Each of the dusty old documents in the Walter Stiern Library Historical Research Center's voluminous archives tells two stories.
One is the story that the document itself describes — the reason someone created it in the first place. The other is the story of how the document ended up at Cal State Bakersfield. Occasionally the second story is almost as interesting as the first.
Take the weathered leather folder that came into the library archive's possession in 2016. Employees in the campus cashier's office discovered the folder deep in the bowels of an old safe. It didn't look like anything a modern cashier's office would need to keep around. Could they just toss it?
Oh, look: A note was attached. Benton F. Scheide, dean of the college library, had written to Joe Kirby of the college accounting office asking him to hang on to "the attached packet of donated artifacts." The memo was dated December 1971, a little over a year after classes were first held at the new college.
Inside was a document, dated May 27, 1863, bestowing a military commission on a man by the name of Francis Ruger: That of assistant quartermaster, with the rank of captain, in the U.S. Army. It was signed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
The bound volume also contained a will, written in German, from the mid-19th century, and five bills of Confederate currency in four denominations: a $20, a $10, two $5s and $2 bill.
Last Sunday I wrote about one of the great archival prizes in the possession of the Walter Stiern Library: investigative documents and crime-scene photos from the unsolved 1938 murder of Mathias "Matt" Warren, father of future California governor and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Those documents are among the truckloads donated to the library by the Kern County Superior Court that go back to 1866 (to as late as 2010).
I figured I should also tell you how much more that growing campus archive contains.
In addition to the Warren case files and the Ruger commission (no, we have no other information on Ruger at the moment) the archive also has court documents for Merle Haggard and Spade Cooley, the religious writings of a 12th century Islamic priest and a 17th century Spanish will.
The Spanish will, dated 1641, has water damage that will require some professional restoration work: only after it has been repaired can it be translated. The archive curators know this much: It is the will of a Pedro de la Farxa, and it was sealed with a medallion of lead that weighs about 5 pounds. But the archive does not have information on its provenance. "That's the bigger mystery," says curator Chris Livingston.
The narrative of the Islamic priest, written in an ancient incarnation of Persian Farsi, dates to 1245. It was a gift from the collection of Stanley Slotkin, a Los Angeles area businessman who traveled the world buying and collecting rare documents. Before his death, he distributed pages from his collection to any academic institution that wanted them. Slotkin, who owned the medical and party supply rental company Abbey Rents, was an avid collector of antique bibles and other rare books who amassed hundreds of thousands of documents during his life. He found the Farsi religious document in Egypt.
Then there's a Kern County Superior Court ledger of defendants who were committed to state institutions, 1950-59, that contains two entries describing the sentence issued to Merle Haggard on Jan. 31, 1958. Haggard — who would recover from this and other personal setbacks to become a Country Music Hall of Fame singer-songwriter — was initially sentenced to Chino State Prison for a raft of burglaries and other nonviolent crimes, but was famously transferred to San Quentin.
Haggard wasn't the only country music star to go to prison following a Kern County conviction. Spade Cooley, a western swing bandleader who had a hugely popular early-1950s show on KTLA, in the first days of commercial television, was convicted of murder here in 1961. He'd retired to the east Kern desert, where he hoped to build a water park that might rival Disneyland, but one night he beat his wife to death. He, too, went to a Northern California state prison — but unlike Haggard, died before he could get out.
That might seem like lot of story lines for one university library archive, but Livingston assures us the vaults contain many, many more. The Superior Court archive alone includes thousands of cases, from the mundane and eminently forgettable to the scandalous and riveting, all awaiting the inspection of the novelist, the historian or the common voyeur.