By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
If you drive out highway 58 west from Bakersfield, you will see a line of ancient palm trees. This is the remaining visible evidence of a large agricultural enterprise conceived in 1890 as the “Rosedale Colony.” It is one of the more interesting tales in Kern Ag history.
When the Kern County Land Company was incorporated in 1890 by James Haggin and brother-in-law Lloyd Tevis, the new corporation found itself land rich and cash poor. Taking the lead from other subdivision ventures, tracts of arable land in western Kern County began to be marketed in 20 acre lots as the 12,000-acre Rosedale Colony. The scheme was designed to sell portions of raw land to outside investors for twenty to sixty dollars per acre and most of the purchase could be financed at seven percent. Manager S.W. Ferguson and land agents in London, Glasgow, New York and Chicago used promotional literature and photography to lead more than 250 mostly British investors to move to Kern County to try their hand at farming.
California was already seeing an agricultural boom after the gold fields were depleted and farming was seen as the next avenue to riches with alfalfa, cotton, nut crops and fruit. Ferguson’s brochures described Kern County to English investors as being “the largest agricultural county in the San Joaquin Valley, the largest irrigation system in America, and is the home of the peach, the French prune, pear and raisin grape.” His sales pitch also claimed that “planting and harvesting take place every month of the year,” and there were no “trees, rocks, hills or stumps upon the land.” He finished with the claim that “failure of crops is unknown (…) “Kern County fruits take the first prize at the State Fair,” and “Land can be made to pay for itself in two years.” He also used photography for the first time in real estate advertising.
This opportunity to invest in agriculture also connected with the British phenomenon of the “remittance man.” Due to British laws where inheritances went to the eldest son, subsequent male offspring were forced to look elsewhere. Some found their way to the clergy, some to the military, but many were shipped off to agricultural concerns in Australia, Canada and the American West. Many of these gentlemen, who received small monthly payments (remittances) from their family, were sent off for bad behavior. As described by Mark Twain in Following the Equator, “dissipated ne’er-do-wells belonging to important families in England and Canada (…) the ne’er-do-well was sent abroad to get him out of the way.” Contemporary reports from Kern County often referred to the Rosedale colonists as being part of this sector of second born British gentry.
At first S. W. Ferguson’s scheme worked. Would be farmers from Great Britain and other parts of the United States moved to Kern County and began to cultivate their 20 acre lots. As reported by Wallace M. Morgan in his History of Kern County, “extensive advertising of the Rosedale lands, the arrival of colonists, and the expectation of the people of Bakersfield gave the town its next boom. Building, mostly of a light character, went forward with feverish intensity.” Roads were built, fences put up, crops were planted, and small canals were dug.
The local newspapers reported on the colorful new English additions to Kern County with exaggerated reports of high tea, fox hunts, and formal dinners. The English farmers expected to live their old lives as entitled gentry and reportedly promoted music, picnics and theater. One of the largest land sales in 19th century Kern County was to the Earl of Gosford in modern day southwest Bakersfield. He planted pears, figs, grapes and raisin grapes but was very disappointed in the result. He allegedly tried to have Manager Ferguson arrested in London.
The one wild card in the Rosedale Colony scheme, familiar to modern California farmers, was the ability to secure water rights and irrigation. Ferguson’s promotional brochures touted that “water for irrigation is in great abundance and very cheap (…) irrigating canals are already constructed to bring water to each 20-acre lot in the colony.” Ferguson also shared that artesian wells were being developed that “water can be obtained at moderate depths of 45 to 75 feet. The water is inexhaustible in quantity, as it is independent of the rain.” Of course, this was highly exaggerated and often there were water shortages or lack of canal access for the colonists. (Lower Kern River Country by Wm. Harland Boyd)
On February 10, 1893, the Kern River broke its levies flooding the Northern part of Bakersfield. Water was afoot deep at 19th and Eye Streets. Initially this helped the colonists with their perpetual water shortages, but the crops still failed in the hard times of 1893 and 1894. The Kern County Land Company finally put a stop to the colonization scheme, recalled its English agents, dismissed Samuel W. Ferguson and appointed Henry Jastro to manage its properties. The small colony lots were soon swallowed up by default and went to serious farmers who successfully planted the right crops and developed irrigation. The English gentry wandered away from Kern County to the next boom town while waiting for their monthly check to hopefully arrive at the post office, and the name Rosedale remained behind.