Wanna make a sawbuck in 1908 Sonoma County? Capture a kid trying to escape the workcamp at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol.

Every summer, the “The Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society” – a San Francisco institution for boys “not sufficiently wayward to require assignment to the reform school, and too hard to manage to be placed in family homes or orphanage” – forced dozens of boys, some as young as seven, to work in West County fields and canneries. Earlier essays have described the child labor situation here, but the 1908 newspaper coverage provided much additional detail.

The program was expanding every year; in 1908, “the Aid” brought here 170 youths, up from 130 the year before. In 1907, they had worked for the Barlows and two neighbors, picking 125 tons of berries. The following year they were hired out to 22 growers between Sebastopol and Forestville and picked 157 tons, plus “many tons” of peaches and plums. So popular were the child workers that still more farmers were planning to take advantage of the boys and not hire adults. One of the Santa Rosa papers reported, “arrangements are now being made for next year’s picking by several who have heretofore depended on Japanese help, or any who came along.”

Both local papers consistently portrayed the experience as a pleasant treat for the kids (“a delightful outing for many of them who otherwise could have had no vacation”), but the number of attempted escapes suggests differently. At least a dozen boys tried to flee the workcamp in 1908, including Raymond Onion and George Springer, who were named here earlier as possible suspects in the arson that destroyed the barns of Harrison Finley and another farmer that summer. If caught, the escapee was taken back to the camp in handcuffs, and the captor was paid a ten dollar reward. In one potentially dangerous situation, a couple of young men held a group of boys captive with a shotgun, only to find that they were ordinary and worthless runaways from their parents, not the workcamp.

The papers always trumpeted that the boys were allowed to keep some of their earnings, but here it was mentioned for the first time that the boys apparently had to pay their own railway fare between the camp and the area where they were required to work, and that their puny paycheck was docked “a small charge for camp expenses.” (There was no mention of who paid the $10 bounty hunter reward, but we can safely guess it wasn’t “the Aid.”) And although it was expected that “nearly all will subscribe for magazines” with some of their earnings, the money mainly was spent on clothing and dentistry. Clothes I can perhaps understand, but the kids had to pay for their own dentistry?

Included below are also a couple of bonus juvenile escape tales: A boy who fled St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Marin County and stole a horse and buggy was to be sent to Preston School of Industry at Ione (AKA San Quentin for Kids) and a pair of boys at the “Home for the Feeble Minded” in Glen Ellen used a rope made of blankets to get away from that institution. A few years later, Jack London wrote about a similar escape by two boys with epilepsy in a short story, “Told In the Drooling Ward.”

Five Escapes from Aid Society at Sebastopol

On Thursday three of the boys of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society camped at the Barlow ranch made their escape from the camp and up to this morning the officers had been unable to locate them. On Friday morning sometime between one and three two more of the lads left the camp, and in doing so, stole clothing from some of the other boys. It was thought that the first three lads had gone toward Occidental and taken the narrow gauge road from there to the city, but no trace of them could be found, and the officers are keeping a sharp lookout for them.

It will be remembered that a few days ago two little boys left the camp during the night in their night clothes. These later returned of their own accord regretting much that they had attempted to regain their liberty. There are 130 boys in the camp this year and many of them become very restless after they have been in camp awhile, and want to get off for themselves.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 24, 1908
Boy Who Crossed Continent is in Hands of Law

The boys who escaped from the camp of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society on the Barlow ranch on Thursday and Friday of last week are all back in the camp. Two of them, Raymond Onion and George Springer, were brought in by ranchers in the vicinity and the other three came back voluntarily and reported in.

Raymond Onion is the boy who it will be remembered escaped on the 5th of the month and was picked up in Santa Rosa by the crew of the local train who very generously forebore collecting the usual reward of $10 offered by the Society for the return of wanderers from Camp.

This boy is an Eastern lad who stole a large sum of money from his father and traveled across the continent to San Francisco, where he was relieved of the remainder of the money by his traveling companion. Left penniless in San Francisco he was taken to the Juvenile court and sent to the camp temporarily until his parents could be communicated with. His father refused money to pay his fare back and it was intended to secure him passage on a sailing vessel. He and the Springer boy, who is a friendless orphan who was discharged from an orphan asylum, because of his bad temper, have been the instigators of most of the trouble which the management of the camp has had during the past three weeks. They each made two attempts to escape and were brought back each time and all the others returned voluntarily. They were returned on Saturday to the custody of the juvenile court for such disposition as Judge Murasky may think best. It is the desire of the Superintendent, Mr. Turner, to have the boys stay at the camp voluntarily and much is done to make it pleasant for the boys in his care.

The major part of the earnings at the berry picking is paid to the boys on their return to San Francisco each year and spent by them on clothing, magazines, dentistry, and pocket money or put in the bank. This summer the Society has cared for a large number of city boys during the summer vacation of the public schools, affording a delightful outing for many of them who otherwise could have had no vacation.

Over 40,000 trays of berries have been picked thus far and the boys are being engaged for prune and peach picking which will soon commence. One or two squads will be needed in the Sebastopol cannery when peaches begin to come in.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 28, 1908
Youths Held Up by Boys While Officers are Called

It was reported Wednesday that four boys have escaped from the Aid Society Camp near Sebastopol and the officers were kept busy looking for the lads during the forenoon. It was stated that they were seen near the depot about nine o’clock and Officers Boyce and Yeager started after them post haste but when they reached the freight house they boys were gone and on going down the railroad they found two lads at the freight cars on the siding below the trestle. These boys were arrested but were found to be other than the ones wanted and were allowed to go again. The officers started on down the track but learned that the boys had preceded them to Bellevue.

Two boys near the Ice Factory learned of the runaways and hitched a horse to a cart and drove to Bellevue where they headed off the lads and one of them remained while the other came back and notified the police. He stated that his companion was holding the other boys at the point of a shotgun and wanted to know what to do with them.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 29, 1908

The article in Wednesday’s paper to the effect that four boys who were supposed to have escaped from the Aid Society Camp near Sebastopol were arrested by two Santa Rosa lads near Bellevue, left the impression that the boys were escapes, whereas they were only suspects, and it is learned from the officials of the Society that there have been no escapes for over a week, or since the dissatisfied ones had been sent back to the city. The four boys mentioned were strangers here, and were evidently well started on the “vag” route.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 31, 1908

The boys of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society passed through Santa Rosa Friday afternoon in two special cars en route to the home in San Francisco. There were 125 boys in the party, some having gone ahead.

The season has been very enjoyable and quite successful financially. Over 39,000 trays of ninety-seven tons of blackberries have been picked; 24,000 trays, or sixty tons, of loganberries, raspberries and mamoths, and many tons of peaches and plums gathered by the boys. They have been of great assistance in saving the enormous crop of peaches, having worked for twenty-two different growers between Sebastopol and Forestville, and have to their credit the sum of $4000.

The amount is credited to the 170 individual boys, who have enjoyed the benefits of the summer outing, and will be paid to them, less a small charge for camp expenses. The money is used for the boys for clothing, dentistry and in useful channels. Many put part in the bank and nearly all will subscribe for magazines on their return to the city.

Not all of this money is taken out of the county, however, as might be thought, as the expenses of maintaining the camp each year are heavy. About $2500 has been expended for supplies in the local markets at Sebastopol, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, it being the policy of Mr. Turner, the superintendent, to favor local dealers whenever he can do so without detriment to the society; $1500 has been paid out in salaries through a Sebastopol bank, a portion of which is spent right here and over $200 has been spent in local travel on the electric line.

More and more are the boys being recognized as a real help in handling the berry and fruit crop, and their reputation for thorough work is well established. When a berry patch is picked by the boys, the grower can depend on having it picked from start to finish at a uniform rate. With the growth of the work and the increased number of boys cared for each year, a larger amount of work is possible.

Originally only the berries on the Barlow ranch were picked, but now the society is in a position to handle the crops on 100 acres of blackberries, and arrangements are now being made for next year’s picking by several who have heretofore depended on Japanese help, or any who came along.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 11, 1908

On Witness Stand in Justice Court Frank Silva Freely Tells of His Escapade

Frank Silva, the youth who escaped from St. Vincent’s Orphanage on more than one occasion, will be sent to the Preston School of Industry at Ione, and will there be given another chance to make a man of himself. He recently stole a horse and buggy from a Petaluma man, was captured and brought here. He was given an examination before Justice Atchinson yesterday, and was held over to the higher court. He told his story frankly and admitted everything. This lad has been give a number of chances, and it is hoped that when he goes to school he will make good.

– Press Democrat, August 22, 1908


Two of the boy inmates of the Home for the Feeble Minded at Eldridge escaped from the institution on Monday. The lads were named Holley and Boem, and made a rope of their blankets by knotting the corners together and letting themselves from the dormitory window. As soon as the escape was discovered the attendants at the Home started a search and the sheriff’s office was notified. It is believe that the boys are in hiding on the farm of the home, and will be found in the woods there. This is the third effort of young Boem to gain his liberty from the place.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 13, 1908

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In the summer of 1908, the farmers along Mark West Creek watched in horror as a barn burned with horses and mules inside. As awful as that was, the community was spooked because it was nearly identical to another fire a week before. The farmers believed these were acts of terrorism – and they were probably right.

The second barn to be lost belonged the family of Harrison Finley, grandfather of Helen Finley Comstock, the wife of Judge Hilliard Comstock. She was nine when the fires occurred at the end of August, just as the hop picking season was to begin. Destroyed in the flames was all the harvesting equipment, the family wagons, even “Old Johnny,” the horse that was pulling the buggy when Helen’s father courted her mother. Whodunnit? According to the Press Democrat story, “some believe it is the work of a crank, who opposes the Japanese, as the farmers used Japs to string their hops.”

In an autobiographical sketch jotted down around 1970, Helen Comstock wrote that the family thought IWW organizers were to blame:

We hired Japanese workers to plant and “string-up” the hops…American workers could not or would not do this work but the budding IWW were constantly making trouble. One year Grandpa succumbed to their demands and hired workers through the organization. It was a terrible failure – The plants were not properly planted, the string trellises were not tied properly – the wires not hooked in place on the poles and many acres of hops fell to the ground – It was a miserable harvest. The next year [we resumed using] Japanese workers. In late August or early September, just before harvest, our barn and the barns of two neighbor hop farmers were set on fire…

When she videotaped an oral history about ten years later, Helen seemed even more certain that the IWW burned their barns, “…because [we] were hiring Japanese instead of white people for the hops. The… IWW was a powerful union at the time, and they had gone to my grandfather and threatened him for hiring Japanese to work the hop fields.” Although nothing could be proven, Mrs. Comstock said law enforcement “suspected these IWW because they had been threatening.”

But according to the report in the Press Democrat, the Sheriff actually said he “hardly agrees with the Jap theory.” Nothing is mentioned in any newspaper accounts about threats made to Finley by the IWW or anyone else.

While the Finleys may have blamed the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the “Wobblies”), the union was undoubtedly innocent of the crime. The first red flag (pun intended) was the threat over hiring Japanese workers; one of the hallmarks of the IWW that made the organization so radical for the day was that it so inclusive, welcoming unskilled Chinese, Mexicans, Filipinos – “every wage-worker, no matter what his religion, fatherland, or trade.” The IWW particularly admired the Japanese workers because they would not tolerate working conditions they considered demeaning or wages they thought unfair.

The other major evidence of Wobbly innocence was that the IWW was barely functioning at the time the barns were burned. There were probably no more than 6,000 members nationwide in the summer of 1908, most of them coal miners. The bank panic of 1907 nearly destroyed the organization as locals folded nationwide, and the Chicago HQ even had to suspend publication of its newsletter. It wasn’t until the September convention in Chicago, when a thuggish contingent of loggers from the Northwest called the “Overalls Brigade,” who rode freight trains and “beat their way” to the convention, took control of the IWW, leading to a new focus on strikes, boycotts, and (yes) sabotage. The growing wave of violent direct action led to the bloody confrontation in 1913 at Wheatland, where 2,000 striking hop pickers, mostly Hispanic, fought a heavily-armed posse that left four dead. Two IWW leaders were convicted of murder, and in the following years Wobblies embarked on a sabotage campaign that was said to destroy $10 million in California property per annum to extort a pardon from the governor.

But if it wasn’t the Wobblies, who done the deed in 1908? There’s wide leeway for interpreting critical facts here; it makes a great difference whether Harrison Finley was threatened about the Japanese workers months or a year earlier, or if it happened just hours/days before the barn was engulfed. Or maybe the threat had no connection at all (as the Sheriff seemed to suspect) and it was just an outburst by some racist busybody passing on the road skirting the Finley farm.

Here are five theories, ranked along increasing odds of likelihood:

* James Bond’s Grandfather In December of 1907, a new trade group was formed in Sacramento: “The Pacific Coast Hop Growers’ Union.” It really should have been called the “Hop Growers’ Trust” because it was almost certainly in violation of the Sherman Act. About two months before the fire, Lord Addington made a speech in Parliament where he declared the Growers’ Union “wish to ruin the English hop industry” and presented an incriminating letter written by the head of the group that threatened to sell the West Coast crop below cost. One of the directors of the Growers’ Union was Harrison Finley, so the Europeans and East Coast hop growers had somewhat of a motive to disrupt the 1908 harvest and specifically target Finley. It would be interesting to research whether any of the other directors had a similar mishap that season (James Near, the neighbor whose barn burned earlier, was not a director, but almost certainly a member). My guesstimate on the odds of an international (or intercontinental) “hit” ordered on a prominent Sonoma County hop grower: Less than 1 percent.

* The AFL Where the IWW reached out to minorities and unskilled workers, Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor was anything but inclusive. Gompers – an immigrant himself – called for stiff immigration limits to maintain “racial purity and strength” and charged that immigrants “could not be Americanized and could not be taught to render the same intelligent service as was supplied by American workers.” AFL racism particularly targeted Latin and Asian workers, even blocking minority unions from joining the all-important local labor councils. Although the hire-American-workers threat made to Finley sounds very much like the 1908 AFL (who particularly hated the Japanese), the union didn’t try to organize the unskilled workforce, such as seasonal hop pickers. My odds on this possibility: Barely 1 percent, and only because the AFL of that era always should be suspected in any labor agitation involving racism.

* Wobbly Impersonators With the national organization under death-watch that summer, anyone could claim to be an organizer for the IWW and probably no one would dispute it (or care). Rarely was the IWW mentioned in any California paper during 1908 except for little updates about the ongoing cage-match fight between the IWW, AFL, and Miners’ Union in Goldfield, Nevada, which was then in its second year. The only paper in the state with news about IWW activity was the Imperial Valley Press, which ran articles about “the plug-ugly tactics and vicious stirring up of strife” in El Centro. According to the newspaper, the “loafing delegates of the IWW” tried to interrupt the cantaloupe harvest that June by trying to drive Japanese field workers away. Local whites were incited to pelt the Japanese with stones, and a wagon carrying workers was attacked and overturned. The Japanese embassy in San Francisco telegraphed the Imperial County sheriff demanding action, but the “IWW” organizers had disappeared. (The following year, however, several actual IWW locals were established in the Imperial Valley.) Did they drift to Sonoma County and torch a few barns two months later? It’s doubtful; although there was anti-Japanese racism and use of violence in El Centro, there were no reports of union recruitment in this area. Odds that these were the same characters are again very low, maybe 3 percent.

* A Kid With a Match What if the racial threat – and even the advent of the hop picking season – were unrelated to the fire? That two, maybe three, barns in the neighborhood went up in flames might suggest the acts of an arsonist. And at that time of year, there were 130 “incorrigible” boys from “The Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society” of San Francisco working a few miles away at the Barlow berry ranch. The place was hardly a carefree summer camp; the papers frequently reported that kids escaped, only to have the police drag them back in handcuffs to collect a bounty. That summer the papers reported several boys fled and were recaptured, most notably one George Springer, “a friendless orphan who was discharged from an orphan asylum because of his bad temper,” and Raymond Onion, who had stolen a large sum from his father on the East Coast and traveled to San Francisco. Together, they were “the instigators of most of the trouble which the management of the camp has had during the past three weeks.” That the barns were destroyed with horses and cows inside might seem to work against the theory that children might be responsible, but several studies have linked juvenile firesetting with cruelty to animals. Odds: 45 percent. This is the Occam’s razor option; there’s no simpler explanation than anti-social behavior by a disturbed kid confined to a work camp.

* The Pitner Ranch Strikers Even without union representation, there were major Northern California wage strikes by hop pickers in six of the ten years between 1899-1909, sometimes more than one a year. No labor problems were reported in Sonoma County, but the strikes elsewhere often involved racial tension. In 1905, “about a hundred men, mostly tramps,” who were picking hops near Wheatland demanded more money and attacked Japanese workers at the ranch when the grower refused their demands; in an ugly 1909 incident near Sacramento, 12 deputies were called to supress a strike by a thousand angry white workers who charged that Japanese hop pickers were better paid and given easier jobs. In this possible scenario, a group of disgruntled hop pickers burned the barns. My odds: 50 percent. Here’s why:

The same week the barns burned, there was a wave of small hop picker strikes in the lower Ukiah Valley. Three out of four strikes were settled quickly, but one group of 200 workers, “nearly all from San Francisco,” according to the Sept. 1, 1908 Ukiah paper, demanded a 25 percent raise or they would allow no hops to be picked by the non-striking majority of workers. These mid-harvest strike showdowns invariably fizzled – without union muscle to back up the strikers, the foreman would have the sheriff scare the malcontents away and find new unskilled manual laborers, which were never in short supply. (In fact, the PD reported that a “special train of eleven coaches…bound for the hop fiends of Mendocino county, and bearing nearly a thousand San Franciscans” passed through Santa Rosa on Aug. 24.)

The Ukiah Dispatch-Democrat, which covered all hop picking news in Northern California, noted that ten John Doe warrants were issued for leaders of this strike “on the Pitner place” (which was just a couple of miles north of Ukiah) commenting that the rest of the crew were then expected to return to work: “This action will doubtless solve the situation as the majority of the pickers are anxious to return to their labors.” The article also gave clues that this strike was more worrisome than usual. The foreman sought legal advice about how to deal with the strikers from a Ukiah lawyer. The newspaper reported that the leaders of the strike “have been the cause of a great deal of complaint by the farmers who live near their camps. Garden truck, poultry, fruit, etc., has been disappearing at an alarming rate since the beginning of the hop picking season.” Although the Ukiah paper otherwise ended reports of any labor conflict with news that the workers were back in the fields and all were happy, the Pitner strike was apparently left without closure; did the pickers go back to work? Were the ringleaders found and arrested? The newspaper is silent.

My likely-case scenario is that the arsonist(s) were pickers who walked away from the hop fields near Ukiah and were heading back to San Francisco. It was most likely the Pitner ranch strikers (particularly their ten leaders, who had reason to flee because of the warrants), but it could also have been a loose confederation of malcontents from several of the strikes in the area. They might have targeted the Finley ranch because it appeared to be the largest to someone passing on the road, although it was overall a mid-sized farm with a long, rectangular shape because it was squeezed between the roadway and Mark West Creek.

This interpretation presumes motive – that the person/group disparaging the Japanese workers wanted to take over their jobs immediately. That’s supported by Helen Finley Comstock’s remark that the stranger was unhappy “because they were hiring Japanese instead of white people,” as well as the speed at which the Finleys and neighbors apparently linked the anti-Japanese comment to the arson. Like the Imperial Valley impostors, they might have expected to intimidate Harrison Finley by saying they’re “from the IWW” and demanded he fire his Japanese workers and hire them at once. When Finley refused, they torched his barn in revenge and to terrorize other farmers.

Evidence is circumstantial, I’ll grant. But thinking about it over several months, I kept coming back to the report about the Pitner ranch strikers being chicken thieves. The bank panic of 1907 nearly destroyed the U.S. economy; unemployment among skilled trade union workers reached 9.5% in the month the barns were burned, more than double the year before. In some parts of the country, the situation was beyond grim; unemployment in New York state reached 36 percent, with 200,000 estimated to be out of work in New York City alone. Charities were overwhelmed with appeals for help; crime skyrocketed; a vast number of men, probably millions, became unemployed drifters. Among those who came up from San Francisco for field labor in the late summer Mendocino heat might have been New England woolen mill workers, once-soft-handed Philadelphia shopkeepers, or an entire family from Ohio, all near destitute. Drawn by newspaper ads promising weeks of steady work, they found the prevailing wage in 1908 to be 80¢ per hundred pounds of cleaned hops, which meant that a picker was lucky to make $1.50 a day, about half the prevailing wage for manual labor. And on top of that, some growers demanded the workers rent tents from them and pay for food. It’s unknown what conditions were like for workers on the Pitner ranch, but with an epidemic of food being stolen from nearby gardens and backyards, we can guess that the situation was not good.

Growers like Harrison Finley treated workers well, many returning every year with their families for the harvest. But other growers had conditions that could have been the despicable inspiration for The Grapes of Wrath. It’s not hard to understand that workers on those farms would have become bitter and resentful and crazy angry, even willing to, say, torch the barns of blameless farmers who simply asked them to go away (read update here).

It’s also not hard to understand how people could have been radicalized by these experiences. None may have carried the “red card” of the IWW in 1908, but you can bet that many were card-carrying Wobblies in years to come, and who can blame them.

James Near’s Property Destroyed Friday Night

The large barn of James Near, adjoining this city, was totally destroyed by fire Friday night. With the building were twenty-five tons of hay, harness and other property. A buggy shed and harness shop were also destroyed. There were eleven horses in the barn, but with the exception of one they were removed without injury. The animal caught in the flames is Mr. Near’s fine driving mare and it is hoped her injuries are not serious. Some fencing and grass in the pasture caught fire but was extinguished. The flames so near the city attracted many people to the scene…

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 15, 1908
Disasterous Fire on Harrison Finley Place

The large barn on the Harrison Finley place, north of town on the Mark West Springs road, was totally destroyed by the fire shortly before midnight Saturday night together with fifteen tons of hay, two horses, two mules, eight sets of double harness, a heavy truck and a spring wagon. The only insurances as far as could be learned was on the mules.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It was first seen by Charles Maddux as he drove home from Santa Rosa. Mr. Maddux rushed to the Finley residence, roused the family, and gave the alarm. Joseph Brandt, a neighbor, got his large touring car and gathered up all the neighbors for miles and a bucket brigade was soon formed to fight the flames, but all to no avail.

The barn was enveloped in flames when first discovered and at no time was there any chance to rescue the animals or property after Mr. Maddux arrived. The flames were seen for miles in all directions, and created considerable excitement. Messages of inquiry were received by the Press Democrat regarding the fire while it was in progress. The barn was a large structure, being 25×60 feet, and two stories. The hay was stored in the loft. The loss will be quite heavy on Mr. Finley.

– Press Democrat, August 23, 1908

The destruction of the barns of James Near and Harrison Finley on the Mark West road, near the junction of the Healdsburg road, within a week of one another, has caused considerable uneasiness in the neighborhood. Speculation is rife as to the cause of the fires. All are firm in the opinion that they were set by some one intent on getting even for some imagined injury. Some believe it is the work of a crank, who opposes the Japanese, as the farmers used Japs to string their hops. They say they were unable to get other help. Sheriff J. K. Smith returned Monday evening after a two days investigation as much in the dark as ever. He found some tracks, but was unable to follow them to any tangible results. He hardly agrees with the Jap theory.

– Press Democrat, August 25, 1908

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Who forgets those wonderful summers of their childhood? Carefree days stealing chickens, escaping from jail, attempting armed robbery, hustling stolen eggs, and so much more. Ah, youth!

Or so it was in Santa Rosa during 1907, when rarely a week went by without multiple stories in the papers about hometown hoodlums. Some lowlights:

* Three boys who were in the county jail escaped from the slammer when adult inmates overpowered the jailer. The boys – who took the jail keys with them – were caught near Sebastopol, the trio riding a stolen horse

* A (different) group of three boys waved a gun in an attempt to stop the driver of a buggy on Bennett Valley Road

* A gang of four boys were busted for habitual chicken snatching. Raiding backyard henhouses all over Santa Rosa, their dog herded chickens toward the waiting boys who stuffed the birds into sacks

* The Mayer Gang – average age 13 – had a stolen egg racket, sometimes getting them from the grocer and billed to the Mayer’s family account, then selling the eggs to a restaurant for less than they cost

Robbery, arson, burglary, hookey playing and a 15 year-old girl accused of “immorality” were among the other misdeeds, and by mid-summer both Santa Rosa papers were writing off kids as young as 10 year-old Henry Saunders as “incorrigibles,” most of them destined to be sent to “the Aid.”

That would be “The Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society,” a San Francisco institution for boys “not sufficiently wayward to require assignment to the reform school, and too hard to manage to be placed in family homes or orphanage.” In the view of the PD, it turned scofflaws into good citizens:

There are not a few instances of boys who have been sent to “the Aid” ragged and penniless, ill-mannered and dirty, and unknown to schools or to soap and water, who have been discharged at the termination of their commitments with as much as $100 in cash, a good suit, an elementary knowledge of the three R’s, and a quite comprehensive understanding of the difference between right and wrong, and every prospect of becoming useful members of society.

Quoted in a 1915 book on child welfare, Aid Society superintendent George C. Turner mentioned nothing about education beyond the importance for the children to have an “appreciation of the value of money” earned through labor. “Industrial and economic training is the need; and that in my judgment can best be obtained in the factory, the store, and the shop.” Work was also necessary because children were expected to pay for the pleasure of living in a shelter, but Turner stressed that the boarding fee should be low enough so “the boy or girl can keep properly clothed, and have a little for pleasure.”

With that philosophy, there’s a blurry line between providing helpful vocational education and operating a temp agency for child labor. We don’t know whether “the Aid” hired out the children for domestic help or farm work, although a similar organization, the Catholic “Youths’ Directory” in San Francisco was doing exactly that, as discussed in an earlier essay. But it’s well documented that the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society had a long-standing relationship with Barlow and other Sebastopol berry growers, who relied upon the shelter to provide cheap field labor.

About 100 boys – some as young as seven, according to an approving Press Democrat transcribed below – were paid four cents a box for picking the berries, which the growers sold wholesale for a neat 200% profit. Other boys worked in local canneries, with all of the youths living the summer in a tent city on the Barlow ranch, two miles north of Sebastopol.

(RIGHT: Aid Society boys in the dining tent on the Barlow ranch. Another image can be seen in an earlier essay. Photo courtesy “Child Welfare Work in California“)

The PD painted the operation as a kind of idyllic scout camp (“boys at the Barlow ranch enjoy outing, pick berries, earn money, and acquire habits of industry among pleasant scenes,” read one headline), but a couple of years earlier the newspaper described boys trying to escape, with local police dragging them back in handcuffs to collect a ten-dollar bounty for each kid. Again in 1907, the cops were on the lookout for a pair of escapees from their erstwhile bucolic frolic. “The boys’ hands will be found scratched and stained from the berries,” the paper helpfully tipped off would-be bounty hunters.


Three San Francisco youths, named James Foster, Antonio Mazza and J. Carbauch, stole a $300 horse owned by Elisha Shortridge, of Pocket canyon, and when arrested by City Marshal Fred Matthews of Sebastopol they were all three riding Dobbin who was making time at the rate of a slow jog trot. The officer brought all three lads over to the county jail.

District Attorney Lea has heard statements from the boys and has ascertained that two of them have done time with the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society and he hird had escaped after having been sent to the same institution. From what he learned of the characters of the lads they are bad ones.

– Press Democrat, June 5, 1907

The three lads who rode a horse away from a pasture near Forestville last Sunday and were arrested in Sebastopol, were to have been turned over to the officers of the juvenile court in San Francisco Saturday, but owing to the fact that they took part in the jail break Friday night, they will be detained here until after this matter is straightened out. The boys are undoubtedly bad little characters. The mother of the youngsters arrived from the city Thursday evening and admitted to the officers that she is aware that her son is not of the best.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 8, 1907

While returning to this city Friday night on the Bennett Valley road not far from the Catholic cemetery, Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Pedersen were held up by three boys who were traveling along the road in a wagon. Mr. Pedersen was driving his buggy horse at the time and the animal was coming along the road at a lively gait, and when one of the youths pointed a gun at the Pedersens and ordered them to stop, the horse failed to obey the summons and nothing more was heard of the youthful highwaymen. It was though when the report was first brought to town that they were the boys who had escaped from the county jail, but this was a mistake.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 8, 1907

Youngsters and Small Dog Have Been Following a Lively Profession for Sometime

Truant Officer James Samuels took a quartette of boys to District Attorney Clarence Lea’s office on Monday afternoon. The lads have been following, it is alleged, a systematic plan of chicken stealing in different sections of the city. Their plan of campaign has been followed with considerable success. Their chief stock in trade in the pursuit of thievery has been a small well-trained dog, Officer Samuels says. The dog would invade yards and roosts and frighten chickens in the direction of the boys who would capture them and put them in sacks. So far no complaints have been lodged against the gang.

– Press Democrat, June 12, 1907

The case of two youths, who have not been attending school and who took a couple of chickens recently, was before Judge Emmet Seawell Friday. The court continued the matter until Monday to make some inquiries into the case. Judge Seawell said there was nothing vicious about the actions of the two boys, John and Henry Robinson, so far as he could see, but that he was not satisfied with the environment of the boys and that they should be attending school instead of being allowed to roam at will, and particularly without restraint at nights. The court wants to ascertain if the moral influence exerted on the boys is what is should be.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 14, 1907

Henry and John Robertson, two boys who were recently mixed up in chicken stealing in this city, were on Monday ordered committed to the care of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco. The lads will there be given an opportunity to start anew and learn a trade and otherwise equip themselves for life if they show the disposition to do so.

– Press Democrat, June 18, 1907


Complaint was filed in the Superior Court Monday by H. M. Le Baron of Valley Ford, charging Ethel Saunders, age 15, and Henry Saunders, age 10, with being incorrigibles. The complaint declares that the children are under bad influences when with their mother and that they have no father. Mrs. E. R. Saunders is said to be a woman of bad character and her children allowed to run wild. The boy is accused of stealing and the girl with immorality. The Court will hear their cases and probably send them both to the reform school.

– Press Democrat, July 9, 1907

The two young men, Rogers and Halleck, who were recently arrested at Camp Meeker for robbery and arson, will probably be allowed to enjoy all the fruits of their crimes. A sister of young Rogers arrived here from San Francisco this morning and at the county jail told her brother that his folks would take no part in the matter. The young man pleaded for assistance, but the girl told him that the best place for him was in the jail, as then his parents would not have to worry about his whereabouts. It seems that the relatives have decided to let the young chaps sweat it out along their own line.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 14, 1907


Will Mayer, the 13 year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. John Mayer, was taken into custody yesterday shortly before noon by chief of Police Rushmore and Officer Boyes as incorrigible. It is claimed that he has been stealing numerous articles from residents in the northern part of the city. He refused to answer questions and was locked up.

Late in the afternoon J. L. and Will Allen 12 and 14 year old, were taken to the police station and thoroughly questioned. They admitted having been involved in a number of scrapes with young Mayer and told of the petty crimes committed. Mayer when cornered would admit his part, but denied everything as long as possible. No decision was reached as to what would be done in the case.

– Press Democrat, July 27, 1907

A company of boys composed of Will Mayer, J. L. and Will Allen were arrested Friday by Chief of Police Rushmore and Officer Boyes for stealing chickens and eggs. Young Mayer is about 13 years old, while his companions are 12 and 14 years old respectively. The boys have been doing a regular business along the creek bank and in the yards of a number of residents of this city. One instance is given where one of the boys went to a store and purchased eggs at 30c a dozen, having charged them to his parents, and then going with them to the Jap restaurant and selling the hen fruit for 20 cents.

The officers are puzzled to know what to do with the chaps. Young Mayer has given them trouble for several months past, particularly in playing hookey from school, and he and his companions are considered almost incorrigibles.

Will Mayer was taken before Judge Emmet Seawell Saturday morning and after a thorough examination the boy was committed to the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco until the further pleasure of the court. The young man was very reserved and indifferent until the court passed sentence upon him. He then broke down and begged to be given another chance and he would prove that he could be as good as any body. He then wanted to know if he could come home in August in time for the opening of school here and the court said he would see about it.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 27, 1907
Rogers and Hollett to Be Examined Soon

The information charging Roswell P. Rogers and Vernon Hollett, the San Francisco boys with grand larceny, was dismissed before Judge Emmet Seawell Wednesday morning. Later Deputy Sheriff Donald McIntosh swore to complaints charging the youths with burglary. They are the lads arrested at Camp Meeker, who have confessed to burglary, incendiarism and other crimes.

The boys will be given a preliminary examination before Justice A. J. Atchinson in a few days on the burglary charge. They have confessed the crime and there is no doubt but that they will be given a good long term in the penitentiary, for the matter will be presented to the court in such matter will be presented to the court in such manner as to get evidence of the arson charge against them into the record. The maximum penalty is fifteen years.

Rogers and Hallett were arraigned before Justice Atchinson late Wednesday afternoon and their case was set for trial Saturday morniing. Rogers declared he wanted time to write his father and have the latter come here and secure an attorney to represent him and his companions in crime.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 31, 1907

Boys Run Away

William States, age 17, and Claude Chisister, age 14, two boys from the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society engaged in picking berries at Barlows near Sebastopol, have run away and the police and sheriff have been requested to assist in recapturing them. The boys’ hands will be found scratched and stained from the berries.

– Press Democrat, August 2, 1907

Enjoy Outing, Pick Berries, Earn Money, and Acquire Habits of Industry Among Pleasant Scenes

The boys at the Barlow berry farm have been picking seventy crates a day of the blackberries, raspberries and Loganberries that constitute almost the entire crop of 160 acres. This is the height of the season for blackberries, which will close in less than a month, although the “season” is over there will be work for 20 or 25 late-stayers to gather the fruit that ripens late.

The boys at this farm are those from the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco–“the Aid,” as the boys themselves call it for short. There are nearly 100 of them at the berry farm, and their ages range from 7 to 16. Most of them have been placed in care of “the Aid” for reason of moral delinquencies of various sorts; some of them are there because they have no parents to care for them, or have parents who are unable, unwilling, or unfit.

But nearly every boy in the camp has “done something” which is regarded as reprehensible by those who best know what boys should or should not do.

The superintendent of the camp, George C. Turner, denies that he has any “bad boys” in his industrial and industrious army. “Simply abnormal,” is the way Mr. Turner describes them. Truth to tell, there are some quite serious offenses in the catalogue of their crimes–offenses of whose gravity the offenders themselves have almost no conception. These reflect the influence of evil surroundings, and also make clear the good that “the Aid” does. In surrounding these boys with other atmosphere than that of the jails which would otherwise be their abodes.

Many and many a mischievous boy has become vicious and vile because he was sent to jail for some boyish mischief whose character and extend he did not comprehend. Many and many a mischievous boy has been turned from this course by the good influence of “the Aid”–not only boys, but girls, too; but there are not but boys at Barlow’s.

The boys are paid four cents a box for picking berries. Some of them save as much as $50 during the berry season, but $25 is more common. There is a wide range in the varying degrees of skill and industry. They are allowed to spend the money for themselves, subject, of course, to some degree of direction by the officers of “the Aid.”

There are not a few instances of boys who have been sent to “the Aid” ragged and penniless, ill-mannered and dirty, and unknown to schools or to soap and water, who have been discharged at the termination of their commitments with as much as $100 in cash, a good suit, an elementary knowledge of the three R’s, and a quite comprehensive understanding of the difference between right and wrong, and every prospect of becoming useful members of society.

– Press Democrat, August 3, 1907

What the Youngsters Have Made by Picking Berries and Working in Cannery

Next Thursday the Aid Society boys, who have been camped on the Barlow ranch two miles north of Sebastopol for the past three months, will fold their tents and return to San Francisco.

A few figures regarding the work that has been done by these boys since they came to Sebastopol early last June are given. In the party there are 130 boys and they have gathered the berry crop of 90 acres. Of this area 75 acres belong to Mrs. Barlow, 10 acres to W. J. Roaf, and 5 acres to William Taylor. The total number of trays picked on the 90 acres is 50,000. This is equal to 250,000 pounds, or 125 tons. The amount paid for picking was $16 per ton, or $2,000 for ninety acres. The berries were sold for $50 per ton, leaving the grower a balance of $34, out of which he had to pay for cultivation and other work.

In addition to picking berries the boys did various other things. For three weeks past a number of the lads have been working in the Sebastopol cannery and they have drawn in wages $400 per week.

Superintendent Turner informed a Sebastopol Times representative Friday that the earning of the boys since coming to Sebastopol three months ago amount to about $3,500.

– Press Democrat, September 8, 1907

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