A Sign of the Times: Memories of the Eel River Cafe Are Unearthed After Recent Renovations

The old front of the Eel River Cafe was exposed during renovations this week.

The old front of the Eel River Cafe was exposed during renovations this week. [Photos provided by Ernie and Janice Branscomb]

This week, workers at the site of the famous pancake flipping neon sign, the Eel River Cafe in Garberville, revealed another old sign painted above the door when they stripped the front off during renovations.

Eel River Cafe's profile photo on Facebook is their famous pancake flipper neon sign.

Eel River Cafe’s profile photo on Facebook is their famous pancake flipper neon sign.

This brought back old memories to our locally famous storyteller, Ernie Branscomb, proprietor of the next door shop, Branscomb Center. He sent in this wonderful reminiscence.

Seeing that old Eel River Café sign brought back a flood of very fond memories for me. That old building, Garberville, and I have quite a history together. The renovations that are being made are critical to saving the building. The joke being that the only thing holding the building together is forty layers of paint. That is not altogether far from the truth. Clark Hodge, the owner for many years, used to close every March for the whole month and completely clean and paint the whole inside of the restaurant. The Eel river has gone through many, many renovations.

Back in the 50’s there was a sign on the south side of the building that featured Golden State Ice Cream. My Uncle Tom Newland and Carol Pancoast owned the Riverside Farm Dairy that sold Golden State Ice cream. Golden State was bought out by Formost Dairy Products and the sign was taken down. The Eel River had a complete soda Fountain with all the soda nozzles and Ice cream toppings. It had a very sophisticated ice-cream freezing system that used a brine immersion tank. I loved that old soda fountain and I maintained it for the owner at the time. The owner, Clark Hodge, had a twin brother that owned a café in Ukiah. Clark sold the Eel River to Ed and Iris Prindle. Ed did many modifications to the restaurant, including buying a brand-new Ice cream freezer and a new ice machine. I sold him the new refrigeration equipment and he gave me the old soda fountain.

Knowing that I loved that old fountain he gave it to me to remove it. It weighed about the same as a car. I hoarded it for about five years then a local fellow by the name of Win Benbow asked me what I was going to do with it. Actually, I had no place for it and knowing that he had the resources to give it a good home, I gave it to him. About ten years later it was still stored in the side of his shed. I have no Idea what finally happen to it. Love can cause a person to do some pretty foolish things.


The people that owned the Eel River and the people that worked there would read like a Who’s Who of Garberville of yore. I would list them but there are far too many, and someone would feel left out. There is a full-sized book that could be written about the history of the Cafe and the people that have worked there. As with any local small-town Café, there is a back booth that holds the town characters.

The waitresses back in the 50’s and early 60’s wore starched white uniforms. The dinner menu had veal cutlets, chicken fried steak, turkey dinner, fried chicken mash potatoes and gravy. Clark had a 20 Gallon stock-pot on a gas burner in the back, It was left heating 24 hours a day. He would put all of the vegetable and meat trimmings in it and make the Soup de’ Jure, the gravies, and sauces from the stock. He would place a turkey in the stock-pot over night and make his hot turkey sandwiches from the sliced turkey. He would also serve a hot roast beef sandwich, both were dished with mash potatoes and gravy. Served open faced.

I had better stop now I’m making myself hungry.

Another view of the renovations.

Another view of the renovations. [Photos provided by Ernie and Janice Branscomb]



  • And every booth had a tabletop jukebox. The clock that endlessly flipped advertisements. The cigarette smoke.
    So many meals eaten there……..

    • That clock was still up and running last time I was there…. And yes I remember the cigarette smoke too… I kind of remember that half of the House of Burgiss was a smoking side, and that you could order drinks from the Blue Room to pair with your meal. So sophisticated, classy even…. LOL…!

  • 1950s view of Eel River Cafe (Art-Ray postcard #96)

  • Thank you, Ernie. Loved it, all that you write in a single snapshot and reminiscent memories of how it was.

    I wish I could set the way-back machine to 1950-something. Those were good days, alright. I’d return there in a flash.

    Keep up the good work, and the best to you and yours, Ernie.

  • The current owners are two of the hardest working people. I’m so glad they are saving the old place. Old place made for new memories.

  • Viva La Cafe’!

  • Yea Ernie, I too was there during the Clark Hodge days. It was, in a way, the cultural center of G’ville. I cherished the burger and cherry coke (from the soda fountain) I had for lunch as a youngster. The place was immaculate and had some wonderful appointments. The inside perimeter of all the windows had beautiful red neon borders with arrows. The counter top juke boxes as well as the cigarette vending machine on the wall up front belonged to my dad. The juke box was the very latest and had the best speakers on the walls. It was the best music in town. I would go there with him to change records and fill the cigarette machine (and have lunch). I knew all the waitresses and loved being there. I have one plea: please. please carefully restore the neon sign out front. I want to see the flapjacks flipping and the entire unit carefully restored to the exact original specifications. Please, Please!

  • I am a newcomer. Only been here for 40 years .
    The Eel River Cafe always brings me back to my “good old days” .
    It makes me remember the times when everything was not ruined in So Hum.
    Please stay open !

  • Hey, Jim! Did you see I mentioned your dad?

    Being a refrigeration nut, I remember the pie case built into the wall behind the counter. Pie cases were all kept at fifty degrees. Pie a-la-mode and a cup of coffee was often a very popular mid-day snack. The health department required that the pie cases be kept below forty degrees. They weren’t built for that. The windows became slimy with moisture and not very many people like ice cold pie. Pie at a restaurant, was once a main-stay, became part of history.

    The Basquez Family, Larry, Connie, and Caroline, were the last to make pies. (I think) Iris Prindle was big on pies before the Basquez family.

    The Lopes Family now own the Cafe, they are great people, very clean, and great cooks. I used to work in the back rooms of restaurants doing refrigeration, so I know the clean restaurants from the dirty ones. The Eel River is squeaky clean, even in the back room. That tells me a lot about people.

  • Hi Healy, I remember you and your dad’s juke-boxes. We used to go into the Eel river to play our favorite records when we couldn’t afford to buy them. What a treat it was!

    I agree with Healy that I would love to see the sign completely restored to its original glory. I used to repair the sign back in the day. I could fix anything but a broken neon tube. A guy from eureka would fix the tubes. I don’t know who.

    • My 80 yr old friend’s Grandfather used to buy the Golden State Ice Cream to sell in the Bay Area. As a history lesson, Ferndale was the hub of California’s dairy (Cottage) industry. Immigrants made a good living all over California ( much like the weed biz), circa 1850s-1880s. Then, Corporate saw the potential & regulated most of the small dairy farmers out of business , and, just like weed, permits etc, were prohibitively expensive. I don’t even think you are allowed to sell milk&and cream at small Farmers Mkts today, and raw milk, forget it. California is very strict&and doesn’t permit it at all.
      Grampa went on to start the 1st National Dairy Review Magazine in San Francisco, with big business & even the Potus! Kinda like when Gavin Newsom made his journey up here and saw that it would be like taking candy from a baby to mostly destroy small time farmers.

    • There’s a guy up in Arcata who fixes neon and makes the tubes. He has a small shop. I’m pretty sure he’s the last neon guy between Brookings and Santa Rosa. He took over the older Eureka guy’s business. That’s a business that has shrunk over the years!- everybody going w/ the LED signs…He takes care of the last neon signs around Arcata and Eureka. Bernie is his name.

  • In college, my neighbor had a 25 head dairy farm. I could go into the milk house, drawn off a gallon from the holding tank, and leave a dollar in dish on top of the water heater. Store bought milk tastes completely different.

  • Thanks Ernesto!

    I always say, the best part of Garberville is the memories everyone has about days that are decades in the past…

    I hope Garberville makes some new good memories for someone.

  • My favorite place to eat in early 70’s. I loved shrimp basket got about 8 big prawns basket of fries i think for 1.99 or 2.99. Other food was great too.

  • Bill Staples aka bill the cook

    Having worked in the southern Humboldt restaurant business starting in 1970 working for moses Lopez and alicia Rosas current owners of the eel river cafe they are the nicest and hardest working owners I’ve worked for….

  • I would be willing to wager that the sign was painted by Jimmy Ratchford. He was the local sign Painter back in the day. He had a place to work every day, all the graphic signs were hand painted with special high pigment sign paint. Probably high lead content.

    Jimmy was one of those guys that when you said hello to him he always had something nice to say and you couldn’t leave until he told you his latest joke.

    If any of you know Ed Strout, his Grandfather Strout (sorry, I forget his first name) was the building painter. Between the two of them they painted the town.

  • Leah Foltz Mantooth

    Thank You Ernie! This was such a nice trip down memory lane.
    You do such a great job of describing “Garberville” in the early years.
    Also, mentioning the people that have lived in Garberville in that era,
    brought back many memories.

  • i don’t want to leave out Don and Mary ! They were the nicest and most generous employers I’ve ever had
    Washing dishes in the back of eel river cafe was my first real job(before that I was washing cars at Lance’s )
    I was 13 or fourteen , minimum wage was $3.90 but it went up to $4.30 that year I think
    I remember seeing the summer go by through that caged street level window
    I still see Steve and max around so I guess the only bad part was reggae and Harley run:) must be why I don’t like doing dishes at home

    • Thanks Gabe! You were one of the best. Our family had 20 great years at the Cafe. The best part was all the people, customers and employees. Every day was something new and challenging. The Cafe is in good hands with Moises and Alicia.

  • Ate my first breakfast at the Eel River Cafe around 1955 and it’s still a pleasure to dine there…

  • Good videos of early Garberville here…


  • Glad I’m not old enough to remember the 1950’s! But I’m glad some of you are. Respect to the elders, always.

  • Ernie, you write so well, I hope that you will continue to post on Kym’s blog from time to time like this… people love it when you do!
    (or maybe you should have your own blog? wink)

  • As someone who can actually remember the 1940’s (albeit in Fortuna where I grew up), I second Ol’Man River’s suggestion to Ernie to post more often. Makes me feel young again to listen to his reminiscences. Anyone out there who remembers Sweasey’s soda fountain next to White’s grocery on Main Street in Fortuna except me?

  • Great post Ernie… thanks… now can we get the three ORIGINAL lamposts up and running? i heard a word they would be removed..I sure hope not. anyone?

  • I had breakfast and lunch there so many times I can’t count. The signs are both iconic. Really enjoyed Mr. Branscomb’s brief history of the cafe. I’m sure he could tell us so much more. I think I remember a Wards catalog store in Garberville, among many others I’ve probably forgot. Thank you for publishing.

  • Nicely said Ernie. Can this old Soda Fountain with all the crocks be the one from the Eel River Cafe? Does anyone know?

  • Wow, what a lot of memories this brought back! Loved the article, Earnie Branscomb. Thank you. As I read it I could hear in my minds ear, Dad (Bill Lillie) and the old loggers all talking about come the spring where they would be logging. Story telling about characters they knew from the 30’s and 40’s the old loggers. Smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at the Eel River Cafe.

  • I remember their chicken noodle soup. My folks were pretty frugile so that was it. Then one day when I was maybe 4 years old my Dad treated me to a butterscotch sundae and told me I had to keep it a secret from my sisters. I left most of the butterscotch in the fancy glass parfait and to this day I don’t like overly sweet things. But I kept the secret and it’s one of my cherished memories with my Dad circa 1958.

  • I hope they keep the cows 🐄🐄

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