A Belly Good Time at the Union House
By Antoinette May Herndon
“Oh, the girls in Mok do the hoochie-koochie dance.
And the dance they do is enough to pleasure you.”
Remember that song, or something like it? The entertainment venue at Jeff Tuttle’s Union House in Mokelumne Hill is up and rolling—so to speak. On a recent Saturday night the Kundalini Belly Dance Tribe performed its Backwoods Belly Dance Showcase for awestruck diners. It was a sight to behold.
There were 15 acts, soloists and troupes, dancers of all ages, sizes and shapes performing in a variety of numbers ranging from classic Near East to jazz belly roll. Some of the younger performers had difficulty holding their costumes up while more mature troop members were in danger of popping out of theirs. All of them were having fun and so was the audience.
Not only were the costumes daring but some of the dancers themselves. Four of them performed an intricate number with scimitars balanced on their heads. Scarrrrry!
“The Union House hasn’t had an event to equal this in 150 years,” Dick Tuttle, the eatery’s owner told me. And that’s saying a lot.
During the Gold Rush days one Mok Hill miner, Hinton Helper, wrote home opining: “I will say, that I have seen purer liquors, better segars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier courtesans here, than in any other place that I have ever visited.”
It seems likely that Helper bought some of those segars and knives at Levinson & Bros.
Store (sight of today’s Mokelumne Hill Exchange and Reading Room) and chatted up those pretty courtesans while drinking his fancy liquor at the Union House.
Out front, where he and other miners parked their horses and wagons is the vine covered garden and stage where the belly dancers performed.
The late Jeff Tuttle acquired the property in the 1990’s but as his focus changed to law, he perceived the selling of liquor as a source of possible conflict. The place was sold but the sale didn’t “take.” The property returned to Jeff, the building standing empty.
Fifteen months ago, Jeff, then 59, had been district attorney for ten years and was running unopposed for yet another term when he died suddenly of a heart attack.
It was then that Jeff’s parents, Dick and Sally Tuttle, took over the renovation of the dilapidated building, hiring ace builder Chris Niebur for the project. It was to be an ongoing memorial to their son. Very soon the three found it much more of a job than they could ever have been anticipated.
“The design process involved extensive underground excavation,” Chris told me. “I started out repairing a sewer line and ended up on an archeological dig.”
In the course of his work, Chris exposed the basement of the original Union Hotel. “It had burned to the ground years ago—nothing remained but the ashes. But beneath those ashes, I found a thousand pieces of Gold Rush life.”
One relic was a perfume bottle in perfect condition with the name of a New York
perfumer clearly etched on its surface. Other treasure included beautiful ornate door handles and a pair of angel wings from a statue.
Galina Tuttle, Jeff’s widow, owns the business and is assistant manager. Let me tell you, Galina is not only gorgeous but a dynamite cook. Her chicken curry with rice and salad ($10.95) served that night were outstanding.
Galina will do much of the cooking in the future and plans many specials. “The Union House is going to be a destination restaurant,” Dick Tuttle, her proud father-in-law prophecies.
In the meantime, these warm summer nights are glorious. Many bottles of Moose Drool ($2.50) were consumed as the belly dancers swung and swayed.
Over the years the Union House has been home to a three-story hotel, a service station, brewery, pizzeria and countless stores. Now it appears to be morphing into a kind of supper club. Future events, planned by Lexie Cowgill, Jeff’s niece, will include chamber music and mariachis concerts. As many of you know, Jeff was a poet and a musician. Surely he would have loved what’s going on at his Union House.
VITALS: Jeff Tuttle’s Union House is located at the corner of Main and Center in Mokelumne Hill. Phone: 286-1102. Hours are Sundays from 9:30 a.m. until 2 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. –later when there’s entertainment. Call Jenny at 256-2712 for information regarding the Backwoods Belly Dance Showcase.