1918madness

THE MADNESS OF 1918

On Dec. 1, 1918, Grace Brothers’ brewery was closed on account of madness.

eitherorLike other breweries across the country, the beer-making section of big plant at the foot of Second street in Santa Rosa was ordered shut down by government regulation. The given reason was the nationwide shortage of coal, which began after the U.S. entered WWI; at the time coal was the fuel that ran almost everything in the country and while the crisis had little impact on the West Coast, the situation in the Eastern states was dire. William Jennings Bryan came to Santa Rosa and told us six million tons of coal a year were wasted on brewing beer; that was almost double the true figure, but it didn’t matter that he got it wrong because he sounded so convincing, as he always did.1

Bryan was mainly a professional prohibitionist during the war years. When he came here that June he also claimed $50 million worth of food products were being used annually by brewers.2 At this point of his speech he usually harrumphed indignantly, “how can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor when men are crying out for bread?” The brewing industry pushed back that under one percent of the nation’s grain was used in making beer, but that was another true factoid not heard in Bryan’s Chautauqua tent.

Accurate facts weren’t important to his audiences who didn’t seem to mind that he was hammering simplistic either-or fallacies into their poor, soft skulls; they went away thinking it was a choice between closed schools or open saloons, bread for starving war orphans or a nickel beer. They were given the impression that making alcohol – or drinking it – was both unpatriotic and shameful.

But Grace Brothers’ wasn’t forced to stop brewing because of an actual shortage of coal or pressing demand for flour or the eloquent lips of William Jennings Bryan. It happened because by the end of 1918 most Americans were nuts.

This article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today. This chapter concerns the origins of 20th century “fake news” – propaganda created in the U. S. during WWI. Some came from the government, intending to whip up support for the war, stir hate and fear against Germany and sow suspicions about German-Americans. The crusaders, who hoped that Prohibition would soon turn America bone-dry, wanted to shutoff access to all forms of drink and force the public to embrace their moral standards. In 1918 the government and the anti-alcohol forces virtually merged.

The Anti-Saloon League – the wealthiest and most powerful of the prohibitionist groups – not only wrote critical parts of the Volstead Act legislation but stage managed the Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into the German-American Alliance, paying witnesses for testimony. At the hearings the Alliance was painted as a front for the brewer’s trade group, which was itself condemned for placing editorials against the U.S. entry into the war and others against prohibition. ASL leader Wayne B. Wheeler argued at the time this showed the brewers were acting as a subversive fifth column and the government should seize all breweries owned by German families as “enemy alien property,” regardless of whether the owners had become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Some of the propaganda efforts by the prohibitionists were clumsy (they tried to rebrand beer as “Kaiser Alcohol”) but leaks from the Senate committee served to drag the Alliance/brewer patriotism story out for months. Speakers for ASL also effectively kept reminding the public that the names Busch, Pabst, Schlitz and Miller were all German – and President Wilson’s propaganda office, the Committee on Public Information, already had spent a year shaping public opinion to cast everything involving the “Huns” as sheer evil.

You’ve seen WWI propaganda posters; everybody has. There’s a small collection at the end of this article but do a Google image search and hundreds will turn up, along with some Photoshopped knockoffs which look like the real thing (Bitcoin people are particularly adept at this).

But I invite Gentle Reader to try to imagine the power of seeing them for the first time. Close your eyes. It’s 1917 or 1918; there is no internet, TV or radio; movies are silent and black & white. You read newspapers for entertainment and often probably see a copy of Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Leslie’s Weekly or another popular slick magazine, but aside from their color covers the illustrations inside are like the newspapers, in black & white and the ads are heavy with text and light on graphic design. Ho-hum. Then one day you’re downtown and in a store window is a poster like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The colors are bright and alive; the forced perspective makes people seem to pop out of the drawing. There are only a handful of words, but the image is so powerful it makes any more unnecessary. Holy moly!

The Press Democrat and a great many other papers ran a little poem by novelist Napoleon Augustus Jennings (what a name) called, “The Appeal of a Poster:”


“Huns Kill Women and Children!”
It was staring him in the face.
Telling the tale in headlines
Of the deeds of a hellborn race:
Telling of dastards’ doings,
Black murder hurled down from the skies
On nursing babies and mothers
Such a slaughter as Germans prize.

The doggerel went on for a few more verses, each starting with “Huns Kill Women and Children!” and ended, “Get in the fight to stop them/ In France men are showing you how/ Join the Marines! Go to it!/ And the time to enlist is NOW!”

Nor were these horrible Huns just an existential threat. The head of the citizen’s State Council of Defense in California told the PD, “People are not permitted to go their usual quiet ways, misled by a false sense of security.” German supporters and sympathizers, he said, “must be hunted down as we would hunt venomous snakes in the grass.”

Every few days there was a newspaper report about a German spy being arrested, sometimes locally. Not long after the U.S. entered the war, the Sonoma county District Attorney and law enforcement officers swooped down on the Tyce family, who had a place near the peak of Hood mountain. A neighbor turned them in because he thought it was suspicious that they had a radio antenna and were foreign-born. It turned out father Ludwig Tyce was a Swiss-born chemist and he had bought the radio for his 14 year-old son. As it was 1917, there were only experimental broadcasts by voice so he was obviously listening to morse code. Although there was no transmitter on the rig the police confiscated it anyway. There was quite a large story on this in the PD, but no followup; the paper was silent on whether the kid ever got it back.

Everything was suspicious. In Geyserville, a man and boy were seen “throwing boxes of an unusual looking mixture,” according to the PD. That was not long after a 59 year-old naturalized German-American was arrested near Vineburg on suspicion of being a German spy. They found he had a map of the Valley of the Moon and “Deputy Murray also found a German iron cross in his valise, and other articles. Then there were a number of letters and pieces of writing. The arrest is regarded as an important one.” Since he had emigrated to America in 1880, the only time he could have been awarded the medal was in a war fought when he was twelve.

This constant drumbeat of hate and fear had horrific consequences. There was vigilantism; in April, a man rumored to be a German spy was lynched in southern Illinois (a town about the same size as modern Sebastopol). He was abducted by members of the local “Loyalty Committee” and forced to kiss an American flag at intervals as he was marched barefoot through the streets to the place of his murder. Some resources claim there were other lynchings and tar-and-feathering of suspected spies, but I can’t confirm – although it would hold no surprise.

prussiancurThere were also several movies about espionage in the U.S. in 1918, most notably “The Prussian Cur,” described as a docudrama that was a “mighty panorama of the war…reveal[ing] the menace of the German spy system in America.” The film included scenes of an Allied soldier being crucified by Germans. With its heavy-handed Christian symbolism, posters were also made of German soldier performing crucifixions, as shown below. The story was certainly a myth; the victim was first supposed to be British, then Canadian, and it was never clear where and when it supposedly happened.

Crazy rumors were spreading – and the wilder, the faster and better. An unusual species of pigeon which was supposedly German was shot in Michigan. Mysterious aircraft were spotted flying over Kansas at night. German submarine crews infected with typhoid were coming ashore and spreading the disease in movie theaters. As one writer put it, “There were not policemen enough to track down every denunciation, and the volunteer committees of citizens merely added to the general terror. An invisible enemy plotted an unseen conspiracy throughout the land, and fear and the drys profited.”3

But the story that sent down deep roots in Sonoma county was that German agents were putting ground glass in bandages, flour, sugar, candy and pretty much everything else. Some kinds of chewing gum, specifically Tutti Fruitti brand, were pulled from the shelves. In Eureka ground glass was supposedly found in the Red Cross workroom; in San Rafael two women said they found it in packages of macaroni.

In March the Sonoma county DA got involved after being sent four samples of “contaminated” food. He told the PD he found some sand (“enough to catch in the teeth”) in the cornmeal and bread samples, but that was it. The paper followed with an editorial assuring readers there was nothing to worry about and that the story had originated in Arkansas, where a disgruntled baker had inserted glass into a loaf of bread in order to screw over his boss.

At the close of this exhausting year of spies and saboteurs, no one apparently had the spunk to fight the brewery closures in December, although the war was actually over at that point. And besides, as the Press Democrat commented, “it was thought that possibly now that the armistice is signed and peace is coming that the order will not be in force for any length of time.”

Oh, you sad deluded souls; you did not understand that once the righteous crusaders of morality had gained an inch of ground they would never yield. The Grace Brothers’ business would survive – and even thrive during Prohibition, according to the Grace family history website – by making soda pop (they were a Pepsi-Cola bottler) and near beer, but it would be almost fifteen very long years before their traditional and delicious suds flowed again.

NEXT: WILL WINE COUNTRY SURVIVE PROHIBITION?


1 At the start of 1918 the White House ordered all non-essential businesses to shut down for five days because of the “coal famine.” This left most cities with only grocery and drug stores remaining open; in some places schools closed for weeks during the winter due to lack of heat or curtailed hours because there was no electricity. After the government had nationalized the mines and the railroads, however, coal shortages became far less of a pressing issue. According to the 1918 Fuel Administrator’s report, breweries used about 3.3 million tons of coal the previous year.

2 Before the breweries were closed because of the coal excuse, they already had been socked by the Fuel Administration; in September 1918 the sale of grain for making any form of alcoholic drink was prohibited.

3 Prohibition: The Era of Excess by Andrew Sinclair, 1962. This is by far the most thorough book on the events leading to Prohibition.

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POWERFUL WIRELESS SET LOCATED ON TYCE RANCH, TOP OF HOOD MTN. BY DIST. ATTY., SHERIFF AND POSSE
“Not Spy,” Tyce’s Claim, Says High Power Plant Bought for Son, Who Is An Expert Operator

WHAT FEDERAL OFFICIALS regard as a most important seizure of a complete radio outfit was made Saturday afternoon by District Attorney George W. Hoyle and Sheriff Jack Smith on Hood Mountain, fifteen miles from Santa Rosa. With the officials at the time were Deputy Sheriff Chris A. Reynolds and Deputy Fish and Game Commissioner Henry Lencioni, the two latter having been sent to the scene early Saturday morning to make the direct investigation which resulted in the discovery.

The taking of the radio plant — most complete in all its attachments — crowded Sonoma county into the fore as featuring what was regarded by the officials as the most important war happening of the day on the Pacific Coast. Such was the opinion of United District Attorney John W. Preston when informed by District Attorney Hoyle as to the seizure. Preston had Hoyle tell him the details immediately over the long distance telephone Saturday night. Tho United States Attorney stated that he would at once communicate with the radio officials of the United States government in San Francisco and later would inform Hoyle as to what further steps would be taken. Later in the night Preston communicated that Assistant United States Attorney Caspar Ornbaun would be sent up to Santa Rosa on Sunday morning to meet Hoyle and Sheriff Smith and take up a further investigation. It was also hinted that arrests might follow, this latter information, however, not coming direct from the government.

The wireless outfit, fully equipped, was taken on the ranch of Ludwig A. Tyce. It is the last place on the road that leads by the W. D. Reynolds ranch, and is at an altitude of from 2,500 to 3,000 feet the ocean side, and having commanding view. The outfit was discovered, however, in a most inaccessible place, hidden from view from any road, and as District Attorney Hoyle stated, “In the most unlikely place any one would look.”

At the time of the first visit of Deputies Reynolds and Lencioni, Tyce and his wife, daughter, son, son-in-law, all ignored any suggestion that the wireless was there for any improper use. Tyce declaring that the expensive radio set had been bought by him for his son, Roland, a sixteen or seventeen-year-old lad, with a reputation of being a clever amateur wireless operator.

UNDER SURVEILLANCE FOR SOME TIME

When seen Saturday evening, after the wireless had been brought to the District Attorney’s office in the courthouse, by a Press Democrat representative, District Attorney Hoyle (it being understood that some important details are withheld and will be so by the federal authorities) it was ascertained from him that about two weeks since information was placed in the hands of the District Attorney by a person whose name is withheld to the effect that suspicion pointed to the fact that a wireless station had been established or was to be set up on the Tyce ranch. District Attorney Hoyle told his informant to be careful and if he had any further suspicions to communicate to do so. A week or so elapsed and the same man called upon the District Attorney confirming in a measure his former suspicions. About the same time Sheriff Jack Smith received a communication from an official source telling him of the supposed presence of a wireless on Hood Mountain, the Department of Justice having received some information to that effect.

Sheriff Smith and District Attorney Hoyle “got busy” and it was agreed that Deputies Reynolds and Lencioni, under the guise of looking for poachers, should visit the Hood Mountain ranch section. Saturday morning they proceeded cautiously and climbed to the highest position where they could overlook the Tyce place. They had field glasses and other equipment with them. With the aid of the glasses they were able to detect the aerial on the Tyce ranch. The officers then went to the ranch.

“WE ARE AMERICANS,” THEY CRY

Reynolds and Lencionl upon arrival at the Tyce ranch house, were met by Tyco and his wife. For some reason or other, not yet explained, the officers state that Tyce and his wife, almost as soon as they appeared, raised their hands and cried out:

“We are Americans. We are Americans!”

The officers then went to the location of the wireless, a sort of tankhouse effect building, hidden in obscurity and upon which was erected a sort of tower and scaffolding. In the room on the ground floor was found the wireless instrument, fully equipped for receiving messages, the outside wires running to the top of a high tree in the vicinity. The Instrument, which is said to be capable of sending and receiving messages 2,500 to 3,000 miles away, was on a table. On one side was a typewriter and several books similar to those used by a shorthand reporter and several hooks of blank telegraph forms. When shown the outfit in the District Attorney’s office Saturday night a radio operator pronounced it complete…

TYCE CLAIMS NO HARM

Tyce told the officers that he was not a German but was born In Switzerland. His wife is of German extraction, he said, but was born in Russ Roland. He scorned the idea that he had the wireless outfit on top of his mountain ranch and in such an obscure place for any other reason than that he had bought it for his son, Roland, who had operated a wireless on the coast prior to coming to Sonoma county. He said he had purchased it in New York. Tyce claims to have come to this country and to have landed at Point Huron, Mich., in July of 1908. He says he is an expert chemist and his picture appears in a trade Journal secured by the District Attorney with a group of pictures of other chemists with whom he was interested in business in Rockford, Ill., although he and his family came here from Indiana…

…No arrests were made Saturday night, as stated, but the plant was taken and further orders awaited from the Department of Justice. Again, as stated previously, Tyce denied that the plant was installed for any improper use such as receiving or sending secret information, insisting that it had been bought solely for use by the son. There is some disposition on the part of the officials to doubt this and a searching investigation will be made. It should be stated that at the time of the taking of the radio set it was only set for receiving, the sending part being disconnected…

– Press Democrat, May 27 1917

STATE COUNCIL OF DEFENSE MAKES A STIRRING APPEAL
County Councils of Defense Urged to See That People Are Not Allowed to Be Misled by the False Sense of Security and That German Supporters and Sympathizers Are Hunted Down as Venomous Snakes.

A. F. Nafzger, vice-chairman of the State Council of Defense, has just issued a stirring appeal to the county councils of defense, in which he urges that the “People are not permitted to go their usual quiet ways, misled by a false sense of security.” German supporters and sympathisers, he says, “must be hunted down as we would hunt venomous snakes in the grass,” and declares that “alertness in this may save your sons or brothers.”

[..]

– Press Democrat, January 4 1918

 

MACARONI FILLED WITH FINE GLASS

San Rafael, Feb. 9.— Evidence of a diabolical plot, presumably the work of enemy agents, to bring agony and death to unsuspecting persons, was revealed here today when Mrs. R. L. White and Mrs. C. D. Hammersmith of San Anselmo brought to Sheriff J. J. Keating three packages of macaroni in which quantities of ground glass had been embedded.

The women said they discovered the glass particles by sheer chance while cooking the macaroni. The paste is the product of a Cleveland concern and was purchased in a San Anselmo grocery.

– Press Democrat, February 10 1918

 

DISTRICT ATTORNEY MAKES AN APPEAL TO THE PUBLIC
Tells of Reports in Circulation and the Work of Tracing Them Down, and Urges That There Be No Undue Excitement Aroused in Community.

The District Attorney has issued a statement relative to reports going the rounds and making an appeal to the public not to get unduly excited or aroused over reports placed in circulation intentionally or otherwise. The statement in full follows:

“In justice to those engaged in business and also in justice to the general public of Sonoma county, I deem it my duty to make a statement relative to certain reports which have been circulated to the effect that glass had been found in cornmeal, bread, cake and other foodstuffs. During last week four of these cases were reported to me with samples of the foodstuff in which ground glass or pieces of glass were supposed to have been found.

“I immediately took up the matter of an investigation of all these cases as rapidly as possible and forwarded the first samples which I received to the University of California for analysis. The other samples brought in I carefully examined myself. I have not yet received a final report from the University of California relative to the sample sent there, but I have made a personal examination of the other samples submitted to me. Out of these samples which I examined in one case I found absolutely nothing of a foreign nature.

“In the case of some bread which was submitted to me I found small grains of sand. Just a few. yet enough to catch in the teeth and cause one perhaps to be suspicious if they did not know what these small particles were. In the case of some cornmeal which was submitted to me I found quite a quantity of sand, but in none of these did I find any trace of any glass whatever. The presence of the sand in the cornmeal is to my mind easily accounted for by the fact that this meal was from corn which had been taken to the mill and ground…The few grains of sand found in the barley bread which I examined might be accounted for by a little dirt in the bake room of the bakery where the bread was produced.

“At any rate, from my investigation thus far, I feel that there is absolutely no occasion for anxiety or uneasiness in regard to glass in any food products of this kind in this locality.

“This is a time, of course, when we should ever be on the alert for anything which may be wrong, yet at the same time we should not be over-suspicious and endeavor to cast blame upon any one until we feel absolutely certain that the responsibility is fixed where it rightfully belongs…

– Press Democrat, March 7 1918

 

MAN HAD MAP AND AN “IRON CROSS”
Important Evidence Discovered Among Effects of Alleged German Spy Arrested Near Vineburg Friday by Deputy Sheriff Jack Murray.

The Press Democrat mentioned Saturday morning the arrest by Deputy Sheriff Jack Murray on Friday morning of a man named Wilhelm Peterch, near Vineburg. The man was arrested on suspicion of being a German spy and was detained in jail here, pending the arrival of a deputy United States Marshal.

Among the man’s effects on the ranch on which he was arrested was a carefully prepared map, which he is said to have made, showing the railroad tracks through the Sonoma Valley from Glen Ellen to Sonoma, the county roads, the bridges, the hills and valley, the principal places, including the Jack London place and the Spreckels place, and other points. Deputy Murray also found a German iron cross In his valise, and other articles. Then there were a number of letters and pieces of writing. The arrest is regarded as an important one.

– Press Democrat, April 7 1918

 

A FOOLISH SCARE

It isn’t pleasant to think of ground glass in our digestive machinery. Maybe that is the reason why the scare has gained such headway. Sensitive people see glass in purchased foodstuffs where there isn’t anything of the sort.

The government committee on public information announced the other day that federal experts, out of more than two hundred cases they had investigated in various parts of the country, had found only one genuine case of ground glass in foodstuff. That was at Fort Smith, Ark. It involved only one loaf of bread, and the offense was inspired, not by pro-German malignity, but by the desire of an aggrieved baker to hurt his employer’s business.

[illegible microfilm] stronger statement still. It “has followed the elusive ground glass story from Maine to California and from the Lakes to the Gulf for the past four months,” in co-operation with the Intelligence bureaus of the war, navy and justice departments, and in the thousands of cases that have been reported has found but one genuine case.

The experience of the New York City authorities has been just as conclusive. Occasional fragments of glass have been discovered in food, due apparently to carelessness or accident, but not a trace of ground glass.

This situation is precisely what any level-headed person might have expected, German plotters bent on crime would have more sense than to work such a weapon. “No sane German spy, or even German diplomat,” The Journal of the American Medical Association reminds us. “would choose ground glass to kill a community.”

– Press Democrat, April 23 1918

 

GEYSERVILLE IS GIVEN A SCARE
Inquisitive Strangers Cause of Some Anxiety for a Time

Geyserville, May 31—The first of the week considerable anxiety and excitement was experienced in and about town by the actions of a man and boy — strangers. These people traveled about town and even out a mile or more throwing boxes of an unusual looking mixture called salve. In addition to this, the man was very much interested in knowing all about the source of the town water supply. In this day of spies and Huns such questioning by total strangers aroused much suspicion. The county authorities were notified and Phil Varner sent to investigate. Mr. Varner seemed to think there was no cause for alarm, so the affair was dropped though many persons have been afraid of poison in the water.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1918

 

BREWING OF BEER STOPS AT THE LOCAL BREWERY

At the Big Santa Rosa Brewery Saturday Night the Brewing Ceased Until Fuel Administration Lifts Ban.

Saturday night the brewing of beer ceased at Grace Bros. Santa Rosa Brewery, as it did in every other brewery throughout the nation in accordance with a prior order of the government that brewing of beer must cease on December first. As a war conservation measure for the saving of food and fuel, it was thought that possibly now that the armistice is signed and peace is coming that the order will not be in force for any length of time.

At any rate there will be no shortage of the refreshing draught made from the beer blossoms at the local brewery as all the big cooperage is filled and there is sufficient supply on hand for several months of winter consumption. At this time of the year there is naturally a falling off in the amount of beer consumed.

– Press Democrat, December 1 1918

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THE GODAWFUL STINK OF SANTA ROSA CREEK

If you ever come across a time machine, avoid Santa Rosa in July, 1913. That month had the all-time hottest temperature (113 in the shade) as enormous wildfires blazed in Marin and Napa; it was also the second year of severe drought, causing the town’s reservoir to draw dangerously low. More about all that can be found in an earlier item, “THE AWFUL SUMMER OF 1913” but there was also something else: A terrible stench drifted up from Santa Rosa Creek.

The Press Democrat first reported PG&E was suspected as the culprit, as they operated the coal gas plant on the south side of the creek. A story in the PD the following day said the company investigated and it wasn’t them, instead suggesting it was probably “vegetation that has decayed,” causing the paper to skeptically snort, “at least that is their contention.” After weeks of complaints, Dr. Jackson Temple, the town’s Health Officer, and a reporter for the Santa Rosa Republican set off in a voyage of disgusting discovery to solve the mystery.

Ca. 1905 photo of Santa Rosa Creek, with the old Main Street bridge in the distance. Note the discharge pipe seen to the left. Photo Credit: “Santa Rosa, California in Vintage Postcards” by Bob and Kay Voliva

Dr. Temple and the reporter started behind the Levin tannery (the current location of 101 Brookwood Avenue). The tannery had a long history of polluting the creek with lime and highly toxic agents such as cyanide used in the manufacture of leather. Citizens had petitioned the City Council to get tough on the tannery and the Dept. of Fish and Game had sued over the poisoning of fish. But on the day of the creek survey, no problems were found – although cynics might wonder if the tannery had been tipped off about the creek investigation, given the business was Santa Rosa’s largest employer.

More distressing was what they found nearby: “Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet.”

As their wagon continued bumping down the dry creek bed (drought, remember) they came to the PG&E gas plant, another source of frequent complaints about foul smells. And again, no problems were found that day, except for “a considerable deposit of lamp black” on the bottom of the creek. Dr. Temple proclaimed it harmless, but he was wrong; lampblack carbon residue was considered as toxic as petroleum tar even back then; in 1906 the Army Corps of Engineers specifically sued the Portland gas company for dumping it into the river and by 1913 PG&E had installed scrubbers at their plants in San Francisco and elsewhere to keep it out of the waterways.

So far, so good (mostly) – but as the Republican commented, “a short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable.”

This area was just south of the Davis street bridge, which was named in the earlier odor complaints. Today this section of Santa Rosa is gone, wiped out by the highway, but it was just where the southbound onramp from West Third street merges onto 101.

The main offenders were two major businesses, side-by-side: The Grace Brothers brewery (today the location of the Hyatt) and the Santa Rosa Tanning Company directly to its south. “The stench arising from this was indescribable,” the article said. “It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night.”

And that wasn’t all: “[A]nother sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet.”

The next – and thankfully, last – horror was the cannery, where “two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering” Just beyond that was a “great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor.” Even though there was no further dumping downstream, the Republican said the stench from the water carried as far as where the creek passes under modern-day Dutton ave.

Gentle Reader is probably wondering why these companies were stinking up the town instead of discharging their waste down the sewers. As it turns out, that always might not have been an option.

Santa Rosa indeed had a sewer farm at the corner of West College and Stony Point (think Finley Community Park and the the city bus transit center) and by 1913 there were multiple septic tanks and several in-line evaporating/seepage ponds before the residual water was dumped into Santa Rosa Creek. But the system was usually teetering on the brink of collapse, according to John Cummings’ survey, “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” (which is a really fun read if you enjoy municipal screwups). In the decade before our stinky 1913 tour, town officials made a string of remarkably bad decisions. Some lowlights:

* In 1905 the city wrote to the Cameron Septic Tank Company in Chicago requesting plans and costs for a new tank. Told by the company that their system was patented and they required a deposit before providing plans, Santa Rosa ripped off the design and had locals construct it anyway. Cameron Septic sued, and Santa Rosa ended up paying back royalties plus the cost of building the copycat tank. That wooden septic tank was big enough to handle a population of 10,000, although there were already almost that many people in the greater Santa Rosa region. By 1912 the sewer committee reported the “sewage problem is in deplorable condition” as the system was beyond capacity.

 

* The original 1886 layout of the sewers called for eight-inch pipe west of Main Street/Mendocino, but only six-inch lines east of there into the main residential neighborhoods. By the early Twentieth Century, these pipes could not handle demands; every winter the sewer mains down Second and Fifth streets backed up. In 1913 the city approved a high water volume, “Wet Wash” laundry at the corner of First and A streets and every time it discharged wastewater, the Second street main line overflowed. The town’s solution was to ask the laundry to build a private cesspool but according to the Republican article, they had been dumping it into the creek.

 

* Santa Rosa failed to make incremental improvements even when it had the opportunity. After the 1906 earthquake hundreds of connections were repaired and there were new extensions of the sewer mains, all using the inadequate six-inch diameter pipe. When the city added a new line to serve the booming communities south of the Creek in 1914 they used eight-inch mains, which predictably backed up just as they did on Second and Fifth streets. Santa Rosa’s solution was to spend more on maintenance – installing new manholes allowing workers to use a sewer cleaning machine that cost the equivalent of about $24,000 today.

(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Creek at flood stage in 1925, as seen from the newer Main Street steel bridge. Photo credit: Sonoma County Library)

Compounding the odor problems of 1913 was the drought, which meant no moving water in the creek so pollutants stayed more or less where they were discharged. All that was about to dramatically change.

The winter of 1913-1914 was an El Niño storm season, and Sonoma county was hit hard; in the December 30 storm, Santa Rosa had four inches in 26 hours while Cazadero had fourteen. Many “wagon bridges” over creeks around the county were destroyed and the Russian River passed flood stage. Railroad crews and volunteers in Santa Rosa worked through the night to protect the Santa Rosa Creek bridges as “trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream,” according to the Press Democrat. In the thrilling account transcribed below, men with axes and secured by ropes chopped for hours on a tree rammed against the side of the Davis street bridge.

The creek probably smelled pretty good after that big flush, at least for a while. But nothing fundamentally changed. According to the Cummings paper, “the city’s own sanitary inspector described the condition of the creek in the spring of 1916 as being ‘worse than a septic tank’ and commented that nothing could be done about it.”

AROMA ANNOYING ON THE DAVIS STREET BRIDGE

People who have to cross the Davis street bridge are lodging complaints concerning the aroma that comes up from the stream. The befouling of the water is said to come from gas water from the gas works. It is hoped by the complaints that something will be done to relieve the present unpleasantness.

– Press Democrat July 24, 1913
SAY SEWER GAS IN FILL IS CAUSE OF STENCH

Thursday morning’s Press Democrat mentioned the annoying stench coming from the creek, supposedly caused by gas water from the gas works. It at once recalled the suggestion made long ago that there should be a commercial sewer, into which the drainage from the gas works, tanneries, etc., could be turned in. Several years ago this matter was up for discussion before the city council, and Mayor Mercier and the present council are also interested in the matter. So is Health Officer Jackson Temple, M. D. The gas people state that they made an examination, thinking that there was a leak of gas somewhere, but claim that the stench is probably caused by vegetation that has decayed since the fill was made for the Davis street bridge. At least that is their contention.

– Press Democrat July 25, 1913
CITY HEALTH OFFICER INVESTIGATES CONDITION
Of Santa Rosa Creek With a Republican Representative

No one need go to an auto polo game, nor to seventy mile an hour races, nor on a scenic railway for thrills. The Alps, Mt. McKinley nor any other peak can have any terrors for the person who takes a light wagon or buggy and drives down the bed of Santa Rosa creek from city limits to city limits. Apprenticeship for a deep water sailor can be gone through with in less than regulation time by taking this trip.

It is not a pleasant trip in any sense of the word. So much has been said and so much written concerning the Santa Rosa Creek that the REPUBLICAN determined to find out the conditions of the creek from an expert’s point of view, and let the people of this city know that condition, its cause and what it’s effect will be. The blame for the conditions can be placed at once. When this article is read over and nearly every condition described is noted by the reader, let him say simply, “A commercial sewer will prevent this condition.”

Blame for the condition lies entirely in this. If the city is to blame for not having such a sewer, that is another matter. But the direct blame for the conditions lies in the lack of a proper commercial sewer, or any commercial sewer for that matter, for the city is without one. There are certain factories on the creek which are creating more waste water every day than their sewer tappings are capable of carrying away. There are factories creating more waste water than the main sewer with which they are connected is capable of carrying, with no other factor or residence connected with it.

What shall these factories do? Shut down or use the creek as an outlet?

Certain it is that no more factories can be encouraged to come here until proper sewerage is provided for those already here, an epidemic will sweep this city and the cost of the sewer in dollars will be insignificant compared with the cost of an epidemic in human lives.

Now for the conditions. Dr. Jackson Temple accompanied a representative of the REPUBLICAN on the inspection of the creek. Dr. Temple is city health officer. He made the trip at the invitation of the REPUBLICAN because of the importunings of citizens who live along the creek and who have been keeping his telephones busy for the last few weeks sending in complaints of the unsanitary conditions which they claimed to be prevalent along the creek throughout the city.

The descent into the creek bottom was made in back of the tannery at the foot of F street. Several piles of rotting vegetables and garbage were found at this spot and were evidently from private houses. There was plenty of evidence that many persons had used the creek for a considerable distance as an open air toilet. This, by the way, is distinctly against the law. No waste water from the tannery was in evidence, at least not in any large streams. Had there been, the green vegetable matter noticeable in all stagnant water would not have been in evidence, as it was, through the pools at this point.

Passing from here after much violent pitching and rolling of the wagon, the back of the gas works was reached. Two large streams of water were being turned into the creek at this point from the works. A gas works sends its waste water through a long process of filteration with lamp black before it is turned into the creek or sewer, as the case may be. The water as sent into the creek is tested and passed by the Fish and Game Commission and therefore is pure enough not to cause trouble in the creek. For quite a distance below the creek, however, a considerable deposit of lamp black is noticeable on the bottome of the creek. According to Dr. Temple, this will not do any harm, nor cause any stench, and none was noticeable at this point beyond that arising from any gas works, and which is impossible to prevent.

Passing to the Wet Wash Laundry, the waste pipe which was recently broken and the water allowed to flood into the creek, was found to have been fixed, and there was no overflow, and has not been for some time as the ground where the flow had been was completely dried.

Dr. Temple, however, pointed out a white deposit left where the overflow had been and stated that this was to a great extent alkali and that turned into the domestic sewer, it would nullify the work of the septic germs in the tanks at the sewer farm. Along the creek at this point, however, there were many piles of garbage, again evidently refuse from residences. Piles were in various stages of decomposition and the stench was very strong although not spread over a very wide area.

Conditions along the creek from this point on for some distance were the best of any found. There were piles of tin cans festooned along the banks, rendering them very unsightly, but this offended civic pride more than bodily senses. Around the Davis street bridge, that is in close proximity to the bridge, everything was fairly clean.

A short distance further on, however, came the worst conditions imaginable. From the tannery came a small stream of bluish-white water, the odor of which was most unpleasant. A short distance on there was a good sized stream from the brewery, and still further on another larger stream from the same place. The stench arising from this was indescribable. It filled the nostrils like blue smoke, filtered down into the lungs, and burned its way to the stomach, where it worked until it gave one the feeling of a bad morning after a worse night. The top of the water was covered solid with a green-black streaked scum, and the water beneath was as black as night. This scum came down with the water over the banks and was traced to the brewery.

Just before reaching this another sight was met which added greatly to the stench in the neighborhood. A toilet had been built of rough boards in the Mead Clark Lumber Company’s yards. The rear of the toilet was open and hung over the creek bank and its contents covered the bank for a distance of many feet. This also is in direct violation of the law and will be attended to at once by the health authorities.

Passing on from the back of the brewery as quickly as possible, the railroad bridge was left behind and the camping grounds near the cannery were encountered. The sanitary conditions here are very commendable. Nothing had been thrown on the banks except old papers and a few cans. This is due to the persistent efforts of Dr. Temple, who insisted that the rules of sanitation be lived up to as much as possible in the camp.

The scum on the water was deeper the further down the creek one went, and the stench correspondingly more unendurable. Reaching the back of the cannery, two large streams of water were found pouring into the creek. The water was a wine purple in color and carried with it an orange colored scum, which was added to that from the brewery. Combined, the smell was almost overpowering. Just below the cannery, on the bank was a great pile of refuse which was rotten and putrid, and which also gave off a most offensive odor. This pile was seen to be fresh on one side and badly rotted on the other.

From the cannery to the Seventh street bridge, there was nothing else added to the creek in the way of vegetable matter or waste water. But the stench from the water at the Seventh street bridge was just as strong as at the brewery.

In making a resume and comparing notes of the trip, Dr. Temple was asked what the result would be if these conditions were not attended to and speedily at that. “Sickness, much of it, and in bad forms,” was his instant reply. Therefore, while no attempt will be made to point a moral, a question is left which needs a speedy answer: “Will the citizens provide a commercial sewer, or will they invite the inevitable epidemic.”

– Santa Rosa Republican August 15, 1913
SANTA ROSA CREEK IN A WILD MAD RACE
Much Anxiety Felt for Hours for Bridges–Big Tree Lodges Against Davis Street Bridge–Care Could Not Cross Electric Railroad Trestle Last Night

For some time last night when the storm was at its height considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the Island bridge, the Main street bridge, the Davis street bridge, the electric railroad bridge and that across the creek at West Third street, as well as the old bridge at Pierson and West Sixth street.

Scores of people braved the storm and visited the bridges and at 2 o’clock this morning when a Press Democrat representative made the rounds people were still watching the mighty torrent racing along carrying al kinds of debris with it.

About 10 o’clock last night a big willow tree swept down and lodged against the Davis street bridge. Word was at once sent to Mayor Mercier and Street Superintendent Beebe and in a short time they were on hand with men and many of the big branches were cut away. This was accomplished by men with axes who climbed down onto the tree and were held from slipping by ropes placed about their bodies. At 1 o’clock this morning the tree was anchored with stout ropes so as to prevent if possible, its going further down stream to collide with the electric bridge.

The high water washed away considerable of the fill on this side of the Davis street bridge, but so far as could be seen the retaining wall on the Ellis street side was not damaged. A portion of the fill on the Main street side where the turn is mde onto the Island bridge, was also washed away. At 2 o’clock this morning Mayor Mercier, Superintendent Beebe and George Plover went out to the old pumping station to look at the bridge across the creek there which also carried the big water main. The bridge was in good condition.

Cars Don’t Cross Bridge

The electric cars to this city stopped on the other sided of the trestle bridge across Santa Rosa creek as it was deemed dangerous, owing to the tremendous torrent to cross. A crew of men employed by the railroad were on hand endeavoring to dislodge any debris that rammed against the structure. This bridge seemed in great danger. The Northwestern Pacific railroad had crew of men watching its bridge across the creek. Santa Rosa creek was a boiling torrent and the roar of the stream could be heard for a long distance. At 2 o’clock the water had fallen considerable but it was raining and a high wind was blowing.

A portion of a bulkhead near the electric bridge was washed out. Horses were moved from stables on the bank of the creek. Many awnings and signs suffered from the force of the wind and storm. It was altogether a wild night and people living along the banks of the creeks in town and in the country adjoining were considerably worried..

…The amount of debris carried by the waters of the creek was wonderful. When the water was at its highest last night big pieces of wood and other material kept up an almost incessant banging against the Island and Main street bridges, at times somewhat alarming timorous people gathered there. Trees and timber of all kinds, fencing and all sorts of trash were being whirled along in the angry, muddy, turbulent stream.

Men employed by the city were kept patrolling the various bridges all night to give warning should occasion arise when additional help might be wanted.

– Press Democrat December 31, 1913

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HEAR THAT PAVLOVIAN WHISTLE BLOW

Oh, my stars; the Grace Brothers Brewery steam whistle has turned up. According to a Press Democrat article, a man who identified himself only as “Gary” dropped it off at the Sonoma County Museum along with a note that he had swiped it in 1966, when he and other kids were up to no good and sneaking into abandoned buildings (and a big thanks for doing that and rescuing this artifact as a result).

For generations, as Gaye LeBaron notes, it kept Santa Rosa on schedule, blowing to announce lunch time and quitting time. But in the years around the 1906 Santa Rosa Earthquake, the whistle had more important jobs as well.

Santa Rosa’s water system was a mess until it was upgraded in 1907, causing the town to enforce severe conservation measures. Policemen, firemen and city inspectors became water cops, empowered to wake you in the middle of the night if water was heard running. You could be fined $2.50 for a dripping faucet and you were billed a monthly fee for every tub, toilet, and sink in your home. Lawns and gardens could be watered only at certain times and/or certain days depending whether you lived east or west of Mendocino Avenue; in the scheme used following the earthquake, the east side could use a garden hose between 4 and 8 o’clock, while westerners had the hours between 5 and 9. Starting and stopping times were announced by the steam whistle.

The Grace Brothers’ whistle also became Santa Rosa’s fire alarm for a few years after the earthquake, tooting out a code that alerted our volunteer firemen to drop whatever they were doing, jump on their bicycles, and pedal like mad to a specific neighborhood. (The alarm system and codes are described in an earlier article.) Anyone using water at that time was required to turn it off immediately to ensure the firefighters had adequate pressure.

If you’re keeping track, all that meant the brewery whistle was sounding at 12, 4, 5, 8, and 9, plus any time it was needed by the fire department. When that thing started to blast off, I imagine people often just stood still for a moment with their heads cocked, like puzzled dogs, trying to figure out if they were supposed to eat, start, stop, turn off or go home.

 There was also another steam whistle over at the power company used to summon the on-call lineman. In that era, light bulbs were somewhat of a luxury item in many homes, handmade and expensive; instead of buying them, it was more as if you leased them from the power company, or subscribed to its light bulb service. If a bulb burned out – even in the middle of the night – customers expected the company to replace it pronto. Ask nicely and their certified light bulb technician might even screw it in for you.

 (ABOVE: Grace Brothers Brewery, c. 1902. From the Santa Rosa Fire Department Souvenir, 1902)

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