When the Angels came to town

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The Hells Angels made Healdsburg their playground in the late 1960s

Wander the tree-lined downtown streets of Healdsburg today and listen. Do you hear the vibrant tunes from the Tuesday evening concerts?

Splashing water from the Plaza fountain, or shoppers and the hubbub of commerce?

If you lived here in the 1960s, you might have heard a different sound — the loud and distinctive rumble of V-twin engines and straight pipes. The Hells Angels were roaring into town. Again.

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The 1960s were active civic times for bucolic Healdsburg. A new city hall was planned and the municipal airport was dedicated. An inaugural Prune Blossom Tour took place, drawing 1,500 visitors.

The winnowing effects on merchants from the “new” Highway 101 bypass were just being felt and an effort to attract out-of-town shoppers was underway.

Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for California governor at a dinner at Healdsburg’s Villa Chanticleer (Buck Nardi was the chef that night).

As a reminder that we were still rural, though, a bear wandered into the north end of town.

It was a town of around 5,000-plus in population, that number swelling somewhat with summer residents and tourists who arrived on Memorial Day weekend and departed promptly by Labor Day.

It was the other, often rowdier, visitors that caused consternation. Not more bears; the Hells Angels.

Organized after World War II, the Angels are a nuisance, an organized crime syndicate, motorcycle enthusiasts or just colorful counter-culturists, depending upon who you talk to.

But by mid-1960s Healdsburg, they were a regular presence that often wreaked havoc in the bars and shops of the ‘burg.

The prevailing joke about those times was that there was an equal number of bars and churches downtown.

Patrons could close down a bar Saturday night and amble into church a few hours later.

Taverns were locally owned, with names familiar to old-timers: Norm’s, The Brass Rail, John & Zeke’s, Frankie’s 339 Club, Sportsman’s Lodge, Buck’s 311 Club and the B&B, to name a few.

At least a few teenagers rode their horses through one of the bars’ swinging doors as a lark, and were promptly shooed out.

When the Hells Angels appeared, though, shooing them was not as easy. In May 1969, the Healdsburg Tribune reported that 80-90 Hells Angels “descended” on the community on a prior weekend, necessitating all off-duty officers to be called back in to deal with the gaggle of cyclists.

Diane Bertoli’s late husband, Lou, was on the police force at that time. “I think Lou was a sergeant then,” Diane recalled. “He told me that he was more concerned with some locals who tried to look like tough guys, than with the Hells Angels.”

Bertoli’s philosophy was, “Let them alone to have their beer and they’ll go away.” Diane said he told the club members clearly, “Here is what you can do, and what you can’t do.”

Taverns were not the only hangouts of the motorcyclists. Del Rio Woods, Camp Rose and cafés were favorite spots, too.

A group of 30 cyclists were en route to Cloverdale and “blasted up to the Lazy Inn” on Dry Creek Road for something to eat on Labor Day, 1966.

One July, 20-30 riders cruised up and down Westside Road and around Camp Rose, reportedly buying out the hamburgers and hot dogs there.

Mary Lou Eddinger’s mother, Rose Pavoni, owned The Office café on West Street (now Healdsburg Avenue) and Eddinger remembers them well. “The first time they came in, they ordered, ate and left. The next weekend, they brought in their own bacon and eggs and wanted my mother to cook it. She stood up to them and said, ‘No, you have to order off the menu.’ They respected her for that.”

At the time, The Office had leather booths, and the members’ knives and chains eventually ripped the seats.

Rose asked the Angels to leave the metal outside, so they did. Mary Lou said they came in on most Sundays, probably from their encampment near West Dry Creek Road. Their presence did seem to deter the regulars from dining on those mornings.

Tame or not, an article from the June 18, 1968 edition of The Tribune relates how various bacchanalian displays had provoked the citizens to demand action from the city:

“A pressed city council, still in the process of determining how best to handle the threatened takeover of the community and area by members of a motorcycle club, found the task almost beyond them …. 0 or more aroused citizens exerted polite, restrained, but relentless pressure on the councilmen to say what had been done about the “growing menace in our town ... the Hell’s Angels.”

In 1973, one local landowner fired shots at a Hells Angel member when the speeding motorcyclist, fleeing the police, turned onto the wrong road on West Dry Creek.

Healdsburg Museum Curator Holly Hoods commented on that era. “The Plaza was undergoing an economically depressed period in the 1970s and was basically surrounded by boarded-up buildings.”

The Plaza fountain was a popular gathering spot for the Hells Angels, though. “They kind of took over that part of the Plaza. There would be biker chicks taking sponge baths in the fountain,” Hoods added.

Perhaps this last action was prompted by a comment made by then California Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, that, “These people, both club members and the female associates, seem badly in need of baths.”

Things calmed down to a dull roar by the 1980s. Healdsburg was becoming inhospitable to the group, it seems. In 1985, a trio was stopped and one member arrested for “allegedly packing a concealed, loaded weapon.”

Another pistol that was found in nearby bushes went unclaimed.

The Hells Angels found other playgrounds and Healdsburg moved to upgrade its downtown.

A concerted effort by the city and chamber of commerce in the 1980s birthed a redevelopment agency, which helped jump-start the languishing downtown. Now, tasting rooms, shops and award-winning restaurants ring the Plaza.

As to bears, well, one was sighted again recently, meandering downtown at two in the morning. No Hells Angels, but … you never know.

Sources: The Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar and Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society.

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