Saturday, November 19, 2011

"pretty civilized,"- Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel, Bolinas

    This week we’re going way out: geographically, culturally and chronologically.  From the popular day trip destination of  Stinson Beach in West Marin you can hardly see the town of Bolinas that hugs the north side of the lagoon, stashed away in the trees.  The road from Highway 101 to Bolinas is a long, curvy trek over the mountain that leads into the lush valley of Muir Woods; then along the coast, with the drive no less winding and a view of the vast expanse of the Pacific I so rarely see regardless of daily proximity to it.  Since I had to navigate the switchbacks and keep an eye out for hardly existent signage, I was only able to appreciate the scenery in momentary glances.  But what really had me ill at ease was the knowledge that I was going to have to make this return trip after however many drinks Smiley’s Schooner Saloon required of me to get my story.  It didn’t help that I made enough wrong turns or what I thought were wrong turns that required me to double back that I made about half a dozen u-turns.  All the while I could see the sun slipping lower toward the ocean. I cursed myself for my late start and damned the entire concept of Daylight Savings and its recent arbitrary lapse.  Winter hours are the bane of all people who sleep until noon then spend a hour watching the Daily Show and checking email before doing school assignments that involve drinking alcohol at remote bars on the other side of national parks at the furthest edge of the North American continent, at the end of the fucking earth itself.  By the time I reached Smiley’s my stress over the drive ironically lead me to a point where I was ready to skip the beer and get a scotch.
Could this bay be the same as...

...this bay?  Elia says no.
    The Bolinas Bay has been at the end of the earth since Europeans went as far West as they could go before they met the East.  I’m sure the Coast Milwok Indians who had occupied the area for about 3000 years1 would have said they were right in the middle of it all before these smelly white guys on huge boats showed up and started holding freaky religious services.  I am, of course, referencing the arrival of Sir Francis Drake arriving in 1579 somewhere along the coastline we now know as Marin County (ahead of the Spanish this far north), declaring land for the English crown and naming it “Nove Albionis” (roughly meaning New Britain).  When he arrived he buried an English sixpence in the new soil and held an Anglican service for his men (suck on that, Spain!).  I found a book from 1974 that makes the case that Drake had landed and built his fort in the Bolinas Bay, just above of the lagoon, rather than in the bay slightly north that holds the title of Drakes Bay.2  Later in the day when I met Elia from the Bolinas Museum she assured me that “that dear man” had never been to there and all the leads that indicated otherwise came up dry over the past few decades.  I can assume that if there would be anyone making the case for Drake’s landing there, it would be a person who spends their life studying the history of the town.  Still, evidence has not been found to definitively say exactly where Drake built his fort (some argue that it was in the San Francisco Bay where San Quentin now stands), but I believe the greater mystery is to why Elia refers to Francis Drake as “that dear man”.3

    Fast forward a few hundred years to when California was part of Mexico, but just before the Anglo-Saxon people were about to make their dramatic and enduring return.  In 1837, a decorated Mexican soldier by the name of Gregorio Briones was given a immense land grant that comprised pretty much the entire bay, lagoon and all surrounding land.  He named it Rancho Baulenes.4 
    His peaceful retirement was short lived though because in 1846 John Fremont would start raising some hell in nearby Sonoma, an event commonly referred to now as the Bear Flag Revolt, and other events conspired to ignite the Mexican-American War, the conclusion of which see California join the United States as its 31st state.  Gregorio Briones was not too keen on Americans (refusing to let his daughters marry any of the newcomers), but times were changing and because of the Gold Rush they were changing very, very fast, so he contracted much of his land to foresters to make use of the redwood lumber.  San Francisco was ballooning at a staggering pace, and every few years the city would burn down, hence requiring ever more wood.  The lagoon was also a terrific place to build and repair schooners for the flourishing trade industry.  In 1852, the first census of Marin recorded 323 adults in the county, two-thirds of which lived in Bolinas Township.5
    Enter into this the enigmatic Captain Isaac Morgan (as far as I know there is no relation to Captain Henry Morgan, the 17th century pirate of the Caribbean and namesake for the spiced rum favored by “woo-woo” girls at bachelorette parties everywhere) who built a number of buildings in Bolinas and Stinson, ran an apple orchard, invested in many of the towns’ business and aided in the building of the road I had just drove over to Sausalito.  His legacy that I’m interested in was the construction of the Schooner Saloon in 1851 (maybe ‘52) near the docks in Bolinas.  At the time the area of town was called Jugville because of the six saloons in close proximity.
    I laugh a bit when Elia tells me this and say, “If a small town has that many bars, I guess that says something about the people living here at the time.”
    Elia isn’t as amused as me and responds with local pride, “Well, two of them, I think, we’re pretty civilized.”6
    I was merely referring to the fact that a town of mostly men, sailors and lumberjacks at that, aren’t exactly known for their temperance, but it turns out the town has had a long and complicated relationship with alcohol.

    The man behind the bar at Smiley’s fills my small glass to the brim with the warm, brown drink.  Is there any problem that can’t be caused and/or solved with a little bit of hard liquor?   I had arrived about 3:30 in what the locals call “downtown”, a strip of rustic wood buildings moderately clustered compared to all the houses in the area, which tend to be on generous properties, set back on hills and partially hidden behind thick trees.  Being the off season the street is quite and most of the businesses closed on a Tuesday afternoon, but Smiley’s is blaring Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” of out the dark barroom.  It’s a surprisingly small structure, but painted a glowing clean white, adorned with two versions of the American flag, it radiates with the pride of a 19th century small business man.  It could have been off the set of Blazing Saddles and owned by somebody surnamed Johnson.
    The bartender is friendly as can be and actually seems interested in my “I’m a history student doing a blah blah blah” spiel as he pours my shot.  He gives me a little bit of information that was similar to what I had read on the Smiley’s website, but says the person I really need to talk to is the owner, Don Deane.  As if on cue Don walks in the front door.  He’s a handsome older guy who reminds of John Muir, with a shorter beard, but that could be because of his brown woodman’s hat.  He gives me a little bit of information that was similar to what I had read on the Smiley’s website, but tells me the person I really need to talk to is Elia at the Bolinas Museum across the street. 
    We walk down the block a bit and into the back of another old white building that apparently also used to be a saloon.  Don introduce me to Elia and I give my spiel for the third time in twenty minutes, but now, out of the bar setting, I’m acutely aware of what the few sips of whiskey has done to my breath. 

    Close on the heals of the town’s raucous founding, Bolinas became a hotbed of temperance movement in the 1860’s.  I didn’t think to ask Elia where this sudden piety sprang from, but I can speculate by looking at old pictures and counting at least three churches and a school that were built in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Most of the new people coming to town were not the sailors and lumberjacks, but families of cattle and dairy ranchers.7  These were the rural Americans of the late 19th century, by any account a godly bunch, who would not look kindly on seediness of Jugville.  Contrast this to Port Costa (see Nov. 4th post), another small town on the water, but it didn’t developed out of it’s origins as a shipping hub until the 1940’s and kept its Barbary Coast reputation well through the Progressive era.
    Captain Isaac Morgan was not on the roles of the “Sons of Temperance”, as most of Bolinas’ prominent citizens were, but in 1872 he was titled as the Chaplain of the “Independent Order of Rechabites”, which sponsored temperance lectures.  That same year he moved back east to find a wife (apparently still not a lot of single, respectable women in California at that time) and left the Schooner Saloon to his good friend, Niles Ogdon. Ogdon also took up Morgan’s residence next door to the saloon (which still stands today) and ran the bar for the next 40 years.  The saloon weathered the temperance movement and even thrived after the 1906 earthquake as San Francisco refugees waited for the city to be rebuilt in surrounding communities.  The next century saw the saloon change ownership and names quite a few times.  Though the bar always remained, the use for other parts of the building often altered, it’s been a hotel, a barbershop, a bait store, a pizza place.  One long time owner was named Ed Knott, at which time the place was called Ed Knott’s Inn (get it? “Ed’s not in.” [I’m reminded of a line from True Blood in which Vampire Bill reminds Sookie, “You know, puns were once considered the height of comedy.”]).9
    During Prohibition the bar moved to the second floor and the windows were painted black (as they would be again in World War Two to hide the lights from any Japanese ships or bombers) except for one on the first floor that looked in on the barbershop.  Customers would enter through the barbershop and head upstairs.10 In fact, there are numerous caves along the West Marin coastline that were used by rum-runners as they snuck booze into the larger Bay Area.  Elia told me about an article she came across that mentioned that when the Coast Guard found bottles during Prohibition they had to dispose of any broken ones themselves.  One could guess that “broken” was a relative term and there are many methods of “disposing” of bottles of hooch.11
Am I the last fan of this guy?

    In 1955, the bar was bought by an Italian immigrant named Ismaele Biachini, but most people called the happy guy Smiley.  This era would see a cultural shift as many artists and writers would discover Bolinas.  The Beats would often take extended trips there and the 60’s would put a lasting hippish feel to the town.12 Richard Brautigan’s brilliant novel, In Watermelon Sugar was based on a fantasized utopian commune version on Bolinas.  I asked everybody I talked to about Brautigan, as I’ve been a fan since high school, but nobody else seemed too interested or to know anything beyond that he had shot himself at his house in town and the body was not discovered for some time.  Don said he had seen Brautigan at Smiley’s a few times, but doesn’t remember anything about him.  According to Elia there are currently 164 published writers living in Bolinas and Stinson Beach in a population of about 2000 people.
    The Smiley’s website has a section that reads, “Before Lincoln was president… Before baseball was a game… Before Jingle Bells was a song…  There was Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel.”  At 150 years old the saloon is probably the oldest bar in California that has stayed in continuous service.  On the walk back to his establishment Don, whose been the owner for 35 years, told me that the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, near Yosemite, is a close second, opening in 1852.  Since nobody is exactly sure when Smiley’s opened they can’t make a definitive claim for the title.
    My drink is right where I left it (the break from it half way through was probably a good idea).  After a sandwich and beer at the bar, I’m back on the road, sun still barely above the horizon and with no diminished ability to make the turns.

1. Phil Frank, Kendrick Rand and Tamae Angoli, Bolinas and Stinson Beach (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 9.
2. V. Aubrey Neasham and William E. Pritchard, Drake’s Landing: The Evidence for the Bolinas Lagoon (Sacramento: Western Heritage Inc., 1974).
3. Elia Haworth (Bolinas Museum) in discussion with author.
4. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, 15-16.
5. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach,  23-24.
6. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
7. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, 39-41.
8. Joan Reutinger, "A Short History", Smileys Schooner Saloon website, accessed November 17, 2011,
9. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
10. Reutinger, "A Short History".
11. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
12. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.

1. taken by author on Highway 1 above Stinson Beach.
2.  Neasham, Drake’s Landing, 6.
3. taken by author.
4. taken from

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