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, thanks to a rich old crackpot with a lawyer, a famous name and a big chip on his shoulder.

This is the second part of the story of Santa Rosa High School's rebirth; see part one for details about the terrible 1921 fire and the threat it posed to the town. But this is also the tale of Sampson B. Wright, who filed a series of lawsuits to block the new school. The stalemate led to community leaders calling an unprecedented town meeting to fight back.


Despite the loss of their school, it seems that a spirit of optimism energized Santa Rosa teenagers in the months right after the November 15, 1921 fire. Yeah, classes were scattered in halls and churches all over town, but it was only temporary and heck, was probably kind of an adventure to many.

But after a winter of dashing through the rain, Roy Heyward, the 1922 student body president, wrote in the yearbook that kids were becoming demoralized: "The classes are so broken up that there is no unity. Some students do not see their friends for days at a time and under these conditions they are bound to lose interests in school activities."

Now flash forward to the next winter as the children were still making their 20 minute dashes to classes. In January, 1923 - the height of a bad flu season - the Press Democrat reported, "The exposure and trying conditions to which the teachers of the Santa Rosa high school are being subjected is proving a heavy tax to their health and strength." The PD continued:

The study hall and five recitation rooms are located in the Congregational church with poor light, ventilation and accommodations for drying out wet clothing. Two other classes are located in the Methodist Episcopal church where the conditions are not much better. Four classes are housed in the old Mailer hall on Fourth street and five in the old Mailer warehouse at Fifth and Mendocino avenue. This is made of corrugated iron and is not warm or comfortable in such weather as is prevailing at present.

And if that wasn't depressing enough, everyone knew that during the following 1923-1924 winter the faculty and students would either still be slogging through downtown puddles or shivering in temporary canvas tents. It was as if they had been woefully transported into the bleak world of Scrooge's Christmas Yet to Come.

How had this happened? The path forward had seemed so certain, so safe; the day right after the fire, members of the board of education and chamber of commerce began to negotiate with Rush and Bertha Todd, who owned a large spread on the north end of town. They had recently sold part of it to be the future home of the Junior College. Except for keeping a few acres around the baronial “old Ridgway mansion” on the corner, they agreed to sell the town all the land it wanted for the future high school. An option deal - no money involved - was announced two weeks later (for more, see "RIDGWAY’S CHILDREN").

The stars were also aligned to make the new high school the crown of our public education system. Just that summer, the state legislature finally recognized that an education beyond grade school was essential and a local high school had to be part of the school system. Grammar school districts now could be annexed under a local high school district, and that's what also happened here immediately after the fire; a meeting brought together supervisors of the 25 rural school districts around Santa Rosa and along the Russian River. It was agreed their kids would come to Santa Rosa for high school and the little districts would have a voice on the new school board - as well as contributing some of the district tax money to pay for the education and upkeep of the buildings. So far, so good.

All that remained was to raise enough money to build the school. For reasons never explained, Santa Rosa first asked voters to approve bonds for two new elementary schools - as noted in part one, the Lincoln and Fremont schools were considered firetraps. Early in April 1922, Santa Rosa voted in favor of those bonds by an astonishing majority of 27 to 1. Again, good news - it showed the pubic enthusiastically supported new schools.

Now came the high school vote a few weeks later, in mid-May. On top of the $241,000 just approved for the grade schools, voters of the City of Santa Rosa high school district were being asked to approve another $375,000 to pay for the property and new building. Taken together, the bonds were worth about $9 million in today's money - a steep commitment, given that the population of 1922 Santa Rosa was as small as modern Cloverdale.

Even though it looked like the bond would easily pass, the town campaigned hard. There was a big Chamber of Commerce dinner and gushy articles can be found in almost every edition of the Press Democrat. "High School Is To Have Museum Worth Thousands," read one PD headline, promising that Jesse Peter, a respected amateur archeologist, would donate his collection of artifacts to the school for a "museum of anthropology devoted to the Sonoma county Indians." (The collection went to the Junior College instead.)

There was a big parade with floats and over 2,000 students from fourth grade through junior college marching downtown on the eve of the vote. From the descriptions in the paper, it was one of those heart-tugging moments worthy of a visit the next time you take the time machine out for a spin.

The various clubs and classes were represented; as reported by the PD, "The cooking classes of the high school with their aprons and working utensils added an interesting touch to the parade and showed that the growing generation was assured of some good cooks, to say the least." They were followed by the ag students, some carrying a fruit tree while others wore "spraying outfits" to fend off their classmates "dressed to represent large destructive insects hovering about." The event ended in front of the courthouse, where everyone watched girls from the elementary schools dance around three May poles.

The next day, the bonds passed 16 to 1.

A week later, Sam Wright announced his first lawsuit.



The nicest thing anyone can say about Sampson B. Wright is that he was a fool. You can bet residents of Santa Rosa called him worse things between 1922-1923. Far, far worse.

Besides approving the bonds, the same ballot asked voters to pick a location for the future high school and the Todd property was the overwhelming favorite, 20 to 1. The other option was the Leddy tract, about 2½ west of Santa Rosa, close to Highway 12 and just east of Fulton/South Wright Road (there's still a Leddy avenue there). There originally was a third choice offered by the Wright family on the west side of Fulton/South Wright Road - probably the current location of the Wright Charter School - but it was withdrawn from the running by Sampson before the election, with no reason given.*

In his lawsuit to block the high school's construction, Wright's attorneys crafted a legal roadblock made from top quality bullshit. It was argued that the new state law allowing elementary school districts to be annexed by a high school district was unconstitutional. Why? Because it ceded some decision-making powers to a county's superintendent of schools rather than its board of supervisors. At its core, this was a classic nuisance suit, coyly intended to harass the school district and/or bollix everything up for months, years, maybe decades, as appeal followed appeal in the court system's higher echelons.

The crazy thing about his Quixotic war was that Wright didn't seem to care about that trivial constitutional issue; nor did he have objections to kids receiving high school educations (all his children did) and he wasn't opposed to selling bonds to build the school. The thing that really, really ticked him off was that it was to be on the Todd property.

The first we heard on the issue from Sampson B. Wright came just before the bond election, when a lengthy letter rant appeared in the Press Democrat. Alas, he was responding to something from Hilliard Comstock, president of the board of education, which appeared in the Santa Rosa Republican and that edition of the newspaper has not survived.

Wright insisted that the Leddy property was the only good option, waving off the many obstacles to the project because it was out in the unincorporated countryside. No matter that kids would have to take the electric train to school ("railroad officials well know how to transport children") or that there was no city water or sewer hookups ("an abundance of water can be had on the Leddy tract by pumping"). All that mattered to him was that (A) the land was cheaper and (B) it wasn't in Santa Rosa.

His particular obsession about the Santa Rosa location concerned the Noonan stockyard and slaughterhouse four blocks to the west (about where highway 101 crosses West College). The smell from there would be so awful, he wrote, that the city would have to condemn the property and reimburse Noonan $250,000, paid for by a huge tax increase. At the same time, he argued - with remarkable mental agility - that runoff from the school would damage the meat packing plant. Wright was "reliably informed that Mr. Noonan is not going to tamely submit to present drainage conditions," he stated.

The next day, a letter from the Noonan Meat Company appeared in the PD denying all of Wright's claims. If there was to be any runoff from the Todd property they would welcome it: "we could use the water on our pasture." Neighbors closer to the slaughterhouse than the proposed school had never complained about odors, and they closed with an endorsement for the bond and the Mendocino ave location.

Even after his lawsuit stopped construction plans, Sampson B. Wright would not shut up about the awful, terrible, no-good high school plan approved by the voters. He handed out a printed circular filled with his nutso ideas, because that's what unhinged people did before Twitter was invented.

Printed in full by the Press Democrat on May 27, the transcript appeared after the graduating class of 1922 was reduced to holding ceremonies at the blocked off Humboldt street between Benton and College. Wright's handout still charged there was a plot afoot to funnel public money to the Noonans: "As soon as the high school is located on the Todd site there will, I expect, be complaint against a certain property and then we shall be asked to contribute $250,000 on that score."

His screed filled a full column in the Press Democrat, printed in the smallest type. It was crammed with numbers - distances, valuations, projected expenses down to the penny. It was a spittle-flecked manifesto dripping with his rage to prevent the "saddling upon us of a young university under the disguise of a high school."



The only reason Wright had any credibility was because the Wright name was still widely known and respected in the early 20th century. His father, Winfield had been one of the richest men in the county, owning great swaths of land between the coast and Santa Rosa; Winfield's 1892 obituary says he had about 4,500 acres but in the preceding years he was spotted regularly selling hundreds of acres to his only son, Sampson. It would be a safe guesstimate to say the Wrights owned 6,000 acres of prime Sonoma county farmland. Everywhere you find the Wright name on some place today is because of Winfield, and until it was torn down in 1923, the enormous Wright dairy barn at the corner of Stony Point and Sebastopol Road was a county landmark known to everyone.

The Wrights were an intriguing family; Winfield's first wife, Sarah, was the granddaughter of mythic American hero Daniel Boone. Anyone who has toured the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery has probably noticed the unusual tombstone for Davis Wright, a “Colored Boy” - although the child was probably never a slave, he was a member of Winfield's father household. That man (also named Sampson) was a slave owner in Missouri just prior to joining his son in California, when Davis would have been about a year old. Indefatigable researcher Ray Owen has more background on that story.

Our antihero, Sampson Boone Wright, was born in Santa Rosa in 1854, a silver spoon tucked into his little baby mouth. According to his profile in the Honoria Tuomey county history, he was in his early twenties when he "conceived the notion that it would be profitable to drive a flock of sheep through to the grazing lands of Texas," which is such a ridiculous idea it suggests he was dropped on his head during infancy. "This he did amid difficulties that may better be imagined than described." I'll bet.

If you asked Sampson who he was, he would have told you he was a dairy rancher and a stockman, a respected breeder of prize hogs and a horseman with a stable of race-winning trotters. All true - but from 1876 until his death, it appears he was always party to some lawsuit or another. Most were apparently run-of-the-mill disputes related to the vast amount of property he inherited, but some reveal him as a quarrelsome man who was quick to file lawsuits out of spite.  Here are just a few of the lowlights:

*
1903: After the county drilled a well on the side of a road to supply water to sprinkler trucks, Wright presented the road commissioner with a demand to be paid $50/day - over $1,500 today - because they were using "his" groundwater. The suit went to the state supreme court twice before the county won six years later.

*
1908: Four years after a court settlement allowed the electric railroad line a right-of-way across Wright family land near their famous dairy barn on Stony Point, the railroad sued because workers for the Wrights were throwing manure from the barn over their fence. The Wrights contended the tracks were in the wrong place all along.

*
1909: Wright sued to stop the phone company from erecting telephone poles along the road next to his property.

*
1916: Years earlier, Wright's stepmother hired a girl to live with her as a helper. Jarena Wright came to regard the young woman as if she were her own daughter and gifted her 140 acres. Immediately after his stepmother died - even before the funeral - Wright sued to recover title to the land.

*
1926: Wright sued to stop the dredging of the sandspit at the mouth of Russian River, claiming that the river bar was needed for him to drive cattle back and forth across the river. He did not own any land on the north bank and had no right to move his cows there. Bonus: He also sued to block the highway 1 bridge across the Russian River.


Starting around 1919, however, Sampson B. Wright began devoting his energies to a new project: Being the angry taxpayer fighting the Board of Supervisors. He formed first the "Tax Payers Protective Association" and then the "Sonoma County Economy League." In truth, he was the president of the League of Grumpy Old Men.

In a memorable 1923 showdown, Wright and his anti-tax buddies stormed the Supervisors meeting to insist the county shut down its auto garage and fire all the mechanics. "When asked to name a way in which the county cars can be cared for they had nothing to offer."

Just like his verbose rant against the high school location, he wrote many other lengthy letters to the local papers demanding decisive action on whatever injustice happened to offend him at the moment. One of the Healdsburg newspapers commented,

It would be comical, were it not somewhat pathetic, the way newspaper offices are besieged every day by their friends, urging them to “roast” this and that: to see to it that and that is done in the city or county: to start this and that kind of movement to correct evils in the state government. These friends actually believe that it is the newspaper’s business to handle all these affairs.

A final Wright lawsuit worthy to note: In 1924, his second wife filed for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty - particularly because he refused to allow electricity in their house.

By that year electricity was no longer a luxury; besides lighting, electric kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, space heaters and radios were common. Nor was power unavailable because the Wrights were far out in the country; they were then living in a cottage on Garden street off of West Third.

Add that to his opposition of the county owning cars and trucks, telephone poles along "his" road and a bridge over the Russian River; a picture emerges of a man who is not merely a skinflint, but someone held in the grips of fogeyism - disliking anything that didn't exist in his Victorian-era youth.

An early 1920s "school auto-bus" (image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

His fight against the high school shows this anti-modernism clearly. Key to shuttling kids from the rural districts to the centralized Santa Rosa high school were these new things called a "school auto-bus." That circular Wright was handing out fixated almost entirely upon the transportation costs of operating a schoolbus fleet. His solution was to first build a high school on the Leddy tract, which Santa Rosa kids could reach by the electric trolley line. For the others, his plan was outlined in the circular's title: "Build High Schools in Rural Districts." Wright wanted to construct "three or more schools in the outlying districts," which children could reach by foot, bicycle or horse. Building more local high schools would be much cheaper in his mind simply because it eliminated all transport costs. Never did he consider that more teachers would be needed in that scheme - or maybe he did, because, you know, teachers work for free. (Snark aside, teachers did almost work for free at the time, earning an average of $2.50/day.)

Press Democrat cartoon, March 20, 1923


We pick up again the Battle of Santa Rosa High in February 1923, about nine months after Wright filed suit and threw everything in limbo - the bond offering was suspended, talks with architects were canceled and even contingency plans to cobble together some temporary buildings were stalled. As expected, Wright lost in court here and everyone was awaiting a decision from the state supreme court.

Wright stayed uncharacteristically mum until the Supervisors decided to put the bonds up for sale anyway. As he was at that meeting (naturally) the cranky bear awoke and began defending his cause. They couldn't sell the bonds until the supreme court weighed in, he protested, so their vote that afternoon was illegal, the bond election was fraudulent, and so the purchase of the Todd property was also a crime.

With that outburst, Sampson B. Wright had accused the top officials of Sonoma county of breaking multiple state laws, including criminal conspiracy, election fraud and felony misappropriation of public funds. Given that the guy had such a history of filing frivolous lawsuits and had such deep pockets he always refused to settle, you can bet that there was a moment of silent contemplation as everyone wondered: How far is this lunatic willing to go with this?

Board of education president Hilliard Comstock finally spoke up and "...expressed his resentment on behalf of the board against the insinuation that they had been guilty of fraud," as reported in the PD. Comstock also diplomatically jabbed him by making the point that  if the bonds couldn't be sold, Mr. tax-hater would force them to raise taxes to build temporary buildings.

The crisis came a month later, in mid-March 1923.

Two things happened almost simultaneously: The supreme court threw out Wright's lawsuit on the grounds he had no standing in the case - at the time he was living at the family ranch within the Analy school district, which was not annexed under Santa Rosa.

Wright was clearly expecting that decision and was ready to immediately fire back with a new and more ambitious lawsuit. This second action was filed under the name of his adult son, Girault, who did live in the Santa Rosa school district, and this time he wasn't suing over a dry point of order about the state constitution. The new suit charged the bond election was "unlawful and fraudulent" and the board of trustees - which he saw as a bogus group invented via "said pretended election" - conspired to break the law by using public money to buy the Todd property. In other words, he indeed pulled the trigger and accused county officials of crimes that could send them to jail.

The next day the Press Democrat blasted Wright with the front page cartoon shown above and an emotional editorial, "Stand Out of the Way!" It had been over a dozen years since editor Ernest Finley took such a hard personal swipe at anyone local, much less a man of such great wealth:

...Unless the people follow his plan, they will never have a new high school if he can prevent it. In wintry weather our children can continue to plow back and forth between improvised quarters and in summer they can sweat and swelter in draughty fire-traps. Families can decline to locate here and continue to move away, disgusted at what appears to be our lack of public spirit and want of appreciation regarding educational necessities. All these things mean nothing to Sampson B. Wright, if he can only have his way...

Finley's editorial was dead on; Santa Rosa was facing the possibility that no high school could ever be built as long as Sampson B. Wright lived. There would always be another suit to come, another appeal after that, particularly now that there were complex criminal charges and not merely constitutional minutiae.

A meeting for the entire community was called for March 20, the first - and to the best of my knowledge, only - town meeting to discuss a public crisis in Santa Rosa. Interest was such that the location was moved to the largest auditorium in town, the Cline movie theater (corner of 5th and B streets).

Fury at Wright was so great that the citizen's committee organizing the townhall warned "the meeting will not be of a radical nature, and that no suggestion of violent measures will be countenanced."

That night the movie house was packed; on stage was a lineup of men who would speak. The meeting began with everyone rising to their feet and singing "America the Beautiful."

"The school condition in Santa Rosa is intolerable. The people are incensed and they have a cause to be," began William F. Cowan, the attorney who chaired the meeting. He recapped the purpose of the state law and the vote on the bonds. From the Press Democrat we learn he went on for "considerable of an address" before coming to the point:

"In the series of conferences held this afternoon and this morning," Cowan said, "everyone concerned met in a spirit of harmony, with the result that a method was suggested whereby the bonds may be sold and the work of construction begun without further delay."

Suddenly it was over. Three hours earlier, Wright had agreed to drop his new lawsuit in principle. "Then a burst of applause broke out. It was realized that the fight had been won," the PD reported.

 Wright did not attend but his attorney was there and told the crowd he was unapolgetic. His client did not seek to delay construction of the high school, but felt he had "certain rights in this manner." Okay, sure, whatever makes you feel good about yourself.

Because of the unexpected settlement, the meeting ending early, so they lowered the house lights and everyone enjoyed a silent movie. The next morning's Press Democrat offered a screamer headline: "NEW HIGH SCHOOL ASSURED."

Wright said a few weeks later he was filing yet another lawsuit against the bond sale, but apparently nothing came of it. Hilliard Comstock later estimated all the delays from Wright's first suit cost the district $65,000.

And now, the happy ending: On November 21, 1923 the cornerstone was laid, complete with a copper box time capsule, and on December 29, 1924 the doors were opened to students for the first time. After all the chasing over town to make classes during the previous three years I'm sure the kids had an appreciation for the building we can't grasp today. Even a basic service like a school cafeteria must have seemed a joy to them and 300 crowded in for the first lunch, where they could choose swiss steak for a dime or "weenies and hot rolls" for 7¢ - dessert was apple pie, brick ice cream or "Arctic Cakes" for 6¢. Chocolate cake was just a penny more.



* It was later said that another possibile high school building site was at/near the current location of the Santa Rosa Plaza, which would have blocked development of the mall and/or highway 101. That location was never under consideration.


TOP: 1926 photo (Sonoma County Library) BOTTOM: 1925 photo (SRHS Foundation)


CO-OPERATION FOR HI SCHOOL IS PROMISED
Grammar School Districts Annexed For High School Purposes - Promised Representation on School Board

Hearty co-operation of the outlying grammar school districts in the extension of the high school system and enlargement of its work was assured as the result of the conference between the directors of the Santa Rosa chamber of commerce, the Santa Rosa board of education and trustees of the rural school districts held at the rooms of the chamber of commerce last night. It had been shown that both the local school authorities and the chamber of commerce were on record to provide for district representation on the high school board of education as quickly as the necessary steps could be taken.

The meeting was well attended and a thorough discussion of the problems was held, in which the outsiders showed their kindly spirit and willingness to do their part in providing for suitable school system centering in Santa Rosa if given their rights of representation and assurance that there was no intention of forcing them to be taxed without representation.

LAW OUTLINED

President Wallace Ware presided at the meeting, which lasted two hours. District Attorney Geo. W. Hoyle was present and gave a resume of the law and steps leading up to the recent act of the supervisors in adding 25 rural school districts to the Santa Rosa districts for high school purposes and the steps which remained to give them their proper representation on the board of education.

DIRECTORS MEETING

After the conference the directors of the chamber held a session in which the matter was again gone over, and Hilliard Comstock was named a committee of one to see that the work of clearing up the school problem is pushed forward as rapidly as possible.

District Attorney Hoyle is at present engaged in a thorough search of conditions, law and decisions bearing on the case in answer to queries propounded by the school authorities, and as soon as this is ready it will be submitted, together with the opinion of the attorney general. It is hoped this will open the way for immediate action in securing a union high school board...

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 23, 1921


SCHOOL PARADE FOR BONDS WILL BE ON MONDAY

At 2 o'clock Monday afternoon a parade boosting school bonds consisting of the high school, Junior College and the elementary students will start from the Congregational church and march west on 4th street to Davis street. Superintendent Jerome Cross has appointed Miss Alice Koford as grand marshal of the parade as a reward for her work in making it possible.

The students will carry large banners on which are printed slogans for boosting the bonds. A number of cheers have been worked up by the students and will be given every alternating block.

The formation of the parade will be as follows...

- Press Democrat, April 2, 1922



SCHOOL BONDS VOTE BETTER THAN 27 TO 1

Santa Rosa's $241,000 school bond issue was carried in the election yesterday by 3,082 to 113.

This is believed to be the largest majority ever accorded any issue in Sonoma county, and speaks eloquently of the overwhelming sentiment for new schools here...This is a remarkable growth in sentiment over the figures of two years ago, when the bonds carried by approximately 4 to 1. At that time, however, there was by no means the elaborate organization working for the bonds that was built up for the campaign ended yesterday...

- Press Democrat, April 5, 1922



SCHOOL BONDS TO BE PUT UP FOR SALE NEXT WEEK

No time is to be lost by the board of education in replacing the ramshackle Fremont and Lincoln school buildings with the moder structures Santa Rosa proved it wanted at the election Tuesday...It is the tentative plan of the board to begin the tearing down of the old schools the day following the end of the term. Time will be made the essence of the contracts and the new buildings ready for occupancy, completely appointed when the September term begins...

- Press Democrat, April 6, 1922



 $375,000 BOND ISSUE FOR HIGH SCHOOL ON MAY 18TH
 District to Vote at Same Time on Choice of Three Proposed Sites; Wright Property and Leddy Tract on Sebastopol Avenue Offered in Addition to 30-Acre Todd Property

 The voters of the City of Santa Rosa high school district, which includes the Santa Rosa grammar school districts surrounding the city, at a special election May 18, will be asked to authorized a $375,000 bond issue for the purchase of a site and the erection and equipment of a high school building and improvement of the grounds.

 At the same time the question of a sight will be submitted to a decision of the voters. On the same ballot with the bond proposition, but as separate and distinct proposals, will be listed three sites from which the voters will be asked to select the one wanted for the new high school building...

...It is felt by the board that the Todd property is the most acceptable owing to its being so centrally located to all the main arteries of travel from the surrounding country and as convenient, if not more so, for the town people than any other site which could be secured for school purposes.

The Leddy tract and the Wright property are both within a very short distance of the west line of the district which separates the Analy high school district from the Santa Rosa district and are off the main traffic highways through the country.

THE PRICES

The trustees have been offered each of the various Wright properties at various prices raging from $350 to $1250 an acre. This includes the Esther Wright, the Sampson Wright and the Girault Wright tracts. The Leddy tract is offered at approximately $1,000 an acre...[The Todd] property is held by the trustees under an option at $1000 an acre or a total of $30,000. The option expires June 1.

- Press Democrat, April 23, 1922




 WRIGHT TRACT IS WITHDRAWN

 Sampson B. Wright has withdrawn his property facing the Sebastopol highway from the list of possible sites for the new district high school.

 Announcement to this effect was made Wednesday. It leaves only the Leddy tract, alson on the Sebastopol highway, and the Todd property facing Mendocino avenue, for the people to vote on at the election May 18.

- Press Democrat, April 27, 1922




 DRIVE FOR HI SCHOOL IS ON
 Committee Dispels Confusion About Location of Todd Site; Many Bodies Represented

 Two meetings were held here yesterday for the purpose of planning active campaign work in behalf of the high school bond issue...At both meetings it was brought out that some confusion had arisen over the name "Rush B. Todd site," some believing that this referred to the Todd district. The committee and school authorities are anxious to have it understood that the proposed site is the old Ridgeway [sic] property at the northern edge of the city on Healdsburg avenue...

- Press Democrat, May 10, 1922



RURAL SCHOOL TRUSTEES FOR HIGH SCHOOL BOND
Representatives of 16 Districts Attend Chamber of Commerce Dinner, and All Are Enthusiastic in Approval of $375,000 Issue to Be Voted on May 19.

Representatives and trustees of 16 school districts, both in and near Santa Rosa, voiced unanimous approval Thursday night for the high school bond election to be held May 19 and for the Rush B. Todd site in Healdsburg avenue for the location of the proposed school...

...A great number of the most prominent architects in the state have been interviewed by the school board in regard to the construction and price of the proposed school buildings. [City Superintendent Jerome O.] Cross stated, and in ever instance the architects recommended a class "C" type building. This is very plain in architecture, it was stated, but one that gives the best of service for a school building.

Regarding the proposed location of the school on the present Todd property, or what is known as the former Ridgeway property, and the conflict that is arising over this location due to the Leddy tract on the Sebastopol highway being offered at a lower figure, Cross explained that not only is the Todd property the exact geographical center of the district, but it has the advantages of city water, electricity and gas, fire protection and sewage system. The price of this land as offered to the board is $1000 an acre, a price that is cheaper than many unimproved tracts of land in other communities.

The Leddy tract was offered at a much lower figure, but being so far out of the city limits, some two and one-half miles, it would mean a large expense to bring the necessary water, light, gas, sewage, and so forth to this location. Another bad feature, it was pointed out, was the fact that it would cost several thousand dollars to level the Leddy tract sufficiently to build on it...

- Press Democrat, May 12, 1922



 Editor Press Democrat:

 Major Comstock quotes me incorrectly. I said: "Major Comstock told me that unless the deal for the Todd property could be closed by June 1st, 1922, the chamber of commerce would lose $500 cash bond put up."

 That statement surprised me because it was apparent that the chamber of commerce would find a way to protect the option. But if I be given false premises my conclusions are likewise apt to look a bit unreasonable. He told me the option would expire on June 1st, 1922, and that as to a renewal, Mr. Todd would be difficult. The signing of the $4000 note seems of minor importance.

 The major first denies that he ever signed any such note and then seems to qualify that statement by saying: "I have no individual responsibility whatever in connection with the Todd property." Mr. Walter Price attended a meeting between certain members of the chambers of commerce and representatives of the Santa Rosa realty board. He states that at this meeting certain gentlemen from the chamber of commerce wanted the real estate board to underwrite absolutely 34 acres of the Todd property and to agree to take over the other 29.65 acres in case the voters refused to accept the latter as a site for the new high school.

 Mr. Price has verified his former statement to the effect that at that meeting it was freely stated that three members of the chamber of commerce -- one of whom being Major Comstock had acted as a committee for that body and had signed the note referred to for $4000. He also says that while Major Comstock did not attend that meeting the other two (2) members of that committee were present. So it may be that technically Major Comstock is not personally liable in this matter.

 There is one objection to the Todd property as a high school site which should eliminate it from consideration. It is the fact that it lies within the lines of the southwest winds which sweep over the Noonan slaughter house and corrals during almost every day during the summer and fall. It is incomprehensible to me that sponsors for the Todd property, especially the high school trustees, should have failed to note and direct attention to this objection.

 Again if the school be located there about the next move will be a condemnation proceeding against the Noonan plant to compel its removal and then $250,000 or more will have to be provided by the tax payers with which to pay damages to the Noonan company.

 This will mean a tax of $1.92 on every $100 on the 26 school districts and if the 25 outside districts withdraw from Santa Rosa it will mean a tax of $3.84 on every $100 inside Santa Rosa. Moreover the Noonan plant to be destroyed might be appraised at $030,000. [sic]

Drainage from the Todd lands is over the Noonan property and I am reliably informed that Mr. Noonan is not going to tamely submit to present drainage conditions.

An abundance of water can be had on the Leddy tract by pumping. The City of Santa Rosa pumps water. Why not pump on the Leddy tract?

The railroad officials well know how to transport children and they will have guaranteed in writing that they will transport them. An objection to the Leddy park on that score seems puerile.

Major Comstock declares that transportation to the Todd property will be refused to the 383 students living inside the limits of Santa Rosa and that it must be allowed if Leddy park be selected, Then parents generally in town should vote for Leddy park in order to let their children ride.

The major says that in order to transport 383 school children a year on cars at 12 cents each day the cost will be $13,788. According to my calendar there are 52 Saturdays and 52 Sundays in a year. Usually there are 60 days summer vacation, 14 days around Christmas and other holidays to interfere with school attendance might amount to six days and institute week five days, a total probably of 189 days. Deduct these from 365 and there are 176 days left. At 12 cents the cost of transporting one student 176 days would be $21.12 and 383 would cost $8,088 -- 5,700 less than Major Comstock figures. Major did you cause this statement, $13,788 as the cost to appear, two times in the Santa Rosa Republican through error or was that done advisedly?

It is well to note that the present high school trustees may not live always and admitting that they will so live they are not going to be able to control the situation. If Santa Rosa is to make a city a growth of two miles along the electric car line is not much of a growth.

I am urging all voters to support the Leddy park tract for a high school site and to oppose the bond issue as submitted. In submitting a bond proposal for a high school the trustees should be those who can function for the entire 26 districts sufficient time should be allowed for people to be registered 30 days before election and every schoolhouse should be a voting place. It is claimed that these trustees want to be fair and yet a large percentage of the people living in outside districts are disfranchised so far as this bond election goes.

A new call should be made and in asking for that amount of money should be stated which is to be spent in improvement of the grounds, the amount to be spent on insurance, the amount to be spent on furniture and apparatus, the amount to be spent in the purchase of a lot and the amount to be spent in the construction of buildings. A statement upon these points outside the proclamation does not bind any one nor is that the law.

- Press Democrat, May 13, 1922 [paragraphing added for clarity]


High School Is To Have Museum Worth Thousands
STATE UNIVERSITY TO AID IN ESTABLISHMENT OF FINE EDUCATIONAL FEATURE HERE
By HERBERT W. SLATER

When the Santa Rosa High School District acquires its new, strictly up-to-date school building, we are promised a very valuable accessory in the form of a museum, rich and complete in anthropology.

The acquisition of the museum has been made possible largely through the effort of Jesse Peter, graduate of the Santa Rosa high school of some years since, who is a recognized anthropologist and is by profession a civil and mining engineer. He returned from Alaska a short time ago to again take up his residence here...

...Here is what Mr. Peter has to say:

"Santa Rosa and Sonoma county have long felt the need for an historical museum and from time to time a museum of one kind or another has been talked of. One of the features of the new high school and junior college will be a museum of anthropology devoted to the Sonoma county Indians. This is a unique educational feature in California schools and is capable of far-reaching scientific results...The faculty of the department of anthropology of the University of California has generously offered and assistance within their power to make the Santa Rosa high school museum a success...

 - Press Democrat, May 13, 1922



 High School Site Offered Free Would Permit Pupils To Travel On Li'l Gondola

 Not to be outdone by others who have high school sites on hand, Messrs. Gray and Gremott Saturday came forward with the offer of a site absolutely free of charge!

 The property is a tract of 20 acres, described as being "only 20 minutes from the court house by Duesenberg Special or 70 minutes on a bicycle."

 Having sold all the balance of their sub-division, the two public-spirited citizens have no ulterior motive in offering this site, it is said. The property is on the Petaluma-Sebastopol highway and only a quarter of a mile from the electric line.

 There is a beautiful lake on one end of the property, which could be used for bathing in the summer and boating in the winter. During the latter season this lake is said to become somewhat enlarged, so that the high school on that site might present the appearance of a Venetian villa, or something like that.

 The generosity of the owners of this property is to be commended, and doubtless some adequate expression of thanks will be prepared by the women's auxiliary of the chamber of commerce.

- Press Democrat, May 14, 1922



HIGH SCHOOL PUPILS TO MARCH DOWN 4TH TODAY TO URGE BONDS

The schools of Santa Rosa assisted by several from outlying districts who are in the high school district will stage a demonstration this afternoon at 3 o'clock in favor of the high school bonds. A parade will be held with the pupils from the fourth grade up participating and there will be a number of interesting features in the way of floats and various displays...

- Press Democrat, May 18, 1922


 WRIGHT ATTACKS SECTION OF NEW HIGH SCHOOL LAW

Considerable interest was aroused yesterday morning by the announcement that Sampson B. Wright plans to attempt, through litigation, to delay the construction of a new high school here.

It is understood that in Wright's opinion Section 1734b of the political code, under which elementary districts may be annexed to high school districts, is unconstitutional. Wright's contention is reported to be that the State legislature erred in attempting to delegate certain power to county superintendent of schools together with a single supervisor, rather than to the board of supervisors as a whole... [section of 1921 law cited]

- Press Democrat, May 26, 1922


TWO CITY HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS ILL; CLASS ARRANGEMENTS CAUSE EXPOSURE

Miss Ellen F. Deruchie and Miss Edith Troxell of the high school facility were laid up Wednesday by illness and it is not expected the former will be able to return to work for several days at the best. The exposure and trying conditions to which the teachers of the Santa Rosa high school are being subjected is proving a heavy tax to their health and strength.

A visit to the high school Wednesday showed under what difficulty both teachers and pupils are working since the destruction of the old building the night of November 15, 1921. At the present time the school is divided among more than half a dozen buildings scattered over many blocks which must be traveled between each class during the day either by the teacher or pupils.

The study hall and five recitation rooms are located in the Congregational church with poor light, ventilation and accommodations for drying out wet clothing. Two other classes are located in the Methodist Episcopal church where the conditions are not much better. Four classes are housed in the old Mailer hall on Fourth street and five in the old Mailer warehouse at Fifth and Mendocino avenue. This is made of corrugated iron and is not warm or comfortable in such weather as is prevailing at present.

The Junior College with eight recitation rooms in the Masonic Temple is the most comfortably provided of any of the schools with one class in the Labor Temple adjoining. Two bungalows are being used and several class rooms at the Annex in conjunction with the junior high school classes which overcrowds that building making good work exceedingly difficult.

"I can truthfully say that the teaching corps has proven highly efficient and loyal under all the handicaps," said Principal E. H. Barker in commenting on school conditions in Santa Rosa. "The school is maintaining a high standard despite the great lack of accommodations and proper equipment and both teachers and pupils are showing the right kind of spirit. It will not be to our advantage, however, if a number of the best teachers accept positions another year where they can have better accommodations, but we must expect to meet such conditions, as there is a demand for teachers in places having the best of facilities."

- Press Democrat, January 25, 1923



Stand Out of the Way!

After having failed in one attempt to set aside the will of the people as expressed at the polls, Sampson B. Wright again brings suit to prevent the construction of a new high school here. The present suit is not brought in his name, but it is his, nevertheless.

The question of building a new high school to replace the one destroyed by fire was submitted to public vote and the bonds carried by a tremendous majority, but Mr. Wright steps in and says, "No." Unless the people follow his plan, they will never have a new high school if he can prevent it.

In wintry weather our children can continue to plow back and forth between improvised quarters and in summer they can sweat and swelter in draughty fire-traps.

Families can decline to locate here and continue to move away, disgusted at what appears to be our lack of public spirit and want of appreciation regarding educational necessities.

All these things mean nothing to Sampson B. Wright, if he can only have his way...

...It is probably Sampson's Wright's contention that outlying districts should not be taxed to keep up a hight school in Santa Rosa. He favored the construction of a new building under the consolidated district plan as long as he though it could be located out of his way. He fought hard for it, and even made public tender of part of his property as a site--at a price.

Then when the people voted on the question and decided to build the structure in Santa Rosa, the central point, he recanted and became a bitter opponent of the whole idea. The thing looks bad, but let that pass. Let's consider the point he now raises.

Should the outlying districts be taxed to build and maintain a new high school, or should Santa Rosa build it and pay for it and maintain it for the benefit of the outside districts? That is all there possibly can be to the question back of Wright's suit...

..The people have said what they want, so let Sam Wright stand out of the way!

- Press Democrat editorial, March 16, 1923


Now For a New High School

Sampson Wright's suit questioning the validity of the bonds vote a year or more ago for the construction of a new high school has been withdrawn, and the probability now is that within the next few weeks actual construction of the much-needed building will be under way. This is good news, and the outcome of recent efforts will be welcomed by the community generally.

Any citizen has the right to bring suit in our courts where he believes his interests are jeopardized. Nobody questioned the right of Sampson B. Wright to test the law on this high school question, or object if he believed the law was not being followed properly. The trouble with Mr. Wright's suit was that under the procedure employed, a necessary and vital improvement was retarded. Nothing could ben done to replace a high school that had been destroyed by fire, although its speedy reconstruction was absolutely necessary. Under the terms of the agreement just reached, the work of rebuilding will begin at once and the legal points raised by Mr. Wright will be fought out later. This method of procedure should have been adopted in the first place. It might have been induced long ago, if the community had united and made its demand to that effect sooner. The outcome of this matter affords a striking example of the power of united public sentiment when properly and intelligently directed. Nothing can withstand it.

- Press Democrat editorial, March 27, 1923


WRIGHT TO SUE AGAIN

A new suit, directed against the sale of $375,000 worth of bonds for the construction of the Santa Rosa high school building, is to he filed by Sampson B. Wright, a rancher residing west of Santa Rosa, he announced Wednesday.

"It is the only feasible plan right now," Wright, plaintiff in the former case, declared. Nor will a bill, passed hy the legislature, validating the existence of a Santa Rosa high school district, block the way to bring such a suit, Wright explained, "The legislature," he continued, has no right to pass any retroactive measure. The suit, brought previously, questions the constitutionality of the law creating such high school districts.

"When I signed the stipulation in the dismissal of the last suit, it was on the understanding that I should sacrifice none of my rights in the case.”

The necessity of re-advertising for bids is set up by Wright as the reason for the latest attack on the construction of the high school building.

- Healdsburg Tribune, May 3 1923



2,500 TURN OUT FOR RECEPTION AT NEW SCHOOL
New Educational Building Proves Delight to Visitors

Santa Rosa appeared to have turned out en masse last night for inspection of the new half million dollars High School building erected on the Redwood highway at the northern city limits on a 30-acre campus and occupied for the first time yesterday.

Despite the storm, filly 2500 patrons of the school with the children gathered at the new building and spent several hours inspecting the rooms and facilities provided for the care and education of the children of the community.

Members of the high school faculty and board of education with their wives acted as a reception committee. Each room was decorated in some manner and all contained potted flowers. Miss Helen G. Cochrane, supervisor of music in the high school rendered an impromptu musical program in the music room during the evening with some of her pupils. The program consisted of choral work duets, trios and solos as well as instrumental number and proved quite an attraction to many. This was the only attempt at entertainment during the evening...

...Judges, lawyers, bankers, business and professional men and women, ranchers, laborers and retired men and women and even whole families of Chinese mingled and exchanged felicitations over the possession of such a wonderful plant for the district work. All were delighted with the convenience, the adaptability and compactness of the structure. One visitor here from the East, who took a great interest in examination of the structure on leaving remarked to the writer, "Never before in all my life have I seen such a magnificent school for a city of this size. It is simply wonderful."

- Press Democrat, December 30, 1924


Essie Vaughan woke up because someone was ringing her doorbell and would not stop. She was probably used to occasional late visitors to their home on Humboldt street because her husband Marvin was Justice of the Peace; sometimes couples cannot bear to wait another moment before being married. But this November night was different. Waiting outside were four kids with an urgent message - the towering building across the street was on fire. Santa Rosa High School.

The November 15, 1921 destruction of the high school at Humboldt and Benton street (current location of the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts) was the worst disaster faced by the town since the 1906 earthquake. And the crisis wasn't limited to the fire itself, although that night it posed a very real danger of burning down the town. The longer crisis was Santa Rosa's recovery - how to educate hundreds of children without a school building and the unexpected opposition to a new school.

This is part one, which covers just the night of the fire and the following day as Santa Rosa struggled to cope, not unlike the uncertain times the town faces right now in 2017. Part two covers the three difficult years which passed before our current high school could finally open its doors, the construction delayed because of a man determined to see the school was never built at all.

Above all, this is the portrait of a resilient community.

Press Democrat, November 16, 1921

Back to our story: Essie told the children to rush and activate the alarm on the corner. As explained here earlier, Santa Rosa had pull boxes mounted around town which set off a loud bell at the firehouse. The bell would immediately begin to ring in a kind of morse code that directed the firemen to the vicinity of the fire. But the kids returned and Essie heard no ringing bell; apparently they didn't understand it was necessary to break the glass AND pull down the lever inside.

"Hastily throwing something over her shoulders, Mrs. Vaughan ran to the corner with them and turned in the alarm," the Press Democrat reported. Although about five minutes were lost, the PD speculated the fire was so well established it didn't make a bit of difference.

The alarm SNAFU was just the beginning. The fireplug in front of the school did not work, so the firemen needed more hose to attach to a distant one; the SRFD's new pumper truck was out of commission because of an accident the previous day, so they didn't have adequate water pressure to reach the roof of the school until the old engine was brought from the firehouse.

While all this was going on, boys were breaking into the burning building to rescue school treasures: silver trophy cups, "all but two of the football team's suits" and hundreds of the cadet corps' army surplus rifles. There were tales later told of kids feeding the fire by throwing rocks through windows and even a cheerleader dressed in uniform leading hurrahs as particular parts of the building went up in flames, but these stories were almost certainly just stupid teenage braggadocio.

While the firefighters had no luck that night, the town was very, very fortunate. The first hour of the fire was spectacular; flames could be seen in Sebastopol and according to the PD, "at least one man who saw it from Petaluma drove here in his machine, expecting to see half of Santa Rosa on fire."

Firebrands and bits of half-burnt paper flew as far as the public library. From the Santa Rosa Republican:

Several residences in the vicinity of the school were threatened with fire, sparks and bits of burning paper having started blazes on the roofs. It was only constant and persistent efforts which prevented the loss of at least a dozen houses. Embers, carried on a light breeze, were strewn broadcast over a radius of several blocks. Many residents living blocks away, who were not aroused by the fire, awoke yesterday morning to find ashes and charred paper on the roofs and porches of their homes.

And if all of that wasn't enough potential disaster for one day, it turned out that the school on Fourth street (the current location of Fremont Park to Brookwood Avenue) was also at risk of burning down that Tuesday. It seems the old school - Santa Rosa's first - still was heated by small wood stoves in each classroom. One of those old stoves fell apart that morning scattering coals over the floor; fortunately the fire was dead (or nearly so) and no damage was done.

It was well known that those old stoves were dangerous and the school "[was] really a much worse fire trap that the old high school building," according to the Press Democrat. But all of Santa Rosa's schools had been in pitiable condition for years.

This problem came up in a 1913 lecture series titled, “What's the Matter With Santa Rosa?," which was an interesting mix of gripes, vapid boosterism (Santa Rosans need to get serious about gardening because Luther Burbank) and thoughtful criticism. Two of the speakers called out our schools as firetraps, mirroring a 1904 report in the Santa Rosa Republican that some schools in town did not have electricity or plumbing and no heating beyond those old stoves.

The Humboldt street high school had different problems. It was a fine modern building when it was built in 1895, but soon was packed beyond capacity. "When the attendance increased the large attic was remodeled and equipped for class rooms adding materially to the capacity of the structure," the PD observed in 1921. "Yet this did not provide sufficient and the basement was rearranged and numerous classrooms were added. Several of these had no daylight whatever but had to have artificial light all the time." Probation Officer John Plover was quoted in the Santa Rosa Republican: “You will find there two classes stuffed in one corner of the basement in a place never intended for class rooms, where there would be small chance of escape in case of fire or quake.”

While the high school was still burning furiously late on that school night, the Board of Education faced tough decisions about what to do with about 1,000 students. Did I forget to mention that the building was also being used to teach junior college classes?

Decision number one: Classes would be suspended - but for only a single day.

For the time being they decided to jam everyone into the high school annex, built next door in 1913 and then being used as the junior high. In the morning it would be used by high school and junior college pupils, then the junior high would take over for the afternoon. Classes would be held in hallways and two "portable buildings," which probably were garages. In the months and years that followed, kids would be running all over town to catch classes in lodge halls, church sunday school rooms and public buildings. Chemistry students had to shuttle to Sebastopol.

The cause of the high school fire was never settled (see update). There were explosions heard during the blaze which led some to think something might have happened in the chemistry lab. Mike Daniels, historian for the SRHS Foundation, points out there was a basketball game that evening at the annex gym, and students sneaking a smoke during half-time would have likely gathered on the other side of the school ("far from watchful adult eyes") and where dry autumn leaves near the building could prove easy tinder. But most at the time thought it was caused by bad wiring; it was known the electrical system was "in very bad shape." Just the night before, the Board of Education had approved a rewiring of the whole place.

The night of the fire, Board of Education Chairman Hilliard Comstock stated that steps would be taken immediately to prepare for selling bonds to build a new high school.

"It is believed that the new high school will be one of the largest and finest buildings in Northern California," the PD promised. And indeed it would be - but it would not be built quickly. Only those who were freshmen in 1921 would step into the new school on Mendocino avenue as students. And much of that delay was because of Sonoma county's lawsuit-loving crank, Sampson B. Wright.



Art and Poem by Raymond Clar. 1922 Echo






FIRE LOSS NOT LESS THAN $100,000, WITH $65,000 INSURANCE

Santa Rosa's high school building was destroyed by fire last night. The blaze was discovered about 11 o'clock, and was still burning at an early hour this morning.

The loss, figured at original costs, when prices were very low, was estimated at $100,000 by Ben F. Ballard, county superintendent of schools. The total insurance carried amounts to $65,000.

Three theories as to the cause of the blaze have been advanced:

1. Defective electric wiring.

2. Explosion in old chemistry laboratory on second floor.

3. Incendiarism.

In support of the first theory, H. W. Jacobs, local electrician who only Monday night was awarded a contract by the Board of Education to re-wire the building, declared that he knew the wiring to be defective and "in very bad shape."

Jacobs had inspected the wiring recently, and the Board of Education had recognized that the condition of the wiring was a constant menace to the structure.

The building was of old-style construction, two stories and high basement.

EXPLOSIONS HEARD

People living near the high school agree that there were several explosions, but some believe the explosions occurred after the building was in flames. Several said that most of the acids and chemicals had been removed in the basement laboratories some time ago. Explosions were expected momentarily from these rooms but up to an early hour this morning none had taken place.

In support of the third theory, incendiarism, several high school pupils who broke into the building to salvage trophies and other valuables, declare that when they entered the structure electric [...4 lines of typesetting errors...] main hall were burning. Joe Dearing and Malcom Weeks both say they saw lights burning.

Others who arrived early after the fire was discovered, including A. R. Waters, declare that no lights were burning. Waters went to the fire on the chemical truck and declares positively that no lights were burning in the building. This was corroborated by Judge Marvin T. Vaughan, who lives across the street from the building.

LITTLE SALVAGED

Five high school pupils, Joe Dearing, Malcom Weeks, Ransom Petray, Burgess Titus and Harold Doig broke into the building by thrusting their arms through windows, and succeeded in saving nearly all the school's silver trophy cups, and all but two of the football team's suits.

Later others entered the building from the east side and saved most of the 250 or 300 army rifles used by the cadet corps, and some ammunition.

Practically everything else was lost. The school library, consisting of 1000 to 1500 volumes and including many volumes from the city library, was burned. Chemistry and physics equipment valued at $6000 was almost totally destroyed.

All the records of the high school, junior high school and junior college were burned, together with other equipment in the office of Principal Eugene W. Parker.

FIRE EQUIPMENT INADEQUATE

The fire occurred when the local department was least able to cope with it. Due to the partial wrecking of the city's new motorized pumping engine in an accident Monday, this very important unit in the fire-fighting apparatus was not available, so that proper water pressure could not be directed upon the building until members of the department could return to the engine house for the old pumping engine.

Even then, shortage of hose and failure of a McDonald system fireplug in front of the burning building put the fire fighters under a severe handicap.

Four streams of water were directed upon the blaze, and these succeeded in holding it down to a large extent, but it was realized from the start that the building could not be saved.

YOUTHS DISCOVER BLAZE

The fire was discovered by two boys and two girls who were walking along Humboldt street shortly before 11 o'clock. They ran to the residence of Judge Marvin T. Vaughan, rang the bell furiously, roused the Vaughans from bed and told them of the fire.

Mrs. Vaughan directed them to the nearest fire alarm box, at Humboldt and Benton, where through ignorance of the mechanism they failed to register the alarm. When they returned to the Vaughan residence, Mrs. Vaughan told them that the alarm could not have been turned in as the bell at the fire station had not rung.

Hastily throwing something over her shoulders, Mrs. Vaughan ran to the corner with them and turned in the alarm. The delay in getting the alarm through occasioned five minutes of last time to the department, and this may have made a difference in combatting the flames, but it is conceded that even under the most favorable circumstances the building could not have been saved.

NO ONE HURT

No one was injured in fighting the blaze, although several had narrow escapes when parts of the walls collapsed and crashed to the ground.

This was particularly true when the tower of the building toppled over and fell to the lawn in a spectacular shower of sparks. There was a scurrying to cover and all who had been within reach escaped.

The only untoward incident chose as its victim Councilman Fred Oliva, who inadvertently got in front of a high-pressure hose while he was helping drag along another, and was bowled over in a complete somersault. Oliva's coat was torn virtually off his back, his hat was sent many yards off and his trousers were torn. He suffered no physical injury.

Petray and Dearing had a narrow escape while attempting to save statues of Lincoln and Washington from the study hall, when part of the ceiling collapsed directly in front of them.

The burning girders completely burned the two statues, only a few feet ahead of the boys.

SPARKS FLY BLOCKS

During the height of the conflagration the whole city was illuminated and sparks were carried for several blocks. Many people who were roused by the excitement and the light shining in their windows put their garden hoses in operation as a precautionary measure.

There were no reports, however, of the fire being communicated to other buildings.

INSURANCE RECENTLY DOUBLED

It was only six weeks ago that the insurance on the high school building was doubled.

This was at the behest of the new city superintendent, Jerome O. Cross, and members of the board of education who realized that the old insurance policies were not in proportion to the value of the building. The insurance formerly carried amounted to $25,000 on the building and $10,000 on the equipment. This was increased to $50,000 and $15,000 respectively.

A year ago the new board of education brought an electrical expert here from San Francisco to inspect the building, and he urgently recommended new wiring, but owing to the lack of funds the recommendation could not be carried out in full.

At that time, however, some of the wiring was rearranged, and plugs were erected on the exterior of the building so that all electrical connections could be cut off from the outside at the end of each school day.

It is understood that this was taken care of as usual yesterday by the janitor, and if this is true there could have been no lights turned on in the building unless it was done deliberately before the fire was started.

OLIVIA QUESTIONED NEED

In connection with the accident to Councilman Oliva there is the interesting fact that at last night's council meeting he interposed an objection to the purchase of more fire hose, as recommended by Fire Chief Duncan.

Duncan had asked the council for 1300 ft. additional hose. Oliva declared that the need for hose was not demonstrated by the chief's recommendation, but that he as chairman of the fire and water committee would have to see the hose supply personally to know what the needs were.

FIRE SEEN MANY MILES

The blaze was seen for many miles during the first hour it was burning.

At least one man who saw it from Petaluma drove here in his machine, expecting to see half of Santa Rosa on fire.

Santa Rosa members of the Eastern Star who were attending a meeting in Sebastopol saw the blaze and rushed home in the belief that the whole city was on fire.

The high school building was erected in 1895 and was dedicated by the Rev. William Martin, then First Presbyterian church, who died recently in Hawaii.

State Senator Herbert W. Slater, dean of Santa Rosa's newspapermen, remembers the dedicatory services, which he "covered" for this paper.



No School Today But Sessions Will Resume Thursday

School will not hold forth today for pupils of the high school, junior high and junior college.

Beginning tomorrow, however, classes will be reorganized in several lodge rooms and perhaps one or two churches.

This was the decision reached last night by City Superintendent Cross, Chairman Hilliard Comstock of the Board of Education, and Mrs. F. B. Hatch, a member of the Board.

It is expected that the American Legion, the Odd Fellows, Masons, Native Sons, Presbyterian church and perhaps several other organizations will be asked to lend their facilities for the accommodation of the classes.


Preparing to Construct New S. R. Hi School

Steps will be taken immediately to prepare for the building of a new high school, it was stated late last night by members of the Board of Education.

It is expected that a bond election will be put up to the people within a very short time.

The new building will be paid for, not by Santa Rosa alone, but by the 26 school districts which under a recent law now constitute the Santa Rosa high school district.

Territory which will be taxed for the new high school building takes in everything within a radius of ten miles.

For this reason, and because of the need for vastly increased space, it is believed that the new high school will be one of the largest and finest buildings in Northern California.

- Press Democrat, November 16, 1921



Defective Wiring Thought Cause of High School Fire

The exact cause of the high school blaze remains a complete mystery, although the majority of people lay the blame on defective wiring. According to statements made by Wm. Bennyhoff, head of the night school held in the junior high school building, every light was turned out of the old building Tuesday night when he left the night school. The night classes close shortly after nine o'clock and at nine-thirty when Bennyhoff left for home, there was not a gleam of light from the building.

The presence of lights in the study hall of the doomed building, however, is explained by the fact that melting connections in the switch boxes might cause a "short" and light the bulbs. Some of the spectators declare the halls were lighted while others deny the statement

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

Another theory advanced by some of the faculty, as well as some of the spectators of the blaze, is that of spontaneous combustion. The fire apparently started either in or very near the chemical laboratory, where a large assortment of chemicals of all sorts were stored. It is possible that some sort of chemical reaction could have caused an explosion resulting in the fire. This would explain the explosions heard by nearby residents. The explosions could have been explained in another way, however, as the fire would no doubt have caused some of the chemicals to explode. The question is, did the explosions occur before or after the fire was noticed? The statements of those who heard the explosions, conflict on this point and the matter is still uncertain.

But very few people think that the blaze could have been of incendiary origin, because of the comparatively early hour at which the flames burst forth.

[...how the building was funded by bonds in 1894...]

When the attendance increased the large attic was remodeled and equipped for class rooms adding materially to the capacity of the structure. Yet this did not provide sufficient and the basement was rearranged and numerous classrooms were added. Several of these had no daylight whatever but had to have artificial light all the time.

- Press Democrat, November 17, 1921


Three More Santa Rosa School Houses Nothing Better Than Firetraps

Only the merest chance saved several dwellings and at least one more school house from being destroyed by fire while the high school building was burning Tuesday night. Embers from the blazing building and in many cases large pieces of burning shingles and wood were carried by the breeze and the draft caused by the fire to houses within a radius of four or five blocks, and several burning embers were seen by spectators to light near the Fremont school building. Charred papers were carried as far as the public library by the breeze.

Only the fact that the wind was very light saved the Fremont school building, which is really a much worse fire trap that the old high school building from being destroyed.

Complaint has been made to the school authorities regarding the dangerous condition of the heating system of the Fourth street school. This building is heated in the same manner as it was forty years ago by small wood stoves in each room. Four of these stoves are reported as being dangerous, through being nearly worn out, and a request was made some time ago for new stoves.

A stove in one of the rooms of the school building collapsed Tuesday morning and ashes were scattered over the room. Fortunately the fire in the stove had died out, so but very few live coals were scattered, and no damage was done. What might have happened, however, if the stove had contained a fire, would have been an entirely different story. Had such been the case, no doubt two of Santa Rosa's schools would have been in ashes today instead of one.

In the event of a fire breaking out in such a building, there would be even less chance of saving it than there was of saving the big school building. This is only one of the schools in this city that needs attention. Of the remaining three, only one, the Burbank, is in fairly good condition, and although far from being modern in every detail, might serve for several years as a school building.

The other two, the Lincoln and the South Park school, are in deplorable condition, and offer almost no protection against fire.

- Press Democrat, November 17, 1921


School Sessions Resumed In Annex And Portables: Halls Are To Be Utilized

After a day of uncertainty and excitement which followed the destruction of Santa Rosa's high school building, and interrupted the routine of classes, students of the junior college, junior high and high school resumed their studies today, sharing the inadequate accommodations of the annex and two portable school rooms.

According to arrangements for the present, made at a meeting of the board of education last night, the high school and junior college pupils use the buildings from 8:15 to 12:15 o'clock. The junior high school holds classes from 12:45 to 4:30 o'clock.

This schedule has been adopted by the board of education until the necessary equipment can be installed in several of the halls downtown, which have been offered for use as schools.

Tables and chairs are being moved into the halls today, and it is expected that within a short time they will be ready.

The many water-soaked volumes saved from the school library, which can be used in the present emergency are being dried, and will aid materially in relieving the situation in which the schools have been cast.

Short of Everything

While a portion of the equipment and materials from the laboratories or the high school building was saved, the amount is insufficient. As a result, arrangements have been made with the Analy high school at Sebastopol whereby the junior college and high school classes  in chemistry and physics will go to Sebastopol to conduct their experiments.

In the meantime, plans are being perfected as rapidly as possible to provide some kind of laboratories here.

The halls, which are to be equipped for temporary use as schools, are the Masonic, Labor temple and the Armory.

Excitement over the fire Tuesday night is still rife among the students and the mass of black and gray ruins on the high school grounds form the basis for conversation, regrets and speculation.

Valuable Records Lost

New features of the blaze have come to light during the past 24 hours, among the most unfortunate of which was the destruction of Miss Frances O'Meara's treasured collection of books, pictures and records.

The teacher the only one who has been a member of the high school faculty since the old building was erected in 1895, had carefully preserved copies of each issue of the various school publications. Added to these was a collection of invitations to every commencement held in the school during the past 26 years, pictures of historical and literary characters and a number of biological and zoological specimens.

The entire collection was kept in the building, and its total destruction occasioned regrets and sympathy from everyone in Santa Rosa.

Property Threatened

Several residences in the vicinity of the school were threatened with fire, sparks and bits of burning paper having started blazes on the roofs. It was only constant and persistent efforts which prevented the loss of at least a dozen houses.

Embers, carried on a light breeze, were strewn broadcast over a radius of several blocks. Many residents living blocks away, who were not aroused by the fire, awoke yesterday morning to find ashes and charred paper on the roofs and porches of their homes.

In the Fremont school, one of the old stoves which forms part of the inefficient and dangerous heating system, collapsed. Although there was practically no fire in it at the time, live coals and hot ashes were scattered over the floor. Fortunately, while much excitement was created, no damage resulted.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 17, 1921

Could this fire happen again? That's the multi-billion dollar question hanging over everyone who lost homes in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park as they weigh the decision on whether or not to rebuild. There are no good answers; we can't even be sure our guesses are reasonably good. There's just too much we don't know about the world's changing climate to say this was a freak event or the harbinger of a new terrible normal.

To understand more, I urge everyone to read (or at least, skim) "The Real Story Behind the California Wildfires" by Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass. He makes several important points I've not seen mentioned elsewhere, particularly that there were hurricane force winds (96 MPH!) at higher elevations before the fire began to spread. The speed of those winds are unprecedented in our neck of the woods and were a significant factor in creating what he calls a "unique mountain-wave windstorm." Again, it's a must-read.

Comparisons are being made to the September 1964 Hanly Fire (that's the correct spelling, not "Hanley") which burned over the same route - Calistoga to Franz Valley to Mark West Canyon and then driven down into Santa Rosa, likewise by the powerful, unrelenting "Diablo Winds" on a Sunday night. But it did not grow into the hellish firestorm that raged in 2017; it was stopped on Mendocino avenue just outside the now-lost Journey's End trailer park. In the Press Democrat, Guy Kovner presented a good summary of other historic major Sonoma county fires.

But forgotten by our fire historians are two other major fires specific to Fountaingrove and the Coffey Park areas. Each was the most serious fire of that year in Santa Rosa. It just may be a coincidence that these incidents were at the same locations, but at this point, any additional information about our fire history is good to have.



Major factory fires threatened Santa Rosa's industrial rim in 1909 and again in 1910, but of all the fires in Santa Rosa history, the Fountaingrove fire of 1908 was the one which might have burned down the town.

The fire was huge, easily visible from Healdsburg because it was nearly at the top of the hill. Burning was the landmark "Commandery," one of the main buildings from the heyday of the utopian colony founded by Thomas Lake Harris. That was the residence for the colony's men. The fire began when a kerosene lamp exploded, destroying the place so fast that nothing in the three-story mansion could be saved.

"Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread," the Press Democrat reported at the time. From a high ridge like that, just a stiff breeze could have easily blown embers a mile and a half downwind to the county hospital on Chanate - which also came within 100 feet of burning in the 1964 Hanly Fire (and where a developer now has the go-ahead to build a dense subdivision of up to 800 units).

The fire burned itself out quickly; it's not clear if the Santa Rosa Fire Department did anything. A pasture also ignited and was easily handled. But had a northern wind still been gusting, firebrands from the Commandery might have blown as far as the core neighborhoods across from the modern-day high school, where almost all Victorian homes had shingle roofs.

While Santa Rosa got a lucky break in 1908, Fortuna did not smile as much on the town in 1939, when a wind-whipped fire swept across 500 acres in (what would become) the Coffey Park neighborhood.

That September 20 a fire started at the airport. Today probably only the oldest-timers and aviation buffs know that the town had an airport there; when it opened in 1929 it was first called the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, then it became the Santa Rosa Airpark and finally the Coddingtown Airport, which finally closed in 1971 or 1972. The layout of the runways shifted over the years but the way it probably looked at the time of the fire can be seen in the graphic below. (For much more on all the historic airfields in the Santa Rosa area, see the "Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields" site. Don't miss the commemorative postmark of Luther Burbank looking like an angry muppet.)

Approximate location of the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport runways in 1939

The airport fire was completely avoidable, and if not for the serious danger it posed would serve as the script for a Keystone Kops slapstick comedy.

It was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reading 104 - hardly the conditions to do some weed burning, but that's what a crew of 10-12 men were doing that afternoon on the runways, dragging burning rags behind a truck.

They were working in the southwestern end of the field when the wind suddenly started blowing from the south, sending the fire towards the modern intersection of Coffey Lane and Hopper Ave. It was moving so fast they could not overtake it in the truck, according to the PD.

Naturally, they did not have enough water to handle such a runaway blaze so the fire department was called. A single truck with 150 gallons of water was dispatched and quickly emptied. The fire was now out of control.

A second fire truck arrived, as did a crew and truck from the state as the fire line headed towards several farms. Students from the Junior College joined the fight and were credited with saving at least one home.

"Farmers, passing motorists, airport attendants and others fought side by side, beating out the flames with wet sacks and using portable water pumps in the two-hour battle," the PD reported.

One farmer lost a small house and farm buildings, including a barn; another lost many outbuildings including chicken houses, where many animals died. Two orchards were burned over, power poles went up in flames and a large stack of baled hay continued to burn into the next day. Altogether 13 buildings were destroyed on five properties.

The idiocy of doing a controlled burn on an extremely dry and hot day aside, it's chilling that it spread to 500 acres before a city and state fire crew plus a platoon of volunteers could control it - all in an area that was then undeveloped and just a couple of miles from town. What would they have done if the wind changed again and started blowing towards Santa Rosa?

Again, I hasten to add it's probably just a Believe-It-Or-Not! coincidence that the big fires of 1908 and 1939 happened at the same places as 2017. Those fires don't even have anything in common with each other; the airport fire was caused by a sudden change of wind and the Commandery burned like a torch amid no winds at all. One fire was avoidable, one probably not. What they do have in common is that both could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa; the town could not have coped with a serious fire on its border at either time.

After presenting lots'o graphs and colorful maps, meteorologist Cliff Mass concludes with an optimistic view that our computer models are probably good enough to predict when conditions are ripe for a replay of the Tubbs Fire. That's good news for sure, but the depressing message from history is that disasters aren't always so foreseeable in real life. Sometimes life-threatening events comes from a scientifically-predictable weather conditions, but sometimes the worst danger is just some fool dragging a burning rag behind a truck.

Painting of the Commandery by Fountain Grove colonist Alice Parting as it appeared in the Pacific Rural Press, May 18, 1889




BIG RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE AT FOUNTAINGROVE
A Disastrous Blaze Near Town Wednesday Night

The explosion of the lamp resulted in a fire Wednesday night the destroyed the fine old residence at Fountaingrove, which for years occupied a commanding site on the hill overlooking the valley, greeting the eyes of every passerby along the Healdsburg Road. It was the biggest residence on the estate.

In a remarkedly short space of time, so fiercely did the fire fiend to do its work, the splendid building that rose four stories high, was reduced to smoldering embers. The residence was furnished and the contents cannot be saved. In addition a small creamery was also destroyed.

Shortly before 10 o'clock the fire started. The flames lit up the heavens for miles. People in Santa Rosa climbed into automobiles and carriages and left for the scene. At first many people thought the fire was at the old Pacific Methodist College building, and quite a number of them headed in that direction. Then it was said that it was Frank Steele's residents near town. All these conjectures proved wrong.

The lamp exploded without warning and Mr. Cowie, who resided in the big house, was slightly burned about the face. The fire spread rapidly. The residence, built entirely of wood, was an easy prey. At the first cry of fire the large force of employees on the Fountaingrove estate rallied and did what they could to prevent the spread of the flames to other buildings. Numerous small hose were attached to faucets. Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread. Some flying embers started a fire in the pasture but it was checked.

The house was well built. It had stood for about a quarter century. It was a largest residence on the place. When seen by a Press Democrat representative at the scene of the fire, Kanai [sic] Nagasawa stated that it would be hard to estimate the damage. Probably $35,000 to $40,000 will cover it. It is understood that there was some insurance on the place. Years ago, when the late Thomas Lake Harris published his books, the printing presses and other paraphernalia had aplace in the building destroyed. Of later years it had been used as a residence and for sometime prior to their going away from Fountaingrove Dr. and Mrs. Webley, and the Clarks occupied apartments in it.

There must have been a couple of hundred people in the crowd who drove out from Santa Rosa to the fire. Mr. Nagasawa took in the situation most philosophically, saying while it was too bad it had happened yet he was very thankful no one was hurt, and that there was no wind to scatter the fire further.

The old house will be missed. While it was the largest house it was not considered as fine as that occupied by the late Mr. Harris, which contains some valuable paintings, plate and furnishings. There are many Santa Rosans who have visited the Webleys and the Clarks there, and they will be sorry to learn of the destruction wrought by the fire.

For an hour or more after the fire, and while it was still in progress the telephone line to the Press Democrat office was certainly "busy." The fire was seen for miles around and inquiries poured into the office.

Mr. and Mrs. Shirley Burris were leaving Healdsburg for Santa Rosa in their automobile at the time the fire started. Its reflection could plainly be seen there, and attracted considerable attention. All along the road people were out watching the flames.

While mention is made of those who went in automobiles and buggies to the fire those who rode horseback and on bikes must not be overlooked. There were many entries in these divisions. Several young ladies galloped on horseback to the scene of conflagration. For his speedy transit to Fountaingrove the Press Democrat representative was indebted to Frank Leppo, who drove his auto. When all the autos returned to town after the fire it made up quite a decent illuminated parade. An effort to reach Fountaingrove by telephone after the fire was met with the information the telephone had been destroyed with the building.

- Press Democrat, June 18 1908

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