At the turn of the 20th century, the mosquitoes infesting San Rafael made gracious living difficult for year-round and wealthy summer residents alike. Swarms of mosquitoes bred in the swampy marshes that encircled San Francisco Bay.
According to the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District, the mosquitoes threatened in such numbers that commuters wore head nets while waiting for the Marin-San Francisco ferry, and businesses placed smudge pots by their storefronts to ward off the pests.
In 1902 a group of citizens formed the San Rafael Improvement Club to combat the insects. Initially both men and women joined, but over time the Club became primarily a ladies organization. Mrs. Eliza A. Neale, the first president, served as such for 12 years. Her husband, prominent attorney Vincent Neale, represented the club at civic hearings, what with female voices holding less sway at the time.
A Wild West Pony Show
Fighting mosquitoes took money, and in June 1904 the club held a successful fundraiser at the Bates grounds in the Coleman Tract. The Marin Journal announced:
“Every little boy and girl in San Rafael who owns a pony, and there are scores of them, will on the 4th of June give a genuine Wild West Show for the benefit of the San Rafael Improvement Club which in turn will use the funds to carry on the war against the mosquitoes…In addition to the pony show there is to be a tea. We know what that means in San Rafael – charmingly gowned, attractive women serving dainties under the trees.”
The San Francisco Call reported:
“many of the features of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West professional show will be attempted by the young sons and daughters of the wealthy residents of San Rafael. The children have been practicing for weeks and teaching their ponies tricks.”
The event included a parade of pony carts: the “smallest pony in the world,” railroad baron A.W. Foster’s Hungarian ponies, a maypole on pony back and the musical offerings of St. Vincent’s Orphanage’s juvenile band. Nearly 2000 people enjoyed the show.
Calling in the Experts
With funds in the coffer, the Improvement Club consulted with Dr. C.W. Woodworth, an expert entomologist and founder of the Entomology departments at both Universities of California, Berkeley and Davis. When he and his students studied San Rafael and its surroundings, they found that 99 percent of the mosquitoes belonged to a single species, Culex squamiger, the Pacific Coast salt-marsh mosquito.
Woodworth suggested that the group hire a mosquito control inspector, who under Woodworth’s direction, applied oil to the town’s salt marshes. Along with oiling, the work involved digging ditches, repairing dikes and tide gates and filling marshy areas.
One year after his first visit, Woodworth reported that after “a half day of hard collecting work, I was able to find less than a score of mosquitoes of any species.”
The club’s 1904 annual reported stated:
“Most of them (the mosquitoes) have been found on the lowlands south of Fourth Street and east of A with one breeding place near Fifth below Irwin. Other parts of town are reported comparatively free from the pests while a year ago they were quite troublesome, especially in the Coleman tract. Most of the water pools have been oiled and many thousands of the pests killed.”
The 1905 Journal of American Medicine reported that:
“Last year the marshes about San Rafael were inspected by representatives of the entomologic department of the University of California and those found infested with mosquitoes were treated with crude oil, giving the most satisfactory results, until late in the year, when lack of funds caused a suspension of work and a consequent increase of mosquitoes.”
Despite scarce funds, San Rafael’s success served as a model for other Bay Area towns, particularly Burlingame, which also formed an improvement club and engaged Woodworth to solve their mosquito blight. A Peninsula resident recalled, “in walking along the roads in the hills, mosquitoes would gather so abundantly on one’s clothes that sometimes the color of the suit was obscured beneath the general affect of the light brown produced by the mosquitoes.”
The San Francisco Call of January 3, 1905 reported that:
“The San Rafael Improvement Club, largely controlled by prominent ladies of that city, has expended more than a thousand dollars during the last year in waging war upon mosquitoes, and Assemblyman Olmsted of that city has a bill prepared to aid them in their work. The bill provides for the organization of a district something after the manner of an irrigation or sanitary district.”
It would be ten years before such a law passed, during which the San Rafael Improvement Club tirelessly campaigned to eradicate the mosquitoes. Fundraising was a necessity, and over the next several years, the Club held events such as a Village Fair, rummage sales, flower festivals, card tournaments and an annual baseball game.
In 1912, Vincent Neale, accompanied by several clubwomen, asked the County Board of Supervisors for an appropriation of $300 to wage warfare against the mosquitoes in the county. Mr. Neale made the case that “all the expense of the mosquito campaign which had been carried on for the past nine years by the San Rafael Improvement Club had been borne by private parties aided by the city trustees; that as the work extended from Novato on the north to Corte Madera and Mill Valley on the south, it was growing too large for private means and was a county affair.”
The Supervisors gave support, and the San Rafael Club joined with other Marin towns in the effort.
The Club’s annual report for 1914 mentions that the Club had put in drainage all the way from Larkspur to St. Vincent’s Orphanage: “Mrs. E.G. Stetson, who lives near the old Golf Links, testified that this was the first summer in 21 years in which there have been no mosquitoes here after the first of July.”
The next year with passage of Assembly Bill 1565, the Mosquito Abatement Act of 1915, California’s first mosquito abatement district was formed in Marin. It’s now called the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District. Similar districts throughout the Bay Area use newer materials, not oil, to control the Bay's mosquitoes.
Planting Shade Trees
Killing mosquitoes wasn’t the Club’s only mission. The members also planted trees to shade roads and cut down on dust. In 1904 the club reported that it had planted about 2,500 trees:
“and not only have we paid for the trees but have employed a gardener to trim them…and a man with a water wagon to water them during the summer months. In order to protect the young trees to which many thoughtless people tie their horses, we are placing 130 rings on the electric poles to serve a hitching posts.”
In 1917 the Club reported, “In the 14 years of its existence the club has labored unremittingly to accomplish its ideal in the completed plan for beautification. In this period the members have planted more than 6,000 trees of the decorative and shading species.” Some still provide shade on Fifth Avenue today.
In 1905 the members donated a fully equipped Emergency Hospital and an ambulance “for the use of all patients requiring gentle handling and care. What an improvement on the express wagon heretofore used!”
Rats, Garbage and General Filth
The club also advocated for good public sanitary conditions. In 1908, it reported:
“the city employed this year Mr. Paul Eckelman to make a house to house examination in search of rats, garbage and general filth. … For the past two years, if not longer, he has reported on the absence of sewer connections and danger spots in this town, but no improvement has resulted from any action of the board. Two years ago, 35 houses in the city limits had no sewer connections and today it is believed that the numbers remain the same.”
A New Clubhouse
Perhaps to celebrate their victory over mosquitoes, the club bought a new clubhouse. In early 1916, the Marin Journal reported that the Club had purchased:
“the Victrola pavilion in the Liberal Arts Palace at the (Panama-Pacific) Exposition, and is now arranging for removing the same to San Rafael for use as a club home. The pavilion is about 60 feet square in size, will have a good hardwood floor and is well suited for dancing parties and for public gathers, where about 200 persons can be accommodated …”
The club purchased the building from Leon Douglass, a sound and motion picture inventor, for $500 and had it moved to its current location at Fifth and H streets. At the time, Mrs. Arthur W. Foster was an active club member, and her wealthy husband gave the organization use of the property. In 1923 the club bought the property free and clear.
This structure and San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts are the only buildings remaining from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The building is a city and state landmark and in May of 1984 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Through the ensuing years, the San Rafael Improvement Club opened this unique building to the community. Local schools held graduations, community groups held musical programs, dances and card socials.
During WWI, the building housed a blood bank. In the Depression years, it provided a soup kitchen. During WWII, the Red Cross held blood drives and conducted First Aid and Civil Defense classes. The club encouraged members to knit socks for servicemen during their club meetings. They held scrap metal drives and boxed up care packages.
In 1944 the club created a Service Men’s Club at Fort Baker in conjunction with the Red Cross. The members raised $400 to furnish the day room with “splendid furniture and furnishings, and a piano, a Victrola, a ping-pong table and other games.”
Mrs. Herbert Walton, war activities chairman of the club, urged the women to save tin cans and all the grease they could to purchase magazine subscriptions for the day room.
Post-war decades brought change. In 1997 with an aging membership unable to maintain the property, the club gave the building and land to the nonprofit Rotary Manor Corporation with the stipulation that the building be restored. Despite over $1 million in private donations and support from Rotary Club members, the nonprofit could not afford the cost overruns and was forced to sell. The building is now in private hands and looks to be very well maintained.
The Improvement Club no longer exists, but its legacy lives on in San Rafael’s tree-lined streets and in the first mosquito abatement district in California.
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Primary source material provided by the oral history and news clipping collections of the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Free Library -