Copyright
Wallace Melvin Morgan.

History of Kern County, California, with biographical sketches of the leading men and women of the county who have been identified with its growth and development from the early days to the present; online

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moon, would find himself elevated, suddenly, on legs ten thousand feet in
height. The assistance would not be effective enough to be even genuinely
tantalizing. As for the reasonableness of the action of the legislature, con-
sidering that body as the custodian of the public interest, let it be remembered
that the flood of 1861-62 broke levees right and left in the Sacramento valley,
doing damage upward of $3,000,000. The experience taught a new lesson to
the state concerning the difficulty of handling floods and swamps. And the
legislature had no means of knowing, it is to be supposed, what a merry
prank Kern river had just played with Old Tom Barnes' irrigating ditch.
Like as not many of the legislators honestly thought that a man who would
reclaim a swamp ought to have the whole of it for his labor, not half.

As for Colonel Baker, he came to Kern county, hired thirty Indians
from the Tejon reservation and set to work to reclaim a swamp of upward
of 400,000 acres that wound for 150 miles through a raw, unsettled country
and was replenished by the waters of two of the great rivers of the state
and six or seven smaller streams. Try to compass the sublime audacity
of it, and then see how Nature can bend her forces to help a sublimely
audacious man — the kind of man, apparently, that Nature loves.

Look back a little now and see what old Kern river was doing while the
legislature was revising its laws, and first Montgomery and then Colonel I'.aker
were trying to interest capital— in Civil war times — in their mad and visionary
undertaking.

How a River in Flood Reclaimed a Swamp

When the Gilberts went home from their Christmas dinner at the Skiles
place as related in the previous chapter, they had to cross the first turbid
forerunners of the flood, because they lived out at the old race track, and
the river then was all this side. Their house of poles and tules stood in a
thicket of willows, but a little way to the north was the open, sage brush
country, through which Tom Barnes and the Harris brothers had begun to
build an irrigation ditch to lead the water down to lands they had started to
cultivate. For that dav the ditch was an ambitious undertaking, both in



56 HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY

width and in depth, and its construction had progressed for a mile and more.

The Gilberts had seen high water before, and they went to bed with
little concern after they had been rescued from the river by the Indians.
Along in the night, however, there arose a great squealing from the pen
where some forty porkers fattened, and when Gilbert rolled out of bed to
see what was the matter, he splashed to his knees in icy water.

By the time Gilbert and a couple of men who were stopping at the place
could carry the children and the provisions to a little knoll of high ground
farther north, the melted snow water was lapping around their waists. The
hog pen and the corn crib floated down stream, and the tule house followed
them next day as the water continued to rise. A little exploration to the
north showed that the swollen current had found Tom Barnes' ditch and
was scooping it deeper and wider at a faster rate than Barnes could have
done had he been loaned all the horses and plows in the state of California.
The virgin earth, unprotected by roots or vegetation, melted before the
torrent like mounds of sand before the incoming tide. Not many days passed
before the larger of the two streams was to the north of the Gilberts instead
of to the south of them, and at frequent intervals a dozen tons or more of earth
would cave from the bank of the new channel and fall into the brown and
boiling flood with a roar that did not sound good to the damp and shivering
refugees perched on their island knoll only a few rods away.

Fortunately, only a few days before the flood, Gilbert had returned with
a four-horse load of provisions from Visalia, and a little while before that
they had bought 700 pounds of flour from a man who had to take flour for
a debt a Parajo valley rancher owed him and who was peddling it out
through the length of the valley after the manner of the day. So the family
made out through what seemed, not only to them but to many other flood-
bound pioneers in the state, an interminable season of rain and freshet, and
then they moved to Reeder hill, the highest and dryest spot within the pres-
ent townsite.

And so, when Colonel Baker came with his thirty Indians he put a head
gate in what remained of the old south fork, and built the beginning of
the Town ditch, and was able to report to the governor and surveyor-general
in all truthfulness that a very considerable portion of the 400,000 acres had
been reclaimed.

Then the Drought Helped, Too

Still Nature was kind to this generous, enthusiastic optimist who was
not afraid to attempt great things that other people said were impossible.
In the year 1864 was the worst drought since the American occupation. All
over the state cattle and sheep died of starvation by the hundreds of thou-
sands. Shepherds were glad to dispose of their flocks at a bit a head, and
failing that they killed them mercifully and saved their pelts.

Colonel Baker, when he had built the head gate in the south fork, went
down to the north end of Buena Vista lake and scraped the Baker dam, frag-
ments of which are still to be found a little way north of the Cole levee.
Then he took his family back to Visalia temporarily while he did further
reclamation work north of Tulare lake.

Baker Gets His Patent

The Governor sent the surveyor-general and another engineer by name of
Andrew Jackson to see if the lands had been reclaimed. By that time the
drought had done what Baker could not do. The engineers found the land



HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY 57

as dry as a bone, and so reported. There was some delay in the making out
of the patent, but finally it was sigi;:ed by Governor Frederick F. Low on
November 11, 1867. It conveyed to W. F. Montgomery, et al., their asso-
ciates and assigns, a total of 89,120 acres of land in Kern and Fresno coun-
ties — about half as much as the grantees originally were to receive.

The next great fluod — the greatest in the history of the county, came
between Christmas and New Years in the winter of 1867-8, and spread a
vast lake of water over every acre of Colonel Baker's reclaimed land.
Montgomery Patent Annulled

Years later there fell upon the state a far-flung fore-shadow of the modern
conservation movement, and the legislatures of 1857 and 1862 were sharply
criticised for giving away so much land for so small an amount of improve-
ment. The courts, as courts do now, sometimes, undertook to correct the
follies of the lawmakers, and on September 17, 1878, in the case of People
ex. rel. J. L. Love, attorney-general, versus John Center, et al., appellants
and respondents, the district court of the twelfth judicial district — San Fran-
cisco — handed down a decree declaring the Montgomery patent null and void.
In the opinion accompanying the decree the court pointed out that the
governor and surveyor-general did not issue a certificate to the effect that the
land had been reclaimed — as the law directed — and held that this omission
was not cured by the fact that the governor signed the patent, and that the
document also bore the signature of the secretary of state, who happened
to be the surveyor-general as well. To a layman it might seem that this
objection was purely technical. The second defect noted by the court — the
fact that the land was not actually reclaimed — was not tt) be disputed by
anyone.

But the decree mattered little to Colonel Baker. Six years before it was
signed by the judge his remains had been carried to their last resting place in
Union cemetery by the strong but gentle hands of other pioneers who knew
and loved him. Moreover, long before his death Colonel Baker had sold his
share of nearly all the immense tract the Montgomery patent conveyed.
Some of it went for ten cents an acre. The highest price the smallest
purchasers paid for farms was $1 and $1.50 per acre. Baker was no land
monopolist.

Before the district court issued its decree the legislature got busy again,
tempering justice with mercy. An act approved March 20, 1878, provided
that all persons who had bought land covered by the Montgomery patent,
subsequent to the issuance of such patent, should be entitled to a decree of
the court directing that a patent issue to them for such lands, on their
showing within sixty days after the passage of the act, that they had spent
for taxes, improvements, fences and reclamation a tntal of nut less than $1
per acre for all the lands so claimed by each.

All the purchasers were able easily to comply with these conditions,
and so the story ends happily for all concerned.

Beginnings of Bakersfield

The flood of 1861-2 is a convenient mark in history from which to date
the earliest beginnings of Bakersfield. As related in the preceding chap-
ter, the flood moved the main channel out of the future townsite, leaving
the land dryer and rather more suitable for the habitation of civilized men. It
made it less desirable for the Indians. Prior to that time, as Mrs. Van Orman
recalls, there was a considerable settlement of the aborigines somewhere



58 HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY

about Chester Lane, and huts of individual savages were scattered about
the willow groves everywhere. But the flood drowned the squirrels and other
small game which the Indians used to kill and eat, swept away the fish they
used to catch in the river, and incidentally the long season of rains when the
freshet rose and fell day after day in apparently interminable succession made
the place generally disagreeable even for the stoical redskins. About that
time, also, the government was moving the larger part of the tribes from
Tejon to the Tule river farm. So the Indians moved out. So did two families
by name of Lovelace, and others of whom the names are not remembered.
The settlers who remained sought the high spots that the waters had not
covered.

The people who stayed and helped to form the new settlement were
the Shirleys, the Gilberts, Harvey S. Skiles, the grandfather of Herman
Dumble, the present city trustee of Bakersfield, and Lewis Reeder, who
bought Gilbert's second place on Reeder hill and gave his name to that
ancient landmark. The next year came Colonel Baker and his family, Edward
Tibbet, who settled on the present Tibbet homestead just south of the city
limits, and Allan Rose, who succeeded to the house on Reeder hill after
Reeder and many of his family had died. Reeder, himself, died in the moun-
tains whither he had gone for lung trouble, but others of his family who sick-
ened and died there and later residents who turned their faces to the wall
in the ill-fated house made a total of seven deaths on Reeder hill in the first
few years of the settlement. Two others, accidentally shot, raised the total
to nine, wherefrom grew the tale that the Reeder hill house was haunted.

Colonel Baker, of course, at once directed his energies toward the recla-
mation of the swamp lands covered by the Montgomery franchise. The
others farmed the fertile townsite, raised cattle and hogs or hunted both in
the swamps and out on the dry ranges. The soldiers at Fort Tejon paid
$50 per ton for hay delivered, and both at the fort and in the mining camps
were the best of markets for meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and all
other vegetables that the early settlers raised. In a letter written by Solomon
Jewett in 1871 reference is made to the fact that Harvey S. Skiles raised a
small patch of cotton in 1862.

The first genuine cotton culture, however, was in 1865, when the Jewett
Brothers, who had interests in Bakersfield then in addition to their extensive
sheep business at the Rio Bravo ranch, raised 130 acres of cotton which was
harvested and sent to Oakland to be ginned and manufactured. Some of
the cloth was shipped back to Bakersfield and sold in the first store built in
the settlement. Mr. Jewett imported two tons of seed, one from Tennessee,
and the other from Sonora, Mexico. He got the crop in rather late, but he
declared that the experiment was a success, or would have been had it not
been for the prohibitive cost of hauling the cotton to Oakland by team —
probably ox-team.

Colonel Baker, Mr. Winfey and A. R. Jackson were appointed school
trustees in 1866, but they never organized. A man by name of Brooks taught
a private school that year, and in 1863, for a short time, Mrs. Baker taught
a few of the neighbor children at her home. They had no books, but Mrs.
Baker cut letters out of paper, and resorted to other laborious shifts to
help the youngsters up the hill of knowledge. The first active school board
consisted of Messrs. Tibbet, Troy and Reeder, who were chosen in 1867. In
that year Mrs. Ranney taught a three-months' term. In 1868 Miss L. A.
Jackson taught a six-months' term. The first school house, which an old



HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY 59

newspaper account says was a brick building 40x6Q feet in size, was built in
1869 and in June of that year A. R. Jackson opened school in it. The next
year there were two teachers, A. R. Jackson and :Miss Callie Gilbert, ana
thirty-five pupils, whose surnames were Adams, Baker, Crawford, Lundy,
Patria, Pettus, Ranney, Shelley, Shirley, Tibbet, W^ard, Arujo, Collins, Con-
treras, Gilbert, AIcKenzie, Reeder. Troy and Verdugo.

For six years after Colonel Baker came to the Kern delta there was no
postoffice here. Until the breaking out of the war, the removal of the gar-
rison from Fort Tejon and the discontinuance of the Butterfield stage line
from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the settlers here used to have their
mail left at the fort. Later on it was addressed to Visalia, and the thoughtful
postmaster at that place would forward mail for the whole settlement by any-
one whom he knew was coming this way. Freight was hauled mostly from
Los Angeles, and the charge was three cents per pound. Flour sometimes
got as high as $10 per sack in the earliest days of Bakersfield, and when the
freshets cut ofif travel to Visalia and snows blocked Tejon pass, corn and
wheat ground in a hand mill and other home products had to eke out the
larder. Mrs. Tracy (then Mrs. Baker) says she used to leech salt out of
the earth to cure pork, and in other times of necessity made a pretty good
article of soap with grease and alkali. Ordinarily they made their own
candles, used honey in lieu of sugar, and baked sweet potatoes as a sub-
stitute for coffee. Meal ground in the old hand mill was not of the finest,
but the pioneers sifted out the coarsest part and used it for hominy. Dave
Willis of Visalia tried making salt from an old salt lick about sixteen miles
south of Bakersfield, with indifferent success. In 1868 a saw mill was started
in Tecuya valley near Fort Tejon, but the lumber, which was sawed from
bull pine, was so prone to warp that it needed a ton of boulders on each end of
a plank to hold it down, and then it would twist in the middle.

Prior to the days of the Tacuya mill adobes and poles or brush, tules
and mud formed the building materials, as previously described. Colonel
Baker's first house, the one the family was living in at the time of the great
flood of 1867-8, was of adobe with a brush, tule and dirt roof. The first years
of Colonel Baker's residence here were unusually dry, especially the great
drought year of 1864, and a dirt roof was a very great protection from the
sun in summer, and also was unobjectionable in winter, so long as the light
rains were insufficient to wet it through and tJie intervening days nf sun-
shine quite sufficient to dry it out again.

The Flood of 1867-68

The winter of 1867-68 was different. The heavens wept as though their
sorrow never would be washed away, and after a while the rain drops began
to filter through the bed of rich, alluvial soil on the roof until the shower inside
was almost or quite as heavy as that outside. The chief difference was that
the shower inside came a few minutes after the shower outside, and the tiny
streams that trickled from the pendant tule ends were black as ink with the
humus they extracted from the dirt on the roof. They hung umbrellas over
the tables to protect the food, and sheltered the beds as best they might.

It rained, and rained, and then, very strange, as it seemed to the settlers
along its banks, the river, for two days, went almost wholly dry. They knew
nothing about it in the little village of Bakersfield, but up in the mountains
where the lakes of upper Kern river now are. there had been a succession



60 HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY

of avalanches that filled the bed of the river with rocks and earth and a
whole forest of great pine'trees.

A closer inquiry seems to develop the fact that popular tradition respect-
ing the slip of earth that held back the waters of Kern river in the flood of
1867-8, instead of exaggerating it, as tradition is wont to do, falls far short
of comprehending its tremendous magnitude. The lakes themselves, beau-
tiful sheets of water far up toward the head of the river, are remnants of the
great reservoirs that the avalanches made. Many years ago the old Jordan
trail from Visalia to Inyo county used to pass through where the lakes now
are. To this day, looking down through the clear waters, in the lake bottom
mav be seen trees that grew there before the flood overwhelmed them.

It must be that the thorough soakinsr of the mountain sides after a long
oeriod of drought caused whole sections of wooded slopes to plunge down into
the river canon. When the impounded waters finally broke away they came
down the rocky gorges in a churning, thundering torrent, adding to the roar
of the water itself the crash and shriek of thousands on thousands of trees,
sixty and a hundred feet in length, and up to three or four feet in diameter,
tumbled end over end in the narrower parts of the caiion and rolling and
swirling with the current in the wider reaches of the stream. Kernville resi-
dents say that for three days the river flowed past that place a mile in width,
and from the bank it looked as though a man could walk on logs dryshod
from one side to the other.

Those who have seen the steep, narrow rock-walled gorge through which
Kern river emerges from the mountains sixteen miles above Bakersfield can
form some guess of their own concerning the steady, increasing, rolling thun-
der with which the coming flood heralded its approach to the sleeping citizens
of infant Bakersfield.

Flood Reaches Bakersfield.

It was the flatness of Bakersfield and the great expanse of level country
that opens, fanwise, west and south from the townsite that saved it from
annihilation. Since the first flood people had sought out the knolls for their
dwelling places, and there was a little time after the drift logs began to
bob and crunch among the willows of the sloughs before the water was
lapping at the threshholds.

Richard Hudnut, afterward the editor of the Kern County Courier, was
living in an adobe house somewhere near G and Twenty-fourth street. The
noise of the water wakened him, and he went out a little wa) from his house
to see what was coming. He crossed a little swale dry-shod, and looked
back a moment later to find it full of water, running like a mill race. He
shouted a warning to his bride and the latter's sister, who remained in the
house, and in a few seconds he was obliged to climb a tree to keep out of
reach of the rising flood. The house was on a little higher ground, but
presently the chilly stream — it was between Christmas and New Years —
began to flow over the floor. Mrs. Hudnut and her sister perched themselves
on their beds. But the water steadily rose, and what was equally appalling,
the roof above their heads was slowly but steadily sinking down. Pretty
soon they realized that the adobes at the bottom of the wall were melting in
the flood. By the time the ridge pole had settled down on top of Mr. Hudnut's
tall book case at the end of the room, the ladies mustered up their courage
to wade outside. The roof by then was so low that they were able to
scramble upon it, and there they sat shivering and shouting counsel back



HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY 61

and forth with Mr. Hudnut, perched in his tree, until men with a boat came
to their rescue.

Similar experiences happened in many places, but no lives were lost, and
the pioneers, used to pranks of Nature and Fortune, took the experience
philosophically, and with mutual helpfulness and optimism soon made new
shifts and forgot their losses. The day after the flood came there was to have
been a neighborhood feast at the Tibbet's home, and although the waters
undermined a cupboard where the roast pig was stored and spilled it in the
flood, it was rescued and re-garnished and a little later than the hour set
the guests assembled and shared the slightly moistened viands and related
their several experiences. The Hudnut story and the Tibbet feast are
incidents of the flood most generally remembered, jirobably because of the
humor they contain — and that fact furnishes the key to the temperament
and disposition of the Kern county pioneer.

The Baker adobe was not overflowed. It was only wet and drizzling
from the long continued rains, and there a dozen homeless neighbors gath-
ered and were made as welcome as flowers in February. ■

The trees (live trees, not dead driftwood) which were washed down by
the flood strewed a strip of country a mile wide through Kernville, and
from the point of Panorama heights past Bakersfield they spread over the
ground all the way to Bellevue and the old Barnes settlement, a distance of
ten miles or more. Colonel Baker built a saw mill to cut the logs on the
townsite into lumber, and Myron Harmon tried the same plan up in Kern-
ville, but the logs there were so thickly imbedded with sand and broken
chunks of rock (some of them as big as a man's fist) that sawing them was
impracticable.

Meantime Colonel Baker had completed his reclamation of the swamp
lands covered by the Montgomery franchise, had gotten his patent to 89,120
acres of land, and plans were forming in the minds of ambitious, enterprising
men to make a great empire out of the rich lands through which the river
plowed its devious and shifting channels, and incidentally to make some
personal profit thereby.



CHAPTER VI
Organization of the County

The county of Kern was created by an act of the legislature approved
April 2, 1866, out of territory formerly included in the counties of Tulare and
Los Angeles, chiefly the former. The act fixed the county seat at llavilah;
provided for a county judge to be appointed by the governor, ordered an
election to be held on the second Thursday in July, 1866, to select a clerk
who should be also a recorder, a sheriff who should be tax collector as well,
a district attorney, an assessor and collector of poll taxes, treasurer, surveyor,
coroner and public administrator, superintendent of schools and three super-
visors. Michael H. Erskine, Eli Smith, Dan W. Walser, Thomas Raker and
John Brite were named as a board of commissioners to appoint election officers
and canvass the returns. The county was assigned to the fourth senatorial
district of that day, and was attached to Tulare county for representative
purposes. The supervisors were directed to name two commissioners to
meet with other commissioners from Tulare and Los Angeles counties to
settle upon Kern county's share of the bonded indebtedness of the other
counties of which its territory had been a part.



62 HISTORY OF KERN COUNTY

First County Officials

Without special incident this program was carried out, the following
officials being declared elected as the result of the first ballots cast in the
new county: district attorney, E. E. Calhoun; sheriff, W. B. Ross; clerk,
recorder and auditor, H. D. Bequette ; treasurer, D. A. Sinclair; assessor,
R. B. Sagely; coroner and public administrator, Joseph Lively; superintendent
of schools, J. R. Riley ; surveyor, Thomas Baker ; supervisors, Henry Ham-
mell, S. A. Bishop and J. J. Rhymes.

The governor appointed Theron Reed as county judge. J. W. Freeman
was already state senator, having been elected while Kern county was a part
of Tulare, and I. C. Brown was similarly in possession of the office of
assemblyman.

At their first two meetings, held August 1st and 2nd, the supervisors
established three judicial townships in the county, fixed the tax rate at a
total of $2.61 for state and county, and called for bids for building a jail.



Online LibraryWallace Melvin MorganHistory of Kern County, California, with biographical sketches of the leading men and women of the county who have been identified with its growth and development from the early days to the present; → online text (page 8 of 177)