Prohibition, parades rocked Petaluma in the Roaring 20s

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In 1927, prohibition was in full swing in Petaluma, and the Sonoma County Sheriff had instituted a $1,000 fine for anyone caught illicitly making or selling booze. That was a lot of money then, and more than 200 Sonoma County residents had been arrested for the crime that year alone.

Even so, the Roaring 20s were still roaring in Petaluma in this pivotal year. California had just passed laws that stipulated “boys and girls under the age of 14 cannot drive a motor vehicle.” But, considering how many motor vehicles there were in Petaluma then, there wasn’t much of an impact. The overall comment was “so what?”

The annual Petaluma Egg Day had been big news here. There was “stunt aeroplane flying,” a “greased pig release” plus an “egg shooting contest” and a “sensational equilibristic act,” which was labeled as: “the best act of its kind” (whatever equilibristic is).

But, the act that really got my attention was the “Chevrolet containing 15 people, running over the body of “Young Sandor.” Let’s see, 15 times an average of 150 pounds, equals 2,250, plus a 1,500-pound car equals 3,750 pounds. Yikes.

Petaluma teen Emma Christie had been elected Egg Day Queen and she was described as a “charming brunette, firm of figure.” She was given a ride in a new Model T Ford, courtesy of Aubrey Sanderson, the local Ford dealer on Main and B streets.

Mr. Sanderson used the occasion to say that, next month, the Ford Motor Company would be introducing, “a new vehicle named the Model A, which would replace the incredibly popular Model T. It would be 104 inches longer than the T and would make 25 miles to the gallon of gasoline.” Prices for the A would start at $460. Or, if you preferred, you could go up to the next block and buy a new Chevrolet Imperial Landau for $745 at the Murphy Chevrolet Company at 424 Main Street.

Lest you think that Petaluma’s reputation as Egg Capital, was just local bragging, the San Francisco Chronicle, in late August of 1927, editorialized that: “The whole world knows that Petaluma is the center of the world’s egg production.” The Egg Day was very popular.

Gene Tunney was heavyweight champion in 1927, but Jack Dempsey had challenged him to a match in September. Babe Ruth had just hit his 48th homer and Bobby Jones had won his first golf title. That fall, President Calvin Coolidge, who had instituted the very unpopular prohibition law, made his famous statement that he chose not to run for president again in 1928. There were rumors that then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover would run on the Republican ticket.

Deer season had just begun, and at 142 Kentucky St.m Milner’s Sporting Goods was selling rifles and ammo. At 114 Main St., Petaluma’s Piggley Wiggley Store was selling Fluffo shortening for 24 cents a pound. It was really just plain lard. And, one could rent a three-room apartment here, including “heat, water and bath,” for $17 per month at 888 Third St.

Benito Mussolini was prime minister in Italy and Joseph Stalin had just taken control of the Soviet Union. In China, a military man named Mao Zedong was gaining power and, to add to that turmoil, China’s worst earthquake in history struck in 1927. It was 8.6 on the Richter scale and killed more than 200,000 people in Xining. For comparison, the Great San Francisco quake of 1906 was 7.8 on the Richter scale and is still ranked as America‘s greatest natural disaster.

The fall of 1927 also marked the end of the silent picture era with the most popular “talkie” being “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. The top female stars were Greta Garbo and Mary Pickford. Hit songs of the times were “Blue Skies” and “Ain’t She Sweet,” both happy upbeat tunes in an era of frivolity that was soon to merge into the Great Depression.

But, headlining the news, Charles Lindberg had just flown solo non-stop from New York to Paris in the first ever flight of that kind. The world watched as the airplane became much more than just a carnival act of daring. Indeed, the “aeroplane” would come to define warfare and travel for generations to come.

In Petaluma, The Rex Mercantile Company, on the corner of Main and B streets, was celebrating its 20th anniversary in 1927. It had been founded by Ernest Hobbie and was heralded by the Petaluma Argus as: “One of the greatest institutions of its kind north of the Bay. Here can be bought anything required by any person at any time.” Perhaps, a shade of over-advertising there.

Rex was putting on a huge sale for its birthday, and you could purchase, “radiant heaters with cord and plug for $2.99.” Or, you could buy a “hand-powered washing machine for only $15.95.” Or, one of the newly introduced Kodak Brownie Cameras for only $2.29. Rex Mercantile is still there after 104 years, but it’s now known as Ace-Rex Hardware.

America’s “Jazz Age” was little stifled by prohibition. Organized crime was gaining power monthly through illicit liquor. Material wealth was the overall goal.

Flappers, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, it was all too sparkly a time. The stock market was attracting gamblers as well as investors and the American mentality was in a wild drunken party stage, just prior to everyone having to get really serious, as the world sunk into a terrible depression.

“Who could have known?” was the often heard question. Who could know now?

(Historian Skip Sommer is an Honorary Life Member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at skipsommer@hotmail.com.)

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