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The Historic Bars of Petaluma: Gags, ghosts and good people

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“There will be a $5 charge for lying, complaining, and just plain bellyaching.”

Those words, painted on a sign hanging over the bar at the Penngrove Pub, issues its folksy warning with same sense of homespun style and humor that inspired someone to hang yet another sign — stating simply, “Insane Asylum” — on the opposite wall.

Such caveats aside, it’s a quiet Thursday night at the Penngrove Pub, on Main Street in Downtown Penngrove, where bartender Jim Huff — known for his amiable banter and dry sense of humor — is in fine form. His customers at the moment are two regulars, a tiny dog named Itty, a guy who grew up in the house that now houses the Montessori school down the block and hasn’t been inside the pub for thirty years, and a journalist asking a lot of questions.

For example, how long has Huff been a bartender here?

“Me? I’ve been here since five o’clock,” Huff replies, a well-practiced deadpan expression locked onto his face. With a faint fraction of a smile, he answers the question, “I’ve been here a little over two years. I was down the road at the Twin Oaks for about fifteen years. Now I’m here.”

And how old, exactly, is the Pengrove Pub?

“I’m not exactly sure,” he says, the deadpan look back in place. “But our T-shirts say it’s been around since 1907, so I think I have to go with that. Mathematically speaking, that makes us a ‘really old bar.’ The Washoe House is the oldest in the area, I’m pretty sure, since it was around during the Civil War. But we’re definitely one of the oldest bars in the area after that.”

Huff points to another part of the opposite wall, where a framed newspaper article hangs among a motley assortment of other historical, bar-related bric-a-brac. The article — presumed to have been cut from an old Press Democrat — tells the story of how previous owner John Herpick came to own the Penngrove Pub.

“It may not be the bar where everybody know your name, but it’s not too far off,” reads the faded clipping. “John Herpick first wandered into the Penngrove Pub by mistake. As it turns out, some of his friends were there, so he decided to stay for a drink, and couldn’t help liking the unpretentious pub with the unpolished floors and downhome atmosphere. With a jukebox playing, people laughing and talking, playing pool and shuffleboard, it’s the kind of place that just draws a person in, even if it’s not where they meant to go. He liked it, and when time came for the owners to sell, John knew the pub was for him.”

Such seems to be the case with the Penngrove Pub, allows Huff. Once people find it, they tend to make the place their home. The current owners are John Personeni and Marty Coyne who, according to Huff, purchased the place from Herpick about a dozen years ago.

“I think it was 2005, something like that,” says Huff, who tends bar a few nights a week, and also books the Pub’s weekend music, an ever-changing line-up that is advertised mainly through though low-tech dry-erase board over the door.

“People tell me I should use a smart phone or something to do all of my music booking,” acknowledges Huff. “Here’s my smart phone.” He reaches behind the bar to produce an archaic, but still evidently functional, flip phone. “This is enough for me, and that board up there is enough for our regulars. Our regulars can a board read just fine.”

The Penngrove Pub, with its cash only policy, early opening hours (10 a.m., daily), and confortably cluttered decor, is a charming time capsule of Sonoma County history, a sweet reminder of simpler days, long before people needed smartphones to book a band for a weekend show.

“We’re basically just a nice, old-fashioned neighborhood bar,” says Charlie Piro, the Pub’s manager.

It’s the following morning, a Friday, shortly after opening, and Piro is chatting with one of the early regulars, with whom he’s been warmly debating the meaning of the phrase “dive bar.”

“We’re definitely a dive bar,” he says. “A dive is an old place, maybe a little dark, but with lots of life. Not too depressing, with good people as customers. We do shots and beers, shots and beers. Sometimes someone’ll order a martini or a Manhattan or something, just to keep us on our toes, but mostly it’s shots, and draught beers. We’re definitely a dive bar.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, not a dive,” counters the gentleman at the bar, who estimates he’s been coming to the Penngrove Pub for over 20 years, just under one-third of his 63-years of life. “This is just a nice community bar,” he says. “Fights don’t really happen here. It’s a peaceful place. Kind of a throwback to a quieter time.”

Asked about any memorable happenings that might have taken place there at the Penngrove Pub, Piro laughs and says, “Nothing we’d let you print in the newspaper.” After a moment, he says, “I could tell you about how the place is haunted, but I’m not totally sure it is. Eileen, another bartender, she’s been here a long time, and she claims the place is haunted. I’ve definitely seen some weird things here myself, especially early in the morning when I’m opening up. You know, just something moving right outside my peripheral vison. Stuff like that.”

Piro shrugs, and smiles again.

“I actually think an old bar should be haunted,” he says. “It kind of adds to the atmosphere of the place.”

A little over a week later, on a busy Monday night around 8 p.m., Eileen Estrada – the longtime bartender who says she’s seen ghosts in the Penngrove Pub — is sticking by that story.

“Oh sure,” she says. “The pub is haunted. I saw a silhouette once, right over there.” Pointing to a spot near the pool table, she continues. “Doors open after I shut them, sometimes. Lights turn back on after I turn them out. I just talk to the ghosts. They’re definitely friendly. They just want a nice place to be, like anyone else. And this is a really nice place.”

After a short pause, Estrada laughs, and quickly adds, “Mario and John’s, in Petaluma, is haunted too.”

A few seats away at the bar, a regular named Scott is chatting with Stan Wingate, who’s displaying a fresh copy of Tahoe Quarterly Magazine, in which Wingate has a couple of wildlife photographs — one of a gently snarling bobcat, another of a yellow-bellied marmot.

“I took these a few years ago,” he says. “The magazine said they wanted photos of wildlife around Tahoe, but no bears and no birds. So I gave them these.”

“See, this is what happens in here all the time,” says Scott. “People being friendly, talking about things they’re happy about. Almost no one ever leaves their hat in here, because if someone starts to walk away, someone else will call out and tell them they left their hat.”

He pauses to consider this another second.

“Or maybe,” Scott further muses, “maybe they’ll suggest to you, that if you just tucked your keys in your hat, then if you did walk away without your hat, you’d have to come back for it, because you wouldn’t be able to drive away without your keys. See what I mean? It’s about friendly folks — and smart folks too. If you’ve got that, and some great people behind the bar, and maybe a ghost or two – then that’s all a bar needs to last as many years as this one has.”

The conversation continues in this vein, leading to a number of favorite memories shared by the assembled patronage. A former bartender named Sarah Browning is mentioned, and the time she claimed to be having a “bad hair day,” and worked her entire shift with a paper bag over her head, with holes cut out for her eyes.

“People loved that,” says Estrada, suddenly remember another great Penngrove Pub memory. A personal one.

“I got engaged at the ice machine,” she says with a nod. “It’s true. Right there at the ice machine. And then all the regular customers — all the old geezers — they came and tended bar at the wedding.”

That was eighteen years ago, and Estrada and her husband are still married.

“We are, and he’s a pretty good guy, too,” she says, adding, “and he cooks. So I guess you could say the best thing I ever did was get a job here, huh? This place has definitely been good to me. It’s been good to a lot of us.”

(Send a message to Community Editor David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com or call him at 707-776-8462)