Fifty-three years ago, the family of the late Harry West donated 16 horse-drawn vehicles to the Kern County Museum.
Most of them have been hidden from public view ever since.
It's been a half-century in the making, but on Thursday evening, 100 invited guests enjoyed a preview of West's stage coaches, wagons and carts, along with a number of early automobiles and related artifacts, at the museum's newest and one of its largest exhibits.
The Kern County Museum’s long-awaited Ray A. Watson Transportation Exhibit, a 12,000-square-foot collection of 40 horse-drawn carriages, stage coaches, wagons and antique automobiles was on display at what was dubbed a VIP Grand Opening. But the exhibit, affectionately known as Ray's Wheel House, will open to the public on Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day.
"This is astounding," said George Beall, who was there Thursday with his wife, Joanne, who had some pretty astonishing things to say about the city that houses the new exhibit.
"We just moved to Bakersfield after living 50 years in Glendale," she said. "We think it's fabulous."
According to the museum's quarterly newsletter, the Kern Courier, local architect Steve Kieke and designer Gary Prendez used a "staggered" vehicle layout to promote easy viewing and visual access.
"We wanted to avoid the parking garage look," Kieke was quoted as saying.
And they did avoid it. Instead, antique street signs showing the "corners" of Truxtun Avenue and S Street, Woody Granit and Bakersfield Glenn roads, and other transportation intersections in the county, stand near an intriguing mix of stage coaches, wagons and horseless carriages, including a 1917 Kissel military truck, a beautiful, bright-red tourist automobile reputed to be the first car in Kern County, and a Concord stage coach made in the late 1800s to carry passengers and mail.
During a presentation held outside the exhibit space in the Neon Plaza, adjacent to the historic Sonora Filling Station and the Trolley Car Station, museum board member Sheryl Barbich spoke about the positive changes the museum has seen, in large part due to the many sponsors and donors, including Watson, who have fueled many of the improvements.
"That's why we have named this new exhibit the Ray Watson Transportation Exhibit," Barbich told the crowd.
Mike McCoy, the museum's executive director, also was lauded, as was Barbich, for providing the energy, ideas and passion necessary to help the museum reach its potential.
Watson, a former Kern County Supervisor, provided a starter grant. That grant, combined with another from the Virginia and Alfred Harrell Foundation and others, allowed the museum to move forward in 2016 with extensive work on the exhibition hall, including a fire suppression system, air conditioning and heating, new exit doors and a video surveillance system.
Inside, visitors marveled at the street sprinkler wagon, circa 1900, that was used to wet down the dust churned up by horses on the city's dirt streets. They oohed and aahed at the Red Crown gasoline wagon, The Rain for Rent Dragster that set a top speed of 230 mph in 1968, and the 1913 Ford Model T "Speedster," which, by today's standards was probably not all that speedy.
"This is so cool," said Gene Tackett, who along with his sweetheart, Barbara Patrick, sponsored a Calistoga-style wagon in the exhibition.
"This exhibit is a great thing for Ray Watson," Tackett said.
It's a great way to honor him.