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Monday, September 25, 2000

Mystery surrounds Solano County’s golden trophy

Jerry Bowen

Intrigue! Bribery! Subterfuge! Grand theft! Who would have thought all these words would apply to the county exhibits at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in San Francisco.

After a year of preparation, Solano County was determined to win the spectacular golden trophy with its agricultural exhibit. Competition between the counties was fierce for such a valuable prize valued at $5,000 as well as the publicity and revenue that would follow. The winner of the coveted trophy was to be determined by popular vote. What followed was even more bizarre than even the most imaginative fiction writer might produce.

Newspaper accounts described the trophy as follows: “The cup is of solid gold, embellished with precious stones. On the stem, in relief, are draped flags, the Bear Flag and the Stars and Stripes, their colors being brought out in enamel work. Above the flags and forming a band around the cup, are four medallions, showing the Fine Arts, Manufactures and Liberal Arts, Mechanic Arts, and the Agricultural and Horticultural Buildings. The four ornate arms, or handles, spring from a band bearing the inscription, ‘California Midwinter International Exposition.’ On the opposite side from the inscription of the purpose for which the trophy will be given is the Great Seal of the State of California. Above the goddess the motto ‘Eureka’ is set in diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires and the stars in the field above are formed of single diamonds. The cover is a half globe in two colors of gold, surmounted by a golden grizzly bear. The eyes of the bear, like the eyes of the bears’ heads on the central girdle, are flashing rubies.”

The Exposition opened on January 27, 1894, with great fanfare. The Reporter commented about the friendly rivalry by noting that some counties resorted to running their dried fruit through washing machine wringers to make the fruit equal in size to Solano County’s.

The public began voting and early tallies revealed Alameda and Solano counties to be in the lead. It didn’t take long for the competition to turn scandalous.

In February, the Oakland Enquirer accused a former Solano County resident living in Oakland, of buying votes for the Solano exhibit. The Reporter countered that the thinly veiled accusations pointing to Sen. Buck were false and it was well-known that Solano County’s fruit was far superior to anything Alameda could produce. The Reporter then went on to accuse Alameda’s Sen. Dennison of buying votes for their exhibit.

More accusations flew and the vote tally mounted. By the end of May, The Reporter conceded both sides were buying votes but all was fair in the war of the ballot box.

When voting closed in July, Solano County was declared the winner with 889,226 votes, Alameda County came in second with 628,490 and Sacramento County was third with 154,792.

Solano County residents celebrated in grand fashion on August 25 in Suisun, when the golden cup was formally presented. During the parade one float couldn’t help but be noticed for its jab at Alameda County. The float labeled “Alameda” was a dilapidated wagon on the verge of falling apart, loaded with decaying fruit and pulled by a scarecrow horse and a very long-eared mule. The daylong celebration ended with a grand ball at the Native Sons of the Golden West Hall that lasted until the next morning.

But where in the county should the cup be displayed? Vallejo immediately claimed they should have it. The Reporter countered with, “What would Vallejo say, think you, if in a voting contest in which a trophy was offered for the county having the best Navy Yard, and won by Solano, Vacaville was to set up a claim to the prize because she did her duty in enabling her county to win it. I fancy her very first exclamation would be ‘What cheek!’ “

Unfortunately, the cup did not remain in the county. It was returned to San Francisco and placed in a glass display case at the California State Board of Trade Exhibit in the Ferry Building.

With such a valuable object as the golden cup, it was bound to be a target of burglars unless it was protected. Finally, in 1902, it was finally taken out of the display case and put into the Union Trust Company’s vault for safekeeping. Storage fees began to add up to more than the Board of Supervisors were willing to pay. A special safe was purchased for the Ferry Building and the trophy was moved into it as part of the display. At night, the safe was closed and locked..

On February, 1910, Miss Powers (the assistant to the Board of Supervisors), discovered the heavy plate glass in the safe that protected the trophy while on display, and the cup were gone! Someone had taken Solano County’s golden cup in broad daylight!

The police were notified and an investigation was begun. Fingerprints were found on the protective glass and photographed, but nothing seems to have happened to finger the culprit after that.

The golden cup has never been found. More than likely, the jewels were removed and the cup was melted down for the gold content.

How could such a large and obvious object as that trophy be removed in broad daylight without anyone noticing it? The safe was open and the trophy behind heavy glass was in full view of tourists in the area. It had to be someone with intimate knowledge of the Ferry Building’s security. San Francisco was awash in political corruption and graft at the time so anything was possible. We will probably never know what happened to Solano County’s valued prize, but perhaps someday, somewhere, someone will be digging around in a musty old attic and discover it. Unfortunately, that is an extremely remote possibility and even then . . . would it be returned to Solano County where it belongs?