Though it started out much like its most famous resident did -- riding the rails thither and yon -- the boxcar that Merle Haggard grew up in has stayed put for nearly 80 years on Yosemite Street in Oildale. But if a pair of history preservationists have their way, the boxcar will be on the move again, to what they hope will be its final destination: the Kern County Museum.
"I think we owe Merle Haggard a thank you for what he's done for our community," said Glenda Rankin, who is leading the effort to move the home. "A lot of people in Bakersfield aren't country music enthusiasts, so they might not have the same feeling about it, but I think he's put Bakersfield and Kern County on the map. When people mention Bakersfield, that's what they think of: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the Bakersfield Sound."
Rankin and her sister, Dianne Sharman, envision the Haggard home as a powerful draw for the museum, not only among Kern County residents but for country music fans the world over, many of whom already make pilgrimages to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, established in 1996 by Owens, in part to preserve and share his own impressive legacy.
In their quest to move the home, Rankin and Sharman are in the final stages of the application process to form a nonprofit organization -- Citizens Preserving History -- and have developed a plan with several key provisions already checked off, including:
The blessing of Lillian Haggard Rea, Haggard's sister and frequent proxy on matters related to their family history.
An agreement in principle with the current owner to transfer title of the home to the nonprofit.
An estimate on the cost of restoring the home and building a replacement structure for the current owner.
All they need now is a commitment that the museum will accept the building.
And that's not a given.
Though museum executive director Roger Perez calls the concept "a great idea" and is optimistic the project will move forward, the Kern County Museum Foundation, which governs the museum, has a number of concerns, primary among them that the building not sit forlorn on museum grounds, inaccessible to visitors, while Rankin raises money for its renovation.
"We have to take it into the context of the overall mission of the museum, which is preserving Kern County history, but we also have to take it from the standpoint of practicality," Perez said. "When you accept things -- even if they're totally donated -- you have to confront how to keep them, how to staff them, maintaining them in perpetuity. How it fits into the grounds. You have to look at the cost and benefit of it.
"When you add something like this, you're adding more in operations. You're expanding your museum. You add to that the fact that many of the buildings we have now are in disrepair, and we have to get those up to snuff now for the visitors."
Rankin and Sharman, who mounted a successful effort in 2008 to move their mother's historic home -- the Lopez-Hill house -- to the museum, began the Haggard effort about five years ago on the recommendation of their friend Dale Houston. They'll find out Monday at a meeting of the foundation's board whether they can move forward with their plan.
Rankin is hoping there are more like her and her sister in the community who want to see the Haggard house restored and put on public display -- and that they'll contribute money to the effort.
"We'd like to celebrate Merle's 77th birthday on April 6 by doing this project," Rankin said. "We can't wait to do this project if we want Merle and Lillian to be there to enjoy it."
Growing up in Oildale
Being the sister of Merle Haggard, Lillian Haggard Rea -- vivacious and stunning at 92 years old -- is asked a lot whether she likes her brother's music.
"I say, 'Sure I do.' But I don't like to listen to it because there's a line in every song that I know where that story comes from. And it makes me cry."
Rea of course is not alone in her admiration of Haggard's artistry, his unique and celebrated ability to convey with poetic grace the life he's lived.
That life started in 1937 in Oildale, in a boxcar that was lovingly transformed into a home by Haggard's father, Jim, a hardworking Oklahoma transplant who settled his family here for good in 1935, the same year he bought and converted the boxcar.
"All of us loved the boxcar house," Rea recalled. "We never said, 'Oh, we live in a boxcar.' We had an apricot tree in the yard that ripened around the Fourth of July every year. And our mother had these beautiful roses. Mother could heat the whole house by turning on one burner on her gas jet."
The entire Haggard family -- Jim and Flossie and their children, Lillian, Lowell and Merle -- lived in the 629-square-foot home, which could accommodate three bedrooms after Jim's additions.
The boxcar was the only childhood home Haggard ever knew, and though it couldn't always confine his restless spirit or penchant for mischief, he invariably returned to the home and the embrace of his family. It was while he lived there on Yosemite Street that perhaps the most traumatic -- certainly the most formative -- event of his life occurred: the death of his father when Haggard was 9.
The Haggards held on to the home, and Flossie made improvements over the years, like having the exterior stuccoed. She eventually built a second house that still sits in front of the boxcar home.
Rea sold the property to some cousins in the 1980s after her mother's death and eventually it was sold to Marie Himes, the current owner.
As for whether the home should wind up at the museum, Rea is ambivalent, and she hasn't talked to her brother about the matter at all. He usually defers to her judgment on these things anyway, she said.
But she would like to see it restored to the "immaculate" and inviting home she remembers from her childhood.
"It's not my history. It's Merle's history we're dealing with."
Getting on the same page
Though several foundation members expressed interest in the project at the last two board meetings, the sticking point between the museum and Citizens Preserving History comes down to logistics and money: Perez said the board wants the home renovated before it is moved -- or the full cost of the restoration in the bank -- but Rankin's plan is predicated on the improvements occurring at the museum, and soon.
"I think it's unreasonable to move it already restored," Rankin said after the board meeting in September. "We can't go into the location in Oildale and spend the time to renovate. (The current residents) want their home."
The projected cost of the entire plan -- moving and restoring the home and building a replacement dwelling -- is $102,000, said Rankin, who intends to raise the full amount. Roughly $52,000 of that would go to the move and renovation, while the remainder would be used to build the new home, which Rankin's contractor told her would take under two months.
"We can't ask them to be out of the home that much longer," Rankin said. (Repeated calls to the home's owner were not answered.)
The alternative to restoring the house before it is moved is securing the entire cost of the project, and there's the rub, Rankin said: How can her group raise money unless there's an iron-clad commitment from the museum to take the home?
A subcommittee working on the issue intends to present to the board at Monday's meeting a recommendation on conditions that must be met before the museum would accept the structure.
"It will be put in a motion to give the Rankins a letter that we will accept the house as long as you meet these conditions," Perez said. "They can use the letter to fundraise."
Perez referred questions about the subcommittee's recommendations to attorney Joe Hughes, the foundation board member who is drafting the letter. But Hughes declined to divulge the list of conditions, saying the draft is "a work in progress."
Rankin, who has met with Perez and Hughes, said the stipulations include:
A pest control report; assurance from the group that the museum bears no financial responsibility; transfer of title to the structure; that the group will place the boxcar on a solid foundation at the museum; liability insurance; and an independent estimate for the restoration.
Ultimately, Rankin said she's sensing from the board a desire to delay the project, which may block it altogether.
"I think they want it, but they don't think the timing is right," she said. "We think it will enhance the museum. People come from all over the world to the Crystal Palace to see Buck Owens' history, and they're going to go to the museum to see Merle Haggard's history if it's there."