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Petaluma’s Past: One-hundred years ago this month

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January of 1919.

What a month it was!

WWI had officially ended.

But war talk still dominated world news. On Jan. 1, 1919, Germany formed the German Workers Party - soon to become the Nazi Party - an omen of things to come. The Paris Peace Conference in Versailles opened on Jan. 18 and the League of Nations was formed on Jan. 25. Our Petaluma Courier Editor Homer Wood cautioned, “The League’s success depends upon the degree of harmony with which the nations work together. Such a league is experimental.”

He suggested that, “a combination of the US, England, France and Italy would be able to control the seas, making it very difficult for a government to conduct a war.”

That January in Petaluma, the strain of wartime was still felt, and Petalumans were worn down by restrictions and grief. Editor Wood opined, “If wars are to be avoided, everyone must take some share in building a new civilization on a firmer base. We need to stop money-grabbing, to exercise thrift, to promote community causes. The man who lives for himself alone, gets no help from other people.”

Another world issue still felt here that month was the slow winding-down of the influenza epidemic. San Francisco, Napa and Eureka still enforced a compulsory wearing of masks, and Petaluma and Santa Rosa schools were still closed on Jan. 30. But both the Mystic Theatre and The Hill Opera House reopened on the 30th, after being closed for many weeks.

The flu in America had killed twice as many people as had the European War. Our Petaluma Argus editor Emmett Olmsted warned, “Our greatest danger is to believe the peril is over. Conditions are improving, but not rapidly enough.” The situation did return to a semblance of health safety, however, by the end of February, and California schools began to reopen that month.

A bitter argument was roiling over the ratification of the new 18th amendment (Prohibition) to the U.S. Constitution, which passed on Jan. 16. Ten days later, three-quarters of all the states had ratified it as well.

California ratified the amendment on Jan. 10, even as grape growers avidly protested. Editor Olmsted direly warned, “Vinyardists, hop growers and brewers of California will, if they are wise, prepare now for the inevitable. The US is going to be dry for all time.”

The Anti-Saloon League and The Women’s Christian Temperance Union were ecstatic. Sonoma County and Petaluma, however, were to become infamous for their secret stills and speakeasies, which would operate all through those coming Prohibition years.

Interestingly, on the same docket with the Prohibition Amendment was a move from our California Legislature urging Washington to give women the right to vote. But it was to no avail then. It has been speculated that one reason women’s suffrage didn’t happen years sooner in the US is that the movement became so entangled within the thorny issue of alcohol prohibition.

In Petaluma that month, still another nasty argument was raging about U.S./China Trade. Our local poultry men were up in arms, and had sent a nasty letter to Washington, protesting the importation of Chinese eggs. They exclaimed, “For the protection of the Petaluma product, the entire community must fight for a tariff on Chinese eggs, especially now, as we pass from a war to a peace basis.”

This all sounds too familiar.

The dairy industry was also in the midst of a controversy that month.

Dairymen of Sonoma and Marin counties were on a rampage over our state’s mandated use of something called “Oleomargarine” in all state institutions. They pledged that “never” would Oleo be allowed to replace butter in California. They sent off a hot letter to the legislature, downing margarine as “a cheap substitute known to be of inferior food value and less digestibility!”

Our City Council was pushing for a widening of Main Street then, “with cement from sidewalk to sidewalk.” Mayor Gossage suggested a bond issue to fund it. Also, in that same council meeting, Petaluma police salaries were raised from $90 per month to $100 per month. That week’s Courier carried an ad from the D.W. Batchelor Real Estate firm, urging folks to, “Own a home of your own. We are offering lots in The Hillside Tract @ $300 each. $25 down, then $5 a month in East Petaluma.”

One hopes those underpaid police officers were able to make that move.

But Petaluma was not totally obsessed with those hot topics that month.

The Hill Opera House, was just reopening after the shut-down, with silent screen star Theda Bara appearing in “Salome.” The film was advertised as “livid, lively and fiery, with orchestra at all shows. 25 cents. War tax extra.” Meanwhile, the Mystic Theatre would be reopening with Tom Mix in “Fame and Fortune,” proclaimed as “a thrilling western drama of wild prairie life! 10 cents. War tax extra.”

What, no music?

And even in 1919, with the automobile now well established, Petaluma’s William Zartman was still advertising “Buggies, Wagons, Mowers, Binders and Rakes.” Motorized tractors were indeed making headway into our ranching community, but some farmers still insisted that the horse-drawn implement was the best for agriculture in these parts.

The world had again intruded upon Petaluma that January, and as the recovery from war and flu progressed, prices and costs inevitably started to rise. But you could still rent a five-room house on Bodega Avenue, with “gas and electric lights, stationery washtubs, for $12 a month.

(“Stationery wash tubs?” Zowie!)

And at the Liberty Garage at 131 Keller you could buy gas at 20 cents a gallon and two quarts of oil for just 25 cents more.

Oh right! You could also get your auto painted there, with “Fireproof Auto Paint.”

Well, why not?

After all, the Roaring Twenties were just months away.

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