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Skagit River Journal

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Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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From the Wilson Club to the Schooner
nearly 100 years of liquor on Metcalf Street
ends as independent bar in 2009

      Update Summer 2009: Raul and Norma Guitron have opened the Mestizo Mexican Family Restaurant in the building at the far northern end of the east side of the 600 block of Metcalf Street. They occupy the space of another Mexican restaurant that was located there for several years. The biggest difference is that they have taken over the space of the Schooner and transformed it into their own bar. The Schooner failed a few months ago over non-payment of taxes. No, the figurehead and the model schooners did not survive.

(Schooner Figurehead)
      The Schooner boasts one of the most beautiful back-bars in the region, nearly a hundred years old, graced by a ship's figurehead of our lady of the sea.

      When guests step inside the Schooner Tavern in the heart of old Woolley, they often feel like they have stepped into a history photo. If you use your imagination and ignore for a moment the modern tools and advertising signs, the backbar and the model schooners and sailing ships evoke the days of a century ago. This is most likely the oldest building in Skagit County that has always been dedicated to serving liquor. As a saloon, then tavern, then cocktail lounge, it has dispensed hospitality, spirits, beer, wine and food. Except, or course, during Prohibition, when "wink wink" not a drop of liquor was available to patrons, only a pool room. Today it stands across the street from Sedro-Woolley's Hammer Heritage Square, where the Farmers Market is conducted from May through October.
(Saloon backbar)
This is a model of the Brunswick-Balke back bar, famous throughout the West and very similar to the one in the Schooner. Dad Abbott, who also built the Dream Theater and the Chevrolet dealership on Woodworth Street in Sedro-Woolley, sold the back bars and other products for the company at the turn of the 20th century and that might have been how he originally found the town of Woolley.

      When you walk into the Schooner, you find the walls decorated with models of sailing ships of many different eras, which were collected by a former owner when he changed the name of the place from the Red Dog Tavern to the Schooner. The centerpiece of the Schooner, however, is the beautiful, hand-carved back bar and counter that is nearly a century old. It dates back to the days at the turn of the 20th century when Woolley was a company town for P.A. Woolley's shingle mill and the triangle a block away where eleven trains crossed daily on three sets of railroad tracks. And this beautiful wooden combination is the last of the famous original back bars of any such place in Skagit County, maybe Whatcom County, too. When you walk in and see it, you will experience history.
      In 1898, dozens of local boys from the Skagit valley left for the Klondike to make their fortunes in the gold rush there. Some returned rich; others returned with harrowing tales of months they spent near roaring creeks and rivers, panning for gold, and of learning to survive in the frigid Alaska winters. A saloon had been located on the present site of the Schooner since the early '90s, when it was one of the first licensed drinking establishments in Woolley. When the miners began returning, the saloon was soon renamed the Klondike, although we do not know exactly when because newspapers from that era burned long ago. The Klondike Saloon became the central drinking place for the wild and woolly town around it and the loggers who came down from upriver camps on the weekends, with money burning in their pockets and ready to dance with the girls who lived at the hotel.
      When the Osterman House hotel next door burned to the ground in September 1909, Big Lake lumberman John Wixson quickly rebuilt a hotel of brick and stone and named it the Wixson Hotel, the one that is now the Gateway Hotel. To the north he built a brick extension where the Klondike stood before and James Wilson opened the Wilson Saloon when the Gateway opened in the summer of 1910. Just four years later, the First National Bank in the Wixson Hotel and the Wilson saloon become the center of the biggest bank robbery in the history of town. On Oct. 17, 1914, four robbers, some of whom had dressed as women to enter the bank, got away with the payroll deposits in the bank and the only casualty during the robbery was 13-year-old Melvin Wilson, son of the saloon owner, who fell in a hail of bullets during the shootout. He was cut down in the middle of Metcalf when he was running home to his parents' home north of the Great Northern railroad tracks.
      We do not when the signature backbar was installed but it was likely due to Edson G. "Dad" Abbott, who also built the old Dream Theater on Woodworth and the Chevrolet dealership across the street. He came to town from Port Angeles in 1913, eager to establish his sons in businesses of their own. In about 1903, Dad was hired by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. out of Chicago to market billiards tables to saloons and hotels, along with fine wooden front bars and back bars and decorative items. John Moses Brunswick emigrated from Switzerland to the U.S. and in 1845 expanded his carriage manufacturing company to build billiards tables. In 1873, Brunswick merged with rival Julius Balke's Great Western Billiard Table Manufactory to become the J. M. Brunswick and Balke Company. Pamphlets published two years after the great Chicago fire describe the company as manufacturing 700 tables annually, with 350 Brunswick tables in play in the city of Chicago, and selling from Canada to Mexico, with tables in every principal city in the west. Over the years they gobbled up competitive companies and by the time that Dad was hired, the company had a West Coast office in San Francisco. That company manufactured the Schooner back bar and we hope that a reader will have details in a story or photo about when it was installed in this building.

(Metcalf Street 1916)
      This photo from the time of the Big Snow of March 1916 shows the Wilson Club with its large neon sign. Two woodframe structures are just north, to the left, some of the last wood buildings left downtown after the July 1911 fire.

      On one of the saddest days of local history — Jan. 1, 1916, the beer taps disappeared from the Wilson saloon and from all the dozen watering holes in town as Washington state went dry, two years before nationwide Prohibition. From then until 1934, Wilson's Saloon (renamed the Wixson Club sometime between 1916-20), become a "pool room," the quaint euphemism for former saloons that featured pool and billiards tables and a back door that led upstairs to the rooms that moonshiners rented when they brought their fresh stock of homemade liquor from stills deep in the woods of the upper Skagit valley. And there were a few dancing girls about.
      On that blessed day in 1934 or maybe 1935, when the bar reopened, in the Wixson Club the 3.2 percent beer flowed and the whole town celebrated the return of alcohol to the former pool halls. Back then, the hotel housed traveling salesmen in place of the former loggers and boomtown financiers. The back bar that is the centerpiece of the Schooner today had been installed in the saloon soon after it was rebuilt following the fire, and the Wixson Club was a hub of activity with a barber shop and the hotel on one side, a noodle house on the other and the Seidell building stood across the street, with the Eagles Club, which later the bowling alley, to the north. The Seidell building burned to the ground in 1949 and was soon replaced by a Standard Oil/Chevron gas station. That is where the Hammer Square town park stands today.
      Over the years, the tavern evolved under different owners, through Pearson and Stiles, the Hodgins family — who opened a card room and renamed the tavern the Red Dog, Mary Kremer and partners, and a few more after that. The name Schooner, along with the sailing decor and model ships, came in the 1990s. When Steve and Cherie Fox bought it in 2003, Steve saw that the days of taverns in town were numbered and he soon applied for a Class-H license, so that he could serve spirits along with beer and wine, and serve hot meals for his customers.

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Story posted on Dec. 7, 2007, last updated July 14, 2009
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