Walking in the Boot Steps of Bakersfield, Merle Haggard and The Padre Hotel

After the recent passing of country music great Merle Haggard, I decided to take a trip to his hometown of Bakersfield / Oildale, CA to see where it all started for him and learn more the rich history of the region. It was also a chance to stay at the legendary Padre Hotel, which like Merle, has become an iconic figure in the area.

The getaway began when a friend and I checked into a luxurious 4th floor suite at the Padre. Featuring two full size beds with Isoform mattresses, a shower/tub combo, a relaxing chair and ottoman, a large flat screen television with Direct TV, an office work station, and free hi-speed Internet, the 400-sq-ft room had all we needed for a wonderful two-night stay. It also boasted a great window-view overlooking the city below.

padreLike Merle Haggard, the Padre is a Bakersfield icon

Once acquainting ourselves with the room, we explored the rest of the historic hotel. Originally opened in 1928, the Padre began as tourist spot for travelers passing through Central California and as a mini-getaway for hard-working men and women toiling in nearby farms and oil fields. To help keep the classic memories alive, the hotel features a large mural of a cowgirl in the grand lobby, and ornate wall paper with swirly patterns of oil wells, farm tools, cowboy hats and boots, saloon girls, and other period symbols.

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The Padre’s decor boasts colorful reminders of Bakersfield’s fascinating past

Today, after a massive, recent renovation, the property is the place to be in Bakersfield and has become a sophisticated boutique hotel with restaurants, nightlife, wedding venues and conference facilities. The 8-story structure currently stands as Bakersfield’s only 4-Diamond Hotel.

After touring the property and enjoying a tasty chorizo burger and a pork belly Cubano sandwich at the hotel’s Brimstone bar and grill, we drove to the Kern County Museum, where thousands of local historical and cultural artifacts and 56 historic buildings are displayed on 16 beautifully landscaped acres.

The biggest current highlight of the museum is the Merle Haggard BoxCar – the old rail boxcar the Haggard family purchased in 1935 for $500. Last summer, the boxcar was relocated from nearby Oildale to the museum. On hand at the relocation ceremony was Merle and his 94-yr-old sister Lillian Haggard Rea.

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Merle Haggard’s childhood boxcar home is a museum highlight

Merle, who wrote some of the greatest country songs of all time, such as “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee,” lived in the boxcar with his sister, mother Flossie and father James, who added a couple rooms to the structure. Now rundown, with rotted wood and peeled paint, the boxcar is on display but the inside is closed to the public. It is currently getting a full facelift and will soon be open for walk-in tours.

Besides Merle’s Boxcar, the museum is packed with fascinating exhibits, such as Gold: The Oil Experience. This features giant iron pieces of actual mining equipment and buildings used in local oilfields, along with interactive displays demonstrating how oil is formed and recovered and then transformation into many products we use today. This is interesting considering Kern County provides 64% of California’s oil production, and oil production has been a crucial component of the local economy since 1895.

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The Kern County Museum boasts thousands of local historical and cultural artifacts

The museum also houses the Bakersfield Sound exhibit, dedicated to the music created by the likes of Haggard, Buck Owens, Bonnie Owens, Fuzzy Owen and others; along with 56 restored structures like a general store where visitors could get a 25-cent bath, a tiny courthouse sitting above a jail, an archaic dentist office, a chuck wagon and a hotel, where meals were 50 cents.

And speaking of meals, after the museum, we drove back to the Padre Hotel for a fabulous dinner at the property’s signature Belvedere Room Restaurant. Elegant and inviting, the Belvedere is a modern steakhouse based on the classics and firmly rooted in the California cooking philosophy of using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients.

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The Belvedere Room Restaurant is a classic California steakhouse

Our meal began with jumbo tiger prawns with Sriracha lime cocktail sauce; and Heritage pork belly with apple-golden raisin chutney appetizers, and a couple glasses of cabernet. We followed this an orange-mint sorbet intermezzo, then for a main course we split wild mushroom risotto and potato puree, while I devoured a succulent 8 oz Brandt farm, corn-fed beef tenderloin, and my friend sampled the lump crab cake with remoulade frisee. For dessert we split a decadent mudslide cheese cake.

For more information on staying at the Padre Hotel and dining at Belvedere Room, visit: www.thepadrehotel.com. For more information on the Kern County Museum, visit: www.kcmuseum.org/

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