Kirkwood Inn celebrates 140 years
August 11, 2004
To June Wood Somerville, the Wild West represents a tamer, simpler time at the Kirkwood Inn.
The landmark off Highway 88, which celebrates its 140th anniversary this month and had a party last weekend, brought the Jackson-area woman to her old digs to recognize the occasion.
People come from all over to belly up to the bar and talk over casual meals.
“Yes, we had bar fights. But there were no shoot-em-ups or vandalism,” she said, gathering up her half-eaten burger from the bar.
Somerville, 78, should know. In 1936, more than 20 years before the highway was paved, the building was thought to be haunted. Nonetheless, she and other Girl Scouts visited the place during summers camping at Kirkwood Lake.
A decade later, she spent her honeymoon with her husband, Phil, tearing down a barn on the property.
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“It was right over there,” she said, pointing up the small hill behind the inn.
For 17 years, she worked at the inn – cooking, tending bar and cleaning the bedrooms upstairs which now resemble storage closets.
Somerville pointed to the rooms’ florescent lights attached overhead.
“We didn’t have fancy lights like these,” she said. “Stove pipes used to come up here and keep this place warm.”
She caressed the walls like the building was her childhood home.
“A lot of this is the original wood,” she said.
The Kirkwood Inn first served as the headquarters of a summer cattle ranch for Zachary Kirkwood, the patriarch of the Alpine-Amador county valley where he drove his cattle around Carson Spur. Kirkwood acquired three 160-acre parcels in 1860.
After watching it for so many years, Somerville drove cattle in 1996.
“I always wanted to do it,” she said.
Now the region is known for backcountry activities and Alpine skiing at Kirkwood Mountain resort, built in 1972.
“In my teens, I’d hike all this land. On the Mormon Emigrant Trail, we used to pick up hubs, wagon wheels and pottery,” she said. In her time, ice caves could be found across the highway – which opened as the Amador Wagon Road in 1862.
People carved their initials in the trees behind the now-standing Kirkwood Nordic Center. Pit barbecues hosted many people behind the Inn – with one bringing out 1,500 guests, she said.
Somerville appears young for her age. But her eyes show a practical wisdomthat comes with age and experience.
During an era of prohibition, workers would move the bar when they found out county authorities were coming out to check if liquor was being sold at the place. The Inn sits on three county lines – El Dorado, Alpine and Amador.
Most of the customers were cattlemen and sheep herders – the charm of the place, Somerville said.
“There were more cattle and sheep sold over this bar than anywhere else,” she said of the buckboard days.
The mahogany bar, which was taken out of the Silver Lake Hotel and refurbished, became a watering hole for horse riders. It has since moved from one side of the room to the other.
“They used to ride them right through here,” she said, walking through the kitchen. The post office was one cubby-hole of the kitchen.
Somerville plans to write a book about the area.
“I don’t know what I’ll call it, but I’m working on it,” she said.
Out of respect, the workers give Somerville full reign of the place. They smile as she roams from room to room.
“She’s got a lot of history of this place,” Inn floor supervisor Karen Graham said.
In turn, Graham said she feels she’s “a part of history,” too.
“I love working up here. I think it’s the clean air. It keeps people healthy and happy,” she said.
– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org