Jefferson Hotel Bar
The center of community life was the Jefferson Hotel Bar. It was an old wood frame hotel over-looking the Middle Fork. Built in the early days of mining and rebuilt every time it burnt down. A poster proudly proclaimed "Wyatt Earp slept here". Though in disrepair and in danger of slipping down hill some rainy night, it was slowly being refurbished with the aid of those whose bar tabs were in arrears.
It was of a type commonly found all over the west. Three stories, long and narrow, porches wrapped around the first and second floors. Benches and stumps were arrayed along the street porch; chairs and sofas up on the second floor. From sun-up to well after night fall in the summer a steady shifting group of patrons, bartenders, tourists, town-folk, bikers, miners, loggers, drifters, hangers-on, the inspired and the crazed graced this rustic forum.
Oh, let us not forget the dogs. Dogs were everywhere. Tucked under the benches out of the way of careless boots; sniffing and urinating on the stumps or the occasional comatose patron; chasing sticks and balls; sprawled out in the middle of the road only grudgingly giving way to an occasional vehicle.
The facade of our social club is broken by two sets of double doors. The doors on the right open onto the bar. Cool and dark in summer. Fans stir the dusty, nicotine stained dollars on the ceiling fifteen feet overhead. Unpainted, gray pine boards, eroded and textured by a century of miners boots, make up the flooring. Their nail heads, each left elevated on a dimple of wood like a mesa capped by hard lava, shine in the sunlight as we enter.
We skirt the pool table to our right, trip over a dog, as we make our way to the bar. The back bar is not one of those ornate constructs of exotic wood imported round the horn like we find in that fancy hotel in the county seat. No, this bar is of humble, local origin of pine and oak. The usual brass rail adjusts our stance as we rest our elbow on the scarred surface of the plank looking around for a bartender.
Chances are that the bartender is not behind the bar. Maybe he's playing pool, outside bullshitting or if he is the owner, Al, he could be anywhere and might show up in time to close up. Maybe another customer will help you.
Choices are one draft, a few different bottled beers and a minimum of whisky and spirits. Mixed drinks are served in pint Mason jars; quarts available to-go if you are heading for the swimming hole just outside of town.
The juke box and video poker provided the entertainment, or maybe Bushy, urged on by his many fans, would tune up his saw and joined by a Little Joe's harmonica and some washboard or spoons provide an accompaniment to our raucous singing.
Little Joe is the live-in swamper/bartender and lives on the second floor in his own suite of rooms with
private bath and kitchen. He arrives downstairs shortly after dawn, makes coffee, unlocks the door, sweeps out the bar and hoses off the porch. The bar opens when the day's bartender shows up. It closes when the last customer gives up or when the bartender has had enough for the night.
A large, river rock fireplace on the other side of the pool table is the lodestone of winter. Ol' Chick has made an art of laying the fire so that as one log burns to coals the next chunk of wood gently falls into place with a shower of sparks and a burst of flame. Woe to anyone who needlessly pokes at this magical fire, disrupting its planned succession.
Bar flies vie for places along the rail of the pool table in the glow and warmth of this Mecca. They sit there, drinks in hand, in deep communion with the elemental flames. The pool players must continually shoo them off in order to play their game. But as soon as there is a break in the game, back these railbirds come, settling back down as if they had never been disturbed.
And so it went until the winter of '75 snuck up on us. We had been lulled by a couple of mild years. But this year ended with some cold, violent, seemingly unending storms for which we were unprepared. There was no wood! No one had made wood and now the forest is sodden, the roads one continuous mire of sticky red mud and all wood cutters are reluctant to venture forth. How are we to feed our comforting fire with no wood.
Well almost no wood. Across the street at the Wells Fargo Cafe there are seasoned Oak rounds used as table and chairs now stored under cover for the winter. Owner Gary is conveniently in Sacramento for the winter. We roll a couple of those beauties over. Scrounge some dry kindling from the hotel's underpinning. You see the hotel is built a the steep slope with the rear supported by tresses now in sad shape. While much under there is rotted there is much that is still sound. It is those we want. Being careful not to take anything that is still supporting anything, we pry off enough wood to get our fire going.
The Hotel Restaurant
The left set of doors opens on the restaurant. Straight ahead is the stairs to the second floor, to the left is the connecting door to the bar. About midway on the wall, past the stairs is a large propane furnace, the only heat in the hotel besides the bar fireplace.
The restaurant is a no frills establishment necessary for the liquor license and normally presided over by Mother Mary. Only in summer with the arrival of the tourists could any money be made. One winter I was persuaded to keep it going when Mother Mary decided to spend the winter in Grant City.
I served up bacon, beans, surplus government cheese, sour dough biscuits and pancakes. For variety I had road-kill venison. Food stamps were an accepted medium of exchange. The bar room became the dining room when the propane stove went cold for lack of fuel. I slept in the attic.
The attic was for the non-paying guests and hotel workers. In the old days there were cribs here. It is cold in the winter with no heat. At least the second floor rooms had the heated bar and restaurant below them.
Paying guests stayed in the rooms on the second floor, the prime ones being over the restaurant where the sounds of the juke box from the bar were somewhat muffled. Wyatt Earp stayed in room #4 at the head of the stairs. I was also known to have stayed there, it was the easiest to get to after a long night.
note 1 When I first wrote this it seem to me important to hide the true identity of this town in keeping with its retiring character. But now with the new owners of the hotel ...
Jefferson is actually Washington, CA in the 1970s and 80s near Nevada City. There was briefly a nearby gold camp named Jefferson in the early days of the gold rush. And in 1851 there was the first attempt to form a new state of Jefferson from the northern counties of California. This attempt continued sporadicly until maybe even today and includes at times part of southern Oregon.