Like robins in spring, the return of the Barlow boys to the Sebastopol work camps announced the arrival of summer.
(RIGHT: Handwritten caption on photo: "A squad goes to a near by farm to pick berries." Photo early 1910s and courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society)
In the early Twentieth Century, California juvenile courts sentenced boys who committed minor crimes or deemed incorrigible to spend the rest of their youth at institutions not unlike a modern prison halfway house. One of these places, the Boys' and Girls' Aid Society of San Francisco, struck a deal with the Barlow family of Sebastopol; during summers the boys would camp on the ranch and pick berries and fruit for low pay. Soon other farmers wanted in on the sweet deal for ultra-cheap labor and it wasn't long before the Aid Society and similar institutions were sending up hundred of boys – some as young as seven – to work in West County fields and canneries every year. (For more background, see "SEBASTOPOL'S CHILD LABOR CAMPS.")
The year 1911 wasn't much different than previous years; at least four boys tried to escape and a pair of them made it as far as Sacramento – no easy task, considering their clothes were locked up at night and they probably had little or no money. The Santa Rosa newspapers predictably described the Aid Society children as being on "vacation" during their time here and boasted they were earning "splendid wages," without mentioning they were being paid a fraction of the rate formerly earned by the adult farmworkers they were displacing.
Some new details did emerge however; we learn the Barlow boys were sometimes working over eleven hours a day in the fields, which certainly puts a crimp in the ol' "vacation" portrayal. Thanks to a Press Democrat summary of the Aid Society's annual report, we find more than a dozen of the boys escaped or tried to escape from their facility in San Francisco during the year, so it wasn't just that they disliked their hands and arms being incessantly scratched by thorns all summer. The Aid Society placed employment above education and about two in three of the kids had a job, which suggests the Barlow boys were the leftovers, either too young to work or unemployable for some reason. Although they said "night classes are conducted for the benefit of these working boys and every boy is given an opportunity to improve his education," I'm certain a 12 year-old who spends all day sweeping factory floors is raring to be drilled on his multiplication tables after supper.
We don't know much about the boys individually except for the occasional anecdote, such as the two Santa Rosa kids who were sentenced there for truancy and stealing chickens in 1907. But we do know some interesting stuff about them as a group because a medical journal published a 1916 study of the "juvenile delinquents" at the Aid Society. We learn they were mostly a little taller and heavier and stronger than average for their age, with over half suffering dental problems – which is really no surprise as the kids were expected to pay for their own dentistry out of their earnings (clothing, too). .
Measuring their physical traits is all well and good, but what the researchers really wanted to know was this: How smart were they? Linking criminality to low intelligence was one of the burning scientific questions of the day, and most of the boys were sentenced to the Aid Society for minor crimes – stealing, burglary, truancy and incorrigibility (children who committed serious crimes went to the Preston School of Industry at Ione, which was like a prison). To make sense of what they found, we have to first wade into the murky waters of the "IQ" test.
How do you estimate intelligence? At the turn of the century, you primarily measured the size and shape of someone's head; a pretty skull meant there were probably pretty brains inside, and a noggin that was small or shaped the "wrong" way meant the person wasn't too bright and probably wanted to steal your watch. There were other considerations (tattoos! long arms! "precocious" wrinkles!) but all came down to the nonsense that you could tell how smart, dumb, or inclined to criminality someone was by looking at their body.
French psychologist Alfred Binet was among a few pioneers in his field experimenting with a radical new approach: Evaluating how well someone answered questions and solved problems. In 1904 the French government hired him to develop a test to identify children with learning disabilities so they could be helped with special education. Over the next several years he refined his method with a colleague and the "Binet-Simon Scale" became the standard method of evaluating children, although he never claimed his technique measured intelligence.
Binet's test was adapted for American use in 1916 by Stanford University professor Lewis Terman, whose main interest was the opposite – using the test to spot "gifted" children. If those kids were given a good education, he believed they would grow up to be captains of industry, statesmen, brilliant scientists and other topnotch achievers. Professor Terman, it seems, was a true believer in the dark nonsense of eugenics with its notion some people are superior to others.
To prove his point, he followed over a thousand high-IQ youths – almost all white and middle class – around for the rest of their lives (Terman called the subjects his "Termites," yuk, yuk). Ultimately he proved himself wrong; while a great many of them went to college, overall they were no more successful than other American boys and girls in their generation. Only a handful made any sort of notable achievement, but ironically two young men who Terman deemed not smart enough to qualify later won a Nobel Prize in Physics (William Shockley and Luis Alvarez).
Terman's eugenic views are most obvious when he classified kids at the lower end of the scale. Binet called these children "retarded," meaning simply they weren't keeping up with their peers, and besides a lack of intelligence the cause could be family problems, bad teachers, or other reasons that could be fixed. When explaining how his test should be used, he worried that psychologists were too eager to tar these children for life by slapping labels on their backs with vague meanings such as "idiot," "imbecile" and "moron." Professor Terman and other eugenicists instead claimed those derogatory terms had scientific precision. Those below an IQ of about 25 he classified as idiots; a ranking of 25-50 was an imbecile; anyone between 50 and 70 was a low, middle, or high moron. Terman believed schooling these "defectives" was a waste of time and taxpayer money, except for vocational training. Possibly.
The problem with eugenics (well, one of the problems) is that it's built on the worst sort of slippery slope logic. Not only were defectives unteachable, declared Terman, but also prone to crime – a false assumption which still carried over from the days when we were looking at the shape of heads. In his 1916 book on the IQ test he wrote, "not all criminals are feeble-minded, but all feeble-minded are at least potential criminals. That every feeble-minded woman is a potential prostitute would hardly be disputed by any one."
So did the IQ study of the Aid Society kids prove Terman right? The researchers found "dull normals" – meaning just slightly below average intelligence – were most likely to be there because they were skipping school (interestingly, they were also ten times more likely than any of the others to have bad hearing).
In the other three crime categories – stealing, burglary and incorrigibility – the boys with normal intelligence exceeded or were tied with those classified as being not as smart. More than half of the "normals" were there for stealing or burglary. The researchers also did a limited survey of the Aid Society boys' backgrounds and it shows the main environmental factors they shared were extreme poverty and bad friends. It completely disproved Terman's eugenics theories; these bad eggs were mostly average boys who happened to be poor and hung out with the wrong crowd.
Whether Terman read that study is unknown but it is extremely likely, given that it was based on the Binet tests he was then adapting for American use. It certainly didn't make him waver in his views; as years went on his enthusiasm for eugenics hardened. He began saying some people – including entire nationalities and races – were uniformly inferior. He later wrote, "a median IQ of 80 for Italian, Portuguese, and Mexican school children in the cities of California would be a liberal estimate."
We also can't be sure if Terman ever came up from Stanford to visit Sonoma County, but if he did it was surely to meet Dr. Fred O. Butler of the Sonoma State Home (now called the Sonoma Developmental Center). Prof. Terman was an enthusiastic believer that "defectives" should be sterilized so they can't parent children, and Dr. Butler had turned the hospital into a sterilization mill, leading the nation in performing thousands of such operations. And when eugenicists later classified homosexual boys and promiscuous girls as sexually delinquent defectives, they were forcibly sterilized by Dr. Butler as well (see "SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS" for more).
Today the reputation of Lewis Terman has been largely whitewashed. A recent textbook on multicultural education points out that high school and college texts are likely to describe his genius tracking study and his revision of Binet's scale but rarely is his eugenics history noted. A Google search for his name in scholarly books and journals shows the word "eugenics" appears in only 1 out of 10 works.
Yet the damage he caused was incalculable. By turning Binet's method – which wasn't intended to measure intelligence at all – into a written test with right and wrong answers, Terman made it easy to condemn people who tested poorly as inferiors, which usually leads to lives of lesser opportunities and hopes. He was a bad scientist with regrettable ethics; Terman was on the Advisory Committee of the American Eugenics Society and didn't resign until after Hitler came to power, so maybe he should be called clueless as well.
The one bright spot in this dismal tale is that in 1916, the Barlow boys proved him completely, utterly wrong about everything. Too bad he wasn't smart enough to pay attention.
DID GOOD WORK FOR THE BOYSAccomplishments of the Boys and Girls Aid Society--Boys Are Picking BerriesThe annual meeting of the Boys' and Girls' Aid Society was held on Tuesday for the purpose of hearing reports of the officers of the Society and electing a Board of Trustees for the ensuing year. In the absence of the president, Senator George C. Perkins, who is in Washington, D. C., the chair was taken by the vice-president, Charles A. Murdock.
The report of the superintendent, George C. Turner, gave the details of the splendid work of the Society for the needy boys of San Francisco and vicinity.
Two hundred and forty-one boys were received into the hands of the Society during the year ending June 30th, and received the benefits of special training and schooling including manual training under the Lloyd system.
The Society is working in conjunction with the juvenile courts and probation officers of this and other counties in the State and has received one hundred and forty boys from the courts.
As the boys improve in their conduct and when they have made satisfactory progress in their school work, they are secured positions through the employment agency maintained by the Society, through which one hundred and fifty-one boys were placed in good positions during the year.
The best qualities of manhood are developed by the care given the boys who are placed on their honor. This is shown by the fact that during last year 5,172 leaves of absence were granted on Sundays with but 13 failures to return--less than ½ of 1%.
For homeless boys the Society maintains the Charles R. Bishop Annex, where boys may board while they are learning trades and until they become self-supporting. These boys have individual rooms not very large, but neat and tasteful and have sitting rooms, library, and the family dining room where excellent meals are served at moderate rates. Night classes are conducted for the benefit of these working boys and every boy is given an opportunity to improve his education.
The younger boys are sent to approved country homes through the Children's Agency, the Children's Home Society and the Native Sons and Native Daughters Committee on Homeless Children, who last year placed out fifty-two boys for the Society. Children so placed are permanently removed from the streets of the city and often grow up in their environment.
In addition to the work in San Francisco, the Society maintains a summer camp on the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol, where last year one hundred and sixty-three boys were engaged in picking loganberries and Mammoths and Lawton blackberries, picking one hundred and ninety-four tons of berries and earning in all $3,948, of which the boys received $2,328.39, which was used for clothing and dentistry, and some of it put in the bank.
The summer outing is a great benefit to the boys and a great help to the berry growers, who have learned to depend on the boys for assistance in harvesting their berries.
The officers and trustees for the following year are: [...]
- Press Democrat, July 21, 1911
BOYS PICKING MANY BERRIESHaving Great Financial Success in Their LaborsSpecial Officer W. D. Scott, of the Boys' and Girls' Aid Society, came up on the evening train Tuesday with several boys, who were being escorted to the berry fields at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol.
Two of the boys in charge of Mr. Scott had recently made their escape from the berry fields, having taken French leave at night. They passed through this city and made their way to Sacramento before they wee captured. They were Clarence Johnson and H. Chapman. They enjoyed liberty for four days.
Officer Scott declares the boys in the berry fields are not only having one of the finest vacations they have ever enjoyed, but they are meeting with greater financial success than ever before. One of the boys in camp earned $2.64 in one day during the past week and most of the boys are averaging splendid wages. The berries are ripening rapidly and the lads are laboring until 6 o'clock each evening in the endeavor to relieve the vines of their burden of fruit before it becomes too ripe for shipment.
On a recent evening the books at the camp were examined and it was found that the boys had collectively earned $1800 up to that date in harvesting the berry crop. The harvest will last for some time to come, and it can be readily be seen what a financial benefit the outing of the boys turns out to be. Aside from this it gives the lads one of the best vacations in the country that could be planned for them.
- Santa Rosa Republican, July 26, 1911
RUNAWAY BOYS RECAPTUREDTwo runaway boys from the Boys' and Girls' Aid Society camp at Mrs. Barlow's ranch in the Gold Ridge district were taken back to camp by officers of the association Saturday night, after having been caught here by Officer Nick Yeager.
- Santa Rosa Republican, July 31, 1911
BOYS EARNED MUCH MONEYBerry Harvesting Profitable to Large NumberSomething of the magnitude of the berry industry in the Gold Ridge section can be ascertained when it is realized that the forces of the Boys' and Girls' Aid Society this season earned more than $4600 gathering the crop. The boys were paid four cents per tray for the harvesting of the berries, both Logans and blacks.
The boys went into camp on the Barlow place about June 1st, and finished picking the berries on September 13. Their record this year shows that they have earned one hundred dollars more than on any previous year, the record of $4500 having been made in 1910. This would indicate that the berry crop was slightly larger this year than the previous season.
Two-thirds of this money will be distributed to the boys who earned it, and it will be given them in proportion to the amount earned by each individual boys. With the moneys [sic] given to the boys they have the right to choose what they will do with it, so long as the contemplated expenditure is legitimate. Many of the lads buy clothing, some place the money in bank to draw interest, while still others help their families financially. Most of the boys buy magazines with a portion of their coin.
During the year the boys were engaged in picking for about twenty people while they were in the Gold Ridge section. Their camp at the Barlow ranch was dismantled Friday morning, preparatory for their start for home and Old Glory, which has floated from the flagstaff there daily was hauled down with appropriate ceremonies.
Ninety-five boys were in the merry party which returned to San Francisco on the afternoon train Friday, having had one of the most enjoyable outings on record.
- Santa Rosa Republican, September 15, 1911
It was the best and worst of times for the two men; for 21 year-old Hilliard Comstock, 1912 brought memorable and happy days – but for his friend and mentor, James Wyatt Oates it was a year of retreat and sorrow as the health of his beloved wife, Mattie, slowly faded away.
(RIGHT: Hilliard Comstock undated portrait. Image courtesy Martha Comstock Keegan)
The previous item covered the decline of the Oates', where it was noted the couple completely disappeared from any mention in the papers after July. Never before had that happened; even when they were away from Santa Rosa, there were always society column tidbits about who they were visiting, when they would be home, or such. The latest on Mattie's heart condition was reported obsessively until the blackout began. And what else happened that month? Hilliard Comstock became an attorney.
Hilliard – or "Hillyard" "Oomstock" as the local newspapers hilariously misspelled his name in separate errors – began reading law with Oates in 1909 and passed the bar examination on his first attempt. Not bad for a guy who had never set foot in any sort of classroom.
Before the end of July it was announced Hilliard would be practicing law from Oates' office in the Santa Rosa Bank building (now better known as the Empire building). They weren't yet partners; "Oates & Comstock" would not be painted on the windows for a couple of years. Then only a few days after that, he made his first appearance in the Superior Court as an associate of Oates' in a small damages case against the Southern Pacific railroad.
It is surely no coincidence that the Oates' vanished from public exactly the same week Hilliard stepped on stage. Having his protégé available to "mind the store" freed Wyatt to do whatever he wanted, which was likely nothing more than just staying at home by Mattie's bedside (hopefully not smoking his usual cigars).
Passing the bar and launching his legal career would be enough to keep most people busy, but also that July he was elected second lieutenant in the National Guard. Shortly after that first appearance in court Hilliard joined the rest of the local company in two weeks of maneuvers with Army troops in the Central Valley, so maybe Oates hung around his downtown office for a few weeks after all.
National Guard Company E was as much a boy's club as it was a militia, and the last sighting of Hilliard in 1912 is of him helping organize a blowout New Year's Day party. But his most notable social event that year was meeting future wife Helen at a barn dance. In her oral history, she recalled Hilliard always said he asked to dance with the pretty little girl who had "red cheeks and curls up on top of her head." According to him, 13 year-old Helen stuck a finger in her mouth and replied, "I don't rag, thank you." Helen said she didn't remember that, but Hilliard would laugh and swear it was true.
HILLYARD COMSTOCK PASSES AS ATTORNEYHillyard Comstock, one of the well known residents of Santa Rosa, took the bar examination before the Appellate Court at Sacramento on Monday, and successfully passed the ordeal. He will begin the practice of law in this city in the near future. Mr. Comstock's many friends are glad to know of his success.
- Santa Rosa Republican, July 2, 1912
LAW OFFICE OPENED BY HILLIARD OOMSTOCKHilliard Comstock, who was recently admitted to practice law, has opened a law office in the Santa Rosa Bank building and is ready to attend to all matters in the courts of the county and State. He has his office in the same suite as Colonel James W. Oates. Mr. Comstock has a great many friends who wish him every success in the practice of his profession.
- Press Democrat, July 24, 1912
NAME COMSTOCK FOR LIEUTENANTElection in Held by Company E Monday Night--Plans for the Encampment Next MonthColonel D. A. Smith, commanding the Fifth Regiment Infantry and Major L. C. Francis of the Third Battalion, Fifth Infantry, N. G. C. were visitors here over Monday night when Company E, which is a part of the third battalion of the Fifth Regiment, elected Hilliard Comstock as second lieutenant, thus completing its roll of officers, following the recent resignation of captain and lieutenant.
Mr. Comstock was only elected after five ballots had been taken and then by a majority of one vote. While the contest was close no feeling has been engendered and all will unite in giving the three new officers the support which goes to make a strong company. Following the election Mr. Comstock underwent his examination for the position at the hands of the visiting officers and made a very creditable showing. With the others he will now take the physical examination, and it is probable all three commissions will arrive at the same time prior to the Company leaving for camp.
Company E will join the regiments on Sunday August 11, in San Francisco, en route to Salinas to participate in the two weeks maneuvers in conjunction with the regular army, and the other militia forces in the state. It is necessary that thirty-eight men make the trip to maintain the standing of the company in the Guard. At the present time thirty members have signed the roll signifying their intention of participating in the maneuvers. Under the law the men will receive $1 per day from the State, and 50 cents per day from the Federal government for the occasion...
- Press Democrat, July 30, 1912
HILLIARD COMSTOCK'S FIRST APPEARANCEHilliard Comstock, attorney-at-law, made his first appearance in the Superior Court on Saturday, being associated with Colonel J. W. Oates as counsel for the plaintiff in the suit of George M. Root against the Southern Pacific Company. The plaintiff sues to recover property upon which the railroad entered in the L. J. Nolan addition to Santa Rosa, for $500 damages and for $250 for loss of rents and profits and for other relief.
- Press Democrat, August 6, 1912
CO. E BOYS TO HAVE HAPPY NEW YEARArmory Will Keep Open House and There Will Be Feasting and Right Merry TimeNew Year's Day will be a jolly one for the members of Company E. N. G. C. of this city. "Open House" is to be kept for the members from four o'clock in the afternoon until 12 midnight.
There will be some big "eats" too, for the soldier boys. The viands will include roast turkey, mince pie, plum pudding, cake, etc. In between the feasting Lieutenant Hilliard Comstock, who is much interested in indoor baseball, says there will be baseball and pool, billiards, etc. for the entertainment of the members. Captain Edward Walden Beatty and Lieutenant Leland Britton and Lieutenant Comstock, and the non-commissioned officers will be on hand to assist in giving every one a good time. Corporal R. L. Hunt will be master of ceremonies.
- Press Democrat, December 28, 1912
We don't know exactly when Mattie Oates had her first heart attack, but it might have been the night of the fire. Two weeks later, the Press Democrat's weekly society column noted, "The many friends of Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will hear with regret that she is ill with a trained nurse in attendance. The attack which was very serious at first has yielded to good care and attention."
While there was no damage to her home from the August, 1911 chimney blaze, it was undoubtedly a terrifying experience for the 53 year-old woman. Her death certificate would later date the beginning of her illness to that year and name the cause as "dilitation of heart" – an old-fashioned name for enlarged heart (cardiomegaly) – which is often related to a big spike in blood pressure. As in: What happens to you when someone is banging on your door in the middle of the night and screaming about your house being on fire.
From that point onward, Mattie was an invalid. Over the following months the society columns in both Santa Rosa newspapers chronicled her better days ("she is making rapid progress towards recovery") and her setbacks ("a specialist from San Francisco...held little hope for her recovery"). Yes, the columnists sometimes mentioned the health of other society matrons, but never with such obsessive interest.
Until the fire and heart attack, 1911 had been a good year for the Oates. They hosted at least three dinner parties at their home (which would later become known as Comstock House) and had house guests, including the beloved woman who was something of a godchild to them, the former Anna May Bell, who brought along her baby daughter. Wyatt stepped down as president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association after two years and was lauded for his service. And being the car-crazy fool that he was, he bought them a new car – a Hupmobile two-seater, with a peppy 20 horsepower engine.
But after her heart attack, every Oates sighting in the papers concerns her health and convalescence. The couple spent several weeks in Southern California during the 1911-1912 winter to escape the Northern California rains and visit friends. The gossip columns reported that Mattie was feeling better but Wyatt was bored; of Santa Barbara, he wrote to the Press Democrat, "The tourist crop is not yet quite ripe, and as they have no other here, it is very dull." Once back in Santa Rosa she had another relapse.
The Oates were slowly fading from public view; this item combines their doings in 1911 and 1912 because even the obsessive society column health updates ended after about a year. In 1912 Anna May visited again and in midsummer there was a small dinner in Mattie's honor at a downtown restaurant. That was the last mention of either of them for the rest of the year.
Not all was despair and deathwatch for James Wyatt Oates, however; at this same time the career of his protégé was launching, as covered in the following item. The path ahead for Wyatt and Mattie led into twilight – but for Hilliard Comstock, on the horizon was a bright dawn.
The many friends of Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will learn with regret of her late indisposition. A relapse following a sever attack of lagrippe has confined Mrs. Oates to her room the greater part of the past week.
- "In Society" column, Press Democrat, January 15, 1911
Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates are delightfully entertaining Mrs. R. G. Harrell of Fresno. Mrs. Harrell has visited Santa Rosa previously and made many friends who welcome her return as she is a most charming woman of the Southern type. Miss Bess Woodward is also a guest at the Oates home during her mother's Eastern trip.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, March 5, 1911
An informal evening was enjoyed at the beautiful home of Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates Saturday when a few young friends dropped in to enjoy a game of cards. The reception and living rooms were gracefully decorated with roses, intermingled with greenery. "Spoff," a new card game, was played during the evening, after which a chafing dish supper was served. Miss Bess Woodward, who has been the guest of Mrs. Oates for the past few weeks, was the motif for the delightful evening.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, April 30, 1911
Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Keeler Dunlap of Los Angeles, accompanied by their small daughter, Sue Elizabeth, are the guests of Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates. Mr. Dunlap will remain over Sunday, but Mrs. Dunlap, who will be remembered as the popular Miss Anne May Bell and Sue Elizabeth will stay for several weeks. Much interest is being manifest over the small girl as in the whole twenty months' span of her short life, she has not visited Santa Rosa. Sue Elizabeth bids fair to rival her mother in popularity and it is whispered baby parties will be quite au fait for this little miss.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, June 11, 1911
Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates are entertaining a week-end house party in honor of Mrs. Samuel Kerry Dunlap of Los Angeles. The guests are congenial friends who have been entertained in the past at the Charles Rule ranch. Today a motor trip will be made to Bithers' Grove, near Healdsburg, where a quiet afternoon will be spent. The guests will be Miss Morrell, Mrs. Dorothy Farmer, Miss Hazel Farmer, Mrs. E. F. Woodward, Miss Bess Woodward, the guest of honor, Mrs. Dunlap, little Sue Elizabeth Dunlap and Charles Rule.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, June 18, 1911
Larkspurs of the soft pastel shades, beautified the dining table upon the occasion of a dinner given by Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates Wednesday evening in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Blair Hull, of Jackson, Mississippi, and Mrs. F. S. Sanberg of Los Angeles. Covers were laid for twelve guests, who enjoyed the charming hospitality that is always extended from the Oates home. An elaborate menu was served. The guests were: Mr. and Mrs. Francis Blair Hull, Dr. and Mrs. S. S. Bogle, Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Wright, Mrs. E. F. Woodward, Mrs. F. S. Sanberg, Miss Woodward and Judge Thomas Denny.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, August 26, 1911
The many friends of Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will hear with regret that she is ill with a trained nurse in attendance. The attack which was very serious at first has yielded to good care and attention.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, September 10, 1911
Mrs. James Wyatt Oates is still confined to the house, but is convalescent. Saturday she showed a material change for the better, a fact that will be welcome news to her many friends.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, October 1, 1911
MRS. OATES BETTERUpon inquiry on Thursday it was learned that Mrs. J. W. Oates is improving slowly. The doctor says that if she continues to improve the way she is now and no complications set in, she will recover. This is good news to her many friends, who have anxiously awaited good tidings from her bedside.
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 12, 1911
The serious condition of Mrs. Oates caused the postponement of the Cup and Saucer Club and the Afternoon Bridge Club which were to have been entertained by Mrs. Ross Campbell and Mrs. T. T. Overton last Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. The parties will take place this week.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, October 15, 1911
It will be with regret that the friends of Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will learn that her condition is considered very critical. Saturday a specialist from San Francisco was called in consultation, and he held little hope for her recovery. Mrs. Oates has been a central figure in church, philanthropic and social circles for many years, and it will be the sincere prayer from may hearts today that she will be spared.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, November 8, 1911
It is with pleasure that the friends of Mrs. James Wyatt Oates hear of her daily improvement. She is now able to walk around her room and each day sees marked change in her returning strength. She is, however, still unable to see callers as it is deemed advisable for her to be as quiet as possible. It will be with great cordiality that Mrs. Oates will be welcomed back into social affairs, where she has always been a pleasant figure.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, November 12, 1911
MRS. JAMES W. OATES DEPARTS FOR RULE RANCHMrs. James Wyatt Oates departed on the Guerneville branch train Monday for the Rule ranch at Jenner, where she will spend an indefinite time in recuperation. It will be good news to the many friends of the lady to know that she has so far recovered that she could undertake the journey to the country. Miss Bertha Levy accompanied Mrs. Oates and will be her companion at the Rule ranch. Mrs. Oates has recently had a critical illness and at times it was believed she was in the shadows. She is now doing nicely and it is believed that with a change of climate she will rapidly regain her health and strength.
- Santa Rosa Republican, October 19, 1911
MRS. OATES ON ROAD TO RECOVERYThe many friends of Mrs. J. W. Oates will be pleased to hear that she is making rapid progress towards recovery at the Rule ranch where she has been for the past week. Dr. S. S. Bogle returned from a visit to the ranch Monday, accompanied by Mr. Oates and both expressed their satisfaction at the progress Mrs. Oates is making. Miss Levy is with the patient and with the fine weather they are able to be out of doors considerable as Mrs. Oates walks about freely.
- Press Democrat, November 28, 1911
MRS. JAMES W. OATS MAKING FINE IMPROVEMENTColonel James W. Oates and Dr. S. S. Bogle returned to Santa Rosa on Monday in the latter's touring car from Jenner, near Duncan's Mills, where they had been to visit Mrs. Oates. Colonel Oates had spent all of last week with his wife at the Rule ranch, and Dr. Bogle went over Sunday to ascertain how his patient was getting along. The improvement that has come to Mrs. Oates in her brief stay at the hospitable Rule home is little less than miraculous. The lady is bright and cheerful, able to take short walks with her nurse, Miss Bertha Levy and recently enjoyed a trip to the beach in a surry to which Charles Rule had hitched a spanking team. Colonel Oates is decidedly happy at the improvement and his face beams with smiles as he tells his friends of the splendid change. Mrs. Oates spends much of her time in reading in the sun on the big porch. There has been an entire absence of fogs during her sojourn at the Rule ranch, and only the sunniest and balmiest of fall weather has prevailed. Dr. Bogle is likewise gratified at the improvement Mrs. Oates has shown. The report will certainly be good news to the many friends of the popular Santa Rosan. Mrs. Oates' stay at the Rule ranch is indefinite.
- Santa Rosa Republican, November 28, 1911
Mrs. James Wyatt Oates has so far recovered her strength and health that since her return from Duncan's Mills last Sunday, she has been able to see intimate friends. Mrs. Oates has had a long and hard struggle with a serious illness, so the fact that she will soon be able to participate in social affairs will be pleasant news to her hosts of friends.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, December 10, 1911
Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates will leave Tuesday morning for Santa Barbara and other southern cities. This trip is being taken with a view of giving Mrs. Oates, who is convalescent from a long and serious illness, a complete change of climate. They will be absent two months but during that interval Col. Oates will make several flying trips home to attend to business matters. They take with them the good wishes of many friends who hope they will enjoy their holiday and that Mrs. Oates will return entirely restored to health.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, December 31, 1911
CARD RECEIVED FROM COLONEL OATESA card was received here Monday from Colonel James W. Oates from Santa Barbara. Her many friends will be glad to know that Mrs. Oates stood the trip nicely and is improving rapidly. They will leave Santa Barbara on Wednesday for Los Angeles, where they will visit Mr. and Mrs. D. A. Dunlap. Miss Dunlap was formerly Miss Anna May Bell. Colonel Oates says he does not see much difference in the Santa Barbara climate than ours. "The tourist crop is not yet quite ripe, and as they have no other here, it is very dull," he adds.
- Press Democrat, January 9, 1912
COLONEL OATES IS HOME FROM THE SOUTHLANDColonel James W. Oates returned to town from Los Angeles on Saturday, and after spending a few days here, he will rejoin Mrs. Oates there. In various places in the southland Colonel and Mrs. Oates will spend the next couple of months. They will remain in Los Angeles for some time and then go to San Diego. They will visit Del Mar near Santa Barbara, and will again return to Los Angeles for another visit prior to coming to their home here. Colonel Oates states that his wife is gradually regaining her strength and is undoubtedly being benefited by the change of air and scene. He is feeling fine and has already gained eight pounds in weight.
- Press Democrat, January 21, 1912
COLONEL AND MRS. OATES SOJOURNING AT LONG BEACHColonel and Mrs. James W. Oates have gone to Long beach, where they will sojourn for an indefinite time. They have taken apartments at the Southern Home and expect to have a good rest and much recreation there. Mrs. Oates continues to improve in the southern climate, and will be completely restored to health upon their return to the City of Roses.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 7, 1912
COLONEL AND MRS. OATES FROM SOUTHLANDColonel and Mrs. James W. Oates reached their home in the beautiful City of Roses on Wednesday and are glad to be back in this delightful climate. As Colonel Oates expressed it on his return, this climate has some snap to it, and is far the best he has found after all. The last ten days the Santa Rosans spent in the southland it was hot, sultry and dry, and decidedly enervating, and had a somewhat weakening effect on Mrs. Oates. On the whole Mrs. Oates is much improved from her extended outing, with the exception of a slight cold, which she recently contracted, and which bothers her somewhat.
Colonel Oates had the misfortune to have an affection [sic] in his eyes while at Long Beach and was in the hands of a specialist and nurse for several days. Heated compresses and medicines were kept on his eyes in a darkened room for several days, and for a time the condition of his eyes was serious. He is compelled to wear smoked glasses still from the effects of the poison which attacked his eyes. Fortunately the effects of the poison were overcome and there will be no permanent injury to his sight. Colonel and Mrs. Oates find it decidedly pleasing to be back again among their friends and occupy their own cozy home. Many Santa Rosans will be glad to know they have returned.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 21, 1912
Mrs. James W. Oates has made rapid progress toward recovery this week, and has regained much of her strength lost by the relapse occasioned by the trip home from the southern part of the State. Flowers and frequent inquiries concerning Mrs. Oates' progress toward health continue to pour into the Oates home. Very few visitors are permitted to see the patient and those for a very brief space of time.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, March 10, 1912
Mrs. James W. Oates had the pleasure of motoring into the country several times this week. After having been confined to the house since her return from the south which was several weeks ago, Mrs. Oates has greatly enjoyed getting out into the sunshine.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, April 7, 1912
Mrs. Anna May Bell Dunlap of Los Angeles was the motif for an informal afternoon tea on Thursday given by Mrs. Blitz W. Paxton. A few intimate friends dropped in and enjoyed renewing friendships with Mrs. Dunlap, who is very popular socially in Santa Rosa.
Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates are entertaining Mrs. Dunlap, who arrived the first of the week to make a visit with them. Owing to the condition of Mrs. Oates' health the social functions in Mrs. Dunlap's honor will be of a quiet nature.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, May 12, 1912
In the CountryMrs. J. W. Oates is spending some time with Mrs. E. F. Woodward and Miss Bess Woodward, at their country home near Woolsey. Colonel Oates motors out in the evenings and returns to town in the mornings. The country air is benefiting Mrs. Oates.
- "Local Social Doings" column, Santa Rosa Republican, February 21, 1912
Mrs. James Wyatt Oates was the complimented guest on Tuesday, when Dr. S. S. Bogle gave a dinner in her honor at the Overton Grill. Shasta daisies and sweet peas gracefully intertwined with maiden hair ferns, artistically decorated the large round table, where covers were laid for eight. An elaborate menu was served. As this is the first social affair Mrs. Oates has been able to attend for a long period of time, owing to a trying illness, it was an event of much pleasure to the friends invited to meet her. The dinner guests were: Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates, Mrs. E. F. Woodward and Miss Bess Woodward, Mrs. Dorothy Farmer, Miss Edith Runyon of Los Angeles and Ralph Farmer.
- "Society Gossip" column, Press Democrat, July 21, 1912
It was great good luck the house escaped damage that August morning; had the fire been discovered just a few minutes later the big roof could have been engulfed and quickly after that, the entirety of the landmark home which would later become known as Comstock House.
The item appearing in the Santa Rosa Republican was maddeningly brief and vague. Apparently someone spotted flames coming from the chimney during the night and sounded a fire alarm, also waking Mattie and James Wyatt Oates. Firemen arrived and put out the blaze with a handheld fire extinguisher combined with another one provided by Oates. The incident seems to have left the Oates' shaken, as discussed in the following post.
Chimney fires were a serious concern in that era, when almost all buildings in residential areas had wood shake or shingle roofs. Not only could a structure burn quickly, but flying embers could set afire nearby buildings, destroying neighborhoods and even entire cities; the 1923 Berkeley fire saw nearly 600 homes burn in a few hours as wind-whipped flames raced over rooftops. Towns like Santa Rosa were particularly vulnerable because at the time of the Oates fire, Santa Rosa firefighters were no better equipped than they were during the 1906 earthquake, still using the same old horse-drawn wagons. When there was a real conflagration – such as the 1910 Levin Tannery fire – the Santa Rosa Fire Department had to rely upon citizens to volunteer their automobiles and swiftly ferry gear and crew between the station house and scene of the blaze.
(RIGHT: Santa Rosa Fire Department seen in their Pope-Hartford fire truck, 1915. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)
All that was about to change later in 1911, thankfully. The city fathers, who shamefully went on the cheap in building the post-earthquake firehouse, were now willing to put a few bucks towards modern firefighting tools, including a gasoline engine fire truck.
The Knox truck dealership was vying for the sale and brought their latest model up from San Francisco. While demonstrating the machine's bells and whistles, a real fire alarm sounded in the Cherry street neighborhood. Firemen with the horse-drawn steam fire engine were quickly on their way. Not one to miss a great sales opportunity, the company rep invited the city councilmen and SRFD chief Frank Muther to jump aboard and head for the action.
Despite the driver not knowing Santa Rosa streets and taking a much longer route, the truck still reached the fire ahead of the horses. "The conflagration was a small one, but was quickly put out by the Knox chemical," reported the Santa Rosa Republican. "After the fire the members of the city council were taken for a ride about town." Deal closed, eh?
It was certainly a boffo demo, but a few months later the town chose instead to buy a Pope-Hartford model fire engine, which was a better known make. Like the Knox, it was technically a "Combination Chemical and Hose Wagon," which meant that it had tanks that could mix on the fly "carbonic acid gas" (AKA carbon dioxide) to smother flames. The Press Democrat article transcribed below gives a pretty good description of the truck's features, but additional details and a side photo can be found here.
Their Pope-Hartford fire truck was delivered in mid-December, driving up from the Petaluma wharf in less than an hour, thanks to its powerful 50 horsepower motor. Apparently the frenzy over its arrival was so great that a car hit their mascot Buster in front of the firehouse. "He was run over and killed by a careless auto driver who had the entire street, and yet would not get by without killing Buster," lamented the Press Democrat, noting the pooch was "a favorite with all who have occasion to visit the house or pass it regularly." As the Fifth St. PD offices were directly across the street, the writer undoubtedly had first-hand knowledge of the deceased.
The new fire engine finally brought the Santa Rosa Fire Department into the Twentieth Century and just a few months later, there was another page turned when SRFD chief Frank Muther retired.
Frank Muther was universally respected as fire chief and his tireless leadership on the morning of the 1906 earthquake likely saved the town from widespread destruction. Even Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley, who viewed Republicans with suspicion in that era, wrote admiringly of Muther in his collection of character sketches, "Santa Rosans I Have Known:"
|Frank Muther, pioneer cigar manufacturer and dealer, for years was chief of the fire department, and no matter what the hour he was always on hand when the bell rang. He was a picturesque character and in politics an ardent Republican, but with him friendship came first, even when everybody was supposed to take sides and when opposing tickets had to be place in the field as far down the line as dog catcher. Rough and often boisterous of manner, he was a real sport and an all-round good fellow. Muther was a man typical of the times. In later life he quieted down, as most men do, but he never lost his force and mental vigor.|
(RIGHT: Frank Muther, 1849-1927. Photo from "Illustrated Portfolio of Santa Rosa and Vicinity," 1909)
Yet despite his historical bonafides, Frank Muther is about as forgotten as anyone can be forgotten. There isn't even a headstone on his grave (he's buried in the old Odd Fellows' Cemetery lot 21, just on the other side of the fence from the Fulkerson crypt in the Rural Cemetery). Possibly there was a wooden marker originally; in the 1950s the city made an ill-conceived effort to clean up weedy undergrowth at Rural with a controlled burn which ended up torching trees, roses and many, many wooden markers. As Muther's family plot and several others in that row are likewise bare, it's easy to presume the fire must have crossed the fence.
With the 110th earthquake anniversary coming up next year, some sort of tribute to that man is really overdue.
FIRE SCARE SUNDAY AT COLONEL OATES' HOMEThe residents of Mendocino avenue were alarmed early Sunday morning by an alarm of fire which summoned the department to the residence of Colonel and Mrs. James Wyatt Oates, at the corner of that thoroughfare and Benton street. A blazing chimney was the cause of the alarm, and an extinguisher that was on hand at the Oates home and one from the fire department extinguished the blaze. There was no damage from the fire.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 28, 1911
AUTOMOBILE FIRE ENGINE WHICH MADE RECORD BREAKING RUN TO CHASE FIRE ON SUNDAYC. S. Richardson, manager of the Reliance Automobile Company of San Francisco and his chauffeur came up to this city Sunday morning, bringing with him a Knox automobile combination chemical fire extinguisher and hose wagon. He brought it here to demonstrate it to the city council in answer to the advertisement made by the city dads for bids for one of these machines to be addd to our fire fighting apparatus.
A fire in the residence owned by Mrs. Frank Graves and occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Guy Chase a few months before 2 o'clock gave the Knox automobile combination machine a chance to demonstrate its efficiency. Although starting from the engine house after the hook and ladder had left. It reached the fire first, going the long way to the fire, as the chauffeur did not know the direct route. The conflagration was a small one, but was quickly put out by the Knox chemical. Mr. and Mrs. Chase were over in Sebastopol at the time the fire started. They were preparing to move from the house, and the fire caught in some goods that were packed. The damage done was nominal. After the fire the members of the city council were taken for a ride about town by Mr. Richardson in the Knox. Mr. Richardson will be here until after the council meeting Tuesday evening.
The run to the fire was made under adverse circumstances, which taken in account, makes the Knox's performance remarkable. At the time that fire alarm 16 was rung in, no one was in the machine. It waited for Fire Chief Muther and several of the councilmen and others before starting and traveled a greater distance, turning three corners to one for the hook and ladder in reaching the conflagration. The working of the twin chemical tanks proved interesting to the people of the fire department. Both tanks have an outlet into one hose that can be run into the burning building. They are so arranged that while the chemicals are being used in one tank, the other can be filled, and then the chemicals drawn from the refilled tank without any loss of time. Chief Muther and the members of the city council who saw the demonstration at the fire and who went on the ride about town on the Knox, were greatly pleased at the high grade quality of the materials and mechanical construction, and its complete equipment.
- Santa Rosa Republican, May 1, 1911
CITY'S NEW AUTO CHEMICAL FIRE ENGINE HAS ARRIVEDSanta Rosa's new auto chemical fire engine, manufactured by the Pope-Hartford Automobile Company of Hartford, Conn., arrived last night, and is now at the Grand Garage on Main street. It is a handsome and substantially built machine, complete in every detail, and will be a valuable addition to the city fire-fighting equipment. It will be placed in commission at once.
The machine was brought up to Petaluma last night by boat, and from there proceeded under its own power, the run from Petaluma being made in less than an hour. S. W. Jewell of the Consolidated Motor Car Company of San Francisco and Charles O. Buckner of the Santa Rosa Fire Department were in charge. Buckner has been in San Francisco for several days, ever since the car arrived from the factory taking instructions as to its use and handling.
The machine is something like thirty feet long and the tires are 40xC. Two thirty-five gallon chemical tanks and two three-gallon hand tanks are carried, a thirty-foot extension and several smaller ladders and hose for the chemical tanks. Besides this a large space is provided for water hose. There is a full compliment of power for lights, including a huge searchlight, all by acetylene with electrical control. The finish is in dark maroon, with brass trimmings and the machine is appropriately lettered. The accompanying illustration gives a good idea of the appearance of the new machine. [Low quality photo on scratched microfilm not shown here - je]
- Press Democrat, December 16, 1911
BUSTER, THE FIREDOG, IS NO MOREBuster is dead. He was run over and killed by a careless auto driver who had the entire street, and yet would not get by without killing Buster.
Buster was the mascot at the fire engine house, a favorite with all who have occasion to visit the house or pass it regularly. The fire laddies amused themselves many an hour playing with the dog as he greatly enjoyed running after a stick, package or stone and returning it to the thrower with a wagging of his tail and a joyous bark.
- Press Democrat, December 17, 1911
HAS TENDERED RESIGNATIONFrank Muther Relinquishes PositionFrank Muther, Sr., who has been chief of the Santa Rosa fire department for several years past, has tendered his resignation of that position. Few men have ever served the City of Roses who have been better qualified in their respective departments than Mr. Muther, as chief of the fire department. He has been engaged in that work for many years, and has the matter of quenching conflagrations down to a science. The people of Santa Rosa have learned to regard Frank Muther as one of the most efficient chiefs on the Pacific coast, and he was always on hand where duty called, and in the thickest of the fray. At the time of the big fire here in April, 1906, he made a record for himself in the handling of the department.
- Santa Rosa Republican, April 4, 1912