COL. OATES THROWS A PUNCH

Sure, we knew he had a temper, but punching someone in the face at a City Council meeting? Good grief.

It was 1913 and the man throwing the punch was 63 year-old James Wyatt Oates, then Santa Rosa’s City Attorney. The issue driving him to violence was the paving of Mendocino Avenue, where Oates was the owner of a home (which would become known as Comstock House). Paving contractor Charles Wagner had just begun addressing the Council when Oates charged at him and tried to interrupt. Wagner continued his remarks while Oates talked over him. The Press Democrat reported what happened next, with Oates shouting,

“If you deny it, you lie,” came the response from Wagner.

Bing! went Oates’ fist into Wagner’s face, while the latter jumped back and said:

“You are an old man; I wouldn’t hit you.”

Meanwhile Oates reached for his trousers’ pocket as if to secure his knife, but was apparently so agitated that he was unable to locate the pocket.

Two councilmen rushed forward, one pinning Oates’ arms at his sides and spinning him away from Wagner. “If you will listen like a gentleman, not like a Southern rowdy, I will explain. I am a gentleman, not a Southern rowdy,” Wagner said to Oates.

Wagner explained he was making a simple contract proposal to the Council. “That was what I was trying to say when Oates called me a liar and put his hand on his hip-pocket for a gun. Why I should be abused and threatened with a licking I don’t understand.” He asked Oates for an apology. Oates told the Council he opposed Wagner’s proposal. He made no apology, nor any reference to having slugged someone moments before.

Unfortunately, the PD did not explain exactly what was said to ignite the volatile Oates, except that Wagner was proposing the street work be done under “private contract.” The Santa Rosa Republican – where Oates was President of the Board – did not mention the incident at all. From other articles discussed here earlier, however, we can piece most of it together.

In that era the town owned the streets as well as the underground water/sewer/coal gas lines. If you wanted the street in front of your house to be paved – or to be clear, if a majority of neighbors on the street wanted pavement – the businesses and homeowners on the street had to pay for it. Property owners also had to pay for concrete curbs and gutters. It was never mentioned how much all this cost, but a couple of years earlier a nearby church sold some of its land because of the “very heavy expense” of the street work.

Mendocino avenue was slated to be part of the state’s new highway system which would lay pavement, but that would be a year or more in the future. At a special City Council session called by Oates earlier that year, he insisted the work had to be done immediately because conditions were “almost impassible.” Or so said Oates, who could claim to know something about the topic as past president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association and an avid automobilist – a couple of weeks after socking Mr. Wagner, Oates traded in his old car for an ultra-luxe Cadillac, which had prices starting at about $3,000 (over $47k adjusted for inflation).

Today we might presume the city would have paved the street and mailed a bill or tacked the cost on to property taxes. In 1913 Santa Rosa, however, residential street paving was a new concept, and the precedent they had was creating sidewalks, where the homeowner either poured the concrete himself or hired a contractor, with the city stepping in only if the work wasn’t done by the deadline. But streets aren’t sidewalks – the work had to be done all at once. You can’t have a roadway flipping between pavement and gravel for months while property owners dicker with contractors.

Apparently Charles Wagner believed Oates and others had given permission for contractors to negotiate contracts with each property owner, which would have resulted in piecemeal construction. Oates demurred saying anything like that – or as the Press Democrat eloquently put it, he went “Bing!” on the guy.

The Mendocino ave. paving issue came up again at Council three weeks later, with Oates asking the Council to go on record requiring the “completion of the work in front of all property when it was once begun.” The contractor – which may or may not have been Mr. Bing’s company – promised it would.

There are a couple of little footnotes to this story: At the Council meeting where Oates started swinging, his law partner and former protégée, Hilliard Comstock, was representing the Matthew Co. in another street construction dispute. That company was owned by his brother Frank and brother-in-law, Win Matthew, so it was quite a family affair in Council chambers that night. The reference to Oates as a “Southern rowdy” also implies he retained his Alabama accent, which was never elsewhere mentioned. Mr. Wagner was more accurate in that description that he probably knew, and he likewise didn’t know how lucky he was Oates couldn’t reach whatever he sought in his pocket; few, if any, in Santa Rosa were aware he had killed a man in his youth over a matter of honor.

LIE PASSED, BLOW STRUCK-SCENE AT COUNCIL CHAMBER
City Attorney Oates and Street Man in Wrangle

There was a sensational scene in the City Council chamber last night, when City Attorney J. W. Oates used  the short and ugly word and followed it up with a swing of his right wrist and then reached for his trousers’ pocket, presumably in an effort to secure some weapon to enforce his objection to a statement which had just been made by Charles L. Wagner, representing a street contractor, regarding the paving of Mendocino avenue.

Oates had explained his opposition to the private contract plan of doing the work, when Wagner took the floor to appeal to his members of the Council in favor of the private contract plan, and had only fairly started his argument when Oates jumped to his feet and rushing toward Wagner, attempting to interrupt him. Wagner asked Oates to wait, as he (Oates) had had his say without interruption, and he (Wagner) wanted to give his views.

Wagner then continued his remarks to the Council. Oates continued talking. Finally he was heard to shout:

“You lie!”

“If you deny it, you lie,” came the response from Wagner.

Bing! went Oates’ fist into Wagner’s face, while the latter jumped back and said:

“You are an old man; I wouldn’t hit you.”

Meanwhile Oates reached for his trousers’ pocket as if to secure his knife, but was apparently so agitated that he was unable to locate the pocket.

In the excitement Councilmen Pressley and Wolfe jumped to their feet and ran to the two men. Councilman Pressley grabbed the City Attorney from behind, pinning his arms down to his sides and pulled him around and away from Wagner, while Councilman Wolfe jumped beside Wagner, who was standing quietly awaiting the next move.

“If you will listen like a gentleman, not like a Southern rowdy, I will explain. I am a gentleman, not a Southern rowdy,” said Wagner, addressing Oates.

Wagner is a very heavy man and the incident excited him greatly, and for a time he could hardly breathe. After quiet was restored he continued his remarks to the Council, while Oates returned to his seat.

“When I came to Santa Rosa,” said Wagner, “Mr. Oates told me, street paving could be done by private contract here. Later, I learned in San Francisco, that he had told representatives of another firm that it could. I returned here and after a consultation with the Councilmen, Mayor and Mr. Oates, the latter admitted that paving could be done by private contract.

“That was what I was trying to say when Oates called me a liar and put his hand on his hip-pocket for a gun. Why I should be abused and threatened with a licking I don’t understand.

“It is a business proposition and we were made certain promises by the Council, and if they are broken now it will not be fair dealing. I had no intention of insulting Mr. Oates and he can’t take exception to anything I have said, and I think you owe me an apology, Mr. Oates.”

While Oates took occasion to make his position plain to the Council, he made no reference to the sensational incident in which he had participated previously. He made no effort to apologize or extend the olive branch for his outbreak and assault.

No action was taken in the paving matter and it went over to the next meeting and the business once more proceeded in an orderly manner.

– Press Democrat October 3, 1913
MUCH STREET WORK WILL BE DONE IN SANTA ROSA

…When the petition of the City Improvement Company of San Francisco for permit to pave Mendocino avenue from College avenue to the city limits was called up, City Attorney Oates addressed the Council, explaining that the only objection the property owners had to the plan was the fear that all the street would not be paved, and representing B. W. Paxton and Mrs. Paxton, he asked that the Council go on record to show its intention to force the completion of the work in front of all property when it was once begun. He was readily given that assurance and then declared there would be no further objection to the work.

J. R. Price, representing the Paving Company, explained that his company had secured 73 percent of the property owners’ signatures to contracts and declared that the officers would find no lack of workmanship or defect in the work when completed, and if they did, it would be made to meet all requirements of the specifications…

– Press Democrat October 22, 1913

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THE DEATH OF JAMES WYATT OATES

R.I.P. James Wyatt Oates, wherever the hell you may be.

December 9, 2015 is the centenary of his death, so this is an appropriate time to write his final chapter. There’s still more to come about his life, however, particularly his difficult final three years, a mixture of melancholy and joy along with an outlash of violence that took Santa Rosa by surprise. More also has been unearthed about his life in the years around 1880, when he was a journalist and aspiring author in the mold of Bret Harte. Someday, too, I hope to be able to write the full story of the man he murdered.

(Late Portrait of James Wyatt Oates, courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Published elsewhere here is an overview of his life and his writings but for the purpose of this article, here is a thumbnail sketch of the story so far:

Called Wyatt by his family, he was born in 1850 and the brother of William C. Oates, a Confederate commander in the Civil War famous for losing the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Wyatt adored his much older brother and followed him by becoming a lawyer in their Alabama hometown. Also like William, he was known both for his courtly Southern charm and his volatile temper as well as being famously quick to judge. Eventually Wyatt married and settled in Santa Rosa. He and wife Mattie had no children, but mentored a number of younger people who often lived with them for months at a time. The Oates’ were closest to Anna May Bell, whom they clearly regarded as a daughter, and Hilliard Comstock, who studied law under Wyatt and became his law partner. When Mattie died in 1914 Wyatt was despondent. He visited his old haunts in Alabama and bonded with his cousin’s families, returning to Santa Rosa with Pat Granberry, a 24 year-old grandniece who stayed with him for several months, sometimes joined by two of her sisters. Also living with Wyatt in his grand home on Mendocino avenue during those final months was Hilliard.

As the end of 1915 approached, Oates was finally emerging from his mourning. He spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with Anna May Bell – now Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap – and “when he returned home [he] was bubbling over with happiness over his visit,” according to the Santa Rosa Republican. On the train, however, he caught a cold he couldn’t seem to shake. A week later he called for a doctor. (For the record, it was Dr. Joseph H. Shaw, Luther Burbank’s personal physician and best friend.)

Pneumonia developed and the condition of the 65 year-old man continued growing worse. Anna rushed up from Los Angeles. She and Hilliard were there when he died in his home.

The Republican newspaper eulogized in both his obituary and funeral notice. “Amid manifestations of sincere grief the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb,” moaned the reporter, larding on the jeremiad. He was “a cheery, kindly and happy nature far in excess of that of the majority of men.” There was also this sideways compliment: “He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to give his opinions on the questions of the day…Those who did not measure up to this standard of being ‘square’ were not admired by the deceased in even a slight degree.” In other words, he was an opinionated hothead you didn’t want to cross.

Many years later, Ernest Finley wrote vignettes about people in that era and Oates was the only person he called out as a jerk. After Wyatt was reported to have threatened to kill him, Finley allegedly remarked, “he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn’t got the guts.” Finley might not have been as blustery if knew Oates actually had killed someone, but apparently few, if any, people in Santa Rosa knew about his darker past.

As Finley was editor and publisher of the Press Democrat, you know his paper’s obituary was not a love letter to the “cheery, kindly and happy” side of the late Mr. Oates. In the days following the funeral, the PD could scarcely conceal its schadenfreude over hearsay that the last will and testament contained shocking details which might prove James Wyatt Oates was indeed an asshole. Never before or since have I read in those century-old newspapers gossipy speculation about the contents of someone’s will.

The first rumor to emerge was the estate was worth over $100,000 (the equivalent of about $2.5 million today) much of it in stocks and cash, quite a windfall for the lucky heirs. “It is also reported that Mr. Comstock is given the right to occupy the residence on Mendocino avenue until such time as it is sold,” the PD claimed. There was actually nothing in the will concerning this but it must have been an agreement with the executors so the house did not sit unoccupied. Hilliard’s mother, Nellie, and sister Catherine immediately moved into the house as unpaid caretakers until the Comstocks were able to buy it with a $10,000 closed bid from probate the following year.

The PD also speculated Anna May Dunlap was supposed to inherit much of the estate (quite predictable, actually) and the grandnieces might “come in for a large share of the property,” which possibly surprised some, given he met them for the first time only about a year earlier. Then there was this: “There has been a persistent rumor that some time prior to his death, Mr. Oates disinherited his nephew…if this proves true it will come as a surprise, as Will Oates is the Colonel’s nearest relative.”

William C. Oates Jr. – usually called “Willie” – was the 32 year-old son of Wyatt’s beloved brother. (William Sr. had another child with a house slave.) As such the Press Democrat was correct; Willie was indeed his closest blood relative, and eyebrows would have raised around town if Wyatt truly left him nothing.

And Wyatt truly left him nothing.

When the will was officially filed the PD produced a half-page story, reprinting the entire document – another unprecedented step for the paper – and the Republican published it in full as well. As it turned out, Wyatt had added a codicil making several changes.

(Press Democrat cartoon following James Wyatt Oates’ stepping down as president of the  Sonoma County Automobile Association in 1911. Note in particular his “elevator” shoes; from the 1892 voter registration records we learn his distinguishing features were a scar on the left side of his head and that he was exactly five feet, seven and five-eights inches tall – the only voter to specify his height with such exact precision.)

Wyatt’s will, created shortly after his wife died the previous year, reflected her own bequests almost exactly (should Wyatt have died first, of course). About $30,000 was given away to friends and relatives and to his nephew, Oates left the gold watch and chain which was given to him by Willie’s father when Oates turned 21 in 1871. The will left one-third of the entire estate before taxes and any other distribution to Willie and the remainder of the estate to Anna May Bell Dunlap.

The codicil was written about two months before Wyatt’s death and following a visit by his nephew.  Willie must have said something that really pissed off his temperamental uncle during that visit because he was cut off entirely – Willie didn’t even inherit the legacy watch. That third of the estate that was once promised to him went to May, Pat and Lois Grandberry, Wyatt’s grandnieces.1

The codicil also took away a $1,000 bequest to Mattie’s uncle and another thousand dollars going to the widow of his old law partner. No reasons were given. Added was a new part giving “all coal lands and coal interests” in Arizona and mining interests in Mexico – which were “very valuable if they can ever be properly gotten at” – to his three cousins including Pocahontas (“Pokie”) Granberry, the mother of the three young women.

“There is an unconfirmed rumor that Mr. Oates plans to contest the will,” the PD speculated hopefully, but with absolutely no basis. The will was not contested.

That was not completely the end of the story, however. A month later, the papers reported Dr. Bogle – one of the executors of Wyatt’s will – had fulfilled a very odd last request.

Although the obituary stated “…the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb,” that wasn’t exactly true. His coffin had been stacked inside the holding vault at the Rural Cemetery, the same little stone shed which also still held the coffins for Mattie (d. 1914) and his mother-in-law (d. 1910). None of them had been buried. Supposedly Wyatt asked Dr. Bogle to have their bodies cremated together.

Such a request was out of character, to say the least. Years before, Oates had purchased a large plot at the entranceway of the Rural Cemetery. Most likely he originally wanted all to be interred under a glorifying monolith, such as the obelisk with life-size statue that marked the Alabama grave of his Civil War brother, William. It is hard to reconcile the shift from owning the most prominent gravesite in town to wanting the most anonymous disposal of their remains.

And if that wasn’t strange enough, Wyatt also demanded the remains of Mattie’s two sisters and brother be disinterred along with his father-in-law, Perrin L. Solomon – a man who Oates could not possibly have known because he died in San Francisco when Oates was a 13 year-old boy in Alabama.2

Ordering your long-dead in-laws – people whom you never met – dug up for a mass family cremation is unfathomable, at least to me. Perhaps he developed the idea while wallowing in his deep depression following Mattie’s death; perhaps he wanted to make a dark nihilistic statement about her family; perhaps the request was a caustic joke which his friend tragically took seriously; perhaps he asked for it because he was barking mad. Whatever the reason, all of their bodies were indeed cremated together.

“The ashes will be thrown to the winds by Dr. Bogle, in conformity with another wish of Colonel Oates,” the Santa Rosa Republican reported. “The cremation of this number of bodies from the same family, all in one day, is a very unusual proceeding.”

1 The women were grandchildren of Wyatt’s aunt, which made them his first cousins once removed. Pat (also known as “Patti” or “Pattie”) was 25 at the time of Oates’ death and Lois (“Louise”) was twenty. May cannot be clearly identified through census and genealogical records among the three (possibly four) other daughters in the family but “Mae” appears in the 1920 census with the same age as Pat, so perhaps they were twins.

2 The Press Democrat article transcribed below implies the Solomons were buried in Santa Rosa, but that is very unlikely. Perrin L. Solomon died in 1863 and according to Mattie’s obituary, her siblings died as infants. Wyatt’s estate included a burial plot in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco, which presumably was where they were buried.

 
COLONEL JAMES W. OATES DIES EARLY ON THURSDAY MORNING
Bright Light in History of Santa Rosa Since 1876 Succumbs To Fatal Attack of Double Pneumonia

James Wyatt Oates, one of Santa Rosa’s most loved and revered citizens, and a resident of this city since 1876, died about 2 o’clock Thursday morning after an illness of some weeks. Toward the last of his sickness developed into double pneumonia, and every effort was made by physicians and nurses to ward off the fatal attack, but in the end his age of 65 years counted against him and he passed away.

Mr. Oates was born in Alabama. When a young man he went to Arizona, and later came to California, settling in Santa Rosa, which has been his home ever since. Soon after coming to Santa Rosa he married Miss Mattie Solomon, daughter of Mrs. M. S. Solomon of San Francisco. After his marriage Mr. Oates, who was a brilliant attorney, formed a law partnership with Barclay Henley, afterward sent to Congress from this district, and E. L. Whipple. This firm of Henley, Whipple & Oates was recognized for many years as the leading attorneys of Santa Rosa.

Mr. Oates had always taken an active interest in the political and social life of the city, and was interested in state and national politics. He was a strong and self-reliant figure through many years of political battles and earned the respect and admiration of everyone in the city.

His wife died about a year ago, after he mother had passed away previously, and Mrs. Oates never quite recovered from the shock of her loss. He made a trip to his old home in the South and returned with two nieces, but it was seen that his health was failing. A short time ago he made a trip to southern California, and was forced to return because of a bad cold contracted while away. This cold grew worse and developed into this final illness which caused his death.

The sudden death of Colonel Oates has brought a poignant grief in many households in this city and county. Early Thursday morning telephone messages from Cloverdale and other sections of the county were received at this office inquiring as to his condition, and the announcement of his death was greeted with exclamations of surprise and genuine regret. Recently Colonel Oates had been feeling better than he had at any time since the death of his beloved wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. Her death left a void in his life that could not be filled. He planned a trip to Los Angeles to spend Thanksgiving with Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap, who were probably his closest personal friends on the coast. Returning home he caught a severe cold in the sleeper coming north, and was unable to keep warm. He did not feel particularly bad, but the cold kept him confined to his residence for several days. Even then he resented any one’s believing he was ill, and thought that his robust constitution would be abundantly sufficient to overcome any slight indisposition which the cold might have occasioned.

It was only last Friday afternoon that Colonel Oates really complained of feeling badly, and Dr. Joseph H. Shaw and a nurse were summoned to attend him. His bronchial tubes were affected, and even then it was believed that his condition would readily yield to treatment. The condition proved far more obstinate than at first believed and pneumonic symptoms appeared on Sunday. Tuesday morning Colonel Oates was quite low physically and serum was administered to the patient. Wednesday a chill showed the reaction from the serum, and at noon of that day Colonel Oates rallied and declared that he felt fine.

Wednesday evening the patient collapsed, and from that time on his decline was rapid, and despite the efforts of skilled physicians and trained nurses, he passed to the Great Beyond. The dread pneumonia had secured such a hold on him that its ravages could not be stayed.

Colonel Oates had thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Los Angeles with his friends, the Dunlaps, and when he returned home was bubbling over with happiness over his visit. He was never more pleased than when with the Dunlaps, and always enjoyed their company. Mrs. Dunlap was with Colonel Oates when he passed away and had done much to soothe his last moments on earth. Another happiness which had come to Colonel Oates since the death of his wife and his return from a visit to his old home in the South, was the visit of the Misses Pat and Lois Granberry and Attorney William C. Oates of Montgomery, Ala. The latter has been notified of the death of the eminent Santa Rosan, and is en route here. He will arrive Monday evening if all goes well.

Funeral Tuesday

The funeral of Colonel Oates has been set for Tuesday afternoon, and Rev. Willis G. White will be the officiating minister. The services will be conducted at the Oates residence on Mendocino avenue. The deceased was a member of Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 57, F. & A. M., and of the Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 646, B. P. O. E.

In the death of Colonel Oates Santa Rosa has lost one of her foremost citizens, a man who was alway valorously fighting for the right in civic affairs, and who always championed the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden. He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to give his opinions on the questions of the day, even though in doing so he might have disagreed with his friends. He was a man who had the courage of his convictions, and who had the temerity to follow the dictates of his own conscience. The world is better than he should have been permitted to live, and the example of his life will be a guide for many young men of this community who knew him intimately and who will revere his memory. The world can ill afford to lose such men as James Wyatt Oates, for he was one of its staunchest men, a man who measured everybody by the standard of being “square.” Those who did not measure up to this standard of being “square” were not admired by the deceased in even a slight degree.

To many in this city the death of Colonel Oates will come as a personal grief. He was a sincere friend to those who knew him well and his counsel was eagerly sought by these friends. He was a man well versed in the law, and for many years past had made a specialty of corporate law. He was looked upon as an authority in his line, and a man of superior talents. He was a brother of the late Governor Oates of Alabama, and a member of a prominent family in that favored land.

The active pallbearers will include…

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 9, 1915

 

COURT ADJOURNS OUT OF RESPECT TO THE LATE COLONEL J. W. OATES

When the Superior Court assembled Monday morning, Judges Seawell and Denny sat en banc for the purpose of receiving official intimation of the death of the late Colonel Hames W. Oates.

[..]

W. C. OATES ARRIVES FROM ALABAMA FOR FUNERAL

Will C. Oates arrived here Monday afternoon from Alabama for the funeral of the late Colonel Oates, his uncle, which takes place this afternoon. Mr. Oates’ father was Governor of Alabama. He came west immediately upon receiving the news of his uncle’s death.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 14, 1915

 

OATES FUNERAL HELD TUESDAY
Last Tribute Paid to Beloved Santa Rosa Citizen

Amid  manifestations of sincere grief the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb Tuesday afternoon. Will C. Oates of Montgomery, Alabama, who had been a guest at the Oates home here during the recent fall, came hurriedly from his southern home and attended the funeral of his uncle. Mr. Oates came from Montgomery immediately on receipt of the news of his uncle’s death.

Beautiful flowers, the loving remembrances of friends, were brought in profusion to adorn the casket of the deceased, and to mark his last resting place. These flowers ran the gamut of the blossoms of the season and were in various designs, from the modest shower bouquet to the massive designs. They spoke eloquently of the love of the living for the deceased. Among the designs were those forwarded by the fraternal societies to which the deceased was attached and which he greatly loved.

Of a cheery, kindly and happy nature far in excess of that of the majority of men, accompanied by a sense of absolute honor and fairness, which makes for perpetuation of the individual in memory of his fellow men. James Wyatt Oates will be remembered for many years to come, and until long after a new generation has come to take the places of those now active in the affairs of this section. He was a man who was quick to see and appreciate the virtues and possibilites of his fellow men, and he interested himself in them in such a manner that made life-long friendships.

Throughout this section and wherever he was known, Colonel Oates was held in high esteem, and deep sorrow at his untimely demise has been expressed by these friends. He had a conspicuous and honorable career of usefulness as a good citizen and was a striking figure of the Sonoma county bar. For many years his kindly face and familiar figure were so well known in the community in which he had spent practically the best part of his life, and for such a considerable period were his wise counsels sought by his neighbors that many of his old-time friends can scarcely realize that he has gone from them forever. It was a privilege to have known Colonel Oates intimately, and many residents of this city and county rejoiced in that privilege.

The funeral services were conducted by Rev. Willis G. White, pastor of the Presbyterian church, who paid a splendid eulogy to the deceased and his many admirable traits of character.

William C. Oates, Dr. S. S. Bogle, Hilliard Comstock, Charles H. Rule, Samuel Carey Dunlap and Dr. D. C. Farnham were the active pallbearers. The honorary pallbearers included the following:

Admiral J. B. Milton, San Francisco, Blitz W. Paxton, W. E. McConnell, Charles A. Wright, Judge Emmet Seawell, Judge Thomas C. Denny, Charles C. Belden, Mark L. McDonald, Jr., A. C. McMeans, Walter W. Monroe, Herbert Whitton, Elwyn D. Seaton, Charles A. Hoffer, John Tyler Campbell, L. D. Jacks, Paul T. Hahmann, Glenn E. Murdock, Wm. E. Woolsey, J. L. Mercier, Edward M. Norton, J. Elmer Mobley, W. Fraser, Herbert Slater, Arthur K. Lee and Rev. C. C. Cragin.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 14, 1915

 

JAMES W. OATES WILL IS READ
Following Southern Custom, Document Is Opened After Funeral, But Contents Will Not Be Known Until Filed for Probate

The will of the late J. W. Oates, as is customary in the south, was opened and read yesterday afternoon following the funeral. While it has been agreed among those interested that no details relative to its contents shall be made known prior to the filing of the will for probate. It is known that Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule, two of the most intimate friends of the deceased, are named as executors of the instrument.

The will was opened in the office of Attorney Hilliard Comstock in the presence of Dr. Bogle, Charles Rule, Samuel C. Dunlap, Will C. Oates, and Attorney Comstock, who was associated with the deceased in the practice of law. It is expected the document will be filed for probate within a day or two by the gentlemen nominated therein as executors.

– Press Democrat, December 15, 1915

 

WOMEN RELATIVES GIVEN BULK OF OATES ESTATE
William C. Oates, Nephew of the Deceased, Reported to Have Been Disinherited–Deceased Lawyer Left Property Valued at Over One Hundred Thousand Dollars

The late James Wyatt Oates left a valuable estate. It is said that in realty and personally it will aggregate over $100,000.

In addition to the beautiful home on Mendocino avenue, Mr. Oates owned a prune orchard on Sonoma avenue and other real estate, and also considerable bank stock and other securities.

While the will of the deceased lawyer has not as yet been filed for probate, it is understood that a cousin of the late Mrs. Oates, Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap, formerly Miss Anna May Bell, comes in for the largest share of the estate.

Mrs. Dunlap was a great favorite of both the deceased and his wife and both prior to her marriage to Mr. Dunlap and since has visited at the Oates house here.

It is also understood that the Misses Pat and Lois Granberry, granddaughters of Mr. Oates, also come in for a large share of the property.

It will be remembered that the Misses Granberry spent a considerable portion of the summer in Santa Rosa at the Oates home.

There has been a persistent rumor that some time prior to his death, Mr. Oates disinherited his nephew, William C. Oates, who came here from his old home in Alabama to attend the funeral and will return today, and cut him off from any share in the property. If this proves true it will come as a surprise, as Will Oates is the Colonel’s nearest relative. He is a son of the late William C. Oates, former Governor and United States Senator of Alabama.

In addition to the share of the estate, which it is understod goes to Mrs. Dunlap and the Misses Granberry, Mr. Oates is understood to have made other personal bequests, among which is his law library and practice to Attorney Hilliard Comstock, who was his law partner and who, since the death of Mrs. Oates, was his constant companion. Attorney Comstock will probate the estate.

As has been stated previously, Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule are named in the will as executors. It is likely that the will may be filed today.

– Press Democrat, December 18, 1915

 

OATES’ LIBRARY MAY BE GIVEN TO THE PUBLIC
Deceased Lawyer Intimated to Friends Some Time Since That He Thought of Making City a Bequest of His Books

It is not unlikely that when the will of the late James W. Oates is filed for probate a provision will be found whereby the fine collection of books in his private library will be conveyed to the Free Public Library as a gift. Mr. Oates is known to have had this idea in mind for some time previous to his death, and is said to have told at least two of his friends that he had embodied such a provision in his last will and testament.

As already stated in thes columns, Mr. Oates bequeathed his law library to his partner, Hilliard Comstock, along with his legal practice. It is also reported that Mr. Comstock is given the right to occupy the residence on Mendocino avenue until such time as it is sold and the proceeds turned into the estate. For some months prior to Mr. Oates’ death, Comstock has been making his home there with him.

– Press Democrat, December 19, 1915

 

WILL OF JAMES W. OATES IS FILED FOR PROBATE
As Stated in the Press Democrat, Will C. Oates Is Cut Off From Sharing in the Estate, the Bulk of Which Goes to Mrs. S. C. Dunlap and the Misses Granberry–Santa Rosa Gets Private Library–Will and Codicil

THE WILL of the late James Wyatt Oates has been filed for probate in the Superior Court of this county, and as stated several days ago in the Press Democrat, the deceased cut off his nephew, Will C. Oates without anything, leaving the bulk of his estate to Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap of Los Angeles (formerly Miss Anna May Bell) and to the Misses May, Lois and Pat Granberry of Alabama, his grand-nieces.

CITY GETS LIBRARY

As was also stated in the Press Democrat on Sunday morning, Mr. Oates left his private library to the Santa Rosa Public Library, and his valuable law library and office furniture and practice to Captain Hilliard Comstock, for years his close friend companion [sic] and law partner. And, as was also stated, the deceased made a number of bequests to other relatives and intimate friends. The estate is valued at about $100,000.

PROPERTY OF ESTATE

Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule, the executors named in the will, filed their petition for letters testamentary in the Superior Court yesterday through Attorney Hilliard Comstock. Among the property left by Mr. Oates is the family home and grounds on Mendocino avenue; two lots on Spencer avenue and adjoining streets; a prune orchard on Sonoma avenue; a lot on Fourth street, occupied by Brown’s poultry store; $20,000 worth of mortgages and notes; much bank stock and other securities; and, as stated in the will, valuable interests in coal mines in Arizona and in gold mines in Mexico. The latter, however, are of uncertain value owing to the conditions there.

WILL AND CODICIL

In his will Mr. Oates had previously bequeathed his nephew a third of the estate, but in a codicil, olographic in nature, executed only last October, he cut him off entirely.

Mrs. May Whipple, life-long friend of the family, and widow of Mr. Oates’ former law partner, the late E. L. Whipple, is also cut off in the codicil although she was a beneficiary to the amount of $1,000 under the terms of the will as originally written.

The will and codicil, as filed in court yesterday, are as follows:

[..]

– Press Democrat, December 22, 1915

 

NEPHEW CUT OFF IN THE WILL OF THE LATE COLONEL OATES
Olographic Codicil of October, 1915, Makes Several Changes in Distribution of $100,000 Estate of Santa Rosan

The will of the late Colonel James W. Oates was filed for probate in the Superior Court Tuesday afternoon by Attorney Hilliard Comstock, former law partner of the late Colonel Oates. The estate is valued at about $100,000 and many bequests are made.

Personal articles are given to intimate friends, sums of money to other friends, and Mrs. Samuel Cary Dunlap, formerly Miss Anna May Bell, is left the bulk of the estate with his grandnieces, the Misses May, Lois and Pat Granberry.

William C. Oates, a nephew of the deceased, is completely cut off by a codicil, which was executed in October last. There is an unconfirmed rumor that Mr. Oates plans to contest the will. Thus far no authority for this state can be secured.

There is a letter referred to in the will, and this letter makes a number of personal bequests, among them being a walnut table and other pieces of furniture to Charles Rule; Miss Grace Dougherty is given Mrs. Oates gold watch; the Saturday Afternoon Club gets a large and handsome mirror for the club house, which was intended for such gifts by Mrs. Oates. The gifts practically dispose of the house furnishing, paintings, etc., following out suggestions made by Mrs. Oates as well as the deceased. The intimate friends who are remembered with keepsakes, etc., included those just mentioned, and Dr. Bogle, Mrs. Frank Doyle, Mrs. Woodward, Miss Bess Woodward, Mrs. C. H. Dwinelle, Miss Sadie Morrill, Mr. and Mrs. B. W. Paxton, Mrs. Margaret Farnham, Miss Harrell and others, and the relatives in the South and East.

The will and codicil in full are as follows:

[..]

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 22, 1915

 

BODIES OF OATES-SOLOMON FAMILIES ARE CREMATED
Dr. S. S. Bogle True to His Trust in Fulfilling the Promise Given Late James Wyatt Oates on His Dying Bed–Seven Bodies Taken from Here to Oakland

Some time prior to the death of the late James Wyatt Oates, he asked Dr. S. S. Bogle, his personal friend and one of the executors of his will, to promise him that he would see that his body and the bodies of the late Mrs. Oates, General and Mrs. Solomon, her parents, and of her brothers and sisters, were all removed from the Santa Rosa cemetery and cremated.

On Wednesday, Dr. Bogle fulfilled his trust and all seven bodies were cremated in the Oakland crematorium in a short time, als in carrying out another wish of the late Mr. Oates, the ashes will be scattered to the winds.

Undertaker Frank Welti of this city removed the caskets of Mr. and Mrs. Oates and the late Mrs. M. S. Solomon from their temporary vault and the bodies of the late General Solomon and his other children, Perrin L. Solomon, Maria S. Solomon and Ann Solomon, making seven bodies in all and took them to Oakland. Prior to the creation of the same Dr. Bogle, who was present, inspected all of them, and they were consigned to the furnace and reduced to ashes.

The creation of the mortal remains of seven members of the same family on the same day and in the same crematorium is rather unusual. Some of the bodies thus disposed of had been buried for many years, and when taken up were found to be still in a good state of preservation.

– Press Democrat, January 23, 1916

 

 
WILL C. OATES IS NOT TO CONTEST
Petition Filed in the Superior Court on Wednesday Recites That Year Has Lapsed–The Messrs. Granberry Ask for Distribution

William C. Oates, nephew of the late James W. Oates of this city, apparently has given up his intention of contesting his uncle’s will, as the year has passed by without his having done so. The law provides that a contest must be brought with a year after the issuing of the letters testamentary.

The latter was brought to mind in the Superior Court on Wednesday when a petition was filed by the Misses Pat, Lois and May Granberry asking the court to partially distribute the estate to them. The petition sets forth that each of the Misses Granberry is entitled to over $15,000, and they ask that $10,500 be distributed to them for their respective shares. Mention is also made that a year has massed since the letters testamentary were issued in the estate. Donald Geary is the attorney for the Misses Granberry. Captain Hilliard Comstock represents the estate.

– Press Democrat, February 22, 1917

 

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WHAT’S NEW IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, 1912-13

Santa Rosa is going to pave your street soon but unfortunately you, dear homeowner, will be paying for it.

Those were the rules during the early 1910s in Santa Rosa, and doubtless elsewhere. The town owned the streets as well as the water/sewer lines beneath and maintained them, insofar as a water wagon roamed around during warm weather sprinkling down the dust. But if you wanted pavement – or to be clear, if a majority of neighbors on the street wanted it – please make your check payable to the city, cash also accepted (I’m sure).

Today it may seem bizarre to expect residents would pay for street paving, but it wasn’t so odd in the context of the times. Homeowners were also required to provide sidewalks, which meant losing several feet of your front yard to public access – and maybe the side yard as well, if the house was on a corner – and hiring a cement contractor, lest the town have someone do the work at your expense. (Gripes about the sidewalk issue were heard regularly by the city council, as described in an earlier article). Likewise paved streets were not desired by everyone; they were great if you had a car and didn’t want it to sink up to its axles in winter mud, but auto owners were still a minority in 1913. Pavement even could be a hazard for horses, as that spring Earl LeDue was on his colt riding home from the high school on Humboldt street when the horse slipped on the slick street and fell on him, badly breaking the boy’s leg.

Earl’s accident happened on Mendocino avenue near downtown, which we know because the pavement ended at the College ave. intersection. Beyond that, “at present the street north of College avenue is anything but inviting for driving, owing to its roughness in dry weather and muddy condition in wet seasons,” according to a Press Democrat article from the previous year.

These 1903 photos, probably taken on a windy spring day, show the unpaved street. The picture on the right provides a glimpse of the Paxton House, the lost Brainerd Jones mansion. Beyond that is a partial view of the Lumsden House, today known as the Belvedere.
Photos courtesy Sonoma County Library

 Mendocino avenue was slated to be part of the state’s first highway system which was then in the planning stage – but conditions were “almost impassible,” according to the city attorney, who told the city council that something had to be done immediately. That lawyer happened to be James Wyatt Oates, past president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association, avid automobilist and owner of a home on that street (which would become known as Comstock House).

At Oates’ urging the council held a special meeting a few days later and agreed Santa Rosa couldn’t wait for the state to take over responsibility for the street a year or more in the future, even though paving this stretch of Mendocino Ave. would be far more expensive than the average residential street; at the time it varied between 63-65 feet wide. “Should there be an effective protest it will only delay the work six months,” the PD reported, “as under the charter the council the authority to force the work after six months elapses in case of protest.” In other words: Pay or move.

We don’t know how much property owners were charged for the paving, but in 1911 when Mendocino avenue was paved from Fifth street to College avenue, the presbyterian church decided to sell the building housing their charitable operation because of the “very heavy expense to be incurred for street paving,” according to the local church history.1

Their building was in the triangle formed by the Mendocino / College / Healdsburg avenues intersection, which today is noted for a piece of art. (A Google search for the artist along with the sculpture’s name – spelled both “WholeSome” and “Whole Some” by the city and its maker – returns about 41 unique hits, demonstrating the popular appeal of this “distinctive visual landmark for the entrance into the city center,” which will continue to inspire us all for many, many, many years as we wait for the light to change.)

There the church had a building known as the “Chinese Mission”, which served to educate – and presumably, Christianize – young Asian immigrants. According to the church history their missionary work started around 1876 “when the Chinese population was relatively large” and the church bought the building in 1883, apparently expecting to serve an ever-growing immigrant community. They couldn’t have been more wrong; the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress the previous year effectively ended Chinese immigration to the U.S. In the years following, racist anti-Chinese fever raged hot it Santa Rosa, with a banner hung over the Mendocino/ Fourth Street intersection just a few blocks from the Mission reading “THE CHINESE MUST GO. WE MEAN STRICTLY BUSINESS.” (MORE). From a peak of forty students there were “about 12 Japanese and one Corean” [sic] twenty years later. At its 1912 closing the Press Democrat noted there were only about “three or four who use the Mission at all.”2

The new owner of the Mission property was Raford Peterson, perhaps the county’s largest hops grower. Just a few weeks before the Great Earthquake, Peterson bought several lots on the northwest corner of the intersection. Just a door down from the corner at #451 College he built a modest home which, believe-it-or-not, is still there, hiding. The front was modernized as an office building sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, but you can see the original bones of the place from the rear. It is currently the offices of Gehrke Realty.

So what did Raford (also spelled Rayford) Peterson (also spelled Petersen) and wife Cornelia (“Nellie”) want with an odd-shaped lot on another corner of the intersection? He already owned the house next door at 611 Mendocino ave, where his son, Wilson, lived with his family. Did he plan to merge the lots? Apparently not – it appears he just wanted the old Mission building.

As no photographs or descriptions of the building survive, all we know is gleaned from the fire maps – that it was a single story and rectangular. It was certainly old, since the church began using in 1883, but we don’t know how old. It must have been pretty nice, however, because Peterson had it moved next door to his own house, right on the corner, where he had recently torn down another house. He left the triangular original location undeveloped to serve as a little park, which made the park-crazy Press Democrat very happy.

When Raford died in 1914 widow Nellie moved into the former Mission, which now had the address of #701 Mendocino ave (the same address as the present Chevron gas station). She was there at least through 1930, when she can be spotted in the census living with her grandsons.

All said, the old Mission had a unique place in Santa Rosa’s history; not only was it something of a sanctuary for immigrants at a time when they were widely hated outside its doors, it was likely the only building that occupied two corners of the same intersection. Such a pity that no picture exists.

Next in the 1912 neighborhood series: The Children of Jeremiah Ridgway.

1 Sweet, Julia Goodyear; Seventy-five years of presbyterianism: compiled for the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Presbyterian Work in Santa Rosa, California; Press Democrat, 1930.

2 A Press Democrat article below states the property was “bequeathed to the Presbyterian Church in the ’70’s from the Rev. F. M. Dimmick, pastor at that time of the church,” but is incorrect. The church history details that most of the $1,000 to purchase it came from East Coast donations.

WILL BUILD A NICE RESIDENCE

Raford Peterson, the well known hop man, has purchased the splendid lot at the northwest corner of Healdsburg avenue and College avenue. The former residence that adorned the lot is being moved around to make room for a handsome residence the hop man will erect there for himself and family. He is one of Sonoma County’s most enterprising men, and many friends will be glad to know that shortly he will be a resident of Santa Rosa as well as being a business man here,

Mr. Peterson stated today that he did not know just when he would begin building, but he may undertake the matter in the near future. When he does build, the public may expect to see one of the handsomest residences in the City of Roses on the site he has purchased.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 30, 1906

OLD LANDMARK TO DISAPPEAR
Chinese Mission Property on Mendocino Avenue Has Been Sold to Raford Peterson

The old Chinese Mission property at the intersection of Mendocino and Healdsburg avenues and Lincoln street owned by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, has been sold and will be improved.

The purchaser is Raford W. Peterson, who owns the adjoining property occupied by Wilson Peterson. He will remove the building, which as been used as a Mission, enlarge his present lot and improve the remainder and allow it to be used as a public square.

The property was bequeathed to the Presbyterian Church in the ’70’s from the Rev. F. M. Dimmick, pastor at that time of the church. Mrs. E. P. Wilson has been superintendent of the Chinese mission work in Santa Rosa since 1876, and at times there have been very large numbers of Orientals under instruction, but of late years the number dwindled down until at present there are but three or four who use the Mission at all.

– Press Democrat, January 14, 1912

AN OLD CHINESE MISSION HOUSE TORN DOWN

The old Chinese Presbyterian Mission, which has occupied the lot at Mendocino avenue and Joe Davis street at the intersection of Lincoln for 25 years or more, is being dismantled and is to be moved to the vacant lot on College avenue adjoining R. W. Petersen’s residence. The lot, it is understood, is to be fixed up as a pretty little park site. This will add materially to the appearance of the corner and make it one of the most attractive in the city.

MARBLE STEPS FOR RESIDENCE

Campbell & Coffey, the marble men of this city have completed the work of placing marble steps at the entrance to the handsome cottage of Dr. S. M. Rohr, at College and Mendocino avenues. The steps are ten feet and six inches wide and five steps high. It makes a near and attractive finish to the front of the structure.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 19, 1912

PARK IMPROVEMENT ON MENDOCINO

Raford W. Peterson, who purchased the old Chinese Mission at the corner of Mendocino and Healdsburg avenues at Lincoln street, has removed the old structure to the lot adjoining his home on College avenue and the lot has been cleared and leveled ready to be beautified. The change is a marked improvement in the locality which will be increased when the site is prettily parked.

– Press Democrat, April 9, 1912

City Attorney J. W. Oates called attention to the almost impasible condition of Mendocino avenue on behalf of property owners on that thoroughfare and asked that some steps be taken to put the street in better condition until it is known how the State highway is to be constructed and then the property owners desire to continue the same character of pavement from the city limits to College Avenue.

– Press Democrat item on City Council summary, February 19, 1913

WILL EXTEND PAVEMENT ON MENDOCINO AVENUE

The immediate permanent improvement of Mendocino avenue from College avenue to the city limits was informally agreed upon by the city council at the special meeting held on Thursday evening. The plan is to grade the street, lay concrete curbs and gutters and a substantial pavement upon a heavy concret foundation.

The movement has the approval of a large number of property owners on the thoroughfare and will be very heartily welcomed by all who have occasion to use the street for a long time. Many of those who previously opposed improving the street are now warm advocates of the work.

Attorney J. W. Oates, who at a recent meeting of the council asked that temporary repairs be made and permanent work be held up until the State highway is completed, has now taken a stand for immediate improvement and will lend his encouragement in getting others who were standing out to join in the crusade for a good street.

A petition will be circulated at once for signatures by the property owners, and it will be presented to the council at the earliest possible date. Should there be an effective protest it will only delay the work six months, as under the charter the council the authority to force the work after six months elapses in case of protest, and it was agreed that such action should be taken in the case of Mendocino avenue if objection is urged. It is confidently believed that there will be no opposition at this time.

– Press Democrat, February 28, 1913

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