was given the use of the house until it was disposed of by the executors.

The family will make their home in the handsome residence pending its disposal, which may be some time. In this way it will be given proper care and protection.

– Press Democrat, January 7 1916

Route 5.
Santa Rosa, Cal.
Jan 23 – 10

My little woman – way off in the cold city of the Middle West –

I employ part of this rainy rainy rain-y day writing to you trying to satisfy your curiosity and friendship. Sunday – all Sundays – remind me of Sanitariums. The advent of our acquaintance. We met in one. I hope we won’t again. I hope both you and I will be sensible enough never to come to that pass of meeting in such a place again.

Let us think that such places are for the people who have not reached a place in life which learning, experience, and something vastly above either, will forever work imminently from.

Now I will look over your list of questions – for it is one of my failings,

I have a lot to tell you about Burbank which will be strictly private. I will put it in a separate sheet and let it follow. No Earthquake shock yet to my knowledge. Have not even thought of Earthquakes.

Now I believe this answers all your questions except the two-two’s.

Maybe you don’t think I get homesick once in a while – and wish I could still [be] in my family house. But I can never think of such a step as going back until the thing I came for is fully accomplished. Then I may be prepared to go back and remain to the end of my days. Coming here was an act inspired. I could never have done what is being done in any other place in time or manner what I have done by just this move I made and just how I made it. Surely such wisdom was not thought out – by my little brain alone. Something greater was back of it, something far seeing.

Now I am not going into all sorts of particulars at the present. I may say that if I sought out my own comfort alone I would not be doing just as I am, but the satisfaction of my present life is that numerous strides are being taken by my children. Opportunity is here – not because the here is California – but because change is here and just the material to correspond with that change was stored up in my children. Already all that immense newness has paid for itself. Already I can see why it must inevitably have been like destiny. That is a great thing to be certain of. If I were not certain of it I would be plunged into grief and remorse over my act and would set about it to return and nurture myself and belongings to their former place. There stands the old house ready at my beck and call. It is now mine by the act of division of property, and there stands my ???? at home – that too at my will. I am getting $100.00 per anno, not from that. My place here is paid for (10 acres and nice little cottage all put in the best of order since we came.) My mortgage on Wesley av house [in Evanston] is part paid – I have $2000.00 in pure cash and up in the bank – and am not living up more than 2/3 my income. I have $2000.00 in the business here. So you see I am able to say things have progressed with me, ???? I was deeply in debt about two years ago. That place I have bought here will increase in value from now on. It has already done so. What I paid $150 per acre is now on the market at $400.00 per acre – and the house has nearly doubled in value. My Wesley av property has doubled in value since I took it up – and the entire locality is now under a change for improvement still further. Thus you can see I am getting my worldly affairs in good order – and now at a time when I am desiring to extend opportunity to all my children at an age when they see values, my means are sufficient to that end.

This is my condition from a financial standpoint.

No child will ever be able to see how life looks from the standpoint of the parent. If I speak of liking the East better than the West they are amazed. They no not know that I like it from the place I see it. It is their place to see something to their special advantage in a new country – and in a new place, i. e. new to them. The extreme dry season and the extreme wet one, is against any place. It is not moderate. Nor do I think it can possible be advantageous to life in general either from a standpoint of health, or from one of prosperity. It takes a long time to train a country. Its very climate needs modifying, and what cannot be definitively changed must be offset by conditions – artificially constructed. I do not see how anyone can feel it wise to locate here for a lifetime without a substantial income to depend on in some foreign properties. I should never have dared do it. I can see things opening up in localities for the future – especially for the energetic youths.

I do not attempt any social life here. What I do is toward my children’s welfare and happiness. They get study and work and play into their daily living in very good proportions. Mainly I keep the house. I do almost all the work – cooking, scrubbing, sweeping, sewing – sometimes washing – and general ???? . I stay right at the helm. I read some and follow Hugh in his studies. We find such pleasure in the surrounding scenery and in the out-of-doors life during the pleasant weather. The fruits and flowers help to make life more attractive. But living in the midst of so much struggle for subsistence is somewhat depressing to me. I see so few people able to make a living on their small farms. It is growing as it did in the far East some time back – when the small farming died out, and homes everywhere ran down and dwindled into decay. Only large ranches make a living and even those are run at less risk having become largely speculation. This locality is full of chicken farms – small ones. That too is a struggle and tis nasty work. Many women work among the chickens. Husband and wife must both work, the children should work, but do not. The schools do not induce work in the mind and heart of the child. Generally the young people of Calif. are very rampant for pleasure and for dissipations of all sorts – bad and worse than bad. I never saw the young so generally disposed to dress, and idleness, and pleasure-seeking. It was well to have had my sons and daughters as far along as they are. They will not as easily be led. The young men are scuff. Only one or two to be found in among a large group, whom one would care to encourage as company. That is a problem for our young. And the grown men are not much better. I do declare. I do not see men nowadays I can call men. Am I turning sour? Or what is the matter and how is it from your standpoint? Oh, I get an inside view. I have boys who see things. It is an open chapter that I read with horror and a dark forecast for the race – our beautiful Americans.

I would like to talk with you – yes – a lot of things. Am glad to learn about your sister’s family. She has had many burdens. How some of those are lifted and she can begin to enjoy her growing family and their families. Marriage is such a critical act in our present age with conditions as they exist. The true family spirit seems to be dying out in America, as it died in other countries as wealth increased and brought its trials of manly struggle. As a man acquires liberty how is he to use it? That is the question. Money spurs the way to vast exploitation. Few are able to withstand the temptations which the removal of restrictions bring. Our real prison is the human mind and heart. Democracy seems too, as great a likeliness of failure as Christianity. Do I maintain that Christianity is a failure? I maintain that in this age we have not enough of it to save us. After all these centuries and all these churches and all these testimonies – the Truth is neither honored nor worshipped nor crucial as it rightly is. We need a new birth and a new death.

I am glad you tell me of Dr. C. and how noble his constancy in friendship. But I tell you he is sure to appreciate the sterling quality which abides in your soul – for he is one to know Woman and be a judge. I wish I could see him, really. He is quite an unusual man – taking him all in all – worldly enough, tis true, but very human and often tender as a woman. Skillful too in his profession. Nay – he is good enough to be remembered always by one who knew him.

As I say I will tell you more of us before long – and believe me I wrote you more than you say. I have not been so delinquent.

Do not allow yourself to get old and crabbed. Keep your nerves ??? together with a calm mind. Nerves are closely allied to character and what we term the heart.

As ever – your friend – N. Comstock


Portrait of your Mother

She is a little lady, frail and with the exquisite delicacy of a flower. She is always dressed in white; clean, cool, fragrant. Her hair is like snow found lying lightly where the fingers of the wind do not disturb it.

You may see her on a day in Spring sitting under her haw-thorn tree…the beautiful wide-spreading branches bending to the ground with their trailing sprays of blossom. She sits in her chair under this pink and white bower, glad of the earth, the air, the birds that come to drink at her fountain. She loves all natural things.

When you are ill or troubled, her fingers touch your brow…with a feather-weight like a bird’s wing; but through that light caress there comes a power from the spirit of her. For with all her fairy-frailty she has a source of strength that never fails. There is no one who does not feel this; even the news-boy, the gardener, the tramp who comes to her door.

What is her secret? How has she kept so close to the eternal fountain of life, and at the same time clothed herself in the lightest of earthly garments? How can she be so delicate and at the same time so strong? Her tall son and daughters stand around her. They protect her tenderly…yet they must turn to her for strength and counsel.

What is her magic? Is it the quiet poise of a flower, that gives without conscious effort to all who come within its radius of peace and beauty? Or is it the full-fathomed depth of the sea?…the salty humour of the light spray?…the power of the wind?…the healing of the sun?

Christmas 1934.

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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. See the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series for more on all this.

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
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

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
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

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
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
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 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

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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, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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