It was like a celebrity sighting; a new generation of Russians were establishing a "colony" on the Sonoma county coast and newspapers from Sonoma and Mendocino counties rushed to report on our exotic new neighbors. Even before they arrived at the end of August, 1912, both Santa Rosa papers announced they were coming and a correspondent from the Mendocino Beacon was apparently on hand when twenty families disembarked from the little steamer that plied the coastline.
Part of the interest was the historical angle; 70 years had passed since the Russian American Company pulled up stakes at Fort Ross. The newcomers had no connection with the old site - they were coming to Sonoma because there happened to be a large ranch for sale twenty miles further north, at the current location of The Sea Ranch. Also interesting was that they were here to establish a religious commune, stirring memories of all the utopian communities that once were familiar around central Sonoma county, such as Fountaingrove, Preston, Altruria and the rest.
The Press Democrat scored an interview with the colony's leader but unfortunately they tapped the paper's coastal stringer "Old Jackson," a fellow in Annapolis who contributed irregular columns and mistakenly considered himself interesting. As a result, PD readers mainly learned the Russians cheered when O.J. told them he had 14 children and were "joyful" for his advice about farming.
Sadly, that appears to be the only time Emilian Fedorovich Noshkin was interviewed by the press, and there was much misinformation about the group he could have clarified. Their settlement was called the "First Russian Baptist Colony" and the Mendocino Beacon reported "California will be the future home of practically the entire membership of the Russian Baptist Church...the denomination [was] driven out of Siberia by the attitude of the Russian government." Modern articles about them repeat those same claims, but there's no proof they came to America to escape religious persecution - indeed, the Russian Baptist Church was thriving at the time.*
Nor were they Siberian refugees or "Russian peasants" (as the Santa Rosa Republican called them). Noshkin was a wealthy merchant (usually described as a "flour manufacturer") from the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok and the family of thirteen made the costly voyage to America as first class passengers. Several of the articles from the Santa Rosa papers mention the colony was receiving funding from Russia, the Republican specifically stating they had a million dollar line of credit - perhaps the church regarded them as missionaries to the substantial Russian population in San Francisco.
(Article and photo of the Noshkin family from the April 25, 1912 San Francisco Examiner. On another ship en route to Yokohama, Mrs. Noshkin gave birth to her 11th child on the island of Miyajima, one of the most sacred Shinto shrines in Japan and where no birth or death is allowed.)
There were nearly a hundred colonists there in the late summer and fall of 1912 (presumably that's counting children as well, but the newspapers are not clear) and they worked with fierce ambition. Before two months had passed there was a home for each family and shortly after that a church was dedicated. They had a dairy herd of 200 cows and two steam engine tractors to plow great fields on their 5,000 acres.
Tragedy first struck while the tractors were being driven down from Point Arena. The old bridge across Schooner Gulch collapsed while one of the 8-ton engines was crossing, killing the colony member walking alongside. They buried him on a bluff and surrounded his grave with a ring of white stones now gone, but The Sea Ranch has placed a marker near the location.
Otherwise, the little colony flourished. Nine hundred acres were already under the plow by the start of February, 1913 and more families were expected to soon arrive. One of Noshkin's daughters had married a man named John Pack in San Francisco and gave the settlement their first born. An old tavern on the property was made into a schoolhouse; Russian-speaking Elizabeth Briggs and her husband came out from Santa Rosa to teach 21 kids by day and give English lessons to the adults in the evenings. The school was named "Sacel" and they called their colony, "First Farm."
(Some details here, including quotes from the Mendocino Beacon, are drawn from a well-researched essay, "First Farm" by Harry Lindstrom/The Sea Ranch Archives Committee. Normally I would have provided a direct link but this essay is not among the public offerings on The Sea Ranch web page. It can be easily found via a Google search, however.)
But as much as they all loved their dream farm and planned to draw in hundreds of their Russian Baptist countrymen and build a seaport town and spawn other colonies, they didn't actually own the land. That was remedied when the Noshkins signed papers to buy the 5,000 acres for $250,755 (equivalent to about $6.3 million today). It would soon be their undoing.
The property had a complicated history which the Lindstrom essay details in full. Before statehood it was the German Rancho and had a grist mill. Later it was a cattle ranch and a lumber mill. When the Noshkins set foot in America in April 1912 it was called the Del Mar Rancho and owned by real estate speculator Walter P. Frick who had bought the land just eight days earlier. How much he paid is unknown but the assessed value was $42,400.
What happened next is complicated, but critical to understand (again, see Lindstrom for more). Together with an investor named Burgess, Frick created the Del Mar Development Company and transferred ownership of the land to that company. Both were also directors of Western Mortgage and Guaranty, which immediately gave the company a mortgage. All that happened a few days before the newspapers announced the Russians would be moving onto the property, so presumably they showed the Russian's lease at a grossly inflated rent (and maybe intent to purchase) as collateral in lieu of an appraisal. The Noshkins would later make payments to the Del Mar Development Company but apparently did not actually assume that mortgage from the lender, again sidestepping a proper appraisal.
Eight months after the Noshkins signed the loan documents, both Santa Rosa papers revealed on August 11, 1913 the colony was in deep trouble. A farm equipment manufacturer was suing them for defaulting on payments.
And that wasn't all: It was revealed the fine print of the agreement required all crops were to be turned over to the Del Mar Development Company as part of the mortgage payments. The Noshkins had signed the colony up to be sharecroppers.
And that wasn't all: Del Mar Development Company was foreclosing.
And that wasn't all: Frick and Burgess were personally suing Noshkin because they held the quarter-million dollar note which Noshkin had signed with the Del Mar Development Company. And since the men also owned the business, they were suing the Noshkins both as a company as well as individuals.
(NOTE: I've rewritten the above section a couple of times after close readings of the articles transcribed below, which may even not be completely accurate. If you have further information, please leave a comment.)
What went so wrong so fast? Their huge potato crop failed, which was apparently their main cash crop. More critically, the Santa Rosa papers reported their support lifeline had been severed. "All was rosy while the money was available," the Press Democrat remarked, "but when it stopped coming from Russia, and when there was no means of raising more here to meet payments on mortgages and claims for machinery, then the Glooms appeared."
The biggest problem, however, was that the unethical dealings of Frick and Burgess were despicable - the only question is whether the pair crossed the line of actually committing fraud under 1913 laws, when there were few federal protections against their kind of deceit.
It seems the Del Mar Development Company was just a shell company created to pump up the price once Frick and Burgess knew they had an interested party, and that they foreclosed immediately upon the first sign of financial problems suggests that was their intent all along, once the Russians had improved the property. Yet incredibly, they claimed in their suit to be victims because they would never again encounter suckers as gullible as the Russians: "It cannot be sold for an amount a hundred thousand dollars less than the purchase price."
Emil Noshkin knew little or no English when he and his wife signed the contract (he spoke none during the "Old Jackson" interview) and she could not even write her name. It is extremely doubtful either understood what they were signing or were aware someone could have visited the Sonoma county assessor's office to discover they were agreeing to buy the land for about six times more than its value.
It was clear, however, that the Russians did not understand what was happening. When the court receiver arrived at the colony he had to explain the process of law to a Noshkin son who spoke English. Local workers hired by the receiver showed up to bale the hundreds of tons of hay still in the fields, stirring one of the colonists to lash out and threaten to kill the Noshkin son. But everyone understood well enough they were being kicked out; when the Sheriff appeared a month later to serve the foreclosure papers it was a ghost village, with nary a soul to be found.
The Noshkins started anew near Elmira (due east of Vacaville) which had a Russian farming community, including relatives of Mary Noshkin. Again they were screwed over; they had an option to buy 1,660 acres but the seller refused to honor the contract after the down payment was made. This time Emil sued, in May 1914. The outcome is unknown, but they stayed in Solano county at least through 1920.
Despite the improvements made by the Russians the colony village and farmland remained unsold, so Frick ended up owning all nine miles of coastland for 25 years. He rarely visited and grazed cattle and sheep. He seemed to care as little about his children as he did for his property; during summers he and his wife dumped their three kids there, along with a governess and a Chinese cook, to play among the abandoned homes while Frick and his Missus raced back to the Bay Area. After he died it was sold in 1941 for $140,000 - only about twice what he paid for it in 1912, adjusted for inflation. Ironically, it was a courthouse sale because Frick had stopped paying his debts and owed back taxes on the property.
* In 1905 Tsar Nicholas II declared freedom of religion - previously, Russians had to be a member of the Orthodox church or they were denied even basic rights, such as inheriting and owning property. The Russian Baptists flourished probably more than any other faith; by the time Noshkin and the others left the country the church had over 100,000 members and was enjoying explosive growth, building churches, opening theological schools and sponsoring missionaries.
RUSSIAN COLONISTSHundreds of Russian Peasants Settle in County
The west coast of Sonoma county is to again become the property of Russians, and while the readers of this paper are reading about it, a colony of Russians are landing at Stewart's Point preparatory to taking possession of the land mentioned. The large Stengel ranch, otherwise known as the Bender Mill and Lumber Company tract, has been purchased for the First Russian Baptist Colony and consists of 5000 acres of land.
One hundred Russians peasants who arrived in San Francisco several months ago are the forerunners of those to whom the broad and fertile acres have been parceled off. These one hundred peasants sailed from San Francisco Wednesday for their new homes, taking with them $25,000 worth of portable houses. Each of the parcels of land will be extensively tilled by a family and will make fine farms. Two hundred other families are to follow soon from their country of persecution and settle in their new Russia in Sonoma county.
The colony has raised $1,000,000 to finance their plans. Of this amount $150,000 was paid for the property in this county. Some of the money has been used for the purpose of purchasing farming machinery and there is still much left in the common treasury. The land was bought for them by E. Noshkin, the president of the colony. He holds a full power of attorney for each member of the colony. The profits of the farming of the land will go into a common treasury.
Thus it will be seen the pioneer lands of Russia in America, the historic spots surrounding the old Russian fort of Fort Ross, is again to be populated by the people of that country.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 29, 1912
RUSSIAN COLONIST'S LIFE CRUSHED OUT BY ENGINE"Old Jackson" Interviews Head of the New ColonyAnnapolis, Sept. 15-- The Russian Colony passed through their first day of gloom and sorrow on Saturday, September 7. They were bringing from Point Arena their big traction engines with which they expect to do their plowing, the weight of one engine being about eight tons. Arriving at Schooner Gulch, three miles out from Point Arena, the lead engine with the water truck crashed down the bridge and turned over in the stream. The engineer, with the fireman, jumped, but Nicholas Pogsikoff, who was walking between the engine and the water truck, was instantly killed. The poor fellow seemed very anxious to be near at hand if anything went wrong, although he had been cautioned to keep back. Pogsikoff was a good man and had been in America six years...
...Yesterday the writer had a long interview with E. Noskin, the man presiding over the Colony. He is a very pleasant gentleman, but he cannot speak but one word of English. Mrs. Noskin is a bright, little woman and is the mother of six sons and five daughters. Mr. and Mrs. Noskin evidently thought they had the largest family in America, as they turned to the fine little man of a boy, my interpreter, and anxiously asked how many children the writer had, and when informed that we had not stopped at fourteen, they raised their hands high to Heaven in great joy and said "Hallelujah!" From this on it was a love feast, and when we told them that we believed all that they did in a religious way, even baptism by Immersion, their hearts were glad.
We gave their president an honest, sincere statement in answer to questions what would grow on their land and they were joyful. These people have started their store. Now they are going to build a church, and be ready to welcome those to follow, for inside of three years there will be one thousand families on the ground. We have long since declared that this piece of land is capable of sustaining ten thousand people, and these Russians will soon show you how...
- Press Democrat, September 18, 1912
THE RUSSIAN BAPTISTS ARE PROSPEROUS
Nine hundred of the five thousand acres owned by the Russian Baptist colony at Del Mar are already under cultivation, and the colony is in a flourishing condition, according to Mr. and Mrs. L. Briggs, teachers in the colony. There are nineteen children in attendance at the school, the quarters for which were provided by remodeling an old saloon.
Mr. Briggs stated that at present there were about twenty-two families in the colony. Several more families arrived in San Francisco recently on the steamer Mongolia from Honolulu, and will make their home at the colony. More families are coming from San Francisco, and this will mean more acres to be put under cultivation.
- Press Democrat, February 6, 1913
FIRST RUSSIAN BABY IN COLONYLena Pack Claims Much Attention on Account of her Birth Near Fort Ross
Much interest has been occasioned in the Russian Colony, which located last year on a big place near Del Mar in northern Sonoma county, by the arrival of the first Russian baby to be born in the new home established by the Russians. The first baby is a little girl, daughter of John and Mary Pack, and she has been named Lena. Her birthday anniversaries will be occasions of much significance hereafter, in view of her advent at such an auspicious time.
She was born near where the Russians landed over a century ago at old Fort Ross. A century later they have come again to pursue the peaceful vocation of tillers of the soil. There are several hundred of them in the colony that has been established.
- Press Democrat, July 25, 1913
THE RUSSIAN COLONY IS INFinancial Difficulties; Suit Started MondayFinancial difficulties have overtaken the famous Russian Colony at Del Mar. Suit against the colony, called the First Russian Baptist Colony, was filed Monday in the Superior Court by Attorney W. F. Cowan on behalf of the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company. E. Noshkin, head of the colony is named as principal defendant.
The suit is for $3,645 and interest at six per cent for two years. It is sought to foreclose mortgages for that amount which the company holds on machinery sold the colony by the company and which has not been paid for.
It is understood that the colony will be sued also for the land which it purchased on the installment plan. The colony was organized on a commistic [sic] basis, and for a time flourished finely. The leaders have depended on money from Russia which it is said has failed to materialize.
- Press Democrat, August 11, 1913
COLONY NOW IN HANDS OFReceiver Appointed by Judge Seawell Tuesday
By order of Superior Judge Emmet Seawell Tuesday morning, the First Russian Baptist Colony was thrown into the hands of a receiver. The court appointed Charles G. Goold as receiver under bonds of $5000, which were furnished by the Aetna Company.
The appointment of the receiver came as the result of a petition filed by the Del Mar Improvement Company a real estate company which sold the colony the land which it has been farming. The petition sets out that under the terms of the agreement between the company and the colony all crops were to be turned over to the company to be sold and the price received applied as payment on the mortgage on the land.
This the petition says the colony has refused to do. There are about 800 tons of hay, of which but about 75 tons have been baled, according to the complaint. The value of the hay is given at $10,000 and the petition says it is imperative that it be baled at once and gotten under shelter.
The petition also alleges that the potato crop of the colony is a failure and not worth harvesting. Also that the balers refuse to work for the colony and are hard to get in that section of the county.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 11, 1913
TROUBLE AT COLONY LEADS TO ARREST OF RUSSIAN
Foreboding of impending trouble at the First Russian Baptist Colony located at Del Mar in northern Sonoma county, following the appointment of a receiver asked for in suits commenced in the Superior Court several days ago, was not misplaced, it seems. When it comes to dispossessing the colonists, a happening which also inevitable at the present time, there may be stirring times. These "shoe string" arrangements are not what they are cracked up to be, and are trouble breeders.
But to return to the difficulties that have arisen at the present time. Sheriff Jack Smith and Deputy Sheriff Charles Meyers hurried over to Cazadero on Saturday morning in the Sheriff's automobile to take from the custody of a north county deputy a Russian who had made threats to kill a son of E. C. Noshkin, the head of the colony. The Russian was brought to jail here in the afternoon, and will await trial. Young Noshkin speaks English fluently and when Deputy Sheriff Donald McIntosh went there a few days ago to install, as per court order, Charles Goold as a receiver, the officer explained to Noshkin what the process of law meant. The other colonists, however, who do not understand the English tongue, were apprehensive of what was happening, and when strange hay balers came onto the big farm to finish the work where the Russians had left off, their apprehensions, it is said, increased. The Russian placed under arrest, was presumably a leader.
When the colonists first arrived at their new haven there were about seventy-five families of them. Deputy Sheriff McIntosh learned upon his recent visit that many of the families had grown disgusted and moved off the place. It is too bad that such a "shoe string" investment should have been undertaken. All was rosy while the money was available, but when it stopped coming from Russia, and when there was no means of raising more here to meet payments on mortgages and claims for machinery, then the Glooms appeared. A mortgage of $250,000 is a big thing to handle, particularly when it is handled by people unskilled without methods.
The Russian brought here Saturday was given a short term in jail on a charge of disturbing the peace.
- Press Democrat, August 17, 1913
RUSSIAN COLONY AFFAIRS STILL FURTHER TANGLED
The affairs of E. Noshkin and his wife, who are the heads of the First Russian Baptist Colony of Del Mar were muddled more than ever with the filing of a new suit against them in connection with the failure of the colony. Some time ago the colony was thrown into the hands of a receiver on petition by the Del Mar Land and Development Company. Later another suit was filed by an implement concern to attach the land and the farming tools on it.
Now comes the third suit, which is filed by Attorney T. J. Geary on behalf of W. P. Frick and R. N. Bargess in which the Del Mar Land Company is also made a defendant. The plaintiffs set up that they were given a deed of trust by the company after the Noshkins had signed a promissory note for $250,765, payments upon which have been defaulted. They allege that the property has been badly mismanaged and that it cannot be sold for an amount a hundred thousand dollars less than the purchase price.
They ask that C. G. Goold, who is now acting as receiver under another suit be discharged and reappointed under the present suit.
- Santa Rosa Republican, September 10, 1913
RUSSIANS GONE ALREADY--COULD NOT SERVE PAPERS
Without waiting for process of law to remove them, disgusted with their lot and their failure to establish a colony on the shores of historic Sonoma, where their predecessors landed a century ago, the Russians have folded their tents and stolen away.
When Sheriff Jack Smith, who took a seventy-mile automobile ride into the Stewart Point section to serve the papers in the foreclosure suits, commenced in court here, arrived on the scene, he ascertained that E. Noshkin, the president of the First Russian Baptist Colony, had departed and there was not a Russian in sight. They had all gone away. Consequently the Sheriff had to return with the papers and make affidavit that he had been unable to find Noshkin.
The suits were brought to foreclose a mortgage for $250,000 and take back the ranch. The owners of the ranch are having a hard time in disposing of it and never will be able to do so, it is said, at the enormous figure it was taken over by the Russians.
- Press Democrat, September 18, 1913
WED IN RUSSIA DIVORCE IN S.R.Gottabena Schneider Gets Her Legal Freedom From Her Husband, Gottfried Schneider
Married in Odessa, Russia, and divorced in the Superior Court of Sonoma county. Distances and conditions somewhat remote. Such were the facts brought to light in the trial of Mrs. Gottabena Schneider against her husband Gottfried Schneider, in Judge Denny's department Saturday.
The plaintiff and defendant intermarried in Odessa over twenty-nine years ago. He deserted her over sixteen years ago, and on this ground the divorce was granted. Five children were born of the union, three of whom are grown.
- Press Democrat, November 9, 1913
RUSSIAN KIDDIES GIFT TO MISS BARNES
In the office of County Superintendent of Schools Miss Florence M. Barnes there is a little souvenir which is much prized by the popular superintendent. It is an odd shaped little candlestick and it was sent as a gift to her by some of the little Russian children of the Russian colony established at Del Mar some time since which has disappeared. Miss Barnes was instrumental in establishing a school for the Russian children, and so the "kiddies" felt thankful and planned to hand her the candlestick in person when she first visited the school. But before Miss Barnes could include the school in an itinerary of the coast district the colony had been broken up. Mrs. Briggs, who was the teacher of the school, was instructed to present the candlestick to Miss Barnes, which she did on Saturday.
- Press Democrat, November 9, 1913