By Bethany Rice
Curator of Collections, Kern County Museum
If you have ever walked the grounds of Stockdale County Club, you might have noticed some unusual plant life. Perhaps you were on your way to your weekly tennis game and noticed the towering bamboo stalks by the courts, or you might have even seen the stand-alone bamboo grove just near the main entrance as you drove in. These two groups are the last remnants of what was considered the largest bamboo grove outside of Japan.
In the late 1800s, William Tevis (Tevis Junior High, anyone?) owned the land Stockdale County Club and golf course currently reside on. He had an incredible interest in horticulture and imported a great many varieties of plants from all over the world, but one grass truly caught his attention. In 1896, Tevis brought home a bamboo plant from a shop in San Francisco that positively flourished in the Bakersfield climate. His interest in this Japanese grass grew as he realized the great many uses for the timber it produced. Tevis envisioned bamboo as the next major American resource- its light and flexible, but strong qualities made it ideal for crates, barrels, building materials, and so much more. Such was his interest in bamboo that Tevis began working with the United States Department of Agriculture by providing them with data on the growth and characteristics of his plants. In 1909, Tevis was the recipient of over 1500 individual bamboo clumps from W.D. Hills, a Japanese bamboo specialist, who was working with the US Department of Agriculture. They shared Tevis’ vision that bamboo could become the next major economic resource.
Their vision was not shortsighted. Bamboo is a major economic resource in Japan, not just as a building material, but the young shoots of bamboo are edible and a great food resource. The strain of bamboo that thrived particularly well in the Bakersfield climate is Giant Timber bamboo, or Phyllostachys reticula. This species has the ability to grow up to 70 feet in just 30 days. It accomplishes this incredible feat by growing 24-36 inches in just a twenty-four hour period. Many report sitting in bamboo groves and being able to listen to the grasses crackle and pop as they shoot skyward.
In the early 1900s, Tevis imported other species of bamboo until over fifty varieties lived on the Stockdale property. His expertise on the subject matter grew so much that Tevis produced a book on the topic of known species of bamboo which published in 1910. Around this time, his large bamboo grove was attracting international attention. Tevis and his grove were featured in Popular Mechanics (1903), National Geographic (1911), Orchard and Farm: Irrigation (1912), Sunset: The Pacific Monthly (1913), to name just a few.
Despite international attention, the bamboo grove of Stockdale slowly began to disappear. A fire in 1925 destroyed the Tevis mansion and some of the grounds it stood on. Rebuilding quickly occurred and the space transitioned from Tevis’ live-in mansion to a clubhouse. By this point, the community was used to the massive bamboo grove that stood off of Stockdale Highway and it was nothing unusual or noteworthy. In fact, Stockdale County Club used the bamboo as revenue by selling off poles to the people of Bakersfield and the surrounding area to use as television antennas on top of their homes.
Unfortunately, the Stockdale Country Club was hit by another fire in 1934 that destroyed much of the bamboo grove, according to the Bakersfield Californian. Finally, a third fire in 1940 razed the entire clubhouse to the ground, and we can only imagine how many species of plant life disappeared from the grounds that day, as well. Stockdale County Club still soldiered on, however. Not only did they rebuild but continued to expand, resulting in more bamboo being removed in the early 1950s to make room for parking lots. By 1955, only an acre of the bamboo remained, and it was concentrated to the east of the club. In recent years, some of the remaining bamboo was removed to make way for the tennis courts. Today, less than 500 square feet remain of the bamboo of what was once the largest bamboo grove in the United States.