The Kern River Valley Historical Society is celebrating over 50 years of operation! Our mission is to preserve and communicate the rich and colorful history of this region. The Kern Valley Museum in downtown Kernville, next to the Post Office, welcomes visitors to explore our rich history.


49 Big Blue Road
PO Box 651
Kernville, CA 93238

(760) 376-6683


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The Rough & the Righteous, by Ardis Walker, chronicles "the personal adventures of common men" & women, who lived in the Kern River Valley between 1834 & the 1950’s. These old timers "stirred up considerable commotion on their way to the boneyard", said Ardis’s old Uncle Jim.

I've been rereading Ardis's book, 20-30 years later. I’d originally dismissed it as tall tales, which is what Ardis intended it to be. He’d quite simply, matched the people & the places of the KRV, with their roles in the Western romance of our local history. All these years deeper into my enjoyment of KRV history, I’m finding that Ardis’s well-told stories are also chockful of historic clues & tidbits, & great fun to read. Camels & hand-woven baskets, "revenooers" & preachers, schoolmarms & brigands. Each light, & often funny story starts with a lovely full-page black & white drawing by portrait & landscape artist Katherine F. Clarke. No collection of local KRV history is complete without a copy of this easy-reading chronicle.

Ardis Walker’s own life in the KRV spans 1901 to 1991. Ardis was bom in the gold-mining town of Keyesville, at a time when it still had lots of "Rough" edges, like the famous & deadly Burton-Walker Family Feud. Ardis's mother moved her 4 children to Fresno for school in 1910. Ardis went to Fresno State College; graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from University of Southern California; & sailed through the Panama Canal to New York, where he worked for Bell Telephone Labs, before he returned to the KRV in 1932. He married local teacher Gayle Mendelssohn in 1937, after years of long distance love sonnets.

The Rough & the Righteous covers the gamut of Kern River Valley historic characters, from gentle & gracious pioneer women Refugia Williams & Nana Lavenia Rankin, both of whom Ardis talked with, to Old Isabella

"prevaricator" George Washington King, & Ardis's own "Shootin" Uncle, Newt Walker. Unknown folks like "Julia of the Dance Halls", & Tom Heston, stage coach & mail driver of Heston's Express, are profiled along with locally famous historic figures, like Cherokee prospector Lovely Rogers.

Ardis had collected the 2 to 3-page vignettes in The Rough & the Righteous throughout his life. One of the caricatures that Ardis sketches is of his oldest uncle, James Longstreet Walker, a blacksmith & "philosophical" historian, who named his cats Queen Elizabeth & Booker T. Washington. Some of the earliest of these stories, are local anecdotes related to Ardis by his Uncle Jim. Ardis did extensive research for many of the short vignettes. Some are ’’oral histories”, told to Ardis by KRV pioneers. And some are portraits of KRV characters that Ardis knew in person.

In the 1850’s, "frontier financier" J. V. Roberts had been "the first white man to stake out his homestead in the South Fork". Roberts had chosen a wife from the local Native peoples, & they'd "proved-up on" the Bloomfield Ranch, a place of classically beautiful, well-watered pastures, at the base of spectacular granite spires. Ardis retells Add Cross's description of Roberts, who loaned money to many in the South Fork, including to Cross himself. On the days Roberts was expecting to discuss loans, he'd wear a large tobacco-spattered canvas vest out to the fields where he was working. Roberts was known to make loans of $3,000 & more, without any paperwork. "A man's word is his bond." Roberts dispensed his loans from a huge pocket in his vest

In another chapter, Ardis writes old George Pettingin's tall tale about a miner, returning to Hogeye Gulch from his mine on Cula Vaca Mountain. The miner was bit by a most "phenominous" rattlesnake. "We got 71/2 cords of wood offen that miner's peg leg, before we could get the swellin' down."

Two other vignettes describe "The Murray-King Vocal Feud", between the town gossip & a well-known local liar. Ardis himself played third party instigator, for that particular front porch confrontation in the 1930's. In the "local lying circles" of those days, Pettingill, Murray & Bong were supposedly rivaled only by "Truthful" Brown, postmaster of Bodfish.KRV place names past & present, & their namesakes are described: Namesake Alvin Fay of Fay Ranch, Fay Creek & Canyon. Aunt Ella Smith of Smith Ranch, Mountain & Meadow. And Louie Scovern of Scovem Hot Springs, later the McNally Ranch, in Old Isabella. The hand-drawn map on the inside cover leaf of this hard-bound book includes KRV place names, that no longer show up on local maps: Quartsburg & the Paligawan village. A. Brown’s Murphy Ranch & Dee Harmon's Hay Field. La Mismo Gulch & Oyler Bar. Other lost place names referred to are Hell's Half Acre in Black Gulch, Tichnor's Basin in the Piute Mountains, & Burton's Camp on the Kern Plateau.

The last chapter, is Ardis’s tribute to one of his own childhood idols, Charles Augustus Woodard (1890's -1950's). "He was a ... relic of the ... robust life, that is remembered" as the Wild West Days of the KRV. Charley often teamed up with Ardis's Uncle Newt to sell their moonshine at KRV dances & rodeos in the 1920's. At one rodeo, with 6-guns strapped to their hips, the two tall, ungangly & unsteady ne'er-do-wells, bullheadedly courted trouble, by squaring up right in front of two federal "revenooers" from Fresno. "No son-of-a-bitch is going to stop us from having a drink", they shouted, as they proceeded to dramatically pass their jar of illegal whiskey back & forth. Charley was one of Ardis's "old-fashioned friends ... faded forever from the Kern."

In The Rough & the Righteous, Ardis has preserved some of the outrageous, but nonetheless historic, romance of the KRV, for us to enjoy. Now it's our turn to keep these stories alive, by retelling them.

     --- Linda

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June, 2021 book report:

Romantic Heritage of Kern River Valley  from Trail Blazer, Gold Seeker and Pioneer Settler to Modern Developers

This small 14-page booklet is a beautifully illustrated overview of 130 years of the Kern River Valley's colorful past, including the little-known history of our local telephone systems. The historic black & white drawings make it a collector's item. Forty small, but exquisite b&w drawings depict Onyx, Keyesville, Old and New Kernville, Weldon, Bodfish, Old and New Isabella, both Scovern and Miracle Hot Springs, and the iconic Apalatea-Burlando House. Eight historic plaques of the Kern River and Lake Isabella, the Kernville Golf Course, Shirley Meadows Ski Area, and hunting and fishing, are all drawn as they appeared in the 1960's. The detailed, hand-drawn map inside the front cover locates communities of the KRV, from Havilah to Walker Pass to Johnsondale.

One of my favorite of Wendell Neely's 40 b&w drawings is of New Kernville. A station wagon; a couple of big sedans with upright tail fins; and a VW bug are parked in front of the shops, on the bridge side of Circle Park. The two-story, false front building that is, in 2020, the Saloon, and the two buildings to its right, are all meticulously depicted in photographic detail. The contours of the shoulder of Powers Peak, define the skyline in the background.

Highlights of the wonders of the KRV, beginning in 1834 with Joseph R. Walker and ending in 1969 include: the Gold Rush Days with 6,000 miners and Big Blue Mine in 1860; Old Kernville built on the site of a Tubalatubal- Bankalachi village named Tulonoya; Old Isabella built on the Bankalachi village of Pitnamiu; Ashbury Harpending, the KRV's first subdivider in Havilah in the 1860’s; Irven Wofford, one of the largest land owners in the KRV, who founded Wofford Heights and promoted lots of westerns filmed here; George Bodfish, who ran a tavern, near where the Bodfish Post Office was established in 1895; William Weldon, who starting in 1857, supplied Keyesville miners with beef; the freight route that headed from Weldon, through Kelso Valley to meet the Owens Valley freight lines via Jawbone or Butterbredt Canyons, and onto Los Angeles; and Lake Isabella, dammed in 1953, one of Southern California's largest lakes. It's a quick refresher on KRV history.

The last two pages of this information-packed booklet tell the history of the KRV's telephone systems. Around 1912, John Dannier installed the first telephone in Old Isabella. Dannier ran a single, uninsulated wire to connect Old Isabella with Old Kernville, Weldon and Onyx. About 1915 the A. Brown Co. connected their scattered ranches and general stores, flour mill, and stage line to Caliente, with a magneto system run out of a switchboard in Old Kernville. In 1920 G.W. Bandy bought both Dannier's and Brown's systems and then sold them in 1933 to the J.A. Greens, who renamed them the Kernville Telephone Co. The Greens sold to Orian Campbell in 1941; then D.F. Gouldins; and in 1958 to the Continental Telephone Co. bought the system. Continental had telephone offices in New Kernville, Isabella, and Weldon. Between 1958 and 1969 the number of telephones in the KRV increased from 235 to 3,865.

Romantic Heritage was a series of seven booklets, published by California Interstate Telephone Co., between 1959 and 1969. This community service was to promote the mountain and desert counties of southeastern California that they served. The book was probably written by Lawrence Burr Belden, artist Wendell P. Neely, California Interstate (Continental) Telephone Co., 1973. The KRV Museum has some of the few-remaining copies of the Romantic Heritage of Kern River Valley.


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May, 2021 book report:


Ken Wortley: 1920’s Mule Packer and Writer [Part 2]

Born in Kansas, Ken Wortley was a survivor of the school of hard knocks. Starting in 1919 and for the next 74 years of his life he lived and wrote about the Wild West days of the Kern River Valley and about its mountains and wild places. His varied experiences included being: a World War I Marine; a gold miner during the roaring 1920's in the mountains and deserts of the Kern River Valley; a pioneer Kern River mule pack outfitter and wilderness pack outfitter for the rich and famous; a famous writer, publisher and teller of great tales; and in 1987 the Grand Marshal of the Whiskey Flat parade.

In The Story of Kernville, The Frontier Town That Refused to Die (1988), Ken writes a couple more stories from the 1920's. During the slow days of the winter of 1928 Constable Clarence Pascoe asked, “Why don't you two (Ken and one of the Wortley packers, Blackie Clark) come down to Kernville and do something so I can put you in my jail overnight?” Constable Pacsoe made a big show of handcuffing the two “drunks”. He threw them in the tiny, dirt-floored jail in Old Kernville, known as ‘Pascoe's Hotel’. Pascoe hadn't locked the door, so as the story goes, what started out as a joke ended with Ken and Blackie serving 8 hours hard labor hand-mixing a new concrete floor for Pascoe's Hotel.

In another story Ken writes that though “Tubs of Blood” were still spilled on Movie Street and a hangman's noose was often strung from the schoolyard trees, by the 1920's the real town of Old Kernville had quieted. With a school, Methodist Church and ample accommodations like the Mountain Inn, the picturesque little mountain town provided a comfortable getaway for Hollywood's Western stars. Ken tells of an incident that would have caused a shootout during the gold fever days of Whiskey Flat. Ken and Irven Wofford, who provided stock and wagons for the Movie Street Westerns, were caught red-handed by one of the Hollywood cowboys dealing from the bottom of the deck during a poker game at the Mountain Inn. When all the guy said was, "You boys otter try to improve your Tenick,” they gave back the $10 they'd tried to swindle from him. "Tubs of Blood" were now enacted only for fun by the likes of Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and John Wayne when they rode into town on Old Kernville's Movie Street.

Chester Wortley died unexpectedly in the late 1930's. The Wortley brothers had sold their Fairview Pack Outfit to Johnny McNally in 1934. Ken still packed until 1965, but much had changed since the heyday of the big outfitters from the 1920's-1940's. As the years went by, Ken used his lifelong connections here in the Kern River Valley to make things possible for other people. In about 1932 Ken introduced a young man from Los Angeles named Don Davis, who Ken knew through the Coogan's Cabin summer camp, to Dick Weed. Dick was a local character and multi-instrument maestro of the “Dick Weed Log Cabin Conservatory of Music” at Fairview-on-the-Kern. Don Davis went on to play as many as six instruments at one time – banjo, harmonica, piano and percussion – performing for the troops during his Army days in WWII and then on more than twenty national TV shows like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and “What's My Line?” “To Ken, who made it all possible”, says Wortley's autographed picture of renowned Totalmedia Artist, Don Davis. who Ken knew through the Coogan's Cabin summer camp, to Dick Weed.

In 1962 Ken ‘brokered’ a land exchange for 100 acres to be added to the still-growing townsite of New Kernville. The Pascoes, Ken's neighbors and fellow pack outfitters at Roads End, traded some of their timbered land on Greenhorn Mountain for that 100 acres of Sequoia National Forest land, just up the Kern River from New Kernville. Those lots in the new Kern River Estates, owned by the Pascoe Development Company, were sold by local realtor Laura Gamby, starting at $2,500.

In 1951 when Sequoia National Forest needed to build a fire lookout on Bald Mountain at an elevation of 9,430 feet adjacent to the very remote Domeland Wilderness, it was expert Ken Wortley and his pack mules that they selected. Bob Powers talked to Ken in 1978, at his home beyond Keyesville in the historic gold mining area of Black Gulch. He asked him how he had gotten all those galvanized steel I-beams, panels and catwalk gratings up the trail from the end of the road at Kennedy Meadows to Bald Mountain. Ken said it took a tricky system of swivels on the mule’s pack saddles and some expert packers to painstakingly balance the loads making it possible for the mules to negotiate the switchbacks up Bitter Creek to Troy Meadows and up the Mahogany Trail to the site for the new fire lookout.

Between 1954 and 1964 Ken wrote for, and published, the beautiful monthly magazine Sierra Rainbow. Between 1972 and 1988 he also published four books full of stories spanning the history of the Kern River Valley, its mountains and wild places from the pre-history of its "Piute Mountaineers" through the 1980's. Count yourself lucky if you own any of Wortley's publications. They are all out-of-print, rare and expensive to buy used. The Museum Country Store sells his Historic Land of the Rio Bravo and all four of Wortley's books are available at the Kern County Library.

[Sources: Ken Wortley's four books - Story of the Piute Mountaineers (1972), Adventures with the Misfits (1984), Historic Land of the Rio Bravo (1987), The Story of Kernville: The Frontier Town That Refused to Die (1988). Bob Powers books - South Fork Country (1971) and North Fork Country (1974).]

 -– Linda Adams

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April, 2021 book report:


Ken Wortley: 1920’s Mule Packer all 1960's Writer [Part 1]

Ken Wortley - gold prospector, wild desert horse mustanger, wilderness pack outfitter for the rich and famous, journalist, magazine publisher, Whiskey Flat parade Grand Marshal (1987) - lived, wrote about the Wild West days of the Kern River Valley, about its mountains and wild places for 74 years.

Born in 1898 in Paola, Kansas, ‘Rollin’ Kenneth Wortley Sr. had two brothers and three sisters. He enlisted in World War I and was trained in hand-to-hand combat as a Marine. After the war he retreated to the wilds of the Kern River. Ken writes in Adventures with the Misfits (1984) that he spent the next twq to three years in the “school of hard knocks” as a miner, trapper, moonshiner and cowboy, under the madcap tutelage of “Casey” Lloyd Davidson Jones. Ken and Casey parted ways when contaminated moonshine killed people and Ken refused to continue.

Ken also survived initiation as a wild horse mustanger, guiding Just Miller and Mustang Jack into the remote Coso Mountains of the Mojave Desert. In his excitement as a tender-footed 23-year-old on his first mustang round-up, Ken managed to rope a proverbial sway-backed old gray mare. His bosses, veteran mustangers laughed and laughed. Then they demanded that the horse be shot because they were short of hay. Ken stood up to Mustang Jack, winner of many a barroom brawl. So Jack said, ”Oh, let the kid keep the old bag if he wants to." The old mare's foal, born later in Sand Canyon, was one of the best roping and cutting horses Ken ever rode, a buckskin with black mane and tail. Ken and his older brother Chester “Chet” bought and broke ten of those Coco Mountain mustangs. Those ten wild horses became the nucleus for the Wortley Brother's One Double-Bar Pack Outfit which would be the center of Ken's life for the next 40 years .

When a thunderstorm flooded their Sand Canyon pack station in 1922, the Wortley's built three miles of road west from the Los Angeles Aqueduct up Nine Mile Canyon. From their new base camp, they hauled more than 800 mule loads through Rockhouse Basin into the junction of Manter Creek on the South Fork of the Kern River. There they built a log cabin for the nine-year-old child movie star Jackie Coogan. The cabin was completed with a river rock fireplace, a vegetable garden and a milk cow. It was a hard two-day ride from Nine Mile through the infamous “Roughs of the South Fork” to Coogan's Cabin.

By 1925, the Wortleys moved their pack station to the Bloomfield Ranch in the Kern River Valley and built a “goat trail” up the west side of the South Fork, north through the granite cliffs of the Domeland Wilderness, to Coogan's Cabin - a one day trip to their summer camp for sons of the rich and famous, like Cecil B. DeMille, Will Rogers, the U. S. Secretary of the Treasury, Zane Grey and Adolf Coors.

In 1928 the Wortley brothers continued to build their reputation for top flight stock and guide services and again moved their pack station, this time to Fairview on the North Fork above Old Kernville. Ken writes in Historic Land of the Rio Bravo (1987) that from the 1920s to the 1950s June, July and August were spent packing parties of 15-300 people into the headwaters of the Kern River and beyond. He recalled those long trips, that would last up to a month, as "gravy trains" because they were both easier for the packers and more profitable. In those days pack outfits with less than 50 horses (all mules) were considered small timers.

Deer season, from mid-August through mid-October, was a different story. "This was a period of endless work and sleepless toil for the packers; a time when a bedroll was considered secondary." The Wortleys employed 16 veteran packers such as Paul Rhoads, Joe Loveall, Tom Allred, Pete Miranda, Loren Mack and Jerry Mack. They used as many as 150 head of stock. During the record-breaking fall of 1928, the Wortley packers hauled out 345 legal bucks for their clients, mostly from the Paloma Meadow and Trout Creek areas.

For 16 years, Ken and Chet Wortley spent their winters adventuring with Zane Grey, whose classic Western novels topped the best-seller lists from 1917-1925. Zane wrote in 1928, "I can heartily recommend Chester and Kenneth Wortley in any capacity whatever, pertaining to camp life, woodcraft, pack trains, saddle horses, etc. They have been on expeditions with me to Arizona, to the Mexican coast and the Galapagos Islands. They are also gentlemen, well-educated, and splendidly equipped to take care of people in the mountains." Zane used Ken and Chet as main characters in one of his books.

     - Linda Adams