Toolin’ Around Town: Reflecting on former Petaluma Argus-Courier columnist Bill Sobranes

“I really loved Bill and the legacy he imprinted on Petaluma,” says columnist Harlan Osborne.|
Harlan Osborne
Harlan Osborne

“Item, item, who’s got an item?”

That might easily have been Bill Soberanes’ mantra for obtaining material for his daily column that ran for nearly a half-century in the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Along with other tribute stories appearing in today’s edition honoring the man, the myth and the legend — citing his longevity as a columnist, his quirky mannerisms and his role as illuminator of everything great Petaluma had to offer — I’d like to offer my own insights, observations and random recollections of the man I knew and respected.

My earliest memory of Bill was through his sister, Margaret Soberanes, who taught school for 41 years and was my second-grade teacher at McKinley School. Every morning, Miss Soberanes, her long brown hair tucked into a bun, guided our class through the alphabet she’d tacked above the blackboard. The first time through we recited it, but the second time we sang it. I’ve never forgotten how beautiful and melodic she made it sound, each letter blending into the next. It made learning to read an exciting adventure for me.

A compulsive reader, I was absorbed early on in reading the Argus-Courier, especially Bill’s column, because it was itemized into short, easy-to-read paragraphs with titles like “Here and There,” “A Passing Thought,” “The Roving Eye” or “Mysterious Doings.” Although I didn’t know any of the people or events he wrote about — Petaluma pioneers, company picnics, or Fred Wiseman’s first airmail flight — I always found it fascinating.

Like the Soberanes family, I grew up on the east side of town. In Bill’s day, this was distinctly a blue-collar industrial and factory community where many residents worked for the railroad, the silk mill, the shoe and box factories, lumberyards, egg processors or flour mills. With the development of the Blackwell tract, Novak Meadows and McDowell Village, Petaluma evolved into a bedroom community, with workers commuting to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Hamilton Field and San Francisco.

When I was 11, I took over my brother’s Argus-Courier paper route delivering to my neighborhood, including the Soberanes house at 421 E. Washington St. Although Bill wrote for the paper, he seldom was at the home he shared with his mother and sister.

As a young reader, I remember Bill writing about people from all walks of life — dairy workers, rodeo cowboys, the mayor, musicians, barbers and bartenders — a trait I’ve tried to emulate since I began writing my own column more than 15 years ago.

Bill wrote about who went deer hunting in Idaho and Montana, of huge abalone and big striped bass caught by local fishermen. He reported on how many rail cars were in a passing freight train, told us about Jim Ricci’s fruit producing banana tree and told us about whose garden produced the largest zucchini.

A fellow eastsider, Ricci was a lifelong friend of Bill’s. In a 2006 interview, he recalled a life full of horseplay, pranks and childhood shenanigans, mixed with school work and chores. He told me of the time in the 1930s when he had a job cleaning and filling wine bottles for distributor Joe Durando. Jim sometimes hid several filled bottles in the clubhouse-barn behind the Soberanes house. One Halloween night, he, his brother Remo and Bill, telling their parents they’d be sleeping in the clubhouse, sneaked out, stole several of their neighbor’s gates and garbage cans and strung them up on telephone poles.

The next day they offered to help retrieve the vandalized property.

Bill frequently came up with new ways to enjoy life. He created the Sonoma-to-Petaluma Walkathon, which he wrote about but never participated in, the annual Houdini séance, which was limited to invitation only, a short-lived Petaluma table tennis tournament and rowboat races on the river.

I laughed out loud when he wrote about gaining a few unwanted pounds and going on his self-described “Bill Soberanes Health Kick,” which, after a few columns he referred to as the “B.S. Health Kick.“

For Petaluma’s 1958 centennial he urged all the men in town to grow mustaches and beards like the “old-timers” wore. He grew a goatee for the occasion and created the ever-popular Whiskerino contest for fun and entertainment.

Bill loved to promote and join in with the Little Gnomes Leprechaun and Chowder Marching Society, a marching band and singing group that included many of the town’s leaders, including former Argus-Courier publisher John Olmsted. Founded in 1954 by Brad Datsun, the group made the rounds through town in raucous fashion each holiday season, stopping in every store and shop, including the watering holes, soliciting contributions for worthy charities. Among its members were organist Earle Bond, “legal advisor” Judge Rolland Webb, Mayor Leland Myers, insurance agent Chuck Hodges and businessmen Hank Simoni and Ray Wilson.

Karl Thimm, who joined the entourage in 1971, said the group’s unbridled enthusiasm, mirth and lack of gravitas never dimmed, but downtown demographics did. The banks frowned on sudden disruptions of their staid atmosphere. That, along with the aging instigators, led to the Little Gnomes fading into history.

My greatest memories are of Bill’s signature achievement, establishing the World’s Wrist-wrestling Tournament. As an Argus-Courier stringer, I was thrilled to cover the tournament a number of times, starting in 1984.

Bill loved to hype the tournament and the strong men and women who participated in it. He’d start promoting it weeks in advance, keeping his readers advised of the competitors who mailed in their registration slips from around the country and the world.

The night before the tournament early registrants could meet at the Quality Inn where weigh-ins took place. What impressed me was the warmth and reverence extended to Bill by many of the entrants. Bill knew most of them by name.

The tournament always began with of the introduction of founders Dave Devoto and Bill, who received thunderous applause and recognition, followed by a demonstration of strength and agility by body builder Jimmie Payne, who did one-armed handstands on a pole and other seemingly impossible feats.

At my first tournament, the 23rd annual championship, there were 432 entries competing at the jam-packed Veterans Memorial Building in front of ABC’s television cameras for Wide World of Sports. The unlimited weight class title went to mammoth 450-pound hog farmer Cleve Dean, one of the all-time greats, but off-camera throughout the day, Bill was the star. It seemed like everyone wanted their picture taken with him, reversing his claim to fame of being photographed with more famous and infamous people than anyone in the world.

Over the years the tournament moved to different venues. The Veterans building, Mystic Theater and Showcase Theater hosted events, drawing packed crowds and hundreds of wrist-wrestlers. The thrill for me was standing on stage behind the combatants during the matches, observing incredible bursts of strength, then interviewing the participants, invariably complimentary of being in Petaluma where wrist-wrestling began — and being able to meet Devoto and Soberanes.

Following Bill’s death in 2003, I was a among a group of Petaluma Museum members who pored through numerous boxes of memorabilia he’d saved over the years.

It was then I realized Bill and I had something in common.

His “files” and mine were similar — the unorganized ragtag piles of papers, news clippings, photographs, magazines and receipts, all stuffed into boxes.

Upstairs, I’m told, he had files that were better cataloged.

I really loved Bill and the legacy he imprinted on Petaluma. He was a self-made man who created his own character. The person is gone but his enchantment remains.

Harlan Osborne’s “Toolin’ Around Town” runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. You can reach him at

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