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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