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The Live Oak Garage (April 23, 1997)

The Live Oak Building that stands today as a centerpiece in downtown Boonville was at one time a busy repair garage and filling station. Built at the height of America's love affair with the automobile, this building was, to the best of my knowledge, the third and final repair shop/garage that was owned by Mr. C.A. “Cat” Tarwater, his nickname deriving from the first three initials of his full name. Cat was born and raised in Boonville and I believe his father, Tommy Tarwater, was as well. (Tommy, Cat’s dad, is remembered by many of the Valley’s old-timers as a well-liked character.) It was Cat’s grandfather who first brought the Tarwater family to Anderson Valley way back in the 1850s. There is a prominent mountain/hill near the Peachland Road known by most folks these days as “Octopus Mountain,” but its real and true name is “Tarwater Hill,” so named because it was at the base of this mountain where the Tarwater family lived for three generations, grandfather, father and Cat who eventually sold the place. 

The first repair shop, built around the turn of the century, was located a mile south of Boonville at the junction of Highway 128 and 253. The business served as a multi-purpose shop that repaired some of the earliest machinery, blacksmith and forged iron, and generally fixed any and all things that needed fixing. The gasoline engine at this time in history was replacing more and more of the old blacksmith jobs. Then came the automobile and Cat slowly transformed his repair business to better serve the automobile and soon the repair shop became a repair garage. 

At some point during this time period, Cat Tarwater met and married a girl from southern California named Marie, making their home in Boonville. The growing popularity and affordability of automobiles during this time had encouraged Cat to expand his business and so with the help of Marie’s family, Cat and Marie built a brand new, and quite large, repair garage in downtown Boonville and they called it The Live Oak Garage.

Then McDonald built the McDonald to the Sea Highway connecting the inland to the coast, placing Boonville directly in the middle.

Years passed when a fire burned most of the Live Oak Garage. The Tarwaters rebuilt the garage even bigger than the first building and the two of them ran the Live Oak until Cat's death in 1946, when he suffered a heart attack while welding a cattle guard on the Bradford Ranch.

During the age of prohibition a funny thing happened one day at the Live Oak. A local bootlegger who made an excellent apricot brandy made frequent delivery runs to Sonoma County by way of an old truck that had been used in the past for delivering split redwood posts. The truck, loaded with barrels of brandy, would be covered with layers of redwood posts so that it looked like the truck was a full load of redwood and nothing else.

On the day that this story takes place, the old truck was loaded without incident and so out and onto the road went the bootlegger’s truck with his brandy safely concealed beneath a pile of redwood posts. Up through the Valley they traveled and just as they reached the town of Boonville the truck suffered a mechanical breakdown of some kind, so the driver coasted off to the side of the road. After a quick check under the hood the driver decided to walk up the street to the Live Oak Garage and get some help. A few minutes later the old truck had been towed up to the Live Oak Garage where Sam Fitch was the mechanic on duty.

The Live Oak had a tow truck available, so Sam fired it up and headed out of the garage then slowly disappeared down the street out of sight. It wasn't long before Sam, the tow truck, and the bootlegger's broken down truck rumbled back up the street and into the garage. Sam lowered the bootlegger's truck onto the garage floor then proceeded to push the truck while steering it through the open driver's side door. Slowly the old truck was eased into position over the large grease pit. Sam made his way around the rear of the truck where the stairs of the grease pit led down and under the belly of the truck, descending to where he was better able to go about his work on the truck down in the pit. Sam was pretty much hidden from everyone else and so everyone involved felt confident enough to leave old reliable Sam alone to work his mechanic magic.

The quiet inside the garage was soon replaced with the sounds of hammers against metal, driving everyone out into the street where they could carry on a conversation while they waited for Sam to finish fixing the truck. It seems with all the banging and moving around Sam's work had created, one of the barrels of apricot brandy sprang a leak, which went unnoticed by everyone at the garage — everyone but Sam Fitch that is. After an hour had gone by, the banging sounds emanating from deep within the grease pit began to take on a completely different sound and style. The change was growing more noticeable by the minute until it was obvious to everyone at the garage that something was amiss. Someone eventually decided to go into the garage and called out, “Hey Sam! How much longer is it going to be?” The air about the garage fell deadly quiet for a moment as Sam replied, “Just a few more sips... I mean minutes... and I'll be done!” Sam came out a few minutes later, wringing his greasy hands on an old rag carrying the remains of what was once his hammer that was all but flattened on one side from the hour and a half of maniacal pounding. Sam, being a man of a few words, said, “I'm going to lunch now.”

Sam left through the garage doors sideways and a bit wobbly, disappearing down the street until only his singing could be heard until the song ended with the slamming of his front door to his house. Not one solitary word had been exchanged between the men at the Live Oak from the moment Sam emerged from the grease pit.

With the slamming of the front door at Sam's place, Glen, Sam's boss, shook his head side to side and snapped out of his silent disbelief saying, “Lunch?! For Chrissakes, it's 9:30am!”

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