A long road lay ahead for James Wyatt Oates in 1909, and he was determined to drive every last mile of it.
Santa Rosa was quite the car-crazy town that year. Someone’s purchase of a new auto merited an item in the Press Democrat, the same as for a birth announcement; when the latest models arrived for sale it was important enough for a full article (it probably didn’t hurt that the downtown dealerships were increasingly buying large ads in the paper). And for years to come, Santa Rosans would still be talking about the 1909 California Grand Prize Race, which drew thousands of visitors to town and was won by local hero Ben Noonan. But probably no one here was burning with auto fever more than the 59 year-old attorney with the fine house on Mendocino Avenue.
Prior to his buying a car, Mattie and Wyatt Oates could be counted upon to host spectacular parties at their home. In 1908, two hundred guests showed up for an engagement party, and there were at least four major parties at (what would become known as) Comstock House in 1907. But in 1909 there was only a small dinner party and a couple of weekends with house guests. Mattie Oates and her mother did host a debutante party for a trio of young women, but it was held at the Saturday Afternoon Club and not at the Oates’ home, as in years past.
Although their social calendar was nearly blank that year, Oates’ name appeared in the papers far more than before, as the “Colonel” took family and friends daytripping. Off to the Petrified Forest, Healdsburg, Inverness, Mendocino County. Their house guests “were taken on a number of excellent auto trips in Judge Oates’ splendid machine” and always, “the Colonel’s fine touring car ran like a charm.”
Thanks to Oates’ weakness for bragging, we know exactly the make and model of his ride: It was a 1909 Chalmers-Detroit “30” touring car, with a top speed of about 50 MPH and boasted about 25 miles per gallon. (Pictured below is the 1910 model, which differed only slightly.) The surprise here is that Oates chose a mid-price, mid-performance vehicle – even Chalmers-Detroit offered models that were faster, larger, or more luxe in other ways. The “30” was, however, reliable; the roadster version won a race that year for being the only car that crossed the finish line without problems. Still, one might have expected Oates to pick something flashier; it’s a bit like discovering your teenage son, who just won’t shut up about the latest and greatest ends up passing by a tricked-out Corvette for a sensible Honda SUV.
The new car brought entry into a new social circle, most prominently friendship with 43 year-old widow Dorothy Farmer (think Farmer’s Lane). That summer Mrs. Farmer purchased a Packard in Los Angeles and drove all the way to Santa Rosa with her 22 year-old daughter, Hazel. No easy feat, that, in the day when roads were horse trails; expect to find more about the remarkable Dorothy Farmer in future pages.
It was also probably gratifying that Oates, an outsider by nature, was elected president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association that year. As the primary aim of the group was to lobby for better roads, Oates finally had the opportunity to follow his famous brother into politicking, albeit in a small way.
The Association’s meeting was held at a redwood grove easily reachable by autos (natch) and the highlight was a surprise drop-in by Ben Noonan in his race car. “When Noonan stepped from his machine he was immediately surrounded by a band of the younger element present,” the PD reported. There under the “glorious shade of stately redwoods and alongside a sparkling, babbling brook,” three generations shared their madness for motorcars and the bright future for same.
Col. and Mrs. Oates have received their new automobile. They anticipate enjoying my much pleasure out of the machine.– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, October 3, 1908
Colonel J. W. Oates is just longing for sunshine so that he can get out his Chalmers-Detroit touring car. He is promising himself all kinds of good rides.– “Autos and Drivers and Other Notes” Press Democrat, January 24, 1909
Colonel James W. Oates and a party of ladies drove to Healdsburg on Thursday in Mr. Oates’ Chalmers-Detroit.– “Auto Notes” Santa Rosa Republican, March 19, 1909
Colonel James W. Oates and party spent Sunday at the Petrified Forest and on Porter Creek. They drove in the Colonel’s handsome touring car.– “Busy Times With Automobiles” Press Democrat, April 27, 1909
Several days ago Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates and Mrs. M. S. Solomon enjoyed a drive and outing in their fine touring car, visiting the Petrified Forest and other places of interest in that section. The Oates’ take much pleasure out of their machine.– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, May 2, 1909
PROMINENT PEOPLE ARE GUESTS OF JUDGE OATES
Judge and Mrs. James W. Oates are entertaining Captain and Mrs. John B. Milton, of Mare Island, the visitors having come to the City of Roses to view the pretty Rose Carnival. Captain Milton is commander of the “Independent,” the receiving ship at Mare Island, and a man prominent in naval affairs. He and Judge Oates are friends of many years’ standing, and are linked together by peculiar circumstances which cements this friendship the more firmly. They became particular friends back in 1879, when Captain Milton first came to the Pacific coast from Annapolis, and Judge Oates was then residing in the metropolis. Mrs. Oates, then Miss Mattie Solomon, introduced Captain Milton to Miss Hattie Steele, and he wooed and won the heart and hand of that lady. She is the granddaughter of Commander Steele. Captain Milton, in turn, introduced Judge Oates to Miss Mattie Solomon, and the gallant judge lost no time in wooing Miss Solomon and asking her to be the partner of his joys for life. The reunion of these four people here at the Oates home is one of the joyous occasions of their lives and they are enjoying it right merrily. Captain Milton and his wife are affable people, and are making friends of all they meet in the City of Roses.– Santa Rosa Republican, May 8, 1909
Colonel Oates and the Rev. George T. Baker enjoyed a drive to Healdsburg the other night in the Colonel’s fine touring car.– “Busy Times With Automobiles” Press Democrat, May 29, 1909
Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates and Mr. And Mrs. Shirley Burris had a very delightful trip into Lake and Mendocino counties last Saturday and Sunday. There was not the slightest hitch to and the pleasure and the Colonel’s fine touring car ran like a charm.– “Busy Times With Automobiles” Press Democrat, June 5, 1909
Talk about feeling good, then Colonel James W. Oates was the man after the wires had flashed the news that the Chalmers-Detroit car had won the great Indiana trophy race. Colonel Oates has a Chalmers-Detroit of exactly the same make an model of the one that carried off the honors.– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, June 20, 1909
HAD WEEK-END PARTY AT JUDGE OATES’ HOME
Judge and Mrs. James W. Oates entertained some friends at a week-end party at their handsome home on Mendocino avenue last week. Miss Madge Fairman of San Francisco, Miss Sadie Morrell of Duncan’s Mills, and Charles H. S. Rule of Duncan’s Mills were the guests. They had a delightful time in the City of Roses with their charming hosts, and besides the hospitable entertainment at the Oates home, were taken on a number of excellent auto trips in Judge Oates’ splendid machine. The guests spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Oates home.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 12, 1909
At their picturesque home on Mendocino avenue Saturday night Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates had a very charming and unique affair. If was very informal, too, and was in the nature of a “Bohemian Evening.” One feature was a Spanish supper. The menu was composed of many dainties and the idea of the party was carried out down to the colors, very cleverly by Mrs. Oates, who is always equal to any occasion when it comes to delightful entertaining. Her gusts on this occasion were loud in their praises of her hospitality. The decorations were also in keeping with the general scheme. Mrs. Rogers of San Francisco, wife of an army officer, who has been here for a visit with Mrs. Edward F. Woodward, and also with Mrs. Dorothy Farmer and Mr. Spitz of Los Angeles, were the guests of honor. The guests lingered long at the tables enjoying the good things and the entertaining conversation. Then the remainder of the evening was devoted to music and other forms of entertainment.– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, August 9, 1909
Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates and Mr. And Mrs. Shirley Burris will drive in the Colonel’s big touring car to Inverness today. They will return this evening.– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, August 15, 1909
BRILLIANT PARTY AT THE CLUBHOUSEMrs. Oates and Mrs. Solomon Entertain in Honor of Three Popular Young Ladies
At the Clubhouse on Tenth street last night there was a large and brilliant party given by Mrs. James W. Oates and her mother, Mrs. M. S. Solomon.
The function was in honor of Miss Catherine Rockwell, Miss Margaret Metcalf and Miss Hazel Farmer, and they certainly must have felt much complimented at the attention shown them.
The hospitality shown by the hostesses was very delightful, and all their guests spent a very enjoyable evening. Dancing was the principal feature of entertainment.– Press Democrat, August 27, 1909
SONOMA COUNTY AUTO ASSOCIATION MEETINGHon. James W. Oates Elected President-Basket Picnic Enjoyed
Sunday was a bid day for the autoists from all over the county, as the annual election of officers and a basket picnic was held by the Sonoma County Automobile Association at Bice’s redwood grove, three milse southeast of Healdsburg, and to it came automobiles from every part of the county…
…After luncheon had been served the business meeting was called to order by Dr. J. H. Seawell of Healdsburg, vice president of the association. Attorney J. Rollo Leppo is on a vacation and was not able to be in attendance. Secretary Don Prentiss had the top of a large rock for his table and sat on the ground. Hon. James W. Oates was the only nominee for president for the ensuing year, being nominated by Dr. S. S. Bogle and seconded by Attorney Edward M. Norton of Healdsburg. Dr. Harry Leppo moved the nominations be closed and the motion was seconded by Sheriff John K. Smith. The question being put, it was unanimously carried and the secretary was instructed to cast a ballot to elect Judge Oates unanimously.
Answering a general call from the members for a speech, Judge Oates spoke to those assembled with a few well chose words, admonishing them that it is the duty of all to co-ojerate [sic] for the betterment of good roads. He stated that California has reached that point where the question of good roads is the paramount issue of our time. He said the question was of as much concern to the farmer as any one else, and in fast more than to the autoist, as the automobile could go where the good roads are, while the farmer must travel the road in his immediate vicinity. The speaker called attention to the bill that passed the last legislature, providing for the people to vote on the question of bonding the state for $18,000,000, with which to build connecting highways between all county seats in the state…
…Great satisfaction was fe;t and expressed by the members that Judge Oates accepted the office tendered him and all feel that he will inject much interest into the good road question during his term in office.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 30, 1909
AUTOISTS HOLD REUNION UNDER STATELY REDWOODSAnnual Meeting of the Sonoma County Association
Beneath the glorious shade of stately redwoods and alongside a sparkling, babbling brook, in a dell replete with natural embellishments to make it an ideal picnic ground, the Sonoma County Automobile Association met on Sunday morning to hold its annual meeting [to] name its new officers…
…Colonel Oates, the new president, was called upon for a speech. His reply was brief and well chosen. He told of the important factor the Association had been and would be in the promulgation of the doctrine of good roads and in bringing a successful outcome of it all. He thanked the Association for the honor done him in electing him president, and asked the hearty co-operation of all the members, and interest that would increase the membership and bring together all in one common aim for the betterment of good roads, and the accomplishment of legislation that would be for the benefit of all concerned…
…Ben Noonan drove a party of friends to the picnic grounds in his great racing Stoddard-Dayton “No. 12.” When Noonan stepped from his machine he was immediately surrounded by a band of the younger element present, headed by Harrison Leppo. They immediately took possession of Mr. Noonan and he was soon answering many questions propounded by Leppo, Jr. Not foolish questions either. It is doubtful if a more intelligent lad for his years on the matter of auto mechanism can be found anywhere. He and Louis Norton, son of the Healdsburg attorney, share honors.– Press Democrat, August 31, 1909
Colonel and Mrs. James W. Oates and Mrs. Solomon drove to the suburban home of Mr. and Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton, near Healdsburg, the other day. They were much interested in watching the harvesting of the hop crop.– “Society Gossip” Press Democrat, September 12, 1909