The role Trout's Nightclub played in Bakersfield's honky-tonk culture may be fodder for debates across bars and dinner tables for years to come.
But the recent sale of Trout's to Kern Medical Properties LLC leaves no room for ambiguity about the future of the the iconic Oildale saloon: It truly signals last call for Trout's, which for decades was a champion of the twangy, Fender Telecaster-powered country music that was named for the city of its birth: the Bakersfield Sound.
The now-famous Trout's fish sign, believed to be in the possession of former owner Thomas Rockwell, has not been seen since Rockwell posted a Facebook message May 20 of last year announcing that the sign had been taken down for restoration.
The old sign may be gone, but not every sliver of Trout's memorabilia has been lost.
"We are so excited to be able to preserve a small part of this historic nightclub," said Di Sharman, vice president of the nonprofit Citizens Preserving History. "Of course we wish we could have saved the whole thing."
A small group of locals dedicated to preserving the history of country music in Bakersfield has worked out an agreement with the new owners of the building to take possession of the modest bench that stood outside the North Chester Avenue tavern for decades.
"Today there is no Trout's," Sharman said. "But there is a Trout's bench."
After speaking with Ganesh Acharya, one of the partners of Kern Medical Properties, the partners agreed to donate the "Trout's Bench" to the nonprofit.
"We were thrilled to accept this donation on behalf of all the country music fans of Oildale and Bakersfield," the nonprofit said in letter to The Californian.
Sharman and her sister, Glenda Rankin, the president of Citizens Preserving History, will accept the donation at 10 a.m. Friday in front of the now-defunct nightclub. Local country music fans, former Trout's patrons, and members of the public are encouraged to attend.
The sisters helped spearhead the effort to move Merle Haggard's childhood boxcar home from Oildale to the Kern County Museum.
The idea to "Save the Bench" came from Anna Reading-Carey, whose father, Lloyd Reading, was a cowboy singer in the early days of country and western music in Bakersfield.
"I drive by Trout's frequently and every time I do I can see my dad, wearing his Stetson, sitting on that old bench," she said. "That bench is really the only thing we have left from Trout's."
Sharman and Reading-Carey agree that retrieving the iconic Trout's sign would be ideal. But neither believes the fish will be returned to Bakersfield anytime soon. Although Sharman holds out hope that Rockwell will have a change of heart.
"This is just the beginning of the rebirth of the Bakersfield Sound," she said. "I feel that some day Rockwell's heart is going to be touched and he will return the sign."
Reading-Carey just laughs.
"It's not coming back, not unless someone gets it away from Rockwell," she said. "I doubt he will ever relinquish it."
And the bench? Where will it end up?
"We will give some serious thought about where the best place is to place the bench," Sharman said, "where people can sit on the bench and think about where it came from."
At the 50th anniversary of Trout's in 2007, former Trout's owner Vern Hoover argued that Bakersfield's country music heritage is worth preserving. But it ain't easy.
"Somebody has to keep it going. Country's our heritage, for chris-sakes," Hoover said. "It's been slowly but surely dying out."