Long line of leaders shaped Santa Rosa over 150 years
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.