Luther Burbank was clearly peeved when the reporter asked for comment on whether his greatest achievement was actually a failure.
At issue was a government pamphlet released a month earlier, at the close of 1907. The topic was the prickly pear cactus, also known as genus Opuntia, also known as Burbank's most profitable plant creation ever. The government experts were envious, Burbank told the reporter, because he had beaten them in developing a fast-growing spineless variety that had ten times the nutritional value of the regular plant.
(RIGHT: Luther Burbank with his spineless cactus. Photo from the Sept. 1908 issue of Overland Monthly)
The spineless cactus was Burbank's moon shot - an odyssey with the goal of creating a hybrid that would be as important to mankind as his namesake potato. Worthless deserts would become valuable pastures and croplands; the fields once used to grow animal fodder like alfalfa could now feed the world's hungry. It was his longest running project (a photograph in the Library of Congress collection shows Burbank tending a cactus seed bed c. 1890) and one that he called "soul-testing." In his authorized Methods and Discoveries book series, he revealed uncharacteristic emotion:
...[T]he work through which this result was achieved constituted in some respects the most arduous and soul-testing experience that I have ever undergone....For five years or more the cactus blooming season was a period of torment to me both day and night. Time and again I have declared from the bottom of my heart that I wished I had never touched the cactus to attempt to remove its spines. Looking back on the experience now, I feel that I would not have courage to renew the experiments were it necessary to go through the same ordeal again."
Burbank declared success in 1907, a year after making a deal for Australian rights to five varieties - a sale he credited for allowing him to build his fine new house - and he published a cactus catalog (a later version can be found here). The improved spineless cactus would mean "a new agricultural era for whole continents," he boasted, and "in importance may be classed with the discovery of a new continent." Most of the public, however, probably already knew of Burbank's latest marvel from magazines and newspaper Sunday sections, which had been churning out gee-whiz photo features for a couple of years. Then came a widely-reprinted speech he delivered at an agricultural convention. Where the catalog offered grandiose visions of desert paradise, his speech read like a salesman's list of can't-refuse bullet points: Yield is 200 tons of food per acre; grows in the very worst conditions; cattle and other animals prefer it to everything else. How many would you like to order, at $2.00 each?
Cactus mania continued ballooning through the end of 1907 as it became publicized that Burbank would receive a staggering $27,000 - by far, the biggest single payday of his life - from a Southern California company for rights to some varieties. Eager to get in on a Sure Thing, investors and farmers besieged government ag field offices seeking more information about these spineless wonders, which led the Dept. of Agriculture to write a pamphlet. And that's what brought the Press Democrat reporter to ask Luther Burbank whether his cactus was actually a "failure."
At first read, it's hard to understand why Burbank knocked the pamphlet and its authors. It doesn't mention him at all; the 67-page report simply documents the wide variety of prickly pear cacti and how they are consumed in Latin America. Even the title, "The Tuna as Food for Man," is perfectly clear about the author's objective, as "tuna" is the Spanish name for this cactus. Some of the fruit described was inedible or tasteless, but a few varieties, such as the Amarilla, was delicious; other varieties were dangerous or plain weird, such as the Tapona ("plug"), which was said to cause such severe constipation that death could ensue.
The Ag. Dept. bulletin also noted that some prickly pear, which had been cultivated by native peoples for generations (probably millennia) were naturally spineless, a fact that Burbank wanted rarely known. Although he would simply answer "no" when asked directly if he had bred the smooth variety from the prickly sort, he wanted the public to believe exactly that. George Shull, the botanist from the Carnegie Institution who studied Burbank's methods for years, later wrote of his dismay that Burbank set up a display intended to be "misleading to the uncritical:"
Just inside his gate at his Santa Rosa experimental Garden, he had planted a bed, some 15 feet square, with a sprawling, thorny cacti from the desert. In the midst of this forbidden looking culture, he planted a single specimen of Opuntia Ficus-Indica of the spineless variety, in most striking contrast with the thorny cacti around it. Mr. Burbank's visitors, who often came in droves, would look over the fence at this striking demonstration and comments to one another [on] the amazing wizardry which "created" the smooth fat-slabbed cactus from the sprawling thorny ones.*
It may seem odd that the government would produce a 1907 pamphlet all about the prickly pear yet not mention the 800 lb. Burbank in the room, but this undoubtedly was the wisest decision. One reason is that Burbank was a polarizing celebrity, beloved by the public and viewed as something of a charlatan by the many in the scientific community, as discussed in the first "Burbank's Follies" essay. Any explicit praise or criticism would be sure to raise someone's hackles. Another reason is that Burbank simply hadn't shared samples of his hybrids with government researchers - and according to an article in the Jan. 10, 1909 Los Angeles Herald, Washington was still waiting over a year later to see a Burbank cactus. A few sentences in the pamphlet's introduction, however, took a very cautious aim at deflating a few of his claims:
Enthusiastic magazine writers would revolutionize conditions in arid regions by the establishment of plantations of prickly pear without spines, those converting the most arid deserts into populous, prosperous communities. Experience teaches, however, that the spineless varieties of cultivation are not hardy under natural desert conditions, that all of the valuable spineless species which produce either fruit or forage in economic quantities require considerable precipitation at some time of the year, and that economic species are not known which thrive under a minimum temperature of less that 10°F [Ed. note: In a later pamphlet, the author changed the cold-weather threshold to 20°F].
In other words, never would the desert bloom in vast cactus farms. The spineless varieties were more delicate than the spiny forms, sensitive to cold and not as drought tolerant. They grew best only in places with year-around rainfall or with wet, mild winters and dry summers. Places like Santa Rosa, California, for example.
Other claims by Burbank and his agents crumbled under scrutiny. Often mentioned was that a crop would yield 200 tons of forage; less said was that it would take at least three years for the cactus to grow to that size. Burbank also stated that his cactus required only about a third the amount of water needed to grow alfalfa - although again avoiding mention that a crop took three years, thus bringing water use to a draw. Since his cacti were slow growing (though apparently faster than many wild forms) it was impractical for pasture grazing, yet harvested cactus paddles were bulky, hard to transport, so they had to be grown near where they would be used. Any way you looked at it, the Burbank cactus was a failure as a world-changing plant; it was just another Burbank garden novelty.
The author of the Agriculture Department bulletin was horticulturist Dr. David Griffiths, who went on to write several more bulletins on the prickly pear in following years, all available through Google Books. He never mentioned Burbank or his hybrids, and never found farmers or ranchers growing the cactus in places where it was not naturally found, such as southern Texas. And the more he investigated the prickly pear, he learned that all varieties improved with irrigation and cultivation, yet it only really thrived in very specific conditions: Not too cold or hot, not at high altitude or at sea level, not too damp or dry. See again: Santa Rosa.
The Burbank cactus bubble floated along until 1915, when Burbank's sales company received an order from Mexico that was too large to fill, so they shipped regular prickly pear with the thorns shaved off, a deceit that was discovered as soon as thorny new growth appeared. The scandal nearly destroyed Burbank's reputation, particularly because the fraud was conducted by the "Luther Burbank Company" and every plant came with a tag promising the "guarantee of receiving original Burbank productions." But some felt that the fraud actually began years before, as Burbank began making irresponsible claims about a plant that had little more potential than its wild cousin.
*pg. 141, Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA) 1985
THE GOVERNMENT EXPERTS BELITTLE BURBANK'S WORK
Declare the Spineless Cactus a Failure
Noted Santa Rosan, However, is Willing to Let His Work Speak For Itself and Abide by the Result--Working on Seedless Variety
San Francisco, Jan. 23-- Luther Burbank is reported to be considerably wrought up over the publication of a government bulletin which says the Santa Rosan over-worked the facts when he declared that he had produced a spineless cacti. The bulletin is called "Tuna as a food for Man, and is issued by David Griffith of the Bureau of Plant Industry, last month.
The Bulletin declares that the general belief and hope that the species that the spineless cacti would displace its wild sister on the deserts of California and Arizona to furnish food and a substitute for water to lost prospectors is doomed to disappointment and failure. Experiments go to show, declares the circular, that the cultivated variety is unable to withstand of the hardships of the desert and will be no more acceptable than the wild cacti.
Mr. Burbank, when seen last night regarding the bulletin by a Press Democrat representative, said he had seen the statement and declared that the government experts were piqued because they had been beat out by him by five years in securing the spineless variety. He said he was more than willing to let his success speaks for itself, and abide by the results. He had been able to increase the cacti productiveness four times and its food value ten times as with his spineless variety a yield of 200 tons per acre could be secured as against 20 tons from the wild, while the sugar and fat in the spineless was greatly increased. "The next move will be to produce a seedless as well as a spineless variety," said he in closing.- Press Democrat, January 24, 1908
Santa Rosa's kids were in the news in 1908, and usually not in a good way. From burglary to malicious mischief to escapees from Barlow's work camp in Sebastopol, it seemed like barely a week went by without a story about coppers nabbing some young miscreant, as introduced in an earlier post.
But there was another kind of newspaper item that was aimed directly at kids, where the news was delivered varnished with a useful falsehood. Today, stories of this sort might announce with a wink that Santa Claus was coming to a downtown department store or the Easter Bunny had hidden eggs in the park; back then, the message was that the police were on your trail and soon would throw you in the clink, if not reform school.
Headlined in the heavy, boldface font also found in the reporting of major crimes, the items below report little kids picking flowers, playing around trains in the railroad yard, and dropping orange and banana peels on the sidewalk (a particular obsession of the Press Democrat). Consequences were dire: pulling up flowers was "one of the dirtiest piece of work that has been done in the city for some time." Boys caught hopping aboard the slow-moving boxcars faced jail time. Police would enforce the anti-littering ordinance after "a gentleman carrying a baby in his arms stepped on a peel and narrowly escaped falling with the child" with the PD adding ominously, "such an accident would probably result in injury to one or both."
Doubtless when these articles appeared the same scenario played out over many a breakfast table.
"Well, will you look at this! You don't play with these bad children, do you Horace?"
"Oh, no, maw, I'm a good boy," he replied, hoping she didn't remember the muddy footprints he left on the stairs the night the flowers were trampled.
BOYS WRECKED THE FLOWERS
Mean Trick Played on Sonoma Avenue Residents
During Monday night and there was considerable mischief wrought in a number of yards of the residents of Sonoma Avenue and E street, which has been which has caused indignation among the people of that vicinity. The families involved are the Turners, Loughrins, McDaniels and Delaneys.
At the home of Mr. and Mrs. Turner the youngster started in with the dahlias near the front gate and continued all along the front fence and across the corner of the yard, where they completely wrecked the beds of poppies and dahlias. In the center of the dahlia bed a large barefoot track can be plainly seen, and this same track was visible in the front yard of the Loughrin home across the street. Here there was a pulling up and destroying of the flowers.
At the Delaney home a large bed of pinks was pulled out of the ground and all piled together near the edge of the sidewalk. From here the miscreants seem to to go to the McDaniels place just around the corner on E street, and there pulled out the flowers from the front yard.
Officers Boyes and Boswell were notified and went to the place early Tuesday morning and took measurements of the tracks. It is thought that the guilty parties are known and if they are caught it may not be so pleasant for them. The officers style the affair as one of the dirtiest piece of work that has been done in the city for some time and just punishment will be meted out the boys, should their identity be definitely learned.- Santa Rosa Republican, May 19, 1908
CHILDREN SHOULD BE KEPT FROM THE RAILROAD YARDS
Still Persist in Jumping on and off Trains
Police officer John Boyes gathered in six boys who were engaged in dangerous practice of jumping on and off on moving freight train in the Northwestern Pacific yards in the city on Wednesday afternoon.
The officer played a little ruse to capture the offenders. He went up as far as Body's Crossing and here jumped on the incoming freight himself; at first some twenty boys, who jumped on the train a little further down the line, did not see him. When they did they made a hasty jump from the cars. The officer jumped too, and grabbed a half dozen of them, and brought them up town to the police station where they were locked up for several hours, and later in the evening dismissed with severe caution as to their future behavior, together with a reminder of the danger they take in jumping on and off moving trains.
Almost every afternoon when school is dismissed, many of the boys hasten to the railroad track for the purpose of stealing a ride on the freight trains. Either parents or school teachers should give lads who are known to be doing this foolish act some stern advice regarding the matter, and it may be the means of preventing death or maiming of some of them under the wheels of the cars. There have been enough accidents.
Lads who got caught jumping the trains will not get off with a few hours in jail, the punishment given the offenders today, but will most likely have to spend the night in jail.- Press Democrat, January 23, 1908
FOOLISH PRACTICE MUST BE STOPPED
Danger of Throwing Orange and Bananas Peelings on Sidewalks is the Subject of Complaint
There has been considerable complaint recently about the carelessness of persons in throwing orange and banana peelings on the sidewalks. Yesterday a gentleman carrying a baby in his arms stepped on a peel and narrowly escaped falling with the child. Such an accident would probably result in injury to one or both.
There is an ordinance providing a fine of not less than five dollars for the throwing of peelings and the sidewalks and the police are going to enforce it.- Press Democrat, January 1, 1908
Mr. Mathews probably couldn't believe his luck after buying that automobile for a fraction of its showroom price. A new White Steamer went for about $2,500 in 1908, and here he had paid only $300, plus giving that man Goodrich an old horse and buggy worth another $150. What kind of durn fool was Goodrich, anyway? He seemed to blame this fine motorcar for having hit that tree, then wanted to be rid of the vehicle as quickly as he could. He must be impulsive or just plain stupid, and Mathews was used to dealing with stupid, impulsive men who made bad decisions; after all, he was the City Marshal of Sebastopol. But there was one crucial detail that the marshal didn't know. Goodrich didn't own the car.
The details came out two weeks later. Unlike the inept con man who tried to get away with a sting at an illegal horse betting parlor at about the same time, Mr. Goodrich was a remarkably ept crook.
Goodrich borrowed the car from an Oakland doctor to "take a ride in the country," which ended with a crash into a tree and a "broken wheel." The auto was hauled or towed to Santa Rosa's repair shop. When contacted about the mishap, the trusting doctor sent Goodrich a new "wheel" and money for repairs, not knowing that Goodrich had sold his automobile to the marshal for a few bucks plus a horse and buggy. And to bring his booty up to about $400, Goodrich also sold the horse and buggy before he disappeared, presumably on a train (UPDATE HERE).
TROUBLE OVER AN AUTOMOBILE
Chief Marshal Purchases a Borrowed Auto
Recently City Marshal Mathews of Sebastopol found a man who had run into a tree with a large White Steamer automobile. The man seemed very much disgusted with the machine and offered to trade the auto for a horse and buggy valued at $150 and $300 in cash, Mathews took the bargain and now Dr. Gray of Oakland claims the machine, saying he only loaned it to Goodrich to take a ride in the country.
Undersheriff Lindsay said that Gray had received a message from Goodrich to the effect that he had an accident and broken a wheel. Gray sent a new wheel and a little money to fix it with. The machine is in the Santa Rosa Cycle Company's large garage on B street, where a bill for about $60 for repairs stands against it. Goodrich sold the horse and buggy to Mr. Benepe of Sebastopol and has not been seen since.
The accident, which occurred about two weeks ago, was mentioned in the papers at the time. No warrant for the rest of Goodrich has been issued.
- Santa Rosa Republican, June 5, 1908
The 1908 Rose Festival was a bit ho-hum, but the Press Democrat compensated with this story of its founding, which I've not seen told elsewhere. Another key player in launching the parade in 1894 was James Wyatt Oates, who served as General Carnival Chairman.
THE FATHER OF THE ROSE CARNIVAL
Bit of History Connected With the Holding of the First Rose Carnival in Santa Rosa
Thomas P Keegan, of this city, naturally feels much interested in the success of the coming rose carnival, for he can lay proud title to being "Father of the Santa Rosa Carnival." This is matter of history in Santa Rosa.
Mr. Keegan was the originator of the name "Rose Carnival," as regards the famous fiestas that have made the City of Roses famous in past years. The first rose carnival took place in Santa Rosa on May 10, 1894. On the first of May, 1894, a meeting was held in the court house. It was called for the purpose of making arrangements to hold a flower festival in honor of the visit of some eastern people here. Mr. Keegan attended the meeting and after listening to the exchange of views rose to suggest that instead of holding a mere flower display a floral parade would be far more attractive. He suggested further, but inasmuch as the roses bloomed so beautifully and luxuriantly in Santa Rosa, the city should give a "Rose Carnival," or "Carnival of Roses." The originality of the name occasioned some discussion and there were those present who were not inclined to receive it favorably. Others did, notably Miss Isabel Donovan (now Mrs. Driscoll). It will be remembered that Miss Nettie Royal was the first carnival queen and Miss Isabelle Donovan reigned over the second, and one of the biggest rose carnivals ever held in the state.
The next day after the meeting many others came forward and favored the title "Rose Carnival," and the idea caught favor with the press. A large committee of arrangements was selected and plans were carried out and the efforts of the committee and citizens proved the success of the first carnival. Since the birth and holding up the first rose carnival in the City of Roses the pageant has become famous, east, west, north and south, greatly to the credit of Santa Rosa.
The picture published with this bit of history is the same that appeared in the Press Democrat at the time of the first rose carnival in 1894. Of course Mr. Keegan was a few years younger then. There is a bit of history in connection with the cut, too. It went through the fire at earthquake disaster and was preserved, and is used on this occasion.- Press Democrat, May 10, 1908
Here's a no-brainer: If you're building a dam across the "Eel" River, expect that you'll likely have to deal with some eels.
The hydroelectric dam on the south fork of the Eel River promised to finally bring a new source of electricity to Sonoma and Marin County, where the "juice" was notoriously flaky. This power from Mendocino County was expected to be more reliable, more affordable (electricity was about 25 times more expensive than it is today) and available in more areas; in a deal brokered by James Wyatt Oates, new lines would carry service "in all directions throughout the county." Only one obstacle stood in the way of all that goodness - and that squirmy obstacle numbered in the many thousands.
So great were the numbers of eels trying to return to their upstream spawning grounds that workers first hauled them out of the water with pitchforks. That either proved too much work or eels continued to slip through and gum up the works, so they decided to electrocute the eels (as well as anything else in the river that was nearby). "Now great loads of dead eels are hauled away and buried every few days."
Those "eels" were not eels at all (or a fish, either): They were Pacific Lampreys, which can grow up to 30" long and like the salmon, must return to fresh water spawning grounds to breed (MORE INFO). They once outnumbered salmon by 100+ to 1, and their vast populations served as a decoy for spawning salmon from hungry seals, bears, and humans. “They may be the prey of choice for just about everything, except - as my tribal elders tell me - the white people. Every creature loves lampreys because of the high fat content,” a fishery biologist recently told a Washington state newspaper. Although whites considered it a "trash fish," tribes in the Northwest used its oil for earaches and the skin as bandage wraps, as well as eating them it's said to taste like a cross between a pork chop and mackerel). The Pacific Lamprey is still mostly ignored by researchers, and is now endangered in the Western U.S.
KILL MANY EELS BY ELECTRICITY
The Snow Mountain Power & Water Company is having great difficulty with the unusual number of eels in the river this season. The wiggling fishy mass gets into the power plant through the canal. Great piles of eels have been removed with pitchforks. Finally the electricians have hit on the novel plan of electrocuting them as they entered the canal, and now great loads of dead eels are hauled away and buried every few days. The eels are supposed to have been attracted by the great run of young trout of which they are very fond. The Fish Commission is much pleased with the solution of the difficulty as it does away with enormous quantities of the worst enemy the trout have in the district.- Press Democrat, May 17, 1908
Remember the elaborate con game in the Oscar-winning movie, "The Sting?" Something like that scam occurred in Santa Rosa, 1908.
The definitive book on early 20th century cons is "The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man," where it's noted that the "wire" was invented in 1898 and refined in 1900 by the gang fictionally portrayed in the film. The classic version had two parts; the con man convinced the sucker that he always won horse race bets because he had tapped the telegraph wire, allowing a confederate to block and re-transmit race results after the winning horse was actually known. The confidence man asked the sucker to place a few bets for him because his winning streak was arousing suspicion at a certain private "horse pool room" for high-rollers. (The term "pool room" has nothing to do with billiards - it was the name for an off-track betting hall, also sometimes called "race horse turf exchanges." They were allowed in some cities even though horse racing was not legal in that state. The wire con was believable because the races - which sometimes were taking place hundreds of miles away - were reported by telegraph connections that were prone to interruptions and delays.)
In part two of the scam, the sucker was told that a long-shot would certainly win the final race of the day, and he should make the largest bet possible. That horse supposedly wins, but it was the practice of the pool rooms to pay off the last race on the following day. The next morning the sucker and the con man arrive together at the private pool room only to find the building empty. The con artist's final job is to convince the sucker to not report it to the police, arguing that he also might be sent to prison because he was part of the wire fraud conspiracy. And yes, sometimes a murder was faked to ensure the sucker was frightened into silence, just like in the movie - in the colorful parlance of the day, this touch was called the "cackle-bladder" because the con man popped open a pig's bladder filled with chicken blood to simulate a fatal wound. (A full description of the wire con can be found in a 1914 book available on-line).
The scam that was worked in Santa Rosa was neither as elaborate or as competent. According to an article in the April 3 San Francisco Call, the con man was a well-known young man named Walter Rea (age 21 at the time and a native Santa Rosan). "He is said to have bet $5 on a horse quoted at 80 to 1. When word was received that his horse had won he cashed in and left town. It is believed that a confederate tapped the wire and gave the wrong horse as the winner," reported the Call. Rea was caught and arrested on the complaint of W. J. Edgeworth, a Sebastopol man who was part owner of the pool room known as "Donahue's."
The incident serves as a postscript to the previous post, discussing the outcome of the 1908 Santa Rosa city election and how the town had long profited from an underground economy of prostitution and illegal gambling. In the articles transcribed here, it was revealed that there were two illegal pool rooms then operating in Santa Rosa. Police and the District Attorney apparently looked the other way, even though the election that would be held less than a week later was largely a referendum upon the city's tolerance for vice and crime (read update here).
POOL ROOM IS "STUNG"
Victimized for $400 Dollars Wednesday
One of the two poolrooms which have been operating in Santa Rosa for many months was "stung" Wednesday afternoon to the extent of four hundred dollars. Just how the "sting" was administered was not definitely stated, but it is believed to have been done by means of tapped wires. As the pool room is not a legal institution, those who benefited by the coup and secured the coin will probably not be molested, for if the proprietors have any warrants issued for the arrest of the youth who administered the "sting" they will have to testify in prosecuting that they have been conducting a pool room.
The young man who secured the pool room coin is well known around this city, and immediately after the tip was received that a certain horse had won, he is alleged to have "cashed in" his checks and departed. The man who was "stung" has done considerable talking since.- Santa Rosa Republican, April 2, 1908POOL ROOM SHOWN TO EXIST IN SANTA ROSA
The hearing of the case against Walter Rea, charged with beating a local pool room out of several hundred dollars, disclosed the existence of two pool rooms in the City of Roses, according to the testimony.
The testimony showed that Frank W. Brown received information by telegaph regarding races at his place of business, and that they were then transmitted by phone to Donahue's and later reduced to writing and sent to Donahue's place. Rea secured three hundred dollars on the purported victory of a certain horse, reported to have won, when the animal had been defeated. The money was paid by Donahue personally.
The case was continued until next Saturday for further hearing.- Santa Rosa Republican, April 20, 1908
The 1908 Santa Rosa election was actually a referendum: Should the town join the 20th century? The voters said no.
By a 17 point margin in the race for mayor and a gap more than 2x in some city council contests, voters elected a slate that represented the status quo - the "Good Ol' Boys" who had long controlled the town. Such a sweeping victory is even more remarkable considering there was a record-breaking turnout of voters largely because the previous G.O.B. administration had spurred outrage by legalizing Nevada-style prostitution in Santa Rosa. (This is the sixth and final part of this series. For background, view the previous article or see the full index.)
Regardless of which side you wanted to win, election night was an evening that makes one yearn for a time machine. "The crowds in Newspaper Row on Fifth street in the evening were immense," reported the PD. "From half past seven o'clock until the last returns had been thrown on the canvass outside the Press Democrat office, thousands of people blocked the streets watching the stereopticon [a 'magic lantern' projector]." When the final results were announced, a large bonfire was ignited and the flag-waving crowd, led by a brass band, paraded up Mendocino Ave. to College Avenue, where they rallied at the home of the mayor-elect James Gray.
Victory rally hoopla aside, it was actually a tragic night for Santa Rosa. As the wave of the reform movement continued to sweep out corruption in San Francisco and other American cities, the new mayor made certain the status quo did not change here. The "boarding house" ordinance was quickly repealed as promised (at the very first session of the new City Council), but that only dropped the license fee and the requirement that the prostitutes be examined for sexual disease. The bordellos stayed in business, as revealed in this followup posting.
So who were the Good Ol' Boys? During the campaign, the leader of the ad-hoc "Municipal League" party named four men he claimed were the "bosses" of Santa Rosa. Whether the accusation was truthful or no, they weren't kingpins in the sense of Boss Tweed or San Francisco's Abe Ruef; for one thing, the four were equally divided between Republican and Democratic allegiances. The town certainly had a political machine, however, and that was shown by the Dems and Repubs making a backroom deal to present a "fusion" ticket. The local party leaders might bicker when it came to state and national candidates and issues, but they stood together when it came to blocking anyone from cracking down on Santa Rosa's vice-driven underground economy.
In a nutshell, the Good Ol' Boys were the men who profited and/or participated in the local underground economy, primarily prostitution and illegal gambling. It appears they mostly still had the dust of the Wild West in their thinning hair and a swaggering, I'll-do-anything-I-please attitude; to them, it was acceptable for downtown Santa Rosa to become a lawless place after dark because it brought in lots of money, damned be the harm done. This is how the town had functioned since the 1880s or 1870s. By contrast, the Municipal League crowd wanted Santa Rosa to blossom as a middle class, mercantile community, where women could be out in the evenings without risk of being assaulted or mistaken for a prostitute.
A little peek inside the Good Ol' Boy network inadvertently appeared in a Press Democrat editorial, revealing that two of the First street buildings being used as bordellos were owned by Cornelius Shea and Dr. Summerfield. These men, along with an adjacent property owner, Daniel Behmer, were considered upstanding business men in Santa Rosa. Con Shea owned much of the prime real estate downtown, most famously the "Shea Block" (the entire south side of Fourth st. between B and A streets, now the heart of the mall) and was VP and a director of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa. Dr. J. J. Summerfield was a well-known veterinarian. These were not absentee slumlords or pimps running a prostitution empire; they were just local investors whose portfolios included whorehouses. The cynical Old Guard could make the case that Behmer was little different from any commercial real estate developer willing to "build to suit" when he had the structure at 720 First st. constructed to suit his tenant's unique needs.
Santa Rosa was also packed with saloons, with never fewer than 30-40 downtown during that era, except for a blip after the great earthquake. Although the prohibitionist faction in the Municipal League wanted to lock their doors forever, anti-corruption reformers probably wanted city police to simply enforce the laws against illegal gambling inside them.* A 1905 exposé in the Santa Rosa Republican quoted the Chief of Police as saying he couldn't make arrests because the City Council "will not back me up." The betting activity historically peaked during the August horse races and was centered at the Oberon Saloon, which was located in another building owned by Con Shea.
Whether the reformers would have followed through and cleaned up the town is impossible to know, but the Good Ol' Boys had reason to fear that the Municipal League would have more bite than bark if it won the election. Their candidate for mayor was Rolfe Thompson, a former DA who just months before had successfully sued Daniel Behmer for damages accounting to his owning property used for prostitution. If Thompson became the new mayor, he might well have ordered the District Attorney to file suit against Shea, Summerfield, and whoever owned the six other bawdy houses in Santa Rosa. A Municipal League City Council could have told the police chief that yes, you should enforce the gaming laws. There was much at stake, and their win could have been the end of the Good Ol' Boys' smalltown empire of crime.
There are a couple of interesting footnotes to the Santa Rosa election of 1908. It was the first local election where women played a significant political role (it would be four more years before women gained the right to vote in California). "The women took an active interest in the election, and they 'button-holed' the sterner sex on every hand and questioned them regarding their intentions when it came to using the little rubber stamp," the Press Democrat reported. (Unfortunately, not enough men listened to them.) In Healdsburg, where the town had voted a day earlier on whether it would go "dry," women lobbied for prohibition and constructed a booth where they offered a free lunch.
It was also the occasion when Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley finally jumped the shark and lost any pretense of journalistic objectivity, even by the feeble standards of the day. Finley - who was among the election night supporters of Gray speaking to the crowd from the mayor-elect's front porch - relentlessly attacked Thompson and the Municipal League for bringing attention to Santa Rosa's corruption to outsiders, thereby harming the town's stellar reputation. In Finleyland, these were "...unjust and uncalled-for attacks upon some of the best-known people of the community... Santa Rosa will not be apt to recover from the effects for a long time to come." He kept spitting at the walloped reformers even after the election, until the Santa Rosa Republican told him to stop being such a sore winner and shut up. "The Press Democrat man is a great fighter," a Republican editorial began. "His dander is up. He is going to show the world that he is 'real devilish' when aroused. The combatants in the struggle just ended have disbanded and gone home. The Press Democrat man hasn't. He never, never will lay down his arms. He is the late battlefield all alone."
|*It should be noted that we don't really know the Municipal League's exact position on gambling, prostitution, saloons, or anything else. No campaign literature survives, and the only known copies of the sympathetic prohibitionist's newsletter, "The Citizen," are from a year or more later. In one article reproduced below, the writer bemoans there was prize fighting (illegal under state law, although boxing was allowed) and "slot machines are going merrily in the saloons." Much of what is known about the Municipal League campaign comes from rebuttals that appeared in Press Democrat editorials.|
YE VALIANT WARRIOR!
The fight concluded and all danger being past, the editor of the Evening Republican crawls from his hiding place in the brush, fans the dust off his knees, and rushes bravely to the front. Waiving his rustless sword on high, he cries:
"Stop, talking and bury the hatchet!"
There is no disposition upon his the part of anybody that we know of to continue the fight, but the resentment that has been aroused by the so-called Municipal League and which found expression at the ratification meeting in front of Mr. Gray's residence Tuesday evening, is but natural. Under ordinary circumstances, and where the fight is fair, the disposition of the victors is usually magnanimous. But the flight as conducted by the organization mentioned was not a fair fight. The foulest of tactics were employed. False issues, and issues known to be false, were raised whenever and wherever it was thought they would secure a vote. Personalities were indulged in to an extent never before heard of in a campaign here, municipal or otherwise. Honest men, some of the very best in Santa Rosa--men who had freely devoted their time to the public service, and who were entitled to the heartfelt thanks of the entire community for services faithfully and intelligently performed, were assailed without cause and for no good reason were abused and vilified upon every possible occasion like a gang of pickpockets.
Of course such work was resented. It ought to be resented. People have and should have no right to imagine that they can do such things and then escape all responsibility by merely shouting "the gong has sounded."
Santa Rosa now faces two years of strenuous endeavor. Time are none too good, and it is going to require some hard work and some keen manipulation to keep all the wheels turning. But it can be done, and we believe it will be done. All public-spirited citizens owe it to the community as well as to themselves to get behind the new administration and help accomplish these results. If, when the two years are passed, the results have not proved satisfactory, those who take that view of the matter will have a perfect right to say so.
But they should learn by the developments of the past few days that the public will expect them to be fair in their criticisms. and not unmindful of what is reasonable and what is just.
- Press Democrat editorial, April 9, 1908
The Press Democrat man is a great fighter. His dander is up. He is going to show the world that he is "real devilish" when aroused. The combatants in the struggle just ended have disbanded and gone home. The Press Democrat man hasn't. He never, never will lay down his arms. He is the late battlefield all alone, and is making the fight of his life. When the silence of this scene threatens to overcome him, he whoops real loud and that keeps him from getting too scared to run away. This is the first time it in the martial annals of the world that a battle was going on after the fighting was all over. Sad indeed would have been the dying of the vanquished had they known in that last hour that the valiant Press Democrat man was going to make "rough-house" at their funeral. But he is a great fighter.
- Santa Rosa Republican editorial, April 9, 1908
THE MINISTERIAL UNION AGAIN
Practically the entire issue of the current number of The Citizen, the official organ of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, is devoted to lambasting the Press Democrat and putting forth a thinly-veiled appeal to the church people to withdraw their support and patronage from this paper.
Has the Press Democrat ever shown itself unfriendly to the church or its institutions? Have we ever arrayed ourselves against the project undertaken by religious organizations of the city for the furtherance of the advancement of their legitimate work? Have we ever failed to accord church news proper space or attention in our local columns? Have we ever, at any time or under any circumstances, directed one word of criticism towards any true man of God laboring along broad-minded lines within his proper sphere?
Of course not, and every reader of this paper knows it.
But the Press Democrat, always resentful of anything that savored of class government and forever opposed to the interference of church and state, in the recent municipal campaign stood up and vigorously fought the attempt of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, acting by proxy and parading in fancied disguise to secure control of public affairs here. We would have opposed such an attempt upon the part of the saloon interests just as quickly--for the representatives of any other special interest or class for that matter--for no special class of people, acting and operating as such, have the right to aspire to control in this country. Individuals have the right to aspire to anything they choose, but classes have no such rights. If they were allowed to think so, we should soon have class government, which is something no sensible man can approve and something entirely opposed to the principles on which our nation is founded.
The Ministerial Union is pouring the vials of its wrath upon the Press Democrat because we opposed that organization in the last campaign and for no other reason.
And what is this so-called in Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, which in its "official organ" thus comes out and openly advocates that the Press Democrat be boycotted for standing by its principles in the recent municipal campaign? Is the organization one that is truly representative of the local ministry? Do all the ministers of the city endorse the policies of the so-called Ministerial Union? Do even the majority of them favor "the preacher in politics" or stand for the cowardly and un-American boycott, about which its own campaign paper was having so much to say only a few weeks since?
Three of the ministers actively engaged in pastoral work here takes no part in the political activities of the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, and two of the remaining six or known to have little real sympathy with such methods. This is four men who really constitute the organization and direct its policies. These four men directed the recent Municipal League campaign and wrote most of the articles that appeared in the League paper. One of them acted as editor-in-chief, and had the final decision regarding the availability of all articles submitted for publication.
And these same four men are the ones who now ask the people of Santa Rosa to withdraw their support and patronage from the Press Democrat because this paper happens to have enough backbone to stand up and say what it thinks, regardless of whose toes may be temporarily trampled upon.
The public have not forgotten the kind of arguments that were put out by the Municipal League paper during the campaign just closed, or the thousand-and-one absurd accusations that were made against everything and everybody connected with the other side. Never were charges hurled about with such reckless prodigality. None of them were based upon fact. Long before the campaign was ended they had all been disproved, and not one of the terrible things that were going to happen in the event of Mr. Gray's election have materialized.
And it is the same men who are responsible for the campaign conducted by the so-called Municipal League who are now throwing bricks at the Press Democrat, and asking people to believe that we stand for all kinds of outrageous ideas and practices.
Along with a lot of other things, the Ministerial Union in its official organ charges for the Press Democrat has "misrepresented and vilified the churches and ministers, and has consistently stood for prostitution, gambling, the Sunday saloon and the obscene story." Of course none of these charges are true, and our readers know it. The Press Democrat is just as anxious as the members on the Ministerial Union or anybody else to see affairs here conducted properly, and to maintain and elevate the moral tone of the community. While we may not agree with certain members of the organization referred to regarding the best way of accomplishing the results desired, to contend that this paper stands for anything but what is best for all concerned is ridiculous as well as absurd. We challenge a comparison of the class of matter contained in these columns with either those of "Verity," "The Citizen," or "The Municipal League," and defy any human being to show where we ever stood in all our newspaper experience "stood" for topics as questionable or stories anything like as suggestive as those discussed and told day after day and night after night after night by the Evangelist Bulgin at his big test on Fourth Street.
The Santa Rosa Ministerial Union has now been in existence for several years. in all good faith and with courtesy you should like to enquire of the gentlemen making up that body if they really think anything has been gained for the cause by the policy that has been pursued since the organization . As we view the matter, valuable support has been alienated that might just as well have been retained, strong antagonisms have been aroused where friendships might have been formed, and strife and ill-feeling has been engendered when only harmony, peace and good-will should prevail.
Why not try different tactics for a while?
- Press Democrat editorial, May 3, 1908
THE PRESENT ADMINISTRATION
The city council is allowing the denizens of the "red light district" district to go on violating the law by selling liquor without a license. It is commonly reported that there are nine government licenses taken out in that district. That ought to be enough evidence. Nothing else should be needed. Talk about enforcing the law. We have a weak set of men on the council of this city. They hang their head pans supinely in the presence of a few "sporting women" and say, "we are powerless." It is about time we had somebody in office whose backbone is not composed of shoestrings. An order was issued that the women must leave that district last August. Nothing was done about it.
We thought that Mr. Gray was to do great things if elected. He would show the Santa Rosa people how to do things. The saloon organ of this city on the 18th of March last year said, "And that there is also another reason, which is that James H. Gray is a better man for mayor of Santa Rosa than Rolfe L. Thompson could ever think of being." We are willing to leave it to any fair-minded man who knows Mr. Thompson as to whether Mr. Thompson would have been as as inefficient in the office of mayor as Mr. Gray has been. We would like to ask with all due respect for Mr. Gray, what has been done while in office? He was going to clean up the notorious "red light district." He has not done anything in that line. The town is going on in the same old way.
It is practically a wide-open town today. The saloons are running full blast 18 hours out of 24. We have lately had added to our list of booze resorts another, making a total of 40. Liquor is sold in the "red light district." Prize fighting is allowed in town. Slot machines are going merrily in the saloons. Yes, there is one thing which we are glad to see the council has ostensibly stopped (we do not know whether the laws enforced or not), and that is, gambling in the rear of cigar stores. We want to give all due praise, but when we come to sum up the administration under the present mayor, who came to this office with the highest praise of the saloon organ, we find that it has been about as spineless as any thing could well be and have any existence at all.
The puzzle that was printed in The Municipal League, showing Mr. Gray in minute minutes type between Grace and Geary, had more truth than poetry in it. Where will you find the mayor today? "The only answer is the echo of our wailing cry."
- The Citizen, April, 1909