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A Shrine to the Penny

Kern County: Hotel owner has glued 800,000 copper coins, one by one, on almost every surface of his barroom.

April 08, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

McKITTRICK, Calif. — McKITTRICK, Calif.--Pity the poor penny, the unwanted child of American currency.

Nobody likes it. Nobody wants it. The government periodically considers relegating it to the numismatic scrap heap. If it's given in change, it's just as likely to be left on the counter. Or tossed into a jar sitting on a kitchen shelf.

Now comes Mike Moore, who not only admires the humble qualities of the lowly 1-cent piece, but has even built a monument, a veritable shrine, to the little copper coin.

Moore, 60, is the owner of Mike and Annie's McKittrick Hotel, the tallest building in this dusty oil town of 160 in eastern Kern County. Moore, a congenial sort whose cheerful face is framed by a beard so white it looks rented, boasts that he offers the "best rib-eye in Kern County. I cook every one."

Many visitors these days, however, stop in not to eat but to gawk at Moore's "penny bar."

In most respects, the pub at the rear of the restaurant resembles any other tavern, with a long bar and winking neon signs advertising beer brands. The difference is that almost every surface--the bar, the walls, even the floor--is covered with pennies, 800,000 of them so far, he says.

Some folks "sit here for two hours and never notice it," said Moore, leaning over the bar.

In the dim light, the decor is obvious mostly in the reddish-orange hue it casts over everything. The visitor has the feeling of having wandered into some ancient temple or counting room.

"I put on every penny myself," he said, one at a time, month after month, for the past three years. He won't let anyone help. In case the Guinness Book of Records folks come around, he doesn't want people bragging that they helped glue on a single penny.

Moore's eccentricity arrived late in life. "We were in the termite business for 25 years," he said glumly. Finally, he got sick of killing bugs and of northwestern California.

"All you see up there is trees," he said. "You can't see the hills for the [darn] trees."

Moore understands why people might choose the lush northern coast over the parched southeastern San Joaquin Valley. When he first saw the area, in the early '60s, "the first thing I said was, 'Who would live in a Godforsaken hole like this?'"

But a decade later, he and his wife, Annie, now married 41 years, rented the hotel for a few months. Three years ago, he heard it was for sale. "We kind of always wanted it back," he said.

He snapped it up, though he won't say how much he paid. Business is good, despite the emptiness of the landscape and the fact that only the cafe and bar are open. The two-story hotel hasn't rented a room in 30 years. Most of the customers are oil workers, who arrive as early as 5:30 for breakfast.

The hotel sits on Highway 33, up the road from Taft, far from the nearest interstate. The biggest city around is Bakersfield, the destination 40 miles east that folks here are talking about when they say they are "going into town."

Gluing up pennies was not a spur of the moment thing, or even the brain-addled product of too much sun. Moore and his wife had long planned that if they ever owned a saloon, they would use the coffee cans full of coins they had saved over the years to cover the bar.

Shortly after buying the hotel, he was watching television when Annie asked, "When are you going to get started?"

He took out his Elmer's and started gluing them up, one drop of glue per penny. When he finished the bar, Moore found he couldn't stop. His oldest coin is an 1883 Indian head, prominently displayed on the bar.

As word spread, more and more visitors stopped in not just for the steaks but to gaze on Moore's creation. Sometimes he sees people wearing copper bracelets, which some believe improves health. Moore said he tells them they could get the same benefits by "rolling around on the floor a while."

Moore gets a lot of his coins from the bank in Taft. "They all know me there," he said.

He has also received donations from outsiders. One man brought him two five-gallon buckets containing $500 in pennies--although that didn't qualify him to help with the gluing.

Moore puts up pennies "whenever I get in the mood," though he covered the floor in one three-day marathon, working 12 hours a day.

"Once I get the walls covered and reach a million, then I'll stop," he promised.

Asked whether he was sure about that, he looked around in the coppery gloaming and said, "Probably."

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