Santa Rosa was beautiful and smelled nice, a visitor from Kansas wrote; too bad the people were so awfully boring.

That pretty much sums up a travel piece written by someone named E. W. Ellis that appeared in a 1909 Kansas paper. A reader clipped the article and sent it to a local relative, who passed it on to the Santa Rosa Republican for reprint. Essays like this are rare finds and absolute treasures. What did you see while wandering around town? What scents were in the air, what sounds did you hear?

Most of all, Mr. Ellis waxed lyric about the front yard gardens: “…Every yard and garden fence is covered with a mass of creeping vines that are pink, white, yellow and red with blossoms from the size of a clover bloom to a cabbage. Many of the houses, too, are hidden behind artistically trained bowers…lofty palms, calla lilies, ferns, Shasta daisies, sweet peas, magnolias, etc., the town is filled with them.” From those yards came “the sensuous perfume of the thousands of fragrant tropical roses, honeysuckle, carnations and other blooming plants which the fresh green smell of the pine and fir prevent from becoming sickening…”

Ellis was also impressed by the number of bicycles seen around town: “Men, women and children ride wheels at all times and seasons, and they are experts, too.” Likewise remarkable to him was that Santa Rosa appeared to have no racial strife. “here are less than a dozen negroes in the town and they are members of the local churches and worship in common with the white people, being admirable citizens.” That’s a particularly important observation because the newspapers of the time rarely even mentioned African-Americans in town. (Ellis wasn’t so respectful to the Chinese community, however, writing that the flowers in their neighborhood were “to offset the odor of the garlick and other vile dishes.”)

Some of what he wrote showed that he saw Santa Rosa as an exotic place: He was surprised to find no birds around, until he was told that the surrounding fruit orchards were in season. He found it unusual that “All the restaurant dishes are without seasoning, and the signs on the wall read: ‘Patrons please pay on delivery.'” He found it odd that women did not carry parasols, supposedly because it was thought that the westerly breezes prevented freckles.

But overall, it seems that Mr. Ellis found the place a real snoozer. “Nothing apparently had ever happened in this town prior to the earthquake,” he wrote, and the people here are “living their lives away with little thought of the cares of today and none of the morrow…[as] the winds sing a drowsy requiem day after day, there is every excuse for a Rip Van Winkle existence.”

Ellis wrapped up his tour with the usual homage to Luther Burbank and the wonderful disclaimer, “all of the above statements may not be absolutely correct, but in the main they are.”

BONUS SOCIAL HISTORY NOTE: Another unmentioned fact of life in 1909 Santa Rosa was apparently the large number of stray dogs. In a letter to the Republican, a subscriber complains, “In Santa Rosa there are hundreds of tagless, worthless and often half-starved dogs, and the nuisance is growing. They prowl nightly through back yards for food…”

Tells of the Peculiarties [sic] and Objects of Interest

[The following article was clipped from a Kansas paper by a relative of a Santa Rosa resident, and sent to her with the request to know if all the claims by the article were true. It gives a good idea of what eastern visitors think of our beautiful city, and with the exception of a few statements, viz., that Santa Rosans are sleepy and do not appreciate their blessings, we heartily agree with all the writer has said.–Ed.]

Much has appeared in the Kansas papers of the  merits and demerits of California, and our people as a whole are fairly well acquainted with the climatic conditions and health-giving qualities of the state from San Francisco to the Mexico border, including of course, Los Angeles and the Santa Catalina Islands. But so far as the writer has observed the territory north of Oakland, Sacramento, and all along the western slopes of the grand old Sierra Nevadas has been touched upon but lightly and is a sealed book to the major portion of the easterners.

Of the counties visited “above the bay” none pleased the writer so well as Santa Rosa, a dreamy, hazy, habitation of 10,000 people who are living their lives away with little thought of the cares of today and none of the morrow.

But with such beautiful surroundings of the low foothills thick with vineyards and blossoming orchards and beyond and higher up purplish hills covered with oak, through which the winds sing a drowsy requiem day after day, there is every excuse for a Rip Van Winkle existence.

No rain has fallen in this portion of the country since early March, but the foliage, the vegetables and fruits seem as prosperous as if April and May showers had been frequent. This is due to the heavy fogs that come from the ocean once or twice a week, at night. The days are bright and warm while a fire in the evenings and mornings is really needed with comforters and blankets for the bed.

April is the season of the year for “Easterners,” as they call Kansans here, to come to this country. Then the land is at its best and one can also witness the “Rose Carnival,” which is a feature of Santa Rosa yearly and is well worth seeing.


As the name would indicate it is a city of roses, every yard and garden fence is covered with a mass of creeping vines that are pink, white, yellow and red with blossoms from the size of a clover bloom to a cabbage. Many of the houses, too, are hidden behind artistically trained bowers, so closely interwoven that a bird can scarcely find a nesting place. This makes such homes a dream of beauty, then again it saves paint, and oh, the sensuous perfume of the thousands of fragrant tropical roses, honeysuckle, carnations and other blooming plants which the fresh green smell of the pine and fir prevent from becoming sickening. To one direct from the prairies and just winding up a transcontinental trip, over which sage brush and alkali abounded, the country seemed a very paradise. The yards and lawns are the most beautiful imaginable. But why shouldn’t they be. With a productive soil, an abundance of water, a climate that is model and every person trying to outdo their neighbor there is little to prevent them from being perfect. In one yard I noticed a Cedar of Lebanon, imported from the Holy Land years ago and perhaps the only one in the state. As for broad spreading, lofty palms, calla lilies, ferns, Shasta daisies, sweet peas, magnolias, etc., the town is filled with them.

One peculiar tree is the monkey tree. A sharp, thickly woven bark of thorns covers it, and it is said that it is the only tree a monkey will not climb. The citizens here do not seem to know, or appreciate, what a pretty town they have and that everything is out of the ordinary. To an “Easterner,” who is admiring the sights they only laugh and exclaim, “Oh, that’s nothing,” toss him an armful of roses and pass on.

To me one of the prettiest flowers is the yellow poppy. It is California’s native flower, even as the sunflower is of Kansas. It is known as the cup of gold and is the state’s emblem.


A half dozen little peculiarities are quickly noticeable to the visitor. First there are less than a dozen negroes in the town and they are members of the local churches and worship in common with the white people, being admirable citizens. Secondly, there are no birds. This seems strange with such a tropical vegetation, but it is explained that they have flown farther up the valley to the fruit lands where cherries are ripe. Thirdly, the ladies passing along the street carry no parasol. The soft sea breeze from the ocean, 20 miles away, they claim prevents freckles, and again, its too much trouble. Fourthly, motorneers on the electric lines are allowed to sit down at their work during the day. The service seems satisfactory. Fifthly, nonwithstanding this old Spanish town where hot tamales and chili would be expected to prevail, all the restaurant dishes are without seasoning, and the signs on the wall read: “Patrons please pay on delivery.” Sixth, nothing apparently had ever happened in this town prior to the earthquake of three years ago, although the town is a half hundred years old. The calamity was a severe one, whole blocks tumbling over and many being killed so “this and that” is always pointed out to the stranger as happening since the upheaval.

This is a great bicycle town. Men, women and children ride wheels at all times and seasons, and they are experts, too.

Santa Rosa has its Chinatown as well as San Francisco. A block of the city is devoted to the Celestials, and with a few roses and carnations within their walks to offset the odor of the garlick and other vile dishes, other portions of the city are preferable.

The older Chinese are, as usual, dull appearing, stupid and unobserving, shuffling along about thir business in their native garb. The youngsters are a bright little lot, however, flitting along the sidewalk like the English sparrows. Being “native sons” they adopt the American clothes and costumes. They attend the city schools and prove themselves apt pupils.


Santa Rosa has two water plants. One is a municipal affair, solely for the sprinkling of lawns and parking. Each family is allowed 10,000 gallons of water monthly, after that a charge is made. For drinking purposes and household use a private corporation with a reservoir far up in the foothills furnishes clear, sparkling water at a dollar a month.

The Kansas writer is wrong in this. Three-fourths of the residents use municipal water for all purposes and it is pure and wholesome.–Ed.

The town is substantially built and prosperous. That is, the new buildings that are going up since the earthquake are and most of them are new buildings. Two of the most noticeable ones are the post office and court house, the latter costing $500,000 and a splendid affair with pillars like the Kansas state house and marble floors and ceilings. The four banks are as sold as the “Rock of Gibralta.” [sic]

The schools too, are on firm basis, the high school drawing many pupils from the surrounding towns and valleys.


But the pride of not only Santa Rosa but all California is Luther Burbank, the great scientist, who from childhood chose the plants for pets rather than animals. He came to this valley in 1875 and began his work of improving the old plants and creating new ones. Hundreds of new trees, flowers, fruits and grasses have sprung into being owing to his indomitable efforts. His greatest work is in providing a thornless cactus. This can be planted on the Arizona and New Mexico deserts, reclaiming the waste places and at the same time allowing man and beast to wander through without injury, the Burbank potato and green rose are other vegetable and plant creations. Jealous meddlers declare his paints for the roses and hired help to extract the thorns from the cactus have cost him a fortune. But as Carnegie donates him $10,000 a year, what’s the odds? He is also the creator of a seedless blackberry and is working on an odorless onion. His experimental grounds near the city is the yearly mecca of scientists from all over the country and indeed is a great curiosity shop.

An eastern friend who had visited this country told me I would be eaten up by fleas. But the statement seems to have been of a maligning nature, as I went to church twice Sunday and had no occasion to “scratch” during either sermon.

One thing they do have in plenty here, however, is chickens. Ranches surrounding the city nearly all have great flocks of them, while it is down at Petaluma the place is known as “Chickentown.” And almost in entirety the flocks are white leghorns, Plymouth Rocks and Buff Coachins being almost unknown.

Two town curios I almost overlooked. One is a rose bush with 10,000 blooms from a vine with a 65 foot stump. Of course no one has counted the blossoms, but experts say that is a low estimate. It is owned by a modest resident and the bush is almost as large as the house.

The other is the Baptist church which has the distinction of being the only church in the world built entirely from one tree. The tree came from the Sonoma county forests, and when sawed, yielded 78,000 feet of lumber. In addition there were three hundred shingles left over.

The altitude of Santa Rosa is about 150 feet about the sea level and the surrounding hills protect it from the frosts, but still few oranges are raised. However, at Cloverdale 30 miles north, splendid oranges are grown and great crops of them.

Having no guide book, all of the above statements may not be absolutely correct, but in the main they are. E. W. ELLIS

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 17, 1909

Several days ago in San Francisco a worthless cur dog rushed into a schoolhouse and severely bit three little pupils before the frantic animal was checked, taken to the city pound and killed. Cannot we accept that instance as a lesson? In Santa Rosa there are hundreds of tagless, worthless and often half-starved dogs, and the nuisance is growing. They prowl nightly through back yards for food and round in school yards may be seen daily these hungry animals, eagerly seeking the scraps of lunch thrown away by the pupils. There is a city ordinance requiring that a license be paid on dogs, but only the owners of the few valuable dogs here pay the license, or pay any attention to it. That seems like an inducement to own a worthless dog. A raid should be made on every tagless cur until the streets are clear. Of course, a dog pound cannot be made self-supporting, for only a few people sufficiently value their unlicensed dogs to pay for their redemption, consequently the pound man would be left with a pen of curs on his hands. Would it not be well for the city council to take notice?  SUBSCRIBER.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 9, 1909

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What was the largest home built in Santa Rosa? It wasn’t Mableton, the McDonald mansion; the elephant in our living room was the Riley house at 426 Mendocino Avenue, with its stately house and gardens that filled most of the block between Fifth Street and (what’s now) Seventh Street.* At about 16,000 square feet, it was so big that when it was remodeled into a hotel there were thirty guest rooms.

 (TOP: The Mendocino Ave. entrance walkway to the Lebanon Hotel, c. 1908 
 MIDDLE: Tinted postcard, c. 1909 
 BELOW: The view from Riley street, c. 1935, when it was I.O.O.F. Lodge no. 53. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library) 

 The size of the house was difficult to judge from the street because the building was secluded by mature trees, as footpaths wound around bushes and flower beds. A postcard was sold of the Weeping Lebanon Cedar, and photos from the early Twentieth Century of blooming cherry trees and roses can still be found. Whomever gardened these grounds had the greenest of thumbs (having a 600 sq. ft. greenhouse at the back of the property didn’t hurt, either).

It’s been guesstimated that the house was built in the 1870s, based upon its Second Empire style with mansard roof and elaborate dormer windows. But it’s also possible that this was an exterior remodel of an older and much simpler house. The 1876 Bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa – which is pretty reliable in showing approximate sizes and shapes of buildings – has a two-story house with about the same footprint in that location. The late 1870s was also an era when there was a fad for slapping a modern Victorian facade over simple, classic designs, and adding a mansard roof was a popular way to simultaneously update the look and gain another story. Many such examples can be found in the contemporary how-to book, “Old Homes Made New,” which has before-and-after drawings – although most of the “improved” homes look like they were designed for the Munsters.

We also don’t know who first owned the house (someone with title search skills could probably answer that), but the 1880 census shows an extended family of eight living there with two servants. At home were Mr. and Mrs. Riley and their two children as well as Mrs. Riley’s parents and their two other children. This was probably a confusing family to meet for the first time; Mr. Riley was older than his mother-in-law by about three years, and Mrs. Riley was young enough to be his daughter by a quarter century.

The in-laws were Alonzo and America Thomas, he being a lawyer who moved to Santa Rosa during the Civil War. Alonzo wasn’t in the house very long before he died in late 1880 after a  prolonged illness. America Lillard Thomas lived until she was 77 and was one of the sad footnotes to the 1906 earthquake. She died at her home about ten weeks after the disaster, from “general disability following general neurosis caused by shock.”

Mr. Riley was Amos W. Riley, a businessman of great success. He and his partner founded a chain of mercantile stores from Sonoma to Humboldt counties, then concentrated on raising livestock with large ranches in Nevada and Oregon. Amos Riley died in 1908 at age 83 and like everyone else mentioned here, is buried at the Rural Cemetery.

After the earthquake and the death of mother-in-law America, Amos moved in with his daughter, a block away at 565 Mendocino Av (currently a parking lot), and the Riley family leased their old home to developers who remodeled it into the Hotel Lebanon. The public had its first chance to get an eyeful of the gardens – which, I suspect, had been created and always under the care of the late America Thomas – and it’s easy to imagine that the beautiful, fragrant hideaways immediately became a favorite haven of young people in love.

Then came 1909, when we find Ernest Finley, editor of the Press Democrat and president of the Chamber of Commerce, doing backflips of joy over the proposal that the old house could become the town’s city hall and the beautiful grounds be declared Santa Rosa’s first public park.

In the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Santa Rosa was a place where grand ambitions rose and just as quickly died, mostly because of a lack of political will to raise money to pay for public improvements. New post-quake federal and county buildings (the post office and courthouse) were in the finishing stages in 1909, but there was no city building even planned. An architect-designed city hall and firehouse was abandoned because the local banks didn’t want to loan money to the city. Plans for a city water park were thrown out after the quake, and the current mayor didn’t even try to make good on election promises to transform the tenderloin district into a park that families could enjoy.

The Press Democrat backed the idea of buying the Riley property enthusiastically, given that it would provide an instant solution to both park and city hall needs. Acknowledging that a 30-room joint complete with dining hall might be a trifle too roomy for the administrators of a small farm town, the PD mused that the mansion could be later torn down or moved and a smaller office built on the corner of the property. The paper was so gung-ho on the concept that it did something unusual: It reprinted a condensed version of a story that had appeared the previous week, this time accompanied by the photo at top that filled a third of the page.

And predictably, the grand ambition fizzled. No bond measure was placed before the voters.

After its time as a family home and hotel/restaurant, a third act awaited the grand old place. The Odd Fellows Lodge no. 53 bought the building in 1920 and remained there until 1955, when its new building was dedicated on Pacific Avenue. The Lodge has a few exterior photographs from its tenure, but alas, no interior pictures are known to exist.

As the Riley Mansion began in mystery, so it ended; the year of its demolition is not known. Farewell, majestic old manse; too bad we didn’t at least have the decency to save the trees, which can live for more than a thousand years.

* The 1967 Seventh Street Realignment Project merged the old 7th street (west of Mendocino Av.) with Johnson St. (east of Mendocino Avenue). A couple of odd twists and turns were added where no road had existed previously to make everything connect. properly, and the Johnson name was abandoned.

Citizens Discussing an Interesting Project Now

The acquisition by Santa Rosa of the beautiful grounds about the Hotel Lebanon on Mendocino avenue for a public park. together with the big building, which could be used as a City Hall, has been a subject of discussion on the part of a number of citizens, particularly since it was learned that the property could be purchased for the same figure as that contemplated in the bond issue for the erection of a municipal building, $40,000.

For a long time the acquiring of a park for the City of Roses has been the fond dream of the Woman’s Improvement Club and advocated by scores of the men of the city as well. Already the suggestion made for the purchase by the city of the Hotel Lebanon property, owned by the estate of the late A. W. Riley, for the purposes mentioned, has enthusiastic supporters, and now that the Press Democrat gives it publicity it is expected that the plan will be discussed freely.

For years the Riley property, with the spacious residence and picturesque surroundings, has been one of the show places of Santa Rosa, and in times past it has often been coveted for park purposes. In the grounds are trees and shrubs gathered from many climes, and when the family vacated the place and after the big disaster it became the “Hotel Lebanon,” it was so named from the beautiful Cedar of Lebanon which was brought from the Holy Land many years ago and planted in front of the mansion where it has grown and developed ever since.

Recently several thousand dollars was spent on the building prior to its reopening and for some time to come it could be used for municipal purposes, there being many spacious rooms available for meeting places and offices. Later on, it is suggested, the building could be sold, and a city hall built, either back against the Native Sons’ building, or else in the center of the park.

Another important consideration in the connection with the purchase of the Riley place for a public park is that it is centrally and ideally located and the park is already there–the grounds are laid out and the trees, shrubs, and flowers are already growing luxuriantly.

– Press Democrat, July 23, 1909

The hotel Lebanon will close its doors at the end of July, and its manager, B. C. Cosgrove, will retire temporarily from business. This is being done on account of the state of his health. All the furniture and fixtures are for sale.

The Lebanon was built by the late A. W. Riley and occupied by him and his family for many years as a private residence. After the fire of 1906 it was made a hotel and for a considerable time it was the only hostelry in Santa Rosa and had a big run. When Mr. Cosgrove too charge he had it completely renovated and made many changes in its arrangement.

The hotel is situatied almost in the business section of the city and the garden and grounds surrounding it are hardly equaled in this section. It has been equipped more for a tourist than a commercial hotel.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 15, 1909

Many Want to See the Plan Carried Out

The publicity given the project to buy the Hotel Lebanon and grounds for a public park in the Press Democrat on Thursday morning excited much interest and the matter was much discussed pro and con during the day. It was expected that the suggestion would give rise to considerable talk. To many people it was a hearing of the matter for the first time; others had hoped that just such a plan as put forward would some day become a realization.

Citizens Interviewed

Thursday a Press Democrat representative interviewed a number of well know citizens on the subject and found that a majority looked with favor on the scheme. Others desired a little more time for consideration. Still others favored the acquisition of the beautiful grounds as a park but opposed the use of the building as a city hall. In regard to the latter idea it was not the intention of the citizens who first suggested the purchase of the property by the city that the building should be a permanent City Hall, the plan being that it could be used temporarily.

Would Move Building

“By all means I am in favor of the city purchasing the Hotel Lebanon property for a public park; lets have it all park, however, and sell the building and move it away,” was the reply of one citizen asked for an expression.

“It is a splendid idea,” said another. “I think that the bonds would be more likely to carry for the purchase of the Riley property for a park than for the erection of a city hall on the old lot,” he added.

“I read about the plan this morning, but I must have a little more time to look into the matter. O, yes, of course Santa Rosa wants a park, we all admit that.”

There are a few of the replies to queries put by the interviewer to men of affairs in Santa Rosa.

Ladies Are Interviewed

A number of women were also seen. They are all in favor of a park and for several years the securing of a park has been the fond hope of the Woman’s Improvement Club. There is no doubt that the entire club membership will endorse the suggested acquisition of the Riley property.

Then, of course, among the number discussing the matter Thursday were men who did not see the wisdom of taking a hasty step in the matter. Then there were those, you could count them on your fingers, happily, who raised their voice in protest against the idea of a park or city hall at all, men who are nearly always in the front rank of the “knockers” and to whom a city’s progress means naught.

But the concensus [sic] of opinion gained Thursday is heartily in favor of the public park, particularly such an ideal place as can now be secured in the purchase of the Riley property. Many people passing along Mendocino avenue Thursday stopped to look and admire and talk about the delights of the trees and shrubs, the lawns and walks. Others brought visitors to the place to show them. It was a day of additional admiration for the beautiful place on Mendocino avenue which public spirited citizens suggest should be acquired by Santa Rosa as a public park and city hall.

Director Alfred Trembley of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce was very enthusiastic over the project. “I consider it a fine thing and it would undoubtedly make a beautiful park. Later on if the city desired, it could build a city hall adjoining the Native Sons building, or else in the center of the park.”

Professor A. C. McMeans said: “I like the idea of purchasing the Riley place for a park. I was very much in doubt if I would vote bonds for a city hall on the other site, but I would vote for this project.”

– Press Democrat, July 23, 1909

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“Rose trees” were popular in the West during the early 20th century, and every postcard vendor usually has a selection of photos from several cities. Santa Rosa had a couple of rose trees, one climbing to sixty feet, as seen to the right (CLICK on image to enlarge).

Obl Believe-it-or-Not factoid: The world’s oldest rose tree is the 125-year-old Lady Banksia in Tombstone Arizona, which covers almost 9,000 square feet.

Splendid Attraction on Mendocino Avenue

In the yard of the old Claypool residence on Mendocino street, just off Fifth, there is a rose bush which has climbed a massive tree to a height of more than sixty feet. Just at the present time the bush is filled with thousands of white roses and makes an interesting appearance. Hundreds of people pass the scene daily and admire it.

To the north of the rose tree is a two story house, and the rose bush towers fifteen feet above this residence, which is about forty-five feet high. A photo of the rose bush showing its relative height in that of the two story structure would be interesting to use in advertising matter of the City of Roses.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 16, 1908

Over Sixty Feet in Circumference and Over Fifteen Feet in Height at Home of W. R. Smith

The beauty of the “City of Roses” at the present time with so many flowers in bloom is attracting much attention from visitors. While there are many attractive sights in a floral way to be found in all parts of the city, one of the most unique is a monster bouquet of roses at the home of W. R. Smith, the well known pioneer at E and Second streets.

An old locust tree was cut off about fifteen feet from the ground, and about the trunk ivy has been trained until nothing can be seen of the stump. Several climbing roses have grown into the ivy vines and thrown their branches out in all directions until the top is fully sixty feet in circumference, and this is now a mass of white, red and pink rose blooms. The effect is a perfect bouquet of immense size. A number of photographs have been taken and the pictures will be preserved.

– Press Democrat, May 3, 1907

Photo courtesy Larry Lapeere Collection

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