Willowbrook Ale House, a two-story shingled building on the north end of Petaluma, has a history that belies its modest appearance.
Almost 130 years old, it has served as a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop and a check-in for runners in a fabled Indian ultra-marathon race that ran all the way to Oregon when the Redwood Highway was new.
Pioneer aviator Fred Wiseman, credited in 1911 with making the first air mail flight in the country, had to make an emergency landing on Denman Flat, behind the old stick-frame building, and supposedly dropped off one of the newspapers there.
“He got out of the broken airplane, walked to the Willowbrook and delivered the newspaper,” said Bob Proctor, a member of E. Clampus Vitus, the colorful fraternal organization that on Saturday commemorated the historical significance of Willowbrook by dedicating and unveiling a plaque outside the pub.
Proctor said his organization does extensive research to make sure its historical information is accurate and has placed more than 4,000 plaques on significant buildings throughout the West, mostly in California.
For Willowbrook, that included delving into Wells Fargo archives, county property records, the Petaluma Historical Museum and old newspapers.
Built in 1886 near the creek of the same name, Willowbrook was a Wells Fargo stage stop for the first two years of its existence, according to Proctor, a retired prison official and former high school football referee who lives in Rohnert Park.
The building went though a number of incarnations over the years.
“Sometimes it was just a pub, sometimes a grocery store. Another time, it was a motor court for travelers,” Proctor said. “Basically, it’s been a place to buy groceries and beer, and sometimes you could stay there.”
Vintage photographs from the 1920s show Texaco gas pumps out front and signs advertising the milkshakes, ham and eggs and Coca-Cola available inside.
The Indian Redwood Marathon, a publicity stunt to mark the debut of the Redwood Highway, had a check-in at Willowbrook in 1927 and 1928 for the race that ran from the steps of San Francisco City Hall to Grants Pass, Ore.
The winners had names like Flying Cloud and Mad Bull, and it took them a little over a week to run or walk the 480 miles.
But it was the decade prior that also marked a historic occasion when Wiseman, flying his homemade airplane from Petaluma to Santa Rosa with the first-ever air mail delivery, ran into difficulty and had to land close by.
He took off from Petaluma with stamped letters, newspapers and a few bags of coffee, said Proctor, adding that when Wiseman landed at Denman Flat on Feb. 17, 1911, he broke a skid, forcing him to stay overnight to repair it.
Originally, Proctor said, Wiseman’s plan was to drop the newspapers from the air, but after landing he took one of the newspapers to the Willowbrook.
“Technically speaking, it was where the first piece of air mail was delivered,” Proctor asserted.
Willowbrook, located at 3600 Petaluma Blvd. North, has been owned since 1996 by Bob Varner and Gary Simontacchi, who offer not only beer, but also a full bar and hamburgers. Pool tables, a jukebox, pinball, TV and live bluegrass music are some of the attractions for the eclectic crowd.