They’ll have to hustle to make it, but brothers Noel and Ben Haggard are hot-footing it from a concert in Oklahoma City on April 8 to Bakersfield the next day for a reason that’s pretty hard to argue with: Their dad.
After years of planning, fundraising, moving and restoring, Merle Haggard’s boyhood home will be ready for its first public tours that day, and Kern Pioneer Village — where the converted boxcar is located — is planning a daylong celebration to honor the Haggard family.
There will be food, Bakersfield Sound memorabilia on display and music, which is where the Haggard brothers come in. They will be playing with the Strangers, their dad’s legendary band, and Johnny Owens — son of that other Bakersfield country music legend — will perform with his band, Buck Fever. Also scheduled are James Carothers, Tommy Hays, Amber Appleton, John Pemberton, the Bear Mountain Boys and others.
“I think we’re going to get good attendance on this,” said Beth Pandol, vice chairwoman of the foundation board that operates the county-owned museum.
She noted the museum is advertising beyond the Bakersfield market, with the help of a tourism grant from the Kern County Board of Trade.
“We did press releases in Nashville and radio out of the market and targeted social media to places that might have country music and Merle Haggard fans.”
Museum staff will lead visitors through the tiny home whose center is a Santa Fe refrigerated box car that Haggard’s father, James, bought in the mid-1930s. He built a couple of additions to accommodate the five members of the family — wife Flossie and their children Lillian, Lowell and Merle — as well as other visitors to the home, which until the summer of 2015 was on Yosemite Drive in Oildale.
A yearslong campaign to move the structure and restore it after years of neglect culminated in its conveyance on a flatbed up Chester Avenue to the museum, with Haggard and his family in tow aboard their tour bus.
The emotional journey would be Haggard’s last public look at the home where he spent his restive childhood. On April 6 of last year — Haggard’s 79th birthday — the singer died on his tour bus outside his home in Northern California.
“You know, what a darn shame,” Pandol said. “I wish he were here. It would have been wonderful to see his reaction to the final product, to see the home completed. But, you know, God had other plans.”
However, the family historian will be there. Lillian Haggard Rea, Merle’s older sister, is the authority on all things Haggard and as such, has been an invaluable resource to Los Angeles-based historical architect George Taylor Louden.
“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 told The Californian. “It was a very comfortable, hospitable home.”
The project is being funded almost entirely by Cynthia Lake, through her foundation, the Cynthia Lake Charitable Trust.
“I promised Lillian I would finish this project and I’ve been very true to that,” Lake told The Californian recently. “I'm finishing it in a way that leaves a legacy for Merle Haggard, Lillian, Lowell, James and Flossie, individuals who were there.”
While at the museum, visitors who haven’t been there in awhile will notice several new features, including the eye-popping Aera Energy Gallery orientation center inside the historic Chamber of Commerce Building. Contained in the gallery are pods that tell the story of Kern County, from migration to country music.
Also new is the Bakersfield Californian Foundation Research Center and Historic Archive, a new building on the sprawling 16-acre campus of old structures that will house the museum's entire collection of photos and documents. The public may inspect the archives by appointment.
New to the grounds as well is the Bakersfield High School water tower.
But it’s hard to beat the Haggard house for potential drawing power, Pandol said.
“There will always be people who want to come see this and I hope it multiplies into some other things around music, storytelling, things for kids, history. Because you have the draw of Merle Haggard and his broad appeal and his celebrity and hten all the things that can be incorporated in that, with him. I hope we can program more things with respect to the house.”