These three women kept the Sonoma County Humane Society afloat in the 1900s

I know! What bits of our Sonoma County history do you want to read? Maybe another glance back at the role of women in our history? Or some thoughts about the many and varied charities that aimed at “civilizing” our communities in the formative years of the early 20th century?

Those are big topics. They may be too big for a pleasant summer day. So, how about taking a chance, leaving humans to fend for themselves and, to coin a phrase, “go to the dogs” – or the cats, or the bunny rabbits. It’s one of many ways to take a look back at changes that were taking place in Sonoma County 100 years ago.

That would be around the time the “household pet” idea was gaining momentum in this agricultural community. It was based, of course, on the revolutionary notion that dogs could perform more services than circling the herd, and that cats could come out of the barn and into our laps.

How about all of the above – the charitable community, women’s role and literally thousands of lost, stray and even wounded animals rolled into a package? It’s the kind of story journalists call (or, at least, used to call) a “wrap?”

The “news hook” that holds them all together is the 90th anniversary, coming early next month, of the Humane Society of Sonoma County.

IT’S AN opportunity for a women’s history lesson. Despite all the Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers showing women in aprons, not all of our maternal ancestors’ lives were limited to tending the home fires, stirring the soup kettle and drinking tea.

To speak to this point, we offer an introduction to three Santa Rosa women who came together in 1931 to end decades of trial and error and build a lasting organization dedicated to the humane treatment of animals.

They knew it would take money. And it wasn’t the greatest moment in history to start a fund drive – or even ask for small donation of yearly dues. It was Oct. 15, 1931. Two years earlier, on Oct. 29, 1929, henceforth known as “Black Tuesday,” the United States stock market had crashed, marking the start of a decade of financial Depression throughout the industrialized countries of the world.

Sonoma County’s economy, based on a diverse small-farm agriculture (hops, prunes, apples, walnuts, cherries, chickens and most profitably, dairy) was well behind the industrialized metropolitan areas in experiencing financial disaster. But it was on the horizon.

So, while it doesn’t appear as a contributing factor in the organization’s early records, money problems may well have been an added incentive, since abandoned animals were one of the first signs of economic hardship.

SO, WHO WERE these women, this trio who figure so prominently in the Humane Society’s story? Elizabeth Burbank, Mrs. Ernest (Ruth) Finley and Miss Mary Leddy. At least one of those names should jump at you. While they were joined in the early days by two others who are not mentioned in any subsequent reports – Mrs. Harry (Colleen) Aslin and either Frank Roth or Mrs. Frank Roth (it appears both ways in the society’s history notes) – it was the Burbank-Finley-Leddy trio who made it happen.

For Mary Leddy, it was the realization of a long-held dream. For Bessie Burbank and Ruth Finley, it was just the beginning of a long financial struggle to turn that dream to reality.

Elizabeth Burbank was a widow. Her husband di lei, Luther, who died in 1926 was known throughout the world for his horticultural creations and plant experiments. He had helped – as the town fathers often said – to “put Santa Rosa on the map.” The home that “Bessie” shared with Luther, now a historical landmark and a city park, still attracts thousands of visitors – both tourists and neighbors – every year.

We know Luther had a dog named Bonita who turns up in photos with Bessie taken after Luther’s death in 1926. And Luther Burbank Home & Gardens staff tells me that there were cats, at least two, one a favorite calico whose name is lost to the ages. So, we are assured that she wasn’t just lending her famous name di lei to the cause, but lei was a true believer. In fact, 25 years later she was still the chair of the organization’s board of directors.

Mrs. Ernest (Ruth) Finley, had status in the community as well. And, like Bessie Burbank, it came by marriage. Being married to the owner and publisher of the county’s leading newspaper certainly was not a hindrance and her dedication to the society’s cause was reflected in the coverage of the society’s fund-raising events and in the pictures of the Dog of the Week that were a regular feature for 50 years – at least until her death in 1973.

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