LeBaron: Gathering on courthouse steps in a different era

  • may day 1930 sr ct hse steps

The Superior Court's recently rescinded ruling that prohibited — ever so briefly — gatherings around the county courthouse has offered up yet another lesson on how the times do alter.

This reconsideration, and the discussion around it, call forth an image of the courthouse that stood for more than 50 years in the middle of the square in the middle of downtown Santa Rosa.

You know the square I mean — the one that is also a matter of some current reconsideration and discussion.

That courthouse, which was forcibly removed by wrecking ball in 1966, had four Superior Court courtrooms. But it also housed every other county office, from the coroner in the basement to the county clerk up the marble staircase, where we registered to vote and picked up our marriage licenses.

All of these: the tax collector, the assessor, the recorder, each in his (and I do not use this pronoun indiscriminately) own office with his own staff, fit nicely into one grand structure. The building, which was completed in 1910 and replaced the one that went down in the 1906 earthquake, was truly the Capitol of Sonoma County.

But it isn't what happened inside that building that I want to talk about (although there are stories to be told, believe you me). It's what went on outside.

When Joann Mitchell and I wrote a volume of Santa Rosa history in the 1990s, the courthouse had been gone for a quarter century — well beyond many memories. As we compiled chapter after chapter — on politics and agriculture and wartimes and social life and business — we learned just how important that building and the square around it were to the people of Sonoma County. It was, you might say, an "Aha!" moment for us.

We learned how much time people spent on those steps, the esplanade that led to them and the lawn outside that old courthouse.

Photographs, gleaned from "treasure" boxes and library files and newspaper archives, told us the story.

; We see the crowd that gathered in April of 1908, two years after the quake, to witness the laying of the cornerstone by the Masonic Lodge — with a parade following.

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