The rugged business of sheepherding lured a handsome 17-year-old Frenchman to California in the late 1920s. But it was the alchemy of mixing flour and yeast into artisan bread that kept Pierre "Pete" Laxague here.
The magic of bread making eventually brought him to Kern County where French sourdough bread is as synonymous with the region as cotton and crude oil.
Pyrenees French Bakery in east Bakersfield, managed by the Laxague family for nearly 70 years, was named after Pierre's native province -- the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France.
Pierre was born in 1912 in pastoral Aldudes in the Pyrenees region of southwestern France. After coming to California, he grew tired of herding sheep after five years, and relatives living in La Puente got him a job at the French-American Bakery where he learned the trade of sourdough French bread making. He spent several years working under his uncle Jean Baptiste Garacochea, founder of Pioneer Bakery in Venice.
Pierre married Juanita Ermigarat and they had two children. By then, they were in partnership with Garacochea and decided to move to Bakersfield where a large Basque community existed. They brought the original 'starter' sourdough recipe with them.
They moved here in December 1944, and within a few months they had started their own bakery. Along with partners Michel Erreca and Jean Baptiste Elgart, they purchased Parisian Bakery on E. 18th Street, in what is known today as Old Town Kern, from Pete Borda.
In 1947, the partnership bought Kern City French Bakery, which dated back to 1887 when the building where the bread was made also housed a saloon and sold a loaf for six cents. In the early 1900s, Kern City French Bakery was bought by Marcel Raynaud, Joseph Gueyden and Augustine Amour. They built a new building in 1912.
The Laxagues became sole owners and changed the name to Pyrenees French Bakery. Together they made quite a team. Pierre would arrive before dawn each day to make the bread using up to 300 pounds of flour a day and Juanita would deliver it to nearby restaurants and grocers. Using an old-fashioned brick oven and their time-honored master recipe, bread making became a family affair for the Laxagues. Son Michel joined his father as a dough master and daughter Marianne helped her mother run the business and its finances. In 1961, the 1910 building the Laxagues first bought was moved to the Kern County Museum to be part of a permanent display at Pioneer Village.
Francois Pedeflous, founder of Fresno's successful Basque French Bakery, apprenticed with Pierre at one time and agreed when he left not to open a competing bakery nearby.
Michel died in 1979, Pierre in 1993 and Juanita in 2009. Today Marianne, along with the help of nephews and great-grandchildren, carries on the tradition. More than 7,000 pounds of flour is used to churn out upwards of 3,000 loaves and rolls each week, all still baked in brick ovens.