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Technology, the Homestead Act and Petaluma in 1885

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In 1885, the Republicans — who’d won the Civil War with Abraham Lincoln and held the White House for 24 years after that — were in such disarray following the reigns of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur, that a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, finally won the Presidency.

President Cleveland had been the mayor of Buffalo, New York, and was a man of great appetites. He weighed over 300 pounds, was a bachelor, often played poker all night, loved fishing and hunting, and hit the bottle frequently. That year, the approaching holiday of Thanksgiving was going to place enough food on the White House table to feed a grizzly bear.

In Petaluma, California, the same kind of thinking was prevalent that November, as our turkey, cattle and chicken ranchers were readying for their big seasonal paycheck.

Cleveland time in office coincided with the “Golden Age” of industrial growth in our country, during which Petalumans saw the introduction of such major technological advances as the elevator, the telegraph, the sewing machine, the electric light and petroleum fuel. The future seemed very bright indeed.

And 1885 saw plenty of bright moments.

The Statue of Liberty (France’s gift to America) arrived in New York Harbor and The Washington Monument was dedicated, as well. Mark Twain published “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that year, and in London, Gilbert and Sullivan staged their musical “The Mikado.” Good Housekeeping Magazine also debuted in ‘85, a cola drink named “Dr. Pepper” hit the market, and The Leland Stanford Jr. University was founded in California.

In Petaluma, our Steamer Gold was plying the river and Lyman Byce’s revolutionary egg incubator had been successfully hatching chicks for six years. The Bauer & Company, on Main Street, featured the New Oliver Chilled Plow, calling it the “only perfect chilled plow made,” referencing the manufacturing process, not the temperature of the plow. The Temple & St. John Co, on Keller Street was advertising, “The newest and most improved labor saving machinery,” which was in fact the Deering Twine-Binding Harvester — the machine that would make the Deering Co. the No. 1 producer of farm equipment, for a while, anyway.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, President Cleveland had stepped into a bad place with regard to Native Americans. Little by little, their hunting grounds were being taken away and the outright slaughter of buffalo was eliminating their major food source.

It was, and still is, a major national tragedy.

Playing a part was the Homestead Act, passed in 1862, which gave any “adult citizen the right to claim a quarter section (160 acres) of public domain” for free. “Free,” that is, if they promised to make structural improvements and occupy said land as a residence for five continuous years. Among those prohibited from the offer were those who had ever “borne arms” against the United States, meaning that anyone who fought for the confederacy in the Civil War was not eligible.

In Sonoma County, where there had been plenty of southern sympathizers, there were hundreds of qualified enthusiastic takers of this opportunity.

The Homestead Act, however, was a flawed vehicle.

It did not guarantee anything but the land itself, meaning that recurring costs of bad weather, disease and losses incurred by wild animals had to be solely the consideration of the farmer/rancher themselves. In Petaluma, during those early times, it was not uncommon for homesteaders to mortgage the ranch to the local feed mill or to the country store. Those firms often ended up owning the property.

Many small farmers and rancher tried to keep-up, but the act didn’t provide money for equipment or for groceries, barbed wire, well digging, poaching, windmills or stock.

Petaluma’s C.P. Hatch Co., on Keller Street, was selling The Pacific Windmill, which, they said, “Stops when the wind blows too hard, never requires watching, and will not blow over.” All good features, but those windmills were expensive, and the company would also gladly accept a mortgage on acreage, in lieu of ready cash.

A really bad move for the ranchers.

Sadly, it turned out that those 160 acres were often not enough to subsist upon, and many a small farmer or rancher in Petaluma had trouble making a viable return on their investment. Decades later, the American folksinger Tennessee Ernie Ford memorialized those times in his sad ballad “I Owe My Soul To The Company Store.” The big feed mills in Sonoma County had indeed become those “company stores.”

The cattle and sheep rancher, milk and grain producer, winemaker and the poultryman, are still a backbone of our Sonoma County economy, and the city of Petaluma continues to benefit from our large agricultural base — enhanced by industry, shops and the newest “technological advances,” innovations that would boggle the mind of those who brought us the elevator, the telegraph — and probably even the “chilled plow.”

Skip Sommer’s “Petaluma’s Past” runs every other week in the Argus-Courier. Skip is an honorary lifetime member of the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum, and Heritage Homes. You can contact him at SkipSommer31@gmail.com.

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