1909 Emma Fetters comes to El Verano

Sonomans were impressed when on November 5th·, 1909, Emma Pell Fetters deposited $15,000 in gold coin with banker William Burris of the Sonoma Valley Bank for the purchase of the 209 acre Sonoma Valley ranch of Edgar Halstead. She conditioned her acquisition on the successful election of Blair Hart as county supervisor; on hearing that Mr. Hart won, Emma Pell Fetters closed the deal. Who was Mrs Fetters and why did she need Hart to win? There is a lot to discover. One thing we know is that she had plenty of money, as would be apparent when she constructed her expensive resort on the Halstead ranch. Apparently, she was the widow of a San Francisco police officer and had recently married George Fetters [a man who at first did not take an active role in the resort construction and operation.] I don’t have a good description of Emma, but we get a clue to her appearance in the fact that she usually wore what has been described as a $300 famous fox fur stole. Did she need supervisor Hart’s cooperation in what she planned to do at her resort? As things turned out, she would need all he help she could get.

The local newspaper described the new resort as follows. ‘The hotel will be modern in all of its appointments; it will contain an office, parlors, dining room, kitchen and pantries which will take up the space of the ground floor. The second story will contain twenty-six large and airy bedrooms, every one of which will be an outside room furnished with running water and electric lights. An attractive clubhouse was to be constructed facing the road to Santa Rosa. A bathhouse with a 75 by 100 foot swimming pool would follow.’

While the hotel was under construction an attempt was made to burn the building down. An arsonist using carpenters shavings set fire to the lady’s reception room. Fortunately, workers saw flames and extinguished the fire before extensive damage could be done .. There was no obvious reason for this felony, but Mrs. Fetters must have had an enemy.

On completion of the hotel, Mrs. Fetters leased the building and 70 acres of land to Morris Levy of San Francisco. Tenant Levy named the resort Eleda Springs. He was a prizefight promoter who planed to have James Jeffries train for his upcoming fight with Jack Johnson at the hotel. Levy anticipated to get high rents from sport enthusiasts who would be able to watch Jeffries prepare for what was advertised as the fight of the century. Though the local paper reported that it was more than likely that Jeffries would take up his training quarters at Fetters Hot Springs, this did not happen as the venue for fight was moved from San Francisco to Reno Nevada.


Mrs. Fetters had exacted a harsh lease from Mr. Levy. For example, among the many conditions in the lease, tenant Levy was charged with preserving and returning to the lessor five pages of personal property including 110 teaspoons, 239 napkins and 420 dinner plates. Apparently Levy did not concern himself with what he signed as he was focused on expected profits from the Jeffries’ fight promotion. Anna reserved a portion of the leased land so that she could construct and have for herself a cottage for, as the lease said, private purposes.


When it became clear that Jeffries would not train at Fetters as expected, the relationship between Emma and Levy fell apart. She soon wanted him out, but he would not move. The result was an eviction lawsuit presented before Judge Emmet Seawell of the Sonoma County Superior Court. Among the many charges made against Levy was that he constructed a door between the men’s and women’s apartments of the bathhouse. Emma declared that this opening did not serve any useful or beneficial purpose. Judge Seawell ruled in favor of Mr. Levy, with a result that Emma had to buy him out.


With Levy out, Mrs. Fetters resumed her improvement of the resort. She added a 25-room hotel annex with additional cottages and she dropped the name Eleda Springs, reverting to her own name. The Index Tribune reported that everything for the comfort and convenience of guests had been provided for, regardless of cost. The paper said that Mrs. Fetters had already spent $100,000 and was still spending, as it was the intention of the owner to make the resort the most up to date and attractive in all California. Dances, vaudeville, and masked balls were to be featured events. It would seem that all was well for Emma, but the future would tell a different circumstance.

Things started innocently enough. With the start of World War One, Emma with patriotic enthusiasm provided the sailors from Mare Island Navy Base at free Saturday night balls at her hotel. On arrival at the resort, the boys in uniform were accorded a hearty ovation, a chance to dance with local girls and a military band concert. Free admission to the bathhouse and buffet were a gratis bonus. It was at one of these events that the Fetters were seriously harmed.


On Monday June 20th, 1918, both the Fetters were arrested on a federal warrant charging them with selling hard liquor to servicemen in uniform. Such an act, if proven, was a serious crime under the then federal law. Out of jail on $5000 bail, the Fetters said they would fight the case to the highest courts in the land.


Not waiting for a trial, the Sonoma Valley Woman’s Club, acting on member Mrs. Fred T. Duhring’s plea that the resort was a menace because of the purported liquor sale, obtained 283 signatures requesting the County Supervisors revoke the Fetters Liquor license. [The petition had signatures of about one half the then population of Sonoma] The supervisors followed the ladies request and, without a hearing, pulled the license. [Supervisor Blair Hart must have been off the board.]


The criminal trial itself took place before a jury in federal court at Sacramento. The most damaging testimony was that of B. E. Cransill, a navy intelligence officer who testified that after one of the Fetters’ free sailor events and while in uniform he asked Mrs. Fetters for an eye opener, that she then returned with a quart bottle of whisky and tendered the same to him, for which he paid nine dollars.


The testimony against Mr. Fetters was that at the resort clubhouse he filled an order for a box of champagne that was delivered to the hotel and placed on the porch where sailors in uniform could drink the beverage. The defense attempted to discredit the prosecution witnesses, and claimed that the defense of entrapment applied as to Mrs Fetters. The lawyers went further and stated that the entire lawsuit was a put up job promoted by local people who wanted to force the Fetters to leave town.

The case went to the jury, and after 35 minutes of deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty against both Mr. and Mrs. Fetters. After hearing the court-heard testimony of Sonoma County deputy sheriff Jack Murray, who said that the resort had a bad reputation among locals, Federal judge William Van Fleet imposed a fine of $1000 and county jail sentence of one year on Mr. Fetters and a fine of $1000 and a county jail sentence of nine months on Mrs. Fetters. The judge suspended both sentences for 30 days pending appeal by the defendants.


The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the conviction of Mr. Fetters on the grounds of procedural error. The conviction of Mrs. Fetters was confirmed. Her lawyers declared that they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme court.


The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, but the U.S. Attorney General was so impressed with the defense argument of entrapment that he took up the appeal to President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1920 commuted the sentence of Mrs. Fetters to 30 days in jail.


In August of 1922 Emma Fetters contracted double pneumonia and died. No mention was made of her conviction in the obituary. Instead the editor said” Mrs. Fetters was keenly interested in better roads and improvements in the valley where she had invested her money, and gave liberally to all movements having for their object the development of this section.” Here remains were interned in Salem Cemetery, San Francisco, Rabbi Lissaeur officiating.