Point Arena’s First Fifty Years: 1908-1958
by AVA News Service, May 25, 2016
(Debra Keipp notes: The recent 2016 Grand Jury investigation of the City of Point Arena identified that in order to become incorporated as a city today, a municipality must have at least 500 residents. Point Arena struggles along presently as a City with only 477 residents and three, instead of five, filled seats on city council. Maxed out on allotted appointments presently, by law, Point arena is unable to appoint any more council members, and is now forced to limp along with a minimum quorum of only three until the next election in November. Point Arena may be faced with disincorporation if the city refuses to consider re-annexation in expansion of its city limits, also thereby increasing the number of voters and election applicants from a broader base. Former Point Arena City Clerk, the late Christine Pennock, penned this history in 1958 from Point Arena City Hall records. Of interest is the previously little-known fact, as she writes, “While most cities have annexed territory since incorporation, the city boundaries of Point Arena were drastically reduced by an election in 1940. This was made necessary because the city was not financially able to take care of the streets and roads within the original city limits.”)
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The year 1958 marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the first store in Point Arena and therefore the beginning of Point Arena as a town, though settlers had arrived and established themselves several years before that. The year 1958 also marks the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Point Arena as a city. Since there has been no official celebration of either event, it seems fitting that the city council should call these important events to the attention of the citizens and present a brief resume of the first fifty years of the city's history as reflected in the meeting minutes of the Point Arena City Council.
Sometimes people wonder why Point Arena was incorporated, since it is such a small city and the financial problems have been so great. The old timers will tell you that the purpose of incorporation was twofold: first to do something about getting better streets, and second, to make it possible for control of saloons and the liquor business to be vested in local hands.
The city limits were quite large (to include the lighthouse so funding could be found to rebuild it after the 1906 earthquake) when the city was first incorporated. It has been stated that it was necessary to take in such a large territory in order to have the population required for incorporation. While most cities have annexed territory since incorporation, the city boundaries of Point Arena were drastically reduced by an election in 1940. This was made necessary because the city was not financially able to take care of the streets and roads within the original city limits. Over the years it has often been difficult enough to care for the city streets.
The first regular meeting of the city council (then designated as the board of trustees) of the City of Point Arena was held on July 28, 1908. Members of the first board were J.C. Halliday, C.M. Curley, H.B. Scott, Phil Lobree and John Bishop. Phil Lobree was selected to be chairman of the board. Other officers selected at that time were N.A. McCallum, city clerk (a post which he held for eight years); William Hanen, treasurer; W.M. Fairbanks, recorder; John Dixon, city marshal; and W. T. Jenkins, city attorney. During the first 50 years since its incorporation the city has had fourteen mayors or chairmen: Phil Lobree, H.B. Scott, J.W. Kingren, C.F. O'Brien, N.P. Howe, J.D. Jensen, R.L. Dennen, G.L. Kendall, Ed Pedretti, M.J. Pellascio, Garth Rawles, Taylor York, J.C. Pellascio and Ralph Pennock. Of those M.J. Pellascio served a total of twenty years as mayor: from 1924-26 and then from 1934 until his retirement from the council in 1952. There have been eleven city clerks and eight city treasurers from 1908-58. Of these, M.S. Scott served the longest as city clerk and O.P. Gillmore the longest as city treasurer. There have been fifteen men who served as city marshal or police chief in accordance with the state laws governing citizens. The citizens, however, continued to use the term “marshal”.
Since one reason for incorporation was the regulation and control of the liquor business, one of the first things the board took up after such basic problems as organization, duties of officers, etc., was the issuing of licenses for saloons. Licenses were issued quarterly and in October of 1908 licenses were issued to twelve applicants. A large part of the revenue of the city came from liquor licenses, and a good part of the board's time was taken up in dealing with problems arising from the sale of liquor. Habitual drunkards were placed on the “dry list” and saloon keepers were forbidden to sell to those individuals as long as they remained on the list. But very often it was the wife or other relative of the person who made the “dry list” request. There is a record of one man, a doctor, who appeared before the board and voluntarily requested that his name be placed on the “dry list”. Of course, he later reappeared and requested that his name be removed.
Other revenue available to the city came from business licenses, from a street poll tax of $2.00 per head, and a $0.40 road tax. The city levied and collected its own taxes until this function was turned over to the county in 1929. On January 5, 1909, the balance in the treasury is reported as $36.16.
Problems arising from the control of saloons were numerous. Every year about the 4th of July the saloon keepers would appear before the council and request that they be allowed to keep their places of business open all night during the week of July 4th because there was always a big celebration and the town was full. The minutes of June 8, 1909 read: “D.H. Antrim addressed the board and stated, 'As there will not be sleeping room in the hotels for the number expected to be in town on and about July 4th, the saloons should be allowed to remain open all night and even if no liquor is sold in order that those who have no accommodations might have at least some place to stay'.”
On May 7, 1915 a local option election was held to determine whether or not the City of Point Arena should be “wet” or “dry”. 257 votes were cast. That was before women were able to vote so the population of males seemed to have increased a great deal just at that time. We understand that the hotels were filled to overflowing with people who were residents pro-tem, but still apparently able to vote, and even those who were bedridden were carried to the polls. The result was a very close 133 yes and 124 no: the City of Point Arena remained “wet”.
It must have been quite a blow when the Volstead Act was passed in 1919. The results of closing the saloons showed up almost immediately in the city treasury. Thereafter the council regulated places where beer and soft drinks could be served. During those years, occasional convictions for violation of the Volstead Act appear in the records; but not many. The coast was quite perfect for boot legging and Point Arena had its share.
In 1915 Marshal Dixon was killed in the performance of his duties. As the city at that time carried no insurance on its employees, funeral expenses were paid by the city and a monthly sum was paid to his widow. Shortly thereafter the city took out its first compensation insurance policy.
Some years later the city treasurer vanished with the city funds and the city was completely broke until partial restitution was made by his bondsman.
The first twenty years after incorporation (1908-1928) saw some improvements made in the streets: a sewer laid on Main Street; some attempt at fire protection; ordinances adopted regulating dogs and animals; drunkenness; disorderly houses; firecrackers; fire hazards (particularly flues as the fire marshal was supposed to inspect every flue once a month to prevent house fires); children's curfew ordinance - off the streets by 7 PM in the winter time); cheek-to-cheek dancing, etc. Of these, two: the ordinance pertaining to flues, and the one pertaining to dancing, have never been repealed.
During the depression years of the early '30's, the city often did not have enough money to pay the bills and they had to be held over until some money came in. Nevertheless, during these years the streets were kept in passable shape, a sewer was built on School Street, with the property owners paying part of the cost, and with assistance from the WPA a sewer was built on Mill Street, again with the cooperation of the property owners, and Mill Street was oiled by voluntary contributions from the property owners and other residents. Street lights had been installed, but in 1933, all these had to be discontinued during the Depression, except those on Main Street, because of the cost. In 1930 an electric franchise was granted to Clyde Henry, and from then on the minutes are full of controversy between the city and the light company, mostly about rates, but also about service. This continued until the franchise was purchased by PG&E after WWII.
Controversy over water also consumes many pages in the minutes, particularly in late years. Two hearings before the PUC have been held recently: an increase in rates has been given, and some improvements in the system have been made.
The effect of WWII on the City of Point Arena is very evident in their minutes. Any major improvements in the city were impossible and interest in city affairs seemed at a minimum, as many able-bodied local men were shipped off to war. In the war-era special city election of 1942, fourteen votes were cast and in the regular election of 1944, there were fifteen. The council was asked to pass regulations on blackouts and to focus on establishing a coastal, war-era defense council, etc.
After the war, the Council began to think about improvements. As much work as possible was done in the streets, sewers, the jail, etc. But on July 15, 1946 the City Hall and the fire house, along with the Masonic Hall, the Presbyterian Church, the Civic Club Hall and other property, burned to the ground.
Meetings of the council were held first thereafter in the Bank of America office and then in various other spots. It was not until 1948 that a bond election was held to build a new City Hall. Paying for this new cement block building took almost all available funds of the city for quite a number of years and many other necessary things had to be curtailed or dispensed with to make way for the new City Hall downtown on Main Street, which also held one jail cell.
In the last six or eight years (1950-58), considerable progress has been made in the City. A new septic tank was built, partly paid for with state funds; new fire equipment was purchased, and an active volunteer fire department organized. Later the two settling ponds were constructed, again partly with state funds. Within the last year (1957-58), due largely to increased revenues from business licenses and from sales tax, several of the city streets have been resurfaced, a comprehensive city map has been secured and a new sewer line has been laid part of the way on Lake Street and upper Main Street. Plans are underway for additional work on Riverside Drive and for a house address numbering system in town.
It is interesting to note that over the years the same problems have arisen time and time again. Because of limited funds, many times no permanent measures could be taken. But progress has been made, and if the second fifty years show as much change as the first fifty, then we have something to be proud of in Point Arena.
(Christine Pennock was former Point Arena City Clerk, 1958, late wife of High School Principal & Mayor Ralph Pennock. Contributed by Debra Keipp.)