Written by Gordon F. Lull
“What? Have you any sense of direction at all? Where are you? Burke Hill? Let me make it easy for you. When you get back into town, take Ming Avenue and go all the way to Ashe. Take a right in the direction of Stockdale, then a left on Tevis Drive. You’re right there.”
When Robinson Crusoe saw that single footprint in the sand, his response was fear.
He stood “thunderstruck” as if he had seen a ghost. He assumed, for 18 years, that he had been alone. No such explanation can be ours. No ghosts are involved in the creation of our landscape. The legacy of Kern families extends far beyond street signs. The footprints of Bakersfield’s pioneers appear not in sand but in wood, concrete, steel, and in the acquired traditions of vision, hard work, determination, and enterprise.
The selection here is of five families, with the surnames Clark, Burke, Tevis, and Ming. Each family made distinct contributions and left indelible marks on Bakersfield and Kern County.
They came from Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mis-souri, and from as far away as China and Ireland. Their footprints are all around us if only we look.
This Town Could Use a Good Architect
Glance at the skyline or simply take a drive along Bakersfield’s main thoroughfares and you encounter the impact of Orville Lee Clark upon the city.
The story begins in the Bay State, birthplace of Orin Clark whose family line had roots in colonial Massachusetts, and who migrated to Ohio’s Cuyahoga County. From most extant accounts, the remainder of his life was taken up in peaceful pursuit of small farm agriculture, with one valiant interruption of service during the Civil War, in which he displayed (Wallace M. Morgan’s phrase in History of Kern County, California) his “patriotic character.” That character was passed along to two of his sons. Wallace W. Clark, born in Cleveland, Ohio, joined the Ohio Fifth Infantry at the age of 15 serving, like his father, with distinction—he was wounded several times—for three years as a volunteer with the Union Army. After the war ended, he worked in Ohio and Michigan in the lumber industry, building trade and contracting. He moved to Los Angeles in 1903.
His younger brother, Orville Lee, was born March 10, 1883 in Cleveland. The boy’s mother died when he was still an infant. Orville Clark was raised and educated in the Cuyahoga County area and, after high school, he studied mathematics and architecture at the University of New Lyme and apprenticed with a prominent architect. The accounts differ on why, after achieving academic distinction, he became a carpenter.
While Wallace Morgan reports that “a breakdown in health” drove him to seek outdoor work, a profile of Clark in a Beale Memorial Library vertical file (Oil Industry: Bakersfield, California) asserts only that “he resolved to learn the trade mainly essential to his chosen profession.”
In any case, Clark brought his combination of practical experience and academic training to California, arriving in Los Angeles in 1907 (probably joining his older brother there), and moving to Bakersfield sometime later. While living in Los Angeles, Clark took a trip one day to Bakersfield and, surveying that city and the small cities and towns around it, beheld a landscape pregnant with opportunities.
He decided to relocate permanently. He opened a fleet of offices in the Fish building and launched his business as an architect and engineer. His enterprise won quick and wide success so that, in the words of one biographer (Bakersfield and Kern County: A Half-Century of Progress; Beale Memorial Library), “Most of the large buildings in this section of the state have been erected under his direction…”
Among those buildings designed and built by Orville Lee Clark: the original Mercy Hospital, the Bakersfield Club building, Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company building, Maricopa school house, the Hotel Koesel, Decatur Hotel, Hotel Olcovich, the Dixon Apartments, Taft’s Conley school, the Delano Hotel, Bakersfield Iron Works, Bakersfield Garage (second story), New Southern Garage, Massena Hotel Annex, Kern County Jail, Caledonia Masonic Lodge, Bakersfield High School gymnasium, and numerous private residences.
Clark remained in Bakersfield until 1924, when his growing business concerns—his architectural projects extended to Nevada and northern California, and he operated a ranch in the Weedpatch area—prompted him back to Los Angeles. In 1935 he returned, managing his ranch and architectural projects until his death in 1940.
The Brothers Burke
In the western region of Ireland, in the province of Connacht, lies County Mayo, a beautiful, wind-swept land, green and bog-covered, with haunting limestone landscapes. A century and a half ago, as the population of Ireland swelled to over eight million people, famine became common. From 1845 to 1847, an infestation of fungus devastated much of the potato crop upon which the Irish people depended for survival. Before it was over, a million souls were dead and a million more left their homeland.
Among those who fled was Daniel Burke, who emigrated from Ireland and settled in Massachusetts in 1849. He became a bricklayer in his new homeland and worked that craft until making his way to California (by way of Nicaragua) in 1853.
In the Golden State, he found work in the Sierra County mining communities, prospering enough to buy land in Tulare County. He ultimately settled on land in the Greenhorn Mountains area, where he raised grain, vegetable crops, and cattle on his 300 acres. He and his wife Mary Vickers Burke had six children, two of whom (Walter and Daniel, Jr.) helped shape Kern County’s formative years.
Walter, born March 7, 1865, was sent to St. Vincent’s College in Los Angeles; upon his return, he shouldered increasing responsibility in the supervision of his parents’ farming operations. This included buying adjacent properties and pre-empting 160 acres near the family homestead. Eventually, through his shrewd management, the family held title to more than one thousand acres in the Greenhorns.
“One thing my husband used to tell me about Walter,” said Inge Burke, widow of Walter’s grandson Bill Burke (who was cousin to Jim Burke, Bakersfield automobile entrepreneur), “was how much he loved the cattle round-ups every spring. He knew every mother and every calf. He loved that.”
In 1892, Walter Burke married Sarah Gill, a native of County Mayo, Ireland, who bore him seven children: Mary, Nora, Teresa, Catherine, Margaret, Walter, and James. This last son fathered James “Jim” Burke, an employee since 1948 of Haberfelde Ford. Jim Burke purchased the dealership in 1964 and at its helm made it one of the largest Ford dealerships in the nation.
Walter’s younger brother, Daniel Burke, born January 18, 1867 in Glenville, attended local schools through his 16th year, then worked on his father’s properties. In 1902, he acquired 40 acres south of Bakersfield where he raised a variety of table grapes and alfalfa. Wallace Morgan’s assessment of this Burke brother was that Daniel “was a man of prominence in his time and locality, who had much to do with public affairs.”
From Adversity to a Bamboo Grove
In 1849, linked by marriage, a love of horses, and a passion for gold mining, two Kentucky-born brothers-in-law, James Haggin and Lloyd Tevis, came to California. Our concern here is with Tevis, and the family that followed after.
Lloyd Tevis was born in March of 1824, the son of Samuel Tevis, a lawyer and circuit court clerk in Shelbyville, Kentucky. His ancestors had been among the early settlers in Maryland. After college, Lloyd Tevis studied law under his father and managed the Woodford County circuit court clerk’s office. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bar exam: Tevis, hungry to see more of the world than can be seen from the hills of Kentucky, made a trip out west, to California, the northern states, and to Canada.
He settled in Louisville where he became a salesman of dry goods, a profession for which he acquired distaste. But the dry goods house transitioned him to the counting room where he became something of an accounting whiz. As the unidentified author of one Tevis mini biography put it, however, “Through untoward circumstances the house failed.” But, like Joseph in the Old Testament, Lloyd Tevis always seemed to rise in adversity: he was appointed assignee to the bankrupt company’s accounts. His accounting skills attracted the attention of bankers and merchants. He worked first at the Bank of Kentucky, then accepted an offer in St. Louis, working first in banking, then at a marine insurance office. But that company was ruined by losses in the great St. Louis fire of 1849. In the ashes, Tevis must have seen gold dust.
Both he and Haggin made small fortunes mining in the Black Hills of North Dakota. They leveraged their earnings to mining operations in El Dorado County, California. But quickly becoming men of means, the rigors of mining were no longer necessary. Money-making
was. In Sacramento they formed the partnership Haggin & Tevis. Both practiced law and finance so successfully that their growing interests forced a relocation to San Francisco. Tevis became president of Wells Fargo Bank while Haggin began acquiring land for the partnership around Bakersfield. As the two began plans for developing their new holdings in Kern County, a conflict arose over water rights and irrigation.
The bitter dispute spilled into the courts, pitting Tevis and his partner against Charles Lux and Henry Miller. The struggle was ultimately settled with an agreement to share water. But a more important long-term outcome was the formation of the Kern County Land Company, which soon became the state’s largest land holding private entity.
Lloyd Tevis’ son, William S. Tevis, proved himself the inheritor of his father’s financial skills, although not, perhaps, his sunny attitude toward difficulty. Using money he had earned through his own enterprises, he purchased 300 acres north and west of Bakersfield from Kern County Land Company. In the heart of this property he built a 9,000 square foot mansion. His wife, Mabel, used her knowledge of and skill in horticulture, bringing plants from around the world to the mansion’s grounds.
In 1896, Tevis, himself an authority on Japanese bamboo varieties, planted a grove of bamboo trees (to become the famous Stockdale Grove). But the mansion ultimately changed hands and Tevis and his wife, in 1920, built a new mansion on property which now is home to the Stockdale Country Club clubhouse building.
William S. Tevis distinguished himself in other ways. When the automobile craze hit Bakersfield at the dawn of the 20th century, Tevis became the first owner, driving a Locomobile. He passed along his skills in horsemanship to his son and grandson. The Lloyd Tevis Cup, named for the family patriarch, stands today as one of the coveted prizes of modern endurance riding. And William S. Tevis Jr. was called “one of America’s premier horsemen and polo players” (San Francisco Examiner, July 10, 1923).
Business failure prompted William Tevis and his wife to return to San Francisco without finishing the new mansion. In 1922, however, the dream living ever on, he sent his son, Lloyd P. Tevis, to Bakersfield to deal with the abandoned ranch. Young Tevis saw opportunity amidst the misfortune. More precisely, he saw golf links and that is what he built. The new nine-hole course, called Stockdale Country Club, opened for business on February 18, 1923.
According to the Stockdale Country Club website (www.stockdalecc.com), which provided some of the information herein, the monthly dues for club membership totaled $5.50. And a round of golf for a mere outsider? One American dollar.
The Butterfly Life
The surname “Ming” denotes at least two families, from very different backgrounds and places of origin, which have left significant marks on Bakersfield’s history. One, the Caucasian Ming, came from Missouri and distinguished himself as a cattle rancher and general contractor, then turned to public service. The second Ming family relocation story began in China’s Pearl River Delta.
Floyd L. Ming was born in Missouri in 1912 and, as a young man of 24, came to Bakersfield in 1936, seeking to transplant his skills in farming into one of the nation’s emerging agricultural bread baskets. He worked for many years as a cattle and alfalfa rancher, supplementing that work with general contracting and real estate subdividing. What he achieved in terms of private enterprise he sought to transfer into the arena of public service.
In 1950, he ran for Kern County Supervisor in the Third District and won. His victory began a 12-year career in that office, including three stints as Board Chairman. His re-election announcements, despite the expected political self-promotion, did highlight what would today be enviable achievements. Consider:
He played a major role in the development of Kern County’s water, airport, and freeway systems.
Facing a rapidly growing Kern population, as well as devastating losses from the 7.7 magnitude 1952 earthquake, Ming and his board colleagues engineered a $14 million improvement program without issuing one bond or spending one penny in deficit financing.
In fact, after completion of the improvement program, taxes were held to that of pre-quake levels.
Under his leadership, the city and county saw completion of the new Administration Building, Kern County Public Library, Meadows Field Airport Terminal, Kern General Hospital, Sheriff’s Administration building, and the near completion of what then was the new civic center.
Floyd Ming died September 29, 1963 at Wadsworth Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles, survived only, according to his obituary, by his wife, Kay Ming.
The story of the second Ming family in Bakersfield began in 1874 when two young men, Leong Gee Ping and Leong Yen Ming, both 18, embarked upon a perilous journey from their villages in the Say Yup district of China. They boarded a small sailboat to the new world, hoping to find work building America’s rail system. The two-month journey, paid for by the Southern Pacific Railroad which needed laborers for its Central California project, occurred, in the words of Mary Ming, granddaughter-in-law of Leong Ming, in “unsanitary and overcrowded” conditions. “Many of their fellow passengers had died on the way,” she wrote (in a foreword to a book on the history of the Chinese community in Kern County). The two men saw the death of many of their friends due to the dangerous and back-breaking work; nevertheless, they worked until the lines were completed (including the famous Tehachapi Loop). Then, with the money they had saved, set about a new enterprise.
The two men pooled their money, a farm, and land. According to Mary Ming’s account, Yen Ming loved farming and pursued it with a passion. For his part, Gee Ping sold his interest and opened small merchandising and produce stores in downtown Bakersfield.
Despite occasional financial setbacks (such as the 1893 flood), Ming’s farm prospered. It prospered so much in fact that, at the age of 36, he was a man with the means sufficient to marry. His wife was Ying Law from San Francisco. They raised nine children, six boys (including George Ming, Mary’s husband) and three girls. Raising his family alerted Ming, however, to the fact that the burgeoning Chinese community in Bakersfield had no one to teach them Chinese language, culture, and philosophy. At his own expense, he paid for a San Francisco school teacher to relocate to Bakersfield. At the same time, he sent money home to China to build schools in his home villages.
Several of the Ming sons, not fond of farming, set about opening produce stands throughout Bakersfield. For his part, Ming continued farming, and his support of Chinese culture, until his retirement in 1937. In that year, he returned to China to visit relatives. It was an inauspicious travel time: the Japanese had started bombing runs on some of China’s larger cities including Canton. China was no longer “home” to Yen Ming.
In 1941, Ying suffered a stroke three days before Christmas. Refusing to leave her side, Yen spent all three days in her hospital room. She died on Christmas Day in 1941. Yen Ming died two days later. Wrote Mary Ming, “The Chinese people say this is a wonderful thing–they had lived a butterfly life. Butterflies mate for life; when one dies the other dies also.”
So, how did it end for Mr. Crusoe?
After fighting off wolves in the Pyrenees, he and Friday went to claim his fortune. But long before receipt of his riches, Defoe’s Crusoe had already learned the lesson of contentment. “All our Discontents about what we want,” wrote Defoe, “appeared to me to spring from the Want of Thankfulness for what we have.”
The footprints of generations past surround us. Better to follow than to fear.
Photos courtesy of Kern County Museum, Chris Brewer
Article appeared in our 29-1 Issue – April 2012