By Jenny Goldsmith | Special to Moonshine Ink
(Editor’s Note: Jenny Goldsmith has worked at Jake’s on the Lake since 2009 and is currently the marketing manager.)
The setting sun casts an orange glow across the vaulted ceilings, dark wood, and brass fixtures inside Jake’s on the Lake in Tahoe City. It’s a quiet Tuesday in mid-March, and although the restaurant has been temporarily closed most Tuesdays in the wake of the pandemic, a tight-knit group of North Tahoe locals gathers.
Jeff Hill, who is Jake’s former general manager and now senior advisor, scrolls through the restaurant’s music selection, landing on The Rolling Stones radio, a playlist he used to reserve for the last few hours of the night when most of the diners had trickled out, leaving a mixed bag of employees, locals, and patrons at the bar. It’s an obvious choice for tonight’s affair, as the man being honored was indeed a massive Stones fan; he was also one of Jake’s most iconic features – its barkeep of 41 years, Doran “Montana” Cahill, who passed away in December at the age of 78.
The first to arrive at the dockside entrance is Duke Eberle — an arrestingly tall and soft-spoken man who’s regarded as Montana’s closest friend, having spent nearly 40 years living with him under the same roof. Both men clocked in decades forging careers as professional bartenders, effectively setting a high standard of service within the small community. All cocktails aside, it was their shared love of books and records, and the hours spent indulging in both simultaneously that bonded them as lifelong best friends.
Not far behind Eberle is Skylo Dangler, a good-natured and breezy character who arguably holds the title of Montana’s longest friend, having met him in sophomore year of college at Morehead State University in Kentucky. A glimpse into the highlight reel of their friendship reveals adventures like hitchhiking across the United States, attending Woodstock, and moving to Tahoe, where they skied daily in their late 20s and 30s to impress the ladies, despite Montana donning jeans and gaiters. Most exploits were fueled by their mutual, relentless pursuit of the opposite sex.
Hot on Dangler’s heels are the Rutters — Vicki “B. Bad” and Johnny “B. Good” — a highly revered and exceptionally kind and humble Tahoe City couple of over 30 years. Both of the Rutters tended bar for decades with Montana — albeit at different locations and in entirely different decades. Vicki recalls late nights (often long past closing time) spent playing darts and kicking back with Montana in the basement at Jake’s. Johnny was likely up to far more mischief than dart-throwing, but this evening, he saved his words for reminiscing and recounting the impact Montana made on him and all those who crossed his path.
It’s been a year since the longtime friends shared a meal, but their familial ties to one another, and to the restaurant itself, are palpable. As Eric Clapton’s ballad love song, Layla, lilts through the speakers, they settle in for dinner to feast on memories of one remarkable man’s life.
Dangler is first to share, reliving college anecdotes from the early ’60s. With each twist of debauchery, turn of luck, and tale of brotherhood, he has everyone erupting in laughter.
“We used to go down to Florida for spring break and whatnot, and we figured we’d have a better chance at getting lucky if we said we were in a band, so we became the Sheetrockers,” Dangler said. “So then we thought we’d need a road name, too, because you can’t just be Doran or Skylo when you’re in the Sheetrockers, so Montana’s handle was ‘Thor,’ and I was ‘The Cactus Kid.’”
Their propensity for conjuring up witty nicknames would become a theme for years to come. From Kentucky to Woodstock to Lake Tahoe, they found in each other the same kind of wry, ironic charm that made them an utterly winning combination.
Johnny’s phone rings and the group quiets. It’s Slater Cahill — Montana’s younger brother who also lives in Tahoe City. Slater is one of three Buffalo, New York, born-and-bred brothers, who all tower over 6 feet 5 inches tall. He’s left town to visit the third Cahill just before tonight’s gathering, and he won’t be able to come. The table calls out goodbyes and well-wishes to Slater, and the conversation jumps right back in as Buffalo Springfield belts out its timeless tune, For What It’s Worth.
Having stumbled upon Lake Tahoe on a hitchhiking mission to San Francisco in college, it was only a matter of time before Montana made his way back to the Sierra in the early ’70s, at which point he landed a job at the Bear Pen Tavern in Squaw Valley. Before long, he climbed the ranks from bartender to manager, thereby recruiting his old pal Dangler as assistant manager. Dangler didn’t hesitate to accept the offer to work at the “Home of the original wet T-shirt contest.” But before leaving Martha’s Vineyard, he invited his new friend, Johnny, to come out for a visit. Johnny not only accepted the invitation, but also wound up making Tahoe his permanent home.
“Montana gave me my first job bartending, and he also gave me a place to live,” Johnny recalled. “It was an incredible experience being thrown right into the local hotspot.”
The Bear Pen was the place to be, with Montana, Dangler, and Johnny leading the charge. Aside from launching the 20-somethings into a lifelong career tending bar, the Bear Pen allowed Montana to exercise his burning obsession with the blues and rock ‘n’ roll as he oversaw the venue’s live music lineup.
The watering hole quickly became famous for its “locals night,” where rock ‘n’ roll legends like Pablo Cruise, Bob Weir, Eddie Money, and Huey Lewis would pack the house with eclectic sounds symbolic of the ’70s.
In 1975, their run at the Bear Pen came to a halt when the business switched ownership, forcing the band of brothers to hit the pavement and find another gig. Rather than break apart, they headed to the Hearthstone Steak, Spirits & Rib House (now Rosie’s) in Tahoe City with an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude. The popular new steakhouse hired them as a package deal, once again proof they were a unified force to be reckoned with.
News of the Hearthstone’s revelry traveled quickly across Northern California, catching the attention of Eberle, who drove up from Berkeley so he could see the legends-in-making for himself.
“I heard there was a cry for bartenders at the Hearthstone, so I came up here to look for a job and was told I’d have to go through Montana,” Eberle recalled. “We got to talking, and he introduced me to Johnny and Skylo, and I thought, ‘talk about a nice work environment to walk into.’”
A bluesy lead guitar resonates against the wood-paneled walls at Jake’s as The Beatles Get Back kicks off in the background. The sun has slipped behind the mountains, giving way to the legendary alpenglow that is synonymous with Lake Tahoe. The warm light flooding the landscape echoes the sense of comfort and home surrounding the friends as they share their memories.
The Hearthstone held its status as Tahoe City’s hot spot until a new lakefront restaurant opened in the summer of 1978. Overlooking the Tahoe City marina and housed in Boatworks Mall (p. 26), Jake’s on the Lake took center stage, alluring crowds with an airy atmosphere, sweeping views of Lake Tahoe, and sophisticated, Hawaiian-inspired cuisine.
“Originally, there was a rule that you couldn’t wear a T-shirt at Jake’s, so we all said, ‘that place will never make it,’” recalled Dangler, who would later become one of the restaurant’s most frequent customers.
Among the inaugural waitstaff at Jake’s was father-to-be Bruce Hill, who was gearing up to welcome his newborn son, Jeff, in the fall of 1978. But there was still one key ingredient missing from the waterfront restaurant — a seasoned bartender who could handle the growing late-night crowd.
After two years of trying to cajole the boys away from Hearthstone, the owners of Jake’s finally managed to rope in their illustrious leader, Montana, and so began his 40-year tenure at the family-owned and -operated establishment.
“I remember running around the Boatworks Mall and at Jake’s as a kid,” Jeff recalled from the years when his father was a server. “Everyone was a bit of a blur from those days, but I remember Montana because he was the tallest of the tall people, and I thought of him as this sort of gentle giant.”
As he grew up, Jeff’s encounters with the restaurant and its head barkeep morphed from daytime innocence to nighttime debauchery.
“I was in that stage of my 20s where I wanted to be in the party scene, and I overplayed this idea that I was somehow in with Montana,” Jeff candidly joked. “I got in a wrestling match one night at the bar with a close friend, and even though we were kidding around, Montana kicked me out — it’s a burning memory for me because it’s the only time I was ever really kicked out of anywhere.”
Flash forward to 2013 when Jeff was offered the opportunity to become general manager of the restaurant. The decision to accept was solidified the moment he received Montana’s heartfelt seal of approval.
“I was in the office upstairs when Montana graced me and said, ‘It just feels right that you’re here,’” Jeff recalled. “It really settled any doubts I still had, and I finally felt like I was in the right place and had made the right decision.”
The Animal’s folk-rock narrative The House of the Rising Sun ebbs from the speakers and the dim, golden glow of interior lights now dances in the tall windows. The party raises their glasses in an unspoken endorsement for Jeff’s reign at Jake’s.
A cherished and proud moment for Jeff as GM was the night of Montana’s retirement party in June 2019, when he officially dedicated the bar in the barkeep’s name, hanging an engraved plate on the floor-to-ceiling beam that stands in the center of the bar.
But it wasn’t just a plaque hung in his honor. It was a symbolic testament proving that legends like Montana can and do exist. That they put in the effort, and in turn transcend into something larger than life, with stories that live on long after they do. It’s a moniker bestowed on those who put in the time it takes to earn such a title. Montana spent five decades — over half a lifetime — connecting with people in a very real way on Tahoe’s North Shore.
“It’s really what everyone knows — it’s the graciousness, the comfort he offered everyone, the grandiose nature he portrayed, the canvas that he had painted here, and the way he made everyone feel like they’re at home no matter where they were from,” Eberle said. “That’s what he
was all about, and that’s really something special.”
As the night comes to an end, one final question is tossed on the table.
“Does anyone know what his favorite song was?” Dangler asks, teeming with anticipation.
Eberle guesses Rambling Man and others mumble hunches. Dangler hardly waits before exclaiming, “Layla!”
“It was Clapton’s Layla,” he repeats. And then a third and final time, “LAYLA.”
It doesn’t register until weeks later while replaying a recording of that night that Layla was in fact the song that kicked off the dinner. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but perhaps it’s further proof of Montana’s mythical, everlasting, and legendary life.