It was the best of places it was the worst of places, somewhere everyone said they had fun, somewhere others said everyone sinned; it was close enough to town you could count on meeting friends, it was far enough away from town hopefully no one would recognize you; it was a legal business routinely caught breaking the law; loved and hated, tolerated and intolerable, it was any of the hundred-plus Sonoma County roadhouses in the early Twentieth Century.
Up to this point roadhouses have been peripheral to issues explored in this journal. Women weren’t allowed to drink liquor or even enter a saloon so it was an interesting news item in 1907 when a roadhouse in the Sonoma Valley was closed after a party of men and women were spotted drinking together and cussing. Some places were also shut down for selling alcohol to Indians because under the strict 1908 county law there was a fine of $500 and six months in jail for selling booze to anyone with just one-fourth Native American blood. And in 1912, the sheriff raided a Fulton roadhouse because they were holding a dance where hipsters were breaking out those new, obscene “ragtime” dance steps.
(RIGHT: A roadhouse south of the Sonoma Plaza at the intersection of Broadway and Napa Road, c. 1900. There were at least two other roadhouses called One Mile House in early 20th century Sonoma County, west of Forestville and north of Healdsburg. Photo courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society )
Roadhouses were more than a saloon in the country. Sometimes they had a few bedrooms and it was claimed to be a hotel; sometimes food was served and the place called itself a restaurant, even if the only thing on the menu was a plate of saltine crackers (a couple of dives in Santa Rosa were busted in 1907 for serving up such a “meal”). But usually there was no pretense about the place; it could be an old farmhouse or shack, with a flat wooden board for a bartop, a few tables and chairs – and a liquor license.
Around 1910 most Americans probably lived only a few minutes away from a roadhouse (and maybe more than one) but that was nothing new. Here in Sonoma County, the 1877 county atlas shows three places a farmer could wet his whistle between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa and at least two were between Petaluma and Cotati, the most famous being Washoe House.
Being in the county, these were little fiefdoms ruled by the will and whim of the proprietor. Did saloons in town have to be closed on Sundays? Thirsty men could head out to the roadhouse, which was nearly always open. “Ragging” was outlawed in Petaluma at the time and Santa Rosa was under pressure to ban it as well, but there were no prudish rules about close contact dancing at the roadhouse (while there was no country ordinance against dancing, the deputy in Fulton apparently believed there was other monkey business afoot).
From at least 1910 on, the roadhouse and its offshoots take more of a central role in Sonoma County history. Some of the reasons were unique to where we are and who we were; some were more in common with other places in America. Certainly the advent of automobiles brought more traffic to roadhouses everywhere, but in Sonoma County we shouldn’t make too much of it. At the time there was a popular electric trolley connecting all of central county as well as light rail going down the Sonoma Valley. There was probably a roadhouse only a few steps away from every rural train platform. And that’s not even considering the booming playland along the Russian River which began to emerge after 1910, when the railway coming up the coast from San Francisco finally connected with the little train that rattled along the river. Every year new places popped up, making it a nearly continuous party scene. It would not be surprising to discover most money coming into the county by 1940 was tied directly to drinking and dancing along River Road.
Roadhouses always had a reputation for skirting the law, which was part of their rough appeal. Yes, there were arrests for selling liquor to Indians and women (plus allowing them inside) and come the years of Prohibition there was no better possible training for running a speakeasy than having owned a roadhouse. But increasingly activities in the unincorporated parts of Sonoma County would be tied to more serious crimes, including prostitution. And Santa Rosa may be to blame for some of that.
As longtime readers know, Santa Rosa had a major tenderloin district around the intersection of First and D streets, with at least a dozen houses operating. The city curbed prostitution somewhat in 1909, forcing the bordellos to be more discreet about their business and apparently pushing some of the traffic out into the countryside (MORE BACKGROUND). Soon after the crackdown a pair of “brothel agents” were arrested in El Verano, where they were apparently planning to setup a house. A few years later, a large bordello outside of Sebastopol was raided and closed. Never before had the Santa Rosa newspapers mentioned problems with prostitution in rural areas.
By 1912 the Sonoma Valley road was also glutted with roadhouses, causing the Press Democrat to lament something must be done to curtail them:
There are so many saloons and road houses there that the district has become notorious. Much of the indignation aroused has been occasioned by the fact that practically every resort of this character is located right on the main county road, where it and the conditions it creates are constantly flaunted in the faces of the passers-by. Most of these places do not even have an excuse for existence, but are road-houses and nothing else…Present conditions in the beautiful Sonoma valley should never have been allowed to develop. Not all, but most of the road-houses there are cheap, unattractive places that have been established in the near vicinity of popular summer resorts in the hope of diverting trade that rightfully belongs to the institutions upon which they hoped to prey like leeches, they live off the blood created and furnished by somebody else. The number of saloons and road-houses in the Sonoma valley is out of all reason. No self-respecting community could be expected to continue forever to put up with conditions such as exist there.
That led to the county trying to kill the roadhouses outright (or at least seriously hobble them), which created a political mess that will be unpeeled here later. Next, however, we’re going to lurch forward more than twenty years to look at the aftermath of all this in El Verano, with the long residence of infamous madam “Spanish Kitty” and Sonoma County’s claim to gangster fame with the stopover of trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson.
SALOON AND RESORT MEN FAVOR PROPER REGULATIONPresent Petition To the Board of Supervisors
“Whereas Residents and property owners of Agua Caliente and El Verano precincts have presented a written petition to this Board asking for additional regulations, concerning the issuance of retail liquor licenses, and the conduct of saloons, it is therefore
“Resolved, That no new or additional liquor licenses he issued for such business in either of said precincts, also that no license for any new saloon be granted until the number of saloons in said precincts become less than twelve, and that the number of such licenses be limited to twelve for both such precincts.
“It is also the sense of this Board that the ordinances governing the sale of liquor and the conduct of saloons be rigidly enforced, and that for the first offense a fine sufficient to have a deterrent effect be imposed, and for the second offense, in addition to any fine, this Board revoke the license of the offender.”
At the meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Monday the Board was asked to adopt the above resolution, and the desire to have all the members of the board present when action was taken, resulted in its being deferred for that purpose. It is practically certain that the Supervisors will grant the prayer of the petitioners.
A petition from Agua Caliente and El Verano precincts, signed by about a hundred taxpayers of these districts, asking the Supervisors to take the action set forth in substance in the resolution mentioned above was presented to the Supervisors. The plan was suggested and brought to a head by the owners of summer resorts in the places mentioned, and they were here Monday in Supervisors’ hall…– Press Democrat, February 6, 1912SONOMA VALLEY’S ROAD-HOUSES
It is reported that the people of Sonoma Valley are preparing to take determined steps to get rid of some of the road-houses which infest that region–that is, if such a thing be possible. They plan to do this by means of a special election. If such an election is held and results successfully, it will probably mean the closing of all the saloons now operating in the valley. The viticultural interests there are so extensive and so important that the idea of declaring for absolute prohibition is not [illegible microfilm]
Under the circumstances, it would seem that the relief asked for should come from the Board of Supervisors, who have the right to revoke as well as to grant the licenses under which these places are conducted closing up the objectionable road-houses and enforcing strict regulation of those resorts that are allowed to continue in business would probably remove all just cause for complaint, and at the same time it would allow the fairminded people of the valley a dignified way out of the perplexing situation which now confronts them.
That the residents of Sonoma Valley have just cause for complaint, no reasonable person can deny. There are so many saloons and road houses there that the district has become notorious. Much of the indignation aroused has been occasioned by the fact that practically every resort of this character is located right on the main county road, where it and the conditions it creates are constantly flaunted in the faces of the passers-by. Most of these places do not even have an excuse for existence, but are road-houses and nothing else. Others are part of reputable and well-established summer resorts–the kind that represent large investments and really attract people to such a community during the summer time. Comparatively few people have any serious objection to a resort of this character being allowed to conduct a bar or club-house in connection provided the same be properly managed and its existence not unduly emphasized.
Present conditions in the beautiful Sonoma valley should never have been allowed to develop. Not all, but most of the road-houses there are cheap, unattractive places that have been established in the near vicinity of popular summer resorts in the hope of diverting trade that rightfully belongs to the institutions upon which they hoped to prey like leeches, they live off the blood created and furnished by somebody else. The number of saloons and road-houses in the Sonoma valley is out of all reason. No self-respecting community could be expected to continue forever to put up with conditions such as exist there. The Board of Supervisors more than anybody else are responsible for these conditions, which have developed gradually and perhaps without full realization upon anyone’s part of the ultimate consequences. The time has now come when there must be a change. This can be accomplished without any of the bitterness that is invariably engendered by a hard-fought prohibition campaign–a struggle that arrays neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, brother against brother. The authorities responsible should remedy the conditions complained of, and at once. It will not do to merely adopt “resolutions of intention.”– Press Democrat, February 7, 1912
A NEW VOTER WRITES LETTERDiscusses the Conditions in the Sonoma Valley
Editor REPUBLICAN: Allow me a little space in your paper to express some views on the coming extra election, in which we will have to vote for “wet” or “dry” in this Supervisorial District…
…I have lived here for almost a quarter of a century, and have friends and neighbors in both factions. On both sides are bad and good arguments. Let us consider some of these from a financial and moral standpoint.
First the financial: Up to about ten years ago this valley was dead. Land near Sonoma, El Verano and along the valley could hardly be sold at any price; settlers were few and far between. Within the last decade there has been a great increase in population and real estate values. In the last five years Sonoma has forged ahead more than it did in the twenty-five previous years–with her court house, the water, light and sewer systems. The valley has also good electric light and telephone systems. What brought all this prosperity to the valley? The summer people.
…This valley is emphatically a summer resort and dependent on that alone for its prosperity. It creates a demand for hotels, such as Boyes, Fetters, Richards and the many other hotels throughout the valley; it creates a demand for small holdings for summer homes; it creates a home market for farm products; hence the demand for small farms and the rise in real estate values. The land, which could not be sold for $100 an acre, in selling fast now for $250 an acre.
Next the moral: Every decent person must and does object to the way (it is claimed) some of the road houses are run. There are plenty of laws regulating such matters. Why are they not enforced? And who is to blame? Why do not some of these people who are clamoring so loudly about the vileness of the places not go to headquarters with facts and data so that their license could be revoked? …
A NEW VOTER. Glen Ellen, February 13, 1912– Santa Rosa Republican, February 15, 1912