John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Humphrey Bogart and countless others have walked the trails of the Kern River Valley, but the real star of the area is Kernville itself. Thousands will flock there this weekend for Whiskey Flat Days, which will pay tribute to the area's cinematic and musical past and present.
This year's theme -- "Music on Movie Street" -- tips its 10-gallon hat to the dozens of westerns filmed on an actual stretch of road (dubbed "movie street") and beyond, starting with "The Forbidden Trail" in 1923.
"There were so many westerns filmed here in the old days," said Cheryl Borthick, president of the Kernville Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the festival. "They're pretty ancient. We were talking about old Kernville."
Plans to screen some of the old films over the holiday weekend fell through, but guests can set the scene by visiting the Whiskey Flat Encampment, which celebrates a decade in operation. Re-enactors depict 1800s life for townfolk, mountain men and American Indians, from "horse doctor'n" to hut building.
Speaking of horses, many will put their skills to the test, along with cowboys and cowgirls, at the popular Whiskey Flat Days Rodeo. The event runs Saturday and Sunday, but the fun starts today at 5 p.m. with the cowboy auction.
"Everybody goes out to dinner. It's a good night out," said auction organizer Tony Cain. "When people get to the rodeo, they have something involved in it."
Gathering at the Elks Lodge in Wofford Heights, community members will support valley roping and barrel racing teams by bidding on pairs to win this weekend. Bidders collect 50 percent, 30 percent or 20 percent of the pool if their team places first, second or third, respectively.
The auction has been around more than 30 years, with Cain in charge for about half that time. Along with organizing, he's up for auction as one of the ropers. And he said picking teams can be serious business.
"I pick my two partners. They rope quite a bit. They (other cowboys) know who they want. There are husbands and wives, but they don't usually rope together. If he misses, she'll yell at him."
Cain anticipates there will be 15 to 25 roping teams and about a dozen barrel racers up for auction.
Along with team roping and barrel racing, the rodeo, put on by Cotton Rosser's Flying U Rodeo Co. out of Marysville, offers a variety of contests that draw competitors from across the West.
"For cowboy races, they come from Idaho, Montana. In the wild horse race, it's a four-man team. They are trying to saddle the horse. Guys get pretty banged up."
Other events include bull and sheep riding, calf scramble and junior barrel racing.
Although the weather is expected to be calm, Cain said even in adverse conditions everyone has a good time.
"Whiskey Flat is just a muddy mess. It's a lot of fun. ... Cotton Rosser, they put on a great event. People who have been here have always come back. They put on a heck of a show."
Music and more
Although music has always been a part of Whiskey Flat Days, it takes a bigger role to play up this year's "Music on Movie Street" theme. The highest position of honor is during Saturday's parade.
"For our grand marshals, we have Out of the Blue, featuring mandolin player and Kern Valley High graduate Mike Gallagher; and the Sweet Adelines. ... We've been here 40 years in the Kern Valley," Borthick said of the female singing group's local chapter, of which she is co-director.
Organizers selected those groups "because both of those genres of music (bluegrass and barbershop harmony) are American art forms."
"Down in Riverside Park, there will be local bands all weekend long playing. And most of it (music) is in the parade, other than what is in the park."
Along with Out of the Blue, other groups performing in Riverside Park are Another Roadside Attraction, Wonderland Soup Kitchen, Jest Reason, Downfinger, Allasso and Fight Like This.
Also on the roster are the usual activities, such as the children's carnival; pet, costume, whiskerino and frog-jumping contests; and the results of the race for Whiskey Flat honorary mayor.
The race is between Sharp Shootin Jami (Jami Ward) and Tee Totalin' Tony (Tony Julio) who, like all Whiskey Flat mayoral candidates, are raising funds in part to benefit a nonprofit. Ward selected Kern Valley Youth Football & Cheer while Julio is supporting Southern Sierra Council Boy Scout Troop 690 and Small Miracles, which assists families of children with cancer.
Forty percent of what the candidates earn goes to their respective charities, Borthick said.
Putting money and resources back into the community helps drive the annual event, but it's all possible because of support from local businesses and residents.
"Without volunteers, we couldn't do it. They have been astounding this year. I'm just blown away by it, when you think about what the chamber has done for the community. With all the help we get, we've given more than $150,000 back to the community to nonprofit organizations. People don't know all the good we do."
Borthick, who spends much of the weekend busy serving customers at her namesake diner, said that it's the passion to build a better community for generations to come that keeps her involved.
"In November, I'm 70. I have six grandchildren and a seventh on the way in July. That's why I try to make this a good community. It's kept me going."
With clear skies predicted, Borthick is optimistic the valley will see the 50,000 visitors it has enjoyed the past few years.
"The better the weather is the more people come, and the weather is promising. We could sure use the people. It's been so slow. I'm not depressed, but the valley has been depressed. ... (Whiskey Flat Days) lets people know we're here, we're alive."
Cain also expects it to be a lively event.
"It's a good weekend. Especially if you want to get out of Bakersfield. And everyone wants to get out of Bakersfield."