The narrow strip of asphalt winds up the face of the ridge that juts above Bodfish, taking the traveler out of a world of fast food joints, hardware stores and freeway traffic.
Behind glimmers a sweeping vista of the hamlets and towns around the shores of Isabella Lake. Ahead the hills open their arms on a green mountain valley.
Pines and blue oak dot the meadows and slopes amid clumps of picturesque granite as Caliente-Bodfish Road winds down into the valley where Kern County was born.
Homesteads and ranches begin to gather close along the road. Some are picturesque with rustic farm equipment placed artfully amid horse-frequented pastures. Others are a jumble of battered snowmobiles, dilapidated sheds sheathed in corrogated steel and tireless cars on blocks.
Then, suddenly, you’re in the heart of Havilah, Kern County’s first capital city.
Janet Kutzner takes in the state of the greenery surrounding the concrete picnic tables in what passes for Havilah’s town center and notes to her husband, Wes, the need for liberal application of a weed-whacker.
County supervisors will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Kern County in Havilah with a special meeting Tuesday. Kutzner, president of the Havilah Historical Society, wants the area to be ready.
The spot where she stands, like Havilah, is modest.
It’s a narrow strip of ground along the east side of Caliente Bodfish Road, just wide enough for replicas of the original Kern County Courthouse and Havilah School House to perch above an overgrown creek bed.
Only a few hundred souls live in Havilah now on a patchwork of properties linked by fences and threaded together by the thin strip of asphalt road. They are country people, retired refugees from the cities and the descendants of original homesteaders. There are no shops or restaurants and even drinking water has to be trucked in.
It’s hard to see the sleepy, unincorporated spot as what it once was — a gold-fueled, 19th century metropolis packed cheek-to-jowl with four hotels,13 saloons, an equal number of mercantile shops, two drug stores, two livery stables, two breweries, two billiard parlors, four doctor’s shops and bakeries, fruit stores, barbershops, saloons and the odd house of ill-repute.
But that past, the jumble of greed, business and ambition from which Kern was birthed, is preserved inside the replica county courthouse — rebuilt in the 1960s after the ghosttown that Havilah had become was destroyed by fire in the 1920s.
Kutzner takes visitors inside.
HISTORY IN MINIATURE
The tiny museum, opened on weekends by the stalwarts of the Historical Society, can be perused and checked off the traveler’s agenda in five minutes.
But, given due attention, the artifacts can suck a vistor into the past for much longer.
A miniature model of Havilah’s mile-long township quickly draws the eye, bookended as the town was originally by the courthouse on the north side and the school house on the south side.
A host of items lurk in glass cases, waiting to be observed. Others are tucked into corners or stored under the display cases.
Tools, horseshoes, documents, photographs, appliances — items from the distant past all the way through the late 20th century are on display.
There are rusting gold-hunting pans dug from the town’s ruins, metal and clay cruicibles for melting gold that were pulled from the Shaw family property in Havilah, copies of a county supervisor’s letterhead, livery documents and copies of old newspapers that operated in the town.
A long board recounts the string of events that led from Father Francisco Garces’ first trip through Kern County to the founding of the county in April 1866.
For the Kutzners, there is pride in protecting this history, keeping the stories behind the objects alive.
After a tour through the rebuilt schoolhouse — like something out of Little House on the Prarie — the Kutzners guide their visitors down Caliente Bodfish Road to the site of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Father Francis Dade established it as the first Catholic church in Kern in August 1866.
Along the way shards of the area’s history peek out at you, if you’re paying attention.
Wooden signs with cryptic titles such as Mrs. Miller’s Store and Bella Union Hotel stand vigil in front of open fields. One marked Post Office marks the battered grey trunk of a dead tree. Two mortered stone walls sit stoic amid a stand of trees, all that’s left of the only historic building still vertical in Havilah — a tavern and assay office (a place to test the purity of precious metals).
Kutzner pulls off the road and leads the way up to a beautiful little meadow behind a chain-link fence, starred with flowers and headstones.
St. Joseph’s is gone. When the gold ran out in Havilah, the parish migrated down to Bakersfield and became St. Francis Church, a plaque raised here states.
You can still walk through the church’s cemetery, which was reconsecrated in 2014. A hint of sorrow and loss still lingers around the headstone of the Canty girls, Margaret (3 mos), Catherine (2 years) and Mary (4), who died in 1878 and 1879.
Kutzner points out the headstone of Hannah Farnham Miller, who was born in 1844 and died in 1941. Wes Kutzner’s mother stayed with Miller when she moved to Havilah in the 1920s, she says.
The Kutzners are rooted in Havilah.
In the 1930s, Wes’ parents used mules to drag a cabin onto roughly 200 acres of property they homesteaded north of town. Though the family moved to Tehachapi in 1944, he said, they kept the land in Havilah and retreated there on weekends.
When Wes Kutzner finished his career at a refinery in Bakersfield and Janet finished her work in a doctor’s office 10 years ago, they came up to live on the ranch, camping in what was left of the homestead while they built a beautiful modern home amid gardens, chicken coops, blue oak and a pair of Queensland Heelers.
They call the place Bald Eagle Ranch.
The complex is still where their larger family comes for weekend retreats. And the Kutzners keep busy making granola, biscotti, jam and other baked items for farmer’s markets in the Kern River Valley.
Havilah keeps them young, they say.
“My mom used to say, ’If you could live on climate and love, Havilah was the place to be,” Wes says.