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Making Money Writing a Century Ago

As an historian nearing the end of writing my first draft of a history of Mendocino County from 1852-2002 I can’t help but being intrigued by some of the people I’ve researched — like Aurelius O. Carpenter of Ukiah.

First, let me say that anyone wanting to know more about this person can go to the Grace Carpenter Hudson Museum in Ukiah or read Anderson Valley author Marvin Schenck’s excellent book “Aurelius O. Carpenter: Photographer of the Mendocino Frontier.” This column below makes suppositions about Carpenter’s life and career I can only wonder about.

There existed in the American Midwest and West from the 1880’s to the 1920s an industry based on writing county histories. These books acknowledged the pioneers, founding families and businessman who helped establish the county. These were weighty hard-covered tomes with hundreds of pages of text, etchings and photographs. While actual history published in these books might cover 200 pages all the rest, often another 800 pages, was biographical entries.

Two such volumes were written about Mendocino County. Coming first was “History of Mendocino County, California” by Lyman Palmer in 1880.

With 700 pages at publication an addendum in the 1960’s added almost 200 pages more of biographical sketches. A.O. Carpenter’s volume in 1914 was titled “History of Mendocino and Lake Counties” had 169 pages of history and over 900 pages of biographies.

The history sections were gleanings from newspapers and county courthouse records but the biographical sections were what made money for the authors. Now I can only assume this was a profitable venture because so many of these volumes were produced in so many places and to have your family listed you paid to be included.

These were “subscription” volumes in that every biography, every etching of the house or farm, every photo of the man of distinction (and sometimes his wife) was paid for in advance of publication. Some of the fee paid publishing costs and I’d bet some of the fee went into the editor’s pocketbook. I am assuming a “fill-in-the-blanks” form was given every applicant. In it the featured person’s ethnicity, parents, place of birth, and education, travel to Mendocino County, experiences in the area, marriage and children, fraternal organizations and political persuasion was noted.

Then the editor stepped in and rewrote the facts into florid prose. If the person in question was dead his family could have him included by filling out the form. Entrepreneurs could pay to have their businesses included.

A.O. Carpenter was born in 1836 and educated in the East. By 1851 he was apprenticed to a newspaper publisher and worked as a journalist often in his later life. After a stay in Kansas he became involved in the Abolitionist Movement, married in 1856, and came west on the California Trail arriving in Potter Valley in 1858. With the Civil War approaching he helped begin the pro-Union newspaper, the Mendocino Herald in Ukiah and was part owner until 1864.

It’s not known when he took up photography but he opened a photographic gallery in Ukiah in 1869 and by 1879 he owned and edited the Ukiah City Press newspaper and his photo studio was producing portraits, landscapes, regional scenes, promotional materials and family photos. Writing, both in Ukiah and the Bay Area, and photography in the county occupied his next 35 years.

So this curious columnist’s mind wants to know:

Did A.O. Carpenter see the money Lyman Palmer was making collecting subscriptions for that first county history? Did he help Palmer with that volume? After all Carpenter was a newspaperman. Carpenter did pay to have his biography in that first volume. Did he think, “As years go by there will be a whole new market for a bigger collective biography!”

Whatever the answer, he found a publisher and started the years long task of collecting and rewriting history and biographical contributions. He decided to include Lake County and had Percy Millberry, a newspaperman there, write 35 pages of their history and 120 pages of biographies. And, of course, as Carpenter’s work went along, for a fee he would photograph the contributor who was paying an additional fee for his biography. He probably also charged the publisher for all the photos he took and included in the history section.

Perhaps because I’m a journalist I love his verbose wording. Instead of saying, “They could build a dam here,” he extols “the properties of the county and possibility of water and power development is aided by deep valleys and close-locked canyons in a land with heavy unfailing rainfall.”

The county’s educational facilities “compared favorably with any in the state” and “various grains luxuriate growing here with fruits grown to perfection.” It was never too hot in summer, rather…”the dryness of air in summer, devoid of the sultriness of eastern climates, makes the degree of heat endurable.”

Biographical contributors stood for progressive citizenship and fine public service. Their endeavors beautified the land with extensive improvements and development. A man was a friend of progress and good government, and had admirable qualifications for his position requiring accuracy, promptness and a high degree of intelligence. Men had unexcelled business judgment and quick perception Women found their husbands when acquaintance ripened into affection and they all had well known social connections and were involved in betterment and uplifting of their community. Women were also the presiding genius in the home.

When the volume was produced in 1914 I’ll bet many an evening was spent reading by the fire about those folks prominent in all local matters. I wonder if Carpenter used his flowery speech in everyday conversation? Did he ever say anything negative about anyone or anything? How much did that book cost new? A.O. Carpenter is a person I’d have loved to meet.

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