One thing the oldest bars in town generally have in common – not that this is news to anyone — are the animal heads on display over the bars, along the walls, and anywhere else they’ll fit. Some, obviously, have more trophies than others (Andresen’s), some have fewer (Ernie’s Tin Bar), one has none (The Aquarium, which has fish), and one has a stuffed fox that looks more like coyotes (that’s Volpi’s, where owner John Volpi amiably admits, “The guy who stuffed that didn’t do such a good job.)
There’s only one bar in town, however, which boasts a gold-painted barstool resting high up on top of one of those big old animal heads.
That bar is the Buckhorn.
“That was the favorite stool of a customer who used to come in here all the time,” explains Bob McCoy, whose father opened the iconic bar on South Petaluma Boulevard in 1938, when McCoy was just nine-months-old. Back to the story of the guy and the stool, McCoy says, “He’s still around. He got a kind of Hepatitis where you can’t drink anymore, so he stopped coming in so often. So we spray-painted his barstool gold, and put it up there as a monument, a tribute or whatever you want to call it. He stops in once in a while with his wife, and has a coke or something.”
The Buckhorn, McCoy notes, is a family business in more than one way. With Bob’s son Wes also involved in running the place, it’s been in the McCoy family for three generations.
“I was in the service for four years, worked in manufacturing for a few years after, just to try something different. Other than that I’ve been here my whole life,” McCoy acknowledges. “And we’ve got customers who are grandfathers, who had their very first drink in here when they were young. The Buckhorn is that kind of place. It’s not just a bar. It’s more like a tradition.”
The Buckhorn, it so happens, is also the headquarters of McCoy Enterprises, the other family business, servicing “amusement machines” all over Sonoma County. From jukeboxes to pool tables to karaoke machines, the company — with Bob alternating service-call days with his son Wes McCoy — takes care of all kinds of bar and pool room contraptions, from Petaluma to Windsor, and from Sonoma out to the coast.
“We’re not a huge company, but it works for us,” says McCoy.
Asked what the biggest changes have been in the bar, over the years, McCoy gestures in the direction the Boulevard.
“Things changed a lot when the freeway was put in,” he says. “I forget how many years ago. A lot of years. People used to drive through town on their way north or south, and a lot of ‘em would stop here, or stop at the Willowbrook, or one of the other bars in town. Some of those bars are gone now. When my mom and dad got divorced, I used to live with her and my sister, and we’d sit on the front porch and watch the cars go by. We’d count ‘em. ‘There’s a black one. There’s a blue one.’ That was before T.V., of course.
“Things are different now,” he continues, with a smile. “The world has changed a lot since Dad opened this place. But once you walk through that door and are sitting here at the bar, it feels pretty much the same as it did.”
THE ONES WE MISSED
Asked to describe what it is that makes the Buckhorn the Buckhorn, Bob MCoy gestures to the folks sitting beside him at the bar, and says, “Oh, it’s the people. I guess every bar in town will tell you that, and it’s probably true for them too. What makes a place like this special is the people who come here. We get all walks of life at the Buckhorn, but the backbone is good, honest, working class people. Just like the Willowbrook over on the North end of the Boulevard. They’re good people, too, family run. That’s important.”
The Willowbrook, it so happens, is one of the many bars in town we have not been able to spend time with during the course of this six-story series on the historic Petaluma drinking establishments. We also admittedly missed The Washoe House, Mario & Johns, Ray’s Tavern, the Hideaway, and (arguably) the bar at Boulevard Lanes bowling alley. Some have changed in major ways since first opening, others haven’t. All are a vibrant and colorful part of the historic fabric of Petaluma, and we honor their cultural contributions as well as the six we’ve spent time in over the last half-dozen weeks. We hope those we’ve missed will keep a barstool open for us the next time we venture out for a beer and a story.