palanceripley

THE WAX CARTOONIST IN THE CHAPEL

Guess which of these men is fake. Hint: It’s the one whose smile actually seems genuine.

Between 1971 and 1998, Santa Rosa had a Ripley museum near downtown. No, it wasn’t one of the amusement halls as can be visited down on Fisherman’s Wharf, with its shrunken heads and other curiosities. This was a museum dedicated to the memory of Robert Ripley, whose popular “Believe it or Not!” syndicated cartoons made him a celebrity. He was also a Santa Rosa native and is buried in the Odd Fellows cemetery.

Despite his fame, it’s a bit of a puzzle why anyone would want to create a museum in his honor. A biography was published a few years ago which I reviewed here; Ripley, I wrote, was “a creepy, manipulative jerk that seemed to fundamentally dislike people, probably himself most of all.” He had few (if any) friends and when he died in 1949 he passed mostly unmourned, with hardly anyone turning out for his funeral other than immediate family.

Still, his was a household name even after death and Santa Rosa enthusiastically endorsed the idea of the museum. No surprise; after all, if this city is known for anything it’s for leeching off the names of famous people who lived here, so Robert Ripley slips in neatly post-Luther Burbank and pre-Charles Schulz.

A Ripley museum had been proposed twice while he was still alive, both times by Ripley himself. And he specified it had to be in a particular building – the Church From One Tree.

Portion of the "Believe it or Not!" cartoon published on Nov. 5, 1928
Portion of the “Believe it or Not!” cartoon published on Nov. 5, 1928
Even before Ripley was born in 1890, the church was a local landmark and a West Coast tourist attraction (see sidebar below). It was actually the First Baptist Church, located at the corner of Ross and B streets, and the Ripley family were members – well, his mother, at least. His father Isaac was among those who helped build it in 1873. The church gained much wider recognition when Ripley included it in one of his cartoons that appeared in newspapers everywhere.

Ripley’s first bid for the church came in 1940, when he wrote to the pastor and political leaders that he wished to buy it “to house the relics, records and mementoes of early California days” alongside his own “exhibits sufficient to make a complete and interesting museum.” (Decades later, Hugh Codding tried the same feint by claiming he planned to donate a museum to the Historical Society while just a “remainder would be devoted” to his taxidermy collection, which ended up glomming most of the building.)


THE CHURCH BUILT FROM ONE TREE

Before the Ripley museum and even before Ripley’s Believe it or Not! cartoon with the church, it was a tourist attraction; by the turn of the century they had a gift shop selling souvenirs and postcards, such as the one seen below.

The original redwood tree was as tall as a 25 story building and was logged in 1873 by the Murphy Bros. company in Guerneville. Knowing they had an order for wood to be used in building a church from ground up, Rufus Murphy kept lumber cut from that tree separated. Only when the church was dedicated the following year did he reveal it all came from a single tree.

In the mid-1890s an article in Pacific Baptist magazine questioned the origin story. By then the church was so well known that disputing item was widely printed nationwide. To refute the charges, Santa Rosa attorney Thomas J. Butts, who had worked at the sawmill as a youth, published in 1900 an affidavit (reproduced at the end of this article) specifying all particulars related to the tree and the millwork, including names of all men involved. Butts wrote the Murphys decided to use the tree in order to promote California redwood as high quality lumber and also “as an advertisement for his mill,” which was then lagging behind its Guerneville competition as the #3 sawmill in the area.

churchpostcard1900

A year passed before it was agreed the city would buy the land and Ripley would move the church elsewhere. Gone was any mention of objects of historical interest; now the whole museum would be Ripley’s “curioddities” which the mayor gushed would make it “one of the principal tourist attractions in the state.” Ripley was expected to arrive here in a few days to seal the deal – but everyone forgot about it five days later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Ripley’s next bid came in 1947. Now it was proposed to be “a shrine in memory of the cartoonist’s mother” while “housing a museum of California pioneer life,” according to the Press Democrat, and moved to an undetermined city park. Robert L. Ripley died before this plan was seriously considered.

Anyone who lived in Santa Rosa during the mid-1950s will recall the next chapter of our story. The Baptists had outgrown the church and planned to build a new one at the corner of Sonoma Ave and Yulupa Ave (today it’s the New Vintage Church). The city, meanwhile, really, really, wanted the B and Ross street location for a new parking lot. Thus in 1956 it was agreed Santa Rosa would buy the property while the church would give away the building to any non-profit, non-sectarian group that vowed to preserve it (or any portion of it).

But this time there was no Robert Ripley ridin’ to the rescue – no group said, “yes, please, we’d like to move an 83 year-old building which is already known to have structural problems” and that the Baptists refused to consider offers from other churches certainly cut down on the already limited options. As time passed it increasingly looked like demolition was in store.

The city of Santa Rosa finally agreed to take the building, justifying the donation of a church because it was an historical monument and tourist attraction. There was still no firm decision on where to put it; the leading contender was Franklin Park, followed by Burbank Gardens, the Junior College and Juilliard Park. One letter-writer to the PD suggested leaving it where it was, just raising it and building a parking lot underneath.

Also, the city council said it would not use public money to pay the projected $13,500 moving costs (about $138k today). To its credit the Press Democrat spearheaded a major fundraising campaign, publishing dozens of stories about the effort and listing names of donors. The biggest single event was a gigantic rummage sale on the west side of Courthouse Square, where $3,300 was raised. Among items sold were women’s fur coats and an automobile; it was considered to be the largest event of its kind ever held in the North Bay.

An estimated 5,000 people attended the June 1, 1957 rummage sale to raise funds for moving the Church From One Tree. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library
An estimated 5,000 people attended the June 1, 1957 rummage sale to raise funds for moving the Church From One Tree. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

The rummage sale was held less than three weeks before an option would expire on a choice parcel adjacent to Juilliard Park, and the fund was still short. The PD redoubled its efforts by running coupons for 1,000 readers to send in one dollar to save the church, donor names to appear on a “permanent plaque”. It was a nail-biter, but the fund crossed the threshold a single day before the deadline. The building was moved to its present location (technically 492 Sonoma Avenue) during the autumn of 1957.

At the close of the 1960 Rose Festival there was an official dedication ceremony and about a hundred visitors per day stopped by during the monthlong open house. Then after that…zip. It was available for $5/day to educational or cultural groups, but if there were any events they weren’t publicized. The rest of the 1960s went by with hardly any mention of it in the papers aside from “on this day in the past” nostalgia items.

Come 1970, when the Church of One Tree was more likely the Church of Many Cobwebs for having sat undisturbed over a decade, someone recalled how Robert Ripley was hankering to use it as a museum. Santa Rosa was already Ripley-curious; in 1967 Ripley International Inc. opened its “Believe It Or Not” museum at Fisherman’s Wharf and the PD reported “plans are being made to bring part of the museum to Santa Rosa. It will be placed on display in a downtown location.” While that didn’t happen, a deal between the city and the corporation was made with remarkable speed, and by October 1970 it was settled the church would be rechristened as the “Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum and Library.”

ripleycouponA group calling itself “Friends of Robert L. Ripley” was formed. Together with the Sonoma County Historical Society and Press Democrat, they declared “a worldwide search is underway for Ripley letters, cartoons and other items to display in the church,” the PD reported. For months the paper published the coupon shown at right to solicit donations.

Mementoes and ephemera trickled in but the gleanings were thin. Ripley’s nephews donated christmas cards received by his sister and snapshots of his homes. There were autographed copies of his cartoon books. Someone had letters an armless boy wrote to Ripley. There was a note sent to him by a Santa Rosa man asking why there was a Ripley street in town; Ripley replied it was named after himself (that was a lie – the street dates back at least to the 1870s).

Items loaned by Ripley Int’l were mostly photos of Ripley globetrotting or schmoozing with celebs in nightclubs. The museum borrowed a suitcase with stickers from all over the world, his pith helmet and the Chinese dressing gown and slippers he liked to wear while drawing. For some reason known only to himself, Ripley hung onto the front door from his childhood home at 117 Orchard street and now that was coming back to Santa Rosa, too.

And then there was the creepy wax figure of Ripley sitting at a drawing board.

It didn’t look much like him; as I wrote earlier, what defined his appearance were his buck teeth, which flipped outward in such a disturbing manner it appeared he was wearing something from a joke shop. The eyes and nose were also wrong and the real Ripley had a doughy face. In short, the wax model was extremely flattering to how he really looked. And then there was the bizarre expression, simultaneously wary and bemused.

The Ripley museum opened June 1971. What few photos can found of the interior shows the walls lined with standard museum display cases and blowups of some of his cartoon panels resting on easels. A panel told the history of the church. There were also some oddities on loan from the “Believe it or Not” collections including a fur-covered trout, a porcupine fish and a stuffed calf with two heads.

ripleyraccoon(LEFT: Crawford Brooks looks on as raccoon owner Drew Goetjen makes a paw print in front of the Ripley dummy. Press Democrat, Sept. 9 1971)

The museum had a promising start; in the first three months the Ripley museum drew over 5,000 visitors. Curator Crawford Brooks had a talent for dreaming up PR stunts, such as establishing the world’s only “museum pet register.” Brooks appeared on Johnny Carson in 1973 and a few years later several people who had been immortalized by Ripley were invited to the museum for a photo op. The star was Plennie Wingo, who walked from Santa Monica to Boston – backwards. (He made other backward treks in Europe and backwalked again from California to Texas.)

But there were also problems. Someone stole the left arm off the wax figure in 1972 and in 1974 two 16 year-olds broke in and ransacked the place, turning over display cases and pulling both arms off the Ripley figure after stripping it. (I am astonished those boys didn’t think to steal the head. All the young punks I knew when I was that age would have realized it was an opportunity for some truly epic prank.)

ripleyvandalized(RIGHT: Vandals disarmed the Robert Ripley wax model. Press Democrat, April 14 1974)

Attendance steadily dwindled over the following years. There was a call for volunteers to become docents but it appears no one wanted to. It was no longer open seven days a week, hours became restricted to midday and it was closed except during warm weather months. It wasn’t open at all for most of 1984 because repairs were being made after a fire damaged the steeple and roof. (It started on the outside wall by the men’s restroom and believed to have been arson, but never proven.) The interior and Ripley exhibits were unharmed, including the wax cartoonist.

By 1988 there was talk at City Hall about either moving the church again or kicking out the museum so it could be rented for weddings, concerts and such. City Manager Ken Blackman told City Council the building “will never amount to much” at that location, and $20k was approved for a consultant to study the issue (of course).

ripleypostcardIn fairness, some measure of those problems were the city’s fault – the place wasn’t easy for visitors to find. There was no signage and out-of-towners were given directions it was “across from Burbank Gardens” or “in Juilliard Park.” People were upset enough about this that they wrote letters to the Press Democrat once they were back home.

The Robert L. Ripley Memorial Museum and Library closed in 1997 or 1998. The exact date isn’t known because its closing wasn’t noted by the PD – it hadn’t been mentioned in the paper for years, in fact.

Moving the church – sans museum – came up again in 2001. (When it was being considered earlier, Gaye LeBaron’s city-hall-know-it-all, Sam the Shark, quipped they should just put the thing on rollers and start promoting it as the “Church Built on Four Wheels.”)

This time the proposal was to send it three blocks east to Rae Park as part of a new “Heritage Park” that would stretch from the Burbank Gardens to E street on the south side of Sonoma Ave. Also to be moved there was the Hoag house, which has since been demolished. The project received unanimous approval from the city Planning Commission but the estimated $1.5M price tag was too much for even our spendthrift City Council.

With the Church From One Tree about to celebrate its 150th birthday in 2023, the Old Dear is probably ready for another century-plus after recent major renovations to stabilize the structure and restore the stained glass windows. It can be rented via the Santa Rosa city website, which also has a very good virtual tour of the interior.

 

(TOP PHOTO: “Believe it or Not” TV shows have been a mainstay of the broadcast industry since 1949, when the earliest version was hosted by Ripley himself. This photo was from the 1981 revival on ABC, when host Jack Palance filmed a segment at the Santa Rosa museum. Palance is most remembered as the gangster or cowboy who killed someone and/or was killed himself in that movie you watched for a few minutes on TCM some time ago.)

 

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Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

HUGH CODDING’S “DEAD ZOO”

Santa Rosa schoolkids in the 1960s-70s may remember field trips to the museum. No, not to the place on Seventh street with its neoclassical architecture – that didn’t open as a museum until 1985. Before that the schoolbus drove to a nondescript industrial building on Summerfield Road which was the “Codding Museum,” although in truth it was mostly Hugh Codding’s hunting trophy room.

Codding, it seems, had been blasting away on all continents (except Antarctica) since the late 1940s. “I don’t say hunting is good,” he told a biographer, “it’s just the way I am. I don’t play golf. Hunting and fishing I like because you get a little reward at the end. It’s like a stick with a wienie on it.”1

Inside the “Codding Foundation Museum of Natural History” (as it was formally known) there were some four hundred stuffed animals or parts thereof. There were bears of all kinds in scary poses, a Bengal tiger and a leopard along with other animals that had menacing claws or antlers. There were entire walls of mounted heads and sometimes the big game wasn’t so big; there was a South African dik-dik which was about the size of a cocker spaniel when Hugh killed it. There were glass eyes staring back at you from all directions. There were dioramas where the animals were arranged in something like their natural settings, except the animals never moved or blinked. It was like visiting a dead zoo.2

That museum at 557 Summerfield Road was shared with the Sonoma County Historical Society, which rented the front lobby from Codding for $1/year. What was displayed in their room was mostly random old bric-a-brac better suited for an antique (or junk) store, as described in the previous article. But Codding was using the Historical Society’s participation to lend his taxidermical souvenirs a measure of legitimacy. That motive was clearly on display in early 1963 when he sought permission for a 5,000 sq. ft. building at the NW corner of Hoen and Farmers Lane. He told the Santa Rosa Planning Commission it was to be charitably offered to the Society while the “remainder would be devoted to items of natural history interest.” That plan was scrapped later that year when Codding’s tenant at the Summerfield Road address moved out, making a space of the same size immediately available. The Historical Society and Hugh’s stuffed things moved in there and opened a few months later.

Having his trophies on display did not end or even slow down Codding’s hunting trips and safaris, and when the museum opened he said it would need to be expanded in a couple of years. If anything his urge to bag wild game only increased after the mid-1960s. When he was on the City Council many votes were missed because he was shooting up in Alaska or elsewhere. Wyoming was a favorite; he and a handful of buddies would disappear up there for a week or more at a time.

Although he had killed one elephant (at least), Codding bought a baby one for $7,500 and avoided paying sales tax by claiming it was livestock he was fattening up. “The city attorney threw a fit,” he told a biographer.3 He had his construction crew build an elephant house near his home, hired a trainer/handler to care for it and after awhile the animal was making regular appearances at the newly-opened Coddingtown, which was then unroofed. He kept it about six months before sending it back to the Southern California dealer.

The curator for the overall museum was Ben Cummings, a retired chemical engineer and Hugh’s brother-in-law. He had no experience with managing any sort of museum but was a conservationist, having been chairman of that committee at the Sierra Club’s big New York chapter. Ben was also a fine artist and the landscapes seen in the dioramas were his work. He quit in 1981 1984 to take up painting fulltime after declaring there was nothing more for him to do at the museum, according to a Press Democrat interview.

In truth, there was lots of work to be done. While his dioramas were realistic, that sort of static tableau was widely considered outmoded. In the photos below it’s shown the signage was just a card naming the animal(s) seen behind a plate glass window – unless visitors were being guided by a very adept docent, there was nearly zero educational content to be gleaned. By then, better museums were incorporating videos into displays or using Walkman cassette players to provide high quality self-guided tours.

Besides being over forty years younger than Cummings, the new curator was an actual scientist committed to environmental education: Paleontologist Raj Naidu. He put most of the trophy heads in storage, added new regional geology and fossil/dinosaur displays, expanded community outreach and began programs for docents and teachers. Naidu told the PD that “our visitors these days know we’re not a ‘glorified trophy collection.'” It’s said Codding did not get along well with Naidu, and it may be because of that.

Attendance was now better than ever, drawing 10k visitors a year. But once the history museum on Seventh street opened in 1985, Codding’s offering was at a crossroads. Yearly operating expenses were $100,000 and completely underwritten by the Codding Foundation. In May 1989 the Coddings gave Naidu notice they were shutting it down. Hugh told the PD the closure “has nothing to do with finances” and today Connie Codding says Hugh was crestfallen to learn people were disparaging the museum because of the wildlife trophies.

Closing the museum meant those many hundreds of wildlife trophies would need to be rehoused or liquidated. Some would be kept by the family or given away. Selling many of them, however, would be difficult or even impossible; the world had changed since Hugh’s killing spree began in the 1940s and many states now banned the sale or purchase of wildlife taxidermy, particularly when the species was endangered/threatened. California (as might be expected) has the strictest laws in the nation.4 To Hugh Codding’s great good luck, in to his newly shuttered museum walked Ron Head, who was hoping to score a Tule Elk trophy for his classroom.

Ron was a hugely popular instructor at Petaluma High School, teaching environmental/natural resources classes. Earlier that same year he had taken the school’s Outdoor Activities Klub [sic] whitewater rafting on the American River and had launched the “Animals for Everyone” program, where high school students visited elementary schools and community groups to show and speak about exotic animals including pythons, a boa constrictor and a tarantula.

“Kids come in expecting Bambi, but I do my best to burst their bubble about the natural world,” Head told the Argus-Courier. “Our class is not like a Disney movie; there’s never a dull moment.” In 1976 he invited an owner of a tame mountain lion to bring it in to his classroom where it roamed around unleashed.

Codding and Head hit it off well enough, as both were outdoorsy types and especially because of their shared interest in hunting. Ron was offered a job which he turned down.5 Undeterred, Codding made another offer: Head could have the entire inventory of the museum. Free. There was only one catch: He would only give the collection to a non-profit.

For Codding this would be the sweetest deal possible. There were no restrictions on donating a taxidermied creature, even those species which could no longer be stuffed under state, federal or international laws. And since it was to be a charitable donation, there was a tax write-off for its full value – which was pegged at $1,000,000.

For schoolteacher Ron Head it would be like cliff diving into unknown waters. He would immediately have to create a 501(c)(3) corporation, convince the school board to allow that and allow him to accept the collection. He would have to find a large enough space to house it all. And he would have to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars.


A MUSEUM LIKE NO OTHER

Behind the student parking lot at Petaluma High School can be found a most remarkable and unique place: the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, the only student operated natural history museum in the nation.

Open to the general public most Saturdays, the hour-long tour led by trained high school student docents aims to teach visitors about the importance of wildlife conservation/preservation. There are other programs including a week-long summer camp for 5-12 year-olds that sound like great fun.

The docent handbook written by Phil Tacata (Ron Head’s successor) includes this inspiring passage: “…you have the ability to change the future, and it starts by teaching the children of our community about the beauty, the power, and the fragility of this wonderful world around us. It starts with you communicating your knowledge of wildlife and transferring your passion for nature to the next generation, to inspire them to love it as you do, TO TEACH THEM THAT THIS WORLD IS WORTH PROTECTING.”

Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed
Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

Against high odds, Ron pulled it off. Aided by an outpouring of support from the Petaluma community, a small army of volunteers and workers from the Codding construction company, an old bus garage on the high school campus was converted into the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, which opened in 1992 (see sidebar).

There are still some heads on the walls but the larger animals are no longer encased behind glass in dioramas. It is very much a hands-on experience for small kids to have memorable encounters with the museum’s living “animal ambassadors” and for the older students serving as docents to gain confidence and teaching skills.

As for questions about the dead mounted animals, the docent handbook suggests explaining honestly that Codding killed them “because he wanted trophies.” If the visitor struggles with understanding that answer, a docent can offer a carefully balanced perspective: “Mr. Codding came from a different era, one in which attitudes towards trophy hunting were different than they are today. You can also continue to explain that, today, we know that trophy hunting is usually a destructive practice, but because Mr. Codding donated these animals to us, we can use them as examples to teach you why it’s important to protect them.”

Connie Codding says she and Hugh visited the Petaluma museum many times and a child once recognized him, presumably from the bronze bust on display. The youth told them he couldn’t wait to be old enough to be in high school and learn to become a docent. “He just glowed with happiness when he heard that,” she recalls.


1“Hugh” serialized bio by James Dunn; Sonoma Business magazine 1993-4

2The “dead zoo” analogy comes from an earlier article, “HE’S HERE TO KILL ANIMALS FOR THE DEAD ZOO” which told of a taxidermist who was arrested in Lake County for killing birds during 1908. He was on a collecting expedition for Lord Walter Rothschild, a wealthy amateur zoologist who was trying to collect specimens of nearly every creature on Earth, living or dead. The British children of Hertfordshire mockingly called Rothschild’s private natural history museum the “dead zoo.”

3 “Hugh”, op. cit.
4 The best summary of state laws regarding the sale of taxidermy can be found at EstateSales.org.
5 Details of the interactions and agreements between Hugh Codding and Ron Head are drawn from the History of the PWM slideshow. Slides 11 and 13 describe the terms of the donation.

Photos of the Codding Museum exhibits courtesy the Petaluma Wildlife Museum

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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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