I’m a sucker for tourist traps and roadside attractions in general. I often plan elaborate trips to experience them first hand. (A great example would be my amazing 10-day road trip of 2017 that took us everywhere from Disneyland to Area 51 and the infamous Clown Motel –among other spots.) I will soon be moving to Washington state. In the time I have left in the Golden State, I made it a point to visit some of the area’s cheesier points of interest. Buckle up for a Central California road trip to see some things you never knew existed…(and will probably never bother to visit now that you know they do).
Our tour begins in Bakersfield, the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley (aka Central Valley). Bakersfield is a mini-treasure trove of roadside attractions, many of which I have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing, unfortunately. However, there is a big banner-like Bakersfield sign welcoming visitors to the town. What I didn’t realize about the sign (until driving by it again recently) is that just to the right of it is the Buck Owens Crystal Palace–another popular tourist attraction in the area (that was closed due to the pandemic…and that I have zero interest in visiting myself). This photo was taken from Buck Owens Boulevard.
The sign’s history dates back to 1949, when a similar arch was built over the old Highway 99 (now the Golden State Freeway after being replaced by a more modern, freeway-like highway). The original sign also acted as a footbridge to both halves of the Bakersfield Inn located on either side of the highway. By the late 90’s, the arch had fallen into disrepair and was demolished. However, a new version of the sign was created in 1999 (the 50th anniversary of the original sign) and relocated to Sillect Avenue, just feet from where the original stood on the Golden State Freeway (which is now Buck Owens Boulevard).
The Bakerfield Sign
3032-3000 Sillect Ave.
Bakersfield, CA 93308
BIG SHOE BUILDING:
Although I had discussed it (and the entry below) previously in this blog, the Big Shoe is worth another mention. On the corner of Chester Avenue and 10th Street in Bakersfield sits a 25-foot-tall, 32-foot-long shoe — literally. An old woman and her brood do not reside within it, but a shoe repair shop does.
I love the shoe. Built (cobbled?) in 1947 by Chester Deschwanden–who, of course, repaired shoes–the shoe isn’t very large inside, just 370 square feet according to one source. (With a 50-foot long shoe lace!) Seventy-four years after it opened, the big shoe is still a shoe repair shop. The customer area is small–just room to stand at a counter or sit in one of the few chairs against the wall. The inner shop area, well…let’s just say it could use a good cleaning. If it weren’t a shoe repair shop and I wasn’t moving to Washington, I’d love to make a little house out of it. It clearly has a lot of sole.
The Big Shoe Shoe Repair
931 Chester Ave.
Bakersfield, CA 93301
THE LAST WOOLWORTH’S LUNCH COUNTER:
On the corner of K and 19th streets in Bakersfield is an old Woolworth’s building. No, the “five and dime” chain has not resurrected itself from bankruptcy. The store is now gone. In its place is an antique mall.
However, the owner of the building was clever in deciding to leave all of the original Woolworth signage up. Seeing it kind of feels like you are in a time warp or something. It’s almost like being on a period movie set.
However, one thing that is still the same inside, is the old Woolworth’s lunch counter. As a kid, I do remember going to Woolworth’s. There were two in town. The one downtown had a luncheonette, but I certainly never ate at it. Whoever would have thought that would have been a missed opportunity? This is the last remaining Woolworth’s luncheonette in the world–and it is still operational. Why not try it?
Not that I needed any junk food, but the menu was very limited. Gone are the days of the Blue Plate Specials. Instead, you had a choice of a hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, chili dog, a pastrami or turkey sandwich. I suppose a turkey sandwich would have been a wiser choice—but it cost twice as much as a burger. So, I opted for a cheeseburger (no fries). And since I was in the last of the famed soda fountains, I also splurged and had a milkshake.
The food was just okay — but I wasn’t expecting a lot. I just wanted to go there for the nostalgia of it all.
I had seen the old lunch counter a few times over the years, but had always missed it being open. I was surprised –yet pleased–to see so many others who were there to enjoy the place, as well
It was just a little slice of bygone Americana that you could have to go or simply eat at the counter.
The Last Woolworth’s Diner
1400 19th St.
Bakersfield, CA 93301
THE STUMP HOUSE:
Although, from reading about it, I knew I was in for disappointment, but I just had to see the Stump House for myself. Basically, it is a round building that has had redwood bark attached to it to make it appear as if it were the stump of a giant redwood tree.
Located on the southern end of Main Street in Porterville, the origins of the Stump House are a bit murky. The earliest mention of it I could find dates the house as being built in the 1940s sometime. It was built as the office for the municipal campgrounds. At some point, the campgrounds became a trailer park, and it served as the office for that for a number of years.
Today, the stump house sits in disrepair, rotting away. The redwood bark is peeling off and falling away. The windows have been boarded over and a security gate keeps unwanted visitors out. It still stands before a trailer park– the Big Stump Trailer Park, in fact– but the office is now housed in a small building next to the stump.
The Stump House
574 S Main St.
Porterville, CA 93257
THE HAUNTED MURDER CHAIR (ZALUD HOUSE):
A haunted murder chair? Whaaaaat?
A huge impetus in making the trek to Porterville was to see this chair. What, exactly, is a “murder chair” and how is it haunted? To find out, we would have to visit the Zalud House, a local historical residence from one of the town’s earliest and wealthiest families.
The house is located on the corner of Hockett Street and W. Morton Avenue, about a block in from Main Street. While nice for its age and far larger than it appears, the house is no Victorian mansion. To tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed when we drove up and parked. That’s the house with the haunted murder chair? Hmm.
We were greeted by the docent working that day. She was alone in the house and seemed surprised anyone had bothered to show up to see the place that Saturday afternoon. But, she took our entry fee ($3 each) and ushered us inside.
The docent then began this long, seemingly endless spiel about the history of the house and the Zalud family. Most of it went in one ear and came out the other. I was, after all, there for the murder chair. What did I care about a family from nearly 150 years ago in a town I knew very little about?
The house dated back to 1891. The Zalud family was quite prominent in the burgeoning Porterville, owning a profitable saloon and 1,600 acres of farmland in the surrounding area.
John and Mary Zalud had six children, but only three of them (Anna, Edward, and Pearle) survived infancy. Most sources make reference to the children who died early without giving any detail. One source said to one of the children, Mary Jane, succumbed to tuberculosis after a long, drawn out illness.
The three older children were pointed out to us in a photograph in the center of a cluttered table. The photo showed Edward and Pearle with Anna and her husband, William Hubert Brooks. There is a larger photo of Brooks on the right side of the table. Brooks, as it turns out, was the victim who died in the murder chair.
The story of Brooks’ death is a bit complicated. An old friend of his in the Bay Area had married a woman Brooks was unacquainted with. According to the story we were told, on a visit to see them, Brooks teased the friend’s new wife, Julia Howe, that he knew shocking stories of her new husband’s younger days. This prompted her to seek out Brooks for a private discussion in a very public restaurant in San Francisco. She supposedly wanted to hear the sordid stories of her husband. Seeing this clandestine meeting between the two, as innocent as it may have been, started tongues wagging. Brooks may have contributed to the gossip, according to the docent. Either way, a few years later, the wife had become a social outcast, her husband separated from her and she was ruined. She journeyed to Porterville, bought a gun, found Brooks in the Pioneer Hotel lobby, and shot him four times–the first shot passing through his heart and the chair he sat in. Amazingly, Howe was declared innocent by reason of insanity and set free.
The local newspaper of the day (which was on display on the living room couch) had a front page story about the tragedy. Interestingly, on the back page of the issue, there is a small mention of a calamity at sea–the unsinkable Titanic had sunk.
So, Brooks had been the victim in the murder chair…but it had happened in a hotel lobby and not the house? I was beginning to think we were wasting our time and my friend Erich would never let me hear the end of it (as the docent droned on and on and on…).
But then, strange things started happening. I heard the unmistakable sound of a bottle cap popping off and rattling onto a countertop. Twice. Erich later mentioned it as well, also describing it as a bottle cap. Aside from the docent (who didn’t seem to hear a thing) and ourselves, there was no one else in the house.
About this time, my phone started dinging. It was my security camera alarm, letting me know it had picked up something at the edge of the patio. I clicked to watch the video. There was nothing there. For the next half hour or so while we toured the house, about eight or nine times altogether, my security camera system kept going off. It was always the same camera at the edge of my patio and there was never anything there.
When we got to the kitchen, our tour guide docent started touching on the house’s alleged haunting. She said that she had been to a seance held in the kitchen and things started moving and flying about on their own. She pointed out a clock that had not worked in years, and said it had suddenly started chiming for a full minute during the seance and then stopped again. Creepy.
We also learned that the popular Travel Channel show, Ghost Adventures, had come out and investigated the house for an episode. I don’t recall what (if anything) was mentioned that they found, but the weirdness of the house was far from over.
After leaving the kitchen and walking through a first-floor bedroom, we headed up the narrow stairs to the second-floor.
After seeing a large bedroom that was used as a sort of family room on the second floor, we were led to what was once Anna’s bedroom. It is not uncommon for old mirrors to go through a natural desilvering process over time. This causes black streaks and discolorations on the mirror. In Anna’s room, it was pointed out to us that the photo of Anna’s husband, William Brooks, to the left of the window looked very much like the seeming desilvered image in the mirror at the right.
Almost as an after thought, just before we were to leave the room, our docent casually pointed out the murder chair. The bullet hole plainly visible.
Across the hall was Pearle’s girlhood room. It was done up as a child’s room, despite the fact that Pearle had lived to be in her mid-80s when she died in 1970. The dolls all over the room (all facing towards the door, as if waiting for Pearle to return), was creepy enough…
But then something even more bizarre was pointed out to us…
Pearle Zalud was fond of canaries. Near the small bird cage (it’s door wide open), there sits a small glass box. Inside of the box, Pearle placed the body of her beloved pet canary once it had died. (It is hard to see, wrapped in fancy handkerchiefs and all.) Weird.
In the last bedroom on the upper floor, the master bedroom, a saddle is set up at the foot of the bed. It is said that it was while sitting in this saddle that the lone son of the family, Edward, was killed during a riding accident when he and his horse fell down a hillside in 1922.
When Pearle Zalud died, she was the last of the immediate family. Instead of leaving her home, lands, and money to distant relatives, she willed it all to the city of Porterville. Some of the land went to a park that was named to honor her late brother. The house and all of its belongings (furniture, clothing, dishes, etc.) were turned into a museum. The murder chair was added to the museum as a point of historical interest.
Is the chair haunted? Is the house? According to the Ghost Adventures people, it is. We had some peculiar occurrences happen while there and there are definitely some odd “keepsakes” (the dead bird, the saddle Edward died in, the eerie desilvering mirror, etc.) within its walls.
Interest in the house possibly being haunted has given rise to paranormal investigations open to the public. At $25 a pop, amateur ghost hunters can team with professional paranormal investigators, for an evening of spine-tingling fun (hopefully). All proceeds benefit the Zalud House. Details can be found on its website.
The Zalud House
393 N Hockett St.
Porterville, CA 93257
(559) 782-7548 http://portervillecitycouncil.org/depts/ParksandLeisure/documents/ZaludHousebrochureREV.pdf
THE BIG FARMER STATUE:
When on my long drive to see some of these out-of-the-way roadside attractions, I really had not planned on seeing the Big Farmer statue. It was just a statue and the subject wasn’t that out of the ordinary. I wasn’t that interested.
However, as we were driving down Hwy 65 on the outskirts of Porterville, it suddenly dawned on me that I was bypassing the Zalud House and Stump House. I got off of the highway, drove around a bit trying to get my bearings. From a map on the phone, I discovered I needed to find Main Street and backtrack a little bit to locate the places I was looking for. Main Street was east of my location, so…
I just headed that way. When I got to the corner, imagine my surprise! There was the Big Farmer sitting on his plow right on the corner!
We didn’t pull over to get a better look, but the Big Farmer statue has a little history to it I was able to dig up. It’s a newer statue, commissioned by the city of Porterville in 1976 while the country was celebrating its bicentennial. The cement sculpture is actually called “Salute to the Farmer” and was created by Dr. Kenneth H. Fox, an Auburn-area dentist who apparently had an interest in creating large statues. The farmer is an appropriate symbol for the town and region, as it is highly agricultural.
Giant Farmer Statue/Salute to the Farmer
765 N Main St. (at Henderson Ave.)
Porterville, CA 93257
THE WORLD’S LARGEST BLACK OLIVE:
At one time, the small town of Lindsay, CA was the Olive Capital of the World. Today that honor falls to Corning in Northern California (according to Google). While losing that title may be the pits for this tiny hamlet in Tulare County, it holds the crown for another amazing title. Lindsay is home to the World’s Largest Black Olive–and it is definitely pitless.
According to information found online, the olive originally stood (sat? laid?) in front of either the Lindsay olive canning factory or the Olive Growers Co-Op. When the co-op or the factory closed down (which is strange if it was the factory, since Lindsay-brand olives are still available), the giant black olive was moved to the parking lot of the Olive Tree Inn (which went out of business and became a Super 8 Motel).
The reason I keep specifying that the Lindsay olive is the Worlds Largest Black Olive is because apparently Corning, CA is also home to the World’s Largest Green Olive, one that is allegedly (I haven’t personally seen it) bigger than the one in Lindsay. Oh well… The Lindsay olive is still beautiful in its bigness and black olives matter (especially giant roadside attraction ones).
The World’s Largest Black Olive
(In the Super Motel 8 parking lot)
258 CA HWY 65, Lindsay, CA 93247
DELANO HERITAGE PARK MUSEUM:
Not too long ago, I was looking at a long, dull drive to the South Central Valley. I had been chatting with my friend Vye the night before, wondering if there was anything I could do or see on the way down that I hadn’t experienced before. She suggested the Delano Heritage Park Museum. Uh, okay…
I have no idea how Vye heard about this place. I was completely clueless about it, but… I had never been to Delano before (other than just driving through on the 99). Why not?
Established in 1961, the Heritage Park Museum is a collection of buildings from in and around Delano that have been moved to this plot of land that is run by the Delano Historical Society. I guess the idea is to offer a peek into what it was like around the turn of the last century in Delano while preserving the town’s history.
When I arrived, the staff member in charge of the place gave me a small, fold-out brochure with some information. There was no fee (and I had no cash for a donation–not that I saw a place to leave a donation). All I was required to do was sign my name in a guest book. Here it was July 31st…and the last visitor had been there in mid-May. The staff member went with me to unlock all of the buildings. She just asked to let her know when I was done so she could lock them up again. Okay.
The houses and other buildings on the park were all built between 1876 and 1916. Visiting was interesting. One house was tiny, just one big room that was sort of divided in two for a living area and a kitchen. A second floor had been added (with a very narrow staircase going up to the dusty upper level). A schoolhouse in the park was huge (although it’s census never rose above 19 students supposedly), but spooky as there was very little lighting inside. There was an old jail you couldn’t really see into, an old firehouse, a dental office (complete with dental chair, desk, tools, a diploma on the wall, and a vintage doctor’s smock deteriorating away).
There is a small, old general store. It has a post office at the rear of it and behind that is a tiny bedroom for the store owner/postmaster. All of this was very interesting. The trouble was that there was so much vintage crap piled everywhere, places seemed more like junk stores than carefully preserved history. There was a side yard with old farming equipment, stoves, ancient refrigerators, etc. They were all clustered together and left to rust in the weather.
The Weaver House, Delano’s first Victorian-styled home, was built in 1887. Being at the far end of the park–the opposite end from the small farm house I’d first visited–I got the feeling it was supposed to be the grand finale.
While the living room was nicely done, it was still cluttered. The kitchen, parlor, sewing room, etc were junky. I mean really, who had 20 irons in their house? It looked like anything and everything that had been collected or donated was placed in one of the buildings and left to rot. In the upper floor of the Weaver House (which was accessed by an incredibly narrow first few steps before opening up only slightly more for the rest of the stairway up), there were closets filled with clothes that were just rotting and moldering away. The buildings themselves were in disrepair. It was sad.
While the stop had been a good idea of Vye’s, neither she nor I took into account it was the middle of summer in the San Joaquin Valley. It was 100 degrees while I was traipsing about the Heritage Park. The buildings, which had all been closed off, were hot and stuffy and dusty. I felt very dehydrated after my explorations. I got myself some iced tea afterwards as soon as I could.
While in preserving its history, the Delano Heritage Park Museum may have been a good idea in 1961…today the place seems more like a place where good ideas (and intentions) have gone to die. Dusty, rotting, cluttered and in disrepair, the place could do with a good going over. Toss out the excessive crap and polish up what you keep. The place has possibilities. Now it just seems to be filled with broken and discarded dreams.
Delano Heritage Park Museum
330 S Lexington St.
Delano, CA 93215
REAL AIRPLANE USED AS A RESTAURANT:
On one trip to the South Valley a few years ago (originally mentioned in another blog HERE), I was not far from Tulare, when I remembered I had forgotten to get gas before leaving town. I looked down at the gas gauge. Dang! I’d better pull off and get some fuel, I thought. As I was entering Tulare to find a station, I suddenly remembered that somewhere in town was a restaurant that was inside of an airplane. Really! I had learned about it several years earlier while editing an article at The Fresno Bee. However, I had never been before and didn’t know exactly where it was. I did remember that it was only open during lunch hours and it was just a little past 11. Was this place open and did it even still exist? I googled “airplane restaurant Tulare” and voila! Pitty’s BBQ showed up.
Since then, Pitty’s has relocated to another town. The airplane restaurant still exists, though. It’s now the Flying Taco. If I am down that way again before I move, I’d love to give it a try.
Sure, a restaurant housed in the fuselage of an old airplane is a gimmick. But, hello? I am a huge sucker for gimmicks and the one time I was down there, I wasn’t going to let a chance to eat there pass me by.
The place was super neat when I got to visit it. It was still Pitty’s then, as these photos reflect. The inside of the plane (the ONLY plane I’ve ever felt safe in, by the way. Ha!) was decked out with tables and chairs that were cleverly designed to look like cargo crates.
The cockpit still had seats for the pilots and all of the instrumentation.
The rear of the plane was the galley, where the orders were put together.
I’m not sure what Flying Taco does now, but when it was Pitty’s, the actual barbecuing was taking place on the platform near the order window.
Behind the plane was a small building that resembled a hanger.
One side of the hanger had restrooms. The other housed a small party or dining room.
It looks like a cool place to take a quick “vacation” during lunch–and apparently dinner as well now. You can visit Flying Taco’s Facebook page HERE.
240 North “L” St.
Tulare, CA 93274
GIANT COFFEE POT WATER TOWER and OLD JAIL:
Every great city has its landmark. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Pisa has its Leaning Tower. Kingsburg has it’s Giant Swedish Coffee Pot Water Tower!
Rising like some bizarrely over-caffeinated alien space ship from WAR OF THE WORLDS (Run for your lives!) or something and towering over this wanna be Swedish Village (in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley–Ha!), the Kingsburg water tower has been a town mainstay since 1911. It’s didn’t get it’s perky Swedish coffee pot makeover until 1985, though. Standing at 122 feet, this roadside oddity is tall enough to grab your attention as you speed down Highway 99. A ploy to get travelers to stop? You betcha. Does it work? Well… I stopped (after how many decades of passing it by?)
Directly beneath the water tower, …er coffee pot is the old Kingsburg Jail.
Built in 1925, the jail is tiny, measuring just 25×25 square feet. Amazingly, this place served the citizens of Kingsburg until the early 1970s. Outside, there are a couple of clever trompe l’oeil-like paintings depicting a sheriff out front and an escape attempt around the side.
The old city jail is open to the public. Admission is free, but donations are accepted (you drop them in an old, pot-bellied stove).
Inside, there is a guard’s office and two small cells. Mannequins have thoughtfully been set up to recreate what life in the jail may have been like. (I especially like the one cell with the two inmates playing cards. One of them is wearing a jacket and tie. Their beds are so neatly made and tidy–like that was ever going to happen. Ha!)
A plaque on the building gives the full history and details of the place.
Giant Coffee Pot Water Tower and Old Kingsburg Jail
1440 Draper St.
Kingsburg, CA 93631
FORESTIERE UNDERGROUND GARDENS:
Forestiere Underground Gardens is probably the most interesting thing my home town has going for it…and yet, most people don’t even know it is there. Whenever people come to visit me for the first time, it’s where I always take them. It’s unique. It’s interesting. It’s something you can’t see or experience anywhere else.
With all of the times I have been to the Underground Gardens in my nearly 50 years of living here, you’d think I’d have dozens of pictures readily available to me for this blog post, right? I can’t find any. I have no idea how that is possible…but in order to get this done, it necessitated a return to the gardens. Why not? One last poke around the amazing home of Baldassare Forestiere wouldn’t be bad at all.
Baldassare Forestiere was an immigrant from Sicily. He arrived in Boston in 1901, and went to work digging subway tunnels to earn a living. After a few years, he came west with the dream of becoming a successful citrus farmer. He purchased 80 acres in Fresno, only to discover that the rich soil he was expecting to find was nothing but hardpan that he couldn’t easily dig through. Later, while working as a ditch digger, he also discovered the hot Fresno summers with heat in the triple digits. Remembering the cellars, and catacombs of Sicily and the subway tunnels of Boston, he decided to dig himself a space underground to cool off. The more he dug, the more inventive and creative ideas came to him. He was soon living beneath the earth, but that’s not the end of his amazing story.
Using the hardpan as building blocks and the clay soil beneath it as mortar, Forestiere dug and dug and built an amazing subterranean world. All of his needs were met.
He had a well for water, ingenious ways of dealing with rain, heating and cooling–all while underground.
His living chambers are my favorite aspect of the tunnels he created. They not only are curiously comfortable looking, the are also very clever. In his kitchen, he hauled down an ice box and a wood-burning stove (vented up through the ground). At his small kitchen table, the table slide back so he could get his wood supply for the nearby stove. Shelving carved out on either side of the table is where he kept his plates and cups.
He made himself two bedrooms–one for winter and one for summer. The winter one came complete with a fireplace. The summer one was near an opening to his open-aired oasis of a yard.
Living just two miles from the San Joaquin River, Forestiere kept a small pond in his back, sunken garden to keep live fish in. Once he had the pond well stocked after a visit to the river, whenever he wanted fresh fish for dinner, all he had to do was remove them from his pond. He also had a bath tub. There was no running water. Instead, he kept a big barrel full of water up on the surface and let it heat up during the day. Then, he’d connect the barrel to the tub with a hose and bath in the naturally heated water. He even managed to install electricity so he could enjoy the radio. Brilliant!
During all of the years he was working on his house, he also worked at his dream of being a citrus farmer. He creatively realized that he could get things to grow in his open-aired dug out areas just as well as he could above ground. In fact, having things grow below ground made them the perfect height for picking at ground level.
He also amazingly grafted several trees that bore different fruit, including one tree that grew seven distinct varieties of citrus.
From 1906 when he started digging until 1916, he had tunneled his way through and planted 10 acres of his land. And then, he had another brilliant idea…
Forestiere couldn’t understand why everyone in the area insisted on living in the heat above ground. He loved his cool and pleasant abode below the surface. If only he could convince people to try living under the ground. That is when he got the inspiration to build an underground resort.
He started digging rooms for guests. He had tables with citrus trees growing out of them. He created an ingenious aquarium-like experience for his would-be guests. On one level, it looked like a pond. However, beneath the pond, with its glass bottom, visitors could look up and enjoy seeing the fish swim about.
He dug out an auto-tunnel, so guests could drive in, be dropped off, before having their cars parked elsewhere on the surface (early valet parking).
There was even a ballroom being dug out, with a stage constructed, for future dances and concerts.
Baldassare Forestiere toiled for 40 years underground, before succumbing to pneumonia following a successful hernia operation in 1946.
His plans for the resort were never realized. His 80 acres were sold off after his death, but his one brother, Giuseppe Forestiere, bought back the “heart” of the land, where Baldassare had his home and started his planned resort. It has been family owned ever since. The other tunneled sections that were sold off were eventually destroyed. The building of Highway 99 led to more of the tunnels being filled in and there is the eminent threat from the high-speed rail line that is planned to go through Fresno in the near future. Other parts of Forestiere’s underground world still exist, but are not open to the public. However, the core of it all– what is open — is simply amazing and not to be missed. Dig it!
Forestiere Underground Gardens
5021 W Shaw Ave.
Fresno, CA 93722