Our country is so divided some are starting to worry it could lead to a civil war. Even Sonoma County is split with neither political party clearly having an upper hand, Democrats mostly in control of the government while Republicans dominate the media. It’s easy to find reasons to sneer at the guys on the other side of the fence; Democrats are in disarray while Republicans bark out conspiracy theories. Both parties have resorted to name-calling and view themselves as unfairly treated victims. And it will probably get even worse – who knows what craziness awaits us next year in 1858?
While Santa Rosa was the county seat it was still little more than a village in the late 1850s. There were about 400 people in the town proper, although there were three times that number living in simple cabins and roughly made houses in the surrounding township. There were six blacksmith shops but only two restaurants; three carpenter shops and one clothing store. A farmer’s town. By contrast, Petaluma was a regional mercantile center – it took at least 90 minutes to reach it by buggy, but it was said half of Santa Rosa still shopped down there.
This is a (long overdue) companion piece to an article I wrote several years ago, “PETALUMA VS SANTA ROSA: ROUND ONE.” That covered the simmering rivalry between the towns, including Petaluma’s insistence it deserved the county seat more than Santa Rosa. There’s some necessary crosstalk between these two items, but the focus here is on the feud between the town’s newspapers. This is not just because of the entertainment value of a good ol’ Victorian-era insult throwdown (ranging from childish taunting about “a set of block heads and dolts” to an almost poetic, “wou’t [sic] somebody hold this high mettled charger? He has already bucked sufficient”). More importantly, the 1850s squabble in newsprint revealed details about Santa Rosa during that era that wouldn’t have been otherwise known.
For example: The early years of the Sonoma Democrat – Santa Rosa’s newspaper – are most associated with its pro-Confederacy position during the Civil War and expressing its raw hatred for Lincoln even before then. But that was when the Democrat was owned and edited by Thomas L. Thompson starting in 1860; the paper had two earlier owners. Were they likewise pro-slavery zealots? Historians mention them only in passing (if at all) so the answers will be surprising.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
A family tree of Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspapers around the time of the Civil War with names of the editor/publishers, their years of ownership and approximate ages in 1860
From Santa Rosa:
ALPHEUS WILLARD RUSSELL (32) founded the Sonoma Democrat in October 1857. At some point he formed a partnership with E. R. Budd, who became editor in early 1858. Russell and Budd dissolved their partnership that June with Russell taking full ownership. After selling it to Budd a couple of months later, Russell operated a general store here and in 1860 moved to Lyon County Nevada, which became known as the “gateway to the Comstock Lode” after the discovery of silver ore that same year. Russell was elected County Recorder there in 1862.
EDWIN RUTHVIN BUDD (41) purchased the Democrat from Russell in August 1858. Partnered briefly in 1858 with Samuel H. Fisher followed by Benjamin F. Pinkham 1858-1859. Budd sold the Democrat to Thomas L. Thompson in April 1860.
HENRY LITTLE WESTON (34) purchased the Sonoma County Journal in May 1856 from founder Thomas L. Thompson. In February 1864 Weston moved to Lyon County, Nevada and sold his subscriptions and equipment to James H. McNabb and Samuel Cassiday, who owned the Petaluma Argus. They immediately began publishing under the “Petaluma Journal & Argus” masthead. Weston returned and purchased the Journal & Argus in February 1869.
JOSEPH JUDSON PENNYPACKER (42) wrote opinion pieces for the Sonoma County Journal under his own name and pseudonyms. He founded the Petaluma Argus in October 1859 but problems forced him to sell it to Samuel Cassiday in May 1860. Pennypacker was able to buy it back in August that year, but had to sell everything again three months later. Under new ownership it continued publishing as the Petaluma Argus until it became the Journal & Argus in 1864.
Alpheus Russell and his family made their way here in 1857 from Grass Valley, the year after he made a respectable gold strike worth over $2,000 (more than $80k today). Why they settled at Santa Rosa is unknown – there were no apparent family or social connections in the area.
In his October 22, 1857 debut issue, Russell offered a fine, high-minded mission statement (transcribed below). He vowed the Sonoma Democrat would honestly inform and engage the community; never would the paper “…give utterance to a word that will put to blush the most modest cheek, or invade the pure precincts of the family hearthstone with aught that can grate harshly upon the nerves of the most fastidious.” (Lordy, that’s so perfumed I swear I caught the sickly scent of evening primrose.)
Russell pledged the Democrat would tirelessly fight against those who might seek to split the nation apart “…without resort to the usual too frequent use of disgusting epithets, or low abuse.”
He closed with a promise to expose political hokum and corruption, meanwhile keeping “…free from taint or suspicion the good name of the Democratic party throughout the Union.”
A different piece in that first issue made it clear Russell didn’t see his paper as being in competition with Petaluma’s newspaper, the Sonoma County Journal. “…We have commenced the publication of this paper, not in opposition to our neighbor [editor H. L.] Weston, of the Journal,” he wrote. “[We] shall continue to wish a long continuation of success and prosperity to Petaluma, and the Sonoma County Journal.”
The next Sonoma County Journal responded with its own felicitations, welcoming the launch of Santa Rosa’s “hebdomadal” paper (that’s a twenty-dollar synonym for “weekly”), while complimenting its nice printing and Russell’s writing. “We cordially extend the hand of fellowship.”
All that warm and fuzzy bonhomie lasted exactly two months.
A squabble began when the Journal accused the county and Sheriff Green of not following the letter of the law regarding publication of the delinquent tax list. It was supposed to be printed “on or before the fourth Monday in November” (which was the 23rd that year), giving the public a month’s notice before the property would be sold at auction. But the Democrat published on Thursday, and the tax list was long – the first installment appearing in the Nov. 26 edition and the last on Dec. 10. In the Journal’s view, this meant none of the property could be legally auctioned off.
Before continuing, let’s acknowledge the Journal was technically correct – in no way was printing a partial list on Nov. 26 in compliance with publication “on or before” Nov. 23. But the Journal also deceptively quoted only part of the law. Spreading the list over several issues was specifically allowed, as long as the first installment appeared at least three weeks before the auction. The Democrat had met that criteria, so there was really nothing to the Journal’s alarm bell of something being seriously amiss.
And let’s also recognize the true underlying complaint was that the Journal was upset because the lucrative deal for printing the list was given to the upstart Democrat and not to them. And maybe it should have been; as the oldest county newspaper with the larger circulation, any legal notice in the Journal would be seen by the most people.
Russell slapped back, hard. The Journal’s editorial “manifests more spleen, chagrin, envy and malignity, than is usually found embodied in so small a space, accompanied by so little ingenuity and tact,” he wrote in the next issue. (There are so many mentions of “spleens” in the transcripts below I expect to get Google hits from people looking for medical information.)
His counterattack goes on for over 1,800 words which you can read below, if you must, where he accuses the Journal of “attempts at prostituting the law to unholy purposes” and calls the editor a pettifogger, wiseacre and a lunatic. It ends thus:
Here we are at once directed to the festering sore from which the Journal is suffering so intensely. It has enjoyed the exclusive patronage of the county officials all its life until quite recently, from which it has grown fat, and now seems to regard its place at the crib as a matter of right, and anything given in another quarter as something wrongfully taken from him. Thus, the Sheriff, the Clerk, the Board of Supervisors, and the Democrat, each in its turn, would suffer from the castigation of the Journal…
The next day the Journal published a letter from J. J. Pennypacker, who was apparently in charge of the Petaluma paper at the time. Pennypacker accused the sheriff of being in league with a “Santa Rosa clique” or “junto” (political faction). Two months later, a letter signed anonymously “U. Bet” (Pennypacker, of course) went further, claiming the Board of Supervisors approved payment of Russell’s $920 printing bill “rather than incur the displeasure of the clique.” It condemned the supposed faction:
…a clique of political demagogues at Santa Rosa, who, to subserve their own ambitious, mercenary, and corrupt purposes, had bribed the press of that town…a clique, as venal, as corrupt, and as mercenary as you described them to be, but much more influential, does exist; and that same clique controls the columns, and is endeavoring to support, out of the County Treasury, a paper wholly devoted to their own individual aggrandizement.
Pretty strong accusations, there. Who were these powerful card-carrying cliquers that secretly ran the county? Pennypacker never got around to naming any of the conspirators, but he just knew they were the puppet masters who had the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff do their bidding lest they might “incur the displeasure of the clique.”
It’s tempting to imagine the clique being the enforcement arm of the Settler party – except there was no “Settler party,” only a disorganized alliance of squatters who wanted to (somehow) invalidate the Mexican land grants. Here they sometimes voted en bloc per 1853, 1855 and the anti-Lincoln vote of 1860 (see “A FAR AWAY OUTPOST OF DIXIE“) but there were many letters from squatters printed in the Journal during those years bemoaning their lack of clout.
Whether or not a real clique/junto existed to any degree is intriguing, but I don’t think the tax list printing is proof of much except perhaps the Sheriff showing political gratitude – Santa Rosa voted heavily for him, but he came in third at Petaluma. Youse dance with them that brung you.
Add to that the Sonoma Democrat certainly needed the business. The newspaper was struggling during its early years, with about half its ads coming from Petaluma at the start; the editor later penned bitter editorials about his thin paper not getting enough local support. By printing the delinquent tax list Russell received a windfall of about $1,000.
For months the tax list feud raged on. In old newspapers, page two was always dedicated to editorials or letters. There, Santa Rosa/Petaluma fans of calumny and defamation were usually richly rewarded; all that’s transcribed below are merely wood chips from a large, rotten stump.
Pennypacker and alteregos “U. Bet” and “Inquirer” doubled down on their campaign against the “Santa Rosa clique,” which he fumed was behind “illegally printing an illegally got up delinquent tax list.”
He didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor but had a great talent for nasty snark (oh, but would he have loved Twitter). When Russell ignored his demands to confess being part of a junto, Pennypacker wrote, “…clear your throat, and speak out like a little man. If you can’t see over nor around this pompous sheriff, stoop a little and peep between his legs, and tell the people why you are so anxious to make an illegal sale.” Pennypacker also got into a snit over the Democrat’s advertisers, at least twice demanding the Santa Rosa paper stop running the “obscene and demoralizing” ad shown here.
(RIGHT: 1858 Sonoma Democrat ad for the Czapkay Grand Medical and Surgical Institute in San Francisco. Dr. Czapkay promised he could cure a vast number of medical complaints, particularly “all forms of private diseases, such as Syphilis, Gonorhoea, Nocturnal Emissions, and all the consequences of self-abuse.”)
Russell lacked Pennypacker’s mastery of the artful sneer – although he made a pretty juicy counterattack after Pennypacker bragged about having time to investigate the hidden hand of the clique because he was “a man of leisure.” In essence, Russell’s comeback was, “I’ll see your stupid outcry over a trivial printing delay and raise your bet with suspicions that a Petaluma junto committed grand larceny.”
As Gentle Reader most certainly recalls, in early 1857 the county treasurer was convicted of stealing the county treasury and state school money. “It is well known,” Russell hinted darkly, the treasurer did not act alone: “…it has been a matter of wonder how certain men not more than sixteen miles from Santa Rosa, having no lucrative business, could become ‘men of leisure’ and always have plenty of money…’U. Bet,’ knows as well as any body else who shared in the spoils of that robbery, and who ‘got the lion’s share.’”
While Pennypacker was trying to incite public fury in early 1858, Russell took on a partner: Edwin Budd, who likewise hailed from Nevada County, California, so the men were surely well acquainted before Budd arrived. I found nothing certain about Russell’s past except for that gold strike, but Budd’s timeline was easy to trace. He had been a printer and newspaperman most/all of his life and was once half owner of the Nevada Journal, the main paper in that county. But when he came here it was during a difficult time; he couldn’t pay a debt of $164.85, so his property in the little town of Rough and Ready was sold at a sheriff’s auction.
Budd quietly took the editor’s chair at the Sonoma Democrat, which seemed to escape Pennypacker’s notice, as he kept gnawing like a pitbull on Russell’s leg.
It’s unclear what role Journal publisher Henry Weston had in the feud. In the longer screeds Pennypacker’s writing style can be spotted, but some could have been written by either of them. But after the Journal’s conspiracy-think of cliques and juntos commenced its third month, Russell/Budd had just about enough and went after Weston, calling him a “pusillanimous little puppy” and a “certain detestably filthy little animal” that’s “proud of his filthiness.”
Their pushback escalated the feud into code red territory. In its next edition, the Journal published a Believe-it-or-Not! style revelation: Russell was a closet Republican.
AN UNSETTLED COUNTRY
It’s difficult to grasp the chaos that gripped American politics during the mid 1850s. Newspapers like the Sonoma County Journal navigated those choppy waters by declaring themselves “independent,” which was mostly a way of saying “not Democrat.”
The old Whig Party collapsed after the elections of 1856; the American Party, created by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement, looked strong in the middle of that decade but likewise sputtered out shortly after that election.
The Democratic party was coming apart at the seams over slavery, starting its divide into multiple northern and southern factions. The newly formed Republican party became the new home for many Whigs, but Republicans had different interest groups as well – some looked down on supporters of abolition as “Black Republicans.”
In 1856 Sonoma County the Republican party was small; only seven delegates attended the first state convention, less than half as many than were at the Democrat’s state meeting. Republicans were particularly unpopular in Santa Rosa that year; their presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, received under three percent of the vote – the lowest of any community in the area – and all of the other Republicans on the ballot had similar dismal returns from Santa Rosa.
It was true. Russell had been a Nevada County delegate to the state’s Republican convention in 1856, while also running as a Republican for Nevada County Supervisor and Public Administrator. Budd was the Republican candidate for Nevada County Justice of the Peace in 1857, merely a few weeks before he began working at the Sonoma Democrat.
As told in the sidebar, being outed as a Republican was toxic in most of Sonoma County, particularly so in Santa Rosa. Weston and Pennypacker kept hammering on the topic over the following weeks, even sending clips to their fellow “independent” newspaper in Grass Valley and getting in return an item that found it amusing for a Republican to be operating a Democratic paper. Of course, the Journal reprinted that in their own pages.
Russell/Budd finally responded with an unsigned, rambling essay titled, “Our Politics.” It’s unclear if it was a personal declaration by one of them or encompassed both (which I think was the intent). In sum: “we were born a Whig” and remained so until the party crumbled; “we steadfastly refused to be called a Know Nothing” but “we have voted for Republicans, and Know Nothings, as well as Democrats.” Freedom for the slaves was out of the question because it would “turn the hordes of Africans in the United States loose.” Several times the piece spoke approvingly of then-President James Buchanan, a Democrat (who, it must be always noted, consistently ranks near the very bottom of lists for worst president in history).
While the Journal’s new round of partisan attacks continued gathering steam, Russell was physically attacked by a Santa Rosa lawyer named James B. Boggs.
Russell’s account of the incident is…confusing. It reads like the sort of overwrought tale you might hear from a middle school kid; Boggs told a friend that Russell had told somebody else a mean lie meant to embarrass Boggs, then Boggs’ friend asked Russell why he did that and Russell said he didn’t know anything about it. (Don’t try to make sense of it – middle school, seriously.)
The key part of Russell’s version is a passing remark about encountering a drunken Boggs on the street: “I crossed the street, shook hands with him, whereupon he showed me a No. of the Petaluma Journal, and asked me to read an article, published in that paper in relation to myself. I told him I had read it, and declined to again.” The next day Russell was in a store when Boggs came up to him from behind and struck him with a buggywhip.
Boggs was fined $50 (“which, it is understood, was paid by one of his friends”) yet subsequently boasted about the assault. “It then became understood that Boggs, partly to gratify his own spleen, and partly instigated by others, had intended it for a personal indignity, that it should be said he had publicly castigated A. W. Russell.”
Some of the gossipy parts of the story are probably true – he does, after all, name the other two men involved – but I have no doubt the real cause for Boggs’ fury was the nasty, inflammatory hit pieces churned out by Pennypacker and maybe Weston. (Russell should count himself lucky; three years later, Boggs was convicted of manslaughter for killing a stablehand in Healdsburg. He was drunk then, too).
The Journal was predictably snide about Russell’s whipping, suggesting he deserved “a little more of the same sort.” But his bruised back and bruised ego were the least of his problems that spring. As the year 1858 progressed Russell and Budd often griped subscribers weren’t paying up: “Up to this time more than one-half of our subscribers have paid us nothing” and, “we would again say to you, friends, that the little sums you owe us, are important to us” and, “there are now about 150 subscribers to the Democrat, mostly living in this county, who have received the Democrat one year, and for which we have never received one cent.”
Further, there were a diminishing number of recurring advertisements from the Petaluma merchants, which had been their mainstay. Now their ad space was mostly filled with short-run local property and livestock sales, legal notices, plus even more snake oil from San Francisco quacks such as Dr. Czapkay and Dr. J. C. Young, who was pushing a “contraceptive” powder (“we would again caution pregnant women from using this preparation, as it would be certain to produce abortion.”)
Between their money woes and continual sniping from the Journal, it’s safe to guess a miasma of worry and gloom hung over the Sonoma Democrat’s office and strained the relationship between Russell and Budd. In June, Budd sold his share of the business to Russell. In August, Russell sold the whole newspaper and related print shop back to Budd. You have to wonder what was going on between the two.
Russell stayed in town for at least a year and a half, operating a grocery and dry goods store on the corner of Third Street and Exchange Ave. Budd immediately took on a new partner, who only lasted a few weeks. His next partner stayed around over a year.
There was another big stink over the Democrat publishing the 1858 delinquent tax list which I will not bore Gentle Reader by visiting, except to say there was no feud with the Journal for this round. Pennypacker was no longer writing editorials there, as he was trying to launch his own newspaper aimed at settlers, following that by starting the Petaluma Argus. (Alas, we don’t know what he had to say on the matter since relevant issues for those publications do not survive.)
Budd clung tightly to his allegiance to the Democratic party – or more specifically, to the Democratic County Central Committee. In an 1859 editorial, he warned readers to be wary of fake Democrats:
There are hordes of hungry, disappointed office seekers, who, caring more for the loaves and fishes, than for either the people or the party, when they find their aims are defeated will not hesitate to become “Independent Democratic,” or “Douglas Democratic,” or “Squatter Democratic” candidates, for the purpose of breaking down the party. Beware of them. They are “wolves in the clothing of the gentle lamb,” and may be found in all parts of the country.
Whatever his true political leanings, in April 1860 he sold the works to firebrand Thomas L. Thompson, who would never leave any doubt about where he stood. The Sonoma Democrat became a loathsome soapbox advocating for the Confederacy and against Lincoln and the Union in whole.
I’ve been informed that subscribers who read SantaRosaHistory.com on mobile devices were having problems accessing this article because of its original large size, which was due to the transcribed source material. All of that content has now been moved into a 50 page PDF file.
In the beginning there was Ernest L. Finley. He bought the old Sonoma Democrat in 1897, merged it with his own newspaper, the Evening Press, becoming the owner, editor and publisher of the new Press Democrat.
That’s the version of the paper’s beginnings as told on the PD’s “about” page, on Wikipedia, by the Northern California Media Museum and in various columns and feature items published in the paper over the last 75-odd years.
Trouble is, that’s not true. The new paper was a partnership, and Finley wasn’t even the key player – he was one of two business managers. The founding editor and the person greatly responsible for the Press Democrat’s initial success was Grant O. Richards, although it’s rare to find mentions of him over the last hundred years. And even before he was erased from the picture, items about the paper’s earliest days just mentioned Richards “left the firm” or “sold his interest” to Finley. Neither of those claims were true either, as he killed himself while still editor (although I guess that would qualify as leaving the firm).
The PD – and the city of Santa Rosa itself – has polished Finley’s reputation to a gleam ever since his death in 1942, inflating his role in positive events such as founding the paper. But it’s particularly unfair to build up Finley at the expense of Richards because it steals away his only entry in the history books, which was greatly deserved. Not to mention that townsfolk of his day would have been gobsmacked to learn such a man would become so completely forgotten; hell, everybody in 1890s Santa Rosa probably wished they were Grant O. Richards.
Should you be very lucky, you might meet someone who has that one in a million billion quality which makes everyone (s)he meets fall at their feet. Call it ultra charisma, magnetic charm or even stardust, you are absolutely devoted to that person from the first meeting. Grant Oswald Richards had that magical ability; people not only really, really liked him, but they couldn’t help themselves from jabbering about how much they loved the guy – scroll down through some of the excerpts in the sources below. Such people can become very powerful (and dangerous) when drawn to politics or religion; we should probably be thankful Richards wanted only to be a very good newspaper editor in small towns.
His résumé was thin. He was born in 1862 Wisconsin and stayed there for about 25 years, becoming a lawyer (another dangerous profession for his talents) although he apparently never hung out a shingle. He next became city editor of the Daily Republican in Newton, Kansas, a railroad town of about 5,000 people. There he met Dollie Scribner and after their marriage in 1890 the couple moved to Santa Rosa, which likewise had about 5,000 residents. He had accepted the job of city editor for the Santa Rosa Republican, where he remained for nearly six years except for a brief stint at the Seattle Times, which he had to cut short because the weather aggravated his chronic asthma.
When Richards took the editorial job here in 1890, Ernest Finley was getting started as a professional printer. As a schoolboy the 19 year-old had used a hand press to turn out cards and announcements for his neighbors in the McDonald district, then was hired by the downtown Athenaeum theater to print handbills for visiting minstrel shows, lecturers, and other attractions. With his childhood friend Rufus Hawley he opened a print shop above a cigar store on Fourth street with a steam powered press, and from the start they had steady business from the city and county printing official documents. A few years later they were joined by Charles O. Dunbar, who had been printing foreman at the Santa Rosa Republican.
The Evening Press debuted on Jan. 2, 1896 as a daily and weekly newspaper. In the days prior several local and Bay Area papers announced it was launching, and even the shortest items took care to name Grant Richards as its editor. There was no question that the new journal was going to be Richards’ baby – the rare times anyone mentioned Finley it was because the publishing company was Finley, Dunbar & Richards.
The new paper’s top rival would be the Daily/Sonoma Democrat, of course, and an item about its new competition muttered “…it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.” Still, like everyone else the Democrat editor couldn’t resist a nod to how much everyone loved Richards: “…He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that he has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking.” After the Evening Press had a couple of issues to its credit, the Democrat offered a little good natured ribbing: “…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?”
Newspaper editors were usually divisive figures in the 19th century, with readers always at the ready to take umbrage – but if anything, membership in the Grant O. Richards Fan Club grew in 1896 both locally and San Francisco. He was a popular speaker and his remarks often included a poem written for the occasion, which the Democrat joked he would “inflict” on the group or “badger” them. Someone introduced him as the poet laureate of Sonoma county, or “at least in this section of the county.” Doctor Finlaw once prescribed total rest – although he could continue to write his poetry, because that wouldn’t involve “brain work.”
There are many more items like those where this charming, self-effacing guy welcomed a laugh at his expense, but there’s more to his story than that so we need to move on. Okay – one more, because I’ve never come across anything like it in the old papers.
On his 34th birthday the Democrat ran a story about his surprise party, where a group of men descended upon his office to give him a spanking (a play-acting “caning,” actually). Among his assailants were newspapermen from all the other local papers – including one from Humboldt county who happened to be in town – and political allies in the debate over creating a gold/silver currency. Included in the group were E.C. Voorhies and Herbert Slater, making him undoubtedly the only man ever paddled by both a current state senator and a future one. It’s a cute story, but also revealing; keep in mind this was during 1896, and even as a goof it wasn’t the sort of thing that lined up with the Victorian ideal of propriety and manliness – yet they knew Richards would be a good sport about it.
The Democrat was edited at the time by Robert Thompson, brother to founder and owner Thomas, who was still in Brazil as the U.S. ambassador. Under both of them the Democrat was fiercely partisan (and unabashedly racist) but it was really the only game in town – the weekly-only Santa Rosa Republican was mainly aimed at farmers. The Democrat was also the official county paper which guaranteed a steady income in publishing legal notices, plus it had contracted with a New York City agency to feed it a steady stream of national ads for widely-sold food items, patent medicines and the like. Toss in local shopper ads and the Thompsons had a neat little media monopoly on Santa Rosa newspaper readers. Then along came the Evening Press.
There was no apparent impact on the Democrat during the first year of competition in 1896. But as 1897 progressed, there was a steady decline in ads from stores promoting special sales. Local news became thin – aside from a court reporter, it seemed most of the stories came in over the transom from city/county offices, clubs and lodges and whoever dropped by to yak about an encounter with a rattlesnake. Editorials all but disappeared.
The Democrat became increasingly clogged up with WTF filler items from East Coast and British papers, such as, “M. Eugene Thiebaut, the first secretary of the French Embassy, who is at present in Paris, has cabled his felicitations to the French Embassador [sic] in Washington, M. Patenoire, on the latter’s transfer to the Embassy at Madrid, which is in the nature of promotion.” It was as if your once loud and feisty uncle now spent all the days in his bedroom, never changing out his ratty bathrobe while living on buttermilk and soda crackers.
Thomas L. Thompson returned from his four-year appointment to Brazil that September and two weeks later he sold the Democrat. Strike that – he surrendered the Democrat to Finley, Dunbar & Richards after almost exactly forty years of ownership. We can never know the impact this milestone took upon him personally, but the last known place he visited before committing suicide five months later was his old office, which was now the home of the Press Democrat.
There are no surviving copies of the Evening Press, but it’s probably safe to assume it looked just like the early issues of the Press Democrat – Grant Richards was still editor, after all.
The front pages shown above are the next-to-last Sonoma Democrat and the second issue of the Press Democrat. The first thing to notice is the number of local ads in the PD; there can be no doubt what happened to all the local advertisers missing from the old Democrat – they were happily now over on Richards’ pages, and likely had been camping there for months.
Ads aside, the layout of the two papers could not be more different. The Sonoma Democrat was a grey slab of inky paper with little to break up the long columns of text. The new Press Democrat was far easier to read; each story had a headline with a long dek – which added lots of eye-friendly white space – and had a grabber tease: “DEATH AND HUNGER,” “NEAR THE END” and “GREAT EXCITEMENT”.
Richards’ innovated use of mixed font typography put his design on par or even ahead of other Bay Area and even national papers. In a piece from the same issue, he put a 40 (?) pt. “DARING BURGLARY” banner above the story of District Attorney Seawell having a shootout in his house. Yes, headline details were sensationalized (he wasn’t “grazed by a bullet”) and the whole story leaned yellow press-y, but it actually was an adventurous story, and you can bet everyone in town was talking about it that morning. As William Randolph Hearst’s biographer put it, “any issue that did not cause its reader to rise out of his chair and cry, ‘Great God’ was counted as a failure.”
One last bit of media criticism before continuing with the history: Not only was Richards years ahead in visual design, but his skills as an editor were nonpareil. His writing was sharp and compelling – once you began reading an article there was no sneaking out before the end. A presentation made to local farmers about growing sugar beets was written like part of a novel, including dialogue between farmers and the expert. I found myself immersed in the story and developing warm and fuzzy feelings for sugar beets. That example underscores the key difference between the Sonoma Democrat and Richards’ Press Democrat, or any comparison of weak journalism vs. the exceptional – one just cataloged events of the day, while the other engaged the reader to care about them.
We don’t know what they paid Thomas Thompson for his newspaper and printing plant, but the new Press Democrat Publishing Company was capitalized at $30,000 (about $940k today).1
The Press Democrat moved into the Sonoma Democrat offices in the ground floor of the Odd Fellows’ Building, but only after a local contractor had “a force of men” working to fix it up. The place must have looked like a museum exhibit; it seems that the Thompson brothers did little to keep the operation modern. Before jumping ship and joining the Evening Press gang, Herb Slater was a cub reporter there in the mid-1890s and recalled the office as a “dingy place” that didn’t have a linotype, a telephone or a single typewriter.2
The Press Democrat was an immediate success and within a few weeks of operation claimed a circulation of 13,000, which was right about twice the town’s population. In the initial issue he promised “politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies,” but like the Evening Press it was bipartisan as Richards was a Republican, albeit one who crossed sides to endorse the gold/silver issue. After forty years of the Thompson’s angry Democratic partisanship it had to be a welcome change.
It’s not surprising to learn Richards was also an enthusiastic community volunteer, and in the early months of 1898 he threw himself into preparations for the Rose Carnival. Ever since its origin in 1894 each year was a bigger event than the previous, and it was drawing considerable attention from Bay Area newspapers – it looked like Santa Rosa was finally getting noticed and maybe even gaining entry to the cool kids club.
At the time the Spanish-American War was ramping up; the battleship Maine was sunk in February and the public outrage – fanned by Hearst’s Examiner and other papers in the yellow press – inspired patriotic rallies and parades with nautical themes. The Rose Carnival Association budgeted over $600 (about $19k today) to build floats of a battleship Oregon and two monitors. The huge battleship float would carry the Carnival Queen and members of her court; it would be motorized (a big deal in 1898) with 20-foot high smokestacks puffing smoke. According to the preview blurb in the San Francisco Examiner, it was to have gun turrets which would fire bouquets of roses into the crowd. Accounts of the actual parade don’t mention the smoke or blasting bystanders with flora, but it still must have been awfully impressive.
Richards was in charge of building the ambitious floats, although he apparently had no experience on any construction project whatsoever. Then a little over a month before the Carnival, a little item appeared in the PD: “Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It is thought that a day or two’s rest will put him back at his desk.” Thus it was the third week of April, 1898, when Ernest Finley first slipped into the role as editor of a newspaper.
The Rose Carnival was on May 20 and it was the tremendous success everyone expected; the battleship was the highlight of the parade. But the Press Democrat’s coverage included this note: “It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…”
It was a sad day for Grant Richards indeed, but not just for missing the parade; on that very day, he was being committed to an asylum.
What was wrong with him? From his admission record to the Mendocino State Hospital it’s easiest to say what was not the matter. He didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem. He wasn’t suicidal or homicidal (but he was “destructive”). His diagnosis was “Mental worry.” The notes stated that he “talks incoherently and irrationally. Has delusions – Excited and profane.”
It would be irresponsible to put him on the couch with so little data, but there are a couple of points for Gentle Reader to consider: Excessive cussing was grounds for asylum commitment – as happened to a pair of women four years earlier – so lots of “profane” language might fall into the same category. Also, he listed Santa Rosa policeman Sam Yoho as his contact person instead of his wife Dollie, so there might have been serious marital problems.
Grant was discharged 90 days later in September, but did not return to his desk. Around mid-October he went (without his wife) to the Skaggs’ Springs resort, which was owned and operated by his old friend, John Mulgrew. On October 22, the telephone rang at the Press Democrat office: Grant O. Richards had shot himself in the head. He was still alive, but only expected to live a few hours.
Finley, Dunbar and Dollie Richards obtained a team of fast horses and a surrey and hurried as fast as possible to the scene, the trip taking somewhere around six hours. By the time they arrived he was unconscious.
He had blown off the left side of his face with a shotgun. Earlier he had told Mulgrew and the doctor it was an accident, but couldn’t explain how it happened. He was fully conscious when the doctor arrived from Healdsburg, and asked that he not be given too much morphine because he did not know how it would affect him. He also asked the doctor if he would have a bad scar. He died before midnight.
On the morning of the incident he borrowed one of Mulgrew’s shotguns and said he might try a little hunting. He wandered around the cottage area and chatted with other guests. A woman testified she saw him sitting on a cottage porch with the shotgun’s stock on the ground with the barrel resting on his left arm. A few moments later a shot was heard, followed by Richards shouting for help.
The Coroner held an inquest the next day, and the jury declared his cause of death was the accidental discharge of a shotgun while out hunting.
Hundreds attended his funeral (open casket!) and burial at the Rural Cemetery.3 Local papers – including the Press Democrat, of course – wrote long and heartfelt tributes to him, attributing his mental collapse to stress and too many hours of selfless volunteering. From the Petaluma Courier:
…Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.
Life in Santa Rosa moved on, but there was one good deed which I suspect was done in his memory. About three months after Richards’ funeral, Henry W. Davison, an African-American who had endured indignities from Santa Rosa’s community leaders and the police, died indigent. He was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the PD stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. It was a surprising act of charity, and I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like it again.
On Oct. 29, 1898 – one week after Grant Richards died – Ernest Finley’s name appeared as editor of the Press Democrat for the first time.
(RIGHT: Ernest L. Finley portrait, Sacramento Evening Bee, June 30 1902)
The paper now looked different than it had a year earlier; the same font and point size was used on almost all headlines and there was much less white space – the design (or lack thereof) was drifting back to the slab-of-ink look, which suggests that layout decisions were being made by the typesetters, as was typical in the bad old days. And to be fair, this trend began before Finley took over; it seems to have started in February, which was when Richards took on the carnival float project.
But in every way, Finley was taking the Press Democrat in the opposite direction from where Richards was once headed:
The politically independent editorial page was now hyper-partisan, particularly aligned with the odious Southern Democrats and their racism. The PD didn’t just oppose Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, but expressed shock over an African-American child appearing onstage at the Republican Convention, warning it was a portent of dreaded racial equality. And yes, the “n-word” made a comeback, as did stories and anecdotes told using plantation dialect.
While Richards probably did not have a single enemy on the planet, Finley was the most divisive person in town, using the Press Democrat as a cudgel to bash anyone who thought differently from him. Finley – who had the gall to claim the PD “never intentionally misrepresents things” – usually resorted to ad hominem attacks against whomever fell into his sights. Newspaper editors in that era were often forceable in their opinions, but particularly during the years between 1904 – 1909 he came across as a mean-spirited bully.
Finley fought reform efforts in the 1900s intended to clean up the town’s unbridled gambling and prostitution scene. Comparing the reformers to vigilantes and hate groups, he charged they wanted to damage Santa Rosa’s “good name abroad” by exposing the corruption that must have provided the town with a sizable underground economy. Unmentioned was that should a reform movement gain traction, they could follow contemporary San Francisco in calling for Grand Jury hearings, which in Santa Rosa might risk indictments of the downtown property owners and businessmen who profited from the town being the Sin City of the North Bay.
Where Richards was always described as having a sunny and genial character, Finley was aloof and dour – there are many photos of him but none with a smile. His black-and-white views extended beyond hating reformers and his many other antagonists; you had to be pro-growth yet oppose any change in the status quo, leaving the Good Old Boy clique and Chamber of Commerce to run the town as they saw fit. Putting the success of the town above all else led him to take some cruel and heartless positions that would have stunned Richards, such as when Finley argued after the 1906 earthquake that those injured or families of those killed didn’t deserve money donated to the relief fund, and it should go into Santa Rosa’s building fund instead.
Then in the 1930s, for reasons unknown, Finley set out to wipe Grant O. Richards from the history books.
The salvo began in 1932, when the PD published a “75th anniversary” edition. Never mind that the Press Democrat was actually 35 years old; Finley was counting from the launch of the loathsome Sonoma Democrat, which wiser heads might have chosen to keep at a distance – “yes, we used to endorse slavery” is not a good look.
For that issue Finley wrote a number of short profiles which were collected ten years later in a book titled, “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” The anecdotes are mostly shallow and not of particular interest, and at least one time he used an entry to settle old scores. His entry on Richards is perplexing:
… He constructed a number of miniature battleships as features, but he overworked himself and suffered a nervous breakdown. We induced him to go to Skaggs Springs for a rest. One day John F. Mulgrew, who after serving as county clerk had purchased Skaggs Springs and was conducting it at the time, telephoned down that Grant had been shot. I hired a team and rushed to Skaggs Springs. It was at night, and raining hard…We never knew whether his death was accidental or otherwise. He had taken a shotgun and walked out through the grounds saying he intended to shoot some birds. A maid passing by shortly after saw him sitting on the steps of one of the cottages, the butt of the gun resting between his feet. It is possible that the gun may have slipped and on striking the next step below, been accidentally discharged. That was the theory we adopted, at any rate.
First, it aggrandizes Finley’s own role in the story. We know that Dunbar and Mrs. Richards were with him in the buggy, and they arrived shortly past sunset. Nor was it “raining hard” – all weather reports agreed there were scattered showers that day.
And, of course, we do know that his death was accidental, because that was the ruling of the Coroner’s jury – they’re allowed to say the cause was inconclusive if that’s how they viewed the evidence. From what we know about Richards, it’s doubtful he had much/any experience handling guns, and the eyewitness described extremely reckless behavior. Further, if this was a botched suicide he surely would have tucked the barrel under his chin, but Richards seemed to have no trouble talking to the doctor and others after the accident. Yet by writing “we never knew whether his death was accidental” and “that was the theory we adopted, at any rate” Finley winks to the reader that it was widely presumed he really meant to kill himself.
Finley’s other attack on Richards is found in the 1937 Sonoma County history edited by him. Now Grant Richards had no connection with the Press Democrat whatsoever. In the history portion of the book he name-checks Richards as having “helped establish” The Evening Press. “…Richards sold his interest to his partners a few years later…Thomas L. Thompson sold the Democrat to Finley & Dunbar.” (For the record, Dollie Richards was left Grant’s one-third share in The Press Democrat Publishing Company, and she sold them to Finley and Dunbar in 1902, when probate finally closed.) In the side of the book with local biographies Finley has an entry for himself but this time doesn’t mention Richards at all, naming his only partners as Dunbar and Hawley.
Finley’s shadow over Santa Rosa is as long as Grant Richards’ is short. As I wrote earlier, in the first part of the Twentieth Century no man or woman had a greater impact on Santa Rosa than Ernest Latimer Finley; favorite son Luther Burbank might have been the town celebrity, but Finley was the kingmaker, the media baron of print (and later, airwaves), the superarbiter of almost everything that happened north of the Golden Gate.
Why someone with such dominance felt a need to not only harm but destroy the historical legacy of a man nearly four decades after his death is a mystery best left to psychologists. Lacking Richards’ personality and his widespread admiration, had Finley been nursing envy and resentment for most of his life?
The historical record has been twisted to portray Finley as one of the most monumental figures in Santa Rosa’s past. And yes, he was a tireless champion of anything he thought might bring prosperity to Sonoma County. But at worst, he was a relentless bully who blocked reforms and held on to the 19th century attitudes which kept Santa Rosa from becoming the major Bay Area community he always desired – quite a Shakespearian twist, that.
For the most part we’re still trapped in Ernest Finley’s world; the city is still pushing growth for its own sake and there’s still a cabal of money men erratically steering the ship. How much better it might have been to live in the world of Grant Richards, where nothing is more important than community and when changes are made, the goal is to make real improvements to the city, not just making some guy rich(er). The Press Democrat will have no ties to special interests and holds city/county officials accountable for what they (don’t) do. And in that alternate universe, sometimes the paper will make you fly out of a chair and cry, “Great God!” because the reporting and writing is really that good.
1 The Press Democrat Publishing Company had 300 shares total, with Finley, Dunbar and Richards having 98 per. Three shares each were held by bankers W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton, who likely provided this initial funding.
2 Herbert Slater’s look back at the Sonoma Democrat appeared in the Oct. 23, 1932 PD. He described Robert A. Thompson’s management as lackadasical and as a result the reporters sought out the easiest stories to write, which explains the generally poor quality journalism in the paper and heavy reliance on doings at the courthouse across the street from their office. They also frequently traded newspaper coverage for food: “…We used to pick up a good many extra feeds in the old days. The reporters were never forgotten by the lodges, for it was then almost considered necessary to feed us in order to get a write up. How well I remember sitting in the old Democrat office one night wishing that some raven from Heaven, or somebody, would bring me in a square meal, when the front door suddenly opened and in walked Billy Lee and he brought cold chicken, tongue and ham, bread, cakes and coffee. And we did have some feast, and, thanked God reverently that both He and the Odd Fellows hall were above the Democrat office…”
3 The location of Grant O. Richards grave is unknown and he may have been disinterred, as there is a marker for him near FindAGrave identifies his burial place as the same for his parents at the McNett East Cemetery in Elk Grove Wisconsin. (The local newspaper ran a lengthy front page obit on his death, but no followup about a reburial there.) When his sister-in-law, Effie Scribner, died in 1913 she was buried here at the Rural Cemetery in what was described as the family plot.
Our friend Grant Richards, the genial and able local editor of the Republican, leaves this city to-day for Seattle, Wash., to take a position on the Evening News. Mr Richards has many friends in this city, who, while sincerely regretting his departure, hope that success will attend him in his new field.
– Sonoma Democrat, August 9 1890
Grant Richards will return from Seattle and resume his former position on the Republican. The climate of Washington was too much for him, but he cannot be better pleased to return than his friends are to welcome him.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1890
It may be of interest to many in this locality, to know that our old friend and chum, Grant O. Richards, has resigned his place as court reporter on the Seattle (Wash.) Times, and accepted a lucrative position on the Santa Rosa (Cal.) Republican. Grant will succeed and all his friends in this neck ‘o’ th’ world’ will be glad to hear of his success.
– Galena Daily Gazette, December 3 1890
An omission. The Republican in its issue of Tuesday in a notice of the credits due to the active members of the Relief Committee, has one notable omission, not from carelessness, but from the modesty of the gentleman who wrote the notice. We are determined that he shall not hide his light under a bushel, and while all those he mentions are justly entitled to the credit he bestows on them, there is no one more deserving of praise in the matter than Mr. Grant O. Richards, the local editor of the Republican. He was an active promoter of the charity from start to finish.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1892
Grant Richards of the Republican is confined to his house with an attack of his old enemy, asthma. More power to you, Grant, to overcome all enemies.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 3 1894
New Paper for Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa will have a new paper, commencing with the new year. It will be the Evening Press, daily and weekly. It will be independent in politics, and favor gold and silver coinage at a rate of 16 to 1. It will be edited by Grant Richards, for the past five years reporter on the Daily Republican. The new paper will be a six-column folio.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, December 23 1895
Grant O. Richards Resigns.
Grant O. Richards has severed his connection with the Republican after holding down the city editor’s chair for nearly six years past. He proposes along with Messrs. Finley and Dunbar to start an evening paper to be called the Evening Press. While on the Republican Grant was a faithful reporter of men and events. He had and displayed the admirable quality of being fair and square to all alike with the result that be has made many friends for himself in Santa Rosa. We wish him success in his new undertaking although it seems to us the field here is hardly large enough for a new venture.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1895
The fact that truth is stranger than fiction is demonstrated by the resignation of Rev. J. T. Shurtleff and Editor Grant Richards. Both men were admirably fitted for their places, and most people thought they were fixtures…All the world’s a stage and all the men are gamblers; life itself is a game of chance. Marriage is a lottery and so is farming. Starting a new paper is also a gamble. Ain’t it, Mr. Richards?
– Sonoma Democrat, January 4 1896
GRANT RICHARDS CANED. Double Attack on the Editor of the Evening Press.
Editor Grant O. Richards was surprised in his office Friday afternoon by Gee Whack Mills, who had long had a grudge against him. Mr. Richards sat in his office meditating a new poem on silver and little dreaming of the attack that was to be made upon him by Mills and several confederates.
The assault was well planned and no doubt his assailants had been planning a coup de etat for several days past. They went about the surprise very cautiously and when Mills started in to cane Mr. Richards with a cane with a silver tip on it, the latter did not know what to say or do in defense. The silver tip bore a suitable inscription.
After Mills had got through with the editor, another attack was made on him by Messrs. Mobley, Slater, Duncan, Voorhies, Speegle, Hutchinson and others, who presented him with a wallet capable of holding 16 silver dollars to 1 of gold.
Grant is a good friend, but a bad enemy, and no doubt he will soon get even “wid de gang.”
The occasion of this double attack on the genial Grant was on account of his birthday. Friday, thirty-four years ago, was a busy day with Richards. He was born on the same day as his college chum Tom Watson of Georgia, and like Tom he had no silver spoon in his mouth. One thing we can say about Richards. We have never seen him waltzing around town in his shirt sleeves with a cigar between his teeth. We have never seen him go fishing with a bottle in his pocket, or yank off his coat and swear he could lick any man in town. He ain’t built that way. Here’s hopin’ he may live to be 134.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 12 1896
The Santa Rosa Democrat, for thirty years the property of Thos. L. Thompson, ex-United States Minister to Brazil, was sold last Saturday to E. L. Finiey, C. O. Dunbar and Grant O. Richards, proprietors of the Evening Press of the same city. The two papers will be merged into a morning daily to be known as the Press-Democrat Publishing Company. A corporation has been organized with a capital of $30,000. The directors of the company are E. L. Finley, C. O. Dunbar, Grant O. Richards, W. D. Reynolds and J. P. Overton. The management of the new paper will be the same as that of the Press. E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar will be business managers, while Grant O. Richards will the editor.
– Napa Journal, September 28 1897
Today the first issue of the Press-Democrat made its appearance. The Press issued its last number Tuesday. The young men who have driven it forward to success have now absorbed the Democrat, and with their rejuvenation and the removal of deathly competition some great improvement ought to come to the printing business in Santa Rosa. The first issue is not a criterion to judge by, and the Courier will not compliment todays issue; but when the newness wears away and the Democrat gets up to the business ability of its new promoters it shall be remembered by a generous use of our scissors.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, October 7 1897
The first issue of the Press-Democrat, of Santa Rosa, is at hand. We are partial to hyphenated names for papers but if the new management that it is necessary to preserve the names of both the old journals we respectfully suggest that a more appropriate and euphonious title would Democrat-Press. The new paper start out well and publishes an unusual amount of local news.
– Woodland Daily Democrat, October 8 1897
In beginning the publication of the Press-Democrat the proprietors wish to thank the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county for the generous patronage extended them while conducting the Press. They also desire to express their appreciation of the consideration shown them in the last issue of the Democrat by the Hon. T. L. Thompson and the Hon. R. A. Thompson, who by the newspaper change retire from the journalistic field here. The proprietors of the new paper clearly recognize and thoroughly appreciate the ability and worth of these gentlemen who have been so prominently and honorably identified with Santa Rosa and Sonoma county. They realize the very important part they have taken in the progress and development of, not only our city and county, but of the entire state. It is with feelings of regret that the Press-Democrat contemplates their departure from the newspaper field and it certainly hopes that their lines may be cast in pleasant and profitable places. In regard to the new paper, the Press-Democrat, it is only necessary to say that with it, as it has been with the Press, it will be the constant endeavor of the publishers to make it a wide-awake, energetic, progressive and reliable newspaper; one that will speak for itself better than can be expressed in any salutatory. Politically the Press-Democrat will be Democratic of broad and liberal tendencies. With implicit confidence in the citizens of Santa Rosa and Sonoma county, and with an abiding faith in the future of this unsurpassed part of California, the greatest commonwealth under the stars and stripes, the Press-Democrat this morning for the first time greets the public.
– Press Democrat, October 9 1897
Editor Richards Ill
Editor Grant O. Richards is confined to his room suffering from nervous prostration. It ia thought that a day or two’a rest will put him back at his desk.
– Press Democrat, April 23 1898
The fleet of warships representing the Pacific Coast Squadron will undoubtedly be the most attractive display in the grand parade. In view of the present war with Spain the committee decided upon the float representing the fleet as being most appropriate. In the fleet will be immense models of the battleship Oregon and the monitor Monadnock and Monterey which have cost the Carnival Association over $600 to build. For this occasion the Oregon has been named the Queen of the Carnival, and this will be Queen Grace’s royal float. Upon a daintily arranged throne Queen Grace will sit on the fore deck surrounded by her retinue of maids and pages. Along the line of parade from the guns arranged on the deck bouquets of roses will be fired at the big crowds of spectators. The battleship will be run by an engine, and from the big smoke stacks twenty feet high will issue clouds of smoke. The monitors will be run alongside the battleship Queen of the Carnival, which will be preceded by a splendid representation of the ill-fated battleship Maine, which will be drawn on a wagon by a crowd of small children…
– The San Francisco Examiner, May 19 1898
…The fleet of vessels was the popular feature. it should be mentioned here that the beautiful battleship “Carnival Queen” and the monitors which attracted the attention of everybody were designed and their construction was carried out under the personal supervision of Editor Grant O. Richards of the Press Democrat. It was a matter of sincere regret that Mr. Richards’ serious illness at this time prevented him witnessing the magnificent result of his favorite scheme…
– Press Democrat, May 21 1898
Information received Monday from the sick room of Grant O. Richards was to the effect that his condition is not improved. This will be sad news to Mr. Richards’ many friends in this city and county. He is to be taken away this evening for treatment by specialists. – Republican.
– Petaluma Daily Morning Courier, May 25 1898
SANTA ROSA EDITOR KILLED BY ACCIDENT Grant O. Richards Found Mortally- Wounded Back of the Skaggs Springs Hotel.
SANTA ROSA. Oct. 22. -Great regret was felt here to-day in all circles when it was learned that Grant O. Richards, editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and one of the most popular and progressive citizens of this place, had shot himself at Skaggs Springs. About 11 o’clock this morning Mr. Richards, who had been at the Springs several days was found on the porch of a house just back of the hotel bleeding from a terrible wound in his face. It was found that a portion of his face had been torn away by the discharge of a shotgun. He died shortly after 11 o’clock to-night. He regained consciousness during the day and stated that the weapon had been discharged by accident.
– San Francisco Call, October 23 1898
GRANT O. RICHARDS
it is with a heart full of sadness that the writer of these short lines takes up the pen to begin his task, if he should succeed in some small way in expressing the heartfelt sorrow that has been caused by the sudden and tragic death of the editor of this paper among those who worked with him so long, among those who knew him best, then is the mission done. Yet should the effort fail, it would make small difference after all, for everybody knew Grant Richards and everybody was his friend.
The removal of a good man is always a loss to any city. But the death of a man like this might almost be referred to as a calamity. Generally at the head and front of any movement likely to be of benefit to the community, his influence has been strongly felt in many of the undertakings that have resulted in the city’s good. Yet such was the character of the man that few suspected whose ideas were being carried out or from whence the inspiration came. The gain was seldom his. Such is the one real test of all true greatness.
A man of strong character, gentle and loving as a child, trusting as a woman in many things, he was yet a keen observer, and possessed a shrewd insight into human character. Backed up by these characteristics and preceded by the knowledge that his was the very soul of honor, it is not strange that he often accomplished what others could not do. But it is not necessary to enter upon an extended review of his career, or to parade before the world a record of his virtues. It would not please him if he knew, and his life is like an open book.
Grant O. Richards, recognized as one of the brightest newspaper men in the state of California, has left us and forever. The manner of his death is recorded, and yet the details will never be known until the judgment day. But the fact that he is absent from the spots and haunts that once knew him so well, and the record of his sunny, genial and most honorable life, will never be forgotten till those with whom he lived and moved shall themselves start upon that long, long journey which they pray may end on that beauteous shore where his has just now begun.
Owing to his extended illness, more than six long months have passed since Mr. Richards has been actively engaged in the duties of his profession, and while up to the day of his death he retained the position of editor of this paper, yet during all that time his work has been in another’s hands. It is in this keeping that it will remain.
Grant O. Richards, business man, gentleman, friend and scholar, is now no more, but the example of his beautiful life will remain with us, we trust, until our dying day. And when our end shall come, as come it surely must some time, we ask no more of those who stay behind than that they think of us but half as kindly as they do of him. We wish no more than that the dwellers in that wondrous city may be like him as we knew him, and like him as he is.
– Press Democrat, October 26 1898
HIS TRAGIC DEATH How Grant Richards Met His End THE FULL DETAILS Most Suddenly the Summons Came and Rudely He Passed Away With His Wife and Friends Gathered Around His Couch
On Saturday evening the news became general in this city that Grant O. Richards, the well known editor of the Press Democrat, had, while enjoying an outing at Skaggs’ Springs, met with a terrible accident.
When Sunday morning’s edition of this paper appeared containing the information that he was dead, and giving the details of the tragic affair, the entire community was shocked in a manner that almost defies expression.
It was about a week ago that Mr. Richards left his home in this city for a brief visit with his old friend, John F. Mulgrew, at Skaggs’ Springs. Arriving there he proceeded at once to make himself at home, and from the very time of his arrival seemed to be enjoying himself and was apparently being much benefited by the change of air and scene.
On Saturday morning about the time Mr. Richards came out from the dining room after having eaten his breakfast, two gentlemen boarding at the hotel returned from an early morning hunt. As they seated themselves upon the edge of the porch and proceeded to clean their weapons, Mr. Richards, who was acquainted with both of them, after inquiring as to their success, declared his intention of seeing what he could do some morning in that line.
Having finished their task, the two hunters set their guns, one of which belonged to Mr. Mulgrew, behind the door and went in to breakfast. About an hour later Mr. Richards picked up Mr. Mulgrew’s gun, stuck a few cartridges into his pocket, and stepped out into the front yard, apparently looking for something upon which he could try his aim.
For some little time he sauntered idly around the place, looking now and then into the tree-tops. Finally he wandered in the direction of the cottages, the furtherest one of which is probably not more than a hundred yards from the hotel. He stopped and chatted with several of the guests who passed, and finally seated himself upon one of the cottage porches. A young lady in passing saw him thus seated, the shot gun resting on the ground, and the barrel lying upon his left arm. She nodded at him and passed on.
A few moments later some gentlemen who were playing croquet directly behind the cottage heard a loud report, followed immediately by a cry for help. Rushing around to the front of the cottage they found Mr. Richards seated upon the steps and endeavoring with his handkerchief to stop the flow of blood coming from a frightful wound upon the left side of the head and face.
Mr. Mulgrew and several people from the hotel arrived about the same time, and all proceeded without delay to render what assistance lay in their power. The unfortunate man was carried into the cottage and laid upon a couch, and Dr. Swisher was immediately summoned by telephone from Healdsburg. His friends in this city were also notified by the same means. During this time Mr. Richards was perfectly conscious, and stated to Mr. Mulgrew that the shooting was accidental, but he was so weak that he could not explain exactly how it all happened.
A second dispatch was received at this office from Mr. Mulgrew shortly after noon, stating that the physician had arrived, and after an examination had expressed the fear that Mr. Richards would only live a few hours. Immediately upon the receipt of this intelligence Mrs. Richards, E. L. Finley and C. O. Dunbar in a surrey and behind a fast team started on a hurried drive to Skaggs’.
While the doctor was conducting the examination Mr. Richards stated to him that the gun had been accidentally discharged. He asked whether or not he would be able to save his life, and whether or not he would be able to repair the damage without leaving much of a scar. He cautioned the physician most particularly about being very careful as to the amount of morphine he was to give him, stating that he knew nothing of its effect upon his heart, and desired to take no chances.
The morphine was administered, and the wound carefully dressed. C. W. Capell, a medical student of Healdsburg, and Ole Witbro, a professional nurse from Geyserville, both of whom had in the meantime been summoned, were left in charge, and the physician having done all then in his power returned to his home.
The loving wife and friends arrived upon the scene shortly after dark. At that time Mr. Richards was unconscious, and shortly after half-past 10 he passed peacefully away. Gathered around the bedside in the little cottage at the springs were his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Mulgrew, C. W. Capell, Ole Witbro, William Litton, Charles O. Dunbar and Ernest L. Finley.
By special arrangement made previously in the evening, the telephone agent at Geyserville returned to his office at 12 o’clock that night and connected Skaggs’ Springs with this city by wire. The news of the distressing affair was transmitted to the Press Democrat, the undertaker was notified, and word was sent to Coroner Young at Healdsburg.
Early Sunday morning Mr. Stanley started for Skaggs’ and later in the day secured the body, arriving in this city with the remains about 8 o’clock that evening. Coroner Young arrived at the springs about noon, and shortly afterwards secured a jury and began the inquest.
During the progress of the investigation the most searching inquiry into the cause of the accident was had. The body was carefully examined, and both Mr. Mulgrew and Dr. Swisher testified at length regarding their knowledge of the matter. As a result the jury returned a unanimous verdict to the effect that the deceased met his death as the result of the accidental discharge of a shot gun while out hunting.
Henry G. Hahman and William F. Wines, both warm personal friends of the deceased, took the train for Skaggs’ Springs on Sunday morning, arriving there about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. They did everything possible and returned home on the evening train. Mrs. Richards, Mr. Dunbar and Mr. Finley returned home as they had gone, by carriage.
The utmost regret is expressed upon every hand over the most sad and unfortunate occurrence. All Saturday night this office was besieged by callers anxious to render any assistance that lay in their power. At the springs the host and hostess, the guests and the employees were profuse in their many acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, to all of whom the bereaved wife and business associates desire to express their most heartfelt thanks.
Mr. Richards was a native of Wisconsin and was thirty-six years of age last September. He first came to Santa Rosa in June, 1890, from Newton, Kansas, just after his marriage, and entered upon the duties of city editor of the Republican. Several mouths later he left here for Seattle, believing the climate would suit his health better at the time. A few months later he returned to Santa Rosa and resumed his work on the Republican, and continued on that paper until the close of the year 1895, when the Evening Press was so successfully launched, in January, 1896. At the time of his death Mr. Richards was editor of this paper, a position he had filled both with credit to himself and with benefit to the entire community.
THE FUNERAL OBSEQUIES
The last tribute of love has been paid, and to the grave has been consigned all that was mortal of one who in life gained the respect of everybody. The earthly tenement of Editor Grant O. Richards now rests in the quiet of Santa Rosa cemetery until the Resurrection morn. It rests there in sure and certain hope of the coming to eternal life.
Nothing was wanting in the last tribute to add to the honor bestowed. It was honor done gratefully to the memory of a true friend of the community, beautifully expressive was the burial service.
At the First Presbyterian church a large congregation awaited the arrival of the funeral cortege. Just at 2 o’clock the organist, Mrs. J. S. Sweet, commenced Chopin’s Funeral March as the casket covered with beautiful creations in flowers was borne slowly to the front of the altar by eight intimate friends of the deceased, James W. Oates, John P. Overton, Henry G. Hahman, George W. Lewis, W. F. Wines, Herbert Slater, Peter Towey and Mayor James S. Sweet.
A few minutes later Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, marshalled by Robert Ross, filed into the church and occupied seats immediately behind the mourners in the middle of the church. Then Carita temple, of the Rathbone Sisters, passed into the seats reserved for them on the right hand side of the auditorium. Seats were reserved on the left side of the church for members of the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and members of the Press Democrat force. Mark L, McDonald Jr. was the usher.
…the first part of the service was brought to a close.
Then the hundreds of the deceased’s friends present passed around the bier on which the casket rested in front of the altar, and took a last glance at the placid face. With hearts filled with emotion this was done.
The casket was then carried to the hearse and the procession formed for the journey to the cemetery. The line of carriages was very long. At the head of the procession walked the members of Santa Rosa lodge, Knights of Pythias, in files of two. There was a large attendance of the Knights to show a last token of esteem for their brother.
Just at the entrance to the cemetery gates the Knights formed in double line and stood with uncovered beads while the cortege passed…
…The grave was a mass of beautiful white flowers mingled with sprays of greenery, the work of the Ladies Dorcas society of the Presbyterian church.
While the earth was being thrown into the grave the Presbyterian church choir sang a number of hymns. It was an affecting scene. The autumn leaves falling from the shade trees heralding the approach of winter and the passing of another year, contrasted with the radiance of the autumn sun shining in all its brilliance, symbolic doubtless in many hearts of the land that is fairer than day, where death is unknown.
Untold love and affection was manifest in the great number of exquisite floral gifts sent. The flowers were magnificent. To attempt to enumerate them would be useless, as many of the creations bore no name. There were many wreaths, an anchor, crosses, pillows, and branches of flowers. Handsome pieces were sent by the Knights of Pythias, the Rathbone Sisters, the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa Typographical Union and many others.
The offering from the Santa Rosa Typographical Union was a superb creation in which white and blue flowers predominated. In the center of a lovely white back ground was the sign “30.” The symbol “30” is used in newspaper offices, though it had its origin in telegraphy. When the last piece of copy is given out before the composition on the paper ceases for the day’s issue, on it appears “30”, signifying “the end,” and by this the compositor knows there is nothing more coming, and that the last news is in.
The grave presented a lovely sight when Mr. Stanley had completed the arrangement of the flowers, and after the parting benediction by the Rev. Mr. Hudson and a verse of “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” the service at the grave was over.
– Press Democrat, October 26 1898
Grant O. Richards, editor of the Press Democrat, died at Skaggs Springs on Saturday from the accidental discharge of a shotgun. Richards came to California in 1890, and worked constantly in the newspaper field, in which he was fast taking his place as a power, because of his clear, pungent and forceful style. He was a victim of overwork, and his health could not stand the tasks he set for his powers. He was of indomitable will, and worked when other men would have been in bed, never flinching when he saw a duty to perform, a friend he could help, or a benefit he could forward for the public. He was a martyr to the spirit Drive, and his beneficial work will be felt long after him. A man whom all loved to know, and knew but to love, may his ashes rest in peace.—Petaluma Courier
– Press Democrat, October 29 1898
Grant O. Richards, the editor of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, committed suicide at Skaggs Springs last Saturday by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun.
It pains to write this, but the coronavirus probably will be an extinction level event for most print newspapers. This is not a shocking new development; the Nieman Journalism Lab started the death watch even before the National Emergency was declared. Go back to the 2008-2009 recession and find pundits were warning that print was unlikely to survive another economic downturn – newspapers were like a flotilla of Titanics all drifting towards the iceberg zones. And so here we are today; sans charitable bailouts from billionaires or megacorps, lots of ships are soon to sink together into the cold sea.
This is not the place to go into all the reasons why this is happening, but some are well hashed over: Printing presses can keep rolling only so long without advertisers to pay for the paper and ink. Too many newspapers were being run by the MBA-types who saw journalism as little different from selling soup – if the demand slacks off, keep the profits high via cutbacks. Many were even taken over by hedge funds and investors who saw them only as cash cows to be milked dry; a must-read is a 2018 article, “This Is How a Newspaper Dies” (the term “harvesting market position” will definitely be on the quiz).
The deeper problem for newspapers is that nobody’s reading them. U.S. circulation is the lowest it’s ever been since they began keeping records in 1940. Why is that? It’s not like we’ve become a sub-literate society; Americans are typically spending over six hours a day online and not all of it is looking at cat videos (I hope). And particularly now in the spring of 2020 we’re news-junkies, with 89% of U.S. adults following the latest about coronavirus closely – only not via newspapers. We’ve given up on newspapers, but as I’ve said for over 25 years: Readers did not give up on newspapers until newspapers abandoned their readers.
The change is apparent simply in the paper’s heft; today’s offerings are scrawny things compared to what we used to read not all that long ago. To the right are the Press Democrat front pages from May 22, 1970 and 2020, both days being a Friday. The text content of the modern edition would have filled less than one-quarter of the earlier page (modern size not to scale – both were the same height). There’s now just not much there there. And keep in mind this is not to pick on the PD; you would see the same devolution in any mid-size U.S. daily.
It may seem surprising but once upon a time newspapers were a primary source of entertainment. Sure, some people cared most about box scores or what stores had on sale, but every edition was packed with lots of other items to amuse, astonish or inform. What’s changed today is summed up in that keyword, lots – if there was nothing to interest you on the current page, turn to the next one, or read the page after that. Today there is no “page after that” because most papers have become little more than broadsheets, and the stuff filling the pages is too often wire service synopsis. In that 1970 edition, Every. Single. News. Page. had one or more local items.
The main element missing isn’t QUANTITY of news, but the QUALITY. Whenever I search old newspapers for particular items about local history I also read (or skim) the rest of those editions as well and I do it for pleasure – a well-written story is always a joy, no matter where you find it.
Papers from the 1950s-1960s are particularly fun because that was the Golden Age of columnists. The San Francisco Chronicle had Stanton Delaplane and Herb Caen; the Argus-Courier offered “peopleologist” Bill Soberanes and Ed Mannion; the Press Democrat served up Gaye LeBaron and Bony Saludes. Those newspapers would do themselves a favor by reprinting selections from those columns. Here’s my personal favorite Gaye LeBaron item:
A small girl-child (eyes at desk-edge level) came into the Children’s Library yesterday and asked librarian Venus Gordon for “The Cat in the Hat, please.”
Receiving her copy she went to a small table, made her self comfortable in one of the short chairs, opened the book and smiled disarmingly up into Mrs. Gordon’s eyes.
“You know, of course,” she said, “I can’t read.” (Aug. 26, 1960)
By reading the entire paper I also stumble across treasures. While researching the 1969 earthquake I found people were saddened because it struck just as a TV show called, “Then Came Bronson” was about to air. A guy later told LeBaron that some group should contact NBC for film of that episode and have a showing at a local theater to raise money for charity. (You can watch that episode, “A Famine Where Abundance Lies” online, but I sure don’t recommend it.)
It turned out the attraction was that the series was created by Denne Petitclerc, who started as a PD staff sports writer in 1950 and became one of the finest crime reporters and feature writers found anywhere – there’s no question in my mind he would have been awarded a Pulitzer if he hadn’t “gone Hollywood.”
Denne Bart Petitclerc wrote for the Press Democrat until 1956 when he left for the Miami Herald, and while here won several journalism awards. As a public speaker he was also in demand and seems to have been an overall popular fellow around Santa Rosa. No wonder that locals wanted to see the show he had developed.
Copyright restrictions block me from providing more than a sample of his works, but all can be read via Newspapers.Com, which is available on computers at the Sonoma County Library. There are dozens more Petitclerc articles like these.
The brown-haired man with the pleasant ruddy face wanders into a grocery store looking for all the world like a painter.
He smiles at the man behind the counter, selects a few items from the shelves, carefully including a box of pablum, “for my baby,” he explains.
He crumples a shopping list in his hand and puts it into the pocket of his paint – smeared overalls. “I guess I haven’t forgotten anything,” he says. “My wife gets plenty sore if I do.”
He chats casually with the grocer while the items are checked, telling, perhaps, of a little piece of property he’d like to buy up by the doctor’s place. “You know the spot.”
Then he calmly explains that he’s new to the community, doing painting for the doctor, “nice fella, Doc.”
He sure is, the grocer agrees, as he is handed a check signed by the doctor. “My pay,” smiles the man. “it sure don’t go far now days. No, sir.”
He endorses it, picks up the change, and the groceries, and walks out, leaving the grocer behind thinking, “there’s a nice young fella.”
And with a bad check.
That is the method of operation of 39-year-old Walter DeMeter, California’s most wanted criminal, who has passed more than $50,000 in forged checks in the state since 1947. And DeMeter may be in Sonoma County today… (Feb. 8, 1954)
They’ll talk about Big Jim Antone and the fight he had with the octopus for a long time.
Big Jim is a bulldozer operator in Santa Rosa for Tom McLain, and a lot of man at 265 pounds.
And his boss, Mr. McLain tells about the way he can stretch a chain around a truck-motor and lift it right off the frame, lifting with his two big arms.
So, Big Jim went abalone fishing yesterday morning at Fort Ross, and got out into the water just after daybreak. It was raining, and the sea was heavy, but that didn’t distrub Jim, who was raised at Jenner-by-the-Sea, and who’s as fine an abalone fisherman as there is anywhere.
He went out along the rocks until the water splashed above his chest – he says that the abalone are bigger out there – and was prying around with his hand for the rough shells attached to the rock.
Then suddenly something that felt like a muscled piece of wire wrapped around his left arm. He pulled back. Another tentacle attached itself to his body. And another. And another.
“I never saw so many arms,” he said later.
The tentacles were as thick as a main’s forearm, and held fast to his body by milky-white suction cups.
Big Jim found it was useless to try to tear them from his arms. There was only one thing to do… (April 6, 1954)
[He pulled the 40 lb. octopus from the rocks and walked to shore with it still wrapped around his body.]
Grady Hayes sat in the darkness in the back of the patrol car and talked in a high-pitched voice and winced when the car hit a bump because of the steel handcuffs that locked his two big arms behind his back.
“I could have chopped you down, easy,” he said, “but I didn’t have no intention of hurtin’ anybody.”
He had, a half hour before, been captured at the Jack Willen ranch, Hot Springs Rd., and now we were driving down the twisting ridge-line towards Highway 101, six miles away. Looking out through the windshield you could see the lights of Geyserville flickering in the distance in the darkness. Hayes was talking to Deputy Cole.
“I was in the brush last night when you came up to that culvert and shouted,” he said thickly, hardly audible, “and you was about four feet away.”
He was wearing a pink wool shirt and grey slacks that were dusty and ripped from the brush, and he had on a tan felt hat that looked as dapper as the day he left San Francisco and came to the remote cabin in the hills 15 miles west of Cloverdale and shot and wounded his estranged wife and two children… (June 2, 1955)
When sheriff’s deputies Fred Muenster and Joe Sweeney dragged the shivering, sad-eyed boy ashore at Bodega Bay last week, he looked for all the world a picture of youthful innocence, lost and confused.
Indeed he did. He said he was lost and hungry end had taken a skiff to a moored boat in the harbor and only taken “a little food” to sustain his life. Yes, indeed he had.
A boy to be pitied and helped. After all, weren’t we all lost boys once? Sure we were.
Out of their own pockets, the officers fed him. Nice boy. They brought him back to the County jail at Santa Rosa, and he warmed himself in an office. He had an uncle in Annapolis. He could go there. He was wandering from Tracy to see his uncle. He was only 18.
Poor chap. “You know,” he said, “my name is pronounced differently in England. Have you ever had anything to do with royalty? I’m it.” He confided with a bearing of dignity. “I’ve got a big inheritance in England. Someday, when I get a stake, I’m going there and claim it.”
Well, he, heh, boys, you know boys with imagination? Sure you do.
“Ever been arrested before?” he was asked.
“Oh, no, sir, never in my whole life. Honestly never…” (Oct. 20, 1955)
[The kid was burglarizing summer homes near Guerneville.]
Another serious author who worked at the Press Democrat 1949-1952 was Frank Herbert, who went on to write the DUNE sci-fi novels. He was a staff writer and photographer, so much of what he turned out was mundane (“Eagles Honor Mrs. Lingron, Mother of 8 Sons, Daughters”) but they sometimes gave him a featured column – complete with portrait! – which could be less predictable.
His strangest contribution to the PD was probably the column titled, “To One Part Verne, Add Galley of Zomb, Drop in Heathcliffe and expect Occidental,” again here excerpted for copyright:
It was a green morning and I woke up to find that my bed had three sides instead of two. The third side was a surrealist extension into the fourth dimension and the minute I stepped onto the floor over that ‘side I knew it would be one of “those” days.
In the first place, my wife found a note in the bottom of the kitchen garbage can which read:
“I can’t live without you.”
It was signed, “Verne.”
We don’t know any Verne. We puzzled over the darned thing for a while and finally decided it was a scrap from a short story one of us had written and thrown away, (with good reason.)…
[They decide to drive to Occidental before dinner.]
…At the west end of Coleman Valley the road began to climb in a series of steeply pitched switchbacks. Up, up, up, it climbed, into the mist. At the top there was wind-whipped fog, a low moaning of wind through brown grass and ghost figures of sheep only dimly seen at the limit of visibility. It looked like a cheap illustration for an Emile Bronte novel. We expected Kathy to come striding over the next rise, shrilling “Heathcliffe! Heathcliffe!”
Thus far, you will note, that since taking that inscrutable turn we had seen no human beings…
…Around us, weird rock shapes rose from the sere grass. The fog-rimmed scene became more and more Brontes-like. We expected to see a “thing” gibbering at us at any moment. And then the road started down. More switchbacks, the fog thinning. Another farmyard, dilapidated buildings and no people. (The last outpost.)
And at the bottom there was sunshine. We gloried in it. There was a car approaching us. We laughed. A human being must be driving it, we said. The car drew closer, slowed; we passed. The driver looked at us. His eyes were red-rimmed, hair straggled down over his forehead, there was a scar along his left cheek. He sped away behind us.
“In heaven’s name, who was that?” my wife asked.
“Heathcliffe,” I said. We drove back to the world of the living . . . and dinner. (Aug. 26, 1950)
In a Sept. 29, 1950 column on L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (which Herbert thought should be required reading) he compared it to medieval jousting: “…we are still bogged down in the fifth or sixth century A. D. Meanwhile the mind in its perception of its environment plods gaily on, lance in hand, armor buckled, helmet on, visor down. We are the only creatures in the universe with helmets containing visors with built-in mirrors. Pull down the visor and Zoot! You are staring yourself in the eyes.” No, I don’t know what it means, either.
He may have gotten away with some of these things because he wrote a series on nuclear war which the PD sold separately as a popular pamphlet, “Survival and the Atom,” which the paper promised had “all of the facts ‘Mr. Average Civilian’ needs to know to survive in an atomic attack.”
After Herbert left Santa Rosa he later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle” – although the town as described was actually Ukiah, where he had profiled the newly-opened Masonite plant. (It’s really a terrible book; don’t let your curiosity get the better of you.)
Herbert was never as good a writer as Petitclerc, and it’s doubtful few flipped through the paper looking for what Frank Herbert had to say. But you didn’t open the Press Democrat in the morning just in hopes of reading Petitclerc’s gems; the paper always entertained readers with well-written news stories by its stable of staff writers.
Want to know what’s missing from most papers today? It’s the staff; newsrooms are like the sad last day of the going-out-of-business sale, where only a skeleton crew is sticking around to sell the display cases and that neon “open” sign in the window. According to Pew, newsroom staffing has fallen by half since 2008. That’s why all too often your local newspaper feels like it was produced by office workers filling in a template. Here’s a rewrite of local press releases or what was on the police scanner. Here are enough summaries of national/world news to fill section one. A column by a retired sports writer. Two (three?) big color photos for the front page. Support Local Journalism.
Forget missing out on having a stellar talent such as the likes of Petitclerc; today there’s no reporter here who could match Bony Saludes’ coverage of the 1961 murder spree by a 33 year-old “self-styled hypnotist,” and who along with Dick Torkelson, kept us titillated about the sinful ruttings of Lou Gottlieb and the Morning Star Ranch.
Pete Golis is still on hand as a columnist emeritus, but he was a young go-getter on the Healdsburg beat when he told us in 1966 about three members of a family claiming they had a close encounter with a spaceship. (Too bad Frank Herbert still wasn’t around.) Otto Becker of Alexander Valley said his son and daughter-in-law also saw the 6-story tall “saucer-like” ship which had red and yellow rays pouring off the edges of the saucer “like water.” It made a rhythmic “sput… sput… sput” noise, he said, so he thought at first it might be the old pump on the property. “I’m 73 years old and I’ve seen fireballs back east, but this had motors…it was controlled by some kind of human beings.” Golis told the story as matter-of-fact as if it concerned a herd of stray cows – and you can bet it was the topic everyone talked about later that day around the water cooler.
All that is what we’re set to lose (or in many cases, have already lost). It’s not the physical bundle of newsprint that will be missed; it’s that it represented the best work of a team of crack professionals to create and organize the story of our common selves. Snapping off the rubber band and opening the paper was always the first best part of your morning, even more so because you could always rely on it being there again tomorrow.