A man who hammered art from metal, a determined young woman whose name was to become a household word and a crusading newsman whose tragic death became a focal point for Hispanics. What do they have in common? Only that they all passed this way. We all know that the North Coast of California has long attracted interesting people. Some people come here already famous, choosing the area as a kind of hideaway. Others come and go and then become famous. Here, in this small anthology of interesting people, there are some of each. By some people’s measure of lifetimes, Harry Dixon was almost through with his illustrious career when he came to Santa Rosa in 1950. He was 60 years old and he had enjoyed considerable success as an artist and craftsman. But this was not Harry’s way of looking at the world. He lived 17 productive years here, making his contributions to the artistic and cultural life of the city and now, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Santa Rosa, his “last hometown,” will celebrate his life and work. Harry married Florence Howard, director of the state Department of Employment office in Santa Rosa, in 1953. They built themselves a studio adjoining their little house on Lance Drive, just off West College. That was out in the country in those days and Harry liked the rural aspect of it. He liked to identify himself on the telephone as “This is that Old F..t from out West College way.” He had a fey sense of humor and a nice way with people and those of us who were young and aspiring in those days found him delightful. He had tales to tell of the San Francisco art community in the first half of the century. Photographer Dorothea Lange made photographs of Harry at work/ She was his sister-in-law married to his brother, Maynard, the eminent Western artist. Harry’s tales evoked images of San Francisco’s artistic “family” in the pre-Depression years, of Imogen and Ansel and Diego Rivera painting murals at Coit Tower. Heady stuff for 1950s Santa Rosa. Harry’s medium was metal. He hammered out the most amazingly graceful and beautiful things in his little studio, using his old tools that spoke their own stories of his famous workshop at #3 Tillman Place in San Francisco where customers could order anything made from metal in the unmistakable Dixon style. He preferred copper and brass, but could work in iron when asked. Or silver. He was supposed to be retired when he came to Santa Rosa but artists never retire and Harry kept hammering away. Working on a commission from the city, he created the Lotus Blossom and sundial which are the centerpiece of Burbank Gardens. He also crafted the iron cross that hangs about the front door at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. Dixon’s life and work will be celebrated next month at the Sonoma County Museum with a centennial exhibition (Jun 22 is the 100th anniversary of his birth) of selected pieces from the Dixon collection, which has been donated to the museum by his widow, Florence. She became a skilled jewelry maker and metal worker in her own right, and still lives at the Lance Drive home.
You may be surprised to learn that Laura Scudder is no Granny Goose. Nor is she a Betty Crocker. The woman who worked very hard to build a potato chip empire was no mythical trademark personage; she was very real. During the World War I years, she lived in Ukiah where she and her husband ran a restaurant. Last year civic officials in Monterey Park, where she built her first potato chip plant, honored Scudder’s memory. A past president of the Monterey Park Historical Society, Joseph Blackstock, prepared a dissertation on Scudder’s life and works which appears in the January-February issue of the Californians magazine (now published in Sebastopol). Ukiah has planned no parties, placed no plaques, but historians there are well aware of her Ukiah sojourn. The stout woman with the big hat and the purse tucked firmly under her arm whose picture appeared on the billboards advertising her potato chips was younger in her Ukiah days. But no less determined. When she and her husband, Charles, came to Mendocino County from Seattle, they were still looking for that “start” in life that would carry them to success. Both were hard workers. Charles was a New Jersey farmer who had met Laura, a Philadelphia native 21 years younger than he, when he was a patient in the hospital where she was a nurse. When Blackstock interviewed Ukiah old-timers in 1970, he found several who remembered Laura and her good food. The Little Davenport Café, on the south side of Perkins between State and School streets, was a handy drop-in for the courthouse crowd which may or may not have been as colorful then as it is now. At any rate, the counter was often crowded with lawyers and the restaurant filled with lawyer talk. And this suited Laura very well since she was, after home-cooking hours studying law from books she borrowed from customers, preparing herself for the state bar exam. She was pregnant with a third child when she too the train to Sacramento from the exam. And passed. But she never practiced law. In 1920, the Scudder family moved to Monterey Park and built a service station. IN 1926, she opened a potato ship plant in a brick building next door to the station. She started making peanut butter during the Depression, remembering it as a “health food” protein for the elderly in her nursing days. When she added mayonnaise to her list, she raised the chickens that produced the eggs on her own farm. Laura Scudder and her family sold the business in 1957. She died in 1959. The last sale of Laura Scudder’s products division was in 1987 to Borden Inc. –for $100 million.
The third person in today’s unlikely trio wasn’t here very long, not much more than a year, as I recall. When, two decades later, he was honored here – it was for his successes elsewhere and because of his tragic death. The man is Ruben Salazar. When he was in his 20s, at the start of his journalistic career, he worked here as the Press Democrat’s bureau chief in Petaluma. He had been a prize-winning reporter in El Paso. In Petaluma he performed the obligatory tasks – covering the City Council, writing the hometown news. From here he went to the San Francisco News, in that newspaper’s last days, and finally to the place where he could start his life’s work. At the L.A. Times, in 1950, he began writing about Mexican-Americans and what it’s like to be part of an underprivileged ethnic minority. This summer will mark the 20th anniversary of his death, a dark milestone in the struggle of Latinos for recognition and respect in this country. Salazar, born in Texas of Mexican ancestry, was then a columnist for the Times, writing about Latino affairs, and the news director of KMEX, a Spanish language TV station in Los Angeles. He was covering the riots in East L.A. in August of 1970 when a tear gas missile from an officer’s riot gun, a weapon intended for use on barricades and not people, hit him in the head and killed him. Salazar, whose championing of his people had made him a leader in life, became a martyred hero. There was anger and grief and outrage at his death – and at the three hours he lay undiscovered in the bar while the riots continued outside. But there was a heavy sense of irony also. Violence was so far from Ruben’s style. His pen was mightier than a sword. When, in 1979, Sonoma State University students chose his name for the school’s new library building, his old friend Scott Thurber, a former PD columnist wrote of him: “Ruben Salazar was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever know. And the gentlest; he was the personification of non-violence. But he was eminently capable of anger and when he was angry he was a formidable man who cried out in print against inequities-whether they involved mistreatment of prisoners in the El Paso Jail, secret meetings of the Petaluma City Council, or the massive problem that obsessed him in his last 10 years: The shabby treatment of Mexican-Americans, their high dropout rate and illiteracy ration. These were his concerns. The library is a fitting tribute.
Ruben Salazar on a visit to Mexico City SSU collection
Harry Dixon at work in his Santa Rosa studio, ca. 1957. Sonoma County Museum
Gaye LeBaron’s Notebook
The Press Democrat 1990
The Little Davenport Café, Ukiah, circa 1918.
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