Through Any Given Door

1.14 Golden Eagle Cafe

1932 • Colusa, California ~ Two years into the Great Depression, when there were no jobs and little money and Herbert Hoover was unable to keep his campaign promises of prosperity, 59-year-old Nellie moved to the bustling rice town of Colusa, the county capital built on a lazy river bend in the center of the Sacramento Valley. She left Charles behind and brought her two youngest daughters with her, Ina and Babe, the rest of her children grown and out of the nest. There she opened an eatery. It was Prohibition, and the former Golden Eagle Bar and Hotel was now called the Golden Eagle Hotel and Cafe, serving tea and milkshakes instead of beer and whiskey. They lived in three small rooms over the restaurant, and the girls helped their mother cook for the locals and the men who’d come to town to work on the big government reclamation project, the building of a weir and the new bridge. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, they also sold coffee, cakes and pies. Sodas were a nickel and sandwiches, hamburgers, and hot dogs went for a dime. Nellie carried cigarettes too; two packs of Camels were a quarter. Word spread through town and Nellie became known for her one-pot dishes: her beef stew, her spaghetti, her lima beans, tamale pie, beef chili, and especially her chicken soup.

Babe and Nellie, Golden Eagle Cafe, 1932

     Opening ads in the Colusa Sun running for the month of February 1932 read:
AMERICAN CAFE — 120 FIFTH STREET — NOW OPEN
Coffee, Pies & Cakes
24 Hour Service
Reasonable Rates

Audio: The Golden Eagle Cafe (click arrow to listen)

On a crisp fall morning after Mass, while Carl and Lawrence perched on the swivel stools at the end of the counter at the Golden Eagle and made small talk with Mrs. Nellie Chatfield as she fixed their usual Sunday breakfast of fried bacon and eggs, Babe walked in. Mrs. Chatfield’s sixteen-year-old daughter seldom showed up before 10:00 any morning. She liked to sleep in.

Employed by Frederickson & Watson Construction Company, traveling from job to job and rooming in boarding houses wherever their work took them, Lawrence and Carl came to Colusa in August of 1932 to work on the new weir construction. It was a fifteen-hundred foot cement dam built to regulate Sacramento River flow. Work was hard to come by, and the brothers went where the jobs were.

Babe 

They became Sunday morning regulars and Babe always waited for the two of them to come in before making her entrance down the stairs. She sat at a nearby table while her mother cooked her a rare steak. Lawrence sat at the counter eyeing her. Babe was fast-talking and quick-witted: quick to flirt, quick to laugh, and quick to snap back. Snappy-eyed and snappy-mouthed, he thought she was one snappy girl.

Lawrence was the talker of the two lanky men and he and Babe bantered back and forth, laughing and telling stories. Carl said little when Babe was nearby; he may have been twenty-six and seven years older than Lawrence, but he still had the innocence of a farm boy.

The brothers missed their family and home-cooked food. They liked coming to the café and liked Mrs. Chatfield. She reminded them of their mother; she too believed in God, hard work, and common sense. They respected that in a woman. In return, Nellie Chatfield admired the men, especially Carl. He was Catholic, dependable, upright, a worker, quiet and kind, and he didn’t smoke or drink. This man was a good prospect for her daughter and he would be a decent addition to the family: yes, Carl Clemens was a grand choice in Nellie Chatfield’s book. She wished she was younger.

Comfortable around Mrs. Chatfield, Carl talked to her about the heat and the bugs, discussed the differences between hay and rice farming, and went on about Longhorns and Herefords and Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds. They could talk about almost anything. It was Babe he was tongue-tied around. His sweaty palms wouldn’t come out of his pockets when she was near, his long legs stayed wrapped and glued to the swivel chair post, his large feet locking him on.

Noreen “Babe” Chatfield

Lawrence thought Babe was spoiled, getting up late and being waited on hand and foot by her mother, but he was drawn to her. She was not like the Catholic girls back home, not like most girls he knew. She seemed older and bolder, quick and outspoken. But Lawrence didn’t interest Babe—Carl did—Carl, who didn’t say a word to her, who could hardly look her in the eye, who could only bow his head and lower his lashes and twiddle his thumbs. Perhaps she didn’t understand that Carl was naïve and had never been with a woman. Babe wasn’t used to being ignored. She set her sights on this good-looking, tall, brawny Minnesota farmer, determined to have him. She went after Carl like Annie Oakley roping a rodeo calf. He never even felt the branding. Too shy to make a move on his own, he was roped and tied before he hit the ground.

Lawrence, upset about their impending marriage, did everything he could to talk his brother out of it.

Babe, age 17

“This woman is not going to be good for you,” he warned. “She’s not the kind of woman to marry. She’ll only cause you heartache and trouble.” Carl turned a deaf ear.

And so, within six months of meeting one another in the Golden Eagle Cafe, in an early morning Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in Colusa, California, my father married my mother.

Carl and Babe, wedding day

As it turned out, Lawrence wasn’t jealous. He was right.

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. I can see a resemblance between Carl and your grandson in this picture.

  2. Janet Sasaki says:

    Can’t wait for the next chapter!

  3. I started out liking these stories and very quickly fell in love with them!

  4. Jim Chatfield says:

    You describe the early 30s like you had been there. My earliest memories of that time was about 1934 and lived in the small river town of Custer Park, Illinois. That was when I was 4 years old.

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