By Swede Pedersen
Ralph “Swede” Pederson, who wrote the following article for MarinScope back in 1972, was one of Sausalito’s most venerable characters. As a kid, he ran with a gang who called themselves Jackals of the Fog. At 18, he won a Golden Gloves light heavyweight trophy. After duty during WWII in the Pacific with the Army Engineers, Swede worked as a rigger at Marinship. After the war ended he became a fireman, and was dubbed “that huge blond saint” by a woman he comforted after an auto accident. He also was a legendary historian and storyteller. Here are excerpts from his history of one of his favorite hangouts:
In tracking the history of Smitty’s Bar, as it has been known since 1938, some backtracking had to be done.
Originally, the property belonged to Joe Bettencourt, who had a beer and soda pop bottling plant. In 1916 Joe Bettencourt had his beer bottling plant in a barn on what is now 2000 Bridgeway, next to the old Pembroke Hotel. In the 1960s, the upper floors were destroyed by fire.
During this time, Joe Bettencourt conceived his lager beer in 50-gallon kegs, shipped from the Santa Rosa Brewery. Here, Joe would fill his from the kegs, the bottles standing in water vats. The bottled beer would be steamed at 140 degrees and then capped. The process took several hours to accomplish.
Bettencourt decided to move closer to the main drag, so he purchased the big bars by the Buena Vista Park site next to where Smitty’s now stands, 214 Caledonia.
Before Bridgeway was constructed, Caledonia Street used to be the main roadway of Sausalito, coming off of the Water Street and San Carlos intersection. He continued with his beer bottling operation, adding soda pop to the plant’s efforts during Prohibition.
In 1925, Bettencourt, whose barn set back off Caledonia Street, added a bar and saloon to further his endeavors in an already flourishing business with soda pop and beer bottling.
Jack Witsch and Hans Stritmatter took over after the bootlegging days, incorporating a card room with a “drinking palace.” Witsch, a good railroad man, and Stritmatter, a speculator, had a good business.
As the good money spending times faded, the building was vacated for a time and placed in the hands of the bank.
In 1938, railroad man Frank “Smitty” W. Smith leased the bottling works and saloon, turning it into a bar and Chinese restaurant. In 1941, Smitty was fortunate to win a good sum of money in a lottery. With this money, he converted the bottling plant behind the bar and restaurant to three bachelor apartments and a family home as it stands today.
Smitty continued working at his establishment until 1948. (Danny Durant took over the place for a short time during the early part of the war years and then Smitty resumed ownership again.)
In 1948, Smitty’s daughter and her husband, Bill Masha, purchased the business. Bill and Susie successfully ran the business until June 1958 until Bill died. Susie, who had strong determination, continued to work behind the plank along with her bartenders.
During the time she ran Smitty’s she was awarded many plaques and commendations for her help at Vallejo Naval Hospital and also contributed generously to the Sausalito Boy Scouts, sending them to camp. She also contributed to the vacation fund of the Spanish classes at Martin Luther King school, allowing the students to visit Mexico.
Due to illness, Susie sold her license to her long-standing bartender, George Salata, in December 1968. George, his wife Virginia and son Danny continue making the bar a “family affair” with all pitching in behind the bar with the help of bartenders George Howpador and Jake Anfibilo.
Smitty’s sign still hangs in front of the bar for sentimental reasons and George and Virginia are seeing that the “last neighborhood bar” continues with their surprise feeds on days such as Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, and other special days – giving those customers without families a chance to sit down and eat with others, being a part of the neighborhood.
Smitty’s is the last bar in Sausalito that has retained its original construction. Here everyone knows each other by first names and can be challenged to a game of shuffleboard or pool or can just relax and watch football or baseball . . . it’s almost like home.
Since 1992, Smitty’s has been owned by three partners, and is well known for its annual pig roast, theme parties on major holidays, and participation in community events such as the annual Chili Cook-Off, Sausalito Art Walk and Labor Day Art Festival.
In 2003, Smitty’s was named one of the “Great Gin Joints” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and it proudly displays a Dive Bars plaque from Marin Magazine.