A new era is here! Americans are embracing the revolutionary "sharing economy" where we sell everything to each other directly. We shop in an unlimited marketplace with fair goods at fair prices and delivered right to our door free (or fairly so). To roughly rework Miranda's lines in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Oh, wonder! How many consumers are there here! How beauteous sellers are! O brave new world, That has such people in 't!" Of course, then her world-weary father, Prospero, pops her bubble and replies simply, "Tis new to thee."

Prospero could have been thinking of the even braver new world which dawned on New Year's Day, 1913. Now for the first time you could send a package to anyone in America, no matter how remote or distant - and the person at that place could send a package to you as well. It is probably impossible for any American alive today to appreciate what this meant to a nation which was still mostly rural, and equally hard now to understand why it was such a controversial idea at the time.

(Detail of cartoon from the San Francisco Call, January 5, 1913)

The service was parcel post and our great-grandparents enthusiastically began mailing stuff to each other immediately. The volume of mail at the San Francisco post office doubled the first day, the Call newspaper reported, and that was even before any trains arrived with parcels from outside the Bay Area.

At the start a package could weigh only eleven pounds max (the limit would soon be bumped to twenty) and there was a long list of items you couldn't mail, particularly booze, animals alive or dead, guns, or things that might explode or stink. But the early days were somewhat chaotic, in part because there was circulating another, shorter list of forbidden items with live poultry being the only specified animal. There were also jokesters trying to mail silly things and get them mentioned in the paper - bricks addressed to Postmaster General Burleson were a favorite. "The most popular American toy today is the parcel post," commented the Brooklyn Eagle. "Everybody in the land seems to be playing with it." Gag items sent in the first week included a woman's hat, a snow shovel, a tarantula in a little cage, a coffin split into two parts and eggs that hatched en route, as intended. Skunk pelts were reported in Kansas, Pennsylvania  and Arizona, while someone from Sonoma county sent a large Burbank potato with the address carved in it.

The Postmaster General issued a clarified set of rules at the end of the month - meat was no longer a "dead animal" - and the postal service settled into being a delivery service, hiring thousands of new workers. People came to expect parcel post being available from every sort of local business. If you lived in Cloverdale, for example, you could mail dirty clothes to a Santa Rosa laundry. You could get a freshly-killed turkey from Petaluma and order a fancy cake from a Sonoma square bakery.

Parcel post was cheap but if the sender and recipient were both in the "local zone" - meaning their mail carriers worked out of the same post office - it was nearly free: 5¢ for the first pound, up to 24¢ for the maximum 20 pounds (the weight limit went up to 50 pounds the following year). In the middle of 1913 the post office introduced C.O.D. so you no longer even had to pay for something until it arrived.

If that was the extent of Parcel Post, it still would have been a dramatic shift in the lives of most Americans. There was now a pipeline to their home from virtually any store or service; no longer was home shopping limited to what was offered from Sears and Montgomery Wards mail-order catalogs. But the revolutionary aspect of the service was that the pipeline flowed both ways - farmers could now sell direct to the consumers and bypass all middlemen, and sell they did: A mainstay of parcel post deliveries in those years were farm-fresh eggs, butter and lard. (Pictures of an egg mailing carton here.)

But the postal involvement didn't end there. Rural mail carriers collected lists of which farmers had what to sell and copies were stuffed in mailboxes of city dwellers, as well as posted at public libraries. In 1914 they launched a farm-to-table movement - and yes, they called it a "movement" - that term was not an invention of foodie hipsters. At the same time on the urban front, women's groups such as the National Housewives' League promoted neighborhood collectives to manage bulk buying and handle storage of perishables, as few home kitchens had refrigeration.

These years just before WWI were probably the closest America ever came to achieving Thomas Jefferson's vision of an agrarian republic, with town and country joined in harmony (or at least, in some places). But none of it would have happened had not the federal government done a bold and subversive thing by going into direct competition with a major private industry.

Prior to 1913 if you wanted to send a package to cousin Polly in Poughkeepsie you took it to an express office. There were about 30,000 offices across the country; if a hamlet was really small, it usually doubled as the telegraph office. It wasn't a bad system for shipping stuff long distances, but the first problem was what happened when the parcel arrived. The express companies weren't in the home delivery business; if your address wasn't on their routes, the package would likely wait at the Poughkeepsie office until your cousin came in to pick it up. By contrast, the post office had a well-established mail delivery system nationwide with routes covering five times more mileage; the mailman was already going to Polly's door once or twice a day anyway. The second problem with the express companies were their rates. Everyone griped they charged too much, but nothing was ever done; when Congressional hearings on parcel post began in 1911, the latest investigation by Interstate Commerce Commission had been going on for nearly two years.

We can thank Oregon Senator Jonathan Bourne, Jr., a progressive Republican in the vein of Teddy Roosevelt, for the creation of parcel post and all that followed. He might have been a swell fellow, but he could not chair a public meeting. If you're a masochist with about ten hours to lose, read all eight days of Senate hearings and marvel at how often they get lost in the weeds. My favorite moment is when a guy tells the Senators, apropos of nothing, that "Brain and Personality" was the greatest book about the human mind published in the previous 25 years (spoiler alert: No).

Sparing Gentle Reader that ordeal, the testimony can be summarized as wildly contradictory. Parcel post would doom little country stores or parcel post would be a boon to little country stores. It was a giveaway to Sears and other big mail-order houses or it was a giveaway to the farmers. It was un-American to compete with the express companies or it didn't go far enough and the government should take over the express companies. It was a big step towards socialism or it was an overdue step to help reduce the cost of living for workers. It would bust the post office budget (which only recently had wiped out a big deficit) and plunge it deeply into the red or it might possibly make a profit.

To the astonishment of nearly everyone, as the end of 1913 approached it was reported parcel post had turned a whopping $30 million profit. Other benefits of that year's success included the express companies lowering rates and offering new farmer-friendly services. The ad below for "Christmas Prunes" was a deal intended to be sent via parcel post, according to an item in the Pacific Rural Press, but apparently an express company jumped in with a more competitive offer.

(Oakland Tribune cartoon Dec. 22, 1913)

But before the post office could take a victory lap, it had to survive the tsunami.

Everyone loved parcel post so much they felt empowered to send gifts to all their Christmas card relatives - Aunt Irma, Uncle Herb, Cousins Willy and Mabel and Edith and her husband Sid and everyone's little ones whom they knew only by name. So enormous was the volume of parcel post mail in the week before Christmas that every day set a new all-time post office record over the day before. "There is always a great volume of mail around Christmas time," a December 20 wire service story reported, "and this year, with the added task of handling hundreds of thousands of parcel post packages, the offices in the larger cities would have been hopelessly swamped but for emergency measures." Efforts to cope with the unending piles of parcels were epic and it became a major news story, with several papers offering cartoons such as the one seen here; another popular variation showed an express company driver having a good laugh at the poor mailman's misery.

The obl. Believe-it-or-not! epilogue to the launch of parcel post came a few weeks after Christmas, when May Pierstorff's mother glued stamps to her five year-old's coat and parcel posted the child to her grandparents 73 miles away. Because she was just under the new fifty pound weight limit, postage was 53 cents.

She wasn't the first child to be mailed nor was she the last, although the newspaper stories about these kids always mentioned it was against the rules to send people through Parcel Post. But guess what: That wasn't true - unless you counted the regulation that "meat may not be shipped through more than two parcel post zones." It wasn't until June, 1920 before the post office decreed no humans could be shipped in the mail regardless of weight, inspiring the bestest headline that ever appeared on the front page of the New York Times: "Rules Children Cannot Be Sent by Parcel Post as Live Animals."

Call it the year Santa Rosa embraced Santa Claus - or rather, the year downtown retailers discovered the jolly ol' elf was a great salesman.

In the days before Christmas 1913, Santa invaded the advertising in the Press Democrat. The full page ad for the White House department store (shown below) had no less than four Santas, which was about the headcount seen in all ads in any year prior. Why the population explosion in 1913?

It wasn't as if Santa was suddenly linked to the concept of Christmas presents. During the Christmas of 1910 advertisements urged shoppers to come downtown and have fun buying gifts. The part of the White House ad below with Santa leaning on his knuckles first appeared that year, and another 1910 store proclaimed it was "The Real Home of Santa Claus." Kids back then were also clued in to making want lists; in 1908 tykes picked up the telephone and asked the operator to connect "Santy Claus." The PD reported the telephone office didn't know what to do at first but soon decided the "Hello Girls" should become Santa's little helpers, with the chief operator taking down names and list details (and no, their parents were not required to first sign two-year service agreements).

Those pre-1913 Santas are also sometimes hard to recognize. He was less roly-poly than we expect today (the guy in the White House ad was pretty buff) and was more like Father Christmas of 19th century England. He rarely smiled in the earlier ads and even appeared a little grumpy; in this Keegan Brothers ad he looks stooped and damn tired of hauling that bag down chimneys, as if he were just an oddly-dressed workingman in the delivery business. (The caption should have read "At Your Service" and was corrected in later versions.) So another change in 1913 was that Santa was happier as well.

It would be easy to presume Santa received a 1913 makeover by a Madison Avenue advertising agency and everyone followed suit, but that's not the case. It would be many years later, in 1931, before Coca-Cola would forever transform Santa into the iconic image we all know today. Instead, he evolved in the 1910s and 1920s into a ruddy obese fellow without any firm ownership. A personal favorite is the 1923 ad for White Rock soda water showing Santa apparently reading letters from children with his nose as red as his cheeks, having polished off half a bottle of bourbon. Note that his trash basket is overflowing with tossed-out Christmas lists and also note the year 1923 was during Prohibition. Are YOU gonna confront Mr. Claus when he's being naughty? I think not.

The mystery of Santa Rosa's Santa ads only deepens when compared to the big Bay Area newspapers where Santa was almost a no-show. In San Francisco and Oakland the holiday shopping ads usually just showed the merchandise if there was any illustration at all. Never did any of the Santas found in the PD appear there.

Among the California newspapers with online archives (a pretty small number, admittedly) the only papers which were similarly Santa-clogged came from Modesto and Santa Ana - towns which were very much like Santa Rosa: Mid-sized rural county seats with a few department stores. Their department stores ads even used most of the exact same Santa illustrations as our department stores, demonstrating it was stock art provided by the manufacturers (free, undoubtedly) to dress up ads in these smaller markets.

Instead of pushing specific stuff or a sale, the mission of these 1913 Santas was simply to get your warm body into those local department stores. It was by no means assured customers would be going to those merchants anyway; as shown in the article about Christmas 1910, they were competing with hardware stores which advertised "practical" gifts. Hopefully if the holiday shopper could be lured through the door of Rosenberg's, Dibble's or one of the other places, a new galvanized wash tub would no longer seem to be an appealing present.

No discussion of Christmas in 1913 Santa Rosa would be complete without mentioning the 800 lb. gorilla in the room - or rather, the Godzilla-like Santa that appeared on the front page of the Press Democrat on Dec. 25. Taking up half of the front page, the cartoon illustrated a story about the PD's Christmas Exchange, which was the annual holiday gift drive for needy kids. Here Santa teeters unsteadily as little two-dimensional creatures tug at his hand and gift sack. His blank expression makes you wonder if he had way too many of those bourbon and White Rock sodas before coming to the party.

December 14 should be a red-letter day at the Press Democrat; it was then in 1912 when Ernest Finley married Ruth Woolsey. Not only was this the founding of a little publishing dynasty which would endure until the PD was sold in 1985, but that date serves as a fair marker for the moment Santa Rosa became a one-newspaper town - five days earlier, editor Finley's old rival at the Santa Rosa Republican, Allan Lemmon, sold his interests in that paper and retired.

(Detail of 1923 photo of Ernest Latimer Finley at his desk in the Press Democrat office. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Before diving into that history, a few comments about the modern Press Democrat, which just introduced a revamp of the paper. Few may notice the changes - local news on the front page, a weekly outdoors section and more food coverage, amid other tweaks. Publisher Catherine Barnett says over 1,500 commented about what they wanted to see in the PD and her take-away was the readership mainly wanted the paper to keep on doing a fantastic job. She couldn't even go to a party or wine tasting "without someone wanting to go off in a corner and discuss what mattered most about our coverage." Apparently the local know-it-alls have mastered the gentle art of flattering criticism to a degree of which I was unaware.

But the real issues are not trivial things such as page layouts or the balance between lifestyle coverage and opinion. That's a false dichotomy - like asking Santa Rosans whether cinnamon or saffron is their all-time favorite spice. The main problem with today's Press Democrat is there's so little of it. The pages are slim and few, with the newspaper nearly disappearing entirely on Mondays and Tuesdays. For years the newsroom has been reduced to an overworked skeleton crew. With rare exceptions - such as the outstanding coverage of the Valley Fire - local news coverage is largely picking low-hanging fruit from press releases, squawks from the police scanner and appeals to readers for story content. Just a few years ago when the PD was flush with profits this would have been called lazy journalism; today you have to feel sorry for everyone involved. Unless Catherine Barnett is able to rebuild the newsroom and offer a more substantial newspaper, she's only pushing around deck chairs on the Titanic.

Although Santa Rosa was ten times smaller a hundred years ago, the PD still managed to fill three or four pages every day with local news. Some of it appealed to a pretty narrow readership, but better to not risk the item appearing only in the competition. And that was the big difference between then and now: Santa Rosa was a two newspaper town, although that comes with a big asterisk.

Ernest Finley's Press Democrat was a morning paper focused on Santa Rosa, particularly development and commercial interests. For many years Finley was president of the Chamber of Commerce so it's no surprise the PD was their voice. Allen Lemmon's Santa Rosa Republican was a smaller evening paper mostly directed at farmers; every week there was an item covering the doings in each of the small towns in the area.

Until Lemmon's 1912 retirement, he and Finley were something of Santa Rosa's editorial odd couple, and not just because of the different Democrat/Republican allegiances. They even looked the part; the two can be seen together in a 1909 Chamber of Commerce group photo with Lemmon looming over Finley's right shoulder, looking for all the world like a rumpled Walter Matthau, with Finley resembling a tightly-wound Tony Randall.

They were men of different generations. Lemmon was born in 1847 and before coming to Santa Rosa had a career in Kansas, where he was a teacher and superintendent of schools while also editing a weekly paper. He was a progressive in the vein of Teddy Roosevelt and when he bought the Republican in 1887, was a good counterbalance to Thomas Thompson, the Sonoma Democrat editor still nursing a grudge over the South losing the Civil War.

Finley was 23 years younger and had lived in Santa Rosa since childhood. He had no newspaper experience at all when he and two friends began a small paper called the Evening Press in 1895 with him as the publisher and Grant Richards as editor. When the Democrat became available in 1897 the three formed a corporation with bankers Overton and Reynolds and bought it. Less than a year later, Finley became editor of the hybrid Press Democrat after Grant Richards had a nervous breakdown and killed himself with a shotgun.

At the turn of the century Finley was still a young man of 29 and a brash conservative, eager to pick a fight in his paper. The person he most often tried to beat up was poor old Allen Lemmon, while during election years he also defended the status quo and attacked the reformers who wanted to clean up Santa Rosa; for more on those dust-ups, read "THE MANY WARS OF ERNEST FINLEY."

(Cartoon of Allan B. Lemmon from the San Francisco Call, 1896)

The last salvos in the Finley-Lemmon battle came in February 1911. Finley 'dissed the Republican as the "Evening Blowhard" and Lemmon shot back by calling him "Egotist Latitude Finley, whose brightness is never seen in the columns of the paper over which he is called to preside." A couple of weeks later they both went nuclear over Fred J. Wiseman's airmail flight in an exchange where they forgot all about Wiseman and just lobbed insults at one another. No one would have been surprised to find either of them setting bear traps outside the other guy's door.

But after that, peace. Both newspapers supported women's suffrage in the historic vote later that year and they even made it through the big elections of 1912 without drawing knives. What happened?

Partial credit probably goes to Finley's bride-to-be Ruth Woolsey - or at least, his desire to marry and settle down. In late 1911 he pushed a wheelbarrow with a bale of hops ten miles to settle a bet, accompanied by an entourage of twenty-somethings including Ruth, and with the money from the bet he treated them to a night out in San Francisco. Or maybe he decided at age 42 it was time to grow up.

Allan Lemmon likely also just lost the heart to fight. He was 65; even though his newspaper was apparently then entirely edited by partner J. Elmer Mobley, it too seemed old and tired.

As the newlywed Finleys left for their honeymoon, a new company took over the Republican. Among the owners were Rolfe L. Thompson, leader of the reformers in town, and head of the new company was none other than attorney James Wyatt Oates, himself a former editor and writer. For a time the Santa Rosa Republican was a lively read and arguably the better paper in town, but Finley had the greater readership, and with it greater influence. As WWI approached the Republican settled into being more like the paper it was under Lemmon - the loyal opposition to the Press Democrat, which was to everyone's loss.

How fortunate for us all that Santa Rosa has its EVENING BLOWHARD. If it were not for that enterprising sheet, we might all still be laboring under the mistaken apprehension that the big show was to be pulled off in Kamchatka or "some other foreign seaport."

- Press Democrat editorial, February 1, 1911


"The Chinatown Trunk Mystery," a wierd [sic] melodrama of the old Central Theatre type--and then some--held down the boards Wednesday evening at the Columbia. The performance was about what was to be expected, considering the lurid character of the paper displayed on the billboards about town. A local Chinaman accompanied by a police officer in plain clothes was on hand, ostensibly to represent the Chinese Vice Consul. The latter feature was only part of a somewhat, overdone advertising scheme, however, and fooled nobody except one bright young man connected with the afternoon paper.

- Press Democrat editorial, February 2, 1911


Perhaps the best thing about the performance at the Columbia theater on Wednesday evening was the orchestrations between the acts. Leader Bud Parks and his musicians rendered some lively two steps which were decidedly pleasing. The performance was mediocre, but nevertheless attracted quite a large audience, when the threatening and inclement weather is taken into consideration.

Thee is little chance for acting in the piece, and those who presented it did not attempt the impossible. The protest sent by Consul General Li Young-Yew resulted in Chief of Police John M. Boyes sending an officer with a delegation of three prominent Chinese of the local colony to the theater to see that nothing immoral was permitted. Egotist Latitude Finley, whose brightness is never seen in the columns of the paper over which he is called to preside, by grace of its actual owner, attempted some funny stunts in his "dramatic criticism" of the play, and shows his asinine qualities more than previously.

- Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1911

To Lead Miss Woolsey to Altar in Near Future

Some time before the holidays Editor Ernest L. Finley will wed Miss Ruth Woolsey. For some time past the friends of the couple have anticipated the announcement, and now that it is known, they are receiving the congratulations of their wide circle of friends.

Miss Woolsey is the daughter of Frank Woolsey of Woolsey station. She is a social favorite here and around the bay. She is a pretty girl with charming ways, which have made her popular with all who know her.

Mr. Finley is editor of the Press Democrat and needs no introduction to the people of Sonoma county, as he has taken a prominent part in the affairs of this section for some time. He is a member of the Elks and other fraternal organizations.

Owing to death recently in each of the families of the contracting parties, the wedding will be a quiet one.

- Santa Rosa Republican, October 14, 1912

Allen B. Lemmon to Dispose of His Interest

Articles of incorporation of the Santa Rosa Republican Company have been filed with County Clerk William W. Felt, Jr. The capital stock of the company is fixed at $24,000, and each member of the board of directors of the corporation has subscribed for two shares of the stock.

The board of directors consists of J. Elmer Mobley, James W. Oates, R. L. Thompson, Charles C. Belden and Mrs. Pearl J. Mobley.

It is the purpose of the new corporation to take over the Santa Rosa REPUBLICAN, which Messrs. Allen B. Lemmon and J. Elmer Mobley have conducted since the big fire of 1906 as a co-partnership. The formal transfer of the property will take place in a few days.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November 27, 1912

Stock Company Formed to Take Over His Interests in the Santa Rosa Republican--Articles Filed

Allen B. Lemmon, the well known editor of the Evening Republican, has announced his intended retirement from the newspaper field. On Wednesday articles of incorporation of the Santa Rosa Republican Company were filed with County Clerk. The object of the company is to take over Mr. Lemmon's interest in the paper above named. The company is incorporated, for $24,000, and the directors named are Rolfe L. Thompson, J. E. Mobley, James W. Oates, C. C. Belden and Pearl Mobley. Each of the directors named has subscribed for two shares of stock. It is understood that formal transfer of the property will be made within a few days.

For more than twenty years-with the exception of a year or so previous to the fire, when the paper was leased to other parties--Mr. Lemmon has presided over the destinies of the Santa Rosa Republican. For some time he has been anxious to dispose of his interests and retire from active newspaper work. He retires with the best wishes of a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and the new owners are wished every success in their venture.

- Press Democrat, November 28, 1912


The formal transfer of the Santa Rosa REPUBLICAN newspaper and job printing business to the Santa Rosa Republican Company. a corporation, occurred Monday afternoon. With that date my connection with this paper and business terminated. My entire interest in the plant has been purchased and taken over by the corporation, which is composed of well known residents of Santa Rosa.

Since the big fire of April 18, 1906, the paper has been conducted as a partnership between  J. Elmer Mobley and myself. My retirement is due to a desire to be released from the constant strain of newspaper work.

For almost a quarter of a century I have published the REPUBLICAN as a daily and semi-weekly newspaper. The readers of the paper know whether or not the work has been done well.

In quitting the newspaper field, my thanks are extended to the many friends who have given the paper hearty support during the time it has been under my control. The mangement has my hearty good will, friendship and desire for the success that is sure to follow well directed efforts.


- Santa Rosa Republican, December 10, 1912

Society Gossip by Dorothy Ann

IN THE soft light of many candles that flared and flickered and cast their shadows over the assemblage of immediate relatives, Miss Ruth Woolsey and Ernest L. Finley plighted their troth for better or for worse on Saturday at high noon at the home of the bride's father, Mr. Frank Woolsey of Woolsey...

...Miss Woolsey was given into the keeping of her husband by her father, Mr. Woolsey. There were no attendants. Although simplicity marked every feature of the wedding, the bride wore the regulation white satin gown, made en train and draped with beaded chiffon...

...After congratulation had been extended the wedding party were served with an elaborate wedding breakfast in the dining room, where an artistic decoration of mistletoe and white satin streamers had been arranged. The center of the bridal table was a mass of pink carnations and ferns. A tempting menu was served.

Mr. and Mrs. Finley motored to one of the nearby stations, and there took the train for San Francisco. It is understood that Los Angeles and other Southern cities will be the objective point where the honeymoon will be spent.


- Press Democrat, December 15, 1912

R.I.P. James Wyatt Oates, wherever the hell you may be.

December 9, 2015 is the centenary of his death, so this is an appropriate time to write his final chapter. There's still more to come about his life, however, particularly his difficult final three years, a mixture of melancholy and joy along with an outlash of violence that took Santa Rosa by surprise. More also has been unearthed about his life in the years around 1880, when he was a journalist and aspiring author in the mold of Bret Harte. Someday, too, I hope to be able to write the full story of the man he murdered.

(Late Portrait of James Wyatt Oates, courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Published elsewhere here is an overview of his life and his writings but for the purpose of this article, here is a thumbnail sketch of the story so far:

Called Wyatt by his family, he was born in 1850 and the brother of William C. Oates, a Confederate commander in the Civil War famous for losing the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Wyatt adored his much older brother and followed him by becoming a lawyer in their Alabama hometown. Also like William, he was known both for his courtly Southern charm and his volatile temper as well as being famously quick to judge. Eventually Wyatt married and settled in Santa Rosa. He and wife Mattie had no children, but mentored a number of younger people who often lived with them for months at a time. The Oates' were closest to Anna May Bell, whom they clearly regarded as a daughter, and Hilliard Comstock, who studied law under Wyatt and became his law partner. When Mattie died in 1914 Wyatt was despondent. He visited his old haunts in Alabama and bonded with his cousin's families, returning to Santa Rosa with Pat Granberry, a 24 year-old grandniece who stayed with him for several months, sometimes joined by two of her sisters. Also living with Wyatt in his grand home on Mendocino avenue during those final months was Hilliard.

As the end of 1915 approached, Oates was finally emerging from his mourning. He spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with Anna May Bell - now Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap - and "when he returned home [he] was bubbling over with happiness over his visit," according to the Santa Rosa Republican. On the train, however, he caught a cold he couldn't seem to shake. A week later he called for a doctor. (For the record, it was Dr. Joseph H. Shaw, Luther Burbank's personal physician and best friend.)

Pneumonia developed and the condition of the 65 year-old man continued growing worse. Anna rushed up from Los Angeles. She and Hilliard were there when he died in his home.

The Republican newspaper eulogized in both his obituary and funeral notice. "Amid manifestations of sincere grief the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb," moaned the reporter, larding on the jeremiad. He was "a cheery, kindly and happy nature far in excess of that of the majority of men." There was also this sideways compliment: "He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to give his opinions on the questions of the day...Those who did not measure up to this standard of being 'square' were not admired by the deceased in even a slight degree." In other words, he was an opinionated hothead you didn't want to cross.

Many years later, Ernest Finley wrote vignettes about people in that era and Oates was the only person he called out as a jerk. After Wyatt was reported to have threatened to kill him, Finley allegedly remarked, "he will never cut anybody up, because he hasn't got the guts." Finley might not have been as blustery if knew Oates actually had killed someone, but apparently few, if any, people in Santa Rosa knew about his darker past.

As Finley was editor and publisher of the Press Democrat, you know his paper's obituary was not a love letter to the "cheery, kindly and happy" side of the late Mr. Oates. In the days following the funeral, the PD could scarcely conceal its schadenfreude over hearsay that the last will and testament contained shocking details which might prove James Wyatt Oates was indeed an asshole. Never before or since have I read in those century-old newspapers gossipy speculation about the contents of someone's will.

The first rumor to emerge was the estate was worth over $100,000 (the equivalent of about $2.5 million today) much of it in stocks and cash, quite a windfall for the lucky heirs. "It is also reported that Mr. Comstock is given the right to occupy the residence on Mendocino avenue until such time as it is sold," the PD claimed. There was actually nothing in the will concerning this but it must have been an agreement with the executors so the house did not sit unoccupied. Hilliard's mother, Nellie, and sister Catherine immediately moved into the house as unpaid caretakers until the Comstocks were able to buy it with a $10,000 closed bid from probate the following year.

The PD also speculated Anna May Dunlap was supposed to inherit much of the estate (quite predictable, actually) and the grandnieces might "come in for a large share of the property," which possibly surprised some, given he met them for the first time only about a year earlier. Then there was this: "There has been a persistent rumor that some time prior to his death, Mr. Oates disinherited his nephew...if this proves true it will come as a surprise, as Will Oates is the Colonel's nearest relative."

William C. Oates Jr. - usually called "Willie" - was the 32 year-old son of Wyatt's beloved brother. (William Sr. had another child with a house slave.) As such the Press Democrat was correct; Willie was indeed his closest blood relative, and eyebrows would have raised around town if Wyatt truly left him nothing.

And Wyatt truly left him nothing.

When the will was officially filed the PD produced a half-page story, reprinting the entire document - another unprecedented step for the paper - and the Republican published it in full as well. As it turned out, Wyatt had added a codicil making several changes.

(Press Democrat cartoon following James Wyatt Oates' stepping down as president of the  Sonoma County Automobile Association in 1911. Note in particular his "elevator" shoes; from the 1892 voter registration records we learn his distinguishing features were a scar on the left side of his head and that he was exactly five feet, seven and five-eights inches tall - the only voter to specify his height with such exact precision.)

Wyatt's will, created shortly after his wife died the previous year, reflected her own bequests almost exactly (should Wyatt have died first, of course). About $30,000 was given away to friends and relatives and to his nephew, Oates left the gold watch and chain which was given to him by Willie's father when Oates turned 21 in 1871. The will left one-third of the entire estate before taxes and any other distribution to Willie and the remainder of the estate to Anna May Bell Dunlap.

The codicil was written about two months before Wyatt's death and following a visit by his nephew.  Willie must have said something that really pissed off his temperamental uncle during that visit because he was cut off entirely - Willie didn't even inherit the legacy watch. That third of the estate that was once promised to him went to May, Pat and Lois Grandberry, Wyatt's grandnieces.1

The codicil also took away a $1,000 bequest to Mattie's uncle and another thousand dollars going to the widow of his old law partner. No reasons were given. Added was a new part giving "all coal lands and coal interests" in Arizona and mining interests in Mexico - which were "very valuable if they can ever be properly gotten at" - to his three cousins including Pocahontas ("Pokie") Granberry, the mother of the three young women.

"There is an unconfirmed rumor that Mr. Oates plans to contest the will," the PD speculated hopefully, but with absolutely no basis. The will was not contested.

That was not completely the end of the story, however. A month later, the papers reported Dr. Bogle - one of the executors of Wyatt's will - had fulfilled a very odd last request.

Although the obituary stated "...the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb," that wasn't exactly true. His coffin had been stacked inside the holding vault at the Rural Cemetery, the same little stone shed which also still held the coffins for Mattie (d. 1914) and his mother-in-law (d. 1910). None of them had been buried. Supposedly Wyatt asked Dr. Bogle to have their bodies cremated together.

Such a request was out of character, to say the least. Years before, Oates had purchased a large plot at the entranceway of the Rural Cemetery. Most likely he originally wanted all to be interred under a glorifying monolith, such as the obelisk with life-size statue that marked the Alabama grave of his Civil War brother, William. It is hard to reconcile the shift from owning the most prominent gravesite in town to wanting the most anonymous disposal of their remains.

And if that wasn't strange enough, Wyatt also demanded the remains of Mattie's two sisters and brother be disinterred along with his father-in-law, Perrin L. Solomon - a man who Oates could not possibly have known because he died in San Francisco when Oates was a 13 year-old boy in Alabama.2

Ordering your long-dead in-laws - people whom you never met - dug up for a mass family cremation is unfathomable, at least to me. Perhaps he developed the idea while wallowing in his deep depression following Mattie's death; perhaps he wanted to make a dark nihilistic statement about her family; perhaps the request was a caustic joke which his friend tragically took seriously; perhaps he asked for it because he was barking mad. Whatever the reason, all of their bodies were indeed cremated together.

"The ashes will be thrown to the winds by Dr. Bogle, in conformity with another wish of Colonel Oates," the Santa Rosa Republican reported. "The cremation of this number of bodies from the same family, all in one day, is a very unusual proceeding."

1 The women were grandchildren of Wyatt's aunt, which made them his first cousins once removed. Pat (also known as "Patti" or "Pattie") was 25 at the time of Oates' death and Lois ("Louise") was twenty. May cannot be clearly identified through census and genealogical records among the three (possibly four) other daughters in the family but "Mae" appears in the 1920 census with the same age as Pat, so perhaps they were twins.

2 The Press Democrat article transcribed below implies the Solomons were buried in Santa Rosa, but that is very unlikely. Perrin L. Solomon died in 1863 and according to Mattie's obituary, her siblings died as infants. Wyatt's estate included a burial plot in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco, which presumably was where they were buried.

Bright Light in History of Santa Rosa Since 1876 Succumbs To Fatal Attack of Double Pneumonia

James Wyatt Oates, one of Santa Rosa's most loved and revered citizens, and a resident of this city since 1876, died about 2 o'clock Thursday morning after an illness of some weeks. Toward the last of his sickness developed into double pneumonia, and every effort was made by physicians and nurses to ward off the fatal attack, but in the end his age of 65 years counted against him and he passed away.

Mr. Oates was born in Alabama. When a young man he went to Arizona, and later came to California, settling in Santa Rosa, which has been his home ever since. Soon after coming to Santa Rosa he married Miss Mattie Solomon, daughter of Mrs. M. S. Solomon of San Francisco. After his marriage Mr. Oates, who was a brilliant attorney, formed a law partnership with Barclay Henley, afterward sent to Congress from this district, and E. L. Whipple. This firm of Henley, Whipple & Oates was recognized for many years as the leading attorneys of Santa Rosa.

Mr. Oates had always taken an active interest in the political and social life of the city, and was interested in state and national politics. He was a strong and self-reliant figure through many years of political battles and earned the respect and admiration of everyone in the city.

His wife died about a year ago, after he mother had passed away previously, and Mrs. Oates never quite recovered from the shock of her loss. He made a trip to his old home in the South and returned with two nieces, but it was seen that his health was failing. A short time ago he made a trip to southern California, and was forced to return because of a bad cold contracted while away. This cold grew worse and developed into this final illness which caused his death.

The sudden death of Colonel Oates has brought a poignant grief in many households in this city and county. Early Thursday morning telephone messages from Cloverdale and other sections of the county were received at this office inquiring as to his condition, and the announcement of his death was greeted with exclamations of surprise and genuine regret. Recently Colonel Oates had been feeling better than he had at any time since the death of his beloved wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. Her death left a void in his life that could not be filled. He planned a trip to Los Angeles to spend Thanksgiving with Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap, who were probably his closest personal friends on the coast. Returning home he caught a severe cold in the sleeper coming north, and was unable to keep warm. He did not feel particularly bad, but the cold kept him confined to his residence for several days. Even then he resented any one's believing he was ill, and thought that his robust constitution would be abundantly sufficient to overcome any slight indisposition which the cold might have occasioned.

It was only last Friday afternoon that Colonel Oates really complained of feeling badly, and Dr. Joseph H. Shaw and a nurse were summoned to attend him. His bronchial tubes were affected, and even then it was believed that his condition would readily yield to treatment. The condition proved far more obstinate than at first believed and pneumonic symptoms appeared on Sunday. Tuesday morning Colonel Oates was quite low physically and serum was administered to the patient. Wednesday a chill showed the reaction from the serum, and at noon of that day Colonel Oates rallied and declared that he felt fine.

Wednesday evening the patient collapsed, and from that time on his decline was rapid, and despite the efforts of skilled physicians and trained nurses, he passed to the Great Beyond. The dread pneumonia had secured such a hold on him that its ravages could not be stayed.

Colonel Oates had thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Los Angeles with his friends, the Dunlaps, and when he returned home was bubbling over with happiness over his visit. He was never more pleased than when with the Dunlaps, and always enjoyed their company. Mrs. Dunlap was with Colonel Oates when he passed away and had done much to soothe his last moments on earth. Another happiness which had come to Colonel Oates since the death of his wife and his return from a visit to his old home in the South, was the visit of the Misses Pat and Lois Granberry and Attorney William C. Oates of Montgomery, Ala. The latter has been notified of the death of the eminent Santa Rosan, and is en route here. He will arrive Monday evening if all goes well.

Funeral Tuesday

The funeral of Colonel Oates has been set for Tuesday afternoon, and Rev. Willis G. White will be the officiating minister. The services will be conducted at the Oates residence on Mendocino avenue. The deceased was a member of Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 57, F. & A. M., and of the Santa Rosa Lodge, No. 646, B. P. O. E.

In the death of Colonel Oates Santa Rosa has lost one of her foremost citizens, a man who was alway valorously fighting for the right in civic affairs, and who always championed the cause of the oppressed and the downtrodden. He was a man of strong convictions, and never hesitated to give his opinions on the questions of the day, even though in doing so he might have disagreed with his friends. He was a man who had the courage of his convictions, and who had the temerity to follow the dictates of his own conscience. The world is better than he should have been permitted to live, and the example of his life will be a guide for many young men of this community who knew him intimately and who will revere his memory. The world can ill afford to lose such men as James Wyatt Oates, for he was one of its staunchest men, a man who measured everybody by the standard of being "square." Those who did not measure up to this standard of being "square" were not admired by the deceased in even a slight degree.

To many in this city the death of Colonel Oates will come as a personal grief. He was a sincere friend to those who knew him well and his counsel was eagerly sought by these friends. He was a man well versed in the law, and for many years past had made a specialty of corporate law. He was looked upon as an authority in his line, and a man of superior talents. He was a brother of the late Governor Oates of Alabama, and a member of a prominent family in that favored land.

The active pallbearers will include...

- Santa Rosa Republican, December 9, 1915


When the Superior Court assembled Monday morning, Judges Seawell and Denny sat en banc for the purpose of receiving official intimation of the death of the late Colonel Hames W. Oates.



Will C. Oates arrived here Monday afternoon from Alabama for the funeral of the late Colonel Oates, his uncle, which takes place this afternoon. Mr. Oates' father was Governor of Alabama. He came west immediately upon receiving the news of his uncle's death.

- Santa Rosa Republican, December 14, 1915

Last Tribute Paid to Beloved Santa Rosa Citizen

Amid  manifestations of sincere grief the mortal remains of the late Colonel James Wyatt Oates were borne to the tomb Tuesday afternoon. Will C. Oates of Montgomery, Alabama, who had been a guest at the Oates home here during the recent fall, came hurriedly from his southern home and attended the funeral of his uncle. Mr. Oates came from Montgomery immediately on receipt of the news of his uncle's death.

Beautiful flowers, the loving remembrances of friends, were brought in profusion to adorn the casket of the deceased, and to mark his last resting place. These flowers ran the gamut of the blossoms of the season and were in various designs, from the modest shower bouquet to the massive designs. They spoke eloquently of the love of the living for the deceased. Among the designs were those forwarded by the fraternal societies to which the deceased was attached and which he greatly loved.

Of a cheery, kindly and happy nature far in excess of that of the majority of men, accompanied by a sense of absolute honor and fairness, which makes for perpetuation of the individual in memory of his fellow men. James Wyatt Oates will be remembered for many years to come, and until long after a new generation has come to take the places of those now active in the affairs of this section. He was a man who was quick to see and appreciate the virtues and possibilites of his fellow men, and he interested himself in them in such a manner that made life-long friendships.

Throughout this section and wherever he was known, Colonel Oates was held in high esteem, and deep sorrow at his untimely demise has been expressed by these friends. He had a conspicuous and honorable career of usefulness as a good citizen and was a striking figure of the Sonoma county bar. For many years his kindly face and familiar figure were so well known in the community in which he had spent practically the best part of his life, and for such a considerable period were his wise counsels sought by his neighbors that many of his old-time friends can scarcely realize that he has gone from them forever. It was a privilege to have known Colonel Oates intimately, and many residents of this city and county rejoiced in that privilege.

The funeral services were conducted by Rev. Willis G. White, pastor of the Presbyterian church, who paid a splendid eulogy to the deceased and his many admirable traits of character.

William C. Oates, Dr. S. S. Bogle, Hilliard Comstock, Charles H. Rule, Samuel Carey Dunlap and Dr. D. C. Farnham were the active pallbearers. The honorary pallbearers included the following:

Admiral J. B. Milton, San Francisco, Blitz W. Paxton, W. E. McConnell, Charles A. Wright, Judge Emmet Seawell, Judge Thomas C. Denny, Charles C. Belden, Mark L. McDonald, Jr., A. C. McMeans, Walter W. Monroe, Herbert Whitton, Elwyn D. Seaton, Charles A. Hoffer, John Tyler Campbell, L. D. Jacks, Paul T. Hahmann, Glenn E. Murdock, Wm. E. Woolsey, J. L. Mercier, Edward M. Norton, J. Elmer Mobley, W. Fraser, Herbert Slater, Arthur K. Lee and Rev. C. C. Cragin.

- Santa Rosa Republican, December 14, 1915

Following Southern Custom, Document Is Opened After Funeral, But Contents Will Not Be Known Until Filed for Probate

The will of the late J. W. Oates, as is customary in the south, was opened and read yesterday afternoon following the funeral. While it has been agreed among those interested that no details relative to its contents shall be made known prior to the filing of the will for probate. It is known that Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule, two of the most intimate friends of the deceased, are named as executors of the instrument.

The will was opened in the office of Attorney Hilliard Comstock in the presence of Dr. Bogle, Charles Rule, Samuel C. Dunlap, Will C. Oates, and Attorney Comstock, who was associated with the deceased in the practice of law. It is expected the document will be filed for probate within a day or two by the gentlemen nominated therein as executors.

- Press Democrat, December 15, 1915

William C. Oates, Nephew of the Deceased, Reported to Have Been Disinherited--Deceased Lawyer Left Property Valued at Over One Hundred Thousand Dollars

The late James Wyatt Oates left a valuable estate. It is said that in realty and personally it will aggregate over $100,000.

In addition to the beautiful home on Mendocino avenue, Mr. Oates owned a prune orchard on Sonoma avenue and other real estate, and also considerable bank stock and other securities.

While the will of the deceased lawyer has not as yet been filed for probate, it is understood that a cousin of the late Mrs. Oates, Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap, formerly Miss Anna May Bell, comes in for the largest share of the estate.

Mrs. Dunlap was a great favorite of both the deceased and his wife and both prior to her marriage to Mr. Dunlap and since has visited at the Oates house here.

It is also understood that the Misses Pat and Lois Granberry, granddaughters of Mr. Oates, also come in for a large share of the property.

It will be remembered that the Misses Granberry spent a considerable portion of the summer in Santa Rosa at the Oates home.

There has been a persistent rumor that some time prior to his death, Mr. Oates disinherited his nephew, William C. Oates, who came here from his old home in Alabama to attend the funeral and will return today, and cut him off from any share in the property. If this proves true it will come as a surprise, as Will Oates is the Colonel's nearest relative. He is a son of the late William C. Oates, former Governor and United States Senator of Alabama.

In addition to the share of the estate, which it is understod goes to Mrs. Dunlap and the Misses Granberry, Mr. Oates is understood to have made other personal bequests, among which is his law library and practice to Attorney Hilliard Comstock, who was his law partner and who, since the death of Mrs. Oates, was his constant companion. Attorney Comstock will probate the estate.

As has been stated previously, Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule are named in the will as executors. It is likely that the will may be filed today.

- Press Democrat, December 18, 1915

Deceased Lawyer Intimated to Friends Some Time Since That He Thought of Making City a Bequest of His Books

It is not unlikely that when the will of the late James W. Oates is filed for probate a provision will be found whereby the fine collection of books in his private library will be conveyed to the Free Public Library as a gift. Mr. Oates is known to have had this idea in mind for some time previous to his death, and is said to have told at least two of his friends that he had embodied such a provision in his last will and testament.

As already stated in thes columns, Mr. Oates bequeathed his law library to his partner, Hilliard Comstock, along with his legal practice. It is also reported that Mr. Comstock is given the right to occupy the residence on Mendocino avenue until such time as it is sold and the proceeds turned into the estate. For some months prior to Mr. Oates' death, Comstock has been making his home there with him.

- Press Democrat, December 19, 1915

As Stated in the Press Democrat, Will C. Oates Is Cut Off From Sharing in the Estate, the Bulk of Which Goes to Mrs. S. C. Dunlap and the Misses Granberry--Santa Rosa Gets Private Library--Will and Codicil

THE WILL of the late James Wyatt Oates has been filed for probate in the Superior Court of this county, and as stated several days ago in the Press Democrat, the deceased cut off his nephew, Will C. Oates without anything, leaving the bulk of his estate to Mrs. Samuel Carey Dunlap of Los Angeles (formerly Miss Anna May Bell) and to the Misses May, Lois and Pat Granberry of Alabama, his grand-nieces.


As was also stated in the Press Democrat on Sunday morning, Mr. Oates left his private library to the Santa Rosa Public Library, and his valuable law library and office furniture and practice to Captain Hilliard Comstock, for years his close friend companion [sic] and law partner. And, as was also stated, the deceased made a number of bequests to other relatives and intimate friends. The estate is valued at about $100,000.


Dr. S. S. Bogle and Charles H. Rule, the executors named in the will, filed their petition for letters testamentary in the Superior Court yesterday through Attorney Hilliard Comstock. Among the property left by Mr. Oates is the family home and grounds on Mendocino avenue; two lots on Spencer avenue and adjoining streets; a prune orchard on Sonoma avenue; a lot on Fourth street, occupied by Brown's poultry store; $20,000 worth of mortgages and notes; much bank stock and other securities; and, as stated in the will, valuable interests in coal mines in Arizona and in gold mines in Mexico. The latter, however, are of uncertain value owing to the conditions there.


In his will Mr. Oates had previously bequeathed his nephew a third of the estate, but in a codicil, olographic in nature, executed only last October, he cut him off entirely.

Mrs. May Whipple, life-long friend of the family, and widow of Mr. Oates' former law partner, the late E. L. Whipple, is also cut off in the codicil although she was a beneficiary to the amount of $1,000 under the terms of the will as originally written.

The will and codicil, as filed in court yesterday, are as follows:


- Press Democrat, December 22, 1915

Olographic Codicil of October, 1915, Makes Several Changes in Distribution of $100,000 Estate of Santa Rosan

The will of the late Colonel James W. Oates was filed for probate in the Superior Court Tuesday afternoon by Attorney Hilliard Comstock, former law partner of the late Colonel Oates. The estate is valued at about $100,000 and many bequests are made.

Personal articles are given to intimate friends, sums of money to other friends, and Mrs. Samuel Cary Dunlap, formerly Miss Anna May Bell, is left the bulk of the estate with his grandnieces, the Misses May, Lois and Pat Granberry.

William C. Oates, a nephew of the deceased, is completely cut off by a codicil, which was executed in October last. There is an unconfirmed rumor that Mr. Oates plans to contest the will. Thus far no authority for this state can be secured.

There is a letter referred to in the will, and this letter makes a number of personal bequests, among them being a walnut table and other pieces of furniture to Charles Rule; Miss Grace Dougherty is given Mrs. Oates gold watch; the Saturday Afternoon Club gets a large and handsome mirror for the club house, which was intended for such gifts by Mrs. Oates. The gifts practically dispose of the house furnishing, paintings, etc., following out suggestions made by Mrs. Oates as well as the deceased. The intimate friends who are remembered with keepsakes, etc., included those just mentioned, and Dr. Bogle, Mrs. Frank Doyle, Mrs. Woodward, Miss Bess Woodward, Mrs. C. H. Dwinelle, Miss Sadie Morrill, Mr. and Mrs. B. W. Paxton, Mrs. Margaret Farnham, Miss Harrell and others, and the relatives in the South and East.

The will and codicil in full are as follows:


- Santa Rosa Republican, December 22, 1915

Dr. S. S. Bogle True to His Trust in Fulfilling the Promise Given Late James Wyatt Oates on His Dying Bed--Seven Bodies Taken from Here to Oakland

Some time prior to the death of the late James Wyatt Oates, he asked Dr. S. S. Bogle, his personal friend and one of the executors of his will, to promise him that he would see that his body and the bodies of the late Mrs. Oates, General and Mrs. Solomon, her parents, and of her brothers and sisters, were all removed from the Santa Rosa cemetery and cremated.

On Wednesday, Dr. Bogle fulfilled his trust and all seven bodies were cremated in the Oakland crematorium in a short time, als in carrying out another wish of the late Mr. Oates, the ashes will be scattered to the winds.

Undertaker Frank Welti of this city removed the caskets of Mr. and Mrs. Oates and the late Mrs. M. S. Solomon from their temporary vault and the bodies of the late General Solomon and his other children, Perrin L. Solomon, Maria S. Solomon and Ann Solomon, making seven bodies in all and took them to Oakland. Prior to the creation of the same Dr. Bogle, who was present, inspected all of them, and they were consigned to the furnace and reduced to ashes.

The creation of the mortal remains of seven members of the same family on the same day and in the same crematorium is rather unusual. Some of the bodies thus disposed of had been buried for many years, and when taken up were found to be still in a good state of preservation.

- Press Democrat, January 23, 1916

Petition Filed in the Superior Court on Wednesday Recites That Year Has Lapsed--The Messrs. Granberry Ask for Distribution

William C. Oates, nephew of the late James W. Oates of this city, apparently has given up his intention of contesting his uncle's will, as the year has passed by without his having done so. The law provides that a contest must be brought with a year after the issuing of the letters testamentary.

The latter was brought to mind in the Superior Court on Wednesday when a petition was filed by the Misses Pat, Lois and May Granberry asking the court to partially distribute the estate to them. The petition sets forth that each of the Misses Granberry is entitled to over $15,000, and they ask that $10,500 be distributed to them for their respective shares. Mention is also made that a year has massed since the letters testamentary were issued in the estate. Donald Geary is the attorney for the Misses Granberry. Captain Hilliard Comstock represents the estate.

- Press Democrat, February 22, 1917

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