Omar’s, Ashland’s oldest restaurant and first public cocktail lounge, opened in 1946. But what many don’t know is that it got its name by accident.

Omer and Hazel Hill, who had run Hill’s Café at Klamath Junction — now under water at Emigrant Lake — moved to Ashland in 1945. They built Omar’s on the former Berkeley Hot Springs site, planning to call the restaurant Omer’s (OH-merz). However, the sign painter incorrectly spelled it O-M-A-R instead of O-M-E-R. Later, the Hills embraced the Arabic-sounding name by painting a camel on the outer wall resembling the one found on Camel cigarette packages.

In the early 1950s, Ashland’s mayor encouraged Omer to open a cocktail lounge because the Elks Club and a few other places served only beer and wine and shut down early. The president of Southern Oregon College, Elmo Stevenson, backed the idea. He was concerned about students driving to Hornbrook in the mountains just south of the Oregon border — a dangerous drive, drunk or sober. Omer complied and business boomed.

The Hills retired in 1957.

Omar’s new owners have faithfully followed the traditions established by the Hills. So have the SOU students.

Source: Interviews: Bruce Dwight (one of the owners) and Muriel and Roller Yondorf (past owners) and Hazel Hill.

— As It Was is a co-production of Jefferson Public Radio and the Southern Oregon Historical Society. As It Was stories are broadcast weekdays on Jefferson Public Radio and are available online at asitwas.org.