Author photo

By Jon Hammond
contributing writer 

Tehachapi Oldtimers Reunion: More than 60 years of sharing memories, stories and laughter

Land of Four Seasons

 

August 5, 2023

Jon Hammond.

In 1984, longtime schoolteacher Gertrude Phelps, 91, was the oldest woman in attendance at the Tehachapi Oldtimers Picnic and she is shown planting a kiss on Claude Wells, 93, her former school principal and namesake of Wells Elementary School who was the oldest man in attendance that year.

There are two events that have occurred every August for many decades in Tehachapi. One is the annual Tehachapi Mountain Festival, typically on the third weekend in August, and the other is the Tehachapi Oldtimers Reunion, held on the first Sunday in August.

The Oldtimers Reunion is open to people who have lived in the Tehachapi area for at least 40 years, and also to anyone who lived here 40 years ago or more, even if they moved away long ago. It's a chance for people who don't get to see each other often to visit, get caught up, and savor memories of earlier times in Tehachapi.

There are always several generations represented and these are people who remember the Tehachapi of an earlier time, when fewer than 100 kids (or even fewer than 20!) graduated from Tehachapi High School each spring, when there were no fast food restaurants in the area and not many lights in the Tehachapi countryside at night, when Tehachapi and Mojave had a fierce football rivalry, the high school had a huge bonfire for Homecoming and the packing sheds on Tehachapi Boulevard were used for processing potatoes, seeds and assorted fruit.

The event started as the Oldtimers Picnic in 1959 primarily by Herb and Ola Mae Force. Ola was descended from the Haigh and Boden families, some of Tehachapi's earliest settlers, and her husband was one of Tehachapi's first historians, a man who treasured history and antiques before most people in California had ever heard of an antique store. Herb and Ola wanted to get some of the older residents of town together, people who remembered when a horse and wagon were the main means of traveling in Tehachapi.

The first Tehachapi Oldtimers Picnic was held in City Park (now called Phil Marx Central Park) in the summer of 1959. It was open to anyone who lived in the area in 1919 or before. Many of those who attended the free picnic had either moved here or been born here in the late 1800s, and most had been involved in farming or ranching. These pioneers and settler descendents enjoyed getting together and reminiscing so much, it was decided that they would do it again the following year. More than 60 years later, the Tehachapi Oldtimers Picnic still takes place on the first Sunday of every August. Those who qualify as an Oldtimer receive their meal for free, and others are welcome too but are charged $15 for lunch.

Tehachapi Mayor Mike Davies currently serves as master of ceremonies. Longtime Tehachapi dentist and native son Dr. Curt Madding was the master of ceremonies for many years, and he cherished the annual celebration. "I started going to the Oldtimers Picnic since I turned 40 in 1979," Curt once told me. "I enjoy it because I get to see people that I knew and admired when I was a little boy. It's a nice melding of Tehachapi people, and it's great to rub elbows with people who know more about Tehachapi than I do."

Curt's parents, Roy and Sue-Ellen Madding, moved to Tehachapi in the 1930s. "My Dad was 6-foot, 6-inches tall, and he and Ben Sasia were the tallest men in Tehachapi," Curt remembered. "My Dad worked for the City of Tehachapi as an equipment operator, and also worked as a night watchman until 11 p.m."

One of the early emcees of the Oldtimers Picnic was longtime rancher Bud Cummings, who also donated beef that was deep-pitted and served to those who attended. Everybody knew each other, and there was a wealth of stories exchanged. From the beginning, the oldest man and woman in attendance were singled out for special recognition.

The Tehachapi Valley Recreation and Parks District began assisting with the event in the 1970s, and Steve Minton, another longtime resident who was raised in Tehachapi, helped out as the master of ceremonies. Rainbow Girls from the local Eastern Star Lodge helped serve the meals. Now the Tehachapi High School football players from each of the three teams help set up, serve and clean up, and they do a great job.

Now the main sponsors of the Tehachapi Oldtimers Reunion are the City of Tehachapi and the Tehachapi Valley Recreation and Parks District. It is organized by a committee including Donna Dieterle, Joyce Young Davies, Sheila Hamilton Townsend, Pat Gracey and Mary Morphis.

As the numbers who attended the gathering each year grew, it became harder and harder to provide shade for everyone, so after the West Park Activity Center opened in 1988, the decision was made to move the event indoors in 1990. The celebration was moved back outdoors into the park by popular acclaim about 10 years ago. The name was also changed to Tehachapi Oldtimers Reunion, since it was more of a reunion than a picnic.

A changing cast of volunteers have helped with the Oldtimers Picnic in different ways over the years, including Ruth Ruff, Jerrie Cowan, Kim Cummings, Bob Samano, Rawley Duntley, Del Troy and many others. Kelcy Owens, the namesake of Kelcy's Restaurant, also served as the emcee for a number of years. The TVRPD has kept the event going, all the way back to the tenure of manager Walt Dye, and has continued with more recent organizers like Ashley Krampien and Brenda Cavazos.

The term "Oldtimer" is relative, of course, and there are people in their early 40s who attend, as well as others of various ages all the way up to guests who are their 90s. Some people bring their kids and grandkids or great-grandkids. If you lived in Tehachapi in 1983 or before, you are now officially an Oldtimer.

Tehachapi Heritage League.

In 1974, Nuwä (Kawaiisu) Indian basketmaker Ramona Greene, 82, was the oldest woman in attendance, and she is shown with master of ceremonies Bud Cummings.

Those who attend each year include people who remember when passenger trains still stopped in Tehachapi, when locals bought their clothes at the Koutroulis Department Store or Yeager's, when kids walked to school through the 40-acre pear orchard in town, or shopped for groceries at Town and Country Market or C & P Market, or remember when you could tell from the number of blasts on the fire siren where the fire was. . . and they enjoy attending the Tehachapi Oldtimers Picnic and visiting with others who recall those vanished times.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at tehachapimtnlover@gmail.com.

 
 

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