Petaluma’s Past: ‘The biggest horses, prettiest women and ugliest men’

One-hundred-forty years ago, Petaluma was abuzz about a Senate bill, which made it a criminal offense for a saloonkeeper to allow anyone under the age of 21 to play cards therein. It also forbade all games with, “cards, dice or other devices for drinks, cigars or money” (i.e. “Whiskey Games”).

W.F. Shattuck, publisher of the Petaluma Courier said, “We regard it as the best law for prevention of intemperance. It is better than prohibition. It prevents men and boys from secreting themselves in back rooms and playing cards. More men have been made drunkards by whiskey games, than all other causes. Prohibition is a grand, good thing. It is cruel to send a boy into the world, untaught that alcohol will burn him. Boys should be taught that alcohol inflames the baser passions!”

A vocal Democrat, Mr. Shattuck was quite hot about effecting a change in the US Presidency, moving it far away from Republican U.S. Grant. He broadcast, “No President has ever appointed to office so many corrupt men as he did. He was a failure, and brought dishonor upon our whole country.”

Of course, the editor was adamantly opposed to our other Petaluma paper, The Argus, and its Republican Editor Sam Cassiday, saying, “Sam Cassiday has some mighty queer notions. He is sensible and sound on most every question … except politics. He don‘t know which end is ballasted.”

Then, after the hated U.S. Grant won re-election, Mr. Shattuck whined, “Our defeat was followed by chills, fever, neuralgia, sore throat and demoralization. However, we are thankful that, while not as good as we might be, we are so much better than our neighbors at The Argus.”

The year 1880, was still loaded with many reminders of “The Old West.” Folks such as Bat Masterson, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and Chief Sitting Bull were still names in the news and the gun (as they said) was still the law in California.

Petaluma had a population of about 4,500 then, and a Petaluman named Lyman Byce had just invented something that would brand our community for 50 years to come - the chicken incubator.

The Great Depression of 1873 to 1880 was finally winding down and our farmers were desperately looking for a way back from financial crisis. The free range was becoming fenced with something called “Barbed Wire,” and the idea of raising poultry, with only a small initial investment required, soon became very attractive.

Editor Shattuck was effusive about our community, then coming out of the depression, bragging, “Petaluma’s climate is unsurpassed anywhere, and we have the best farming, stock and dairy in California.” He continued by listing a few of our local assets as, “Fifteen dry goods stores, four tin stores, two gunsmiths, three harness and saddleries, three cigar shops, six carriage makers, five livery stables, one tannery, one cooperage, four Chinese stores and sixteen whiskey and beer saloons.” He added that our town could also brag about what he called the “biggest horses, prettiest women and ugliest men in the country!”

He also boasted that (ready for this?) $12,000 had been allocated by the US legislature for dredging of Petaluma Creek.

The world of 1880 saw the American population exceed 50 million for the first time, and construction had begun on the Panama Canal. San Francisco was the nation’s ninth largest city at 230,000 and Sonoma County came in at 25,000. Interestingly, 100,000 Chinese men and 3,000 Chinese women, living on the West Coast then, were not included in that census.

In Petaluma, you could buy a 400-acre ranch, fenced, with a good well and 27 milk cows for $15,000. If you wanted to go to San Francisco, the Steamer Pilot left daily from Haystack Landing (a ½-hour buggy ride south), for $1 dollar, round trip. You could also catch the stage coach to Bodega for $2 dollars. Or, you could just stay here, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel at the foot of Main Street (now Petaluma Boulevard), with board and lodging costing you $5.50 a week.

While perusing these details, this interesting editorial comment in the Weekly Argus of November 1880 caught my attention.

“There is a heavy immigration now setting toward the US,” it reads. “The feeling is that indiscriminate reception of all foreigners, without regard to moral or social condition, is extremely hazardous.”

Yes, that was 140 years ago.

As Mark Twain once said, “History does rhyme.”

(Skip Sommer is an honorary life member of the Petaluma History Museum and Heritage Homes. You can reach him at

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