Local History and Genealogy Notes

  • Articles from the Petaluma Argus-Courier on Frances D. Burmester, one of the 1,074 women who earned wings in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) photo

    Articles from the Petaluma Argus-Courier on Frances D. Burmester, one of the 1,074 women who earned wings in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)

News Clippings of Local WWII Servicemembers to be Digitized by California State Library

The Sonoma County Library is thrilled to announce approval of its nomination to California Revealed for a unique project. California Revealed is a State Library initiative to support California’s public libraries, in partnership with other local heritage groups, to digitize, preserve, and serve online historically significant California artifacts and culture.

Sonoma County Library Associate Joanna Kolosov nominated a “hidden” collection of newspaper clippings which feature Sonoma County women and Japanese Americans who served in the military during World War II. The collection comprises 74 multi-part records which represent a portion of a larger collection that is housed at the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library but has not been cataloged. The Library is excited to have the opportunity to make these materials accessible to the public in a digital format.

The Sonoma County Library was one of 81 institutions to nominate over 11,000 items. The Library’s addition will be added to the California Revealed database, housed within the California State Library, made accessible through the Internet Archive and California Light & Sound, as well as on the Library’s Sonoma County Local History & Culture website.

Sonoma County Library’s local history and genealogy collection is a community resource of immense value located adjacent to the Central Santa Rosa Library in the Library’s Annex building. This historical collection includes more than 40,000 photographs, a comprehensive collection of Sonoma County historical works, county, family and property history, access to the Sonoma County Archives, Sonoma County History Index with thousands of references to county events, places and people, wide ranging newspaper clippings files, and more!

To learn more about the California Revealed project and the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library, contact History & Genealogy (707) 308-3212 or history@sonomalibrary.org.

  • Portion of Anna Pohlmann's affidavit, 4 April 1900 photo

    Portion of Anna Pohlmann's affidavit, 4 April 1900

Their Time is Now

The recent cascade of public revelations by women who were sexually harassed or assaulted by popular societal figures whose behavior was allowed to continue unchecked for, in some cases, decades, bears a striking resemblance to a case that occurred in the spring of 1900 in Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma. It is the case of a prominent doctor, Melville M. Shearer, who was in his fifth term as Sonoma County Physician when accusations were made against him by two of his subordinates, nurses of the Sonoma County Hospital.

The first nurse, 33-year-old Anna Pohlmann, worked as a matron at the county hospital from July 1899 to March 1900 and told her pastor of the treatment she received from Dr. Shearer, charging him with improper conduct toward her that had caused her to resign from her position. She further confided in the pastor that another nurse, Bertha Sundell, had also been compelled to resign for the same reason. The pastor then presented their complaints to the Santa Rosa Ministerial Union, an organization comprised of all the ministers of Santa Rosa. A committee was appointed to oversee the matter and told the nurses that their “unsupported statements amounted to but little and could not be recognized by [the union] unless they were put in the form of affidavits” (Statement by members of the Ministerial Union of Santa Rosa presented to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, 8 May 1900). The women obliged, and these handwritten affidavits, along with the statement by the Ministerial Union, were recently discovered by one of our volunteers who was sorting a box of miscellaneous Board of Supervisor records pulled from the Sonoma County Archives and brought to the Library.

A search of newspapers at the turn of the century reveals headlines such as “Scandal in a Hospital. The County Physician of Sonoma Accused by Nurses. Said to have paid them obnoxious attentions. Attendants declare that they were obliged to leave their positions” (SF Chronicle, 9 May 1900). Polhmann’s affidavit reveals her anguish: “Dr. Shearer has insulted me wenever [sic] he got a chance. If I had to buy anything for the Hospital, I always had to go to the Dr. Office for an order and he would invariable [sic] ask me to come up and spend the evening or even to stay all night with him in his office.” Sundell said it was her duty to tell of her experiences so that no other girl would be ruined:

He insisted on wanting to send out a buggy in the evening so I could come in and stay and spend the evening with him in his office. He several times during his visits at the Hospital sent out the other nurses in order to get a chance to insult me.

I liked it very much at the hospital but I could not put up with the Doctor any longer and the end would have been that he would have discharged me because I did not submit to his wishes and no woman with a pure character could keep the place but in order too would have to either be a corrupt woman or turn one.

On May 10, 1900, in the presence of the Board of Supervisors, members of the Ministerial Union, and a large crowd of interested citizens, Dr. Shearer flatly denied the charges against him. It is no surprise that his strategy to defend himself was to attack the character of Anna Pohlmann. One witness testified of her intemperance at work. Shearer claimed she sought revenge because he had discharged her from the hospital for intoxication. He also accused members of the Ministerial Union of personal bias against him. The final decision to exonerate the doctor of all charges was swiftly made with a vote of three “ayes” and one refusal. Supervisor Austin refused to vote because the Board had declined to postpone action in order to give Nurses Pohlmann and Sundell an opportunity to be heard in their own defense.

Dr. Shearer died five years later on 28 May 1905. He had served as a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War. In what was described as a moving eulogy at the Santa Rosa Lodge of Elks, Attorney Allison B. Ware paid tribute to “the deceased’s love of fellow man and his desire to assist the afflicted.”

Anna and Bertha disappear from the papers immediately following these events. Anna continued to work as a nurse after moving to Vallejo. They had had nothing to gain by speaking out but everything to lose. It must have taken immense courage to have gone public with their personal stories, shaming such a well-known and respected community leader, who had been repeatedly reelected by the very Board deciding the case. Because of their brave act, these women’s testimonies survive as part of the public record and have finally seen the light of day.

This is just one of the many personal stories hidden in the records of the Archives waiting to be discovered and illuminated…perhaps by you. 

  • 1897 Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County California published by Reynolds &Proctor map

    1897 Illustrated Atlas of Sonoma County California published by Reynolds &Proctor

Coffey Park's Namesake by Mike Daniels

The Coffey Park area, so devastated by recent fires, was burned once before, in 1939. Then the area was rural—open fields, orchards, farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings. That ’39 fire, also spread by sudden winds, was the unfortunate result of a maintenance task gone wild at the old Santa Rosa Municipal Airfield that lay between Highway 101, Hopper Avenue, Piner Road and Coffey Lane.

Coffey Lane and its neighboring lands remained primarily rural until the early 1960s when Piner Road began to fill with a variety of businesses. Subdivisions of new homes soon followed and swallowed the fields and orchards westward to the Northwestern Pacific railroad tracks and beyond. 

Threading through this northwestern section of Santa Rosa, Coffey Lane took its name from Henry Coffey, who with his family arrived in Santa Rosa from Mendocino County in 1885. The lane, its northernmost section today lopped off by the 101 freeway, once meandered from Steele Lane on the south through farms and such to take an easterly jog on the north to end at today’s Old Redwood Highway. That eastern section is today’s Alba Lane, opposite Cardinal Newman High School.

Henry Coffey took a wandering route to get here. Born in New York in 1832, his father died when Henry was very young. His mother packed up the family and moved to Michigan where she “took up government land” and began a farm.

When he was 18, Henry went to Indiana where he worked in a sawmill. There he married Nancy Gitchel. Soon, they returned to Michigan where their son, James H., was born. Within a year of their return, Nancy died. Two years later, Henry married Rebecca Davis. Their relationship lasted 52 years and produced an additional eight children: William M., Mary, Charles H., Joanna, Samuel A., Adeline, Minnie, and Octavia. 

In 1862 the Coffey family moved overland to California. After farming in the Sacramento area, they traveled to Contra Costa and then Mendocino County always actively involved in agricultural and real estate pursuits.

Henry bought 320 acres in northwestern Santa Rosa, formerly known as the Sampson Wright place, in 1885. The land was quickly subdivided with each of the Coffey children being given 20 acres upon which they established their residence.  The land was well suited for farming and was mainly planted with hay and grain, but there was also a sizeable orchard which produced prunes, apples, pears, peaches, and nectarines.The family vineyard consisted of table grapes of the Sweetwater, Muscat, and Rose of Peru variety.

Mr. Coffey’s industrious spirit included real estate. He bought and sold lots in the Farmer’s Addition and traded for property located in the old San Miguel Rancho.

Two of Henry and Rebecca’s daughters married Santa Rosans— Joanna aka Cynthia Josephine married into the Barnes family, developers of the first trading post outside of Sonoma (think Barnes Road), and Mary wed O.M. Tuttle, whose family would figure largely in Santa Rosa’s pharmaceutical trade.

By 1900 Henry was again on the move, this time leaving Santa Rosa for the East Bay. There, with Rebecca and daughter Octavia, he engaged in the real estate business. The family bought and sold properties in Oakland’s Brooklyn township, a lucrative geographical area between Lake Merritt and Oakland’s future bay side port. 

Rebecca became ill not long after she and Henry celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1908. Daughter Minnie had earlier married Charles Smith, a minister and had moved to Orange in southern California. There Minnie cared for her ill mother who passed away in 1910.

Henry lived on in Oakland until his death in 1916. Seventy-two years later a Santa Rosa residential subdivision and neighborhood park constructed by Condiotti Enterprises would bear his name. Sadly a large number of these houses were lost to the 2017 Tubbs fire, but for those who wish to rebuild, many of the original architectural drawings for these residences are on file with Draftech Blueprinting, Inc., located at 1544 Terrace Way, Santa Rosa. Their phone number is (707) 578-9442.

Information for this article came from a variety of sources including An Illustrated History of Sonoma County published by the Lewis Publishing Company in 1889, which is available in book form at the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library and online through the Internet Archive

  • Malinta Tunnel courtesy of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology published in We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman photo

    Malinta Tunnel courtesy of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology published in We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman

Tribute to World War II POW 2nd Lt. Magdalena Eckmann Hewlett by Joanna Kolosov, MLIS

At 1:45pm on Saturday, February 24, 1945, a military plane touched down at Hamilton Air Field in Novato carrying home a group of Army and Navy nurses who had been some of America’s first women POWs. These 68 nurses would be called the “Angels of Bataan” for their medical service on the front lines of the Philippines in the Pacific theater of World War II. They had endured three years as prisoners of the Japanese in the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, formerly a university campus, in Manila. The women were transferred to Presidio’s Letterman Hospital for debriefing and physical check-ups over the next few weeks and then quietly reintegrated into their former lives.

Their stories have rarely been featured in the pages of military history. But two books by female authors have drawn attention to their experience, All This Hell: U.S. Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese (2000) by Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee and We Band of Angels: The untold story of American nurses trapped on Bataan by the Japanese (1999) by Elizabeth Norman. Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee attribute the long silence to specific instructions the women were given: “…POW army nurses were discouraged from talking about their combat and POW experiences even to their families. At redistribution centers and in reorientation programs, the POW experience was presented to these women as a stigma and they were told that it was time for them to become ‘ladies’ again” (Page ix).

How did we first learn of the Angels of Bataan? Tucked away deep in a file cabinet at the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library is a collection of news clippings of local WWII servicemembers. Curious, I flipped through each envelope of clippings to see how many women had been included in the collection. That is when I came across the story of Lt. Magdalena Eckmann Hewlett. The headline of a clipping from the Petaluma Argus-Courier of February 23, 1945, read “One of Bataan Angels, Known Here, Arrives Home Safely.” A second clipping identified Magdalena as the niece of Fred Eckman of Petaluma and the cousin of Staff Sgt. Donald Eckmann and Ensign Lewis Eckmann of Petaluma, and Edna Mae Baldwin of Santa Rosa.     

Over the next several months, I pieced together the details of this woman’s life as it was revealed in various records. Born in 1910 in Contra Costa County, Magdalena, the oldest of six siblings, grew up in the central California towns of Pine Grove and Jackson, according to census records. She graduated from nursing school at Merritt Memorial Hospital in Oakland and completed a post-graduate program in obstetrics from the DeLee Hospital in Chicago. She worked as a nurse for several years on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and was called to active duty, at age 30, from Palo Alto on 1 March 1941. As an Army Corps nurse, she was assigned to Ft. Mills on the Philippine island of Corregidor, the unit responsible for the harbor defense of Manila and Subic Bays. She was taken prisoner following the surrender in the Battle of Corregidor, where the nurses were treating the wounded in a makeshift underground hospital in the Malinta Tunnel. There were 3,000 prisoners held in Santo Tomas, including civilians. The nurses all kept a working schedule during their three years in the camp, where food and supplies were scarce.

After the war, she married Thomas H. Hewlett, himself an Army doctor who was captured in the Philippines and imprisoned in Japan. They later divorced and Magdalena continued her career in Louisville, Kentucky, as director of nurses in the obstetrics department of the new Jewish Hospital. In 1972, she moved to Sonoma to work as a nursing superintendent at Sonoma Valley Hospital. She died the following year and was buried at Mt. Vernon Memorial Park in Fair Oaks.      

The discovery and telling of her story is our way to pay tribute to the life and service of America’s women veterans. My great hope is that this blog post could reach Magdalena’s relatives so that her personal story could be told in all the ways that records cannot capture. 

 Thank you to Moria Gardner and Barbara MacFarland, our volunteers from the Sonoma County Genealogical Society, for their help in gathering and verifying evidential records to piece together the story of 2nd Lt. Magdalena Hewlett. A big thank-you to Ray Owen who went to the County Clerk-Recorder’s office to obtain a death certificate as well as advised me on various avenues to continue the research on Magdalena. And a warm thanks to Lori Berdak Miller of Redbird Research for digging up Magdalena’s military records.

  • Helen Putnam discusses plan for walking tour with Fred Schram of Heritage Homes and Barbara Lind of the Bicentennial Committee. Photo taken by Ted G. Hansen. Petaluma Argus Courier May 8, 1975 photo

    Helen Putnam discusses plan for walking tour with Fred Schram of Heritage Homes and Barbara Lind of the Bicentennial Committee. Photo taken by Ted G. Hansen. Petaluma Argus Courier May 8, 1975

Wednesdays are for Women - Thinking about Helen Putnam

It’s Wednesday and I’m thinking about women. In a week and a half I’ll be giving a talk at the Petaluma Regional Branch Library. The subject is the Ladies’ Improvement Club which was founded in 1896 by what a San Francisco Call reporter termed “Petaluma’s New Women” whose main objective was to improve and maintain two of Petaluma’s existing parks – or plazas as they were called at the time. The first officers of the club were Addie Atwater, president; Rena Shattuck, vice president; Kate C. Weston, secretary; Stella Newburgh, corresponding secretary; and Zoe Fairbanks, treasurer.

I’m enjoying researching the lives of these women and their colleagues; the times in which they lived and the larger City Beautiful Movement of which they were a part. As I prepare for my presentation I can’t help but think of another woman who was equally committed to the improvement of Petaluma and advocated for more parks and preservation of Petaluma’s rich historic and architectural heritage - Helen Putnam.

Helen DuMont Putnam (1909-1984) was elected as Petaluma’s first female mayor in 1965. She held this position until 1978. In 1979, she joined Helen Rudee as the second female member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. There is much to be shared about Ms. Putnam’s accomplishments as an educator, mayor, and supervisor, but for the purposes of this post I’d like to highlight a walking tour she organized in May of 1975.

The walking tour coincided with Historic Preservation Week – something Mayor Putnam had codified by an official proclamation in which she called “on the people of the City of Petaluma and especially the preservation organizations, historical societies and other civic groups, to observe the week with activities and ceremonies designed to call attention to the urgent need to save our historic landmarks for the enjoyment and edification of our people present and future and to demonstrate our lasting respect for the unique heritage.” (Source: The Petaluma Argus-Courier, May 8, 1975).

The tour took place on May 18th. The tour began at the Petaluma Public Library on B and Fourth Streets. The tour goers were taken around the downtown with specific attention given to 11 buildings. Mayor Putnam was instrumental in planning the tour and served as hostess. The event was sponsored by the City of Petaluma, Heritage Homes of Petaluma, the Historic and Cultural Preservation Committee and the Petaluma Bicentennial Committee.

These days we can count on the volunteers associated with the Petaluma Museum to give tours of not only the downtown, but of the waterfront and various residential neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be great if they could be joined by members of the City Council on occasion? Perhaps in May 2018. May is in fact National Historic Preservation Month.