Ah, Spring in Santa Rosa. The colorful roses, the whiff of barbecue, the deafening roar of overpowered engines at the fairgrounds that ruin the evenings for everyone living near downtown. Now that the city is trying to lure developers into building high-rise apartment buildings, perhaps someone should mention that those units will be uninhabitable on weekends when there are motorcycle/hotrod races, destruction derbies or monster truck rallies. Hey, while we're discussing a makeover of the downtown area anyway, could we please consider swapping the locations of the county fairgrounds and county admin center? Just a thought.

Santa Rosa's always been a race-lovin' town, however, starting with our hosting the first California Grand Prize Race in 1909. Even when there were fuel shortages during WWI and WWII we packed the grandstand to watch drivers spin around the dirt track and not-so-rarely crash. There have been deaths (two motorcycle racers were killed in 2016) and some of the pileups became the stuff of legend, such as the flaming tangle of nineteen Model T Fords in 1939 ("a smash-up spectacle Cecil B. De Mille couldn't have staged," gasped the Press Democrat).

Of all the events at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds I've read about in the old newspapers, there's one I'd have truly loved to have attended: On July 4, 1918, Ed Dooley and another driver slammed their massive cars together head-on at an impact speed of 100 MPH, the men jumping out at the last second. At age 39, Dooley had never done anything like this before; he was a portly ex-salesman who apparently woke up one morning and decided he was fearless.



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

Prohibition is starting soon, or maybe not. When it begins (if it does) enforcement will be really strict, or the law will be mostly ignored. No alcohol will be allowed anywhere, or there will be exemptions for wine and light beer.

The year was 1919 and anyone who claimed to know what was going to happen was a fool or a liar. Both probably.

This is the story of how Prohibition came to be the law of the land. Before continuing, Gentle Reader should not expect the sort of tale usually found here. Santa Rosa or even Sonoma county are not center stage; this time our ancestors are in the audience, where they would have been watching with rapt attention and gripping their seats tightly - because the ending of this drama just might end up causing financial catastrophe for many dependent upon the wine industry.

In 1918-1919 most Americans likely thought there were long odds that a completely "bone-dry" version of Prohibition would be enacted. Several times during the lead-up it seemed there were going to be exemptions for beer and wine, or the law would be toothless because it wouldn't be enforced, or the amendment would be tossed out as unconstitutional. All of this kept the nation (and particularly, wine-making Sonoma and Napa counties) on edge.

What happened nationally in those months before Prohibition is a story well worth telling - and that's even without mixing in the dramatic detail that crucial decisions were supposedly being made by a President of the United States who was only dimly aware of current events, having just suffered a massive stroke. But strangely, I can't find a single book (much less an internet resource) that gives this tale its due. Prohibition authors waste little ink on everything between Congress proposing the Eighteenth Amendment and the dawn of the bootleggers; Woodrow Wilson biographers focus on the stroke and his obsession with having the U.S. join the League of Nations.

Read the old newspapers, however, and find this stumbling march towards Prohibition was told in screaming headlines, making it one of the top news stories in the year following Germany's surrender.




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

Planning a time trip to witness the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake? Be careful where you'll pop up; anywhere downtown will be dangerous as all of the brick buildings collapse. Surprisingly, the safest place while the earth is shaking will be inside a massive stone building - St. Rose catholic church, on B street, built in 1900-1901.

It was (to state the obvious) an extraordinarily strong building.

"With the exception of a few stones from a cornice, St. Rose came through the dreadful ordeal unscathed," wrote historian Tom Gregory in his Sonoma County history five years later. A photo of the church apparently taken right after the earthquake shows a sawhorse next to the portico, where a a chunk of the corner appears missing. There was also some repair work needed on the steeple, but the whole job was already finished before downtown rebuilding began in earnest. The whole cost was reportedly $200; to raise funds the "ladies of St. Rose's Church" threw a dance at Grace Brothers' Park, illuminated by "many electric globes."

The expert masonry was done by a crew led by Peter Maroni, one of the skilled Italian-American stone cutters in Sonoma county. Gaye Lebaron has written often about these gentlemen from Tuscany and I have nothing further about them to offer. The basalt came from the Titania Quarry between Highway 12 and Montgomery Drive, where Santa Rosa Creek and Brush Creek join (the remains of the quarry are still there and can be visited).

All of that is fairly well-trod history but there's a whopper of a believe-it-or-not! twist to the St. Rose story: It's a forgotten design by a famous architect.

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

"All of the buildings fell at once; no one first," a man named Green Thompson told an investigator into the 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa. He added the dust was so great on Fourth street he couldn't see.

Yes, the buildings that collapsed downtown were almost all brick, and mostly built 1883-1885 during the town's first building boom. Yes, unreinforced masonry buildings are not particularly earthquake friendly. But it has always rankled that the official 1908 State Earthquake Commission report put the blame on our ancestors not knowing the basics of building construction:

In general, inquiries as to direction of fall of buildings met no definite answer...many told me that there was no direction of fall; that the buildings simply crumbled to the ground. The Masonic Temple and the Theater, I was told, fell so directly downward "that the debris did not extend beyond the walls 10 feet in any direction"...The great damage in Santa Rosa may be accounted for by the physiographic conditions and by the weakness of the buildings in many cases. The sand for mortar has usually been obtained from the creek and contains considerable loam. Some of the mortar seems to have been made with good sand and with cement...usually throughout the wrecked area the mortar taken from the walls is easily crumbled to incoherent sand by pressure of the fingers.

It's understandable that too much loam is undesirable (although there's a 1903 researcher who says up to 10 percent dirt is actually beneficial) but we don't know what the investigator meant by "considerable", nor how he learned this. That goes to the heart of the question: before all the buildings fell down, did anyone know the mortar was weak? If it was always crumbly, that would have been apparent soon after the first brick buildings went up in 1883, and surely they would not have continued making the same mistake for another two years.



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

On Dec. 1, 1918, Grace Brothers' brewery was closed on account of madness.

Like other breweries across the country, the beer-making section of big plant at the foot of Second street in Santa Rosa was ordered shut down by government regulation. The given reason was the nationwide shortage of coal, which began after the U.S. entered WWI; at the time coal was the fuel that ran almost everything in the country and while the crisis had little impact on the West Coast, the situation in the Eastern states was dire. William Jennings Bryan came to Santa Rosa and told us six million tons of coal a year were wasted on brewing beer; that was almost double the true figure, but it didn't matter that he got it wrong because he sounded so convincing, as he always did.

Bryan was mainly a professional prohibitionist during the war years. When he came here that June he also claimed $50 million worth of food products were being used annually by brewers. At this point of his speech he usually harrumphed indignantly, "how can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor when men are crying out for bread?" The brewing industry pushed back that under one percent of the nation's grain was used in making beer, but that was another true factoid not heard in Bryan's Chautauqua tent. 

Accurate facts weren't important to his audiences who didn't seem to mind that he was hammering simplistic either-or fallacies into their poor, soft skulls; they went away thinking it was a choice between closed schools or open saloons, bread for starving war orphans or a nickel beer. They were given the impression that making alcohol - or drinking it - was both unpatriotic and shameful.

But Grace Brothers' wasn't forced to stop brewing because of an actual shortage of coal or pressing demand for flour or the eloquent lips of William Jennings Bryan. It happened because by the end of 1918 most Americans were nuts.



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



On January 17, 1920, Prohibition came to Sonoma county, as it did the rest of the land. While San Francisco marked the event by carousing and debauchery excessive even by Barbary Coast standards, the milestone passed with little notice up here. At midnight some bozo on Western avenue in Petaluma began shooting in the air and managed to knock out a PG&E powerline, likely pitching that side of town into darkness. With church bells clanging in celebration, residents suddenly without lights probably wondered if the end of the world had come - and many in wine-making, wine-loving Sonoma county were nervous that it had.

This article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today - particularly now that the nation is as divided as it was during the ignoble experiment which was Prohibition.

Much has been written about Prohibition; there's a substantial number of books and internet resources on the topic although all seem to share the same flaw - events before it started are given short shrift and then it's quickly on to Chicago gangsters, bathtub gin and the jazz age. You know: The fun stuff.

But take a step further back and a bigger picture emerges: Fear and loathing of alcohol was the moralistic glue holding together the various threads in America's culture wars. Many preachers howled liquor must be scourged from the earth via a rigorous crackdown by law enforcement, which was a militant stance shared with the revived Ku Klux Klan - and while you were at their lecture, the boyz in the hoods also had a few other things to tell you about hatred and white nationalism. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union didn't just demonize demon rum; the group had a “purity lecturer” who addressed their 1913 convention in Santa Rosa, where she spoke about “social immorality” and “race betterment” (eugenics, in other words).

Here I've written dozens of articles about doings regarding alcohol both trivial and notable, such as the anti-suffrage propaganda that women would vote as a bloc to ban alcohol and that the first speakeasy in the county was the Electric Hotel in Forestville. Below the main stories are arranged to show how the Prohibition movement gained steam in Sonoma county; the article following this one takes us to the start of Prohibition and shows the early impact it had here. Spoiler alert: Prohibition generally turned out to be a good thing for Sonoma county.




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 past is just a story we keep telling ourselves.

 That's a throwaway line from a recent film, "Her" (good movie) and not entirely original; "[something is] a story we tell ourselves" first appeared around 1960 and has become exponentially more popular since then, as shown by Google's Ngram Viewer. What makes this version memorable, however, is that it's uniquely wrong.

 History (for the most part) is a story we DON'T keep telling ourselves. We only talk about an event when it's big and momentous or directly related to our lives in the here and now. A more accurate version of the quote would be, "The past is just a story we keep forgetting to tell ourselves" and as a result, we don't learn from the past and find ourselves repeating it. History is not a guide to understand our march toward the future; history is a treadmill.

This article is part of a series on the 1920s culture wars, an era with numerous parallels to America today - and no issue has found itself resonating again as much as the anti-vaccination movement. I've written twice before about the "antis" of a century ago (here's part one and part two) but to recap and expand:

The only vaccine that existed in the early 20th century was against smallpox (MMR, HepB, DTaP, RV or any of the other modern vaccines were decades away). Since 1889 California had required all children to present a smallpox vaccination certificate when they registered for school. Opponents lobbied Sacramento to pass a couple of bills repealing the law but governors vetoed the legislation both times. The state Supreme Court upheld the requirement in 1904 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the same way the following year. Yet the anti-vaccinationists never gave up; they kept forming grassroots anti chapters, signing repeal petitions and writing letters. At the start of every school year some parents would keep their kids at home or protest to the school board - some apparently not over vaccine anxiety but because they couldn't afford to consult a doctor.




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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