It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. The 1895 Rose Festival was a perfect example of a Victorian American community celebration, drawing visitors from all over the West Coast, including the mayor of San Francisco and the Governor. Although it’s since been overlooked by writers of local history it was viewed at the time as being something like Santa Rosa’s coming out party – even though it ended up being quite a mess.

Hundreds of our ancestors dived in to make that Rose Carnival (its real name) a success through diligent planning and hard work. It also had a major boost because all of the major San Francisco newspapers – the Chronicle, Examiner and Call – touted it as they might a must-see gala happening in their own city. There were full-page features and front page updates over several days. All papers sent artists here to sketch the street scenes and people involved, and as a result it’s the best visually documented glimpse we have of an event from 19th century Santa Rosa. There are also several portraits drawn from photographs which no longer exist. A sampling of the drawings which appeared in SF newspaper articles can be found below.

Those 1895 doings were also surprising because the first Rose Carnival in 1894 was remarkable only in that Santa Rosa had been able to pull off anything at all. There were less than three weeks from when that one was proposed to the day of the parade. The idea that year was to draw visitors from the “Midwinter Exposition” which was kind of a World’s Fair being held in Golden Gate Park.

With so little time to prepare, about all that could be done in 1894 was to decorate storefronts with greenery. “The merchants were requested to ‘rosify and florify’ their places of business,” reported the Sonoma Democrat, praising the shopkeepers for what they were able to accomplish. “The appearance of the streets beggars description. Fourth street is an avenue of festal floral loveliness. The effect, as seen from above and below, looking down the brilliant aisle, is magnificent. Every store has its improvised greenhouse or conservatory.”

The parade was mainly local residents driving their family carriages with some flowers attached. Lots and lots of carriages. Highlights included mounted knights in armor (undoubtedly refugees from Healdsburg’s very weird May Day Knighthood Tournament), the Santa Rosa Canton of the “Patriarchs Militant” (say what?), and not one, but two little girls’ drill brigades. Afterwards there was a “battle of the roses” where the parade participants pelted spectators with the flowers that had adorned their carriages as the onlookers flung them back. This went on for an hour. Should Gentle Reader ever ponder why Robert Ripley was obsessed with oddball behavior, just imagine what an impression that scene would have made on a four year-old boy.

Despite the floral free-for-all, the Democrat commented, “There is much talk about making the Rose Carnival a permanent thing” and plans for the 1895 Carnival began four months in advance. They included a fundraiser by our hometown racist “All-Star Minstrels” at the Athenaeum (Charlie Holmes did a “Negro impersonation” and warbled, “When Johnnie Comes Marching Home”).

This time the festivities would stretch over three days in May, Wednesday through Friday. Today we might expect a town celebration like that to be scheduled for a weekend, but in those times Saturday was the big market day, when farmers shopped in town and stores stayed open late. On the last day there was to be a high-profile race (which would mean gambling) and heaven forfend such a thing happen on the same day we were all supposed to be piously sitting in pews.

Newspapers began whipping up interest weeks before the carnival. Their main focus was on the Carnival Queen competition, which gave editors an excuse to print lots of portraits of pretty women. The papers framed it as a beauty contest, cheering for different favorites to win.

Over 7,000 votes were cast at 10¢ per, and during the final hours ballot boxes were stuffed with envelopes containing up to $100. Isabel Donovan won with 4,610 votes. She was a leader in planning this carnival and the one before; she was also a working woman (general manager of the Sunset Telephone Company’s office in Santa Rosa) and unlike other nominees, wasn’t part of the society clique.

Three leading candidates for Rose Carnival Queen: Belle Spottswood, Isabel Donovan and Addie Steits. San Francisco Call, April 7, 1895
Three leading candidates for Rose Carnival Queen: Belle Spottswood, Isabel Donovan and Addie Steits. San Francisco Call, April 7, 1895

The publicity spotlight was also on cycling, and not just the race held on the final day. John Sheehy’s Petaluma Historian blog has a great essay on the 1890s bicycle craze and our Santa Rosa Wheelmen Club invited other clubs large and small. The Democrat reported the head of the Reliance club of Oakland vowed their group “…with its large contingent of lady bicyclists, will come up in a body to our Rose Carnival if invited. It is the boss club of the State, and will come uniformed and all together on wheels….Just think of it, one hundred and fifty gentlemen and ladies to enter the town on wheels escorted by our local wheelers, won’t it be a fine sight?”


Two sketches from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9 1895
Two sketches from the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9 1895

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa buzzed like a beehive as final arrangements were underway. Three arches were constructed downtown out of greenery; Chinese lanterns were strung above Fourth Street; plans were made for a flower show at Carnival Park (otherwise known as Kroncke’s Park/City Gardens); homemakers were preparing to make 5,000 sandwiches and the same number of Victorian America’s favorite junk food, doughnuts; hammers and saws were busy constructing parade floats, fourteen in all. Santa Rosa was ready.

Santa Rosa wasn’t ready.

Visitors unexpectedly started showing up the day before the doings were going to start. The SF Call noted that on May 7 “Strangers are already beginning to arrive. The noon train on the Southern Pacific was loaded with visitors. It is plain that the full capacity of the city to provide lodgings for the guests will be put to the test, but it is confidently believed that all who remain over night will be cared for.”

1895rosead(RIGHT: 1895 Rose Carnival announcement. Sonoma Democrat, May 4 1895)

(In a Believe-It-Or-Not! twist, Ernest Finley, future editor of the Press Democrat might have burned down the city that night. A kerosene lamp exploded in his Fourth Street printing shop and he threw the burning fragments into the street, where workers were still putting up the paper lanterns and bunting.)

Wednesday was the first day of the Carnival and the only event scheduled was the evening queen’s coronation at the Athenaeum and as such, it was expected to be more of a community event. The theater could hold an audience up to 2,500 in a pinch but the crowd outside was so large few could even get near the building. “The rush for seats was terrific. Two able-bodied men stood at the portal after the theater received its complement and refused admittance to the clamoring multitude” (SF Chronicle).

Not that they missed much. The featured orator was Attorney Albert G. Burnett, who began by noting the committee asked him to speak for no more than five minutes. He droned on for about half an hour, saying nothing (“…As we contemplate the picture before us we can not be justly charged with extravagance in the declaration that no imagination could be too bold nor copious nor creative, and no fancy could be too affluent to conjure tbe invisible spirit of beauty that dwells in these radiant blooms from our gardens…”). Then there were various classical music selections performed by locals.

The coronation was ersatz pageantry and pomp, the most high school-y part of the carnival. But as described by the Chronicle, there was one moment that seemed rather sweet: “…the hundred little boys and girls who had been halted in the main aisle were given the word to advance. On they came in pairs with their curly heads just showing above the tops of the chairs. Each tiny maid had her proud, or otherwise, escort by the arm and the whole band got up the steps without mishap. This in itself was a creditable performance and provoked much applause.”

After the ceremonies the crowd filed out of the theater to find an actual spectacle awaiting them: “Hundreds of Chinese lanterns bobbed and blinked from the same level above the street for fully a mile. While the exercises were in progress inside the merchants had lowered away on the lanterns and lighted them. The effect of the illumination was novel in the extreme – The red glow lit up the vivid bunting on the front of the buildings and gave the whole place the appearance of being in flames” (SF Chronicle).

The next day was the parade. “When the sun rose this morning it found the city fully dressed for the festival,” a Call reporter wrote. “Bunting and flowers and green things streamed over and bedecked everything, softening the hard lines of business blocks and quickening the long stretch of the streets with lively color.”

No one in Santa Rosa realized the first signs of the coming troubles were popping up at the Ferry Building in San Francisco shortly after dawn on that Thursday morning.

Because that was typically a slow day for travel, the SF&NP railroad offered a special $1.00 excursion rate for a round trip between San Francisco and Santa Rosa. The SF Call even promoted it with a little spot item headlined, “A Cheap Excursion – Ample Facilities Furnished to See the Rose Carnival.”

The Chronicle described the resulting chaos: “The crowd at the Tiburon ferry in San Francisco in the morning was immense. The approaches to the entrance of the wharf were packed with people. So dense was the throng in front of the ticket windows that persons who had provided themselves in advance were unable to get to the door. The streetcars kept arriving every minute with additions to the crowd. The attire of the ladies was disordered in the struggle to get through the ferry doorway and reach the boat.”

Packed to capacity, the steamer finally left the pier to cross the Golden Gate. Immediately a second ferry pulled into the slip and it, too, quickly filled with tourists. (And don’t forget hundreds of these passengers were bringing along their bicycles.) The sheer numbers were so unusual the Governor mentioned it at the top of a letter he wrote for the Examiner, and he wasn’t even on either of the ferries.

Once in Tiburon, the first excursion train had twelve cars that were likewise jammed full. The regular morning train followed and then there was another special with 15 cars. At that point, the ticket office in San Francisco closed its doors. That had never happened before.

“Very large crowds of people from other parts on Thursday were counted upon as a certainty, but the most sanguine were amazed at the multitudes which came pouring in from all directions by the regular and special trains,” the Democrat said.

And that was just the swarm of humanity descending upon Santa Rosa by rail. “They came from all directions and in all sorts of vehicles,” reported the Chronicle. “A six horse stage drove over from Calistoga with a load of decorated passengers and all the farmers within twenty miles of the carnival hitched up and came to town. The side streets were blocked with wagons.”

The flaw in all their planning was that they did not anticipate anything near such a great success. The 1894 carnival had 5,000-7,000 visitors, and they expected this year would be about the same. The San Francisco Examiner thought there were 15,000 visitors. The Sacramento Bee estimated there were twice that many, which would have made the crowd 5x the population of Santa Rosa.

From the SF Call: “The city has been thronged with visitors, taxing to the very limits the ability of its citizens to make provision for them. All the morning before the parade and all the afternoon after it had dispersed and the excitement of the time was at an end men and women, especially women with children, thronged the streets, resting upon the steps and doorways of stores and dwellings. The halls and stairways of all the hotels were peopled in this way, women and children were crowding into those little greenrooms that are ordinarily given over to the quiet game of poker, which game was forced thereby to suspend. All of this indicates the tremendous descent upon the little city and an overflow beyond the capacity to accommodate.”

The parade was scheduled to start at 12:30 but was delayed for nearly an hour, no reasons given. To fill the time, two hundred cyclists performed some sort of drill on Fourth Street.

Viewing the Rose Parade on Fourth Street. San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895
Viewing the Rose Parade on Fourth Street. San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895

Once the parade finally began the newspaper descriptions were surprisingly light, often tossing off a sentence or two for even the most elaborate floats. The Santa Rosa and Petaluma papers usually identified who was in the parade and reported – sometimes in great detail – what women were wearing.

Yet there was no question that the amount of decoration went far beyond what appeared the year before. Everything that could have a flower or just a ribbon attached was adorned – hats, parasols, wheel spokes on floats and carriages, bridles on horses, ceremonial swords and guns…you name it.

Queen of the Rose Carnival float. San Francisco Call, May 10 1895
Queen of the Rose Carnival float. San Francisco Call, May 10 1895
"'Sunshine' in the parade was represented by a large yellow float, studded with stars on a blue background. At the back a rising sun sent its golden rays upon the earth. Miss Grace Tuttle posed as the Goddess of Sunshine." San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895
“‘Sunshine’ in the parade was represented by a large yellow float, studded with stars on a blue background. At the back a rising sun sent its golden rays upon the earth. Miss Grace Tuttle posed as the Goddess of Sunshine.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10 1895

Sadly, there was no illustration of the award winner for best decorated float, which was the entry from the Petaluma’s Young Ladies’ Mandolin Club: “…The fairy ‘boat’ was covered with pure white flowers, and within it were ten beautiful and charming young ladies who are numbered among the social favorites of the City of Hills, and who are members of the young ladies’ orchestra. All were exquisitely attired in snowy white, and each of the fair passengers of the dainty craft held and played upon a stringed instrument thus creating an effect pleasing in the extreme to both eye and ear” (Sonoma Democrat).

Unidentified girl on butterfly float and some of the 30 floral equestrians, "smothered in flowers, moss and ferns." Image San Francisco Examiner, description San Francisco Chronicle, both May 10 1895
Unidentified girl on butterfly float and some of the 30 floral equestrians, “smothered in flowers, moss and ferns.” Image San Francisco Examiner, description San Francisco Chronicle, both May 10 1895

Watching the parade was undoubtedly a joy, whether you lived here or not. But as the hours passed, spectators found that all those sandwiches and doughnuts, meant to feed a much smaller crowd, were gone.

“Those citizens here who had food and drinks to sell found themselves sadly pressed for supplies before the day was over. So great was the demand for victuals in any form that everything in sight was devoured. The hotels and restaurants were eaten out of house and home and the lunches set by the ladies in vacant stores vanished like dew before a summer sun. More than one able-bodied man who came late had to bear up under the heat and burden of the day with no other sustenance than hard-boiled eggs and angel cake. The country people who brought large tubs full of doughnuts, fried pullets and jam were well fitted to stave off famine and arouse envy” (Chronicle).

While nothing was mentioned in any of those Victorian-era papers, I shudder to think what the toilet situation must have been like during those Rose Carnivals. At the time Santa Rosa’s sewer system was notoriously undersized, with sewage sometimes oozing out of manholes even during normal conditions.*

To out-of-town cyclists and enthusiasts the bike race the next day was far more an attraction than the parade. Promoters expected a large crowd (it was later estimated there were 7,000 race spectators) because newspapers were hyping it as potentially a milestone event. The Democrat breathlessly told readers, “…it is expected that if the weather is not too windy the world’s record for the mile and half mile stands a good chance of being broken.”

Problem was, all the hotel rooms in town were already taken by the day of the parade, further adding to the stress of a large portion of our visitors. Since the excursion trains were just sitting in the railyard waiting to take people back to the ferries that evening, it was decided the railroad would run special reverse-excursion trains from Santa Rosa to Petaluma, where hopefully the bicycling crowd could find lodgings. That was also something that had never happened before.

The only photo supposedly from the 1895 Rose Parade, although there was no description in any newspaper of a group of children as seen here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
The only photo supposedly from the 1895 Rose Parade, although there was no description in any newspaper of a group of children as seen here. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

Parade day wound up with an “illuminated” repeat that evening, although all that meant was the dim arc streetlights were turned on. And yes, afterwards there was another stupid battle of the roses.

On the last day the main events were that bike race at the Pierce brothers’ race track (now the county fairgrounds) where no records were set. There was a baseball game between Santa Rosa and the team from Stanford and a grand ball at the Athenaeum that night.

The only real excitement of that Friday was a runaway hot air balloon: “Professor George Weston made an unsuccessful balloon ascension from B and Ross streets. The aeronaut was to drop from a parachute when well up in the clouds, but his hot air balloon did not rise rapidly enough, and floating too low over the top of a house near C street, just a block away from where he started, he was compelled to let go to save himself and clung to the roof. The balloon rose some distance and returned to earth” (SF Call).

And thus the 1895 Rose Carnival was over and despite the many snafus, it was considered a great success. They didn’t lose money and actually ended up with a small profit. Plans immediately began to make the next one even grander.

Later Carnivals/Festivals are better remembered than the one in 1895, but in their day it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. The amount of decoration was over the top and there’s no question that it set the baseline for every Rose Parade that has since followed.

In a historical context it’s worth noting it represented the sort of progress found in the Gilded Age, when women were making gains (albeit small) in being recognized for leadership roles. Unlike the first Carnival, half of the 1895 committee chairs were held by women.

Sure, it could have been planned better, but it was impossible to predict the turnout would be so enormous. It was something new and exciting and despite the huge crowd was probably great fun as long as you brought your own sandwiches, didn’t mind sleeping in a doorway and weren’t too fussy about bathroom facilities.


* At the time Santa Rosa had a sewage farm on the north bank of Santa Rosa Creek, about where the Stony Circle business park is today. Any overflow of the ponds due to heavy rains or excess waste sent raw sewage into the creek. For more see “The Sewage of Santa Rosa” by John Cummings.

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Let the record show: In 1968, Santa Rosa achieved Peak Pepper. That was the year when the local Grand Poobahs gave a badge to our town character and proclaimed she was henceforth the town marshal. What could possibly go wrong?

This is part two of the story of Pepper Dardon. Her backstory was hashed in “I, PEPPER” which I urge you to read before continuing. Starting sometime in the mid-1950s she became a noisy and (mostly) cheerful fixture around the downtown district. How well someone got along with her depended on who they were and which Pepper they met. “She could be obnoxious or sweet, depending on the street persona she adopted that day,” her 1992 Press Democrat obituary noted.

She was invariably kind to children who seemed to view her as silly, a grownup who didn’t act like the usual sort of adult and wasn’t much taller than they were. Older kids might think she was scary or mean because she teased them. Teenagers with smart mouths sometimes recognized her as one of their own ilk.

If you were a store clerk or bank teller having a busy day you did not want to see Pepper coming through your door. “Santa Rosa merchants, who endured her tirades as she made her daily rounds, considered her either a charming looney or a public nuisance,” the PD obit also recalled. She was sure to do something disruptive; “Topping it all off, she yodeled, sang and played the harmonica. But not very well.” Should there be a candy jar on the counter she would shoplift fistfuls to hand out later – see above, Children: Kindness to.

The men and women who were active in social clubs and charities appreciated her as an indefatigable volunteer. Pepper’s self-appointed downtown duties included collecting money for good causes, which often were a sizable portion of all money raised during a fundraising drive. She sold lapel pins for the Lions Club’s White Cane Day, ersatz red poppies for the VFW, candy for the Santa Rosa Jewish Women’s Club (she wasn’t Jewish), tickets to the Kiwanis pancake breakfast, rattled donation cans for the American Cancer Society and probably begged donations for still other groups forgotten.

When the campaign was over and the club held its inevitable self-congratulatory luncheon Pepper was often invited because of her outsized contribution. For a long time those orgs treated her as something like their own poster child, as did the Chamber of Commerce and particularly the Police Department.

“There’s no question she got away with a lot. She was a kind of mascot to our smaller-town Police Department. The officers treated her like a pet.” Gaye LeBaron wrote in a must-read 2005 column. Even before the town marshal gag, Pepper was chummy with the officers personally and they did favors for each other; cops would give her a lift in patrol cars and she would run errands for them, such as fetching a raincoat from the police station, according to a different column by Gaye. Nor did it hurt that she prowled downtown with a sharp eye for lawbreakers, like the top elephant enforcing good behavior on her unruly herd. Woe to anyone she caught jaywalking or dropping a gum wrapper – people were astonished such a tiny woman could holler so loud.

But Pepper had no greater champion than the Press Democrat, particularly columnist Gaye LeBaron. Pepper’s birthday was usually heralded in the column, as were the impressive sums she collected for the fundraiser de jour. There were items when she broke her thumb and when she adopted a kitten. After husband Paul lost his job of twelve years as Occidental Hotel janitor, readers learned the Lions Club passed the hat and raised $36 to help them out. Updates followed as he was hired twice again as a janitor and lost those jobs as well. At one point an anonymous caller sniped to LeBaron’s editor she should “stop talking so much about Pepper.”

It was early in 1968 when a Pepper fan wrote to LeBaron suggesting they lobby to have Pepper chosen as Grand Marshal for that year’s Rose Parade: “Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.” Gaye liked the proposal and hoped Pepper would get the nod – but a quirk of fate caused her to end up as a different kind of marshal instead.

Undated photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/FindAGrave.com
Undated photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/FindAGrave.com

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce decided the town needed lots of parties to commemorate its centennial year of 1968. There would be fine speeches from VIPs on Centennial Day in March, followed in May by a whole Centennial Week highlighted by the Rose Parade. Yessir, we would spare no effort to celebrate the town’s 100th birthday in style. (Ignore for the moment that Santa Rosa was actually founded in 1854 and 1868 was only the year of incorporation, which was a legal formality that went almost unnoticed.)

Those festivities were lightly covered in an earlier article but considering the focus was a specific event around the time of the Civil War, it’s surprising the doings in 1968 were such an ahistorical mess. People dressed up in turn-of-the century garb, rode old bicycles or drove antique cars and a barbershop quartet sang, all stuff from a half century later. Or maybe Santa Rosa was more like a cowtown in the Wild West – there was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle. There was also a Centennial Year Marshal because…they always looked cool in TV westerns, I guess.

The selection of the marshal was intended to be a rollicking funfest because everyone knew and liked the candidates – everyone who was part of Santa Rosa’s clubby businessmen’s world, that is. The Downtown Development Association nominated Datsun auto dealer Bob Torvick. In response, a Chamber of Commerce leader said the honor should instead go to Dave “Bugsy” Hill. It was agreed the matter would be settled by an election with votes mailed to the Press Democrat.

For nearly two weeks they bantered in the newspaper. Torvick assured voters he had a full head of hair and was “kind to children very often.” “I am real relaxed,” promised Hill. “I can go to bed sooner, sleep later, and get up feeling fresher.” Oh, you crazy kids.

The votes were counted on April Fool’s Day and it was a tie, each of them pulling a whopping ten votes (there were two write-ins for Pepper). A committee was formed to decide what to do. The agreed solution was for the two to face off in a showdown at high noon at Courthouse Square – using real guns firing soft wax bullets. Only Torvick and Hill voted against the notion. Mayor Hugh Codding was named as the referee.

The shootout was scheduled for the sixth of April and everyone in town was invited – until fate intervened. On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were waves of rioting nationwide on the following days and the Golden Gate bridge was closed following a bomb threat. The faux showdown was cancelled because playing at shooting someone was no longer funny. There was a memorial ceremony at Courthouse Square that day instead.

“Since the cancellation of the town marshal contest and even before there has been a veritable groundswell of support for Pepper to assume the title,” wrote LeBaron a few days later. “I was all for Pepper being given a place of honor in the Rose Parade. Now, perhaps, I’ll modify my stand to include a town marshal’s badge.”

And so it came to pass; Pepper put on her badge, which thereafter became as much a part of her as body and soul.1

Pepper at a Rose Parade in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/FindAGrave.com
Pepper at a Rose Parade in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Michael Sawyer/FindAGrave.com

Had she not been cast to play the role of Santa Rosa’s official fake town marshal, 1968 was still a banner year for Pepper.

She was at (or near) her peak for doing street fundraising; “she has collected literally thousands of dollars for charity and while her methods may be unorthodox there’s no denying their effectiveness,” remarked Gaye LeBaron. She was fêted at luncheons both by the Lions Club and the Rotary Club at the Flamingo Hotel, where she had never been inside. And maybe most importantly. Paul finally had a stable job, then in his fourth year as janitor at Community Hospital.

But the year ended with Paul changing from being an employee to a cancer patient at the hospital on Chanate Road. Despite not having a car, Pepper visited him every day for three months, most of her rides courtesy city police “who happened to be going out that way.”

Paul died there in early 1969. The Press Democrat gave him a front page obituary although most of it was about Pepper. Eggen & Lance donated his funeral service and burial with Police Chief Dutch Flohr and other officers acting as pallbearers. It was all quite a tribute, given that few apparently knew him except as the man married to Pepper.

His salary was meager, but losing it created a financial crisis for Pepper. Those who were closest to her – LeBaron, Helen and Dr. Bill Rudee, along with Ford car dealer Bob Bishop – created a “Pepper Pot” fund that carried her over for several months until Bishop, a former mayor who “had some political clout,” as Gaye later wrote, was able to get her a state pension for being certifiably “unemployable handicapped.”

Pepper was then 55 but gave no signs of slowing down in the years following, often topping her previous charity collection records. In 1973 she pulled in a quarter of all money raised by the Lions during their White Cane benefit. Police and firefighters remained devoted to her; when she was in the hospital for gallbladder surgery they made a plaque declaring her Santa Rosa’s “Official Firebelle,” just as the San Francisco firemen once honored Lillie Coit.

She fully embraced the Marshal Pepper routine, never seen without her badge. At some point in the 1970s her usual ensemble included a vest with text on the back reading:


“She really believed she was the Marshal,” her PD obituary said.2 Gaye LeBaron wrote much the same in a 1975 column: “I think the problem is that Pepper, like so many other controversial people, is beginning to believe her press clippings. Call someone the town character long enough and they begin to try to live up to it.”

peppervest(RIGHT: Detail of photo from the Macy’s Coddingtown grand opening, courtesy Michael Sawyer/FindAGrave.com)

Then in 1975 the unthinkable happened: Pepper was no longer allowed to collect money for any of the charities or social clubs.

Apparently the first to break ties was the Lions Club, the group she was always closest to. LeBaron spent an entire Sunday column explaining the issue.3 The Lions said she was dropped because of “too many negative responses” to her methods, browbeating people to donate. “Don’t try to run away lady, I see you trying to keep from giving me money” or “Whatsamatter, lizard? Too cheap to help the blind people?”

Yeah, she could be pushy, but the Lions and everyone else knew that before letting her shake their collection cans. A more serious issue was that she was skimming. “She would get five times more [money] than anyone else, in spite of the fact she pocketed probably half,” said Lon Kaufmann, a Pepper supporter who had known her since she arrived in Santa Rosa.4

Nor was she doing all her marshalling for free. She didn’t just scream at jaywalkers but began demanding they pay a 50¢ fine, which she kept. She waited for drivers with expired parking meters in order to fine them too (the PD didn’t say whether or not she fed the meter in the interim). She yanked packages from the arms of shoppers “to carry them for you.” By any definition it was a shakedown, made all the more disturbing because the police sanctioned it by looking away.

Pepper surely missed the applause and praise from the Lions and other groups for being their top donation collector, but she also spoke about it being a tough job. “I was born and raised to be nice and courteous to everyone. But to some people in Santa Rosa you can’t be,” she was quoted in her obituary. In her postmortem column, LeBaron recalled she was cussed at. People would order her to get away from them. “Lots of people aren’t pleasant when you ask them for money on the street,” Pepper once told her.

It wouldn’t be surprising to learn those rude encounters contributed to her infamous habit of name-calling; “lizard” was her favorite putdown, which could be teasing, affectionate or a sharp slap across the face. Pepper’s lexicon also included “jungle boy” (Gaye makes it clear this was a swipe at businessmen and not a racial slur), “Butterball” for someone overweight, “snakehead” and plenty more. Another part of her regular shtick was to tag locals with nicknames, usually insulting in some way – which might go far in explaining why some strongly disliked her. It’s too late to put her on a psychiatrist’s couch and probe exactly why she thought this acceptable, but Gentle Reader might recall comedian Don Rickles was constantly on TV during those years because many thought his insult humor was funny (certainly not me).

There’s no record of how she felt being blackballed by the social clubs, but her routine didn’t seem to change much. She continued patrolling downtown, Montgomery Village and Coddingtown yelling at litterers, jaywalkers, skateboarders, kids who rode their bikes on the sidewalk (when they switched to the street she’d yell at them for riding in the street) and people in cars who weren’t wearing seatbelts. She yodeled and whistled and told really dumb jokes. She was a regular guest on Jim Grady’s popular KSRO morning show where she would sing and play the harmonica.

The Jaycees never allowed her to ride in a Rose Parade car much less naming her Grand Marshal, snubs that irked Gaye LeBaron no end. But every year Pepper would arrive at the grandstand long before anyone else in order to claim a prime spot (she said she went early in order to keep “lizards” away). Once the event began there was a sweet tradition where emcee John Bugbee would introduce her and the crowd would roar, “HELLO, PEPPER!” and clap for her.

Pepper received an honor (of sorts) in 1982 when cartoonist Dale Messick used her as the inspiration for a character in the soapy “Brenda Starr” comic strip. Messick, who lived in Oakmont, created “Granny Pineapple,” a squat elderly woman who went barefoot, wore a grass skirt and Hawaiian leis along with half a pineapple for a hat. The storyline that appeared in June involved G.P. being so pissed off at the Gas & Electric company she paid her bill in pennies. Brenda and other journalists at the Flash daily paper gave the stunt lots of publicity and soon half the town was doing the same. Ironically, the Press Democrat didn’t carry the strip so we don’t know if Pepper ever saw her sort-of doppelganger, but KPIX sent a crew here to interview Messick and Pepper for its “Evening Magazine” show that aired June 30.

Panels from "Brenda Starr" comic strip, June 1982
Panels from “Brenda Starr” comic strip, June 1982

Mentions of Pepper slacked off in the PD after she turned seventy in 1984. “Pepper won’t like me saying this, but the town marshal is not getting any younger,” lamented Gaye. “She’s losing some of that old enthusiasm, a note or two of the old yodel.” She began having trouble with her legs and had to skip the Rose Parade for the first time in decades. Then in 1990 she suffered a bad fall and was bedridden. She was sent to a Petaluma nursing home where she died of pneumonia, August 8, 1992.

Eggen & Lance again donated a casket and the funeral service, which about fifty people attended. The PD gave her an obituary plus columns by LeBaron and Chris Smith sprinkled with Pepper stories. She is buried next to husband Paul in Santa Rosa Memorial Park.

Pepper had no family and it appears the only property she left was her marshal vest, her harmonica (which had to be pretty rusty by then) and a few pictures of her with cops and firemen. But given it was presumed she was intellectually challenged or maybe bedbug crazy, she also left behind something that might surprise: Children’s stories.

She wrote letters and cards to her friends, even though they lived in Santa Rosa and she could visit them anytime she liked. Among the correspondence are stories about her cat Spunky and its seven kittens. The kitties take a vacation to Disneyland, visit Richard Nixon in the White House, have dinner with Roy Rogers and enjoy other splendid adventures. I haven’t read them but Gaye says they are well written, charming and funny. I’ll take her word on that.

The stories she sent to LeBaron and Helen Rudee were handwritten and Pepper also drew illustrations. They’re now in a folder at Sonoma State as part of the Gaye LeBaron Collection and since May 2, 2024 is the 110th anniversary of Pepper’s birth, perhaps SSU might consider transcribing them into eBook format or digitizing them for online reading.

In her Press Democrat obit, a caregiver at the Petaluma nursing home said, “She was a character here, too. She liked to joke. She was a very happy person.” For much of her life she was a ward of the state, spending her childhood stuck in orphanages and her prime years locked away in a horrific institution. As she approached middle age her future appeared just as dismal; she had a 5th grade education (supposedly) and no skills. She was not on track to end up as an independent and “very happy person.” More likely she would live on the margins, remaining a charity case or working some menial and thankless job where nobody knew her name.

Yet today in Santa Rosa here we are, sitting around the internet’s unflickering campfire and swapping half century-old stories about the woman Linda Garcia Dardon invented called “Pepper.”

And that is simply remarkable, if you think about it.

1 FindAGrave.com has a photo from the April 23 1968, Press Democrat showing Dave “Bugsy” Hill, Pepper and Bob Torvick together.

2 Longtime SR Street Character Dies At 78 by Tim Tesconi, August 9 1992 Press Democrat

3 Gaye LeBaron column, September 21, 1975 Press Democrat

4 Salty Pepper Lived Life Her Way by Chris Smith, August 13 1992 Press Democrat

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After ignoring opportunities to celebrate Santa Rosa’s anniversaries that spanned 64 years, Tom Cox thought, “we should make something of it” in 1968. The real question, however, was whether they would be celebrating one of the events from the town’s early history – or the ongoing obliteration of its past.

(This is part two about Santa Rosa’s 2018 sesquicentennial. Part one covers the town’s 1854 founding and 1868 incorporation, followed by its general indifference to celebrate either event.)

Cox was the long-time head of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and made that suggestion at a 1967 luncheon for the “Congress for Community Progress,” a coalition formed five years earlier by the Chamber, which claimed the Congress represented as many as 445 separate groups. Given that the town’s entire population was then only about 44,000, let us forgive any Gentle Readers who snort skeptically.

Much was made in the 1960s about the Congress, which held occasional all-day assemblies attended by hundreds of “delegates.” While it was touted as an independent citizen’s group, its sheer size made discussion unwieldy and its objectives almost always seemed to mirror Chamber of Commerce and developer’s interests. The 1968 Congress report said Santa Rosa’s highest priorities should be “Payroll and Industrial Needs” and “Downtown Futures and Potential” – way down in the basement was the preservation of parks and historical sites.

During the sixties Santa Rosa was wild about all things modern, and as with many communities, that meant enthusiastic approval of urban renewal projects. We were told it would mostly be paid for by Washington, our property values would skyrocket and we would end up with glorious cities of the future. In 1961 a scale model of a proposed Santa Rosa redesign circulated around several bank lobbies. The model (“as modern and carefully engineered as the latest model of a star-probing rocket” – PD) portrayed a downtown designed for pedestrians, with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek.

It was mostly bait and switch, of course. Prime locations owned by the city were sold to private developers; the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency held sway over forty acres of supposed “civic blight” and much of it was scooped up by investors. Luther Burbank’s old house and gardens survived the bulldozer, but the home he custom-built in 1906 on Tupper street – the one seen in all the pictures of him with Edison, Ford, Helen Keller and other celebs – was deemed worthless, as it was argued that the town had no need for two Luther Burbank landmarks.

By the time Thomas Cox spoke at that 1967 Congress for Community Progress lunch, great swaths of downtown was already scraped down to the topsoil and most of the rest would follow soon. The great courthouse was gone; the Carnegie library already had been replaced by what we have now. The parks were forgotten and their earth was destined to sprout bank buildings and metered parking lots. The lovely, free-flowing creek was entombed in a box culvert. Community Progress!

Cox’s talk came a few days before the dedication of the “plaza on Old Courthouse Square.” The Courthouse Square site had been already split by the street connecting Mendocino Ave with Santa Rosa Ave; what they then called the “plaza” was just the western section between that new street and the Empire Building block. The east side was slated to be sold to private developers for commercial buildings.

Adding insult to injury, Mayor Hugh Codding said the tiny plaza would make citizens “more aware and more proud of this historic center of the city of Santa Rosa,” and a supervisor chimed in this “perhaps what was in the mind of Mr. [Julio] Carrillo” when he donated the land to the public. Uh, no, times two.

The sale of the east side of the plaza was successfully fought by a small band of preservationists – despite being told it must be sold in order to pay off the urban renewal bonds. Sadly, they lost another fight to stop the giveaway to developers of the sheriff’s office and city hall, now the location of the U.S. Bank building. They had hoped one (or both) of the post-1906 quake buildings could be saved to create a Santa Rosa museum.

And now we come to the March 16, 1968 centennial, when Santa Rosa celebrated pretty much everything except its origins.

About 1,000 attended the ceremony in that little plaza. The city councilmen dressed in vaguely 19th century costumes and Mayor Codding introduced a man 100 years old. Some rode old bicycles or drove around in old cars and a barbershop quartet warbled, all more appropriate to a party for 1908 than 1868. State appeals court judge Joseph Rattigan told the crowd they would “shape the history of the future,” and won the prize for awful speechifying that day by saying we should “live as Santa Rosans in every dimension of wisdom and skill.”

Two time capsules were dedicated. (They were originally in front of the Empire building but now are facing the intersection of Third street and Santa Rosa ave). One was intended for 2068; the other was supposed to be opened on March 16, 2018. As our sesquicentennial event isn’t scheduled until about six months later, it only makes the choice of a September date seem stranger.

(RIGHT: Pepper Dardon sitting in front of the time capsules, 1974. Photo: Michael Sawyer/findagrave.com; original Santa Rosa News Herald image via Helen Rudee)

That was just the “Centennial Day;” the “Centennial Week” was the Rose Festival in May, and there wasn’t much of a nod to history there, either. There was a two-day “western extravaganza” at the racetrack with stunt riding and a race between a horse and a motorcycle, a tennis match and a little regatta on Lake Ralphine. A rock concert included local bands “Wonderful Mud” and “Bronze Hog.” During the Rose Parade, the Marine Corps Reserve presented a bizarre little scene in front of the reviewing stand where they enacted flushing a Vietcong soldier out of a rice paddy and shooting him dead, right there on Fourth street. As I always say, these kind of events are really for the children.

While 1968 may have been a bust as a centennial year, it was the definitely the year to celebrate Pepper, Santa Rosa’s lovable or maddening downtown character (depending upon whom you asked and when). When she wasn’t heckling hippies and jaywalkers, she was popping in the backseats of cars waiting for the stoplight to change and expecting the driver to take her somewhere – the Pepper stories are legion.

But Pepper also collected quite a bit of money when local groups were having charity drives, badgering each passerby for spare change. That March she was the guest of honor at a Rotary luncheon and in October she was feted by the Lions Club.

In a Gaye LeBaron column – yes, she was writing a gossip column fifty years ago – she quoted a letter from a reader: “I have a suggestion for the Grand Marshall of the 1968 Rose Parade: Pepper! No kidding—when you stop to think of all the hard work she’s done for almost everyone I think you’ll agree that she’s as deserving as any chosen. If we all get on Pepper’s Bandwagon she just might be selected. Riding in an open car down Fourth street would perhaps repay her in some small way for all the time she’s donated.”

She was not included in the parade (and someone griped about that in a letter to the PD) but she sat in the VIP bleachers alongside Mrs. Luther Burbank. She was also made honorary town marshal for the Centennial Year, a position she undoubtedly abused with relish.

The time capsules are Santa Rosa’s only real historic legacy from 1968 – and note that the one to be opened this year is mistakenly labeled “Bi-Centennial,” showing no one noticed or cared that wasn’t the right word for a fiftieth anniversary.

The March 17 edition of the Press Democrat offered a fat section of all things it deemed centennial-ish, and reflects the attitudes of the time quite well. The actual history section – meaning the 1906 quake and everything before – isn’t very long and just a superficial rehash from the county history books. However there’s some good wonky stuff about the development of city departments and such in the early 20th century, along with some photos I’ve not seen elsewhere.

But then it rockets to the present day, celebrating the wonders of redevelopment and what a bright future awaited Santa Rosa. There’s even a full-page article titled, “Foresight of Hugh Codding Helped Speed City’s Growth.” (Of course, not long afterwards, Mr. Foresight tied the city up in a decade-long lawsuit to forestall construction of the mall and other retail space, thus causing the downtown to further wither and die.)

So as it turns out, the judge who saw the centennial as “[shaping] the history of the future” probably did hit the right notes for 1968. And in kind of a Believe-it-on-Not! coincidence, we’re grappling with very similar issues today, trying to wrestle with how the town will be reshaped in years to come because of the fires.

There’s one more historic year to mention, for the sake of completeness: 2004, the real sesquicentennial of the year the town actually put down roots. A columnist for the PD complained “no one is celebrating,” and that a fund drive to support the reunification of Courthouse Square was going nowhere.

Well, Courthouse Square is now glued back together. That columnist was Chris Coursey, now Santa Rosa’s mayor. And like his predecessors, I’m sure he’ll steer the sesquicentennial to be more of a rosy view of our future than a contemplation on our rougher past. The date will still be wrong on the time capsule, of course, but Chris could fix that – I’d even provide a little bit of duct tape and a magic marker to change the inscription to read September 9.

Time capsules in Courthouse Square

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