The first time Santa Rosa had more than a couple of dimes rattling around its coin purse, the town bought itself a present. A really big present.

 "It gives us unlimited pleasure to chronicle the fact that a long felt want, in the shape of an opera house is at last to be built in Santa Rosa," boasted the town's Sonoma Democrat newspaper in mid-summer, 1884.

 That opera house was to be called the Athenaeum (a name usually given to a library or academic/literary salons, not so often public theaters). It filled the western side of D street, from Fourth to Fifth streets and was 80 feet wide. Newspaper readers were repeatedly reminded that it was the largest auditorium in the state outside of San Francisco.

The Santa Rosa Athenaeum in 1890. (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)


Why a farm town of 5,000 needed an auditorium large enough to hold up to half its population was never discussed. But the mid-1880s were boom times for Santa Rosa, and much of the original downtown was being replaced with entire blocks of new buildings. A new city hall was built along with that pretty little courthouse in Courthouse Square. There were forty other projects under construction at the same time as the Athenaeum, almost all of them made out of bricks. Almost all of them would collapse in the 1906 earthquake, including the Athenaeum.

Outside it looked like a nondescript brick warehouse, but the interior drew high praise. Alas, there are no (surviving) pictures of it - a dilemma I often encounter here, so indulge me a short rant: Except for a couple of postcard views of the exterior, there are likewise no photos of the fabled 40 room "Buena Vista Castle” near Sonoma. Jack London's Wolf House was nearly complete when it burned down, but there is only a single glimpse of the place under construction and most of it is obscured by a horse-drawn wagon in the foreground. There are no images of the inside - all of which is particularly aggravating because London was a photojournalist. I could name scads of other really interesting-but-lost-forever views just in Santa Rosa during the era when Kodak cameras were ubiquitous; I can't understand why something was considered picturesque or important enough to be described in a newspaper - yet apparently no one thought of whipping out a Brownie camera to take a snapshot.

Fortunately there are multiple descriptions of the theater which paint a pretty detailed picture. I still wanted to find an image of an auditorium that was a reasonably close match and spent much of the last week prowling through hundreds of photos and period drawings of theater interiors here and in Europe. Two finalists were the Memphis TN Lyceum and the Virginia City NV Opera House, but the former is a little too cavernous and the other lacking architectural details. I could find only one theater that fits comfortably in the Goldilocks zone - and may the goddesses forgive me, it's the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland. All important details and proportions match except the Athenaeum was a few seats wider.

Let's take a look inside the Athenaeum: Start your virtual tour by standing in front of the lovely 1911 Beaux-Arts style Doyle Building at 641-647 Fourth street. This has exactly the same footprint as the Athenaeum, except the stairway to the upper floor was almost twice as wide. At street level there was always a grocery to the west side of the stairs (more about that below) and in later years the Santa Rosa post office was on the corner side.*

The theater occupied the second and third floors. At the top of the stairs was the foyer with the box office. Wainscotting in the foyer used black walnut - a nice signal that you were entering a space that was posh and as permanent as a bank. Staircases on either side led to the third floor, where there was another larger foyer which took up about sixty feet of the top story. This was called the Society Hall and was rented out for banquets and dances when the theater wasn't booked.

Beyond the top floor hall/foyer, theatergoers took seats in the balcony which wrapped around three sides of the auditorium. Called the "gallery" at the time, the balcony was both suspended from the ceiling and supported with posts. An item in the Democrat paper suggested some were squeamish over the safety of the overhanging balcony. "Let us whisper to the timid, if any such are left, that each of the seven iron columns under the gallery will support a weight equal to two hundred tons, or fourteen hundred tons in the aggregate."

The gallery had the cheap seats but anyone who could afford better would sit below. There was the parquet circle directly beneath the gallery; like the balcony there was a baluster rail in front. It was (probably) at stage level, which meant the sight lines and acoustics were better than the main floor. The primary difference from the Disneyland theater was that the Athenaeum had more private boxes overlooking the stage; six on each side at the gallery level, and two on either side of the parquet circle.

The stage lights and everything else in the auditorium was lit by gaslights which were individually controlled by a panel. In the middle of the ceiling was an enormous "sun burner" (MORE info) which brilliantly illuminated the hall when turned up full. But what everyone was buzzing about was the artwork - the ceiling and walls were covered with murals. The Sonoma Democrat had the most detailed description:

About the ventilator in the center is a bit of sky, with clouds piled cumulus like, just as we sometimes see them on the horizon, while trailing vines, laden with blossoms seem to be peeping in the windows of some conservatory. The entire ceiling and gallery walls are hand painted, and at each corner a lyre and sprays of vines retain the eye, with elegantly designed borders enclosing numerous sky blue spaces. At the corners are huge clusters of reeds, conventionalized branches of leaves beneath. The area in front of the top of the stage is resplendent with flowers and sprays, and must be seen to be appreciated.

 The stage itself was in the classic proscenium 19th century style, with drapery and an olio painted curtain depicting "a villa in the distance, amidst a beautiful grove with a magnificent garden in the foreground." The artist was Thomas Moses who later became a top artist in this niche, painting scenic drops like this for theaters all over the country, including Broadway.

The official seating capacity was 1,600 although numbers up to a thousand higher were also mentioned. Theaters like this used wooden chairs, not seats bolted to the floor, so it was only a matter of placing them farther or closer together. (The cheapest gallery seats were apparently fixed in place, however.) Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley wrote an appreciation of the old place in 1932, which was abridged in a book, "Santa Rosans I Have Known." Finley wrote "The theatre itself seated 1700 persons while 2500 could be and frequently were crowded in."

Finley, who grew up in Santa Rosa, also recalled the Athenaeum box office was a popular place for kids to money launder any counterfeit coin which "sometimes found its way into their pockets without its spurious character being noticed." 

The Athenaeum's official dedication was the night of July 9, 1885. After the orchestra gave “a preliminary toot or two,” there were remarks by the president of the Athenaeum association and a San Francisco theatrical manager, then an actress read a really bad poem. ("...Through groves of drooping oak, a glistening stream/ Runs, like a silver thread, through emerald green/ And over all is sunset’s purple sheen./ Another change the Mexican appears/ He seems a centaur, horse and man, and spurs./ Across the unfenced valley, like a bird/ He sweeps, amid his startled sleek skinned herd...") Once that was suffered through, the curtain went up for the performance of a blood-and-thunder melodrama based on Jules Verne's novel “Michael Strogoff.”

The Santa Rosa paper enthused over everything about the evening ("It was the first time Don Mills’ mule ever greeted an audience") but glossed over the detail that the theater wasn't even half full on its opening night. It appears that it would be more than a year before the Athenaeum was actually filled, and that was for a free October, 1886 speech by the Republican candidate for governor. (Predictably, the highly-partisan Democrat sniffed, "His speech was dry, prosy and wearisome, and elicited very little applause.")

Thus was the fate of the Athenaeum clouded from its earliest days. Although the theater itself was a jewel by any measure, it's hard to imagine that a hall which was only open  every week or so - and then usually around half empty - could be profitable. When the entire hall was rented out and open for free admission it was sometimes reported filled: Church coalitions brought in famous bible thumpers, political parties had election eve rallies and small groups held conventions - the State Sunday School Association was scheduled to be there in late April, 1906, with plans cancelled because of the earthquake.

Finley and others wrote of the celebrated performers who appeared on its stage. Yes, John Philip Sousa’s famous brass band played a rousing concert and modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller was here. Heavyweight boxing champ James Jeffries tried to jumpstart a new career starring in a play about Davy Crockett (the audience liked it most when he hit things or flexed his muscles) and San Francisco promoters sometimes booked a slate of classical music artists, mainly opera singers past their prime.

But for every highbrow concert by a "tenor robusto" there were twenty performances of hoary melodramas like "Ingomar the Barbarian" or trite comedies such as "James Wobberts, Freshman." For every serious debate or lecture by someone like the guy predicting the year 2000 there were a dozen touring comedians such as “Yon Yonson," "Ole Olson," or vaudeville acts like "Thirty Educated Dogs." And there were minstrel shows - lots and lots of minstrel shows.

The melodrama “Chimes of Normandy” and the comedy "Wang" both appeared at the Athenaeum in 1900

Ridgway Hall was the only other venue downtown for large gatherings and it was mainly used for dances and county conventions, but the Athenaeum was used for local events, too, including commencement ceremonies and school literary exercises. Locals also put on shows at the Athenaeum; Gilbert & Sullivan's "Mikado" was produced here and Santa Rosa Attorney T. J. Butts produced a farce he had written, “Misery, or Three Spasms for a Half." (A few years later, Butts participated in a lecture series on the topic, "What Is the Matter with Santa Rosa?" His position was that “our city government is as good as we deserve,” which gets my vote as our city motto.)

The Athenaeum was completely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and many commented that it was a good thing it didn't hit when the theater was occupied. Three days earlier, nearly every kid in town was in there for choir practice before the upcoming Sunday School convention. Ernest Finley wrote the best obit in his 1932 reminisces:

The Athenaeum went down at the time of the earthquake, together with everything else in that entire block...the Athenaeum was built by T. J. Ludwig, active here as a contractor at that time, and its plan of construction was much criticized. Resting on the side walls of the building were great trusses which stretched across from one wall to another and from these the auditorium was practically suspended in air. There was some underneath support, but not too much. There was no regulation of such matters in those days. This type of construction would not now be permitted anywhere. After the building collapsed, investigation showed that certain beams in the great trusses, which were entirely of redwood, had decayed at the edges. It is not improbable that, had the building continued in use many years longer, some of these beams might have given way under the tremendous strain and a holocaust far greater than that occasioned by the earthquake itself might have resulted.

Oddly, some of the early hype about the theater focused on the impossibility of its collapse. The Democrat promised before construction began that it was to be an "earthquake proof building," and a few days before it opened, the paper offered a commentary on the safety of the Athenaeum and the new courthouse. "This is a good time to kill the idle street talk we hear about one building being unsafe, and another one just ready to topple over...So will Santa Rosa outgrow the little fellows who go whining about the streets. If none of them die until they are killed by the falling of Athenaeum, or the new Court House, they will survive a hundred years, which would be a greater misfortune to the city than the fall of both those substantial and elegant structures."

*The Athenaeum Grocery was an ambitious effort to create a real food market, complete with canned goods, fresh produce, a butcher and fish counter, and something like a deli offering lunch. "Many a lady dreads the Saturday’s marketing, because she knows that she will perhaps have to walk over the whole town before completing her purchases, but when the new central market is opened it will be different; she may do all of her marketing in the one building, and her purchases will be delivered at the same time."


Santa Rosa Athenaeum, 1906 (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)



Santa Rosa Athenaeum.

It gives us unlimited pleasure to chronicle the fact that a long felt want, in the shape of an opera house is at last to be built in Santa Rosa. A joint stock company with a capital stock of $20,000 has been organized, and incorporated under the laws of this State for of constructing a solid, substantial and earthquake proof building, on the corner of Fourth and D streets, covering that entire lot, extending through to Fifth street, known as the T. H. Pyatt lot. The building will have an eighty foot front on Fourth and Fifth streets, and will be 200 feet in depth. The seating capacity will be from 1,600 to 2,000 people. Two stores will be fitted up on Fourth street, and a society hall will also front on the same street. A gallery will extend around three sides of the building. The main entrance to the auditorium, will be from Fourth street with side entrance from Fifth aud D streets, so that the hall can be quickly cleared in case of a panic. The stage will extend across the Fifth street end of the building, and will be seven feet from the door. On each side will be three dressing rooms for theatrical companies. Under the stage a kitchen with range and all other necessary equipments, and a spacious banquet hall will be fitted up for the convenience and benefit of fairs, festivals, etc. The structure promises to be one of the most convenient and perfect ever built, and fills a long felt want in this community.

- Sonoma Democrat, July 5 1884


The lot for the Santa Rosa Athenaeum, on the corner of Fourth and D street is cleared, and work excavating for the foundation has commenced.

- Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1884


Our Opera House.

We strolled into the Athenaeum on Friday afternoon and found the timbers for the gallery being placed in position, and the scantling for the different partitions being erected. The inside is going to present a handsome appearance. The gallery is semi-circular in form, and the timbers for the “circle” are being bent as they are being placed in position, under the immediate supervision of Col. Gray, whom we saw, with hammer in hand, as busy as any of the artisans. We should suppose that there were about thirty men engaged with hammer and saw, and noted that the work was progressing very satisfactorily.

Mr. Mailer, of the firm of W. C. Good & Co., informs us that the tin for the roof is all in readiness in the shop, and that twelve men are putting the work on the roof, as rapidly as possible. A few days fine weather, and the roof will be tinned. This firm have just received a consignment of ninety boxes of tin for the roofs o( other buildings now in the course of completion.

- Sonoma Democrat, February 28 1885


Handsome Ornamentations.

We were permitted to take a view of the ceiling of the Athenaeum, on Friday, as the decorative artists had just completed their work. It is a study in art. About the ventilator in the center is a bit of sky, with clouds piled cumulus like, just as we sometimes see them on the horizon, while trailing vines, laden with blossoms seem to be peeping in the windows of some conservatory. The entire ceiling and gallery walls are hand painted, and at each corner a lyre and sprays of vines retain the eye, with elegantly designed borders enclosing numerous sky blue spaces. At the corners are huge clusters of reeds, conventionalized branches of leaves beneath. The area in front of the top of the stage is resplendent with flowers and sprays, and must be seen to be appreciated. We consider it the most elegant finish we have ever seen in so large a building. The theater will be ready for occupation about the first June. In the main auditorium the seating and finishing touches only remain to be attended to, but the stage and the front hall yet remain to be finished.

- Sonoma Democrat, May 16 1885


Ambitions Santa Rosa.

The San Francisco Figaro, of a recent date, contains the following: “It may seem strange, but it is true nevertheless, that Santa Rosa will soon have the largest and most magnificent theatre building outside of San Francisco. Though occupying nearly as much space as our Grand Opera House, it will have only two circles, it is decorated in grand style, is called the Athenaeum, and will be finished about the middle of next month. Good for Santa Rosa, which is one of the most delightful cities of the interior, and a growing one, surrounded by a rich farming region, belted by timber lands almost inexhaustible. With a modesty unusual and worthy of note, the owner of the edifice did not give to it his own name." Come up and see it Bro. Bogardus, and if we don’t give you a hearty welcome for old time’s sake, we will try it. Call soon.

- Sonoma Democrat, June 6 1885


The Athenaeum.

We stopped a moment at the Athenaeum, on Tuesday. Preparations are being made to lay the stone sidewalk, by putting in the curbing. Work on the inside is progressing. Painters are priming the woodwork, and graining has commenced. The railing for the boxes and about the orchestra are placed in position. The handsome railing for the stairways leading to the gallery is being put up. The doors about the entrance to the parquette and dress circle are being hung. The racks and slides for the scenery are being put in place and the lower hall is being graveled for cement pavement.

- Sonoma Democrat, June 13 1885


Dedicating the Athenaeum.

In response to an invitation of the Board of Directors of the Santa Rosa Athenaeum Company, a number of gentlemen met at the parlors of Occidental Hotel to consult in regard to the formal opening of the building, now so near at hand. In response to this, there were present...

...The building is nearly completed. The seats in the gallery are about finished. At the ends of the gallery circle, nearest the stage, are six compartments on each side the building set apart by railing as mezzanine boxes. Directly below them, at the terminus of the dress circle, are four elegant boxes, two on each side, decorated very handsomely and elaborately.

We have stated that six iron pillars have been placed beneath the gallery, which support it, so that it is no longer suspended from the roof.

The chairs for the boxes, dress circle and orchestra will arrive in a few days. They are on the way. There are 800 of them.

Work laying the scenery is progressing rapidly, and the stage now begins to have the appearance of business.

The painters and grainers are putting the finishing touches to the main hall, and back stairway, and glaziers are preparing the sash for the numerous windows. The wainscotting in the foyer passages, doors and stairways is black walnut. In the banquet, ball and offices, oak.

The patent stone work for the sidewalk and lower portion of the main entrance is completed and is now hardening. Work laying the basalt blocks in the gutter is progressing.

RECEPTION AND PROMENADE CONCERT.

The Committee appointed, as mentioned above, met immediately after the conference adjourned, and adopted the following programme:
1. Overture by orchestra.
2. Prayer by Rev. J. Avery Shepherd.
3. Remarks by the President. B. M. Spencer.
4. Dedicatory by A. B. Ware.
5. Vocal Music.
6. Remarks by R. A. Thompson.
7. Vocal Solo.
8. Closing remarks by Senator G. A. Johnson.
9. Overture by orchestra.
10. Promenade concert and reception.

[..]

- Sonoma Democrat, June 20 1885


The Athenaeum.

We were permitted to visit the interior of the Athenaeum on Tuesday, and found Mr. Bumbaugh with a large force of painters at work. The main hall has been most artistically and beautifully adorned, and the work is well done.

We met Mr. C. N. Crouse, who came from Chicago to arrange the scenery and mount it. He showed us the drop curtain, which is the finest we have seen in California, not even excepting the famous one at the Sacramento Theater, "Othello relating his adventures.” It represents a villa in the distance, amidst a beautiful grove with a magnificent garden in the foreground, while the whole is enclosed in gorgeous and elegant drapery. It is superb. Mr. Crouse says that nearly all the scenery is now ready. There are one or two set pieces to be arranged, a bridge forty feet long and a cottage scene.

- Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1885


The Opening of the Athenaeum.

On Thursday, Secretary C. A. Wright, of the Athenaeum Company, signed a contract with Al. Hayman, the well known theatrical manager, of San Francisco, to lease our new opera house for three nights, viz; July 2d, 3d and 4th.

There will be presented on these evenings, on the 2d, “Michael Strogoff,” on the 3d, “Lights o’ London," and on the 4th,the magnificent drama. “The Count of Monte Christo.” The Company of the Baldwin Theater will present the plays, and they will be put on the stage in the best manner possible. The scenery will be superb, all most all new. Mr. Hayman has pledged himself to make the opening a credit to the handsome building, and to sustain the enviable reputation his company has gained. It will all be first class in every particular. The orchestra will consist of seven or eight accomplished musicians.

- Sonoma Democrat, June 27 1885


A WORD WITH YOU.

We hate to give advice and absolutely won’t scold, but we wish to say to you that this is a good time to kill the idle street talk we hear about one building being unsafe, and another one just ready to topple over, that the town is overgrown, the land given out, and the bugs have taken the country. In point of fact the croaker is the bug that is doing the most harm just now. His idle talk reminds us of an incident which came under our observation. A plant was growing vigorously in a garden. It was thoroughly in sympathy with the soil in which it grew and the air with which it stretched its limbs, but its young and tender branches were covered with the aphide, a pestiferous parasite that mars the beauty while it sucks the life of the plant upon which it feeds.

Fears were expressed to an old gardener that the “bugs” would kill the plant. “O no,” said he, “it will outgrow those little fellows.”

So will Santa Rosa outgrow the little fellows who go whining about the streets. If none of them die until they are killed by the falling of Athenaeum, or the new Court House, they will survive a hundred years, which would be a greater misfortune to the city than the fall of both those substantial and elegant structures.

- Sonoma Democrat, July 4 1885


THE TEMPLE OF ATHAENE
Brilliant Opening of Santa Rosa's Beautiful Opera House

The youth, beauty and fashion of our fair city were out in force at the opening of the Athenaeum on Thursday evening. It must have been the greatest pleasure imaginable to those of our enterprising citizens who took such a leading part in the construction of the beautiful temple of the muses to hear the exclamations of unfeigned delight which fell almost unconsciously from the lips of nearly all present, most of whom had not seen the interior of the building since the work of ornamentation had begun. The comfortable opera chair, the pleasant Mezzanine and elegant proscenium boxes and the superb decorations on every hand.

THE ATTENDANCE.

Was a pleasing surprise to all. Over one half of the seating capacity was occupied, and we noticed in prominent parts of the foyer representatives of every leading interest in our city, and in the dress circle, parquette and boxes the elegant toilets of our pride, Santa Rosa’s fair ones, lent an air most charming to the most novel and really pleasant scene ever witnessed in the “City of Roses" not less than five hundred persons were present, the gallery was about half filled, and the lower portion more than half filled. The gallery was of anything the most sedate portion of the house.

It was 8:15 when Prof. S. L. Parks’ orchestra gave “a preliminary toot or two,” and then began the first overture, and at its close, B. M. Spencer appeared and introduced Mr. Al. Hayman, who spoke in glowing tones of this new building and referred in eloquent terms to the enterprise of those who built this temple to the muses. He then introduced Miss Phoebe Davies, who read the following prologue:

THE OPENING OF THE ATHENAEUM.
INVOCATION.

[..]

 All was enthusiasm. The prologue was read before a scene carefully prepared, and as Miss Davies left the scene, the beautiful drop curtain fell, and was displayed to an audience for the first time. Miss Davies was heartily applauded, and the curtain was the signal for another burst of enthusiasm.

[..]

NOTES.

 It was the first time Don Mills’ mule ever greeted an audience.

 Sosman & Landers of Chicago painted and prepared the scenery which every one so much admired, and it was mounted by C. M. Crouse, one of the most experienced in the United States, and who was brought here by the Athenaeum Company especially to fit up this stage. He had done his work in the most satisfactory possible.

 The drop curtain was designed and painted by a special artist employed by Sosman & Landers, and who devotes his entire time to this class of work. His name is Thomas Moses.

 An important feature is the nickel plated gas stand, by means of which the gas in any part of the building can be readily regulated. It was made by H. C. Hickey of Chicago.

  The lights are perfection. The huge sun-burner in the center of the ceiling and the numerous side lights illuminate the auditorium perfectly.

  Let us whisper to the timid, if any such are left, that each of the seven iron columns under the gallery will support a weight equal to two hundred tons, or fourteen hundred tons in the aggregate. General John A. Brewster says so, and he knows. This is independent of all support from the roof.

  Mr. Hayman says we can say for him that we have the prettiest and most commodios [sic] theater in the State outside of San Francisco, and that it is perfect in all its appointments.

The acoustic properties of the building are excellent. Each line was as distinctly heard as could be. There is no difficulty in hearing at all in any part of the building. It is a credit to the architect and contractor, T. J. Ludwig.

The painting and graining by C. M. Bumbaugh, is the best in Santa Rosa.

The drapery about the boxes is splendid and is the work of Doubleday Bros.

We must give credit to Mr. Lyons, who has been the foreman of the construction ever since the foundation was laid, for the evident excellence of his work.

The opening was a brilliant success, and to the Board of Directors and officers...we extend the congratulations and thanks of this entire community.

- Sonoma Democrat, July 11 1885


The Athenaeum.

Arrangements were completed on Monday to have a sectional floor put in the Athenaeum, so that balls and parties can be given in the main room. This will make a floor of 100x50, and will contain no seats. It will be completed by New Year’s eve, and has been engaged by the Knights of Pythias for that occasion.

- Sonoma Democrat, December 5 1885


New Enterprise.

Mr. O. Howell signed a five years’ lease with the managers of the Athenaeum Saturday morning, for the large storeroom under the west half of the theater, where he will open a central market. It is Mr. Howell’s intention to supply a want long felt, viz: a place where the housewife can do her morning marketing in the one store, or as it should more properly be called, the market. There will be the grocery department, butcher’s stalls, greengrocer’s stalls, fresh fish and oyster department, flour and feed department, poultry and game department and lunch counter, where the farmers and their families, when in town over the dinner hour, can partake of a lunch without the expense of the restaurants and hotels. This market will not only be a great success to its projector, but will be hailed as a solution to the problem of the housewife and busy husband, “What shall I get for dinner?” or supper, as the case may be. Many a lady dreads the Saturday’s marketing, because she knows that she will perhaps have to walk over the whole town before completing her purchases, but when the new central market is opened it will be different; she may do all of her marketing in the one building, and her purchases will be delivered at the same time. Mr. Howell has undertaken no small job in consummating his plans to a successful issue, and he appreciates his situation and enters into it with the determination of making it one of the successful and useful institutions of Santa Rosa.

- Sonoma Democrat, September 18 1886


The fourth time someone tried to burn down Robert Ross’s building he became agitated and said some things he shouldn't. He was taken to jail and charged for "using language too strenuous to suit the occasion," making him the only person who was arrested in connection with a string of arson attempts which plagued Santa Rosa for 28 months.

Between 1902 and 1904 there were eighteen suspicious fires, all but four of which were declared to be positively caused by "incendiarism," which was our ancestor's word at the time for arson. Among the incidents was the 1903 Railroad Square fire which burned for two days, making it the worst blaze Santa Rosa firemen had yet faced.

In the months that followed, the Fire Chief and police repeatedly told the Press Democrat there was a firebug at work here, but a broader analysis shows a pattern which probably began in early 1902. With one exception, all 18 were on the south side of downtown, mostly within a block from Santa Rosa Creek. Most happened during the months of April, May or July and were discovered around midnight, with Saturday being by far the favorite night.

(UPDATE: There were 19 suspicious fires, not 18. I neglected to count one of the Ross fires blamed on arson.)

Those familiar with this journal know I often end with a Believe-it-or-Not! oddity or twist to a story, but this time the surprise has to be revealed at the top: Incidents of serial arson were shockingly common out here at the turn of the century - and authorities didn't seem too concerned about finding the culprits. When the firebugs were caught it was usually by accident.

Thankfully rare today, a search of turn-of-the-century era newspapers found arson sprees in rural towns like Santa Rosa all over the Bay Area. Almost always the pyromaniacs were teenage boys (MORE on the psychology of fire setting). The only known adult was Carlos Benedetto, a Petaluma firebug 1897-1898 who destroyed the town's largest warehouses, part of a lumber yard and tried to burn a bridge. He was described as "a demented Italian laborer" (SF Examiner) and as "vicious looking, has a wild eye and is no doubt insane" (Petaluma Courier).

(RIGHT: Illustration of the San Rafael firebugs, San Francisco Call, Sept. 25 1902)

A 14 year-old was caught in Martinez for fires at the school, town hall and coal yard in 1904; a couple of years later a 15 year-old boy in Santa Cruz burned several barns, a school house and two bridges. There were also serial arsonists in Hopland (caught) and Ukiah (not caught). In 1901-1902 San Rafael, two boys aged 9 and 14 set as many as 16 fires; the younger boy was the ringleader and said he did it because he "liked to see firemen run."

What made the Santa Rosa arsonist unique, however, was that he repeatedly went after the same buildings. Robert Ross’s blacksmith shop at First and Main was torched six times. A few doors down at Second and Main he tried to burn a barn/horse stable twice. Three times he hit the Star Feed Mill building at Fourth and A streets and two fires were set in vacant houses in the tenderloin district along First street.

While Fire Chief Lynchberg Adams apparently listed the Railroad Square conflagration as cause unknown, circumstances suggest it was our arsonist. It was the fourth suspicious fire in six weeks, and Adams had said the others were definitely incendiary. The fire began BENEATH the freight loading platform, and in the northwest corner - the only point which could not be seen from the train depot. There were rumors that boys were seen throwing firecrackers under the platform, although a policeman told the Press Democrat he was certain there was no truth in it.

Two days afterward that fire the City Marshal offered a $50 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “the incendiary.” After another rash of fires the next year Board of Fire Commissioners discussed raising it to $100, but nothing came of it. (The money would have been better spent by just paying a guard to sit in Robert Ross’s place.) But other than adding a streetlight at First and Main, no further preventative measures were mentioned in the papers.

The pattern of arson fires ended May 28, 1904, with the final attempt to torch the building with the mill. As the PD reported about the last of the Ross fires, "the identity of the miscreant remains a mystery."

There were suspects but they were never named. Fire Chief Adams said two boys were seen playing in one of the red light district vacant houses before flames were spotted. And on July 2, 1903 - three days before the Railroad Square blaze - there was an incident at the high school on Humboldt street. A janitor was cleaning up the grounds when "a lad named Gardner" asked if he could help. The janitor said yes, but told the boy not to burn the rubbish. He did anyway, and the resulting fire destroyed a neighbor's barn, two sheds and tons of hay. Nothing more was mentioned about that lad who couldn't resist lighting a match.





APPLIED A TORCH
Attempt to Burn the Cnopius Barn on Second Street
Fire Discovered Before it Had Gained Much Headway and Was Extinguished

Some miscreant made an attempt Thursday night about 7 o'clock to burn the barn and stable of Cnopius & Co. on Second street near Main street. A piece of rag or matting, presumably soaked with oil, was thrust through a hole in the front of the barn and was snugly tucked in against a bale of hay. The torch was then applied and the would-be incendiary doubtless hurried away. Luckily Frank Cootes happened to pass along the street and noticed the flame. He gave an alarm at once and several men were quickly on the scene. Dr. Summerfield, the veterinary, and others forced open the barn doors and water was thrown on the fire and it was extinguished before any damage to speak of was done. Had the fire gained headway serious damage would have resulted. There were six horses in the barn Thursday night. What prompted the Incendiary to act in the manner described is unknown.

- Press Democrat, January 10 1902


HOP BARN BURNED
Destruction of a Building on the Burgess Place
Origin of the Fire Unknown — Building Reduced to Ashes In a Short Time

Shortly after midnight the large hop barn nearest the city pumping station alongside the road on the Burgess hop ranch on Sonoma avenue, was burned to the ground.

The building was reduced to ashes, together with the fence around it. From Chief Engineer Will Yandel at the pumping station it was learned by phone that the barn was empty at the time, according to a statement made by Mr. Burgess, who was awakened and told of the fire.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly incendiary. At first it was stated that many bales of hops were stored in the barn. It was afterward learned that the hops were in another barn. The fire caused a big reflection in the sky, which attracted considerable attention among those who were abroad on the streets awaiting the election returns.

- Press Democrat, April 3 1902


WORK OF INCENDIARY
Attempt to Burn Robert Ross' Establishment on Sunday Night

About 11:30 o'clock on Sunday night what appears to have been an attempt to burn down Robert Ross' blacksmith shop at First and Main streets was discovered. Some people who were driving by happened to notice the flames on the First-street side and gave the alarm.

The fire was burning against one of the posts of the doors leading into the blacksmith shop and had it once gained headway a serious conflagration would have resulted as the room in which the dry wood is stored and the paint and oil room are in close proximity. The fire was started from the outside. A big wagon was drawn up alongside the doors. There is a probability that a lighted cigar stump might have been thrown against the woodwork which is old and would burn easily. No damage was done. The fire department responded with commendable promptitude.

Dr. Summerfield pulled the wagon out of the way and Fireman Len Colgan, assisted by Gus Donovan, who hurried to the scene, accompanied by Mr. Bertolani, put the fire out with a tub of water, which Mr. Ross keeps standing near the door for use in case of an outbreak of fire. Mr. Ross was home in bed at the time the alarm was rung in and in a few minutes Dr. Summerfield telephoned to him that everything was safe and the fire out. The damage was slight.

The authorities are investigating. They believe that they have their eye on the guilty party. It is believed to be the same person who set fire to another building some time ago. Mr. Rosa will repair the damage to his building immediately.

- Press Democrat, July 15 1902



ROOF WAS ON FIRE
EARLY MORNING BLAZE DISCOVERED AT PETERSON BROS. WAREHOUSE LAST NIGHT
Fire Department Called Out to Extinguish Another Mysterious Fire — Flames Were Making Headway When Discovered

A disastrous fire was narrowly averted at an early hour this morning.

At 1:10 an alarm was rung in from box 26 at Second and Wilson streets aod the fire department hurried to the large fruit packing warehouse of Peterson Brothers on Third street near the railroad crossing, whore a fire in the center of the roof was gaining headway.

The flames were quickly extinguished by the use of the chemical engine. Firemen got on the roof and chopped away the burning embers with axes and a small quantity of water was used to thoroughly prevent any danger of a further blaze.

Thanks to Mike McNulty, who was on his way home, a more serious fire was prevented. McNulty chanced to look through the warehouse windows as he passed and noticed showers of sparks falling from the roof onto the floor of the warehouse. He at once ran around the brewery premises to where the fire alarm box is located me gave the alarm.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It may have been caused by a spark or may be the work of the incendiary who has apparently plied his work on other buildings in Santa Rosa lately. The damage to the roof was nominal.

- Press Democrat, July 26 1902


Fire Still a Mystery

The fire at the Peterson warehouse early Saturday morning is still a mystery. It may have been caused by boys climbing on the roof and playing with matches although it is not very likely. The more general opinion is that it may be work of the incendiary who fired the Robert Ross building on First street a few nights ago and also the Cnopius warehouse.

- Press Democrat, July 27 1902


DISASTROUS FIRE
Barn Destroyed and Horse Burned to Death Early Monday Morning

The barn back of E. H. Hollenbeck’s residence on Sonoma avenue was destroyed by fire at 1 o’clock Monday morning. The flames wiped out everything in the barn. A horse was burned to death. The conflagration was noticed by the crew of the night freight on the C. N. W. R. and the locomotive whistle was blown for sometime before the fire alarm was rung in. Before the fire department was called the barn was in ruins. The property was owned by Mr. Hollenbeck. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary. The barn was recently built.

- Press Democrat, October 28 1902


HORSES IN DANGER
A BARN AND CONTENTS DESTROYED AND 18 EQUINES RESCUED
Conflagration at 10:30 O'Clock Wednesday Night in the Rear of the Bizzini Place on Tupper Street

A large barn in the rear of the Bizzini place on Tupper street, between Henley and Brown streets, was destroyed by fire Wednesday night.

Shortly before 10:30 o’clock Jack Barrickio, who noticed the blaze, phoned into the fire station and the department responded quickly. An alarm was also rung in.

The barn contained sixteen head of horses, the property of Ross Garrison, the horse-trader, and a large quantity of hay and straw. The horses were all rescued by Mr. Garrison, Edward Campbell and Mr. Whitcomb. A few minutes later and three at least of the horses would have been burned. The burning straw and hay made a fierce fire, which was soon dampened by the streams of water poured on.

Despite the stormy weather a large crowd ot men, women and children hurried to the scene. The Bizzini residence is occupied by a family by the name of Brown. For a time the Browns feared some of their property in a barn on the place would be destroyed. The barn, however, being some distance from the burning structure, was not harmed.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. In response to a number of inquiries made at the scene no one could explain how it originated, other than it was incendiary.

- Press Democrat, December 11 1902


THE TORCH APPLIED
FIRE DOES DAMAGE AT ROBERT ROSS' CARRIAGE WORKS ON MAIN STREET
Third Attempt Made by Incendiary to Burn the Building Was Discovered Late Last Night

At 11:05 o’clock last night a fire was discovered in Robert Ross’ carriage works on Main street. Flames were burning in the top end of the building on the corner of Second street, on the roof and side of the structure. The fire department were soon on the scene and the fire was extinguished before much damage was done, except by water. How the fire originated is a mystery. It was undoubtedly of incendiary origin. Mr. Ross inclines to the belief that the same party, who on two previous occasions has fired the building. is responsible for last night’s conflagration. The fire apparently caught from the outside as investigation last night failed to show where it had originated on the inside. From the corner the flames ran along the rafters for some distance. Lumber and tools in a portion of the building will suffer by reason of the water.

- Press Democrat, January 7 1903


Investigating the Recent Fire

The cause of the fire of Tuesday night, when for the third time an attempt was made to destroy the blacksmith shop and carriage manufactory of Robert Ross, is carefully investigated. A survey of the building on Wednesday showed that, as stated in these columns, the fire was started outside near the corner of First and Main streets. From there the flames traveled to the roof, finally burning through and working along and under the shingles towards the rear of the structure. It was thought by some that the flames might have originated in the paint shop, but this theory is incorrect. There was no fire inside the building except where it burned through the side wall and roof. Mr Ross says that a number of tools marked with his name have disappeared.

- Press Democrat, January 8 1903


INCENDIARY AT WORK
Another Attempt to Burn the Barn of Cnopius & Co.

At half past four o'clock yesterday morning the fire department were called to Second and Main streets where a conflagration was in progress in Cnopius & Co.'s barn and storehouse. The flames were burning among the bales of hay. The fire was soon subdued, and what would have been a bad fire but for the promptitude of the response to the alarm was averted. The fire was undoubtedly incendiary.

- Press Democrat, May 16 1903


Want Light In Darkness

Residents and property owners of the vicinity of First and Main streets in view of the recent incendiary fires, petitioned the Council for a street light at the intersection of those streets for the protection of their property. The petition was referred to the Street Committee.

- Press Democrat, June 3 1903


APPLIED THE TORCH
AN INCENDIARY SETS FIRE TO A HOUSE ON D STREET ON SATURDAY NIGHT
Fire Was Discovered Shortly Before Midnight and Promptly Extinguished—Wanted to Drive Over Hose

About twelve o'clock the fire department was called to D street to extinguished a fire at No. 5, an unoccupied house. While the house is not a very valuable one the fire was a deliberate attempt to destroy the property.

The incendiary had placed a pile of blankets on the floor of a room in the corner and applied the torch. When discovered the fire was gaining headway. The flames were extinguished before much damage was done.

At the scene of the fire a youth from the country essayed to drive over the hose and was ordered to desist by Fireman Ed Hyde. He was abusive and Hyde without much ceremony jerked him from the vehicle. The youth afterward deemed it discretion to leave the hose and Hyde unmolested and went his way.

- Press Democrat, June 28 1903


PRETTY WARM BLAZE
Fire Department Busy On Thursday Afternoon

An alarm from box 52 called the fire department to Humboldt street on Thursday afternoon where a lively blaze was in progress, and before it was extinguished a barn and several tons of hay and two sheds and a summer kitchen went up in smoke and flame. The flames had gained considerable headway before the department were called. After the firemen arrived on the scene the conflagration was soon under control.

The fire originated on the grounds of the High School which adjoins the residence of G. W. Wallace of the Wallace Brokerage Company, who was the loser by the spreading flames through the fence. From Janitor Jones it was learned that the fire was started in some rubbish by a lad named Gardner, who had wanted to assist him in cleaning up the grounds. Jones says he cautioned Gardner not to start the fire.

Despite the warmth of the temperature there was the usual large crowd of spectators at the fire. They came in ail directions in vehicles, on horseback, in automobiles and a foot.

- Press Democrat, July 3 1903



HOUSE SET ON FIRE
DEPARTMENT CALLED SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT FOR FIRE ON FIRST STREET
Another Incendiary Fire Nearly Destroys an Unoccupied House — The Fire Had a Good Start

Last night shortly before midnight there was another alarm of fire and the department hurried to First street, near D street, where a fierce fire was in progress in an unoccupied house. The fire occurred just around the corner from the scene of the fire the other night, and like that one was the work of an incendiary. The building was damaged considerably and would have been entirely destroyed but for the exertions of the department. Two boys were noticed in the house in the morning, but no one was seen there later in the day. Fire Chief Adams had no hesitancy in saying that the fire was of incendiary origin.

- Press Democrat, July 4 1903


DISASTROUS BLAZE
RESIDENCE OF THE HON. J. T. CAMPBELL BADLY GUTTED BY FIRE LAST EVENING
Willing Hands Assist in Removing the Valuable Bric-a-brac — Fire Fighters Included a Number of Ladies

The pretty residence of the Hon. and Mrs. J. T. Campbell was practically gutted by fire last evening soon after six o’clock. Thanks to the energies of many willing hands much of the very valuable bric-a-brac and curios, which have been their great pride, were saved. Much of the furniture was rescued but of course many of the articles, including some of the curios and other furnishings were badly damaged or burned. From top to bottom the house was drenched with water and plastering and ceiling fell everywhere. The roof and the rear end of the residence was a prey of the flames to a greater extent than the front. What was a delightfully furnished house up to last night is now pretty much of a wreck.

How the fire originated is something of a mystery. There had been no fire in the house for some time, as a gas stove is used principally. The fire started in the upper story, and the burning roof was the first intimation to outsiders that a fire was in progress. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were enjoying a chat after supper totally unaware that overhead a fire threatened to destroy their home was in progress. Two theories as to the cause of the fire were advanced. It was suggested that probably the conflagration might have been caused by electric wires, or might have been caused by combustion in the storeroom which is under the roof in the rear of the house upstairs. In this storeroom a great many things were stored. The blaze was a stubborn one to get under control, but the firemen succeeded well.

Among those assisting in the removal of the curios and works of art so highly prized by Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, were a number of the fair sex. They worked like Trojans and did not mind getting deluged by the water pouring through the roof. The fair fire fighters were indefatigable in their efforts and a number of men also assisted. The articles saved from destruction were carried into the residence of E. Morris Cox, which adjoins the Campbell home. The conflagration caused some little excitement while it lasted. It was very fortunate it did not prove worse.



  WILL PAY REWARD
Information as to Incendiary Wanted by the Marshal

City Marshal George Severson has offered a reward of fifty dollars for information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the incendiary, who has fired several buildings in this city of late. The Marshal is determined, if possible, to locate the guilty person and citizens should assist in the endeavor.

- Press Democrat, July 8 1903


THE FIRE RECORD
LAST MONTH WAS RECORD BREAKER FOR FIRE ALARMS AND FIRES HERE
Fire Chief Thanks Citizens for Help at Depot Fires — Urges Purchase of New Engine and More Hose

Last month was a record breaker for fire alarms and damage done by fires in Santa Rosa. There were nine alarms of fire during the month. The most serious of the fires were those that destroyed the depots and other buildings on Sunday. July 5, and the one that destroyed $2,400 of the property at the residence of the Hon. J. T. Campbell. Fire Chief Adams made his report at the monthly meeting of the Fire Commissioners last night at the city hall. In making his report Chief Adams urged the purchase of another fire engine and 1,500 feet of new hose. He called attention to the destruction of fire hose at the time of the depot fire. A new engine and more hose are necessities, he said. Chief Adams thanked the citizens for the assistance rendered the regular firemen on the occasion of the depot fire. Acting President L. L. Veirs was in the chair and Commissioners Fred King, C. D. Johnson and G. S. Brown were present. At the other fires outside of the two mentioned considerable damage was done. The Council at its meeting subsequently ordered the purchase of 1,000 feet of new hose.

- Press Democrat, July 22 1903


NEW RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE
CONTRACTOR BUSH’S HOME ON SOUTH E STREET RUINED ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT
The Residence Had Just Been Completed and Family Were About to Occupy the Same

At a few minutes to ten o’clock on Wednesday night fire was discovered in Contractor H. N. Bush's new residence on South E, street and before the flames were extinguished the house was completely gutted.

The residence had just been completed and Mr. and Mr. Bush and family were ready to move into the place. In fact they thought something of moving in the beds Wednesday night and occupying it for the first time, but later derided to give the paint more time to dry. The family had been occupying the barn in the rear of the house which was completed first. Some articles were moved into the new house on Wednesday, principally canned fruits and preserves.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. It started first near the roof and when the flames were noticed first they had gained considerable headway. The fire department were summoned by a still alarm and had a long run to the fire. There was a copious supply of water but the new lumber made the fire a stubborn one to fight.

The gutted residence was one of the neatest and best in the neighborhood and was built by Mr. Bush himself, and the loss is considerable for him. The house cost about $2,600 and was insured for $2000 in a company represented by B. M Spencer.

As usual there was a very large crowd of spectators at the fire, many of whom walked to the scene, while others went in automobiles and vehicles and on bicycles. It is thought by some that the fire was deliberately started by an incendiary. Others say that it may have been a case of spontaneous combustion caused by painters’ rags. The residence had bean wired for electricity but had not been connected.

- Press Democrat, September 17 1903


May Be an Incendiary Here

There is an impression around that there may be an incendiary in Santa Rosa at tho present time, judging from the several suspicious fires that have occurred here lately. Fire Chief Adams says beyond doubt in his opinion the conflagration that gutted the Bush residence on E street on Wednesday night was the work of an incendiary.

- Press Democrat, September 18 1903


INCENDIARY AGAIN AT WORK
Fourth Attempt to Burn Robert Ross' Carriage Repository

Shortly before one o’clock on Monday morning fire was discovered in the rear of Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets. The fire was of incendiary origin making the fourth attempt to burn the building. Little damage was done by the fire. Had the flames once gained headway the result might have been very serious.

The identity of the miscreant remains a mystery and not only Mr. Ross but other property owners in the block and in the neighborhood would like to have the matter solved. This fire like the preceding ones was started with the aid of kerosene, the odor being plainly detected by those early at the scene of the conflagration.

After the fire was about over, Mr. Ross who was naturally somewhat excited got into a controversy with the Fire Department officials over the taking of a hose through the store room used as a carriage repository, with the result that he was temporarily placed under arrest upon a charge of using language too strenuous to suit the occasion. Later he appeared and paid a small fine, which ended the matter.

- Press Democrat, April 5, 1904


FIRE DAMAGES THE TOSCANO HOTEL
CONFLAGRATION ORIGINATED IN ROOM IN THE UPPER STORY OF THE BUILDING
Exact Cause of the Fire Not Known— Building Drenched With Copious Supply of Water Thrown

Considerable damage was done by a fire at the Toscano hotel at Seventh and Adams streets yesterday evening about half past five o’clock, for which the fire department was called by an alarm rung in from Box 25. The fire started in room 3 on the upper story of the hotel building. The room was gutted and its contents were destroyed. In addition other parts of the building were charred, but owing to the prompt work of the department the damage was not nearly as serious as it otherwise would have been, as the flames had considerable headway at the time of the alarm and it seemed as if the entire upper portion of the place was on fire. The smoke was so dense that the firemen had considerable difficulty in at first locating the seat of the conflagration. The room in which the fire started was like a blazing furnace when the department arrived and the fire was spreading.

Two streams of water were quickly poured on the flames and the fire was soon extinguished. The building was drenched with water and this and the smoke will necessitate the complete renovation of a part of the interior of the building. Many willing hands removed most of the furniture and effects from the building, and these articles were piled up here and there, some distance from the scene of the conflagration.

 The hotel is owned and occupied by Mrs. T. Guidotti. The fire was discovered by A. Guidotti. The origin of the fire at present is somewhat of a mystery. There was no stove in the room and the flue from the stove below runs up in another room The fire seemed to have started in the corner of the apartment. The occupants of the hotel could not account for the fire, and there were suggestions that the origin might have been of an incendiary nature. Chief Adams picked up a piece of newspaper in the room most damaged by the fire and it smelt strongly of coal oil. Strange enough this piece of paper was not singed and everything else in the room was charred. Another report at the fire was that a man had laid his lighted pipe on the bed in the room, but this story was not confirmed. A defective flue was also suggested. The building was insured. The water was played on the flames with so much effect that the roof overhead was not damaged. The fire occasioned some excitement among those living in the immediate neighborhood of the hotel and some of them were prepared to remove their belongings and did do so until assured that the danger of the fire spreading was past.

- Press Democrat, April 16, 1904


FIREBUG AT WORK SATURDAY NIGHT
ATTEMPT TO BURN THE "STAR FEED MILLS" AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Fire Started in a Bale of Hay in the Rear of the Building — Flame Seen By Passerby on the Street

On Saturday night shortly after eleven o’clock Loren Jenkins, Will Carter and Val Calhoun while walking along Fourth street, chanced to notice a flame shoot up into the air in the rear of the Star Feed Mills at Fourth and A streets where the hay is stored. They gave the alarm at once and Mr. Jenkins ran to Fourth and Washington streets and turned in an alarm from the box there.

He then rushed back to the place and by this time Police Officer Boyes had arrived on the scene. Jenkins was assisted through the window and unfastened the door on A street. Police Officer Boyes made his way as quickly as possible to the fire and chanced to see a small hose attached to a faucet kept for supplying the boiler in the mill. He quickly turned on the water and extinguished the blaze, which had been kindled on a bale of hay.

The department were quickly on the scene and Police Officers Boyes and McIntosh and Fire Chief Adams made an investigation of the premises. At first it was thought that an electric wire had caused the fire. Investigation proved, however, that this was not the case and that it was a deliberate case of incendiarism. The fire had been started on top of the bale. Had the flames gained headway the old frame building would have gone up in smoke. The prompt action of the youths after they had noticed the flame through the windows on Fourth street and the prompt application of the hose undoubtedly saved a worse conflagration and damage to the contents of the mill and building.

- Press Democrat, May 1 1904


YEARS’ FIRE RECORD IN SANTA ROSA
ANNUAL REPORT OF FIRE CHIEF ADAMS PRESENTS INTERESTING STATISTICS
The Loss by Fire and the Insurance on the Property—The Causes of Conflagrations of Past Year

Fire Chief Adams has filed his annual report at the City Hall, which gives statistics regarding the fire record in Santa Rosa for the past year. The Chief states that there were thirty-eight alarms of fire in the city during the year. At thirteen of these fires the engine was used. At twenty-fie the chemical extinguishers were brought into play. The loss by fire in Santa Rosa during the twelve months was $57,017.05. The insurance on the property was $25,217.90, and the net loss was $31,799.15. Of the total number of fires seven were of incendiary origin; three were caused by children playing with matches, thirteen were chimney fires and nine fires resulted from unknown causes.

- Press Democrat, May 4, 1904


ANOTHER ATTEMPT MADE TO BURN ROSS’ BUILDING
TORCH IS APPLIED FOR SIXTH TIME
FLAMES DISCOVERED IN ROBERT ROSS’ CARRIAGE REPOSITORY SATURDAY NIGHT
Identity of the Incendiary Still a Mystery — Prompt Work of Firemen Prevent a Serious Fire

For the sixth time the firebug who seems bent on destroying Robert Ross’ building at Main and First streets, applied the torch on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about eleven o’clock and an alarm brought the department in quick time to the place.

The fire was burning in the paint shop which occupies the second floor facing on First street near the end of the building. A hose was attached in a few seconds and the flames were extinguished before much damage was done to the building. The glow of the fire could be plainly seen through the windows and the smoke poured through the roof. Like the five other previous attempts, it was a deliberate plan on the part of the firebug to destroy the premises. Mr. Walsh ahs [sic] the paint shop, and a buggy in the shop was pulled out of the way of the flame by one of the firemen. Like all the previous fires, the work of the incendiary was discovered before the flames had made much headway.

The fire had probably been smoldering some time before the flames shot up. The odor of something burning was noticed some time before the alarm was turned in summoning the fire department. The fire was in among the paints and had it gained much headway the inflammable material would have kindled a fierce blaze. A large crowd was attracted to the scene of the fire in a very few minutes and some little excitement was caused.

The identity of the firebug is apparently as much of a mystery as it has been at the fires that have preceded the one of Saturday night. It has also been noticeable that the incendiary chooses either a Saturday night or Sunday night for his work. While at a loss as to the identity of the guilty person, Chief of Police Severson intends to make a rigid investigation and will probably offer a reward for the necessary information that will lead to the arrest of the guilty party. Once before Mr. Severson offered a reward but without result.

Why this place should be singled out by the incendiary is also mysterious. Mr. Ross has been in business here for many years and so far as is known there is no reason for the dastardly attempts made to destroy his premises on six occasions. This was talked of very generally among the crowd gathered at the fire Saturday night, but no solution could be arrived at. One thing is sure, everybody in the neighborhood would like to have the guilty one brought to justice, as a fire once started in that section, if it got headway, would be very disastrous.

- Press Democrat, May 16, 1904


MAY OFFER REWARD TO CATCH FIREBUG
WORK OF INCENDIARIES DISCUSSED AT FIRE COMMISSIONERS’ MEETING
Fire Chief’s Report Discussed—Rigid Investigation Ordered of Main Street Fires

The Board of Fire Commissioners met last night...Commissioner Reynolds called attention to the frequent attempts to burn the Ross building on Main street and asked if some steps should not be taken to locate the incendiary.

Fire Chief Adams said in view of the investigation he had made he was confident that all the fires had been of an incendiary nature.

It was suggested that possibly the last fire in Walsh's paint shop in the Ross building, might have been caused by spontaneous combustion as it occurred among the paints.

The matter was discussed at some length. It was remarked that three of the fires reported for the month by the Fire Chief had been of incendiary origin...Several of the commissioners were of the opinion that the city should offer a standing reward of one hundred dollars for the information that would lead to the arrest and conviction of incendiaries.

- Press Democrat, May 18, 1904


ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO BURN BUILDING
FIERCE FIRE IN THE CHARTRAND BUILDING AT FOURTH AND A STREETS
Conflagration on Saturday Night Looked Threatening for Some Time and Was Stubborn One to Handle

Another determined effort was made to burn down the Chartrand building at the corner of Fourth and A streets about half past eleven o’clock on Saturday night. The fire was discovered about the same time at night as one the occasion of the first application of the torch a few weeks ago. That attempt was also on a Saturday night.

The fire on Saturday night was in the rear end of the room occupied by A. Sander's second hand store. The flames broke out and spread with great rapidity, as a few minutes before the alarm was given Police Officer Mclntosh had passed by the premises and could not detect anything wrong.

When the department arrived the fire had gained considerable headway in the rear of the building and the flames shot up for a fierce conflagration. A line of hose was attached to the hydrant at the corner of the streets named and water was thrown on the flames. The fire engine ran back to Fourth and A streets and another line of hose was attached to the hydrant there and the engine was soon pumping away with remarkable promptitude. The engine was moved to this hydrant so as not to be too close to the heat of the burning building in the event of the fire getting beyond the control of the firemen.

The fire did considerable damage to the stock in Sanders’ store and water and smoke assisted. The fire was a stubborn one and it was some time before the flames were subdued. Then Chief Adams detailed Fireman Doc Cozad to watch the premises and a section of hose was left attached to the hydrant.

The first attempt to burn the building was in that portion of it occupied by the Star Feed Mill. The building is owned by A. E. Chartrand and alongside the part where the fire was started he is erecting a new brick building. A large crowd of people gathered at the scene of the fire, coming from all parts of the city. The accepted theory is that the fire was undoubtedly of incendiary origin.

- Press Democrat, May 29, 1904

When "Oatsie" died recently at age 99 it closed the final chapter on Santa Rosa's history with the Oates family.

Much has appeared here about the doings of the Comstock clan in the 20th century. But if not for a twist of fate her father might have owned (what would become known as) Comstock House - and had her family stayed here, their wealth along with her celebrity and forceful personality would have undoubtedly left its mark on Santa Rosa, for better or no.

It's a shame the obits for Marion Oates Leiter Charles (at least, those which have appeared so far) dwell mostly on her final sixty years, with those everyone-who's-anyone Georgetown parties and her place as the doyenne of Newport's mansion dwellers. Interesting as that part of her life was, the beginning of her tale - the Oates part - is waved off with short shrift.

This is not a personal memoir of Oatsie; we corresponded very briefly (my first and only email with someone over ninety) and solely on details related to her family visiting Santa Rosa. She invited me to visit her in Newport a decade ago and to my regret, I did not take the trip. Most of what appears here is cobbled together from old issues of the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser together with interviews and private correspondence from others who crossed her path.

When done here, scan some of the items in the sidebar below, particularly the Owens article. There you'll meet the mature Oatsie as she matches wits with young JFK, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond), Katharine Graham - and surprisingly, Nancy Reagan.

She may have started life as an ingénue little different from the others who wallpapered the newspaper society sections, but she made herself into an indomitable woman. In 1955, a year after divorcing her first husband, she was found to have breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy. She recalled, "One day, a nurse stood me up in front of the mirror and said, 'No one is ever going to look at you again.' So I told her, 'Don't count on it.'"



Marion Saffold Oates was born on September 29, 1919, about four years after her father made the worst mistake of his life.

We don't know what her dad said (or did) during the six-week visit with his rich California uncle but less than three weeks after he headed back to Alabama, James Wyatt Oates added a codicil to his will which completely disinherited his nephew. Before that, William C. Oates Jr. - who was his closest blood relative - was to get one-third of the entire estate (before taxes and any other distribution) which would have been about the equivalent of $900k today. Uncle Wyatt even dropped the bequest of a gold watch which came from Will's father, suggesting the offense was so great as to shatter family bonds. 

- -
MORE ABOUT OATSIE


Appreciation by Mitchell Owens

Official obituary

Washington Post obit

Newport Daily News

The President's Bond Girl

Vanity Fair (2008)

Women's Wear Daily (2012)

VIDEO interview (2007)
Had he not been kicked to the curb, it's not hard to imagine 32 year-old Will and his wife, Georgia, moving here. They had visited Santa Rosa several times in previous years, and his father and mother had brought him along on earlier vacations. Will had friends in Santa Rosa; when he died in 1938 the Press Democrat was the only paper outside of Alabama that ran a full obituary, noting he was "well known here."

There was no directive in uncle Wyatt's will concerning the house, but as the main heir he could easily have made a deal with the executors for it - and since Will was an attorney, he might have even slipped behind his late uncle's desk in the law partnership with Hilliard Comstock. Will might have considered that his sizable inheritance would have instantly made him a big fish in Santa Rosa's very small pond, but the greatest draw to living here would have been the chance to get him away from his parent's very long shadows.

Will's late father was General William C. Oates, former Alabama governor, seven term congressman, and most importantly in Alabama, a Confederate Civil War hero - even though his most famous moment in the war was a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He died in 1910 leaving an estate equivalent to $5+ million today.

Inevitable comparisons of the son to his father only reminded Alabamans that Will was not only lacking his pop's character but he was something of a bounder. Will was admitted to West Point in 1900, only to be abruptly booted out in the middle of his junior year along with three other young men. The official reason was "deficiency in trigonometry and higher mathematics," but it was said to be a cheating scandal. Although his father told a reporter he "could have had his son re-appointed to the Academy without any trouble," the letter from the Academic Board was clear they would not consider letting him retake the classes - which certainly suggests there was a bigger problem than flunking trig. He was sent to public universities and earned his law degree in 1908.

When his father died Will was named executor and tasked with creating a trust on his mother's behalf. The paternalistic general had long bullied his wife by accusing her of being a spendthrift, demanding postmortem that a trust be created so "that she may not waste the means I leave her." Administering that trust was apparently most of what he did for most of the next two decades; I can't find a single reference in a newspaper of Will representing a client - it's all small-scale property management. He and Georgia also lived with his mother until he was 43.

And it's a good thing they were living there once Marion was born; it seems Will and "Georgie" were lousy parents. The newspapers didn't print anything about his lawyering, but there was frequent news about the couple partying and taking off on trips. Oatsie always said she was raised by her grandmother, Sarah Toney Oates - who went by the abbreviation "T" - and her African-American servants. “If I have any nice traits - any kindliness, any awareness of anything - it’s because I was raised by loving black hands.”

The year 1919 was pivotal for the family. Oatsie was born and her maternal grandfather died, which gave his widow, Oatsie's grandmother Minnie Saffold, the freedom and finances to have her fill of world traveling. Also from this year on, Will would henceforth refer to himself as "Captain Oates" because during WWI he was an officer of 117th Field Artillery Regiment (they never left Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia). And Will also finally landed a real job by being appointed head of the Alabama State Securities Commission, a position he would hold until 1935 without somehow screwing it up.

By the time Oatsie was seven family dynamics had shifted. In 1926 they began living with Georgia's mother in an ostentatious mansion Will had built just outside of Montgomery, about three miles away from where grandma T lived. They called it Belvoir, and it was an over-the-top interpretation of an antebellum plantation house with the same name as a similar manse built a century earlier by Georgia's great grandfather. We can only hope Oatsie still lived with T (or mostly so), because the place with grandma Minnie reeked not only of sickly-sweet honeysuckle but of the stench of 19th century racism.

Georgia and Minnie were tight with the Bankhead family and as a child Oatsie was often around Marie Bankhead Owen, a close friend of Minnie's and the aunt of movie star Tallulah Bankhead. (One of the most often repeated Oatsie stories concerns Tallulah getting her blackout drunk while telling her about the birds and bees.)1 Marie was the Alabama state archivist and historian, prolifically writing children's plays, biographies of those whom she and her late husband deemed notable, plus all sorts of articles and books on historic topics. She wrote one novel, "Yvonne of Braithwaite: a romance of the Mississippi delta" - sort of a precursor to "Gone with the Wind" - which had a romanticized portrait of Georgia Oates on the dust jacket to represent the plucky heroine. Marie was also an unabashed white supremacist who had fought against women's suffrage because she feared it would lead to weakening the state's Jim Crow laws.

But little Oatsie didn't have to visit Tallulah's aunt for a dose of racist attitudes. Grandmother Minnie was known for her "light dialect poetry" which she had privately printed into book titled, "Pickaninny Pickups." She did readings at women's club and Georgia - who fancied herself a serious composer - set some of them to music. Their musical high water mark was "Good Mawnin' B'rer Mose" being performed at a 1943 Carnegie Hall recital by an inconsequential Russian violinist.2

Their lust for the good ol' days of slavery was also on inglorious display at a 1929 costume party at Belvoir. "Once again the 'deep South' reigned supreme," reported the Montgomery Advertiser. Guests impersonated famous people in the Confederacy by wearing their ancestor's Civil War uniforms and antebellum wedding dresses while "all the servants wore bandannas and hoop ear rings." (Bear in mind this disturbing Confederate cosplay was happening in a city with a 45 percent black population.)

Grandmother T - probably the person in town with the best Confederate bonafides, being the general's widow - didn't attend that party. (Weirdly, a couple came dressed as her mother and father.) Her views on race seemed to match what sadly passed as moderation in the South, with T objecting in 1904 to President Teddy Roosevelt's tiny steps towards recognizing African-Americans as being "negro socialism." But to be fair, this was likewise the view of many here in Santa Rosa in the day, and exactly mirrored the opinion of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley. She might have felt more at home in Santa Rosa than rabidly rebel world of Montgomery.

While granny Minnie was preoccupied with demeaning slaves and descendants of slaves (she also wrote "Sugar Babe: A Sketch of Plantation Life in the Seventies"), T had literary and artistic interests which rubbed off on Oatsie, who once wanted to be a writer and was bookish her entire life. T was a charter member of the Ionian Club in Montgomery, which was the women's cultural society. Like the Saturday Afternoon Club in Santa Rosa, members were expected to make presentations on intellectual topics of all sorts. Classical music was performed at meetings and the club hosted professional musicians touring the area.

The family faced financial disaster in 1932, according to a new article by Mitchell Owens (see sidebar - it's a must read). Oatsie was called home from school for an announcement. "My father stood up in front of the fireplace and said, ‘I am sorry to inform you all but I have been wiped out'...we were told we had absolutely no money whatsoever." What that meant is unclear; had he foolishly invested all of T's once-enormous trust fund, or had he only lost his personal nest egg? T died the next year, so if there was any of that left, Will must have inherited a fortune (at least by the standards of it being the depth of the Great Depression).

Oatsie's privileged life continued uninterrupted. At thirteen she was attending an exclusive girl's school in Montgomery (the 1935 commencement exercises for the ten members in her class was held in Belvoir's garden). After that she was packed off to European boarding schools 1935-1936, first the equivalent of three semesters at an english-speaking school in Brussels which Minnie interrupted at Christmas time to drag her around to meet former German royalty. This was the second time she had been her grandmother's "darling little fifth wheel." When she was eleven she had spent the summer in Germany with Minnie, who wrote a letter to the Montgomery paper boasting of all the wonderful and expensive places they stayed and all the very, very important people who warmly welcomed her. And her granddaughter.

A semester at a convent school near Munich followed. The family's description (read: Minnie's) emphasized this place practically injected blue blood into Oatsie's veins - she was supposedly the first American as well as the first Protestant allowed to attend Kloster St. Joseph, as the nuns traditionally only accepted girls who were the crème de la crème of European dynasties (which no longer existed, of course). Oatsie later spoke of sentimental memories where the young women cut hay alongside the local pesants, then lunched on black bread and white radishes by a stream. Since this was 1936 Germany, a portrait of Hitler hung in every classroom but the nuns had it turned to face the wall, flipping it forward when the Nazis dropped by.

Like her relatives, Oatsie was now making regular appearances on the society pages in the Montgomery newspapers. Long before she was born her parents and grandmothers were often mentioned for their social doings; Minnie's globe trotting is particularly easy to track because she knew folks back home in Alabama were sleepless, wondering just how many crown princes and baronesses she had checked off during her latest tour of Luxembourg. Oatsie likewise was given VIP treatment. The Montgomery Advertiser printed its first portrait of her at age two, another when she was a 13 year-old "sub-deb," and the 1935 photo, shown at right, ran on the top of the front page. In between she popped up in class pictures and similar groups.

In her late teens she began attracting national attention for her good looks; Marion Oates might not have been a household name outside of Montgomery but her face was unforgettable, with her distinctive eyes and lantern jaw. (Yale, BTW, has a lovely photo of Oatsie and mother Georgia in 1937.) Three or four pictures of Oatsie circulated on the wire services every year in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She wasn't alone, of course; glamor shots of pretty socialites and starlets were in papers almost daily all over the country, but she appeared often even though she was then a celebrity for no other reason. The images were a kind of Great Depression upper class pornography, just as movies in that same era might gratuitously throw in a scene at a glitzy nightclub or a palatial drawing room. 

And lo, then came the Great Upheaval of 1938. It began right before New Years', when the Montgomery newspapers printed a last-minute announcement that the upcoming party at Belvoir had been indefinitely postponed. No reason was given.

Then on January 14, 1938, the marriage of Will and Georgia Oates was dissolved by divorce.

Oatsie was then attending (yet another) finishing school in New York City and was called home on February 4 because her father was gravely ill. William Calvin Oates Jr. died two days later.

After waiting a respectful 34 days, Georgia married Philip Green Gossler on March 12 in New York City.

You can bet tongues were wagging back in Montgomery. A couple of stories were handed down that I won't repeat here, except to say they are probably what you'd expect. Clearly problems had been brewing for some time.

The Montgomery Advertiser all but blacklisted any mention of the family, which must have given attention-hound Minnie the cold sweats. Even Oatsie's blowout debutante party in New York (there were two, actually, both covered by the NY Times) merited only a few cursory paragraphs in the back of their hometown newspaper.

In late 1939 the Advertiser reprinted a lengthy article about Georgia which portrayed her as someone who was likely very mentally ill. Introducing the item with the snarky remark, "Mrs. Phillip Gossler of New York, formerly the lovely Georgia Saffold Oates of Montgomery," the story claimed she rarely slept, believed she had psychic powers, was so sensitive she became sick when seeing clashing colors or discordant music and couldn't bear to be far away from her huge collection of newspaper clippings. She was convinced F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story about her which was clearly about his future wife. When you read about manic, schizophrenic Zelda Fitzgerald and see a portrait of yourself, time's overdue to seek help.

Let's wrap up our story in 1940, when 21 year-old Oatsie was profiled in the Hearst's Syndicate "Cholly Knickerbocker" gossip column. It's mostly fluff about her taste in clothes and jewelry but gives us a peek at her unbounded life at the time: Fly fishing at her stepfather's fishing lodge in New Brunswick, winter at his family's estate in the Bahamas, a month at Belvoir every April. "Her clothes have a permanent crease from packing." Her business mogul stepfather was stinking rich, and the man she would marry two years later stunk even more.

It would seem two paths were always open before her. Like her parents and Millie, she could have embraced their morbid antebellum sentimentality - "borne back ceaselessly into the past,” per the famous closing line of The Great Gatsby. Or she could have surrendered to the great wealth which she always enjoyed and idled away her days in the social whirl of the leisure class. Instead, she created a little world of her own and challenged the brightest and most interesting people to keep up. “She was a snob about intelligence but not about background or social things,” her daughter said.

I offer this as an epitaph: She made herself into a remarkable person, in spite of her crippling advantages.



1 Oatsie apparently told the birds-and-bees story often. This version appeared in "The Story of Edgewater House" by Nancy Glidden Coffey: Just before her wedding in 1942, a friend took her out to dinner. "After dinner he said, 'Let's go see Tallulah. She should be home from the theater by now.' So we went to see Tallulah. And she said, 'I know Georgia's not going to tell you the facts of life,' so she proceeded to tell me. In the meantime, I had [laryngitis and] no voice, so she was giving me bourbon on sugar. She more or less said sex wasn't all it was cut out to be. I woke up the next morning and mother came in with a wedding present and some sort of tissue paper was rustling. I said, 'My God, what's that horrible noise?' And I've never remembered what Tallulah told me."
2 Only a single work by Georgia was published: a choral church piece, "For thy Gifts Untold." It is unclear if Georgia could actually read music; a 1943 profile said she composed in a dark room with her eyes closed as one of her "arrangers" put it all down.


Marion Oates Leiter Charles at ages two, seventeen and eighteen



ALABAMA RELATIVES OF COLONEL J. W. OATES

Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates of Montgomery, Alabama, are visiting Col. James W. Oates at his home on Mendocino avenue. William C. Oates is a nephew of Colonel Oates and is the son of Gen. William C. Oates, former Governor of Alabama. He is a capitalist and a member of the bar of that State. Mr. and Mrs. Oates will probably remain here until fall. They have made several visits to this city and at all times seem loath to go and anxious to return.

- Press Democrat, August 6, 1915


Society and Club Gossip by Dorothy Ann

Flashing lights, beautiful gowns, scintillating jewels and pretty women were paramount in the brilliant assemblage that gathered at the invitation of Col. James Wyatt Oates, Wednesday evening, at which time Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates of Montgomery, Ala., and Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry were the honored guests. Amaryllis lilies cast their dainty fragrance from every nook and corner of the beautiful home, with long sprays of asparagus fern to enhance their pink beauty. The strains of soft music floated down from the balcony of the broad stair cases into the spacious rooms, where many friends gathered to bid welcome to the charming quartet of southerners.

Interest centered in Mrs. Oates, whose attractive beauty, sweetness of manner and charming simplicity won as one the hearts of those invited to meet her. Sharing with her the honors of the evening were Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry who have been with us a sufficient length of time to establish for themselves a prominent place in our social circles.

Particularly attractive were some of the gowns worn, that of  Mrs. Oates greatly enhancing her flower-like beauty, it being white taffeta, trimmed with Bohemian lace and crystal trimming. A little scarf of tulle was draped around her shoulders and she carried Amaryllis lilies tied with graceful bows of pink tulle. She wore diamond ornaments...

- Press Democrat, August 22, 1915


Mrs. G. Frank Comstock has issued invitations for a tea to be given Tuesday afternoon complimentary to Mrs. William C. Oates and the Misses Granberry.

- Press Democrat, August 29, 1915


Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates left for San Francisco Friday morning, on route to their home in Montgomery, Alabama. They will spend this week at the Exposition and then go to Los Angeles, where they will make a brief stay. They will be joined at the latter place by Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry who will accompany them home.

- Press Democrat, September 19, 1915

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