sidkurlandertitle

ONCE WE HAD AN ATTIC OF TREASURES

When did we lose “old Santa Rosa”? When did we first glance into the rearview mirror and suddenly realize we could no longer see anything on the road behind us? Some of it happened in the mid 1960s, when the Carnegie library was torn down and Courthouse Square lost its actual courthouse. More was lost in the late 1970s, when the Redevelopment Agency’s bulldozers plowed about 40 acres of old buildings – some beautiful and more than a few historic – to make way for that damned mall. But I’d argue a large part disappeared precisely on Saturday, May 4 1985, starting at 10 o’clock in the morning. That was when we sold off artifacts and treasures, some dating back before the Gold Rush. Or rather, the Freemasons sold it off for their own profit – all without the county or city’s knowledge or permission.

This is the story of Santa Rosa’s lost attic. All of those things were kept for a half-century in an actual attic – the top floor of the Masonic Scottish Rite Temple at 441 B street, which is where Macy’s parking garage is now.

To the untutored eye it appeared to be the sort of junky space you might have found at a grandparent’s house: There were boxes of faded photographs, souvenirs only recognizable to old-timers, objects which were precious to people very long dead but useless to anyone now. It was both a mausoleum and a loving shrine in remembrance of all things past, and there was no contradiction in that.

The keeper of these treasures was Sid Kurlander. By trade he was a tobacconist like his father before him. He was born above the family tobacco shop/cigar factory on Fourth street in 1879, and by all accounts began collecting interesting things before he could shave. Sometime during the 1930s the collection became too big for his garage (or wherever he had been keeping it) so everything was moved to the roomy Masonic attic. It’s no surprise that his collection was welcomed there; Sid was about as tangled up with everything Masonic as anyone could.1

Sid was also a Reserve Deputy, which gave him a badge with his name engraved on the back. As such he had no real duties; it was a nod to him being considered an honorary member of the law enforcement fraternity. Which brings us to the guns.

There were lots and lots and lots of guns up there in the attic and many were given to him by the sheriff or local police. There was Al Chamberlain’s gun that killed Police Chief Charlie O’Neal in 1935 and a revolver supposedly used by Black Bart. There were weapons collected by Sid or donated from people who didn’t want to have to have dangerous antiques around. There was an elephant gun, muzzle loaders, a tiny .41 caliber Spanish single-shot with a pearl handle as well as swords and machetes. All were tagged as to where they came from and their part in history.

Among other police-related artifacts: The cabinet displaying nooses from the 1920 lynchings along with the photo of the dangling gangsters. A thick book of wanted posters given to Sid by the SRPD in 1938. A pair of the county sheriff’s handcuffs from 1900. There was “beautifully made oriental opium smoking equipment” taken from a raid of Santa Rosa’s Chinese quarter and donated by Sheriff Mike Flohr. There was an engraved invitation from Sheriff Dinwiddie to the hanging of H. E. Brown on May 4, 1882. (The Governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.)

Sid Kurlander displaying the 1920 nooses and handguns in his collection. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander
Sid Kurlander displaying the 1920 nooses and handguns in his collection. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander

Nearly all of what we know about the contents of Sid’s collection comes from just two 1949 and 1976 feature stories in the Press Democrat – and those were mainly photo spreads, with little space for the writer to describe those “mementos of times that were luxurious for some and hard for others,” as Susan Swartz lyrically wrote in the latter piece.

And there were thousands and thousands of stories there begging to be told. Why did the Straub family hang on to a pair of lacy white hand-knitted hosiery from the Civil War era? On the shelves were police arrest books next to hotel registers from the Occidental and Grand hotels; Swartz was told “you’d be surprised at the names that turn up in one or the other of these.” Aaargh, so tell us!

One wonderful story which did thankfully survive concerned a little silver spoon given to Jennie Shattuck on her twelfth birthday in 1852. She and her family had sailed around the Horn and were now headed to California on a steamer, so the ship’s captain thought it would be nice to hold a party for her. It must have been a pretty swell birthday shindig, because the ship ran aground off the coast of Mexico during it.

Sometimes the PD referred to the Masonic attic as the “Kurlander Museum,” which made Sid none too happy. He was adamant he was only preserving artifacts until the city or county created a proper history museum. In the 1949 interview he said he had turned down offers from a Los Angeles museum and the San Francisco chapter of the Native Sons (NSGW) because he wanted to make sure everything stayed locally.

Also in 1949 the Sonoma County Historical Society was formed.2 That fall there were many meetings planning for an “all-out campaign” to build a history/art museum across from the fairgrounds on Bennett Valley Road. Breaking news: It ain’t there and never was.

Sid died in 1958. His Press Democrat obit mentioned he “maintained an extensive collection of historical photographs, documents, and momentoes of Santa Rosa’s early days.” But since he had never opened it to the public, people walking past the building next to the Sears & Roebuck had no idea what all was in that attic.

The collection was in limbo. A man named Spencer had the keys for awhile before Raford Leggett took over. Leggett had a very successful real estate office in Santa Rosa during the 1940s-1950s and was now in his seventies. Naming him curator seemed a perfect fit; not only did he have an interest in local history, but he was entwined with the Masonic world as much as Sid had been – perhaps more so. For better and worse, the fate of the Kurlander Collection would be in the hands of Raford Leggett for the next 25 years.

There is much to be admired in what he did during his time. He created an inventory of the collection (now lost) and gave private tours to interested clubs and school groups.

His weakness was a failure to grasp that a museum was not just an indiscriminate bunch of old stuff. Leggett donated the license plate from his family’s 1912 Rambler, an elaborate toy his father made, his mother’s wedding dress and household items such as a hand pump vacuum cleaner. There was a toolbox from a Model T (“You didn’t really need any tools, just baling wire and a pair of pliers,” Raford told the Press Democrat).

People cleaning out their attics gave him similar “heirlooms,” which he dutifully added to the Kurlander Collection. He did not see a difference in importance between Sid’s shelf of old bibles – which may contain the only surviving vital data on otherwise forgotten branches of a local family tree – with that row of butter churns he now had lining a wall.

Sid Kurlander amid his collection stored at the Scottish Rite Temple. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection
Sid Kurlander amid his collection stored at the Scottish Rite Temple.
Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection

Despite his advancing age, Leggett was an indefatigable advocate for the creation of our current history museum. Yet a museum of sorts had existed since 1963, operated by the Sonoma County Historical Society at 557 Summerfield Road (current location of the East West Restaurant). They leased a portion of the building from Hugh Codding for $1/year; the rest being the “Codding Foundation Museum of Natural History.”

Nothing from the Kurlander Collection was exhibited there and the Society was even more eager than Leggett to accept whatnot, even soliciting donations via the PD. The paper mentioned their collection included a small ceremonial cannon, multiple shaving kits, “a photo of a Crow Indian chief by some famous photographer,” a Singer sewing machine, a lemon squeezer and, of course, old guns.

By the late 1960s the history room at the Codding museum was drawing about three thousand visitors a year and there was talk of expanding it should a new fireproof wing be added to the building. Interest in partnering with Codding to sanction it as the permanent county historical museum waxed and waned, however, depending on the current status of negotiations over the vacant sheriff’s office on Courthouse Square.


SLICING UP THE SQUARE

In 1966, Santa Rosa’s Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body which had broad powers for redeveloping all of central Santa Rosa, bought all property the county owned in the downtown area. This included Courthouse Square, the sheriff’s office/jail and the county garage. On paper the URA paid $400k for it all, but the county agreed to settle for half of that.

Courthouse Square was split by the new street through the center with the western sliver turned into a (pathetically small) plaza, while the URA planned to sell the rest of the former county land to developers in order to pay back the $200k that was owed. There was broad public support for making it a park – possibly with a Luther Burbank statue – but downtown business interests, led by the Press Democrat, demanded the Agency go ahead with the planned sale. When the URA failed to find a buyer for the east side of the square the county sued and threatened to take back the land to sell it themselves. The lawsuit was settled in 1970 with the county accepting $50 thousand along with some undeveloped property (MORE).

Those were also the peak years of the urban renewal squabbles over the future of Courthouse Square (see sidebar if Gentle Reader’s memory needs refreshing). The unused sheriff’s building, with its stately classical façade, was seen as a perfect fit for a museum which would combine the Kurlander Collection along with Burbank memorabilia and whatever the Historical Society had to contribute. Leggett and William McConnell formed the “Santa Rosa and Sonoma County Museum Board” to raise money for preserving and remodeling the old jail.

Our Redevelopment Overlords were not amused by the peasantry bucking their plans. Besides needing to sell the property to pay off the debt to the county, it was feared a museum might create “a dead spot” in the heart of Santa Rosa’s soon-to-be-bustling (!) business district. Finally killing the dream was an engineering estimate it would cost up to $200k to bring the building up to code and retrofit it for a museum – which would actually have been a bargain, as it cost 3x more to just relocate the former Post Office building.

In the following years Juilliard Park was mentioned as somewhere a museum could be built, but there was little energy in trying. Then came the 1976 Bicentennial and with it a surge of interest in all things historic. The Historical Museum Foundation of Sonoma County was formed with Leggett named as its first president. The Foundation was given $1,500 by a county commission and there was much ado about a fund-raiser at the Occidental Hotel which exhibited items – presumably from the Kurlander Collection – which would appear in some future museum.

The historical crowd had their eyes set on (somehow) obtaining the post office building the URA had slated for demolition, but there was no clear path forward. Hugh Codding proposed to buy it for a museum and leave it where it was, with the mall developer building a three-story parking garage around it.

Having been disappointed so often before, the Foundation said in 1978 they would settle for a downsized museum in the stonework Railway Express building at Railroad Square (now A’Roma Roasters) and the City Council pledged $250k towards that. But in a burst of hometown verve worthy of a three-hanky Hallmark Channel movie, in the spring of 1979 donations poured in and there was suddenly enough money for the Foundation to acquire and move the old post office.

Come “Museum Day” (Jan 12, 1985) Sonoma County finally had a real history museum when the thoroughly revamped building, now moved 850 feet northwards, had its gala opening. It was a cause for celebration, but the joy for historians was short-lived – within four months the celebrated Kurlander Collection, which Sid had started before the turn of the century with the dream it would be the foundation of just such a museum – would be scattered to the winds.

Sid Kurlander with unidentified rifles. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection
Sid Kurlander with unidentified rifles. Undated photo courtesy Dennis Kurlander collection

That the old post office would stay around long enough to become our history museum was never a sure thing until the end of 1978; the mall developer and the Redevelopment Agency were itching to see it demolished. Agency member George Sutherland said he considered the post office an “abomination” that the misguided public had turned into a “sacred cow.” The Agency grudgingly voted to preserve it only because it was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There was also public interest in saving the Scottish Rite Temple but it was a less noteworthy building and not on the Register, so it was torn down the same year. Had it been similarly preserved and moved elsewhere the Kurlander Collection might have survived intact.

At some point inbetween the vague plans to create a museum at Juilliard Park or A’Roma Roasters, Sid’s grandson, Dennis, recalls he and his father Herb approached the Freemasons. They asked for the neglected collection to be returned to their family with the notion of themselves creating a Kurlander Museum of some sort. Sorry, it all belonged to the Masons, they were told, but should Scottish Rite have to move they were promised it would be kept together at their new place and placed on display. So when the building was slated for demolition all that Sid had collected over his lifetime was crated up and placed in storage.

Fast forward to Monday, May 6, 1985. Dennis Kurlander picks up his phone and the caller is a friend who tells Dennis he bought old photos and other items at a big antique auction over the weekend, later noticing some were labeled with the name “Sidney Kurlander.”

The Freemasons had sold the Kurlander Collection as part of a fundraiser to help pay off the mortgage on their new Highway 12 Masonic Center.

“If I had known this on Friday,” Dennis angrily told Gaye LeBaron, “I would have had my lawyer stop them.”

masonicauction_(RIGHT: Auction announcement from the Press Democrat, May 3, 1985)

Gaye wrote four columns about these doings yet no reporter from the Press Democrat was assigned to investigate, even though the Kurlanders were seeking counsel about suing the Masons – had they simply filed such a complaint it would have been a major news story with an impact far beyond county lines.

What follows is drawn from her columns May 10-16 [my additions are enclosed in brackets].

Although Sid had bequeathed the collection to the Scottish Rite, the Kurlanders said it was given with the express intent it should be kept intact and made available to the public. Walter Eagan, chairman of the Masonic board of trustees, told Gaye LeBaron they “didn’t know there were strings attached…we never realized we had a obligation.”

The auctioneer told Gaye he was likewise unaware they were selling off an important collection, but made a defense that the Kurlander items were only about twenty percent of the things sold that day; the Masons had put out a call for all lodge members to donate their antiques and collectibles for the mortgage sale. [The auctioneer did not say how much of the proceeds came from the Kurlander Collection, but given the rarity of the items – particularly the firearms – it certainly would have brought in a helluva lot more than the other contributions, which were likely garage sale quality.]

LeBaron spoke to Raford Leggett and wrote he did not seem concerned the collection had been sold piecemeal, and told her it was done because there was simply no room in the new building to house the collection. [At the time Leggett was 91 and nominally involved as a director emeritus of the Foundation, which operated the new museum. He did seem to still have focus; just a few days before the auction he gave a well-received talk about his memories of the 1906 earthquake.]

What peeved Gaye LeBaron and others most was the collection hadn’t been given to the museum, as Sid had clearly wanted. “We understood the museum got some stuff,” Eagan told her. “We assumed they got the things they wanted.” The Masons had contacted museum curator Dayton Lummis in advance of the auction and allowed him first dibs, but the museum – newly opened and with a shoestring budget – paid the Masons $1,800 to claw back just a tiny bit of the collection. After Gaye’s first column appeared, a few locals who bought items at the auction without knowing the backstory came forward and donated their purchases to the museum. [A portion of what the Museum was able to save can be seen cataloged under “Kurlander Collection” and “Scottish Rite Society.”]

Also galling was the Masons had offered the entire collection to the county library. Director David Sabsay told them they would “take the historical things, but that we wouldn’t have a place for the moose heads and stuffed birds.” The Masons’ response was that it was all or nothing. [Their proposal was probably to sell the collection, but LeBaron didn’t specify. It also appears Sabsay was mistakenly thinking the Masons were offering him the Codding Museum, which besides the Historical Society exhibit did indeed have stuffed big game animals and birds in another section. Dennis Kurlander doesn’t recall taxidermy items from his grandfather’s collection.]

The whole episode filled the historically-minded community with anguish and anger. Gaye LeBaron wrote some felt the Freemasons should unring the bell and track down all the Kurlander items and buy them back. She commented they should at least refund the $1,800 which was obscenely paid by the museum.

As for the Kurlanders, Dennis spent weeks afterward prowling antique stores and contacting dealers, spending thousands trying to rescue what portions of the collection he could. He told Gaye the issue was never about trying to claim the auction sale proceeds. “It isn’t the money,” Dennis said in 1985. “It’s that this is an insult to our family.”

 

1 Aside from being a member of the Santa Rosa Masonic Lodge as a Knight Commander of the Court of Honor, Sid Kurlander was a 33rd degree member of Scottish Rite, in the local Order of the Eastern Star, belonged to the Shriners Temple in Oakland and was president of the Shrine Club here. According to his Press Democrat obituary, “he devoted much of his time to fundraising activities in behalf of the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in San Francisco.”
2 There were earlier “Sonoma County Historical Society” groups which came and went as early as the 1870s. While well-intended, each appears to have fizzled out quickly. The 1949 incarnation went dormant after a couple of years and the current society was formed in 1962.

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wildwest1880

2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS

Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South – but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.

This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.

Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.

“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.


J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.

So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.

 

* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.

 

Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867

 

Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867

 

Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield

[inquest]

– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867

 

Death of Byrd Brumfield.

[inquest]

– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875

 

From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879

 

People Vs. Wirt Travis

[testimony]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880

 

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pocketgun

WHY YES, THAT IS A GUN IN MY POCKET

Questions we forgot to ask grandpa at the reunions: Did you ever shoot anyone? Were you ever shot at? Did you ever shoot yourself?

Open any Sonoma county newspaper from a century ago and prepare to be surprised at how often our ancestors reached for their guns to shoot someone. Keep in mind we’re not discussing the rootin’ tootin’ days of the Wild West but the early 20th century, when Santa Rosa and the rest of the looked pretty much like any place in Mid-America, particularly after 1910 or so. Breakfast was poured from a cereal box, people chatted on telephones, electric appliances were in the kitchens and in the evenings kids listened to recorded music their parents didn’t like. It wasn’t so different from today except everyone’s clothing had too much starch and men’s pockets bulged with guns.

It appears most were packing a snub-nosed “bicycle revolver,” so named because it was small enough to be carried by a cyclist to fend off dog attacks. There were many models that promised to prevent accidents by being “hammerless” with no exterior hammer to catch on clothing and/or with grips which prevented the trigger from being pulled unless the handle was being squeezed at the same time. Still, there were many cheap little .32 and .38 caliber revolvers available with no safety features at all – sometimes not even having trigger guards. As a result, the most likely person to be shot was the gun owner himself and filler items in the papers reported doctors patching up many a leg and foot wound.

When they did draw their weapons and begin blasting away our ancestors proved to be lousy marksmen, with their intended victims rarely seriously injured or even hit. In one of the wildest events chronicled here, Santa Rosa barber Andy Carrillo was in a four-way shootout in 1907 where he shot one man in the chest, causing a fright but little harm. When another of Carrillo’s bullets grazed someone else, that fellow pulled out his own gun and the two of them began shooting at point-blank range, both missing entirely. When the case came to trial, Carrillo went free – he was not even found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. But had he not slightly wounded the guy, the customary penalty for shooting at someone was merely a fine of $5 for each shot fired.

Among the shooting stories of 1913 was an incident near Guerneville that seems like a sketch from an old cartoon: Boys steal Farmer Jones’ fruit, Farmer Jones puts up a warning sign, boys steal fruit again and Farmer Jones peppers them with his trusty ol’ shotgun. Not so comic was that his gun was loaded with lead buckshot, not salt, and the boys were not comically wounded in the backside as they were running away. Farmer Jones badly injured one of them, with a doctor removing 24 pellets from a youngster’s face. This time the grand jury called it assault with a deadly weapon, but the judge allowed him to plead down to simple assault because he hadn’t intended to hit the kid in the face – he was aiming for their feet but alas, missed. Pay the forty dollar fine, please.

The other episode happened in downtown Santa Rosa. Since the previous year, the Rose theater was the target of pranksters, who jumped on the roof, shouted “fire,” and otherwise tried to panic the audience. Police were called to no avail. This time the manager grabbed his gun, ran through the restaurant next door and began firing away, although it was so dark he could not identify the people he was shooting at. Naturally, no one was wounded. This story had an unexpected O’Henry twist, however, when it was discovered that the theater projectionist was in on the malicious mischief: It was a cover for his theft of little parts and tools from the theater, along with his breaking some equipment which he could steal after the theater bought replacements. He pled guilty to petty larceny and was given a fine of $90 – or, as they might have said around the courthouse, two face-shots plus a couple of grazes.

BYSTANDER HIT BY BULLET AND SUES FOR DAMAGES

Peter Daliavanto, a 19-year-old youth, through his guardian ad litem, A. Bacci, commenced an action in the Superior Court yesterday against J. W. Leroux, a well known Cloverdale citizen, in recovering $750 damages.

The complaint alleges that on September 13, plaintiff was struck in the leg by a bullet and sustained severe injuries. He alleges that the bullet came from a revolver in Leroux’s hands at a time when defendant was aiming at A. Guicco for the purpose, as he alleges, killing Guicco. In other words, he says he was an innocent bystander and that Leroux’s aim was unsteady and the bullet intended for Guicco stuck him.

Allison B. Ware and Phil Ware are the attorneys for the plaintiff. The complaint gives the first news here of the alleged assault upon Guicco by Mr. Leroux. It is known here that Mr. Leroux has been worried over domestic troubles for some time.

– Press Democrat, October 1, 1913
ONE OF A GANG OF VANDALS ANNOYING THE ROSE JAILED

With the plea of guilty made by C. Croft before Judge Atchinson, Monday afternoon, petty thievery which has extended back for almost six months at the Rose Theater, was brought to an abrupt end. Croft pleaded guilty to the charge of petty larceny preferred by C. N. Carrington. He was sentenced to a fine of $90 or ninety days in the county jail, and elected to serve out his sentence.

The arrest is the culmination of a long series of thefts and acts of rowdyism after the shows were out, which have perplexed and bothered the management of the Rose Theater since last June. With the giving of a false alarm of fire early in June last the management has been continually harassed by several unknown individuals. Throwing rocks on the roof of the theatre was a favorite pastime of the hoodlums. This was stopped when Mr. Carrington ran through the restaurant next the theater and fired at the men. The first time the trigger was pulled the gun failed to go off and this is responsible for the saving of the life of one man as he had time to get out of the way before Mr. Carrington could pull the trigger again. One shot was fired at a man who was on the roof of the theater but the bullet did not take effect.

During this time many things have been stolen from the theater and several machines broken. Suspicions fell on Croft, the operator, who has been with the theater ever since it was opened. A search warrant was issued Sunday morning and Chief of Police Boyes and Constable John Pemberton went to Croft’s residence, on Santa Rosa avenue. They found a lense [sic] from the machine first broken, a roll of tickets and a number of tools. They later searched the attic of the theater and found a moving picture machine and a number of parts of machines which had been stolen and hidden in the loft.

Croft was arrested and readily confessed his guilt. He said that he had no excuse to offer and could give no reason for his actions other than it was a policy of his to steal little things at every job he had. He said that he smashed the machines because he wanted Mr. Carrington to get new ones.

It is known that several were involved in the plans to harass and annoy the Carringtons, as different ones have been seen about the place at the same time. It is believed that Croft is one of a gang and could throw some light on the attacks if he were so inclined. The Carringtons have been put at a loss of about $500 altogether by the work of the gang.

One moving picture machine was stolen, another taken out and left on the roof of the building and a lamp-house valued at $40 was broken all to pieces Saturday night after the last performance. It was this last act of vandalism which led to the discovery of Croft’s part in the job. It is known that he is the only one on the inside who has been involved but the authorities have a clew on which they are working which may lead to the arrest of his associates.

– Press Democrat, January 28, 1913
IRATE FARMER SHOOTS YOUTHS
Boys Stealing Fruit Give Severe Treatment

Warning.

I have a shot-gun. It is not loaded with salt.

I use No. 8 shot. Stay out of this orchard.

Disregarding the above sign which is prominently displayed in front of a peach orchard above Guernewood Park three boys were shot Sunday and more or less seriously injured by the owner of the orchard. One of the boys was shot in the face, the other in the neck and the third in the hand and stomach.

The boys were found a few moments later by Sheriff Jack Smith, who took them in his auto and rushed them to Rionido where they were given medical attention. One of the boys had twenty-four of the shots taken out of his face.

The farmer who shot them claimed to have been bothered so much with people stealing his fruit that he was compelled to resort to heroic measures to save his crops. He put up the sign which is about then feet square. The boys admitted that they saw the sign but “took a chance.” They decided not to prosecute the farmer, and all parties considered themselves well out of the mixup.

– Santa Rosa Republican Ju;y 7, 1913
FARMERS ARE VICTIMS OF LAWLESS HOODLUMS

A few days ago a Sonoma County farmer was indicted for shooting at some boys who had been caught stealing his fruit. The boys had been warned repeatedly but took no notice nor paid the least attention to the signs that had been placed in plain sight to warn trespassers. Now what was the farmer to do? He had been annoyed repeatedly by summer campers coming into his orchard, taking no heed to his warnings, so when the boys bent on stealing, came into his property he was so incensed that he raised his gun and fired the shot hitting all of the boys.

This is only one case of trespassing. The farmers in this and other countries also are being repeatedly annoying by summer campers going on their places, stealing fruit, shooting in many cases killing stock, and destroying sometimes many thousands of dollars of property, by carelessly throwing burning cigarette and cigar stubs in the dry grass.

What would the city man think if you came to his yard and set fire to his house? The people seem to take no notice of the signs placed near approaching roads and trails; in many instances tearing them down or disfiguring them so that it is impossible to read them.

Now can you blame the farmer when he takes the law into his own hands, when the people treat him as if he were an agent to serve them and long after their pleasures?

– Marvin A. Watson letter, Santa Rosa Republican July 21, 1913
PEPPERED BOYS AND IS FINED $40
Farmer Jones Dealt With Leniently by Judge Seawell Here on Monday

Farmer J. C. Jones who “peppered” three San Francisco boys with small shot while they were robbing his peach orchard, located on top of a hill, some distance from Guerneville, appeared in Judge Seawell’s department of the Superior Court on Monday to answer the Grand Jury indictment, charging him with assault with a deadly weapon. He was allowed to plead guilty to a charge of simple assault, and under the circumstances the Court was lenient with Mr. Jones, who is seventy years of age, and fined him forty dollars.

Jones told the Court of the depredations of the young hoodlums in his orchard on a number of occasions. This case was an aggravating one. He had already given the boys a basket of cherries, he said, and while his back was turned they broke into his orchard and filled baskets and hats with fine fruit and decamped. Next day they broke into the orchard and stole fruit again. The third time they came they were received with a volley of small shot from Mr. Jones’ gun.

Farmer Jones told the court that he had not intended that any of the shot should hit the boys in the face. He said he aimed at their feet, but was fired down hill.

Several good citizens of Guerneville were on hand to give Mr. Jones a good character…

…Dr. C. J. Schmelz was called as a witness. He is the resident physician at Rionido, and he extracted the small shot from the boys’ anatomy. The boys admitted to him that they had been stealing fruit, and said they did not wish anything to be done to Mr. Jones.

– Press Democrat, August 13, 1913

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