On a typical afternoon, saddled horses are tethered to the hitching post outside of Monty’s Log Cabin, waiting patiently alongside a clutch of parked Harley-Davidsons. Inside, at happy hour or on the weekend, any number of the characters who call Felton, California, home are elbow to elbow in the two-room roadside tavern.
The 86-year-old dive sits on the shoulder of rural Highway 9, which continues 8 winding miles down the mountain to Santa Cruz. The post-and-beam cabin is festooned with fairy lights and two vintage neon signs alerting passersby that there are drinks to be had within, should anyone mistake the place for the trading post it once was.
Guests are greeted by the bar’s longtime female bartenders, any number of regulars and a dog or three—watch out for Speedbump, a paraplegic bulldog who scoots across the hardwood floors with surprising velocity. The interior is what’s to be expected from an old bar in the redwoods: There are dusty deer mounts and a taxidermied, sneering bobcat glaring out the front window, biker memorabilia and an array of vintage signage with questionable humor.
While Santa Cruz–adjacent, Felton is a world away from the beaches, surf culture and boardwalk. A former logging center with a population just over 3,000, the sleepy town, which is nestled within the lush San Lorenzo Valley, draws an international array of low-key visitors who come for the massive old-growth redwood trees, scenic hiking trails and campgrounds.
At the same time, evidence of the region’s countercultural past remains—aging hippies and alternative modalities abound—alongside curiosities like the Bigfoot Discovery Museum (“Attract and edutain the public with the facts about mystery primates around the world”), a historic narrow-gauge railroad and a handful of tasting rooms offering pours from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Felton was also home to a former Monty’s regular, the late Herb Mullin, one of three serial killers who earned Santa Cruz the dubious title of Murder Capital of the World in the early 1970s. The combined vibe of Felton, then, is perhaps best described as sublime small town-meets-ID Channel.
Monty’s Log Cabin fits seamlessly within the oddball landscape, as does longtime proprietor Monty McKissock, who is 72. A native of upstate New York, McKissock fell in love with the Santa Cruz area on an early ’70s road trip. “It reminded me of the Adirondacks, really green and peaceful,” he says. A former Marine and graphic designer, McKissock started bartending in college to help cover his tuition. Upon moving to Felton in the late ’70s, he started pouring drinks at the now-shuttered Don Quixote, a bar and music venue.
“Monty won’t tell you this because he’s too humble, but everyone in town knows him,” says Janette Waters, who’s been bartending for McKissock for 18 years. “He’s really seen some shit and he’s got great stories, but he’s also a wonderful person and employer. He saw me through breast cancer and sat with me during chemo. I’m very fortunate to have him as an employer and friend.”
McKissock became acquainted with the original owners of the bar (then known as George’s Log Cabin) when he began holding VFW events there. George and Stefaneta Graziani immigrated to the United States in the 1920s; in 1936 they built the cabin and turned it into a trading post, where they sold sundries and camping supplies to visitors.
Within a year, the Grazianis had added a back room and turned their business into an Italian restaurant and bar. Then, in 2000, the Grazianis’ daughter, Rose, approached McKissock about leasing the bar. He graciously accepted the offer, but was hesitant to change the name until she assured him he was considered family. Twenty-two years on, McKissock feels similarly about his own customers.
On a recent visit, Punch joined McKissock at the bar to talk paranormal activity, retirement and why he describes Monty’s as “Switzerland.”
You never aspired to own a bar and didn’t have prior back-end experience. Why did the Grazianis entrust you with this place?
I just loved it here—it kind of wrapped its arms around me from the start. For whatever reason, the family thought I should have it. It’s been such a gift.
Who are some of your other clienteles?
We get a complex cross-section, from bikers, tourists and campers to working-class folks and millionaires. Sometimes, I need to throw out a couple of rednecks. But that mix is what keeps it interesting.
Not all of your guests arrive by car or on foot, do they?
Sometimes it’s just horses and Harleys out front. We have a hitching post, because we get so many horseback riders from the local stable. Once in a while, someone will bring their horse into the bar.
You’ve described this place as Switzerland. What does that mean?
Everybody is welcome. I’ve traveled and lived all over the world, and that’s what’s given me so much appreciation for other cultures. Even though we’re a mixed bag of nuts and I think that everyone should have a belief system, this isn’t the place for it. I don’t allow proselytizing in here. I try to preserve some of the sanctity, especially for our regulars. We’re kind of an extended family.
To that end, your retention is impressive. You also have an all-female staff. Was that by design or accident?
I was just trying to hire the best bartenders I could, and when I looked over my shoulder, there was all this estrogen in here.
Who came up with your slogan, “Does a bar sit in the woods?”
One of our early bartenders, Cimarron. He’s since passed on to the happy hunting ground, as have all my original regulars.
Speaking of, word is the bar is haunted.
It doesn’t happen as much lately, but sometimes as I’m closing up, it will be like, What’s happening? There will be a random gust of cold air, or I’ll get goosebumps for no clear reason. I like to talk to them—I always say hi to George Jr. and Sr. and Rose. We even had one of those paranormal television shows come film here. Felton itself is kind of weird, but nowhere near as weird as Ghost Hunters and all their equipment taking over my bar.
You’ve been bartending in general for over 50 years. Any plans to retire?
I’m not a guy who can retire. But the bar business keeps me young. I’m here seven days a week, doing whatever needs doing. I constantly meet new people and get exposed to new ideas, and I feed off that. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about this place.
What else keeps you going?
I tend to land on the light side of things. And, I really enjoy talking with my customers, even if it’s hearing about their problems. I like the counseling part of it; sometimes people just need a conversation to help them figure things out for themselves. But Felton is also a special place. It’s a wonderful way of life, the air is clean, and people just really care about their community and one another. It’s that old-school attitude of, if someone needs help, you get off your barstool and help them.
Have any of those people or visitors from out of town tried to buy Monty’s?
All the time. I’ve had people throw their checkbooks on the bar and say, “Name your price.” I tell them to put it away, this is my forever job. I’d just have to go and buy another bar, and I wouldn’t like it as much as this place.