There’s no more knocking back a few drinks and chowing down at the monthly “Cannibal Feed” in Ukiah.
After 44 years the end has come for a male-only ritual that in its heyday drew hundreds of North Coast movers and shakers from around Mendocino County and beyond.
Its demise ends a four-decade old tradition that began when a group of local guys engaged in boisterous games of bar dice at a historic Hopland hotel. Over time the afternoon-long gathering mushroomed into a fun-loving group of men who were sometimes called the “country cousins” of San Francisco’s elite Bohemian Club.
“It was quite a run, but times have changed,” said Ukiah’s Bob Burke, a longtime organizer of the group.
Since 1973 the celebrated ‘Cannibal Club’ – the banner under which the monthly lunches were organized – served up drinks and heaping plates of hearty food, first at the old Pomo Inn in Hopland (now the Hopland Inn), then at the Ukiah Elks Club, and finally at the cavernous Carl Purdy Hall at Redwood Empire Fairgrounds in Ukiah. At the club’s peak, organizers claimed 750 or more members.
The Cannibal Club was one of the last bastions of male exclusivity on the North Coast. It was an informal gathering of mostly white men with deep roots in the region, men who stubbornly ignored the times and helped the club weather an era when male-only groups were lightning rods of criticism.
The late Carrol Ornbaun, one of the original club founders, once lamented that it hadn’t been easy for the club to thrive in face of anti-male club sentiments.
“We have been called evil swine, sexists, vultures, slum lords, racists, greed and power brokers, and rape and run developers,” said Ornbaun at the time.
But Ornbaun and club loyalists ignored the critics, and continued to promote what they liked to call the “great unorganized organization anywhere.”
Burke, who took over from Ornbaun as the club’s chief representative, said to the end, “There were no agendas.”
“The lunches were opportunities for men to stay in touch, relax over a few drinks and share meals. It was always as simple as that,” said Burke.
Burke said the decision to suspend the monthly gatherings after more than four decades was painful.
“There was no choice, really. We had to make it in the face of dwindling attendance, aging membership, and the club’s depleted cash reserves,” said Burke.
The end was officially announced in a March 2 letter sent out to club members.
“It is with deep regret that we have to announce the immediate suspension of the Cannibal Club operations,” the letter stated. It cited a “significant decline” in membership, and the inability of club leaders to cover the costs of the monthly luncheons.
“Some of the months have come up short by as much as $1,500. Obviously we can’t expect the captains to cover these losses out of their own pockets, and we cannot put them in a position of having to do so. We cannot expect our catering crew to cover these losses either,” the letter explained.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the membership. Some members are unhappy, and they are clinging to the hope that a scaled back club operation might be taken over by the Elks Club in Ukiah so monthly lunches can resume.
Burke said, “We’re talking to the Elks. It’s a possibility.”
Whatever the outcome the Cannibal Club is now an icon of the past.
Years ago Ornbaun, a descendant of the pioneer Ornbaun family of Anderson Valley, sat down with me at a Ukiah bar and over a long afternoon shared the club’s quirky history and some of the members’ more memorable antics. Ornbaun later put his recollections in note form, which have been preserved.
“It just happened. It wasn’t planned,” recalled Ornbaun.
The setting was the old Pomo Inn in Hopland (now the Hopland Inn which is under renovation). The year was 1973, and then owner Vince Lotti was behind the bar.
“We started with six of us sitting at the bar shaking 13 aces for drinks,” Ornbaun remembered. Dice cups were traditional in bars then, and who paid for the next round of drinks was a noisy and fun way to while away the time.
Ornbaun and his pals became hungry as the drinking session continued. Even though the hotel’s lunch hour was long past they badgered Lotti to serve up some food.
Lotti relented, and whipped up his version of “Steak Tartare,” a traditional meat dish made from finely chopped or minced raw meat and often smothered in onions, capers and seasonings.
“We ate like a bunch of cannibals,” said Ornbaun. Thus the club’s name was born.
It was a slow start for the “Cannibals.”
In his written recollections, Ornbaun recalled how in the months that followed “We were down to 3 or 4 people in attendance.”
All that changed, however, in 1979 when Ivan Milovina, a club co-founder and Hopland grape grower, decided to throw a lamb feed. Ornbaun said nearly 50 men showed up.
Ornbaun said Chuck Price, another club founder, was still skeptical and predicted, “We would never see that many people again.”
Price was wildly wrong.
Over the next 20 or so years, Ornbaun, Price, Lotti and other club “captains” transformed the lamb feed into an annual July event that drew as many as 800 men. The men came from Petaluma to Eureka, from Fort Bragg to Lakeport, and every little town in between.
Political figures of any note – except for females, of course – were given rousing introductions from Ornbaun. Former Rep. Don Clausen, R-Santa Rosa, was a regular. Former state Senator Frank Petersen was a familiar face, along with judges, district attorneys and county supervisors from Mendocino, Lake and Humboldt counties.
Carl Purdy Hall was typically decked out in red, white and blue. Vintners John Parducci, Charlie Barra, John Fetzer and others donated locally produced wines which flowed like water.
Thankfully there were no speeches. Ornbaun took to a stage to make his introductions, but as the festive atmosphere grew louder and louder he repeatedly had to shout out, “Gentlemen, may I have your attention please.”
Always there were huge cheers when Ornbaun finished with his declaration, “This is the greatest unorganized organization anywhere!”
At the time Ornbaun was assisted by “committee hosts,” who represented a “who’s who” of North Coast men.
Retired Mendocino County Administrator Al Beltrami, Ukiah Realtor Jack Cox, the Giacominis of Point Arena and Ukiah, stockbroker Monte Hill, former District Attorney Duncan James, Ukiah Valley pear growers Bill Johnson and his brother Frank, retired management consultant Russ Libert, Savings Bank President Charlie Mannon, insurance agent Duane Mahan, former Masonite plant managers John MacGregor and Joe Scott, Mendo Mill & Lumber President Joe Mayfield, grape grower and businessman Ernie Piffero, bail bondsman Dave Rosetti, Retech founder Max Schlienger, former Mendocino County Farm Advisor Rod Shippey, and Wipf Construction Company owner Ernie Wipf.
That line up was just for the month of July. There were captains and crews for every month of the year, and the names largely represented men who had made their mark on the region.
Club membership was typically white, reflecting the general population of the rural region. Among them were fathers, sons, uncles and nephews who farmed the land, cut the timber, grew grapes and pears, or managed locally owned businesses. The lunches provided members the opportunity to enjoy a few belly laughs, and buttonhole their county supervisor about a road or bridge project. The sheriff was nearly always there, and so were the District Attorney and local police chiefs.
There were few rules, but there was an unspoken code of conduct which frowned on drunken or obnoxious behavior.
In recent years the club began to show its age and that of its members. Cooking crews finally got out of the kitchen and turned over the monthly tasks of feeding the crowd to Mike Tognoli and his catering crew from The Pub in Ukiah.
Tognoli said the club had always been “a great group of guys who enjoy the hell out of each other’s company.”
Derek Paoli said his father Mike Paoli was among the original members. The Paoli family cherishes a dark green apron Vince Lotti gave to Mike Paoli to wear when his team was in charge of the monthly meal. “He enjoyed every minute he spent at those monthly feeds,” said Derek.
At the club’s peak members were robust men at the top of their game. They were largely local movers and shakers. But as time passed their hair thinned, and shades of gray or white colored what remained. In recent years the members’ appearances were quiet hints that the end might be near.
A younger member quipped not long ago that it felt like “…going to lunch in an old folks’ home.”
I was a newcomer to Mendocino County in 1986 when I attended my first Cannibal Club lunch.
I never became a regular but I showed up a dozen or more times over the years. I was invited but didn’t join one of the teams that rotated monthly to help prepare the food, tend bar and put the bottles of wine out on the tables. In those days I seldom drank at lunchtime because afternoons were set aside to write stories and to meet deadlines for the morning edition of The Press Democrat.
On my first visit I was a guest of the late Superior Court Judge Arthur “Bev” Broaddus, a noted Mendocino County historian, a former District Attorney, and a big advocate of all things local.
As Broaddus and I walked across the parking lot toward the hall, I could hear the buzz inside. At the door Broaddus was greeted with big smiles, firm handshakes and a steady stream of wisecracks. He responded in kind.
Carl Purdy Hall is the largest public gathering event center in the region. I was surprised to learn that rows of tables and folding chairs nearly filled the hall when the Cannibal Club’s annual blow out lamb barbecue was held in July. Indeed a few months after my first lunch I was invited back for that July bash. The turnout was huge.
Every political figure of note on the North Coast made an appearance that day, a testament to the powers of persuasion of co-founder Ornbaun. He called the lawmakers personally, as he did the leading business and timber industry bosses of the era. They happily showed up, and Ornbaun in return gave them rousing introductions. Cheers rattled the hall after the Pledge of Allegiance was recited.
Probably because I was in the company of Broaddus I felt welcomed on my first visit even though I was a newcomer in the county and I only knew a handful of men who were present that day.
The experience proved to be a homecoming of sorts.
In the Sacramento Valley town where I grew up and learned the newspaper trade, there was a long tradition of ranchers, reporters, cops, judges, salesmen and small town businessmen gathering in the afternoons at local watering holes.
I quickly realized that the same unwritten code of conduct prevailed there and at the Cannibal feed: welcoming smiles, firm handshakes, friendly conversations and overall good cheer. In short it was male camaraderie at its best.
In some minds the Cannibal Club was the quintessential “good ol’ boy” gathering where drinks flowed freely and lunches sometimes lasted into late afternoons. There were whispers among outsiders that club members engaged in backroom deal making, and off color behavior. In my time I never saw or heard any of that.
There were times, of course, when women publicly took issue with the boys’ only club. A few contended at the time that half the men in the place might get up and walk out if a woman actually came in and sat down.
But the women I knew in the public arena seemed to take a “who cares” attitude.
“If the name of this group was a bit more civilized, I’d be more intrigued,” said former Mendocino County District Attorney Susan Massini at the time.
Yes, it bothered Massini that as the county’s first female District Attorney she was not invited to join in. “But why would I really care? It’s a bunch of boys in their not-so-little clubhouse,” said Massini.
Massini recalled recently that she never felt uptight about the club’s male only membership.
“I belonged to BPW, Soroptomists and PEO – all women’s-only clubs at the time.”
While local Cannibal Club members arrived in pickups rather than corporate jets like their Bohemian Club counterparts, their loyalty to the club and each other demonstrated that old-fashioned male camaraderie is not just the province of the rich and famous who still gather in secret at Bohemian Grove in the redwoods of western Sonoma County.
I saw a group of men who shared deep affection for a rural region where they lived, worked and played. There were no written rules, or for that matter any stated purpose for the monthly luncheons.
Mendocino County District Attorney Dave Eyster has been a regular who appreciated the opportunity to mingle with men from around the region.
“I just think it was an opportunity for men to share a common heritage. It was a way to honor traditions and pass them on to the next generation,” said Eyster.
In his day Ornbaun dismissed the complaints about the male-only venue with a wave of his hands, and a declaration: “A few good drinks and a simple meal. What’s wrong with that?”
Years ago when I was working for The Press Democrat under the ownership of the New York Times, I had the opportunity to meet and personally ask then Times Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger what really went on at Bohemian Grove. He was a regular during a period when the Grove’s entrance was routinely the site of noisy protests targeting the club’s “elite power brokers.”
Sulzberger had a twinkle in his eye when he replied without hesitation, “Old men drinking and peeing on redwoods.”
Trust me; I never saw that at Carl Purdy Hall.