Backtracking through Bakersfield and Country Music History

Bakersfield is home to the historic Padre Hotel and the Kern County Museum – Photo by Greg Aragon / Beacon Media News

By Greg Aragon

On the way home from my recent trip to Yosemite National Park and the Evergreen Lodge , I stopped in the city of Bakersfield for some unfinished business. The last time I was there, I visited the Kern County Museum to see the railroad box car that country music legend Merle Haggard grew up in. The tiny house was in pretty run down and was in the process of getting a facelift at the time, so I vowed to return when the entire Merle Haggard exhibit was complete and open to the public.

Just as I did on my previous visit, I checked into the legendary Padre Hotel, which like Merle, has become an iconic figure in the Bakersfield region. The getaway began when I checked into a 400 square-foot Maverick suite that came with a California king signature serenity bed, lounge chair, 40 inch flat screen TV, step-in shower and large vanity and free hi-speed Internet.

Once acquainted with the room, I explored the rest of the historic hotel. Originally opened in 1928, the Padre began as tourist spot for travelers passing through Central California and as a mini-getaway for hard-working men and women toiling in nearby farms and oil fields. Today, after a massive, recent renovation, the property has become a sophisticated boutique hotel with restaurants, nightlife, wedding venues and conference facilities. The 8-story structure currently stands as Bakersfield’s only 4-Diamond Hotel. 

After touring the property, I hit the hotel’s Brimstone bar and grill for a delicious Brimstone Burger that came with crispy pork belly, fried egg, white cheddar and signature padre sauce. After lunch I drove to the Kern County Museum, where thousands of local historical and cultural artifacts and 56 historic buildings are displayed on 16 beautifully landscaped acres.  

The reason I came to the museum was to see the Merle Haggard BoxCar, a 1910 refrigerator railroad car the Haggard family purchased in 1935 for $500. In 2015, the boxcar was relocated from nearby Oildale to the museum. Merle, who wrote some of the greatest country songs of all time, such as “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee,” lived in the boxcar with his sister, mother and father.

The box car was in pretty bad shape, with rotted wood and peeled paint, when the museum got a hold of it, but now, after a complete makeover using a lot of the original wood, it is back to its 1930s shape and is open to the public for walk-in tours. The box car sits on museum property next to an old steam engine and Santa Fe caboose, a spot that Merle Haggard himself selected shortly before he died in 2016.

To honor Haggard’s local legacy, the museum hosts an annual Haggard Boxcar Music festival. Highlighting this year’s festival will be country star’s sons Ben and Noel Haggard performing some of their dad’s songs along with a few of their own.

Besides Merle’s Boxcar, the museum is packed with fascinating exhibits, such as Gold: The Oil Experience. This features giant iron pieces of actual mining equipment and buildings used in local oilfields, along with interactive displays demonstrating how oil is formed and recovered and then transformation into many products we use today. This is interesting considering Kern County provides 64 percent of California’s oil production, and oil production has been a crucial component of the local economy since 1895.

The museum also houses the Bakersfield Sound exhibit, dedicated to the music created by the likes of Haggard, Buck Owens, Bonnie Owens, Fuzzy Owen and others; along with 56 restored structures like a general store where visitors could get a 25-cent bath, a tiny courthouse sitting above a jail, an archaic dentist office, a chuck wagon and a hotel, where meals were 50 cents.

And speaking of meals, after the museum, I drove back to the Padre Hotel for a fabulous dinner at the property’s signature Belvedere Room Restaurant. Elegant and inviting, the Belvedere is a modern steakhouse based on the classics and firmly rooted in the California cooking philosophy of using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients.

For more information on staying at the Padre Hotel visit thepadrehotel.com. For more information on the Kern County Museum, visit kerncountymuseum.org.

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