Welcome to Pollard Flat USA
● By Gary VanDeWalker
Gold, Gas, Grub & GertieMarch 2015
By Gary Vandewalker
Photos: Taryn Burkleo
Halfway between Canada and Mexico, along Interstate 5, truckers and travelers pass through history. The trip into the the shadows left by the once-thriving gold rush community of Portuguese Flat, whose bullet-hole-laden buildings have been replaced by a truck stop and restaurant, Pollard Flat USA.
A large cross of lights welcomes visitors to pull off Exit 712 to the woodplanked building, resembling an old western saloon placed out of time. Gas pumps and a truck parking area seem out of place, while the wooded hills rise above the restaurant, which is perched above the churning river below.
Inside, tables are filled with customers, with steaming bowls of the establishment’s signature split pea soup. Ham steaks, biscuits and gravy, along with steaming cups of coffee cover the tables. Members of the Harsh family’s four generations have greeted people here since 1973 when Florence Harsh took over the business, founded in 1922 by Jesse Getchell. Getchell purchased the 140 acres from the railroad for $750. Th e dream began as a gas pump and later expanded into a restaurant and store.
The Sacramento Canyon above Redding became crowded with mining camps during the California gold boom of the 1850s. Portuguese gold miners settled in their own community, known as Portuguese Flat. Ross and Mary McCloud opened an inn in 1855 and remained there until the town was abandoned in 1885. The crowded village was filled with many of the notorious individuals of the time, earning the place the reputation of being the roughest camp in the state.
Bill Harsh looked at a distance at his mother’s business. “I went to my pastor and asked what I should do with my life,” Harsh says. “I was impacted by the Bible and the verse in which God makes all things new.” In 1982, he moved here with his wife Janet to become part of its history. His infectious smile breathes atmosphere into the room as he serves customers. He is now the help, having passed the management over to his son, Daniel, and wife Rebecca.
The Harshes are not the only residents. For over 50 years, Gertie has welcomed guests in the building’s restroom. She is a mannequin, resting clothed in a bathtub. As the unsuspecting enter, customers are entertained by astonished cries of those unnerved by the feeling they have disturbed a bather. At times, a button on the outside wall has provided a scream to accompany the experience. A quick glance at restaurant reviews will find Gertie is a major roadside attraction, in which generations of customers have returned again and again to introduce their families to her. Harsh once paid a lady $100 to sit in the bathtub as a joke and talk to truck drivers when they first entered.
Down a short hall, leading to the business office, a glass case holds Flathead Junior, the ever-present rattlesnake who delightfully flickers his tongue at the curious children who gaze into his hovel. His predecessor, Flathead, enjoyed this spot for 22 years. Now in his 18th year, Junior rests coiled and observing those walking by his home.
The walls are covered with license plates from around the world, along with frames of money from the various countries of customers. A wood stove churns out heat into the business. Drinks come in mason jars as truckers sit at the long yellow counter in front. A small library of books is in one corner, while World War Two headlines are framed and present the feeling that time swirls like an eddy here.
“I felt God gave me a mission here,” Harsh says. “Every Thanksgiving we offer a free dinner.” This year, more than 200 people stopped by to celebrate at Pollard Flat. Some families have made it their tradition. “One man donates an antique to the restaurant each year,” Harsh says as he points out the hand-pumped vacuum cleaner in the front entrance case.
Poet Joaquin Miller recovered at this spot from injuries in a battle with Native Americans. Today, countless travelers stop for a break, a laugh and a view into the rich past of these few acres. But for Harsh and many of those stopping, “this is home.”