Migrant settlers on exhibit
If you can’t imagine what it was like working hours in hot fields by day and living in a small metal shack at night, there is a chance to at least get a glimpse of what it was like from now through October 31 at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. A fascinating new exhibit called “Settle in Kern! The Immigrant Experience,” opened April 1 in the museum’s main gallery.
Occupying a large section of the exhibit is a 1930s housing unit from the Arvin Federal Camp, now known as Sunset Migrant Labor Housing Center. The unit was what laborers lived in while working the fields in the Lamont-Arvin area of the county during the days following their Dust Bowl migration from the soil depleted farms of the southwestern states in the 1930s. Steve Cox purchased the unit which is on display in the 1960s for $25.
Visitors to the exhibit can explore the many reasons why immigrants settled in Kern County and why they keep coming. The exhibit features unique objects related to Kern County pioneers of all ethnic backgrounds, from the 1850s through today’s equity emigrants — those in search of life in a more affordable California.
Recent visitors to the exhibit included three generations of a pioneer Kern County family, the Robersons. Adoree Roberson is a second generation American. Her father Emile Richaud was born in Bakersfield in 1894. His father Zephrin, a sheepherder in France, immigrated to Kern County with his wife Clarisse in 1890. Roberson brought her daughter Tiffany and grandchildren Jolie, Jack and Ava to see pictures of their pioneer ancestors, along with a family history, prominently displayed in the exhibit. Many pioneer families are honored on the walls surrounding the exhibit.
“We’re a unique family,” Roberson said. “All of us who were born here have never left.”
Some family displays even include genealogical charts tracing the roots of immigrant settlers back to their earliest origins. Displays of historic photos and maps provide an interesting overview of migration into Kern County.
“When we got the idea for this exhibit, I called reporter Bob Price at The Bakersfield Californian to tell him about it,” said Jeff Nickell, museum curator. “Bob wrote an article which asked Kern County families who had lived here consistently for at least 100 years to contact me. More than 25 families responded and 17 of those came through with photos, artifacts and histories. As a result of interviewing each, their family histories are now a part of our permanent museum database, too.”
Demographic displays dating from the 1900s to the present highlight the county’s changing ethnic makeup. Nickell said the interviews and the responses indicate a trend. That people are continuing to migrate to Kern today for some of the same reasons they did over a century ago.
“Land and housing are reasonably priced,” Nickell said. “More than a century ago immigrants came because they could buy land for next to nothing. They could make improvements to the land, sell it for more than they paid or keep it and pass it along from generation-to-generation.”
One of Nickell’s favorite family histories is that of the Burke family from which well-known Bakersfield automotive entrepreneur Jim Burke descended. They arrived in 1852 and at least one branch of the original settler’s family has lived consistently in Bakersfield, ever since.
Even the structure in which the exhibit is housed is important. The museum’s headquarters was once the historic Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce building.