With their childhood home sitting on a flatbed nearby, Merle Haggard and his sister carefully climbed up on the raised foundation near the train tracks at the Kern County Museum and searched for a private moment together as dozens of observers, fanning themselves in the brutal heat, kept a respectful distance.
“This is a blessing to our parents because they’re not here to do it,” Lillian Haggard Rea, 94, told her brother.
“I never saw that window before,” Haggard remarked, pointing to the front of the boxcar his mother and father converted into the family home in 1935, two years before the singer was born.
It was a day of joy, reflection — and, at times, melancholy — for Haggard and his sister, the emotion plain on their faces and in their voices as they struggled to put into words what the humble boxcar still means to them. Inside its walls, scarred from years of neglect, the family knew security, laughter and music. It was the only home where the five Haggard family members lived together, before the death of patriarch James Haggard when Merle, his youngest, was just 9.
“Father and mother would certainly be surprised to see what happened to the old boxcar,” Haggard told the crowd at the museum ceremony Wednesday. “The boxcar was inspiration for more than one song.”
Haggard Rea followed her younger brother to the microphone:
“OK, settle down. You’re about to hear the truth. That is that we’re both speechless, and that’s saying something for a Haggard. It’s an extraordinary day.”
Haggard Rea, 14 at the time, recalled “my dad with his hammer, crowbar and saw and mother with her tape measure” starting work on the refrigerated boxcar they bought from Marianna Bohna — of the pioneering Bakersfield family — in 1935.
“I remember my mother cooking for 22 people for Thanksgiving. The table sat six, so they ate in sixes and the men under a shade tree.”
Both Haggard and his sister are more interested in knowing the origins of the boxcar before James laid eyes on it in a then-vacant field on Yosemite Drive in Oildale, yards from the railroad tracks.
“I wonder when the boxcar was built,” Haggard said. “It ran on the railroad for 50 years or better. It was probably built in the 19th century. No telling how old it was.”
But it’s the Haggard history that fascinates fans, hundreds of whom donated money to move the boxcar to the Kern County Museum, where it will be restored to the cheerful, spotless home it was under the care of Haggard’s mother, Flossie.
The sisters who launched the campaign raised money for two years, coming in just shy of the $150,000 they projected they’d need to move and restore the boxcar and build a replacement dwelling for the home’s most recent tenant. Just hours before the move, the project was nearly derailed Tuesday when the organizers learned an asbestos inspection was necessary.
“It was one of the hardest things in my life to go through,” said Glenda Rankin, her voice hoarse with emotion. “But we got the word at 6 o’clock yesterday that it’s asbestos-free and we’re here, and that’s all that matters.”
Earlier Wednesday, outside the cramped Oildale lot where the home stood for 80 years, the effort was underway to hoist the 41-foot boxcar onto a flatbed truck as Haggard and his sister watched from inside the singer’s new tour bus.
“Can you imagine what he’s thinking, the memories he’s having,” said Oildale resident Billy Anderson, 53, one of about two dozen neighbors who congregated along El Tejon Avenue to watch.
“I’m surprised this thing ain’t jam-packed.”
Neighbor Justine Shrader, 28, said the noise got her out of bed at 5 a.m. She and her son staked out a premium spot in a nearby driveway, where they stood for hours. As for Oildale losing its most famous landmark, Shrader wasn’t concerned.
“It’s better at the museum than sitting in this crappy alley.”
Shelley Peck walked over from Norris Road when she saw a report about the boxcar on the morning news despite the forecast that Wednesday would be one of the hottest days of the summer; it was already 85 degrees before 9.
“I feel like we’re under a microscope, it’s so damned hot,” said Peck, who was determined to stay, hoping for a glimpse of the singer.
But Haggard did not emerge from the privacy of his bus, the memories overwhelming him, according to his sister.
“We looked at each other and couldn’t say a word. That boxcar represents so much happiness.”
Ben Haggard, the singer’s youngest son, ventured outside briefly to get a better look.
“Is it an emotional day? In the sense that it’s an emotional day for my dad,” said Haggard, 22. “It hits a sensitive note.”
Haggard’s wife, Theresa, walked over to the yard after the boxcar had been loaded and saw, next to a decidedly dead cat, a green souvenir to take with her to the family’s home near Redding.
“I thought it was a black walnut root,” she said later at the museum. “I’ll try to grow it at the house. I wanted a rose.”
A little after 9:30 a.m., the boxcar secured to the flatbed and Haggard’s bus behind, the convoy headed over to Sequoia Drive, right on Norris and then over to North Chester, where it headed south to the museum.
The half-dozen or so regulars at the Long Branch Saloon (“home of Kern County’s longest bar”) were waiting inside for the bus to roll by.
“I used to see Merle around,” said Leroy Brown, nursing a Bud Light.
As the bus approached, a shirtless bike rider rode alongside, shouting like an Oildale town crier, “That’s Merle Haggard on the bus!”
At the museum, wearing the boxcar’s original key on a chain around her neck, family historian Haggard Rea had the last word after coaxing from her brother to “tell them about the letter.”
“Our parents were very much in love and let everybody know it. Dad died of a stroke and left mother a heavy load, as the music says.
“In going through mother’s things last night, I found a letter I never saw written to my dad after he died. Mother had never stayed alone at night by herself until he died. She was so afraid.
“The night before, she dreamed — this is so personal — and my father came to her and held her in his arms ... and told her that she should never, ever be afraid.
“We thank you for this memorial to them, to our parents. It’s their love that created this whole experience.”