Mention Pozo Saloon to just about anybody and they've probably got a story about it. The world famous Wild West-era watering hole, downhome restaurant, and folksy concert venue holds a warm place in the hearts of many, in large part because it offers a glimpse into the Central Coast's wild past.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- OLD SCHOOL Pozo Saloon's new owners want to take things back to the way they were, with a few touch-ups.
At one time, the saloon was a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop—part of the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route—and a Pony Express mail delivery route. Frank and Jesse James are rumored to have stopped in at the saloon on their way to hide out at their uncle Drury James' La Panza Ranch. The interior walls feature period photos of a group of lynched men as well as the Dalton gang laid out dead. Are those bullet holes in the ceiling? Stories vary.
Built in 1858, the building is turning 160 this year, but for the past three years or so, its hours have been spotty to say the least. Two new owners, Dean Marchant of Morro Bay and Alex Kagan of San Diego, recently bought the saloon and plan to reopen it on Saturday, May 5, Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that celebrates Mexico's victory over the French in the 1862 Battle of Puebla.
The opening date seems appropriate considering Pozo's Mexican past.
The Wild West
Salinan Indians mainly populated Pozo when settlers began arriving in the early 1800s. The Chumash and Salinan purportedly met to trade in nearby Santa Margarita. Ynocente García founded the town itself; he was formerly the Mission San Miguel administrator during its secular period but was removed from the position in 1841 for mismanagement and "excessively flogging" the natives.
García defended himself by claiming the "Indians were addicted to theft, and could not be controlled."
García was basically a greedy rogue who was supposed to be selling off mission lands for the fledgling Mexican government but instead was selling to himself and his sons John and Vidal at bottom-barrel prices. He also took parts of Atascadero and Paso Robles for himself.
"He was pocketing money and selling to himself and his sons, pretty much ripping off people and the Mexican government," explained Cheri Roe of the Santa Margarita Historical Society. "That's why he was exiled—he was pretty much a crook."
- Photos: Top, Courtesy Of The Santa Margarita Historical Society; Bottom, By Jayson Mellom
- THEN AND NOW Aside from the cottonwood tree in front, planted as a sapling in 1858, not much has changed at the Pozo Saloon between these 1870s-era and 2018 photos.
At its founding in 1854, Pozo was called El Rancho San Jose, but when applying for a Post Office in 1878, they found the name already taken, so a "well known" resident named George Washington Lingo, who was also the postman, came up with "Pozo"—Spanish for "well" since Pozo resembles a hole-like valley surrounded by hills. In 1881, the Post Office was officially named.
Pozo Saloon has gone through a number of different owners over the years, some more notable than others. García and a business partner named Lascarno were the original owners, but they sold to Frank Herrero in 1870, and in 1898, the saloon was purchased by Billy Arebalo, who eventually passed it onto his son Cipriano "Zip" Arebalo.
Its fledgling years were classic Wild West. In the mid-1860s, a small gold rush at nearby La Panza brought 600 people to the area, marking the town's heyday. Businesses such as a blacksmith, barber, hotel, general store, gristmill, and a dance hall—which was Pozo Saloon's original operating model—sprang up. There was also a school, and one record claimed that in 1882, 97 school children were among the area's population of 850. Around that time the local gold rush ended and the town shrank, but travelers going north, south, and east still had to travel through Pozo.
After highways 58 and 46 made the route unnecessary, Pozo truly began to wither. Some claim Prohibition finally did the saloon in, but according to Roe, driven by the local temperance movement, SLO County had "gone dry" before 1920 and the 18th Amendment made alcohol illegal. She said the new travel routes bypassing Pozo doomed the town and saloon.
After being shuttered for more than 40 years, Pozo Saloon reopened in 1967. In '61, former SLO County Sheriff-Coroner Paul E. Merrick bought a stake in the building. He was best known for presiding over both the 1955 James Dean crash and the infamous 1958 Shandon murders. After eight years as sheriff, he was elected a SLO County supervisor for another four years. Merrick finally bought out principal owner Zip Arebalo in 1966, reopening the following year.
Merrick was the owner who bought the classic 12-foot bar in the saloon, which had reportedly traveled around Cape Horn in 1860 in a sailing ship and was installed in SLO's Cosmopolitan Hotel (where the Ross store is now). Merrick apparently found the bar in storage in the Santa Maria area and bought it. He added another bar to the dance hall part of the building.
At this time, Pozo Saloon was a rustic, out of the way place known for great food and cheap beer. It's unclear whether Merrick retained ownership throughout or had business partners. In 1977, someone identified as "former owner Flavia Ballou" told the then-Telegram-Tribune, "The first few months we were open, we threw out more people than we served. So many fights."
The modern era
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- DOLLAR BILLS AND BULLET HOLES? Dozens of dollar bills have been pinned to the saloon ceiling by patrons, and some speculate that Wild West-era bullets left holes up there.
In 1984, Rhonda Beanway and her husband Brian bought the place. They're the ones who developed it into the large-scale concert juggernaut it became, bringing in crowds of more than 3,000 people to see performers such as country stars Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakum, rappers Too $hort and Snoop Dog, rockers .38 Special and Black Crowes, and reggae superstars Steel Pulse and Ziggy Marley.
They're also the ones who had to fight the county to allow these huge concerts, digging up historical records that proved the saloon had been a gathering place with live music since its earliest days. For instance, records show Professor Pico's String Orchestra played to a large crowd in 1899.
The county cracked down when these shows drew the ire of neighbors. Cars lined the narrow road for miles in both directions. Massive speakers rattled nearby windows.
"Our neighbors were upset, and I don't blame them," Rhonda Beanway told New Times in a 2007 cover story ("A Pozo State of Mind," Oct. 10). "In the winter of 2005, it rained and rained, and people parking along the road made a real mess. People got stuck in the mud. They left trash along the road. After that, all hell broke loose. The complaints starting coming in."
"And on top of that, [our neighbors] thought we were making millions of dollars [off of their inconvenience]," Rhonda's son Levi Beanway said in the same article.
The Beanways eventually worked it out by contracting neighbors to make money by parking cars in their fields, paying for heightened security, and paying for a California Highway Patrol officer to be onsite.
Other problems followed, such as crowds of 4,000-plus people at shows, drug sales at 4/20 concerts, drunk driving, fights, and the coup de grâce—unpaid vendors and the inability to cover down payments on scheduled concerts, which were subsequently canceled.
It seemed like Pozo was dead again.
Doing it right is important to the new owners, Marchant and Kagan, who have hired John Mackey as their marketing director.
"My motto is 'Pozo first,'" Mackey said. "I think it was 1979 when my dad first brought me here, and we had tri-tip sandwiches on the back porch. We want to get back to that. I mean, I can walk away. I told them [the new owners], 'If we're not going to do this right, I'm gone.'"
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- EVENT READY! By summer, the new Pozo Saloon owners hope to have the rear field with its new $16,000 irrigation system ready for weddings and other events.
Mackey points to the classic 1991 California's Gold episode by travel host Huell Howser, which visited SLO County landmarks including the Pozo Saloon. In the episode, there's music on the back porch and Howser interviews some diners who explain how the extra burger on the table is for their dog because it's his birthday.
"That's what I want to get back to," Mackey said.
Kagan and Marchant are in agreement to return Pozo Saloon to its rustic glory and make the tiny unincorporated town a destination.
"We want the car clubs and the motorcycle clubs to come back, the four-wheelers, the two-wheelers, the cyclists to all feel welcome," Kagan said during a phone interview. "One thing people like about it is it's a nice country road on the way there, and the county really maintains it well. Whether it's guys on crotch rockets or choppers or bicyclists, they can get out and have an enjoyable ride. There's a winery next door now, the Vintage Cowboy Winery owned by the Arnold family [including SLO County Supervisor Debbie Arnold]—Pozo is getting to be more of a destination."
Step one is making the saloon a going concern, which is where Marchant comes in.
"We're cleaning it up and making it safe, upgrading appliances," he explained one afternoon at the saloon. "We don't want to change the character at all."
They do want to make it a community gem, and they've spent $16,000 on a state-of-the-art irrigation system for the back lawn.
"We'll be able to host garden weddings by summer," Marchant said. "The community is so grateful. I had a local farmer stop by here, a gentleman in his 80s, who talked about how the community used to have potlucks here in the '60s. It was a community center. I have a lot of work ahead of me to bring that back and be a part of the community, but that's our goal."
Standing in the saloon parking lot, Marchant watched as two men on enduro motorcycles slowed down, pulled over, and stopped. They wanted to know if the saloon was open.
"This happens every time I'm out here working," Marchant said. "People come from all over. I tell them, come back in May."
Marchant has fixed plumbing problems and rickety floors. The Wild West-era façade had come loose from the front of the building and was being held up by the cottonwood tree out front. He fixed that.
What he really wants is for people to believe in the business again.
"People want to know that the saloon is open and they can count on it, so we're going to have consistent hours, and if they drive out people can rely on getting a fresh, home-cooked meal and the Pozo experience," Marchant said. "For probably about the last three years, the hours have been so inconsistent that the community, and by that I mean all of SLO County, can't trust we'll be open. But even if it's a freezing day or pouring rain, we're going to have the fireplace going and someone in the kitchen."
There's still a lot to do to get the saloon ready for its May 5 grand reopening. Marchant's birthday is May 4, and he's always loved Cinco de Mayo.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- OLD TIMEY FEEL Pozo Saloon will retain all its original rustic charm when it reopens on May 5, for a Cinco de Mayo celebration.
"It's my favorite holiday and favorite time of the year, so it was happenstance, a blessing, good fortune, but also pure luck," he laughed.
They're still working on entertainment for the day, but you can bet on some tasty food and cold beers served in Mason jars with olives.
"Expect country comfort food—burgers, tri-tip sandwiches, and barbecued chicken," Marchant said.
He's also been working on updating the kitchen, and he and Kagan have hired culinary guru Ben Dougherty of Nardonne's Pizzeria fame.
"He's been fantastic," Kagan said. "He'll make sure we can deal with 10 people in the restaurant or 200 at an event, and it's important to him that the quality of the food and the experience are there, and that people aren't overpaying."
After its May 5 reopening, Pozo Saloon will be open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons and evenings, serving lunch and dinner.
"Maybe by summer we may be opening at 10 a.m. for brunch, but that depends on if the community wants it," Marchant said.
What about those giant concerts? Are they coming back?
"No one person can be the king of Pozo," Kagan said. "Pozo is for everybody, so it will be interesting to see how it evolves."
"I'm not looking to set the world on fire here," Marchant added. "We want to walk before we run." Δ
Plan your event!
Weddings, parties, club gatherings? You can call Pozo Saloon (90 West Pozo Road) at (805) 438-2785 or email email@example.com to plan your event. Their website and Facebook pages are in progress: pozosaloon.com and facebook.com/pozosaloon.
Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at firstname.lastname@example.org.