Elections in Santa Rosa were wild a century ago: Patriotic rallies and street parties where bonfires and explosions brought out the inner caveman in our ancestors – or the male ones, anyway. It was like the local Rotary Club production of “Lord of the Flies.”

On Election Eve both political parties usually held a big rally. Sometimes there was a marching band tootling a campaign song; before it collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, one of the parties would book the cavernous Athenaeum Theater for rousing speeches. But always, in Santa Rosa and every little town in Sonoma county, there were bonfires and anvils that night.

In Santa Rosa the bonfire was usually in the vacant lot on the corner of Fifth and A streets, but this was no mere marshmallow-roasting campfire – it was a mountain of kerosene-soaked logs that probably burned hot and bright enough to be spotted from space by our alien overlords.

From the 1904 Press Democrat: “The bells rang, the band played as torches blazed, redflre was burned [think of road flares], the logs crackled merrily, anvils boomed, colored balls of fire from [illegible] of Roman candles soared in the air, and cheers went up from a thousand throats.” Wowie!

Aside from the risk of burning down the town, the most dangerous part of the festivities was “firing the anvils,” which involved packing the indentation on an anvil surface with gunpowder and placing another anvil upside down on top. When the gunpowder was ignited, the top anvil flew into the air – hopefully straight up, and not arcing into the crowd – making a deafening boom remarkably like a cannon. Watch a video here where a guy shoots one 200 feet in the air.

Election day was always the same. The PD would mention something about carriages, then later, autos, dashing around the streets all day taking voters to the polls (there was no early or absentee voting). As darkness fell and the returns began to come in via telegraph, people would crowd the street outside the Press Democrat’s office, where the latest results were projected on a screen using a stereopticon (a lantern slide projector). The night usually ended with a torchlight procession to the new mayor’s house to hear his acceptance speech and hopefully be served drinks and some grub.

When the weather was lousy – as it was in 1904 and 1912 – the Press Democrat and the Republican rented a theater where the stereopticon election results were shown between short silent films. But a movie theater or nickelodeon could only hold so many, and there was also the usual problem of the newspapers fending off hundreds of calls that night from people simply asking, “How’s the election going?” There had to be a better way to broadcast the results – and remember, this was the age before Twitter, before TV and even before radio. So in 1912 the Santa Rosa papers arranged to use the PG&E steam whistle to blast out a coded message once the president-elect was chosen: Long toots for Woodrow Wilson, short toots for Teddy Roosevelt, and a long blast, followed by two short ones if  President Taft was reelected.

(Political sidebar: In 1912 it was mainly a three-way race between democrat Wilson and two republicans. The national GOP backed Taft, but the California republicans got Roosevelt on the ballot as their party’s candidate, in part because Teddy had the state’s popular governor as his VP running mate. In Sonoma county Wilson won over Roosevelt by about five points with President Taft receiving only 28 write-in votes, or about 0.2 percent of the ballots cast.)

Expecting the public to listen for a signal wasn’t such a crazy idea. Just the year before, when hometown aviator Fred Wiseman was supposed to fly overhead the Press Democrat told readers to run outdoors and look up as soon as they heard “a succession of bomb explosions” along with all factories and the firehouse blowing their screaming whistles.

And god knows everyone in Santa Rosa was used to hearing toots, blasts and clangs. The Grace Brothers Brewery whistle announced the lunch hour and quitting time, and in times of drought signaled when residents in a particular part of town could water their lawns and gardens. The fire department had its own whistle which used a code to alert our volunteer firemen to drop whatever they were doing, jump on their bicycles and pedal towards a specific neighborhood. (As every kid in town also knew this code, the firemen sometimes arrived at the scene to find the street blocked by a mob of excitable children.) There was another steam whistle over at the power company which apparently was little used by 1912, as the PD had to explain the presidential election signal would sound different than blasts from the coded fire alarm. In 1913 the National Guard announced they would use that PG&E whistle to order members of Company E to report immediately to the armory when they heard a series of twenty-five blasts. Presumably if a guardsman only counted 23 or 24 the county was not about to be invaded by Pancho Villa or Kaiser Wilhelm and everything was okay.

No discussion of local elections in that era would be complete without mention of the wildest election night of all, when in 1908 legendary barkeep Jake Luppold built a pyre in front of his saloon at the corner of Second and Main streets and hoisted a clunker automobile to the top of the woodpile. Once he learned Taft had won the White House he shouted, “Let her burn!” as an enormous crowd roared in approval of the conflagration (read “BONFIRE OF THE HOODOOS“). The boys in “Lord of the Flies” would have recognized that scene and loved it.


(The year 1912 was also the first in modern times when a political party solicited donations directly from the public. This ad from the Democratic National Committee appeared in the Oct. 25, 1912 Press Democrat)
Signal Blasts Will Announce National Election Results
Press Democrat Office Will as Usual Be Headquarters for Election Returns This Evening–See the Figures Thrown on Screen

As usual, the Press Democrat office will be headquarters for election returns this evening. The Associated Press figures covering Sonoma county will be tabulated and sent out from this office, and complete returns wil be received from all over the United States, from every city and county in California, and from every precinct in Sonoma county.

As fast as received, these figures will be displayed by means of a huge stereopticon. Returns will also be shown at the Rose theatre in connection with the regular bill. Additional main line telephones have been installed especially to accommodate out-of-town calls, and every effort will be made to let the result be known as soon as possible.

The Press Democrat has also arranged with the Pacific Gas & Electric Company for a set of signals to announce the outcome of the presidential election to those who do not care to come down town. As soon as the result is known, the big steam at the gas works will announce the fact, In accordance with the following schedule: Wilson, long blasts; Roosevelt, short blasts; Taft, long blast, followed by two short ones. These signals need not be confused with those used to give the alarm of fire, because the whistle used is not the same, and the sound is considerably different. All are invited to come out this evening and see The Press Democrat’s election returns.

– Press Democrat, November 5, 1912


Wilson’s Great Victory Made Known in Santa Rosa Before 7:30 by Means of Steam Siren

The news of yesterday’s great Democratic landslide was known here last night before half-past seven o’clock, when in accordance with the plans announced in these columns yesterday morning the great steam siren at the gas works shrieked out the tidings–a message that rose above the fury of the storm–“Loud long blasts. Woodrow Wilson.”

On account of the heavy storm, the arrangements as first announced for handling the returns here were changed somewhat. It became impracticable to show the returns on the street by means of a stereopticon, and so The Press Democrat and the Evening Republican joined forces, hired the Columbia Theatre, and showed the returns there.

Manager Crone provided some good moving pictures, Mrs. J. P. Berry furnished piano music, and, secure from the fury of the storm, several hundred people spent the evening there in comfort, reading the election news as it was thrown on the great moving-picture screen stretched across the front of the stage.

Full Associated and United Press returns were shown, in addition to detailed returns from the various precincts in Sonoma county. Governor Wilson’s election having been announced early in the evening, the audience concerned itself principally with details, and with watching the outcome of the congressional, legislative and supervisorial contests.

It was after midnight when the words “Good Night” were flashed on the screen. Meanwhile, a crowd had remained at the Press Democrat office ail evening, although it was announced that no returns would be shown here. Until after 3:30 this morning, when the final returns for the night were received and tabulated, many people remained, eager for more news and unwilling to leave while there was a prospect of hearing further details.

Owing to the heavy rain, the gathering of the returns was attended with unusual difficulty. The county was also unusually slow in many precincts, and in some cases it was extremely difficult to get messages through on account of the condition of the wires. But returns were received from practically ail precincts, and the results announced will not be changed by subsequent developments.

– Press Democrat, November 6, 1912
Rain on Election Day Caused Worry and Brought Out Many Vehicles, But Vote Was a Large One

It was a wet election day. A wetter day could not have been. Jupiter Pluvius was most generous, much to the discomfort of the voters, and certainly disquieting to the candidates and managers of the campaigns. It was a rush all day with automobiles and other vehicles to get voters to the polls. In view of these conditions the vote cast was unusually large. The ladies were most enthusiastic, and many of them would not accept proffered rides to the polls, preferring to walk. They also turned out strong in the country precincts.

– Press Democrat, November 6, 1912

The members of Company E, Fifth Infantry, N. G. C., are requested to take notice that in case of a rapid assembly for any purpose, an alarm will be sounded by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s works, First street. The alarm is as follows: Five short blasts of the whistle, to be repeated five times at intervals of ten seconds, making twenty five blasts of the whistle. This alarm will be sounded five times, and repeated if necessary. On hearing this alarm, the members are instructed to repair to the armory immediately and report to their commanding officer.

It is requested that Grace Brothers and other manufacturing concerns in Santa Rosa, sound this alarm when notified to do so by the proper authority.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 7, 1913
 Until After Midnight a Packed House Was Well Entertained and Great Interest Was Taken

The Press Democrat furnished an excellent election bulletin service, and the Novelty theatre in which the returns were thrown on the canvass by a splendid stereopticon. as well as the moving pictures which interspersed the returns, kept the house packed with people until midnight.

The public greatly appreciated the returns and the building rang with applause at first one and then the other favorite’s name and vote was shown on the canvass. Expert Toby Yost managed the machine.

The election passed off quietly in this city although much activity was shown by the political parties in the contest. Carriages were busy dashing here and there all day and the horses and vehicles were adorned with hangings bearing the names of the respective candidates. The polls opened at six o’clock in the morning and closed at five o’clock in the afternoon.

Reports from all over the county show that the election passed off quietly, but the same activity and earnestness was displayed by the respective parties in behalf of their candidates. In addition to the messenger service between the polling places in the business portion of the city an automobile was used to get the returns from the polling places in the other precincts of the city and in those immediately around. The service was quick and those assisting did their work well.

– Press Democrat, November 9, 1904

Read More


Here’s my new example of why this research is such fun: You discover a silly editorial about the “teddy bear fad,” and a few moments later, your jaw drops while learning that Hitler was a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt.

The 1907 Press Democrat editorial was a reaction to the absurd idea that little girls had to play with dolls that looked like people or they would lose all desire for motherhood. Such was the claim of a Michigan priest that had appeared in scores of newspapers nationwide as a July 8 AP wire item :

A dispatch to the tribune from St. Joseph, Mich., says:

The “Teddy Bear” fad was denounced by the Rev. Michael G. Esper from the pulpit of St. Joseph’s Catholic church yesterday.

The priest held that the toy beast in the hands of little girls was destroying all instincts of motherhood and that in the future it would be realized as one of the most powerful factors in the race suicide danger.

Father Esper asked all parents to replace the doll in the affections of children and discard the “Teddy Bear” forever.

PD editor Ernest L. Finley ridiculed the notion, but the story was often printed without commentary on the front pages (my favorite headline was from the Salt Lake Tribune: “Teddy Bear Dooms Race”). In newspapers with a strong Catholic identity, the item was expanded to explain the importance of preventing “race suicide.”

As it turns out, preventing “race suicide” was quite a favorite cause of Teddy Roosevelt, whose hunting adventures had inspired the creation of the “Teddy Bear” five years before. That a toy named after the president was now being accused of causing “race suicide” is one of those bizarreries of White House history, such as John Wilkes Booth being in the VIP section directly behind Lincoln during his second inauguration (Booth scored a ticket because he was engaged to a Senator’s daughter).

(RIGHT: A search for “race suicide postcard” on eBay or the collectible postcard web sites will turn up many examples c. 1905-1910. Most common were humorous cartoons with baby-delivering storks, but also found frequently are postcards with racist themes, such as the one shown at center. After Esper’s anti-teddy bear appeal, a new wave of “race suicide” postcards depicted little caucasian girls cuddling dolls. The bottom postcard was the exception that seemed to poke fun at the priest’s alarm. CLICK any image to enlarge)

Roosevelt’s interest in the topic began in the early 1890s, and let’s be clear that the primary “race” in Teddy’s concerns wasn’t a race at all, but “old-stock” white Americans, particularly those with ancestors from New England. Roosevelt thought the declining birthrates of that group was threatened by the higher birthrates found among the immigrants whom he called “inferior races.” By 1898, his views had become even more radicalized, writing that “evil forces” were causing “the diminishing birthrate among the old native American stock,” and any who chose to not to have children were “race criminals.”

Roosevelt’s solution was that Americans should “Work-fight-breed,” a message that melded into his overall promotion of a healthy “strenuous life.” But his glorification of motherhood cloaked uglier underlying views of women as breeders, and that eugenics was a good thing if it ensured “the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding.”

While this all sounds rather Nazi-ish, it must be emphasized that Roosevelt never suggested that “old Colonial stock” Americans were a kind of Übermensch. Speaking at Oxford in 1910, he noted that he was an eighth-generation American with ancestors from many different “European races.” It was the “common heirship in the things of the spirit,” he said, that “makes a closer bond than common heirship in the things of the body.” He made that same point in other speeches, defining Americans as those who fully assimilated and embraced Uncle Sam’s culture and customs, not just those who had Plymouth Rock bloodlines. In other words, he was expressing a fundamental view of American exceptionalism.

At the same time, there’s no way to reconcile Theodore Roosevelt’s contradictory views on racial issues that swing wildly between extremes.

Good-Teddy encouraged France, Germany, and England to take interest in “race suicide” birthrates in their countries, further showing that he didn’t believe in a particular flavor of racial superiority; that’s offset by Awful-Teddy denouncing the people in southern Italy as the “most fecund and the least desirable” race in all of Europe. While Good-Teddy vigorously opposed discrimination against African Americans, Awful-Teddy called genocide against the Indians “as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable,” and said that “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”


And now they say the “Teddy bear” craze is a bad thing, because the fuzzy little animals have largely displaced the dollies of our fathers–or mothers, rather–and while the fondling of dolls tended to develop the maternal instinct, play with “Teddy bears” awakens no such sentiment and consequently tends to produce race suicide.

What nonsense!

The “Teddy bear” is only a fad, and is said to be already fast losing its popularity. But if current reports are to be relied upon, Santa Claus is laying in a larger stock of dolls for the coming Christmas than ever before.

– Press Democrat editorial , August 30, 1907

Read More


In 1908 there were no Blue Angels to rattle windows during Fleet Week, but Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” was on hand to rattle sabers, in advance of its round-the-world trip to showcase America’s military might. The sixteen Navy battleships, manned with 14,000 sailors, sailed into San Francisco Bay on May 6, 1908.

Santa Rosa all but shut down for the celebration, according to the Press Democrat, as 3,500 people – roughly one-third of the population – bought a special $1.70 round-trip train ticket for the festivities. A photograph of the ships steaming through the Golden Gate (sans bridge, of course) can be seen here.

Immense Crowd of People Go From Here to Different Places About the Bay

There was a general suspension of business Wednesday in Santa Rosa, when nearly 3,500 people visited San Francisco, Sausalito, Fort Baker and Lime Point to watch the arrival of the Atlantic battleship fleet in San Francisco bay.

Thee were over 1,200 tickets sold here Tuesday and about 1,000 people went to the bay counties that day, while Wednesday over 2,000 more tickets were sold and as many persons went to the bay district. Most of those from the coast counties viewed the arrival from the Marin County shore.

Fort Baker and Lime Point were the objective points of most of the crowd from Santa Rosa. A magnificent view of the ocean and movement of the fleet as t approached the Golden Gate, and thence through the bay almost to anchorage was afforded from the Marin shore. A sharp damp fog closed down just after the fleet passed for a short time, but otherwise the day was very pleasant.

As far as known not an accident marred the day on this side of the bay, although it is estimated that fully 200,000 people were lined up throughout the government reservation. The Northwestern Pacific handled the great volume of traffic in a most satisfactory manner. There were none of those usual delays where great crowds are handled. General Superintendent William J. Hunter gave the excursion train handling his personal attention.

– Press Democrat, May 8, 1908

Read More