Dusty press in Sonoma barracks may have been used to print county’s first newspaper

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In a dark room, on the dirt floor of the servant’s quarters that once were part of the Sonoma home of General Mariano Vallejo, historical artifacts have been collecting dust for years.

A jumble of cast-off antiques linked to the early days of the town are stored there: a cast iron stove, a fireplace mantel, bed posts and mounted deer antlers, to name a few.

But perhaps none of the items is more significant than two almost forgotten printing presses amidst the clutter.

Though broken, with parts bent or missing, one of them may be the press that in 1852 published the first newspaper in Sonoma County.

The Sonoma Bulletin, the first news sheet in the North Bay, was founded by Alexander J. Cox, a soldier, actor and publisher who converted the east half of the adjacent Sonoma Barracks into a printing office.

From June 1852 until September 1855, he intermittently put out his four-page weekly tabloid there, before taking his small hand press to launch newspapers in Vallejo, Napa and Healdsburg.

Cox had a wry perspective described as an able forerunner of Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce.

Sizing up neighboring Santa Rosa, he said “although everyone considers it a pretty little town, some think the opposite.” He then went on to quote an anonymous Sonoman who said there was nothing in Santa Rosa but “dogs, dust and whisky drinkers.”

His account of the removal of the county courthouse from Sonoma, (then the county seat) to Santa Rosa in 1854, epitomized his droll humor:

“Departed — Last Friday the county officers with the archives left town for the new capitol amidst the exultant grin of some and the silent disapproval (frowning visages) of others. We are only sorry they did not take the courthouse along — not because it would be an ornament to Santa Rosa, but because its removal would have embellished our plaza.

“Alas old ‘casa de adobe!’ No more do we see county lawyers and loafers in general, lazily engaged in the laudable effort of whittling asunder the veranda posts — which, by the way, required little more to bring the whole fabric to the ground. The courthouse is deserted like some feudal castle, only tenanted perhaps by gnats, rats and fleas. In the classic language of no one in particular, ‘Let ’er rip.’ ”

A native of Charlestown, South Carolina, Cox came to Sonoma in April 1847, less than a year after the infamous Bear Flag revolt in which a motley band of American settlers captured General Vallejo and the pueblo of Sonoma. They established a short-lived independent republic that presaged the end of Mexican rule in California and the southwest.

Cox arrived during the subsequent Mexican-American War — as a soldier in Company C of Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson’s regiment of New York Volunteers. They were recruited from some of the toughest neighborhoods of New York City, according to Press Democrat columnist and historian Gaye LeBaron.

Stevenson himself was a controversial figure, a powerful Tammany Hall politician, former state senator and aide to the governor. As the regiment’s three ships sailed out of New York harbor they managed to outrun a sheriff’s boat with a warrant for Stevenson’s arrest on a political charge.

They made the long, sometimes perilous journey by sailing ship around Cape Horn before landing in San Francisco.

Because the 70 or so men of Company C had almost nothing to do, Cox and several others — including a former professional actor from New York — set up a theater soon after their arrival in Sonoma, according to Peter Meyerhof, a Sonoma dentist and amateur historian who scours archives and research libraries to uncover interesting stories. He noted it was the first theater in California, opening several months before the one in Monterey that claims the title.

Productions were performed in the Salvador Vallejo adobe and later a second season in General Vallejo’s Casa Grande, although many of the men wound up deserting for the gold fields before Company C was disbanded at the end of the war in 1848.

The history of the Sonoma Barracks is immensely significant, Meyerhof said. It not only represents an important headquarters of multiple military units under three flags, including the first American government in all of California, it’s also where the prototype of California’s most recognizable symbol — its flag with a grizzly bear — was created.

And it was the site of Sonoma’s first hospital and its first newspaper office.

In later years, Cox wrote that he was among 13 “practical printers” — an apparent reference to experienced printers — in Stevenson’s Regiment, adding to four who were already residing in California.

And although he printed the first newspaper north of the Golden Gate, his was not the first printing press in Sonoma.

That distinction belonged to a massive press that General Vallejo brought from Monterey to Sonoma in 1836, the first on the West Coast of North America, according to the American Printing History Association. In Sonoma, it was used to print the first medical book in California in response to the smallpox epidemic of 1838.

Later it made its way back to Monterey where it was used to publish “The Californian,” the first newspaper in the state in 1846.

But it was one of two old printing presses now stored in Sonoma that has been linked through the years to Cox and his seminal Bulletin newspaper.

Trying to pinpoint which one might have belonged to Cox and whether it actually printed his newspaper could be worthy of a segment on television’s “History Detectives.”

State Parks Museum Curator Carol Dodge notes that a 1944 park inventory identifies the smaller one as the “first printing press in Sonoma.”

She wasn’t certain how the donors — the Poppe family — acquired it. But Sonoma historian Robert Parmelee said Robert Poppe was very active in the Society for California Pioneers, and in the 1880s distributed items the organization had collected.

“I think the Poppe press was originally used by Cox and the Bulletin. Exactly which and when the transfer was, I don’t know,” Parmelee said.

History sleuth Meyerhof said the press may have belonged to Cox and his Bulletin, but he isn’t convinced.

“I’ve seen a lot of things that have been improperly provenanced,” he said, adding that there is a historic brass plaque at the Sonoma Barracks where dates are incorrect. In the past, he said “people weren’t as rigorous” in verifying stories that were passed down.

A magazine article from the early 1960s show a photograph of the same press on display at the Sonoma Mission Museum with first editions of the Sonoma Bulletin resting on its bed.

A series of recollections of old-time residents compiled by the Sonoma Valley Historical Society in 1954 stated Cox’s newspaper was set by hand and “printed on the little press now a relic at the Sonoma Mission Museum.”

The article was written by Celeste Murphy, whose family donated a second press that’s in storage. She was an editor and publisher whose family owned the Sonoma Index- Tribune newspaper and also bought the Sonoma Barracks in the early 1930s, owning it for more than 20 years before selling it to the state of California.

“The donor believed the Sonoma Index used the press when H.H. Granice bought the Index in 1884,” State Parks Museum Technician Ronnie Cline said in an email.

That press, manufactured by R.Hoe & Co. in New York, has a serial number on it. But the donor was unable to ascertain the original purchase date because company records were lost in a fire, Cline said.

Even more confusing, is that state officials refer to both as “Washington” printing presses, even though only one — that manufactured by R. Hoe — has a likeness of George Washington etched into its surface.

Dodge said the state has very little information on the printing presses and little time for in-depth, focused research. A long term goal, she said, is to move items from the servant quarters to a new location with better environmental conditions and access, but there are no immediate plans for restoration or places to put them within the park’s Bay Area district.

As for Cox, shortly after leaving Sonoma he published a newspaper in Vallejo, before editing the Napa Reporter and then starting the semi-weekly Napa Sun in 1858.

“Soon after he returned to Sonoma County, lugging a hand press which had been with him from the beginning and originated the Healdsburg Review,” wrote Petaluma historian Ed Mannion in a 1964 article.

The itinerant Cox spent his latter years, during the 1880s, in Mendocino.

Mannion wrote that the 87-year-old publisher of the Mendocino Beacon, A.A. Heeser, recalled early childhood memories when Cox worked there as a typesetter:

“I knew him quite well as a small boy — the paper and myself are about the same age, as it was started by my father six months after I was born. Of all the old-time printers, Cox stands out most distinctly in my memory. He was spare, held himself erect, even when somewhat under the influence of liquor.”

He remembered Cox’s white beard and the light-colored “dicer” hat he always wore, as well as old-time Fourth of July parade pictures depicting veterans of the Grand Army that probably included Cox.

“I am inclined now to think that Cox did some of the local writing for the Beacon in the very early days of the publication, but when I knew him best, when I was 8 or 9 years of age, he seemed to be wholly engaged in setting type at the case and neither occupied the position of local editor or foreman,” Heeser said. “John Barleycorn had a pretty strong hold on him and he occasionally tapped the grain alcohol bottle which we used to fire the paste pot on publication day.”

“I as a small boy really looked up to the old man and liked him, and he never, even when quite saturated, was anything but a gentleman, and could converse quite intelligently.”

Cox died in Pasadena in 1886, at the age of 66. A Napa newspaper item at the time said he was buried in Los Angeles Evergreen Cemetery.

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