Ken Barnes

Ken Barnes, left, and Leroy Fontana after a very successful duck hunt in the Tulare Lake Basin during the 1970s.

I was living on the east side of town back in 1959 when I happened to go outside my home early one morning and met my Wayne's Dairy milk delivery man.

We talked for a couple of minutes, and suddenly one word was spoken that tied us together as close friends for almost 40 years. The word was "hunting."

The milk-man was Leroy Fontana. It seems we were both waterfowlers, and Leroy told me about the times during the 1940s when he would hunt on the old Buena Vista lake before it disappeared when Isabella Dam was established.

From that day forward, we spent countless hours chasing ducks, geese, quail, doves, and pheasants all over this end of the valley. He was renown for using a 10 gauge side-by-side shotgun when hunting geese. And he was an excellent field shooter.

Leroy's mother, Eda, first started making and selling pies out of their home in East Bakersfield in the 1930s. They then purchased what is now the Woolgrowers building on East 19th street, and lived there while selling pies at the same time.

According to Leroy's son, Denny, "I think they moved to the location on Niles Street in the 1950s, and my dad quit Wayne's and joined the shop in the 60s. My mom, Marie, was also very active in the day to day pie making."

If you wanted a fresh pie, Fontana's was the place to go. They were delivered daily to markets and grocery stores all over the county. Top of the list were the fruit pies, along with the pumpkin and pecan.

Denny stated, "During the three or four days before Thanksgiving the shop would run all night trying to make the thousands of pies that were sold during that time frame. Lines of people would stretch out to the street waiting to get their choice. When I was working there, I would make more money in four days than I would in a month. Just a crazy time."

Like many of his other friends, I could not stop by and visit Leroy at work without being "forced" to take a pie home. Leroy and Marie retired from the business in the 1970s and turned it over to Denny. Sad to say, this was the start of a long downhill slide.

Most major markets were beginning to put their own bakeries in locations, and making their own pies. And, Marie Callender's became a real sore spot. Denny managed to keep the business going until 1999, but then closed its doors.

This was also the same year Leroy passed away.

"I really had a great love for my dad” Denny said. “ He was a real 'man's man.' Very kind and down to earth."

I told him I felt the same way about him and our relationship over the years. Happy to say Marie Fontana is in good health and being cared

for at a private home facility.

One last note. Leroy was also a terrific trout fisherman. This was a trait he had learned from his father when he was young, and the best example of that is a story he told me many, many years ago.

He said he went up into Kern Canyon to fish at Camp Richbar. As he approached the river, there were two other fisherman already there. He asked if he might join them, and they replied sure, but don't expect much because it is really slow today.

Leroy got right between them, put a cricket on, and cast out in front of the man on his right. His line drifted downstream and....bam, a fish on. He reeled it in, put another cricket on, and cast again to the same spot. Pow...another fish on.

He said he could see the guy on his right just shaking his head as he cast for a third time. Sure enough, a third strike. As he put the fish in his creel, the man cried out, "Jesus Christ. The only guy I ever heard about that could catch fish like that was the old piemaker, Caeser Fontana."

Leroy cast out again and replied, "Yep. . .that was my dad!"

Leroy, you are, and always will be remembered.

(1) comment

ears54

As a kid growing up in the 60's store bought pie was a treat. I'd give just about anything for a Fontana pie today. No one, and I mean no one, makes pies like that today.

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