Santa Rosa was quite the saloon town in the early 20th century, with 30 bars (or so) downtown, mostly on Fourth St. between Railroad Square and Courthouse Square. It was also a smoker’s paradise, with about a half dozen tobacco stores along the same route. And in each bar, each smoke shop, were slot machines where a guy could plunk in a nickel and gamble for cigars.

Discussed here earlier was a loopy 1906 court ruling that declared a slot machine was a “banking device” as long as the payout was in cigars, beer, gum, or anything but cash. The item transcribed below provides details of the “house rules” that prevailed in Santa Rosa, showing clearly that the barkeep or smoke shop owner had an active hands-on role similar to a casino dealer, allowing a gambler to ask the proprietor for double-down bets. That’s a big difference from passively having a machine on the side of the counter.

Card gambling in the cigar shops was also common, judging from a long debate in 1907 about whether tables should be banned in Healdsburg, but nothing specific about poker games appeared in the papers about Santa Rosa. But after the quake rebuilding settled down, it was likely still somewhat a “wide-open town,” as earlier revealed by a 1905 exposé in the Santa Rosa Republican.

After Today Local Cigar Dealers Will No Longer Pay on Queens, or Allow Drawing to Straights or Flushes–The Reason Why

In anticipation of the proposed license on slot machines, a new schedule goes into effect at the cigar stores tomorrow. No more will two Queens be good for a rope [cigar], and after today drawing to straights and flushes will be a thing of the past. It is the same old story–the “consumer pays the tax.” The city has decided to license the slot machines, and the odds are to be changed so that the dear public will pay the license fee.

Although the printed schedule on the face of the machines only calls for payment when a pair of Kings or better appears, it has been the local custom to pay on the appearance of Queens. At one time, before the shake, the local dealers even paid on Jacks. It has also been the vogue here to allow customers who had made a play and secured all but one of a straight or flush to “draw” to the same upon payment of an extra nickel. Thus, if a customer who had four clubs and wanted a fifth should elect to pay for the privilege he was allowed to try again, the appearance of a club in the designated spot on the second turn being held to complete the flush and being regarded as equivalent to having drawn all five clubs on the first play. But the dealers say they are “too much loser” to keep this up, now that each machine is to be taxed $5 per quarter by the municipality. The regular printed schedule is to apply from now on.

– Press Democrat, March 10, 1907

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Hard to believe today, but a century ago the courts couldn’t settle on a legal definition of gambling. Were you really placing a bet if you didn’t hope to win money – but instead a beer, a handful of cigars, or even a cheek full of bubblegum? Apparently not, according to the 1906 Court of Appeals, ruling that a Petaluma man was innocent of a crime for dropping his nickel in a slot machine that could not give him hard cash in winnings.

The slot machines in question were apparently the sort invented in 1891. For a nickel, the five drums in the machine would spin, each holding the picture of ten playing cards. If the wheels stopped on a combination that displayed a winning poker hand, the bartender handed over a few cigars as the payout. According to several gambling history web sites – which freely plagiarize from each other, with never an original source cited – high-ranking cards were routinely removed from the drums, making a big jackpot impossible.

(Image courtesy SlotsDoc.com)

But because no payout was in coin, the machine was “a banking device,” according to the court. The law narrowly defined gambling as being paid in “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.” Cigars, beer, and gum, were apparently worthless in the court’s eyes.

Decision in the Slot Machine Cases by the Appelate Court Occasions Much Interest Here

In the case of C. C. Williams of Petaluma, the Appellate Court has decided that a slot machine played by the dropping of a nickel and the pressing of a lever to disclose the face of cards is a banking device, and is [not] a gambling machine. But where the machine pays in cigars or tobacco it does not fall within the inhibition of the law, the court holds…

…Williams was one of the Petalumans arrested on December 4, 1905 and fined $100. It was on the words “other representatives of value that the case rested. The Appellate Court held that according to the rules of law the words coming after the words ‘money’ and ‘checks’ means incorporated items of a similar nature, and [sic] did not embrace cigars and other merchandise.” In his opinion Justice Buckles holds as follows:

There is nothing in section 330 which prohibits gambling for cigars. It follows that the practitioner must be discharged.


Some of the points made in the opinion of Justice Buckles are set forth in the Sacramento Union as follows:

Williams was arrested for operating and conducting this machine and it was charged that a banking game was played upon it for “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.”

But there is no pretension, say the Court, that money or checks were played. It was charged that cigars are “other representatives of value.”

The machine was operated by dropping in a nickel and pressing a lever, and cigars were delivered according to a schedule of card showings. The machine was used for cigars only. The slot machine is, says Judge Buckles, a banking game. But it is not a crime to run such a device as described unless played for “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.” If played for something not included in these, it is not a crime.

What did the legislature mean by “other representatives of value?” The gaming is limited to the kinds mentioned in the law and the Court cannot extend the prohibition.

The ingenuity of man has devised a banking game in the cigar slot machine by which gambling may be carried on for property not included within “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.” There is nothing in the law which prohibits gambling for cigars, hence the prisoner must be discharged, says the Court.

– Press Democrat, August 2, 1906

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In 1905, Santa Rosa had two faces – as did its main newspaper, the Press Democrat.

On one side was the sleepy little farm town, where we all met downtown Saturday night to listen to the brass band tootling away on the courthouse balcony as we shopped, and what crime was reported in the newspaper was the likes of an occasional stolen bicycle or attempted burglary. Santa Rosa could’ve been the model for the dear little town in “The Music Man.”

But there was another Santa Rosa that was less sugar and a lot more spice. Downtown was more like a “mining camp” when there were horse races in town, and our small community had a red-light district large enough to service, well, a mining camp. Press Democrat editor Ernest L. Finley never mentioned that face of Santa Rosa, and didn’t like it when the young lions over at the Santa Rosa Republican published an exposé of the illegal gambling scene and the city’s complicity. In the weeks that followed, the saloonkeepers and others who profited from gambling attempted to intimidate or close the Republican through a subscriber and advertiser boycott. While Finley didn’t openly endorse the call to shut down his rival, he used it as an opportunity to ambush the Republican by renewing a petty feud that he had started earlier in 1905.

For twenty years or more, Santa Rosa’s nasty gambling addiction was kept out of the papers by editors like the Press Democrat’s Ernest Finley and the Republican’s Alan Lemmon. Whether they personally liked gambling (or for that matter, prostitution) is unknown; perhaps they kept mum because they feared exactly the sort of backlash from gambling interests as was faced by the new editor and publisher of the Republican. Most likely, though, the editors and town elders saw wide-spread gambling and prostitution as necessary evils to draw visitors. As transcribed in the previous post, the Sacramento Bee wrote an editorial in support of the Republican noting that this was an argument also made in the state capitol: “The same sort of talk has often been heard in Sacramento – that the majority of the residents favored gambling, at least during the State Fair and at all other times when efforts were made to draw crowds to the city.”

And the number of visitors drawn to Santa Rosa and the amount of money gambled could be substantial. Although the PD usually described racetrack attendance in generalities like “a good sized crowd,” the item below shows that even an off-season race could draw five hundred from San Francisco (that there were so many bordellos is no longer surprising) and that side bets at the racetrack could pay around double the $300 that an average American worker made at the time as an annual wage.

Yes, we had Trouble right here in our River City – With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for ‘ponies’ and ‘prostitution.’ Only we didn’t have a Harold Hill to rouse the town against it until 1905.

Meet Under Auspices of San Francisco Driving Club Proves a Success

The San Francisco Driving Club held a very successful race meet at the track of the Santa Rosa Stock Farm on Sunday afternoon and some excellent racing was witnessed by a large crowd of enthusiastic spectators. The afternoon was not devoid of sensational features and fun.

A special train brought five hundred visitors from San Francisco and a great many more swelled the crowd from this section. Owing to the oncoming of darkness two of the harness races were not finished and it was agreed to complete them and have another meet here next Sunday.

Some good time was made in the free for all, which by the way proved the most interesting event of the afternoon…five horses are entered and each owner puts up $100 apiece and the winner will take the $500 in addition to the club purse…

– Press Democrat, October 17, 1905

1905 “Wide-Open Town” Series
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