There are just a few places here in Kern County capable of taking visitors on a trip back in time: The Kern County Museum, where Pioneer Village is home to several old buildings restored to former glory, and the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History takes visitors way, way back with fossils from Shark Tooth Hill. But there's nothing quite like Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
Just north of Bakersfield, near Earlimart, the park transports guests to Allensworth in its prime, when from 1909 to 1914 the only town in the state founded, financed and governed by black Americans thrived. The 22 historic buildings have been restored or re-created to preserve the unique town, and an event this weekend will truly bring the place back to life, with costumed docents leading tours, period-appropriate activities and more history than one could soak up in a single trip.
The Old Time Jubilee will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Other than special tours for school groups, the event is one of four times a year that guests can get the full Allensworth experience, with docents inside each building explaining all about the homes, stores, schools, church and businesses that made up the town.
"It is so much history," said Marianne Reliford, a park docent who can usually be found at the Singleton General Store. "We have history right in our backyard. This was a planned community. They wanted a town that could support itself."
Among the tours of the Singleton General Store and Post Office, the Hindsman House, the Johnson Bakery and other buildings, visitors might even run into an Allensworth descendant, like Josephine Triplett, whose mother's family was prominent in the colony. Her mother was Gemelia Alta Hall Herring, who would square dance and sew while a young girl living in Allensworth. Triplett's aunt (Gemelia's sister) Alwortha Hall was the first baby born in the township and named after its founder. Another aunt, Ethel Hall Norton, was the town's first librarian. Triplett's grandfather William Henry Hall moved the family from Bakersfield.
"When he heard what the colonel was trying to do, have a town where African- Americans could live without discrimination, he wanted to join that, and he did," Triplett said, adding that he also recruited other people to come to Allensworth.
Triplett never lived in Allensworth herself but its blood runs through her. And since the California State Parks system bought land within the town of Allensworth in 1974 to make the park, volunteers like her and Reliford have been working hard to share their knowledge through the Friends of Allensworth Foundation, which has chapters throughout the state.
"We're trying to get Allensworth to be more visible," Reliford said. "We want to share the history with people."
The town was founded in 1908 by Colonel Allen Allensworth, an Army chaplain, educator and orator. In 1842, Allensworth was born into slavery in Kentucky but learned to read and write by playing with the master's son. As a young man, he joined the Union Navy, which he would retire from in 1906 as the first African- American to earn the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was a firm believer in black self-reliance and wanted to start a colony where, free from slavery and oppression, a black community could thrive. With William Payne, he started Allensworth, and thrive it did, for a while.
With 300 families at one point, children soon outgrew the town's original school and a second had to be built. With stores, hotels, bountiful gardens, a bakery, a barber, a library and anything else the residents could need, Allensworth was making it.
But by 1914, the town was in decline. Its residents couldn't raise enough money to drill more wells or improve the ones they already had, so water was a problem, a recurrent theme in California's history. Many young men went away to serve in World War I, and when the Santa Fe Railroad moved a stop from Allensworth to Alpaugh that summer, much of the town's economy was lost. With the death of their founder later that year, the town struggled. Though it was never a ghost town, Triplett said, it failed to find its way. The town still exists today outside of the park, but not in the way its founder had envisioned.
Spearheaded by Cornelius Pope, a former resident of Allensworth who went on to work for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the park carries on the Allensworth legacy, spanning 240 acres of the original 800 acres of the town.
"It wasn't easy," Reliford said. Pope "had a hard time trying to convince people that Allensworth did qualify for that type of recognition."
While many former residents of Allensworth have died or moved away from the Central Valley, some were able to see the township get its historical due. Triplett and her mother would frequently drive up to the park to see the buildings or have a picnic.
"I enjoyed every trip Mother and I used to take to Allensworth," Triplett said. "It's good to know my mama was there for construction (of the state park) and joined an organization showing its history, so people can know the contributions African- Americans made to California and the United States."
Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park isn't as well known as other state parks or museums, but the Friends of Allensworth are trying to change that. And there's no better day than the Old Time Jubilee to come check it out, Reliford and Triplett said.
People should make the 45-minute drive up from Bakersfield, Reliford said, "so they can step back in time and see part of the history. It's just an empowerment, seeing what a group of people did trying to make life better for themselves."