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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” is a flippant line tossed off in a novel by William Faulkner (don’t bother reading it; I did one college summer, when I thought Faulkner novels were something I just had to learn to appreciate, more the fool I) and that quote reflects the theme of the book, which is about the terrible prices we often pay for long-ago mistakes. In recent years it’s been misappropriated to mean history in general, particularly as an upbeat catchphrase for historic places. That meaning fits the town of Sonoma, with its adobes haunted by Vallejo’s ghosts, or Petaluma, with much of its downtown undisturbed since Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn. But Santa Rosa – not so much. Here the phrase has to be used in its original intent, to express the unhappy ways we are dogged by our past.
This is the 700th article to appear in this journal, which now clocks in at over 1.5 million words (I have statistically typed the letter “e” about 190,530 times but the letter “z” merely 1,110). Normally such a milestone is an occasion for a “best of” recap but I did that not so long ago back at #650 with “650 KISSES DEEP,” so instead I’d like to step back and reflect on some of the reasons Santa Rosa came to be the way it is today.
This is also timely because right now (summer 2019) the city is working on the Downtown Station Area Specific Plan which “seeks to guide new development with a view to creating a vibrant urban center with a distinct identity and character.” The plan calls for wedging up to 7,000 more housing units into the downtown area, which will be quite a trick.
There are limits to what developers can build, in part because this is a high-risk earthquake zone (a 1 in 3 chance we will have a catastrophe within the next 26 years), but a greater obstacle is that Santa Rosa is uniquely burdened by layers of bad decisions made over several decades.
THE ORIGINAL DOWNTOWN PLAN Santa Rosa’s prime underlying problem is (literally) underlying. Scrape off the present downtown buildings and we have the same frontier village that was platted way back in 1853, when there was only one house (Julio Carrillo’s), a store, a tavern and stray pigs. It was small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three – 70 total acres from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street.
Now eight score and five years since, our downtown core is virtually unchanged from that original street grid – minus the 40 acres lopped off for the highway and mall – so there ain’t much room on the dance floor for developers to make any sort of dramatic moves.
Not that people haven’t envisioned a better downtown. In 1945 architect “Cal” Caulkins created a plan which eliminated Courthouse Square and turned almost all of the space between First and Third streets into a Civic Center. No question: This was the best of all possible Santa Rosas, as I wrote in “THE SANTA ROSA THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN.” The plan had universal and enthusiastic support and only needed voter approval of a $100k bond to get started. It lost by 96 votes on a ballot crowded with other bond measures. Attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to revive a modified version of the design in 1953 went nowhere.
Another big attempt to fix Santa Rosa’s design problems came in 1960-1961, when the city’s new Redevelopment Agency hired urban design experts from New Jersey. Some of their ideas were pretty good; they envisioned a pedestrian-friendly city with mini-parks, tree-lined boulevards and a greenway along both banks of a fully restored Santa Rosa Creek. Their objective was for the public to drive to a parking garage/lot as easily as possible and walk.
Over the following years came a succession of consultants and developers with both detailed schemes and spitballing proposals, mainly focused on revitalizing Fourth street by making it more walkable. (Most innovative was an idea to rip out the roadway and replace it with an artificial creek criss-crossed by little footbridges.) In 1981 it was rechristened the “Fourth Street Mall” and closed to autos on Friday and Saturday nights to squash the local street cruising fad.
Tinkering does not a city remake, and downtown is still as it always was, an Old West village square. As I’ve joked before, the town motto should be changed from “The City Designed For Living” to “The City Designed For Living…During the Gold Rush.”
THE PRICE OF PARKING Or maybe the motto should be, “The City Designed For Buggies.”
For a city with such a small downtown, Santa Rosa devotes a big hunk of that footprint to automobile parking, with nine lots and five garages. Yet should even half of the new residents in those 7,000 proposed apartments/condos have a car, every single parking spot will be taken – and then some.
Santa Rosa has always had a fraught relationship with autos, and it’s again because so much of the core area is unchanged from its buggywhip days. Once beyond the eight square blocks around Courthouse Square many of the old residential streets are so narrow that parking is not allowed on both sides and it’s still a squeeze when trucks or SUVs pass. Again, high-density development would be tough. (The exception is College ave. which is quite wide because they drove cattle down the street from the Southern Pacific depot on North street to the slaughterhouse near Cleveland ave.)
Complaints about downtown parking go back to 1910, when farmers coming to town in their wagons for Saturday shopping found fewer hitching posts available. In 1912 the city finally gave in and set up the vacant lot at Third and B streets as a kind of horse parking lot.
From the 1920s onward, photos of downtown show seemingly every parking spot taken. There was no shortage of articles in the Press Democrat detailing the latest plans to solve the parking problem – including 1937’s increased fines for every additional violation, which reveals a major drawback of living in a small town where the Meter Lady knows everybody.
The crisis came 1945-1946, when the city introduced parking meters along with Santa Rosa’s first sales tax, both to predictable taxpayer howls. The Press Democrat’s letter section saw writers interchangeably angry between the tax and the parking meters and although the tax was only one percent, there were calls for a complete boycott of the downtown as a kind of Boston Tea Party protest. On top of that, street parking was dreaded because the city insisted upon parallel parking only, even though merchants had been protesting it for many years. (Those pre-1950 land-yachts did not have power steering, so turning the wheels when the car was not in motion was a helluva workout.) For more on all this feuding see: “CITY OF ROSES AND PARKING METERS.”
Whilst the normally peaceable citizens of Santa Rosa were stabbing their City Councilman dolls with voodoo pins, a guy named Hugh Codding was building a new shopping center he called Montgomery Village. It opened in 1950 with an advertising blitz promoting no sales tax (because it was outside of city limits) and easy, meter-free parking. Shoppers flocked there. Thus closed the first chapter of a big book we might call, “A Series of City Hall’s Unfortunate Events.”
OUR WAY OR NO FREEWAY City Hall alone was not to blame for all that era’s dreadful decisions; together with the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce they “sawed the town in half,” as a Press Democrat editor put it in the paper’s 1948 end of year wrapup.
As well known from old photos, the Redwood Highway – AKA Highway 101 – used to pass smack through downtown Santa Rosa, around Courthouse Square and up Mendocino ave. This traffic included not only your aunt Ginny running errands across town but big trucks passing through with redwood logs, cattle, farm equipment and such. It may have looked like the City of Roses, but it probably smelled like the City of Diesel.
In 1938 there was a municipal bond measure to fund an alt truck route around downtown. It failed to pass but would have pushed all that heavy traffic over to Wilson street, which was the heart of our “Little Italy” community – although the ads for the bond pleaded it was urgently needed for the safety of our school children, that concern apparently didn’t extend to the Italian kids. Backers also warned this truck route was necessary because the State Highway Commission might otherwise build a bypass and turn Santa Rosa into a “ghost town.”
A couple of years passed. The city’s Grand Poobahs were still stuck on the idea of a truck route but now wanted it a block closer to downtown, on Davis st. (or rather, between Davis and Morgan streets). The state offered no firm counterproposal; maybe they would construct a bypass somewhere west of Santa Rosa or perhaps use the Davis st. route with a short five block overpass, similar to what they were currently building in San Rafael. Anyway, there was no urgency: The state estimated there were only 4,500 daily trips along this stretch of highway 101 (today there are about 100,000).
Come 1941, however, the Press Democrat front page screamed with 72-point headlines – not just about the war against Hitler, but the war against the Highway Commission.
“An insult to Santa Rosa!” raged a PD op/ed after the state announced it was going to build a 13 block overpass through the town, from Sebastopol road to Ninth st. The paper called this a “highway on stilts” and the Downtown Association lawyer said it would “create the impression that the city is nothing more or less than a ‘slough town.'”
Santa Rosa’s response came in another banner headline: “CITY TO BUILD ALTERNATE TRUCK HIGHWAY!” They quickly bought right-of-way from seven homeowners between South A and South Davis streets (moving one of the houses), paved the stub of a road, and because the Commission didn’t grunt in disapproval, the town declared victory. The next thing anyone knew was when a state engineer was found surveying for the overpass and told someone it was “absolutely necessary at this time.”
I will mercifully spare Gentle Reader the full drama of what happened between 1942 and 1948, except to say that the Press Democrat wore out its supply of lead type exclamation marks (“CITY TO FIGHT OVERHEAD HIGHWAY!”) as it breathlessly reported all the good news about how the damned “Stilt Road” was not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. And then another surveyor showed up from Sacramento. Nope.
There were in toto six different routes under consideration by the Highway Commission; unfortunately, not all of them were detailed in any Sonoma county newspapers (as far as I can tell). There was always the threat of a complete western bypass, but it was never mentioned whether that route would have been Stony Point or Wright/Fulton, or both. Serious consideration was given an eastern route from Petaluma Hill road to North street, curving back to Redwood Highway/Mendocino ave. between Memorial Park and Lewis road – which would have brought the highway rumblings within earshot of the tony McDonald ave. neighborhood, of course.
The state finally relented and gave Santa Rosa what the Poobahs wanted – a ground-level freeway that mostly wiped out Davis street (it’s the same route of highway 101 today). There were eleven crossings on it between Sebastopol road and Steele lane so there were plenty of chances to turn off and do some shopping.
Our ancestors fought so fiercely for this layout because they believed the downtown business district would wither if there was a bypass – that Santa Rosa couldn’t survive unless shoppers were only seconds away from their favorite stores. But I suspect another reason was because they didn’t actually grasp the concept of freeways. It was the mid-1940s, remember, and the very first one in America (Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles) had been constructed just a few years before. From some of the remarks in the PD it appears they thought of an elevated freeway like a bridge, where there was no getting on or off in midspan; when road options were presented at hearings in Petaluma, state officials had to explain that a freeway included a certain number of on and off ramps.
By contrast, when Petaluma’s highway improvements came years later that town had the opposite attitude – the state could not build their downtown bypass fast enough. “Loss of the tourist trade will be more than offset by an increase in local trade,” their City Manager said before work began. Petaluma’s greatest concern was the route be chosen with care to avoid the “poultry belt” because of “the harmful effects of irregular noises, headlights and police sirens on white leghorns,” as a freeway skeptic remarked.
The grand opening of the “Santa Rosa Freeway” was May 20, 1949. Less than two months passed before the first fatality: George Dow was killed in July when a car turning onto West College crossed his southbound lane. After that someone died every ten weeks on the average until the PD wrote a 1950 editorial which began, “A state highway ‘deathway’ runs through Santa Rosa. It is mistakenly called a ‘freeway.'”
Remember the joke that a camel was a horse designed by a committee? This was a freeway designed by shopkeepers. Of the eleven crossings only seven had stoplights. The only turn lanes were on the southbound side for turning east onto Third, Fourth and Fifth streets – to make it easier to get downtown, of course – otherwise drivers shot across oncoming traffic. Crossings at Steele Lane, Fifth St. and Barham Ave. proved the most deadly and the city asked for more traffic lights; the state replied they would study the safety issues concerning the road they told us they did not want to build. Meanwhile, the speed limit was cranked down from 55 to 45 to 35 as the death toll mounted and the city discovered there was more cross-traffic than there were cars using the highway.
Then there was the community impact. The PD sent out a reporter in 1950 to talk to people living on the west side. He was told the freeway made them feel stigmatized – they were on the “wrong side of tracks.” And so they were; there were no parks around there at the time except for a single weedy lot. Their 400+ kids had to walk across the freeway to go to school (mainly Burbank Elementary), so the city built a pedestrian underpass at Ellis Street. It flooded during heavy rains.
There was no whitewashing the fact that the freeway was a disaster in every way, and no doubt about who was to blame for it being like that. But curiously, the Press Democrat no longer mentioned the names of the guys it had long praised for standing up to those smarty-pants state engineers just a few years earlier.
Santa Rosa’s City Manager Sam Hood spoke to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in 1951 and said the “selfish interests” who were to blame for forcing through the ground-level roadway had come to find the freeway had no impact on their business at all. He added that if a vote were to be held that day – less than two years after the freeway opened – not one merchant would oppose a bypass.
The PD managed to both strongly condemn the freeway (“every intersection is a death-trap”) while making its original boosters – including the paper itself – even more anonymous in a 1956 editorial: “…well-intentioned Santa Rosans, laymen who thought they knew more than highly experienced and qualified engineers, who kicked, screamed and protested until they had their way – and saddled Santa Rosa with a classic example of what happens when local pressure-groups have their way.” So forgiving.
Santa Rosa finally yielded to the state and planning began for what we have today – an elevated highway 101 directly above the old ground level version. When work began the PD printed an Aug. 24, 1966 feature on the detour plans and expressed relief that the end was nigh for our “17-year-old mistake.” The new freeway opened October 1968 and cost $3.8M.
The old Santa Rosa Freeway may be no more but its terrible legacy remains, forever splitting the city between east and west. Whatever happens to this city – a population boom, catastrophic earthquake or fire, sweeping redevelopment or no development at all – that highway will endure and shape what we can do with our future. In Santa Rosa it will always be 1949.
Welcome to the 650th entry appearing in this journal, which sifts down to 1.3 million words posted over a decade – enough to fill eleven meaty academic books. Should that wobbly leg on a coffee table fall off, such a stack might well serve as an emergency prop.
Overviews are usually reserved for 100x milestones but it’s been over three years since a “best of” item appeared here. It might also be a while before I reach #700 – not that I am writing less, but articles are now lengthier and more footnote-ier on the average, some multipart stories composed of tens of thousands of words.
For those unfamiliar with the territory, this is (and will remain) a warts-and-all accounting of Santa Rosa and its environs, researched via original newspapers and other primary sources. Any errors discovered are corrected with mistakes acknowledged, and the borders between documented fact and opinion are (hopefully) always clear. The survey article for the 500th milestone speaks about the origins of this journal and offers another selected list of stories, of which only a few are duplicated here.
THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK Santa Rosa was very, very, lucky in 1908 and 1939 when major fires burned at the same locations destroyed in 2017. Had the winds shifted on either occasion much of Santa Rosa could have burned. Also popular are the bonus details about the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, which was between Piner Road and Hopper Ave.
WHEN THE FAIRIES CAME FOR THOMAS LAKE HARRIS After the guru of the former Fountaingrove commune died in 1906, his followers left his body untouched for three months – he was supposed to be immortal, after all, so maybe he just was in a really deep sleep. Even after he was buried, Harris’s supposedly scandalous life remained catnip to Bay Area newspapers; when the big Fountaingrove dormitory was destroyed in 1908 (see above item) a San Francisco headline read, “Free Love’ Home Burned to Ground.”
THE GRAND MANSION SANTA ROSA THREW AWAY It was the grandest, most beautiful house ever built in Santa Rosa, and a century ago this was a town with no shortage of grand and beautiful homes. Hundreds attended one swank affair in 1903, with an orchestra on the balcony and San Francisco chefs in the kitchen. Elaborate evening gowns and diamonds glimmering in myriad electric lights, the rooms perfumed from honeysuckle, azaleas, carnations and roses – overall an ostentatious show of wealth by the scion of an old Sonoma County family with enough money to act like aristocrats. Then in 1969 the grand mansion disappeared – and why it came down will make you want to scream.
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF OTHO HINTON Probably America’s first criminal celebrity, “General” Hinton was a conman extraordinaire. Newspapers in the Midwest and beyond reported every sighting of the infamous mail robber as he was arrested, escaped, was arrested again and escaped again; Hinton sightings were reported all over the country and in Cuba, making him something of a mid-19th century Elvis. He lived for a time in Hawai’i where he declared himself a lawyer, then moved to Santa Rosa after the statutes of limitations expired on his felonies. Here he practiced law, but only after the county Bar Association quizzed him on “charges touching his moral character.” But as always, Hinton could con anyone into believing he smelled sweet as a rose, and in the years around the Civil War he convinced locals he was the town’s benefactor while actually doing little beyond making pompous speeches. After his death in 1865 the street on the east side of Courthouse Square was named after him.
THE WICKERSHAM MURDERS Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were members of one of Sonoma county’s most esteemed families, and their horrific 1886 murders became nationwide news after their Chinese house servant was named as the only suspect. There was zero evidence he committed the crime, but anti-Chinese sentiment then was at its peak on the West Coast and he made a perfect villain. Although the inquest testimony pointed to a robbery gone wrong, in that swirling torrent of racist hate and fear no one questioned that he murdered the couple in cold blood for no apparent reason.
THE CRIME OF DR. BURKE Although no one was killed, the Burke case was Sonoma county’s crime of the 20th century; newspapers in East Coast cities and small Western mining towns alike were often publishing daily courtroom updates, sometimes with front page headlines. The crime in question was the 1910 attempted murder of his mistress and their baby – by blowing them up with dynamite. This nine part series follows the unfolding suspenseful story.
THE CASE FOR ARSON AT WOLF HOUSE Jack London didn’t spend a night in the baronial home he named “Wolf House” before it burned down in 1913. A forensic report in 1995 concluded the cause of the fire was spontaneous combustion, but that theory leaned heavily on evidence that is now shown to be provably wrong. That reopens the possibility of arson, and there’s a strong suspect: Jack’s unstable brother-in-law who quarreled with him a few hours before the fire.
THE 1906 SANTA ROSA EARTHQUAKE
NEW REVELATIONS Think you kinda know what happened in Santa Rosa on April 18, 1906? Sorry; details found in the Petaluma Argus rewrite the story significantly. The big takeaway is that the interim newspaper published by Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley covered up the worst news about the disaster. There was serious looting and the stench of death lingered over the town for days. Most significant was confirmation of a massive explosion at the Haven Hardware store, which was so huge it took out one side of its block on Fourth street, killing at least eight. As it turns out, Haven Hardware was one of two places in town that sold gasoline.
SEEKING MISS EXCELSA “Mrs. C. Heath” is named at the top of the memorial stone at the Rural Cemetery, but in the newspapers death lists she appeared usually as “Miss Excelsa,” which was a misspelling of her vaudeville stage name; the earthquake came the morning after her second performance at Santa Rosa’s tiny theater. Hers is probably the most poignant story of what happened that day, because her stage partner – the only person in the Bay Area who knew anything about her – promptly fled after the quake. Her backstory remained a mystery until now.
THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE GRAVESTONE: WHO LIES BENEATH? Buried along with Heath in the mass grave are others whose presence reveals the chaos during the aftermath of the quake. There is someone listed on the tombstone who is actually buried somewhere else and there are certainly more people under that concrete slab than the sixteen claimed.
THE TRIBULATIONS OF LUTHER BURBANK
SELLING LUTHER BURBANK Always seeking the financial independence that would allow him to concentrate on his plant breeding, Burbank repeatedly stumbled into deals with dodgy characters through no fault of his own. Probably the worst was a 1909 plan to sell Burbank’s seeds and live plants directly to the public. The main investors were the Law brothers, who owned the Fairmont Hotel and other blue-ribbon real estate. But the brothers made their fortune through a quack medicine and pyramid scheme (which they still owned) that was singled out by medical journals and muckrakers as one of the worst of all the insidious medical frauds. It seems likely the Laws sought out a partnership with Luther Burbank – one of the most respected men in the nation – so he could be called as a character witness, should they ever be enmeshed in a wrongful death lawsuit.
THE UNDOING OF LUTHER BURBANK Burbank expected his set of “Methods & Discoveries” books would establish his legacy as a great scientist and provide a steady income, thanks in part to a $300,000 bond issue in late 1912, only a few months after Burbank Press was formed. What he did not know was that the man directing his publishing company was a fugitive on the run with several aliases, wanted for a previous stock scam as well as bigamy after having abandoned his wife and children.
THE PRICKLY LUTHER BURBANK The spineless cactus was Burbank’s moon shot – an odyssey with the goal of creating a hybrid that would be as important to mankind as his namesake potato, where deserts would be turned into pastures and croplands. But never would the desert bloom in vast cactus farms; spineless varieties were more delicate than the spiny forms, sensitive to cold and not as drought tolerant. His variety grew best only in places with year-around rainfall or with wet, mild winters and dry summers. Places like Santa Rosa, California, for example.
PEOPLE YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED TO MEET
MARTIN TARWATER, MOST HAPPY FELLA Had Martin Tarwater behaved himself, he would have died peacefully at home near Mark West Creek and been quickly forgotten. Instead, he did something so crazy that he was immortalized in one of the best stories written by Jack London. At age 66 he joined the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush, despite having no experience with prospecting or, for that matter, surviving in extremely bad weather. Despite the awful conditions, Tarwater kept such a cheery disposition he appeared to be nuts. A correspondent to the Press Democrat wrote of coming across “Mart” alone in the wilderness that winter merrily bellowing out an old music hall tune.
ED MANNION HAS SOMETHING TO TELL YOU “Grizzly Bear wanted for bull and bear fight Main Street Petaluma, reply to the judge”, read the ad in a San Francisco paper a month before the town’s centennial celebration in 1958. “The judge” was Ed Mannion, Petaluma’s unofficial historian and sometimes columnist for the Argus-Courier. Mannion had a wild sense of humor for his time but took history research seriously, tapping primary sources for information rather than repeating hand-me-down stories. He wrote so much there are probably mistakes which I don’t know enough to spot, but so far I’ve only found one glaring error – and to his credit, he found it himself some years later and corrected it.
OUR LOVEABLE, AWFUL HISTORIAN The most cited history of Sonoma county is probably the 1911 version written by Tom Gregory, and that’s unfortunate. He was a popular, maybe even beloved, fellow around Santa Rosa but he wasn’t a scholar or historian as much as he was a storyteller – and that is why his book is so godawful. Errors probably blot every page; at times his book resembles nothing more than the TV series “Drunk History,” where someone is liquored-up and asked to recount some great moment in history which they only half remember from school. That said, if I could go back in time to his day there’s nothing more I’d like to do than hang out with Tom and have a beer while listening to him spin his wild tales. He was the closest we’ve ever had to homegrown Mark Twain.
PEOPLE NOBODY LIKED
THE SEDUCER’S SCHOOL Around 110 years ago, “professor” Forest C. Richardson ran a little business school on Fourth street which was mainly attended by “poor girls, struggling to get along in the world and make something of themselves.” Only after a Santa Rosa woman died from a botched abortion in 1909 was it discovered he was a serial sexual predator who was preying on his students. When any of them became pregnant he gave them some sort of pill that was supposed to induce miscarriage. Richardson – who was married with four kids – was arrested after signing a lengthy confession and charged with criminal assault (rape) and furnishing drugs for illegal purposes (abortion). He was sentenced to only four years in San Quentin.
THE MAN WHO STOLE BODEGA BAY Tyler Curtis married the widow of Captain Stephen Smith (who owned the vast Mexican land grant of Rancho Bodega), making him the richest person on the Sonoma county coast during the early decades of statehood. Over the following years he acted with methodical guile, destroying the lives of everyone around him, robbing Smith’s children of their inheritance and then wasting much of the family fortune in a Quixotic attempt to become mayor of San Francisco. He embezzled the modern equivalent of a million dollars from an insurance company and after his wife died, was engaged simultaneously to five or more women in the city. He fled to Europe and the East Coast, posing as a wealthy Californian who had found himself in the embarrassing position of asking for loans until he could sort out complicated business deals back home. When Curtis died in New York City (“a victim to rum and loathsome diseases”) one of Smith’s sons told the press he suspected Curtis had poisoned his mother.
THE BATTLE FOR SANTA ROSA HIGH After its old high school burned down, Santa Rosa had the will to quickly rebuild a fine modern school and soon was ready to break ground. Then suddenly the project was stopped indefinitely by Sampson B. Wright, an anti-tax crank who filed a series of lawsuits 1922-1923 to block the project. He accused county officials of crimes that could send them to jail, including criminal conspiracy, election fraud and felony misappropriation of public funds. His underlying gripe, however, was that he didn’t want a centralized high school in Santa Rosa and thought school buses were a frivolous luxury. Public anger at Wright was so great there was a community meeting called to discuss what to do about him, with a notice given that violent measures would not be considered. He finally dropped his lawsuits and the school opened in 1924 – the same year his wife filed for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty, particularly because he refused to pay for electricity in their Santa Rosa home.
STORIES THAT SHOULD BE IN OUR HISTORY BOOKS
SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS “The California Home for the Care and Training of Feeble-Minded Children” at Eldridge took in youths which were mentally handicapped or had severe epilepsy in the early 20th century, But once Dr. Fred O. Butler became superintendent in 1918, it became virtually a factory operation for forced sterilizations. A study four years later found 4 out of 5 of these operations nationwide were performed in the state, with the justification being “mainly eugenic, also for the physical, mental or moral benefit of inmate, also partly punitive in certain cases.” Almost half of the women were there because they were classified as sexually delinquent, with notes in their records that they were “passionate,” “immoral,” “promiscuous,” or similar; most males were sent there for sterilization by their families because they were “masturbators” or gay. Dr. Butler’s house of eugenic horrors continued through WWII and after, even as the Nazis were being rightly condemned for the same practices.
SANTA ROSA, WHERE THE REVOLUTION (ALMOST) BEGAN America was a fragile place in the spring of 1933, with considerable fury towards the banks which were foreclosing on family farms in record numbers. Sonoma county found itself in the national spotlight over the upcoming auction of the 50-acre farm James Case owned near Forestville, where he grew cherries and apples. The Sebastopol bank refused to delay foreclosure and already had a deal to sell the farm at a profit immediately after the auction. The newly-seated FDR administration got involved in seeking a compromise, as did the governor; the banker only dug in further and like a cartoon villain, vowed he would get his hands on the Case ranch. On auction day 3,000 people were jammed together in front of the courthouse in downtown Santa Rosa as the Press Democrat described a “grim determination and anxiousness” in the crowd, “somber, serious, not a smile on a single face.” But just as the sale was about to begin, it was announced that Judge Hilliard Comstock had ordered it cancelled. Case and his supporters were jubilant, both for him personally and what it would mean for other farmers now that a Superior Court judge had set such a precedent. Had Comstock not ruled that way, the mob’s actions could have gone in any of a number of directions – a riot, an attack on the courthouse, even sparking a national populist uprising which could have squelched the New Deal reforms before they took root.
TWO MARTYRS FOR THE FLAG OF THE BEARS The history of the Bear Flag Revolt and the short-lived California Republic is overdue for a revision; what is told today is almost entirely just the American side of the story, which was cast in stone near the end of the 19th century. That version memorializes all things heroic about the Revolt, particularly the story of how the flag was designed and the martyrdom of a couple of Bear Flag rebels named Cowie and Fowler. Forgotten was that many Americans at the time had mixed feelings about ousting the Mexican government, and missing are the voices of the Californios, who only sought to coexist on their ranchos. Then it spun out of control as someone on the Californio side killed Fowler and Cowie and someone on the American side killed the a pair of teenagers and their elderly uncle. Lofty principles were forgotten and it became a gang war, each side hunting the hunters on other side, both sides wanting to absolve what they did by claiming the other guys drew first blood.
OUR STRANGE, STRANGE PAST
HEAR THAT LONESOME CHICKEN BLOW “Betty,” Petaluma’s giant plaster advertising chicken, sat on her nest at the south end of town for nearly twenty years. She survived the indignities of obscene graffiti and sometimes there were messages concerning the pitiable intelligence or lack of personal hygiene possessed by some local football team, which was always quite informative. Then in 1938 someone used dynamite to blow her up. Suspicion turned to Santa Rosa and years later the crime was finally solved via an anonymous confession: “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.”
LET’S GO DOWNTOWN AND SEE SOMETHING WEIRD On any given Saturday around 1914, chances were you could pay a dime and watch performers do things on stage which demonstrated more self-delusion than discernible talent. That was the peak year for vaudeville in Santa Rosa with two theaters downtown presenting comedians, singers, novelty whistlers, birdcallers, “barnyard humor,” midget boxers and blackface “shouters,” not to mention a couple of acts which were apparently just young women doing calisthenics. There was Miss Livingstone’s skating bear, Captain Webb’s seals, a steady procession of dog and bird acts plus two “goat circuses.” As awful as it sometimes was, vaudeville was still live theater and it’s a shame it’s completely gone.
SONOMA COUNTY, FAMOUS FOR SHARKS AND LUCKY BEANS Starting in 1909, Sonoma and other North Bay counties sponsored a man named Mondula Leak in an official traveling exhibit on rails. “Mon” visited everywhere in the country except the West Coast, which probably kept local Chambers of Commerce from realizing how damned strange his operation really was. One train car was dedicated to local attractions – “the creations of Luther Burbank,” redwood trees, samples of major crops and so on. Admission to that car was free, but to step aboard the other cost 25¢ and what was there was the real draw, with oddities such as a giant stuffed shark, a “California ostrich,” live monkeys, “Peruvian Cavies” (guinea pigs) and an alligator. Sometimes there was an x-ray machine so you could see the bones in your hands. In short, it was all much like a carnival sideshow showing stuff that had nothing to do with Sonoma county or anywhere else in the North Bay. Many communities around the country charged hefty fees on circus-y exhibits like that or banned them outright – but since Mon could claim part of it was free and “educational” he had a cloak of legitimacy. After that ended in 1915, Leak settled down in Georgia and inverted his scam; now he expected businesses and Chambers in the state to pay dues to his “association” which would provide promotional space in an Atlanta warehouse. As every Sonoma county item should properly include an obl. Believe-it-or-Not! ending, please note an associate of Mon’s later embraced this business model and used it to organize the modern Ku Klux Klan.
The title of this essay, by the way, refers to “A Thousand Kisses Deep” – not the recent movie of that name, but the original Leonard Cohen poem. Fans debate exactly what it means; it seems the “thousand kisses” stands for the big, messy stack of memories we’ve collected over our lives that define who we are, and how we flounder about trying to make sense of them. In 2001 Cohen obliquely wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, “…you live your life as if it’s real. But with the understanding: it’s only a thousand kisses deep, that is, with that deep intuitive understanding that this is unfolding according to a pattern that you simply cannot discern.”
Sorting through those memories can be confusing and stir emotions; sometimes you look backward and see things you regret, sometimes you’re simply perplexed about how things happened. That’s not unlike how historians grapple with the past, trying to understand why events unfolded as they did – or whether they actually took place as generally presumed. If only a diary or letter would turn up to answer a riddle; if only we could go back for a blink in time to witness a critical moment of the event itself, the puzzle would be forever solved.