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San Joaquin Magazine, The Magazine of the Central Valley.  Stockton, Tracy, Lodi, Manteca, Lathrop.
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Banta Inn: A Colorful History

by Katy Berry | photos by Violet Whitworth and Banta Inn

From time to time, the string of gas stations and grocery stores we pass each day causes us to forget that we live in a place with a history far more exciting than the new Walgreens on Tracy Boulevard. We live in the Wild West, a land once defined by mountains, cowboys, and gold rushes. Luckily, if you ever need a living reminder of San Joaquin's rugged history, look no further than the Banta Inn in Tracy.

Now a bar and restaurant nestled on South 7th Street, the Banta Inn sits on the historic Lincoln Highway next to the train tracks. It was originally built in 1892 as a two-story saloon, the upstairs acting as an inn. Owner Frank Gallegos was associated with local outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, who's said to have turned to a life of crime after his wife and brother were wrongfully accused and killed for stealing. Gallegos' saloon was also a sporting house, and the "sporting" continued upstairs where the inn rooms were used to facilitate a popular bordello. The inn was located at a stagecoach stop where weary travelers could take a break from their journeys. It was also where gold panners could trade in their tired mules for fresh ones before heading to San Francisco to hopefully make their fortune. In 1937, the inn nearly burnt to the ground. There is no definitive answer as to what began the fire, but its blaze supposedly took the life of a mother and child, who are now said to haunt the Banta. Despite the tragic fire, it was immediately rebuilt within the same year as a one-story general store. The new owners kept the original name of Banta Inn, though the establishment no longer had bedrooms.

In the 1960's, Frank Gallegos' youngest daughter and her third husband, Tony Gukman, decided to turn the Banta Inn back into a bar and restaurant. Gukman spent much of his time tending bar, and supposedly had the odd habits of stacking coins in the register and playing one-man poker when business was slow. In 1968, Gukman had a heart attack behind the bar and died instantly. It was then that the Banta Inn, which already had a colorful history, began to gain its reputation as one of the most haunted spots in America. At the time, there had already been rumors about the 1937 fire victims haunting the place, but it's the spirit of Tony Gukman that has made the Banta Inn notorious.

Bartender Vivian Nuich has been working at the Banta for five years and claims that she's seen the disheveled coins in the cash register mysteriously become neat stacks with no one behind the bar. She's also had customers whose beers have tipped over by themselves and whose plates have hovered towards them. Manager Nicole Didion has been working at the Banta for nine years and has also witnessed the coin stacking, along with the juke box playing oldies by Patsy Cline and Sinatra by itself, and ketchup and mustard bottles flying off tables. The restaurant has been featured on paranormal television shows like Sightings, and has undergone multiple paranormal investigations. Most psychics agree that Tony is a happy ghost, only playfully teasing the employees and patrons with his antics.

Beyond the eccentric history of the Banta Inn, it's also a homey spot to eat with the family or drink with the locals. Standing across from the old, abandoned brick post office, which closed in the '90s when the town of Banta officially became part of Tracy, we can easily imagine the dusty landscape as a once bustling crossroads for salty characters. When you walk into the bar area, you may initially draw the attention of several regulars who turn to scope you out, but don't be intimidated. The bartenders are friendly, and if you're at all interested in the great stories of the Banta, regulars who've been visiting the bar for over forty years are more than happy to tell you the tales. For example, did you know that before Banta became part of Tracy, its mayor was a mule named Crackers? The bar also hosts weekly events like karaoke on Wednesday nights, and hopes to expand its outdoor space for live music and other events.

If you're not much of a drinker, current owner Henry Tosta created a separate entrance to the attached family-friendly restaurant. For reasonable prices, guests can sit in the rustic dining room, each table lacquered with historic photos of the Banta Inn throughout the years (there's even an old photo of Tony on one of the tables), and antique cowboy relics on the walls. The menu is especially pleasing to meat-eaters who love juicy burgers and steaks. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, this local gem is a true blast-from-the-past and a great piece of history that all San Joaquin-ers should visit at least once.

For more information: Banta Inn, 22563 7th Street, Tracy, (209) 835-1311, or find the Banta Inn on Facebook.

 


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