Fire, Floods, Flags: Sonoma County Pride LGBT History in the River


As former President Richard Milhous Nixon so eloquently put it referring to Monte Rio’s Bohemian Grove “It is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine. It’s just terrible!” Yes Tricky Dick, the River runs full of us!

The new Sonoma County Pride is about much more than just a fun-filled weekend. We want to be a resource for those that need assistance. We are working to make sure that all our Sonoma County residents live in Hate-Free communities. We are working with the county to raise our Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index. We are also working on chronicling and showcasing our LGBT River history. There are few places in the county that have as much local LGBT history as we do.

The River’s gay renaissance started in the mid 70’s. Wohler Bridge beach on actor Fred MacMurray’s ranch had become a popular gay spot. Not far from Wohler, the first gay resort opened as Russian River Lodge (now Farmhouse Inn) on River Road.
In the late 70’s Pete Pender bought Murphy’s Resort and opened Fifes. In 1979, a Newsweek magazine article “Where the Boys Are” featured a story that included Guerneville and called the area a “gay boom town.” Following Fifes, other resorts opened with disco-bars and clothing-optional hot tubs, and soon the Russian River was Northern California‘s gay getaway destination.
Just across from Fifes was Drums, which had a hard time recovering from winter floods. Others included The Willows, The Highlands, Paradise Cove, the River Village, and the Russian River Resort. Most of the nightlife took place at the major resorts, The Woods and Fifes, but downtown Guerneville had the Rainbow Cattle Company, which still exists today.

The most popular of the new gay resorts was The Woods.
On a holiday weekend, they had over 10,000 patrons with cars parking nearly two miles along Armstrong Woods Road back to downtown Guerneville. Disco divas such as Sylvester were regulars. The Woods, had been fighting with neighbors, for years, over the crowds and noise. The neighbors argued that The Woods was still operating under the original small cabaret license, from the Hexagon House days. There had been years of hearings on this issue and a final hearing, with an unfavorable ruling, was expected. Just days before, over a crowded Fourth of July weekend, The Woods experienced a mysterious kitchen fire, and burned to the ground.

The River Theater became Ziggurat, a packed dance club. West of town, in the space now occupied by Sweetwater Springs water company, the Mineshaft. On River Road, in Forestville, The Rusty Nail was where every weekend visitor made one final stop before returning to San Francisco. Restaurants of the day included Little Bavaria, Molly Browns, Sweets, and Burdon’s.

As for prominent LGBT residents, there were many: Cliff Anchor, who owned the nation’s first radio station to broadcast national LGBT news from Monte Rio; Cleve Jones, the founder of the Names Project, who lived in Villa Grande. AIDS took its heavy toll on the River with 200 AIDS related deaths that had been documented by 1988, 980 by 1998; Leonard Matlovich, the gay serviceman that came out on the cover of Time Magazine in 1979 and who owned a pizza place in Guerneville called Stumptown Annies/Stumptown Inn (where Community First Credit Union is now located). His tombstone reads “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”; Randy Shilts, who wrote books such as “And the Band Played On”, “Conduct Unbecoming”, and “The Mayor of Castro Street”, and he is now laid to rest in Guerneville’s Pioneer Cemetery. In Cazadero, a couple built their dream of a retirement business in the country and opened a bar, Cazadero Bottling Company, in the’70s, Homophobia struck, and the building was burned to the ground. The owners escaped safely, but their dog was not as fortunate. Although there were suspects in the case and this was a premeditated hate crime, there were no hate crime statutes on the books in the 1970’s.

Some will say the heydays were the good old days. I came to the River after the heyday. I wish I could transport myself back in time to the days the trains brought thousands to the river to listen to the big bands, and to the gay heydays as well. I am proud of the contributions the LGBT community has made in the River over the years. Researching this history has been fun and I learned more than I could have ever imagined. But more than that, I have come away with a stronger appreciation of the history and of the people. I realized that today, there are people I encounter daily that have contributed so much to the community over the years.

Kari Kemp, who started Food for Thought, and Robert Gray, who in 1984 posed naked for a inter-racial safe sex poster. Gray remembers watching the local news with his mom and dad when the poster flashed on the screen as a reporter discussed it and the interracial controversy. He hadn’t come out yet. He said, “My heart pounded with worry that mom and dad were seeing me naked embracing a white guy and realized I was gay.” He was relieved when they didn’t make the connection. The poster went on to be displayed in bathhouses and bars from San Francisco to New York. I know there are many others that have contributed that I am not aware of. I encourage you to contact me, so we can build on our history. I am proud that our fleeting knowledge of local LGBT history is now going to be preserved and celebrated for future generations. I thank the GLBT Historical Society for their assistance. I look forward to working with our Russian River Historical Society as well in this endeavor.

Over the last few years, the River has come back strongly. LGBT contributions and history are not just things of the past. The most significant building in Guerneville, The Guerneville Bank Building, has finally been brought back to life, after decades of neglect thanks to a gay man. Johnson’s Beach will continue to provide relaxation and enjoyment for decades to come, thanks to recently being purchased by a gay couple. The River is beautiful. We live in an exceptionally unique place. A place that has changed much over the decades, a place that embraces diversity for all. We are so ahead of most of our country and have so much to be thankful for.

Which brings us to Pride Weekend:

With the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision due in June, which is expected to legalize marriage equality nationwide, Sonoma County’s LGBT community and its allies will have much to be proud of and to celebrate at this year’s Sonoma County Pride weekend.

Sonoma County Pride incorporated as a non-profit late last year. The new energy, enthusiasm, teamwork, excitement, and results are evident. This year’s theme is appropriately titled, Equality Everywhere. The planning group has gone all out to make this year’s event a weekend to remember. Friday June 5th will have a First Friday Art Walk in Guerneville, followed by country western dancing. Saturday June 6th will have a canoe/kayaking event ending up at the Rio Theater in Monte Rio for games, BBQ, music, and LGBT short films. Later Saturday night will be a disco party in Guerneville. Sunday June 7th will be the parade on Main Street in Guerneville followed by a celebration at Guerneville Lodge. The venue is perfect, right on the river, and the entertainment lineup is guaranteed to please everyone. Weekend lodging and camping is also available at Guerneville Lodge. And of course, we will have an LGBT History exhibit on site. For more information on Pride, please check out

Looking forward to celebrating with you!