Local News

Saturday, Jul 07 2007 12:48 AM

John McNally: Cowboy rides home

BY SHELLIE BRANCO, Californian staff writere-mail: sbranco@bakersfield.com

John McNally was a star in the Kern River Valley, a big-voiced cowboy who wore many hats -- all as beaten and tough as the wilderness he lived in.

His steakhouse and lodge became a destination. As a sheriff's deputy in the isolated mountains, he sometimes resorted to keeping dead bodies in store refrigerators before shipping them to the Bakersfield coroner.

He was an alumnus of "The Jerry Springer Show" before it became raunchy (believe it or not).

Then someone gave a certain 2002 wildfire his name.

McNally's unpredictable life came to a close Friday morning in Bakersfield, according to longtime pal Harvey Malone and other friends. He was 94.

The California native lived in Fairview, 15 miles north of Kernville. That's where he founded McNally's Fairview Lodge more than 50 years ago.

He'd been suffering from respiratory problems for years, said Malone, a Kernville resident. The 81-year-old had known McNally since the 1930s.

McNally opened the restaurant in the 1950s, though the building had been around since the early 1900s. He soon turned it over to one of his daughters, Malone said.

They served the biggest steak in town. Thanks to McNally's far-flung rodeo friends, people across the country knew about the restaurant.

The family sold the restaurant to a friend in the early 1970s and the restaurant changed hands again within the past two years, Malone said.

As a Tulare County sheriff's deputy in the 1960s, McNally covered everything from Johnsondale to Highway 395, Malone said.

McNally helped build the Isabella Dam and worked at the Johnsondale lumber mill. He also owned a ranch in Lake Isabella.

For all his rambunctiousness, he was still a gentleman.

"If you were his friend, why, he'd do everything he could to help you out," Malone said.

He was a team roper on horseback and became a rodeo promoter. He built the rodeo arena in Kernville that bears his name. And he was one of the originals who participated in Whiskey Flat Days, serving as an announcer.

Malone said his friend probably didn't like having his name attached to the 2002 fire that burned 150,000 acres. The McNally fire started with an illegal campfire near his restaurant and took two months to control.

McNally understood firefighters name a blaze after its place of origin, Malone said.

Jeanette Rogers, vice president of the Kernville Chamber of Commerce, said he loved pioneer heritage.

"He could relate stories like you would not believe," she said. "He could make them come to life and they would make you laugh and cry."

As the only deputy in a 150-mile radius, he spent weeks on his own in the high country. Lost hunters or hikers who met their end in the wild were kept in local stores' refrigerators for lack of coroner's facilities, she said.

He represented and supported remnants of the Old West: the riders and ropers and cowboys.

"He's given us the opportunity to retain a way of life that would otherwise be lost to future generations without men like (him)," Rogers said.

Kernville resident Trudy Hylton worked as a waitress at the restaurant from 1968 to 1975, and her husband, Norm, a retired sergeant with the Kern County Sheriff's Department, worked with him in the 1960s.

"They used to have a family table in the kitchen where they'd gather around and they had great stories, but I was working -- I wasn't supposed to be listening," Trudy said.

Jerry Springer came into his life some 12 to 14 years ago, Malone said. The talk show host needed someone authentic for a show on old cowboys -- nothing scandalous.

Springer asked the recently remarried McNally whether he planned on having children. The 80-year-old McNally already had two daughters and a son.

"He said, 'I don't think so!'" Malone recalled. "Jerry just kinda laughed."

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