© Anne T. Kent Room
500 Shares of Stock for the Tam O'Shanter Inn to Geo. E. Billings, April 27, 1927
Once upon a time, there was an Inn at the top of the Corte Madera grade. It was a way-stop for those travelling between Marin and San Francisco in the days when the County Road ran along Corte Madera Avenue and Camino Alto to Mill Valley and then on to Sausalito where travelers could catch the auto ferry back to the City.
The Tam O’Shanter Inn was the brainchild of John C. Bortle and his wife Rowena (“Rena”). On December 5th, 1924, Mr. Bortle –who adopted the moniker Tam- announced the opening of his new inn “at the gate to vacation land, top of Corte Madera Hill on Redwood Highway beautiful Marin County.” His mission, he said was to create a “cheery spotless place” which served food of the highest quality where families and friends could gather for lunch and dinner.
Exactly one year later, in 1925, Bortle ran another ad in the San Anselmo Herald in which he emphasized that the Tam O’Shanter was a “place where the laws of our government are respected and obeyed, a place where anything vulgar is not allowed.” By this he meant that the Volstead Act –which had heralded Prohibition in 1919- was strictly enforced. In fact, in an ad he placed in the Mill Valley Record on January 30, 1926, Mr. Bortle states in no uncertain terms: “We stand on a Prohibition Platform because we will maintain a high class, clean, wholesome place to go for fun and food for the young sons and the young daughters of this county. No matter what you think of the Law for yourself, you do not want the young people to drink poison or hear any vulgarity when they go to some place after the dance or theatre.”
By all accounts, the Tam O’Shanter was a success, attracting motorists, hikers and locals who were seeking a wholesome family place with food reminiscent of an Inn in Scotland or England.
Corte Madera historian Jana Haehl told me that the “Tam O’Shanter was famous for its pancakes which folks who came from San Francisco for Larkspur’s Rose Bowl dances enjoyed on their way home.”
On June 26, 1925, a San Anselmo Herald columnist wrote that Mrs. Tam O’Shanter serves “special afternoon tea with toasted English muffins and jelly, cinnamon toast, or a plate of delicious assorted sandwiches.”
The Tam O’Shanter was located on a prime lot in Edgar C. Chapman’s Chapman Park subdivision consisting of 6.94 acres. The inn stood on top of a knoll and boasted a commanding view of the San Francisco Bay. The knoll is sometimes referred to as “Baker Hill” for Civil Engineer Frank J. Baker who purchased a 6.47 lot from Chapman in 1903 (adding .47 acres in 1905) with the intention of subdividing it; a plan he never carried out.
On December 4, 1925 Mr Bortle announced that the Inn was so successful that he had to turn people away and was planning a significant remodel and expansion; “Tam O’Shanter Inn is incorporated under the laws of the State of California for $20,000....To enable us to pay for the new building and equipment we require $5000 more than we have and consequently, we offer to sell 5,000 shares of stock at a par value of $1 per share.”
The Bortles’ fund-raising efforts were successful and on Saturday, May 14th, 1927, the Tam O’Shanter held a grand re-opening. The Herald reported: “When on last Saturday evening Mr. And Mrs. J. C. Bortle gave the first dinner dance at the new Inn, over three-hundred guests were present, representing nearly every community in the county, and many from San Francisco. The Inn orchestra entertained...and a group of artists presented a surprise program of singing and dancing numbers. Mr. Allen Melrose led community singing.”
Improvements to the Inn are also described; “The new building is planned along Old English lines, with old walnut interior and furnishings. A great open fire-place heightens this cozy effect, and for the warmer evenings, a porch large enough to accommodate forty diners looks out over the bay. The Inn will be open every day for luncheon and dinner, with a special dinner dance on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. The staff is headed by Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Bortle, owners, and includes seven men.”
A piece published by the Mill Valley Record on August 27, 1927, provides some additional details; “When you go up the hill and up the hill and catch glimpses of bay and clouds and fawn-colored hills or swards of emerald green, you think you are surfeited with beauty, but wait until you reach the very top and see the panorama from the porch or windows of the Tam O’Shanter Inn. First, there’s the inscription on the door to greet you, ‘Welcome Home. Leave Troubles and Your Liquor Outside,’ ….But if you can’t drink -at least, not liquor- you can eat….. No first-class San Francisco hotel could serve you a better dinner than you can get right at the top of the hill in the Tam O’Shanter Inn. Your eyes have a feast, too, both outside and in; the dining room with its spacious fireplace surmounted by artistic, softly tinted tapestry, well-chosen pictures and a general air of homelike comfort and cleanliness…”
A marketing campaign by the Bortles’ in late 1927 emphasizes the family-like atmosphere of the Tam O’Shanter Inn and publicizes dinners for just $1.
Though local newspapers frequently mentioned the Tam O’Shanter as a destination for local civic groups such as the P. T. A. and rotary clubs, apparently evening visitors sometimes smuggled in alcohol or exhibited behavior which deviated from the wholesome environment the Bortles’ were trying to create.
Whether because of tensions caused by Prohibition or financial pressures, on November 20, 1927, Mr. Bortle listed the Tam O’Shanter Inn for sale including all “buildings and equipment.” Interestingly, one day earlier, on Nov. 19, 1927, The Record features an advertisement for a special Thanksgiving Day Turkey Dinner “with all the trimmings” for $1.50 at the Tam O’Shanter Inn.
Several months later, the Tam O’Shanter re-opened under new management. The January 6, 1928, Herald reports: “A crowd of 231 dinner dancers welcomed the New Year from the Tam O’Shanter Inn, which recently opened under the management of A. De Grasio of San Rafael.... A special several piece jazz orchestra played for the dancing. An eight-course French-Italian dinner was served during which a lively group of girl singers and dancers from the San Francisco theatrical circuits, entertained the guests. The guests included many local people as well as revelers from the San Francisco Yacht Club and Sonoma County....”
Though the New Year’s entertainment mentioned in the Herald sounds innocent enough, it seems that a San Francisco nightclub atmosphere had begun to infuse the once wholesome Inn.
A somewhat scathing article written by Gregor Duncan and published in the March 8, 1929 Sausalito News, sums up the transformation of the Tam O’Shanter and the rather rowdy crowd it has begun to attract. The article characterizes the previous owners –the Bortles’-, thus: “the well meaning owners...made the fatal mistake of forcefully ejecting any guest found in an inebriated state; even going so far as to sniff the breaths of patrons who were under suspicion. This...spelled failure.”
Mr. Duncan describes the new owners as “three sly foreign gentlemen, nice and broadminded.... These are likeable fellows who sell a third rate jazz band and third rate ginger ale.”
Apparently, liquor ran freely at the Tam O’Shanter under the new ownership –either sold clandestinely or brought in by the guests- and the inn developed a reputation as a place where young and old alike got “sauced,” and where people sought dances, drinks and “pretty women.” The News columnist quips that guests “party out on the porch...the Volstead Act is just a name to them....”
Nonetheless, it was not a police raid but an unexpected accident which spelled the demise of the Tam O’Shanter Inn. The April 29, 1929 Petaluma Argus-Courier reports: TAM O’SHANTER, MARIN RESORT, IS DESTROYED BY $8000 BLAZE. Flaming youth of Marin County had its customary Saturday night fling at Tam O’Shanter Inn, Corte Madera, and went home. Then the quaint little wooden inn, scene of many a gay party...took fire and burned down.”
The site of the inn being the top of a steep hill required the fireman to stretch “2,000 feet of hose” to reach it and by then, “the fire had destroyed the Inn.” Al de Grazia, proprietor, “said he carried little insurance” and that “the fire started in the kitchen.”
The Argus-Courier went on to say “Yesterday, Corte Madera boys made picnic treasure hunting in the ashes of the inn. The luckiest boy picked up three dollars out of the debris. Others found a slot machine. Broken up, it disgorged a score of nickels.”
On May 3, 1929, the Sausalito News added “It seems improbable that Tam O’Shanter Inn resort at the summit of the Corte Madera grade, which was destroyed by fire at 3:30 o’clock, last Sunday morning, will be rebuilt…. It is thought that an inn at this point, after the Alto-San Rafael road, now in process of construction is finished, would not be profitable.”
Surprisingly, the prime nearly 7-acre Chapman Park parcel was never subdivided but became the site of homes for the rich and famous including San Francisco Attorney Jake W. Ehrlich and music mogul Bill Graham. According to Jana Haehl, “the home that most recently has occupied the site was designed by Sim Van der Ryn, 15-20 years ago, and sold last July for upward of $22 million.”
NOTE: Though we don’t know for sure why the Bortles’ chose the name “Tam O’Shanter” for their Inn, it’s possible that they were inspired by a popular poem by Robert Burns of the same name coupled with the fact that “Tam” is an affectionate nick name for nearby Mt. Tamalpais. Interestly, in the article titled "Inn on the Top o' the World" published in the Aug. 27, 1927 Mill Valley Record, the columnist alludes to the Robert Burns' poem: "Well, you'll never meet with hob-goblins or blue elephants or pink mice after you leave the Tam O'Shanter. 'We will always remain dry as a matter of principal,' declares Tam [aka: John C. Bortle]."