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Hart Park In The Beginning
By: George Gilbert Lynch

Topics: Hart Park, local history, George Gilbert Lynch
Posted by citizenjournalist Fri Jan 4, 2008 11:38:33 PST
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Few residents of Kern County remember "The Great 300 Foot Dante Cascading Waterfall" or the "Great Amphitheater", patterned after the Hollywood Bowl only larger. These were designed, planned and site located on the original Kern River Park general plan drawn by famous landscape architect Howard Gilkey of Oakland California.

The Park's namesake, Supervisor John O Hart, took the lead in 1921 to build Kern County a cool, expansive oasis which would make citizens proud to claim it as their "Peoples Playground". This great humanitarian, actually designed and promoted the construction of the Park from the day the land was purchased by the County in 1921 until his death on June 16, 1934. He built or arranged to have moved-in buildings for custodian residences, sulfur bath houses, constructed the first road to the Park, dug the artificial lake and constructed the roads within the park without the aid of an engineer.

By 1929, Supervisor Hart's constant work on the fledgling Kern County Park had progressed enough to hold an official public opening in order to display what had been accomplished up until that time. On Sunday, May 5, 1929 thousands of excited residents drove along the recently constructed Park highway to join in the day of festivities presented by the Kern County Supervisors. The Park was officially christened as "Kern River Park" on this day. The three acre, sand bottomed swimming pool was open and hundreds used it as well as the healthful mineral water baths available in the six newly built bath houses. Landscaping and road building was in progress and everyone there that day realized what a magnificent Park this was going to be when completed. John Hart and others contemplated building a Kern County Museum within the Park to house the many historic items and documents which at that time were stored in a spare room in the County Courthouse. They also visualized this Peoples Playground, in the future, as extending all the way from Bakersfield to Kern River Park, as a forested parkway to rival any in America, such great foresight these public servants then possessed.

Seven years later the beautiful Park was completed and the formal opening ceremonies began on May 17, 1936. The Sunday program was filled with speeches, races, dances, games, music, barbecues and scores of other activities. More than twelve thousand people enjoyed the festive occasion. The new Park had been forested with nearly every variety of tree including cork, live and pin oak, camphor, magnolia, red and Atlantic cedar,Monterey and Arizona cypress, five pine varieties, bottle tree, California Laural, cedrus deodora, sequoia sempoervires, acacia, locust, silver maple, catalpa, poplar, sycamore, walnut, pecan, ash, elm and scores of shrub and bush varieties. The new two acre concrete swimming pool was overflowing with swimmers, delighted with the free admission. A lake south of the plunge was for row boats and a body of water beyond that was for water fowl. The zoo was distributed around the Park in fenced areas and featured many animals; baboons, monkeys, ostriches, buffalo, badgers, elk and scores more. Throughout the Park were found; kids play areas, baseball and soccer fields, bridle paths, horseshoe pits, barbecue stoves and tables, drinking fountains and a concession store. The rustic Waterwheel and Cobblestone Fountain were a feature at the east end of the Park.

A beautiful piece of sculptured granite was discovered by Supervisor Hart in Kern River Canyon and at that time he remarked to friends it would make a great memorial monument at the entrance to the Park but he never found time to transport the stone from the canyon. On Labor Day, May 5Th, 1937 a gala public picnic was held at Hart Park to honor the late John Hart for the establishment of the Park mainly through his desire to provide a beautiful playground for the people of this County. Jack Shields Trucking of Bakersfield donated their services in transporting the huge stone from the Canyon and members of The East Bakersfield Progressive Club mounted the boulder in concrete along with a memorial plaque dedicating it to Supervisor Hart. For 87 years millions have enjoyed this park that once was only a dream of Johnny Hart.

For His great effort of achievement and dedicated service to the people of Kern County, On July 15, 1947, the name "Kern River Park" was changed to "Hart Memorial Park".

Many have wondered what the bronze plaques attached to the big boulders throughout the park represent, here's an explanation. Through the hands-on promotion of John Hart, 41 organizations joined together at foresting the new Park. Every large lodge and club in the county planted or had pledged to plant plots of trees for the beautification of their new oasis, each plot bearing a bronze plaque as a memorial to that association. In addition to these Mr. Hart supervised the initial planting of 6000 ornamental and shade trees. Through his resourcefulness thousands of trees were donated by local nurseries. All the animals and birds for the zoo were donated by gracious members of our community. He also promoted; clearing and reclaiming the ground, fencing the Park, putting in a domestic and irrigating water system, building the Waterwheel Mill and Cobblestone Drinking Fountain and bringing in power lines.

Although very few of the original Bronze, memorial Plaques remain today due to vandalism, here's a list of the benevolent groups which initially planted groves and once had plaques displayed; Farm Bureau, G.A.R., Masons, Elks, Moose, Security Benefit Association, Eagles, Santa Fe RR Firemen, Druids, USWV, Kof P, Degree Of Honor, WCTU, IOOF, Lions, Women's Club, WOW, Union Labor Council, Building Trades Council, Realty Board, American Legion, Native Daughters of the Golden West, VFW, Water Service Club, DAV, Native Sons of the Golden West, Red Men, Pocahontas, North Of The River Club, KC Community Club, Japanese Club, BPWC, Kern Archers Club, 20-30 Club and Soroptimists. The remaining plaques are located on the South slopes of the Park. The ones which were scattered around the Park have disappeared over the years.

In 1921, the County provided funds to purchase the Park property and a token sum was provided by the City for construction along with a quantity of locally donated labor and funds until 1931. As the Great Depression began to take effect and jobs became few, construction at the Park got a boost from public works funds. The SERA, State Emergency Relief Act, the CWA, Civil Works Administration and the WPA, Works Project Administration, began providing funds for building public roads, parks, public administration buildings and scores of useful projects to provide jobs for millions of unemployed workers. At times, between 1932 and 1938, 50 to 200 WPA workmen were at work in Kern Park building rock work, swimming pool, roads, curbs and the large boat lake.

April 28, 1930, members of "The Business And Professional Women's Club"planted a grove of 14 or more cedar trees in a plot near the boat lake. These trees still live about a hundred yards South of the lake. While examining this grove I discovered an eight foot diameter, circular fire pit nearby. It is in an isolated area near those 14 cedar trees. In researching archive records of 1930's Supervisors meetings I found a memo that read as follows: "Aug. 17, 1934, Kern River Park, ceremonial fire pit for Campfire Girls, authorized to install". By the shape of the rock and concrete fire pit construction and the remote area in which it was built lead me to believe this is the small "Ceremonial Fireplace" built for the Campfire organization then forgotten after their new camp was built on Greenhorn Mountain. Another large concrete fire pit, 14 feet in size, is located in section 4. This is believed to have been built for an American Legion barbecue April 22, 1928, the first big picnic held at the new Park.

The massive "Kern County Park Amphitheater" proposal was born out of a necessity for a large outdoor theater for presentation of famous symphony orchestras, Easter services, civic pageants and other forms of entertainment. The seating capacity could be built to accommodate an audience of 20,000 and it's construction would resemble the Hollywood Bowl and other famous amphitheaters. J. Arthur Lewis, noted choral conductor, tested the area for natural acoustic properties and found the canyon to have fine sound properties. It was noted, the sun coming up over Breckenridge Mountains strikes the proposed area first. The project would be built with Federal WPA funds with very little cost to the County or City. The theater was conceived in the beginning by the Kern County Employees Association and overwhelmingly supported by every Lodge and Civic group in Kern County as well as The Chamber Of Commerce, The Bakersfield Californian and Kern Herald newspapers. The Kern County Board Of Supervisors added the proposed project to it's 1939-1940 agenda. Everyone was excited at the good news, Bakersfield was to have a real icon in this "Kern County Bowl"

The Kern Park plan, drafted by Howard Gilkey, displayed a beautiful amphitheater to be built into the canyon which now contains the police pistol range. The plan shows a large acoustic shell covered stage with a rustic, lighted, cobblestone pool and fountain between the audience seating and the stage. Seating for up to 20,000 was arranged in a graceful arc, terraced into the hillside to the South. Additional speaker systems were to be placed in critical positions for maximum sound blending.

The project was submitted for WPA funds but war clouds began forming over our Country at that time and airports, highways and other military connected construction gained priority for Federal funding. The amphitheater project was abandoned, WW2 had thwarted our theater forever. The KC district office of the WPA was closed July 11, 1942 permanently ending the WPA.

The Dante Cascade Waterfall project was conceived in 1931 by The Societa di Mutuo Soccorso of Kern County Italians. Spokesman Ido Banducci related in a newspaper release, " the Society would welcome donations to fund the great waterfall", and When finished the project would be donated to the County as a gift. This project was designed as an enormous Memorial to the Great Italian Poet Dante Alighieri And would be the largest waterfall project yet designed by the famous Oakland architect Howard Gilkey. It was to be the greatest creation in the Park, consisting of a 300 foot lighted waterfall passing a huge volume of water. Built in three sections, each section cascading into three deep pools, the pools representing the Dante poem," The Divine Comedy". The granite bust sculpture of Dante was to be mammoth and would be placed at the head of the cascade. Workmanship was to be of the highest character by experts. It was to be located on the tallest hill 300 yards due West of the old swimming pool, (now the Park equipment yard). The timing of the noble effort to create this beautiful addition to Kern River Park was ill timed because the excesses of the roaring twenties were past, the Great Depression was in force and private monies were dwindling. Surveying and grading the hillside was as far as the Waterfall progressed as the necessary funding could not be found. What would have been a great asset to the culture of Kern County was destroyed by the Great Depression.

So, two beautiful additions to Kern County were lost to two devastating eras, "The enormous Dante Waterfall" was cut down by the Great Depression and WW2 wiped out the "Hollywood Bowl Of Bakersfield".

The people of Kern County are fortunate that a movement is underway to try to preserve  the only Johnny Hart promoted structures remaining in Hart Park, the Water Wheel Mill and the Cobblestone Fountain House.

(C) Dec. 2, 2005 by George Gilbert Lynch
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Comment From: maybelline

Mon Jan 7, 2008 21:28:43 PST
Mr. Lynch: Your account of Hart Park is interesting. I frequent the park and enjoy it even in its delapadated state. I believe an earlier story told that your father helped to build the water wheel. You must have an interest to see the park return or surpass its once great state. Please keep me posted regarding any plans for renewal. I would like to be involved. I look forward to reading future historical accounts of the park.
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Comment From: kennbeal

Tue Oct 13, 2009 17:53:34 PDT
I would like to add your information about Hart Park to our website. Would you be OK with that? I would also reference your name as the originator. Thank you. Kenny Beal Stewards of Hart Park
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Comment From: dfwilliamson

Thu Aug 12, 2010 17:49:40 PDT
It's no longer a place I consider nice to go to. The few times, I've ventured, I have found it trashy, and I have been harassed by men, and not the homeless. I wouldn't let my children enter that pond. It's gross.
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