Danville Express

Cover Story - October 5, 2007

Century of saloonin'

Drop your pretensions at the door when you enter Elliott's

by Natalie O'Neill

The afternoon barflies were turning out to be a bunch of straight-talking, wise-cracking blue collar Joes.

Just the way Elliott's bartender Ruthie Nelson likes 'em.

A mixed bag of proud old war vets, hard-skinned curmudgeons and familiar friendly faces put the male-to-female ratio at where it typically stands on a Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Men: 15, Ruthie: 1.

Looking up from the tonic she was mixing, the no-nonsense bartender - who's an ex-Marine herself - caught a regular on his way out.

"Are you leavin' me?" she said, with a big warm smile.

A nod.

"Oh, you're breakin' my heart."

Ruthie and her throng of loyal daytime guys are one of the many casts of characters Elliott's Bar, which is turning 100 this year, has hosted over the last century.

"Ruthie's our favorite. Nobody messes with Ruthie," explained Bob Harris, who comes by in the afternoon during the week.

The old-fashioned saloon has a reputation for being a club for "good old boys," a seedy little joint - especially in the daytime - that sticks out against Danville's pristine downtown image. But when you're on Ruthie's clock, you're treated like you're family, she said.

Sure, it can be a big, drunk, unruly family, but regulars swear that for every inch of grittiness there's just as much camaraderie and respect.

According to Harris, at Elliott's you check your snobbery at the door.

"This town is foo foo," he said. "People walk around with their noses up in the air. In (Elliott's) there's a roofer sitting next to a judge, or the mayor sitting next to a carpenter. And everybody's getting along."

Owner Dale Stockbridge says this is exactly what keeps people coming back.

"It's a no-pretences kind of atmosphere. You can come in and be yourself," he said, mixing a stiff screwdriver for one member of his small after-lunch crowd.

Stockbridge, who's known for being both surly and sweet, took on ownership in 1995 and is quick to set the record straight about what Elliott's is and isn't.

It's a saloon, not a "dive."

It's a bar that likes sports, not a "sports bar."

"I've seen sports bars that are just plastic," he said, explaining the difference.

There's certainly nothing plastic about Elliott's. The venue, which is largely wooden, has hardly changed physically in the past 100 years. It's authentically Old West in its style.

"People think just because it has been here so long that it's seedy, where the bad element hangs out. It's not. Women come in here and they are welcome," Stockbridge explained.

His remark about women wasn't out of left field, either. In fact, a recent write-up on Elliott's in a local paper bashed the bar, stressing the need for a woman's touch.

This had locals at the watering hole seething for weeks. And some still seem bruised by the whole ordeal.

"We don't like reporters around here," said one regular - Ruthie's husband - to this reporter, with a straight face and not a hint of irony.

Apparently in her article, the reviewer referenced some of the signs that hung in the bar as decoration, in order to show it's a boys club. The signs could have been interpreted as funny or offensive, depending on your taste. They were good natured, if a bit off-color, Stockbridge said.

One sign in particular joked that "women are tolerated" and was hung by the previous owner, a female. The sign has since been removed but was followed by a clutter of other ones with jokes and slogans that, while not exactly "P.C.," give patrons a good laugh from time to time.

At Elliott's, the signs are a reminder that it's the kind of place where folks don't scare easily. People tell it like it is, without pussy-footing around subjects. In the same light, nobody flinches at an intermittent four-letter word or is bothered much by teasing as a form of affection.

You get the feeling Ernest Hemingway or Charles Bukowski would have enjoyed a stiff drink at a place like this.

Although old-timers recall Danville's claim-to-fame Eugene O'Neill being the life of the party in the late '30s, historians say the playwright was sober when living at the Tao House, where no liquor was allowed. It was most likely his son, Eugene O'Neill Jr., who was making the appearances at Elliott's.

As for what's changed over the years?

"It's just new faces," Stockbridge says.

Today, customers and employees explain there are several different groups that frequent the bar.

"There's three different shifts to this drinkin' factory," Ruthie said.

First there is the early shift, with typically retired men and war veterans, or "cranky old bastards" as one customer put it. Evidence of a strong vet following hangs on the wall in the form of a sticker that reads, "Give war a chance."

Then comes the cocktail crowd around 3 p.m., mostly hardworking blue collar guys celebrating the end of a workday. This is a jeans and T-shirts, Budweiser type of pow wow.

After that, there's the night scene. Depending on the evening, this can be a complete transition. There are more singles, women and often young people home from college. There's more music. And more shots.

On this particular Tuesday afternoon, however, there was hardly a raucous word in the room. A few jokes bounced back and forth. Beers were sipped. Some sort of sports game was on T.V.

Between a frequent "What-can-I get-you-honey?" from Ruthie, the conversation turned to the tepid subject of wood staining, when one regular summed up why patrons adore the bar so much.

"Everybody knows everybody," regular John Musante said. Then a pause. "This place is special."

Seems some of the wisecracking straight-talkers had a soft side after all - at least when it came to reminiscing about their favorite neighborhood watering hole.

A fabled past

If there's one thing Elliott's has, it's a past. And, oh, the stories.

The bar was originally called Lawless Saloon and was bought by Hiram Elliott, a horse jockey, in 1907. Back then, it was called Eagle Bar and was on Front Street until it moved to Hartz Avenue around 1915.

"Hiram did buy land there from his father-in-law John Hartz. It's altogether possible that the elder Hartz helped him get those properties," said Beverly Lane, a San Ramon Valley historian.

After Hiram passed away, Elliott's was supervised by his widow Tillie. Her sons Duane and Gordon worked seven days a week behind the bar.

Rumor has it, Tillie was a stickler. She lived in a house that would now be behind Primo's restaurant and, before development in Danville, she could see the saloon from her doorstep. If Duane and Gordon turned off the lights of the bar too soon "she'd either be on the phone or down here" to make sure they didn't close early, current owner Dale Stockbridge said.

During prohibition, the family kept the business alive by turning it into an ice cream parlor, as opposed to selling liquor out the back as some saloons did.

In 1925, the bar was a popular spot for volunteer firefighters, as it was just a hop and a skip from the fire station on Hartz.

Over the years, Stockbridge has heard stories about this scene.

"The fire alarm would go off and the place would clear out. They would leave their drinks and their money at the bar and go fight the fire. When they came back, everything would be how they left it," he said.

Patrons used to ride their horses to the bar and one man was even arrested for trying to ride his horse drunk. Police took him away, but let the horse - who knew the route home - go free, Stockbridge said.

The Elliott family sold the bar to Vera Hutchison and Tony Clien, a former Oakland Raider, in early 1977, according to "Historical Persons and Places in the San Ramon Valley" by Virgie Jones. This was three months after the current owner started working there as a bartender. It was no surprise to see members of the football team hanging around Elliott's in the mid 1970s when the hours were extended from around 8 o'clock until 2 a.m.

Since then, the bar has picked up popularity, in part due to the extended hours and its transition into a popular nightlife meeting point for singles in the Valley.


Posted by Donna Elliott Madding, a resident of San Ramon Valley High School
on Jun 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm

My father was Gordon Elliott. Thank you from my whole family for publishing this story. We appreciate it.

Posted by Bob K, a resident of Danville
on Jul 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm

We Love Ruthie!

Posted by Bill, a resident of Danville
on Jul 8, 2011 at 7:06 am

Great article, great history of or town. Newbies have no idea of the history and lore that roam our streets. If our towns ghosts coud talk, the stories they could tell.

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