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/; 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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As Santa Rosa closes streets and girds to manage a flood of visitors for a bike race, it should be remembered that the town handled three or four Big Events like this every year a century ago.

There was usually the Rose Carnival in the spring followed by the Fourth of July, both with parades and grand floats. Then there were the races – horses before 1908, then mostly autos afterwards. On election nights there were bonfires (immense pyres really) in the streets with impromptu parades for the victors, complete with marching bands. And sometime during every year there was a circus or other touring entertainment that drew most of the town’s population along with those from the surrounding villages and farms. In the age before television, radio and real movies, enjoying an event with your neighbors was a memorable thing.

Call me Mr. Cynic, but whenever I read that ‘everybody and her brother’ attended a Big Event, I’ve wondered: Why weren’t burglars busy ransacking their neighborhoods of darkened homes? Where were the pickpockets drifting through packed crowds with their agile fingers? Reports of crimes like these were mainstays of the San Francisco and Oakland newspapers. Petty thievery was not uncommon locally, but more often it was opportunistic misbehavior of juvenile “incorrigibles” – stolen chickens, bicycles and the like.

But the 1909 California Grand Prize Race drew a huge audience from the Bay Area, and apparently their criminal underclass leeched along with them. The event was a more tempting target because it wasn’t just a celebrated cross-country auto race; Fourth street was closed off for a carnival sideshow to promote AYPE (the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition about to start in Seattle), and Santa Rosa held the Rose Carnival the previous day, which included an illuminated parade that evening. All of downtown was filled with crowds packed tight as pickles, the only lighting coming from festive Japanese lanterns and the feeble wattage that fell out of store windows. Pickpocket paradise.

And sure enough, a gang of five pickpockets was nabbed – yet incredibly, not prosecuted and just sent out of town on the train. Homes on Mendocino Avenue and North Street were robbed, the burglars taking jewelry and a large sum of cash. And, as the Press Democrat remarked, “there may be others.” As the items stolen were so valuable, it’s hard to imagine that the thieves were kids, or that these were the only homes hit.

Still, it was a swell day for Santa Rosa, and for a while everyone stepped out of small town life to enjoy the thrill of living in a big city. Those robbed that weekend enjoyed the city life thrill to the fullest.

Detectives Taylor, McPhee and Green Assist Local Police on Rose Carnival Day

The police made six arrests Saturday and Saturday night of pickpockets and men under suspicion. In the case of two, the goods was [sic] found on them. There was reported to the police during a half dozen cases of work by the light-fingered gentry, and the officers kept a close watch as the throngs moved up and down the streets during the evening.

To aid the local police officers keep their eyes on strangers of the light-fingered variety wandering into town on Rose Carnival day Detective McPhee and Detective Taylor of San Francisco, and Detective Green of Oakland, were in this city on Saturday.

Detective Taylor had not been long in town before he recognized a gang of five pickpockets from the metropolis. They were just commencing to work in a dense crowd of people. Taylor watched them and one of their number caught sight of the officer and ran off. This gang were [sic] sent out of town on the afternoon train.

– Press Democrat, May 8, 1909

Residences of Frank D. McGregor and F. H. Hankel Entered and Articles of Value Taken

Burglars operated in Santa Rosa Saturday night while people were downtown participating in the festivities of the closing hours of the rose carnival.

Up to midnight at least two citizens had reported at police headquarters that their residences had been burglarized and money and articles of value stolen. There may be others.

When Mrs. Frank D. McGregor and Miss Mabel McGregor returned to their home on North street they discovered that burglars had preceded them. Two gold watches and jewelry belonging to the ladies, some of the articles keepsakes, were found to be missing. They telephoned Mr. McGregor at the Fifth street stables, and he communicated with the police.

Another thief entered the residence of F. H. Hankel on Mendocino street, and stole ninety dollars in cash from that home.

– Press Democrat, May 8, 1909

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The 1908 Rose Festival was a bit ho-hum, but the Press Democrat compensated with this story of its founding, which I’ve not seen told elsewhere. Another key player in launching the parade in 1894 was James Wyatt Oates, who served as General Carnival Chairman.

Bit of History Connected With the Holding of the First Rose Carnival in Santa Rosa

Thomas P Keegan, of this city, naturally feels much interested in the success of the coming rose carnival, for he can lay proud title to being “Father of the Santa Rosa Carnival.” This is matter of history in Santa Rosa.

Mr. Keegan was the originator of the name “Rose Carnival,” as regards the famous fiestas that have made the City of Roses famous in past years. The first rose carnival took place in Santa Rosa on May 10, 1894. On the first of May, 1894, a meeting was held in the court house. It was called for the purpose of making arrangements to hold a flower festival in honor of the visit of some eastern people here. Mr. Keegan attended the meeting and after listening to the exchange of views rose to suggest that instead of holding a mere flower display a floral parade would be far more attractive. He suggested further, but inasmuch as the roses bloomed so beautifully and luxuriantly in Santa Rosa, the city should give a “Rose Carnival,” or “Carnival of Roses.” The originality of the name occasioned some discussion and there were those present who were not inclined to receive it favorably. Others did, notably Miss Isabel Donovan (now Mrs. Driscoll). It will be remembered that Miss Nettie Royal was the first carnival queen and Miss Isabelle Donovan reigned over the second, and one of the biggest rose carnivals ever held in the state.

The next day after the meeting many others came forward and favored the title “Rose Carnival,” and the idea caught favor with the press. A large committee of arrangements was selected and plans were carried out and the efforts of the committee and citizens proved the success of the first carnival. Since the birth and holding up the first rose carnival in the City of Roses the pageant has become famous, east, west, north and south, greatly to the credit of Santa Rosa.

The picture published with this bit of history is the same that appeared in the Press Democrat at the time of the first rose carnival in 1894. Of course Mr. Keegan was a few years younger then. There is a bit of history in connection with the cut, too. It went through the fire at earthquake disaster and was preserved, and is used on this occasion.

– Press Democrat, May 10, 1908

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