PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 27, 2014
OILDALE, Calif. » The tanker trains loaded with crude oil still rattle down the tracks at the end of the alleyway where Merle Haggard, a living legend of country music, grew up in a boxcar that his father transformed into the family home.
"The walls were thick: cool in the summer and warm in winter," Lillian Haggard Rea, the musician's 93-year-old sister, recalled of the boxcar that their father, James Haggard, a carpenter with the Santa Fe-Southern Pacific Corp., converted by hand during the Depression. It was, she said, "just a wonderful home to live in."
Like much of the music associated with the Bakersfield sound, an unvarnished form of country that thrived in honky-tonks here in the 1950s and '60s, Haggard's is rooted in the making-do values of the Dust Bowl. His parents migrated from Oklahoma in 1935 and, like thousands of Okies, they sought refuge in Oildale, a ragtag collection of camps and settlements on the outskirts of Bakersfield.
Preservationists are now raising money to purchase, restore and move the boxcar to the Kern County Museum in nearby Bakersfield, which is just under a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. The boxcar is in many ways both Haggard's three-dimensional autobiography and the story of Oildale — population 32,000 — which has long been separated from Bakersfield "by the Kern River and a certain state of mind," Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, wrote in an essay.
Though occupied, the house today is nearly ruined, sagging under a tangle of vines. The campaign to "Save Hag's Boxcar" is a recognition of the role of the house and the railroad in Haggard's career, as well as a nod to the collective ingenuity of Depression-era craftsmen like his father .
But the boxcar "won't be difficult to restore to its original vigor," said Dave Cross, a Bakersfield architect who is involved in the restoration effort. The preservationists are planning a fundraiser for next month at the Bakersfield Harley-Davidson dealership on Merle Haggard Drive.
The image of a freight train leaving town looms large in the songs and psyche of Haggard, 76. He is considered a troubadour of the "other" California, where the hot sun beats down on a landscape of Valley fever, manual labor and Tulare dust, far from the coast.
Haggard, who lives with his family 450 miles to the north, near Lake Shasta, was unavailable for an interview, his spokesman said. But his deep feelings about the house are evident in songs like "Oil Tanker Train," in which he recalls as a boy his mother waking him up to watch the trains, knowing they were coming by the boxcar's trembling. In "My House of Memories," his 1999 autobiography, he writes of his disappointment in the deterioration of the house, relieved that his parents were not around to see what happened to their "wood and stucco jewel box."
Haggard was born in Bakersfield and grew up in Oildale, the tracks a formative experience of his youth. Patricia Puskarich, who lived next door in a vacation trailer, one without indoor plumbing, recalled young Merle teaching her how to put pennies on the rails to flatten them, a prime form of pre-television childhood entertainment, she said.
Boxcar houses were not uncommon during the Depression, as chronicled by Works Project Administration photographers like Arthur Rothstein. The story of how the Haggards acquired the car offers a glimpse of the era's widespread prejudice toward Okies, though the singer's own pride in his origins would later inspire his 1969 hit, "Okie from Muskogee."
The family learned of the boxcar from a fellow church member, who asked James Haggard if he thought he could turn a surplus refrigerated train car she owned into a home, Rea recalled. "She asked my daddy where he was from, and when he said 'Oklahoma,' she said, 'I hear Oklahomans don't work.' Well, his blue eyes met her blue eyes and he said, 'I've never heard of one who didn't.'"
Though the house was intended to be temporary, the remodeling was a family effort: James Haggard built a pop-out dining area, a wash house and a hand-poured concrete bathtub and front steps; his wife, Flossie, planted fruit trees, climbing roses and a backyard grape arbor, drying raisins for pies on the roof.
Life changed irreparably when James Haggard died suddenly of a stroke when Merle was 9. The singer's troubles — the juvenile delinquency, the incarcerations, the five marriages and bankruptcy — began at 11 when he hopped his first freight train with a buddy.
"He wasn't a bad kid," explained his sister, who cannot bring herself to listen to her brother's songs because of the difficult memories they evoke. "The poor child was just in pain. He was looking for his own answers and couldn't find them."
The boxcar's trajectory from ruffled-curtain coziness to a ramshackle dwelling with bars on the windows is not an anomaly in Oildale, an unincorporated community that still contains pockets of Hooverville-like poverty and methamphetamine use. Although there are new middle-class subdivisions in Oildale, low rents in some neighborhoods have drawn a transient population and three times the number of registered sex offenders found in downtown Bakersfield, according to state Megan's Law data.
Called "the Dale" by locals, the community has struggled with an underdog image since the discovery of oil in 1899, when rough-and-tumble fortune seekers — mostly single men — poured in. Some older houses, still occupied, were transported from the oil fields on skids. Today, the pump jacks of the Kern River Oil Field, now operated by Chevron, are bobbing black flecks scattered across a dun-colored plateau.
These days, "there are a whole lot of people not making it," said Christopher Reilly, the behavioral health director for Clinica Sierra Vista, a nonprofit community health organization serving Kern and Fresno counties. "They're living trailer to trailer."
Recalling more neighborly times, '08ers (as in ZIP code 93308) of the Merle generation are engaged in keeping Oildale from "slipping into the brine," Puskarich said. A new $1.3 million park and town center has begun to revive Oildale's main street. The metal band Korn has taken up residence in Buck Owens' old recording studio, the River Theatre.
The campaign to "Save Hag's Boxcar" would involve disassembling and restoring it to its 1940s glory, as well as building a new dwelling for the current occupant. Rea, the singer's sister, sold the home in the 1980s — a decision she said she regrets — and it has changed hands since then. The current owner has signed a written agreement with Citizens Preserving History, a group led by Glenda Rankin, a local rancher, and her sister Dianne Sharman. The owner has offered to donate the structure in exchange for a new, similarly proportioned home on the property.
The boxcar would leave its current site — where dirt remains more common than sidewalks — for Pioneer Village, the county museum's outdoor display of more than 50 uprooted historic buildings. But some residents would like to see the boxcar stay put.
"Merle's father built it here, made it their home," said Jeanette J. Gary, the head of Citizens of a New Oildale, a civic improvement organization.
It is also a reminder of the days when Bakersfield was alive with music that shook the walls of honky-tonks like the Clover Club, the Lucky Spot, the Sad Sack and, most notably, the Blackboard, the inspiration for the song "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music").
On a recent night at Trout's, the lone honky-tonk in Oildale still going strong, 79-year-old musician Red Simpson and his Bakersfield-Sound crony Bobby Durham, 72, reminisced while nursing water on the rocks. They used to play Bakersfield five or six times a week — twice on Sundays — alternating between "beer jobs" and "whiskey jobs." (There was more fighting at a whiskey job.)
"You walked into the Blackboard and it was loud, man," Durham recalled.
"We played a lot of music together," he added.
Simpson cut in. "We played a lot of craps," he said.