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BIOGRAPHICAL

 

baker.jpg (14178 bytes)COLONEL THOMAS BAKER

 

Colonel Thomas Baker is eminently deserving of particular mention in the historical and biographical records of Kern county, for it was very largely due to his farsighted vision, his initiative spirit and his wisely directed efforts that this locality received its early impetus toward that splendid development which has characterized it. A man of keen and alert mentality, sterling character and high sense of honor, he exerted a marked influence in this section of the state and there has never been denied him a due share of credit for establishing the community on a sound and permanent basis, on which has been reared the prosperus and substantial civilization of later years.

Colonel Baker was born in 1810, in Zanesville, Ohio, at that time a part of Virginia, and was a direct descendent of Colonel Thomas Baker, an officer in the Revolutionary war who served on the staff of General Washington. In the paternal line he traced his ancestry back to the Bakers of the west of England, members of the nobility, whose titles extended back for several hundred years.

Thomas Baker of this review was reared and educated in the states of Ohio, Illinois and Iowa. lie read law and was admitted to the bar of Ohio, and it was there that he won the title of colonel through his service in the state militia. In later years he was also a member of the California state militia. In his law studies he had specialized in land law, in which he came to be regarded as an authority, and he also acquired a thorough knowledge of surveying, which work he followed for many years as occasion gave opportunity. In 1832 he went to eastern Iowa, of which locality he was one of the earliest settlers and from which he was later driven out by the Indians, while his cabin was burned to the ground. However, he had gained the confidence of some of the red men to such a degree that they warned him of. the impending Black Hawk massacre, giving him time to escape. In 1838 he settled near what is now Washington, Iowa. To Colonel Baker belonged the distinction of being the first United States district attorney of the territory of Iowa, which office he held until the organization of the state government. He was elected a member of the first legislature of that state and many of the laws of the original code were suggested and drafted by him. He was chosen president of the senate, thus becoming, ex officio, the first lieutenant governor of the state of Iowa. He had a profound knowledge of the law; was an enthusiastic student of Sir William Blackstone’s commentaries of the English common law, and a copy of his annotations of said work, in his own handwriting, was recently discovered. It was brought to the attention of the Boalt College of Law at Berkeley, the law department of the University of California, where its merits were instantly recognized, and it was transcribed. Several copies were issued and are in use by Berkeley students of Blackstone to this day. Colonel Baker served for many years as a member of the examining board which conducted law examinations for the earlier candidates for admission to the bar of California.

During the stirring days of 1849, as was the case with thousands of others, Colonel Baker’s attention was drawn to California and in the following year he crossed the plains and located at Benicia. Later he went to Stockton and in 1852 removed to Tulare county, where he became one of the founders of Visalia, the county seat. He at once began to ‘take an active part in local public affairs and, his ability and character being recognized, he was, in 1855, elected to the state legislature, in which he served one term. In 1858 he was appointed receiver of the new United States land office at Visalia and during 1861-62 he was again elected to the legislature, serving as senator from Fresno and Tulare counties. Shortly afterwards, in partnership with Harvey Brown, he purchased the huge swamp land franchise owned by Montgomery brothers, including the lands along the Kern river reaching north to Fresno. In September, 1863, he arrived at Kern island to enter upon the tremendous task of reclaiming the swamp land. He was quick to recognize the future possibilities of this locality and felt that here he had found the right place for his permanent home. He prophesied with remarkable accuracy the coming of the railroads, as well as the logical routes by which they would enter the valley. Another remarkable instance of his prescience was his prophecy of the oil development, which became a fact years after his death.

Some thirty-one thousand acres of land were included in the tract designed for reclamation, and so successful was Colonel Baker in his operations that he lived to see a thriving village of five hundred people established, becoming the nucleus of the present prosperous city of Bakersfield. He took a deep personal interest in the development of the new community and was exceedingly generous in his aid to those who located here. Many of the most eligible business sites were donated by him to those enterprising ones who were associated with him, and he ever held out a helping hand to those struggling to secure a foothold, being liberal in granting home sites to those he felt would make proper use of them. To such an extent did he go with his benefactions that in the end he had given away all but eighty acres of his land, which now lies in the heart of the city. However, he was judicious in his giving and his generosity contributed immeasurably to the upbuilding and advancement of the community. The city of Bakersfield was fittingly named after him. Soon after coming here he planted alfalfa, corn, beans, potatoes and other crops near the old ford across the Kern river where the city of Bakersfield is now located. Generous to a fault, he allowed immigrants to camp there and cut the alfalfa for forage, and help themselves to other food products. He would say to them:

"Help yourself but don’t waste anything." The green field was a veritable oasis in a wilderness, and Colonel Tom Baker’s hospitality became proverbial. Traveling immigrants were wont to say: "If we can only make Colonel Baker’s field by night we shall be sure of getting food for ourselves and our stock and a place to camp." Thus, in the most natural way, the abbreviated "Bakersfield" came to denote this favored spot. A civil engineer as well as a lawyer, Colonel Baker founded the city and was the author of its street system with its broad and beautiful thoroughfares. In nearly every other city that the Colonel had ever visited, the streets were only sixty-six feet wide, but he thought that too narrow, hence provided for streets eighty-two feet in width, which has become a very distinguishing feature of the city of Bakersfield.

In 1857 Colonel Baker was united in marriage to Mrs. Ellen Whalen nee Alverson, who had come to this state five years previously and who, braving the hardships and uncertainties of the new life in this then undeveloped country, became his helpmate in the truest sense of the word, assisting and encouraging him in every possible way. She was Mrs. Ellen Baker Tracy at the time of her death and is represented in a separate sketch on another page of this work.

Colonel Baker died November 24, 1872, in the sixty-third year of his age, honored and beloved by all who knew him. He was a man of calm and equable temperament, possessed a kindly and affable manner and was cool and level-headed under all circumstances. He was distinguished for his fair-mindedness and sense of justice and to an unusual degree commanded the confidence and respect of his fellowmen, who recognized and appreciated the large part he had played in the promotion of the welfare of the community.

 

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