Petaluma’s Buckhorn is still going strong after 79 years
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.”
There are some things that are different, or course. McCoy points up at the large flat screen T.V.
“You used to have to be rich just to have a little black-and-white one, but now every bar has two or three of those.”
McCoy, laid back and friendly, is clearly a born storyteller. Fortunately, he’s got nearly eighty-years of stories to work with. One of his favorites is about the time his dad decided to drive to Canada to see a woman he’d met years before, who had recently become single. “My dad was married four-and-a-half times,” allows McCoy, adding, “He married one of them twice.” After pulling together enough cash for the road trip, McCoy’s climbed in the car with his dog, JoJo, and drove away. “The next day, Dad came in here, tossed the money on the bar, and said, ‘I’m not going to need that.’ Turns out, he’d driven all night, on his way to Canada, and finally stopped somewhere to get a hamburger, got a motel room for the night, and in the morning, called the desk and asked where exactly he was. Well, he was in Fresno. So, Dad turned around, and by the time he got back to Petaluma, he wasn’t so interested in the woman anymore. He never made it to Canada.”
“Bob and Wes are like family to me,” says Sam Lane, who says she’s been tending bar at the Buckhorn for over 23 years. “This is a fun place to be. You should come in on April Fool’s Day. Wes throws a St. Stupid’s Day party, and all kinds of games and crazy things happen. There’s nothing like it anywhere.”
“That’s a fun day, St. Stupid’s Day,” agrees Wes McCoy. In addition to being “The Sparkplug,” Bob’s word for the guy who fixes everything around the bar, it’s soon clear that Wes is also a born storyteller.
And a bit of a showman.
“At Christmas time, we do a display, a diorama behind the bar. I take the pictures of a lot of our regular customers, and put their face on a little doll, and use it in the diorama. We’ve done Christmas scenes, or whatever. One year we made it all about the Little League team from Petaluma that won the World Championship, with all the regulars cheering for that. It’s kind of great, and once the holiday is over, we give people their doll to take home.”
He goes on to tell of a time one those customers lost his doll, after it fell from his truck.
“Somebody walking down the street saw it, and recognized the guy’s face from the photo on the doll, so he brought it in here,” McCoy says. “He said, ‘Poor old Frank was laying in the gutter.’”
Such is the way of these types of old bars, he says.
“We all build up our traditions, things that make it distinct,” McCoy nods. “My own son isn’t so interested in the bar business. He works for the county of Yolo. But my son-in-law is showing some interest in maybe keeping the bar going. I’d like to see it stay in the family, but who knows what will happen when I finally retire.”
Not that he’s planning on doing that anytime soon.
“The Buckhorn has been here almost eighty years,” he says, looking around the place, “I’d like to think it will still be here eighty years from now, when all of us are long gone. I think that’d be nice.”
(Write David at email@example.com)