Criminals are clever folk (or believe themselves to be, at least) but 1909 Santa Rosa saw probably the dumbest clucks that had passed through the town in some time.

The crime wavelet happened over just a few weeks that autumn, starting with the disappearances of little things from wagons and buggies: A bundle of laundry, a box of candy, a pair of new shoes, a tobacco tin. There were also larger and more valuable things missing, particularly a box of phonograph records worth $60 and a typewriter. Word reached police that an old man was seen around the West End "Little Italy" neighborhood hawking ladies' shoes and silks that he claimed were too small for his wife, "she being a woman of some pretensions to bulk," as the Santa Rosa Republican artfully phrased it.

Collared by police officer Boyes, the crook's name  was John Stetson - which the police first thought  was an alias, as he was wearing a new Stetson hat when arrested - but about that, he was truthful. He was actually a fairly honest fellow, except for the thieving; he readily admitted he hadn't purchased any of those items, explaining simply that he had found everything in the street (that the stuff was lying inside a wagon was apparently a trifling detail to him). He led police to his trove of stolen goods hidden on the bank of Santa Rosa Creek, where more shoes, boxes of candy, a pair of scales and other goods were recovered. "Stetson declared that he did not remember stealing the scales, but remarked dryly that he must have done so, as they were with his loot."

Even as police officers were examining Stetson's inventory, another pair of light-fingered lawbreakers were at work. In town from San Francisco were Mr. and Mrs.  T. F. Barrett, who apparently also thought there was a bright future in stealing women's shoes. They loitered near a home as a barefoot servant girl watered the lawn, then snatched her shoes off the porch when no one was looking. The Barretts were quickly nabbed, but not before they had sold the poor girl's footwear for 50 cents. The Press Democrat noted that Mrs. Barrett was well known on the San Francisco waterfront for the old scam of selling day-old newspapers to commuters rushing off the ferries.

And then a few weeks later there was the genius who robbed the O. K. saloon early one morning. When the barkeep went in the back, the stranger stole four bags of cash hidden under the bar containing about $120 (worth over $3,000 today). If caught, the thief surely knew he faced serious jail time, and would be prudent to make a quick and anonymous escape - hopping an eastbound freight train, perhaps, or hiring a car and driver to rush him to the San Francisco ferry as fast as possible. Instead, he was caught hours later walking on the train tracks to Sonoma, a little south of Kenwood. That's clue #1 that he was no card-carrying member of the Criminal Mastermind Club.

The man - who gave his name as John Nelson - was found to have almost all the money from the heist still on him. He had two coin purses stuffed with gold and silver and the coins that didn't fit jangled loose in his pockets. He also carried  a tied  handkerchief filled with nickels. Now, $120 in coinage is bulky, and not exactly light; one of the most common coins of the day, the one dollar silver eagle, weighed about a pound per $17. Thus Nelson had to have at least six or seven pounds of coins on his person and oddly bulging pockets, and probably waddled more than walked. But what I can't get over is that he also brought along the nickel-loaded hanky; was he expecting to find cigar stores along the tracks?

Once in police custody, he pretended that he didn't speak a word of English (even though he had said, "please, don't shoot" when captured). He later said his strategy was to convince the court that "he was a German lad who was not familiar with things in this country," according to the Republican paper. For coming up with that defense argument, he takes the  prize for 1909 nitwittery. Maybe the all-time grand prize as well.

Buggy robber John Stetson was given three and a half years for burglary because the typewriter had been stolen from an office building (he apparently had a skeleton key that unlocked the door). It was revealed that he had served four previous prison terms for theft and his real name was John Stetson Wilson. Shoe thief Barrett was sentenced to 15 days in the county lockup. "John Nelson" was really an ex-con named Samuel Goldman, and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin. His conviction is notable because it was the first time that fingerprints (called "finger marks" in the paper) were used in a Sonoma County courtroom.

Picking Up Street Bundles Causes Man Trouble

The mystery that has surrounded the disappearance at different times during the past fortnight of various shopping, laundry and other bundles from people's wagons and buggies in the streets is considerably unveiled, the police think, by the arrest of a personage giving his name as John Stetson, by Officer John M. Boyes Saturday night.

Thomas Hopper Saturday afternoon missed a couple of pairs of shoes out of his wagon. He notified the police and later it was learned that some one was endeavoring to retail shoes down in the neighborhood of Little Italy. Officer Boyes finally spotted a suspicious character walking down Davis street, who as soon as he espied the patrolman turned abruptly into the yard of a residence along there. He entered the same as if he were the owner of it and stopped to pat the dog, a harmless one by the way, that came out to meet him. The officer nabbed him with the telltale box of shoes in his hands. He made no resistance, but would say nothing. He was booked for petty larceny and put in jail.

Officer Lindley and Yeager also ran across some shoes that had been sold in this manner presumably by the same individual. He had been offering great reductions in the foot and shoe line, placing a $4.50 pair of ladies shoes upon the market for seventy-five cents, and making corresponding reductions in gents' footwear. He also had a special price on a pair of ladies' silk stockings and chemise. He stated that this was because the articles of rainment belonged to his wife and they were too small for her, she being a woman of some pretensions to bulk.

Upon being questioned Monday he asserted that he found everything he had with him in the street, which he evidently did--in somebody else's wagon. He had a hat on nearly new and it was a John B. Stetson one. Hence his name, only he dropped the cumbersome middle initial. The shirt he wore was new, never having been through the wash. Where he got it leaked out when Sheridan, one of the men at work hanging doors in the new court house, identified the garment as one he had lost some days ago from his wagon in a bundle of laundry. Some collars of Sheridan missing in the same manner were found in Mr. Stetson's alleged belongings. Various other articles of clothing ranging all the way from women's handkerchiefs to table cloths and Turkish turbans he had. All of these he maintained he had found in the street.

Efforts were made to connect him with the disappearance of some phonographic records taken from the wagon on Pratt, the phonograph man, valued at about sixty dollars, but he announced that he hadn't stolen everything that had been lost in town.

A warrant of arrest was subsequently sworn out by John Boyes against Stetson on the charge of petty larceny. He was arraigned before Justice Atchinson and entered a plea of guilty. He will be sentenced later. Before being remanded to the county jail he had his picture taken. The police believe that if they find his room a great deal more plunder may turn up. Stetson asserts that he was on his way to the hop fields with a partner whose whereabouts at present he professes not to know.

Chief of Police Rushmore announces that the department would consider it a favor if any one who has been approached by parties selling or offering to sell shoes, phonographic records or articles of clothing would inform the department of the same.

- Santa Rosa Republican, September 12, 1909

Man and Woman Arrested Here Yesterday--Held for Further Examination

Mr. and Mrs. T. F. Barrett were arrested here yesterday afternoon by Officers J. M. Boyes and N. G. Yeager, and are both locked up in the county jail. They are charged with stealing a pair of shoes from the porch of the home of Attorney and Mrs. Ross Campbell and disposing of them for 50 cents. The shoes belonged to a girl working for Mrs. Campbell and been left there a few moments while she was sprinkling the yard, and were taken when she went on another side of the house.

The police were notified of the theft and the shoes were found to have been sold. Meanwhile the girl recognized a woman on the street she had seen with a man near the Campbell house a short time before the shoes were taken and pointed her out to Officer Boyes who took her into custody.

The woman's description of her husband tallied with that given by the girl of the man she had seen loitering about the place. Officers Boyes and Yeager picked him up an hour later near the Northwestern Pacific depot. He was taken before Justice Atchinson where he entered a plea of guilty. Sentence was suspended awaiting developments.

Barrett is said to be a well known character in San Francisco, where he sold soap for many years. His wife is said to have sold papers on the water front for years. One of her tricks then was to gather up old issues of the dailies and securing a position near the ferries, sell them to the hurrying commuters, thus reaping a neat harvest.

- Press Democrat, September 15, 1909

Taken to Stetson's Cache by the Prisoner

Officer John M. Boyes is having great success in securing additional confessions from John Stetson, whom he arrested recently for stealing articles from buggies and business houses in this city. The officer was taken to a cache on the creek bank Wednesday morning, and there recovered two boxes of French mixed candy and two pairs of ladies' high top boots, stolen from Alfred Burke; some tobacco taken from Mr. Hopper's buggy, a pair of scales and some other articles.

The officer had both arms full when he returned from the cache on the creek. Stetson declared that he did not remember stealing the scales, but remarked dryly that he must have done so, as they were with his loot. It is more than probable that the typewriter stolen from Ayers & Paul will be located in a couple of days, for Stetson is weakening and it is expected he will produce the machine shortly. Officer Boyes is the only person that can do anything with the man, and he refuses to even talk with others or in their presence. The smooth manner in which the officer goes after the prisoner has gained his confidence and the latter will eventually tell all he knows.

Stetson remarked to the officer that he guessed that everything that had been stolen about the city for many months would be laid at his door. Then he added, "I expect that I got most of the articles, too. Stetson has had remarkable success for a long time, but realizes he is at the end of his rope. He has told Officer Boyes where he disposed of many of the phonograph records which he stole.

- Santa Rosa Republican, September  15, 1909


The Yost typewriter stolen from the office of Ayers and Paul some days ago was recovered Thursday from the second hand store of J. M. Gutermute in Petaluma. It had been sold there by John Stetson, against whom various petty thefts have been brought home.

He had confessed to the stealing of the phonographic records that disappeared some days ago.

Officer John Boyes, who arrested Stetson, has secured all the admissions made by his of crime.

- Santa Rosa Republican, September  17, 1909


When John Stetson entered the portals of San Quentin prison yesterday morning in company with Police Officer John M. Boyes of this city, he glanced around and instantly took on a look of familiarity. Officer Boyes took Stetson to the penitentiary to serve the three years and a half sentence given him by Judge Seawell for burglary in the second degree. He entered a local real estate office and stole a typewriter.

On the way down to the prison, Louis Groff driving the officer and prisoner in his automobile, Stetson chanced to remark:

"Well, I guess this will be the last ride I shall have for three years and a half."

"O, I don't know," said Boyes. "If you behave yourself you may stand a chance of getting out on parole earlier."

"Not for mine, no parole for me," smiled Stetson.

Then Officer Boyes  "got next." Stetson had been there before, once maybe. He was rather surprised to learn after he had landed his man behind the gate that Stetson had been there three times before, and had served a term in Folsom, too, all five crimes being theft and burglary.

Yes, that nice appearing old man, as people classed him here, had served four prior terms in the penitentiary. They told Officer Boyes  that in San Quentin Stetson was always an exemplary prisoner, and was not considered overly bright mentally. His real name is John Stetson Wilson, but he explained that after his first conviction he dropped the Wilson and had gone as John Stetson. At least one of his prior sentences was ten years and one was for five years.

- Press Democrat, October 9, 1909


Two saloons were robbed in this city Saturday morning. The first was the Humboldt on B street...


The second robbery occurred about 8:30 o'clock. It occurred at the O. K. saloon at the corner of Davis and Fourth street, while Joseph Cavagna, one of the owners, was on duty. The man suspected came in a little while before and told two people who were drinking at the bar that he had no money, as a man during the night before took twenty-three dollars away from him. One of the men at the bar invited the new comer to have a drink. One drink led to another until three or four drinks had been consumed. The to men that had been doing the treating then left the saloon and the busted man took a seat at one of the tables. He was sitting there when Mr. Cavagna stepped to the back yard. He wasn't gone over two minutes, but when he returned the stranger was gone.

Cavagna looked in the till under the bar and saw that four bags containing money was gone. He estimates that there was between one hundred and fifteen and one hundred and twenty dollars in the four bags.

Cavagna, thinking that the man would make an attempt to get away on the south bound train that was due at 8:45, in company with Constable S. J. Gilliam went down as far as Cotati to catch the robber, but he was not on the train. It was not until after their return that Sheriff Jack Smith was informed of the robbery. According to Mr. Cavagna's description of the robber, he was a young man dressed in a dark suit, fairly good, wore a dark shirt and soft black hat. Mr. Cavagna states he spoke German well and likely was a German. A hack driver saw a man run round the corner at Davis street toward Fifth street about that time in the morning, but he states that the man he saw wore a derby hat.

The deputies of the sheriff's office and Sheriff Jack Smith spent the day searching for the robber and have notified the deputies all over the county to keep a lookout for the man. Any time a phone message is likely to be received at the sheriffs' office announcing his capture if he left town.

Sheriff Smith during the day kept his own counsel as to his suspicions as to the way the robber went when he made his getaway from town, but believed he took the railroad toward Sonoma. Working on this idea he dispatched Deputy Sheriff C. A. Reynolds to scour the country between here and there. This clew proved to be the correct one, for Reynolds overtook the man about three miles and a half south of Kenwood. He asked him if he didn't want to ride. The fellow declined. Reynolds then asked him if he wasn't going toward Sonoma. No response. Then Reynolds jumped from the buggy in which he was driving and drew his revolver, commanding the man to throw up his hands. The command was answered quickly and the fellow cried out, "Please, don't shoot."

Reynolds made the fellow climb the fence that ran along the railroad track and climb into the buggy. And he brought his man to town. Practically all the money stolen from  the O. K. saloon was on the man's person. He had transferred the money from the sacks in which he had found it and the sack of nickels he placed in a blue handkerchief, while the gold was placed in one purse and the silver in another. Besides this he had slipped a gold piece is several of his pockets about his clothes.

When brought to this city several people, including Joseph Cavagna, recognized him as the fellow that hung around the O. K. saloon this morning. He gave his name as John Nelson.

- Santa Rosa Republican, October  16, 1909

Finger Print System Man Declares it Absolutely

Frank Depue, director of the Bureau for the identification of criminals, was here on Tuesday in the matter of the identification of John Nelson, who had confessed to having robbed the O. K. saloon recently.

Mr. Depue appeared before Judge Emmet Seawell, and after examining several hands, was permitted to view the hand of the suspect. He did not see the face of any man's hand he examined, the member being thrust beneath the right arm for examination.

When the hand of Nelson was reached there was but a moment of examination, and Depue declared that he was the man. The court announced that he was the individual suspected, and then Depue accused Nelson of having been in the prison at San Quentin under the name of Goldman, for burglary in the second degree, and that he was sent from San Joaquin county on January 11, 1907. This was translated to Nelson by Attorney H. W. A. Weske, and the accused man denied that he was the guilty man.

Judge Seawell told Nelson that all the marks and scars which Goldman possessed were on his body in the identical places where Goldman possessed them, and that his identification by Mr. Depue was complete. The court had no doubt that he was the right man, and he sentenced him to spend ten years in San Quentin prison for his offense.

Depue offered to take the finger prints of the man for Judge Seawell and demonstrate that they were the same as those of Goldman, but the court declared he was satisfied without this being done.

Later Depue gave a demonstration of the method in the office of District Attorney Lea, and took an impression of the hand of Attorney H. W. A. Weske. He then examined many hands and picked Mr. Weske's dainty digit from the number without hesitancy. Mr. Depue declares that this system is the most positive of any for the identification of criminals, and that there are no two fingers or hands alike in marking. It has been adopted in all the leading states and cities.

An effort is to be made to induce the Board of Supervisors and the council to provide this system for Sonoma county and Santa Rosa peace officers. It is claimed that with this system much more effective work could be done along criminal lines.

Following his test without seeing Nelson's face, Mr. Depue declared he distinctly remembered seeing Nelson in prison under the name Goldman.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November  2, 1909

Admitted He is Samuel Goldman, Ex-Convict

After Frank Depue had so dramatically identified Nelson, the robber of the O. K. saloon, by means of his finger marks, as Samuel Goldman, a former convict of San Quentin, Mr. Depue had a conversation with him at the jail. The sentenced man admitted that he was no other than Goldman.

During the couple of weeks he has been in confinement in the city prison, he has not spoken a word of English. This he did to carry out the impression that he was a German lad who was not familiar with things in this country. He stated to those present at the after meeting in the jail that the story he told the court was only a bluff, and he carried it out as far as he was able. Nelson paid Depue a high compliment in saying, "If the authorities had told me last night that it was you they were sending for, I would have confessed then, because I knew you could identify me with that blamed 'Puddenhead Wilson' trick."

Nelson speaks fair English now and admits that he is a Russian Jew.

- Santa Rosa Republican, November  3, 1909

The sun was going down and there was a winter storm approaching, so there would be no do-overs that November day. Friends who had gathered in the field watched as the 24 year-old man took his seat in front of the controls and revved his home-built engine to a roar. Then, according to a local newspaper, "the machine dragged itself over the rough ground for a distance and then evenly ascended." It was the first airplane flight north of the Golden Gate, and one of the first anywhere on the West Coast. The pilot/designer was Blaine G. Selvage, and his accomplishment is completely forgotten today. And so is he.

That first flight took place November 16, 1909, outside of Eureka. Selvage flew three-quarters of a mile in a minute and a half, an average speed of 30MPH. He might have gone farther, had he more than a gallon of gasoline in his tank.

The most significant aspect of his flight was that he demonstrated control of the aircraft by flying in a circle almost back to his starting point; most first-time pilots barely managed to keep the thing wobbling along in a straight line. The man who might have made the first California flight ten weeks earlier, Glenn Martin (of later Lockheed Martin fame) flew just 100 feet in Santa Ana, barely above the height of clotheslines.

All of these pioneer California aviators - Martin, Selvage, and a bit later, Fred J. Wiseman - were building their aircraft without blueprints, without experienced help, and never having actually seen a plane in flight except for grainy films shown at nickelodeons. What they did share was a brain fever that they could take some wire, bits of wood, a little canvas and a gasoline motor - common items you could find in any garage or around any farm - and somehow end up with a machine that would fly you through the air.

While Martin and most other Americans were trying to copy the Wright Brother's biplane, Selvage had built the sort of single wing plane that they were making in France. An aviation-enthusiast magazine of the time described it as a "combination of a Bleriot and Antoinette," which probably meant that it looked much like the actual 1909 Bleriot shown in modern-day flight in the video here, except that his plane had a longer wingspan. More technical details about his aircraft can be found in the articles transcribed below.

A few days after his premiere flight, the Press Democrat reprinted in full an account from the Eureka Herald. The PD had previously claimed that Selvage would be making his first flights from Santa Rosa, and the reprinted article included a preface that Selvage was "formerly a well known Santa Rosa boy." Selvage and several brothers were rooming together here in recent years and working as laborers; they were probably among the men struggling to rescue the injured and extinguish the fires after the Great Earthquake of 1906.*

Selvage told a local paper that he had a lucrative offer in Southern California for exhibition flights, and might enter a $10,000 Los Angeles competition. Whether he did either is unknown, but about six months later, on June 5, 1910, he was back in Eureka to make arrangements for exhibition flights on the Fourth of July. He said he had been in Oakland, where he made "a number of flights" and was "studying aeronautics and experimenting in aviation."

Oakland was exactly where you'd expect to find someone like Selvage in 1910. That year it was the hub of all things aeronautical in the Bay Area, with local pilots operating from an old racetrack in nearby Alameda. "The most successful flights which have taken place in Alameda County, Ca., have been made by Blaine Selvage in a monoplane, which he built himself," an item in Aircraft magazine noted that September. "Three times on the same day he flew several miles and returned to the starting place without the slightest hitch." The magazine also reported, "Selvage's ambition is to be the first aviator to fly across San Francisco Bay."

Being the first to make a transbay flight was apparently a dream of many aviators at the Alameda airfield that autumn. A pilot named Ivy Baldwin twice told the Oakland Tribune that he was about to make the crossing, but his durned Curtiss biplane happened to be in the shop. There were rumors of a $1000 prize offered by an unnamed San Francisco club. New achievements in aviation were reported prominently in this era, but I'm unable to find a story describing the first transbay flight in either Oakland or San Francisco newspapers - probably because all interest in that fizzled as aviation in California suddenly made a quantum leap forward.

The first triggering event for this rapid change was the December announcement of a $5000 prize for the first flight from San Francisco's Tanforan airfield to San Rafael and back - a 60+ mile round trip probably partly over the ocean, which made the 12 mile hop across the quiet waters of the Bay look pipsqueak.

But the big shock was the January 7, 1911 air meet in San Francisco, followed a couple of weeks later by a similar event in Los Angeles. This was not an exhibition of novice pilots like Selvage who were proud to demonstrate that they could circle an airfield and land without crashing; this was a performance by the best aviators in the world flying the best planes. Hubert Latham, who had been one of the first to attempt crossing the English Channel in 1909, flew over downtown San Francisco and became the first pilot to cross through the Golden Gate. The same day James Radley thrilled crowds by looping over the Bay, circling "Goat Island" (Yerba Buena), flying 25 feet above the water around an Oakland-to-SF ferry boat, and buzzed a naval battleship so closely that the Rear Admiral attested he could have shot it down with a rifle, if he were so inclined. (Both Radley and Latham, by the way, were flying monoplanes similar to Selvage's.)

Perhaps Selvage felt humbled by their honed skills and expensive, high-powered machines, but his career as a pioneer aviator was apparently over. There may be further century-old newspapers and magazines yet to be discovered that will show he continued exhibition flying after the Tanforan event, but the complete absence of any mention in the press after 1910 suggests that he called it quits. Or maybe his plane was repossessed; in August, 1910 he had accepted $500 from a backer that was apparently secured by the plane (in a snarky little front page item, the Oakland Tribune commented, "When in need of hard cash why--mortgage your air ship of course").

Blaine's trail is hard to follow over the next forty years. The 1913 Eureka directory shows him working as a machinist, and married in 1916 to a woman named Faye. That marriage appears to have not lasted long; Mrs. Faye Selvage is in Eureka the following year, but not him. We find Blaine next in 1923, working as a machinist in Stockton, then a building contractor in San Mateo, 1938. Selvage returned to Santa Rosa in his final years and operated businesses dealing in concrete. In 1953 he filed for a patent on a "combined wheelbarrow and cement mixer," still the inventive thinker.

Blaine G. Selvage, unmarried and childless, died here on July 4, 1967, at the age of 81. No obituary for him appeared in either the Santa Rosa or Eureka newspapers. So forgotten was he at death that even his grave was unmarked, and so it still remains.

(RIGHT: Unmarked grave of Blaine G. Selvage, the first to pilot an aircraft north of the Golden Gate. The grave is in Santa Rosa's Memorial Park Rose section, E-36)

On the 50th anniversary of his first flight in 1969, there were a few mentions in the Eureka Times-Standard. His brother, Harry, was interviewed, and told a newspaper columnist that he remembered Blaine building the aircraft and testing the engine, and being there when his brother took to the air. He mentioned that after 1910, Blaine did not abandon flying entirely; Harry said "he carried passengers in his private flying service, working out of Santa Rosa" (alas, his brother didn't specify the decade in which that happened). And maybe some of his airman DNA always remained; the mixer part of his wheelbarrow invention was fundamentally the blade of a slow-turning propeller.

* Born in Eureka in 1885, the 1905 Santa Rosa directory lists him as "G. Blaine Selvage," and his family genealogists state his birth name was Gelespie Blaine Selvage, which is probably a corruption of his grandfather's name, Guissippe Selvaggi. At some point before 1909, he swapped the middle name and initial and was known as Blaine G. Selvage for the remainder of his life.


Blaine Selvage, a well known young mechanic of Eureka, has practically perfected a model of a new aeroplane of his own invention, with which he has already made several successful trial flights in private. Mr. Selvage is planning to bring his machine to Santa Rosa, where he will make his first public exhibition and trial flights.

The machine which Mr. Selvage has built consists of two plane surfaces, both 40 feet in length and six feet wide. These surfaces are connected with light but strong supports and rods of different materials, the machine built along practical lines.

A feature of the machine is an appliance whereby the man controlling the machine can make the aeroplane swing and rock from side to side and turn on an unsteady course, much as a bird in flight. This feature of the machine is now before the patent office at Washington and within a short time Mr. Selvage expects to receive his patents. The course of the aeroplane is determined by a horizontal rudder.

The motor which is now being built for the model machine is being built under the direction of Mr. Selvage. The engine is a four-cylinder motor and is capable of developing 30 horsepower. The feature of the motor is its small size and light weight which will make it adaptable for use by the aeroplane.

- Press Democrat, August 12, 1909


A few days ago the Press Democrat mentioned the achievements of Blaine Selvage, formerly a well known Santa Rosa boy, with his self constructed aeroplane at Eureka. The Eureka Herald gives the following detailed, interesting account of his first flight, which will be read with interest by his many friends here:

In the air for a minute and a half, during which time almost a complete circle was traversed, was the feat performed at the Woods resort on the Arcata road yesterday afternoon at 5:30 o'clock. Mr. Selvage made a genuine test and his machine took to the air as nicely as a Wright machine ever tried to do . Mr. Selvage was in town this morning. Despite his modesty as to his achievement the young man was appreciably proud of his machine and exceedingly gratified at the success he enjoyed late yesterday afternoon.

Had the aeronaut had more gasoline in his machine he would have remained in the air longer. One cylinder of his four-cylindered motor began to miss. The aeronaut concluded that it would be well for him to land before any of the other cylinders refused to work. After landing and an examination of the motor made, it was found that the supply of gasoline had been practically exhausted. But one gallon of gasoline had been put in the tank and a part of this had been used in turning over the motor before a flight was attempted. More gasoline had been ordered sent out bit it did not arrive. Hence Mr. Selvage made his initial flight with a shortage of fuel.

The flight was made in a field to the south of the Woods hotel on the Arcata road. The field is no larger than is required for aeroplane maneuvers. Upon starting, the vertical rudder was put hard over. The machine dragged itself over the rough ground for a distance and then evenly ascended. When a height of 20 feet had been attained Mr. Selvage adjusted his planes [sic] to go no higher. He did not care to seek a high altitude upon the initial flight. The machine answered the levers nicely and gave evidence of having sufficient strength to withstand the strain that it must undergo. The motor behaved nicely until the gasoline was exhausted. With the vertical rudder kept hard over the machine circled about the field and would have returned to the place of beginning had there been plenty of gasoline and a landing not been made.

The Selvage machine is a monoplane. It is 40 feet from end to end of the plane, which extends on either side of the light frame work supporting the motor and affording a seat for the aeronaut. The machine was built in this city at the Pacific garage by Mr. Selvage, he making the motor himself.

Mr. Selvage says that he will not attempt to make another flight for afew days, probably not until the latter part of this week or the first of next week. He wishes to place stronger wheels beneath his machine. He is having wide hubbed wheels made especially for the machine. In landing a considerable strain is put upon the wheels. The landing of last evening came very near putting one of the wheels out of commission. Until this matter is attended to the young man will not attempt to make another flight.

The flight of yesterday afternoon was witnessed by a few invited friends of Mr. Selvage He wished to try out the aeroplane in the presence of a few before permitting the general pubic to know of the time of any intended flight.

- Press Democrat, November 21, 1909


Blaine Selvage, the young Eurekan who in an aeroplane of his own construction succeeded in flying three-quarters of a mile in a minute and a half last Tuesday night, stated last evening that immediately after the present storm is over he will make another flight out on the Arcata road near Woods' resort.

Selvage is putting more substantial wheels under his flying machine and the next time he ascends heavenward it will be with the firm resolve to make a record breaking flight.

The inventor states he is confident he could fly over the top of Eureka, and but one thing discourages such an attempt, the possibility of his engine breaking while in mid air which would necessitate a descent to terra firma. House tops to not offer a descent to terra firma. House tops do not offer all that might be required for a place of alightment.

After several more flights in this county, Selvage will be ready to sally forth in search of new fields to conquer, it being his intention to go to Lon Angeles and try for the Harris Gray Otis prize, the millionaire newspaperman in the City of Angels is offering.

Selvage is confident he has infringed on none of the patents awarded to the Wright Brothers or any other aviator, and he has several applications for patent on his machine pending.

His 40 horse power engine of four cylinders made entirely by himself, Selvage declares to be the greatest factor in his success. A new system of lubrication has been used to advantage in the Selvage engine and even when it is geared to 1000 revolutions per hour the machinery does not become heated.

Other aviators have had considerable trouble with their engines, their machines becoming so heated while working at full speed in the air that long flights are impossible. Selvage thinks he has successfully bridged this gap.

Then again, the Selvage aeroplane is equipped with steering and balancing devices far superior to any yet used. Generally the amateur aviator has trouble on his first flight in keeping the machine right side up, but Selvage did not experience the slightest difficulty from that source in his first dash into the clouds.

The Selvage machine is of the monoplane type used considerably by French aviators, the Wrights are using a biplane.

- The Humboldt Times, November 19, 1909 as reprinted in "Redwood Country" Eureka Times-Standard, November 21, 1969


Blaine Selvage, the young machinist of this city who recently made a flight of three-quarters of a mile in a minute and a half in an aeroplane, monoplane type, of his own construction has already received tempting offers for exhibitions in other parts of the state.

There is soon to be a big jubilation in Ventura and Selvage has been offered $500 and all expenses to make flights in that county during the carnival. Selvage has about decided to accept the offer and he is planning to leave Humboldt county soon to keep the engagement.

After Ventura, he told The Times, he would then fly on to Los Angeles to accept the challenge for a $10,000 purse being offered by the publisher of The Los Angeles Times.


It has been suggested that Mr. Selvage be asked to make a number of flights in this city next Fourth of July or next fair week and something of that nature may be arranged. This winter he wants to go to Southern California where there are flying contests.

Selvage has demonstrated that he has mastered the air in a measure and he will no doubt have more engagements to make exhibition flights that he can attend to hereafter.

- The Humboldt Times, November 23, 1909 as reprinted in "Redwood Country" Eureka Times-Standard, November 21, 1969

Want to take home a 7-month-old baby? Come on down to the Salvation Army, where little George will be handed over to someone as an "interesting feature of the afternoon's services." Thus was apparently the fate of infants unwanted or parentless in 1909 Santa Rosa; the Lytton Springs Orphanage, which was likewise operated by the Salvation Army, did not accept youngsters under school age.

The spring of 1909 was the season for orphaned children: A few weeks earlier, a family of seven kids found themselves alone when their widowed mother Ida May Rice died. The day after her funeral, the court named as guardian the local probation officer, who promptly said that all of the children had been placed in homes. The Assistant District Attorney complemented his swift work was done "without any expense in the county."

It would not be cynical to presume unhappy fates awaited the Rice children; this was the era when orphans were still taken into homes to work as domestic servants or farm laborers, and three of these children were in their early teens, a prime age for such exploitation. Happily, the 1910 census shows that five of the children were adopted by Myron and Eva Goodsell of Janesville, Wisconsin, who were presumably relatives. What happened to the eldest daughter, 17 year-old Nellie, or the newborn is unknown. Hopefully the latter didn't end up as another Salvation Army door prize.

Ida May, with her husband Charles Rice, are buried in Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery, Eastern Half Circle 36.


The services at the Salvation Army on Sunday will be conducted by Major Willis of San Francisco. Special subjects will be dealt with at each meeting. An interesting feature of the afternoon's services will be the giving away of a baby boy, by name of George. George is seven months old, weighs 22 pounds. The public is invited to come.

- Press Democrat, May 22, 1909

Leaves Six Children Orphans to Face the World

Mrs. Ida May Rice passed away on Friday morning at her home on Charles street, leaving several children, among them a new born babe, to mourn her loss. Mrs. Rice succumbed to double pleuro-pneumonia, and everything possible to medical science was done to save precious life to the family. She sank steadily and her spirit was transferred to the better land, leaving the motherless and fatherless children.

Mrs. Rice had resided at 740 Charles street, the place where the Angel Death found her, for the past five years. She was a woman devoted to her family, of lovable disposition, and endeared herself to all with whom she came in contact. Her husband succumbed last autumn and left her a widow. There are six children in the family. Rev. Leander Turney, pastor of the Baptist church, will officiate at the funeral.

- Santa Rosa Republican, March 19, 1909

Probation Officer Plover's Good Work in Behalf of the Poor Rice Orphans

The six little orphan children left by the late Mrs. Rice , who was buried on Monday afternoon, have been found homes by Probation Officer J. P. Plover. This is good news for many people who were attracted to the case by the sad details connected with the death of the mother, preceded as it was by that of the father a short time ago.

Probation Officer Plover was named guardian of DeWain Rice, et al., by Judge Seawell yesterday morning. After this was done Assistant District Attorney Hoyle told a Press Democrat representative of the home finding.

"That's a pretty good piece of work on the part of Mr. Plover in itself," said the Assistant District Attorney. "He has found homes for those six Rice children without any expense in the county."

- Press Democrat, March 24, 1909

As Santa Rosa closes streets and girds to manage a flood of visitors for a bike race, it should be remembered that the town handled three or four Big Events like this every year a century ago.

There was usually the Rose Carnival in the spring followed by the Fourth of July, both with parades and grand floats. Then there were the races - horses before 1908, then mostly autos afterwards. On election nights there were bonfires (immense pyres really) in the streets with impromptu parades for the victors, complete with marching bands. And sometime during every year there was a circus or other touring entertainment that drew most of the town's population along with those from the surrounding villages and farms. In the age before television, radio and real movies, enjoying an event with your neighbors was a memorable thing.

Call me Mr. Cynic, but whenever I read that 'everybody and her brother' attended a Big Event, I've wondered: Why weren't burglars busy ransacking their neighborhoods of darkened homes? Where were the pickpockets drifting through packed crowds with their agile fingers? Reports of crimes like these were mainstays of the San Francisco and Oakland newspapers. Petty thievery was not uncommon locally, but more often it was opportunistic misbehavior of juvenile "incorrigibles" - stolen chickens, bicycles and the like.

But the 1909 California Grand Prize Race drew a huge audience from the Bay Area, and apparently their criminal underclass leeched along with them. The event was a more tempting target because it wasn't just a celebrated cross-country auto race; Fourth street was closed off for a carnival sideshow to promote AYPE (the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition about to start in Seattle), and Santa Rosa held the Rose Carnival the previous day, which included an illuminated parade that evening. All of downtown was filled with crowds packed tight as pickles, the only lighting coming from festive Japanese lanterns and the feeble wattage that fell out of store windows. Pickpocket paradise.

And sure enough, a gang of five pickpockets was nabbed - yet incredibly, not prosecuted and just sent out of town on the train. Homes on Mendocino Avenue and North Street were robbed, the burglars taking jewelry and a large sum of cash. And, as the Press Democrat remarked, "there may be others." As the items stolen were so valuable, it's hard to imagine that the thieves were kids, or that these were the only homes hit.

Still, it was a swell day for Santa Rosa, and for a while everyone stepped out of small town life to enjoy the thrill of living in a big city. Those robbed that weekend enjoyed the city life thrill to the fullest.

Detectives Taylor, McPhee and Green Assist Local Police on Rose Carnival Day

The police made six arrests Saturday and Saturday night of pickpockets and men under suspicion. In the case of two, the goods was [sic] found on them. There was reported to the police during a half dozen cases of work by the light-fingered gentry, and the officers kept a close watch as the throngs moved up and down the streets during the evening.

To aid the local police officers keep their eyes on strangers of the light-fingered variety wandering into town on Rose Carnival day Detective McPhee and Detective Taylor of San Francisco, and Detective Green of Oakland, were in this city on Saturday.

Detective Taylor had not been long in town before he recognized a gang of five pickpockets from the metropolis. They were just commencing to work in a dense crowd of people. Taylor watched them and one of their number caught sight of the officer and ran off. This gang were [sic] sent out of town on the afternoon train.

- Press Democrat, May 8, 1909

Residences of Frank D. McGregor and F. H. Hankel Entered and Articles of Value Taken

Burglars operated in Santa Rosa Saturday night while people were downtown participating in the festivities of the closing hours of the rose carnival.

Up to midnight at least two citizens had reported at police headquarters that their residences had been burglarized and money and articles of value stolen. There may be others.

When Mrs. Frank D. McGregor and Miss Mabel McGregor returned to their home on North street they discovered that burglars had preceded them. Two gold watches and jewelry belonging to the ladies, some of the articles keepsakes, were found to be missing. They telephoned Mr. McGregor at the Fifth street stables, and he communicated with the police.

Another thief entered the residence of F. H. Hankel on Mendocino street, and stole ninety dollars in cash from that home.

- Press Democrat, May 8, 1909

The Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on the Johnsons and Vallencias, who were feuding up a storm in  Santa Rosa.

We don't know when the war began between the neighbors, but it's likely that their 1909 court appearances were only the latest salvos in a marathon battle, which escalated after Mr. Johnson asked for an arrest warrant against  Louis Vallencia. The charge was unusual, maybe even unprecedented in the local court; he wanted Vallencia arrested for elder abuse upon his own father. The Santa Rosa Republican reporter seemed sympathetic: "The elder Vallencia is an aged and helpless man. He would not of his own account take any legal action against his son, consequently the neighbors at length took the matter up."

A week later, both families were in court. Johnson wanted additional charges filed against Louis' brother for storming to his house where he "delivered himself of much unseemly language in the presence of the Johnson family." Still in 1909, using "vulgar and profane language in the presence of women and children" was considered a more serious offense than even child abuse or animal cruelty.

Then Louis Vallencia had his say. He called Johnson "a particular kind" of liar, and "volunteered to beat him up."

Not to be outdone, Vallencia had scraped together his own list of offenses: Johnson had people camping in a  wagon in front of Vallencia's house; Johnson's young son was working at a shoeshine stand and doing janitorial work in saloons. "This latter, contended Vallencia, was apt to imbue the young man with a desire for intoxicants, and hence was, on the parent's part, an offense against the peace and dignity of the State of California, as well as of the immediate community in which Vallencia lived."

The newspaper observed, "[Vallencia] had several other complaints, which for reasons not altogether of space and relevancy are omitted here."

The exasperated sigh of Judge Atchinson can be heard in the final (?) ruling on the squabble: "The court dismissed the parties with the admonition that they use every effort to have peace prevail in their neighborhood."



At  the instance of J. W. Johnson, a neighbor, a warrant was issued on Monday for Louis Vallencia's arrest on the charge of battery. Johnson states that Vallencia had been in the habit of beating his (the defendant's) father, and mistreating him continually. The elder Vallencia is an aged and helpless man. He would not of his own account take any legal action against his son, consequently the neighbors at length took the matter up.

- Santa Rosa Republican, August 16, 1909


W. H. Johnson, who swore out a warrant of arrest some days ago for Louis Vallencia for cruelty to his--the latter's--father, appeared in the Justice court Monday morning with some more charges. It appeared that the brother of Vallencia had not taken kindly to the issuing of the warrant, and Sunday he appeared in front of Johnson's house and delivered himself of much unseemly language in the presence of the Johnson family. Vallencia, who accompanied his accuser into court, denied the charges, and he called the other a liar, a particular kind of one, and volunteered to beat him up, which he was not permitted by the court to do, however.

He further stated that he had various grievances against Johnson: the first, that the latter had a camping wagon in front of the Vallencia premises, which same, by virture of its inmates building nightly fires about it, was, in his opinion, highly conducive to setting said premises aflame; second, Johnson's son was engaged in running a bootblack stand while still of school age; and third, but not least, for he had several other complaints, which for reasons not altogether of space and relevancy are omitted here, this son of his neighbor was in the habit of being hired by saloon men to clean out their barrooms. This latter, contended Vallencia, was apt to imbue the young man with a desire for intoxicants, and hence was, on the parent's part, an offense against the peace and dignity of the State of California, as well as of the immediate community in which Vallencia lived.

The court dismissed the parties with the admonition that they use every effort to have peace prevail in their neighborhood.

- Santa Rosa Republican, August 23, 1909

Some athletes train for years to win a major sporting event, and others are yanked away from breakfast at the last minute and ordered to compete in a high-profile auto race against some of the top national drivers. Such was Ben Noonan's morning on May 9, 1909.

(ABOVE: Ben Noonan and J. W. Peters in the 1909 California Grand Prize Race held in Sonoma County. This photo, taken from some unidentified point along the route, appeared in the May 20. 1909 edition of "The Automobile". CLICK or TAP to enlarge)

The race was the California Grand Prize Race: Santa Rosa to Geyserville and back again, 52 miles in all, for a big trophy and a $500 prize. Similar cross-country races would soon be held regularly around the Bay Area - an Oakland to San Francisco via San Jose race followed a week later - but this was the first, so it was a very big deal. Thousands came from San Francisco and other places.

"Santa Rosa saw more automobiles on Saturday and Sunday than ever had been in this city before," the Republican newspaper reported. "Special service on the bay brought many machines and every boat on Saturday carried four cars, the number allowed at one time." Every garage in the city was crammed with cars Saturday night, and vacant buildings that could accomodate an auto were also used.

By 7:30AM on that Sunday morning, "fields and cross roads were badly congested with people and vehicles of every description, everyone anxious to catch a glimpse of the speedy cars." Santa Rosa National Guard Company E had uniformed men along the entire route to keep the road clear of spectators.

Ben Noonan was a local young man; his family owned the slaughterhouse at today's corner of W. College and Dutton Ave. (no mention of Noonan Meat Co. can pass without noting that the company had an entitlement from Santa Rosa to herd cattle down College Avenue from the Southern Pacific stockyard on North Street). Ben had not competed in an auto race before, but he was well known in town for his remarkable speeds on a bicycle. He had won several local competitions, and once beat the electric train from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol - even more remarkable when you consider that he did it on a dirt road using a bike with a heavy iron frame.

The car he drove in the race was one of two Stoddard-Daytons entered by the J. W. Leavitt auto dealership of San Francisco. The other was to be driven by Fred J. Wiseman, Ben's old friend and former business partner. They had been "Wheelmen" together in Santa Rosa's bicycling club, then opened the Santa Rosa Cyclery, where they also rented small cars out by the day or week. Wiseman - who would make history a couple of years later for making the world's first air mail flight - was then a professional driver for the Leavitt dealership, competing on race tracks around the West in a Stoddard-Dayton and showing off the powerful car.

Noonan was also apparently then working as a driver for Leavitt, as the story in the Press Democrat remarked he was having breakfast at a downtown hotel when he was told he had to be at the starting line in twenty minutes; M. Peters was supposed to drive, but injured his arm. (This is certain to be J. W. Peters, who was often Wiseman's passenger-mechanic on cross-country races, and later helped Wiseman build his first airplane.) Ben demurred until he was told that Wiseman would be disqualified unless both Stoddard-Daytons were in the race (it was never explained why). "At this urging and condition Noonan jumped from his seat, leaving his breakfast untouched, ran to the garage donned overalls and jumper over his good clothes, climbed into the machine and was off," the PD said.

The starting point was on Mendocino Avenue at the edge of city limits, which in 1909 was the current location of the new SRJC parking garage. The 12 racing cars were lined up in a string, and left at one minute intervals. All cars had a passenger-mechanic, and the injured Peters rode with Noonan.

Crowds cheered for them all and it was said that the entire population of Healdsburg turned out to watch the cars round the square. Some of the local cognoscenti camped out at spots they knew would be hard-going. Motor Age magazine reported, "One of the most interesting points along the road was at the Healdsburg bridge, at the end of which the cars had to make a turn at right angles. This meant a complete shutdown and the shots of the motor due to the surplus gas suggested an artillery duel."

It was immediately clear that this would be an endurance race. One car didn't make it out of the starting line, another only made it as far as Healdsburg before its frame cracked, and another hit a rock so large that it bent the tire rim. Several had flat tires. Fred Wiseman had to stop on Dry Creek Road to tie up a broken rod with hemp rope, which wouldn't hold and caused him to stop three more times. The most astonishing tale, however, belongs to "plucky driver" Fay Sheets, who lost the tire off his left front wheel around Windsor on the way back - yet still finished the race.

Only half of the cars made it back to Santa Rosa. Ben Noonan won the day, with a time of about 1:05. Wiseman came in third about five minutes later, his rod still hemp tied.

Noonan won by virtue of having no mechanical failures, avoiding pointy rocks, and being very familiar with the road, having ridden it many times on his bicycle. "I know that route like a book," Noonan told the Republican afterwards. "Every corner and every bad place on the road is marked in my mind's eye, and when I came to one of the spots, I slowed up and let the car make it up on the straightaway, where the surface was good. I didn't have a particle of trouble, and I attribute the victory to the reliability of the car and that easy going at the corners."

It was a great day, and as the Press Democrat explained, "Noonan must have been a happy lad. He was cheered repeatedly when he drove by the Santa Rosa contingents all along the line, and more so when it was learned that he had won the race. At the garage of the Houts Auto Company, the local agents for the Stoddard-Dayton, the winning machine was photographed probably a couple of hundred times. For a time both machine and driver were under the camera."

Much photographed and much cheered on that morning in early May, the end of the month found Ben Noonan being held in the Ukiah jail for a day and fined $25 for speeding in city limits. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Ben Noonan Drives to Victory in His Stoddard-Dayton
Thousands of People Watch in Breathless Excitement the Progress of the Great Speed Contest for Fifty-two Miles--Winner is Cheered

BEN NOONAN, the Santa Rosa boy, drove a Stoddard-Dayton to victory and a splendid finish in the grand prize automobile road race at Santa Rosa on Sunday. Maintaining a thrilling rate of speed throughout the fifty-two miles of the course he accomplished the great feat without accident or a hitch. New in the racing game as far as driving automobiles is concerned he ran away with the older and professional experts, gaining well earned laurels for himself and for the City of Roses.

It was the first road race ever held in this state and consequently automobile owners and dealers all over the state of California were interested in the event pulled off in Santa Rosa. In the opinion of many, grand automobile prize road races may come and go but none better will ever take place. In no race will a better bunch of cars and drivers be entered as competitors. And it was particularly pleasing that the race passed off without accident, except to machine.

Thousands of people, occupying all the points of vantage along the fifty-two miles of racing, watched with excitement and as the racers flew by pent-up enthusiasm broke out into cheers that echoed through valley and across the hills. They came from all over northern California to be present and witness the first road race in the state. Scores of automobile loads of people passed through this city early in the morning bound for different points where a broad expanse of country allowed an uninterrupted view of the race for a mile or two. The biggest crowds naturally gathered at the dangerous turns of the road, and while they breathlessly witnessed what seemed hairbreath escapes from disaster, yet every car made the turns without accident.

Noonan's fine car, his skill and nerve and knowledge of the road were his triumph in that most strenuous of tests on Sunday morning. He had unbounded faith in his car and that counted for much. It was known to comparatively only a few Santa Rosans that Noonan was to take the wheel in his Stoddard-Dayton in the race. But those who were in possession of the information were willing to stake their pile that if nerve and skill without an accident to car was in the balance that Noonan would come mightly near taking the race.

The Stoddard-Dayton won by a very narrow margin, however, as the Stevens-Duryea, driven by Ontank, crossed the tape just two minutes and twelve seconds behind it, winning the handsome cup offered by the Moore Motor Supply Company for the winner of the second place. On the return trip coming through Healdsburg one side of the frame cracked almost in two pieces. Onthank kept going and made a splendid run.

For sixteen miles that plucky driver, Fay Sheets, drove the Acme with the tire off the left front wheel. When the car passed the hundreds of spectators during that long run, minus a tire, they fairly gasped. It was nothing short of miraculous how the driver kept the car on the road at all.

The cars were started one minute apart at nine o'clock from the city limits on the Healdsburg road. Wiseman's car was the first to leave the starting line, having drawn the first position. He led the Acme, which was off second, all the way to Geyserville, and was first to reach the Dry Creek road. Here the Stoddard slowed up somewhat and half way around the loop the Acme went to the front. Wiseman had to get out of his car to fix a broken rod, but when he got going again he was still ahead of his other rivals, and he went on to profit by the Acme's misfortune in losing the tire already mentioned and reached the finish in the position he started.

After the sensation caused by the arrival of the first four cars had subsided, the spectators had an intermission of a few minutes before the cloud of dust at the end of the finishing straightaway heralded the approach of the Buick, driven by Frank Murphy, which figured into fifth place, was followed by the Tourist, driven by Ely, which proved to be the last of the cars to cover the course. Ely made a great run, but a tube broke in the ignition system and dropped into the flywheel of the machine. Before the driver could get under way again he had lost thirteen minutes, but the Tourist man was determined to fight it out to the end and he went on and secured sixth place.

Tire troubles were the cause of the dropping out of most of the cars which did not complete the journey. Louis Burnham's Thomas did not get as far as Healdsburg on the outward journey. His car was fitted with detachable rims and the rim and tire came off one of the wheels before the car had gone ten miles. The Packard car centered by A. J. Welch was close behind the winning Stoddard at Healdsburg on the return trip when a stay nail went through the tire and the car had to be pulled up.

The Speedwell was another sufferer from punctures. After making the fifteen-mile run to Healdsburg in eighteen minutes, the car had to stop on account of a flat tire. The Comet had two tires out of commission at one time, one of the tires cut as by a knife, evidently the result of running over a sharp rock.

Two Stearns cars were entered and were favorably regarded by most of the experts before the race, especially as Soules and Bonney, two skillful drivers, were handling the wheels, but neither completed the journey. The Pope-Hartford was ready to start, but its fibre timing gear stripped and the car did not get across the line.

Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the arrangements for this race made by officers and directors of the Sonoma County Automobile Association, particularly President J. Rollo Leppo and Secretary Don C. Prentiss. They and the directors and members of the Association along the course saw to it that the course, particularly the road crossings and turns and the streets in the city of Healdsburg, were well guarded and patrolled...

[..race officials named..]

Santa Rosa naturally feels proud of itself that its boy won the great race, and that Fred J. Wiseman, another Santa Rosa boy, who drove a Stoddard-Dayton too, figured so prominently in the race and won third place. Noonan must have been a happy lad. He was cheered repeatedly when he drove by the Santa Rosa contingents all along the line, and more so when it was learned that he had won the race. At the garage of the Houts Auto Company, the local agents for the Stoddard-Dayton, the winning machine was photographed probably a couple of hundred times. For a time both machine and driver were under the camera. The machine was garlanded with flags. The auto was given a critical inspection by experts and was thoroughly gone over. It was found to have stood the strenuous drive in fine shape. Both the Stoddards in the race were entered by the Leavitt Company.

As the horsemen would say, 'twas a great day and a great race.

- Press Democrat, May 11, 1909

Up to within twenty minutes before he took his seat in his car to drive from the Houts Auto Company's garage in the starting place for the big road race on Sunday morning, Ben Noonan did not know for sure that he would drive in the race. In fact he had made up his mind that he would not. He was eating his breakfast, dressed in his Sunday best, at a table in the Hotel Lebanon. Someone rushed in and told him that he must come at once and drive the car.

"Oh, I am not going to drive. Let someone else do it," he said.

"You must come, you and nobody else," he was told. "If you don't drive the other Stoddard will be pulled out of the contest."

At this urging and condition Noonan jumped from his seat, leaving his breakfast untouched, ran to the garage donned overalls and jumper over his good clothes, climbed into the machine and was off.

- Press Democrat, May 11, 1909

There's a plaque at the Sonoma County Museum noting the building was "designed by James Knox Taylor." Perhaps that line should be taped over, or at least a question mark added. A bright red question mark.

The magnificent old place was once Santa Rosa's post office. Even before the 1906 earthquake, the town's Congressman requested funds for a new federal building because the post office had outgrown its 19th century rooms in the old Athenaeum, Santa Rosa's opera house. When that building collapsed in the quake, the post office temporarily relocated to the tent city on a Mendocino street vacant lot (along with almost every downtown business). After that, postal workers operated a window at a grocery store as they waited for a new home to be built by the government. And waited. 1906 turned into 1907, then 1908, when the Squeedunk parade mocked the endless delays with a float portraying a vacant lot surrounded by a worn fence. Finally, the blueprints arrived from Washington (now available online via the Library of Congress). On each page was stamped the signature and title of "James Knox Taylor Supervising Architect Treasury Department".

(TOP: Santa Rosa received its first glimpse of its new post office in an unsigned architect's rendering that appeared in the Republican January 14, 1909. CLICK or TAP any image to enlarge

MIDDLE: Construction progress was delayed by water continually filling the excavated site, probably because of an underground tributary to Santa Rosa creek. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library

BOTTOM: Postcard c. 1910. Note the bicycles strewn on the curb and steps. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library/University of California)

James Knox Taylor was in charge of the Office of the Supervising Architect, a Treasury subdepartment that designed and commissioned federal buildings as well as awarding construction contracts. It was a job of tremendous responsibility; he managed an annual budget and inventory worth around $25 million, which would be closer to a billion dollars today. In FY 1909, when work was underway in Santa Rosa, he had 134 new buildings under construction or recently completed, additions or major repairs on dozens of others, and a further 263 projects somewhere in the pipeline, clamoring for attention.

Taylor's appointment in 1897 to this post surprised many. It was usually a political patronage job and the designs produced by the Office were generally considered lackluster (one critic at the time called the work "excretable"). But Taylor had worked as an architect himself - albeit one who couldn't make a living at it. Although he wasn't the Treasury Department's first choice, he was selected because he had been a draftsman there for three years and knew how the large Office functioned, and also because he wrote a convincing essay that outlined his philosophy: That public buildings shoud have a dignified style, be beautiful, and be pleasant to work in. Taylor quickly transformed the Office into a true architectural studio that turned out designs that might not have been the best of the day, but were certainly nothing to be ashamed of. He also awarded commissions to top architects for prominent buildings in major cities, which earned him high praise from top architects. Alas, that policy proved his undoing, and he resigned in 1912 amid a scandal that he gave one of these valuable contracts to his former partner from their failed architectural firm.

But did James Knox Taylor design the building that's now the Sonoma County Museum? Unless unpublished correspondence turns up that proves authorship, assume the answer is no. The primary reference book on the Supervising Architect's Office, "Architects to the Nation" (my source for background on Taylor) explains that during his tenure, "...modest government buildings, usually post offices, located in small communities...were designed by the Office staff." Architectural database archINFORM similarly notes, "As the head of a sizable government office, Taylor's direct involvement with any of these projects is open to question." And then there was Taylor's own essay that won him the position, where he stated that he believed the Supervising Architect should be a manager and leave designing to others, so "...[the Supervising Architect] could devote his attention to seeing personally that the three general considerations stated in the beginning of this thesis were studied, and that the actual work of construction was honestly done."

In sum: It can be claimed James Knox Taylor was the designer of hundreds of public buildings in the same sense that hundreds of cartoons were "made by Walt Disney." The man with his name on the title signed off on the final product, but likely didn't do much of anything to shape the work; it was his talented employees who were the real creators.

So who does deserve our thanks for that beautiful building? The only full name on the blueprints is Taylor's Supervising Architect stamp, and the actual draftsman is anonymous draftsman's name can be read as "Smith" on some pages of the blueprints. The only other name associated with the building's creation is one William N. Collier, and he was an engineer sent to oversee construction, not an architect.

Perhaps the true architect's name might be found somewhere in the cavernous National Archives, but it's useful to compare Santa Rosa's old post office to other California post office/federal buildings that were in the works at the same time: Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Stockton. I was unable to find any image of the historic Stockton building, but photos of the others reveal they share Santa Rosa's Beaux Arts-Neoclassical-Spanish Colonial mashup. All have a low-pitched hipped roof with red tile; strong cornices under the eaves; masonry walls; a portico with a colonnade; an entryway filled with windows. Each building has slightly different tweaks. Santa Rosa's Corinthian columns became Doric columns in Santa Cruz, then arches with pilasters in Santa Barbara. The post office in Santa Cruz is a single story, but has a larger footprint than the other two. (Only Santa Rosa is well proportioned, in my opinion, and the steps on the other buildings are not an integral  part  of the design, looking more like afterthoughts.)

Does that mean the same unknown architect designed all of the 1909-1910 California post offices? Possibly, but if they look enough alike to be a set of fraternal triplets, the East Coast federal buildings of the same vintage can be recognized as their first cousins. You'll spot the same Beaux Arts-Neoclassical look - particularly in the shape of the oversized windows and doorways - at Saratoga Springs, NY, Selma, Alabama and Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, among others. Slap a hipped tile roof and a portico-colonnade on any of these buildings and they'd fit right in with the "California" style of architecture coming from Taylor's office. (UPDATE: On further study, even the hipped tile roof can be found on post offices in the South and Southwest from this period - one example is Bessemer, Alabama.) I think the best conclusion is that the designer/architects were following the Office pattern book and not their muse.

Our treasure of a federal building was officially completed on March 1, 1910 for a total cost about $60,000. And so everything remained for 55 years, until the current post office was built in 1965 on Second street. The government sold the old building to Sonoma County, which used it as a data processing center. In 1977 it was sold again to the Santa Rosa Urban Renewal Agency, which was itching to get rid of it to make room for a shiny new mall that guaranteed lotsa' renewing would follow. The building was slowwwwly moved from its original location at 405 Fifth street (on the corner of A street, an address now obliterated by the mall parking structure) about 750 feet to Seventh street. We should be very grateful that Santa Rosa didn't just rip it down, as it recklessly demolished most of the rest of its history.

The old post office deserves to be better appreciated. If a drama were written about the history of Santa Rosa (R-rated, for sure), the first act would be set in a downtown saloon, sweaty, dank and thick with the grit of the Old West. But the scene for act two would be on the sunshined steps of the post office, because that's where you bumped into everyone every day during the decades when Santa Rosa bloomed. This was the heart of the charming place that Alfred Hitchcock loved and immortalized. Venerate today that quiet lobby, which remains a perfect time capsule of memories not your own.

Contrast that with our present underwhelming main post office, which is notable for having a complete set of walls, floor and ceiling. Every time I'm in there - waiting at the back of a mile-long line - I think back to my aunt Ethelyn, who in the 1960s had a repulsive "modern" sofa with plastic upholstery. When anyone in the family teased that it was remarkably ugly even for the low standards of the day, she'd huff defensively, "well, it's very easy to keep clean."


The new Santa Rosa postoffice building, which is to be erected on the corner of Fifth and A streets in this city, has been admirably designed to harmonize with our history, climate, and natural surroundings. The building will be of Spanish design and will present a pleasing contrast to our other public buildings in the city. The building proper has a frontage on Fifth street of eighty-two feet, and a depth on A street of fifty-two feet. In addition to this main building there is a portico across the front fifty-one feet wide by thirteen feet deep. The general construction of the building is brick masonry, laid in pure cement mortar, no lime whatever. To the height of the first floor the building will be faced with cut stone laid as "coursed ashlar." This stone will probably be "Indiana Buff Bedford Limestone," the finest building stone now obtainable in the United States. From the cut stone line to the rafter extensions, the plain brick work will be stuccoed in a rough cast "stipled" surface and nicely paneled and ornamented in mouldings. The roof of the building will be covered with the best grade of Spanish terra cotta tile, including ornamented tile hips and ridges. All of the lintels over the portico and door and window openings will be of cast reinforced concrete, and all sills will be cut stone of same as base course. The portico floor is reached by a set of massive solid granite steps forty-six feet wide. The roof of the portico is also Spanish tile, and is held up by two heavy masonry corners, and four stone columns, twenty inches in diameter, with heavy base and carved caps.

The cornice of the entire building is overhanging with darkened beams and huge rafters. In all, the effect is one of massiveness and solidity. Each buttress on either side of the granite steps is surmounted by a heavy cast iron lamp standard, of highly ornamented design, and with five large opalescent glass globes to each standard. These lamps stand about ten feet high.

The first floor is given over entirely to the use of the postoffice, the public lobby extends across the entire front of the building and is thirteen feet deep, with high ceiling and heavy plastered arches and cornices. At the left end of the lobby is a fine solid oak stairway leading to the internal revenue offices on the second floor. Another passageway at the left leads to the private offices of the postmaster and assistant postmaster.

The workroom occupies all the central portion of the first floor and is practically two stories in height, as is the public lobby. The money order and registry department is at the right of the double entrance, and is separated somewhat from the general workroom. Large roomy vaults of reinforced concrete and steel are provided for all purposes. The floor of the portico and public lobby is of marble terrazzo laid off in panels. All of the base and plinths of the lobby will also be of marble. The second story at the left is arranged into a suite of offices for internal revenue officers with private vaults, toilet, etc. On the right of the second story are arranged a store room, "swing room," and toilet room.

All of the toilet rooms have terazzo floors and marble wainscoting. The large toilet rooms on the second floor have exceptionally fine facilities, including shower baths for employees of the postoffice. There will be a basement with ten-foot ceiling under the whole building given over to the heating plant and fuel storage, etc. The mechanical equipment of the building, including heating, plumbing, and electric installation, is superb and of the latest types throughout. The heating will have an automatic oil burning plant to operate a hot water heating apparatus.

The plumbing embraces some of the finest fixtures made, most of which will be the John Douglas manufacture. All heating and plumbing pipes and fittings will be jacketed with asbestos pipe coverings. There will be four distinct electric installations, one for lighting, one for power, one for vault protection service and one for telephone service within the building. All electric work will be run in metal conduits.

The inside finish of the building will be almost entirely of quarter sawed whiteoak for all doors, trim, fixtures, counters, desks, etc. All glass will be plate or ornamental opalascent glass. Wood floors will be of white maple. Artistic metal grilles at all screen openings and front doors.

As a whole our new Federal Building compares favorably with other like [illegible microfilm] and while not so large and pretentious as some, it is fully adequate to serve its purpose.

The building was designed by James Knox Taylor, supervising architect of the treasury, and its construction will be under the personal supervision of Mr. William N. Collier, superintendent of construction of public buildings, who is now in Santa Rosa. Hoyt Brothers have the contract to erect the building.

- Santa Rosa Republican January 14, 1909

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