Here's a shocking discovery: Ernest Finley sometimes loosened his tie and became quite the fun guy.
The Press Democrat's editor and publisher hardly had a reputation as Good Times Ernie; aside from occasional mention in the papers about card game parties or Elks Lodge shindigs, he didn't appear to have any social life at all. And when did he have the time? He was Santa Rosa's constant champion, tireless Chamber of Commerce booster and unapologetic defender of the status quo, sometimes locked in mudslinging combat with critics and reformers (see "The Many Wars of Ernest Finley").
(RIGHT: Ernest L. Finley portrait in History of Sonoma County, California: Its People and its Resources, 1937)
All this makes it quite the surprise to read about the silly wager he made in 1911. After several years of depressed prices, the hops market rebounded that year. At the public auction Finley joked he wished he everyone in audience could get in on the boom, and the widow of a late friend offered to give him a bale of hops – but only if he would personally wheelbarrow it the ten miles from the farm to Santa Rosa. Finley accepted the deal.
Thus a couple of hours after sunset on November 6, Ernest Latimer Finley was prepared to start his trek with a customized newspaper handcart. "Mayor James R. Edwards and Hilliard Comstock had placed the bale on the cart and firmly lashed it in place," the Press Democrat later reported, in the first of two stories on the event. "A number of friends motored out to the Woodward ranch Monday evening to witness the outcome. The start was made at 6:30 and an an elaborate picnic was served by the roadside about half-way in. A large party of young people walked the entire distance cheering the man with the cart on his way." The headline from another paper read, "SOCIETY GIRLS WALK UNTIL MIDNIGHT ON FREAK BET".
Finley and his society girls reached the Press Democrat office shortly after midnight. "Don't say anything about this in the paper," Finley ordered his city editor. But an article appeared over his objection because the paper's staff "thought the story too good to be kept out." An item about the "freak bet" was picked up by the wire service and some newspapers nationwide ran it as a kind of believe-it-or-not item, the number of society girls sometimes growing to the size of a mob and the hop bale becoming as heavy as bricks.
The following day a special auction was held for Finley's bale. Milton Wasserman, the top hops buyer in town, bought it at the record price of $125 – but with the requirement that Finley continue his travails and personally cart the hops from downtown to the warehouse.
With his windfall Finley treated his youthful entourage to a weekend in San Francisco, including tickets to the Stanford-Cal football game.* Enjoying two nights of theater and suppers at his expense were a dozen twenty-something young people, nine of them women, along with two of their mothers. Among the party were Hilliard Comstock and Ruth Woolsey, whom Finley would marry about a year later.
Since the doings offer a rare personal glimpse of Mr. Santa Rosa, it's tempting to wonder what it reveals about him. For example, Finley was still a bachelor at age 41 and slightly more than twice Ruth's age; was he simply trying to woo his future wife with the machismo handcart stunt and treating her gang to a swell time? And were there other evenings, occupied with less savory events, when Finley staggered into the Press Democrat office late and ordered staff "Don't say anything about this in the paper"?
But the striking part of the hops story was the crowd of young people who thought it would be fun to follow him as he plodded along the country roads with the cart. Does that sort of thing sound familiar? It should, because it still occurs all over America today; now it usually just happens in school settings. A principal challenges kids to achieve some goal with the promise to do something silly or demeaning as a reward – maybe shaving off hair or singing from the rooftop if the students read a certain number of books or collect enough cans for a food drive. Google for "school principal bets students" and you'll find hundreds of recent examples. Let's revel in an intimidating authority figure playing the clown for us.
Actually, regarding Ernest Finley as Santa Rosa's self-appointed Town Principal works surprisingly well. In his editorials he often came off like a rigid fuddy-duddy demanding miscreants and rebels toe the line. He could be a disagreeable bully, raging when authority was not respected – criticism of the town or its leadership was a serious offense and the Press Democrat had a pattern of defaming anyone who crossed him (or the Democratic party, for that matter). Childish misbehavior was inflated by the PD in par with serious crimes, from stealing eggs to dropping orange and banana peels on the sidewalk. In his official portraits he even looked like a stern school principal; he attempted a smile in a later photograph, but it was more like the surprised expression of someone who had just sat on a tack. You didn't want to be called down to his office and hear the speech about how much he was disappointed in your monkey business and threatening suspension If You Do That Just One More Time.
Whatever conclusions one draws (or presumes to draw) from the hop cart episode, it's still a cute story in its own right. It is also one that was almost lost; if not for transcriptions in Ann M. Connor's self-published 1970 book, "McDonald Avenue: A Century of Elegance," I would never have noticed the articles – the related microfilm at the Sonoma County Library is illegible. As seen to the right, the emulsion is almost completely wiped off on the image of this page from November 8, and what remains is badly scratched. Normally damaged film can be read by later use of heavy image processing but in this case there was almost nothing to work with. Sadly, much of the 1911 Press Democrat microfilm at the library is in equally terrible condition. I am certain there were many interesting stories from that year I also overlooked.
Alas, the Connor book does not list sources; the auction story was only identified to be the same as in the the damaged Press Democrat microfilm by its bold headline. Two of the other articles she transcribed were not from either Santa Rosa paper, so it's unknown where they first appeared.
* The "Big Game" was actually rugby between 1906-1914, a period when many schools dropped football because of concerns over game violence and player injuries. Cal won that year, 21-3.
|Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library|
SOCIETY GIRLS WALK UNTIL MIDNIGHT ON FREAK BETTrudge Dusty Roads to Cheer on Clubman Wheeling Bale of HopsFor eleven miles along the dusty roads from the county home of the late surveyor of the Port of San Francisco, Edward F. Woodward of Mt. Olivet, and Ernest L. Finley, editor of the Santa Rosa Press and well known clubman, wheeled a cart containing a 192 lb. bale of hops, winning a wager whereby a party of young society people will attend the Stanford-Berkeley football game and enjoy a banquet in San Francisco.
The start was made about 7 p.m. last night and Finley completed his task shortly after midnight. He came into town with his cart of hops, to be sold and the proceeds devoted to paying the expenses of a trip to the football game and a dinner for a party of his friends if he would wheel the gift to Santa Rosa.
The wager was taken up and tonight when the bale was auctioned off in the presence of a large crowd of speculators, it realized over $100. Some of Santa Rosa's popular society girls and several men walked the entire distance with Mr. Finley. Halfway to town the entire company enjoyed a picnic in the moonlight.
- Source unknown, November 7, 1911; from Connor book, pg. 70 (see text)
WINS BALE OF HOPS ON WAGERE. L. Finley Wheels Hand Cart Along Dusty Road for Over Ten Miles Monday NightAs the result of a wager, E. L. Finley on Monday evening wheeled a handcart containing a bale of hops from the Woodward ranch near Mt. Olivet to Santa Rosa, arriving at the Press Democrat office a few minutes after midnight. The distance covered was something over ten miles. The hops weighed 132 pounds.
Under the terms of the agreement Mrs. E. F. Woodward and Miss Bess Woodward were to make Mr. Finley a present of a bale of hops provided he got them to market unassisted, the hops to be sold and the proceeds devoted to taking a party of friends to the Stanford-Berkeley football game on Saturday.
A number of friends motored out to the Woodward ranch Monday evening to witness the outcome. The start was made at 6:30 and an an elaborate picnic was served by the roadside about half-way in. A large party of young people walked the entire distance cheering the man with the cart on his way.
Several taxicabs and automobile loads of people drove out and met the man with the load of hops and the party accompanying him several miles from this city. It was a very merry salutation given, too. Cheers stirred the midnight air when the hops were landed at the Press Democrat office.
The bale of hops will be auctioned off today and they will fetch the top notch figure. Considerable lively bidding is expected, too. Those hops should be worth at least one hundred dollars.
"Don't say anything about this in the paper," said Editor Finley as he started for home at an early hour this morning, still walking by the way. But the city editor and staff thought the story too good to be kept out, and would not heed the request of the man who won the wager.
- Press Democrat, November 7, 1911
SPIRITED BIDDING MARKS SALE OF HOPS AT AUCTIONUnique Transaction is Completed Here Last NightMilton L. Wasserman, the well-known representative for the William Ullman Co. of New York, established a new price for hops last night at the Press Democrat office, when, at a spirited contest, he purchased at auction the bale of hops wheeled in the night before by Ernest Finley from "Pinecrest", Mrs. E. F. Woodward's fine ranch near Mt. Olivet.
The price at which the bale was finally knocked down to Mr. Wasserman was $125, and it was made part of the agreement that Mr. Finley was to personally deliver the hops to the warehouse, starting from the courthouse at noon today.
John P. Overton actioned as auctioneer...
...Just as the hammer was descending for the last time, and as Mr. Overton lingered over the words "going, going...!", Wasserman made his final bid, coupled with the stipulation that Mr. Finley should wheel the bale down Fourth Street today at noon. Mr. Finley nodded his acceptance of the proposition, the auctioneer from his exalted position on the office counter made a few more passes with his hammer, called upon Mr. Finley to bear him out in his assertion that the hops about to be sold were "extra heavy for the weight" and assured prospective purchasers that the goods were being sold "F.O.B. Santa Rosa, which is very different from having to bring them in from Mr. Olivet," ending by finally knocking them down to Mr. W. at the price stated. The result was greeted with hearty cheers from the large crowd present, as was each successive bid, for that matter.
A huge bonfire was then lighted in the street outside, and after another round of cheers and an exchange of felicitations, the crowd dispersed. (Referenced as first in Tuesday's paper of the wager.) Mr. Finley jokingly remarked that if he had 600 or 700 bales of hops unsold at the present prices, he would give the crowd one and tell them to go and see the fun. Mrs. Woodward replied that she would furnish the hops if Mr. Finley would wheel them to Santa Rosa.
The proposition was immediately accepted, and the following evening finally agreed upon as the time for making the attempt. An ordinary newspaper cart to which shaft handles had been temporarily attached by C. R. Sund, a local blacksmith, was used for transporting the bale selected, which weighted 192 lbs., and the distance covered was something more than 10 miles.
The start was made at 7:30 Monday evening, after Mayor James R. Edwards and Hilliard Comstock had placed the bale on the cart and firmly lashed it in place, and the event was made the occasion for a moonlight picnic party, a number of friends accompanying Mr. Finley the entire distance on foot, while others followed or proceeded in automobiles. At the top of the Mr. Olivet hill an elaborate picnic was spread and a stop of more than an hour was made. Refreshments were also served from the automobiles enroute.
The party arrived in town shortly after midnight, after a delightful evening, and Mr. Finley suffered no inconvenience whatever from the trip. Among those making up the party were Mayor & Mrs. Jas. Edwards...and Hilliard Comstock.
- Press Democrat, November 8, 1911
GIRLS GO TO FOOTBALL ON A BIG BALE OF HOPS(At least, going on proceeds of bale that plucky editor wheeled 11 miles.)A party of Santa Rosa society girls arrived at the Hotel Stewart last night on their way to attend the football game at Stanford U. today as the guests of Ernest Finley, editor of the Santa Rosa Press, who is paying, etc...
Later - Friday evening the entire party took dinner at Coppa's restaurant and then attended the Orpheum, where they occupied loges during the performance, a supper at the Portola following. Saturday they proceeded to Stanford U. and were entertained at the Kappa Alpha fraternity for luncheon, after which the game was attended.
Coming back into San Francisco, a dinner at Taite's was followed by the party attending the Cort Theater and enjoying the performance of Sam Barnard, the noted Dutch comedian. Techau's completed the pleasure of Saturday. The party included Mrs. E. F. Woodward, Mrs Frank Woolsey, Miss Bess Woodward, Miss Helen Wright, Miss Jean Geary, the Misses Ruth, Louise and Helen Woolsey, Janet Noble, Dora and Marian Pierson, Hilliard Comstock, Arthur Wright, E. W. Scott and Ernest Finley. They were joined Saturday evening by the Jas. Edwards and the Vernon Goodwins of Los Angeles.
- Source unknown, November 11, 1911; from Connor book, pg. 71-72 (see text)