No telling what James Haggard thought that day in 1935 when he laid eyes on an old Santa Fe boxcar, obsolete by railroad standards even then.
A blurry black-and-white snapshot shows a forlorn rectangular heap sitting in a weed-filled Oildale lot, literally put out to pasture by advances in refrigeration technology and the deactivation of old-fashioned wooden cars like this one, in favor of new models made of steel.
Haggard, a railroad man himself, left no notes or diaries that we know of, so it's hard to imagine what he saw that convinced him this abandoned icer that had hauled load after load of produce and meat was still fit to hold the most precious cargo of all: his family, which at that point consisted of wife Flossie and their children, Lillian and Lowell (Merle, the accident, was a couple of years from being born and a couple of decades from becoming the king of country music).
But this newcomer to Bakersfield, whose Oklahoma pluck and ingenuity survived the trip west, had vision enough to know that with his carpentry skills and a few additions, he could make something of that boxcar — and he did, over an 11-year period when the Haggard homestead was at is peak, in appearance, in use, in happiness.
In 1946 the Haggard family patriarch died of a stroke, leaving a devastated family and a hole in the life of his 9-year-old son that neither artistic achievement nor worldwide adulation was ever able to fill.
So in 2011, when Kern Pioneer Village agreed to accept and restore the home as a monument to Merle Haggard — a complicated man with, at times, a complicated reaction to awards and recognition — he was all for it because he understood the monument wasn't to him at all, but to the parents he loved.
The first anniversary of Haggard's death is April 6 — what would have been his 80th birthday — meaning the singer won't be here to see what the museum, a local philanthropist, a Los Angeles architect and dozens of workers have done to transform a house that had become shabby and decrepit over the decades into the bright, fastidious home where he felt safe and loved, where he heard his first train whistle, where his tiny feet kept time to the music on the radio while he cooed in his bassinet, where his mother taught him his first guitar chord.
But he was there on that sweltering day in the summer of 2015 when the boxcar was moved to the museum. He walked with his sister on the spot where the boxcar, then sitting on a flatbed nearby, would reside for posterity.
“Father and mother would certainly be surprised to see what happened to the old boxcar,” Haggard told the crowd at the museum that day, his last public appearance in his hometown. “The boxcar was inspiration for more than one song.”
And it still was, for Haggard wrote a song about that day, "Kern River Blues," which contains the line "kiss the old boxcar goodbye," leaving little doubt that he suspected he wouldn't be around to see what has become a time capsule of the best time of his childhood, maybe his life.
But his fans are another story. Starting April 9, the six-year-plus odyssey to move and restore the Haggard family home will culminate in the first public tours of the boxcar, looking the best it has in decades: brilliant white paint, cheerful wallpaper, comfortable family furnishings, freshly planted geraniums.
"I promised Lillian I would finish this project and I've been very true to that," said Cynthia Lake, whose foundation paid to restore the boxcar. "I'm finishing it in a way that leaves a legacy for Merle Haggard, Lillian, Lowell, James and Flossie — individuals who were there."
'A boxcar is a boxcar'
Though James Haggard didn't leave notes on his project, the walls — and old family photos — have done the talking for him, as has his daughter, Lillian, who at 96 has a memory a woman half her age would envy.
Los Angeles-based historical architect George Taylor Louden — whom Lake calls "my best investment" — was hired last year to restore the boxcar. He has a stack of old black-and-whites of the home but where most of us would focus on the exceptionally photogenic Haggards in the foreground — there's rakishly handsome young Lowell in one, Merle as a sprout in another — Louden's gaze is fixed on things like roof slopes. His copies look like some nightmarish cross between the family photo album and a particularly sadistic math problem, with lines drawn here and there and a series of scrawled measurements that make little sense to the architecturally disinclined.
But the photos and the original construction material, disassembled and moved to the museum, told him what he needed to know: how the house looked from 1935 to 1946. Like any 80-year-old house, this one has a past, much of it covered up with drywall and stucco, which, though inexpertly applied, served as a protective barrier for the original materials underneath, an advantage for the team of home-restoration detectives.
But first things first. By the time Louden was hired, the boxcar had already been moved, the additions torn down and brought to the museum, the slab poured and some initial construction begun, by a company that had no experience with historical preservation.
The way it was going, the house, when completed, would have borne little resemblance to the James-and-Flossie era boxcar, Louden said. The slab was too high, the window placement was off, and the pitch wasn't right on either of the roofs on the two additions, which meant the walls were way too high.
The museum contracted with Whitezell Construction of Bakersfield and with the help of master carpenter Randy Hamm, Louden was able to begin sorting things out. For example, they dug through a pile of boards and found just the ones they were looking for, providing confirmation about how high the window sills should be and, hence, the windows.
"Jim Haggard was a really great and skilled carpenter and created a very sophisticated design," Louden said. "It’s very symmetric. But the real issue there is that he was not necessarily a house builder. In back was a confusion of roof slopes, which created water-penetration issues, and that’s why the addition in back was considered to be not survivable for the move and dismantled. There are two different types of construction, all in less than 1,000 square feet of space.
"It's unusual to some degree in that it's a totally repurposed structure. It was never built as a house. Generally speaking, a boxcar is a boxcar and you don't usually see them turned into houses."
Though small, the home could comfortably accommodate the five Haggards for a time — Lowell went into the service not long after Merle was born — plus visiting relatives.
"In a lot of Lillian's memory, they were living in the house before they even had an oven, so when they had their first Thanksgiving dinner, it was cooked outside," Louden said.
But even before she had a stove, Flossie went to work making the boxcar a home.
Visible in the restored house are six layers of wallpaper: plaids, florals and a particularly charming swatch — museum curator Lori Wear guesses it's from the 1950s — that features palm trees, birds of paradise, roses and clouds against a taupe background. Louden and Wear chose to leave some of the old wallpaper exposed so the public can get a glimpse of the actual walls the spirited young Merle probably was bouncing off of, to his mother's chagrin and delight.
Mike Ellis, of Ellis Wall Covering, was at work on the structure in mid-March, preparing the walls for the vintage-looking wallpaper the museum had selected. He said he's worked on about 13 of the historic structures at the museum but that the Haggard house was his favorite.
"If I had his music on right now, it would be blaring," said Ellis as other workers hustled by.
Like Louden, Ellis had to do some detective work. There was no drywall back in the boxcar's heyday, so Flossie hung the wallpaper not on the wall itself but on a cheesecloth-like material.
"It took me two months to figure out how to do it on plastic, but I have a polyester liner to mimic the cheesecloth," he said.
Outside, with less than a month to go until the public unveiling, museum board members, Lake, Louden and Wear debated the pros and cons of various landscaping plants as a worker hand-dug an irrigation trench nearby.
"What is it that we can maintain on an ongoing basis so it doesn't die?" asked Sheryl Barbich, who sits on the board of the nonprofit foundation that operates the county-owned museum.
"We can't get too historical," Louden countered. "There's no cottonwood tree or apricot tree like there was in Oildale. Because the house has been moved."
The committee ultimately decided to forgo planting a bougainvillea vine — too thorny, invasive and susceptible to frost — though a photo shows Flossie managed a thriving bush.
"We just can't spray water onto the home," Louden told a maintenance crew member.
Louden has been making weekly trips to the museum for a while to check on progress and trouble-shoot. He said at least a half-dozen people have wandered up while he was working to say they came to the museum to see the house.
"This was a bucket list dream to see this place," Louden said. "You’ve allowed people to see how it was. It’s hugely emotional when you get to rebuild what people remembered fondly."
Jim Haggard, Merle's nephew, has represented the family at meetings on the project. He was standing off to the side, wisely in the shade, while the lively discussion of landscaping was underway.
"I never lived in the boxcar. I was born in 1951 and I'd stay overnight with Grandma. Inside, it's close to what it was. With Taylor being an architect, he is getting close."
The rooms will be protected by partitions, with the public entering through a 12-by-23 foot walkway that will offer views, through glass, of most of the small home, except for the back bedroom. The curious can walk around and take a peek through the windows, Louden said.
The architect has come to have great respect for James and Flossie Haggard during the process and hopes the public, too, will come to appreciate the ingenuity, thrift and uncommon sense that went into those walls, most of which were built using lumber salvaged from Santa Fe Railroad, where James worked.
"I imagine he was told, 'Take what you need.' He repurposed material that was no longer required. He didn't finish it all at once because he wasn't going to go to Home Depot and drop 40 bucks on a pile of wood siding.
"Jim and Flossie did a Herculean effort to build this boxcar into a family residence and live there for decades. That's the real success story here, is what Jim and Flossie were able to do as a family with very limited means, and the boxcar itself."
For Lake, who has grown close to Lillian Haggard Rea through the long process, the boxcar restoration is a rare opportunity for the city to honor one of its most famous sons.
"Merle doesn't have a lot — there's a street named after him — but he doesn't have a Crystal Palace; Buck did that. But Merle doesn't have a representation in our community as a place to go to. I'm very proud to be part of having something that's so personal to the family at Kern Pioneer Village."