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CRACKING THE VIGILANTE BELL STORY

Ask any history buff about Sonoma County during the Civil War and you’ll probably hear two stories. “The Battle of Washoe House” claims a mob of Petaluma men, angered over Santa Rosa’s support for the Confederacy, started marching north but got no further than the famous roadhouse, where they drowned their fury in suds. But there’s no proof that story is even partially true; nothing can be found written about it during that time (MORE) so it gets four pinocchios, at least for now. The other favorite is the stealing of the “vigilante bell,” and that tale’s true – although nearly all versions of that story deserve at least two pinocchios.

The background of the story is consistently told and truthful. Manville Doyle, a prominent Petaluma livery stable operator was tasked to buy a nice, big bell for the town’s Baptist church. In San Francisco he found the one used by the infamous Vigilance Committee of 1856. It was rung to summon members to their warehouse HQ known as “Fort Gunnybags” and sounded the death knell of four men who were lynched by the group.

Once the bell was installed in the Petaluma church belfry, it was agreed that it had an unusually beautiful tone and powerful enough to be heard for miles. Then years later, Doyle made off with the bell. After it was returned to the church it became damaged, losing its lovely voice. Here’s a composite version of the many retellings of those events, with the falsehoods struck out:

In 1864 or in 1865 following Lincoln’s assassination, Matt Doyle, a Confederate sympathizer, was angry because the bell was being rung to celebrate the North’s military victories. One dark night he and others who were pro-South removed the bell and took it to a warehouse where it was hidden under a pile of potatoes. Several of Doyle’s accomplices were brought before Judge Cavanagh, who postponed action indefinitely after their lawyer dragged the hearing out past suppertime. Days, weeks or months later, citizens retrieved the bell and returned it to the church belfry where it was cracked and irreparably damaged either by vigorous pro-Union ringing after the assassination or by pro-Rebel vandalism immediately after its return, probably done by Doyle using a sledgehammer.

Ain’t much meat left on them poor ol’ bones.

Some misinformation crept in over the following few years (mainly the sledgehammer theory and fuzziness over when the bell was damaged), but the bulk of the misinformation traces back to Tom Gregory’s 1911 county history, where he milks the story for a whole chapter – and easily 90 percent of it is hyperbole or bullshit that he probably made up or heard in a saloon. While telling the story he detours to muse about Edgar Allen Poe, mentions someone in Petaluma was supposedly hiding a Mexican cannon on a boat, and notes there weren’t many religious differences between Baptists and Campbellites (don’t ask). Best read when very drunk, very stoned or very both. From his pile of reeking compost has sprung a garden of weeds – a century of misinformation found in magazine articles, newspaper columns, and books on county history.

Overall it’s a textbook example of how easily the historical narrative can become  corrupted when writers just repeat twice-told tales. And as it turns out, the actual story was quite different and more interesting – the incident with the bell was just a sideshow to what was really upsetting everyone in Petaluma. Since the relevant newspapers from that time survive along with a later interview Doyle gave about the events (all transcribed below) it serves as a lesson why it’s always critical to use primary sources. End of lecture.

So what actually happened?

In the space of just a few months straddling 1857-1859, Petaluma grew up. The town was incorporated, its first volunteer fire department was organized, and the big “Brick School” was built on Keller street. Self-government, fire protection and public education are all good things – and as a bonus, two of the three also came with bells.

(RIGHT: The First Baptist Church, c. 1890. It was across from Hill Plaza Park on Kentucky street, currently the location of the Park Plaza building. Postcard courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Besides the new downtown fire bell and the one in the school’s belfry, three Petaluma churches added bells to their steeples. The Vigilance Bell that Doyle found was the biggest and loudest of them, and that was the reason he bought it; the Baptist church trustees had instructed him to seek a bell that weighed between 1,000-1,200 pounds. They were that specific because they apparently wanted to poke the Congregationalists, who had purchased a 600 lb. bell just a couple of weeks earlier. Too bad the bible says nothing about pride being sinful.

As another sign of progress Petaluma decided it needed a town bell, and the Baptist Church’s new monster fit the bill. The town hired someone to ring it three times a day, marking morning, noon and night. Take a moment to sensitize yourself to how important that was in the mid-19th century; every mantle clock and watch was set by that bell, along with schedules for the boat and stage – being the town’s bellringer was a position of great responsibility.

But it was still the bell for the church, so it also rang for church services as well as births, deaths, weddings, funerals, plus any other reason the preacher saw fit rejoice or mourn or call parishioners. All of the churches did this, and it was driving some Petalumans nuts. In 1858 “Belle” complained in a letter to the Sonoma County Journal, “To hear them banging (I can not say ringing), whatever may be the occasion, one would imagine himself in an old Spanish town on a gala day, when, as is well known, the only object of the ringers is, to make the most infernal noise possible.”

During the Civil War, the church trustees later stated supporters for both the North and the South were allowed to ring the bell to celebrate military victories, but ringing it for the Union didn’t stir Doyle’s ire. What really pissed off Matt Doyle and his friends was being kicked out of their church.

The 1864 elections were only months away and as explained in the previous article on Sonoma county’s voting history during the Civil War, Lincoln would win 61 percent of the vote in Petaluma, an even stronger show of support than when he was first elected. Much of the background leading to stealing the bell was explained in Santa Rosa’s pro-Confederate paper, the Sonoma Democrat; despite the writer’s strong rebel slant and gossipy tone, the relevant details can be verified elsewhere.

The First Baptist Church’s new preacher was a Rev. A. Gould, who took up that pulpit in the autumn of 1863 (nothing further can be found about him). Over the next few months he lobbied the nine-member business committee to pass a set of resolutions which would fundamentally change the church.

The very first resolution declared only male church members could vote to admit or discipline other members. Men also controlled all financial affairs.

The second resolution stated any member who didn’t attend church for a month without a good excuse could be disciplined or kicked out.

Resolution three excommunicated “those whose sympathies are with this rebellion and slavery.”

These new bylaws were published in the Argus, on April 21, 1864, along with a notice that the new pastor of the church was one Rev. James A. Davidson, a 40 year-old travelling “temperance talker” who apparently had no role in any of this.

A week later Matt Doyle stole the bell.

“It was not stolen from the steeple, but was taken down in the middle of the day by myself and a number of sailors I had hired from the sloops in the creek,” Doyle defended himself in an 1893 interview. “When the bell was removed many persons stood around, among them being members of the city government.” So much for the “dead of night” version of the story.

Nor was it hidden under a sack o’ spuds; the next issue of the Argus reported “[Doyle] with a posse of men, on Friday last, and by means of a block and tackle, hoisted the bell from the belfry, placed it on a dray and stored it in Baylis & Co’s. Warehouse.”

Doyle was not coy about why he took the bell – the Argus quoted him as saying it should not ring for a “[damned] Abolition congregation.” He was more specific in 1893, explaining he justified it “Because that fanatical Republican, Davidson, the pastor, who came to Petaluma from the East, had turned all the Democrats out of the church. I said at the time that no bell in which I had a cent’s interest should hang over a church where such a sentiment was allowed to prevail. Others felt the same as I did on the subject.”

At the time and again in the interview almost thirty years later, Doyle insisted it was “his” bell because he contributed around $100 of its $550 cost. “After it was carted to Baylis’ warehouse I offered to give twice as much as any man in town to build a belfry on the plaza or put it over the engine house, but I was bound it should not hang over that church.”

His claim of ownership brought out the dry wit of Argus editor Samuel Cassiday:


The excitement consequent upon this defiant disregard of the feelings and rights of this community, was for a time intense, but it subsided, when it became manifest that Doyle with his bell, occupied as unenviable a position as did the man who drew the elephant in the lottery. Mr. Doyle, we are informed proposes give the Bell to our city; but while we fully appreciate the munificence of the proposed donation, we would suggest to our City Fathers that it would be well for them to be certain that he can give a bona fide title to his bell; otherwise, after they have incurred the expense of raising a pole to hang it on, it might be spirited away by any one owning a fractional interest therein. The only interest our citizens now feel in the matter is such as naturally attaches to the precedent established; and as there are institutions of public interest and utility, the origin of which is in joint contributions, it is important to know whether they are jumpable, if so we have our eye on the belfry of the Congregational church, and a friend of ours has visions of a crop of beans, where our stockmen most to congregate to try the mettle of their fiery steeds.

That segment also shows there was initial upset in the community when the bell first disappeared, but people adjusted – and presumably the town bellringer moved over to the Congregational Church. “It is highly probable that the matter would have rested there,” Cassiday wrote, “had not the ears of Union men been daily offended with the declaration that they ‘dared not attempt to replace it;’ that if they did, vengeance dire would be visited upon them, etc.”

Then twelve days later, Doyle and his fellow Copperheads escalated their war. Now they claimed to own not just the bell, but the actual church building. “Tuesday morning the windows of the Baptist Church were nailed down and the doors closed, after which the officers of the church were notified that they could no longer occupy the building,” the Argus reported.

The Argus: “This was the last straw that broke the camels back; forbearance was no longer a virtue, and the loyal citizens of Petaluma at once determined that, regardless of cost or consequences, the church should not only be opened, but the Bell should be restored to its place in the Belfry, before night.”

So in mid-afternoon a group went down to Tom Baylis’s warehouse on B street and placed the bell on a dray. “As it passed up Main street, Merchants, Professional men, and artisans, as if by common consent joined the throng and proceeded to the church,” wrote the Argus.


With a block and tackle the Bell, which weighs over 1000 lbs., was hoisted to its place, and as its “familiar voice” reverberated over hill and dale, the elfin was made to ring with the huzzas of the bystanders. A patriotic song was sung in front of the church, in the chorus to which all joined with a vim. The Stars and Stripes were unfurled from the cupalo, and received three lusty cheers after which the crowd quietly dispersed.

But the trouble would carry over for months. The next Sunday someone tried to throw a large rock through the church window during evening services, hitting the clapboard instead. The next month, Rev. Davidson’s home was the scene of a bedtime attack, with a brick thrown though his bedroom window and two more through the parlor window. And then in August, Rev. Gould – the man who stirred all this up – was stoned in Healdsburg as he and others left a night church service.

And now we come to the crack.

No, Matt Doyle didn’t creep into the belfry and give it a mighty whack! with a sledgehammer – although that’s such a good story our loveable but awful historian Tom Gregory undoubtedly would have claimed it happened, had not Doyle still been alive when his history book was written. When the bell was returned to the church, Doyle sold his “interest” in it to a trustee, who told Doyle a consoling white lie that it was actually being bought on behalf of the town.

Nor did the damage occur during the Civil War. An item in the first 1866 issue of the Argus noted “it has either received a fracture or chafes against something which deadens its sound.” The next issue confirmed the bell was cracked, and in his private journal Cassiday noted the cause was “purely accidental.” So perhaps it split that New Year’s Eve or the following day.

The town’s best blacksmith tried to fix it, but such things can’t be mended. Even though its ding-dong was now more of a clunk-thunk, the bell continued to be used until 1911, when the building was torn down to be replaced by a new church (designed by Brainerd Jones). The bell was stored in the basement of Schluckebier’s Hardware Store and they wrestled it upstairs on Egg Days to show it off in the store window.

Petaluma July 4 parade, 1976. (Photo: Sonoma county library)

 

In 1916 there were feelers out that suggested it should be in a San Francisco museum. The Baptist church trustees published an open letter that was surprisingly emotional, insisting it was theirs alone: “…It called the people of this community to public worship, and tolled in announcement of the death of scores of the early residents of this city and surrounding territory for years prior to the Civil War…we believe it to be our duty to retain possession of the old bell as the property of the Petaluma Baptist church and as soon as possible to arrange for its being kept where the public can view it from time to time. ”

The subject came up again in 1925 when San Francisco asked to borrow it, and this time the trustees agreed the historic relic deserved better than Schluckebier’s storeroom. They donated the bell to San Francisco and the following year about a dozen citizens there “gifted” the Baptist church $891 to retire its mortgage for their new building.

During the 1976 Bicentennial, San Francisco returned the favor and loaned it back to Petaluma for a couple of months. During the Fourth of July parade it was driven around in the back of a pickup, oddly shaded as if it might be sunburnt. Today it can be seen at the Society of California Pioneers in the San Francisco Presidio at 101 Montgomery.

Soon after the fight over the bell, Manville Doyle sold his interest in the livery stable and moved to Nicaragua, returning to Petaluma around the time the Civil War ended. In 1890 he and son Frank founded the Exchange Bank in Santa Rosa. Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley recalled he was a “square shooter” who always stood by his friends, but remained a “bitter partisan.” When he died in 1916 he left a big pile of “friendship notes” – bank loans he did not expect to be repaid. One has to wonder how many of them were gifts to his old rebel cronies.

The surprise epilogue belongs to Rev. James A. Davidson, the poor devil who was named the Baptist pastor just the week before Matt Doyle declared war on the church. Davidson wasn’t even a career preacher; he was a leader in the “Independent Order of Good Templars,” a Freemason offshoot focused on temperance. After leaving Sonoma county he was their top speaker in Pennsylvania, then retiring as editor/publisher of the Geauga [County] Leader in Burton, Ohio.

Someone from Petaluma ran into him in the East and wrote to the Argus, “He occasionally laughs loud and long in talking over some of his experiences there. He says his experience at Petaluma partook of both comedy and tragedy, and when he publishes his life he calculates the chapter headed ‘A Year in Petaluma,’ will increase the value of the copyright many thousand dollars.”

Photo: Wikipedia

 

ANOTHER BELL.-A paper is now in circulation among our people for the purpose of raising funds to purchase a bell, to weigh from one thousand to twelve hundred pounds, and to be placed upon the Baptist church in this city. We are told that the principal portion of the required sum has already been subscribed. This will make the third church bell that has been purchased by subscription on this place within the past few months.–Verily, our people are bound to hear their loose change jingle out of pocket, if not in pocket.

– Sonoma County Journal, October 1 1858

First Baptist Church, Petaluma.

The following Resolutions recently adopted by the First Baptist Church in this city, if faithfully carried out, and firmly adhered to, are well calculated to remove the odium that has been attached to this denomination here in consequence of the irregular manner in which its business has in times past been conducted, and the notoriously disloyal tendency and character of some who have arrogated to themselves an important influence in the business matters of the denomination; an influence that has manifested itself to such an extent that many respectable parties in this city and vicinity have kept themselves aloof from the church. Although Baptists in principle, and christians in heart and life, they desired to have no fellowship with rebels or the sympathizers with Rebels. These Resolutions will have the effect of ridding the church of the drones, Copperheads, and rebels, and we heartily wish the Baptists much success in their effort to maintain in their purity messages of the Body and the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ:

[Resolved that male church members can vote to admit or dismiss other members, and also control financial affairs; that any member who doesn’t attend church for a month without an excuse can be disciplined or dismissed]

Whereas, We believe that the existing rebellion in the Southern States of our Union was conceived in wickedness and oppression, and that it is the natural result of the system of American slavery, and that both are contrary to every divine and moral law, and to the best interests of our country therefore,

Resolved, That as Christians we cannot have fellowship with those whose sympathies are with this rebellion and slavery.

At a regular meeting of the Church, held on Monday evening, Rev. James A. Davidson, of San Francisco, received the unanimous vote of the meeting to act as Pastor for the church here, and has accepted the position. We certainly wish the Baptist Church much success in their efforts to maintain the preaching of the Gospel, and to keep themselves unspotted and unpolluted by the abominable leprosy of disloyalty to God and their country.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus – April 21, 1864

Rev. J. A. Davidson, well known as a temperance lecturer, and lately travelling agent of the Evangel, has accepted a call to a Baptist pastorate at Petaluma.

– Daily Alta California, April 29 1864

An Historic Bell.

On Friday last an incident transpired in our city, which, though trivial in itself, aroused antagonistic passions and prejudices which like a slumbering mine, required but a spark to cause an explosion; but thanks to that genuine courage most praiseworthy when manifest in forbearance, the counsels of cool heads prevailed and we were spared an outburst which might have led to results most disastrous. The circumstances were in brief as follows: Several years since our citizens were afflicted with a bell mania. The inhabitants of the lower portion of the city having, by contribution purchased a bell for the Song Church; the inhabitants of the upper portion of the city at once determined to purchase a bell that would “weigh more” and “sound louder” than the one destined to call the inhabitants of Lower Petaluma to their devotions. The result of this determination was the contributing, by divers and sundry persons, of a sum amounting to six or seven hundred dollars, which was entrusted to Mr. M. Doyle, who with it purchased the old Vigilance Committee Bell, the solemn cadence of which warned Casey and Cora that the time had come for them to shuffle off this mortal coil. By common consent this Bell was hung in the belfry of the First Baptist Church, in this city, with the conditions that it was to be used not only a s a church bell, but by the city, and on all occasions when bells are usually in requisition; and in accordance with this arrangement, the city has kept a man employed to ring the bell at morning, noon and night. In consequence, however, of the revolution which is shaking our country from centre to circumference, a revolution, on a small scale, was inaugurated in the Baptist congregation, and the result was the enacting of a set of loyal Resolutions, very unpalatable to the secession element in our community. “Revenge is sweet,” so sayeth the poet, or some “other man,” and the parties, considering themselves grieved, foremost among which was Mr. M. Doyle, determined that the bell should not give forth its brazen notes over a “d—d Abolition Congregation;” and as he (Doyle) had invested the sum of $105, in lawful U. S. coin in the aforesaid bell, he proceeded with a posse of men, on Friday last, and by means of a block and tackle, hoisted the bell from the belfry, placed it on a dray and stored it in Baylis & Co’s. Warehouse, much to the inconvenience and detriment of sleepy citizens who were wont to be released from the embrace of the drowsy god by its familiar peals. The excitement consequent upon this defiant disregard of the feelings and rights of this community, was for a time intense, but it subsided, when it became manifest that Doyle with his bell, occupied as unenviable a position as did the man who drew the elephant in the lottery. Mr. Doyle, we are informed proposes give the Bell to our city; but while we fully appreciate the munificence of the proposed donation, we would suggest to our City Fathers that it would be well for them to be certain that he can give a bona fide title to his bell; otherwise, after they have incurred the expense of raising a pole to hang it on, it might be spirited away by any one owning a fractional interest therein. The only interest our citizens now feel in the matter is such as naturally attaches to the precedent established; and as there are institutions of public interest and utility, the origin of which is in joint contributions, it is important to know whether they are jumpable, if so we have our eye on the belfry of the Congregational church, and a friend of ours has visions of a crop of beans, where our stockmen most to congregate to try the mettle of their fiery steeds.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus,  May 5, 1864

The Bell Again.

In our last issue we gave an account of the removal of the Bell from the Belfry of the Baptist Church. It is highly probable that the matter would have rested there had not the ears of Union men been daily offended with the declaration that they “dared not attempt to replace it;” that if they did, vengeance dire would be visited upon them, etc. Aside from those who lacked the discretion to profit by the forbearance shown their premeditated insult to this loyal community, there was yet another class, true to their Copperhead instincts, who hypocritically professed to deprecate the action of those who removed the bell, but who could see in any attempt to restore it to its former place just cause for riot and blood-shed. After the deed had been consummated they were immediately transformed into blatant lambs of peace and were tremulous lest the loyal people of this city should dare to resent insult and injury, and thus “fire” the hearts of those who had thrust a fire brand into this community. But all their tears were of no avail. Tuesday morning the windows of the Baptist Church were nailed down and the doors closed, after which the officers of the church were notified that they could no longer occupy the building. This was the last straw that broke the camels back; forbearance was no longer a virtue, and the loyal citizens of Petaluma at once determined that, regardless of cost or consequences, the church should not only be opened, but the Bell should be restored to its place in the Belfry, before night. At 3 o’clock P. M. the Bell was taken from Baylis’ Warehouse, where it had been stored, was placed on a dray, and as it passed up Main street, Merchants, Professional men, and artisans, as if by common consent joined the throng and proceeded to the church. With a block and tackle the Bell, which weighs over 1000 lbs., was hoisted to its place, and as its “familiar voice” reverberated over hill and dale, the elfin was made to ring with the huzzas of the bystanders. A patriotic song was sung in front of the church, in the chorus to which all joined with a vim. The Stars and Stripes were unfurled from the cupalo, and received three lusty cheers after which the crowd quietly dispersed. Things now stand just as they were prior to the removal of the bell; and if there are any aggrieved we should say to such, you have thus far been protected in your rights, both of person and property; however odious your sentiments to loyal men, in your capacity as citizens you have received every courtesy and consideration at their hands; and as it has been so it will continue to be, unless you wantonly provoke a collision. If the Bell in question, belongs to joint contributors, let those interested meet and honorably determine what disposition shall be made of the same. This is but just and proper, and could not fail to give satisfaction to all. If the Church Edifice is the private property of a few individuals, by a proper showing of the facts in any court of justice they will be protected in their rights. Let this course be pursued and there will be no need of any apprehensions of further trouble; pursue a different course and time will determine whether or no you have acted wisely in your choice.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus,  May 12, 1864

A COPPERHEAD ARGUMENT.—During Divine service in the Baptist Church on Sabbath evening, quite a number of noted Copperheads were observed prowling around the building, taking care, as is their style, to keep under cover of darkness. While the Pastor was in the midst of his sermon, a large stone was hurled against the house, evidently intended for the church window, but which fortunately struck a few inches lower on the clapboard. There was a large congregation present, larger than usual in the evening, and some excitement. Such barbarous conduct deserves the most condign punishment. We are informed the authorities have a clue to the perpetrator of the outrage, and we can only hope he may be arrested and meet his deserts. The rowdies of Petaluma must be taught respect for law and order, and they certainly will be taught, if an indignant public is much further provoked by them.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus,  May 12, 1864

LETTER FROM PETALUMA.
(From an Occasional Correspondent)

Petaluma, May 10, 1864. Editors Alta: On the 29th of April last the bell, for several years used in the First Baptist Church, was taken down by a party of citizens of very questionable loyalty, and placed in a storehouse. The Church being about to try some of its members for disloyalty, it is generally surmised the parties who took away the bell were actuated by motives anything but lovely and loyal, and wished to intimidate the Church, and prevent action in reference to the parties on trial.

The Church, in due time, excluded the disorderly ones, to the number of a dozen or so, and the public generally considered that the action of the Church was just and proper. Every effort failed to reclaim them.

One of the excluded members, having more zeal than knowledge, attempted to trespass on the Church property yesterday morning, rendering himself liable to a heavy penalty, and this circumstance awakened a very indignant feeling in the minds of the better class of our citizens, and they, yesterday afternoon, went in a large body, and took the abstracted bell out of the hands of the Copperheads, and replaced it on the church belfry, with cheers and loyal songs, and finished their work by ringing out a loyal peal, and hoisting a large Flag of our Union on the church steeple.

By this vigorous movement Petaluma has wiped out a stain on its fair fame, and lawless men have been taught a salutary lesson. The Baptists of Petaluma are a peaceable, loyal, mind-their-own-business set of people, and they have a splendid church edifice erected by friends of that denomination, and recently called a loyal Pastor, and are endeavoring to live peaceably with all. But a gang of graceless young and old rowdies have for some time been very impudent to this church. Stones have been thrown and mischief attempted, but our citizens are determined to make a marked example of the first one of these rowdies caught transgressing. Because a church sees fit to adopt loyal resolutions, and has the honesty and courage to enforce them, the candidates for San Quentin here seem to think they have full privilege to annoy. But woful will be the doom of the first one caught attempting violence after this time.
Citizen.

– Daily Alta California, May 13 1864

Spiritual Communication with a Bell. —Some fellow at San Francisco has been holding spiritual communication with that historic church bell of Petaluma. The bell is intensely loyal and accuses its owner of establishing the reign of Dixiedom in Petaluma, because he saw fit to remove it from its elevated position. An appeal to the Spirit of Revolutionary Fathers is made, and just at that juncture a severe shock of an earthquake arrived and brought him to his senses. See Argus.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 14 1864

Baptist Church Difficulty at Petaluma.

Editor of Sonoma County Democrat : The undersigned an humble and quiet spectator in Israel, familiar with and cognizant of all the facts and circumstances out of which the difficulties of the First Baptist Church, of this place, arose, and about which so much has been said and published, has witnessed with deep regret, not to say mortification, the actions and conduct of many of the principal movers in the affair, and which in the judgment of the writer, savors much of injustice, oppression and persecution towards a portion of the members of that Church.

For the sake of the truth and the cause of Christianity, the writer, with your kind permission, will candidly state all the facts to the public through the columns of the Democrat, and ask all charitable and liberal members of the community to withhold a judgment of condemnation against those members of the First Baptist Church of this place, against whom so much has been said, until they know the sequel.

Should you conceive it consonant to your duty as a public journalist to give publicity to the facts, they must run thus:

In September or October, 1863, Rev. Mr. Gould, professing to be a minister of the Baptist persuasion, arrived in Petaluma, and took shelter, meat and drink, at sister F—‘s, (now expelled from the Church), where he and his wife remained for several weeks gratis, preached several sermons, was received by the society and regularly paid and supported tor several months, and until many of the members became satisfied, not only that he was a bad man, but that he was a hypocrite; many things contributed to produce this conclusion, and finally induced several of the members to withhold their support; chief and foremost among which, was his marked discourtesy toward other ministers of the Gospel present in the Church, during divine service, observed not only by the ministers, but by the audience; suffering himself to become angry at trifling and frivolous things, and leaving the Church abruptly, declaring that he never would either preach or pray in it again; refusing to pray for his wife in her last illness, when requested by her, in the presence of members of his Church, his wife being a devout Christian and most estimable lady; gross neglect, and unchristian-like conduct towards his wife during her last illness; peremtory refusal to allow the sisters of the Church to dress the body of his deceased wife in a dress which she had prepared with her own hands, in view of her approaching and anticipated dissolution, and expressly directed and requested that she might be buried in, (true it was more valuable than the one she was buried in); but these are only some of the facts and circumstances that induced the belief that he was unworthy of the support of the members subsequently expelled.

The Rev. Gould being fully aware of all these objections and the consequences, too ignorant to please and too lazy to work, with the duplicity and cunning of a fifth-rate politician, devised a plan by which he fancied he could be continued in the service of the society, and compel it to support him. The scheme opened by calling a business meeting and receiving by previous arrangement, into the Church, nine recusant members, upon their professions, promises, etc.

Rev. Gould and one or two of his devoted friends, being the principal movers in this plan, knowing the objection of a majority of the society to political sermons, made free use of political arguments to carry out the scheme.

The next step was the passage of the following resolution, also by prearrangement among the friends of loyalty and the Rev. Pastor, to wit:

“Resolved, That all the business of the Church, pertaining to financial affairs and discipline, be transacted by the male members of the Church, the female members having the right to vote upon the admission and dismissal, of members.”

This resolution was earnestly protested against by the female members, as well as one or two of the male members, as a gross violation of Baptist usage and Church government.

The adoption of the resolution having given rise to considerable dissatisfaction, as it deprived the female members of a voice in the selection of a pastor, a right which they had always enjoyed as Baptists, was further considered at a business meeting of nine male members, held at the house of the newly admitted members. At this second meeting it was thought, notwithstanding but two male members voted against the resolution, that it was the secesh element in the Church that objected to the Pastorage of the Rev. Mr. Gould, and the adoption of the resolution, although Mr. Gould had, at least generally, very properly abstained from preaching politics.

But, sir, this was the pretext and furnished the means by which seven out of the nine male members at this second meeting, subsequently carried out a portion of the scheme proposed by the Rev. Gould; these seven Christian brethren proposed and adopted the scries of resolutions to which exceptions were subsequently taken.

The very liberal and charitable seven (or a Committee appointed by them, with the aid of Rev. Gould,) first procured the publication of the series in the Evangel of the 17th of March, 1864, and afterwards reported the same to the Church for adoption and approval. The Church refused to adopt them by a decided majority; the moderator failing to declare the vote or result, one of the members requested an announcement, whereupon one of the loyal righteous seven arose in his pew, and with much gravity and in great humility, stated that the vote was only an informal one, and the result of course immaterial.

It will be observed that the first resolution of the series, as subsequently framed by the loyal seven, and published by their direction in the Journal and Argus, deprives the female members of any voice whatever in matters of finance and discipline.

As many of the female members, yea, all of them were bound by their covenant to support their pastor, some of them felt that it was unjust to deny them a voice in the selection of the one they were called upon to support; especially as the whole scheme was gotten up by and intended for the benefit of the devout Rev. Gould, and to continue him as pastor, but the disaffection toward the Rev. Gould was too general, and a committee was appointed to engage another. The committee first obtained the services of the Rev. Mr. Medbury with whom the society were generally pleased, but the very loyal seven and the disappointed Gould, thought they would serve the Lord a little further, and employ one who, in their own language, “would drive the secesh element out of the Church,” they succeeded in obtaining the services of the Rev. Mr. Davidson, who seems to know none greater than himself, and therefore swears by himself and the series of resolutions, prays day and night for the slaughter of all Rebeldom, the punishment and expatration of all Copperheads and sympathizers with slavery or the rebellion, and denounces all objectors to the resolutions as traitors, rebels and heretics.

Under the teaching and advice of this abolition Nomad, all those who refuse to indorse and approve the series ot resolutions, were excommunicated, except four or five who were necessarily absent, nine females and one male member of the society for refusing to approve the resolutions, were expelled, and now, out of these facts has been manufactured all the loyal editorials of the newspapers on the subject, and singular as it may seem, the only voter expelled was at the time and for years had been a Republican voter.

But for fear of writing too much in a single letter, let me add in conclusion that the members expelled, and the remaining few who objected to the resolutions and wore not expelled because of their absence at the meeting, were the founders and builders of the edifice from which they have been or are to be forced by the radical proscriptive spirit of these two Ministerial Nomads and their loyal followers; their labor, money and means, bought the land, built the house, even the American Flag that floats in the breeze, from the belfry, is the handi-work of, and was contributed by those who protest against the resolutions.

The few who built this church house did it when their members were so limited that it cost some of them almost all of their earthly valuables, yet, generously gave it, and like Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist Church in the United States, sought it as a place at which they conid worship unmolested, unawed and untrammelled by political schismatics or intolerance; but they are now turned out of it for refusal to declare by resolution that the Sisters of the society are unworthy or incompetent to declare who would be a suitable minister for this Church, and for refusing to declare further by resolution that the Government of the United States, the Government of their Fathers is contrary to every divine and moral law.

To the hasty brethren who first gave publicity to those resolutions, we must say, you would have done better to have remembered the 9th and 10th verses of 25th Proverbs.

“Debate thy cause with thy neighbor himself; and discover not a secret “to another; lest he that heareth it, put “thee to shame and thine infamy turn “not away.”

Much has been said about the bell on this Church, which is an entirely separate matter, about which, with your approbation, I will write another epistle, until then believe me a prisoner, yet in the bands of peace.
SCOTUS. Petaluma, May 25th, 1864.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 4 1864

Letter from Scotus.

Editor of Sonoma County Democrat: In my last I promised to write you again, since which time I have visited the western part of the county, was much surprised on my return to this place to-day, to find that the few facts given in my letter about the Baptist Church troubles had been made the subject of three lengthy articles in the Journal and Argus. Have you read those articles? if not read them, the facts seem to trouble the loyal, the “late Pastor of the first Baptist Church,” A. Gould favors us with one of those articles; docs he take issue with “Scotus” on any of the statements of facts? does he deny that his wife was buried in an old alpacca, or that it was only fourteen years old? instead of a decent gown prepared by her own hands, and requested she might be buried in; does he directly deny a single statement made by “Scotus?” Not he, sir; when he does the “Scotus tribe” stands pledged to produce the proof; this, however, we venture to predict the Reverend and devoted gentleman will never call for.

Let the worthy gentleman understand and know that the “unknown assassin” may be found with but little effort. There is a single additional statement in the worthy Pastors letter deserving notice; he says, “the parties who have cooked up the slanderous letter,” etc., never come near my house either to enquire as to our wants (during his wife’s illness) or to proffer the sympathy and assistance so much needed. Now to this charge, “Scotus” pleads guilty, as he had no acquaintance with the lady or her husband, and was wholly ignorant of her illness; but if the pastor means to say that the sisters, then in this Church and since expelled, did not frequently call, sit up with, and as good neighbors and Christians, minister to his lamented wife, then, indeed, has he stated a falsehood, and hero is a tangible issue, on which if he desires, he can find “Scotus.”

Another article in the Journal and Argus, fathered by “Argus” says “it is true that Rev. Gould made the pews with his own hands and gave the thankless beggars then in the Church, $200 in cash and work.” Here is another falsehood the first we shall notice by “Argus,” and this makes up an issue with him on which he can find “Scotus” if he desires. The truth is that Rev. Gould agreed and undertook to put in the pews for a stipulated amount, worked a few days, and then sold his contract to Jas. Hosmer, and received his pay, and Mr. Hosmer performed the labor and received of the Trustees every dollar of the contract price; nor did Rev. Gould ever give two hundred cents to the Church.

Now, sir, these matters were first referred to, and here noticed simply in reference to Rev. Gould to justify the belief which the expelled members of this Church had, that he was not the right man in the right place.

But says “Argus,” “the present loyal members have paid off all the old debts of the Church,” etc. How much did they pay, “Argus?” We know that the Church did not owe to exceed $30. How did they pay it, by appealing in this trying time to those outside loyalists, who, like yourself have studied niggerology until they have strained the mind? We think yes.

As wo owe no potatoe, meat, bread, or clothes bills or grocery bills and pay our pew rent, and see no application of the other portion of “Argus’s” squib to the “Scotus tribe” we dismiss him with the suggestion that we think from his apt use of, and familiarity with small he would make a better “beach comer” than clerk of a church; he would make a full hand in gathering deselect waifs and treasure store.

There was also * * [sic] appeared in the Journal and Argus of the same date, but the “wise men of the cast” will never in all probability see the sign.

The author is evidently a loyal man, he mentions it in his prayers, all of his dreams are exceedingly loyal, he is too loyal to respect a Copperhead or the vile conductor of the Democrat, but stoops from his high loyal degree to notice “Scotus.” But we are writing too much in our letter, will notice them again with your permission. Truth is mighty and will prevail. June 16th, ’64.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 25 1864

Guerillas at Work.– The residence of the Rev. Mr. Davidson, Pastor of First Baptist Church, of, this city, was stoned last Sunday night, at half past 11 o’clock. One half of a brick was thrown through his bedroom window, striking the wall just above the head of his bed, and making a hole through the plastering. Two large stones were hurled through his parlor window one with such force as to go through the curtain, leaving a hole that looked as though it had been cut with a knife. Tho upper sash in the bedroom window was almost entirely destroyed. Mrs. Davidson, who is in delicate health, was frightened terribly. There were three of these murderous assassins, engaged in this outrage, who threw their rocks and then fled like cowardly hounds. We can imagine no reason for this, unless it is of a political nature. Mr, Davidson preaches loyalty and prays for the success of the Union Army! He is an active worker in the cause of temperance and for all worthy objects of charity. He attends strictlv to bis own business, is in offensive and quiet, and is much admired and respected by the loyal portion of this community for his many christian virtues. It is useless to add that this outrage has produced great indignation among our law abiding citizens. We earnestly hope, for the credit of our city, that the officers of the law will at least make an effort to ferret out the guilty ones. –Petaluma Journal.

Mr. Davidson is well known in Santa Cruz as a firm advocate of the cause of temperance, and a loyal man. We hope that all diligence will be taken to arrest and punish these offenders.

– Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, July 30 1864

FURTHER OUTRAGES. — The Petaluma Journal of August 11th gives another instance of Copperhead outrages in Sonoma county: The day appointed by the President for prayer was observed at Healdsburg, and religious services were held, in the Baptist Church in the morning, and Methodist Church in the evening. Rev. A. Gould preached a loyal sermon in the forenoon, arousing the Coyote and Hit-ite party. After service, in the evening, as Gould, in company with the pastor of the Methodist Church and several ladies, were on their way from church, they were assailed with stones, by concealed scoundrels. On the following evening, while Gould was alone in his study, the house was assailed with great violence, and a shower of blessings in the form of bricks and bowlders came against the house, smashing things considerably. Gould went to the door and heard the rowdies running as for dear life. We truly live in delightful times, when loyal Christian people are endangered in life and properly because they are true to God and the nation. Our Baptist friends seem special favorites of the rebels and their rowdy allies. We heartily sympathize with them in their persecutions, and only hope the Union people may be able, ere long, to “tie to” some of their assailants. Rev. A. Gould is as good and loyal a man as we have in California.

– Sacramento Daily Union, August 15 1864

We have noticed recently, and have heard others remark it, that the bell in the Baptist Church, wich is rung morning, noon and night, has lost much of its clear sweet tone. It has either received a fracture or chafes against something which deadens its sound.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, January 4 1866

Cracked-The bell on the Baptist Church has received a crack which renders it useless for the present. This is unfortunate, as it was not only remarkable for the clearness and compass of its tone, but had an historic association – being the Vigilance Committee bell, during troublesome times in San Francisco, and sounded the death knell of Casey, Corey, Hethrington, and Brace, and struck terror to the hearts of other desperadoes of that city.

If the facture cannot be healed by brazing, the bell will have to be recast. For the present the bell on the Congregational Church will be rung morning, noon and night.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, January 11 1866

Scranton, Penn.–…Your old friend Davidson is here. When I was in Petaluma you remember he was Pastor to the Baptists. Everytime we meet he has something to say of Petaluma, and always gives your town a fair name. He occasionally laughs loud and long in talking over some of his experiences there. He says his experience at Petaluma partook of both comedy and tragedy, and when he publishes his life he calculates the chapter headed “A Year in Petaluma,” will increase the value of the copyright many thousand dollars…

– Petaluma Argus, April 16 1868

THE OLD BELL
An Interesting Talk With M. Doyle About Its History.

Knowing that M. Doyle wan directly interested in the famous old bell of the Baptist Church in Petaluma, about which so much has been written, a Democrat reporter called on him Monday afternoon for a short talk on the subject.

“Yes,” said Mr. Doyle, “I know all about the old bell, and I want to say right here that it was never stolen, as the Imprint has it. I was the man who bought the old bell from Conroy & O’Connor for $550, and of that sum I had subscribed $110. It was not stolen from the steeple, but was taken down in the middle of the day by myself and a number of sailors I had hired from the sloops in the creek.”

“Why was it taken down?”

“Because that fanatical Republican, Davidson, the pastor, who came to Petaluma from the East, had turned all the Democrats out of the church. I said at the time that no bell in which I had a cent’s interest should hang over a church where such a sentiment was allowed to prevail. Others felt the same as I did on the subject. When the bell was removed many persons stood around, among them being members of the city government. After it was carted to Baylis’ warehouse I offered to give twice as much as any man in town to build a belfry on the plaza or put it over the engine house, but I was bound it should not hang over that church. Instead of being put back in the steeple on the next morning, it stayed in the Baylis warehouse for three months [ED: It was twelve days – je, July, 2018]. It is an historic old relic anyway, and when in its prime was one of the finest bells I ever heard. On a clear day it could be heard in Bloomfield and Sonoma. In fact, when it was rung in San Francisco at the time Casey and Corey were hung, it has been said, the wind being favorable, that it was heard in San Jose. But what I have said about the removal of the bell in the daytime many of the older citizens of Petaluma will bear me out. In order to keep my word about not letting the bell hang over the church I agreed, after it was put back, to sell my interest to the city, and John Shrofe, the chairman of the trustees, bought it on behalf of the city.”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 23 1893

A Famous Bell.

A proposition has been made to exhibit the bell in the Baptist Church in Petaluma with the Sonoma County display at the Midwinter Fair. The bell has a remarkable history; a history which will within a century make it almost as famous in California as the old Liberty bell of Philadelphia. It is a pure metal bell manufactured by Ho er & Co., of Boston, and weighs about 1,150 pounds [ED: It was cast by Henry N. Hooper & Co. in Boston, 1855 – je/July, 2018]. It is the identical bell owned and used by the famous Vigilance Committee in the historic days of 1860. It was then rang by the committee when William T. Coleman was its president. Those were days that tried the souls of San Francisco’s worst men. During the war it was stolen from the church steeple, and on being replaced was cracked one dark midnight, by a sledge-hammer.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 23 1893

OLD BELL TO STAY IN PETALUMA
Relic of Vigilantes’ Day Wanted for San Francisco Museum, Will Remain in Sonoma County Town

There has been a little agitation in Petaluma for a few days since the city of San Francisco sent a request that the old bell that hung so long in the belfry of the Petaluma Baptist church, be sent there for installation in a museum, or something of the kind. It is not likely, however, that the bell will be shipped away from Petaluma, for on Monday night the trustees of the Baptist church voted to keep the bell in the following resolution;

Whereas, It has come to our attention through a communication published in a local paper that certain parties desire that our old bell be presented to a San Francisco museum, we deem it wise at this time to state our position in the matter.

The bell was purchased with funds raised by subscription among the members and friends among the and became the sole property of the Petaluma Baptist church. [sic]

It called the people of this community to public worship, and tolled in announcement of the death of scores of the early residents of this city and surrounding territory for years prior to the Civil War.

During the early stages of the war it announced the receipt of news of victories of the contending armies. Friends of the Northern forces rang it to proclaim the news of Union victories and adherents of the South rang it on receipt of news of victories of the Confederate armies. It was on account, of such announcements that the bell was finally broken by a zealous adherent of one of the contending forces.

The bell was for a time used by the Vigilante Committee of San Francisco, but it has been the property of this church for more than half a century and has become more closely connected with the history of Petaluma than it was with that of San Francisco: therefore, be it

Resolved, That we announce through the press of Petaluma that we believe it to be our duty to retain possession Of the old bell as the property of the Petaluma Baptist church and as soon as possible to arrange for its being kept where the public can view it from time to time.

Trustees of Petaluma Baptist Church.

– Press Democrat, April 5 1916

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PETALUMA VS SANTA ROSA: ROUND ONE

To understand the origin of the rivalry between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, think of the relationship between the Smothers Brothers.

In their classic comedy routines Dick (the one who plays bass) is the smarter of the pair, cool and sometimes smug; Tommy usually plays the man-child, a dumb cluck who becomes flustered and petulant when Dick deflates his goofy ideas. (Yes, I know Tom is actually older than Dick, Tom was the genius behind their legendary TV show, these are just their comic stage persona, &c. &c. so don’t start blasting angry tweets.)

I don’t want to press this analogy too far, but in the late 1850s Petaluma was something like Dick Smothers, needling his kid brother when he would screw up or begin crowing as if he were cock of the walk. And Tom/Santa Rosa would usually be on the defensive, sometimes getting a bit whiny about not getting his due respect even though he was trying really, really, hard.

Santa Rosa was voted to be the county seat in 1854, although at the time it was little more than a camp staked out at a muddy crossroads with only about eight actual houses. The place had no purpose to exist other than to be a county seat; the numerous squatters in the surrounding area needed a centralized courthouse for pressing their shaky homestead claims. For more background on all that, see “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.”

Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859

 

 

Petaluma had a two-year head start. While Santa Rosa was mapping out its first streets in 1854, Petaluma was already an established community with several hundred residents. They had stores and hotels, churches and meeting halls. A sketch of the town from the following year shows a mix of single and two story buildings – simply built, but not shacks, either.

Part of the deal for Santa Rosa to become the county seat required it to provide a courthouse before the end of the year. This courthouse issue would become the town’s Waterloo – or maybe a better comparison might be an albatross around Santa Rosa’s neck. (Arguing whether a bad situation is more like a dead bird or a lost battle would actually be a great setup for a Smothers Brothers routine, but enough of analogies within analogies.)

Santa Rosa’s first actual courthouse was a rush job – a temporary building later described as “a small wooden building built of rough up-and-down boards and ‘battened'” on Fourth street close to D st. Meanwhile. planning began for a permanent courthouse and jail at the current location of Exchange Bank.

Work on the courthouse/jail began in the summer of 1855 and finished just after Christmas. The Board of Supervisors called a special meeting afterward where they refused to pay the contractor, claiming the building didn’t meet specs. “Both sides got mad,” Robert Thompson wrote with considerable understatement in his history, “Central Sonoma.” After weeks of arguing the Board agreed to accept the work, albeit at a much reduced price.

Now shift forward a couple of years: The 1858 county Grand Jury declared the nearly-new courthouse was unsafe, dangerous and a “public nuisance,” with the roof leaking and walls cracked. Those drips and cracks foreshadowed a decade of woes ahead; later repairs and do-overs would about triple the cost of the original construction.1

By now Santa Rosa had its own weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, which charged the Grand Jury had “an unnecessary amount of spite at the courthouse.” Sure, the roof leaked, but it could be repaired. While there really were big cracks in the walls, “…we sincerely congratulate our county that they remained standing long enough to save the invaluable lives of this Grand Jury, and thereby reserved to future generations the vast amount of wisdom contained in their heads, and which thus far has been so sparingly imparted to their less favored fellows.”

While Democrat publisher/editor E. R. Budd pretended to laugh off the building’s problems, the Grand Jury’s findings clearly rankled; two years later – after many had likely forgotten all about it – he dredged it up again, sulking their courthouse remarks were written by “two or three Petaluma men” on a subcommittee.

The Hall of Records and Courthouse with the jail between them, 1875. View from Third street overlooking the west corner of the original plaza. Main photo Sonoma County Library

 

 

Mr. Budd appeared to be a fellow of unusually thin skin for a newspaper publisher as the Petaluma papers teased and taunted Santa Rosa. The same year as the Grand Jury report, the Courier ran a (probably fictitious) story about an out-of-towner visiting Santa Rosa and being unable to find anything that looked like a courthouse. Budd took the bait and reprinted it as part of an editorial titled, “Envy:”

The following specimen of petty spleen, shows how bitterly envious some of the inhabitants of Petaluma are of the place chosen by the people of this county for the county seat…it is quite evident that some of the more selfish denizens of Petaluma have been unable to appreciate Santa Rosa, and would like to make those at a distance look upon it in a similar light…

Budd also complained Santa Rosa was undermining itself. A bit later he wrote a lengthy editorial about his paper not getting the local support it deserved, carping that many local businesses “have not done their part” by taking out ads. There he also made a passing remark that, if close to true, provides valuable insight into how they lived at the time: “…one half the people composing this community go to Petaluma to trade.” As Petaluma was probably 90 minutes away (at least) by buggy or wagon, that shows Santa Rosa was still mostly an outpost in 1858.

But Santa Rosa’s fortunes began looking up the following year. We have an unofficial census of Santa Rosa from 1859 showing the town’s population and an inventory of businesses. (There’s a similar census of Petaluma from 1857, which enables us to neatly compare both towns at their five-year mark.)2

Primary among the new businesses was the Wise & Goldfish general store on the east side of the plaza – Santa Rosans finally had a real place to shop. “Dry Goods, Clothing, Boots, Shoes, Groceries, Hardware, Crockery, Glassware, Fancy Goods, Bonnets, and a general assortment of Ladies’ Goods,” boasted their first ad in July, 1859. Their prices were also the lowest in the North Bay, they claimed. But now that Petaluma’s hegemony over retail sales faced serious competition, the journalistic jibes from that town were no longer quite so brotherly.

Petaluma’s Sonoma County Journal ran an article on that Santa Rosa census which is mostly transcribed below. Read it carefully and you’ll find editor Henry Weston was actually damning Santa Rosa with faint praise.

The article slyly implied land titles in Santa Rosa might be disputed because of legal problems with its underlying Mexican land grant (in truth, the title situation here was among the cleanest in the state, beating Petaluma to approval by eight years). It exaggerated how much had been spent on the county buildings so far while pointing out “their present unfinished state.” And the article noted “the population of the town proper is about 400,” although the federal census the next year would show Santa Rosa was really four times larger after people in the surrounding township were included.

But the worst of it was their long list of Santa Rosa businesses, which included this bit: “…one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop…” (emphasis added).

Needless to say, the actual 1859 census did not include “Jews” as a business category (you can find the entire list in Thompson’s history). This was sheer anti-Semitism by the Petaluma paper and clearly aimed at undermining the Wise & Goldfish store, which was owned by the only Jewish families in town. In the history books H. L. Weston has been admired as the godfather of the Argus and Petaluma newspapering in general, but this calls for his sterling reputation to be reevaluated.

Increasingly nasty potshots between the town papers continued the next year, with the Argus accusing that county taxes were being used to pay for civic improvements in and around Santa Rosa (one of these items can be found below). But the final salvo in this early skirmish was the 1861 effort to move the county seat to Petaluma.3

Very little was written about this at the time or since; it appears neither Santa Rosa nor Petaluma newspapers took it too seriously – and as everyone was preoccupied with the Civil War which had just begun, that’s really not so surprising. The proposal popped up suddenly in California newspapers in March, 1861, as a petition was presented to state legislators. It’s unknown exactly what it said or how long it was circulating. A counter-petition was quickly organized, arguing that it was “unnecessary, unwise and burdensome” to move. The “stay” counter-petition supposedly had far more signatures.

As Sonoma county then was deep in debt, the Santa Rosa paper argued taxpayers couldn’t pay for a new set of buildings, and it was unlikely that Mr. Petaluma was going to open his purse for the honor. “It may be, however, that some wealthy citizen is about to immortalize himself by presenting some ‘noble edifice’ to his fellows! Happy thought! Toodles forever!” The Democrat also sneered Petaluma merchants were mistaken if they expected a windfall from providing “grub, liquor and lodging” to people coming to the county seat to appear in court.

There were no rallies for or against, as far as I can tell, and editorial support for the move in the Argus was tepid, particularly after it was mentioned some subscribers were so opposed to the idea they might boycott the paper. When it came to voting day the measure was soundly defeated, passing in only three of the county’s 18 voting precincts (including Petaluma, natch).

And with that, the bell rang to end the first round of Petaluma vs. Santa Rosa. The next part of the slugfest saw the editors of the Argus and Santa Rosa’s Democrat take off their gloves for bare-knuckle fighting over the Civil War, as told here in “A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR.”

Before wrapping up this survey of 1855-1861, my newspaper readings from those years also turned up some details that may shed light on an important but murky question in Sonoma county history: Why was almost everywhere outside of Petaluma so anti-Lincoln and pro-Confederacy before and during the Civil War?

In 1859 there was a meeting in Santa Rosa to organize a local Democratic party committee endorsing “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. While there were meetings like that nationwide with the general goal of getting pro-slavery delegates elected to state Democratic party conventions, here in Sonoma county it piggybacked onto the politically powerful settler’s movement, which had its own definition of sovereignty – namely, it wanted California to declare the Mexican and Spanish land grants “fraudulent,” in violation of the federal treaty with Mexico that ended the Mexican War. (Interested historians can read the full set of resolutions in the Sonoma County Journal May 20, 1859.)

This fusion of “settlerism” with “popular sovereignty” may help explain why Sonoma county overwhelmingly voted against Lincoln the next year in favor of the Southern Democrat candidate who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right. Maybe it wasn’t so much that the majority of the county was saying “we like slavery,” as “we’ll vote for any guy who might get us clear title to our land claims.” This is an important distinction I’ve not seen historians discuss.

 


1 The courthouse construction in 1855 was just for the first story, not the two story building with cupola seen in all photos. In 1859 the top floor was built and again there was a fight with the contractor. His final bill included a whopping 75 percent cost overrun, presumably related to fixing structural problems with the underlying building. Again it went to arbitration, this time the contractor settling for about a quarter of what he asked. Problems with the original shoddy construction still were not over – the jail had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in 1867, just eleven years after it originally opened.

2 In 1857 Petaluma encompassed about a square mile, with a population of 1,338. Santa Rosa in 1859 was still its original 70 acres, with 400 residents. The decennial federal census of 1860, however, shows Santa Rosa with the larger population: 1,623 compared to Petaluma’s 1,505. This is due to counting people in the entire Santa Rosa Township, not just within city limits. The 1860 census of Santa Rosa proper was 425 residents.

3 One legislator hinted the proposed move of the county seat to Petaluma was (somehow) part of a scheme to have Marin annex Petaluma away from Sonoma county, and just the year before Marin actually had asked the state to expand their border northward and make Petaluma their new county seat. Those two efforts are probably linked but I haven’t found anything further on that angle, or who was behind either effort. It sounds like a good story, tho, and I’ll write more about it should more info surface.
Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859

SANTA ROSA–OUR COUNTY SEAT.– To those who have only heard of Santa Rosa as the county town of Sonoma county, and as being one of the most beautiful and thriving places in the State, the following facts and figures, condensed from the Santa Rosa Democrat, may be interesting:

The town of Santa Rosa is built on the fertile valley or plain of the same name, and on the old Santa Rosa “grant,” midway between Petaluma and the flourishing town of Healdsburg, on Russian River. To the enterprise of Berthold Hoen is the site of the place, and much of its prosperity, due. The site was fixed by him, and by him surveyed and mapped in the spring of 1854. In the year 1855, it was declared the county seat, Mr. Hoen tendering the county a building gratuitously, to be used for county purposes. The entire cost of the county buildings will be about $35,000, and even in their present unfinished state, present an appearance in structure and design creditable to the rich county of Sonoma. When completed, they will, in elegance and design, be surpassed by but few such buildings in the State. The private residence are mostly one-story cottage buildings, and for neatness and comfort will vie with those of any other county village we have knowlege of. The soil of the valley is a rich alluvium…

…Beside the public buildings, there is a fine academy for males and females, (accommodating 250 pupils); a district school, (numbering over 60 children); two churches, two resident preachers, nine resident lawyers, five physicians, two notaries public, one printing office, from which two publications are issued, seventy-five private residences, nine dry goods and grocery stores, one drug store, one hardware store, two hotels, two restaurants, two drinking saloons, two daguerrean galleries, one saddler shop, one barber shop, one tailor shop, one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop, three carpenter shops, two butcher shops, one cabinet shop, six blacksmith shops, one pump shop, one bakery, and two first-class livery stables. The population of the town proper is about 400. The climate is mild and salubrious, not being troubled so much by fogs and head winds, as the towns bordering on the coast. The greatest drawback is the unsettled condition of land titles — not peculiar to our own county — and these are in process of adjustment.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 25 1859

…Below, we give a small specimen of this talk, taken from the Argus of the 13th Jan. The editor goes so far as to call his statement “the prevailing opinion in this section,” (Petaluma):

“That Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa interests are being built up and protected, at the expense of the whole County, and to the detriment of some particular sections. That this has been, and now is, the policy of the citizens of Santa Rosa, no observant man, with any regard for truth, will dare deny. The governing policy for the last four years, has been to concentrate everything at Santa Rosa. No roads could be made unless they centered there. No bridges built, unless they benefit Santa Rosa. No regard is paid to the wants of Sonoma, Petaluma, and Bloomfield. But if Santa Rosa wants anything, even to the fencing of the plaza, the door of the county safe is thrown wide open. It is time these outrages upon the people at large should cease—this squandering of the public money for the benefiit of a few property-holders in and about Santa Rosa.”

We believe that the statement that the above is “the prevailing opinion” in that section, is untrue. That there are a few discontents in Petaluma, who find fault with this, as they do with everything else in and about Santa Rosa, is quite likely ; and that these compose the associates and intimates of the editor of that sheet, is still more probable. But we have no reason to believe that he is ever entrusted with the opinions of respectable men, even of his own vicinity. The quotation above, contains as much bare faced untruth, as we ever saw distilled in so small a space…

[lists county officials from Petaluma and Healdsburg, the 1858 Grand Jury report was the work of “two or three Petaluma men” on a committee]

…It is indirectly assorted, that the county authorities have paid for the fencing of the Plaza. This, of course, is just as reasonable as any other assertion; and yet not one dollar, directly or indirectly, has ever been paid or asked for for any such purpose. Equally false is his assertion of the building of bridges and roads for the exclusive benefit of Santa Rosa. Not one of the kind has ever been made. Altogether, we regard these complaints as very remarkable, even as coming from Pennypacker — certainly, they could come from nowhere else. [J. J. Pennypacker was the first publisher of the Argus 1859-1960 – JE]

Notwithstanding all this Billingsgate we speak of, seems to come from Petaluma, we are happy in the belief that the community in and around that place are not chargeable with them, but that among the respectable portion of that locality, a more liberal feeling exists.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 2 1860

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bighen

HEAR THAT LONESOME CHICKEN BLOW

She was a good hen, sitting patiently on her nest for nearly twenty years. Then she loudly blew up.

In the 1920s and 1930s she was Petaluma’s first goodwill ambassador, greeting visitors driving into town from the south.

Her name was Betty.

She was originally part of a float for the very first Egg Day parade in 1918 and made by Albert Welchert, a German carpenter turned chicken rancher. “Mr. Welchert is building the biggest hen that has ever been made,” the Argus-Courier noted. “It will be twelve feet long, ten feet high, five feet across the back and will be sitting on golden eggs.”

There’s no photo of her debut. We first see her in a picture from 1920 when a couple of flappers are dancing on her back for a newsreel movie – quite a change from seven years before, when Petaluma banned “rag” dancing and arrested people for it. (All images shown below.)

The Welcherts moved to Oregon in 1921 and presumably gave the big hen to the Chamber of Commerce, who built a perch for her a mile south of city limits on the old Redwood Highway (roughly where Petaluma Blvd. South meets McNear avenue, close to the Vets Building).

She didn’t have much company out there, except for her noisy neighbor: The Colony Club, about a quarter-mile further down the road. Petaluma’s nightclub!

Bill Soberanes, Argus-Courier’s columnist and “peopleologist” later wrote often about the Club as a place where “Petaluma’s Cafe Society set” dressed up for dinner and dancing. It wasn’t very big – about the size of a modern three-bedroom ranch house. Still, it had a dance floor, and outside it advertised both “DRINKS” and “COLD DRINKS.”

Like other swanky places it often had a floor show. Among the headliners were contortionist Rue Enos (“Making Both Ends Meet”), harmonica virtuoso Ernie Morris (“formerly with the Minevitch Harmonica Rascals”), “tap tumbler” Tommy Konine and song stylist Charlotte Day (“she’s gorgeous to look at”). Should Gentle Reader think I’m cherry-picking the really unusual acts, note that I have avoided descriptions of the ventriloquists and puppeteers.

The joint closed every night at 2AM when the master of ceremonies said, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” That sounds less threatening if it can be imagined said in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon voice.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well for Betty.

Some artistic pioneer happened to notice her big, beautiful white sides were like a blank canvas. And get this: If someone wrote a comment there, officials would eventually paint over it, thus providing a fresh canvas for a response! It was like instant messaging, except not so instant.

In 1934, the Argus-Courier reported the “big hen” had been vandalized by someone “placing obscene language thereon… This is the second time within a year that obscene language has been painted on the ‘big hen.'”

Not to worry: The paper also stated, “Officers at the Chamber of Commerce have information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the offenders, it is said.” Uh, nope.

Apparently this cat-and-mouse game with the vandals went on for years. The next evidence was shocking: Betty was now disfigured! A 1936 image shows the remains of the latest grafitti, but also now gone was her lovely wattle; no more the red mask around the eyes, so typical of the Petaluma’s noble leghorn. Both were clearly visible in the 1920 picture.

It gets worse. An undated photo (1937?) shows Betty with eyelashes! What next, lipstick?

Then came the awful night of October 27, 1938. It was a Thursday. 10:25PM.

“A blast that shook the outskirts of Petaluma on Thursday night and blew its ‘advertising chicken’ to smithereens,” the Petaluma paper announced. The Colony Club shook like there was an earthquake. A man who lived about a mile away said “it seemed as though the walls would fall in.” The explosion “scared the wits out of passing motorists,” the Press Democrat observed, and plaster chicken nuggets were “littering the highway with chunks of stucco, twisted wire and sticks.”

Petaluma police and the Highway Patrol rushed to the scene. No evidence was found, except for a piece of a dynamite fuse. An investigation began immediately, and the result was possibly my favorite newspaper headline of all time:

The lawmen on the case were Marin Undersheriff Frank Kelly and Sonoma county Chief Criminal Deputy Melvin “Dutch” Flohr, who became Santa Rosa’s much-respected police chief a couple of years later.

“Both Kelly and I are of the opinion that Tam students are the logical ones to be involved,” said Dutch. “Tam” meant students of Tamalpais high school, whose football team was about to play against Petaluma. The Tam principal told the Argus-Courier a “thorough investigation of all Tamalpais students revealed that none were involved.”

The other suspects were from Santa Rosa Junior College. Kelly said Santa Rosa students were spotted in Kentfield around 10PM, where they were trying to sabotage a pre-game bonfire before a football game against Marin Junior College. That gave them time to reach the chicken. But Floyd P. Bailey, president of SRJC “didn’t believe any [investigation] was necessary…Santa Rosa students were too busy at their own bonfire and rally Thursday night to be bothered with any trips or blastings.”

The Argus-Courier ran a photo obituary, showing Betty’s scattered innards. “Largest Hen’s Career Ends,” read the headline over a final image of poor Betty.

Whodunnit remained a mystery. An A-C article years later mentioned in passing that she was bombed because of the upcoming “Santa Rosa-Petaluma annual football classic.” No one was charged.

The crime was finally solved via an anonymous confession which appeared in Lee Torliatt’s Golden Memories of the Redwood Empire (the most enjoyable book about Sonoma county history, IMHO):


We got together a bunch of guys and somebody said it would be a great idea to blow up that big, ugly chicken. If you came from Santa Rosa, that seemed like a hell of a good idea. A couple of farm boys, I can’t mention their names, provided the dynamite, we got a car caravan together, and went down and planted the dynamite in the chicken.

So there you go: It was the dirty rotten sneaks from Santa Rosa – as if there really was any doubt.

There’s an epilogue to our tragedy: Some time later, Betty’s spot was taken by “Chantacline.” This chicken was nearly as old as Betty and stood for many years between the Petaluma train depot and Hotel Petaluma, which was her owner. Chantacline was smaller and more delicate, supported with guidewires. There would be no dancing on the back of this hen, no sir.

Like her predecessor, Chantacline was repeatedly vandalized. The worst happened in 1945, just a day after her most recent repainting had finished. Both legs, tail and head were broken and her wires were cut. Since Chantacline belonged to the Hotel Petaluma and not the town’s Chamber, hotel manager Harold Eckart was determined to Sherlock out the perps. He succeeded; five Santa Rosa High School students were taken into custody and ordered to pay $500 in damages.

All of this is now gone, of course. There are no giant statues of plaster poultry on the old route, and Colony Club burned down in 1955 (another place was built north of Petaluma). With the heyday of Betty and the nightclub now about eight decades in the rearview mirror, there’s few still around to be nostalgic about their passing. Even in the 1970s, details about the Club were Trivial Pursuit-type items in Bill Soberanes’ columns.

Places like that little stretch of road are suspended in a kind of twilight zone, reserved for locations which were landmarks even though nothing historical happened and no one noteworthy setup home or business. Yet for a generation or more, there was probably no patch of Sonoma county better known.

It was where stylish couples and flirty singles danced to the tunes of Kim Kimmel on the Hammond organ, the women in their rayon dresses from Carithers and men in their worsted tex sport coats bought at the Penny’s.

For those traveling through or returning home from San Francisco, there was also that whimsical super-sized chicken announcing the egg basket of the world was up ahead, just around the curve. And sometimes there was a bonus message concerning the pitiable intelligence or lack of personal hygiene possessed by some local football team, which was always quite informative.

Newsreel cameramen filming dancers, Petaluma, California, March, 1920 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

 

Betty in 1936 with its most recent defacement not quite scrubbed clean. (Photograph by John Gutmann)

 

Undated image of Betty with eyelashes, probably 1937 or 1938

 

Argus-Courier obituary photo, November 3, 1938

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