The Californian has been publishing history pieces about Kern County to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of its official creation by the California Legislature. We asked readers to help us tell Kern’s story by recounting how their families came here.
We’ve gotten such a good response that we’ve decided to start publishing the submissions now, beginning with a particularly compelling one from reader Debbie Newlen. We’ll run more throughout the year; if you’d like to contribute, please do.
One note: We’ve been asking people to write no more than 350 words. Some stories, like this first one, have come in longer but are so compelling, we’re not cutting them too much.
THE MAXWELL FAMILY
This account of the Maxwell family trip to California was written by my father, Paul, several years ago:
The year was 1936. Some of the events I clearly remember but most are what I recall from the many stories told by my father, mother, older sister, Erma, and my grandfather Charlie Maxwell.
The plan was to leave Delhi, Okla., early enough in the summer to make the grape and fruit harvests in the Central Valley and yet late enough to miss the bad weather going over the mountains in New Mexico and California. Our planned destination was Kings or Fresno county, preferably the Fresno area.
We left Delhi May 25. We meaning my mother (Willie Marie), father (Virgil Samuel), oldest sister, Erma (13), older brother, Bill (7), younger sister, Betty (3) and youngest brother, Jimmy (1). I turned 5 on the day we went through Happy, Texas, where I was born in 1931. The seven of our immediate family started out in a 1927 model T-Ford sedan with all our worldly possessions somehow tied onto it.
First stop was Velma, Okla. There we joined Grandma and Grandpa Maxwell and their youngest son, Gene, who was about 15. Grandpa didn’t want to drive his 1933 Chevrolet coupe all the way to California, so he and dad sold both their cars, pooled the money and bought a bigger car that could haul all 10 of us and what we needed. The trade also provided a few more dollars to help with the cost of travel.
They made a deal for a 1928 Buick touring car that was almost like a truck. It included four adults, six kids plus all our “stuff” on top of or tied to it.
Grandma and grandpa sat in the front seat with dad. In the back seat were mother, holding Betty on her lap, Erma holding Jimmy and Gene sitting along side. Bill and I had no place to sit so we stood up and held onto the back of the front seat all the way from Velma to Arvin.
All personal things had to be tied on the outside somewhere. Everything that was in large trunks or boxes was loaded on a specially built rack on the back. On the roof were two mattresses, bedsprings and other longer items. Some of smaller boxes and suitcases were placed on the right hand running board. Then everyone would get in except for dad. He would then load up the left running board with what was left and then climbed in the driver’s window.
We came west on Route 66, except for a detour through Happy, Texas, on June 4. We stopped there to visit one of my mother’s sisters, her family and some friends. We then detoured over to Hereford, where one of my dad’s cousins had a farm and a few hundred head of cattle.
Dad, grandpa and Gene helped brand spring calves for two or three days to earn some needed expense money, while the rest of those that could dug sand hill potatoes and yams. Mother and grandma helped do some canning. We left Hereford around June 10 and headed back to Route 66.
The trip was going pretty well except for the flat tires; the big Buick was using more gas than planned and for the squeaky wood spoke wheels. To stop the wheels from squeaking, dad would drive through every mud puddle he could find to swell up and tighten the wood spokes.
The trip was kind of like having a picnic every day. We kids would play and nose around every evening while the men made camp and the women fixed dinner and something to snack on the next day. Even though we got up early each morning, it was about 8:30 or later before hitting the road again, and, of course, we had to stop early enough in the afternoon to make camp before it got dark.
We could only go about 25 to 30 mph due to road conditions and because grandma was afraid to go any faster.
When we arrived in Flagstaff, it was very cold with some snow still on the ground under the trees. It was so cold we had to rent a cabin for the night. The proprietor didn’t want to rent one cabin to such a large group but after some negotiating, we were able to rent one for one night for $10. That was a lot of money in those days. Money we really couldn’t afford, but with small kids and not enough bedding to stay warm out in the open, it had to be done.
On June 15 or 16 we arrived in Tehachapi with not enough money to make it to Fresno. So we took the White Wolf Grade cut-off to Arvin, the closest town. In those days White Wolf Grade Road was just one narrow lane and only paved part of the way. Remember what I said about grandma being afraid of riding in a car? Well, when she saw the steep, narrow, crooked mountain road down the grade, she decided to walk behind the car all the way down the mountain. It must have been about four miles.
When we arrived in Arvin it was mid-afternoon and dad started asking around for work and found that the Janet Farm, just west of Arvin, was a good possibility. We drove the three miles on Bear Mountain Boulevard, stopped across the road from Mr. Janet’s home and made camp while dad went over to ask for work. I think Mr. and Mrs. Janet saw the pitiful sight and hired dad and said he could start work the very next day.
He also said we could move into one of the tents in the labor camp on their property nearby. Mr. Janet was very pleased with dad’s dependability, willingness to work, and his ability to plow the straightest rows, so by that winter we were allowed to move into a two-room farm shack in the same camp.
Grandpa got a job as carpenter in Arvin and moved into a tent on the edge of town, one with a wood floor and wood side walls about 4 feet high. We considered that pretty nice at the time.
It was obvious the Buick was too big and used too much gas, and grandpa needed a car. So dad sold the Buick and split the money with grandpa so they could each buy economical cars. We wound up with a 1928 Hupmobile sedan.
In late summer and fall we all worked in the fields picking grapes, tree fruit or anything else that would help feed the family and help get ahead. In the fall each year we all picked cotton. The ones of us that were too little to pull a cotton sack went ahead of an adult picking and made little piles of cotton so they could then pick it up in bunches and save time.
As we got older, the school bus would take us to the cotton patch where a cotton sack would be waiting and we would pick until dark, then walk home no matter how far it was, oftentimes two or more miles.
Mother had worked on a family farm all her life and proved to be very good at working and handling crews of women. Soon she was made foreman over grape picking crews of up to 20 or more women. She also worked as foreman or supervisor in grape packing sheds.
In 1941, while still in Arvin, my youngest brother, Jerry, was born.
At the beginning of WWII a new steel foundry was built in Bakersfield to make parts for armored tanks and other armored vehicles. As soon as dad heard of it he went there to apply for a job. He was one of the first hired and soon became foreman, so we moved to Bakersfield. As the three of us older boys reached 13 or 14, we also worked at the foundry, during summers, learning the foundry trade.
Over the years our family has multiplied and has been greatly blessed. I think the example set by mom, dad and grandparents has been the main contributor to the success of each one in our family. Even though financially very poor in the beginning, we were left with a rich inheritance.
We were taught to be honest, the meaning of personal responsibility, a sense of self-worth, always put in an honest day’s work. It also gave us a drive to succeed at whatever we attempted.
We have also been blessed with happy and healthy offspring. Each year at our family reunion in the spring, 80 or more usually attend. The get together included five generations until January 2000 when our mother passed on. Dad died in 1963. He had a heart attack while doing what he liked most: working.
As the years passed, Erma became an accountant at Food Machinery Corp. Bill was a high school and junior college teacher for more than 30 years. I owned a machine and fabrication shop for 20 years, building well oil servicing rigs and support equipment. Betty was bookkeeper and office manager. Jimmy is a successful architect, and Jerry is division superintendent for Southern Pacific Railroad. Bill is the only one with a formal education.
This is the point the recollection ended. Only my uncles Bill and Jerry remain of the original family. My father passed away Feb. 2, 2013, at the age of 81.
— Debbie (Maxwell) Newlen