Out of Hear: Bar none – a dive bar history – Sonoma West

I don’t go to bars much anymore, like I used to. I’m getting old and staying home.

Frank Robertson column photo

Frank Robertson

Maybe that’s the problem. Many lower Russian River saloons I once frequented are getting old too. They’re dying off. 

The trend toward disappearance for these old watering holes came to light most recently when the Forestville Club closed last year. The county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (now called Permit Sonoma) shut it down for alleged safety reasons after someone said the building’s foundation wasn’t up to code. A patron or an employee apparently was out to get the Forestville Club’s owner, Wayne Speer, by wrapping him up in bureaucratic red tape.

So far it’s succeeded. The Forestville Club, venue for cultural experiences from live local rock to midget wrestling, has been quiet since Speer shut the doors in July, leaving a serious void in the dwindling west county dive bar landscape.

If all you have to do to shut a business down is mention building code compliance to Permit Sonoma, the entire lower Russian River business landscape could be in big trouble.

Building code violations brought down Monte Rio’s venerable Pink Elephant bar a few years ago when then-owner Tim Parker was trying to fix the place up.

The Pink’s shutdown stunned Monte Rio residents for whom the bar served as a cultural landmark where old hippies, bikers and Bohemian Club bon vivants all rubbed shoulders beneath the neon Pink Elephant still standing over the bar’s front door. Except for a brief closure in the 1990s, the Pink had been open since 1937 — long before the county had building codes or a planning department.

George’s Hideaway on Highway 116 remains boarded up since the Sonoma County Community Development Commission decided it wasn’t financially feasible to turn George’s, probably the oldest roadhouse west of Forestville, into a homeless services center with subsidized housing.

Some of us may also remember Skippy’s Hacienda Inn, the rickety roadhouse that once loomed up in rustic glory above Hobson Creek on McPeak Road.

Don and Lynn Kelso ran the roadhouse as a quirky restaurant and bar that dated back to the late 1800s. Its weathered wood siding probably hadn’t seen a paintbrush in 100 years. Ancient stairs led to a neon “Skippy’s” sign and a cavernous wood interior with a Bohemian Club canoe stuck in the roof beams.

Don Kelso bought the place in the 1960s and under his ownership it seemed to preserve layers of Americana from several generations. A newer jukebox played recent (45 rpm) records and an old Wurlitzer played 78s from the Big Band era. The bar was a big curved wooden edifice from an old Matson steamship luxury liner.

The bar’s furniture changed frequently because Don was a pack rat. Things would come and go. Some nights there might be a truckload of office furniture piled all over because Kelso had been to a bankruptcy auction.

I’m sure Skippy’s neighbors were glad to see it go if only because it seemed to suffer from a century of deferred maintenance. It was bulldozed a couple of years ago after the neighborhood got a court order telling Kelso he had to get rid of his voluminous junk collection.

Another lower river landmark, Pat’s, Guerneville’s oldest café and bar which has been a Main Street fixture since the 1940s, also closed its doors last year, but customers hope it’s not the last call. New owner David Blomster plans to reopen the renovated restaurant as Pat’s International, serving a globally eclectic menu, but there won’t be a bar like the old dark cave illuminated with beer signs and the glow of televised sports. Those days are gone, said Blomster, but he knows they’re not forgotten.

“It’s good to be missed,” said Blomster, an artist who’s remodeling Pat’s and seems to know that he’s working with a local landmark.

“It is mine,” said Blomster, “but I can still be respectful of the history.” When it reopens, “I think it will feel very familiar.”

Frank Robertson is a member of the Sonoma West Publishers staff.