Demolition of iconic restaurant revives many fond memories
But the venerable restaurant on Riverside Avenue in Winthrop couldn’t survive the excavator and the bulldozer.
Demolition crews recently completed the dismantling of Sam’s Place, which has been owned for some time by next-door Farmers State Bank. Perhaps symbolically, all that’s left of Sam’s now is the bottom half of the Western façade that went up in 1972, presenting a brand new but older-appearing face to boardwalk strollers. Behind the false front, Sam’s Place continued to be the place for valley residents to gather from early morning to — well, earlier the next morning.
Back when people got up at 6 a.m., they congregated at Sam’s for morning coffee. They may have dropped in for lunch, then come by with the family in the evening for steaks, drinks, more conversation, Western music and dancing until the wee hours.
“It was a real restaurant, a nice place,” said Lauralee Northcott, who was co-owner of Sam’s for a while and played in a band there for years — real meaning good food, good company and a genuine welcome to all.
“It was always friendly and warm place. It was where we all went to enjoy the evening and each other,” said Shirley Haase, whose parents owned the restaurant decades ago.
Perhaps a victim of changing times and demographics, Sam’s Place closed in the late 1990s. But the 1890s-vintage façade continued to bear the restaurant’s name, though the doors and windows were closed up. Inside, it’s said, there were still salt-and-pepper shakers on the tables. And as demolition chewed away at the restaurant — actually, a melding of two buildings, one of which used to be a creamery, many still remember — the old light fixtures were revealed. They looked faded and dated.
Farmers State Bank hoped to use the space for equipment or storage, said Beau Adams, whose family has owned the 103-year-old bank since the mid-1960s. That never worked out. So mostly Sam’s sat quiet and empty.
After the bank acquired the building, Adams said, “we thought it might be good space for expanding the bank.” That was impractical because of the building’s condition. The entire the structure, including the top half of the façade, was deemed structurally unsound, Adams said.
“It saddened us that it wasn’t salvageable,” Adams said. “We were kind of attached to the building. I remember that we ate lunch there every day.”
Adams said demolition began last spring, was suspended during the summer and was finished this fall. He said the bank will restore the top half of the false front so Sam’s long-time appearance is restored. That work will have to wait until next year. Meanwhile, the truncated Sam’s will still be decorated with holiday lights, Adams said.
For now, the bank intends to use the area behind Riverside Avenue for parking, Adams said.
Everything behind the façade of Sam’s Place has been torn down and hauled away. What’s left now is the memories.
Lauralee Northcott and her husband, Clayton, owned Sam’s for a time. But what she remembers most vividly is the hundreds of hours she spent on the cramped stage as part of the Cascade Country Boys, a trio which also included Bob Stephens and Albert Ames.
That was well before Northcott went on to national acclaim in the world of Western music as a founder and member of the Horse Crazy Cowgirl Band, which performed for 17 years and won many awards. The experience at Sam’s was great preparation, she said.
“We played one gig at Sam’s that lasted six years,” Northcott said. “We played every Friday and Saturday night from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.”
“The place was always packed,” Northcott said, including the tiny dance floor.
“It was very rustic,” Northcott recalled. “You felt like you were kind of in a bunkhouse.”
Before the dinner hour, Northcott added, Sam’s old-fashioned bar (flocked wallpaper and all) was a favorite watering hole every day. “Well drinks were $1.25,” she said. “It was a cool place.”
Jane Orme and her husband owned the restaurant in the 1990s and were the last ones to operate it, she said.
“It was beloved,” Orme said of Sam’s. “It was a great place for people to gather all day long.”
“Thursday was steak night,” Orme continued. “It was very popular. Everyone went there and saw each other. It was all about good comfort food — steaks, potatoes, salads.” Orme recalled that the food was always good at Sam’s Place. “They had a lot of great cooks,” she said.
Orme said she liked Northcott’s trio. “They were a great cowboy band, and a lot of fun.”
Claude Miller, who said his wife was also a co-owner of the bar for a time, remembers Sam’s as an active place. On weekends, he said, “it was a full house. Everyone danced up a storm.”
The day started early at Sam’s, Miller said. “All the men would meet at Sam’s Place to talk every morning at 6 a.m.,” he said. In the late afternoon, many of them returned to the bar for more talk. “Twenty-five to 30 years ago, there was a lot of business done in that bar,” Miller said.
One thing that stands out in Miller’s memory, he said, was a swinging saloon-style door in the men’s room. “It was always there, as long as I can remember,” he said.
Shirley Haase’s parents owned the place for a long time, she said, as far back as when it was called the Winthrop Café. Her mother was the cook. Haase spent a lot of time there in the 1960s and ’70s, she said — perhaps more than she intended.
“My husband and I were ranching, but lots of times I was called to work” as a waitress at the restaurant, she said.
“In those days, a quarter was a good tip,” Haase said. She too cited the long hours required in running a place like Sam’s. “It was from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” she said. “When you worked, you worked hard.”
More than just an eatery, the restaurant was a place where the community actually communed, Haase said.
“Back then, we all knew each other and took care of each other,” she said.
In that sense, losing Sam’s Place was like losing an old friend.
“It had a life,” Northcott said. “It heard many a story in its time.”