The Washoe House holds decades of history, memories - and old dollar bills
A tall, gray-haired man in a cowboy hat has just stepped through the door of The Washoe House, the pale light of a foggy dawn flooding the doorway behind him. It’s 6:30 a.m., and by the exuberance of his booming exclamation, this particular cowboy is clearly delighted to see that the historic bar and grill is open for breakfast … or, who knows, maybe even a stiff drink.
“I drove here from Santa Rosa,” explains the fellow in a gruff, still-waiting-for-coffee voice, as he slides onto a seat at the bar of the 159-year-old establishment. “I was afraid the place wouldn’t be open yet. And I’m hungry.”
The legendary Washoe House was constructed in 1859, and over the years - in addition to being one of the most iconic saloons of Sonoma County - the building has served as a stagecoach stop, a hotel, a community hall, and depending on who you ask, everything from a post office to a Wild West brothel. Standing at the crossroads of Stonypoint and Roblar Road, near the headwaters of Washoe Creek, the iconic edifice at the northernmost edge of Petaluma has been a draw for hungry and thirsty travelers for decades. As proof, one need only look up, where the ceiling is festooned with autographed dollar bills, a tradition begun long ago. According to legend, patrons would write their name on a buck and pin it to the ceiling, as insurance that they’d have enough for a drink the next time they wandered in. Today, as the crisp green of new money is layered atop increasingly brown and weathered bills, the effect resembles a thousand stalactites hanging from the roof of a cave, stretching from one end of the bar to the other.
Behind the bar - a narrow passageway that precludes two servers from passing each other, requiring drinks or plates to be passed down bucket-brigade style - there is a museum’s worth of artifacts hanging here and there: a pair of old boxing gloves, faded photographs, old-fashioned lanterns, horseshoes and other equestrian equipment, license plates, T-shirts for The Washoe House and the resident band Trainwreck Junction, and an array of sassy signage stating such stuff as, “Some people call them obnoxious morons. We call them customers.”
Since 2015, The Washoe House has been owned and operated by Larry Peters, who also owns the Petaluma Creamery. Though the establishment has risen and fallen in the esteem of its patrons over the decades, the Washoe House is very clearly experiencing one of its highs. Currently, the Washoe ranks among the most popular drinking and eating establishments in the area, pulling in an even balance of tourists and locals, first-timers and regulars.
According to Mario Conseco, who is running the kitchen this morning, days at The Washoe House can get surprisingly busy, but often start out slow. Which is why it’s just him holding down the fort at the moment. Not only is Conseco cooking up breakfast for folks like the Hungry Cowboy, he also takes orders, serves the food, rings up the tab, and when required, even makes drinks.
“Until the bartender comes in at 9:30 a.m., I do Bloody Marys and mimosas and that kind of thing,” he says. Asked if people really do come in for a drink so early in the morning, Conseco grins. “Sure, sometimes, but usually it’s with a plate of bacon and eggs.”
Later that same day, his remark about things getting more high-energy at the Washoe has proven to be true.
“This is definitely my busy time!” says Julie Summerville, the Washoe House manager, with a sound in her voice that implies it’s always a busy time. At 4:30 p.m. on a weekday, the bar is packed, with only a few stools available, and most of the tables in the narrow room filled with people. The jukebox is pumping out happy tunes, and the voices of the patrons blend with the music to make a happy din, above which Summerville and the other staff have to shout to be heard. Moving quickly, Summerville alternates between greeting newcomers, reciting the list of beers on tap, pouring drinks, passing plates, and shouting friendly farewells to patrons who are departing. “This is pretty typical,” she allows, delivering a beer to one customer, while collecting a credit card from another. And weekends,” she adds, with a laugh, “Weekends are even crazier.”
Ironically, though the Washoe House is one of the oldest drinking establishments in the county - and clearly a popular stopping place for folks traveling along Stonypoint between Petaluma and Sebastopol or Santa Rosa - there are many locals who’ve never so much as peeked inside.
“That was me, definitely,” says Kathy Hahn, a waitress at the Washoe since last fall. “I’ve driven past it for years and years, but until I came in last September and started working here, I’d never actually been inside. From what I hear, though Larry has spruced it up a bit, it looks pretty much the same way it always has, including the dollar bills. The dollar bills on the ceiling are big part of the history of this place.”
As an example, she tells of a woman in her thirties who recently stopped in and took a seat in the barroom.
“She kept looking up, studying all the dollar bills really closely, like she was looking for one in particular,” says Hahn. “So I asked her about it, and she told me she was a widow, that her husband had died not long before. She and her husband’s first date was here at the Washoe, and on that date, they each signed the same dollar bill and stuck it up there on the ceiling. So she came in, hoping to see that dollar bill again, because it was such a good memory.”
Unfortunately, the woman never did locate that particular one dollar bill.
“But it was still kind of nice, for her, coming in again and just looking,” notes Hahn, “knowing that it’s up there somewhere, up there with all those other memories of all the other people who’ve come in here. That’s the special thing, I think, about a place like this. The years may go by, but the memories do live on.”
(You can contact Community Editor David Templeton at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 707-776-8462)