Santa Rosa is tinkering with Fourth street again, hoping to keep its moribund business district from completely withering away during the Age of Coronavirus. The latest effort is to close off traffic on the 500 and 700 blocks (but not the 600 block), allowing restaurants and bars to setup more outside tables. The city will keep the blocks closed at least until January 31, 2021 but according to the PD, over 70% of the businesses on those blocks want the street closure to be permanent.

Go back about four decades, however, and tell people that Santa Rosa was going to block cars from Fourth street in 2020 and expect surprised reactions - because they would have expected the city had already done that.

Our story begins almost exactly 45 years ago in 1975, as the City Council clears the last major obstacle to final planning for the Santa Rosa Plaza Mall. The city would allow the developer to sink Third street so part of the shopping center could be built above it while lower Fifth street and A street would be folded into the mall plans. The matter of a Fourth street passageway between B street and Railroad Square was still unsettled - that's a major story by itself and will be handled in a future article.

As much of the money to pay for that would come from the federal government, the Housing and Urban Development Dept. (HUD) had to give its blessing to the project. Its report from earlier that same year declared the mall would be generally a good thing for Santa Rosa, but there was concern that having it downtown could suck the life out of the existing business district: "...the older area could lose business, tenants would move elsewhere and the decline of another area of Santa Rosa would begin, possibly recreating a situation similar to that which necessitated urban renewal in the first place."

To mitigate those concerns, the city and the Downtown Development Association - DDA to its friends - hired a respected San Francisco urban planning company, EDAW Inc. Their mission was to create "a complete, cohesive physical design plan" to "provide the necessary linkage" between the mall and the downtown core. So once again it was time to play Let's Redesign Downtown - that ever-popular game in the 1960s that had enriched many out-of-town consultants. (Those layouts were discussed here in the series, "YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER.")

Given what they had to work with, their redesign was innovative. Like earlier plans there was an emphasis on streetscaping with lots of trees (primarily plums and magnolias). There was far more parking than we have today and it envisioned a free "people mover" shuttle looping continually between the garages and the stores.

But the highlight was turning Fourth street into a "meandering semi-mall" closed to traffic except for the people mover. Riley street would also become pedestrian only.



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.

There's a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:

During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. "That wasn't whiskey," he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can't find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it's the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being "a colorful character" and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. "There was only one Gil Hall, and I don't think there will ever be another like him," said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. "Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame."

In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger's lawyer, but that's not really fair - it seems he took on any and all. While he's best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work - representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.

He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a "house of ill-fame" at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion ("the illegal operation") the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy ("with a trace of fuel oil") and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business - which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.

A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said "he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him," so it's a pity the newspapers didn't write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case - the county election of 1926.



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.

Santa Rosa made national news in the days after Christmas, 1894. Hundreds of newspapers nationwide, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the Wah-shah-she News in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, ran a wire story that began this way:

Santa Rosa, Cal., Dec. 28.—Santa Rosa had the biggest sensation in its history today. The county treasury was robbed of nearly $8000 and County Treasurer Stofen was left insensible in the vault to suffocate by the robbers, who locked the door of the vault on him. The robbery occurred about 9 o'clock this morning, but was not discovered until about 5 o'clock this afternoon. All this time Treasurer Stofen lay on the floor of tbe vault gasping for breath, fearing every moment during conscious intervals would be his last.

Stofen told reporters the next day that he had opened his office at the county courthouse as usual on Dec. 28 and was bringing coin trays out of the vault (it was 1894, remember, and "money" meant gold and silver coins, not greenback dollars). Suddenly there was a man in front of him holding a large dagger. "Drop that money," he ordered. The 58 year-old Stofen put the tray on the table and either was struck on the head or fainted. The next thing he knew was waking up to discover he was locked in the vault.

"I pounded on the door, but of course no one could hear me," he told reporters. He knew there was a faint draught at the bottom of the door and lay with his face near it. He passed out again.

Meanwhile, his two kids stop by at noon to drop off his lunch. Not finding dad in the office and the door locked, they hung around waiting for him. A man from San Francisco wanted to make a payment and was annoyed to find the office closed, as he did not want to make another trip to Santa Rosa. The sheriff - whose office was next door - suggested he give the money to Stofen's 18 year-old daughter which he did, since it's 1894 and you can trust a teenager you don't know with making cash deposits and I wish we were all living back then.

In the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Stofen drops by the office after a day trip to Cloverdale. Finding his lunch outside the door, she goes home, fearing he might be ill. Not finding him there either, she rushes back to the courthouse and learns no one had seen him since morning. She has the janitor open the door and finds the office in disarray. "Then I screamed and immediately heard knocks coming from the vault," she told the SF Examiner.

She tries the combination of the vault, since it's 1894, of course the wife of the country treasurer knows the combination and is the only other person who does. It doesn't work. She tries again, and this time the door opens. “When we got Mr. Stofen out,” the janitor told the Sonoma Democrat, “he looked pale and much prostrated. The meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Stofen was one of the most painful things I ever saw in all my life.”



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.

In the beginning there was Ernest L. Finley. He bought the old Sonoma Democrat in 1897, merged it with his own newspaper, the Evening Press, becoming the owner, editor and publisher of the new Press Democrat.

That's the version of the paper's beginnings as told on the PD's "about" page, on Wikipedia, by the Northern California Media Museum and in various columns and feature items published in the paper over the last 75-odd years.

Trouble is, that's not actually true. The new paper was a partnership, and Finley wasn't even the key player - he was one of two business managers. The founding editor and the person greatly responsible for the Press Democrat's success was Grant O. Richards, although it's rare to find mentions of him after the 1930s. And even before he was erased from the picture, items about the paper's earliest days just mentioned Richards "left the firm" or "sold his interest" to Finley. Neither of those claims were true either, as he killed himself while still editor (although I guess that would qualify as leaving the firm).

The PD - and the city of Santa Rosa itself - has polished Finley's reputation to a gleam ever since his death in 1942, inflating his role in positive events such as founding the paper. But it's particularly unfair to build up Finley at the expense of Richards because it steals away the place he deserved in the history books. Not to mention that townsfolk of his day would have been gobsmacked to learn such a man would become so completely forgotten; hell, everybody in 1890s Santa Rosa probably wished they were Grant O. Richards.

Should you be very lucky, you might meet someone who has that one in a million billion quality which makes everyone (s)he meets fall at their feet. Call it ultra charisma, magnetic charm or even stardust, you are absolutely absolutely devoted to that person from the first meeting. Grant Oswald Richards had that magical ability; people not only really, really liked him, but they couldn't help themselves from jabbering about how much they loved the guy - scroll down through some of the excerpts in the sources below. Such people can become very powerful (and dangerous) when drawn to politics or religion; we should probably be thankful Richards wanted only to be a very good newspaper editor in small towns.



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.

Santa Rosa was wild with joy. Every store and business downtown closed immediately as people flooded into the streets, some shouting, some crying, some laughing; to an outsider it would have looked like everyone in town had suddenly gone barking mad. Nothing like that had ever occurred before and probably will never happen again. So once they invent a time machine, rush down to the atavachron station and buy a ticket for Tuesday, Aug. 14, 1945 at 3:10 in the afternoon. It was V-J Day.

"Almost before the radio and newspaper flashes had been recorded, automobile horns added their din to the sirens' wail and hundreds of cars raced around the courthouse and up and down business streets - serpentine [party streamers] appeared from nowhere and wastebaskets were emptied from second and third-story windows," reported the Press Democrat. "Exuberant youngsters raided the paper balers at the rear of The Press Democrat office, hurled the contents into the street and scattered paper ribbons from rooftops...Streets were littered with paper that backed up into the gutters and overflowed onto the courthouse lawn." There was so much paper in the streets that it looked like the town was hit by a freak snowstorm.

"Fire trucks, flag-bedecked, raced through downtown streets, followed by countless cars, motorcycles, bicycles and shouting pedestrians," the PD noted. Anyone in a vehicle with a horn leaned on it. "Once in a while you see a perfectly sane-appearing person driving by, not honking the horn on his car, and he looks sort of silly," someone told the paper. Probably every kid with a stash of firecrackers - banned by the government since 1943 - gathered on the courthouse steps and earnestly went to work trying to maim themselves.

"Weeping women, many of them wives or mothers of servicemen in the Pacific, stood in doorways and offered their thanks to God...Tears streamed down their cheeks as they mingled with the milling throngs - grief-stricken by their own losses and thankful, along with the rest, that the lives of other sons have been spared." The toll had been terrible; 82 Santa Rosa had been killed in the war with another 19 missing. Another 200 from the county were also dead.

The priest from St. Rose and several ministers tried to organize a thanksgiving ceremony in front of the courthouse but the crowd wasn't in the mood: "the din of auto horns, sirens, backfires and firecrackers exploding in the streets drowned out the voices of the clergymen," the PD noted. Giving up, Father Raters returned to his car and tried to leave, only to find himself trapped in the traffic jam. "The St. Rose pastor made the best of things, honking the horn of his car with the rest ot the hundreds that jammed Fourth street," according to the PD.

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce had published a set of rules about what was supposed to happen once the announcement came (see "THE DAY BEFORE THE GREATEST DAY"), including a decree that the bars, along with all other businesses, were supposed to immediately close. One entrepreneurial barkeep apparently "forgot" about that and kept his doors open. A reporter from the PD found "the lone exception was swamped with servicemen and civilians until Police Chief Melvin Flohr and other officers 'cracked down' at 5:30 o'clock."

After that, out came the bottles purchased during the "peace jitters" of the previous four days. There were "numberless house parties where friends gathered to jointly celebrate the greatest day in the history of the United States and the world."

Another part of the best-laid plans was a parade, but the Chamber and Parade Marshal decided to put it off until the next day, after efforts failed "to form a parade from the aimless mass of motorcars."





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 wait was unbearable. Few probably slept although it was nice August weather, with cool fog after dark. Had it happened overnight? Tune in KSRO at 6:15 for the first morning newscast. Grab the Press Democrat on the doorstep and study it. Every word of news in it. You have to know everything about the situation. TODAY is the day. Okay, it will happen tomorrow, for sure. No need to set the clock. You'll be awake long before 6:15. It will be THE day.

For five days in August, 1945, Santa Rosa was as wound up as a 6 year-old eating spoonfuls of sugar on Christmas Eve.

Friday, August 10, was the day after the U.S. dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan, destroying much of the city of Nagasaki. Truman warned Japanese civilians to flee industrial cities to save their lives from further atomic destruction. The Soviets declared war on Japan. Japan announced it would broadcast "news of vital importance to everyone" on Sunday night, which everyone presumed would be a surrender, marking the end of WWII.

The Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce laid out the rules: When the fire sirens go off, all bars were to close and to stay closed for the rest of the day. Ditto for retail stores: "...stores will close immediately if official end-of-the-war announcement is received during business hours. In this event - receipt of word while stores are open - they will close not only for the balance of the day, but also for the entire following day provided the following day is a business day. If the word is received in the early morning, before the usual time of opening, they will remain closed all day..." There will be a victory parade, although "...There will be no Sunday parade, however, in event the word is received on that day, or late Saturday..." They apparently spent the entire day in meetings to make sure we knew how to have fun properly.

Santa Rosa was having a bad case of the "peace jitters," as the Press Democrat called it. There was little news on Saturday - Washington was keeping negotiations hush-hush, but it was reported Japan wanted conditional terms of surrender. Not much on Sunday, either. The PD ran a letter to the editor decrying parking meters.

Everyone was waiting for the Sunday night message from Japan. And at the expected time, radio announcers interrupted the regular programming to announce "Japan accepts surrender terms of the Allies." The PD reported what happened next:





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

"I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth," wrote Luther Burbank in his first letter from Santa Rosa in 1875. But then he added a qualifier: "...as far as Nature is concerned."


Something about Santa Rosa apparently didn't sit well with old Luther, but we'll never know what. The town was welcoming to "immigrants" such as himself, yet it was still rough around the edges - a Chinese man had just been shot in the back and no one seemed very interested in finding out who did it. It was also a saloon town, where men argued endlessly about race horses and politics, topics which didn't hold any interest for Burbank. Or maybe he didn't know what to make of a "humor" item which appeared in the local newspaper around the time he arrived. It went like this: An ex-slave encountered a friend of his former "Massa" and said all the changes since the Civil War had left him sad. While he managed to save enough before the war to buy his freedom, now he wished he kept the money instead. The punchline: As a slave he was worth $1,000 - now he wasn't worth a damn. 


The weekly Sonoma Democrat regularly offered racist items like that - so many that it would be easy to mistake it for a newspaper published in the Deep South. That vignette, in fact, was reprinted from a paper in Mississippi.


This article is a coda to the series "THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA," which explored how the Democrat in the late 19th century ignored African-American townspeople, even when they were men and women of distinction. It disappeared them by rarely offering obituaries and not mentioning weddings, deaths, births, arrivals and departures. But that doesn't mean the paper ignored African-Americans; it published something about them almost every week - albeit only things which ground them down by reinforcing the ugliest racist stereotypes.


Blacks in the late 19th century faced myriad problems nationwide, although today we focus mainly on the dramatic acts of violence and overt acts of discrimination - lynchings, the Klan, Jim Crow laws and the like. But reading the old Democrat it's shocking to discover how normalized racism was in Santa Rosa. Those toxic little stinkbombs in the paper reminded African-Americans they were inferior and fair game to be pushed around, and they sent a clear message to whites that blacks deserved lowly status. And probably worst of all, it taught white children all this was just the way of the world. Coming soon: White Supremacy, The Next Generation.


Let Gentle Reader be forewarned that this is not the sort of historical amusement usually found here, and what follows will stray into uncomfortable territory - reading (or writing) about hateful speech is No. Fun. At. All. But we can't discuss Santa Rosa's history without being honest about how ugly some of it really was. We can debate how much this material shaped the town, but we can't deny it existed. And we can't pretend this problem stopped when the Sonoma Democrat folded in 1897; the Press Democrat continued dishing out offensive racial jokes and short fiction well into the 1930s, only not as vigorously.




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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