For Mattie and James Wyatt Oates, 1907 was filled with truly halcyon days, both of them busy in the swirl of things they loved best – even though they were now at ages when most of their generation began slowing down. Mattie turned 48, and her husband was roughly ten years north of that.

Hardly a week went by that without a mention of one or both Oates’ in the Santa Rosa newspapers They took auto trips around the county (a few uneventful ones not mentioned below), and Wyatt apparently learned to drive; he also took the train to visit his old haunts in Arizona. He again played the broker in a big financial deal, and she entertained friends and Santa Rosa’s society swells in a grand manner; besides the party with a string orchestra in May, there were at least three other notable shindigs at their home that year.

The most significant event will be discussed at length in a future post, and that was the role of both Oates in the creation of the Saturday Afternoon Club clubhouse. In 1907 the women’s group was incorporated (attorney Oates doing the paperwork, natch) and they purchased land on 10th street where their meeting hall would be built the following year, to a custom design by Mattie’s architect, Brainerd Jones.

There was also a 1907 item that mentioned a young woman “who in years past visited frequently at the home of Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates,” suggesting that the couple may have had a mentoring relationship with a debutante before Anna May Bell, who was treated like the Oates’ godchild. The other woman was Adelaide Murphy, daughter of Samuel Murphy, president of the First National Bank in San Francisco. A society item from 1899 noted Mrs. Oates was the guest of Mrs. Murphy at their posh digs in Pacific Heights, just as Mattie occasionally visited Mrs. Bell in southern California. (Several newspaper stories about Adelaide can be found in the San Francisco papers. In 1902, the millionaire’s daughter married John Breckenridge, the sickly and idle scion of another San Francisco banking dynasty. Her father disowned her for three years and the couple fled to Paris.)

(RIGHT: Adelaide Murphy Breckenridge. SF Call, July 18, 1902)

Most interesting to the history of Comstock House, though, is a transcript of a speech by Mattie Oates to the Saturday Afternoon Club. As we have few artifacts about her except for a scrawled name in a cookbook and a fuzzy picture, the speech gives us a tiny bit of insight to her personality.

Her presentation was on “The Laws of California as related to Women and Children,” and is roughly in two sections, the first being a school book rehash of marital rights under old English law, and the latter part bearing the legalistic thumbprints of her lawyer husband (“…the reciprocal rights, duties, and privileges of women and children have been receiving more and more attention from lawmakers”). Most interesting is that she speaks approvingly of outlawing child labor and sweatshops but doesn’t mention sufferage or temperance, the two legal issues concerning women that were most discussed at that time. The transcript isn’t provided here because it’s somewhat of a struggle to read, both because of mundane prose and the lack of proofreading by the newspaper, which leaves many a sentence bereft of subject, object, or worse (you can find the whole thing in the Oct. 13, 1907 Press Democrat “Society Gossip” section). Still, there are a few passages that reveal flashes of character and wit:

* [In olden times the husband] might chastise her if he used a rod ‘no longer than a thumb.’ Whether this led to preferring a husband with small hands we do not know, as there is no recorded instance on the point.

* [The husband] is the head of the family today, even as in the long ago in the eyes of the law, at least, but how much so in fact is frequently debatable. It always strikes me [he] has much the worst of it in spite of his ‘lordship.’ He may choose the place of abode, but if he does not like it and stays away and seeks a divorce and he forgets it, everyone says of him, ‘The mean thing.’

* In California the wife has much the best of it, in face of the law. She is [no] longer what they dubbed her two hundred years ago, ‘the weaker vessel.’ She is now the ‘Ocean Greyhound,’ [yet] as compared to her husband is but a ‘Tramp Freighter.’


Judge James W. Oates has planned a trip to the southern part of the state and will also visit Arizona, where he resided at one time. Judge Oates has been suffering from a severe cold recently and will take the trip to recuperate. Some time will be spent by the talented Santa Rosan at Santa Barbara by the sea and Los Angeles and San Diego will also divide his time. Many friends expect him to return in robust health after his outing.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 11, 1907

Judge and Mrs. James W. Oates took an automobile trip to the historic city of Sonoma Monday afternoon and enjoyed their outing greatly. They found the sport exhilarating and the roads in pretty fair condition for the trip. Shirley D. Burris handled the throttle and steering gear and the trip afforded the party much pleasure.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 9, 1907

Colonel Oates and C. A. Wright “Catch the Limit” in Porter creek

Last week Colonel James W. Oates and C. A. Wright, following an annual custom of eighteen years past, enjoyed a day’s fishing. They fished in Porter creek and they caught “the limit.” Before the gray streaks of light hearalded the dawn of day the bold fishermen left town for the scene of operations with a plentiful supply of bait and lunch. Both lunch and bait were disposed of and in the evening the gentlemen returned to town well pleased with their eighteenth yearly pilgrimage to Izaak Walton’s shrine.

– Press Democrat, May 7, 1907

Mr. and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates entertained the Married Ladies’ Card Club and a number of invited guests in a pleasing manner at their beautiful home on Mendocino avenue Tuesday evening. Choice blossoms and dainty greenery were blended together most artistically in decorating the spacious rooms for the occasion; and they certainly presented a brilliant scene, when brightly lighted and filled with a large crowd of our society folks. The dainty, pretty gounds worn by the ladies, added a touch of beauty to the whole effect of the affair. Progressive euchre was the game of the evening and was played with keen interest for several hours. At its close delicious refreshments were served and another hour spent in general sociability are [sic] the guests took leave of the charming hostess and jovial host and turned their steps homeward, delighted with the pleasures of the evening and the generous hospitality extended to them…Mrs. Oates was assisted in entertaining her guests by Mrs. Soloman [sic] and Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 22, 1907

The beautiful home of Col. and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates was the scene of a brilliant party Friday night, upon which occasion they entertained the Married Ladies’ Card Club and few invited guests. The large hall shone resplendent in bright canvas, pink roses cast their soft radiance over the living room, while in the dining room red geraniums constituted the decorative feature…

– Press Democrat, June 23, 1907

Will be Late

Attorney J. W. Oates has been called to San Jose by a subpoena requiring his appearance as a witness in a civil suit before the Superior Court. Ten o’clock this forenoon is the hour set for Colonel Oates’ presence in the court room, and he has not yet ascertained whether it will be possible for him to reach there in time. At eleven o’clock last night he quit studying the time tables, and began working upon a plea of mitigation of sentence for contempt of court.

– Press Democrat, July 26, 1907

The Insider of the Call says: Mrs. Adelaide Breckenridge, who has written a pantomime, which, the dispatches tell us, will have a London production, was never suspected possess a desire to hine as a dramatic writer in the old days when she was one of the most popular of our society girls. She was always known to be clever. Since Addie Murphey Breckenridge took up her permanent residence in Paris I hear that she has become so French that her old friends would not know her. She has a near approach to a “salon,” which so many of our clever women have tried to esablish here with disasterous results. Mrs. Breckenridge’s salon is said to be alomst Recamier-like in its scope. Nobody is permitted to speak anything but the Parisian tongue within the confines of her drawing rom, and that must be rather a hard ordeal for San Francisco girls who call upon their one-time chum in her French home.” Mrs. Breckenridge will be remembered well in our social circles as Miss Adelaide Murphey, daughter of Banker Murphey of San Francisco, and who in years past visited frequently at the home of Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates.

– Press Democrat, August 4, 1907

Col. and Mrs. James W. Oates, accompanied by Miss Anna May Bell, visited the Paxton ranch, this side of Healdsburg, Monday. The trip was made by automobile.

– Press Democrat, September 4, 1907

Mrs. David C. Farnham and Miss Myrtle Harell were the guests of honor at a most brilliant luncheon given Wednesday afternoon by Mrs. James Wyatt Oates. The beautiful Oates home had been artistically decorated for the occasion with great bunches of pink and white chrysanthemums intermingled wwith autumn foliage. Covers were laid for eighteen around a table that sparkled and flashed with its beautiful glass and silver conventionally placed under a huge bunch of white chrysanthemums that graced the center of the table. Mrs. Oates’ guests were:


– Press Democrat, October 27, 1907

Altogether informal, but none the less entertaining and enjoyable, was the afternoon given by Mrs. James Wyatt Oates in honor of Miss Katherine Rockwell of Kansas City, Thursday. Social conversation, interspersed with music, passed the afternoon delightfully after which a dainty collation was served. Mrs. Oates was assisted during the afternoon by Mrs. James R. Edwards and by her mother, Mrs. M. S. Solomon.

– Press Democrat, December 22, 1907

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Nothing screams elegance more than a string orchestra tucked behind the potted palms in the library.

The year 1907 was probably the last that Mattie Oates was so active in Santa Rosa’s elite society circle, hosting at least four gatherings at (what would become known as) Comstock House. The first was the grandest of all; a reception for two young women where a “stringed orchestra conceal from view by palms and other greenery, discoursed sweet music all afternoon, as the guests crowded the spacious rooms to be welcomed.” The “orchestra” was most likely a string quartet, given the size of the library, but it was a big step up from a record on the Victrola or a local girl whistling, which was the musical entertainment during the Oates’ 1905 housewarming.

This afternoon reception in mid May was to welcome two young women in town to visit relatives. The accounts of the party mention that Mattie had the help of a number of young women (a “bevy of pretty girls will also assist in the dining room,” wrote the Press Democrat’s society columnist), which were mostly the same 10-12 unmarried ladies that were regulars at parties for Anna May Bell, who was something of a godchild to the Oates.

Both of the young women honored at the party had families that were much in the newspapers at the time. Nineteen year-old Helen Chaffee was the daughter of Major General Adna Chaffee, who had retired the year before as Army Chief of Staff, having led troops in every U.S. military campaign in the latter half of the 19th century. A few years after the party, Helen became active in the Christian Science church, becoming President of The Mother Church for a year in 1947. She married at least twice, her last husband being Captain Alcott Farrar Elwell, son of renowned American sculptor Francis Edwin Elwell. (Her husband’s unusual first name was in tribute to his grandmother, Louisa May Alcott.)

Just a few days after this party, the other woman would be newsworthy for a more sordid reason, as her family landed center stage of one of the great scandals of that year. Dorothy (“Dot”) Pond was 31 and had married into a prestigious San Francisco family; her father-in-law was mayor of the city from 1887 to 1891 and ran for governor. But even while Dot was listening to the “sweet music all afternoon” at Comstock House, her brother-in-law, Edward – invariably described by the newspapers as a “prominent clubman” – had just gone missing, leaving $75,000 in debts (about $2 million today). Dot’s husband, a realtor, was left responsible to sort out the mess. “My brother is not a strong man,” he told the San Francisco Call in a front-page story a couple of weeks after the Santa Rosa party, vowing all creditors would be paid “although it may take a little time.” Edward was not heard from again (as far as I can tell), although there was a report that he later committed suicide in Los Angeles, which the family denied.

Thanks to Kurt Morris, researcher at The Mary Baker Eddy Library for details on Helen Chaffee’s role in The First Church of Christ, Scientist

Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will entertain at her pretty home on Healdsburg avenue next Wednesday afternoon in honor of Mrs. Samuel Pond and Miss Helen Chaffee. The latter is the daughter of General Adna R. Chaffee, and is visiting her relatives, Mr. and Mrs. James R. Edwards. Mrs. Pond was formerly Miss Dot Ames.

– Santa Rosa Republican, May 8, 1907

… Mrs. James Wyatt Oates has issued cards for a large reception to be given Wednesday afternoon between the hours of three and six, in honor of Mrs. Samuel Pond (nee Dorothy Ames) of San Francisco and Miss Chaffee of Los Angeles…A bevy of pretty girls will also assist in the dining room.

– Society Gossip by Dorothy Anne, Press Democrat, May 12, 1907

…The beautiful Oates residence was the scene of a brilliant reception last Wednesday afternoon upon which occasion Mrs. James Wyatt Oates charmingly entertained in honor of Mrs. Samuel Pond of San Francisco and Miss Helen Chaffee of Los Angeles. Under the supervision of Miss Blanche Hoffer the reception room had been effectively decorated with great bunches of pink hawthorne for the occasion, which made an artistic setting for the receiving party. In the library La France roses combined with delicate greenery formed the pretty decorative features, while in the dining room old-fashioned single yellow roses, used in great profusion, added to the splendor of the scene. The spacious hall, lighted by the soft colors cast by the sunshine though the large stained glass cathedral window, and had beautifully decorated with Shasta daisies, delicate bamboo, and large, red amaryllis lilies. After having met the guest of honor and spent an enjoyable time in social conversation and in listening to the music of a stringed orchestra, the guests were invited to the spacious dining room where elaborate refreshments were served. Receiving with Mrs. Oates were Mrs. S. S. Pond of San Francisco, Miss Helen Chaffee of Los Angeles, Mrs. S. S. Solomon, Mrs. James R. Edwards, Mrs. M. L. McDonald Jr., Mrs. Henry G. Hahman, Mrs. S. K. Dougherty, Mrs. William Martin, Mrs. Mary B. Marshall, Mrs. Charles Dwinell, Mrs. John P. Overton, Mrs. B. W. Paxton, Mrs. Julia Jordan, Mrs. Leslie Johnson, Mrs. Park Cunningham, Miss Helen Overton. Assisting Mrs. Oates were Miss Edith McDonald, Miss Bessie Woodward, Miss Irma Woodward, Miss Beatrice Overton, Miss Rena Edwards, Miss Zana Taylor, Miss Adelaide Parsons, Miss Nelly Hall, Miss Blanche Hoffer and Miss Jean Geary.

– Society Gossip by Dorothy Anne, Press Democrat, May 19, 1907

The reception given by Mrs. James Wyatt Oates at her beautiful home on Mendocino avenue last Wednesday afternoon between the hours of three to six, in honor of Miss Helen Chaffee of Los Angeles, and Mrs. Samuel Pond of San Francisco, was a large and brilliant social affair. The rooms were made to look very attractive by being beautifully decorated for the occasion, and noticeable among the flowers used in carrying out the decorative scheme were a number of Burbank’s most exquisite creations, that had been sent as gifts to Miss Chaffee, one of the fair guests of honor. A stringed orchestra conceal from view by palms and other greenery, discoursed sweet music all afternoon, as the guests crowded the spacious rooms to be welcomed by the receiving party, given an opportunity of meeting the guests of honor, and later being served to delicious refreshments in the dining room by a bevy of charming young ladies. The gowns of the hostess, guests of honor and the ladies assisting in receiving were elegant in texture, color and design, and the most elaborate to be worn here at any social function given this season. Mrs. Oates, who is one of our most charming society women, was assisted in receiving by the following ladies…

– Our Social Affairs by Madame Trice, Santa Rosa Republican, May 18, 1907

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Santa Rosa had in 1907 a nice Carnegie public library, a popular skating rink and swimming pool (in winter, a floor was placed over the pool and it became a dance hall), and a couple of small theatres. But it didn’t have a single public park.

The closest thing they had was Grace Brother’s park at the corner of Fourth St. and McDonald Ave, a place where Santa Rosa had celebrated since before the Civil War. But it was privately owned so it wasn’t always open, and by 1907, it was looking seedy; “buildings vacant, old, and dilapidated” was the note on the fire map produced the following year. Santa Rosa also had a ball field or two, including “Recreation Park” (location unknown to me) which appears to have been just a vacant lot; the Rose Parade that year marched around the field because the downtown streets were still clogged with post-quake building materials. Both were far short of what the town wanted.

In February of that year, PD gossip columnist Dorothy Anne took a break from her usual format (announcing weddings, reporting on ladies’ club tea parties, and settling personal scores) to ask eighteen prominent women what they’d like to see in a town park. The answers were thoughtful and offer rare descriptions of what Santa Rosa really looked like in 1907.

Several proposed a park focused on Santa Rosa Creek, similar to the design that architect William H. Willcox had sketched out a year earlier, with a little dam that would allow swimming and boating. Alas, the Creek was apparently quite a mess in 1907, described below as a dumping ground that would require a great deal of cleanup. Later in the year, the local power company would be charged with releasing some sort of fish-killing effluent.

Another idea mentioned often was doing something with the old campus of the Pacific Methodist College, now the site of Santa Rosa Middle School, between E Street and Brookwood Avenue. It might have made a nice, park, albeit flat and square-ish. One woman suggested that an ersatz stream could be added (perhaps by not fixing a few of the town’s perpetually leaking water mains).

Among the surprises were a couple of suggestions to use the old Ridgway property, which would later become the Santa Rosa High School grounds. Two women also thought outside the box and wanted the new courthouse to be built somewhere else, so the center of downtown could become the park.

Of great personal interest was the comment from Mattie Oates that she wanted roses and Virginia creeper to “run in profusion over the trees.” The Virginia creeper vine still climbs the trees around her old home, and turns a brilliant scarlet in the autumn, as shown here on the great oak behind Comstock House. We didn’t know that this was a heritage plant dating back to her garden.

Most fun of all the responses were the snippy remarks of Mrs. T. J. Geary, wife of the city attorney who had told the City Council that the rich were entitled to more water because they paid more taxes). Mrs. Geary snorted, “Don’t I think Santa Rosa ought to have a park? Don’t I think we all ought to have diamond earrings? While fully appreciating their beauty and desirability, I think our needs should be well supplied before indulging in luxuries, When our streets, water supply, and sewers are all improved it will be time enough to talk park.” Cripes, lady, sorry to have asked.

A selection of the replies from that February 24, 1907 Press Democrat:

* Mrs. William Martin: “It seems to me that nature has pointed out the most appropriate spot for a city park. Cleanse and dam up the naturally pretty stream running through the town, lay out the banks tastefully, and tract on either side and you will have one of the most beautiful and central places of recreation possible. It seems a pity that a stream which might be made so attractive should be used as a dumping place for rubbish.”
* Mrs. C. D. Barnett: “In my opinion the best location for a park would be along the Santa Rosa creek, if it were not too mammoth an undertaking to remove the objectionable features. With these taken away the place could be transformed into an ideal park with all the natural beauty which it affords. However, there would be so much to undo before anything positive could be accomplished that it seems hardly practical for Santa Rosa to undertake in the near future. My second choice would be the old College ground, affording as it would seem the best natural facilities for transformation into a park. The grand old trees, the creek bed, where an artificial stream could be directed, the broad stretch of grass, and other natural advantages present wonderful opportunities for a city park which would fulfill all the needs and requirements of such a public improvement.”
* Mrs. Judge Seawell: “My ideas are so extravagant I am afraid to give them to you. I would like to see the Ridgway tract north of town bordering on Healdsburg avenue, made into a park. With drivers through broad lawns, bordered by varicolored flower beds, with fountains and statuary, I think we would have the ideal park of the state.”
* Mrs. E. F. Woodward: “I should like to see two parks, one on each side of the town. The College grounds at the east side is most preferable, and the block bordering Seventh, between A and Washington street at the west side.”
* Mrs. W. D. Reynolds: “I would prefer several small parks scattered [illegible microfilm] the triangle formed by Mendocino avenue, tenth, and Joe Davis streets would be a desirable location for one; the triangle at the corner of College avenue and Fourth street, another. I would like to see the new court house put on the Grand hotel site and utilize the court house square for park purposes.”
* Miss Adelaide Elliott: “Our beautiful new Santa Rosa needs a beautiful new park. We can have it by adopting the fine plan of Mr. Willcox to improve Santa Rosa creek from E street to Main. I agree with him that this is decidedly our most desirable location. Nature has done wonders for us there. Trees, vines, a winding stream that could easily be dammed to hold water enough to make boating ideal on summer evenings…All visitors to Santa Rosa wish to see the home and grounds of our eminent and esteemed friend and townsman, Mr. Luther Burbank. It would be greatly to our credit and satisfaction if we were able to take these strangers through a part of town of which we could be proud instead of being ashamed…”
* Mrs. John S. Taylor: “…[G]ive us back our plaza. No other place can combine utility and convenience with beautiful effect, as could the plaza, used as originally intended as a public park. All large cities have their breathing spaces, lungs, so to speak, in the crowded business sections. We can never aspire to metropolitan effects without city parks.”
* Mrs. T. A. Proctor: “…[T]he only place to my idea is Mr. Ridgway’s field of lively oak trees on the Healdsburg road, already a natural park. But, oh! I am afraid I am like the boy who asked for the man in the moon to play with.”
* Mrs. James W. Oates: “Make parks of the banks of all the creeks near the city; letting roses and Virginia creeper run in profusion over the trees; placing seats beneath the shade of the latter; and keeping the streams of water free from refuse.”

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