This history of Havilah’s founding was published by The Californian in 1966, when the county turned 100.
Pressing out from Whiskey Flat and Keyesville in the widening search for gold, prospectors combed the hills and gulches east and south of the Kern River with varying success until the summer of 1864, when a party made a rich strike on Clear Creek, in the mountains south of the Kern River Valley.
Word of the new strike got around, and the once-quiet valley and adjacent gulches soon swarmed with prospectors.
A newcomer arriving from Kernville, Asbury Harpending, made a good find and decided to develop more than his mine. He laid out a townsite, knowing that a settlement was certain to spring up in the center of such a rich district.
He called it Havilah, after a biblical reference, and Kern’s first county seat was born.
CREATING A COUNTY
Legislation had been Introduced in 1855 calling for the formation of a new county called Buena Vista after the name the Spanish gave to the southern San Joaquin Valley. Passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. John Bigler, it included a provision that proved impossible to fulfill — the election of county officers by a majority of voters in both Tulare County and the territory designated as that to make up the new county.
In the meantime, the Kern River gold rush had placed the situation in such a state of flux that no one paid much attention to anything else and no petitions were successfully presented. It was not until the mines had settled down, commerce and transportation had been established and agriculture and trade had grown increasingly important that the demand for a county government handier than that provided by Tulare County and its capital at Visalia was felt.
A public meeting was held in Havilah early in 1866 in response to the growing desire for a new county, where Chairman William B. Lilly was authorized to appoint a committee to compose the necessary resolutions and petitions. The documents were prepared by Henry Hammel, Henry Bequette, Joseph Caldwell, Alexander Reid and William Marsh.
Armed with them, Tulare state Sen. J.W. Freeman introduced legislation calling for the organization of the new county, to be named Kern and to include portions of Tulare and Los Angeles counties. The bill was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Frederick F. Low.
It called for the county seat to be established at Havilah.
ELECTION OF OFFICIALS
The act calling for the organization of the county was approved by the legislature on April 2, 1866, and Thomas Baker, Ed Smith, Dan Walser, John Brite and Michael Erskine were appointed commissioners to direct the first election.
The measure also authorized the election of county officials; the first Board of Supervisors included Henry Hammel, Samuel A. Bishop and James J. Rhymes.
Bishop, who was part owner of Tejon Ranch and lived a considerable distance from Havilah, resigned a few months later and was succeeded by Brite of Brite’s Valley, near Tehachapi.
W.B. Ross was appointed sheriff and tax collector; Henry D. Bequette county clerk, auditor and recorder; R.B. Sugdy county assessor; Joseph Lively coroner; E.E. Calhoun district attorney; and D.A. Sinclair treasurer.
In July that year, Thomas Baker became county surveyor and E.E. Doss county superintendent of schools.
Havilah then began to boom. More businesses sprang up, professional men located their offices in the town, more homes were built and in a few months, a newspaper appeared.
The designation of Havilah as the county seat reflected both the flourishing state of the town and the importance of mining in the county’s economy. No other town in the territory included in the new county could rival Havilah in volume of trade, economic importance, population or transportation facilities.
Havilah’s prosperity brought with it the usual problems of thriving western communities. Card sharps, prostitutes, professional gamblers and trigger-happy idlers thronged the young village. Miners looking for a change from the drudgery of the placers, tunnels and mills found abundant opportunities.
Saloons, gambling parlors and associated establishments flourished. Shootings, knifings and assorted brawls enlivened the place, to such an extent that before many months had passed, a law and order movement gained such strength as to command a lessening of the murder and mayhem and general nocturnal uproar that made the community, or at least a segment of it, yearn for a rise in civic virtue.
Sheriff Ross, a brave and resourceful man, issued an ultimatum to the lawless element and his persistence, supported by a majority of citizens, led to an exodus of the “undesirable element” for a time.
Havilah also saw the organization of several churches, the founding of a literacy society, the formation of a library and the emergence of a genuine concern for education that resulted in the establishment of a school. These efforts were supported and encouraged by the two newspapers, the Havilah Courier (which later became The Californian) and the Havilah Miner.
Improvement of communication with Los Angeles and Visalia and the rising community of Bakersfield was earnestly sought and soon work was begun on a more direct road between Havilah and Tehachapi and to the north over Greenhorn Mountain. New stage service was begun between Havilah and Visalia and between Havilah and Los Angeles.
Baker later constructed a toll road between Havilah and Bakersfield.
THE RISE OF BAKERSFIELD
But then events in the valley below were increasing the importance of Bakersfield. Agriculture and stock raising were increasing, trade was flourishing, the population was growing and the railroad was approaching southward from the San Francisco Bay area.
Mine production in Havilah was declining and even the most optimistic advocates of its destiny couldn’t deny the change.
In November of 1872, a petition was presented requesting the county seat be moved from Havilah to Bakersfield. An election on the matter was ordered for Feb. 15, 1873. Bakersfield won by a small margin; the results were hotly contested.
A full year of acrimonious litigation followed, but in 1874 Bakersfield had won the battle and the county government was established there. In February that year, the Board of Supervisors ordered the town hall of Bakersfield be designated as the county courthouse.
Havilah continued to serve as a trading center for the region for a number of years but the removal of the county seat and the arrival of the railroad at Kern hastened its decline.