#8 NW Front Street
Coupeville, Washington

Whidbey Mercantile / Coupeville Cash And Carry / Wiley's Service / Sealey's / Toby's Tavern

A detailed History

Compiled and written by Judy Lynn

Today Toby's Tavern is a Coupeville institution. It's known throughout Puget Sound for great food, ales, an eclectic décor, and an atmosphere of camaraderie. Many people say, "You haven't been to Coupeville if you haven't been to Toby's." But the building at 8 Front Street hasn't always been a tavern.

John Alexander Sr. was the third Central Whidbey Island settler to file a claim under the Donation Land Claim Act passed by Congress on September 27, 1850. His claim was filed on August 1, 1852. The western part of Coupeville, which sits on his claim, remained largely rural until the 1880s. The northeast corner became the core of the commercial area.

In 1860, John Robertson, one of Coupeville's early entrepreneurs, purchased land on Front Street between Main Street and Grace Street. A few years later, he built a house at 5 NW Front Street and a store at 8 NW Front Street, which marks the beginning of the commercial Front Street we know today.

The building that is now Toby's Tavern started as a part of the land John Robertson purchased from John Alexander. It is unknown when Robertson built this particular building as it doesn't appear on any transactions. The Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve Inventory lists the date of construction as c.1875.

John Robertson has been described as the "Donald Trump of Coupeville." He built the first wharf on the waterfront. Robertson's Wharf would prove to be a valuable link in transporting merchandise and goods off and onto the island by water. The shipping was handled by the firm of Calhoun and Sherwood, cousins via the Smith/Wanamaker families.

In the late 18th century, Robertson oversaw the construction of a number of buildings on the east side of Coupeville. He built the structure at 8 NW Front Street as a general store dealing in dry goods, hosiery, shoes, groceries, grain, and feed. By the time he sold the building to Thomas W. Calhoun in either 1890 or 1892, the building was an important part of Front Street.

By 1896, A.B. Coates and Co. was running a general mercantile store in the structure. The east portion of the building was used as a store until 1938. The front of the structure has been extensively remodeled with a false front constructed on the west part of the structure.

Wharfs and docks were not necessary for much of the shipping activity. The steamers had shallow drafts and could approach very close to shore. The Fairhaven, for example, routinely came up behind the store at 8 NW Front Street and men simply pushed carts of goods down a planked ramp to the boat. A scale was located on Front Street near the store to weigh goods being shipped.

The first electric lights were not supplied to the building until 1912, when W.C. Cheney built a plant on the beach behind what is now Toby's Tavern. This plant was later moved to the corner of Coveland and Alexander Streets, the present location of the Recreation Hall.

NOTE: An early photograph of Front Street from the waterside shows a small structure on the beach behind the Robertson Store, to the west of the Whidbey Mercantile building, believed to have been the electric light plant.

Reading the menu at Toby's Tavern reveals that, although it remained a general mercantile store, this building changed ownership numerous times during the early years. "A.B. Coates & Son stocked their emporium with everything from dry goods and groceries to grain and feed before selling it to Bacon & Hallock in 1904. That partnership split up in 1907, with A.D. Hallock retaining ownership of the store itself, following it with purchase of the real property in 1909. For the next 11 years, Hallock operated the general store. Hallock sold it in 1920 to Thomas C. Clark. In 1928, Clark sold it to the Seattle Merchandise Association, which in turn sold the building to George (Wylie) Hesselgrave, Sr."

According to Dorothy Clark Keefe, great-granddaughter of Thomas Clark, Thomas and his son, Thomas C. Clark, bought the business together. Thomas had retired as a staff sergeant from Fort Casey, and they were "experimenting." Their customers weren't able to pay their bills, and the two men "didn't know how to run a store," so the business wasn't successful. They once received a piano in lieu of payment, which is still in the family.

Jo Clark DeVries, daughter of Thomas C. Clark and sister of Mickey Clark, recalled her memories of working in Whidbey Mercantile in the 1920s. "Mr. Hallock owned it, and he lived at the top of the hill and went home for lunch every day. He sold it to my dad, Thomas C. Clark. They were pioneers. I worked at it. I remember a glass case with candy and a glassed-in case for cookies. There was a great big pot-bellied stove. The doctor came and sat by the hour, and the old timers used to sit around the pot-bellied stove. The stove was located in the center back of the store."

"He paid them in potatoes and gasoline."

Sometime c. 1930, George [Wylie] Hesselgrave bought the building and its use changed for the first time. The grocery store located in the east side of the building was called the Coupeville Cash and Carry. Wallace Benson was a part owner and manager of the store. After Wallace died suddenly on July 9, 1938, his widow, Marie Terry Benson, continued to run the store with the help of Wylie Hesselgrave. (Marie's father was Charles Townsend Terry. Terry had purchased the Gillespie's Livery building at the other end of Front Street in 1897, in which he opened a food drying business called Terry's Dryer.)

Wylie Hesselgrave opened a plumbing business in the west side of the building where Toby's kitchen is currently located. A photograph shows that three gas pumps were part of "Wylie's Service." Wylie also operated the Circuit Theater on Front Street during this same period.

As a member of the burgeoning Front Street business community, Wylie and a few civic-minded members of the community launched the Water Festival in 1928 or 1929 as the first event to attract tourists to Coupeville.

Roger Eelkema, a Coupeville resident, described how Wiley Hesselgrave started the Water Festival:" He invited the Indians to participate in the Water Festival with the promise of giving them potatoes and a full tank of gas from the pumps in front of the tavern (Wylie's Service). Years later, they wanted to make Wylie a chief, but he wouldn't do it. He said, ‘That wasn't my place. I enjoy the friendship, but that's something that Indians need to do.' The Indians were later invited to an event in Seattle near Lake Washington. The Indians wouldn't go unless Wylie Hesselgrave went, so he and his wife did. There should be a picture of Wiley Hesselgrave somewhere in town. He was an entrepreneur."

Ilah Lindsay Engom owned a dry cleaning business in the Glenwood Hotel building across the street from Coupeville Cash and Carry (also known as Benson's). According to Engom "What is now Toby's Tavern was a dark little hole with shelves and a few things. I don't know how Mrs. Benson made a go of it (after her husband died.) I ended up buying the tall mirror that was in there for the fitting room at the dry cleaning shop. When I sold the shop, I kept the mirror, giving it later to Annie Hesselgrave. George Hesselgrave's father, Wylie, had a plumbing business in the little part on the side of Toby's building. Mrs. Benson's daughter, Terry Benson, was my age. She also had an older daughter Ilene."

Wylie Hesselgrave also had a car for hire. During his weekly trips to Seattle to acquire new films for the Circuit Theater, he would pick up and deliver goods for the locals. Joanne Engle Brown, Wylie Hesselgrave's granddaughter, recalls, "Grandpa Wylie Hesselgrave's plumbing shop was on the left side of the building, where Toby's kitchen is now. He had been a steam engine engineer. He installed new plumbing and did plumbing repair. We had a 5 ½ foot cast iron bathtub that he hauled from Seattle in his seven passenger Studebaker. I also remember he chewed plug tobacco, and he gave my brother Bill and me little pieces. Grandpa died when I was twelve. Behind the plumbing shop was where they stored supplies for the grocery store. I remember 50-gallon containers of vinegar. I also remember that bananas came packed in 50 gallon barrels, complete with stalk, and packed in excelsior (fine curled wood shavings used for packing). They hung the whole stalk on the east wall and, with a linoleum knife, customers cut off the bananas they wanted. There was a circle wheel of cheese with a net cover. There was a big blade and you would tell the clerk how much you wanted and he would whack off a piece. Back by the back window, on racks, there were jars with metal covers with Hydrox cookies. Mom bought a goldfish and brought one of the Hydrox jars home for our goldfish.

One of the three gas pumps that were in front of Wylie's Service ended up on the Engle Farm. A glass door opened up on the pump to expose the handle. You pumped the handle, and gas from the storage went up into the glass upper level. It held ten gallons and had measurements on it. The gas was transferred to the car by gravity. There was a pump there in the mid-to-late 1930s.

There were bleachers on the back side attached to the building. You could climb out the windows to reach them, but people normally went along the walkway along the west side. That area was covered over for food service just for the Water Festival.

My grandfather would collect excelsior and put it in the street, in front of the store, for a ‘penny scramble' both during Easter and the Water Festival. The merchants sponsored an Easter egg hunt in the park with a few pieces of candy wrapped in copper. If you got one of the wrapped pieces you got a prize."

Mike Sullivan shared some memories of Wylie and his wife: "Wylie Hesselgrave had one gas pump in front of the plumbing shop. He would sit out in his easy chair in the sunshine taking life easy. His wife had a cow. They lived on 9th Street near Kinney. She had a rope and would stake the cow along the road and move it to other places along the road during the day and take it home at night and milk it. The cow would get on the road, and we had to watch for the cow when we drove along 9th."

NOTE: Until State Route 20 was opened in 1967, bisecting Ebey's Prairie, the street names began on the north side of Coupeville with First Street. What was First Street until 1967 is now Ninth Street.

Although there are no records, it is presumed that Marie Benson did not operate the Coupeville Cash and Carry very long after her husband, Wallace, died in 1938. Wylie Hesselgrave died February 4, 1946. Eventually, the building was sold to Vic Sealey.

A promotional 1911 publication, Island County: A World Beater, boasted, "A meritorious feature of Coupeville is that no liquor is sold and probably never will be. This also applies to the whole County." Perhaps this was wishful thinking.

Joanne Engle Brown recalls that her great grandmother, Flora Engle, was a staunch member of the WCTU and the Good Templars: "She had a great fondness for hard candy. When Prohibition ended, the local store where she had purchased her candy, Benson's Confectionery, then carried wine and beer. After that, she made her younger son travel to Oak Harbor each week to buy her candy in a store that did not sell liquor."

There is evidence of numerous saloons on Front Street and in town before Prohibition was enacted by the 18th Amendment in 1919 and after the repeal by the 21st Amendment in 1933. Early settlers had the opportunity to imbibe in the Glenwood Hotel, The Central Hotel, the Starwana, and other venues.

However, Coupeville had a very active temperance movement. As reported in How Coupeville Grew, a Short History of Town Development, "The local chapter of the Good Templar's, a national temperance organization, was established in 1866; their lodge stood at Front and Grace streets." The WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union) was organized in Coupeville in 1883. "In 1887 women's suffrage was declared unconstitutional and taverns thrived again. However, temperance was again voted in and, by the time of incorporation in 1910, the town had no taverns. The town resisted drink longer than most. The WCTU declined in prominence during the 1930s and their hall was demolished in 1938."

Vic Sealey purchased and converted the Whidbey Mercantile building to Sealey's Tavern after the fire destroyed the Central Hotel, probably in 1945 or 1946. Could the idea of a tavern have occurred to Vic Sealey when the stately bar was rescued from a fire that destroyed the Central Hotel? The bar had probably been transported aboard a square-rigged sailing ship around Cape Horn in the late 1800s and had ended up in storage at Fort Worden. After Prohibition was repealed, the bar was moved from Fort Worden to the Central Hotel. The bar was moved by Sealey to the present location and today enhances Toby's Tavern.

Under the ownership of Vic Sealey, the tavern was primarily a men's tavern. However, as can be seen from the photos taken inside the tavern, women were also customers.

Don Tabach, son of Hank (Toby) Tabach, the owner from 1971 to 1978, knew Vic Sealey. He recalled "Vic was a nice guy. He looked like an old type bartender - a man's man. That's why the tavern was a guy thing. He liked talking to guys about guy stuff." John Rodriguey, current owner of Toby's Tavern has heard that Vic had an easy chair behind the bar and would open early for drinking customers.

Some women in town were afraid to step foot in the tavern. Muriel Pickard remembers, "I used to collect for the March of Dimes, and I always took a big gulp before going into the tavern for the collection jar."

Barbara Reed, daughter of Vic's third wife, Irene Mulder, recalled what she knew of Vic's early years at the tavern: "His second marriage was to Louella. It was widely known as a marriage of convenience in order for him to buy the tavern. Where the kitchen is now was an apartment. She and her mother lived there. He promised to take care of his wife and mother until they died. I only met Louella a couple of times. I wasn't allowed to knock on the apartment door. Either Louella or her mother was in a wheelchair. As long as they lived, they had an apartment in the tavern. That was part of the bargain. He lived in the tavern until he and my mom lived together. Louella died or moved away. I'm not sure which. He and my mom were together while Louella was still there."

NOTE: "Sealey's" sign also includes "Rooms" because the sign was originally on the Central Hotel until it burned.

Barbara Reed has fond memories of her step-dad, Vic. She said: "I was 9 or 10 when my mom, Irene, and Vic got together. The three of us lived in the house on east Front Street on the beach. (Note: the house is currently Cottage on the Cove. It was previously the Jim Zylstra law office and Doctor Chaffey office.) Then they had the house at 9th and Center built."

Barbara was raised through high school by Vic, whom she considered her dad. "When I came back from California" she said, "I moved in with them in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s with my two kids. I worked in the tavern for him. Vic had a barstool at the end of the bar and he would sit and gab with the guys. He liked the company. He liked to talk. He was protective of me. He called me ‘Tuna.' He said I was a fish you could tell sob stories to. I felt he was there to protect me. He always made me feel special."

Lyle Davis, former manager of the Whidbey Island Game Farm, first knew Vic Sealey and the tavern beginning in 1961. He said, "Sometimes I would be there as a customer, and Vic would be bowling at Ebey Bowl. His wife, Louella would ask me to watch the bar when he wasn't there so she could check on her mom. When I watched the bar for Louella, it would only be about five minutes. By the time I'd go to the tavern, after work, I might have been the only one for an hour. It was pretty slow."

Lyle described how the "Blue Laws" of Washington State affected activities and behavior in the tavern: "Women couldn't sit at the bar - they had to sit at a table. If I sat at the table with the beer and wanted to move to the bar I couldn't carry my beer - the bartender had to carry it. (Because of the Blue Laws, you couldn't buy alcohol on Sunday, and you couldn't carry your drink around.)"

Lyla Snover recalls Front Street as the fun place: "There were wooden sidewalks, and on the water side, the sidewalk was a couple feet off the ground with cracks in between the boards. We kids spent time crawling under the sidewalk finding change and tax tokens. We used those to buy candy." She also recalled that she found beer bottles under the boardwalk and would take them to the front door of the tavern and sell them.

The Whelan and Bishop boys had their own business selling beer bottles to Sealey's. Paul Whelan describes their activities: "The Bishops - Lyle, Paul, and Malcolm - and my brother Peter would find beer bottles at a penny apiece. We collected quite a few. The only place to sell them was Sealey's Tavern. My mother wouldn't go there because that wasn't the thing to do. She had them in the trunk of her car. My dad was on the mainland because he still had business there and we went to church. Most people had left church, and my mother was talking to the minister. We discovered the car tire was flat. The minister offered to help, but she forgot about the bottles. He opened the trunk and it was filled with beer bottles. We went to the dump and they got thrown away. That was the end of our enterprise."

Victor Sealey became the Mayor of Coupeville in December 1967 and served until November 1971.

Charles Lindsay, son of Warren Lindsay who owned Lindsay's Marina on the opposite end of Front Street remembers, "Vic Sealey owned Sealey's Tavern. Most women hated his guts because most men went to the tavern after work and didn't get home until 2:00 am. He decided to run for mayor and all the women were opposed. He was elected. The next morning a big banner was across the front of the building that read, ‘Mayor's Office.' It came down so fast—within an hour."

In 1971 the tavern was purchased by Hank "Toby" Tabach, and the name was changed to Toby's Tavern. Hank's son, Don, recalled the tavern days: "He had the tavern a year before he changed the name. The Sealey's sign had neon on it. The town council wanted to eliminate neon. When he changed the sign to Toby's, it had no neon. There are still neon signs in the windows that are ‘grandfathered' in. I think the building was brown on the outside, and Dad had it painted red with white trim."

Dan continued, "I remember the interior was pretty plain. The only things that were there then were the wagon wheels for the lights. It was dark and was pretty basic. There was not a lot of atmosphere—nothing fancy. Sealey's didn't serve much food. He had a broaster that he used for chicken and jo-jos, and he had a rotisserie for hot dogs.

But in no time Dad installed an oven and changed the food. He started with sandwiches. He kept the French fries and jo-jos and then got into the food. Then it took off. It was a basic tavern, but he had the personality. Then he got into the real meals with steaks, and Mom would make potato salad.

The kitchen area was used for storage. That's where the broaster was and there were lots of bottles of beer with a small cooler. They only had one tap for one keg when he bought it. Dad had a line put in for multiple beers. Downstairs was nothing - just the pillars.

He got pictures from people like when the Deception Pass bridge was built. Dad was big on keeping the place spotless. The pool table has always been there, when Sealey had it too.

There were people that wouldn't go into a tavern that would come in for food. Dad changed the earlier reputation of the place by adding the food—and his personality."

Barbara Reed described the changes from Sealey's Tavern to Toby's Tavern: "When Vic owned the tavern, it was a guy's bar. Hank made it everybody's bar. He brought in a women's pool league. He brought in games that people would like. He brought in the pull-tabs - anything to make money. He was a go-getter. Glenes, his wife, and Hank were both a kick. Glenes, Erlene Beckley, and I were great friends and had a lot of fun together."

Lyle Davis worked part time for Hank Tabach and the succession of owners for 25 years. He described some of the changes he saw: "Hank changed the physical bar. It used to wrap around to the left as you came in the door and connect to the wall that is now between the bar and kitchen. Hank also put in the booths."

Asked about the accumulation of "stuff" on the walls and ceiling, Lyle said, "I remember the toilet seat and red underpants. David Vaughn and Bob Wilson did the remodeling for Hank. They found that toilet seat and red underwear, put it up as a joke, and it stayed there."

Lyle remembers Hank as a hard working owner: "He would clean the tavern in the morning and work through noon, then he'd go the backroom, roll up his jacket, and sleep on the floor to be ready for the evening time. That was from being in the Navy. I saw him go to sleep under the pool table when guys were playing pool."

John Rodriguey, the current owner of Toby's gives Hank a lot of credit. According to Rodriguey, "The food side of the business goes back to Hank. He did a good job with the grill. They served the hamburgers open-face which is an old way of doing things that makes a lot of sense. People see the fresh ingredients. The fries are cooked hot to order."

Judy King owned the Old Town Shop just down the street from Toby's. She said, "The owner of Toby's was Hank Tabach. They were the first ones I met when I moved to the Island, Hank and his wife Glenes. They were friends of the Tom Coupe's. We met them at the Greenbank Store. We would play cards and have a beer and take the kids to the beach."

Lee Anderst, another Front Street merchant and the owner of Coupeville Spinning and Weaving Shop, remembers Hank fondly: "Hank Tabach owned Toby's Tavern, and he was a sweetheart. In the early 1970's, we would walk in there and he would always say ‘Hi ya kids.' I'm not a bar person, but I loved Toby's when Hank was there."

In 1978, Hank Tabach sold Toby's to Don and Michelle Swerdfeger. The following owner, Steve Holmes, complimented Don's tenure as barkeep. Holmes said, "Don worked up the food business including the whole sandwich menu. The food was very good. He taught us the food business. The kitchen is pretty much the same as when Don set it up. He made soups and specials."

Lyle Davis continued working at Toby's for the new owners, the Swerdfeger's. When asked about the rumor of his dancing nude on the bar, Lyle said, "That wasn't me! That was Tom Ryan, a retired chief. He bartended for Don and Michelle. He was going to leave the area to go to Colorado. Don said, ‘One thing you haven't done is dance naked on the bar to Elvira.' Next thing I know he was taking off his clothes. There were only about three people there. The women went into the back of the room and didn't watch."

Steve and Jan Holmes and Al Luneman, as partners, purchased Toby's Tavern from the Swerdfegers in 1980. According to Steve, "Al and I were in Toby's in the mid-70s. We'd heard through the grapevine it was for sale. A cranky barmaid was giving us a bad time about something and Al said, ‘Why don't we buy this place?' and I said, ‘Yeah, why don't we—and we can fire her.' Then the three of us (Steve, Al, and Jan) went in later. We were still living in Scottsdale, and Al was in Berkeley, but we'd come up and go to Toby's. We would watch people. We were entertained by the locals. We thought the tavern would run itself. We had three to five managers during the period we had it."

Steve Holmes recalled, "We ran it for ten years and stubbed our toes occasionally. Don Swerdfeger had his ear to the floor because he held the paper (the loan contract), and he would come and manage it in between managers. I came on my days off. Al would come in sometimes. Wayne Tessaro was the longest employed manager and managed until we sold. Lyle Davis was the head cook, and he did everything - bartender and cook. He was the number one guy. Some people wouldn't come in and eat if he wasn't cooking."

Holmes continued, "One of the appeals of the place was watching the locals. People would come in and raise hell. It was pretty much all locals year round. Sometimes there were summer tourists but not like it is now. The locals would get into fights, bust up the bathroom, apologize the next day, and fix up the place. There were cousins and brothers fighting."

Jan Holmes described what they called the "back-door crowd." Even though the tavern was not supposed to open until 11:00 a.m. the manager was there at 7:00 to clean. Construction workers started pouring in for chatter and their eye openers - wine, beer, and coffee. It was operated on the honor system, and they would leave their money on the counter. That practice apparently started with Vic Sealey and was passed on to Steve and Jan Holmes."

According to Jan, "Hank Tabach and Vic Sealey allowed gambling with dice and sometimes cards in the back room of Toby's. Don Swerdfeger put an end to it. We had pull-tabs. There was an old wives tale about how to stock (fix) the pull-tabs, but it was baloney. We had two pinball machines in the front. Guns and knives were checked at the door. Lyle Davis would watch for them and do that. The motorcycle gang would come in, and it was the real thing. They took up both sides of the street. They'd call ahead, and we'd open the tavern early for them. They were mean looking but well-behaved."

When Lyle Davis, bar manager, was asked about his checking weapons at the door, he responded, "Thomas Bruce, the one who was later shot and killed for fooling around with someone else's wife, would knock at the kitchen door. He would hand me his 45 and clip, and I'd put it in the cupboard and give it out the back door when he left. One time when Jan Holmes and I were there, he came to the door and handed me the gun. I handed it to Jan and asked her to put it in the cupboard. I thought she would pee her pants. He and his brother would do that. One night they came in on their motorcycle and were too drunk to drive, so I pushed the motorcycle into the kitchen and I took them home. I worked at the game farm then. Don came to work the next morning to discover a motorcycle in the kitchen."

When asked about the collection of "stuff," Steve Holmes explained, "A lot of the stuff in the tavern was loaned by people - including the moose head. Jan's license plate ‘gear up' and the horse collar were ours. My Captain's hat is still hanging on the antler. The big king crab was there when we got the tavern. The boat came later."

The boat had belonged to Alan Dutcher, builder and owner of the Coupeville Inn. It was one of several he had for his rowing club. Lyle Davis, manager of Toby's said, "They hung it in the tavern because Alan didn't have a place to store it."

Toby's Tavern is famous for more than its decor and clientele. The first of four movies made in Coupeville was a made-for-TV movie in 1982 entitled Cry For the Strangers starring Patrick Duffy, Cindy Pickett, Brian Keith and Jeff Corey. Some of the filming was done in Toby's Tavern with the locals as extras sitting at the bar and at tables.

Jan and Steve Homes recalled Cry for the Strangers, which was filmed in the tavern: "The tavern made out like a bandit. Don Swerdfeger was responsible for that. He was managing the tavern for us, and he came up with a high figure. The film company let us know after filming that we had gouged them. We were both extras. The actor, Brian Keith, would be slumped over at the bar and when he was ‘on' he would blow up like a Macy's balloon."

Carole and Neal Amtmann, owners of Tartans and Tweeds, remembered having a front row seat for Cry for the Strangers: "We were still in the Robertson House building, but we were still very new on the street. We hadn't had our permanent Tartans and Tweeds sign yet. Jack McPherson had a bit part in the movie.

Katie Zimmerman sat on our front porch in a rocker. Del Bennett had a bit part scraping the bottom of a boat. A man and woman had to come out of McPherson's (originally the Glenwood Hotel). They were actors Patrick Duffy and Cindy Pickett. While they were filming, some guy stuck his guy head out of Toby's with a phone saying, ‘They're filming right now.' The director was not amused. ‘Cut! Cut!' But the rest of us had a good laugh."

On another day of filming Coupeville resident Del Bennett was in Toby's Tavern as an extra. Neal described the scene: "A ‘boat' was to be blown up for the movie. The actors and extras were in Toby's. The director said, ‘Here's how it's going to work. I'll say, ‘One, two, three', and you look startled by a loud noise.' He pulled a starter pistol from his coat, said ‘One' and fired. Beer flew everywhere. It was very good, and he got a very realistic response. The cloud sequence that was shown over and over in the finished movie was a joke. Just the front porch of our building was in the picture."

Judy Lynn was hired as the stand-in for Cindy Pickett, the lead actress in Cry for the Strangers. Because she was approximately the same size and coloring, Judy "stood-in" while the photographer set up the camera. She then stepped out, and Cindy stepped in for her scene. This job enabled Judy to be part of all the filming done in Coupeville and at Fort Casey. She described seeing the finished film: "It was supposed to be a murder mystery, but it was so poorly done it should have been called ‘Cry for the Audience.' Watching how a film was made was fun, especially the scenes filmed in Toby's."

The tavern changed hands again in 1989. After a 20-year high-tech career, John Rodriguey was ready to follow a dream of owning a restaurant. He told his broker that he wanted an old place with a kitchen in a small town on an island. A couple of days later the broker saw the sign in Toby's that said, "Free Beer for Life." John bought Toby's Tavern from Steve and Jan Holmes on February 15, 1989. The crew quickly taught him how to be a bartender and waiter.

According to Rodriguey, "Improving food was the biggest change after I bought the business. I've been bringing in fresh local products, and I introduced the mussels. We use fresh lingcod for the fish and chips. The menu was fairly limited when I bought the tavern; now we can go through 500 pounds of Penn Cove mussels a week. We get them delivered right from the farm, using no distributor, several times a week. We have our own beer now that outsells the other beers.

When I first started, we named the real estate corporation ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise.' I named the beer ‘Toby's Parrott Head Ale.' I got a letter from Jimmy Buffet's lawyer saying they would sue if I didn't change the names. I explained that even though the names were from Buffett's music, it was just for fun, and the beer was only sold here. I thought he would have a sense of humor and I wanted Jimmy to be included in all the correspondence. His lawyers were in Atlanta and they were looking for something to do. In the end, I changed the corporation name and the beer from Parrott Head to Parrott Red."

Rodriguey continued, "I wanted the beer brewed here but Kevin Locke of the Captain City Brewery in the Mariner's Court building wanted to do it on his own. I said, ‘You make my beer the way I want it and I'll buy it from you.' He brewed the beer until he decided to be a fireman. We then took the recipe to a brewery in La Conner, but they couldn't keep up with demand. Then we took the recipe to the Anacortes Brewing. It takes about two weeks to make an ale, and we're always running out. They will bring us the beer and then the brewing process starts again. We go through several kegs of Toby's Parrott Red Ale a week.

"When we bought the business from Steve, Jan and Al," Rodriguey said, "Al said he wanted to stay involved. After five or six years, we came to an agreement about the value of his portion, and I bought him out."

In a Coupeville Examiner newspaper article entitled "Tradition on Tap," Bill Wilson interviewed John Rodriguey. According to the interview, "Nearer the end of a hectic (first) day, a friend wrote ‘John, best wishes' on a dollar bill. So John taped the bill to the post at one end of the bar not realizing he'd started his own chapter in tavern history. Pretty soon, others were taping dollars, then a myriad of foreign currency to that same post. Now you can't see the post for the currency. Similar traditions grew up around Navy squadron emblems on the front window and baseball caps hanging from the various sets of antlers along the walls."

Asked to describe the building when he purchased it, John said, "There was a privy in the northeast corner of the downstairs, walled off with a door, and the privy emptied onto the beach. I suppose it was used when it was a mercantile before the tavern. I believed they used the downstairs for dry storage. Now we have an employee bathroom there and an office. The chute for cans is still there, but we crush the cans first and they go into a garbage can with a screen and we put a plastic bag that can catch the beer. The cans go to recycling."

John and his wife, Gaye, have taken some time away from managing Toby's to cruise from Alaska to South America. During the three years when they were gone Gary Sims, who has some ownership in the tavern, acted as manager.

John reflected about how the culture of the tavern has changed over the years in his interview for "Tradition on Tap", "There are too few places around where you have a real sense of belonging," he said. "Not only do people belong here, but the place belongs to the people. That's why we don't change things very much." But some things do change with time. Toby's is more restaurant than bar now. In fact, its food, especially mussels and seafood, have been praised in several national magazines. Toby's "rough-and-tumble" reputation as a place to go get drunk are long gone. There's a code of conduct: "We have very, very few problems. That's just not how we behave in Coupeville."

Katie Zimmerman, co-owner of Tartans and Tweeds, which at one time was located next door to Toby's, recalls a funny story about friends who had come to visit. "They arrived in town at 4:30, and I closed the store at 5:00. I said, ‘Why don't you go to Toby's?' They were all dressed up from their flight. When I walked in, they were talking to John Rodriguey at the bar. He took one look at me and said, ‘Are these friends of yours? We were about to call the cops. They're way overdressed for Coupeville.'"

Another film War of the Roses, directed by Danny DeVito, was made in Coupeville in 1989. John recalls, "Just after I bought the tavern, War of the Roses was filmed here with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas." That film was followed by Practical Magic in 1998. "That was a little more fun because we had experience with film companies. Sometimes the principals came in here, and Aidan Quinn really liked it. He showed up several nights and played pool and got to know the locals." In addition to Aidan Quinn, Practical Magic also starred Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest.

Many of the buildings on Front Street were painted white for War of the Roses, including Toby's. A temporary façade was added to the building, and it was renamed "Catch & Fry." After the filming by Warner Brothers was done, the painting crew - made up locals and union members - repainted the buildings colors that the owners chose. Catch & Fry reverted back to Toby's Tavern and was painted red.

See the following interviews (obtainable from the Island County Historical Museum, Coupeville) for more stories about this tavern:
Don Tabach, Jan and Steve Holmes, John Rodriguey, Lyle and Mary Davis, and Barbara Reed.


* All the interviews are extracted from the Judy Lynn's Oral History Project. Judy Lynn interviewed everyone she could find who had any memories of the history of Front Street. For more information on the project contact the Whidbey Island Historical Musem, Coupeville.

The e-book Front Street, Coupeville - An Oral History by Judy Lynn contains all the interviews. I can be purchased for $9.99 at Amazon.com for Kindle application or device or from the Apple Store for iBooks applications. Proceeds go to the Island County Historical Society.

Oral History Cover