ELECTION 1908: THE BOSSES OF SANTA ROSA

Luther Burbank was Santa Rosa’s #1 booster – except for the year he joined reformers who called the town scandalous and controlled by a handful of political bosses.

“We fail to see how Mr. Burbank’s advice on political matters becomes of any particular importance,” sniffed Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley. “He has always represented himself as being too much engrossed with scientific matters to pay any attention to anything else, and has never before taken any part in public affairs.”

As with most everything else that appeared in the PD about the city elections of 1908, it was untrue. Three years earlier, Burbank was one of the founders of the “Good Government League,” which likewise wanted to clean up the town. The difference in 1908 was that the political field was wide open: No incumbents were running for office. Also, the reformers had a leader who was willing to confront Santa Rosa’s entrenched Old Guard and name names.

The reform party was now called the Municipal League, as introduced in part I of this series on the Santa Rosa city election of 1908. Apparently so frightened that the reformers might sweep into office, the main political parties decided to offer voters a Democratic-Republican “fusion” ticket – a move that only underscored the reformer’s point that a tight group of “bosses” really controlled the town.

Everyone in Santa Rosa knew about “bossism” because newspapers kept readers updated on the latest pre-trial developments in the Abe Ruef case. A year earlier, “Boss Ruef” had plead guilty to bribing the San Francisco Supervisors over utility and cable car deals, followed by indictments against him and his puppet mayor. Ruef tried to block the trial right up to the selection of the jury, arguing that the prosecutor had tricked him into incriminating himself. It was a surprisingly high profile legal fight, with probably everyone in town having strong opinions on the fairness of a trial for the confessed villain. (Sidenote: Santa Rosans didn’t view a fusion ticket as unusual because just such a ballot appeared in the 1905 San Francisco election, when the Dems and Repubs of that city joined forces in a failed attempt to block Ruef’s corrupt Union Labor party from winning.)

In Santa Rosa, the political jabbing was over candidates for mayor. Heading the fusion ticket was Chamber of Commerce president James Gray, who vowed to maintain the status quo. The reform mayoral candidate was Rolfe Thompson, a former D.A. with bonus points among reformers for being the lawyer who had recently won a lawsuit against prostitutes and their landlord. Most remarkable, Thompson called out the people who he said really ran Santa Rosa: State Senator Walter Price (R), Santa Rosa Fire Chief Frank Muther, brewer Joseph Grace, and Thomas Geary, who was currently city attorney.

Even immersed in early 20th century Santa Rosa history as I am, it’s difficult to grasp how these four were the triumvirate (+1) of evil. Muther’s day job was as the owner of a small downtown cigar store with a little rolling factory in the back room – hardly the profile of a kingmaker. Grace also seemed apolitical; during the 1905 Battle of Sebastopol Avenue, he meekly hunkered down lest he offend any beer drinkers. Of Price I know nothing (update here) but of the odious Geary, I’ll believe anything horrible. Besides being the author of the Chinese Exclusion Act when he was a Democratic congressman in 1892, he was the “top gun” attorney in the area and could be found representing the wealthiest private interests before he became city attorney, as when he tried to get Santa Rosa to abandon its municipal water system (he also argued the rich deserved more water because they paid more taxes).

But how far did Thompson really push the “bossism” analogy? He implied that Gray was merely a figurehead in his political newsletter, “The Municipal League,” which apparently presented a crossword puzzle where the solution for one line read

GRACE GRAY GEARY

with only a tiny space to wedge in Gray’s name. Was he also hinting that he knew about Abe Ruef-style bribery of elected officials and secret backroom deals? Alas, we don’t know; no copies of the reformer’s newsletters from 1908 survive, and the Santa Rosa daily papers were hardly likely to mention allegations of serious crimes against their endorsed candidates.

STATEMENT OF MR. BURBANK
Tells People What He Believes of Situation

Luther Burbank, the well known resident of the city, has issued the following statement to the voters. It came from Mr. Burbank on Wednesday morning and is published herewith”

“I believe that the time has come when our city affairs should be divorced from politics, and when citizenship should be placed above partisanship. Having read the platform and the statement of principles of the Municipal League, I wish to express my appreciation of the movement and my hearty endorsement of its candidates.

“I further urge my fellow citizens to give these men their unanimous support. Luther Burbank”

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 1, 1908

It is announced that Luther Burbank favors the election of the so-called Municipal League ticket, and in a signed statement he gravely directs all qualified voters to follow his lead.

We fail to see how Mr. Burbank’s advice on political matters becomes of any particular importance.

He has always represented himself as being too much engrossed with scientific matters to pay any attention to anything else, and has never before taken any part in public affairs.

It is very probable that the motive actuating Mr. Burbank in taking the stand he does is the same that both Mr. McMeans and Dr. Anderson admit actuates them–they all three live in that part of town.

– Press Democrat editorial, April 2, 1908

ENTHUSIASTIC MASS MEETING
Thompson and McMeans Address Fourth Ward

A meeting, small in number at first, but large in enthusiasm, was held by the Municipal League at Germania Hall Wednesday evening, and was addressed by Rolfe L. Thompson and Alexander C. McMeans, candidates for mayor and councilman respectfully. Before the meeting closed the hall was well filled, including a number of ladies.

Professor McMeans was introduced by Chairman William R. Smith, the well-known pioneer and made a splendid speech. He declared that the laws of the city should be enforced or they were of no earthly good. The speaker declared he was not the nominee of the Ministerial Union, but that he represented the Municipal League, and that he accepted the nomination in the hope that if elected he might do something for the betterment of conditions in this city. The speaker read the application which saloon men have to sign before being allowed a liquor license, and then stated that women were permitted to conduct houses of prostitution without getting permission at a less cost than the saloon men were taxed. He declared the issue of prohibition was not before the people, neither was there any issue of saloon closing on Sunday or raising of liquor licenses. He declared if elected he would consider the wishes of the people and all things and if the requisite number asked that the question of licensing saloons be placed on the ballot, he would be in favor of permitting people to vote on the question.

Rolfe L. Thompson made a ringing speech, in which he spoke plainly regarding his candidacy, and paid a high complement to Professor McMeans. He declared that the people of the fourth ward had an honor in being permitted to vote for such a man, and that no fault could found with his character. He said no better man could be found in the city for the position of councilman, and predicted a great majority for him at the polls.

Mr. Thompson said at the outset he wanted the people to know exactly where we stood on all questions that he would be pleased to answer any questions regarding his stand. He declared if elected mayor he would administer city affairs fairly and impartially, and give a square deal to all the people. In appointments and in the employment of labor he said he would be fair to all parties.

The speaker said he was representing up a movement of citizens of Santa Rosa for the best interests of the city, and was not representing any class, clique or boss. The people interested in this movement, he said, were of all classes, mechanics, builders, lawyers, professional men, merchants. He asserted that the movement emanated from a growing sentiment in Santa Rosa to get away from bossism, and to destroy partisanship here. The speaker said the fusion ticket was dominated by one lawyer, one cigar maker, one politician and one brewer, and that the ticket emanated from these bosses.

Mr. Thompson denied emphatically and in plain language that he was representing a “dry” town, or in any manner a prohibition issue, and said these things were not an issue in the campaign. “I have no intention if elected,” he stated, “to initiate any new legislation against the saloon.” At this juncture the speaker was interrupted with the information that some saloon men were with him and intended to support his candidacy. He remarked that he was glad, indeed, to know that some saloon men had realized their own interests in the matter, and that they had not been deceived by a little clique of politicians. Speaking further on the subject, Mr. Thompson said he intended to enforce the present laws on the statue books, and that he would simply carry out the wishes of the people. The speaker reiterated his belief that the money lying in the bank in the building fund and not drawing interest should be utilized at once to build a suitable fire department, and said he was against the purchase of other property when the city owned good lots and bonding the town for $75,000 when it could be avoided.

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 2, 1908

[Selection of remarks by James Gray at a rally:]
Ladies and gentlemen: I have been charged with being in league with and under the control of some terrible people, described as political bosses, Price, Muther, Grace and Geary. As to Price and Muther, Mr. Thompson can tell you a great deal more about them than I can, as until up to the date that he attempted to throw his party into the control of the Municipal League and the Ministerial Union, he was either under their employ or taking advice from them in all matters pertaining to politics.

As to Grace Brothers, as near as I can find out, they are conducting a legitimate business of manufacturing here. They are also conducting a creamery which is certainly a great benefit to Santa Rosa and the surrounding country; also an ice and cold storage plant which is used extensively in the storage and packing of fruit. They employ a large number of men supporting a great many families and are one of the institutions that help make Santa Rosa a live town.

I never had any business with them, but they have the reputation of being honorable business men who are received with their families in the best of society, in the homes of members of the Municipal League, and are recognized and taken by the hand by not only Mr. Thompson, but by members of the Ministerial Union. They have built up a large business which they are no doubt trying to protect. If they are taking any interest in the fight, it is for the purpose of protecting their business interests, and has nothing whatever to do with me. I do not see how they are to be blamed for this. If they expect any favors from me they will not get them any more than any other citizen interested in the growth and welfare of the town…

…As soon as it was noised about that I would be a candidate the Municipal League began preparations to make an aggressive campaign, and I must say they laid their plans carefully and have left no stone unturned to get a vote. After a great deal of thought and discussion they finally decided that their wisest political move would be to attack the present administration, make the present city administration as unpopular as possible and connect the present candidate with them. At Mr. Geary, on account of his prominence, they have directed most of the fire. I accepted the nomination because I thought that I could carry out plans that would benefit Santa Rosa…

…They started the movement with good intentions. They thought the Prohibition movement, which is likely to die out before it reaches Sonoma County, whose backbone is the production of hops and grapes, was a good thing. It was a prohibition movement pure and simple, and they should have stuck to their principles, but their leader and candidate for mayor is so carried away with the desire to be elected that he has forgotten his principles and is bowing down and soliciting votes of the interest that he had organized to fight.

We are all pledged to repeal the boarding house ordinance, and of course it will be done as soon as possible after those who are elected have taken office. But what will you do with the parties in dispute? Leave them in the lodging houses on Fourth street, where they were driven from the former from the Behmer house, where they have become a familiar sight to every shopper and mingle with the innocent stranger bringing his family here to locate? Drive them back to their old quarters to plague respectable residents of that part of town? At the most move them to some isolated spot? Or shall we take the advice of Saul’s Letter and cast a mantle of charity over the unfortunate creatures and try to reform them?

[..]

– Press Democrat, April 5, 1908

The League manipulators have had a great deal to say about “bosses,” apparently imagining the public would overlook the fact that the men who are most active in support of that organization themselves aspire to be bosses, by all the rules governing such propositions.

They have also indulged in uncalled for personalities and tried to appeal to individual likes and dislikes, regardless of facts. A case in point has been the amusing attempt to make a city attorney Thomas J. Geary an issue in the campaign. In an effort to secure the support of that gentleman’s political enemies, the charge has been made that in the event of Mr. Gray’s election he would be re-appointed to his present position, although Mr. Geary has repeatedly and publicly declared that under no consideration with the accept the appointment for another term, and most of the men who are making the charge know that owing to the pressure of other businesses he has wanted to resign for some time, and did prepare to give up the office last summer when Mayor Overton handed in his resignation, and was only prevented from doing so through the earnest solicitation of that gentleman and others wen public sentiment against allowing Mayor Overton’s resignation to be accepted was so strongly manifested. Having no particular interest in the campaign one way or the other, and having already stated his position, Mr. Geary suggested that we make some mention of the fact in the paper, but we declined to thus dignify the charge. Although Mr. Thompson has known the facts all along, he has continued to charge that “a vote for Mr. Gray is a voted to keep Mr. Geary in the city attorney’s office,” and as far as we know is still so charging.


One of the worst features of the present campaign has been the reckless hurling of charges broadcast effecting the reputation and character of the community. People all over the state have been led to believe that Santa Rosa is a grossly immoral place where crime and vice run rampant, and where only evil influences prevail. Great damage has been done Santa Rosa in this way, and it is likely we will feel the effects for many years to come. It would have been bad enough had any of the charge been true, but when we consider the fact that Santa Rosa is one of the cleanest and best-governed in towns in California, if not in the entire west, the full significance of this phase of the situation becomes even more apparent.

– Press Democrat editorial, April 5, 1908
ADDRESS OF MR. BURBANK
Delivered at Pavilion Rink Monday Evening

“Every party is supposed to have a platform. Every voter should also have one of his own. Perhaps you would like a photograph of mine.

“I believe in justice to all. I am not a partisan not a politician, have no axe to grind, have no personal interests to boost, am not an expert at political mud throwing, generally mind my own business and rejoice in giving others the same privilege. As it happens I belong to no church, no saloon, no Ministerial Union, no brewery.

“Personal schemes, passion and prejudice should not be allowed to overshadow the public welfare, and any man or any party who, at any time or under any circumstances by threats, fraud, boycott, or any other form of coercion or deceit tries to influence the vote of another is not a true American. He is not a patriot. He is a relic of the dark ages and has not yet arrived. He is a back number and should be made to realize the fact by every intelligent. citizen’s vote.

“I prefer to think that every voter wishes to cast his vote for the best interests of Santa Rosa and to have every honest industry protected.

“The hobo, the hoodlum, the confidence man, the crook, the swindler, the gambler, the bully and the bum are not needed by Santa Rosa. All these tend to weaken the confidence of man in man which is the foundation of all prosperity. Talk is cheap, character counts. Every city should have, above all, good men to attended to its business affairs, men you can trust to hold your purse.

“I am not here to tell you how to vote. Some of the gentlemen whose names are on the fusion ticket are admirable neighbors and personal friends. I have no objection to them except that they are, in my opinion, on the wrong side and have the wrong kind of boosters behind them.

“My interest in the city, its people, its progress, is very natural as I was here at its birth, voted for its first mayor and city council and have continued to do so up to the present time.

“I endorse the Municipal League as a party–it has a right to live and if I shall be honored by giving it my vote tomorrow, whether the party wins or not, by voting as I think for the best interests of Santa Rosa. I, at least, have won. Count me for one.”

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 7, 1908

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PLENTIFUL WATER, BUT IT STILL TASTES AWFUL

If any good came from the 1906 earthquake, it was that Santa Rosa finally fixed its dysfunctional water system. Although the town was surrounded on all sides by fresh water (river, laguna, aquifer, even large creeks running through the center of town), the stuff that came out of the faucet was always somewhat foul, and sometimes scarce.

(RIGHT: Postcard of Santa Rosa Creek in the early 20th century, probably the railroad bridge between Third St. and Sebastopol Ave.)

Part of the problem stemmed from the town having both privately-owned and public water utilities with separate pipes running down all the main streets. City water was free, but “hard” and tasted of sulphur. Still, they couldn’t keep up with demand because there weren’t enough wells and the steam engine pumps were underpowered. There was also the problem that about one-fourth of the water disappeared somewhere in the pipes, either from leaks or illegal hookups, so the supply was perpetually rationed. Water from the old McDonald system was “soft,” and considered good tasting, even though water pressure was much lower. This water came from Lake Ralphine, which was found to be contaminated with hog and human waste (maybe it was E.coli that gave the water its je ne sais quoi). Caught in the middle between these two “just good enough” companies was the public, stuck with choosing between bad and worse. The McDonald system had no incentive to upgrade its service – and indeed, continued to operate through the Roaring Twenties – while the city water works had trouble raising bond money for improvements as long as there was a competitor in the private sector. And it surely did not help in the early 20th century that Thomas J. Geary was wobbling between jobs as city attorney and lawyer for the McDonald water system, where he argued that the city water works should be shut down. For more on the background on Santa Rosa’s water wars, see this earlier essay or read John Cummings’ paper, “Ample and Pure Water for Santa Rosa, 1867-1926” (PDF).

A 1905 bond raised enough for basic improvements in the city-owned water works, and the benefits appeared in 1907, when the reservoir was finally patched and covered, a new well drilled, and high powered electric pumps replaced the antique steam engines. Street repairs after the earthquake also fixed many of those leaky pipes.

In the 1907 items below, Santa Rosans are reminded that the 19th century lawn and garden watering rules are still in effect: if you lived west of Mendocino Avenue you could hose the garden only after 5PM, while neighbors on the east side could water their watermelons between 4 and 8PM. But the water still was hard and sulphurous, so on warm summer afternoons the sprinklers danced wild over Santa Rosa lawns with a golden spray and a faint stench of eggs gone rotten.

NOTICE TO WATER CONSUMERS

Until after the completion of the repairs being made to the reservoir, which will not be longer than twenty or thirty days, the hours for irrigating in this city will be strictly enforced.

All members of that section east of Mendocino avenue and Main street will irrigate in the evening between 4 and 8 o’clock. All residents of that portion of the city lying west of Mendocino avenue and Main street will irrigate between 5 and 9 o’clock on the forenoons. The police department will see that the rules regarding irrigation are rigidly enforced.
DANVILLE DECKER,
Street Superintendent.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 9, 1907
WILL GIVE A DEMONSTRATION
Electric Pumps Will Be Used All Day Saturday

Manager Ralph L. Van der Naillen, of the Santa Rosa Lighting Company, will use his big electric pumps on Saturday and give the people of the city a service from them and the reservoir for that day to show what these massive pumps will do when they begin operations in the near future. The city’s pumps, which have seen service for many years will be out of commission on Saturday. They will be used again, however, on Monday, and be kept in use until such time as the city repairs its main leading from the pumps to the city’s reservoir.

At the present time there are three leaks in this main line, and one is a serious one. It permits almost as much water to go to waste as is pumped in to the reservoir. Despite this big waste Manager Van der Naillen declares his pumps will be able to fill the reservoir Saturday. The people will be given a demonstration on that day of what the water system will be like when these pumps of the electric company are finally placed in commission to run permanently.

The electric pumps are giving perfect satisfaction, and if the supply of water at the pumping station will hold out it is believed that the troubles of the city with furnishing sufficient water will be at an end.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 14, 1907

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WOULDN’T IT BE NICE TO HAVE A PARK?

Santa Rosa had in 1907 a nice Carnegie public library, a popular skating rink and swimming pool (in winter, a floor was placed over the pool and it became a dance hall), and a couple of small theatres. But it didn’t have a single public park.

The closest thing they had was Grace Brother’s park at the corner of Fourth St. and McDonald Ave, a place where Santa Rosa had celebrated since before the Civil War. But it was privately owned so it wasn’t always open, and by 1907, it was looking seedy; “buildings vacant, old, and dilapidated” was the note on the fire map produced the following year. Santa Rosa also had a ball field or two, including “Recreation Park” (location unknown to me) which appears to have been just a vacant lot; the Rose Parade that year marched around the field because the downtown streets were still clogged with post-quake building materials. Both were far short of what the town wanted.

In February of that year, PD gossip columnist Dorothy Anne took a break from her usual format (announcing weddings, reporting on ladies’ club tea parties, and settling personal scores) to ask eighteen prominent women what they’d like to see in a town park. The answers were thoughtful and offer rare descriptions of what Santa Rosa really looked like in 1907.

Several proposed a park focused on Santa Rosa Creek, similar to the design that architect William H. Willcox had sketched out a year earlier, with a little dam that would allow swimming and boating. Alas, the Creek was apparently quite a mess in 1907, described below as a dumping ground that would require a great deal of cleanup. Later in the year, the local power company would be charged with releasing some sort of fish-killing effluent.

Another idea mentioned often was doing something with the old campus of the Pacific Methodist College, now the site of Santa Rosa Middle School, between E Street and Brookwood Avenue. It might have made a nice, park, albeit flat and square-ish. One woman suggested that an ersatz stream could be added (perhaps by not fixing a few of the town’s perpetually leaking water mains).

Among the surprises were a couple of suggestions to use the old Ridgway property, which would later become the Santa Rosa High School grounds. Two women also thought outside the box and wanted the new courthouse to be built somewhere else, so the center of downtown could become the park.

Of great personal interest was the comment from Mattie Oates that she wanted roses and Virginia creeper to “run in profusion over the trees.” The Virginia creeper vine still climbs the trees around her old home, and turns a brilliant scarlet in the autumn, as shown here on the great oak behind Comstock House. We didn’t know that this was a heritage plant dating back to her garden.

Most fun of all the responses were the snippy remarks of Mrs. T. J. Geary, wife of the city attorney who had told the City Council that the rich were entitled to more water because they paid more taxes). Mrs. Geary snorted, “Don’t I think Santa Rosa ought to have a park? Don’t I think we all ought to have diamond earrings? While fully appreciating their beauty and desirability, I think our needs should be well supplied before indulging in luxuries, When our streets, water supply, and sewers are all improved it will be time enough to talk park.” Cripes, lady, sorry to have asked.

A selection of the replies from that February 24, 1907 Press Democrat:

* Mrs. William Martin: “It seems to me that nature has pointed out the most appropriate spot for a city park. Cleanse and dam up the naturally pretty stream running through the town, lay out the banks tastefully, and tract on either side and you will have one of the most beautiful and central places of recreation possible. It seems a pity that a stream which might be made so attractive should be used as a dumping place for rubbish.”
* Mrs. C. D. Barnett: “In my opinion the best location for a park would be along the Santa Rosa creek, if it were not too mammoth an undertaking to remove the objectionable features. With these taken away the place could be transformed into an ideal park with all the natural beauty which it affords. However, there would be so much to undo before anything positive could be accomplished that it seems hardly practical for Santa Rosa to undertake in the near future. My second choice would be the old College ground, affording as it would seem the best natural facilities for transformation into a park. The grand old trees, the creek bed, where an artificial stream could be directed, the broad stretch of grass, and other natural advantages present wonderful opportunities for a city park which would fulfill all the needs and requirements of such a public improvement.”
* Mrs. Judge Seawell: “My ideas are so extravagant I am afraid to give them to you. I would like to see the Ridgway tract north of town bordering on Healdsburg avenue, made into a park. With drivers through broad lawns, bordered by varicolored flower beds, with fountains and statuary, I think we would have the ideal park of the state.”
* Mrs. E. F. Woodward: “I should like to see two parks, one on each side of the town. The College grounds at the east side is most preferable, and the block bordering Seventh, between A and Washington street at the west side.”
* Mrs. W. D. Reynolds: “I would prefer several small parks scattered [illegible microfilm] the triangle formed by Mendocino avenue, tenth, and Joe Davis streets would be a desirable location for one; the triangle at the corner of College avenue and Fourth street, another. I would like to see the new court house put on the Grand hotel site and utilize the court house square for park purposes.”
* Miss Adelaide Elliott: “Our beautiful new Santa Rosa needs a beautiful new park. We can have it by adopting the fine plan of Mr. Willcox to improve Santa Rosa creek from E street to Main. I agree with him that this is decidedly our most desirable location. Nature has done wonders for us there. Trees, vines, a winding stream that could easily be dammed to hold water enough to make boating ideal on summer evenings…All visitors to Santa Rosa wish to see the home and grounds of our eminent and esteemed friend and townsman, Mr. Luther Burbank. It would be greatly to our credit and satisfaction if we were able to take these strangers through a part of town of which we could be proud instead of being ashamed…”
* Mrs. John S. Taylor: “…[G]ive us back our plaza. No other place can combine utility and convenience with beautiful effect, as could the plaza, used as originally intended as a public park. All large cities have their breathing spaces, lungs, so to speak, in the crowded business sections. We can never aspire to metropolitan effects without city parks.”
* Mrs. T. A. Proctor: “…[T]he only place to my idea is Mr. Ridgway’s field of lively oak trees on the Healdsburg road, already a natural park. But, oh! I am afraid I am like the boy who asked for the man in the moon to play with.”
* Mrs. James W. Oates: “Make parks of the banks of all the creeks near the city; letting roses and Virginia creeper run in profusion over the trees; placing seats beneath the shade of the latter; and keeping the streams of water free from refuse.”

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