bessieblitz

THE WARS OF THE PAXTONS

Imagine asking someone in the Bay Area anytime around the turn of the last century to “Name someone who lives in Santa Rosa.” There’s little doubt that first pick would be that guy named Burbank. But depending upon the year, a surprising number of people might have thought of Blitz W. Paxton. Unlike Burbank, he wasn’t famous because of personal achievements; he was well known because he was often mentioned in the newspapers on account of being sued – and he was sued a lot.

The saga of Blitz (and yes, that was his real name) is a pretty good story in its own right, but it’s really all background to the article which will follow, describing the magnificent house Blitz and his family built in Santa Rosa. Whether that second chapter in his life redeems him or not is up to Dear Reader to decide – or maybe you’ll read this and come away feeling he did nothing amiss and was treated unfairly. Either way you’re likely to have strong feelings about him, just as your Bay Area great-grandparents probably had.

When Blitz was born in 1858 his father was already on his way to a fortune; by the time he reached adulthood, theirs had to be the richest family in the north end of Sonoma county. John A. Paxton was a banker and investor who was among the founders of the Santa Rosa Bank and president of the town’s gas company, among other investments. He built the family a 17 room manse in 1880-1881 west of Healdsburg in the fashionable Second Empire style which is still around; you probably know it as the elegant Madrona Manor B&B.

In those years John spent the workweek at his San Francisco bank office, returning on the Friday train where he was met by a servant. “If the weather was a bit nasty, the coach and footman arrived in a closed carriage – some class!” Wrote Dr. William C. Shipley, the Boswell of old Healdsburg. Shipley described the Paxtons living like gentry. “There was a footman, groom and several maids. They had quite an entourage in keeping with their position and wealth, yet with it all they were perfectly likable human people…the whole town gloried in their dignity, majesty and power, but none were envious.” It was a grand life.

According to the biographical sketch of Blitz in the 1911 county history (always self-serving because the sketchee paid to be included) young Blitz had a series of office jobs for a silver mine, a bank owned by his father and a dried fuit distributor. But unspecified “failure of his eyesight” caused him to stop working,

Blitz married Elizabeth “Bessie” Emerson in Healdsburg in 1882. She was from Rochester, New York and they likely met because her sister, Luta, had married into a prominent Healdsburg family and was living there. Bessie was the seventh of eleven children (no twins, either) all of whom lived to adulthood. Her father was an entrepreneur who ran many businesses; her mother was likely exhausted from running after so many children before dying at age 42.

The marriage of Bessie and Blitz quickly soured. A son, John, was born after their first anniversary but while the boy was still an infant, he and his mother were living back in Rochester with her father. It’s unknown whether Bessie or Blitz knew she was again pregnant at the time they separated.

Soon after they split in mid-1884, Blitz left the country for 6+ years traveling in Latin America, then Europe. What he did in those years is a mystery; the hagiography in the county history notes only that “a number of years were pleasantly and profitably passed.” (The history does not mention Bessie and their kids, by the way.)

While he was abroad, his father John disinherited Blitz not once, but twice; the first codicil in 1885 dropped his quarter-share in the $750,000 estate, and the next change took away his one-eighth interest in the farm. Just a few months later, John died in 1888 aboard a ship en route to London, where he was expected to meet – and presumably, reconcile – with Blitz.

Three months after John died, his mother, Blitz was joined in London by his mother, Hannah, and her niece. The three of them toured Europe together, so presumably the only one in the family that had a beef with Blitz was his dad.

Blitz returned to California in late 1890, moving into the grand house at Madrona Knoll Ranch with his mother and aunt. The year before he died John built a two-story winery with an impressive 200,000 gallon capacity; Blitz assumed control of this and other family business. Little happened for the next few years – until Hurricane Bessie landed in 1894.

Overnight the Paxtons found themselves cast as villains in a titillating scandal covered by the yellow press on both coasts.

Bessie and Blitz Paxton illustration from San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1894

Bessie sued for divorce, charging Blitz had deserted her ten years earlier and had refused to provide child support – and for good measure Bessie also sued his mom for $100,000, claiming she caused “alienation of her husband’s affections.” The divorce was granted but Bessie and Blitz would battle over support for the next eighteen years, making it surely the longest dustup in the history of Sonoma county courts.

Over the years, charges flew. In a later suit she claimed that she went to live with her father because “drugs he compelled her to take wrecked her health and caused her great suffering.” She said he had provided almost no child support, but when they corresponded a year after the separation, Blitz allegedly offered half his fortune ($25,000) – although according to Blitz, she instead unsuccessfully tried to shake down his father for twice as much. (Blitz later said his first disinheritance was because his father didn’t want her to benefit in any way from his estate.)

The core of Bessie’s demand for money was always her children being helpless dependents. Son John had been completely blinded a few years before the divorce in some sort of accident, and his sister, Roma – born after her parent’s separation – was portrayed as an invalid, although nothing specific was ever claimed except that she was “delicate” for once having hit her head. (Roma married in 1908, had four kids and lived to the great old age of 85.)

As the years passed and new lawsuits were filed, Bessie’s pleas became more strident and dramatic. She sobbed in court testimony, claimed that her children were about to go hungry as she was months overdue on all bills. She blasted her wealthy ex-husband as every kind of monster – although in a 1906 appearance she turned her ire towards Blitz’ attorney (and seemingly his best friend) James Wyatt Oates: “I know that if he were left alone Mr. Paxton would provide for me and my blind son, John, and my invalid daughter, Roma,” she complained in 1906, “but Attorney J. W. Oates of Sonoma, who represents Mr. Paxton, will not let him settle the case, because the longer it goes on the larger will be his fee. This is common talk at our old home and is a fact.”

Even as Bessie kept escalating her claims of pauperism, Blitz likewise kept deflating the size of his bankbook. He claimed at various times he was “practically bankrupt,” his investments had flopped, he was “in such bad shape that I cannot tell at this time what I will be able to do,” had no income because he could not work due to gout and heart disease (yet somehow managed a week-long fishing trip with Oates), had “no coin, and no property on which he can raise any” or was nearly penniless from paying lawyers to fight Bessie. In 1905 he filed an affidavit claiming he was flat broke – yet three months later, hosted a party for 300 at his grand Santa Rosa home.

From the beginning of their courtroom conflicts, the San Francisco press framed the story as the cold-hearted millionaire fighting the impoverished mother of his children and his pitiful children. During the 1894 divorce case the Chronicle was unusually honest in suggesting this spin was selling lots of papers: “The article published in the Chronicle lately concerning the suit…caused a sensation here and in Sonoma county, where the wealthy Paxton family is well known. The narrative of Mr. Paxton’s treatment of his young wife and their two children was interesting reading in the clubs and swell places which he frequents.”

Flash forward a few years later and the San Francisco Call offered a headline, “PAXTON HUNTS DUCKS AND CHILDREN STARVE.” Scattered among the selection of articles transcribed below are a few other examples of the anti-Blitz spin (and there are certainly more) but this snark from the 1906 Call is my favorite:

Every parent in the animal kingdom, by studied proximity and conscious sacrifice, feeds and shelters its offspring. Then why does Blitz W. Paxton stand alone? There are some animals that devour their young. Then there is the canis tribe – a class by themselves of carnivorous mammals, such as the dog, the fox, the wolf and the jackal, but these all outclass Blitz W. Paxton in the support and shelter they universally supply to their offspring.

Was Blitz really that rich and was Bessie really that poor? More on Blitz is below and in the following article, but he was never close to being the Daddy Warbucks who Bessie portrayed. And it’s very doubtful she or the children ever faced real financial hardship.

Bessie apparently returned to California in 1892, not long after Blitz came back from Europe. She and the children settled in San Francisco where her brother-in-law (General Richard H. Warfield, the husband of her sister Lute) leased and ran the California Hotel in the city’s fashionable French Quarter centered around the intersection of Bush and Kearny. She remained a “permanent guest” there at least through 1899 – as a side lawsuit in the divorce proceedings, Warfield demanded Blitz pay $315 for two years of food, clothing and boarding.

While the press was telling readers that poor Bessie was counting nickels, she was actually hobnobbing with elites on Nob Hill, particularly multimillionaire James Graham Fair (he’s the “Fair” in the name of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel). A notorious philanderer whose wife had divorced him for “”habitual adultery,” Fair died the year after the Paxton divorce. Women came forward claiming he had promised to leave them a generous bequest and rumors were that Bessie had a final will which named her a major beneficiary; it wasn’t true, but it suggests the newspapers presumed she and Fair had a very close relationship.

The Paxton divorce was settled in the autumn of 1894: Bessie would get $7,500 in cash and $100 a month until the children were of age. Blitz also took out a life insurance policy naming her and the kids as beneficiaries. It wasn’t a grand sum, but $100/mo in 1894 works out to about $40,000 a year in today’s money – and remember, she was apparently paying little for living expenses at her family’s nice hotel.

Following the divorce settlement and the flurry of excitement over the Fair affair, all was quiet concerning the former Mr. and Mrs. Paxton until the turn of the century. Then: Vaudeville!

(RIGHT: Bessie Blitz Paxton vaudeville publicity photo)

Bessie had long fancied herself a singer, and as far back as the original divorce suit she claimed of being “forced to sing in church choirs” to support herself and the children. It comes as news to me that was ever considered a well-paying gig, but she later expanded her claim to “singing in oratorio” and opera, although never were any specifics provided. (Full disclosure: I myself was in two productions of the New York Metropolitan Opera and can likewise say I have made operatic appearances. In one I marched onstage with other spear carriers and in another I waved a flagon in a tavern scene.)

In 1900 she made her first appearances in San Francisco and Los Angeles to polite reviews. Her voice was low but carried well and said to be “velvety in quality.” Her stage name was “Mrs. Bessie Blitz Paxton” to milk the divorce infamy and per usual, she worked in a dig at Blitz when interviewed: “[T]here are bills to be paid,” she told the San Francisco Call, “doctor’s bills the result of my little daughter’s recent illness. Her father won’t pay them so I must, and I am going on the stage to earn the money.” Ever sympathetic, the Call’s headline was, “SINGS IN PUBLIC FOR HER CHILDREN.”

The following year she did an East Coast tour which did not go so well. She began with a troupe playing Midwestern cities. (Lincoln, Nebraska review: a “California society woman with charming vocal powers and a most peculiar manner.”) Bessie was fired a few weeks later for punching the leader of the company after he chided her for a lack of professionalism. According to the Los Angeles Herald, “She wheeled him around and out into the [train] aisle and planted a No. 5 [boxing lingo for an uppercut punch] where it was the most forceful.” She ended 1901 on stage alongside bottom-of-the-barrel acts such as the Carmen Sisters (“banjoists”) and “Fritz the monkey, who turns wonderful somersaults.” For a few weeks she apparently tried to relaunch herself as a novelty act: “Alice Blitz Paxton, The Female Baritone.”

Back home the legal battle with Blitz resumed, this time over a $918 medical bill for daughter Roma. Blitz argued he should not have to pay for it as he did not authorize the treatment and the state Supreme Court agreed. It was another example where he easily could be viewed as heartless – but that was a hefty bill (about $29,000 today) and we have no information about Roma’s ailment or medical treatment. All we have to judge its merits is that the physician was Dr. Grant Selfridge, a homeopath who specialized in hay fever and allergies.

This brings us to 1902, probably the most eventful year of Blitz’ life. He was now president of the Santa Rosa Bank, of which his father was a founder; he had a new wife and a new son and the family had moved into their fine new house in Santa Rosa. That year his mother also died, which seemed to make him the rich man Bessie had always falsely presumed him to be. Soon she was back demanding he double the alimony payments. This round of their epic fight would continue from 1903 to 1908.

Rehashed once again were the accusations from their old separation, with some new details added: Bessie now accused him of stashing away their $500 wedding silverware. It was probably Bessie’s stage experience which brought tearful and wrathful drama to her court appearances, including a moment where she attacked Blitz in the courtroom like a bulldog prosecutor:

Springing to her feet, bitterness marking every gesture, Mrs. Paxton walked toward the man whose abandonment of her has cost her years of suffering, and said:

“And who, if it please you, took care of your children when you took $40,000 from the bank and went to Europe for a good time? You say, you should support these children. You had an opportunity before any suit was filed, but you turned your blind son away from your home when he went to ask for aid.”

Paxton winced and reddened, but tried to smile unconcernedly.

“Oh, you may well laugh,” said Mrs. Paxton, “when you are living in luxury and we are starving.”

At first Bessie’s new legal campaign against Blitz might seem like the action of someone foolish or desperate. He was no longer required to pay child support as John and Roma were no longer minors, being 22 and 20 (respectively) in 1905, the key year for their court decisions. But requesting more alimony was merely a clever gambit by her lawyers; under California’s Civil Code §206 there was an obligation for parents to support children who could not provide for themselves because of infirmities – regardless of age. Now his children were individually suing him as well.

Blitz was ordered to pay Roma and John $50 a month each. He refused and his children’s lawyer asked for him to be imprisoned on contempt. As reported in the Call, their attorney told the court that Blitz was such a monster that he even refused to see his kids after they trekked all the way to Santa Rosa on their own:

Last week, alleges Attorney Hanlon, John, the blind son, and Roma, the invalid daughter, went to Santa Rosa to ask their father for aid, as the court had decided that not only morally but legally he was bound to support them. Leading her sightless brother by the hand, says Hanlon, Roma trudged from the station along the country road to the splendid home of their father. Up the drive they had once hoped would lead them to their own doorway they walked, two children intent upon executing their own judgment, but they were to be disappointed…when these children turned into the driveway leading to their father’s home he was sitting at his ease at that home. But as the children approached the blinds were drawn and a servant was dispatched to meet John and Roma. ‘Your father is not at home,’ said the servant. ‘He has gone to San Francisco. I do not know when he will return.’ Thus repulsed, these children turned back to the station, penniless.”

I tell you, the reporting on the Paxton court hearings was the best entertainment available during the autumn of 1905. Forget sports, forget politics; you can bet everyone in Northern California was eagerly flipping through their morning papers to see if there was a fresh salvo from Bessie and the kids or whether Blitz had finally sprouted horns and a tail.

While Blitz was being threatened with the court seizing his share of Madrona Knoll and/or throwing him in the clink for contempt, Bessie’s society friends organized a gala concert on her behalf at the Tivoli Opera House. “When the total receipts were figured up if was found that a fund of fully $2000 was ready to relieve the temporary embarrassment of the brave Mrs. Paxton and her family,” the Call reported.

Years were passing and like a soap opera storyline, details changed while the plot remained fundamentally the same. Court decisions kept falling in favor of the children, with one point being appealed to the state Supreme Court. John bitterly demanded judges to punish his father. Blitz said he had no property to sell, which was true – he had transfered the Santa Rosa house to wife Jane on New Year’s Eve 1904. The only thing he truly owned was roughly one-third of the Healdsburg property which he had inherited from his mother. Bessie’s lawyers had estimated his share at over $100,000, but much of its value was in the productive winery. That building collapsed in the 1906 earthquake and was not rebuilt, so when Madrona Knoll was sold at the end of the same year Blitz cleared only about seventeen thousand.

And lo, it finally came to pass, eighteen years and four U.S. presidents later: In 1912 there was a settlement for all claims. Blitz paid $5,000 to each of his kids.

Blitz always claimed (at least, when he could find a reporter willing to listen to his side) that he didn’t object to supporting his children, but rather objected to any money reaching the ex-wife he and his family loathed. From a 1905 affidavit:

The affiant admits that he deserted and abandoned his former wife, Mrs. Bessie E. Paxton, but asserts that he was compelled to do so, owing to her meanness of temper and bitterness of tongue; which made the life of this affiant unbearable. Mrs. Paxton further alienated the affection of the parents of this affiant for him and when this affiant returned from his trip abroad, it was only to learn that his father, John A. Paxton, had absolutely disinherited him, as he did not wish Mrs. Paxton to benefit in any way from his estate, owing to the meanness of her conduct.

This contempt for Bessie was also seen in his mother’s will, where Hannah Paxton only left a token $10 each to her grandchildren Roma and John Jr. And it is true that any contribution to John would have been a benefit to Bessie; he apparently lived with his mother until she died in 1937. (He passed away two years later.)

And even before the settlement, Blitz did aid his son. In 1907 he paid for the 24 year-old John to run a cigar stand on Sutter street, but his blindness left him open to theft. Blitz started another at California and Divisadero streets but again was robbed of everything. While today it might seem a setup for failure – or even cruel – to encourage a sightless person to operate a street business like that, magazine and tobacco stands were a common business for the blind in that era, and John did it for the rest of his life.

Personally, I feel Blitz and Bessie were equally despicable for turning John and Roma into pawns. It might look like a zero-sum game but wasn’t; both parents considered they won a moral victory every time he ignored a court order to pay up. Money was only a phony excuse to go to war over their mutual hatred. I very much doubt either of the children ever suffered cold or hunger, but am certain both must have been scarred emotionally by being pushed to the battlefield frontlines in the roles of the pathetic invalid girl and blind boy.

Finally, if l’affaires Blitz haven’t left you totally exhausted, you can open the Paxton matryoshka doll and find another collection of sensationalistic lawsuits, and still more court battles nested inside that one.

Blitz had a younger brother Charles, who was not mentioned here before because he has no real Sonoma county connection. He was a San Francisco stock broker and after their mother died in 1902 the brothers were named co-executors of the estate. Within the year Charles was accusing Blitz of embezzlement while Blitz was trying to force Charles out, charging he threatened “to destroy his reputation and to drive him out of Sonoma county.” Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa Bank – where Blitz was still president – sued the pair of them as executors for not paying back the loans mom took out for Blitz’ allowance in the 1890s. Then when Charles died and Blitz was executor of his estate there were still more lawsuits. At one point I think I read Blitz was suing himself, but am probably wrong about that. Still, as crazy as that seems, you couldn’t blame the poor fellow for getting mixed up over such a little detail.

Roma and John A. Paxton illustration from San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1894
MRS. B. W. PAXTON SUES FOR DIVORCE
She Says Her Millionaire Husband Treated Her Cruelly and Deserted Her.

SAN FRANCISCO, March 10.–A complaint was filed to-day in a suit for divorce by Mrs. Bessie E. Paxton against Blitz W. Paxton, who is reported to be worth two millions of dollars. Paxton comes from a rich family in Santa Rosa, Sonoma county, and his fortune is largely in land and mining property.

The plaintiff, who is a young and handsome woman, says they were married in 1882 and lived happily until 1884. She had one son and was expecting another child when Paxton deserted her. She gave birth to a daughter, Roma, on Jan. 3, 1885, and her health was seriously affected by her husband’s cruelty.

His action she ascribes to his parents, who desired him to separate from her. He induced her to return to her father and mother in Rochester, N.Y., promising to meet her there after paying a business visit to Texas. She fulfilled her part of the compact, but her husband returned here, and then went to Guatemala. She learned nothing of his whereabouts until the following year, when he wrote that he should never come back to her.

For eight years, the plaintiff declares, she has supported herself and her two children aided by her parents, receiving no more than $125 last year from Paxton. He refused any further aid, although his little son is totally blind and requires the mother’s constant care. Mrs. Paxton alleges that her husband is living in luxury and that he spends large amounts at costly restaurants on periodical visits to San Francisco, while she is forced to sing in church choirs and give music lessons to get the simplest necessaries for herself and children.

The plaintiff has also secured an injunction restraining her husband from disposing of any of his property, and she demands money for support and counsel fees during this action. The complaint, when it is published tomorrow, will create a social sensation, as Paxton is a well-known club man and a member of San Francisco’s four hundred.

– New York Sun, March 11 1894
Paxton Repudiates Doctor’s Bill.

The action instituted by Dr. Grant Selfridge against Blitz W. Paxton and his former
wife, Bessie E. Paxton, who recently abandoned the society drawing-room for the vaudeville stage, to recover $918 for treating the son of the defendants, was tried and submitted for decision by Judge Seawell yesterday. Dr. Selfridge and Dr. J. S. Brooks testified as to the reasonableness of the plaintiff’s claim. Mr. Paxton was placed on the stand in his own defense and repudiated the claim saying that he did not authorize the treatment of his son by Dr. Selfrldge. The case was then argued and submitted.

– San Francisco Call, March 20, 1901

 

MISHAP TO HARRY CORSON CLARKE
Bessie Blitz Paxton Chastises tha Actor

DENVER, Col., April 25.–Harry Corson Clarke undertook to reprimand Bessie Blitz Paxton, the plump land who sang “Twickenham Ferry” with the Clarke company, with results disastrous to himself.

While the company was en route to Cheyenne, Mr. Clarke undertook to tell Mrs. Paxton how little she knew about the show business, and how much she could learn from hum. He also referred to her failure to attend rehearsals, and ended by an expression which aroused the actress to more real anger, she says, than she has felt since he was married.

Bessie Blitz Paxton thereupon arose in her wrath and her car seat and swatted Mr. Clarke on the ear. She reached over with the other hand and jolted the comedian under the chin. Then she took a firm hold at the nape of his neck, and another and firmer hold farther down, and threw him up against the window sash. She seemed to be trying to let go of him, but could not. She wheeled him around and out into the aisle and planted a No. 5 where it was the most forceful, and Mr. Clarke dived into the stove box.

The rest of the company interfered and held Mrs. Paxton until Cheyenne was reached. Here Mr. Clarke paid her two weeks’ salary, and the actress returned to Denver, arriving this morning.

– Los Angeles Herald, April 26, 1901

 

FILED FOR PROBATE
THE LATE MRS. H. H. PAXTON LEFT PROPERTY VALUED AT OVER $200,000
Will and Codicil Dispose of the Estate the Bulk of Which is Bequeathed to the Deceased Lady’s Two Sons

Blitz W. Paxton has petitioned the Superior Court for probate of the will of the late Mrs. Hannah H. Paxton of Madrone Knoll, Healdsburg,

Among other things the deceased’s property consists of an undivided five-eighths interest in 208 acres of land known as the “Madrone Knoll” place, the interest being valued at $62,500; furniture, furnishings, etc., valued at $5,000; jewelry, etc., $1,000; 200 shares of stock of Santa Rosa Bank valued at $28,125; cash in bank, $889; 60 first mortgage bonds valued at about $60,000; shares of Puget Sound Iron Co., worth about $28,000; an undivided interest in personal property worth about $2,500; Interest in wine 1 bond worth $2,600. T

The value of the property is about $200,000. Mrs. Paxton left a will bearing date October 11, 1894. with a codicil thereto dated January 24,1899, in the possession of Colonel James W. Oates, who is the attorney for the estate. Blitz W. Paxton. Charles E. Paxton and Mary M. McClellan are named in the will as executors.

In the will the deceased’s bequests Include $5.000 to her sister, Miss Mary McClellan; her sister, Ruth McClellan, $6.000; John A, Paxton and Roma W. Paxton, her grandchildren. $10 each.

To her son, Blitz W. Paxton, Mrs. Paxton leaves a legacy of $40,000.

All the residue and remainder of the estate is left to Blitz W. Paxton and his brother, Charles E. Paxton, in equal proportion, share and share alike. The reason for the additional legacy to the former son is explained by the testator for the reason that he did not share his father’s property at the time his brother did, the latter being left about $40,000.

In the codicil to the will, made January 24, 1899, Mrs. Paxton absolutely Revokes the bequest of $5,000 to her sister, Miss Ruth McClellan. The executors will serve as such without bonds and they are given power to buy. sell, convey, compromise, manage and control the estate.

– Press Democrat, September 9 1902

 

She Wants More Money

Mrs. Bessie Paxton has petitioned the Superior Court of San Francisco for an order to compel her former husband, Blitz W. Paxton, to allow her $200 a month. At present she receives an allowance of $100, but she declares that this is insufficient for the support of herself and her two minor children.

Mrs. Paxton obtained a divorce in 1894, and at that time was awarded the custody of her two children, John A. Paxton,now aged 20, and Roma Warren Paxton, now 18. When the divorce was granted Mr. Paxton offered his wife half of $25,000, his fortune at that time. She refused this and went to his father for $50,000. He would not listen to her, and finally when the divorce was granted, she accepted $7,500 in cash and $100 a month to be paid until the children were of age.

Mr. Paxton believes that the children will soon be legally out of her custody, and according to the stipulation she will no longer get the $100 a month. “That is not in any sense alimony,” said Mr. Paxton. “The $7,500 was in lieu of that. I carry a $10,000 insurance policy made out for her benefit and that of the children. 1 will make different arrangements for them when they are out of the legal custody of their mother.” Mrs. Paxton’s petition will be heard on August 21.

– Press Democrat, July 9 1903
LAW IS WITH BLITZ PAXTON.
Banker Defeats His Former Wife in Her Efforts to Get Increase in Alimony.

A petition to modify a decree of divorce, the means taken by Bessie E. Paxton, the singer, the former wife of Blitz w. Paxton, the Sonoma County banker and capitalist, to secure more alimony, is not the proper proceeding, hence Judge Murasky found against her yesterday, and ordered the entry of an order denying her petition. She must file a suit in equity to set aside the agreement she made at the time she secured her divorce, in which she waived all claims against Paxton for the sum of $13,200 to be paid in monthly installments of $100, which agreement, she claims, was obtained from her by misrepresentation.

The matrimonial history of the Paxtons is a stormy one. They were married in 1882, and have two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, who is now almost 19 years of age, is blind. The troubles of the Paxtons commenced a short time after their marriage. In 1894 she sued him for divorce and obtained a decree on the ground of cruelty. She agreed that she would waive all claims upon Paxton provided that for a period of 132 months he would. pay her $100 a month. When the children grew up and the boy lost his sight and the girl became sickly, Mrs. Paxton found it hard to make both ends meet on $100 a month, and she went upon the stage. For a period of two weeks she sang at the Orpheum. Then Paxton fell heir to a fortune estimated to be worth $500,000, and Mrs. Paxton thought it about time that he should do a little more for her than give her $100 a month. She accordingly filed the suit to amend her decree of divorce, basing her claim on the ground that Paxton, to obtain her signature to the agreement concerning alimony, had willfully and fraudulently concealed the true state of his finances.

– San Francisco Call, March 26, 1904
 
 
DEMANDS AID FROM FATHER
Daughter of Blitz Paxton, Banker, Files Suit to Compel Him to Support Her
GIRL PLEADS POVERTY
Says She Is an Invalid and in Need of Necessaries. Marriage Bonds Severed

The litigation growing out of the matrimonial infelicities of Blitz W. Paxton, the Santa Rosa banker, and Bessie Paxton the singer, which began in 1893, when Mrs. Paxton sued for maintenance, and which was further complicated in 1894, when she dismissed the maintenance proceedings and instituted a suit for divorce, became still more involved yesterday, when Roma Paxton, the 19-year-old daughter of the couple, filed a suit against her father to compel him to support her. She says she is an invalid, unable to work to provide either the necessaries of life or medical attention for herself, and she asks the court to order her father to provide for her out of the fortune of more than $100,000 she says he possesses. She asks for $100 a month.

– San Francisco Call, May 27, 1904

 

Sues for Maintenance.

John A. Paxton, the blind son of Blitz W. Paxton, the wine grower and backer,
brought suit yesterday to compel his father to provide for his support. The young man’s parents were divorced in 1894 and since that time the son has been living with his mother. He came of age on August 10 and It is now alleged that owing to his infirmity and need of constant medical attendance his mother is unable to provide for him.

– San Francisco Call, September 11, 1904

 

The Paxton Case.
Divorced wife tells her story in San Francisco Court.
Divorced in 1894.

“Since my husband, without cause or explanation to me, his bride of two years, abandoned me at the behest of his family twenty-one years ago (1884), I have struggled alone, while he has disported himself in luxury,” said Mrs. Blitz Paxton (Bessie Emerson Paxton), wife of the Sonoma Banker, when the suit of her two children against their father for maintenance came up before Judge Graham Friday in San Francisco.

“I simply worshipped my husband; when the blow fell on me I was nursing my little baby boy (John Alexander); my little girl (Roma) was born afterwards. Then misfortune seemed to pursue us; accidents happened to both children, a hard fall in each case rendered them helpless for life, my son having been blind from babyhood. An operation, the doctors said, would save his eyes, but my appeal to his father was in vain. Then it became too late to do anything for his sight. My daughter is delicate from a fall which caused concussion of the brain.

“I tried for awhile to turn my musical training to account, and the songs of happier days, when I entertained guests at my luxurious home, were heard on the Orpheum Circuit. But the children needed my care, and the work was too hard. This suit seems our last hope for relief.

The case was argued and taken under advisement by the court.

– Healdsburg Tribune, June 1, 1905

 

PAXTON WINCES UNDER CHARGES.
Former Wife Verbally Flays Santa Rosa Banker for His Acts Toward Children.
COURT SCENE DRAMATIC.
Mother of Plaintiff Rises and Replies to Defendant’s Statements on the Stand

Blitz W. Paxton, Santa Rosa banker and capitalist, winced under the verbal lash, wielded by Bessie W. Paxton, who was once his wife, in Judge Graham’s department of the Superior Court yesterday. He was in court to fight against the petitions of his blind son and invalid daughter for maintenance. Well-groomed and showing in his dress every evidence of the possession of the wealth the mother of his children says he enjoys to their exclusion, he glanced at the sightless eyes of his son and at the frail form of his daughter without the faintest display of emotion.

With the eyes of the spectators upon him and the accusation of his former wife ringing in his ears he was less at ease, however.

Paxton first presented an answer to his children’s petition in which he denies that he is possessed of the hundreds of thousands of dollars with which they credit him and says that he is worth no more than $30,000. He also presented an affidavit signed by his physicians in which it is stated that rheumatic gout and heart disease compelled him to relinquish his position with the Santa Rosa Bank, which left him without salary or income other than that derived from his small estate, which, he says, he needs for the support of his present wife arid child.

PAXTON MAKES ADMISSION.

Upon taking the stand the capitalist admitted, in answer to questions put by Judge Graham, that he believed he should support his children, but, he said, “I will contribute nothing to them that might be used by their mother for her support.”

Springing to her feet, bitterness marking every gesture, Mrs. Paxton walked toward the man whose abandonment of her has cost her years of suffering, and said:

“And who, if it please you, took care of your children when you took $40,000 from the bank and went to Europe for a good time? You say, you should support these children. You had an opportunity before any suit was filed, but you turned your blind son away from your home when he went to ask for aid.”

Paxton winced and reddened, but tried to smile unconcernedly.

“Oh, you may well laugh,” said Mrs. Paxton, “when you are living in luxury and we are starving.”

Paxton was silent under the stinging accusation.

In an affidavit Mrs. Paxton said that since the expiration in August of an agreement entered into between herself and Paxton at the time she divorced him in 1894, under which he paid $100 a month for the support of his children, Paxton has only sent them $40, and that was to his blind son John. To his daughter Roma he sent nothing.

NO FOOD IN HOME.

“Why, even now,” said Attorney. Hanlon, interpolating, “there is no food in the home of these people that are in sore need.”

Again Paxton smiled; he found grim humor in the lawyer’s statement.

Continuing in her affidavit Mrs. Paxton recited the facts of the abandonment of herself
and her children by her husband, who had become angered, she said under oath, at her through her refusal to submit to criminal means to stay the advent of her baby girl into the world. She said he sent medicines and got a doctor. In his effort to compel her to submit to his demand, but she refused, and although her daughter had been sorely tried through illness her gentleness of spirit has brought much comfort into a stricken home.
At the conclusion of the reading of Mrs. Paxton’s affidavit, in concluding which she reiterates her statement that her former husband is a wealthy man and that his statement to the contrary is made solely to defeat the effort of her children to secure a judgment for maintenance, the case was continued until next Friday to enable Paxton to file counter statements, signed under oath.

– San Francisco Call, October 14, 1905

 

Pretty Hard Up.

An affidavit by Blitz W. Paxton, of Santa Rosa, as to his lack of money was filed in Judge Graham’s court Friday in response to the application of John A. Paxton and Miss Roma Paxton, his two children by his first wife, for an order to compel him to pay their counsel fees and costs in their suits against him for maintenance. Paxton declares on oath that he has no coin, and no property on which he can raise any. His stock in the Sonoma Consolidated Quicksilver company has no market value, he says, and his stock in the Santa Rosa bank and the Puget Sound Iron company is pledged to the Wickersham Banking company for more than it is worth.

– Healdsburg Tribune, February 15 1906

 

BESSIE PAXTON PLEADS FOR AID
Asks Judge Graham to Intercede for Her With Former Husband, Who Is Rich.
SAYS RENT IS UNPAID.
Explains That Her Credit With Tradesmen Is Exhausted and Hunger Nears

“For God’s sake, Judge Graham,” said Mrs. Bessie Paxton on the stand yesterday, “Intercede for me and my children with Mr. Paxton! You have stilled resentment in many hearts and have brought contentment to many unhappy mothers, and why cannot you do this for me?” Here the unfortunate woman, once the wife of Blitz W. Paxton, capitalist of Sonoma, broke down and sobbed bitterly. For several minutes there was silence in the court until Mrs. Paxton partly composed herself. Then she continued:

“I do not know what we will do, Judge. My rent has not been paid for three months; my credit at the butcher’s, the baker’s and the grocer’s, is exhausted and my gas bill is overdue two months. We have nothing but a gas stove in the house, and if the gas is shut off we will have no way to cook our daily meal. We have now but one meal a day, and as the weeks pass we find that we must further economize, even in the amount of food that we can have at this one meal. It is dreadful, and I fear that my mind is breaking under the terrible strain.”

“I know that if he were left alone Mr. Paxton would provide for me and my blind son, John, and my invalid daughter, Roma, but Attorney J. W. Oates of Sonoma, who represents Mr. Paxton, will not let him settle the case, because the longer it goes on the larger will be his fee. This is common talk at our old home and is a fact. Cannot you intercede for me?”

“Well,” said Judge Graham, visibly affected by the, unhappy woman’s appeal, “l have done and am doing all I can for you. The last time Mr. Paxton appeared in court I asked him why he did not conduct himself like a man and see that you and your children were kept from want, but my criticism had no effect upon him.”

Still in tears, Mrs. Paxton left the stand to listen to the argument of counsel on the motion of her children for an allowance pending the hearing of their father’s appeal from Judge Graham’s order directing him to pay them $50 a month each for their permanent maintenance. At the conclusion of the argument Judge Graham allowed the two children $350, but when they can collect that, sum is a matter for conjecture.

The case thus decided, Attorney John M. Burnett, who represents Paxton in this city, requested Attorney Charles F. Hanlon, who represents the children, to consent to the printing of the transcript on appeal in but one of the two cases involved. “This will save us great expense,” said Burnett.

“If you will agree to give these children 75 per cent of the cost of the second I will release you,” answered Hanlon.

Burnett would not consent to such a proposition, Attorney Hanlon settled the dialogue by saying:

“Mr. Burnett, you have chosen to live by the sword, and you can die by it. Prepare both transcripts and turn into useless print the gold that would buy these children food. You have given none, and hence you can expect no quarter, from us.”

– San Francisco Call, February 22, 1906

 

PAXTON BENEFIT A BIG SUCCESS

Success, artistic at every point, and in a financial way far beyond expectation, marked the testimonial concert given to Mrs. Bessie Paxton, former wife of Blitz W. Paxton, and her two children, at the Tivoli In 19 House, in San Francisco, last Tuesday afternoon. Members of society flocked to hear the delightful program that had been prepared for them by Mrs. Camille d’Arviile Crellln, to whom most of the credit for the tremendous success of the affair must be given. When the total receipts were figured up it was found that a fund of fully $2,000 had been realized to relieve the temporary embarrassment of Mrs, Paxton and her children.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, March 17 1906
 
“MADRONA KNOLL” GOES TO HIGHEST BIDDER

About one mile west of this city is located beautiful “Madrona Knoll.” It is one of the most picturesque and artistic homes of this county. Many years ago John A. Paxton, a wealthy mining man purchased the site, cleared it of an undergrowth of brush and built on the knoll a mansion for his home and that of his family. It is an ideal spot from which one may overlook the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.

After the death of Mr. Paxton and his wife, several years ago, the home was occupied by Blitz W. Paxton, a son. Later he removed to Santa Rosa and engaged in the banking business. The famous madrone home then stood in the name of the heirs as an estate. In the last few year it was decided to dispose of five eights of the estate. Accordingly it was advertised for sale at auction to the highest bidder, Including the entire tract of land, the home and all personal property.

On Tuesday last the sale took place as advertised under the auctioneer’s hammer. Five eights of the estate and all the belongings went to the highest bidder, the Santa Rosa Bank. The five eights of the reality was sold for $25,000.

The five eights of the personal property was knocked down to the bank for $6000. The furniture in the home which belonged to Mrs. Paxton went to the same purchaser for $3800.

The other three eights of the property is owned by Chas E. Paxton of San Francisco.

The auctioneer was John Hansen of Sebastopol. Attorney J. Rollo Loppo of Santa Rosa represented the bank. Colonel Oates looked after the Blitz Paxton interests and Attorney W. H. Rex of San Francisco appeared for Chas E. Paxton. There was a fairly good attendance at the sale.

– Healdsburg Enterprise, December 22 1906

 

THE PAXTON CASE
Offer Made By Father to Contribute to Support of Blind Son

The long standing dispute as to whether Blitz W. Paxton should be compelled to support his two minor children John A. and Roma W. Paxton came to an end Thursday in Judge Graham’s court, San Frandisco, when the judge accepted Paxton’s offer that his interest in his mother’s estate should be turned over to the Judge as an individual to be used for the benefit of his blind son. The estate of Hannah Paxton was left to her two sons and is said to have been worth $100,000. John A. Paxton, who has been running a cigar stand on lower Sacramento street, is anxious to open a new stand up town, and his attorney. Charles F. Hanlon, said that $200 cash was necessary for immediate use. Judge Graham will use his good offices with Judge Seawell, in whose court the estate of Hannah Paxton now is. to obtain the cash, says a San Francisco paper. The order to show cause against Blitz Paxton was dismissed without prejudice pending the court’s investigation of his offer.

– Healdsburg Tribune, July 2 1908
PAXTON PAYS CHILDREN

By the payment of $5OOO to his two children by his first marriage in settlement of all claims, Blitz W. Paxton of Santa Rosa Friday brought to a close the litigation the children have waged against him for the last six years. The chief beneficiary is John Paxton, the blind son. He has been assisted by his sister, Roma, in the legal battle. Mr. Paxton, it is stated, has never been averse to paying for the support of his children, but made the long contest in an effort to prevent any of his money going to the support of his former wife.

– Healdsburg Tribune, September 26 1912

 

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MATTIE’S DEATH

They were an odd couple, yet clearly devoted to each other. She had poise and grace, the embodiment of Victorian America gentility. He presented Southern courtliness if you were on his good side, but woe to anyone who rubbed his thin skin the wrong way. She was around six feet tall, towering over other local women in her only verified photograph. Besides being short-tempered he was also just short, five feet, seven and five-eights inches, and that probably counted the lift gained from the elevator shoes drawn in a caricature. She was Mattie Solomon Oates; he was husband James Wyatt Oates. In 1914 she died and afterwards he fell apart like a building that lost its cornerstone.

Mattie and Wyatt had no children; her legacy is (the home that would become known as) Comstock House and the Saturday Afternoon Club building down the street, where she was chairman of the building committee. Both were examples of the nascent Arts & Crafts movement and were bookends to the magnificent Paxton House which lay between them. Never again would architect Brainerd Jones have such a free hand to create not one but three buildings close together, while making an artistic statement using a cutting-edge style.

Much has already been written here about Mattie; all that’s left to do is tie her story together, while daubing in missing details about her early life and death.

Mattie was born in San Francisco September 11, 1858. Her father was Perrin L. Solomon, a Mexican War veteran and U.S. Marshall for the Northern District of California until he was removed from office in 1861, presumably because of Confederate sympathies. He died when Mattie was six; the only sibling who lived past infancy was sister Mary (“Fannie”) who died when Mattie was ten, and she kept a watercolor of Fannie the rest of her life. Her widowed mother lived with Mattie for 46 years until she died in 1910. (More about the family.)

Her lengthy obituary in the Santa Rosa Republican (transcribed below) is to be trusted, except for a few obvious typos; Wyatt was the publisher of that paper until shortly before she died. In her debutante years she was a “member of the naval social set in San Francisco” as well as a “member of the old southern set,” despite having never lived outside of San Francisco. The obit states Mattie was introduced to Wyatt by John B. Milton, a young naval officer; Mattie in turn introduced Milton to the woman he would marry. The Miltons and Oates remained close as John rose to admiral and he was a pallbearer at Mattie’s funeral.

There must have been considerable romantic intrigue beneath those dry facts, however; it appears Mattie was engaged to another guy when she met Wyatt in 1880.

In 1880 Wyatt was moving back and forth between San Francisco and Tucson, Arizona where he had a legal practice. In August of that year an item appeared in the Bay Area papers announcing Mattie’s engagement to Navy Lt. Emeric. Shift forward three months to the huge society wedding of her close friend Anna McMullin. Several papers listed all the guests and both Mattie and Wyatt were there – but no Lieutenant Emeric. (Guests were listed alphabetically, so we don’t know if Mattie and Wyatt attended together.) A few weeks later, in mid-December, an announcement appeared in Arizona and local newspapers that she was now engaged to James Wyatt Oates. They married August 11, 1881 and moved to Santa Rosa, where Wyatt was a law partner with a man he knew from college.

In Santa Rosa, Mattie was defined by she did – and particularly what she did not. The Oates’ were never part of the McDonald avenue clique (although Mr. and Mrs. Mark McDonald Jr. were good friends), living among the professional class in the Cherry street neighborhood before Comstock House was built. The town had dozens of “ladies’ clubs” where women got together to gossip over cards; she belonged only to a single card group which included husbands. She was very involved with the Saturday Afternoon Club and its focus on the intellectual life. In 1907 she made a witty presentation on “The Laws of California as related to Women and Children” the Press Democrat printed in full. Wyatt probably had a hand in writing some of it, but her character shines through.

She had a mentoring relationship with several young women, some of whom lived with the Oates’ for months on end; among those were Addie Murphy, daughter of the president of the First National Bank in San Francisco, and particularly Anna May Bell, who was treated like their godchild and ended up inheriting much of Mattie and Wyatt’s estate. For these protégées Mattie threw lavish parties and her friends did likewise. While Santa Rosa was still recovering from the 1906 earthquake, she and her neighbor Jane Paxton hosted the first post-disaster galas in honor of Anna May’s clockwork-like summer visit.

The Oates seemingly had few friends their own age except those who were parents of Mattie’s youthful crowd. In 1903 some young men formed a dancing club called “The Bunch,” renting lodge halls around town for monthly dances. From the beginning Mattie was listed as a “patroness” for the events, which presumably can be translated as, “the chaperone who paid for almost everything.” Attending these dances were the same twenty-somethings who came to Mattie’s protégée parties plus young marrieds, such as Mr. Shirley Burris and his wife and Florence Edwards with husband James. Shirley was the owner of an auto dealership and the recreational driving buddy of Wyatt; the Edwards became among the Oates’ closest friends.

(RIGHT: Mattie Oates and Brainerd Jones, detail from photo of the 1908 ground-breaking for the Saturday Afternoon Club (full image)

She became a semi-invalid after her first heart attack in 1911 and her death certificate would later date the beginning of her illness to that year and name the cause as “dilitation of heart” – an old-fashioned name for enlarged heart (cardiomegaly). From that point on it was a prolonged deathwatch. What few mentions of her in the society columns over the next few years usually concerned her failing health. The last time she held a dinner party at her home was in August, 1913. Predictably, it was in honor of Anna May, now married with a small daughter.

Mattie Oates died at home July 25, 1914, age 55. Besides the lengthy obit in the Republican, the Press Democrat columnist wrote an unusual personal tribute: “Mrs. Oates was a very beautiful woman and I never will forget the first time I saw her. It was many, many years ago when I was a small, impressionable girl. I was sitting on our front steps and out of a carriage that drove up before the house stepped Mrs. Oates. Never will I forget the vision of loveliness she was that day. Despite the soft trailing satin gown she wore and the dainty gloves, she stopped to make friends with me and my remembrance is that a very dirty little specimen, I was that day, for I had been busily engaged in the mysteries of mud pie making…Through her last long and trying iilness she fought bravely and cheerfully. Even to the last her thought was those dear to her and to them continually tried to speak words of encouragement.”

Her coffin was placed in the holding vault at the Rural Cemetery, where it would remain until after Wyatt died seventeen months later, still lost in melancholy and likely more than a little mad. At his deathbed request both their bodies – along with the previously buried remains of all her relatives – were cremated together with their ashes thrown to the winds.

Mattie’s presence is still felt in Comstock House; the seven-foot clawfoot tub reminds us of her tallness, as does the unusually high bathroom mirror. And sometimes in the back hall at night, in autumn when the house is very quiet, the drafts swirling from upstairs carry the faintest scent of something floral and old, lilacs and rose petal. Certainly it’s a whiff of some lost crumb from the previous owner’s potpourri sachets, but I instead like to think it’s a fading hint of Mattie’s’ perfume. For that instant in the quiet and dim light, the year is 1905 and here again it is that passing moment between gaslight and tomorrow.

Front seat, left to right: Shirley D. Burris, Florence Edwards. Rear seat: Shirley’s wife Evelyn Blanche Burris or Bernice Riddle (both age 22), with Shirley’s 49 year-old mother Laura Burris in the middle. Mattie Oates at far right and enlarged inset. Only the identity of the pair in the front seat can be confirmed with certainty. (PHOTO: Sonoma County Library)

IS THAT MATTIE OATES? The proof might lie in the mums.

After reading about James Wyatt Oates’ death and strange directive for mass cremation, fellow local history bloodhound Neil Blazey began looking into some of the curious corners of Oates’ life, including the dearth of pictures of Mattie. Although several images of husband Wyatt are around (five so far, including an early drawing found last week), the only known picture of Mattie was part of the Saturday Afternoon Club group photo, shown above. Her will mentioned an oil portrait bequeathed (along with other family items) to her closest living relative, cousin William W. Pepper, but a hunt for his descendants went nowhere.

Then Neil happened to read this little item in a Press Democrat description of the 1908 Rose Carnival:


Mrs. Shirley D. Burris was at the wheel of the next car. With her rode Mrs. George R. Riddle, Mrs. James W. Oates and Mrs. K. W. Burris. The auto was adorned with pink chrysanthemums.

The vast majority of autos in the Rose Carnivals of that era were decorated, not surprisingly, with roses. Chrysanthemums are typically available only in November or December; to have them in the spring – and enough to decorate an auto no less – was unusual, and probably quite expensive. Neil also recalled having once spotted a car covered in chrysanthemums among the hundreds of Rose Carnival pictures online via the Sonoma County Library. (Myself, I would not recognize a mum if it came up and bit me.)

Neil is confident the woman in the corner is Mattie Oates; my wife Candice, who has a very sharp eye for faces, believes it is not. I am strongly inclined to agree she is the same woman as in the group photo (which was taken exactly three months later) although the differences in lighting and her expressions make it impossible for me to cast an unequivocal vote.

But complications abound, starting with the library identifying this photo as from 1912, not 1908. The Library, however, has no information otherwise about the image including where it came from. There was a car with yellow paper chrysanthemums in 1912, but the 1908 parade entry was the only possible match from that era with real mums. The 1912 car had butterfly ornamentation not seen in this picture.

Also undermining the 1912 dating is the clothing. Other women in the 1908 photos are similarly wearing white dresses with high lace collars. Looking at the 1912 clothing ads in both papers plus the photo of the parade queen shows all women with their necks exposed and open collar, even sometimes a bit of decolletage.

The 1908 newspaper described three women riding in the car whose age seems to match the women in the back seat: A woman in her twenties plus two older ladies. The 1912 paper mentions only young women in the car with paper mums and newspaper accounts of the carnivals in the intervening years do not allow the possibility that the photo was taken on any of those occasions.

Add all this up and it’s 1908: 3 and 1912: Zip.

The final complication is that the two people in the front seat are not mentioned in the paper, yet are the only two who can be positively identified. Mr. Shirley Burris was the husband of the woman driving the car in the parade and Florence Edwards was part of the Oates’ tight social circle that included Mr. and Mrs. Shirley Burris.

Still all in all, “the mosaic of information” (as Neil poetically wrote) lends a very high probability that it’s Mattie. What do you think?

 

 

MRS. JAMES W. OATES PASSES TO THE UNKNOWN
Beloved Woman Enters Eternal Rest Saturday Morning

One of Santa Rosa’s most estimable and lovable women passed to eternal rest early on Saturday morning, when Mrs. James W. Oates eyes were closed in the sleep that knows no waking this side of eternity. Gently falling into peaceful rest, as a child drops off to slumber after hours of play, the deceased’s life passed out, and gave surcease from earth’s pain and suffering. Her death has left a void in the hearts of the people of Santa Rosa, which can never be filled, and her life will be a precious memory to all who knew her until the end of time shall come to them.

For many years Mrs. Oates had been a resident of Santa Rosa. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Solomon, prominent residents of this state. She was a gentle woman, and possessed of admirable qualities of heart and mind, and endeared herself to all with whom she came in contact. She had a wide circle of friends, her activities having touched all classes of society, and she will be greatly missed by the entire community.

For several years past Mrs. Oates had not been well, the last sickness and death of her mother, Mrs. M. S. Solomon, having proved a great blow to her. Her waning strength flitted slowly, and the efforts of physicians and the best of care and attention proved futile in staying the hand of disease, which had marked her for its bright victim. To her mother, Mrs. Oates was the personification of devotion, and throughout the long illness of the mother Mrs. Oates gave her every attention. Following the monther’s death the health of Mrs. Oates broke perceptibly but she was the center of an admiring throung of friends, and her presence was always desired by those who knew her.

As hostess of the hospitable Oates residence the deceased entertained lavishly, and her guests were always delighted with a visit to her home. She was of the stately Southern women type and was much admired by her many friends.

Mrs. Oates was one of the first presidents of the Saturday Afternoon Club of this city, and to her untiring energies is greatly due the magnificent club house erected by the organization in this city. She was always assisting in all of the events which the club arranged, even when her strength did not permit, and never lost her interest in that splendid organization of women of this city. In her zeal for its welfare she went to extreme lengths when they were to her detriment.

In his bereavement Colonel Oates has the sympathy of a wide circle of friends. The hand of affliction has been laid heavily upon him in the removal of the partner of his life’s joys and sorrows, and it is a severe blow.

Death came to Mrs. Oates just after the midnight hour, when another day was beginning with all its bright prospects. To her it was the closing of a life well spent, and in which her good deeds were daily done. It can be truly said of her that she never let her left hand know what the right did, and her charities were many and done without ostentation. Many have been the recipients of her bounty, and her words of good cheer have smoothed out seemingly impassable obstacles in the pathway of others. She was genuinely happy in assisting others less fortunate than herself in the possession of this world’s goods. She was reared a Christian and devoted herself to the work of the church, being a member of the Presbyterian church of this city and one of its regular and devoted attendants. She supported the church and its institution at all times, and her voice was lifted in praise of the Master.

Mrs. Oates will be missed from her accustomed walks of life among the people of Santa Rosa, and it can be truthfully said of her that the world is better for her having lived therein.

Mrs. Oates was the daughter of Major and Mrs. Perrin L. Solomon, her father having been a Mexican war veteran, and he was a United States marshal for California under President Buchanan. He held many positions with honor and credit. Major Solomon passed away in San Francisco in the year which closed the civil war, 1864 [sic]. Four children were born to Major and Mrs. Solomon, three of whom died in infancy.

Mrs. Oates  became the bride of Colonel James W. Oates on August 11, 1858, [sic] and their married life was of almost thirty-three years duration. It was one of loving helpfulness and closest communication of mind and soul. Mrs. Oates was a decidedly talented woman, and of a high intellectual order. She was born in San Francisco on September 11, 1858. As Miss Hattie Solomon [sic] she was a member of the naval social set in San Francisco, and had one of the most charging of young girlhoods and woman hoods. She was a member of the old southern set, noted for its courtliness and chivalry, and associated with the Maynards, McMullins and Gwynns and enjoyed a most beautiful girlhood. One of the pallbearers at the funeral will be Admiral John B. Milton of San Francisco. Admiral Milton was a young naval officer in San Francisco when Colonel Oates reached that city from his southern home, and shortly after the gentlemen had met, Admiral Milton told Colonel Oates he desired to introduce him to a charming young lady friend, and it was thus that Colonel Oates was presented to Miss Mattie S. Solomon, and subsequently wedded her. By a singular coincidence, not long after Admiral Milton had introduced Colonel Oates to the lady who was to become his wife, Miss Solomon in turn introduced Admiral Milton to a young lady friend, and they were inter married. The lady friend was Miss Hattie Steele. The friendship thus formed was maintained to the end and Admiral Milton has been solicitous for the welfare of Mrs. Oates in her recent illness, making daily inquiries by phone to ascertain her condition. The quartette were the closes kind of personal friends since early manhood and womanhood. Admiral Milton is now retired from active service.

The great friendship of Admiral Milton and his wife, extending over these many years, demonstrated the durability of the ties Mrs. Oates always wove about those with whom she came in contact. Everybody loved her for her sweet disposition and her beautiful character.

Funeral services will be held on Sunday afternoon from the Oates residence on Mendocino avenue at 2:30 o’clock, and Rev. Wills G. White will return here from Carmel to conduct the services. Her remains will be deposited temporarily in the receiving vault until the concrete vault on the Oates lot is prepared and they will be tenderly deposited in a flower lined tomb beside her mother. There will be services at the cemetery. The pallbearers will be Blitz W. Paxton, Elwyn D. Seaton and Charles A. Hoffer of this city; Charles H. S. Rule of Duncan’s Mills, William E. Woolsey of Berkeley and Admiral John B. Milton of San Francisco.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, July 25 1914

 

The death of Mrs. James Wyatt Oates occasioned general grief and deepest sympathy is being extended to Col. Oates. For years in Santa Rosa Mrs. Oates led in club and social circles. Her natural charm, her tactful disposition and her kindliness endeared her to all. Mrs. Oates was a very beautiful woman and I never will forget the first time I saw her. It was many, many years ago when I was a small, impressionable girl. I was sitting on our front steps and out of a carriage that drove up before the house stepped Mrs. Oates. Never will I forget the vision of loveliness she was that day. Despite the soft trailing satin gown she wore and the dainty gloves, she stopped to make friends with me and my remembrance is that a very dirty little specimen, I was that day, for I had been busily engaged in the mysteries of mud pie making. Until her ill health prevented Mrs. Oates was an acknowledged social leader. Her entertainments were always brilliant and well appointed. The beautiful home where she presided with so much grace and ease will, indeed, be desolate without her. In club affairs she gave freely of her ability, her money, and her strength. In civic, literary and musical affairs she was always the first to aid and assist, Her work for bettering those less fortunate than herself was continual Without ostentation she gave freely, particularly in helping children and unfortunate sick women. She not only gave but always added, “Any time I can help, please let me know.”

Through her last long and trying illness she fought bravely and cheerfully. ‘Even to the last her thought was those dear to her and to them continually tried to speak words of encouragement. Mrs. Oates was a devoted member of the Presbyterian church and worked in the past diligently in its upbuilding. She will be greatly missed and her kind words and works will never be forgotten.

– Society Gossip, Press Democrat, July 28 1914

Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates charmingly entertained Wednesday evening complimentary to Mrs. S. T. Dunlap of Los Angeles and Mrs. William Martin of San Anselmo. Covers were laid for twelve around a table that was beautified with an artistic decoration of Dresden bouquets set in cut glass vases. A tempting course menu was served. The guests were: Senator and Mrs. Thomas Kearns, Mrs. J. D. Galllvan, Salt Lake, Dr. and Mrs. Jackson Temple, Mr. and Mrs. C. A. Wright, Mrs. S. T. Dunlap, Mrs. William Martin and Hilliard Comstock. Little Sue Dunlap accompanied her mother from Los Angeles and has been much admired by Santa Rosa friends.

– Society Gossip, Press Democrat August 24 1913

Mrs. James Wyatt Oates, who has been confined to her house for a fortnight, is much better, Mrs. Oates’ indisposition was caused by over-exertion, and a complete rest quickly restored her.

– Society Gossip, Press Democrat October 26 1913

Miss Mattie Solomon, who was the guest of the Misses McMullan, of San Francisco, last winter, is soon to be married to Lieutenant Emeric, formerly of the United States steamer Tuscarora, now on detached service.

– Oakland Tribune, August 5, 1880

 

Lucky Fellow.

The San Francisco Chronicle says: The marriage of James W. Oates, of Tucson, Arizona, to Miss Mattie Solomon, of this city, has been announced to take place either during the latter part of April or the first of May…Mr. Oates has been practicing law and at the same time engaged in mining interests for the past ten months.

– Arizona Daily Star, December 17, 1880
OATES-SOLOMON.
The Marriage in San Francisco of Miss Mattie A. Solomon to Mr. J. W. Oates.

The event of the week in society circles in San Francisco was the marriage on Thursday evening last of Miss Mattie A. Solomon of the Bay City to Mr. J. Wyatt Oates of Santa Rosa. The ceremonies took place at half past eight o’clock at St. John’s Presbyterian Church on Post street. The interior of the edifice was elegantly decorated and the dresses of the ladies magnificent. Misses Rebecca McMullen, Alicia Morgan, Adele Martel! and Lillie Gurke acted as bridesmaids and Messrs. Horace G. Platt, Arthur Shatluck, C. J. Swift and R. B. Haffold as groomsmen. Miss Solomon, the bride, is the daughter of Mrs. W. S. Solomon and is well known in San Francisco. She has been one of the leaders in society circles, where she made for herself numberless friends by her uniform courtesy and gentle manners. The groom, J. Wyatt Oates, of the firm of Whipple & Oates of this city, though not long a resident here, is well known to all our citizens. He is a gentleman of scholarly attainments and a lawyer of ability. He is a graduate of one of the first colleges of old Virginia. He practiced his profession with merited success for several years in Alabama, and he moved to this State about two years ago. Subsequently he was a resident of Arizona until he came to Santa Rosa and entered into partnership with Hon. E. L. Whipple who was a schoolmate of his in the Eastern States. At the conclusion of the ceremonies on Thursday evening an informal reception was held at the residence of the brides parents. On the morning following the happy couple left on a wedding tour of several weeks. Mr. and Mrs, Oates will return to reside in this city.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 13, 1881

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1898wsdavishouse

DAVIS HOUSE: NOW WE ARE SIX

Take a look at the map below; it’s a section of the 1876 bird’s eye view of Santa Rosa. The arrow points to the house at 759 Mendocino avenue. It still exists, but not a single other building in the picture. In fact, there are only five four places left in town that are this old, including Luther Burbank’s house. Others include two of the Metzger houses on B street (1868 and 1869), possibly the Church of the Incarnation (1873?) and 209 Fifth street (1870). Correction: The Fifth st. house is no more.

A developer has plans for a high-density project on the site which includes moving the house from its historic location, shifting it forward to within fifteen feet of the sidewalk and pushing it as far to the north side as legally possible. Whether or not that’s a big deal depends on whom you’re asking – and when. Our ancestors moved houses around as if they were toys in a sandbox, but this is in one of Santa Rosa’s few Preservation Districts, which seeks to protect “the historic character of the structure and the neighborhood.” Complicating matters further is that the proposed move would block the public’s view of Comstock House, which is listed on National Register of Historic Places. We’ll see how this works out; the first meeting on the project is tonight (Feb. 1, 2017) at City Hall and another on February 8. Updates will appear on my OldSantaRosa Facebook page.

The home was built ca. 1872 by Josias Davis, a real estate developer who subdivided sixteen acres on both sides of College avenue as an addition to the city (PDF). For years the wedge of two short blocks between Adel’s restaurant and 10th street was called Joe Davis’ street in his honor, even though residents repeatedly begged city council to change it. If they played Trivial Pursuit back then, “Where is Joe Davis?” would have stumped nearly everybody.

(RIGHT: Walter S. Davis in Masonic regalia)

Josias suffered chronic health problems and was cared for by his only child since the boy was in his teens. After his parents died Walter continued to live at that house until his own death in 1916.

Between 1880 and 1915 probably everyone in town knew Walter S. Davis. He was an independent insurance agent but often mentioned in the papers for a wide range of other activities. He was a volunteer fireman, an elected city official (City Treasurer twice), a hop grower, speculator in Arizona and Southern California oil wells (his “Senta Oil Company” had a downtown office where he would sell you a share for a quarter), mortgage broker and real estate investor. He was a Mason and a leader of Santa Rosa Elks’ lodge which was no small thing after the Great Earthquake of 1906, as the Elks’ did more to organize relief efforts than anyone.

Davis had a lighter side and sometimes silly items about himself would popup in the Press Democrat, such as the time he was praised as a great fisherman for landing a prize catch at the grocery on his way home. He had a peach tree which produced fruit from May until October and twice the Press Democrat marveled at its bounty, even though the newspaper was trying to appear more cosmopolitan and rarely mentioning freakish fruits and vegetables.

The oddest item about him appeared on the Fourth of July, 1905. It was all nonsense, but apparently he got drunk with his new neighbor, James Wyatt Oates, who had recently moved into (the home which would become known as) Comstock House. Together they prepared a balloon containing a message for President Teddy Roosevelt, launching their airship by smashing a bottle across the prow. And it was a bottle of good stuff, too — that beer newly imported to the West Coast called Budweiser (see “THE VOYAGE OF THE ‘AER FERVENS‘”).

Walter’s wife, Evelyn, died after a long illness in 1902, when their daughter Alys Marie was only five. He remarried a couple of years later and the renewed Davis’ family was close, with Walter, wife Ann and his daughter often mentioned in the society columns for outings and visits to the City. He seemed particularly devoted to Alys, taking her along on business trips. When she was three Walter and his first wife threw a birthday party for her that was so swell there was a writeup in the PD.

After Walter died his wife and daughter rented out the house for about 25 years. The next owner was the sister of Helen Comstock, who lived next door. During the WWII housing shortage Frances Finley Nielsen and her husband Anders converted the home into four apartments and built four garages. Pretty much everything we see today is the same as it was soon after the war.

Two surveys have looked at the place and noted it was a “potentially historic property,” but it’s never been awarded landmark status because the house is plain (although Burbank’s home is likewise a simple farmhouse) and Josias and Walter just weren’t important enough to care about. Too bad they weren’t interviewing people after the 1906 quake; apparently none of his insurance customers had claims denied or were forced to settle for less. Considering some in Santa Rosa ended up fighting their insurance carriers in court for up to five years, Walter must have been viewed as something of a miracle worker.

(A version of this article first appeared on Facebook and in the Ridgway Historical District newsletter)
W.S. Davis House, c. 1901

 

FORTY YEARS AGO W. S. DAVIS CAME HERE

Walter S. Davis, the well known insurance man of this city, came to Santa Rosa forty years ago this month. Of course he was a very young man then, and people can hardly realize that he has attained the age he has on account of his youthful appearance. Mr. Davis is widely known throughout this section of the state, and is one of the best known insurance men in northern California.

– Press Democrat, September 4 1910
THREE YEARS OLD
Birthday Party In Honor of Miss Alys Marie Davis

A delightful juvenile event and one which will long be remembered by the little guests was the birthday party given at the pretty home of Mr. and Mrs. Walter S. Davis on Healdsburg avenue on Saturday afternoon. The occasion was in honor of the third birthday of their winsome little daughter, Alys Marie.

During the afternoon the guests played all manner of games, enjoying every minute of the time thus spent. Of course the birthday feast was a great feature for them. The tables with their floral decorations were laden with innumerable dainties, not to forget the center of attraction — the magnificent birthday cake. In the entertainment of the guests, the mother of the petite hostess, Mrs. Davis, and Miss Nan M. Orr, and the Misses Alma and Clara Elnhorn assisted. Those present were the little Misses…

– Press Democrat, August 29 1900

 

Another Gusher

The McKittrlck now enjoys the reptation of having the two largest oil wells in California, namely, the McPherson and the Dabney. From the Bakersfield Morning Echo of the 11th inst, it is learned that the Dabney Oil Co., operating on lands leased from the El Dorado people, has Just completed its well No. 5, and at noon on Wednesday, as soon as work was finished, the well commenced to flow at the rate of 2000 barrels a day and is still gushing.

This well is within less than three miles of the Seanta company’s holding. The directors and friends of the Seanta Oil company are jubilant over this new strike. Stock in the Seanta is still selling at 25 cents a share.

Those wishing to purchase may call on any authorized agent or at the company’s office, 445 Fourth street, W. S. Davis, secretary.

– Press Democrat, October 17 1900

 

COLONEL W. S. DAVIS NAMES NEW PEACH THE “HALLOWE’EN PEACH”

Colonel Walter S. Davis, the wellknown insurance man. has a fine garden at his Healdsburg avenue residence, in which he takes considerable pride. The Colonel has a remarkable peach tree on his place. Eighteen years ago he bought the peach tree in question from John Louis Childs, the noted seedsman of Philadelphia, and it has been bearing fine fruit for many years. The peaches ripen among the earliest in May.

A couple of years or so ago, some distance up the trunk of the tree, a branch grew out and now, near the latter part of October, It is bearing a fine cluster of ripe peaches. A Press Democrat representative on Saturday secured a branch on which hung fine, highly colored peaches and in the office during the day the branch and its fruit attracted considerable attention. it is certainly something of a novelty to have a peach tree, a part of which bears the earliest variety of peach, and the other part the latest.

– Press Democrat, October 24 1915

 

Very Fine Peach

W. S. Davis brought to this office on Monday a peach from a tree in his yard on Mendocino avenue. The peach has something of the nectarine appearance, and is said to be the earliest variety known. The flavor is most pleasing as the writer can testify from a personal knowledge.

– Press Democrat, June 21 1910

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