Raphael Avenue just might have the best view in all of Bakersfield and, by extension, the entire San Joaquin Valley.
Don't take my word for it. Ask Rick Kreiser, businessman, concert promoter and resident of Tuscany, the 15- to 20-year-old development that occupies some of the highest ground in easternmost Bakersfield's picturesque Rio Bravo valley.
From their backyard-slash-ridgetop, Kreiser, wife Lorie and black lab mix Ubu can look out upon the western face of the Sierra Nevada and down onto Kern Canyon, Lake Ming, the Kern River and almost all the way around a mountainous outcropping to Hart Park.
"Best views, easy," says Kreiser, well known around Bakersfield for his popular Guitar Masters concert series. "The north and northwest face of Raphael, from top to bottom, has the best views in Bakersfield."
But in the entire San Joaquin Valley?
For that, we rely on an admittedly biased but knowledgeable expert, the late George W. Nickel Jr., the grower, developer and water baron. Nickel's vision and, perhaps ironically, his single most disappointing defeat made the Rio Bravo valley what it is today.
And his take? "It is the most beautiful agricultural area in the San Joaquin Valley," Nickel told family friend Jamy Faulhaber in an October 2000 oral history interview for the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Nickel died in August 2004.
In 1965 Nickel offered the trustees of the California State University system 300 acres along the Kern River for the establishment of "Kern State College." Unfortunately for Nickel, so did seven other groups, most notably the Kern County Land Co., whose founders, James Ben Ali Haggin and Loyd Tevis, had been persistent business rivals of Nickel's famous great-grandfather, Henry Miller. Three of the eight were eventually elevated to finalist status: one put forward by Standard Oil of California (precursor of Chevron Corp.); the Kern County Land Co.'s Stockdale proposal, as it was known; and Nickel's Rio Bravo plan. In Nickel's mind, it came down to Rio Bravo vs. Stockdale.
We all know how Miller-Nickel vs. Kern County Land Co., the sequel, turned out. Today, CSUB's presence is the single biggest reason west Bakersfield has grown and thrived as it has — and Rio Bravo, despite its attractive vistas and more temperate climate, has largely remained a rural basin of scattered settlements.
But Nickel's (and, one might argue, Bakersfield's) loss is Rick Kreiser's gain. And his neighbor's gain. And the gain of the 20,000 people who now reside in the valley located roughly between Morning Drive and the imposing western wall of Kern Canyon, at Bakersfield's eastern boundary.
Development came slowly at first, but it came, and today Rio Bravo is home to several upscale and midscale neighborhoods among the clusters of farmhouses that have been here for decades. They include Rio Bravo Country Club, Canyon Country Estates, the Solera-Del Webb retirement community, City in the Hills, Vista Finestra, Mountain Meadow, Morningstar, Cattle King Estates and Tuscany.
What has not come to Rio Bravo, however, has been commercial development. Tony's Firehouse Grill and Pizza, situated on Kern Canyon Road/Highway 178 near what was once the site of Mesa Marin Raceway, is a survivor to be admired; for years, the steakhouse-style building was a black hole of failure upon failure. Rio Bravo's population wasn't sufficient to support it, and the drive just seemed too much for everyone else.
Rio Bravo is only now getting its first market on Kern Canyon Road, its main drag — a small, boutiquey store/gas station that opens in October next door to the area's first fast-food restaurant, a just-opened Taco Bell.
Otherwise, if Rio Bravo residents want to stock their cupboards, they must plan ahead. There's no Vons, no FoodsCo, no Albertsons.
"On this side of town, you have to be a list maker, you have to plan," says Carol Kurtis, who built a stately home on the eastern edge of Rio Bravo Country Club with her late husband Arlen Frank Kurtis, a boat and car builder and son of the founder of the legendary, 1950s Kurtis Kraft racing-car design company. The Kurtises moved into their new country club home in 2004; Carol's husband died in December 2016.
"But the tradeoff is so well worth it," she says. "The views are spectacular. The moonrise, when it comes, lights up the entire hillside. So you put up with the distance into town. You grocery shop a little longer, you put stuff in the freezer, you have a plan."
Her moonrise wouldn't look the same today had a state college come along and brought civilization to Rio Bravo, whitewashing its lunar glow with thousands of streetlights, storefronts and electric hearths.
Chuck Tolfree went to work for Tenneco West in February 1968, just a few months after the company, which grew out of Tennessee Gas Transmission Co., acquired the holdings of Kern County Land Co., which two years before had pledged land to the state college system. The trustees' decision to go with the KCLC's Stockdale proposal undoubtedly made its sale to Tenneco West in late 1967 substantially more lucrative. A half-century later, that investment has proven itself many times over, thanks to Castle & Cooke, which purchased Tenneco West's holdings in 1987 and soon gave us Haggin Oaks, Seven Oaks and a dozen other major residential developments within a short drive of the state university.
"The situation with the utilities was better" on the west side than at Rio Bravo, Tolfree said. "It was cheaper. And of course you had more control over the surrounding land uses."
The competition had been stiff. Standard Oil offered 300 acres in what was then considered northeast Bakersfield; Tejon Ranch offered 600 acres of its White Wolf Ranch near Caliente Creek; two Tehachapi-area ranchers made separate offers of undetermined size; the new desert community of California City offered 580 acres; and the city of Delano put together a bid, which it withdrew early in the process.
The trustees whittled it down to Standard Oil, KCLC's Stockdale property and Rio Bravo.
Nickel, whose family, led by son Jim Nickel, still operates Rio Bravo Ranch and Rio Bravo Realty, was confident he had the superior offer. Rio Bravo, almost 1,000 feet higher than the other two, typically had cooler temperatures than the valley floor and was not subject to its winter fog. And the vistas were not remotely comparable. In fact, the state college committee that visited each of the three finalist sites downgraded the Stockdale proposal for its lack of "beauty, spirit and feeling."
But the Kern County Land Co., according to Nickel, "did a lot of politicking."
"I will never forget," he told Faulhaber, "how this thing finally got decided."
Nickel attended the trustees' meeting, held March 21, 1966, at the El Rancho Hotel in Sacramento, to witness the final vote. Nickel brought his wife, Dodo, and good friend, Dean Gay. Head engineer and eventual president Bill Balch represented the Kern County Land Co.
The trustees in attendance were split on whether to approve the Kern County Land Co. bid, which the committee had recommended. Rio Bravo still had substantial support and the vote was tied 6-6. It all came down to the vote of Lt. Gov. Glenn M. Anderson.
"I do not know what influence the Kern County Land Co. may have had with the lieutenant governor," Nickel said later, "however, it broke my heart. ... I have never understood this decision (to choose Stockdale). ... It's an uninteresting, flat piece of land."
Some have argued that the transfer of land from KCLC/Tenneco West to the state college system resulted in the loss of a great portion of the valley's most valuable economic resource, its prime farmland. Rio Bravo, on the other hand, is rocky, uneven land with challenging pockets of clay — difficult to farm, so no great loss in that respect, but for that same reason not the easiest land on which to build a college.
In any case, the deal was done.
There's no telling what the city of Bakersfield might have looked like if CSUB had been built in Rio Bravo, but it certainly would have been different. That Kern County Land Co. acreage might still be a carrot field, Bakersfield's inevitable sprawl might have tilted toward Edison and Lamont, and the treacherous road through the canyon to Lake Isabella might have demanded ambitious improvement.
After the verdict, Nickel recalibrated. He invested heavily in citrus in and around his Rio Bravo Ranch, creating what today is a dense, remarkable landscape of orange trees. In 1970, just as the new state college was welcoming its first modest cohort of students on the west side of the city, the Nickel family was considering plans for a Rio Bravo Tennis Club near Lake Ming. By late 1974 the new club was attracting members with fine dining and the support of Bakersfield native Dennis Ralston, who'd advanced to the finals at Wimbledon a decade before.
Over time, though, interest waned and the club was razed to make way for new, upscale homes.
Nickel also helped develop the Rio Bravo Country Club, a golf course and sprawling clubhouse just a few miles east of the tennis club. Today, however, it, too, struggles.
Kurtis, for one, prays it regains its health.
"If the golf course doesn't keep going and people don't support it, it will affect the complete east side," she says. "It will be catastrophic to home values. They're trying: It's open to the public now and they've opened a bistro in the clubhouse."
Come on out, she says. Please.
Otherwise, she says, life in the Rio Bravo valley is good. "I wouldn't live anywhere else," Kurtis says.
"The main thing is the people," he says. "The view is tremendous but a neighborhood is really made up of the people who live there. From the first day, even before we bought the house, they were reaching out. That's great when you're a stranger in a strange land. And then you pile on the fantastic view.
"As long as you don't pay $12 for a loaf of bread at the market down the street, it's worth it."
It's hard to imagine CSUB, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, located anywhere other than where it sits now. It's hard to imagine Rio Bravo as anything but the wide-open window to the Sierra it remains today. But for a single vote cast 53 years ago, we might be looking at a very different reality, however: Kern Canyon Road might have a wide array of markets, thriftier options in the bread aisles, and an absence of discernible moonrises.