1898wsdavishouse

DAVIS HOUSE: NOW WE ARE SIX

Take a look at the map below; it’s a section of the 1876 bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa. The arrow points to the house at 759 Mendocino avenue. It still exists, but not a single other building in the picture. In fact, there are only five four places left in town that are this old, including Luther Burbank’s house. Others include two of the Metzger houses on B street (1868 and 1869), possibly the Church of the Incarnation (1873?) and 209 Fifth street (1870). Correction: The Fifth st. house is no more.

A developer has plans for a high-density project on the site which includes moving the house from its historic location, shifting it forward to within fifteen feet of the sidewalk and pushing it as far to the north side as legally possible. Whether or not that’s a big deal depends on whom you’re asking – and when. Our ancestors moved houses around as if they were toys in a sandbox, but this is in one of Santa Rosa’s few Preservation Districts, which seeks to protect “the historic character of the structure and the neighborhood.” Complicating matters further is that the proposed move would block the public’s view of Comstock House, which is listed on National Register of Historic Places. We’ll see how this works out; the first meeting on the project is tonight (Feb. 1, 2017) at City Hall and another on February 8. Updates will appear on my OldSantaRosa Facebook page.

The home was built ca. 1872 by Josias Davis, a real estate developer who subdivided sixteen acres on both sides of College avenue as an addition to the city (PDF). For years the wedge of two short blocks between Adel’s restaurant and 10th street was called Joe Davis’ street in his honor, even though residents repeatedly begged city council to change it. If they played Trivial Pursuit back then, “Where is Joe Davis?” would have stumped nearly everybody.

(RIGHT: Walter S. Davis in Masonic regalia)

Josias suffered chronic health problems and was cared for by his only child since the boy was in his teens. After his parents died Walter continued to live at that house until his own death in 1916.

Between 1880 and 1915 probably everyone in town knew Walter S. Davis. He was an independent insurance agent but often mentioned in the papers for a wide range of other activities. He was a volunteer fireman, an elected city official (City Treasurer twice), a hop grower, speculator in Arizona and Southern California oil wells (his “Senta Oil Company” had a downtown office where he would sell you a share for a quarter), mortgage broker and real estate investor. He was a Mason and a leader of Santa Rosa Elks’ lodge which was no small thing after the Great Earthquake of 1906, as the Elks’ did more to organize relief efforts than anyone.

Davis had a lighter side and sometimes silly items about himself would popup in the Press Democrat, such as the time he was praised as a great fisherman for landing a prize catch at the grocery on his way home. He had a peach tree which produced fruit from May until October and twice the Press Democrat marveled at its bounty, even though the newspaper was trying to appear more cosmopolitan and rarely mentioning freakish fruits and vegetables.

The oddest item about him appeared on the Fourth of July, 1905. It was all nonsense, but apparently he got drunk with his new neighbor, James Wyatt Oates, who had recently moved into (the home which would become known as) Comstock House. Together they prepared a balloon containing a message for President Teddy Roosevelt, launching their airship by smashing a bottle across the prow. And it was a bottle of good stuff, too — that beer newly imported to the West Coast called Budweiser (see “THE VOYAGE OF THE ‘AER FERVENS‘”).

Walter’s wife, Evelyn, died after a long illness in 1902, when their daughter Alys Marie was only five. He remarried a couple of years later and the renewed Davis’ family was close, with Walter, wife Ann and his daughter often mentioned in the society columns for outings and visits to the City. He seemed particularly devoted to Alys, taking her along on business trips. When she was three Walter and his first wife threw a birthday party for her that was so swell there was a writeup in the PD.

After Walter died his wife and daughter rented out the house for about 25 years. The next owner was the sister of Helen Comstock, who lived next door. During the WWII housing shortage Frances Finley Nielsen and her husband Anders converted the home into four apartments and built four garages. Pretty much everything we see today is the same as it was soon after the war.

Two surveys have looked at the place and noted it was a “potentially historic property,” but it’s never been awarded landmark status because the house is plain (although Burbank’s home is likewise a simple farmhouse) and Josias and Walter just weren’t important enough to care about. Too bad they weren’t interviewing people after the 1906 quake; apparently none of his insurance customers had claims denied or were forced to settle for less. Considering some in Santa Rosa ended up fighting their insurance carriers in court for up to five years, Walter must have been viewed as something of a miracle worker.

(A version of this article first appeared on Facebook and in the Ridgway Historical District newsletter)
W.S. Davis House, c. 1901

 

FORTY YEARS AGO W. S. DAVIS CAME HERE

Walter S. Davis, the well known insurance man of this city, came to Santa Rosa forty years ago this month. Of course he was a very young man then, and people can hardly realize that he has attained the age he has on account of his youthful appearance. Mr. Davis is widely known throughout this section of the state, and is one of the best known insurance men in northern California.

– Press Democrat, September 4 1910
THREE YEARS OLD
Birthday Party In Honor of Miss Alys Marie Davis

A delightful juvenile event and one which will long be remembered by the little guests was the birthday party given at the pretty home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter S. Davis on Healdsburg avenue on Saturday afternoon. The occasion was in honor of the third birthday of their winsome little daughter, Alys Marie.

During the afternoon the guests played all manner of games, enjoying every minute of the time thus spent. Of course the birthday feast was a great feature for them. The tables with their floral decorations were laden with innumerable dainties, not to forget the center of attraction — the magnificent birthday cake. In the entertainment of the guests, the mother of the petite hostess, Mrs. Davis, and Miss Nan M. Orr, and the Misses Alma and Clara Elnhorn assisted. Those present were the little Misses…

– Press Democrat, August 29 1900

 

Another Gusher

The McKittrlck now enjoys the reptation of having the two largest oil wells in California, namely, the McPherson and the Dabney. From the Bakersfield Morning Echo of the 11th inst, it is learned that the Dabney Oil Co., operating on lands leased from the El Dorado people, has Just completed its well No. 5, and at noon on Wednesday, as soon as work was finished, the well commenced to flow at the rate of 2000 barrels a day and is still gushing.

This well is within less than three miles of the Seanta company’s holding. The directors and friends of the Seanta Oil company are jubilant over this new strike. Stock in the Seanta is still selling at 25 cents a share.

Those wishing to purchase may call on any authorized agent or at the company’s office, 445 Fourth street, W. S. Davis, secretary.

– Press Democrat, October 17 1900

 

COLONEL W. S. DAVIS NAMES NEW PEACH THE “HALLOWE’EN PEACH”

Colonel Walter S. Davis, the wellknown insurance man. has a fine garden at his Healdsburg avenue residence, in which he takes considerable pride. The Colonel has a remarkable peach tree on his place. Eighteen years ago he bought the peach tree in question from John Louis Childs, the noted seedsman of Philadelphia, and it has been bearing fine fruit for many years. The peaches ripen among the earliest in May.

A couple of years or so ago, some distance up the trunk of the tree, a branch grew out and now, near the latter part of October, It is bearing a fine cluster of ripe peaches. A Press Democrat representative on Saturday secured a branch on which hung fine, highly colored peaches and in the office during the day the branch and its fruit attracted considerable attention. it is certainly something of a novelty to have a peach tree, a part of which bears the earliest variety of peach, and the other part the latest.

– Press Democrat, October 24 1915

 

Very Fine Peach

W. S. Davis brought to this office on Monday a peach from a tree in his yard on Mendocino avenue. The peach has something of the nectarine appearance, and is said to be the earliest variety known. The flavor is most pleasing as the writer can testify from a personal knowledge.

– Press Democrat, June 21 1910

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NARY A PARK TO PLAY IN

Wanna see a man throw a temper tantrum? Return to 1912 and ask Ernest Finley for directions to the park.

Oooooh, but Mr. Finley was steaming mad that spring, as Santa Rosa voters narrowly rejected a bond measure that would have purchased land for the city’s very first public park, just a few blocks east of downtown.

Finley, editor and publisher of the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa’s tireless Chamber of Commerce booster, wanted that park with a passion. It stuck in his craw that the town did not have a single one, while Sebastopol had a park, Petaluma had three and even tiny Graton had a park, complete with a dance floor and a funky little zoo that held monkeys and a bear.

“A public park is a great attraction,” he told readers in one of several editorials in the months ahead of the May, 1912 vote. “The opportunity is now presented whereby this city can secure one of the finest public parks in California. There is no good reason why there should be any opposition whatever to the plan as now proposed.” The PD also printed supportive letters to the editor, articles with testimonials of support from bankers, pastors and other movers ‘n’ shakers including Luther Burbank.

The property for sale is the current location of the Santa Rosa Middle School on the south side of College Avenue, between E street and Brookwood Ave. At the time it was only the overgrown lot that had been the Pacific Methodist College a couple of decades earlier. Finley’s father had been president of that school for many years; now he was on his deathbed – and was soon to pass away, about five weeks after the bond vote – so Ernest had a personal reason to see it preserved and beautified.

“Even in its wholly neglected state – as it has been for many years – the great trees growing untrained and wild, the place is attractive,” wrote “Santa Rosan” to the Press Democrat. “And situated in the center of the city that forest grove is a rare feature – the pride of the citizens and the wonder of strangers, who cannot understand how it happens that those woods, under private ownership, have been long conserved.”

Newton V. V. Smyth, the former City Engineer, wrote up a survey for the PD. He found there were large pines and cypress 35 years old or more with “a channel of an old creek gracefully winding its way through the tract.” He cataloged over 20 large oak trees – several being live oaks – and scores of ornamental trees. He explained, “Years ago, in the flourishing days of the Pacific Methodist College, there was a call for donation of trees. There was a liberal response and native trees of the state were sent in great variety.”

The property was then owned by Mrs. Ella Hershey of Woodland, whose late husband David had been a trustee of the Methodist College. (I find no other Sonoma County connection for them.) It’s unclear when the college building was demolished, but Hershey subdivided the land into 51 building lots in 1892. One of Finley’s editorials explained the town had first approached her about selling three years prior, and the price now on the table was $50,000.

Even though that was about the market rate should the property be developed, Finley rattled on for two months about what a swell deal it was. “It figures something like 57 cents on each thousand dollars” of a property’s assessment, he assured homeowners. “If the tract under consideration is not secured now, it will be cut up and sold off in lots, and then it will forever be too late,” he ominously warned.

Nor was Finley above twisting facts; he consistently claimed it was ten acres although it was actually under nine. He praised the heritage trees even as he proposed it become a recreational area that would necessitate chopping most of them down: “An old abandoned water-course winds its way through the grounds, and with little trouble or expense this might be converted into a beautiful lake for boating. Lawn tennis courts, ball grounds, swings, etc.”

In the Press Democrat never was heard a discouraging word; all that wonderfulness would cost only $50,000 over 25 years at five percent interest. It was left to the Santa Rosa Republican to print an open letter from Mayor John Mercier, who took no position on approval. His Honor pointed out it actually would be quite a bit more expensive and by the end of the bond Santa Rosa would have paid $32,500 in interest. Although Finley promised “the Woman’s Improvement Club has offered to take charge of the work of beautifying the place,” the mayor pointed out there would be a conservative estimate of $10,000 for buildings and other basic improvements. Add in at least $2,000 a year for utilities and general upkeep and the total cost of the park would be a minimum of $142,500 – well over $3 million today.

As voting day approached, the PD regularly used the front page to print endorsements or to report supporting events. On May Day picnic the school district commandeered the grounds, with a thousand children putting on a show, singing and folk dancing along with a maypole, exhibition garland weaving and “Froebelian* nature games.”

The Rose Carnival was coming up and there was an elaborate rose and flower show presented under a tent on Exchange Avenue – the predecessor to our county fair Hall of Flowers. The paper featured a description of one exhibit which was a little park model, complete with a cage of canary “songbirds:”

It is replete with walks, and trees, a “zoo,” and the other alluring possibilities of a park. The idea is suggested by the fact that on next Tuesday Santa Rosa will vote whether she wishes to take a forward step in the march of progress and secure a public park or whether she is willing to miss one of the greatest public improvements any city of its size should acquire.

And then, voting day: With two-thirds needed to carry, it lost by 48 votes, 1243 to 689.

At first, Finley was gracious: “The Woman’s Improvement Club deserves much credit for the magnificent fight,” the PD reported. “Poll lists were checked up and a score of autos were kept running all over town to secure women or men voters, and get them to the polls.”

A couple of days later, Angry Ernest crawled out. He damned the wards south of the Creek (blue collar workers) and west of the train station (the Italian neighborhood) for the bond’s failure. They made a “grave mistake” in not voting for the bond, Finley barked, and he thought they selfishly opposed it because the park was too far away. “It is manifestly impossible to put the park in front of everybody’s property. Park sites have to be taken where we find them.” Finley did not even acknowledge these were the poorest parts of town and additional property taxes would be a disproportionately greater burden. Nor did he consider those residents might not feel welcome in the upper Fourth street/MacDonald Ave neighborhood where wealthy people like Ernest Finley lived. Italian kids often didn’t even venture downtown until they were eight or ten, Gaye LeBaron wrote in her history of 20th century Santa Rosa.

Finley rejected the outcome calling upon the mayor and city council to promptly hold another vote or otherwise “to see that some way is found, and speedily, to have the expressed wishes of the people complied with.” But nothing came of his hopes to subvert the democratic process and the park issue seemed dead, at least for the immediate future.

Then, Act II: Upstep the women.

Have you heard the latest? Four fine parks and a city playground, and a civic center on the banks of the creek! These are the things that are coming to Santa Rosa. The women are in the saddle, and their mandate has gone forth. Civic improvement is in the air, and the odor of the rose and the vine comes wafted in every wind. The music of merry childhood’s happy voices is borne on every breeze. The wand of progress is being waved over our city and soldiers of progress are on the march, and the silurians must join the army or be run over by the bandwagon.

That was the intro to a guest column in the Press Democrat authored by attorney Thomas J. Butts. Read his essay – transcribed below – and decide for yourself if it’s a witty W. C. Fields-like jape or the work of someone a little unhinged.

I can only guess what Butts meant by “Silurians” (which he mentions twice) except that was part of the Paleozoic Era, about 430 million years ago; maybe he was suggesting park opponents didn’t have the smarts of a trilobite. He certainly did suggest they would be better off dead: “…as time flows on, one by one of these gentlemen will fall away from the busy walks of life and be borne away to the Silent City to the cold and small room that is the last quiet resting place of each and all.”

With all his chatter about Silurians and the history of old bridges, Butts never got around to mentioning the actual subject of his essay – that the Woman’s Improvement Club was to hold a public meeting in a few days and announce a proposal for not one, but several parks.

Apparently the Club members kept mum about their plans; Butts’ column in the PD and two front page stories in the Republican suggest speculation was rife. And Santa Rosans had years’ worth of park ideas – the old college grounds proposal was only the most recent to fail. Rehashed were three general ideas:

* THE CIVIC CENTER   Santa Rosa also lacked a city hall, so why not combine a park with an administration building? That idea last came up when the Lebanon Hotel was for sale in 1909. The gardens surrounding the place were magnificent, but apparently the deal-killer was figuring out what to do with its 30-room mansion. No bond was ever proposed.

 

* THE WATER PARK   It was often suggested to make a park on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek or dam the waterway; the most ambitious was the attempt to create Lake Santa Rosa in 1910. A property owner sued over the dam constructed by enthusiasts (lawyer Butts represented the lake builders) and it was dismantled after a couple of months.

 

* THE CLEANED-UP DISTRICT   Be it water park, civic center or plain ol’ playgrounds, a park was sometimes mentioned as an excuse to wipe out the red light district on First street and Santa Rosa’s tiny Chinatown on Second. During the 1908 mayoral election, the winning candidate unveiled an election eve surprise by announcing he had options to buy part of the tenderloin nearest the creek and would (somehow) turn it into a park. Nothing happened; the announcement was just a dirty political trick.

It’s surprising so much of the speculation in 1912 was centered on the tenderloin/Chinatown area – surprising, in part, because the red light district was supposedly abolished in 1909, and these mentions are the first real proof the ladies were indeed still around. And given some of those properties were owned by Santa Rosa’s wealthiest good ol’ boys (here’s looking at you, Con Shea) it’s also surprising to find voices calling for the town to just grab them if the owners were not willing to sell. From the Republican newspaper:

It is proposed to purchase the two blocks occupied by Chinatown and the property of the red light district, if this can be done at a reasonable figure. Failing in this, it is proposed to bring condemnation proceedings to secure the property…It is undeniable that Chinatown is an eyesore in its present location and if it could be removed it would be a splendid idea.

With all that buzz, the Woman’s Improvement Club meeting drew a large audience. Dozens spoke, but the main presentation was by Walter F. Price, a local realtor who was best known as an ineffectual and likely corrupt former state senator. According to the Republican, “Mr. Price stated that he had willingly assisted the ladies of the Improvement Club in obtaining a list of available properties for park purposes. This he did free of cost.” Methinks he too loudly proclaimed his charity, and there were certain to be dollars in his pocket should the deal actually go through.

Price’s grand solution included the old college grounds (natch) plus three other properties: One near the racetrack (meaning the fairgrounds), another apparently the current location of Olive Park, and one downwind to the slaughterhouse on West College. The three new offerings were simply large-ish vacant lots with no attractive features except for the future Olive Park, adjacent to Santa Rosa Creek – although in that era it was infamous for being the worst smelling part of the waterway because it was immediately downstream from the town’s worst polluters. It was a token nod to the neighborhoods which had voted against the bond a few months earlier. And the price tag for that terrrrrrific deal was $62,750.

The next morning the leaders of the Improvement Club held a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, and you can bet Finley was at the table. After a “thorough talking over” it was decided to ask the City Council for a new bond election, this time requesting $75,000, apparently because they thought the voters who didn’t want to approve a $50K bond would jump at the chance to pay considerably more.

As Dear Reader can probably guess: Thus endeth another chapter in the Santa Rosa Park Saga.

Looking in about a year later, we find nothing had happened to the old college grounds since the vote, despite Finley’s dire warning it would be otherwise sold to developers. An article in the Republican noted the property was in “unkept, unkempt condition” and being used as a dumping ground. “The fine park is getting filled with rubbish; old cans by the cartload are being brought from a distance and dumped into the grounds; all of which is contrary to city ordinances, made and provided.”

In his later character sketches of Santa Rosans, Ernest Finley mentioned attorney Butts went on to create an ad hoc “South Side Park,” but further details are not known (although I’ll bet he had a “Silurians keep out” sign there somewhere). It wouldn’t be until 1922 that Santa Rosa officially created a public park, and it was only a picnic area in an unused part of the city’s reservoir site, just west of Spring Lake.

* Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852) created the concept of kindergarten as part of his view that children learned best through play and interacting with their surroundings. It is similar in some ways to the later Montessori Method but less rigid, such as encouraging children to play games for physical exercise instead of performing gymnastics. Where a Montessori teacher might instruct a child “the sky is blue,” a Froebelian might ask a child to “find things the color of the sky.” A modern comparison of the methods can be found here and a 1912 analysis (when the Montessori Method was very new) is available here.
SANTA ROSA’S PUBLIC PARK

All sorts of absurd reports have been circulated regarding the terms of the agreement under which it is proposed for purchase the old College grounds for a public park, and for the benefit of its readers The Press Democrat publishes the text of the agreement in full…

…The possibilities of the site from an artistic standpoint are immense. A great number of giant oaks, to say nothing of many large sycamore and other trees, planted there thirty-five or forty years ago, already give the grounds the appearance of a park. An old abandoned water-course winds its way through the grounds, and with little trouble or expense this might be converted into a beautiful lake for boating. Lawn tennis courts, ball grounds, swings, etc., etc., could all be provided and the place made a public playground for all the people. As the Woman’s Improvement Club has offered to take charge of the work of beautifying the place, the initial cost of purchase is all that would have to be met at this time.

The price put upon the property by the owners is entirely reasonable, in our opinion, if we take into consideration that it is to be devoted to park purposes. Viewed in this light the many beautiful trees, some of which have been growing for hundreds of years, all possess an actual and tangible value, as does even the old abandoned water-course. There are fifty-two building lots contained in the tract. The present owners purchased the property more than twenty years ago for $20,000. Allowing them five per cent interest on the investment and adding what they have paid out in taxes and for street work, etc., the property has cost them several thousand dollars more than they are now offering to sell it for.

…[History of contacts with the owner]…

…The bonds are to run twenty-five years, and the increase in the tax rate will be so slight that nobody will ever know there has been an increase. It figures something like 57 cents on each thousand dollars, taking the present assessment value of property within the city limits as a basis…

…Every town of any consequence has a public park. Santa Rosa has none. A public park is a great attraction. The opportunity is now presented whereby this city can secure one of the finest public parks in California. There is no good reason why there should be any opposition whatever to the plan as now proposed. If the tract under consideration is not secured now, it will be cut up and sold off in lots, and then it will forever be too late. The opportunity will have passed.

This is our chance to secure a public park and secure a good one. We must not let the opportunity go by.

Work for the public park!

– Press Democrat editorial, April 25, 1912
SANTA ROSA GIRLS DESIGN “PARK” FOR ROSE SHOW

The Misses Ruth and Gladys Hodgson have a striking and artistic exhibit in the Rose Show on Exchange avenue. It is replete with walks, and trees, a “zoo,” and the other alluring possibilities of a park. The idea is suggested by the fact that on next Tuesday Santa Rosa will vote whether she wishes to take a forward step in the march of progress and secure a public park or whether she is willing to miss one of the greatest public improvements any city of its size should acquire. The two charming girls who have worked out the scheme have done so faithfully with the use of trees, shrubs, mosses and other embellishments. It is certainly a delightful nook in the exhibit.

The Press Democrat mentioned most of the displays in the rose show on Thursday morning, but then only mentioned them. The display is a delight and all should see it. It is the most delightful ten cents worth you can find anywhere. Flowers and songbirds, the air burdened with the sweetest perfume, and the superb notes of the canaries, the waterfall and the fountain splashing in all the setting of the woodland. The choice gardens and conservatory blossoms blend in color and significant with the wild variety of the woodland…

– Press Democrat, May 3, 1912
SANTA ROSA’S PARKS
By T. J. Butts

Have you heard the latest? Four fine parks and a city playground, and a civic center on the banks of the creek! These are the things that are coming to Santa Rosa. The women are in the saddle, and their mandate has gone forth. Civic improvement is in the air, and the odor of the rose and the vine comes wafted in every wind. The music of merry childhood’s happy voices is borne on every breeze. The wand of progress is being waved over our city and soldiers of progress are on the march, and the silurians must join the army or be run over by the bandwagon.

Santa Rosa can no longer maintain her prestige as one of the most beautiful cities on the Coast unless we do something to justify that reputation. Nature has done much for this city, but the people have done little towards keeping the city beautiful. I came to this city forty-four years ago. At that time it had a most beautiful park in the center of the town. But the Silurians of that day, whose highest conception of the Garden of Eden was that of a “truck patch” and a place dedicated to the growing of beets and cabbage, gave it away to keep from taking care of it.

I was in Santa Rosa when the first iron bridge in the state was built over the creek on Main Street. It had been the custom up to that time for farmers to drive down the bank and ford the creek when coming to town instead of crossing the old wooden bridge. When the matter of building the new bridge came up before the Board of Supervisors, one old gentleman, who was a well-known man in this town and was a trustee of one of the colleges here went before the Board to protest against the bridge, and in his speech he said:

“We don’t need no bridge and if you put that bridge thar, whar are ye goin’ to set yer tire, and whar are you goin’ to water yer critter?”

We find the same class among us today, and when the park question comes up they will say: “We don’t need no park, there is room enough for us on the benches in front of the Court House.”

But these gentlemen will not be compelled to wear out their seats of their trousers on those old benches much longer.

The Woman’s Improvement Club is going to provide parks for this city, where these same gentlemen may rest under the shade of the trees, drink in the fragrance of a million flowers while they figure their interest and knock all civic improvements.

And just here recurs the thought that as time flows on, one by one of these gentlemen will fall away from the busy walks of life and be borne away to the Silent City to the cold and small room that is the last quiet resting place of each and all. Their graves may not be marked by monument or stone, but posterity will not be deprived of the satisfaction of knowing that they are dead.

It was an old saying that “If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the mountain.” And now the mandate has gone forth that if the parks will not come to Santa Rosa, the women of Santa Rosa will go after the parks. They have started already. They are now on the way with a whoop. So, Mr. Reader, just keep your eye on the women, and you will see them bring home the bacon.

– Press Democrat, September 22, 1912
MASS MEETING UNANIMOUSLY FAVORED PUBLIC PARKS
Great Enthusiasm Shown At The Meeting Thursday Night

Not a voice was raised against public parks at the large mass meeting held in Judge Emmet Seawell’s court room Thursday evening, inder the auspices of the Woman’s Improvement Club…

…Four pieces of property that could be secured as park sites were suggested by Walter F. Price. These would cost the city $62,750. Mr. Price stated that he had willingly assisted the ladies of the Improvement Club in obtaining a list of available properties for park purposes. This he did free of cost.

The list he mention consisted of the old Pacific Methodist College grounds at College avenue, North, Fifth and King streets, price $50,000; a block of land bounded by Piner [sic – it was Pine street], Brown and Oak streets, price $4750; land at Orange and Railroad streets on the south bank of Santa Rosa creek, price $2000; and a block on College avenue, between Cleveland and Ripley streets, price $10,000, or portions of this lot could be had at $5000 or $6000 respectfully.

A. H. Donovan stated that M. Menihan of Cloverdale had written to him regarding the Menihan property bounded by A, Seventh and Washington streets, which at one time was greatly urged for a park site. This letter came from the owner unsolicited and stated that the price on the property had been reduced from its former price of $20,000 to $18,000 now, the owners being desirous to sell.

A. R. Buckner and others of the vicinity southeast from the court house presented a plan that they are working on that they believe will prove feasible for a public park proposition in that vicinity.

Mrs. Metzger spoke, setting the price on her property at Washington and Morgan streets at $12,000. She had been requested to set a price on that piece of property. Mrs. Metzger was in favor of the city owning several parks in different parts of the city.

Park Along Creek

In response to a call from the chair Attorney Frances McG Martin spoke eloquently of the possibilities of a park on the banks of Santa Rosa creek. She thought that by cleaning up the property adjoining the creek and clearing away the houses up to second street in and near to the Burbank property, would be an ideal park site and would clean out Chinatown. Mrs. Martin also favored parks in other parts of the city.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  September 27, 1912
LET THE CITY CARE FOR THE COLLEGE PARK

The Presbyterian Missionary Society held its annual meeting and dinner Tuesday under the pine trees in the old College park. This wooded block in the heart of the city, even in its unkept, unkempt condition, is an ideal place for any kind of an outing, be it baseball game, Maypole dance, or doll party. The Baptist congregation this summer during the repairing of their church building have held Sunday services under those noble trees. Country visitors in the city frequently lunch and rest in that shade.

In view of this convenience, would it not be a fair return for the city to have some care over this big vacant lot? The fine park is getting filled with rubbish; old cans by the cartload are being brought from a distance and dumped into the grounds; all of which is contrary to city ordinances, made and provided. The health officer might there find some problems for solution. By all means, if the city cannot buy the park, let it care for that splendid place.

– Santa Rosa Republican,  August 13, 1913

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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED

Like zombies they stumbled towards courthouse square in downtown Santa Rosa as county workers, already buried under great piles of documents dumped upon them, struggled bravely on with forlorn hopes that someday the onslaught might somehow end.

Do I exaggerate? Only a little; sans the “zombie” flourish – which, as you’ll soon learn becomes weirdly apropos later – that description is true to the spirit of how the Press Democrat described the situation in the beleaguered County Recorder’s office during the spring of 1912:

The recording of these deeds has thrown Recorder Nagle and his force away behind with the regular work…Recorder Nagle is now receiving many letters of inquiry from many States in the Union, and especially has this been so during the past few days. It is impossible for him to answer all the letters that come. They arrive in stacks. Two thirds of the heavy mail received at the Recorder’s office Thursday was made up of these deeds…

At issue were deeds to Sonoma County property which were often won in far-away raffles or drawings for a lucky admission ticket at a nickelodeon movie theater. Other local parcels were sold by real estate hustlers who printed up brochures promising summers spent at a Sonoma County vacation home “roaming through the Redwoods, over the forest-clad hills or along the side of rippling streams, watching and listening to the tumbling falls,” or trying ones luck at tempting “the elusive mountain trout from its hiding place in the shady woodland pools.” All for as little as $10/acre.

It was a con game, or course, but probably not the kind you suspect. This was actual land – albeit divided up in so-called “paper subdivisions” which only existed on maps. Rarely surveyed and often drawn up as drafting school exercises, the maps presented neat rectangular grids, usually of parcels 25 by 100 feet, that followed streets with charming names: “Cherry Creek Boulevard,” or “Walnut way.” In reality, the lots were often on steep, unbuildable hillsides where no streets would ever wind around those impassible slopes. Another name for these subdivisions is “wildcat” – they were on land only wildcats roamed.

As the 1912 Press Democrat reported, County Recorder Fred Nagle found himself under siege by people from out of the area who honestly believed they would soon be moving to California’s Eden. “Letters from other counties, from British Columbia, from Nevada, from Arizona, from Oregon and Washington are pouring in to the Recorder, the Assessor, the Tax Collector and to other officials of Sonoma, pleading for information regarding these peculiar transactions,” historian Tom Gregory wrote in a letter to the PD.

One man wrote to ask if the San Francisco trolley ran out to “Cloverdale Heights.” A guy from Albuquerque came out looking for his lot near the town of “Russian River” and someone from Denver stopped by the Recorder’s office to record his deed and left disgusted that he had been tricked into also buying another lot adjacent to the phony homesite he won with his “lucky number.”

But Recorder Nagle and his staff weren’t only kept busy answering letters and fielding long-distance phone calls; they were actually busily recording deeds for those unusable chunks of land because the new owner had sent the county the $6.50 recording fee. “The recording of these deeds has thrown Recorder Nagle and his force away behind with the regular work,” reported the PD, noting the volume was particularly harmful because the county was then at the start of a legitimate real estate boom.

While the scam first attracted attention in 1912, that was by no means the end of it; wildcat lots continued to be given away or sold for years to come. Had even a teensy portion of these properties been developed, Sonoma county would be a far different place today. With over 15,000 of these lots in the Cazadero vicinity alone, “Cazadero Woodlands” and the other subdivisions would have been the largest city north of San Francisco – over five times the size of Santa Rosa at the time.

Virtually none of this land was developed, of course, and most buyers simply stopped paying taxes when they realized they had been swindled, so the land went back to the county or state. But holding on to the land was easy, too; the property tax was almost nothing and sometimes Uncle Fletcher’s mysterious property out in California was handed down. Taxes paid or not, there always has been a steady trickle of people coming in to the Assessor’s office with a yellowed slip of paper to enquire whether it showed they had a secret forgotten fortune. The answer was always: No.

That is, until resurrection day.

Flash forward sixty years as California enacts a minor tweak to the law to “let property owners know where they stand.” Say you inherited 100 acres handed down in the family from great-great-grandpa. He bought half of it from a neighbor in the 1880s, tore down the separating fence and farmed it all as a single plot. Did you inherit two parcels or one? According to the new law, you owned two – as long as some paperwork called an “administrative certificate of compliance” was obtained from the county. Sounds fair, right?

But that was just the beginning. State law also decreed anyone with a deed had the right to reclaim property lost in tax default by paying all the back taxes due. Thus whomever had the deed to Uncle Fletcher’s worthless little parcel could own it again. That deed-holder could then go to the county to obtain one of those administrative certificates. And with that in hand, the little parcel, once just part of a grid on an old and useless map, sprang into life as a duly-recognized legal property that could be sold – or developed.

‘Turns out quite a bit had happened since back in the day when poor old Fred Nagle was grumbling about the futility of recording all those worthless paper lots – namely, it wasn’t so certain the land was still worthless. There were now paved roads and utilities available in once wild ‘n’ wooly places like Cazadero and Dry Creek, and modern construction techniques made it possible to build on places that would have been impossible when the maps were drawn. At the same time all Sonoma county property values were skyrocketing in the 1980s, in large part because there were strict zoning restrictions on new land development – regulations that didn’t apply to Uncle Fletcher’s movie theater prize, once it was awarded a certificate of compliance.

In the early 1990s I wrote often about the fallout from the certificate process for the old E.I.R. newspaper, California Lawyer magazine, and other publications, and much of what follows is lifted from those articles. I found planners fearful the certificates would destroy Sonoma county agriculture, turning the rural areas into a crazy quilt of McMansion subdivisions, far from sewer lines, modern roads, and other infrastructure needed for their support. And under state law, the county was powerless to stop it. “It’s like ‘Night of the Living Dead,'” one county planner grimly joked to me, “all of these old properties are rising from the grave.”

They had reason to fear: There were an estimated 75,000 lots in this county that could be resurrected by certificates. Recorder Fred and his successors had been busy, indeed.

Making matters worse, developers were always two giant steps ahead of the county. Uncle Fletcher’s bungalow-sized parcel wasn’t worth developing by itself – but having deeds for almost every parcel in his entire wildcat subdivision was a different story. In the 1980s and early 1990s there were companies formed in Sonoma county to search out descendants of all those people who once sent the county that $6.50 registration fee. It was no easy task; the average size of these wildcat subdivisions was over 800 lots, according to a county memo. The game of find-the-heir was like a marathon scavenger hunt – collect ’em all to win the prize.

Was it worth all that work? You bet; Mr. Developer could then strut through the doors of the county planning department pushing a wheelbarrow full of documents – one infamous submission included over 25 pounds of paperwork – and declare he had the rights to build a mammoth project. As the parcels were recognized as having existed since 1912 (or whenever), his project superseded all modern rules and environmental protections. It didn’t matter if the land was in an agricultural preserve or community greenbelt; it didn’t matter whether the land could pass a septic “perc” test to allow homeowners the luxury of flush toilets. It even didn’t matter whether the property had reasonable access. In a scandalous 1992 application, a developer claimed two hundred certificates on a remote, 3,000 ft. elevation hilltop near the Geysers where the only access was Pine Flat Road, terrifyingly steep and scarcely wider than a private driveway.

But the developers never proposed following the original subdivision layout on the old maps; those were just grid lines, remember, with no relation to actual terrain. No, the certificates of compliance were just bargaining chips. After paperwork for the certificates were filed, developers would follow by requesting “lot-line adjustments,” allowing them to cluster lots on the best parts of the land and build as many homes as possible. This also allowed developers to posture as the good guy while negotiating with the county – “Hey, I have 500 certificates, but I’m asking permission to build only 150 houses.”

And in some cases, the threat of possible certificates was all a developer needed. The county was so worried about development at the peak of Pine Flat Road that the Open Space District bought it. No paperwork was filed applying for certificates on the supposed 200 parcels, although the Sonoma Land Trust and the developer privately agreed he could probably get at least 27 recognized.

Sonoma county led the legal fight against the certificate process for more than three decades. Details would probably bore most readers here, but it was mostly a story of disheartening defeats. The county adopted a cutoff date of 1929, which was the year the Subdivision Map Act was passed in the state. That law required counties to have regulations and local ordinances defining how subdivision should be done, and the county reasoned that properties after that year would at least have been surveyed or otherwise proven to be real. But a few months later the Attorney General slapped that rule down, leaving all doors open.

Only since the year 2001 has the pendulum has begun swinging back to local control. In a landmark case involving land near Sebastopol, the state Supreme Court ruled that old maps weren’t necessarily legitimate simply because they existed, and certainly were no justification for bypassing current rules and regs. Another court decision ruled against a Petaluma developer and has apparently quashed the hopes of anyone using a paper subdivision map created prior to 1929. So at long last, the fake subdivisions seem to be dead and buried.

The long arc of this story is amazing, if you ponder a moment on it: A 1912 movie ticket sold in Kansas became part of a magic talisman that would allow its bearer immunity to laws in California, 70 or 80 or 90 years later. Robert Ripley might have enjoyed writing it up for his Believe It Or Not! series. He liked to tell unbelievable stories.

BUNGALOW LOTS GO WITH SHOW
Rushing Business Being Carried On by Numerous Nickelodeons Throughout the Country

Editor Press Democrat: The “Bungalow Site Industry” in Sonoma county goes merrily on, and the “Fairy Sylvan Resorts” where the fairies may resort after they have fallen to the “game” and have come through with the $6.50 or other cash for the deed to the lot are going just as fast as the “drawings” can be drawn. Imperial Sonoma has fallen into hard lines, and her name is being used abroad to extract coin from the “easy” ones. The game is a little, simple thing–a sweet little simple thing. Somebody files a map–calls his tract by a catchy name–offers his lots by divers and lottery-ish methods, and the fish rises to the bait. These “opportunities” are not given generally to the public in Sonoma county, but at a distance. Letters from other counties, from British Columbia, from Nevada, from Arizona, from Oregon and Washington are pouring in to the Recorder, the Assessor, the Tax Collector and to other officials of Sonoma, pleading for information regarding these peculiar transactions. The character of the victims may be determined by the tenor of these letters–they are poor, and in many instances, illiterate, just the class of persons that may fall to such a cheap skin-game as this…

…And the location where these “Sharks” are doing their “best” work strike one as peculiar. Around Sacramento, where a local real land-boom is on, the victims are buying $6.50  mirage bungalow site in Sonoma county; in Los Angeles–where every prospect pleases (or is advertised to please) and every man is not vile–they are sending their six-fifty deeds to the county for record. A man in Albuquerque, N. M., in a raffle won a six-shooter, and with his “win” was a lot–20×40 feet–somewhere in the neighborhood of “Russian River,” Sonoma county. After he had dropped eight or ten dollars in the game, he loaded the other portion of his winnings and went gunning for the “lot” sharp. He is now putting in his leisure time cussing Sonoma county, Cal., and yet admiring the scheme that beat him–an old, seasoned territorial sport–so easily.

Among the letters the County Recorder receives daily is one he found in his mail yesterday from Oregon City, Or., in which the writer says he won at a Nickelodeon in his city a lot in this county and he wants to know if the property is worth the $6.50. D. Andersen–that’s his name–(can anybody give him the information?) inclosed with his note of inquiry a handbill of the show describing the mythical lot, and that description is a gem: “Two bubbling, dashing, splashing, crashing, like the famous waters that come down at Lodore[,] branches of Russian River flow the idealic [sic] place; it is on the Northwestern Pacific line, while Healdsburg, a city of over 4,000 inhabitants, is not; Santa Rosa, “the ideal city of California” and Luther Burbank, “the plant wizzard,” (with two z’s) are invoked to further the “boost.” And it ends up with a request to “Come Along and Bring the Children and take Advantage of Thes FREE DRAWINGS and Secure a Home Site at this Famous Resort in Sonoma County, where a Chance is Given Away ABSOLUTELY FREE With Each Ticket.”

The time has come to stop this business. If the Board of Supervisors, or a Grand Jury of this county cannot do something to discourage the traffic, the newspapers should take the matter up. Every exchange should reprint this article, and spread the tiding abroad that this cheap, cheap game may be ended. Our splendid county, with her grand scenic features, is getting the advertising she does not deserve, and does not want. Sonoma wants “everybody to come along and bring the children,” but she does not want the bunkoed before they get here.

Tom Gregory.
Santa Rosa, Feb. 9, 1912.

– Press Democrat, February 10, 1912
MANY MYTHICAL LOTS ARE SOLD
“Cloverdale Heights” a Rugged Piece of Hill Not Yet Surveyed, They Say

From Cloverdale comes another complaint of the manner in which people are being duped all over the State and in adjoining states by the sale of lots in worthless tracts.

Mention of what looks like near fraud, at least has been made from time to time in the Press Democrat in connection with the immense amount of work entailed at the office of County Recorder Fred Nagle by the recording of deeds to lots given away with tickets at moving picture shows in different parts of the State. The following from the Cloverdale “Reveille” will be read with interest:

Cloverdale business men have the last several days received letters from parties making inquiries regarding “Cloverdale Heights” and another piece of property which bears the rather high sounding title of “Cloverdale Terrace.” These inquiries, which come from San Francisco and other cities, some from as far as Kansas City, Mo., are from people who have invested small sums of money under the delusions that they were securing a fine summer home overlooking Cloverdale. In some instances the inquiries show a lack of information regarding the location of Cloverdale, evidently believing the “Orange City” is a suburb of San Francisco and connected with the metropolis by cable or trolley car. The Reveille is informed that the Recorder’s office is kept busy placing deeds on record to lots in the above named tracts. As near as can be learned “Cloverdale Heights” is nothing more than a rugged piece of land located about three miles northwest of Cloverdale via air line, with no road leading to the land, except an old untraveled one new unfit for use. Until sold a short time ago it was owned by Erik Angler, who took it up as a homestead some years ago.

– Press Democrat, April 13, 1912

MANY PEOPLE STILL BITING ON MOVING PICTURE TICKET LOTS
“Does San Francisco Street Car Line Run Out to Cloverdale Heights?” Asks One Enquirer

Wouldn’t this jar you?

“Will you tell me if the San Francisco electric car system runs to the place?” asks an inquirer in a letter for information about Cloverdale Heights, one of the rock-bound “paradises” for which tickets are being “given away” in chances in moving picture houses, presumably all over the country. This inquiry came from a lot “winner” in Kansas City.

Such a big laugh. And yet it is quite possible that the inquirer had been led to believe that the beautiful city of Cloverdale was located on the electric car system of San Francisco, when in reality it is many miles away and on the line of the Northwestern Pacific. Some time since the Cloverdale people considered the taking of some steps to prevent deception practiced upon unsuspecting people by such clap-trap as the proposition mentioned.

The other day a well-known citizen of Cloverdale called at the office of County Recorder Fred G. Nagle to ask where the “Heights” were located, and was surprised to find that such a place really existed.

Still They Come

Stacks of deeds are still being received at the Recorder’s office from lot owners in the several plots that are being handled in different parts of Sonoma county by means of the moving picture house tickets. The plan has been explained several times in this and other papers. But people are still biting. The recording of these deeds has thrown Recorder Nagle and his force away behind with the regular work. The recording of legitimate transactions has been very heavy for months on account of the activity in the realty business and the many new settlers who are coming to the county and purchasing homes.

Came From Denver

A few days ago a man came to Recorder Nagle’s office. He had traveled to Sonoma county from Denver, Colorado, to inspect the lots he had become heir to through holding “a lucky number.” In addition, he had been induced to purchase an adjoining lot. It cost him his time and about $200 to come to the “ideal summer site.” He turned back disgusted and went home.

The plan has progressed far beyond the boundaries of California, as this instance indicates. Recorder Nagle is now receiving many letters of inquiry from many States in the Union, and especially has this been so during the past few days. It is impossible for him to answer all the letters that come. They arrive in stacks. Two thirds of the heavy mail received at the Recorder’s office Thursday was made up of these deeds to lots.

As much as possible, Recorder Nagle, County Assessor Frank E. Dowd, and the newspapers of this city and county have been sending broadcast that the great county of Sonoma, with its unequaled resources and matchless climate, has nothing whatever to do with this false boom of practically worthless property. It could all be avoided if people would reason out the improbability of securing for the song of a few dollars–$6.50 for the deed–must be in the nature of a catch for an easy mark.

– Press Democrat, May 24, 1912

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