Give Up Your Vows, Save Our City: An Interview with Peter Blecha

Down the roadhouse: Melby’s Tavern on Aurora, c. 1952. Courtesy of Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch. CC-BY

Peter Blecha, longtime Seattleite and lifelong historian, late of the Experience Music Project, currently of (see below), sees a new book hit the shelves: Lost Roadhouses of Seattle, written and assembled with Brad Holden. He was kind enough to take some questions over email.

Seattle Star: Are you a Seattle native?

Peter Blecha: Yes. I’m a co-op baby–born at Group Health Co-op on Capitol Hill. Though initially raised on Beacon Hill, my family moved down to Olympia during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Seattle Star: How has Seattle grown and changed, for better and/or worse?

Fiddler’s Inn. Courtesy of Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch. CC-BY

Peter Blecha: Seattle has certainly grown and changed. On the upside, KEXP radio is far more fulfilling than KJR, KISW, or KZOK ever were. Local music itself, in my opinion, became far better in the 1980s and ‘90s than back in the ‘70s–both in terms of musicianship and songwriting talent.

Seattle also has infinitely more and better restaurants in recent times than the olde days. Plus, there was no such thing as a real high-quality “ale house” back then. We largely just had shabby taverns and/or sterile cocktail lounges to choose from. Ironically, we now treasure the shabby few dives that remain extant.

On the downside: The Stranger will never replace The Rocket–in my opinion the former introduced a new general meanness to the area. Seattle is now far more crowded, meaner, dirtier, and dangerous. I must be getting old, because many of my favorite places, and former activities, no longer exist here. Most of Seattle’s great used bookstores, used record shops, thrift shop / junk stores, and antique shops have gone extinct. Back in the 1970s we could walk or bike around Green Lake and relax–today that path is more like a traffic jam. We also used to stroll from the U District to the downtown waterfront and back–just for fun, and at night!–without any notable concerns about being mugged or worse. Good luck with that today.

Seattle Star: What lead you to research Seattle history, and what other books have you written on the subject?

Peter Blecha: I have always been interested in history. Like kids of any era, I found dinosaurs to be fascinating. So, first prehistory, then ancient history–Egyptian pyramids, Roman Legions, Inca and Aztec stuff. My dad and I joined the rock-hound club in Olympia and I liked geology, even won a Blue Ribbon once for my rock collection displayed at the Puyallup Fair. Later I got into Native American history– while attending at the University of Washington, I took several courses with Bill Holm, the esteemed historian of Northwest Coast Native art.

Along the way I also got interested in Washington State history. One year, at about age 12, I was given the option: Would I like to attend summer day-camp out on some rural lake, or instead, “history camp” at the State Capitol Museum? You can guess which one I chose.

Not a roadhouse, we assure you. Ad for Willard’s. Courtesy of Northwest Music Archives.

Even earlier than that, at age 9 or 10, I’d discovered that there was a rock band that rehearsed in a basement a few houses north of mine. They were older guys who invited me down to watch them. Turns out they were The Bootmen–a band that had a single out on Tacoma’s Etiquette Records. The very same label as my favorite band on the radio: The Sonics. One thing led to another, and on one late-spring Friday night, a buddy and I rode our Stingrays over to the high school gym where we lucked out and found The Sonic, who were out back by the load-in doors. I asked: “Are you guys the Sonics? Which one of you guys is the drummer?” They all sorta snickered and pointed at Bob “Boom Boom” Bennett. I gushed: “Man, you are the best drummer. I want to play drums too.” And he encouraged me, saying something like: “You can do it. Get started!”

Seattle Star: Were you influenced by Paul Dorpat and/or Emmett Watson at all?

Peter Blecha: Well, I have always read the newspapers. The Daily Olympian and the Seattle Times as a kid, and later the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when I went off to college, so I became aware of the work both of those guys were doing. In the late-1970s I enjoyed going down to Emmett Watson’s Oyster Bar at Pike Place Market. I’d get a bowl of clam chowder and some fresh bread and hang out just to hear Watson mumble some interesting tale or another.

I initially met Paul as a customer at one or another of the U District record shops I worked at on-and-off from 1976 into 1992. I don’t know if I was influenced by those guys so much as inspired by their dedication to sharing stories about local topics.

Seattle Star: What have the biggest surprises been, researching Seattle history?

Peter Blecha: I am continually surprised by how many previously unpublicized, or under-reported, stories about this place can still be dug up. I can claim credit for having written and published the first words ever about more than one interesting topic. And then, the real fun is observing how those stories come to be embraced by our community–and that information goes on to be considered common knowledge. That, to me, is the greatest reward for being an historian.

Seattle Star: What is, and how did you get involved with it?

Peter Blecha: is the free online encyclopedia of Washington State history. It was founded back in 1997 by Walt Crowley, Paul Dorpat, Marie McCaffrey, Alan Stein, Priscilla Long, perhaps a few others. I think they were initially planning on writing a new, accurate, and definitive local history book, but then realized that times were changing so fast, new historical facts were still being unearthed, and that a book would be outdated the moment it got printed. A new model was required. So, they came up with a robust website that could grow, as well as be corrected if needed. I believe that it was one of the very first such internet sites.

My involvement? Well, way back in 1983 I had launched what would become a several-years-long regular history column in Seattle’s Rocket music magazine. It was called the “Northwest Music Archives” and was an outlet for me to share the results of ongoing research into our regional music history. A year or two later I independently developed, curated and promoted a couple of physical exhibits, one at the Seattle Public Library, about this same topic. And along the way, Walt took notice of my writings.

Mack’s Shanty. Courtesy of Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch. CC-BY

Meanwhile, in 1992 I’d been hired as the Archival Consultant for Paul Allen’s music museum project. That ultimately led to a Senior Curator position at the Experience Music Project (EMP), recast as today’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop). Anyway, after 8.5 years there I moved on and began writing books. That’s when Crowley invited me to try writing for HistoryLink. I did. And I still do–as a Staff Historian and Contributing Editor–all these 21 years later!

Seattle Star: What gave you the idea for a book on Seattle roadhouses?

Peter Blecha: For decades now, I have collected artifacts related to Northwest music history. Band photos, dance posters, old sheet music, local recordings, etc. Many of these can be seen on my website:–but another category is those items which are related to the places where all this music was/is performed: dancehalls, saloons, theaters, radio stations, recording studios – and roadhouses.

The idea for this book came about when a new kid on the block, Brad Holden, popped up a couple years back and wrote some fine essays on the Prohibition Era for HistoryLink. I was impressed with his work, we met up and realized that our artifact collections overlapped in one realm: the speakeasies, gambling dens, and roadhouses of the Northwest. We both had been gathering photos, and biz cards, menus and matchbook covers from these joints. It was an easy decision that we should collaborate on something. This book is the first result of our friendship.

Seattle Star: How did you go about researching the book? Did the Seattle Public Library archives get a workout? What other archives did you use?

Peter Blecha: Between us co-authors, I pretty sure we chased down just about every scrap of info we could from every archive around. Some helpful sources were: the Washington Secretary of State office, Washington State Archives Puget Sound Regional Branch, Thurston County Archives, Seattle Public Libraries, Tacoma Public Library, UW Libraries, Des Moines Historical Society, Shoreline Historical Museum, the Seattle Times, [the original] Seattle Star, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Town Crier magazine, King County jail records, musicians unions files, et cetera. We also conducted interviews with eyewitnesses, plus family members of various deceased figures.

Seattle Star: What are the most important social, racial, and artistic stories, associated with the roadhouses?

Brooklake Inn. Courtesy of Historical Society of Federal Way.

Peter Blecha: Some of the book’s subthemes–including live music, nightlife, organized crime and official corruption–remain relevant. I especially enjoyed researching the life of a character named “Doc” Hamilton. It was a challenge to piece together his story, but Lost Roadhouses now contains more freshly uncovered background info about Hamilton than any other previous publication.

He was a Black businessman who became the area’s most notable speakeasy operator in the 1920s and 1930s. His jazz joints were raided time and again, he was constantly in a courtroom, and the newspapers followed all this with a certain sense of glee. Because Hamilton was a happy, fun and popular guy–even the city mayor drank bootleg booze at his place.

The newspapers relished reporting about his antics in court. While on trial, Hamilton would pull stunts like pretending to snore. One time he distracted everybody by showing up with sandwiches for all. An underlying point was that the system was corruptible, a powerful man like Hamilton knew that if convicted he would usually face a day or two in jail, a minimal fine, and then he’d be out, and back in business. Along the way, it made him a bit of an urban folk hero–while also revealing the farce of law enforcement procedures, and the inequities of the legal system.

Seattle Star: Of all the colorful stories about the roadhouses, which ended up being your favorites, and why?

Peter Blecha: The Roy Olmsted saga is a really interesting one. During the same time period “Doc” Hamilton was serving as the town’s top speakeasy operator, the region’s illicit liquor-smuggling bossman was this former Seattle Police Department Lieutenant gone bad. Everything about Olmsted’s story is fascinating: how he ran a gang that snuck Canadian booze in at night on specially built speedboats; how his wife broadcast signals and warnings to those boats via coded “children’s story-telling” over the air on a radio station based in their very own Mount Baker neighborhood home; and, how they were eventually…oh….nevermind…I don’t want to be a spoiler here.

Seattle Star: The offensive tale of the Coon Chicken Inn caught my eye. Did you notice Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff inserting that story into their own film, Ghost World?

Peter Blecha: As reprehensible as that Inn’s theme was, we knew it had to be included in our book as it was a widely known, and historic, highway roadhouse–indeed, one with a jazz den tucked out back. We worked hard to be sensitive in our coverage of its story, without over-playing it, but made sure to note Seattle’s Black community’s successful protest activity that ultimately led to its rightful shuttering.

Am a bit embarrassed to have to admit that I have yet to see Ghost World.

Seattle Star: Which aspects of roadhouse history were the hardest to research, and why? How did you work through the challenges?

Peter Blecha: Great question. I would say that perhaps the greatest challenge was tracking–through the various newspapers that were active back during the 1920s-1940s–the ins and outs of some of the criminal trials of liquor bootleggers and smugglers. Some of those legal cases dragged on in the courts for months or even years. It wasn’t necessarily critical, for the book’s purposes, to learn how any one particular case was eventually resolved, but at the same time we didn’t want to not know! So that whole process devoured considerable research time.

Seattle Star: How did you meet your collaborator Brad Holden, and how did you share the labor?

Peter Blecha: Brad and I had a very easy time in figuring out the division of labor. He had already focused his research and collecting efforts largely around the roadhouses along his home turf, Northwest Seattle and the old Seattle-Everett Highway (Highway 99). Whereas, I already had a good grip on the nightlife action along Highway 99 South, as well as that on the Old Bothell Road (Lake City Way). Brad also wrote the introductory portion about Prohibition–and I wrote the outro bit about the final few local roadhouses that remain today.

Seattle Star: What are your plans for the future, publicizing this book and beyond?

Peter Blecha: So far, numerous community groups, area libraries, and book stores have invited us to make public presentations about Lost Roadhouses–and that has been a ton of fun because we have lots of cool photos of roadside dancehalls and dives which didn’t even make it into the book. So, I know our crowds enjoy that.

We are pondering a Volume 2 on this same topic in the future, but I am already gearing up to promote my next book in early 2023. It’s called Stomp and Shout: R&B and the Origins of Northwest Rock.

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