It was one year ago this week that country music icon Merle Haggard made what would be his final public appearance in his hometown.
How fitting then that the occasion wasn’t a concert but something far more personal than even his music: his childhood, his home, his family, his Oildale.
He and his wife, sister, son and other family members — plus dozens of fans — watched as the singer’s childhood boxcar home was hoisted from its foundation, loaded on a flat bed and hauled from El Tejon Avenue to the Kern County Museum.
Later, when asked to speak, the man who wrote some of the most exquisite lyrics in the history of country music seemed at a loss for words.
He expressed the power of that day later, like he usually did, in his music: “Kern River Blues,” the last song he recorded, just two months before his April 6 death.
“Kiss the old boxcar goodbye,” the song goes — and it was goodbye, at least for Haggard.
But in many ways, the boxcar’s story is just getting started. Haggard’s sister, the museum staff and a historical architect are trying to strip away decades of modifications and wear and tear to figure out what the original Haggard home looked like.
Their task is critical, and not only for the purpose of providing visitors an authentic glimpse into Haggard’s childhood. They hope to nominate the home to the National Register of Historic Places, more for the most famous person who lived there than any particular distinction of the building itself.
“If we’re basing it on Merle Haggard as the associating person of significance, it’s a no brainer,” said Taylor Louden, the Culver City architect and preservationist overseeing the project.
“He was a towering figure in the Bakersfield Sound. But as a piece of significant craftsmanship, this doesn’t necessarily fit.”
The boxcar home, if it earns the designation, would be the first of the 57 structures at the 16-acre compound to be listed on the register, said museum curator Lori Wear, though she noted the entire museum is a point of interest on the California Register of Historical Resources.
“We’ve never nominated something to the national register,” Wear said Tuesday. “But because of its association with Merle Haggard, it would be nice to get it listed.”
Haggard’s name alone won’t do it, Louden and Wear said, so the two have started a painstaking process — they liken it to detective work, a “CSI”-type investigation — that will take some time to complete. Wear hopes the work can be finished by April 6, 2017, the anniversary of both Haggard’s birth and death.
Already working against them is the fact the boxcar is at the museum at all.
“When you move structures, they are more of a challenge for designation,” Louden said, “because they are now absent from their original context.”
But Louden and Wear aren’t too worried about it, especially considering they’ve got bigger issues to address, like figuring out how the home looked and operated between 1937 and the mid-1940s, when Haggard’s father, James, died. That’s the period they’re interested in replicating.
“The house as Merle last saw it was different from how it was in the early 1940s,” Louden noted.
Among the questions the experts have is what the original additions to the home were used for — were they bedrooms, porches, sitting areas? How were the modifications modified over the years?
They’re also trying to rehabilitate the double-hung windows, studying old photos to determine the roof’s original slope and analyzing holes drilled in the boxcar for clues on the plumbing.
As for the boxcar itself, just how old is it? Haggard said during the museum ceremony last year that he suspected it was “50 years old or better” in 1935, when James Haggard purchased the boxcar and Yosemite Drive property from Marianna Bohna for $500.
“We’ve gone through old newspapers to see if the railroad was selling off boxcars, in an auction- type situation,” said Wear, referring to how it might have come into Bohna’s possession.
“The boxcar was in the Homecrest subdivision in Oildale. The first plat map was filed in 1926.”
Providing invaluable help is Lillian Haggard Rea, who was a teenager when her baby brother was born.
“She was wonderful and she really helped with a lot of data of what was where and what was when and the general feeling of the house,” Louden said. “It was a very comfortable, hospitable home.”
But when asked for specifics, like whose bedroom was where, Haggard Rea’s recollections are fluid, reflecting the area’s housing shortage during the Great Depression.
“Her most memorable quote, basically, is she’d answer the number of bedrooms depended on the number of people who needed beds,” Louden said.
The architect is drawing up a historical assessment and continuing to interview Haggard Rea, Haggard’s nephew, Jim, and others.
When the project begins the construction phase, the roof will need to be redone, he said, and modern-day considerations like access for the disabled will be addressed.
“We will change the grade in front of the building so there’s no unsightly handrail as you enter,” said Wear, who noted the idea of a swamp cooler was dropped because the humidity could damage artifacts. Haggard Rea has volunteered to donate items to the display, as she did years ago for an exhibition on Route 66 at the Smithsonian in Washington.
Wear and Louden said they’ll contact the Smithsonian and other institutions for any information or documentation they can provide.
The Cynthia Lake Charitable Trust is funding the restoration. Louden was chosen for the project based on work he’d done to the historic Chamber of Commerce building on the museum’s property about a decade ago.
The consultant said he regrets never having met the singer.
“Thankfully they moved the structure before Merle passed,” Louden said. “He picked the site, right across from the steam engine and Santa Fe railroad caboose.”