Wednesday, Feb 26 2014 03:51 PM

Merle’s house of memories: Wanna help move it?

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    By courtesy of the Kern County Museum

    A night of Bakersfield Sound magic at the Rainbow Gardens. The building is now home to the Basque Club on South Union.

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BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

Glenda Rankin knows just the spot at the Kern County Museum where Merle Haggard's boyhood home should go:

"By the Santa Fe caboose and the locomotive for the Southern Pacific, on the south side of the museum, next to the Bena train station. As we were looking at it, a train went by on the tracks. It tells the whole story."

Related Info

Fundraiser to move Merle Haggard's home

What: A nostalgic dinner/dance featuring music by the Wild Blue Rose Band

When: 6 to 11 p.m. March 7

Where: Kern County Basque Club, 2301 S. Union Ave.

Admission: $40, which includes dinner

Information: 867-2511; citizenspreservinghistory.com

To donate: Mail checks to Citizens Preserving History, P.O. Box 36, Caliente, CA 93518

THE PROJECT TO DATE

Glenda Rankin and Dianne Sharman, the sisters behind the effort to move Merle Haggard's boyhood home to the Kern County Museum, estimate they'll need to raise $120,000 to fund the entire project, which entails moving the structure, restoring it and building a new house for the current residents. Among a list of stipulations laid out when the museum foundation board voted to accept the house in October is the requirement that $50,000 be secured for restoration before the house is moved, though the sisters are hoping the board will make allowances for donated materials and labor toward that sum.

Rankin and Sharman say they've received about $5,000 in donations so far. Beyond the dance March 7, they hope to raise money by selling raffle tickets for a trio of guitars autographed by Haggard. Rankin also is selling opportunity drawing tickets for stays at her family's Caliente ranch.

Though she admits to some cart-before-the-horse thinking -- she hasn't discussed the location with museum officials and there's the matter of funds -- the train theme makes sense. A boxcar is the literal heart of the home, a textbook example of an extreme makeover at the hands of Merle's father, James Haggard, who converted the car and added living space to it.

But the rail motif also makes sense in a Merle-Haggard-mythology way: Trains provided a means of escape during his restless boyhood and an inexhaustible source of inspiration later, on his way to becoming one of the most respected songwriters in American music.

Now that the house's final destination has -- unofficially -- been chosen, the real work starts of moving the 1935 structure from Yosemite Drive in Oildale to the museum. The foundation that runs the Chester Avenue headquarters of local history agreed to accept the house in October under several conditions, the most pressing of which is the money: $50,000 must be in the bank before the project gets rolling.

And that brings Rankin and Dianne Sharman, her sister and house-moving co-conspirator, to the first of what they anticipate will be several fundraisers: a night of dinner, dancing and music March 7 at the Kern County Basque Club.

The South Union venue is the former home of the Rainbow Gardens, one of the legendary night spots where the Bakersfield Sound was born. The sisters are hoping to re-create a little magic in Haggard's rough-and-tumble old stomping grounds, "minus the fistfights," said Sharman with a laugh.

The evening promises to reflect the man of the hour in every way: The Wild Blue Rose Band will perform country hits, including Haggard's, naturally, and the decor will be "just like it was in the '50s and '60s," with posters advertising dances and flags streaming from the ceiling.

The menu particularly is inspired: rainbow stew, a nod to the 1981 Haggard hit of the same name. The singer once described the dish, Rankin said, "as anything you have in your kitchen," though Hodel's, the caterer, is expected to have a more definite list of ingredients. The meal includes salad, rolls, cornbread and a selection of desserts to choose from. Even the table centerpieces are themed around the song's lyrics: Bottles of Bubble Up, donated by the retro-ish Big Popy's Deli. (We'll all be drinkin' that free Bubble Up and eatin' that rainbow stew ... )

Despite their efforts on his behalf, the sisters have yet to meet the man they're trying so hard to honor. They'll get their chance March 6, at Haggard's concert in Hanford (he'll be at the Bakersfield Fox Theater on March 8). The singer, through his representatives, has agreed to sign some guitars for a raffle the sisters are organizing.

They hope finally to hear directly from the source what Haggard thinks of the house-moving plan, though his sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, has reported he's in favor of it.

"Lillian is getting excited," Rankin said. "She told us that this means the world to her and Merle and that she's honored."

Casual fans until now, the sisters have steeped themselves in all things Haggard, reading his autobiographies and anything else they can get their hands on to better understand the man and to pitch their project knowledgeably to potential donors, some of whom are put off by Haggard's wild past.

"If they give us time to tell them our story, we've converted a few people," Rankin said.

Sharman has a Haggard quote at the ready for any skeptics who care to engage her:

"'I'm living proof that things go wrong in America and can go right.'" Merle's house of memories: Wanna help move it?

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