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Remembering the White Cockade Scottish Pub: Recipes, Photos, and Recollections

One Hundred Thousand Welcomes! A Legendary Boulder Creek Watering Hole Remembered.

By Julie Horner

In days past, anyone traveling deep in the forest along Upper Highway 9 in Boulder Creek might spot The White Cockade Scottish Pub biding beside the roadway with its front door painted bright blue and emblazoned with a white X, the Saltire, representing the St. Andrews Cross, the flag of Scotland. Fitted with a wrought iron door-knocker in the shape of the traditional Claddagh, two hands clasping a heart topped with a crown, the words “Céad Míle Fáilte” — Gaelic for “a hundred thousand welcomes” — were emblazoned in white just above.

For those wondering what happened to this legendary outpost, a small but mighty 118-page book called The White Cockade is still available on-demand from Blurb Press that tells of the pub’s final years. Written by former owner John Harry Johnsen and published in 2011, nearly five years after the pub closed its doors, this is an insider’s glimpse into one of Boulder Creek’s many colorful chapters and is packed with memories, history, advice, musings, recipes, rants, photos, and loads of atmosphere.

John writes in the book, “Before it became The White Cockade, the old rustic structure had been many mountain bars. In the 1950s it was called the Swiss Chalet, in the 70s it was Waterman’s Gap.” According to San Lorenzo Valley Museum curator and historian Lisa Robinson, the building was part of a mid-1930s subdivision developed by Paul Tiehl called San Lorenzo Woods. Several businesses established themselves at the location over the years including Abuelitas Restaurant (1975); Waterman Gap Inn (1981); The Yellow Rose Cafe (1985, and a frequent haunt for Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Jill Croston, also known as Lacy J Dalton); and finally The White Cockade.

Discovering the White Cockade

John and his friend Jeff Scammon discovered the pub on a rainy day driving on Highway 9 from Cupertino to Santa Cruz in search of vinyl record stores, which then turned into an unofficial pub crawl. He recounts: “I remember it as if it were yesterday — 1986. Jeff and I were driving back from Santa Cruz at about 3:45 on a Monday afternoon. We had just finished a big contracting job and were taking advantage of the rest of the day off. As our truck rounded a bend, I caught a brightly lit BASS ALE neon sign out of the corner of my eye. Jeff! I blurted. Turn around! I think I just saw a pub!”

Once through the heavy entry door, the two found Valhalla. “My first impression of the place was that we had crossed over into the past,” John writes. “The place looked like it had been a pub in the remote Scottish woodlands for at least 40 years. Celtic music, the aroma of fish and chips cooking. English, Welsh, and Scottish ales at hand, not a domestic beer to be found…I knew right then and there I had found my new local, and I fell in love with the place.”

It was at the bar at The White Cockade where he met Chip, short for “Chip off the old block.” His full name was George Adams O’Brien II, and John writes that he made them feel most welcome. Tom Cramer and Barbara Stanford owned the place at the time. They bought the defunct Yellow Rose in 1985 with the concept of recreating an old British style pub rich with Jacobite legend and the Scottish tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The pair traveled to the UK in search of antiques and hardware “truly causing the redwood pub to appear as if it had been in the tall wood for a very long time,” John writes in the book.

Years passed and the pub became a regular haunt for John and his friends. There was “no television, no jukebox, no electric bar games,” but patrons could play checkers, chess, cribbage, and darts; neighbors passing the time over frosty pints discussing current events and local issues. In the book John describes Scorchy the deer trophy, which hung maybe a little too close to the heat above the fireplace mantle. There was Moggy the cat, who had the run of the place. “You could watch her walk across the bar and just plop down in front of an unsuspecting customer eating his dinner.” The book is laced with humorous recollections of colorful characters. Punters came in for a pint or a few — many wearing traditional Scottish attire — broke bread together, and talked for hours by the glow of the hearth.

The White Cockade, a book by John Harry Johnsen

Pints, Poltergeists, and Proprietorship

In September of 2002 John was offered the proprietorship of The White Cockade. John said, “Back in 2003, before I met Nancy. I bought the business not the building from two locals who bought the white cockade property but did not want to own the restaurant business.”  His goal was to bring the pub back to the vision of original owner Barbara Stanford. Chip stayed on to tend bar, and John’s young kids Emily, Ethan, and Garrett helped with everyday operations. John’s new wife Nancy ran the front of the house, made all of the desserts and salads and helped with serving at dinner service and helped book private events. John said, “Even Nancy’s 83 year old mother Una would help serve during Burns night dinners and the Loch Lomond Celtic society dinner.” A self-taught chef, John helped his and Nancy’s son Ethan learn the ropes in that little kitchen and let him come up with specials. Ethan later went on to become a cordon bleu chef for the United States Coast Guard. “Our son Garrett, who was 7 at the time, would bus tables, and daughter Emily would run the register when Chip was off.” At one point a 17-year old local named Josh Fenker helped with the cooking.

According to John, he was forced to close the pub in 2003 because the rent was not tenable. “I signed over my alcohol license to a person who was going to turn the place into a sandwich shop,” he said. “But In 2004 I found out that the property was for sale and that the other person could not raise the money to buy the White Cockade property, so the alcoholic beverage license reverted back to me.” So, he contacted the new owner of the property and came to a lease agreement in 2005. With help from his father Harry Johnsen to make sure upgrades followed county codes and Nancy with some life savings, they re-established the pub and re-opened with a complete retrofit, new septic system and a new kitchen. From then on it was wild venison dishes, meat pies, bangers and mash, and other hearty savories paired with Twisted Thistle IPA, McEwan’s Scotch Ale, and Black Sheep Brewing Holy Grail Ale; just a few in a laundry list of highly regarded imported suds. And local wines and Scotch whisky. Fine tastes in a comfortable, cozy, old world setting in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

John shares a trove of mountain secrets in The White Cockade and tells of lively encounters with travelers and locals alike. Even the paranormal. “It wasn’t long after I took over the pub in 2002,” John writes, “that a lot of unexplained events started happening.” Patrons reported seeing a ghostly white apparition, likely the spirit of the pub’s first owner Barbara Stanford. “Women ran screaming out of the ladies’ loo swearing a woman appeared in the mirror beside their faces.” In 2005 the activity escalated. Stove burners and lights turned on and off by themselves, and heavy footsteps were heard from vacant rooms. John and his new wife Nancy called in Lloyd Auerbach, a parapsychologist and paranormal investigator and author and a medium by the name of Annette Martin, who said there were two spirits occupying the pub. According to The Santa Cruz Ghost Directory author Aubrey Graves, the other entity was likely “a logger named Ben, who died in the 1980s.” John writes that according to Nancy, she would see wet boot prints in unlikely places, would wipe them away, only to have them reappear moments later.

According to John, in 2003 The White Cockade Scottish Pub was featured in an obscure independent film called Beaver Run Cafe. And CBS Eye on the Bay with Liam Mayclem conducted a special TV episode filmed at the White Cockade featuring the now defunct Loch Lomond Celtic Society of Ben Lomond and the South Bay Scottish Society. The White Cockade was also where ideas sprouted and relationships were cast in stone. In 1989 Tam Paterson, then host of the world music program ‘The Eagle’s Whistle’ on KAZU Monterey County public radio, and like-minded Santa Cruz area Celtophiles launched the concept for the Celtic Society of the Monterey Bay. Bay Area Celtic musicians organized traditional sessions of music there, formed friendships, and most are still playing melodies together most notably at O’Flaherty’s in San Jose and Rosie McCann’s in Santa Cruz.

The book The White Cockade contains recipes for over 30 of John’s favorite dinners including Beef Wellington, Yorkshire Pudding, Fish and Chips, Scottish Haggis, and the “best Shepherd’s Pie you’ll ever taste,” according to more than one reviewer. Each recipe is paired with a recommended beverage from the bar.

The White Cockade Scottish Pub in its heyday | Photo by John Harry Johnsen

The White Cockade Scottish Pub closed permanently on December 31, 2006 partly due to county infrastructure requirements, partly due to issues with revolving landlords. “It will never open again…sorry Boulder Creek,” John writes in reply to a well wisher on Yelp. The building at 18025 Highway 9 in Boulder Creek is now a private residence with no indication that it was once a beloved community meeting place. The pub lives on, however, in memory and in print in the book The White Cockade. In an email exchange earlier this year, John, who says he’s now a ‘working stiff’ for the Livermore Area Recreation and Park District, expressed, “I actually wrote [the book] for my family and friends and to preserve some memories as they were still fresh. It’s bittersweet, but I did love the place and we did what we could to keep it real. No regrets! Those were great fun times when I had the pleasure of being the custodian of The White Cockade. It was our passion to keep the tradition of the Cockade and offer a proper pub experience to the public.”

The White Cockade, book by John Harry Johnsen, is available on-demand through Blurb Press: blurb.com/b/4241418-the-white-cockade

John maintains an online presence in memory of the pub: Instagram: @the_white_cockade_pub and there is a compilation of original photographs set to Celtic music on YouTube: The White Cockade Free House

Featured photo The White Cockade Scottish Pub in snow by John Harry Johnsen.

Julie Horner writes about art, music, and the local business scene in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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