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Walk into Kern's past with Stories on the Sidewalk

As a journalist, telling someone's story is a literal daily task. But delving into the rich history of Kern County and the storied people who made it special is another task altogether.

That's what's so great about Stories on the Sidewalk, the upcoming educational walking tour through downtown Bakersfield. The brainchild of Beth Pandol and Tracy Walker-Kiser, this project brought to the sidewalks by the Arts Council of Kern will take guests on a trip through time as historical figures come to life.

Downtown Bakersfield is no stranger to historical walking tours, thanks to Bakersfield High School archiving teacher and Kern County Historical Society president Ken Hooper. So it's no surprise Hooper helped suggest the local figures to be featured. 

"We had quite a list of possibilities for characters," Pandol wrote in an email. "There are so many interesting people from Bakersfield's past."

The final 12 (including one couple, William and Amanda Pinkney) is a mix of civic leaders, notorious characters and some not-so-well-known but who were famous in their times. (For a full list, see box.)

Attendees will meet outside the Mission Bank Building, which houses the ACK office, for a 90-minute walking tour with five-minute scenes at each stop.

As David Gordon, ACK executive director, told contributing columnist Anna Smith, it's a "historical tour on steroids.”

A cabal of local writers (myself included) were all tasked with bringing a historical figure to life in front of an ever-changing audience. Of course, actors will also play a key role in this presentation but we'll get to them in a bit.

Depending on the person, there were varying levels of information to mine for material. 

Runa Lemminn, the arts council's media and outreach specialist, said when researching Alfred Harrell she tapped the Kern County Library's historical database, which had articles both about him and written by him (as editor and publisher of The Bakersfield Californian).

Lemminn learned Harrell came to Bakersfield as a teacher and was "by all accounts a good one."

"I was very surprised in my research to learn about how involved Harrell was in the development of infrastructure in this area, such as water and mining," she wrote in an email. "He was apparently quite the expert on water rights, not only in this area of Kern County, but California."

Charlie Ping was a different matter for this writer. The highbinger, aka gangster, was an enforcer for the Bing Kong tong (street gang) in Bakersfield's New Chinatown. 

William Harland Boyd's "The Chinese of Kern County, 1857-1960" was an invaluable starting point. Newspaper archives, again accessed through the local library, also aided the research, which ended up yielding a lot of material on Ping's highly publicized trial in which he was accused of murdering a rival gang member at a fan-tun gambling hall.

Actors also put in the extra effort. Laura Cruz, who plays Merle Haggard's mother, Flossie, started with her script and built her performance from there.

"I learned everything I could about the Haggards," the Cal State history and theater major wrote in an email. "I never knew someone could make a loving home out of a boxcar but that is exactly what Flossie did."

She also listened to the interviews Cal State Bakersfield Library Dean Curt Asher conducted with Flossie's daughter, Lillian Haggard Rey.

"That was very helpful in building a character for the script."

With the aid of a vocal coach on campus and friend who's from Oklahoma, Cruz was able to work out the accent for the Dust Bowl migrant.

Pandol said she learned a lot helping develop the project and she expects attendees will as well.

"I hope people take away a deeper sense of local history, an appreciation for those who had an impact on Kern County and an interest in learning more."

But rest assured, with an outlaw, madam, gangster and some pioneers, this will be a fun afternoon.

"People should know that this is a dramatic, artistic portrayal of these characters so it's going to be entertaining. This is not going to be a dry lecture."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.