No tombstone in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery attracts more attention than the one for Davis Wright, "colored boy" - or so it seems, as every few months questions or comments pop up on social media when someone discovers it and expresses amazement. What's the story behind it? There has to be a story.

We only know four things about Davis Wright. He was 12 when he died; he was "colored," but born in California so he was never a slave; he was buried in the Wright family plot. It's the latter connection which intrigues.

Davis was part of the household of Sampson Wright - a wealthy farmer and horse breeder -  where in the 1860 census the 8 year-old boy was listed as a servant. In itself that's not unusual; also in the census Davis' 5 year-old brother was likewise enumerated as a servant, as was a toddler at another house in Santa Rosa and an Indian baby in Sebastopol. It simply meant a person of color who was living under a white man's roof.

What made the Wright situation so unusual in 1860 was that he had six other black "servants" beside Davis.1 No other home near Santa Rosa had more than a couple - and in those situations, the second servant appeared to be the baby or the mother of the other.

The other curious thing about the Wright black servants was that they all had the last name "Wright:" Esther (age 50), John (25, but actually 29), Mary (18), James (13), Henry (11), David [sic] (8) and Georg [sic] (5). Except for Davis and George, all of them were born in Missouri, where Sampson Wright had lived before coming to California. Missouri was a slave state and Wright was a slaveholder there, with five slaves counted in the 1850 census.



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

The V-E Day celebrations in Sonoma County didn't have much have much bang to them, but that's okay - we were saving our juices for the wild hell-raising that would come three months later when Japan surrendered.

 For a week before the official V-E Day on May 8, 1945, two stories dominated the news: The United Nations Conference on International Organization AKA "World Peace Conference," which had just started in San Francisco. (Fun fact: In Nov. 1946, the 1,640 acre Sobre Vista estate near Glen Ellen was among the sites considered as a possible location for building the UN. And you think traffic on Highway 12 is sometimes bad now...)

The other big news at the top of the front pages concerned the fall of the Nazis and when V-E Day would be officially declared. Joe Stalin had proclaimed the war over on May Day. Eisenhower had said on May 4 that Germans were "thoroughly whipped." So why the wait? In newsrooms across the country, there was much squirming in editorial chairs. "Don't blame your newspaper and its press services for not telling you in this edition that 'It's all over in Europe,'" griped the Press Democrat. "Evidently there are good and valid reasons why the responsible military leaders of the Allies, and their governments who depend upon their judgments do not give out that final, fateful symbol 'V-E DAY.'"

Then early on Monday, May 7, the wire services broke the news that the war in Europe would be declared over at 9AM Eastern War Time the next day, as Truman, Churchill and Stalin would make simultaneous radio announcements.



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.


Here's a rare historical nugget: A summary of the reasons why people were behind bars in the Sonoma County jail during 1892, which I think was the only time such a list appeared in a Santa Rosa newspaper.

There were 500 prisoners that year, more than half (315) being held for misdemeanors, vagrancy, drunkenness and unspecified minor offenses - the whole list can be found below. Mostly the rest is predictable: People steal things valuable or not, people hurt other people causing varying degrees of damage, and people do stupid things that may show they are crazy. Two items that might surprise us today were child stealing (yikes!) and using vulgar language.

Both Santa Rosa and the county had laws against saying bad words in front of children or women, which was the topic of a previous article (see "THE HIGH COST OF CUSSING"). It was usually a charge thrown in with other offenses such as drunkenness or fighting, and continued to be used that way into the 1920s. But there were two cases in the 1890s that stand out because the law was seemingly used in a cruel and vindictive manner.

Alfred Jacobs, a Sebastopol 13 year-old was arrested in 1890 on two counts: assaulting his sixth grade school teacher and for using vulgar language. He was given two consecutive 60-day sentences by Judge Dougherty, but one of them was dropped when the assault charge was dismissed.

The boy stayed in jail as lawyers returned to court four times to debate a writ of habeas corpus. It's unclear what that meant in this situation - perhaps they were trying to square the circle of arresting a child by using a law meant to protect children. At any rate, they dithered until two months had passed and he was released anyway.

Jacobs would spend much of the 1890s behind bars, including two years at San Quentin for  grand larceny. "After his release from the prison, Jacobs devoted himself most industriously to thievery, and has been in trouble many times," the Santa Rosa paper tsk-tsked in 1897. "District Attorney Seawell regards Jacobs as a dangerous menace to society." During that decade he was also locked up for vagrancy, horse theft and burglary.

Even if you don't take his age into account, there's no question his punishment was harsh; that same year adults were sentenced to only ten days for swearing. Perhaps the judge intended the extended sentence as sort of a "time out" to contemplate and reform his ways - or maybe the judge was an old-school "spare the rod, spoil the child" sadist. Whatever the reason, it's interesting to note just three days after Jacobs was given his long punishment, that judge gave a lecture on "the moral, intellectual and religious formation of character."

The other incident where profanity was treated as a serious crime happened in 1894 - and like the case of Alfred Jacobs, it was also heard in the courtroom of Judge Dougherty.

Until she was arrested Kate Norton lived in poverty with her three children. She and her 22 year-old daughter, Bertha, were taken by the Bodega constable to Santa Rosa on charges of insanity.

There was a history of the women being harassed by local boys, which the Democrat shamefully reported as if it were a big joke. "It seems to have been their part at the town of Bodega to amuse the boys, against their will of course, but the young boys of the town have been in the habit of annoying them into a frenzy to enjoy a little loquacious concert intersperced with pungent profanity." The paper said both were "intensely excitable and emotional and well stored with vulgar phrases and grossest profanity" because they were Irish immigrants.



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Luther Burbank was in trouble. The 66 year-old horticulturist was watching helplessly as his dreams of a secure future and assured legacy faded through no fault of his own, but because of the failures and scandals of other men.

"Do you think Luther Burbank is an honorable person?" Would have been an interesting question to ask on a public opinion poll in 1915 (well, except polling wasn't a thing, yet) and the replies probably would have shown a sharp divide.

To many he was the Plant Wizard, a man with almost mystical powers to bend nature to his will, someone with integrity and nearly saintly bearing. Others viewed him with disdain; a conman, or the dupe of conmen, or at best, someone so injudicious he entrusted his reputation to men who ruined it. Which answer pollsters received was decided not only on who they asked, but also when in 1915 they asked the question.

Burbank was in the news much that year. He was being celebrated for different reasons both locally and nationally; that tale will be told in the following article. This piece wraps up the stories of the two companies which used his name - and in 1915, both companies dragged his name through the mud. The best thing that can be said about them was that they were run by men who were not very competent, and the worst was that both companies exploited local trust in Burbank himself to peddle worthless stock to Sonoma County residents.

Both companies were founded in 1912 and introduced in previous articles here. Most prominent was the Luther Burbank Company, which completely took over the commercial side of his business selling plants and seeds. Burbank was elated. “For fifteen years at least I have been endeavoring to make some such arrangements,” he told the Press Democrat. “Henceforth I shall only engage myself in the creation of more novelties in fruits, flowers and plants.” The deal was for Burbank to be paid $30k, followed by annual payments of $15,000.

The Luther Burbank Company had problems from the start. It had little to sell except for his spineless cactus, which Burbank was already cultivating commercially at a cactus plantation near Livermore. And it didn't help that the Company was run by an enthusiastic young go-getter and former bank teller who had no experience running any sort of business, much less a highly-specialized nursery. (For more, see part II of this series.)

What they did have to sell was corporation stock, and about $375k (equivalent to about $10M today) worth of shares were sold - which was quite a lot, considering the main asset was the intangible value of the Luther Burbank brand and faith that he would not approve any products which were not top quality. Most of the shareholders were from the usual Bay Area investor class, but a block was set aside for Burbank's friends in Santa Rosa.

The company was never financially sound, however, and had paid Burbank only a fraction of what was agreed upon ($5,920 total for the years 1913-1914). By the midsummer of 1915 rumors were circulating that the business was failing.

And here is where Burbank may have broken the law: As the corporation was trying to sell a new round of stock, the PD and other local papers reported he gave an interview stating the company was in fine shape (the newspaper wasn't named, and the rumors weren't specified). Although Burbank wasn't on the Board, he was completely dependent on the company for his income and certainly had insider knowledge that the company was headed off the cliff - after all, he had been complaining privately about their inability to pay him more than a fraction of what was owed. Keeping that info secret would be considered securities fraud today.

Then just before the end of 1915, Luther Burbank pulled the trigger and sued the Luther Burbank Company. Interviewed by the PD, his lawyer said, “Burbank has been the victim of stock pirates…They paid him the $30,000, sold stock like hot cakes and never paid him another dollar." A few weeks later, the company declared bankruptcy and liquidated.

All of those who had invested - including Burbank's friends in Santa Rosa - lost everything. Locals had to remember he had personally reassured everyone the business was fundamentally secure, and not too long before.

The Luther Burbank Company failed for the reasons most businesses fail: It was just badly run. Had they better management, more investment, more time, yap, yap, they might have survived, as would many companies that flop. But that comment about "stock pirates" aside, it was not a scam. The intentions of the Luther Burbank Press, however, were another story.




The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Imagine (or remember): It was near the end of that day in 1969 and you were winding down, watching TV and planning to stay up late - a Johnny Carson anniversary show was coming up and everybody would be talking about it tomorrow. You were deciding between the 10 o'clock news on channel two, Hawaii Five-O or that new NBC series by the former Press Democrat reporter. 

Then too much happened all at once.

"And then came the jolt and the furious shake, lasting for seconds but seeming like minutes. Everyone could feel it but many couldn't see it: the lights were the first to go," said Dick Torkelson's article in the Press Democrat the next day.

Earthquake! A bad one. Sharp flashes of light from outside flooded the dark room as if the house was struck by lightning, only there was no sound at all. Omygod, had Santa Rosa been hit by an atomic bomb?

"Books and dishes cascaded down," Torkelson continued. "Shouts filled households as parents groped in darkness for their children. Residential streets filled instantly, everyone wondering if there would be more."

Such were the first few terrifying moments of the Santa Rosa Earthquake of October 1, 1969. Earthquakes, actually, as another one followed about eighty minutes later and was just about as violent (see sidebar).

No one was killed and while many buildings were damaged, none fell down. Now more than a half-century later, it's only remembered for the unusual double shake. But that event changed Santa Rosa's future dramatically, as it became the driving justification for the city to later bulldoze 30 acres of downtown in order to build the shopping mall - the worst mistake in the long list of planning mistakes made by the City of Roses. How this tragedy unfolded will be told in upcoming parts of this ongoing series, "Yesterday is Just Around the Corner."




The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott


The menu for SantaRosaHistory.com now has a "RANDOM" option which randomly picks any of 700+ articles about Santa Rosa and Sonoma County history.

Other ways to explore the offerings include the search field (also in the menu) and the tags beneath each article headline, which function as a topic index. There are also two "best of" compilations - there's some overlap between the lists, but not much:

650 KISSES DEEP (2018)

and

THE BEST OF THE BLOG, CHAPTER 500 (2014)



As always, SantaRosaHistory.com is ad-free and requires no signup.


Santa Rosa has a history of making regrettable decisions, lord knows, and this series, "YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER," delves into just the cascading series of failures leading up to construction of the shopping mall, which was the ultimissimo mistake. But in our big book of blunders there's one small chapter where the town didn't embrace a terrible, irreversible option - although it wasn't for a lack of trying.

The project we were trying so hard to screwup was (once again) Courthouse Square, and this attempt started in 1966, the same year we tore down the courthouse. Immediately following that we stabbed a four-lane street through the middle and declared that the western sliver of what remained would now be called “Old Courthouse Square.” That part of the story was explored in the previous article, "TEARING APART 'THE CITY DESIGNED FOR LIVING'".

All of that had been done under the authority of Santa Rosa's Urban Renewal Agency (URA), an unelected five member body which had broad powers for redeveloping all of downtown Santa Rosa, as also discussed in that article. As a first step that year the county had sold all of Courthouse Square (plus the county garage and jail) to the URA for $400k, but the county only expected to be paid half of that, considering the new street and west side of the Square as a donation. To raise the remaining $200k, the plan was that the city would sell the east side of the Square to a developer. "For Sale: 26,000 sq. Feet," read the URA marketing blurb, with an asking price of $305k.

But a year passed with only a single bid: Eureka Federal Savings offered $260k (can't have enough massive bank buildings squatting on prime downtown locations). Potential buyers found the city's right to sell the property was...uncertain, to say the least.

This was hardly the first time questions about ownership of the Square were raised; you could say it was Sonoma County's oldest parlor game, going back to just after the Civil War (see sidebar).



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

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