Through the lower Russian River grapevine, I hear that Clare Harris turns 100 this week. Please don’t mention it to anyone. The grapevine insists that Clare doesn’t want any fuss about it.
Clare was born in a redwood house over by Lone Mountain which the Russian River flowed right around way back in the day. The house is still standing, as is Clare. Last I saw him, he was out to dinner at Northwood. His dear wife Carla and others were telling him he should be using his cane. Not only wasn’t he using a cane, he wasn’t wearing glasses, and there was no sign of a hearing aid either. He was smiling a lot and greeting everyone in sight. There was hardly a soul in the place he didn’t know.
Clare has been part of the Russian River recreation scene all his life. As a young man, he managed the beach at Guernewood Park which is now part of the fine Dubrava Village community. There was a tavern there with a band playing the good old tunes some of us think of as the best of American music. Later it became Ginger’s Rancho where a number of us would gather around the River’s own Bob Lucas Trio. On several of those evenings, one of the King Sisters showed up and sang a song or two, and she could really sing a song. The King Sisters were a famous group during big band days, six of them all old. They toured the country, made 50 some records, and won several awards. So it was along the River not all that long ago, and Clare Harris was right in the midst of it.
The Harris family operated Rio Nido Resort during some of that storied spot’s most famous days. And then they took over Johnson’s Beach. For decades, Clare could be seen and heard directing activities from his post in the concession building. He greeted everyone in sight, rented out the umbrellas and canoes, or blasted a warning over the loudspeaker to someone standing up in a canoe or not following other quite sensible rules. Nothing got past Clare. His was a tightly run operation all for the purpose of people having a real good time.
And it was a good time because the River is just a fun place to be on a nice summer day and because Clare and the Harris family kept prices low enough so lots of people could afford to bring their families to this truly idyllic setting. Not only that, the beer was cold, the hot dogs ample, and the soft ice cream, both chocolate and vanilla, were lip-smacking good.
For decades, the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival was held at Johnson’s Beach with crowds of several thousand enjoying the warm vibes and laid-back River atmosphere. Dizzie Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, the Count Basie band, Nancy Wilson, Stan Getz and Carmen McRae were among the big names there in earlier days. Clare was pleased as punch about it all.
The new owners of Johnson’s Beach have tried to keep the tradition going, but Lord help us, in the last year they have endured an evacuation, a bad flood, the virus shutdown, another evacuation and now miserable smokiness. This is so for all our River businesses. Let’s hope they find a way to keep going. And let’s keep the faith that somehow good days will come again and the good times will roll once more.
For now, we do well to wish Clare Harris a happy birthday and a heartfelt thank you for what he and his family have done for us and all those who came to enjoy our River. Just don’t let him know about your good wishes. He doesn’t want any fuss. Actually, I think he wants us to think he’s in his seventies, which isn’t hard to do.