Knightsen township is located in unincorporated east Contra Costa County along the original Santa Fe railroad line as founded in 1898. Its leading citizen at the time donated the land for the right of way, station house and pumping station. The town name as intended by Santa Fe was to be Meganos after the John Marsh ranch that covered most of East County. Quick action by the local farmers secured the town’s name as Knightsen by petitioning the federal government for a post office in that name prior to completion of the railroad line. The name “Knightsen” is a combination of first citizen George Knight’s last name and the maiden name of his wife, Christina Christensen. Hence the name Knightsen, in honor of the family who donated the land forming the original township.*
A post office, general store, packing shed and saloon soon comprised the business district of downtown Knightsen. The Knightsen Saloon, proprietor J. A. Cantrell, was established in the early 1900s. R. Jackson succeeded Cantrell. A succession of saloon keepers maintained the same “Valley Brew” drinking establishment until Ted Ohmstede and “Butch” Colombo acquired the property and renamed it the “Sportsman’s Club.” The term “Sportsman” in this instance is in homage to Colombo’s major league football career and Ohmstede’s support of local youth sports activities. Discovery Bay resident Sonja Thompson acquired the bar, renamed it “Sonja’s Country Tavern” and ran the landmark for 34 years. Sadly, Sonja’s heirs sold the bar in 2018 and it has remained empty ever since.
It is at The Sportsman’s Club that our legend begins. Local cattleman and horseman, Jack Ladd (b. 1936 d. 2018) lived 1½ miles from the local tavern on his ranch near the intersection of Delta Road and Byron Highway. Jack was a local man, graduate of Liberty Union High School class of ’53, and president of the local Future Farmers of America chapter his senior year. Blacksmithing and Free Masonry were in his blood. So was his “devil may care” spirit of fun. For years, Jack was the resident blacksmith at Aldenwood Historic Farm, Fremont, where he continued the trade his father began at Columbia, Sonoma County in the late 1900s. As a multigenerational member of the Brentwood Masonic Lodge, Jack presided over countless Masonic rite funerals in eastern Contra Costa County.
Jack and Bob Mygrant, out for a motorcycle ride, stopped at the Sportsman’s Club and were “in their cups” when they left. In the days before DUI citations, no one gave their condition much thought. Back at his ranch, Jack saddled up his horse and headed back to Knightsen and the bar. Upon arriving, he proclaimed, “There is no G** D*** place to hitch in front!” and proceed to ride his mare into the bar and out the backdoor, grabbing a cocktail enroute. There was revelry for the rest of the night.
Since that night, local legend has it that the ghost of Jack Ladd and his horse still visit Sonja’s Country Inn. It is on nights of dense tule fog that his presence is most often felt. In a town of 1,500 residents and over 1,500 equines, all 3,000 agree.
The legend of a headless equestrian riding hard and appearing out of nowhere has its European origins in the Middle Ages. This equestrian tale journeyed to America with the Irish, the Scots, or the English sometime after the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock. Here, it stuck fast and transformed into our American folklore thanks to Washington Irving in 1820. Once more, the horse, this time accompanied by the Walker, emigrated to the California Delta to appear and drink at Sonja’s Country Inn, Knightsen.
Enjoy the video adventures of this legend as “The Knightsen Horseman” rides again in the video below.
*The Headless Horseman of Knightsen (Byron Hot Springs, 2020 Sonia’s Country Inn, Main Street, Knightsen, CA).
Carol A. Jensen is a native daughter and resident of eastern Contra Costa County, California. She is a history graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Carol delights in discovering the history of the California San Joaquin Delta, collecting early twentieth-century ephemera, and documenting the cultural history of the area from those who lived, farmed, recreated, and visited the beautiful California Delta. The fruits of her historical search can be found at the East Contra Costa Historical Society & Museum, Knightsen, California.