Someday, I really want to teach a history course with the name, "How to Read a Newspaper." I'm not joking; it's a skill mostly lost today, accustomed as we are to skimming headlines and zooming in on favorite topics. But before the internet, before TV and before radio, newspapers were a prime source of entertainment, often read entirely over the course of hours.
Anyone who wants to get a flavor of the era will discover the best bits were those little items stuffed in the cracks - usually filler at the bottom of a column on the inside pages, barely newsworthy and often without even a headline. Sometimes they were attempts at humor writing; sometimes they are unintentionally funny because we can't imagine something like that happening today. Sometimes they reveal only a glimpse of some larger and very screwy story; sometimes they are complete vignettes. But almost always, they reveal some insight into the lives we lived back then.
Over the years I've written up dozens of these morsels from 1904-1912. Among my favorites was the story of the man who admired the suit worn by a guy he passed on the street, unaware he was looking at his own clothes just stolen by the burglar. Then there was the time carpenter and attorney got into it on Fourth street over the ownership of a handsaw, one beating the other in the head with his hammer as his foe tried to saw him up. But my all-time favorite concerns young Fred J. Wiseman getting revenge for a speeding ticket by later forcing the selfsame cop to arrest himself for spitting on the sidewalk, at night, and during a downpour. Most of the other stories like these can be found in the archives labeled with the "odd" tag.
Here are my picks for the best odd stories in the Santa Rosa newspapers for 1913:
|About three miles west of Santa Rosa one dark Saturday night, a Mr. A. Mills and John Ferdinand ran into each other - not so unusual, except they were both were on bicycles. Mr. Ferdinand's bike was something of a wreck but while Mr. Mills was shaken up by the collision his bicycle was undamaged. So Mr. Ferdinand promptly grabbed it and pedaled away. By the time Mills walked back to town and reached the sheriff's office, he was understandably fuming about the "hold-up." Amazingly, this story has a happy end: The next day Ferdinand was arrested and immediately brought before Judge Atchinson, who fined him twenty bucks. A. Mills even got his bike back, the wheels of justice grinding with rare and satisfying speed. (Santa Rosa Republican, May 5, 1913)|
|Attorney Frank H. Gould and other members of his San Francisco club caught an excursion train to Cloverdale to watch an airshow. As the primitive, kite-like planes flew (1913, remember), Gould and two others noticed a cow in a pasture was paying attention to the overhead action. So mesmerized were they by watching the cow they missed the departure of their train home. "It was the funniest thing I ever saw," the easily-amused lawyer told the Press Democrat after the trio hitched an auto ride as far as Santa Rosa. "She just raised her head and turned here and there so as not to miss any of the airship...that cow - well, it was well worth seeing." (Press Democrat, February 23, 1913)|
|A man walks into a bar with a new pair of shoes for sale. The reporter did not express surprise at that by itself, so maybe shoes were regularly hustled in Santa Rosa saloons in 1913, but anyway, George White sold the pair for the remarkably low price of $2.50 and bought drinks for the crowd. Then, of course, he tried to steal the shoes back. Around that time a man from Windsor entered the same bar and said the shoes belonged to him. George White was arrested, and hopefully the court had an easier time figuring this out than me. (Santa Rosa Republican, November 21, 1913)|
|Santa Rosa city councilman Spooncer heard the fire alarm and exercised a privilege of his elected office to jump aboard the fire engine as it left for the blaze. Unfortunately he did not get far, flying off the running board as the truck turned the corner at Fourth and B streets. "He sailed straight out through the air," the PD reported. "[A]nd being rotund, as aforementioned, started to roll. He finally landed with a gurgle, a grunt and a gasp, against the base of the new fountain and it looked for a moment as if someone else would have to donate a new fountain." (Press Democrat, April 19, 1913)|
|Tired of his sleep being interrupted by the yowling of his neighbor's cat, Frank Powers shot it. When Charles Gardiner found his pet had been killed, he confronted Powers and went to the police. Powers was arrested and charged with discharging a gun within Santa Rosa city limits, and while he was at the station Powers swore a complaint against Gardiner for cussing him out. As explained here before, using "profane and vulgar language" in that era was considered more serious than animal cruelty or even incidents of child abuse. Both Powers and Gardiner were fined five dollars. (Press Democrat, April 10, 1913)|
|Mr. C. R. Duncan was arrested for drunkenness in Sebastopol. Before his court hearing he asked permission to wash up and was told to use the barbershop next door. Some time dragged by and Duncan had not returned, but a woman entered the office to complain that a man had given her a fictitious check. "She said that the man's name was C. R. Duncan," the paper reported, "and then the officers fainted." The item ended, "officers all over the county are now out looking for the champion long distance washer of the world." (Santa Rosa Republican, September 23, 1913)|
|The Republican wryly observed workmen in Petaluma cleaning out an old building came across a bottle with a note inside. It read: "At Sea, July 4, 1904. The good ship 'booze' was wrecked on the rocks of Point Pedro yesterday. All hands will be lost if we are not found. (Signed)..." The writing was very clear although it "rapidly faded after being exposed to the toxic atmosphere of Petaluma," the Santa Rosa reporter claimed. The owner of the printing business formerly there was contacted to explain what he and his buddies were doing that night at the print shop. His "recollection of the titanic disaster is somewhat hazy", but he clearly remembered that Fourth of July "the fog was so dense it could have been sliced up with a sharp knife and fed to the chickens, a coagulated water diet." (Santa Rosa Republican, May 9, 1913)|