Way Back When in December 1917

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Way Back When in December 1917
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By Betsy J. Green

Santa Barbara’s Got Talent

A patriotic war song written by a local man was sung in several venues in Santa Barbara. Image: Library of Congress

Patriotism was definitely in vogue this year, now that the United States had entered the war in Europe. [Spoiler alert -- the war was later named World War I.] And a couple of SB locals even wrote a patriotic song titled, “Uncle Sam is a Grand Old Man.” It was “a spirited war song,” according to the Library of Congress website. The lyrics were written by John Christian, an African-American man who worked as a steward at the Elks Club here. The music was written by another local, George Clerbois, a pianist and leader of a local musical group called the Clerbois Trio.

The chorus of the song goes:

“A bugle blows, now I must go

To fight for Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam is a man who understands,

Grand old man is Uncle Sam.

When he starts to fight you bet he's right:

Uncle Sam is a grand old man.”

The song was so popular in Santa Barbara, that shortly after midnight on December 31, a group of singers assembled on the steps of the post office (now the Santa Barbara Museum of Art) and sang the song.

“John Christian, composer of the song, yesterday received from Governor Stephens, a letter of thanks for a copy of it recently sent to the chief executive of the state. Mr. Christian has sent complimentary copies to the governors of all the states in the union … as well as copies to President Wilson, and all the members of his cabinet.” The song was such a hit at the Oxnard High School graduation in June 1918, that the audience asked for an encore. (Oxnard Courier, June 15, 1918)

If you’re curious, the words and music are available for viewing at the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/resource/ihas.200200378.0/?sp=1

“Cheer as They Pass Along”

This song was written by the organist of the Presbyterian Church here. Image: Library of Congress

This was another song written by a Santa Barbaran -- Imogen Avis Palmer, a vocal teacher. She wrote both the words and music for “Cheer as They Pass Along,” a song described by the Library of Congress as a patriotic march song. According to the local paper, “This stirring march and its no less stirring words … are being sung on Los Angeles streets, and featured in the windows of the leading music houses of that city.”

This song is also available for viewing on the Library of Congress website.

The Boys Come Marching Home -- on a Furlough


The “Grizzlies” were the toast of the town at a ball at the Potter Hotel. Image: courtesy of John Woodward

The citizens might have been singing “Cheer as They Pass Along” as the Grizzlies marched down State Street. We don’t know about that, but we do know that the city welcomed its boys with open arms. Milo Potter of the Potter Hotel invited the Grizzlies and their guests to the Christmas Eve ball at the hotel. “Drill regulations, trench digging, and ‘inspection’ were for the time being forgotten, and the lucky young men on furlough devoted their efforts exclusively to enjoying themselves and helping their neighbors to do likewise. ... A surprise to many was sprung in the presence of Major Stewart Edward White and Mrs. White [former residents of Santa Barbara]. Major White was recently promoted from captain of Battery C.”

Flags Were Flying High

“Service flags” were displayed in a vertical format, and each star represented a son serving in the armed forces. Image: Wikipedia

In addition to U.S. flags that were flown in numerous places around the city, many SB families that had sons in the military displayed “service flags” in the front window of their home. A blue star represented a man serving in the war. A gold star meant that the soldier had lost his life. Some families had flags with more than one star.

Businesses also hung flags with stars that represented employees who were in the military. As of December 27, the “Morning Press” displayed a flag with nine stars and the names of the employees under each star. Santa Barbara High School had a banner with 105 stars.

Some of the newspaper’s employees had volunteered back in April, two were volunteers who joined “The Grizzlies,” others were drafted. Image: Morning Press, December 27, 1917

It’s Christmas Time Again in Santa Barbara

With all the articles in the local papers about the war and war-related activities, it was hard to find stories about Christmas celebrations, but there were some. On Christmas Eve, the library held an open house with songs, poems, and stories. “Tonight at 8:00 in the audience room of the public library, there will be a Christmas reading to which all are invited. Samuel M. Ilsley will read … an original poem, ‘Christmas Eve in Santa Barbara, 1917.’ ” Ilsley’s poem reflected the quiet bittersweet feelings of the season. It ended:

“Nineteen hundred and seventeen --

Oh year of years to be alive!

A year to feel, to thrill, to strive,

As we never have felt or striven before!

Not only our nation’s voice, but we

Have heard the cry of humanity.

Never before such a Christmas eve,

Such a passion to give of our best, our all,

And rejoice to give to our country’s call!”

But some things remained the same, in spite of the war. Groups of carolers spread out over the city. “Somewhere out of the dim stillness of Christmas Eve, the music of childish voices floated singing, ‘Holy night, holy night, all is still, all is bright.’ Investigation found a little group caroling with reverent sweetness, from a scarlet and green draped motor[car] which bore a glowing tree. As the 10 clear voices rang and fell, they proved anew the eternality of the Christmas spirit. The journey into the evening was one dear woman’s gift to all who heard the children sing.”

Not Your Ordinary Horses

These were primo race horses belonging to millionaire C.K.G. Billings. They arrived in Santa Barbara this month after having traveled by rail from back East. The numero uno of this group was named Uhlan (pronounced YOU-lahn). According the paper, “Uhlan, who belongs to the real nobility of horseflesh, arrived on a palace car in Santa Barbara last night, in company with nine other equines of similar degree … The animals left New York last Saturday during a snowstorm, and they had the finest car ever supplied of their kind, … They were shipped as express, and came along only with passenger trains, the car occupying the place next to the engine.”

Why all the pampering? Could Uhlan talk like Mr. Ed, or something? Better than that. The paper explained, “[Uhlan] is the champion trotting stallion of the world … He is now 13 years old, and valued at $100,000. The chances are that Mr. Billings would not take that for him.”

Uhlan is one of the few horses that has a SB street named after him: Uhlan Court, near Salinas Street. He is buried in that same area. Image: Bit & Spur magazine, 1911

But Uhlan and his companions were not the only horses in the news this month. We had plenty of local talent right here in our fair city. “The horses of Santa Barbara are to put on a benefit performance for the horses of France … There are at least six trained horses in Santa Barbara. [One horse] “can tell the time, marking off the hours and minutes with a hoof; he can do a Roosevelt grin that will bring down the house at any show, and a dozen other marvelous stunts without urging … [the benefit] is for the aid of the sick and wounded horses fighting in France for the liberty of the world.”

“The Doom of the Doughnut”

There were a number of food items that were in short supply this year because of the war in Europe. Wheat and some meats were among these items. Some restaurants had “wheatless” days and “meatless” days. But doughnuts, made of wheat and fried in oil, were doubly scarce, and some folks at the local paper were going through a doughnut withdrawal of biblical proportions, judging by a looong editorial titled, “The Doom of the Doughnut.”

The dearth of doughnuts caused one newspaper writer to wax poetical. Image: Library of Congress

“And among the youths of a great land, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth, and strong men standing in the eating places shall mourn loudly and shall call down maledictions upon the curse of conservation; they shall revile even their handmaidens, their cooks and their waiting ladies and condemn them for denying the food of the hasty. And those that are given to the drinking of coffee shall turn away unsatisfied, for what is the drink of the gods, yea, even the amber liquid, if it be not companioned by the doughnut delectable, by the nut that has nourished the hurried of the nations!

“For lo, it is written that the doughnut shall vanish from among us. On the scrolls of the cooks, it is written, and on the tablets of the food conservers. And though the voice of the people shall be lifted in anguish, and the heavens be rent with the shouts of the protectors, yet shall the law be fulfilled, and that which was beloved among viands shall be abolished utterly.”

An article in another local paper, perhaps written in response, commented, “Food conservation does not mean that Americans shall go hungry, but that our allies and the Sammies [U.S. soldiers] across the seas shall be fed.”

Major Oopsie in Montecito

After the two devastating fires in Ojai and one in Mission Canyon earlier in the year, the folks in Montecito decided they needed their own fire department. First the good news -- “The fire station has been completed, the fire chief is on the job, and contracts have been let for fire truck and material.” Now for the bad news -- “Montecito Fire District Has No Money.” Because of an accounting error, the money allocated to pay for all of this was accidentally omitted from the county budget, and the mistake was not discovered until after the supervisors voted on the budget. “It will be necessary to borrow $17,000, and pay about $1,200 in interest.” Oops!

A Rare Bird Sighted at Stearns Wharf

In spite of all the attention focused on the conflict overseas, the birders in Santa Barbara went out on December 26 to count and catalog local birds -- partly as therapy. Writing in the local paper, bird expert William Leon Dawson stated, “The birds, bless them, are quite unaware of the trouble which is gnawing at our hearts. If they did know, they would doubtless go right on singing and nesting and chasing the eternal worm; and they would bring us thereby the solace of custom. Indeed, I venture to believe that a day with the birds will provide the sanest refreshment for both body and spirit for one who must escape, momentarily, the lurid glow which now tinges all human affairs.”

Dawson and his companions started the day at Stearns Wharf and were blessed with a rare bird sighting -- a rare species of northern duck called the Old-Squaw (now called Long-tailed Duck) close to the wharf.

Image: Birds of America by John James Audubon, 1827-28

I asked Joan Lentz, author of “A Naturalist's Guide to the Santa Barbara Region,” about Dawson’s sighting of this odd duck. “It's amazing that Long-tailed Duck (formerly "Oldsquaw") was seen on the Christmas Bird Count way back then, and in the harbor, too … the bird is what we call "rare but regular", so it's considered rare to see one this far south, but on many CBCs [Christmas Bird Counts] that I've been on, and compiled, there HAS been a Long-tailed Duck … The point is that Dawson's observations are still basically correct!”

Enemy Spy Uncovered in Santa Barbara!

Image: Wikimedia

Strange, but true. His name was Franz Schulenberg, and he lived on the West Side on Orange Avenue and then on West De la Guerra Street. He had told folks here that he was a miner, but that was just a coverup. Schulenberg apparently did not arouse suspicion here, but when he went to Santa Cruz, the police there thought he was worth checking out. And they were right. They found 300 sticks of dynamite and a Maxim silencer rifle in his hotel room. Yikes! “He seems to be leaving a trail of dynamite,” wrote the local paper. During his stay in Santa Barbara, he had befriended a wealthy Montecito resident who provided him with financial help. The Montecito friend was unaware of Schulenberg’s true activities.

During the course of the investigation, it was found that Schulenberg was a deserter from the German army, and was receiving instructions from a mysterious woman known only as “H.” According to an article in the "New York Times," "Schulenberg is said to have been active in plans to destroy bridges and public buildings in Canada, and shipping and warehouses in Pacific ports." He was sent to the United States in 1914, “for the alleged purpose of assisting in the maintenance of contraband wireless stations supported by the German Government for the purpose of gaining military information and transmitting it to Berlin." (New York Times, December 27, 1917)

Needless to say, this was not sort of publicity that Santa Barbara wanted. "Unsought Notoriety," read an editorial in the local paper. "Santa Barbara is figuring much more prominently than its loyal people desire in the operation of the German spy band. Franz Schulenberg, now under arrest at San Francisco, made this city his headquarters for a time, and one of his deposits of dynamite was unearthed here." (In my June 1917 column, I wrote about a cache of dynamite that was discovered under a bridge on Sheffield Drive.)

"Enough is enough," concluded the paper. "Santa Barbara has had enough of the German spies. Entirely too much, in fact."


It’s that time of year -- the fourth book in my “Way Back When” series is here! “The history of Santa Barbara -- one month at a time!” Still only $10. Available for sale at Chaucer’s, the Maritime Museum giftshop, other local bookstores, and Amazon.com:

Remember: You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy books!

Mark your calendar: I will present a free slideshow and book signing for “Way Back When: Santa Barbara in 1917” at the Goleta Valley Historical Society on Sunday, December 3 at 3 p.m. More info here: http://goletahistory.org/event/way-back-santa-barbara-1917-talk/


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Flicka Dec 03, 2017 10:05 AM
Way Back When in December 1917

Rex, The plaque was mounted on a huge boulder. When the developers were clearing the old Billings stable land (on Salinas) for apartments they dumped the boulder in the street. Someone called Maggie Rupp who had known Mr. Billings and his horses. She had it moved to Earl Warren where no one knew what it was all about. Sally Cappon wrote about the "horses being buried at Earl Warren". I called and told her the real story (they are buried on the Salinas St. site of the old stables). A man involved with the Standardbred Trotting Horse Museum called Sally to ask about moving the memorial back east to the museum. She had him call me and I said fine with me so he had it transported by train. I believe it's the best, safest place for it as the horses were famous in their time. I'm sure Margie Rupp would have agreed.

Flicka Dec 02, 2017 10:17 AM
Way Back When in December 1917

Lou Dillon was the first horse to trot a 2 minute mile. Mr. Billings took the horses, Uhlan and Lou Dillon, to Russia and England for exhibition races.

REX OF SB Dec 02, 2017 09:25 AM
Way Back When in December 1917

I wonder if Uhlan the horse had anything to do with the naming of Uhlan Court, which is off Lou Dillon Lane, in what might be termed "baja Montecito"?

REX OF SB Dec 02, 2017 10:20 AM
Way Back When in December 1917

Thanks, Betsy! I also didn't know that Lou Dillon Lane was named after a horse. I wonder why the plaque was moved back East? FYI: I was curious about the name Uhlan, so I looked it up. A uhlan is a cavalryman armed with a lance as a member of various European armies. I do think it would be nice if Santa Barbara got its plaque back.

bjgreen Dec 02, 2017 09:48 AM
Way Back When in December 1917

You're correct, Rex Boy! Both these streets are named after Billings' horses. The Billings estate was up on the hill above, and the stables were lower down on the hillside toward Salinas. Both horses are believed to be buried in that area, and there was once a boulder on the street with a plaque commemorating these horses. Judy Pearce, former equestrian columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press, told me that the plaque was later moved to the Earl Warren showgrounds for some years, and is now in a horse museum back East.

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