Need to sell a cow? Get help drilling a well? Find out who just moved in down the road?
If you live in the remote mountain community of Lockwood Valley, there's only one place that will satisfy your pocketbook, curiosity and thirst--all at the same time.
That's Owl's Barn, the down-at-the-heels family cafe and sole commercial establishment for miles around in this forested, northeastern corner of Ventura County.
Since 1953, proprietor Al Winter has served up a smorgasbord of beer, gossip and local lore.
On weekends, it's not unusual for someone to bring along a guitar or harmonica. Word spreads, and soon up to 50 people have crowded into the low-roofed, homey bar and attached patio to tap their cowboy boots to the evening's twangy entertainment.
But most of all, Owl's functions as the area's informal town hall, a meeting place where people can swap news, while away time, find out where forest fires are raging and when the next Lockwood Valley Homeowner's Assn. meeting is scheduled.
"You can come in here any night and hear everything from how the pigs are doing to nuclear fusion," says Mark Lofton, an unemployed aircraft electrician who nursed a beer at Owl's one recent night.
Winter, a tall, genial fellow in his early 70s, lives behind the cafe with his wife, Opal. Owl's is actually an old house that Winter converted into a roadside cafe in 1953 when the couple moved from Los Angeles, where they owned a pinochle club.
Inspiration for the name came from the "O" in Opal, the "W" in Winter and the "L" in Al.
As for the last name, "We figured it was just like a barn, nothing elaborate here," Winter says, the twinkle in his eye almost hidden by his heavy horn-rimmed glasses.
Every corner of Owl's is crammed with home-grown curios. Patrons have glued coins to the six-stool counter and stuck autographed dollar bills on the ceiling. A stuffed deer head with antlers, circa 1902, adorns a wall. Owls of every species and fabric from macrame to painted canvas hang from all available perches. On the counter is a metal box filled with 20 dog treats that patrons can use to reward the animals who wait forlornly outside, tethered to the beds of pickup trucks.
Quarter Fine for Swearing
Behind the bar is a big tin can known as the "cussbox." Patrons must chuck in a quarter each time they use what Winter coyly calls "the F word" and the box now holds more than $100 in coins. From time to time, Winter empties out the cussbox and uses its not-insignificant spoils to give barbecues.
But all in all, things at Owl's are pretty tame. Of course, there was the time the bar cat, Priscilla, brought in a live rattlesnake and deposited it on the bar.
Not to mention the time someone shot up the place at 1 a.m., a few days after Winter had kicked out two belligerent drunks.
Winter points to bullet holes near the stuffed deer head and one next to the popcorn machine.
"One bullet just missed my wife. She was in the back room, I was already in bed," Winter says.
No one is toting a gun on this day, however. Joyce and Lloyd Richards relax at the bar over a beer and cigarette and tell Winter about helping Pete Liebl unload a truckload of 1-day-old turkey chicks that the turkey farmer plans to raise for the Thanksgiving market.
Then Priscilla stalks in while Hank Williams yodels "Your Cheatin' Heart" to a crowd of six.
"It's a visiting place where people come to relax," says Lofton, who moved here several months ago to live with his brother after a stint in the Navy.
"It's one of the last real neighborhood places where people really know each other."