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Petaluma’s Past: The stepping-stone year of 1919

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The year 1919 was a pivotal one.

The “War to end all wars” was over. Yet another World War was brewing, and we were in the center of a “Red Scare,” as the Communist Party of America had been founded that year and our labor unions were deemed to have been infiltrated by Marxist leaders.

The Mexican revolution and the Russian Civil War were raging, and alcohol prohibition — otherwise known as The Volstead Act — was on the dockets of the U.S. Senate.

Former President Teddy Roosevelt died in that year, and President Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in the White House. A devastating hurricane hit Florida and Texas, killing more than 600.

Bad news seems to have dominated 1919.

But, on the positive side, the terrible Spanish Flu epidemic ended in 1919. The Paris Peace Conference of Versailles was held. The League of Nations was founded. And President Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize for leading some of the world into those pacts.

The Grand Canyon was made a National Park that year and on June 4, the U.S. Congress passed the 19th amendment to the Constitution, finally allowing women to vote, ending decades of frustration and agitation. This was to change everything, and was to become a stepping stone for a glittering new age to eventually be called, “The Roaring Twenties.”

America and the world were on the threshold of a great revolution in living styles. A new morality was coming in, and it was led by the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the radio, the telephone and moving pictures. Inventions and devices such as the washing machine, refrigerator and vacuum cleaner allowed women to get out of the house and experience new things.

And women did that in millions, as fashions, lifestyles and music changed from conservative to hot and sassy. The “New American Woman” was born.

Not everyone was thrilled about that.

The evolution had been partly because of the stress and horror of WWI. People wanted to enjoy themselves again, along with the emerging prosperity. Fired by consumerism and the cult of “Live now, Pay later,” there was a rapid growth in our Gross National Product in 1919. Men were wearing pinstripe suits with vests and spats over their shoes, and women’s fashion included fringed and beaded dresses with hem lines above the knees, plus cloche hats over bobbed hair, powdered faces and lipstick. The ladies also sported cigarette holders and stockings held-up by garters — and they drank and smoked in public.

Petaluma’s Hill Opera House was featuring the live musical, “Oh Baby,” opening that New Year’s Eve. It was billed as, “A smart emulsion of glorious girlhood and sanitary fun,” and also, “An assemblage of delectable femininity.”

And, to add even more controversy to women’s new freedoms, something called “birth control devices” came to the fore in 1919. Along with the right to vote, women were beginning to think about putting off family thoughts and considering such things as college and careers, and even … wait for it… learning to drive!

All of this resulted in the beginning of a generation gap between the “New Woman” and the traditionalist. Fading fast were the days of long skirts, corsets and “Be home by 9, or else!”

Petaluma of 1919 was right in step with all that.

Our small town of 6,000 bragged about our 42 saloons and that California had over 24,000 acres of vineyard, 1,400 of which were right here in the Penngrove/Petaluma area.

Consider what prohibition was to do to that, and Petaluma‘s Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the most powerful in the entire State. Just in 1919, Asti Vineyards ceased to exist along with the giant Lachman and Jacobi Winery, which had moved here from S.F. in 1906 and occupied 3 acres on East Washington Street. The company shut its doors and sold its buildings to Poultry Producers of Central California (now the site of CVS Shopping Center).

And that damage was just in the first months of prohibition.

More closures meant that “speakeasies,” “bootlegging” and illicit alcohol stills were right around the corner. Sonoma County was actively into all that, as well.

But, other issues were of importance here, too.

We were in a drought in 1919, and our Argus Editor warned, “The City is sick from lack of an adequate water supply.” There was no water for street sprinkling — an issue because there were still a lot of horses in town — and the Editor continued, “The present water company is a very cheap make-shift unfit thing.” It was recommended that the city hire professional engineers to study the problem, but citizens complained that it was, “obvious we just had to drill more wells.”

And lack of water wasn’t the only problem.

Many of our sewers were still being washed out by the tides down at the Petaluma River, and with the feeder creeks not providing enough water to the river, a considerable odor was hanging over our community whenever the tide was out. One Councilman suggested that a cure would be to establish a huge reservoir from flood waters that could be released all at once, into the river on low tides, thus “flushing the river.”

They opined that dredging the river and creating a turning basin might help too, but that was to be at least a year off.

“It should be looked into,” was the Mayor’s concluding comment.

Well … something needed looking into.

The headline news here in 1919, though, was about the possibility of striking oil in the Petaluma River Basin.

An oil and refining company had come to town and leased the Bundeson and Ramaticci ranches, among others, for prospective drilling. The Argus Editor jolted our community astir, saying, “If oil were found here, there would be a great boom to Petaluma!”

Not much came of that excitement.

But, to show you that Petaluma was ready in 1919 for its grand entrance into the “Roaring Twenties,” the San Francisco firm of Bostick & Fairbanks opened here, at 301 North Main, a large “Show Room of Pleasure Cars.”

It included: The Cleveland at $1,640, The Traffic at $1,775, The Chandler at $2,165, the Diamond T at $3,583 and the Pierce Arrow, six valves with an aluminum body, at $8,275.

I’m quite sure the “New Ladies” of Petaluma were all agog.

Well … I bet the “new guys” were, too.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an honorary member of the Petaluma Historical Museum and Heritage Homes. He can be reached at skipsommer@hotmail.com)