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Hanky-panky in the Fountain Saloon

Madera County Historical Society

The Fountain Saloon was located at Gateway and Yosemite. George Gruber, the owner, is shown here, second from the left.


When Madera turned the corner into the 20th century and voted to incorporate in 1907, it had to elect a city council to pass the ordinances that would regulate life in the county seat. Chief among the concerns in those early days were the saloons that lined Yosemite, and at the top of the list of these “dens of iniquity” was the Fountain Saloon, owned by George Gruber.

Gruber had been operating the Fountain Saloon with a free hand for a long time, but when the people voted to incorporate, the new trustees decided to clip his wings. They were tired of the persistent reports that he was running a “disorderly” establishment, so they passed an ordinance prohibiting Gruber’s most egregious offense — serving women at his bar.

Now allowing women in his saloon was not what really bothered the trustees. If he had merely served them libations, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, but Gruber went too far when he also allowed them into the backroom where he slept. When he let Henry Hedges escort Nellie Smith and Ruby Young into his bedroom for drinks, that was too much. On Friday night, Sept. 27, Gruber was called on the carpet to defend his actions and his liquor license.

Gruber’s nemesis in this affair was Night watchman Lewis who charged that the saloon owner was not only entertaining women in his saloon but was also serving liquor to men who were obviously intoxicated. Lewis took the stand and laid out the facts as he had witnessed them on Sept. 19.

Lewis testified that on the night in question he observed two women enter the Fountain Saloon with Hedges who took them to Gruber’s bedroom in the back. Lewis said after a while he saw Hedges come out of the room holding a tray on which were four empty glasses.

Lewis said he then went behind the saloon, which was located on the northeast corner of what is now Gateway Drive and Yosemite Avenue to look around. While back there he heard women’s voices coming from inside the saloon. He went back into the bar and burst into Gruber’s bedroom. The night watchman accused Gruber of violating the city ordinance against serving women in his saloon and suggested he was involved in something even more disorderly. Gruber disputed Lewis’ allegations with vigor. So vehement was he that Lewis decided to leave and report the matter to the city trustees.

After Gruber’s denial of the charges before the council on Sept. 27, Lewis called a string of witnesses to testify against the saloon man. The first was attorney R.E. Rhodes who attempted to defend Gruber by stating that other saloons in town had been serving women as well as intoxicated men.

Rhodes was followed by Constable A.C. White who reported that he had often seen women drinking in Gruber’s saloon and had seen some men served liquor who couldn’t even stand up to drink it. Next came City Marshal Ray Northern who testified that he had often seen women coming out of the Fountain Saloon.

At that point, it was Gruber’s turn to defend himself. The saloon man told the trustees that on Sept. 19, he had been in bed when Hedges burst into his bedroom with Nellie and Ruby, one on each arm. Gruber insisted that he was appalled at the appearance of the women in his bedroom and demanded that they leave. When they refused until they had a drink, Gruber said he ordered his bartender to give them something to drink so that they would leave.

With that, the trustees decided to take a break and resume the hearing on the next night, September 28. When Mayor Roberts gaveled that meeting to order, he called two surprise witnesses: Nellie and Ruby.

Instead of helping Gruber’s cause, his customers did him in.

Ruby testified that she and Nellie did, indeed, accompany Hedges into Gruber’s bedroom, and then ordered drinks. Ruby said that she ordered the first round and paid for it; then Nellie treated. Then she dropped the bombshell. Ruby said that Gruber himself ordered the next round and that only Hedges got by without buying any drinks.

The last witness to testify in the case against Gruber was night watchman, Frank Woods, who admitted that he had seen women in Gruber’s bar on three different occasions. When asked if he had ever seen anyone who was drunk served liquor in the Fountain, Woods said he didn’t know what was meant by a drunk. When pressed on this by the Mayor, Woods admitted that he did have a way of telling if someone was intoxicated — if the subject was hollering on the street, he would arrest them. He told the council that he had never found anyone hollering outside the Fountain Saloon.

That wrapped up the testimonies, and the council went into executive session and emerged with a decision. George Gruber lost his license to sell liquor, but that is not all he lost in 1907. One month before his lost his liquor license, George lost his wife, Mary; she divorced him. This of course forces an observation. This no doubt accounts for the fact that George was sleeping in the back of his saloon. It also forces a question: was he always alone?

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