Lakeside Hotel, an authentic Western honky-tonk straight out of the late 1800s, where cowboys and construction workers come after a hard day’s work to gulp down beer and raise some hell.
A friend who’s played guitar in various country-western bands for the past twelve of his thirty years did a double take when I told him I was going to the Lakeside Hotel. “You’re crazy,’’ he told me, shaking his head. “That place is full of drunken rednecks and cowboys, who go there for one reason — to fight and throw tables and chairs at each other. They’ll kick your ass for no reason at all.”
Other vehicles in the lot included a couple of dusty pickups, one with a dilapidated camper shell, and two motorcycles near the front entrance.
Of course I’d heard this before about the Lakeside Hotel. Over the years, it’s achieved a reputation as the roughest, toughest nightspot in San Diego County, an authentic Western honky-tonk straight out of the late 1800s, where cowboys and construction workers come after a hard day’s work to gulp down beer and raise some hell, where an evening does not go by without a bottle or even a chair being broken over some unfortunate’s head. But has this tawdry reputation been deserved?
"Lately, though, the most gruesome stories I hear are from people who’ve never even been to the hotel. There’s rarely more than a fight a month."
The following Saturday night I drove through Lakeside’s L-shaped downtown district, past wood buildings and storefronts that looked as if they belonged on a set of Gunsmoke instead of on the main street of a modem town. I pulled into the small parking lot in front of what appeared to be a harmless old hotel. Other vehicles in the lot included a couple of dusty pickups, one with a dilapidated camper shell, and two motorcycles near the front entrance.
“You didn’t come here to sit at a table and watch, did you?”
“ ‘Isn’t that place kinda rough?’ — that’s the first question I hear when I tell people I play at the Lakeside Hotel,” said Wayne Markus, the thirty-year-old singer for Shenandoah, the hotel’s house band. Markus, a stocky fellow with wavy brown hair and an impish smile, has played sporadically at the hotel in a variety of country-western outfits since the early 1970s. Until two months ago, he also played guitar, but he broke his finger in a fight ... at the Lakeside Hotel.
“Most of the fights are just fist swinging, but I’ve seen people get knocked down on that concrete porch out there and then someone comes along and just pounds their head open. That’s just the way people are — assholes and angels, bad and good, and the old hotel’s got its share of both. But these people have as much soul as anybody. They’re simply working people who come here to drink. Most of the fights start with someone messin’ with someone else’s woman, or stealin’ a drink — the same things somebody’d thump you for in any other bar, just with maybe a little more fervor here.
“But it’s not like it used to be. It still has a reputation as the roughest place in town from the old days, ten, fifteen years ago, when an evening didn’t go by without someone gettin’ his head smashed out on the concrete. Even two years ago, there was a sign outside that read, ’Dudes in fancy dress be prepared to defend yourselves.’ Lately, though, the most gruesome stories I hear are from people who’ve never even been to the hotel. There’s rarely more than a fight a month, just like at any other bar. A lot of it’s due to the owner gettin’ wiser. There was a time when two guys would fight and he’d buy them a beer when it was all over to cool ’em down. Now he shows ’em the door. It used to be the place to go if you wanted to fight, but not anymore. Still, legends die hard…"
At the bar assorted signs were tacked onto the wall between bottles and more bottles of booze: “Rooms for rent,” and “Do it at the Lakeside Hotel.” The bartendress came up to where I was standing, and I ordered a pitcher of beer. “No pitchers, only bottles,” she told me. How come? I inquired. She smiled knowingly and replied, “Pitchers tend to get dangerous around here, honey.’’ I settled for a bottle of Budweiser and took a seat at a table in the far corner of the room.
Bill Appelhans is a brawny man, with huge hands and two of the biggest, saddest-looking brown eyes imaginable. Tonight he’s wearing his traditional long-sleeved Western-style shirt — the top few buttons open to reveal a chestful of bushy salt-and-pepper hair — and the obligatory faded denims and cowboy boots. He’s owned the Lakeside Hotel since 1968, and along with his third wife, Sherry, whom he married a month ago in a ceremony at the hotel, tends bar every night. “I haven’t served pitchers here since I bought the hotel,’’ he said during a break from work. “They’re pretty good-sized and can be used as weapons. I don’t even like to serve the long-neck beer bottles. You can break the bottoms off and they can be pretty deadly. But I still sell ’em ’cause I’ve never had no problems with ’em."
Like Markus, Appelhans feels the Lakeside Hotel’s reputation as a rough-and-tumble watering hole for redneck troublemakers is a bit exaggerated. “Anytime anything happens anywhere near the place, the sheriffs come. And the next day in the paper you read about such-and-such a crime taking place down the block from the Lakeside Hotel, and everybody who reads it thinks the crime was committed at the Lakeside Hotel. A lot of people come here to see a reputation, and the family-types stay away. That hurts. I’d rather have family types in here than anybody else. But the reputation is there and you can’t get rid of it."
Outside of occasional fights, Appelhans said, the last real trouble he had was a few years back when bikers — predominately members of the Mongols, a particularly tough East County outfit — would frequent the hotel and often get into “some pretty heavy, scary fights. For about a year, I guess from the middle of 1978 to the middle of ’79, we’d average a couple of fights a weekend. Then one day one of ’em just about snuffed another guy. That was all, as far as I was concerned, and I eighty-sixed ’em.
“You know, you have to play the thing cool with bikers. You can’t just say, ‘Get out,’ or ‘I don’t want you here’ to them. You’ve got to watch ’em closely and, when you spot trouble or possible trouble, level with them. I’d tell ’em, ‘Look, I have a family to support and a business to run, and I just can’t afford any trouble.’ But that incident in 1979 was the last straw. For a while I had quite a few of ’em in here every weekend, but — knock three times on wood — they’ve been out of here pretty much since then, although one or two do pop up occasionally.”
After the band finished its first set, I walked outside, beer in hand, for a breath of fresh air. I sat down on a slab of wall overlooking the parking lot and inhaled deeply. Cool, country night air filled my lungs and jolted my mind, already dimming a bit in an early stage of inebriation. A car pulled up and parked in one of the few remaining spaces, next to a particularly ragged pickup truck. Two girls got out: a shapely, long-haired brunette wearing tight designer jeans and a blue tube top, and a thickset, shorter girl in a loose white blouse and similarly tight jeans. They walked into the hotel and emerged seconds later, each with a scruffy, long-haired man on her arm. They strode to the two motorcycles parked near the hotel entrance.
For a moment my attention was distracted by the squeal of tires somewhere in the distance. When I glanced at the two couples again, they were still standing in the parking lot by the motorcycles, the one longhair glaring at the short girl while the other couple looked on. “You hit me,” he spat as she whimpered away from him. “Come here!” he commanded. The girl began retreating, her left hand up by her mouth as she pleaded. “Sonny, no, I’m sorry. Don’t hit me.” “Come here!” he repeated, and took a few steps toward her. She bolted to the side of the nearest car so that it came between them. “Sonny, no, don’t hurt me,” she said. He gave a quick start and a second later was standing next to her. “Sonny, Sonny,” she wailed. He raised his hand as if to hit her and she grabbed it. “Let go of my hand,” he said firmly. She looked at him, hovering over her, and buried her face against his. She let go of his hand and they embraced and kissed. A few seconds later he pulled away and walked to his motorcycle, the girl following closely behind. “C’mon, bitch,’’ he said, mounting the bike, and she obediently followed, her arms around his chest. The other couple, who up to now had been watching in silence, climbed on the other bike, and the four of them rode off to points unknown.
Lakeside itself has always had a reputation for being notoriously racist. Populated largely by transplants from the traditionally conservative South and Midwest, the town has been the scene of considerable Ku Klux Klan activity over the past few decades. As recently as the early and middle 1970s, it was possible to see someone wearing a Klan T-shirt, parading down Main Street or browsing through the village department store. Lakeside was — and, in many cases still is — a place where Archie Bunker would have thrived, where everybody minded his or her own business and didn’t care what your beliefs were, as long as they were decidedly right of center. Lakeside's reputation as a redneck paradise grew as a result of this, and even today, a black family moving into the fashionable neighborhoods of Eucalyptus Hills or Blossom Valley might ruffle more than a few feathers.
“Now, myself. I’m not prejudiced; I even had a black female minister marry Sherry and me and nobody said anything,” Bill Appelhans said as he looked proudly behind the bar where his third wife was doling out beers to a crowd of regulars. “But I wouldn't advise anyone to bring a black person in here. You might have the wrong element, if you know what I mean, and they might run 'em off. These people are a lot of Okies and Texans, and they’re pretty set against blacks.”
Wayne Markus concurred with Appelhans’ words of caution. “Several times when I’ve been playin’, I guess probably about once a month or so. I’ve noticed someone come in with a black person. But it’s usually the white guy who brought the black guy in who pulls the heat. You know, maybe he’ll go up to the bar and order a drink and the people who are sittin’ there’d start sayin’, ‘Hey, what do you think you’re doin’, bringin’ that kind down here,’ and maybe try to start trouble. But you have to remember that this is a pretty redneck town.”
The band had not started again, so I walked around the lobby just outside the dance floor. The layout of the hotel is uncomplicated: when you walk in through the front entrance, a long bar with black leatherette trim and a scratchy Formica top is to your right, and a walnut-paneled wall running almost the entire length of the building is to your left, forming a narrow hallway. About ten feet down, the wall is broken by a wide doorway that leads to the dance floor. Further down is a jukebox offering a selection of the latest pop and country hits along with an assortment of country favorites — Willie Nelson, the Oakridge Boys, Conway Twitty. Near the back of the hallway, the wall abruptly ends and swings inward at a right angle for about six feet. Inside this cubicle is a pool table, generally surrounded by a cluster of cowboys who don’t mind letting an occasional buck or two ride on a game. Walking through the doorway onto the dance floor, you see the stage built diagonally in the near left comer and a scattering of tables and chairs along the two opposite walls.
Upstairs is the actual hotel, which consists of nine rooms and two bathrooms, one for men and one for women. The upstairs portion can be reached by two outside stairways, one on either side of the hotel, which lead to a connecting hallway. Again, the familiar worn walnut paneling covers the walls, and a musty odor pervades the air. The rooms are tiny but comfortable — a bed, a dresser, and a worn, threadbare carpet. Rooms rent for ninety dollars a month and are occupied mostly by cowboys who work on the nearby ranches, most of whom stay for several years and then move on.
When the band began playing again, I walked back to my table on the dance floor. All around me were beer-drinking men in full Western garb; hats and shirts and denims and boots not as fancy as the duds worn by habitués of the Mustang Club or Nashville West, but certainly more authentic. Chugging down beers one after another, the men periodically grabbed their women and moved to the dance floor, where they twirled around to the sounds of pedal steel and banjo. Around the middle of the set, a woman I judged to be about forty, with closely cropped golden hair and a gracious smile, walked over to my table. “C’mon, honey, let’s dance,” she said enthusiastically. I shook my head no, telling her I had never danced to country music in my life and this was certainly the wrong place and time to begin. But she persisted. ‘‘C’mon,” she urged, still smiling broadly and reaching for my wrist. “You didn’t come here to sit at a table and watch, did you?” I sure as hell did, I thought to myself, but finally gave in and followed her out on the floor. Seconds later we were in the center of the dance floor, right in front of the band, doing something I vaguely remember as the country shuffle. “You have a good beat,” she whispered to me. Wonderful, I thought. When the song ended, I hurried back to my table, but she was right behind me. “One more?” she queried, and then pulled me back on the floor. This time the band was playing a more up-tempo number; I looked around at the other dancers and tried my best to mimic their actions. When this dance was over, I did not give her the chance to ask a third time. I excused myself under the guise of going to the bathroom and left. I headed straight for my car, took a couple of deep breaths, and drove directly home.
The history of the Lakeside Hotel is somewhat vague. The most widely accepted version was told to Bill Appelhans years ago by an old Indian named Bob Zapata, now deceased, who had lived in Lakeside all his life. According to that story, the hotel was built in 1887 as a stagecoach stop between San Diego and Ramona and Julian, one year after the El Cajon Land Company had subdivided a former 48,000-acre Spanish land grant called Rancho El Cajon into the three townships of Lakeside, Santee, and El Cajon. In the late 1880s, the Southern California land boom was in full swing, and by 1889 the San Diego Cuyamaca and Eastern Railroad hit Lakeside and continued three miles to the town of Foster. During the construction of the railroad, the hotel also served as a rooming house for the railroad crew.
But Norman Lepker, battalion chief of the Lakeside Fire Department and a self-styled East County historian, thinks the hotel was built much later. “There used to be a stage stop in town but it was farther down on Main Street. I know 'cause I tore it down seven or eight years ago. The Lakeside Hotel isn’t anywhere near as old as it’s assumed to be.”
It’s generally agreed, however, that the hotel was around at the time of the great car races of the early 1900s. By then it was converted into a full-time boarding house, and when Barney Oldfield put Lakeside on the map in 1907 by zooming around a two-mile racetrack at the unheard-of speed of sixty-five miles per hour and setting a new world record in the process, occupancy was at a peak.
Eunice Shaff, a delightful woman of seventy-six, with a charming backwoods accent and a memory as sharp as pine needles, used to own the hotel with her late husband, Howard. She recalls that the Lakeside Hotel changed hands several times in the years before her husband bought it and converted it into a restaurant and hotel. “I came to Lakeside in 1949 when I married Howard, and he had already owned the hotel since the early days of World War II,” she says. “In 1946 we got a beer and wine license, and we served sandwiches, too. You know, the best thing I remember from back then is the friends I’ve kept over the years. You meet all kinds when you run a bar — the low-class, the middle-class, the high-class — but that was our livin’ and we made the most of it. We didn’t have no trouble. Truthfully, we were a family place. Then in the early 1950s or thereabouts we got our full liquor license and our customers began to change. A lot more high-class drinkers came in who, you might say, were able to afford liquor instead of beer. But I still kept all my beer drinkers, oh, yes, ’cause I used to drink a lot of beer myself.”
This last phrase she speaks with special emphasis. Eunice Shaff is a lady who, back then, could drink with the best of them, as she puts it. She's always believed in enjoying life to the fullest and she says she makes a point of continuing to do so today. She still lives in the house she shared with Howard until his death a few years ago, just a block away from the Lakeside Hotel. The town is her home and, along with her memories, her life. All her friends live nearby and they frequently get together for an afternoon social to talk about their children and their children’s children, or merely to reminisce about old times.
“Oh, let me tell you this story,” she says eagerly. “Years ago they had this big rodeo, and the people who followed the rodeo would come to the hotel. Now, the first year they came we only charged 'em two dollars a night for the rooms, but they’d steal everything — I mean everything — in sight that wasn’t nailed down. They’d even take the toilet paper off the rolls and play catch with it in the halls. Well, I tell you, they made me so fiery mad I said to my husband, 'Harold, just you wait till next year. I’ll double the price.’ And I did, but they still kept right on comin’. One day I found Casey Tubbs — he was the big nigger who rode in the rodeo — in one of the bathrooms shavin’. I asked him what he was doing in our place, and he told me a friend of his was stayin’ here and said he could use the bathroom. So I looked at him — he was wearing this fancy $500 outfit — I looked him right in the eye and I told him, ‘Hey, your name’s not on my register. If you want to use the bathroom, plunk down the dough.’ He got all mad and angry and left, yelling, I’ll fix you up!’ In the afternoon, when the rodeo was over, I heard him announce over the loudspeaker to all those people, ‘Everybody come to the Lakeside Hotel for drinks and food.’ I was outside and I could hear it all the wav over here. So this rush of people came in, and we didn’t have any time to prepare. But we managed to serve everybody and we all had a good time. When Casey heard we handled everything all right, he got very mad. He said I was cheap. I don’t think I was cheap.”
Toward the end of the 1950s, ill health forced the Shaffs to put the hotel up for sale. It was purchased in 1960 by P.J. York, and under York’s ownership it rapidly began attaining its rowdy reputation. Bill Appelhans recalls the condition of the hotel in those days. “From what I’ve been told, the front door was just two swingin’ doors — we just changed that in the past couple of years — and cowboys or construction workers would stand on either side, wait till somebody *d come in, and see who could knock ’em the farthest. Everybody’d bet on it. There was gamblin’ going on, too. When we bought the hotel, we discovered a small room off the dance floor that was pretty well hidden and had been a card room, and room seven upstairs had also been used for gamblin’. Everybody knew about it, but nobody said anything; it was just one of those things, you know?” (P. J. York himself didn’t want to talk about it. “Since I don’t have anything nice to say about the hotel. I won’t say anything at all,” he said curtly and hung up the phone. “He can’t afford to talk to you,” Eunice Shaff said later. “He ran it so bad the state had to close him down, and that hurt me so bad, ’cause we always had such a good reputation.”)
In 1963 York sold the hotel to Clarence Bixby, but when the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board revoked Bixby’s license, questioning, according to the order, Bixby’s “personal qualifications,” ownership reverted to York. In 1968 the ABC shut down the hotel for thirty days due to repeated “disorderly premises” violations (which, explained ABC district administrator Pete Case, could mean anything from serving minors drinks to having what the board perceives to be an “excessive amount of violence or number of altercations”), and York sold it to Appelhans’ parents, Jake and Katherine, for whom Bill has run it ever since. Katherine Appelhans, her son states proudly, is now eighty years old and comes around in the mornings to socialize with the customers. Like Eunice Shaff, Katherine Appelhans lives a block away.