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Russ Emal Looks Back

Sitting around with less than normal to do, my mind wandered to the time we first moved to Anderson Valley. It was in the late seventies. We moved here as Wendy, my wife, was from Willits and this was an area we had visited. We fell in love with Anderson Valley quickly.

The first time we went out to eat was in Philo. The restaurant in town was then known as the Philo Cafe. When we entered the place was dark and rather empty. Not what we thought of as a good sign. Only one table had people at it. But we sat down and waited for a menu. And waited for a menu. And…. No server came to the table. We sat for maybe 5 minutes hungry and had no idea at this point if this was even a place to eat.

Then from the other table a woman stood up and came over to us and asked, “Would you like to see a menu?” This was perhaps the waitress. It was Lady R! We later found out this was how it went at the cafe. Good food. Yet not what you might call a fast food restaurant. The cafe offered other experiences beyond food.

This was the center of the valley’s musical entertainment. Over the next year or so we saw a good number of bands play there. Slim Silver and the Side Effects, Cabin Fever, and several more. All had different names. Yet all had the same musicians. There was Bill McEwen, Piggy, AJ Soares, Ron Tinkler, Charlie Bass, Rick Ragweed, the Wood brothers and local luthier Dave Dart played back then as well. And there were many, many more.

The cafe was where we all went to dance. Some nights the place would really rock. Yea there was music but no good foundation. So the actual building rocked. I remember one fellow who showed up to dance. Pogo. He loved to dance and at the same time sweat. Boy when he was on the dance floor the sweat would fly. Doug Johnson helped rock the place also. He was known as the Dancing Bear.

Did you know the original Variety Show was held in the Philo Cafe? It was the ‘Magic Company’ that created it. But then called it the Talent Show. They later changed the name to the Variety Show. I understand they had trouble finding actual talent so felt variety was closer to the truth. You have been to one of the shows right? If so you understand the change.

Do you remember the Little Man? Maybe the act most remembered by folks who attended the shows in the cafe. The ‘Captain’ and ‘Master of Illusion’ Henry Hill were the Little Man. Somehow two full sized men created a little man. They made fun of the cafe service by eating napkins as getting food at the cafe was not an easy task. Oh yes, the Little Man also peed beer. Nasty Fellow.

That was then and this is now. Life has always been good here in Anderson Valley. Now there is little to do and stuck in my house due to the Corona Virus. Yet spring is here! A perfect time to do spring cleaning. Like I do that.


I’m really not at all sure why we ever moved to Anderson Valley. I had a great job in Sacramento working at EDD (Employment Development Department) paying out unemployment insurance. Wendy had just graduated from Sac State as a social worker. (Little did she know she would spend her working life as our high school librarian. Talk about social work!)

Yet one day we decided to sell our home, give up my job, and move to the valley. The plan was simple. Build and operate a shingle and shake mill. If you do not know what that is, neither did I. My milling experience to that point was a tour I had in a lumber mill back east. But hey! I’m a fast learner.

In the Valley today the action is centered around Lauren’s restaurant. But back in the late seventies when something was happening, it happened at the Floodgate. Butch Paula and his family had purchased the store from a lady called Margarete. I do not recall her last name. Butch’s mom Molly/Bobbie/Barbara (we all called her a different name) pretty much ran the store while Butch ran the saw shop. At the beginning Butch knew about as much about fixing a saw as I did about running a mill. But he too was a fast learner.

Back then logging was still happening big time in the valley. Masonite was still in operation. Loggers said they used the Floodgate to get saw work done. But really the store sold beer. A lot of beer. I guess they also sold food. They made a great sandwich and sold dozens upon dozens of $1 pickled eggs. The eggs were displayed in a tall, thin glass jar containing a pickeling brine. That jar of brine may have pickled over a thousand eggs. Molly, as I called her, raised chickens. The brine jar was always full. I think profit wise, pickled eggs kept them in the black.

When you needed a hair cut back then you went to the Floodgate. About once a week, not on any schedule, Marilyn Pronsolino (sp), I think her name then was M. Bonnie, showed up to cut hair in the parking lot. Men would sit in the bar drinking beer until their turn came to get cut. She did a good job. I think…I mean I too had been drinking. Think she even cut the hair of a few passing tourists

We lived and still live up Nash-Mill Road about 4 miles. We had no phone, no TV, and really no road. When we needed to make a phone call we used the pay phone at the Floodgate. Wendy, my wife, remembers a time just after dusk when she went to the store to make a call. The Gate was a-jumpin’! Wendy says the place was so rowdy, she didn’t enter the store. I understand her fear. You now know most of these men today as gentle souls. But, give them a few beers and see what happens!

Now my mill is gone. Floodgate is a memory, and wineries fill the valley.

What’s your story? 

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