In obituaries and family lore there are two stories about why the Comstocks came to California. Neither is truly right.

When matriarch Nellie Comstock died in 1940, the Press Democrat told readers the family moved here because of a "letter from Burbank, a warm personal friend of Mrs. Comstock's inducing her to come to Santa Rosa was received while the family was visiting in California. After a short stay in this city, Mrs. Comstock decided to move here." Her daughter-in-law, Helen Finley Comstock, said in an oral history that Nellie and her eldest son, John, came out to visit Burbank in 1907, then "they came out in 1908 for the summer...and they loved it so that they never went back." First, there was no known friendship or correspondence between Nellie and Luther (son John is another story, as we'll see), so odds of Burbank arm-twisting are thin. And they didn't make an impetuous decision after taking Santa Rosa for a summer test drive. It was quite clear that the Comstocks originally settled here with the deliberate goals of obtaining the best raw materials for their handicrafts - plus the chance to join some of the top artists in America in pioneering a bold new movement on the West Coast.

Between April and May, 1908, the Comstocks moved into their home on Hoen Avenue. This was Rural Route 5 at the time so there wasn't a street number, but we know it was adjacent to Matanzas Creek, somewhere around the Farmer's Lane intersection. Nellie was 51. Five of her seven children lived at the old farmhouse with her: Catherine (22) and Cornelia (20) along with teenagers Frank, Hilliard, and Hugh. Her son Hurd, who was starting his career in banking, remained behind in Illinois. Eldest son John (25) had a wife and a toddler with another child on the way, so they purchased a house at 965 Sonoma Avenue, on the corner of Brookwood Av. that's now the Santa Rosa police department. In a bit of believe-it-or-not coincidence, directly across the street was - and still is - one of the handful of homes in Santa Rosa designed by Brainerd Jones, the architect of (what would become known as) Comstock House.

Nellie had homeschooled all of her children, hiring additional tutors as needed. They all possessed remarkable minds, but the blazing star was John Adams Comstock Jr. He was already recognized as an important biologist in the study of butterflies, and the recorder (the position directly below chairman) of the entomological section for the prestigious Chicago Academy of Sciences. It was John who spent eleven days with Burbank the year before - no mention of Nellie, although she often took trips with her other children - where the two self-taught scientists compared notes. The perpetually disorganized Burbank was particularly curious to learn more about Comstock's system for cataloging a large collection (more on this topic will be discussed in a later item).

But John was far more than a bug-collecting nerd. He was also an accomplished artist, as were his sisters Catherine and Cornelia. Together, the three young people spent some time at the Roycroft Colony founded by Elbert Hubbard. And they were young indeed - all their names appeared on the 1903 Roycroft payroll records, when Cornelia was only fifteen.


For an introduction to Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft community, watch the 2009 PBS documentary "Elbert Hubbard: An American Original," which can be viewed free. The "Early Artisans" section of that web page also provides a very good overview of the Arts & Crafts movement. But what you won't learn there is a definition of the Arts & Crafts style.

Even though a century has passed since its peak, work produced by the Arts & Crafts movement can still be tricky to identify, which is all the more remarkable because that same period saw the rise of styles that were easy to recognize - think how easy it is to spot almost anything Art Nouveau or Art Deco. But something that came out of an Arts & Crafts workshop might look as if it were made a hundred, even four hundred years earlier, or it might be something that looks modernistic even today. No visual arts movement had ever peered so deeply into past and future simultaneously.

The artists who created these works were likewise impossible to pigeonhole. Much of it came out of small architectural offices and artisan workshops. To promote and sell their work, those who created handcrafts joined a local Arts & Crafts guild/society, which sponsored annual exhibitions (professionals who sold crafts nationwide, such as the Companeros, also belonged to guilds in other cities). There were a handful of Arts & Crafts utopian colonies that made things while hewing close to the handmade-only ideology of Ruskin and Morris, and on the other end of the scale were companies turning out products in a factory setting, such as United Crafts, owned by Gustav Stickley and which built furniture in his new "mission style." The popularity of Arts & Crafts-type goods also attracted knockoff artists; one such outfit was the "United Crafts and Arts of California," which cleverly sounded like a statewide guild merged with Stickley's respected brand name.

Unique in the Arts & Crafts world was Hubbard's Roycroft community. No other group approached it in size; thousands worked there over the years (a 1909 magazine article stated over 500 were currently there) although most were paid next to nothing, a frequent point of criticism of the operation. A great variety of objects were created, but no designs compared to Stickley's mission furniture in artistic importance. Yet the Roycroft Shops made the greatest overall impact on the Arts & Crafts movement by virtue of the army of people who worked there and learned some skills, became imbued with Hubbard's revolutionary ideals, and then returned to their hometowns as evangelists for the Roycroft creed. The colony survived Hubbard's death in 1915 and finally closed its doors in 1938, over twenty years after obituaries were written for the rest of the Arts & Crafts movement.
They worked in the the Leather Shop, Catherine and Cornelia as modelers (a description of this kind of work can be found here) and John as a designer. Today, leatherwork might seem an otiose skill, but at the turn of the century leather products were part of everyday life; the Roycrofters had an entire catalog of leather goods. You could even say that leather was in the Comstock blood; when the three were very young, their father was president of the Western Leather Manufacturing Company in Chicago, which made high-quality medical bags for physicians and veterinarians (these antique cases are still available on eBay and elsewhere under the trade name "Welemaco").

The Roycroft community was something of a finishing school for the Comstocks. Besides the life-changing experience of suddenly living with hundreds of people close to their own age, available to them were top artisans in every field. Roycrofters were encouraged to dabble with new skills in the various shops; mention of John Comstock's Roycroft experiences that appeared in later academic profiles note that he tried his hand in "furniture design, bookbinding and illustrations, metal work, and jewelry design" (curiously, his years in leather crafting were never mentioned in these thumbnail biographies).

John and Catherine Comstock continued leatherworking after leaving the Roycroft shops, forming a company they named "The Companeros" (always without the tilde ñ), and being closer to their favorite tannery was said to be the main reason they came to Santa Rosa in April 1908. The Republican newspaper reported, "For some time past these talented young people have been using Santa Rosa leather, securing the same through Chicago. It occurred to them that there would be many advantages in residing here...They make this leather into a large variety of useful articles, including ladies' purses, book bindings of novel effects, and card cases. The process of waterproofing and staining the leather is of their own creation and they are the only persons making this class of goods so far as known at the present time."

The Companeros wasted no time in establishing a presence on the West Coast, where the Arts & Crafts movement was rapidly gaining belated attention.* The Arts & Crafts show in Oakland that autumn was the first big exhibition west of Chicago, and the Companeros were there with a private booth. In 1909 their leatherwork won a gold medal at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (AYPE) in Seattle, and first prize at the California State Fair. Reference can be found that their leather was sold at the Shop of Fine Arts and Industries in Portland, and probably most other stores nationwide that specialized in professional Arts & Crafts goods. A few years later, Companeros products could be found for sale in over fifty cities.

The Companeros also introduced themselves to Santa Rosa by opening an art store in the Masonic Building at the corner of Fourth and D (today that building footprint is FedEx/Peet's Coffee plus Stanroy's). This may have been thought a bit odd at first, as there already were two art stores on Fourth St. But Bruener's mainly offered utilitarian things for sale such as wallpaper and paint, while Hall's art store was where you found cheap art and gee gaws, like a framed lithograph to hang over a hole in your wall or a miniature plaster Venus de Milo. What the Comstocks offered was in a different orbit entirely: California landscape paintings by John Gamble and Kate Newhall, copper work from the studio of Dirk van Erp, pottery from the shops of Artus Van Briggle and William Grueby. This was some of the best fine art being produced at the time anywhere, and was already being collected by museums in America and abroad. "Truly, this is a bit of Boston come to town," gushed the Santa Rosa Republican.

"The Gift Shop" remained in business at least four years, the last and best description of the store appearing in a 1912 promotional insert from the Republican newspaper. John left the company in late 1910 or early 1911 to study medicine in Los Angeles. Around that same time the shop moved to 626 Fourth street (which is currently a gift shop, appropriately enough). Catherine Comstock took over John's role as as manager and designer of The Companeros, with sister Cornelia as artist.

None of The Companeros' leather work is known to survive (which isn't surprising, given that these were objects intended to be used often and not placed on display). All that remains is a small ten page pamphlet printed by them in Santa Rosa, date unknown. The title was "The Soul of the Nation," and the author was their mother, Nellie Comstock. A PDF copy of the essay is available in the Comstock House digital library, courtesy the Comstock family.

* So great was public interest that the Press Democrat began running Elbert Hubbard's syndicated column, "Roycroft Philosophy by Fra Elbertus" in August of 1908. Here were Hubbard's popular and quotable zingers ("do not take life too seriously -- you will never get out of it alive anyway") and tips for the clueless on how to act civilized ("the chewing of gum, tobacco or paper as a jaw-exerciser should be eliminated. The world is pronouncing them vulgar, unbusinesslike and dangerous. Keep ahead of your foreman and the Board of Health in this thing"). Never mentioned in these columns were his earlier and more provocative views, such as proclaiming he was simultaneously a socialist and an anarchist, just like Jesus.

The Companeros Will Establish Studio Here

The fame of Luther Burbank and the leather made in Santa Rosa is responsible for the coming to this city of some talented young people of artistic tastes, who will make their permanent home and establish a studio here.

Miss Catherine Comstock and her brother, John Comstock, have been engaged in business in Evanston, Illinois, for some time past, as "The Companeros," a Spanish word, "companions." They have processes of modeling leather and staining the same, the modeling and color effects making something decidedly attractive and fine. In this city they will establish a studio, make up the goods, and give employment to young ladies of Santa Rosa who have artistic tastes. With these young people is their brother, Frank Comstock, and in a month the remainder of the family will be here.

As to the permanence of their home here John Comstock has already purchased a ranch out on Hoen avenue, where he has ten acres set out in fruit and where he and the family will make their home and indulge in rural tastes.

For some time past these talented young people have been using Santa Rosa leather, securing the same through Chicago. It occurred to them that there would be many advantages in residing here, chiefly among them being climactic influences, the fact that they would save money in the freight on leather used, and the cost of living being less here than in their Evanston home. John Comstock has for many years been in touch with Luther Burbank's work and at one time spent eleven days with Mr. Burbank in this city. He was recorder of the entomological section of the Academy of Sciences in Chicago for some time and has the largest collection of bugs outside of Chicago.

The new comers to Santa Rosa have revived the work of remodeling leather, which is a thousand years old, and was found on the saddles of the Assyrians. They make this leather into a large variety of useful articles, including ladies' purses, book bindings of novel effects, and card cases. The process of waterproofing and staining the leather is of their own creation and they are the only persons making this class of goods so far as known at the present time.

Two trained workers in the business of the Companeros, young ladies, are en route from the east to this city, to take up the work. The new comers have contracts from eastern houses sufficient to make their venture here an unqualified success.

- Santa Rosa Republican, April 2, 1908

Articles Shown at Idora Park Attract Attention

At the Arts and Crafts exhibition at Idora Park, in Oakland, last week, a number of Santa Rosans were among the exhibitors...

...The Companeros have a separate booth for the display of their handwrought leather work, which has been adjudged by many of the artists to be the finest, or one of the finest, in the exhibition. It is tastefully decorated in green and their attractive leather shows to good advantage. The work which these young people are doing has already attained a reputation in Boston and the far east as the standard of perfection in leather modeling. Santa Rosans do not realize what is being done in their midst in this line, but the larger cities of the union are in touch with the art.


- Santa Rosa Republican, October 28, 1908

Art Novelties Being Made in Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa is to have an innovation. A real arts and crafts shop is among us. A cozy decorative nook has been erected in the Masonic Temple, rooms 23 and 24, which will be a delight to the lovers of the Rose City; such an out-of-the-way corner as one might except [sic] to run across in the by-ways of London or Berlin.

Here on display one may see quaint bits of metal work, fashioned by hand, beautiful prints, in limited editions, decorated leather such as the Germans delight in, choice exclusive samples of pottery, handcraft jewelry, Christmas cards, colored mottos--the work of skilled and nimble fingers, and a host of clever things that will be found nowhere else. Truly, this is a bit of Boston come to town.

This establishment calls itself the Gift Shop, and is the creation of the Companeros, workers in leather. These young artists have been located for some time in the Masonic Temple. Their work in leather has won for them recognition from the art critics of the country. Wherever one finds a shop where things unique are on display, where the art lovers delight to linger, there one is pretty sure to find their work.

Mr. John Comstock and Miss Catherine Comstock are the designers for the company. The former is a member of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, the National Society of Craftsmen, the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society and other art organizations.

Outside of the bay cities Santa Barbara and Sacramento, Santa Rosa will have the only arts and crafts shop in the State.

Massachusetts is the real home of American arts and crafts, and these quaint and unique shops are the main feature of this center of culture for those who love the beautiful.

John Ruskin and William Morris may be said to be the fathers of this movement, which has grown to international importance. The world owes Morris a debt of gratitude which it is only now beginning to realize. His influence is felt in every truly artistic home in England and America, alike in the scheme of decoration and in the furnishings. The gift shop is worthy of mention in this last respect. In the plan of decoration a rich yellow tint has been used in the ceiling, to give the necessary light to the predominating soft green of the side walls, and antique brown of the woodwork. All the furnishings were made or selected to carry with this color scheme. Around the room runs a bracketed plate shelf, and pendant from this on each side of the doors leaded art glass lamps are hung. Above the plate shelf are a series of colored prints by Jules Guerin, foremost of American colorists, for conventional decorative effect.

Many people have asked the meaning of the word "Companeros." This is the Spanish word for comrades, and was chosen by Mr. Comstock as a suggestion of the organization, which is conducted for the interests of all the workers.

The gift shop is to have its official opening Wednesday next and an invitation is extended to all to visit the studio and workroom.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 14, 1908


Several months ago there was established in Santa Rosa a company of craftsmen, calling themselves The Companeros, whose endeavor was to produce work in hand-wrought leather that would meet the approval of the world's best critics. Beginning with no visible market, this work has now become known in al parts of the United States and is on sale in over fifty citiies including New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Finding there was a demand in Santa Rosa for fine art productions, the Companeros established the Gift Shop for the sale and exhibition of work in various lines that conform to a high conception of the word art. The Gift Shop, over which Miss Catherine Comstock has charge, is on Fourth street and is one of the most attractive and artistically arranged and furnished places in Santa Rosa. Here is displayed productions of America's foremost artists and craftsmen--work that is usually to be seen only in large Eastern cities. The exclusive agency is secured on all lines which are carried, and the fact that the Companeros are large producers makes it possible to offer better value on this kind of work than can be found elsewhere. The following are a few things to be seen at the Gift Shop: hand beaten copper by Dirk van Erp, The Handcraft Guild, The Little Craft Shop, The Companeros, and others; pottery, Van Briggle, Grueby, Newcomb and others; hand decorated post cards and booklets; hand wrought leather work by the Companeros; Suede leather work; choice fabrics, including the Companeros' stencils on hand woven Russian linen crash; Christmas motto and post cards in large variety; art studies in photography; oil paintings by John Gamble, Kate Newhall and others; choice pastels, prints and water colors and a great variety of exclusive novelties. In addition to having charge of the Gift Shop, Miss Comstock takes classes in Santa Rosa and Berkeley. She is an accomplished artist, whose rare ability has won her high criticism from the most noted critics of the country.

- "Sonoma County Development Number of the Santa Rosa Republican," c. 1912

How did I miss that? Here are followups to earlier posts with new details found in 1908 Santa Rosa newspapers:

* TERRORISM ON MARK WEST CREEK When a couple of barns caught fire in the summer of 1908, arson was widely suspected; Helen Finley Comstock, whose grandfather's barn was lost, said her family believed it was the work of the IWW (also known as the "Wobblies"). But my analysis showed that they were the least likely suspects. Odds were higher that the fires were lit by disturbed boys who had escaped from nearby work camps, or disgruntled hop pickers who were chased out of the Ukiah Valley after they tried to organize a strike for better wages. An overlooked item in the Press Democrat showed that authorities were specifically worried about the strikers destroying property: "The pickers are in an ugly mood and are presenting their claims for increased wages with a defiance that has caused the local authorities to prepare for an outbreak. Damage to property is feared."

* PAINTERS OF SUNSHINE AND PATHOS What was displayed in the window of Bruner's art store in 1908? An item in the Santa Rosa Republican stated they were oil and watercolor still life paintings from the upcoming encyclopedia of Luther Burbank's work, along with copies of the books. Only one problem: There weren't any books, as that series was never produced. Another item reveals that the display traveled to San Francisco a few weeks later, and provides the additional details that these were mockups of book covers being shown with a wide price range of bindings, from cheap and plain to very, very luxe.

* IN LOVE WITH DOROTHY ANNE Earlier I confessed that reading the gossip columns by "Dorothy Anne" were my guilty pleasures. While her comments on the society scene in post-earthquake Santa Rosa were sometimes cruel and snooty, she offered unique views of what it was like to live during those years (not to mention that some of her remarks were downright funny, intentionally or no). Of particular historic interest was her description of Luther Burbank's garden and her detailed tour of Burbank's now-demolished home. But who was she? Her identity was always kept secret. Thanks to a passing mention in a "Society Gossip" column after her byline had disappeared, we now know that she was Mary M. McConnell, and would have been 33-35 years old when writing for the Press Democrat. She dropped the column around the time of her engagement to Orrin Houts, whom she married in 1908; as Mrs. O. L. Houts, she drove an automobile in the Rose Carnival that year, taking first prize in the "Natural Flowers" category. (The Houts Auto Company soon became the town's first major auto dealership.) I'm crossing my fingers that a diary kept by Mary McConnell Houts turns up someday; it should be a rollicking good read.

* HATE CRIME NOT SO FUNNY THE 2ND TIME Tom Mason, who smashed a Chinese man in the head with a brick, was sentenced to just three months in county jail. Mason's half-brother, who also had a role in the attack, apparently was not charged, but the judge suspected he lied under oath and reprimanded him. We also learn that the victim suffered a broken jaw.

* SALOON TOWN A 1907 ordinance prevented restaurants from selling alcohol without an accompanying meal, and the next year Luigi Franchetti was arrested for breaking the law, witnessed by no fewer than three police officers - can you say, "entrapment?" Like an earlier incident where a lower Fourth street place was closed for offering a few crackers as a "meal," the law seems to have been unequally applied and targeted Italian-run eateries.

* "THE STING" ACTUALLY HAPPENED HERE Although Santa Rosa had long profited from an underground economy of prostitution and gambling, it was decided in 1908 that the city drew the line at "pool rooms." These operations were off-track betting halls that mainly took bets on horse races, as gamblers listened to results being read by a telegraph operator with a direct line to the track. But sometimes con men intercepted the transmission and retransmitted it after the race was finished, allowing them to bet on a sure thing - this was the plot of Robert Redford's great movie, "The Sting." A simple version of that scam was tried here, but the criminal was quickly caught. That attempted swindle - combined with the newly-elected City Council's desire to show they were tough on crime - led Santa Rosa to write an ordinance forbidding this type of betting. It remained legal in many other parts of the state; on the same day that Santa Rosa outlawed them, a man in Redwood City was convicted of tapping the telegraph wires used by all San Francisco pool rooms.

Trouble is Feared and Ringleaders Who Try to Incite General Walkout Are Placed Under Arrest for Fear of an Outbreak

A general strike of hop pickers now threatens to complete the series of ill-fortunes that have beset the hop growers of the Ukiah valley this season. Today six ring leaders who tried to incite the pickers to a general walk-out are under arrest and unless the situation changes within the next 24 hours it is likely that more arrests will be made and the entire force of workers will leave the fields.

Three hundred pickers employed by Horst Bros. have already refused to work unless they are paid a dollar per hundred pounds, which means an increase of 20 cents over the present scale. The pickers are in an ugly mood and are presenting their claims for increased wages with a defiance that has caused the local authorities to prepare for an outbreak. Damage to property is feared.

The crop is only one-third harvested and in case a strike is declared will be almost a total lost. Many growers are already harvesting under a great loss this season on account of the low price hops are bringing in the market. They also have suffered from a scarcity of labor and for this season are at the mercy of the pickers.

Hopland, Sept. 4.-- The hop drying kiln of the American Hop and Barley Company here today is a total loss as the result of a fire discovered in the furnace room late yesterday. The damage has not been ascertained, but it is known to be extensive, as this firm has the largest plant in the state. The fire is thought to have started from a defective flue, although it is not considered improbable that the disaffected hop pickers who are on strike for higher wages may have been responsible.

- Press Democrat, September 5, 1908


The people of San Francisco are to be given an opportunity of viewing the splendid work being done by the Cree-Binner Company, in their edition of Luther Burbank's "New Creations." President E. Binner, of the company named, has gone to San Francisco and will there arrange for an exhibition of the drawings, paintings, plates and engravings which are being used in the publication. Samples of the work on the book and of the splendid covers will also be shown the people of the metropolis. The residents of San Francisco have requested that an opportunity be given them to see something of this work. A number of different prices of binding have been arranged for the work, ranging from $39.50 to $2000 for the set of works, which will be very elaborate.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 4, 1908

...Mrs. O. L. Houts, one of the welcome guests present, was called upon as "Dorothy Anne" for a toast, and her response was most appropriate. Mrs. Houts very happily alluded to the pleasure of the afternoon and to the reasons why she had relinquished her nom de plume "Dorothy Anne" (having herself become a bride a short time ago). While reviewing the many pleasantries of the afternoon, Mrs. Houts said she could not help realizing the possibilities presented for a good "story"...

- "Society Gossip," Press Democrat, September 6, 1908

Gets Three Months Sentence to County Jail

Tom Mason was convicted by the jury in Judge Emmet Seawell's court this afternoon on the charge of assault in striking a Sebastopol Chinese on the head with a brick and breaking his jaw.

Mason was sentenced to serve three months in the county jail by Judge Seawell. The court also took occasion to reprimand John Poggie, a half brother of the defendant. He warned that individual to be careful in future of statements he made on the witness stand and declared he had not believed Poggie, and he felt sure the jury had also disbelieved his story.

Poggie was badly crestfallen by the lecture given him by the court.

- Santa Rosa Republican, April 3, 1908


Luigi Franchetti, who is charged with serving liquor without a meal at his restaurant at Wilson and Seventh street, was tried before City Recorder Bagley Thursday afternoon. The case attracted a large number of Italians to the court room. The defendant was not represented by an attorney. Attorney A. M. Johnson appeared for City Attorney A. B. Ware.

Police Officers Ramsey, Yeager and Lindley, who witnessed the sale of liquor, testified to the facts and the arrest which followed immediately afterwards. Several witnesses were called on behalf of the defendant and questioned by Attorney Johnson. The only one who knew anything about the case testified to having been served beer in the place, but claimed to have had something to eat with it. He was uncertain in his answers and showed considerable doubt as to how he should answer some of the direct questions put to him by the Court.

- Press Democrat, October 2, 1908

Stringent Ordinance Passed By the City Council at its Meeting Last Night

Pool rooms and pool selling on races or any contest in Santa Rosa were wiped out by the City Council at its meeting last night by the passage of a stringent ordinance. The ordinance is in effect today and persons violating it is guilty of a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine not to exceed $300, or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed 150 days, or by both fine and imprisonment.

The ordinance not only makes it a misdemeanor for any person to conduct a pool room or sell poll tickets in Santa Rosa, but a person, his agent, or representative may not lease a room for the purpose of a pool room, neither can a telegraph or telephone company handle messages dealing with races or contest knowing that they are for use in a poolroom, etc.


- Press Democrat, December 16, 1908

What a different world it was in 1908; when word spread that a homeless family was living in a tent by the creek, Santa Rosans were tripping over each other trying to be the first to offer them help. Ignore the cynics who note that the outpouring of concern and generosity didn't start until a few days before Thanksgiving, although this family apparently had been homeless for some time.

A newspaper mention of the Dougherty family's plight caused the mobilization of "near to a dozen relief expeditions," according to the Press Democrat, that went in search of the 11-member family living near the E street bridge. Carrying "baskets and bundles of provender," the rescuers turned up nought. The PD reported, "Far into the night the good Smaritans [sic] tramped the streets, ringing doorbells and looking for tents full of hungry children, but none was found. Some of the earnest workers were making calls nearly a mile away from either E street bridge, and said they had covered all the territory between"

The destitute Doughertys turned up in the following days and were moved into a vacant home, as was another homeless family of eleven that had been camped south of town.


The published report that a destitute family of eleven persons was living in a tent near the E street bridge caused the formation of near to a dozen relief expeditions Tuesday evening, each expedition bearing baskets and bundles of provender to the supposed scene of the suffering. But no destitute family was found, and the relief expeditions resolved themselves into peripatetic indignation meetings. There are two E street bridges and every house near either of them was made the subject of inquiry. Far into the night the good Smaritans tramped the streets, ringing doorbells and looking for tents full of hungry children, but none was found. Some of the earnest workers were making calls nearly a mile away from either E street bridge, and said they had covered all the territory between. But they all carried their bundles back home again, unless they are hunting yet.

Tom Butts went home at 9 o'clock. He was serving on one of the impromptu charitable committees having been impressed.

It was learned Wednesday that a family who had been residing on the Cotati road two miles south of town, with nine children, the youngest 8 months old, with father and mother both sick, had been taken to the Sampson Wright farm Monday where they are being cared for.

- Press Democrat, November 26, 1908


The Dougherty family, which was located on the creek bank here some time since, and whose needs were published in this paper, are still in distress. The family has been moved out into a little house just opposite Willow Grove station, on the electric railroad, and have insufficient clothing and bedding to keep them comfortable. They also need provisions and fuel. Any one having clothing, particularly for children, and some bedding which they can spare, will do a great kindness by sending it to the family. Any parcels left at the Peniel Mission, at Fifth and A streets, will be taken to the family at once. The mission will be kept open all day Saturday to receive articles from the people.

- Santa Rosa Republican, December 4, 1908

If you polled average Americans on what they knew about Santa Rosa a century ago, some might mention Luther Burbank or recall this as the other place hit hard by the big earthquake. But it's a safe bet that far more knew about the "hoodoo" car.

Jake Luppold, a gregarious saloon owner who dubbed himself the "mayor of Main street," loved elections and particularly election nights, when his joint was always packed with with political die-hards, celebrating victories or drowning the sorrows of defeat. "The Senate," at the corner of 2nd and Main streets (currently the south end of the Bank of America building), had a reputation as being the political bar in town, as well as offering the best free lunch to down with your nickel beer.

In 1908 California only men could drink in a saloon, and likewise voting was only a man's prerogative, so local political events dripped with testosterone. Before any sort of vote, there were downtown street rallies marked by noise-making and fire-burning. The noise came from brass bands, shooting guns into the air, or a phalanx of manly men pounding anvils. (The anvil chorus was a more civilized alternative to the dangerous 19th century practice of "firing the anvils," which involved packing the cup-like indentation on the anvil surface with gunpowder and placing another anvil upside down on top. When the gunpowder was ignited, the top anvil was flew into the air - hopefully straight up, and not angled into the crowd - making a loud boom remarkably similar to a cannon's roar.) The fiery activities included torchlight marches to party headquarters or the home of a victor, plus a bonfire or two in the middle of a street.

As much as The Senate saloon was the boozy center of Santa Rosa's political world, chatter in any bar anywhere easily turns to gossip, and a perennial favorite subject was the mystery of Lute Veirs.

L. L. Veirs had a Third street butcher shop and was a city councilman as well as acting mayor when he mysteriously disappeared on November 13, 1903, abandoning his wife Annie. It turned out that Veirs (not "Viers," as misspelled in some histories) had embezzled money from the town and forged the signatures of relatives as co-signers on loans from Exchange Bank. He had also borrowed money from individuals around town, again forging signatures on promissory notes. When he vanished, one of the people left holding Lute's worthless paper was Jake Luppold. It must have rankled deeply; behind the bar he kept a photo of Veirs along with one of the notes, which undoubtedly served to spark more gossipy speculation about where he might be hiding. The case rattled through the courts until 1907, and for compensation Luppold settled on ownership of an automobile.

The car wasn't worth as much as the loan, but its age and make were never mentioned in the papers. Some modern sources say it was a red Dodge touring car, but the first Dodge wasn't made until 1914. There were likely only a handful of (expensive!) autos in Santa Rosa when Veirs vanished in 1903, so it probably wasn't a rusty bag o' bolts that he personally owned. Whatever its provenance, all that's really important to our story is that Luppold now had the thing, and it was a bitter reminder how he had been screwed over by someone he trusted.

Sometime in mid-October, 1908, about two weeks before the Taft vs. Bryan presidential election, Jake or one of his barflies thought of an inspired mash-up: They could have their election night fun and get rid of the damn car at the same time if they burned it in a street bonfire. Luppold received permission from the City Council and the Press Democrat wrote an article that was picked up by the Associated Press. No one could have predicted what followed.

In the next few days, scores of letters poured in; the wire service story had been reprinted nearly everywhere. Because the very idea of owning an automobile was still novel and its cost expensive, people couldn't grasp the idea that someone would willing destroy such a valuable and useful vehicle. Common themes that ran through the letters were that Luppold had to be ignorant of the car's value, a wealthy fool, or a superstitious idiot. Some begged Luppold to give it to them or donate it to a good cause; some offered to trade him for a buggy or less valuable car; some offered to buy it on the cheap. Jake's friend Wallace Ware later wrote that Luppold also received letters from widows, "who were primarily pitching for Luppold's heart and hand." Even local attorney Rollo Leppo, who had nothing at all to do with the deal except having a last name that might sound similar if it were slurred by someone very drunk, received letters asking him to spare the car.

Key to the appeal of the story was Luppold's insistence that this car had a "hoodoo," meaning that it brought bad luck (one letter writer suggested that Luppold was actually the victim of a curse, which Gentle Correspondent could remove for a fee). A hops broker joined the act, noting that prices for this important local crop had been depressed for a couple of years. Thus it was decided that a bale of "hoodoo" hops would burn inside the "hoodoo" car to make everything right.

As hoodoo hysteria swept the nation, Santa Rosans were tickled to read there was a little auto fire at Bacon's Garage, not far from Luppold's bar on Main street. The blaze was quickly extinguished with bottles of seltzer water, but Jake used it as an excuse to humorously charge it was an attempt by Bacon's " get ahead of him in this line of entertainment and burn their automobile first." Bacon's Garage, BTW, was where Santa Rosa's Squeedunks had organized their Fourth of July parade of mockery earlier that year.

Come election night, Santa Rosa was ready for some fun. The PD reported that Main street was jammed with people for two blocks on either side of The Senate saloon, which itself was packed. "Standing room in The Senate was at a premium," Wallace Ware recalled in his memoir, The Unforgettables, and "a drink procured became a prized possession."

The hoodoo car had been hoisted to the top of an immense pyre directly in front of The Senate, and the headlights of the auto glowed defiantly. Ware described what happened next:

Jake was, or course, the star of the the peak of all this excitement a shrill voice screamed through a megaphone, four feet long, "Taft's victory has been conceded!" This was the climax. Jake was awaiting, for he instantly shouted the command, "Let her burn!"

The Press Democrat finished the story: "The crowds cheered themselves hoarse as the flames danced here and there amid the wood which had been saturated with oil to ensure its burning good." (Hopefully that bale of hops helped cut the acrid stink of the enormous kerosene-fueled fire.)

After the ashes cooled the next day, the blackened and twisted metal remains of the auto were removed from Main street and carried inside the saloon, and there hung from the ceiling. Jake Luppold could glance towards the back of his place and recall with satisfaction the night he settled his score with Lute Veirs while selling a record-setting quantity of booze. And until the day he died in 1922, he could show newcomers the hoodoo car, sell them a drink, and tell them all about how he became the most famous man in America for a time (UPDATE HERE).

Jake Luppold outside The Senate, c. 1918. L to R: Henry Carlton, Mr. Harris, Jake Luppold, unknown, and Tom Campion. In 1908, Luppold drew national attention when he had a "hoodoo" automobile burned in front of his saloon. This photo was also taken about the time that Luppold entered Comstock family lore when he told Helen Finley's father that her marriage to Hilliard wouldn't work out because "his family's too damn aristocratic." (Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)


J. J. Luppold, the well-known "mayor of Main street," came into possession of an automobile some months ago. He had to take it to get some payment of a promissory note. He says the auto is a "hoodoo," and he has determined to consign it to the flames. He will not sell it to anyone and on election night, in front of the "Senate" on Main street, the torch will be applied and the machine will go up in smoke and flame. He invites all his friends to come and witness the blaze, and says it "will come off, sure." The "mayor" always sticks to his word and so a fire it will be.

- Press Democrat, October 18, 1908


The City Council last night granted J. J. Luppold permission to build a bonfire on Main street on election night for the purpose of burning his "hoodoo" automobile. Mention of Mr. Luppold's intention was made in the Press Democrat a few days ago.

- Press Democrat, October 21, 1908

Put Out by Siphons of Seltzer Water

There was an exciting time at the Sonoma garage of Bacon Brothers On Main street Friday afternoon, when in auto belonging to the garage caught fire. A spark caught some surplus oil in the machinery on fire, and the blaze leaped high in the air. Those near the horseless vehicle were fearful lest the machine should blow up and they hurried hurriedly wheeled the vehicle into the street.

While the fire department was responding to a still alarm, Jack Roberts took a couple of siphons of seltzer water from his establishment and distinguished the blades. The department was not required after Roberts got into action. The damage the auto was nominal, only the varnish on the front seat of the vehicle and some of the leather upholstering being burned.

Jay Luppold, the mayor of Main street, is just a little perturbed over the incident. He has automobiles to burn, and believed he was the only individual with such inclinations until the fire of Friday afternoon. Luppold announced the public cremation of his benzine cart to celebrate Taft's election and to remove a hoodoo which has been pursuing him, and he professes to believe that the Bacon's desire to get ahead of him in this line of entertainment and burn their automobile first, The Bacons deny this imputation.

- Santa Rosa Republican, October 24, 1908

Luppold Gets Letters Galore Wanting Machine as Gift or Would Pay Coin for it

The publicity given the fact that J. J. Luppold, "the mayor of Main street," is to burn his "hoodoo" automobile on election night, has resulted in his receiving a batch of letters from all over the state from persons, some remonstrating with him for his wastefulness in burning the machine, and others offering to purchase the machine, "hoodoo" and all. "Jake" says others offering to purchase the machine as he has taken a solemn oath that it must perish in the flames.

The Rev. G. R. Bryant, pastor of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, a colored brother, asks Luppold to give him the machine to enable him to "further the Lord's work." Bryant is also president of the colored Y. M. C. A. of Los Angeles. "Don't destroy the auto," writes the pastor. "It is just what I want to use in visiting the five hundred members of my flock. Mr. Luppold, the very machine you would destroy is just the thing we for our automobile class demonstrations. Now, Mr. Luppold, remember, I do not ask for the automobile for sporting purposes, but because I thing that you will be glad to know in after years that you have helped your fellow man. Amen."

Harvey S. Harriman, of Los Angeles, sends a long epistle remonstrating against the burning of the "hoodoo" automobile. He wants the automobile, and "hoodoo" thrown in." He is a cripple and has to ride in a wheel chair, but he believes that he "can coax the auto into being good for him."

"Jim the Penman" write Luppold from Los Angeles (his penmanship belies his title to being a good penman). He states his willingness to give advice on the assurance that it is kept "secret," as to the best way to remove the "hoodoo" from the machine, and suggests by way of introduction that a curse may have been put on the "mayor of Main street" which can be removed with little expense.

C. Parker of Oakland writes that he is willing to pay $200 for the auto, if it is a standard make, and closes his bid by saying that the coin is better than "a total loss by fire."

H. Bryant of Berkeley writes: "Dear Mr. Luppold--Isn't it a shame to burn up an auto when there are plenty of poor men who would be willing to trade a cord of wood for your bonfire and save the machine."

And there are others, demonstrating again that it pays to advertise.

- Press Democrat, October 25, 1908


The story concerning J. Luppold's burning of his "hoodoo" auto on election night has gone far and wide. But imagine Rollo Leppo's surprise when he received letters on Monday evening remonstrating with him for his determination to burn his fine touring car. At long distance friends had evidently mistaken the name. There's "nothing doing" when it comes to burning the popular lawyer's auto.

- Press Democrat, October 27, 1908


Jake Luppold has been receiving some more letters from the four quarters of the globe regarding his hoodoo auto, which it is proposed to burn on election night in this city. Some of the letters have been the source of much amusement. For instance, on Thursday Luppold received a letter from a woman in San Francisco in which she says: "My advice to you is to go and have your head examined, as I think there is something the matter with it."

One San Francisco woman says, "To show you I am a good fellow, I would pay the freight on the machine to San Francisco, or else trade you a nice horse and buggy which has no hoodoo. Is it a trade?"

Teddy Lohse, who used to be here before the earthquake, and is well known by many, sends a post card which says, "Send me the auto, for I've been hoodooed since the fire. Someone told me you were dead."

One young man in Portland urges Luppold to let him sell the machine for a fancy sum and invest the money in some enterprise in the northern city, agreeing to give Luppold half the stock in the company."

A man named L. V. Walters of San Francisco writes, "If you are determined to burn your auto, why not first make a trade with me. I have an old Pope-Toledo which will run just about as far as from your place of business to the bonfire you contemplate. Put enough gasoline in it and it will make as large a fire as your car, and if it starts to burn quick enough--and I think that could be arranged--then very few people would be able to tell whether it was your car or someone elses. He is a good fellow and let's swap."

- Santa Rosa Republican, October 30, 1908

"Hoodoo" to Be Driven From Hope--Mr. Luppold Invites Hop Growers to Attend the Cremation

With Jake Luppold's "hoodoo" automobile on election night will be destroyed another "hoodoo," at least it is hoped so. Milton Wasserman, the well known manager of the William Uhlmann Company, hop merchants, has accepted an invitation to apply the torch to the bonfire at ten o'clock on election night which will consume the auto. Two cords of wood will compose the bonfire, and it will be well saturated with oil.

Now as to the other "hoodoo." Listen! all ye hop men who are watching and praying that the price of hops will advance. It was in 1907 that a "hoodoo" descended on the price. Consequently in the hopes that the "hoodoo" will be driven away by a baptism of fire, Wasserman has donated a big bale of "hoodoo" hops--the "1907s." The bale of hops will be placed in the seat of the automobile and will be burned. If that hop "hoodoo" does git, won't there be rejoicing among the growers, though? Don't all speak at once.

- Press Democrat, October 31, 1908

Jake Luppold has Experience at Polls Tuesday

J. Luppold, the Main street saloon-keeper, which has been trying to escape from a hoodoo for some time and who has announced that he will burn an automobile tonight in front of his place of business to vanquish, if possible, the ill luck that has been following him, met with the worst omen of all Tuesday morning when he went to the polls to cast his ballot. The following data secured at the voting place in precinct No, 7, will be enough to convince the most skeptical that he has a real "hoodoo:"

His number of the index of registration was 113, and he was the 13th voter to cast his ballot at the polling place, his number was "13" on the poll list, his ballot was number 18013, he was the thirteenth man to enter the booth and he voted sharply at 8:13 a. m. according to the watches of the officers of election.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 3, 1908

Vast Crowd Witnesses the Cremation of Machine and "Hoodoo" Bale of Hops Last Night

In the presence of a tremendous crowd of spectators Luppold's "hoodoo" automobile was consumed by baptism of fire at ten o'clock last night. The auto and a big bale of "hoodoo" hops was placed on a pile of specially selected oak and pine cord wood.

At a given signal a skyrocket was sent up and then Milton Wasserman applied the torch. The crowds cheered themselves hoarse as the flames danced here and there amid the wood which had been saturated with oil to insure its burning good.

Luppold was the hero of the occasion. He had said the auto should burn and it did. He kept his part of the agreement and the people were satisfied. The old auto was soon reduced to a small pile of ashes and fragments of iron and as the embers died out above the din there arose an exultant voice. It was Luppold saying "I guess the 'hoodoo' is gone sure now."

Among those gathered in the vast crowd that blocked every foot of Main street for a couple of blocks on either side of "The Senate," Luppold's place of business in front of which the bonfire was kindled, were a number of hopgrowers. They came from many parts of the county to see the "hoodoo" bale of hops consumed. The hops were "1907's," the hoodoo price year. The hopgrowers hope that their "hoodoo" disappeared when Luppold's did. The auto burning was certainly a novelty unheard of in the history of automobiles in the manner in which one was burned here last night and for the reason. Luppold and his "hoodoo" auto have become known from ocean to ocean, and newspapers everywhere have published accounts of the affair and in addition Luppold received scores of letters, a number of which have been published in these columns.

In the burning of the automobile last night Luppold also celebrated the election of Taft. He said he would do so when he first announced that the "hoodoo" machine would go up in smoke.

- Press Democrat, November 4, 1908

Even before Konocti Harbor became synonymous with oldie rock bands, the North Bay was a popular stop for fading has-beens. In the first decade of the 20th century, not a single top name musical act played near Santa Rosa, with the arguable exception of John Philip Sousa's Band in 1904 (and even his group could be viewed as an oldies touring band, as the March King's glory days had passed). Instead, the little theaters north of the Golden Gate churned through a procession of unpolished - and often cringe worthy - vaudeville acts, novelty athletic exhibitions such as the man who roller skated on stilts, and those geriatric tours of names once famous on Victorian stages, back 20, 30, even 40 years before.

One group that played Santa Rosa in 1908 had been quite famous less than a decade earlier: The Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels. The Press Democrat interviewed their manager, asking if he had read a recent newspaper article about declining audiences for minstrel shows. Manager Jack Holland predictably dismissed the idea as "the veriest rot," conceding that a few minstrel touring companies had folded, but the recent theatrical season had been rough for everyone. "The good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people," he assured the reporter.

Some of this was braggadocio and whistling past the graveyard; minstrel shows were being slowly squeezed out by the modern and always-changing vaudeville bills, as discussed here in an earlier essay. The Richards & Pringles show wouldn't fold until around 1916, and a few companies would hang on for another two decades beyond that, booking halls in smaller and smaller rural communities in the Deep South and performing for audiences that were mostly African-American.

Sadly, the PD interview with manager Holland begins with that single insipid question and ends with his predictable and banal answer. Even a Journalism 101 student today would have probed a bit, and realized that this man had stories enough to fill the newspaper for days. (Nor was this the only time that year a clueless local reporter had flubbed the shot at a big, newsmaking interview.) Jack had worked for several circuses before becoming an agent for Richards & Pringles, and by the turn of the century, he and his financial partner simultaneously owned that famous minstrel troupe and three others, all using only African-American performers. For showmen they were remarkably successful, and that should have led an astute reporter to drill down to the fundamental questions: Why is your famous company playing a dinky theater in a remote California farm town? Where's Billy Kersands? And where were you on that night in Missouri, six years ago?

John Holland started working for Richards & Pringles in 1891, about three years after the company was founded. Billy Kersands was already the star of the show. Holland greatly owed the success of his shows to this black showman, who was possibly the most charismatic stage performer of the late 19th century and could be considered the first crossover act, as wildly popular with black audiences as white. Kersands was renowned as a comic genius and also created - or at least, popularized - a dancing style known as "Virginia Essence," which was the direct ancestor of tap dance. He was universally admired and respected; when the group toured England and Europe, Queen Victoria awarded him a diamond pin. A good biography - and a Ken Burns-quality documentary, even a motion picture (he looked remarkably like Eddie Murphy) - is long overdue.

The money-making Kersands/Holland machine might have chugged along for another decade if not for what happened February 16, 1902, on the outskirts of New Madrid, Missouri. A day earlier, the Richards & Pringles company had come to town and that afternoon, a few well-dressed black performers were taking a stroll when a couple of local young men began pelting them with snowballs. One of the performers cussed at them. At the sold-out performance that night, local youths heckled the performers and at the end of the show, charged the stage. One of the minstrels fired a revolver and at once there were a half-dozen guns firing in both directions. The audience panicked but when order was restored, the only serious injury was a bullet in the leg of a performer. Members of the troupe suspected of firing weapons were taken to jail, where they were beaten. The next evening, mask-wearing men attacked the sheriff's office. The mob singled out Louis F. Wright, a 22 year-old trombone player, as the performer who began the shooting. He was dragged from his cell and hanged from a tree at the edge of town. His body was cut down the next morning and shipped C.O.D. to his mother. No one was arrested for involvement with the murder. Wright's friends and family in Chicago raised money for a lawyer to sue the county, but nothing apparently came of it.

A one -paragraph AP wire story on the lynching appeared in many newspapers, including the San Francisco Call, but there was no followup in the press about the incident, much less comment from the owners or players in the troupe. Judging by ads found in digitized newspaper archives - always a hit-or-miss proposition - the company had few bookings for the rest of the season, and almost all of them were in Northern cities with no habit of lynching black men: Places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. When they ventured again into the Deep South at the end of the year, their newspaper advertisements downplayed the Richards & Pringles brand, most of the ad space filled with a photo of Billy's big grin.

Kersands might not have been in New Madrid that night; some sources place him working that year at another of Holland's touring groups, "Rusco & Holland's Big Minstrel Festival." Nonetheless, he severed all ties with Jack Holland's minstrel empire at the end of the 1902-1903 season. He next performed a solo act, headlined in a stage comedy and formed "Billy Kersands' Minstrels." Later with his wife he renamed the troupe "Billy and Louise Kersands' Minstrels," and he broke from the minstrel tradition to create a variety show that was the precursor to vaudeville. (In an interesting switch, it was reported that whites were segregated into a corner of the balcony at these performances.) That he was also the owner of these shows and traveled on his private railway car was unprecedented for an African-American entertainer .

Billy Kersands died in 1915, immediately after closing an engagement in New Mexico. He was 73 and had spent the greater part of fifty years in the spotlight. Newspaper clippings showed he toured major cities in the East and Midwest in his last decade, but reference books are contradictory as to his movements and success (one otherwise-respected source has him performing for Queen Victoria nine years after her death). At the time Jack Holland was being interviewed by the Press Democrat in 1908, he was again part of a traditional minstrel show, headlining for the "Dandy Dixie Minstrels" in a swing through small cities in the Texas panhandle and adjoining states. But that doesn't mean his stardom was in descent; at the same time, a top white vaudeville act, The Three Leightons, were performing an ersatz minstrel routine that centered upon an imitation of Kersands.

Between the 1902 lynching and its closure in 1916, the Richards & Pringles Minstrel Show apparently rarely performed below the Mason-Dixon Line. Perhaps Southern theater owners were skittish that local yokels would want to "finish the job" and string up other members of the company, or maybe they feared that the African-American performers were troublemakers. For whatever reason, the show toured mainly in the West, Southwest, and Upper Plains states, where audiences would be mainly white.

So this was this answer to the question that the Press Democrat reporter didn't ask: They were in Santa Rosa because they now just performed outside the South in places where a sentimental view of "Dixie" prevailed. And without a bi-racial audience, they undoubtedly cut or "whitened up" sections of the program that appealed directly to blacks, leaving only a parody of the original show with a supersized portion of racism. What appeared here was probably more like "A Tribute to the Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels," not so different from those ghost bands that tour under a once-famous name. Had they stuck around another seventy years, they undoubtedly would've been playing at Konocti.


A reporter recently met "Jack Holland," for many years the business manager of Richards & Pringles famous minstrels who appear here on Monday night, and called his attention to an article in a recent issue of a metropolitan paper on the decadence of minstrelsy as a form of entertainment.

Mr. Holland replied with a smile: "Oh, yes, I read the article with a great deal of amusement. Every once in a while you will read an article by some misinformed writer about the passing of the minstrel show. That Americans have tired of the form of amusement that used to make their grandfathers, and yes, even their great grandfathers, laughed till the tears rolled down their cheeks.

"But such talk is the veriest rot. Minstrelsy was never in a more flourishing condition than at this very day.

"This is a progressive age, and one must keep abreast of the times if he is catering to the public. The season of 1907-08 was a particularly disastrous one. Scores and scores of dramatic shows and musical comedies were obliged to close for lack of patronage. Very few indeed were the minstrel shows that gave up the fight. There were two or three minstrel shows closed, to be sure, but they were inferior companies, and scarcely worthy [of] the name.

"None of the leading organizations closed, which proves conclusively that the good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people."

- Press Democrat, October 31, 1908

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