Local Lifestyle

Monday, Apr 28 2014 01:48 PM

HERB BENHAM: New life for venerable Howell House

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

When I walk around the Kern County Museum, my howdy hand is extended in case Andy Griffith, Barney Fife, Aunt Bee and Opie materialize behind a barbershop pole spinning towards the past.

Museum foundation trustee Sheryl Barbich promised a behind-the-scenes tour, which sounded mysterious, as if it might include a seance with Colonel Baker or a return to a less complicated and more cheerful time.

Lori Wear, the museum's curator, and executive director Roger Perez gave the tour. Wear, who's been there 15 years, looks as if she could give Indiana Jones a run for his money. If she bumped into a cobra, I'd start writing the cobra's obit.

The museum, founded in 1941, opened in 1945 because of World War II. Its 16 acres are a magnet for the old, the odd and the interesting. The museum has eight houses in addition to 43 historic building, ranging from one-room school houses to a blacksmith shop.

We toured the Howell House, built in 1891 by William Howell at the northeast corner of 17th and H streets in Bakersfield, where The Californian building is located. The paper donated the house in 1968.

If you have old house fever, or have been brought to your knees owning one, you can understand the challenges the museum faces in maintaining its treasure trove of ancient houses, buildings and equipment. Things peel, rot, leak, burst, fall off and catch fire. Old houses are like boats, blistered by the sun rather than stripped by salt water.

Recently the Howell House -- thanks to The Bakersfield Californian Foundation, Michael and Stephanie Beckwith and the Barnett family -- received new redwood rain gutters and fresh paint. The project cost $62,000.

The results are stunning. If I booked a bed and breakfast and it looked like the Howell House, I'd never go to Santa Barbara again.

After Santa Barbara north, we strolled through the Batey Gardens, named for Ben and Gail Batey. "Stroll" because the grounds inspire it and that's what people did before they had electronic ants in their pants. Batey Gardens has almost the same square footage as a football field and has wedding reception written all over it.

The museum hosts nearly 150 weddings, receptions and private parties a year. Its spacious grounds are shaded by 180 maples, redwoods, palms, crape myrtles, buttonwillows, magnolias, flowering plums and cypress trees.

We ambled toward the neon sign area, worth a visit by itself, unless you have something against electronic nostalgia. Neon signs include Cay Health Foods, Jim Baker Electrifier, Tops Market, Bakersfield Inn Annex "Entrance" sign, Far East Cafe, Silver Fox, O.B. Nuzum Tire Service, Saba's and Shafter Drugs Rexall.

From the neon, we ducked into the transportation warehouse, which houses 65 vehicles, including jewels like a 1924 Dodge Bros. truck once owned by Ralph Smith Grocery, a horse-drawn gasoline delivery wagon, a stage coach and a hand-pulled fire wagon.

The tour finished with a descent into the basement, packed with opera capes, military uniforms, maps, photos, cameras, quilts, dolls, fossils, paintings and accounting ledgers. For an early bird, this would be yard sale heaven.

Highlights include a chimpanzee pelt made into a coat (ancient -- don't get excited), Col. Baker's Slotter & Co. rifle, Henry Borgwardt's gold sheriff's badge with "SHERIFF" spelled in diamonds and the Bakersfield Police Department arrest record book, 1917-1921, with arrests for breaking Prohibition and quarantine during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

If you've never been to the museum, go. If you don't shake hands with Opie, you can embrace some quirky Kern County history.

Contact Californian columnist Herb Benham at 395-7279 or hbenham@ bakersfield.com. His work appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

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