The Creamer Hotel circa 1938. The Felton Drugstore occupied the downstairs. Photo: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
From 1920-23 the Creamer Hotel was leased to the Western Bee Company. Photo: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
The Creamer Hotel was home to Melson's Hobby Shop beginning in 1939. Photo: Courtesy of Ronnie Trubek
The Creamer Hotel was home to Melson's Hobby Shop beginning in 1939. Photo: Courtesy of Ronnie Trubek
The Creamer Hotel in Felton, California (now known as the Cremer House) is rumored to have harbored both prostitutes and contraband liquor within its sturdy walls. As the oldest building in this small town in the Santa Cruz Mountains, its history is filled with colorful characters, including a savvy business-woman, disgruntled barber, lovesick waitress, and old western film stars. The story of the Creamer Hotel begins with a husband and wife—Thomas Cremer from Germany and Margaret Toohig from Ireland—and a man named John Henry Brown.
John Henry Brown was many things, including the first bartender and hotelkeeper in San Francisco. At that time, between 1835 and 1850, the city was still called Yerba Buena. Brown had traveled extensively, had many business dealings, was well connected, and had money to spare. He saw business potential in Thomas and Margaret, so as an investment he helped them open their first hotel.
The First Cremer Hotel
Thomas and Margaret’s first business was a restaurant along Front Street near the present day Post Office and clock tower. Front Street at this time was lined with whorehouses and opium dens and the Cremers’ restaurant may well have purveyed more than wholesome food.
Though prevalent, houses of ill-repute were frowned upon by the town council, and as these moral folks began fining and shutting down places known to offer prostitution, Thomas and Margaret closed their restaurant. Thanks to help of investor John Henry Brown, they opened a hotel across the river at Ocean and Water Streets in 1871—at the time, just outside of city limits. As local historian Randall Brown puts it, “Take from that what you will.”
This hotel was known as Cremer’s Hotel. (Thomas’s last name was probably pronounced “Creamer” but only his wife spelled it that way. He used the German spelling, “Cremer.”)
Saved by a Corset!
Although it’s uncertain if Cremer’s Hotel was a brothel on the side, we do know that when the infamous California bandido Tiburcio Vásquez came knocking, Margaret bravely protected her place of business as fiercely as a Madam protecting her harem . She refused service to the outlaw and his men, so Vasquez shot out all the windows. A stray bullet actually hit a woman at the hotel, but she was saved by her corset. Who knew those torturous undergarments could actually be useful!
The Cremer’s Hotel in Santa Cruz lasted until 1875 when the Cremers decided to move up to Felton and take advantage of booming business promised by the new Santa Cruz & Felton railroad. The couple leased the Central Hotel (the current site of Felton Paint & Hardware) and an empty lot across the street. Wasting no time, the Cremers began construction of another hotel that same year. The new building opened in April of 1876 and became known as the Creamer Hotel. (Apparently Margaret got her way this time and the phonetic spelling was used.)
The Creamer Hotel Versus the Grand Central Hotel
This is where history gets muddled: It should be made clear that what is known today as the Cremer House was never the Central or Grand Central Hotel (also known as the Felton Hotel). They were two separate buildings across the street from one another. The Creamer Hotel (now known as the Cremer House) is the only one of the two hotels that still remains.
In 1888 a large fire destroyed all the buildings near the Creamer Hotel, including the Central Hotel across the street. The following year the Central Hotel was rebuilt as the Grand Central Hotel and later became known as the Felton Hotel. The Creamer Hotel survived a second devastating fire in 1896, known as the Yom Kippur fire.
With so many names for two buildings, and multiple fires, it’s no wonder there’s been some confusion!
What You Could Order From a “Waitress”
The Creamer Hotel had a boarding house with 18 rooms on one side (where the restaurant is today) and a gambling hall on the other. The old restaurant was downstairs with the kitchen in back in case it caught fire (as kitchens often did in those days). The restaurant had waitresses, as all sit-down restaurants do, but in those days “waitress” was often a euphemism for prostitute. Again to use Randall Brown’s words, “Take from that what you will.”
Why You Should Always Pay the Butcher
Right next door to the Creamer Hotel was a meat market that supplied meat for the hotel’s restaurant. The market’s owner (John Chace, a future Santa Cruz mayor) sublet the land to the Cremers on which they built their hotel. Thomas was never good at paying his bills (he was sued for not paying bills at his restaurant on Front Street) and failed for quite some time to pay the butcher who almost cancelled the lease on the land. John Henry Brown again came to the Cremers’ aid and loaned Thomas the money to pay off the butcher.
The lease on the land was paid and the Creamer Hotel was saved. It stayed in business for another ten years or so although Thomas’s health was failing. Margaret was fortunately strong as an ox and kept everything in order. She even purchased a cream separator, made a deal with someone in town who owned Jersey cows, and began making her own butter and ice cream to sell at the restaurant. You know her dairy products must have been exceptional if this detail made it into the history books.
Thomas died in 1880 and John Henry Brown decided to buy the land on which the Creamer Hotel was located, expecting that construction of the railroad would continue through town, right past the hotel. Margaret stayed on to manage the boarding house, renting mostly to railroad workers, particularly an Irish crew. The Chinese workers were made to stay in the warehouse.
The foreman of the Irish crew, Mr. Cassidy, became Margaret’s second husband, in 1884. In April, 1881, 70 year-old John Henry Brown separated from his young second wife, moved back to San Francisco and sold the land to Margaret for $2,250. Margaret finally owned the land on which her hotel stood.
Love Affairs and Kitchen Fights
During the years that Margaret owned the Creamer Hotel it ran smoothly in a business sense but it wasn’t without its dramas. One of the restaurant’s “waitresses” took an overdose of laudanum when a love affair went sour (she survived). A fight in the kitchen broke out and a cook was knifed by a dishwasher (he didn’t survive). Another worker at the hotel came by one day to pick up his paycheck, but instead of walking away with a pocketful of money, he was hit over the head with a poker and stumbled into the street to die.
Death in the Cremer Family and New Owners for the Creamer Hotel
In the midst of the hotel drama, Margaret suffered her own personal tragedies. In 1885 her son Willie drowned in Davenport on a fishing trip. In the late 1880s she lost her eldest son at the young age of 21 to typhoid fever. After this death, her second oldest son Theodore returned to Felton to help run the hotel. Margaret remained in charge until her death in 1892.
Unfortunately, Theodore and his two remaining brothers did not inherit their mother’s business sense and ran the hotel into the ground. The property then went through several hands until it was purchased and renovated by Mr. Fetherston in 1912. This renovation includes the addition of the second balcony and sleeping porches.
The Creamer Hotel Becomes Hangout for Western Film Stars
From 1915-1920 the hotel became the unofficial headquarters for movie companies who came to town to shoot old western films. William S. Hart was the main actor and director of most of these films and some of the scenes were probably shot at the hotel.
Prohibition: Hooch Hidden Behind Bee Hives
In 1920 Fetherston also bought the Grand Central Hotel across the street and stopped running the Creamer Hotel as a boarding house. Prohibition began this same year and the Grand Central Hotel was busted several times for keeping hooch around the property, but across the street Fetherston had the perfect front: He leased the hotel to the Western Bee Company so the outer perimeter of the building was lined with bee hives, discouraging “dry” crusaders from snooping around.
The Western Bee Company went bankrupt in 1923 and Fetherston took back management of the building. It functioned for a time as the town’s community hall before he turned it into apartments known as both the Bee Farm Apartments and Fetherston Apartments. The building remained an apartment complex from 1924-1947. The Felton Drugstore opened downstairs in 1938 and Melson’s hobby shop opened in 1939.
From Old West to Southwestern Stucco
The building remained the original wooden structure until Mr. Frick, a retired plasterer, bought it in 1947. He removed the Old West front and side porches and stuccoed the exterior, giving it the Southwestern look it has today. The building went through several tenants including a health spa, beauty parlor, and Heavenly Hamburger which operated nearly 15 years before the popular restaurant moved to Scotts Valley.
More recently, in the 1960s, the building was again apartments. It was owned by the Pagnini’s, who owned Roy’s Market and the shared parking lot in between. Local entrepreneur Bob Locatelli purchased the Creamer building from the Pagnini’s in the early 2000s.
The building remained empty for years but unbeknownst to Locatelli, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing owner Emily Thomas had big plans for this historic site. In 2010 Thomas submitted a proposal to Locatelli sharing her dream of bringing the Creamer Hotel back to life as a locally-sourced restaurant and alehouse. The newly renovated Cremer House (back to Thomas Cremer’s spelling) opened in December of 2014.
The Creamer Hotel Becomes the Cremer House
The Cremer House restaurant pays homage to the building’s rich cultural history through thoughtful touches like the use of old photographs on their menus and walls and a bar built of old barn wood. Sitting at one of the rustic tables lit by vintage fixtures, sipping on hand-crafted ale and snacking on cured meats and pickled vegetables, you can almost hear the sound of Margaret’s dinner bell and the raucous laughter of gambling men on the other side of the wall.
Thomas Cremer and Margaret Toohig Cremer Cassidy, both buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, would have approved of the good food and merry company that once again fills the walls of the Creamer Hotel.
Thank you to local historian Randall Brown who generously provided much of the historic information and many photos and material for this piece. Brown is in the middle of revising his book, Ghosts of the Creamer Hotel, Felton: a local history. Thanks are also due to Ronnie Trubek who inspired the piece with her fabulous ForestLaurel designed Christmas card about the Cremer House. She also supplied photos and helped edit and fact check.
- Cremer House Hires Chef, Prepares to Open. Amber Turpin. November 25, 2014. Edible Monterey Bay Website.
- 140 Years of Railroading in Santa Cruz County. Part 1. Rick Hamman. Aptos Times, March 1996 and April 1, 1996.
- The San Lorenzo Valley. Lisa Robinson. Arcadia Publishing, 2012.
- Thomas Cremer. Family Tree Maker Website.
- Margaret Toohig. Family Tree Maker Website.
- An Hour’s Walk Through Yerba Buena. Douglas S. Watson. 1957, 1937: E. Clampus Vitus, Yerba Buena Chapter.