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Fourth of July free barbecue!

The Spirit of Tehachapi

One of my earlier memories from the 1930s was Tehachapi's 4th of July free barbecue!

It was taken for granted that everyone would be in the City Park and have a wonderful meal that included beef prepared in deep-pit style cooking where the meat is slow cooked for 24 hours in an underground pit.

Word spreads fast when the term "free" is included and people from near and far came; some as far as Los Angeles. Our small community, in the 1930s, had a population of a scant 1,000 souls, including the farmers and their families in the outlying valleys. There was no Golden Hills, Stallion Springs or Bear Valley Springs then; just the original owners – ranchers and farmers: the Brites, Cummings, Fickerts, Banducci, Girardo, Cuddebacks, Leivas, etc. – occupying the land.

One old-time cowboy and cattle rancher, Rawley Duntley, furnished the beef for this event. I remember hearing that it took four steers to accommodate the visiting crowds that more than doubled the local population on that day. It goes without saying that when we mention the beef that was donated by Rawley, we are also speaking of his killing and dressing the meat for cooking. The American Legion and Auxiliary members helped serve and prepare the rest of the meal. I recall watching the women working late into the evening as they chopped onions and tomatoes to make the necessary salsa for the meat.

The deep pit barbecue recipe was simple and old Rawley was the chef. My friends and I watched the men as they dug a large pit on the west side of the park nearest the elementary school. When it was deep enough, they put large stones in the pit and added lots of wood which they ignited and let burn for several hours. When the fire had heated the rocks enough, a sheet of galvanized tin, the kind you see on buildings, was laid over the coals and the meat added. (The galvanizing process on the tin was later found to be toxic and is no longer used.) The beef was carefully wrapped in clean, white cloths and then put into burlap bags. The beef packages were moistened with water and laid on the sheet of tin. Another sheet of tin was laid on top of the meat bags and then dirt shoveled over the culinary creation. Twenty-four hours later it would be dug up and the meat's aroma filled the little park and was ready to be served after being carefully unwrapped. The unwrapping always drew a crowd.

There were no booths for selling items in the park; just wall-to-wall people enjoying themselves. They had just come from the annual parade that would have marched down what we then unofficially called Main Street (Tehachapi Boulevard). The High School band had played and the usual horses rode by, the American Legion members, veterans of World War I (still young enough to march together at that time) stayed in step, and the one, lone red Ford fire truck, now a local antique, made up the rolling equipment for the Volunteer Fire Department. There must have been a Grand Marshall leading the parade and assorted other parade entries but I'd have to think hard to come up with anything else.

There were hundreds of people from other cities for us to stare at and we had fun walking all over town and visiting with our friends. Our parents were somewhere in the area but they were busy so we didn't check in very often. I know children used to get kidnapped, even in those days, but fortunately none of us ever turned up missing.

During my childhood, the beautiful City Park, now Philip Marx Central Park, was a wonderful, green, cool retreat and a good place to play. But, Lon Dennison, descendent of B.M. Dennison, who planted the first Bartlett Pear orchard in Tehachapi, said that when he was in the 8th grade in 1927, there were trees planted in the open land east of the school. They didn't grow very fast for lack of regular care but it finally materialized into our City Park and is still a "cool, green, retreat."

Old time local resident Gertrude Phelps, born in 1904, and teacher of hundreds of local children, also wondered if those same trees would ever get big enough to provide any shade. Later she was able to say, in her vintage years, that they would probably outlive her. They did.

The free barbecue event was repeated for some years. Local businesses stayed open and it was a profitable venture. Then, in 1941 the City of Tehachapi announced that they would be charging 10 cents for the barbecue meal to cover the cost of the rest of the food provided and for the paper plates. It seemed a sensible decision and everyone seemed willing to pay a dime for the meal; even the "out of towners."

Rawley Duntley, however, took a different stand on the 10 cent per plate meal saying that it was the last time he'd give beef for the barbecue. He stated that if he could donate the meat the city could foot the bill for a few beans and the paper plates. Being a good guy he would have probably changed his mind but, as it turned out, it was the last time for the event. Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7 of that year and World War II began changing the lives and priorities of the citizens.

Some of us, though, are still around who remember the free barbecue in the park and the parade on "Main Street" on the Fourth of July.