CENTERVILLE — A river rock chimney, a tumbled-down swamp cooler and ashes were all that remained Tuesday of the bar at Pierce's Park, a sometimes-notorious piece of Fresno County history.
The bar, which caught fire Monday afternoon from undetermined causes, was the long-abandoned stomping ground of Otis Pierce, a gunslinging singer from Missouri who came to Sanger in 1926 and later opened the bar and a dance hall on the property alongside the Kings River. It was a place where outlaw bikers, cowboys, Native Americans from the foothills and tourists seeking a thrill drank and rubbed shoulders and listened to Pierce and his friends play old-time country music.
The saloon and the surrounding property acquired notoriety in 1977 when it hosted a rally for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Pierce offered the property after the group couldn't find another Fresno County site to host it. He entertained a small crowd with his music until the cross-burning ceremony began.
The bar was a fount of legends, most framed around Pierce, who wore a western hat, his hair long and dressed in bib overalls from which he was likely to pull a pistol if trouble should erupt. Woody Laughnan, a long-time Bee columnist, wrote that Pierce was known to take a rifle and fire it at targets he could see from the doorway, on one occasion picking off a cottontail rabbit with a shot aimed at its eye from 200 yards away.
Drivers passing Pierce's Park in the 1970s would often be surprised, or unnerved, to see a gallows erected from a light stand in front of the bar with a dummy hanging from it. Pierce said that was what should be done to all criminals.
"They ought to put up gallows in L.A., Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento and Oakland," he said. "The time has come when people has got to open their eyes instead of closin' their eyes prayin', because while they're prayin' people are stealin' them blind."
Pierce was reputed to practice what he preached. Laughnan told about the time that a would-be bandit tried to rob the bar and found himself trussed-up on the barroom floor. On another occasion, Pierce ended a domestic violence incident by clouting a man in the head with a hammer.
He also found himself on the other side of the law. In 1980, narcotics agents raided Pierce's Park, confiscating marijuana plants that Pierce was growing in a window box in the bar. He was booked into Fresno County Jail, but charges were later dropped. Pierce said he was simply growing the plants to show tourists "from out of state ... what they looked like."
Pierce died in February 1981. Those who attended his funeral, according to Laughnan, included truck drivers, dirt farmers, college professors, bikers, musicians and "an old man who rode up on a bicycle."
Pierce's Park, of course, was never the same.
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