Long line of leaders shaped Santa Rosa over 150 years

PD columnist Gaye LeBaron introduces you to some of the people who had the biggest impact in making Santa Rosa what it is today.|

Santa Rosa's 150th Anniversary

Read more special PD coverage of Santa Rosa at 150


In 1932 to mark the 75th anniversary of this newspaper - and his 35th year as owner, publisher and editor - Ernest Finley wrote a small book called “Santa Rosans I Have Known.” It was not for sale but for “family and intimate friends.” It provides a long look back and tells us the bits and pieces of history that are not widely known, like the fact that Luther Burbank usually rode a bicycle or that it was the custom of the town’s first doctor “to take 20 to 30 drinks of whisky a day.”

With 90 more years and 150,000 more people, this short list will be quite different than Finley’s. Those who write history will tell you that it is unfailingly difficult, no matter the space allotted, to determine who’s in and who’s out.

Here’s a sampling of 150 years of Santa Rosa citizenry.

Leaders of late 1800s

The leaders in the late 19th century are easy. The years gone by have filtered and sifted and the ones remaining - all men, as would be expected - are few and easily explained.

The first trio would be Julio Carrillo, who owned the land north of Santa Rosa Creek, west of his family’s adobe, and a pair of enterprising German immigrants, Berthold (Barney) Hoen and Feodor (Ted) Hahman, who had a trading post in the adobe and supported a successful election to move the county seat from the pueblo of Sonoma to Santa Rosa.

With that accomplished, Hoen joined Carrillo in establishing a central plaza and talked him into filing a plat map for a town in 1854.

Carrillo’s story is not a happy one. He loved fast horses and gambled away the profits from all his land sales, finally being granted a sinecure as a caretaker in the courthouse they built in the middle of his square.

But when he died in 1889 he had, according to the newspaper, “the largest funeral ever seen in Santa Rosa.”

Enter the investor Mark McDonald, who had come from Kentucky in his 20s as captain of a wagon train and stopped off in Virginia City to make friends with a mining engineer named George Hearst. He made enough money in silver to buy a seat on the stock exchange in San Francisco, where he made friends with Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker.

His avenue to Santa Rosa opened in the 1860s when he married Ralphine North, from a Mississippi family that had settled in Santa Rosa. He bought the town’s water works, named the reservoir Lake Ralphine, and purchased a 130-acre wheat field at the edge of town, selling off lots advertised as “Homesteads, Cheap and Desirable.”

That was 1875, a year that looms large in Santa Rosa history. That same year, another, younger man got off the train, looked around, probably picked up a handful of dirt, sifted it through his fingers, announced that he had arrived in “the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned” and put down his roots.

If Santa Rosa’s climate and soil made Luther Burbank famous, he returned the favor, making the small city’s name familiar throughout the world.

Kanaye Nagasawa came that year to plant wine grapes for a wondrously strange leader of a Utopian community called Fountaingrove, and stayed for more than 60 years, making wine that would enhance the growing interest in Northern California as a wine region.

There are others whose names we remember: The Thompson brothers - Thomas, editor of the Sonoma Democrat and Robert, the county’s first historian; vintner and horseman Isaac DeTurk; Natale Baciagalupi, leading a wave of Italian immigration; the gardening Imwalle brothers from Germany; and Tom Wing, the “mayor of Chinatown” and labor contractor for Chinese workers.

Before and after World Wars

The 20th-century leaders are tougher to name and to credit.

From 1900 to 1940, growth moved at a snail’s pace but the area’s varied agricultural pursuits made the city’s business boom. In 1928, Sonoma County ranked eighth in the nation in agricultural production, including plant and animal products.

Before World War II, civic leaders were businessmen like the Exchange Bank’s Frank Doyle, who virtually took charge after the 1906 earthquake, leading efforts to rebuild and to bridge the Golden Gate. He also established a landmark educational trust benefiting Santa Rosa Junior College.

Doyle, with Joe Grace, who grew hops and made beer, and Press Democrat publisher Ernest Finley, formed a trio known respectfully as the “Big Three.” They were consulted on all city endeavors, including highways, tourism and the 1936 revival of the Sonoma County Fair.

Politics were consistent. Congressman Clarence Lea served 32 years in the House of Representatives and Herbert Slater, the blind state senator, represented the county in Sacramento for 35 years. Two local records that have never been broken.

The “new” Santa Rosa that came after the war’s end brought growth and new leadership, including the town’s first mortgage broker, Henry Trione, destined to become one of the city’s leading philanthropists, along with flamboyant developer Hugh Codding and Press Democrat publisher Evert Person.

Some left town for great success, like cartoonist Robert Ripley, who made the Church Built from One Redwood Tree famous, or Frank Herbert, who worked as a reporter for The Press Democrat in the early 1950s while imagining a world he would create for his record-breaking science fiction novel “Dune.” Football great Ernie Nevers played for Santa Rosa High, and a little girl named Natasha Gurdin who charmed a visiting film director went for a screen test and emerged as Natalie Wood.

Some were famous when they arrived, like “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, whose museum has made Santa Rosa a destination for Snoopy lovers from the world over.

“Dutch” Flohr, police chief from the 1940s to the ’70s, was an iconic figure, as was state Sen. Joe Rattigan, who became an appellate court justice.

Women in 20th century

Women’s roles in the first half of the 20th century were predictable, but important. Frances O’Meara, the tiny but mighty teacher of English at Santa Rosa High School, encouraged “Rip” Ripley in his school days. When collectors of history sent a letter to citizens of a certain age in the early 1980s, asking who had been the most important person they had known in early Santa Rosa, the answers came back equally divided between the larger-than-life Doyle and his tiny teacher sister-in-law “Miss O’Meara.”

It’s never a good idea to underestimate educators, particularly the determined first president of the junior college, Floyd Bailey, who managed through sheer tenacity to create a parklike campus built in the depths of the Great Depression.

Back to women who loomed large, like Eliza Tanner, a nurse who, for a time, owned the only private hospital in town. The alternative, County Hospital, was for indigents only, where doctors worked for free.

There were women poets like Nell Griffith Wilson and Eugenia Finn. There was sometimes a woman on the Park Commission or the Board of Education. But it wasn’t until 1976 that Helen Rudee broke the invisible barrier and won election to represent Santa Rosa on the county’s Board of Supervisors. It was a “first” for women in politics, as was the election of Donna Born as the city’s first female mayor.

Much-admired immigrants

Early immigrant groups came into their own in the 1900s, well represented by the Traverso family, originally from northern Italy; and the much-admired Song Wong Bourbeau, whose Jam Kee restaurant dated to Chinatown years. Latino leaders included Rafael Morales, a veteran of the World War II bracero program that brought farmworkers from Mexico; and George Ortiz, who co-founded Latinos Unidos, the first organization of Latino immigrants in the area, and also the California Human Development Corp., which provides social services for some 25,000 farm workers, day laborers and people with disabilities.

People aiding the community

Young women have came to the forefront with the increased importance of nonprofits from the 1990s forward, with leaders like Lisa Carreno of United Way or Catholic Charities’ Jennielynn Holmes at the helm of many new organizations seeking solutions to the city’s mounting housing and homeless problems.

The community needs that came with the 2017 fires brought emergency action. State Sen. Mike McGuire, joined by Redwood Credit Union CEO Brett Martinez and PD Publisher Steve Falk, created a $32 million fund for immediate fire relief. The next generation of business leaders like mortgage broker Jim Ryan and automobile dealer Henry Hansel stepped up, along with “the money men” including Victor Trione of Luther Burbank Savings and Gary Hartwick of the Exchange Bank.

Innovators in technology

It was 1956 when WWII vet Rolf Illsley rode into Santa Rosa on his motorcycle to start a company called Optical Coating Laboratory. It was the first company in the area that could be classified as “high tech.”

As the 1900s drew to a close, technology companies, like Hewlett-Packard (which spun off to Agilent and is now called Keysight) built a campus on the old Fountaingrove Ranch. That area would be developed with high-end homes, many of them purchased by high-tech people who worked in Telecom Valley northeast of Petaluma.

That’s where New Age innovator Don Green had a nest of highly profitable startups like Optilink and Advanced Fibre Communications. (Another spinoff, called Cerent, sold to the giant Cisco Systems for more than $6 billion.) Green, who provided the incentive for the Green Music Center with a multimillion-dollar donation, is still innovating. With John Webley (whose family lives in the McDonald Mansion) he continues to explore possibilities, including a company called Trevi Systems, desalinating seawater for a climate-challenged world.

Santa Rosa's 150th Anniversary

Read more special PD coverage of Santa Rosa at 150


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