It’s lunchtime at Tequila’s Mexican in Clearlake. Russ Cremer, mayor of Clearlake, sits across the table. He’s ready to order; he doesn’t even look at the menu. “This is my go-to place for business lunches,” he nods and smiles.
The waitress stops by the table. “I’ll have the taco salad,” Russ orders off the top of his head. Then he turns his attention across the table. “So, you ready to start?” He dips a chip into the salsa.
“Let’s start with the beginning,” he says, pausing for a moment to think. “My family came here in 1879. My great grandfather settled in Lower Lake and started a ranching operation. My dad came here in the 1940s and ranched during the day and tended bar at Hoberg’s Resort at night. Eventually, he and my mother ran the ranch until he passed away. So, I grew up here.”
Russ smiles, thinking of the stories of his childhood in Lower Lake. “Every December on Facebook, they show pictures of the big snow of ’48 in Lower Lake,” he begins. “I was three months old when that happened. My mom and dad were out at the ranch, and because the electricity was out, they made my formula out of snow water.”
Russ grew up running cattle through what now is Clearlake. “Our family had three locations with land,” he says, taking a sip of water. “And we would run cattle between them. My great-grandfather bought range land off of Dam Road in Clearlake, and our family still owns it. Usually, in November or December, we’d move them down to our meadow. We moved them what was then cross-country, from where Woodland College is, across what is now Old Highway 53, and then down to our meadow, which is now Highlands Harbor. Then at the end of May around Memorial Day, we’d move them again. If we didn’t move the cattle by the Fourth of July, they were going to move themselves. They would break out and come across the highway, across old Highway 53, and head home to Lower Lake.
“The last time we moved the cattle,” Russ thinks aloud, “Was before we sold the meadow in 1964. Hwy 29 from Lower Lake was under construction, and the cut was through the hills.” He pauses, piecing the memory together. “Anyway, my dad got a call on a Saturday morning that the cattle were out. Dad knew exactly what to do. He got the old truck and put a few bales of hay on it. We caught the lead cow on the Cache Creek bridge. They were on their way home. Dad dropped me off at the crappy end of the herd, got in front of them, honked his horn, then went on up the new highway, through the cut to where our road is. He blocked them there, then led them the rest of the way to the ranch. That was the last year we did that.”
The food arrives, and Russ digs into the crunchy shell of the taco salad. It’s quiet for a minute while he thinks of living as a teenager in Lake County. Mariachi music plays on the speakers in the background.
“Life was different in the ’60s here,” he begins. “Both in Clearlake Highlands, which we just called ‘The Highlands,’ and all of the rest of Lake County. The resorts here were all going, and Konocti Harbor was brand new. The style of resorts was that of the ‘40s and ‘50s, with cottages and campsites. It was a going concern. In the summertime, it was busy on Lakeshore Drive, with people walking up and down. Austin’s beach was full of people. Back then, cruising Lakeshore was a big deal. I’ve got of memories of driving on it. I had a ’57 Chevy at first, and later I had a ’65 Chevelle. We would go up and down the road.” He smiles again.
“Back in the ’60s, there was water skiing and ski races. The lake was busy all the time. On Olympic Drive, there used to be a drive-in theater. That was, of course, a popular place as well. In fact, between where the dialysis center and the post office are now, you can still see the bumps where it used to be.
“There were also in the ‘60s as many as six fine dining establishments, bars, and restaurants, starting down at the lodge on Lakeshore. After that, there was the Lakeshore Inn, where the old Sunflower Chinese restaurant is, then beyond that the Lamplighter, which had a bar and a great view of the lake.
“Have you ever seen “American Graffiti?” he asks. “Clearlake Highlands was like that back then.
“Probably in the 70’s things started to change a bit. The Interstate Highway system went in, and it was faster. Tahoe was building up, and those resorts were new. The same thing happened with Lake Shasta and the houseboats. So, the resort business in Lake County fell off.”
Russ continues: “Around that time, they discovered gold at the Homestake Mine. Building that mine, they eventually had over 700 people working for them. The workers had to live somewhere, and all the resorts on Old Highway 53 started renting out to them. They changed to monthly rentals, and they never did come back.
“By the late ’70s, things had gone downhill. The city incorporated in 1980. I think they hoped that by incorporating, they could turn things around. I think they underestimated what it meant to have a city. All of a sudden you need staff, a road department, all these things. For years, the city kind of just treaded water.”
He takes another bite of his taco salad, then moves the conversation forward.
Check in next week for part 2 of Russ Cremer’s Interview: The Future of Clearlake.