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Sunday, Apr 21 2013 11:00 PM

GERALD HASLAM: Historian preferred roughnecks' tales to bankers'

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    Gerald Haslam

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    Frank Latta, left, was director of the Kern County Museum from July 1949 until June 1955. Here, he examines photographs with Joseph Henley of Dorman’s Photo Shop, circa 1950. (Photo courtesy of Kern County Museum.)

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As a grade school student in Oildale, I was trooped with my class to the Kern County Museum where we watched Yokuts women smash acorns, leach the resulting mush, then cook some into small cakes (that tasted like unflavored oatmeal to me). We also were told about their native language, and were shown a large collection of artifacts. As a result, Indians became human, not mythological, in our eyes.

Presiding over that introduction to local native culture was a gaunt man named Frank Forrest Latta, who had been trained as a teacher, and who was then director of the Kern County Museum from 1949 until 1955. Born in 1892 near the mouth of Orestimba Creek in Stanislaus County, Latta died in 1983 at 90. By then, he claimed to have collected over 17,000 stories of San Joaquin Valley pioneers of all colors. The Bakersfield Californian credited him with "more than 3,000 publications," including newspaper and magazine articles.

In the mid-1980s, the book editor of the Los Angeles Times sent me a volume to review, titled "Joaquin Murrieta and His Horse Gangs," by none other than Frank F. Latta. I immediately recognized the name, and was proud that a hometown author was to be reviewed in the Times. Latta's book was largely a pastiche of interviews with old-timers who had known Joaquin or his various henchmen, along with photos of settings and people.

Most notably, the volume turned on its head the widely held notion that Murrieta had been killed in a shootout with Harry Love's "rangers" at Cantua Creek near Coalinga in 1853. Latta provided much testimony that Joaquin Murrieta was a huero -- a fair-skinned, blondish man -- while the severed head Love presented to prove he'd killed the bandit was from a mestizo -- probably the real Joaquin's ill-fated mozo (servant). Oral history or tall tale, I was captured by Latta's account.

I remembered then something I'd heard from my father: Latta was an independent cuss who wouldn't rewrite history to glorify the rich and powerful, or to confirm myths, but insisted on honoring historical (and ethnic) truth: an old vaquero or a hard-rock miner or an oilfield roughneck was more apt to gain his attention than a banker or an industrialist.

Frank Latta also chose to run his own ship without much concern for the orders from his nominal bosses. As a result, he was fired by the Kern County Board of Supervisors, which led to explosive public hearings in 1955. Latta was represented by another notable local character, attorney Wylie C. Dorris. I attended one of the jammed public hearings then and I can tell you that while the supervisors formally won, it was only after they were roughed up by the Latta-Dorris team, which won public sympathy.

After reviewing the Murrieta book, I began to read for my own pleasure, and for the remarkable San Joaquin Valley history they contained, many of Latta's other volumes: "Dalton Gang Days" (the infamous bandits were chased out of Tulare County by a sheriff named Eugene Kay); "Saga of Rancho El Tejon" (essentially the oral history by the ranch's longtime mayordomo, J.J. Lopez); "Handbook of the Yokuts Indians" (the definitive book on California's largest and most diverse tribe); "El Camino Viejo a Los Angeles" (the history of interior California's oldest cart trail); "Uncle Jeff's Story" (the memoir of a white man raised by Yokuts in the nineteenth century); and on and on. (Many of Latta's books remain in print from Bear State Books in Exeter.)

A short-lived local newspaper, The Bakersfield Roadrunner, said of Latta, "never ducking a scrap and more than willing to be controversial, Latta was either loved or hated." I didn't know Mr. Latta personally, so I neither loved nor hated him. I do love his books, which seem to me to be treasured links to a gritty past too many people wish to ignore. I savor most of all the sense of almost hearing the voices from my great-great-grandparents' generation, and the knowledge Latta's texts give me that we're really not very different.

Oildale native Gerald Haslam lives in rural Sonoma County. He is a novelist and essayist. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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