All year, The Californian has been serializing historical accounts of Kern County’s founding and development to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of its official creation by the California Legislature. We asked readers to help tell the story by recounting how their families ended up here.
Below are some of their stories. We plan to keep accepting and publishing more throughout the year.
THE CORNETT FAMILY
In 1959 my family lived in Helena, Miss. Due to economical issues of trying to raise a large family, my daddy, John Cornett Sr., under the influence of his older brother, Charles, decided to venture to the “Land of Milk and Honey.”
It didn’t hurt much that my mother wanted dearly to see their oldest daughter, Delores, who had recently moved to Phoenix with her new husband, Chuck Flannery, when he was discharged from Fort Benning, Ga. They applied for and were hired by a company in Fresno as forklift mechanics. (Neither had ever worked on forklifts.)
The day after Christmas we packed up the old car with daddy, mother, Frances, 15-year-old Sandra, 12-year-old John Jr., 9-year-old Tony and the youngest, Darryl, and headed out to California pulling the longest trailer U-Haul had.
We caravanned with Uncle Charles and his wife, Kathryn, oldest son, Larry Gene (just out of military service), his wife, Bobbie Jo, Uncle Charles and Aunt Kathryn’s three daughters, Janice, Joyce and Katie, as well as in-laws Pearl and Claude Blackstock. Some of them had to ride in the U-Haul trailer.
If it weren’t 1959, you would have sworn we were out of the “Grapes of Wrath.”
The trip was exciting. We ate plenty of bologna sandwiches and camped out in roadside parks, often sleeping on picnic tables and benches.
By the time we arrived in Phoenix, the excitement was beginning to wear off. We stayed there overnight before heading out for Fresno. When we were in Flagstaff, Ariz., a cat joined the immigrants. I swear he was part bobcat. He hated my daddy but loved mother and the boys.
For some unknown reason, Uncle Charles decided the route would be through Los Angeles and across the old “Grapevine.”
As we were approaching Gorman, it was snowing. We were cold, hungry and tired. Our brakes were smoking and Uncle Charles’ headlights were going off and on. We stopped in Gorman and there was nothing open except a cafe. Even if something was open, the needed parts would not be available any closer than Bakersfield.
They decided to brave it down the hill. Daddy pulled our car against the trailer bumper on Uncle Charles’ rigging so he could “brake” us down the hill. (Have you ever been on the old Grapevine in 1959? No freeway then.) Then there was the issue of Uncle Charles having no lights.
Larry Gene put on every jacket he could, more than one pair of gloves and hats, was covered with blankets and tied to the hood with rope. He held a large flashlight in each hand and after everyone was into the cars, we headed out on what could have been our last adventure.
As we pulled into a service station at the bottom of the Grapevine (just before it closed due to snow and ice), the attendant on duty shook his head, took us in and gave us coffee, hot chocolate and doughnuts. He couldn’t believe the story. He allowed us to stay there and when it was daylight, he gave them directions to auto parts stores up Union Avenue (old Highway 99).
As they got to 19th Street, daddy spotted an International Harvester shop. That is the same company they were going to work for in Fresno. So they stopped and asked if the manager could let the store in Fresno know they were not going to keep their starting date, which was the next day.
He said why would you want to go to Fresno? I can use you here. Daddy asked when he needed to start work. He explained the car trouble and that they had their entire families in a service station at the bottom of the Grapevine and had no place to live.
The owner made a call to a friend of his that owned an old hotel (the Bakersfield Hotel across the alley from C.N. Johnson’s body shop) and it had an attached, furnished, two-bedroom apartment that was not currently used and he would waive the deposit.
Daddy explained he was going to have to pawn his tools to pay for the car parts. Instead they pawned my mother’s rings. Uncle Charles decided they would continue on to Fresno after his car was repaired.
The owner of International Harvester gave my daddy an advance in his pay for groceries and such.
They repaired the cars, we settled into the apartment with the boys sharing a bedroom and I slept on the sofa. Within a week my mother was working at San Joaquin Community Hospital as a nurse’s aide and we were all settled in school.
Within a year we moved into our own home that was brand new in the south part of town.
Because of this caring soul at the International Harvester Company giving my daddy a chance in life, all of us went to college, became professionals and made Bakersfield our home for more than 50 years. Uncle Charles and his family went back to Mississippi and lived there forever.
My parents passed away many years ago and two of my brothers have moved to the Central Coast, but Kern County is and will always be home.
— Sandra Broughton
THE RENZI FAMILY
My grandfather and grandmother came to Kern County from a small Tuscan Italian village named Tassignano. My grandfather came first and once he was established with a job and house he sent for my grandmother.
My grandfather, Paolino (Paul) Lorenzi, was born in Tassignano in 1887. After serving in the Italian Army, he left Italy at age 23 as an immigrant passenger on the S.S. Verona. He arrived at Ellis Island on May 10, 1910.
He made his way to Kern County and started working for the Southern Pacific Railroad building and repairing boxcars at the S.P. shop near the roundhouse on Kentucky Street. He lived in a predominately Italian neighborhood on Lake Street in east Bakersfield, just a block away from his workplace.
My grandmother, Rosa (Lainetti) Lorenzi, was born in Tassignano in 1893. She left Italy at age 20 as a passenger on the S.S. France. She arrived at Ellis Island on April 12, 1913, and immediately made her way to Kern County. My grandparents were married April 22, 1913, only 10 days after her arrival in America.
My grandparents had four children:
Mike Lorenzi, born in 1914: He was a well-known gas service station owner in east Bakersfield for many years. His first gas station was on Sonora Street and is now on display at the Kern County Museum. He married Marguerite Eyraud, who was the daughter of French immigrants Joseph and Augustine Eyraud of Greenfield.
Gena (Lorenzi) Uhalt, born in 1916: She married blacksmith Pete Uhalt, who belonged to a well-known east Bakersfield Basque family that owned Uhalt’s Blacksmithing and Welding Works, located at 532 E. 19th St.
Dora (Lorenzi) Eyherabide, born in 1923: She married well-known local attorney Stephen P. Eyherabide, who was the son of immigrant Basque sheepmen Pascal and Grace Eyherabide.
Natalie (Lorenzi) Renzi, born in 1925: She was my mom and she married Lawrence Renzi, who was a local pharmacist for more than 50 years. He was the last owner of Kimball and Stone Pharmacy, a business that dates back to early Bakersfield.
All the people I have listed have passed away except for my dad, Lawrence. He still lives in Bakersfield and is doing quite well for his age of 90 years.
— Michael Renzi, Bakersfield
THE EVANS, JOHNSON FAMILIES
My mother’s paternal ancestors migrated from England in the 1700s, eventually settling in Oklahoma when it was still Indian Territory.
Her maternal family, also from England, settled in Louisiana in the early 1800s. Her great grandfather fled from Bienville Parrish to the Oklahoma territory in 1873 to escape the law. He changed his name and married a Choctaw Indian.
My father's paternal ancestors, the Smithsons, were a brother to the founder of the Smithsonian Institute. They were granted vast amounts of land in early Virginia from the king of England.
My father's side were, unfortunately, born to a succession of last-born sons, so didn't inherit any land. They migrated from Virginia to Tennessee and finally to Oklahoma territory, where they became share croppers.
His mother's family were early settlers in Missouri. They were mostly tradespeople.
My mother and dad were married in McAlester, Okla., in 1943. After the war they hopped a train to California where they worked in the canneries.
They moved to Shafter in 1946 and went to work in the fields and orchards.
In the early 1950s they moved to Minter Village along with many other post-war families after Truman converted military barracks to civilian housing.
My dad went to work for Kern County in 1957 and eventually became foreman of the Roads and Bridges department at the McFarland yard.
My mother returned to school and received her nursing degree.
I miss our time in Shafter, where our huge extended family lived for three decades. I was surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
— Audrey Baker
THE COMPAGNONI FAMILY
We are intensely proud that our grandfather was an Italian immigrant. Although we never met Umberto Compagnoni (called Alberto), we heard stories from our father, Tony.
Umberto stepped onto Ellis Island during the time the majority of Italian immigrants arrived in America. Umberto was born July 14, 1891, in Tortoreto, Italy, into a hard-working family. It is difficult to imagine at the age of 16, saying goodbye and being the only Compagnoni family member to come to America.
He arrived in New York on Sept. 1, 1906, on the ship the Buenos Aires. He came to America for a better life as he knew America was the land of opportunities. He returned to Italy in 1910 and returned to America, headed north, and made his home in Bakersfield.
The climate and farmland reminded him of his homeland. It was here that his “American Dream” began. He bought his first house on the corner of Baker Street by the east Kern railroad tracks. He started a business an overland stage operating his taxi service. Grandfather met our grandmother Anna (called Annie) (Stradal-Koutek) Clausen at a boarding house in east Bakersfield.
Annie was born on March 13, 1895, in Bohemia. She came to America to live with relatives in Mojave. She departed from Bremen, Germany, on June 13, 1913, on the SS Lutow at age 18, arriving in New York.
Umberto and Annie married on Sept. 27, 1917. Annie had a son, Earl Clausen. Their marriage must have been interesting, as grandfather spoke Italian and grandmother spoke Czechoslovakian.
Grandfather sold his Jitney service to Mr. Malone, who owned the Mint Bar on 19th Street, and bought the Westend Cigar Store on east 19th Street. (The old Bakersfield Hotel is located there now.)
In 1916, Umberto rented 160 acres on Union Avenue and started one of the first dairy farms in Kern County. This became the location of the world famous Bakersfield Inn. Umberto then moved further out to an unnamed dirt road (Pumpkin Center) and bought a 40-acre horse ranch.
Umberto and Annie started their family. On Sept. 12, 1918, our father, Anthony Albert (called Tony), was born and on Jan. 16, 1922, our uncle Lester was born.
Grandfather Umberto’s legacy lives on as there is a street named after him, the “Compagnoni Street” on the corner of Highway 99 and Taft Highway. Grandfather died on March 14, 1942, and grandmother Annie on Aug. 9, 1965.
— Written by the Compagnoni Family, Elaine Escalante and Andrea Wright
THE BONE FAMILY
Our great-grandparents, James Aikin Bone and Emily Burgess Bone, settled in Kern County in 1899. Moving north from LaCanada, Calif., with their three young sons, they traveled over the old Tejon Route that entered the valley at Rose Station.
They established their first home and ranch on the property that is now the location of Bakersfield Christian High School and The Bridge Bible Church.
My great-grandparents purchased farmland in three other locations. The land was planted with orchards, alfalfa and cotton. And there were the bees — 1,800 colonies — that produced honey that was shipped mainly to San Francisco for export. During this time two more sons were born, and one daughter, our grandmother Mary Elizabeth.
Times were hard in those early days of farming in Kern County. My great-grandfather had issues acquiring the water he needed, had a levee break resulting in the flooding and killing of many colonies of bees, and the electrocution of a teenage son in a well accident.
Of course there were many good memories, like my great-grandmother convincing her parents to leave the Christmas tree up until her birthday, Feb. 16!
James died in 1928 and Emily died in 1950, both buried at Union Cemetery.
Our grandmother, Mary Bone, married George Seaward and had two children: William and our mother, Lynn. Lynn Seaward, a third generation Kern County resident, married another third generation resident, Keith Montgomery, whose family had settled in Waits Station, now known as Oildale. We are proud to be fourth-generation Kern County residents.
— Molly Montgomery Mier and Carrie Montgomery Ontiveros