The MGH Report

Michael G. Haran, Proprietor

HEALDSBURG’S PLAZA; Facts and Legends

Posted by on Aug 16, 2007

HEALDSBURG’S PLAZA; Facts and Legends

Published in the Healdsburg Tribune August 16, 2007

By Michael Haran

Legend has it that one spring evening in 1857, just below the Russian River’s Memorial Beach, two boys (Charlie Fitch, 15, the youngest surviving boy of Henry and Josefa Fitch’s eleven children, and Billy McAfee, 14, son of Isam McAfee an early Healdsburg liveryman) were walking back to the Fitch Ranch on Bailhache Road after a long day fishing and goofing around on the river. The boys caught scent of something roasting over an open fire. Shushing each other they moved as close to the source as possible without being seen.

Healdsburg Plaza #2

Healdsburg Plaza Looking NW circa 1870’s

Crouching behind some tall reeds, the boys saw two Southern Pomo Indians cooking a late run steelhead. Kha-Lan-Ko (tall willow) and Coliko (red wing), who worked for Josefa at the Fitch Ranch, knew both boys quite well and, well aware of their presence, decided to have some fun.

Thinking that they were well concealed the boys listened to the Indian’s conversation. Kha-Lan-Ko told of the old Indian village called Ka’le (the name means “water place” and was named for a nearby lake) which is now the site of Healdsburg’s Plaza. Kha-Lan-Ko went on to weave a story of how the Pomo’s last chief, Sotoyome, had buried the royal treasure before the tribe moved north ahead of the white settler’s advance to the area. Sotoyome died before he could retrieve the treasure and it was still buried near Harmon Heald’s general store. Whispering, so the boys had to strain to hear, Kha-Lan-Ko gave the compass coordinates from the front door of Heald’s store and the old madrone tree in the middle of West Street (now Healdsburg Ave.).

That night, just before dark, JohnstonIreland, Healdsburg’s first Justice of the Peace, was working in his store. His store was located on the Southwest corner of Center and Powell (now Plaza St.) Streets and is now the site of the Gallo tasting room. Mr. Ireland, who owned what is thought to be the first sewing machine in Healdsburg, sewed feed bags which he sold around town. He had come outside for a smoke when he saw the two boys walking toward a point in the Plaza. Their heads were down as each had a compass in one hand and a shovel in the other. Charlie’s compass was that of his late father, Henry Delano Fitch, a sea captain and trader.

Mr.. Ireland watched with much interest as the boys began digging. In 1857 the Plaza was still in a natural state, full of mature Valley Oaks and Madrone trees. The native grasses grew tall in those days, considering the Plaza was used primarily as a horse and wagon parking lot.

As the boys dug, Mr. Ireland meandered over to the mini excavation site. Upon his arrival the boys struck pay dirt – or at least they thought they had. Charlie reached in the hole and pulled out what looked like a wooden shoe box. You can imagine their surprise when Mr. Ireland put his arms around each boy’s shoulders and encouraged them to open the box. Charlie put the box on the ground and pried open the lid. The three of them stood there for a good five seconds before Mr. Ireland let out a roar of laughter. The boys sheepishly soon joined in the mirth; the boy’s Indian gold turned out to be the remains of someone’s dead house cat!

After the laughter, the boys told Mr. Johnson their story. Mr. Ireland told the boys that the Plaza was now town property and if they wanted to do any more excavation they would have to get a permit. He didn’t know from whom a permit could be obtained but a good place to start would be with Mr. Harmon Heald. This story, which is one of Healdsburg’s most famous legends, is a good way to start the history of our beautiful Plaza.

Having contracted tuberculosis on his transcontinental journey from Missouri to California; and after a short period working a YubaRiver gold claim, in 1851 Harmon Heald built a cabin, in which to recuperate, by the well-traveled route from San Francisco to the northern gold mines. His chosen site was also motivated by his desire to open a trading post, which he did in 1852. The trading post being a success, Harmon decided to “squat” at that location until the Sotoyome Grant was confirmed by the United States Land Commission.

By 1854 Harmon had established a post office, and by 1855 the town known simply as “Heald’s Store” also included a blacksmith shop (McAfee), a chair making and wagon shop, and a few residences. Even before the Sotoyome Grant was confirmed to the Fitch heirs in 1858, Henry Fitch’s widow, Josefa, began to auction off portions of the grant.

In 1856 Harmon bought 100 acres “from the slough (Foss Creek) east to Dry Creek”. Then, in July of 1856, Harmon bought, from his brothers-in-law Aquilla Aull and George Espy, land upon which he laid out his first town plat map. The map was filed with the Sonoma County Clerk on March 5, 1857. Mr. Heald laid out the town by “running his line from a big tree, and ran two parallel streets about north and south by east, or until they brought up on the southern bank of the slough. Two other parallel streets were made across right angles and the square was formed being the plaza’

Healdsburg Plaza #1

Healdsburg Plaza circs 1880’s

The town consisted of 85 lots which were sold for an average of $15.00 each. Although “lot speculation” soon followed the initial lot sales, Harmon, “being a very straight-forward man who had little to disguise either in business or otherwise,” wanted the town to succeed. He didn’t want to gouge the “squatters” who had built homes around his store and he donated the land for the plaza and lots for a school, cemetery and churches. In his will, Mr. Heald donated $100 for the digging of and “artesian” well in the Plaza. The well was never built.

Residences and wooden storefronts sprang up around the Plaza and by 1859 Healdsburg had 120 houses, a private academy, a concert hall, and a population of 500. Eight additions to the town that became the commercial center for this large agricultural area, between 1865 and 1896, greatly increased its size. Healdsburg’s population passed the 2,000 mark by 1910, and currently has a population of 11,700. Healdsburg was incorporated in 1867.

Prior to the 1840s, the forest ran from the Redwood belt (along what is today West Dry Creek Road) to the RussianRiver and beyond the southeastern border of the town (along Baihache Road). Another town legend holds that Cyrus Alexander who managed the Sotoyome Rancho (and was given AlexanderValley as his pay) in the early 1840s, used a very large plaza madrone tree to hang the carcass of a large bear he had killed there. An early visitor to “Heald’s Store” described the plaza as a “beautiful shady grove.” When Harmon’s wife, Sarah, died in 1857 the funeral was held in the Plaza, a church having not yet been built. It was described at that time as “being covered with large oaks with but one or two madronnas.”

The native trees in the Plaza, which were identified from photos taken from 1864 to 1873, were the Pacific Madrone, the Black Oak, the Valley Oak, the Coast Live Oak, and the Black Walnut. The Black Walnut was a favorite of the southern Pomo Indians and was more than likely transplanted to the Plaza site when Healdsburg was an Indian village. One huge madrone tree, which was located at the northwest corner of the Plaza (it was actually in West   street), was sketched by the British author Albert Deane Richardson for his travel book Beyond the Mississippi. This account of his travels in the western United States from 1856 to 1867, featured a description of the native trees in the Plaza as “having reached perfection.” It’s interesting to note that Healdsburg was the only small northern California town so honored in his book and that the madrone tree that he drew was actually damaged by fire in 1859 when a good portion of the wood framed structures across from the Plaza on West (Healdsburg Ave.) Street burned to the ground.

The focus of Healdsburg’s streets on a Plaza park was unusual for a small northern California town of that era. The Plaza owed more to Mexican colonial town plans than to the New England square or commons, for it was never called anything but the “Plaza” by townsfolk from 1857 on.

The first attempt to fence and protect the Plaza trees, which were being used to hitch wagons, came as early as 1858 when a group of citizens surveyed the lot and made cost estimates before giving up the project. As the commercial center of the early town grew many town trees were cut to make way for construction but the Plaza was left in its native state. It’s difficult to tell how many trees were damaged by wagon traffic or removed between 1857 and 1867, but by 1868 the local newspaper editor protested the lack of tree protection in the Plaza.

In 1873 the first manmade improvements to the Plaza were initiated. A redwood fence with gates at each corner of Plaza was completed at the cost of $1,000. At the same time the ground was plowed and harrowed and filled with RussianRiver bottom loam. Ornamental herb shrubbery was planted along with a single fruit tree.

By March of 1874 it became necessary to remove the remaining old forest trees to make way for a landscaped public park in keeping with the style then current in California. The local citizens were invited to plant trees and shrubs, and by 1876 the Plaza was filled with tiny fir and cypress trees, and bordered by Eucalyptus, with exotic palms in the center.

In the summer of 1878 the local newspaper began to campaign for further improvements including the planting of Kentucky Blue Grass, an irrigation system and iron benches. But the panic of 1873 brought “hard times” and delayed any further improvements to the Plaza until December of 1880. It was then that the first structure in the Plaza was erected. With the purchase of the 778 ½ pound bell from the ChristianCollege in Santa Rosa, the town built a large enclosed belltower in the center of the Plaza. The “City Fire Tower,” which was tested on January 6, 1881, was used to call the volunteer fire department or to gather townsfolk in emergencies.

Healdsburg Plaza #1

Healdsburg Plaza Circa 1890

By 1888 the Sotoyome Band was well established and was holding regular seasonal Saturday night concerts on the Plaza. These weekly concerts became a tradition, drawing large local crowds as well as many people from other parts of the county. The concerts prompted the construction of a bandstand next to the high bell tower.

By 1879 local businessmen organized a May Day Festival to attract more trade to Healdsburg’s picturesque location. By 1888 the celebration was called the Floral Festival, and by 1895 it had grown to a three day long pageant culminating in a mile-long parade around the Plaza. During the festivals the Plaza was decorated with evergreen boughs and flowers. The local hotels were often overbooked. In 1897 the event was combined with the Fourth of July celebration and a “Goddess of Liberty” parade was initiated. The Fourth of July celebrations continued until 1925 when the delayed effects of prohibition on our hop and grape-growing region were the likely culprit in the demise of the event.

Between 1888 and 1892 the unruly perimeter Eucalyptus trees, which had grown taller that the two story commercial buildings that fronted the Plaza, were removed. The fir trees were also removed and the cypress trees were vigorously trimmed until they resemble small toadstools. At this time the ornate picket fence was replaced with a wire mesh to create a more “open” look to the Plaza.

With the arrival of municipal water and electric power in 1895, the local newspaper again picked up its campaign for Plaza improvements. Only 15 years old, the belltower was removed in 1896 because it was considered an “eyesore” by certain citizens and because it caused false fire alarms in high winds. In February of 1897 (110 year ago) a new circular bandstand was built with a conical roof on the legs of the old belltower. Two months later an open banister, brackets, cornices and a “swaying” staircase were added.

The gazebo-like bandstand became a favorite gathering place for much of the townsfolk. It was especially so for the young single men and women of the county who would converge on the popular hangout every Saturday night during the spring and summer. The consumption of alcohol was not unknown at these gatherings. However, this activity was not going to continue if the “Lady Imps” had anything to say about it. The Ladies Improvement Club, a local “progressive” anti-alcohol organization, had other plans for the Plaza.

Following the lead of the California Temperance Leagues, the L.I.C. received permission from the City Board of Trustees to replace the gazebo with a central drinking fountain. Although the drinking fountain could have been placed elsewhere in the Plaza, the Imps were set on the destruction of the gazebo bandstand. As a “save the bandstand” petition was being circulated by certain citizen groups, the Imps had the bandstand hurriedly axed down. This caused a year-long, heated battle between community factions, fought out both in the Plaza and at the City Trustee meetings.

The town’s youth wanted a bandstand, the local businessmen wanted an “electric” fountain modeled after an exhibit at the 1894 California Midwinter Exhibition (large sprays of water lit by multi-colored electric lights), and the Imps insisted on a drinking fountain. The imps stood their ground and, with the aid of an attorney, won their case. The drinking fountain/monument was dedicated on May 1, 1901. The rest of the community immediately built a removable bandstand next to the fountain. And in 1915, a permanent gazebo/bandstand was built from money donated by local business men.

By 1900, the Plaza landscaping had evolved from the Italianate formality of the late 1880’s to a more naturalistic style which persists today. In 1897, the cypress gave way to tropical plants, which included the four Canary Island Date Palms that are still land marks in the Plaza today (The Healdsburg Museum’s curator Dan Marley uses the height of the Canary palms to estimate the date of the museum’s many plaza photos). Other plantings included orange and lemon trees and many rose bushes.

In 1901 the first automobile was brought to Healdsburg by Mr. W.T. Albertson and “shown off” on the west side of the Plaza. By 1907, “the City Trustees found the proliferation of self-propelled vehicles warranted the setting of a maximum speed limit of 10 miles per hour (they had originally lobbied for an 8 m.p.h. limit).” Inevitably, the increase of “autoists” brought a parking problem to the street surrounding the Plaza. In 1917 the City Trustees decided to adopt a parking plan modeled after a Sacramento traffic plan. Autos could only park in designated areas in the middle of the street, thus clearing the spaces in front of businesses. As quoted in the Tribune, “Machines will be allowed to stand in front of business houses only a few minutes at a time.” No record could be found telling who got the first “parking ticket” on the Plaza.

Changes in the Plaza slowed after 1900, but it continued to play an important role in SonomaCounty’s social and political activities. The Plaza’s Saturday night band concerts continued to draw large crowds until the early 1950’s. The Plaza also evolved socially after 1900. It was a strategic stopping place for soap box orators and campaigning politicians, attracting gubernatorial candidates or governors in 1898, 1902, 1910, 1917 and 1928. Large rallies were held in the Plaza for almost every state and national election year until the 1930s, when radio cut into the popularity of public speaking.

A couple of Plaza stories from Dr Shipley’s book Tales of Sonoma County, Reflections of a Golden Age, are worth retelling.

A Patent Medicine Show. The patent medicine shows were in their zenith during the last part of the 19th century. They usually presented their products around the Plaza during the late evening as long as the pickings were profitable. Many came from miles around to see or here a good show. Even some members of the city’s social elite would pause and listen to get a good laugh at a funny song, a good joke, a slight of hand act, or an acrobatic stunt. One particular vendor came to town selling medicine to remove warts, corns and bunions. One evening he began telling of the wonders of electricity and how Ben Franklin had brought electricity down from the clouds using a kite and ball of string. As he was telling the story he showed the audience a small battery and unwound a ball of string. He encouraged all the men and boys in the audience to grab hold of this circle of twine while he held on to both ends. All the while he was extolling the wonders of electricity and his corn, wart, and bunion cure. All thought he was going to give the men and boys an electric shock. The vendor then asked all if they knew what he had. None could answer so he paused, looked them in the eye and said, “I’ll tell you what I’ve got – the biggest string of sucker ever caught in this town!” The crowd roared with laughter and his sales boomed.

This story was titled A Near Accident. It was during the tenure of the bell tower in the Plaza (1880 to 1895) that each evening at 8pm in winter and 9pm in the summer the bell would toll out the hour of curfew and all the small boys would scamper for home unless it was a special occasion or an adult was with him. In those days there were fewer trees in the Plaza and they were much smaller; also there was no green lawn so in the spring the wild grass grew high and in summer it turned yellow in the sun.

When something was needed to rouse the enthusiasm of the benighted populace, or when some great political victory was to be ratified, it was the days of the torch light processions, the firing of anvils, and at the four corners of the Plaza, the burning of the great piles of cordwood and boxes in the middle of the streets with such pyrotechnics display at the times afforded.  The band played, some one would orate, the people would shout and cheer and altogether they would have a grand old time. It also happened that the local Republican Party and the G.A.R. were the proud possessors of an old brass, smooth bore cannon with a four or five inch bore. It looked like it had been with Andy Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.

On the evening in question, perhaps they were celebrating the election of Benjamin Harrison as president, the old gun was being fired a regular intervals from the intersection of Powell (now Plaza St.) and Center Streets. The gun would be cleaned, a powder charge inserted with some old rags and paper. The gun would be fired and my, what a roar, it would rattle windows, shiver your timbers and make your ears buzz.

The noise, the fireworks, the enthusiasm of the crowd were at fever heat. The climax of the celebration was about to be reached when some smart boy, when no one was looking, put a rock the size of a man’s fist into the cannon “just to see what would happen.” The gun was fired and with the explosion there was a scream as the rock just missing the bell tower, the Plaza tree tops and the heads of people standing on the sidewalk. It crashed through the window of William Ruffner’s dry goods store, which was on the ground floor of the OddFellowsBuilding. No one was hurt but a lot of folks had the scare of their lives, the old brass gun fired no more that night and perhaps never since.

What has become of the old relic is a puzzler (could this be the cannon owned by the HealdsburgCity archives at city hall as of 1965?), for it should be among the prized exhibits of the old hometown

Today, the Plaza is home to many interesting trees including the aforementioned Canary Island Date Palms. Several species of redwood, planted from 1900 on, include the rare Dawn Redwood from China, Pin Oaks and various shrubbery and fruit trees have created a unique environment. On a recent walk through the Plaza on Arbor Day (in California Arbor day is celebrated on March 7, which is Marin Luther Burbank’s birthday), Healdsburg’s arborist, Matthew Thompson, pointed out the Plaza’s most unique trees including the giant Coast Redwood (the world’s tallest known trees) which was planted in 1924 to commemorate the completion of the old Redwood Highway through Healdsburg; the California native Incense Cedar; and the Ginkgo tree (world’s oldest living thing) near the Harmon Heald memorial plaque on the northwest corner of the Plaza. It is interesting to note that Mr. Thompson pointed out that the Plaza’s grand old Southern Magnolia tree was stressing from soil compaction under its branches due to the heavy foot traffic. Mr. Thompson’s comment mirrored that of the above mentioned local newspaper’s editorial from 1868 lamenting: “Many of the noble oaks on our Plaza, which have long been the pride of citizens and the admiration of strangers, are dying from want of protection.”

In 1960, a central fountain replaced the Imps stone drinking fountain. A pavilion for outdoor concerts, whose post-modernistic style resembled the 1897 gazebo bandstand, was built on the east side of the Plaza in 1986. The design of the Plaza’s new, soon to be completed, gazebo is in keeping with both the 1897 and 1986 gazebos. A debt of gratitude is owed to local columnist Ray Holley and architect Ken Munson who spearheaded the effort to build the new, copper roofed structure and to all the townsfolk who donated money, materials and labor for its construction.

The Plaza’s Saturday night concerts have been replaced by today’s Tuesday night Farmer’s market which is followed by the weekly “Music in the Plaza” summer series of performances. But the Plaza, in all of its various manifestations, has reflected the social and political changes of Healdsburg and SonomaCounty since the 1850s. “Rather than a static monument, the Plaza is a constantly changing reflection of the styles, values, and morality of Californians, from the oak-forested hitching grounds of 1852, to the lush, landscaped park of today. Unlike the great majority of central plazas that once existed in the state (it is now one of the few existing original central city plazas in California), Healdsburg’s Plaza retains all of the useful and pleasant qualities for which it was created, and continues to be a vital hub of the community.

As a postscript to the story of Sotoyome’s treasure, legend also has it that Charlie Fitch’s father’s compass was “off” from the salt air it had been exposed to during Henry Fitch’s many sea voyages. It’s just a legend.

Photos courtesy of the Healdsburg Museum

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