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Kern County Shapers

Kern Island , the way Colonel Baker first saw it.

The Bushwhackers, Confederate sympathizers also known as the Mason and Henry Gang, had one stated goal: kill every Union man from Kern County to San Francisco, thereby eliminating any opposition to making California an independent republic.

Their intended victim on one night in 1865 was Harvey Skiles. The plan was to get to him through his sworn political enemy, Col. Thomas Baker. That was why six men saddled up and rode in darkness to the Baker home to lay out their proposition. All Baker had to do was summon Skiles out of his home where they could get clear shots. The gang would ambush Skiles, ventilate him good, and retreat to their hideout over in Grizzly Gulch. It seemed a good deal both ways. John Monroe, James Henry (aka Spotty McCauley), and their murderous colleagues would be one kill closer to their secessionist goal. Baker, for the cost of a simple invitation, would dispense with a bitter enemy.

The plot would have worked but for one flaw: the character of Baker himself. Standing on his front porch, unarmed and unflinching, six revolvers pointed his way, he stood the men down and refused their offer.

He had invested too much capital and labor in this “Kern Island,” as it was called. His dream was to build a modern city, not a lawless waste.

Rich soil yielded bountiful crops.

After the Bushwhackers left, Baker rode over to the Skiles place and sounded the alarm. There was no need. The gang had abandoned the plan and moved on to easier kill.

Just before the dawn of Mark Twain’s Gilded Age, as Civil War raged from Arlington to Atlanta, and men with names like Mellon, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Carnegie began forging their empires; while Edison, Bell, Watson, Morse, and Westinghouse set about perfecting technological breakthroughs that would launch civilization into modernity; while across the country’s western frontier steel tracks laid down a relentless march to San Francisco; while all these things were happening, what we now call Bakersfield and Kern County lay as a vast, unfriendly marsh, alternately soaked by rivers and baked by sun.

The building of Kern County and Bakersfield was to be the work not only of pioneering individuals, but of families. Their dreams, risks, sacrifice, and persistence would partly determine where we live, what we do, what we eat, and how we raise our children. The descendants of some of those families still reside in Kern.

While the following is only a selection, and by no means comprehensive, these sketches summarize how some of these families helped carve a “golden empire” from marsh and desert.

Col. Thomas Baker

Colonel Thomas Baker

Thomas Baker had what today’s pundits might call “the vision thing.” He was born in Zanesville, Ohio November 5, 1810, the second of five children, with ancestry rooted in British nobility. A number of those British ancestors immigrated to pre-Revolutionary America (his grandfather, also named Thomas Baker, fought for the colonists), settling in Virginia and Kentucky.

As a young man, Baker took a keen interest in land and law, avidly reading land grants and studying surveying. He was admitted to the Ohio bar at age 19 and later appointed a colonel in his home state’s militia. In 1830, he moved to Illinois. For the next two decades, he recorded impressive accomplishments there and in Iowa. In Illinois, he was noted for his skill in dealing with Native American tribes. He became the first Lieutenant Governor of Iowa district and, after its formation as a state, President of its fledgling legislature.

However, the frontier beckoned. Perhaps prompted by the pioneering spirit he inherited from his ancestors, and encouraged in no small degree by California’s gold discoveries, Thomas Baker decided to strike out to the west. He arrived in California in the autumn of 1850, living first in Benicia, then in Stockton. In 1852, he moved south to Tulare County where he helped found the city of Visalia with Nathaniel Vise, performing most of the surveying work. In 1855, he was chosen as a member of the California State Assembly. The following year, he was named Receiver for the United States Land Office and, in 1861, he became the region’s first state senator and served two years.

Downtown Bakersfield late 1800s.  Picture shows J. Niederaur & Company Furniture Store and Undertakers. Next door is the establishment of George Reich, Merchant and Tailor.

Baker’s political career in Sacramento was not without its difficulties. A fall at his quarters on Mission Street left him severely injured in 1862. Later that year, he was arrested on suspicion of being a secessionist.

And it was in that same year that his connection with what was to become Kern County was made. He rode south with his son, James Baker (d. 1883 in Visalia), to examine a land franchise owned by the Montgomery brothers. The land included thousands of acres along the Kern River. Baker saw more than fetid ponds, reckless rivers, and undulating mounds of tule grass.

What he saw, in his mind’s eye, was a rail line across the Tehachapi Mountains; stage routes from the east, south, and north; streets; houses; merchandise stores; and fields rich with crops.

He purchased the franchise and determined to become its first citizen. Initially, although he seemed to have found his true home in this place called “Kern Island,” he hesitated to bring his wife—this was his second wife, whom he married in 1857—and two children to this wild place.

Her response to that hesitation, according to Naomie Bain’s history, was decisive: “If you are going into that God-forsaken country full of Indians, bandits, and Heaven only knows what else, I am going with you.”

Kern Island Dairy.

On September 10, 1863, Baker, his wife, son, and daughter crossed the Kern River, by ferry boat, at the foot of China Grade.

They were the first settlers on Kern Island, with their nearest neighbors, far to the east, digging for gold in Havilah. Within two years, Baker, with the help of 30 Native Americans hired from Tejon Ranch, had reclaimed most of the land, drained marshes, redirected rivers, and laid out streets for the future city.

By 1870, the renovated land boasted more than 600 inhabitants.

The name of the city came from a suggestion made by Philo Jewett, and we can thank the poor luck of the Mason and Henry gang for his offering. After failing to convince Col. Baker to assist in killing Harvey Skiles, they made Philo Jewett one of their targets. They tried to gun him down at his ranch but one of the revolvers jammed (they did manage to kill two of his employees). Jewett escaped through a back window.

He was later to witness the generosity of Baker. Travelers came to learn that they could find a welcome oasis of food, safety, and forage for their horses at an alfalfa field he fenced off. “Baker’s Field” became a common refuge. Jewett suggested calling the city itself “Bakersfield.”

The Niederaur Block is seen on the right side of this 1890 photograph of 19th Street taken from K Street. Jake Niederaur operated a furniture store and undertaking parlor downstairs, and an opera house upstairs. Next door is the Alphonse Weill Store and then the Burnap Building, which was constructed in 1890 and burned in 1903. The Southern Hotel and its wonderful flying dragon spire are seen in the background.

Baker died in 1872 from pneumonia which developed from a bout with typhoid fever. His legacy lived on in the unfolding of his vision for the city he founded. His son, Thomas A. Baker, became Kern County’s Justice of the Peace. After Col. Baker’s death, Ellen Baker married Kern County rancher and family friend Ferdinand Tracy.

Within two decades of Baker’s death, Bakersfield was the largest city in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley and, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1889 (according to the Secrests’ California Disasters: 1800-1900), it “probably [grew] more rapidly than any other town in the state. It lies in the center of one of the most productive plateaus on the coast, where irrigation on dry tracts and drainage in the swamps have converted desert and marsh into a veritable garden stretching away for hundreds of miles.”

The Brothers Chester

Long before Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Bakersfield’s George and Julius Chester learned how to leverage other peoples’ money in pursuit of fortune. In their cases, the main benefactor was H.P. Livermore, a wealthy San Francisco druggist and investor.

The brothers were born in Groton, Connecticut; Julius in 1830, George in 1835. They came to California seeking their fortunes in 1854, settling in the Bay Area. In 1866, having obtained the backing of Livermore, they arrived in Bakersfield with money and plans for great enterprises. Their company, Livermore & Chester, began in South Kern County with a sawmill operation, critical to the construction of new communities. During the same time, they established an adobe general merchandise store, Bakersfield’s first, to supply settlers with goods. Located in what would later be the Fish block section of town, its importance led to the city’s main thoroughfare bearing their name.

George B. Chester’s store, Chester and 19th, 1871.

Among the earliest settlers, the Chester brothers engaged, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in a series of enterprises, including lumber, land sales, cotton, grain, publishing, and livestock. George became the city’s first Postmaster, Julius the first president of the California Cotton Growers Association.

Today, Chester Avenue runs through the heart of downtown Bakersfield. Other streets and numerous businesses still bear their name; however, George and Julius both died childless. Julius had surrendered ownership of what would become the Californian in 1879 and moved to northern California, according to his obituary, “for the benefit of his health,” although mounting debts and political opposition may have played no small part in his departure. He succumbed to pneumonia, at age 59, in the spring of 1890. His younger brother remained in Bakersfield but also fell upon difficult financial times. He died in the Kern County Hospital in October 1903.

The Twisselmans

Heinrich “Henry” Twisselman came with relatives to America in 1862 from his native Germany, arriving in San Francisco as a merchant seaman on a Danish whaling ship. Like many of his fellow whalers, his dreams no doubt included striking it rich in California gold. When the vessel docked, Heinrich went ashore and made a career change, working as a longshoreman. In 1876, he met Elizabeth “Lizzie” Meng, a native of Switzerland who was staying with relatives at a local boarding house.

Chris and Nora Twisselman

In 1878, the couple moved to the San Luis Obispo area, where they established Chorro Dairy. Within six years, however, Heinrich was dead from tuberculosis, leaving Lizzy Twisselman with five small children to feed. She moved her three sons and two daughters to a homestead in the hills above Cholame, east of Paso Robles. There, she joined her parents and siblings in the area, farming grain and raising livestock. She became one of the pioneers of the California frontier.

In 1914, her middle son, Christian and his wife, Nora Anderson Twisselman, purchased Temblor Ranch from the Obispo Oil Company. This property, historic as both a stage stop and way station for Spanish missionaries, passed into the hands of the couple’s son, Carl Twisselman. To this day, the Twisselman descendants are the primary landholders in the region which includes western Kern County and eastern San Luis Obispo.

The many descendants of Heinrich and Lizzy Twisselman have forever left their mark on the history of agriculture in Kern County. One of Chris and Nora’s sons, Henry A. Twisselman, has left his accounts of ranch life in western Kern in two books, Changing Times (1998), and Don’t Get Me Started (1995).

The Wegis Family

The story is told of a young man who left the village of Weggis, near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, moved to Baden, Germany, but could not stop speaking of his former home. He spoke so much about it, in fact, that his neighbors in Baden began calling him “Weggis,” a name that ultimately displaced his given surname. That, in any case, is one story of how the family name developed.

The Wegis family in 1913.

True or not, Frank Sales (or Salas) Wegis (someone dropped a “g”) was born in Itendorf, Germany on February 18, 1858, one of nine children born to Johann and Fedelia Wittmer Wegis. With brothers Anton and Gebhardt he immigrated to the United States in 1892, journeying to California’s central coast. At first, they settled in the San Luis Obispo area where Frank found work as a bartender. His dream, however, was to be a farmer. According to one genealogical website, Wegis and his two brothers traveled throughout Central California, coming to Kern County by foot, always looking for an area that reminded them of their home in Germany. They found what they were looking for in the Upper Cuyama Valley, in Ventura County. Frank bought 320 acres there and built a small adobe house and barn. From that beginning, the operations grew along with the family.

The Wegis family members have spread throughout Kern County with a concentration in the Buttonwillow/Wasco area. One descendant in particular, the late third-generation farmer Ken Wegis, became nationally known for his David vs. Goliath litigation victory over one of the largest cotton-growing conglomerates in the world, the J. G. Boswell Co. (the dispute and trial are recounted in the book, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire). A verdict in the suit resulted in a 1988 award of nearly $11 million to Wegis and two co-defendants. After appeals reaching the Supreme Court, a 1992 settlement resulted in an award of $16 million plus interest. Ken Wegis died at the age of 73 in October of 1995.

W.B. Camp (center) doing what he did best.

In addition to operating Wegis Ranch, Ken Wegis served as President of the Kern County Farm Bureau and the Water Association of Kern County. Today, Wegis & Young, located in Buttonwillow, is a diversified agricultural conglomerate with emphases in management, investment, and crops grown on nearly 7,500 acres. One of its directors is Wegis’ son, Frederick “Rick” Wegis.

Cotton and the Camps

Rags to riches stories are not uncommon in Kern County’s history, particularly when the subjects have learned how to profitably engage the huge potential in the region’s agriculture.

One such story concerns two brothers, Sol A. Camp and Wofford Benjamin “W.B.” Camp, who arrived separately and of meager means but built empires. Wofford Camp (known as “Bill” Camp) was the first to come to California. He was sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop cotton as a vigorous western crop, principally because it was a critical component in military aircraft.

Born in Cherokee County, South Carolina in 1894, Camp saved his wages from picking cotton until he could afford his first semester’s tuition at Clemson College, where he studied agronomy and horticulture. His academic success led to a job upon graduation with the USDA and his particular interest in cotton was recognized by the Washington office. He was sent to study the prospects of growing cotton in the West. Within days of his arrival, in 1917, he had planted 96 rows of various cotton varieties. Soon, experimental patches were growing in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. So successful and necessary was his work to the USDA that his attempt at enlistment during World War I was turned down and he was encouraged to continue his research. By 1922, he had established and was directing the Cotton Research Station in Kern County and was known nationwide as the “King of Cotton.”

Frank Sales Wegis

In 1929, he became an advisor and appraiser with the Bank of Italy (soon to become Bank of America), and later became director of California Lands, Inc., a bank subsidiary. Five years later, he headed to Washington, D.C. where he was to spend three contentious years with the federal government’s newly-formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration. He returned to farming the San Joaquin Valley in 1936, the year he founded W.B. Camp & Sons, a diversified farming operation later directed by his son, Don Camp (Bill Camp, Jr. is a Southern California real estate developer).

Bill Camp received many awards during his life, including a special commendation from President Lyndon Johnson for his contributions to agriculture. In 1984, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale presented Camp with the Horatio Alger Award. Camp was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame posthumously in 1993 as “one of the most important thinkers in the history of agriculture.” He died in Bakersfield on August 1, 1986.

Bill Camp’s older brother, Sol A. Camp, arrived in Kern County in 1923. Initially, he worked for the Kern County Land Company. In 1925, he and his wife, Nellie Camp, invested the money they had managed to save in a tiny Shafter area farm. The couple worked the fields themselves with son James Y. Camp and daughter Willene Camp. He soon formed an agricultural partnership (Camp, West and Lowe) which purchased land near Lerdo Highway and Highway 99 (now known as Cawelo). In 1947, with son James, he formed his own company, S.A. Camp Companies. Today, that firm, directed by grandson and attorney James S. Camp, is involved largely in real estate development. Although a multi-millionaire from his farming operations, Camp earned prestige and wealth from another line of investment which, according to one story, began with a $50 bet.

As the largest store in town, Brock’s was a downtown Bakersfield anchor.

Camp, along with fellow farmer Bob Neuman, ridiculed Shafter businessman Bill Lachenmaier’s purchase of a trotting horse. Lachenmaier bet his friends that the horse would win a harness race that very afternoon. Lachenmaier won the bet and Camp, in addition to forking over $50, contracted a lifelong case of horse racing fever, ultimately operating one of the most coveted horse racing operations in the nation.

The Brocks

“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls. –Bill Bryson

Joan Rivers once quipped that one of the advantages of living in America is that you can now shop while you’re in bed, by watching television and calling a toll-free number. Entrepreneurial geniuses like Malcolm Brock, however, knew that the retail shopping experience involves far more than the bloodless transaction of money for goods.

He was born in San Francisco on March 28, 1878, to Julian and Mattie (Hockheimer) Brock and educated in San Francisco schools, after which he struck out for Cordova, Alaska. He spent 13 years in the rugged north, established several banks and a retail merchandise store.

At some point, he determined that the remote area where he resided offered no opportunities for the growth he had in mind. He moved his family to Bakersfield where his wife’s father had opened a department store in 1900 known as Hockheimer & Co.

In 1924, he bought the company and opened Brock’s Department Store, which was to become an anchor for downtown Bakersfield and the largest store in Kern County.

Malcolm Brock

In addition to acting as president and general manager of The Malcolm Brock Co., he also served as director of the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, president of the Bakersfield Merchant’s Association, and held membership in a number of civic groups.

Upon his death in 1962, son John Brock Sr. took the reins of the company. He also was to play a major role in community organizations and business growth.

The four-story Brock’s Department Store stood at the southwest corner of the Chester Avenue-19th Street intersection (the old store lettering is still visible from J Street).

Today the same building is home to Timeless Furnishings. Jim French, owner of that business, recalled the magnetic attraction exerted by Brock’s.

“It was really stunning,” he said, “and the store, especially on the weekends, was the place to be. I think what made it stand out was the service you got from every employee, from top to bottom.”

David Provencio, a barber for 45 years in the city, and whose shop still sits behind the department store building, recalled one aspect of that service. “You would not believe it,” he said, “the return policy was like this. You took your item up to Mr. Brock and told him you didn’t want it. He just gave you your money back or let you exchange it, no questions asked.”

“We were always service-oriented,” said John Brock Jr., who took over the business after his father’s retirement in 1980, “because excellent merchandise and excellent service really was our business. The face of retailing has really changed now.”

As the city grew, observed Brock Jr., it became increasingly difficult to hold onto customers in the outlying suburban areas, for whom multi-store malls under one roof were more accessible. The store was sold to the Fresno-based Gottschalk’s chain.

In its heyday, Brock’s Department Store was the place to shop in Bakersfield.

“I suppose that our downtown became like other downtowns across the nation,” said Brock Jr., who now works in commercial real estate with Gregory D. Bynum and Associates, Inc. “The stores went where the people were and the people were not downtown.”

Haberfelde and the Ford

Although some came to California for gold, Johann Haberfellner came for the oranges.

Haberfellner—the name was later changed to Haberfelde—was born in Germany and immigrated to America during the 1870s. Along with his wife, Barbette, he settled in Chicago, Illinois where he started a successful picture framing business. The couple raised four sons and a daughter. But lucrative as his business was, John (as he was later called) Haberfelde heard about the orange groves of Southern California and sold his business to purchase a grove in Chula Vista. The family came to California in 1889, settling first in Chula Vista (where the children walked two miles each day to school) and later in National City, where John and Barbette owned a small ranch.

After several years in National City, however, John Haberfelde made yet another major business decision: he traded the ranch for a small hotel operation in San Francisco. The couple and their five children (Henry, George, John, Will, and Louisa), relocated to the Bay Area.

John Haberfelde established the Ford dealership in 1913.

While Will pursued his fortune in San Francisco, George headed south for Bakersfield. After George established himself in Bakersfield, according to Barbara Haberfelde Bates, Will Haberfelde’s daughter, he made his living selling sewing machines door to door. Haberfelde later bought out the furniture business of Jacob Niederaur at 19th and K streets. The little frame building where he first started in business was later replaced by the Fish building designed in 1938 by Charles Howatt Biggar.

Early on, he had a total capital of only $200. Little by little, he increased his stock of furniture until it represented a valuation of about $8,000. Fatefully, when he had only a small insurance protection of $600, a disastrous fire entirely destroyed the building and left him penniless. Undeterred, Mr. Haberfelde sought to reopen. By 1908, his business would occupy most of the quarters in the Dinkelspiel building on 19th Street, where he became a pioneer furniture dealer.

At 5:12 a.m. on an April morning in 1906, life would change forever for the Haberfeldes. The San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed the hotel business and the family was evacuated to an area north of the city which is now Golden Gate Park. George Haberfelde readied a team of horses and drove from Bakersfield to San Francisco, bringing back several family members with him. Will Haberfelde remained behind and, from 1912 to 1917, operated a successful newspaper delivery service for the San Francisco Morning Call.

Haberfelde donated funds in 1927 for a building that still bears his name.

George Haberfelde linked his dream for fortunes with that of Henry Ford. He purchased the downtown Ford dealership from the widow of Benjamin Brundage and established Haberfelde Ford in 1913. As the dealership grew—it remains one of the largest in the nation—he enlisted the help of his brother, John, who established a branch operation in Delano. Then, in 1917, he asked brother Will to come down to Bakersfield to assist with growth at the downtown Bakersfield headquarters. Will, accepting the offer of a 70 percent cut in pay, closed down the distribution business and headed south.

In 1970, Will Haberfelde received an award for his 51 years of service in the industry from the Kern County Automobile Dealers Association. Two years later, Ford Motor Company honored him as the oldest active dealership in the nation.

The Haberfelde family’s legacy is embedded in the many civic and charitable causes they have championed. George Haberfelde served as Bakersfield’s Mayor from 1923 to 1925. In 1927, he donated funds for the construction of the Haberfelde building, located at the corner of Chester Avenue and 17th Street, and still home to upscale eateries and retail businesses offering alternatives to the sameness of mall shopping. Will served as director of the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, helped organize the Kern River Golf Course, was on the Board of Directors for the Hotel El Tejon Corporation. John, while managing the Delano branch of George Haberfelde, Inc., was extensively involved in the civic life of Delano.

1937 Haberfelde Ford sales event.

Barbara Haberfelde Bates, Will Haberfelde’s daughter, observed that the one quality that set her generation and its forebears apart from contemporary culture was a fierce, unbreakable bond between family members. “It’s a different age now,” said Haberfelde, who resides in Bakersfield. “There seems to be a loss in valuing things that we did; things like family, church, and local institutions. In the old days, families and close relatives worked with one another. Nowadays, it just seems that the young people kind of go off into the Netherlands.”

Whether the land shapes its people or the people the land, is a question best left to academics. What is clear, though, is that in the mysterious alchemy of human ingenuity meeting nature’s limits, several qualities identify those who seize the governor of history and direct its course.

They include: vision for what can be, as when Col. Baker gazed upon the undeveloped marshlands of Kern Island; willingness to risk capital and safety in face of uncertain outcomes, always at the heart of pioneering enterprises; persistence in failure, the mark of entrepreneurs, farmers, businessmen, and statesmen; service to others as primary, especially in business; and a devotion to family that transcends the immediate, extending back to ancestors and forward to descendants.

Bernard de Chartres observed that his contemporaries were dwarves seated upon the shoulders of giants. So it is in our time. And there exist advantages for giant-riding dwarves, particularly when the way ahead is dark.

They can rise higher, they can see farther, and they can remember why.

Editor’s Note: Please visit www.kerncountygenerations.com for more information on this feature and our Generations plans for the coming years.

Article appeared in our 28-1 Issue - April 2011