Thomasina Wilson, saloon boss

Courtesy of the family
Thomasina Wilson and her husband, Woodrow, bought the Papermill Creek Saloon in 1969, transforming it from a rough biker bar into the social hub it is today.   
05/05/2021

Thomasina Wilson, the owner of the Papermill Creek Saloon for over 50 years, died on Jan. 20 at 96 years old. Thomasina moved to the valley in 1948 and raised 14 children in Lagunitas. At the bar, she was known simply as “the boss lady.” She bought the saloon when it was known to have nightly fights and an undesirable crowd, and she turned it into a hearty social hub, with a profit. 

“It came to her naturally—she knew how to make things work,” her daughter Rebecca Wilson-Moore said. “She was a sharp woman.”

Thomasina’s proudest legacy is her family. She said she had so many children because she never wanted to be alone, and her kids were her closest friends. She taught them how to be hard-working, independent individuals, and though the family faced hardships, she ensured that her children were supported and loved throughout. 

“It was kind of like an army—her own little army,” her son David Wilson said. “Every night I would peel about five pounds of potatoes. That was my job.”

Thomasina was born on Nov. 10, 1924 in San Francisco. Her mother, an opera singer named Aileen Harrison, spoke seven languages and carried some status. She and her daughter rode together on the opening day of the Golden Gate Bridge and often took vacations. Because Aileen was a single mother and busy with her career, Thomasina was placed in a Catholic convent, where she was raised by nuns in a strict environment. The upbringing shaped her lifelong faith, though she kept her edge.

On Thomasina’s 15th birthday, she met her husband, Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow was Aileen’s personal cab driver, and when he was taking them to dinner, he was stricken by Thomasina’s beauty. He ended up joining them for the meal, and the next day, the two drove to Reno and got married. He was 24, but it didn’t matter then—they were a power couple.

After the marriage, Thomasina dropped out of the convent and lived with Woodrow in Kentfield and Ross. He worked at the old lumber yard in Larkspur, and they went on Sunday drives through the San Geronimo Valley, where his mother lived. 

In a video Thomasina recorded in 2015 for an oral history, she recalled coming out to the bar she would later own on New Year’s Eve. She wasn’t impressed. “It was too countrified for me, and I wanted some excitement," she said.

Later on, she would embrace the country with a move to the valley. She and Woodrow purchased a sunny acre of land and a home just off the boulevard for $4,800. These were different times: People had large piles of trash on their property, they dumped used oil in the creek, and there was not much to do. The family only had one car, so Thomasina raised the kids while Woodrow worked.

Rebecca said Thomasina was a strict but fair mother. Everyone cooked, cleaned and had chores, and the older kids took care of the younger ones. They raised farm animals, and they found jobs as soon as they were old enough. The family engaged in various enterprises, like offering pony rides for a nickel or selling firewood from the driveway. 

Thomasina also raised two of her younger brother’s children. After his wife passed away, he asked if she would watch them and he never returned. The kids were always included in the Wilson family.

In 1959, an accidental fire burned down the family home, and two sons, Robby and Rocky, died in the blaze. The catastrophe had a lasting impact on the family, and Thomasina didn’t speak for a time afterwards. But eventually, she pulled through. The family built a new home on the same property, and she had four more children, two who were named after Robby and Rocky. 

Thomasina was all about buying property. She took walks around her neighborhood and found old houses, and she contacted the owners to see if they would sell. The valley was a depressed resort area then, so there were plenty of empty summer shacks and flea-ridden cabins that Thomasina nabbed up for around $1,000. She cleaned them up and rented them out.

When the Larkspur lumber yard closed, Woodrow cashed in his pension, and he and Thomasina bought the bar, then named the Lodge. Thomasina wasn’t the type of person to frequent bars, but she saw an opportunity.

When they bought the Lodge in 1969, it was a biker bar. People were thrown through windows during fights, and the Hells Angels would come in. It was not profitable, and Thomasina knew she had to change the reputation and bring in at least $100 a day to make it. So she gave it a new name, tore out the booths and replaced the décor, highlighted by a nude painting of Pandora that still hangs today. The family spread the word that everyone was welcome at the Papermill Creek Saloon, and they started hosting live music. The changes led to a more eclectic crowd, with hippies and rednecks drinking side by side. Famous musicians came in to play the pinball machine. And while the regulars protested some of the changes, the bar became more and more packed, and the family found a steady income. 

Owning the bar strained Thomasina and Woodrow’s marriage, and they divorced in the ‘70s. Thomasina kept the bar and the family home, and she continued to raise the kids. She often worked the day shift, so she knew all of the regulars and their stories. Under her ownership, the bar sponsored school programs, little league teams and Toys for Tots. When the kids turned 21, they became bartenders.

Robert Wilson, one of Thomasina’s younger kids, said his fondest memories with his mother were their trips to the Lassen area. The family has roots there going back to the Gold Rush, and it was a tradition to rent a cabin to fish and hunt from. In the ‘90s, the resort they stayed at was sold, so Thomasina and Robert started exploring buying their own property together. They found the perfect little cabin, and after a brief stay, made an offer. Other members of the family followed their lead and bought property in the area.

“It was amazing because it really made my connection even stronger with her,” Robert said. “We’d always go up there and it’d be a four-hour trip each way, and she’d just talk. She wouldn’t miss a beat.”

As Thomasina aged, her eyesight declined, and she could no longer drive. Still, she took care of the banking and ordering at the bar, and she always looked younger than her actual age. She loved talking on the phone with her family, and her son David moved back in.

Six years ago, she suffered a stroke that took her sharp mind and ability to walk. She hated being in a wheelchair, and her quality of life declined. David entertained her, and Rebecca took responsibility for the bar. She was determined to live her final days at home, so the family hired a full-time caretaker. After fighting for longer than expected, she quietly passed away. 

“I don’t think it could’ve happened in a better way,” Robert said. “She died at home, and that was her main goal. Even the paramedics said it looked peaceful.”

Jared Litwin, the manager of the Papermill, said the bar’s first big event after it reopens will be a memorial for Thomasina, because her efforts were what made the saloon a thriving meeting place.

“If you ever had the pleasure of meeting Thomasina, you knew that behind her good nature and spunky demeanor, there was also a no-nonsense powerhouse of a woman,” he wrote. “She was ‘The Boss’ in every sense of the meaning. She had to be. It took a lot of tenacity and fortitude to open a saloon in a small community in 1969.  We believe that all of her efforts resulted in making our little community closer, more inviting, and a gateway to handshakes, hugs and all of those great moments we’ve been missing during this pandemic. We think it is safe to say that it will be a long time, if ever, before we forget her beautiful smile.”

 

Thomasina is survived by her children Sandra Kreuter, Rodney Wilson, David Wilson, Marsha Vergano, Rebecca Wilson-Moore, Roxanne Weber, Robert Wilson, Christopher Wilson and Woodrow Wilson. She also leaves behind 11 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren, and eight great-great-grandchildren. She is predeceased by her children Robby Wilson, Rocky Wilson, Victoria Wilson-Martin, Barbara Wilson-Sullivan and Bennett Wilson-Stevens.