Had I the chance to visit 1908 Santa Rosa, I know exactly how I'd want to spend my day. First I'd ask James Wyatt Oates for a spin in his fine, new touring car; with any luck, I could convince him to drive over to Hoen Avenue so we could say hello to the newly arrived Comstock family. I'd drop by Frank Muther's cigar shop on Fourth Street and thank the Fire Chief for saving our town from burning down after the Great Earthquake. Should Fred J. Wiseman happen to be loafing around the Santa Rosa Cyclery with old friends, I'd ask if he thought airplanes had much of a future. But come the end of my visit, I'd like to have a beer and hang out with Tom Gregory.
(RIGHT: Portrait of Tom Gregory from "History of Sonoma County")
Next to Luther Burbank, Tom Gregory is probably the most famous person who ever lived in Santa Rosa, by one measure: His "History of Sonoma County" (available to read online or download here) became the de facto reference on local history almost from the day it was published in 1911. In genealogy circles, he's particularly viewed as a superstar because most of the volume is filled with 558 biographies of local movers and shakers (who each paid something around $50 to be memorialized as a m&s). But in a believe-it-or-not twist worthy of Robert Ripley (another of Santa Rosa's famous sons), Gregory is famous for the wrong reason; he likely contributed little besides editorial touch-up to the biography section, where only occasional flashes of his hallmark writing style can be found.*
In the twilight of his life, Tom was a history-writing machine. After the 1911 Sonoma County volume, he followed with county histories for Solano and Napa (1912) and Yolo (1913). Truth be told, however, his histories really aren't very good. He wrote in a style more florid than precise; rarely are sources cited, and there are more than a few passages where he added colorful details that leave Gentle Reader wondering how such bullshit ever made it into print. (He made the absurd claim, for example, that the word "gringo" was coined by Mexicans who heard Americans endlessly singing the old folk tune, "Green Grow the Rushes.") And although he was an eyewitness to the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, he offered a mere three pages describing the day of the disaster and its immediate aftermath. That's almost unforgivable.
But Tom Gregory wasn't a scholar or historian; he was a storyteller and newspaperman. He spent his life writing about people and matters he knew about first hand, not long-distant events researched at a library. Instead of his flawed histories, he should be celebrated for the decades of entertaining, often hilarious, writings that appeared in the San Francisco and Santa Rosa newspapers.
He was the only writer in the early 20th century Santa Rosa papers to be given a byline or allowed to sign his articles, and he appeared in both the Press Democrat and the Republican. Before the 1906 quake he had an occasional column in the PD called "One Man's Opinion" or "Individual Opinion." For the Republican after the quake, it was "Pencil Gatherings Among the Social and Other People" (it would later be called the even more irreverent "Unclassified News of the Social and Other Things"), which was a staff-written society gossip column that took sarcastic pokes at local snobs when Gregory contributed.
The February 22, 1908 "Pencil Gatherings" was particularly good fun. Responding to a reader who hoped the newspaper would reproach "certain lady [card] players who are more anxious to win prizes than they are to play fair," Gregory wailed in mock despair, "My! my! I am jarred out of all think...I have worked so hard uplifting society to a higher moral plane, spying out and eliminating every element of the earth earthy, we find that our labors have been in some respects in vain." Card cheaters risked the launch of "horrid war...in the ethics of game there is no redemption for the gamester who falls from honor." Later in the same column, he oozed unctuously over the fashions at a sorority dance instead of offering the customary fawning praise:
It was indeed a bright phalanx of fair Grecians that came to the dance of the Lambda Theta Phi Friday evening in the Occidental. If one may refer to them in the scholastic and classic lore of Hellenic days, he may write that no more charming company of girls ever gathered to the Olympian games that these Minervian maidens of the West. Their gowns were not just the draperies seen on the graceful marble goddesses of the Parthenon, but they were dainty, pretty, and fetching...
Tom dabbled in Santa Rosa civic affairs in 1906 with his customary humor. When there was a kerfuffle over sidewalks being used by bicycle riders and roller skaters, he proposed the city should encourage scofflaws, the better to issue tickets that could be used to rebuild the earthquake damage. Policemen could even expedite the fines by selling coupon books in advance: "Under this beautiful system a cop could grab a wheelman, tear off a coupon, and let him ride on. No delay, no bother." He ran that year for city clerk (see below for an amusing anecdote), and when he didn't win, his Press Democrat column laughed at his own defeat: "I have not yet found the central cause of my 'pass in the night' of April 3. I fancy, however, that it may be attributed to lack of votes." A friend comforted him by saying that he lost only because "after my opponent finished at the ballot box there was not enough votes left to go around."
In a 1908 "Pencil Gatherings" column, Gregory introduced his fictional (?) nemesis, a blowhard he called the "up-town citizen" who would stop by the newspaper office and wax his ill-informed opinions, then stealing a paper as he left. Another episode is transcribed here, but this one will make less sense to those not familiar with events that have been discussed in earlier posts. When the windbag says, "[W]hat is this report about settin' the proposed city park down in the crick...I was asked what the crick was assessed at, bit I don't think it has any taxable value since the fish died," the references are to an election-year promise to create a park on the banks of Santa Rosa Creek, although it was well-known that the waterway was now so polluted that the fish were vanishing.
Alas, there's no index of Tom Gregory's writings in the Santa Rosa papers, so stumbling across an unknown item is always a treat. There are undoubtedly many more gems to be unearthed, although his contributions seem to slack off after 1908 as he began writing the histories. A look at older papers should prove fruitful; he moved to town in 1898, when he was already an acclaimed writer.
Tom Gregory was born in California in 1853 and joined the U.S. Navy at 17. Although he had only a rudimentary education he read constantly, and when his ship was monitoring the war between Bolivia, Chile and Peru in 1879, he made his debut as a war correspondent for the San Francisco Call. For most of the rest of his life his focus drifted between the sea and the newsroom. He left the Navy to become a newspaperman, then later re-enlisted to run the Navy recruiting station in San Francisco during the Spanish-American War. He wrote for the old Alta California and the San Francisco Call, where "he was assigned to the waterfront and became famous for his waterfront stories," the obituary in the Santa Rosa Republican noted. "Some of his exploits in search of news are traditions in the Press Club of California."
(RIGHT: Featured poem in the SF Call, February 9, 1896. CLICK or TAP to enlarge)
By at least 1895, he was highly regarded as a poet and writer of human interest stories about life at sea. Historic newspaper archives for the San Francisco Call show a couple of dozen stories or poems that appeared in the fat Sunday editions between 1895 and 1899, often featuring an illustration drawn specifically for it. Obits in both local papers stated that the poems in particular were widely reprinted nationwide. A Call article referred to him as the "chief staff poet" and after a Friday night romp in the Bohemian district with other reporters, there was a laugh because Gregory was back at his desk at midnight "...searching a dictionary of rhymes for something to go with '-izzle.'" Now, that's dedication. Or something.
Tom Gregory died on Sept. 8, 1914, at his home at 930 Cherry Street (which still stands, on the corner of Cherry and E) and his remains were taken to San Francisco and there cremated. Rest in peace, Tom; it would have been nice to have known you.
* Although nothing specific is known on the practices of the "Historic Record Company" of Los Angeles, the publishers of these "mug books" typically hired a local newspaper editor or scholar to write (or supervise the writing of) the histories, but sent a salesman from the home office to sell the subscriptions that underwrote the publication. The salesman also collected the all-important biographical data from subscribers. As an example, the 1889 "Illustrated History of Sonoma County, California" is attributed to Petaluma Argus editor Samuel Cassiday, but a man named William Buckline from the Lewis Publishing Company in Chicago was in the county the previous year for interviews and taking pre-orders. The main author sometimes hired a local writer for the biographical sketches, and other times subscribers sent their autobiographical details directly to staff writers at the company. Regardless of how these books were assembled, they were enormously profitable. As the books typically included 500+ biographies, the publisher had a risk-free publication that brought in about $25,000 - a princely sum for the day.
COLONEL GREGORY'S PETITIONColonel Tom Gregory petitioned for an electric light on King street, to relieve the situation on that thoroughfare. By reason of the large pine trees growing in the old college grounds the Colonel declared it could easily be termed "darkest Santa Rosa." He prayed for relief from the situation. Referred to street committee.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 7, 1906
UNIQUE CAMPAIGN CARDS
Advertising Legend Brings Out Good Joke at Tom Gregory's Expense
Tom Gregory shows his newspaper training in the unique character of his advertising campaign cards. His penwork is as striking as it is funny, and attracts attention wherever it appears.
In the windows of several stores the reader is told to "get a quick meal on one of our stoves early April 3rd and vote for Tom Gregory." Lou Dillon's famous sulky in a well-known harness store is adorned with this statement: "The fastest sulky on Earth, puled by Lou Dillon in 1:58. Tom Gregory's run for City Clerk is equally marvelous."
One of these election legends brought out a joke at Tom's expense which is as good as one of his own: A grocery window held a card which said, "Ask your grocer for Tom Gregory." "What is it?" queried a curious customer. The information was given by the proprietor.
"Oh, I thought it was a new breakfast food," the customer replied.
- Press Democrat, March 23, 1906
THINGS HEARD ABOUT TOWN
A New Society Formed--- A Political Rumor
"These here fine, sunny days just drags everything and everybody out of the shell," said the up town citizen, leaning over the counter and cheerfully confiding to the entire office force, "I reckon society will just turn on 'high speed' this nice weather and crowd the dates with functions or whatever you call 'em, before Lent turns out the lights. Speakin' of society, I must tell you about a new social club we have organized, though I must not tell you where it is located, because the police is awful fierce now, it bein' purtty close to election. It is the Paradox Bean-Poker and Debating Society, Limited. We found in the dictionary that paradox is something a person would think aint but really is, so we though it a good name. Bean poker I guess you 'sabe.' The debatin' comes in when the members are a-growlin' over five of a kind before the draw, and the limit is in 'five hundred' and euchre professionals. When we get more coin in the kitty we are a-going to federate with other clubs and then we will have the angtray into the select circles of the hoi polloi. Better let me take your name in? What say?"
Nobody said anything, and he continued: "But there is one thing not out yet, and that is the candidate. I've been a-hunting for the bunch who want to serve the public, and I can't flush a single bird. I did catch one stickin' his head out of the grass, but before I could get a camera on him he ducked back. He had 'councilman' and 'goodness' written all over him, but he was skeery. There's to be six men and a city hall with a fire house on the side voted for, and the only thing yet in sight is the place where the hall and house is to be if it is to be.
"The folks in and out of town don't 'pear to like the mositness in the streets. They keep a'askin' me to dry up the mudholes. I tell them with so much free water, natcherly lots of it will get splashed around a good deal. Just as soon as the summer comes and people begin to wet down their lawns and find roses so the Chamber of Commerce can truthfully tell what a gardin spot Santa Rosay is, the free water idea will evaporate, leaving excess bills in its place. I was up to the city council t'other night and heard a cry going up to thet cloudless skies. If was for free water for revenue only. I hear they are a-goin' to make the old water company put in meters so it can't work no cut rate job on the city business, I'll be goshdurned if this water question isn't gittin' complerkated.
"Haven't got a late Lost Ang'lus paper have you? I had a visitor from the sunny south the other day. He belonged to some Chamber of Commerce down there and said what was needed to make this state have a settler on every fifty-vera lot of it was more harmony and less 'knocking' between the different sections. Pretty soon he sets down on the hammer he had in his back pocket and hurt himself real painful.,
"The court house deputies is a-pickin' out their offices in the new county building and askin' the architect to put sunny south windown on the north side. Say, what is this report about settin' the proposed city park down in the crick? Geminy, it would take more money to fix up the place, put in dams, walks, gondolas, submarines, like Healdsburg had, than it would take to build a battleship. The citizens could never stand for it without a bond issue. I was asked what the crick was assessed at, bit I don't think it has any taxable value since the fish died.
"Speakin' of aquatic matters reminds me that the big fleet is in the Pacific and will soon be up here. Bein' a society man, I'm goin' to leave my card aboard Evans' flagship and have the Admiral up to Santa Rosy and get up a reception. We are well acquainted with each other--I was ship's cook with him once. One day he gave me five days in double irons for burning the beans. I'll make Fightin' Bob honerary member of the Paradoxes. Guess I'll take a paper home with me, the carrier might fergit to leave me one."
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 13, 1908
Here's another of those very odd public service "booster" ads that appeared in the Santa Rosa Republican around 1908 (other examples here and here). CLICK or TAP to enlarge and learn how you can help "the old town perk up and plunge forward."
Here's a handful of items from 1908 Santa Rosa papers that are interesting, yet don't quite merit separate articles:
| A Santa Rosa man named H. C. Stone registered to vote, listing his occupation as, "Philosopher of the Order of Mephistopheles" (misspelled "Methlstopheles" by the Press Democrat). The County Clerk thus entered his job title in the Great Register of Voters.|
| A pharmacist in Sonoma was arrested for having a caged dove. Under California game law selling or even possessing wild birds (alive or dead) outside of hunting season was punishable by at least a $25 fine or 25 days in prison, but the druggist plead ignorance of the law and was acquitted by a jury. There was particular concern in the years 1908-1909 that sportsmen's clubs were wiping out local game and tighter rules were imposed; Marin banned quail hunting for three years, and Los Angeles county limited dove season (yes, there was a dove season) to a single day. Doves were hunted both for sport and food, and unlike robin pot pie, you couldn't get in trouble for tucking into a dove pie, as long as they were killed legally; a woman won a prize in a 1909 San Francisco Call recipe contest with a dish that called for a dozen birds.|
| Testifying at a circuit court hearing in Bodega, a witness who was "a son of sunny Italy, not long in this country, and best learned in English in the use of slang," according to the PD, responded to a lawyer's question by saying, "Sure, Mike." This was newsworthy because "sure, Mike" was a somewhat disrespectful catchphrase of the time that meant something between "you betcha" and "hell, yeah." The crime in question, by the way, was for Peter Ginella taking "an unfriendly poke with a crowbar" at one G. Bugada. The accused was probably part of the sprawling Gonnella clan; no fewer than 37 Gonnellas were listed in the 1910 census for Bodega township.|
| "A lick and a promise this time, Jim," read the note left by the thief who had robbed a dentist's office of gold for fillings. Another Healdsburg dentist reported a similar robbery, and two Petaluma dentists had been burgled a couple of weeks before. A historic newspaper database search suggests that thieves who robbed dentist offices specialized in that crime, and were very often caught either trying to pawn the gold to a regular jeweler or during an inept break-in attempt. Just a few months earlier, the mayor of Reno had spotted someone wiggling through the transom of a dentist's office; a police officer arrested the would-be burglar at gunpoint, likely still in mid-wiggle.|
|What do you do when a friend is so chronically depressed that he speaks of nothing but suicide? If you're one of the "friends" of this despondent Healdsburg man, you turn his misery into a vicious practical joke. They gave him "a great quantity of crystals looking like strychnine, but which were really epsom salts," which he promptly mixed with water and drank, expecting to die in front of his comrades - he even held a club to fight them off, should they attempt to intervene. A witness horrified by the scene summoned the police, who could find no sign of the anticipated corpse. The victim "is none the worse for the cruel hoax played on him," the Santa Rosa Republican dubiously claimed. Besides the damage this prank certainly added to his already frail emotional state, epsom salts, when taken orally, are a powerful and fast-acting laxative.|
CROWBAR WIELDER IS DISCHARGED
Peter Ginella, charged with giving G. Bugada an unfriendly poke with a crowbar at Bodega, was not held for trial by Justice Cunninghame at the preliminary examination at Bodega on Saturday. He was allowed to go and sin no more. Attorney William Finley Cowan went over from Santa Rosa to represent the accused. Assistant District Attorney George W. Hoyle, and Court Reporter Harry Scott were also among those present from Santa Rosa. The evidence Ginella was not considered sufficient by the magistrate to hold him over to the Superior Court.
Some diversion was occasioned in the courtroom during the examination of a witness who chanced to be a son of sunny Italy, not long in this country, and best learned in English in the use of slang. In response to one question by Attorney Cowan the witness, in responding in the affirmative, said:
"Sure, Mike."- Press Democrat, February 12, 1908
KEPT A LITTLE DOVE IN A GILDED CAGE
Deputy Game Commissioner Lounlbos arrested a Sonoma druggist, named Simmons, last week on a charge of violating the law. The specific charge was keeping a dove in captivity in a cage. The man was given a hearing on Saturday and was acquitted by the jury hearing the evidence. Mr. Simmons had no intention of violating the law.- Press Democrat, March 31, 1908
SANTA ROSA HAS ITS OWN PHILOSOPHER
Man Registers at County Clerk's Office and in Response to Query Tells of His Occupation
"What is your occupation?" queried the clerk in the registration department in County Clerk Fred Wright's office of a man who presented himself to have his name put on the new Great Register the day before yesterday.
"Philosopher of the Order of Methlstopheles," came the quick reply.
"What?" gasped "Casey," behind the book. "Repeat that again please, and slowly; and possibly you had better spell out the last."
"Philosopher of the Order of Methlstopheles," thee last word spelt out in a suppressed, dignified tone by the man on the other side of the wicket.
"All right, Mr. Philosopher, you're registered. Here's your receipt."
Santa Rosa has a philosopher, one who firmly believes in the teaching of philosophy of the Methlstopheles. His name is H. C. Stone.- Press Democrat, March 7, 1908
BOLD THIEF ROBS DENTAL OFFICES
"A lick and a promise this time, Jim," written in a scrawling hand on a piece of paper and left on the desk in the dental office of Dr. O. J. Litchfield, at Healdsburg, was all that the smiling dentist has to show as evidence, except the carrying off of a lot of gold used in filling teeth, etc., that an unbidden guest, a thief, had entered his offices in that city on Sunday night. The thief also paid a visit to Dr. McGlish's office and made a haul of gold there. He did not leave his card. A couple of weeks ago a thief also burglarized the offices of two Petaluma dentists and stole gold, bridges and crowns. Santa Rosa dentists are respectfully invited to see that their gold is under lock and key. They thief may pay a return visit to Santa Rosa.- Press Democrat, August 19, 1908
USED SALTS TO SUICIDE
Hoax Played on Man Who Was Tired of Life
John Capella, a resident of Healdsburg, had recently become despondent and threatened many times to commit suicide. The man made quite a diligent effort to obtain a sufficient quantity of strychnine to shuffle off this mortal coil, and was unsuccessful.
Some wags sought to have some fun at the expense of Capella, and they gave him a great quantity of crystals looking like strychnine, but which were really epsom salts. The man went into the bar room of the Oak Lawn House and there mixed the crystals in a can.
When he raised the can to his lips Capella announced that he was drinking a dose of strychnine, and to make the matter more tragic, the men who had played the joke on the would-be suicide, endeavored to wrest the can from his possession. With a large club and mighty oaths Capella kept the crowd back until he had drained the can of its contents.
A messenger, seeing the commotion caused by Capella's attempts at suicide, ran post haste on his bicycle for the police station and notified the officers. Night Watchman Harris hastened to the scene and made a search for Capella. He was finally told of the prank played on the man, and gave up the search. Capella is none the worse for the cruel hoax played on him.- Santa Rosa Republican, October 7, 1908
Q: It's 1908. What do you call those large vehicles used to haul stuff? A: They're "automobiles" "delivery cars," "delivery vans," or maybe, if you're feeling formal, "motor-trucks." But they're certainly not just "trucks" - at least, not until the 1930s.
Today we're so accustomed to the simple meaning of "car" and "truck" that it's hard to imagine a little over a century ago those referred only to railway compartments. Then in 1895, motor-car, motor-truck were coined - hyphens optional - but in the U.S. these remained mostly technical terms outside of everyday usage (some names also created in 1895 did catch on: motorcycle, motorboat, and the modern meaning of automobile).
This journey down the bumpy roads of etymology was spurred by a little 1908 item in the Press Democrat: "Petaluma is to have an automobile milk wagon...[two men] have purchased a Mitchell automobile and are having it fitted out for carrying and delivering milk." The idea of an "automobile milk wagon" seemed absurd; I doubt that dairies in a small town such as Petaluma had pasteurization and bottling equipment in that era (it would be almost a decade more before pasteurized milk was even available in most large cities) so milk was still being delivered in big cans, and it would be difficult to ladle milk out of a 10-gallon can riding in the back seat. But did the Mitchell Motor Car Co. even make a drayage vehicle? Sure thing, they offered a flatbed "motor truck," as seen in the 1908 ad on the right.
Other vehicular variations tumbled into the language; Mitchell also sold a "touring car" in that ad (that name for a big auto was already in common use), and here's a "stake truck" for hauling beer, although it's called an "electric car" in the accompanying article. The same 1905 article mentions an "automobile stage line" running between towns carrying passengers in a "bus wagon," which was more commonly known at the time as an "automobile bus."
Confusing matters hopelessly, there was even a motorcycle that was called a delivery van as well as a motor car. The PD reported in 1909 that Santa Rosa's Pioneer Laundry now had a "tri-car" for deliveries, and as seen here, the vehicle made by the Indian motorcycle company wasn't a "car" at all, but a 5HP motorized bicycle that had two wide-spaced front wheels with a box in the middle. One feature, according to the newspaper, was that "the whole front may be removed and the single wheel attached and leave a plain motor car" (even though that only would turn it into an underpowered motorcycle).
Thus in the baffling world of the early 20th century, anything with a motor and wheels could be considered a "car" or "automobile," no matter if it carried one person, thirty passengers, or a ton of bricks. When we say that people of that time went auto-crazy it was probably true, because when words mean little or nothing, the result is lunatic babble. They might as well have described those marvelous horseless machines by using pictographs of gestures and grunts.
BONUS GRAPHIC: While digging through old magazine on Google Books, I stumbled upon this cover from the June, 1907 issue of Motor magazine, with its oddly modern/steampunk allure (CLICK or TAP to enlarge)
WILL DELIVER MILK BY AUTOMOBILE
Petaluma is to have an automobile milk wagon, the first in Sonoma county, and probably in the state. The Messrs. H. C. Taylor and E. W. Ormsby have purchased the Arthur E. Matsen milk route in that city and will begin business January 1, 1909. They have purchased a Mitchell automobile and are having it fitted out for carrying and delivering milk to their customers.
- Press Democrat, December 8, 1908
LAUNDRY GETS MOTOR DELIVERY CAR
The Pioneer Laundry Company has secured an Indian Merchandise Delivery Motor car and will make use of it in delivering laundry to the customers of the company. The car is a combination tri-car, merchandise delivery car and motor cycle, and is a novelty in this part of the country.
The car has twin cylinders of 2 1-2 horse power each and can run from 6 to 60 miles an hour. As a tri-car there is a seat in front of the driver for a second person which rides as smoothly as an easy chair. That can be taken off and the delivery box substituted or else the whole front may be removed and the single wheel attached and leave a plain motor car.
- Press Democrat, April 8, 1909
In 1938, Orson Welles scared the willies out of us with a sci-fi tale about a Martian invasion. But thirty years earlier, newspapers were frightening nearly everyone with equally fantastic rumors about an upcoming invasion by Japan.
Even 1908 Sonoma County, with its established and well-respected Japanese community, got into the act; the Santa Rosa Republican reported that locals in Bodega Bay were suspicious about two Japanese men - "well dressed and intelligent looking" - who rented a buggy and looked at the coastline. "What their real business was is a matter of conjecture and there was some talk of setting a watch on their movements," the Republican's correspondent wrote ominously, although their actions seemed no different from any other tourists.
The roots of the hysteria went back to Japan's military victory over Russia in 1905, as discussed in an earlier essay. Almost overnight, the popular image of Japan flipped upside-down, from couldn't-care-less to couldn't-care-more. The little Asian country that was once just viewed as a source of cheap field labor was now a potentially threatening superpower. It was as if we were suddenly told today that Guatemala had developed nuclear weapons.
American anxiety about Japan's formidable navy was fueled by fearmongering in the press - the link above shows a 1906 feature story titled, "If Japan Should Attack Us" - and that in turn launched a national mania about Japanese spies gathering tactical data to prepare for an invasion of the West Coast. And once we began looking for spies, we found them everywhere; Americans are world champs when it comes to hunting witches.
Japanese spy stories spread through the 1908 media like modern-day Internet urban legends. Most often they were an item from the United Press newswire, such as the January report that National Guard sharpshooters fired at someone trying to break into the San Francisco armory where "valuable military maps" were kept. "It is thought that Japanese spies were seeing to gain entrance to the armory." Although that story was picked up by dozens of newspapers (often adding their own little embellishments), it apparently wasn't true at all; no mention of an incident like this appeared in the San Francisco Call or Oakland Tribune.
Similarly, another wire story had it that a Japanese spy was caught at Fort Wadsworth, NY, with maps of the land surrounding the fort. "The military authorities at Fort Wadsworth admit that a Japanese spy has been caught...officers of the regular army are trying to hush the affair up but militiamen speak freely about it." Yet strangely, not a peep about the event can be found in the New York press.
Like the "friend of a friend" source of a juicy urban legend story, these events always happened somewhere else and far away. The San Francisco armory story appeared in the New York Tribune, as well as many papers in the upper Midwest. The Fort Wadsworth story was printed in South Carolina. Then there was a widely reprinted story quoting a Mexico City paper that claimed a spy had been caught in Brownsville, Texas with plans of American fortifications. Alas, not a single newspaper printed the firm denial from the local paper: "No Japanese whatever have been seen at Brownsville in months."
Other spy sightings were likely misunderstandings by hyper-suspicious locals, like the incident in Bodega Bay. In January, two well-dressed Japanese men (being well-dressed is a common reason for suspicion in many of these yarns) were detained in Oregon because they were found walking around and looking at Fort Stevens, on the mouth of the Columbia River. Although "nothing of an incriminating nature could be found upon their persons, the indications are that they were at the post for the purpose of obtaining plans and sketches of the different fortifications."
There were also spy stories that stretch belief to the breaking point. The Daily Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon) ran a front page article about a Nevada draftsman named A. B. Clinton who claimed a Japanese man wanted to hire him to draw up plans of the San Francisco harbors. The patriotic draftsman attacked the man, but "the Jap put up a fierce fight and proved himself a master of jiu-jitsu. In the melee some of Clinton's fingers were so badly bitten that they will probably have to be amputated." The Japanese man was said to be held under a charge of "mayhem."
Every urban legend collection has to include an "imminent catastrophe" tale, and a UP wire story datelined Galveston, Texas, August 8, claimed there were "fifty thousand Japanese in Mexico ready to cross" the border:
From eight Japanese captured while attempting to cross the border from Mexico, details of a great smuggling plot were learned today by the immigration agents. The Japanese declare that there are now 50,000 of their countrymen in Mexico, and that most of them are awaiting an opportunity to enter this country. They say an organized band of smugglers is working on the border...
But unlike the other examples of anti-Japanese hysteria, there was a core of truth to this story, and it's worth a detour to explore.
After the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 between the U.S. and Japan blocked immigration of workers, Japanese men began entering the country illegally through Mexico. From the 1880s onward, the Mexican border was an easy crossing point for anyone not allowed in through the front door. Most numerous were the Chinese, but after the turn of the century there were growing numbers of Russian Jews, Syrians, Slavs, Greeks, and Italians as well as the Japanese. These European and Mideast immigrants weren't barred from legal entry on basis of race or nationality, but usually had individual reasons for sneaking in. Often, it was because the person wasn't in perfect health; Ellis Island medical examiners were increasingly turning immigrants away because of disease or because they otherwise appeared to sickly for manual labor. "LOPD" was bureaucratic shorthand for "Lack of Physical Development," and as likely to cause rejection as the "No Money" classification.
Ironically today, the easiest way to enter the U. S. was to pass as a "local Mexican" crossing the border for shopping or day labor. Immigrants were sold traditional clothing and coached on how to blend into the Mexican crowds. Many of the Japanese men used another trick: Telling the border guard that they were only crossing the U.S. en route to Canada, producing a ribbon of train tickets as proof.
To coach and/or smuggle these immigrants, an industry emerged. An excellent book on border enforcement, "Imaginary Lines." quotes a 1908 report from the Commerce Secretary:
On the Mexican side of the border, at the towns nearest the several ports of entry, aliens, both European and Asiatic, congregate in large numbers prior to seeking entry into the United States. By reason of the influx of foreigners into these towns, a profitable industry has grown up in the promotion of immigration, by methods seldom more than colorably legal and often simply illegal...there are physicians professing ability to remove the signs of disease, and there are smugglers and guides in abundance.
The most common points of entry from Mexico was either San Diego or El Paso, and that the dateline of this story is Galveston suggests there's also a dash of anti-Semitism in this mishmash of truth and fiction. The year 1908 was just after the start of the "Galveston Movement," which brought Eastern European Jews to the U.S. via Texas so to avoid the crowded East Coast cities.
There weren't many newspapers that spoke out against the rumors, but to his credit, one voice was Ernest L. Finley, editor of the Press Democrat. "These silly yarns of Jap spies are getting tiresome," he griped in an editorial. "Their publication puts us in the light of being about scared to death." Another editor raised the point that it was absurd to believe that Japanese spies were skulking about drawing our coastlines. "Topographical maps of the United States, made accurately by government surveyors, may be purchased for a dime," wrote the editor of the Los Angeles Herald. "Why should the Japanese go to the trouble and expense of making topographical surveys on their own hook?"
War Scare is Noted at Bodega Bay
Considerable excitement was occasioned in Bodega yesterday by the arrival of two Japanese men on the train from San Francisco. They were well dressed and intelligent looking, but spoke broken English when making inquiries about the coast line about Bodega Bay. Securing a rig from the livery stable here they immediately drove toward the bay. Ostensibly they were looking for abalones and when they returned said they could not find a suitable boat landing or place to erect a cabin. As they were gone from town but about three hours it is hardly possible for them to have made a very extended search for such locations. They exhibited a map of the coast when asking the distance to the point known here as Campbell's Point and seemed familiar with the shore line. What their real business was is a matter of conjecture and there was some talk of setting a watch on their movements. Another Japanese war scare. Well I must say that in the present uncompleted condition of the fortifications about Bodega Bay we are hardly in position to resist the attack of a very formidable squadron.- Santa Rosa Republican, August 14, 1908
MORE JAP SPIESThe latest scare of the timorous Japophobists is that the spies of Nippon are trying to get jobs as waiters and laundrymen in the big maneuvers camp at Atascadero. It is likely that these prying Japs are only prying into the chances to feed the privates and was the officers' shirts, and not into the secrets of the wireless signal code or into the manner in which the national guard fights and bleeds in sham battle. It is usual for foreign officers to be given the courtesy of an invitation to witness military maneuvers and these guests, trained in the science of soldierly evolutions, would learn far more than will the cooks and waiters in camp. Moreover, the war department in Tokio already knows all it cares to know concerning the work out for the regular and state troops at Atascadero. These silly yarns of Jap spies are getting tiresome. Their publication puts us in the light of being about scared to death.- Press Democrat editorial, October 2, 1908
Hurry if you want to see Armstrong Woods; the new owner intends to chop down the entire grove for timber. Or so the Santa Rosa papers reported in the summer of 1908, when Harrison M. LeBaron bought the last 195 acres of the woodlands from the late Colonel Armstrong's daughter. LeBaron now owned the entire 400+ acres of magnificent redwood forest, and he knew well its value as lumber; someone was earlier hired to "compute the stumpage."
(RIGHT: Mrs. Bert Jewett of Forestville and her parents visit Armstrong Woods, c. 1909. Photo courtest Sonoma County Library)
It was no surprise that there was a FOR SALE sign on the grove; after all, Col. Armstrong had tried to get the state to buy it for a park in 1891, and a couple of years later, LeBaron had purchased the largest section from another of Armstrong's heirs. What was different in 1908 was that the public suddenly cared about its future. Letters to the editor appeared, and at the Guerneville Fourth of July celebration that year, almost all speakers dropped the usual patrotic hooey and pleaded for the trees to be saved. The Press Democrat printed the entire flowery speech delivered by Santa Rosa attorney Joseph Berry ("...towering with all the majesty of an Olympian Jove are 400 acres of virgin redwood mostened with the dews of heaven and mantled with garlands of emerald blue...") which was notable only in its inclusion of a 227 word sentence (!) and that the speaker asked tourists in the audience to contact their legislators and lobby for it to become a state park.
In October came news that State Senator Walter Price (R - Santa Rosa) had promised to present a bill in the next session of the legislature to purchase the grove, conditional on LeBaron delaying logging. LeBaron had signaled months earlier that he would be willing to wait - at least for a while:
A Press Democrat representative talked with Mr. Le Baron on Thursday concerning his purchase. He was asked if the matter of the purchase of the famous grove could be arranged with the idea of its preservation [if] he could be induced to come to terms. He replied that not only would he be glad to do so, but would assist himself in the project. Otherwise he said it would be necessary to cut the trees up into lumber as the investment was to big to allow it to remain idle.
A later article will show this chapter of the Armstrong Woods saga came to an end in 1909, and without looking too far ahead in the story, LeBaron died about five years later, the grove still untouched and its future still unclear. Why didn't he follow through with his logging threat? Was it just a bluff to frighten conservationists into lobbying for park status?
Gaye LeBaron apparently covered this history only once, in a January 20, 2008 column - now unfortunately behind the Press Democrat's pay-per-view firewall - but she wrote with some authority; H. M. LeBaron was the grandfather of her husband. Her view is that ancestor LeBaron was "...the new champion for the colonel's dream...interested in seeing the Fife Creek forest become a nature preserve..." The 1908 and 1909 papers likewise praised his civic-minded protection of the trees ("Mr. LeBaron is a public spirited man, and he desires the progress of Sonoma county and its betterment far more than he does the accumulation of sordid dollars").
But it should also be weighed that Harrison LeBaron was an astute businessman, and there was little profit to be made in logging the grove at that time. The U.S. economy was still shaking from the bank panic of 1907, so money was tight and the construction industry was at a near standstill, further depressing the already-low price of lumber. And redwood was not considered a valuable wood - it sold for about the same price as Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine. One of the articles below revealed that the estimated worth of Armstrong Woods as timber was a measly $25,000, which may have been even below LeBaron's purchase price. As a long-term investment, however, it turned out well for his heirs; the land was finally sold to the county in 1917 for $80,000.
BONUS REDWOOD ITEM: Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley obviously loved it when readers brought natural oddities to his office, and column fillers described things like really big beets, albino trout, and potatoes shaped like ducks. In the midst of the hoopla about the sale of Armstrong Woods, a man brought in a sample of curly redwood, which the PD commented was "a handsome board and makes up into fine decorations." Some of the trim in Comstock House is curly redwood (photo here) and it is indeed pretty; fine examples can look like tiger-striped oak or have a wavy ripple pattern (the appearance is caused by the tree being under stress as it grows). As the PD item notes, however, it was usually thrown away by the mill, and still is today; it splinters easily, and is notoriously hard to plane into a smooth board.
FAMOUS GROVE HAS BEEN SOLD
Armstrong Grove Soon to be Made into Lumber
The famous Armstrong grove, about three miles from Guerneville, is soon to be but a matter of history. It has been sold by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Armstrong to H. M. LeBaron of Valley Ford and will be cut for timber.
The Armstrong grove as it is familiarly called, is said to be the finest tract of standing redwood of its size in existence today and there have been efforts made for several years to preserve the trees for a park, but the sale of the place to Mr. LeBaron means that as soon as the times become more normal, and building operations are resumed again, the timber will be cut up and placed on the market. It is to be regretted that the grove is to be thus destroyed but the timber is very valuable and the purchase of the property by Mr. LeBaron is one of the largest deals that has been consummated in this county for a long time.
At one time Col. Armstrong offered to deed the grove to the state, and at the Fourth of July celebration at Guerneville this year, the whole burden of the addresses delivered there was for the saving of the great grove. It is thought that efforts will yet be made to secure the forest for the benefit of the public and the place should be made into a great park.
- Santa Rosa Republican, July 30, 1908
H.M. LE BARON BUYS ARMSTRONG GROVE
Famous Redwood Trees in Danger Now of Invasion by the Woodsman's Axe--Immense Lot of Lumber
H. M. LeBaron, the Valley Ford banker on Thursday completed the purchase from Walter Armstrong of Sebastopol of the latter's 195 acres of the famous Armstrong Grove of gigantic redwoods near Guerneville. It is understood that Mr. Le Baron paid away up in the thousands for the splendid grove.
The property Mr. Le Baron has acquired contains some of the finest specimens of redwood in the State. It is his intention, when the building business resumes activity, to establish a sawmill in the grove and cut up the monarchs of the forest into lumber. He says that the property is to valuable to let the trees stand.
For years it has been the dream of those interested in the preservation of the redwoods, and particularly this famed beauty spot, that some day the State or possibly the national Government would acquire possession of the Armstrong Grove for the purpose of preserving the redwoods and making it a State or National park. The matter has never assumed definite shape.
A Press Democrat representative talked with Mr. Le Baron on Thursday concerning his purchase. He was asked if the matter of the purchase of the famous grove could be arranged with the idea of its preservation he could be induced to come to terms. He replied that not only would he be glad to do so, but would assist himself in the project. Otherwise he said it would be necessary to cut the trees up into lumber as the investment was to big to allow it to remain idle.
It is not even now too late to take some steps to preserve the redwoods, But time is fleeting, and if no more direct action is taken than that in the past which has largely resulted in oratory and suggestion, the woodsman's axe will invade the famous temple Nature herself fashioned near Guerneville.
- Press Democrat, July 31, 1908
ARMSTRONG'S WOODS CAN NOW BE PRESERVED
Senator Price Has Arranged So State Can Purchase Same
Senator Walter F. Price has secured an option on the Armstrong Woods, recently purchased by Hon. H. M. LeBaron, and will endeavor to have the state preserve the handsome woods for posterity. For many years past this matter has been discussed, and if the splendid trees are to be spared the woodman's axe it is necessary to act at once.
There are four hundred acres in the tract, and it contains the largest redwood trees in California. The timber has been cruised and it is estimated that there are 2,500,000 feet of lumber in the grove, which is worth wholesale commercially at least ten dollars per thousand feet clear of all expense. This tract is the largest and best grove of trees in the vicinity of San Francisco, and should be preserved for the future, that visitors may see what wonderful trees grew here in Imperial Sonoma.
Senator Price will introduce a bill in the coming session of the legislature for the purchase of these splendid trees, and convert Armstrong Woods into a state park. It is hoped that the people of the entire state will get behind the measure and see that their representatives are made acquainted with the matter and urged to vote for the passage of the bill. It will be necessary for concerted action, and there is no doubt that Sonoma county residents will lend every assistance in their power to the passage of the bill.
Mr. LeBaron has entered into an agreement with Senator Price on the matter, and will await the action of the legislature in the matter. He has already received an offer for the timer, which would net him more money than he asks for the grove if the state desires to purchase it, but his pride in Sonoma county is greater than his desire for money, and he yields to the wishes of the people if they want the woods preserved. Mr. LeBaron is a public spirited man, and he desires the progress of Sonoma county and its betterment far more than he does the accumulation of sordid dollars. The grove, if preserved, will be a monument to the memory of Colonel Armstrong, and a lasting reminder to the people of the generosity of Mr. LeBaron.
When the woods were purchased by Mr. LeBaron some time since Senator Price was absent from this county. He immediately wired Mr. LeBaron, asking him to hold the matter of a sale of the property in abeyance until such time as he could see him. Senator Price came home as soon as he could, and immediately opened negotiations with Mr. LeBaron for the purchase of the property by the state. Now Mr. LeBaron has consented to the same, and if the property is not purchased by the state, it will be cut up for commercial usages, and one of the handsomest places in Sonoma county will have passed away forever. The people cannot afford to let this property be destroyed and it is practically certain that it will be secured through the energetic action of the people of the state and preserved for posterity.
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 5, 1908
FAVOR THE PURCHASE OF THE ARMSTRONG WOODSEditor REPUBLICAN:
The Ladies' Improvement Club, in its action looking to the salvation of the Armstrong Woods, is deserving the moral and financial support of the county and state.
Senator Price's proposed legislative measure favoring the purchase of the grove by the state is the most credible thing to date in the Senator's political career. Mr. LeBaron's motive in having the state purchase and set it aside as a park, rather than cut into lumber, marks Mr. LeBaron as a public spirited gentleman.
The Armstrong Woods is the finest body of accessible redwood timber in the state. It is but a short distance from the populous and travel center of the coast.
Like the Yosemite and Big Basin, it should logically, justly, belong to the people, a heritage for all time to come.
Years ago when Colonel Armstrong was alive and well, a small party, myself among the number, made a little journey to these trees. The Colonel himself, together with one of his daughters, piloted us through the grove, calling our attention to the beauty of this tree, the size and symmetry of that, the peculiarity of another. He spoke freely and unreservedly regarding his plans, his desires, his hopes for the success of the scheme. There was to be a gateway of stone, a fit entrance to the grove, and a number of trees native to the state, but not growing in the tract, were to be planted in the scantier places.
He spoke of the fitness of the trustees appointed to help carry out his wishes, Luther Burbank and Robert Underwood Johnson of the Century Magazine.
Unfortunately I had not taken notes of his talk, which, if it could be reproduced now, would be to the good of the measure.
To those interested in the good cause I can reasonably guarantee the support of the most influential body of nature lovers on the Coast, the Sierra Club.
Thos. J. Pilkington
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 23, 1908
Curly Redwood SpecimenOne of the interesting sights in a visit to the large redwood lumber mills of Humboldt county is the curly and burl redwood, which not being suitable for lumber is thrown aside. A. R. Waters brought several pieces of the curly redwood home with him from the Minor Mill & Lumber Co. mills at Glenwood, of which his sister-in-law is half owner. One of the pieces may be seen at this office, where it is on exhibition for a few days. It is a handsome board and makes up into fine decorations.
- Press Democrat, July 21, 1908
Mattie and James Wyatt Oates surely expected the autumn of 1908 would be a season for farewells. The woman who was like a godchild to them, Anna May Bell, was to be married that October in Southern California, which would mean the end of her long summer visits with the Oates and the grand Santa Rosa parties always held in her honor. Before the wedding, however, the Oates were to have other visitors: former congressman and governor William C. Oates and family. The old general was now 72, unlikely to be able to make any future treks from Alabama to visit his baby brother Wyatt. And, in fact, he died exactly two years following his Santa Rosa trip.
Unlike the fuss over his 1905 visit, there was little mention this time of the family's presence in town. Apparently there were no parties for them, no newspaper interviews. They arrived quietly, stayed about two weeks, and left, with Mattie and Wyatt following them as far as San Francisco. Mattie's mother went along to their train departure, making her first visit to the city since the earthquake.
It might be worth noting that William's son, "Willie," arrived in Santa Rosa only a few days before his parents would leave, having spent most of his western vacation hunting in Colorado. In the original draft of his will, James Wyatt Oates left almost everything to his nephew; but three weeks before he died, he wrote a codicil that completely disinherited Willie, for reasons unknown. Perhaps if Willie had spent a little more face time with his notoriously mercurial uncle, Santa Rosa today would have an Oates House and not a Comstock House.
Former Governor and Mrs. W. C. Oates of Alabama, who are visiting at the James Wyatt Oates home on Mendocino avenue, are enjoying their stay in the City of Roses very much. A number of old friends have called to see them.- "Society Gossip", Press Democrat, September 6, 1908
William C. Oates, Jr., is expected here either tonight or tomorrow to join his parents, General and Mrs. William C. Oates, who are here for a visit with Colonel and Mrs. J. W. Oates. The young man has been enjoying a hunt in the mountains of Colorado.- "Society Gossip", Press Democrat, September 13, 1908
GENERAL OATES LEFT FOR EASTERN HOME
General and Mrs. Oates left here on Friday morning for the metropolis, and from there will start for their home in Montgomery Alabama. They expect to make several stops en route east, and will reach home about October 1. They were accompanied as far as the metropolis by Mr. and Mrs. James W. Oates and Mrs. Solomon. This is the first time Mrs. Solomon has been in San Francisco since the great fire. Many years of her life were spent there, and up to this time she has refused to go and see the ruins.- Santa Rosa Republican, September 18, 1908