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Saturday, Apr 07 2012 10:00 PM

The census of 1940: it was a different Kern County

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    An apparently quiet day on Baker Street in east Bakersfield in 1940.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

If you could dial a time machine back to 1940, you wouldn't recognize much of Kern County.

The county was 95.7 percent white. Now? Less than 40% white.

Related Info

Research resources

The National Archives and Records Administration has posted 1940 census data online at: http://1940census.archives.gov/

The Kern County Genealogical Society provides volunteers to staff the Genealogy Room in the Beale Memorial Library, 701 Truxtun Ave. in downtown Bakersfield. The group has a website: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cakcgs/

News from the previous year recapped on New Year's Day, 1940

On Jan. 1, 1940, The Californian published a page of photos recapping significant moments on 1939. Highlights:

* "The beautiful statue of Father Garces was dedicated May 7 with fitting ceremonies lead by Dr. Herbert Bolton."

* With John Kovacevich of Arvin cleaning up the trophy plate, boat races were held on Buena Vista lake for the first time in the history of the county on May 14.

* An air show which drew a record crowd helped dedicate the expansion of Kern County Airport. The date, May 7.

* One of The Californian's press cars made the first trip over the Oak Street overpass, Sept. 8.

* Prince Frederick and Princess Ingrid of Denmark visited Bakersfield and won "many friends with their charming manner," April 12.

* A plane crash at Lamont Aug. 8 injured the pilot and two passengers.

* Glider pilots of the west gathered at Arvin April 8 and 9 to take part in the second annual meeting of the Soaring Association of America.

* Cars "were strewn like blocks in a wreck on the railroad line near Caliente," March 20.

Blacks were a tiny minority (2.8 percent of the population), even smaller than now (5.8 percent).

Latinos? There was no data on Latinos in the 1940 census, which didn't add a question about Hispanic origin until the 1970s.

And only 6.4 percent of the county was foreign-born in 1940, compared to 20.5 percent now.

All this and more was revealed last week when the Census Bureau released the entire 1940 census, every last detail of it.

Most of the records were made available Monday, causing so many people to visit the National Archives website that it crashed briefly.

The detailed data on individual survey responses -- as opposed to the general data that has been available for years -- are released after 72 years to protect the privacy of survey respondents.

Of course, many of those who answered questions in the 1940 census are still alive and well. Perhaps the 72-year embargo on information stemmed from the fact that the average life expectancy at that time was 62.9 years, compared with 78.1 in 2008, according to the latest data available from the National Center for Health Statistics.

So far, however, few 1940 census participants seem to mind. (The Census Bureau estimates there are about 21.2 million of them alive today.)

Marie Myers, 93, of southwest Bakersfield, is one of them. She didn't move to town until 1948, though, so you'd have to look at Texas records to find out anything about her family.

She doesn't feel in the least bit violated by researchers and the merely curious gawking at the records.

"I didn't realize they were sealed in the first place," Myers said, giggling. "I figured you could always get them."

She can't think of any reason she'd want to go back and look at her census responses, but figures the data could be useful to historians and genealogists such as a cousin of hers who's tracing her paternal family line.'

"I think it would be nice for that," Myers said.

In 1940, only 4.3 percent of men in Kern County and 4.6 percent of women had completed high school, and just 1.5 percent of men and 1.2 percent of women were college grads.

Almost three-quarters of women didn't work because they were "engaged in own home housework."

The county's population -- 839,631 in 2010. -- was a mere 135,124 then. That's a growth rate from then to now of 521 percent.

The 1940 census, of course, came at what turned out to be a crucial juncture in U.S. history.

World War II hadn't yet begun here. The war set in motion huge population shifts that defined California for decades thereafter.

That's of interest to the preeminent World War II researcher in Bakersfield, Ken Hooper, president of the Kern County Historical Society and a history teacher at Bakersfield High School.

Researchers have been awaiting the records with great anticipation, he said.

His students are planning to use the records to complete the Wall of Valor, a tribute to local residents who have given their lives for their country. The veterans memorial at Truxtun Avenue and S Street consists of eight large glass panels etched with names.

"In some cases we have the name but not the home town, so now we can find out where they lived," Hooper said.

Family history sleuths will have to wait a little while to look up their ancestors if they don't know precisely where they lived, warned Judy Knox of the Kern County Genealogical Society.

For the moment, the records are not indexed by name. What you pull up are snapshots of geographic areas drilled down to the level of individual streets.

That drove genealogists nuts when the 1930 Census records were released, so this time around a small army of volunteers has mobilized to type the records into a database that will be indexed and searchable by name.

There are 132 million names and corresponding data to be added manually and double checked for accuracy, so it's going to be a long process, Knox said.

Several privately owned genealogical websites are planning to post the indexed database online. Some will charge to search it. Others are offering access to it for free.

But even the free data National Archives offers now are rich in information.

The 1940 census was the first one since the federal government began offering Social Security benefits, for instance, so there are questions pertaining to that.

And there are questions not only about where respondents lived in 1940, but where they lived in 1935, making it sort of a double survey.

"This was after the Great Depression when people had moved frequently to find work, so the government was very interested in knowing not only where you were but where you had come from, and what your primary occupation was," Knox said.

Hooper is looking foward to a clearer picture of what local life was like before World War II.

"The war completely changed the face of the county," he said.

There is accurate, detailed information on Japanese Americans prior to internment, for instance.

And there's information on what downtown Bakersfield looked like before a 1952 earthquake leveled the city's core.

"Before the earthquake there were a lot of apartments downtown," Hooper said. "It was much more dense, and there were a lot more outdoor activities. Remember, this was pre-air conditioning."

The region also was much more rural. Back in 1940, the city of Bakersfield consisted mainly of Westchester, Oleander and East Bakersfield. Everything west of Oak Street was farmland.

The census data also should show that by 1940, the squalid conditions John Steinbeck shone a spotlight on in his classic novel "Grapes of Wrath" had "ceased to exist," Hooper said. The Kern County Board of Supervisors was so anxious to make that point that it put out a position paper in 1939 to clear up misconceptions, he said, adding that now, you'll be able to see for yourself.

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