Judy Barras Lee: a friend of Tehachapi
Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi
September 16, 2023
Judy Barras Lee was a Tehachapi author who wrote The Long Road to Tehachapi, Tehachapi: The Formative Years, an earlier book about Tehachapi's history, including a fascinating chapter on the Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) Indian people, and Their Places Shall Know Them No More, a memoir about her explorations into Nuwä culture and her visits to traditional sites.
I was always interested in Tehachapi history, even as a little kid, and Judy was unfailingly kind to me and answered any questions I had. I was only 10 years old when I met her, and the first thing she did was tell me that I didn't have to keep calling her Mrs. Barras: "It's Judy," she said, "I know we're going to be friends and you can just call me Judy." And she called me JonJon and for years we shared our mutual interest in Tehachapi and its history.
Judy first came to Tehachapi in 1965 and was always interested in the local Indian people. She became friends with many of the Nuwä, including Andy Greene, Harold Williams, Bertha Goings and others, and as she learned about their culture and lifeways, she decided she wanted to write a book about them. It was while doing research about the Nuwä that she discovered so much information about Tehachapi's pioneer history, and that led to her books about local history.
Judy and I have much in common: not only did both of us work as writers and photographers for the Tehachapi News, but neither of us ever went to college and are self-taught, so I especially appreciate her achievements.
Judy was hired at the Tehachapi News back in the early 1970s when Dick and Warren Johnson were still the publishers, and she later became a correspondent for the Bakersfield Californian and I went to work for the News. We would run into each other when we were covering the same events, like Tehachapi City Council meetings, and sometimes I took her rolls of film down to the Californian if I was going to Bakersfield. There was no digital photography in those days and she typically sent her film down on the Orange Belt bus to Bakersfield, but the bus only came once a day and if she missed it the film had to be taken down the hill some other way.
Despite her lack of formal training in writing or researching, Judy was meticulous and thorough when gathering information for her books. She spent countless hours visiting the Kern County Hall of Records, the Beale Library, the Huntington Library, and any other sources of Tehachapi historical information that she could find. She traveled throughout Kern County to meet Native people and other oldtimers. Most people writing about Tehachapi history today borrow freely from her books (usually without attribution) because of the wealth of data and detail. But she wasn't troubled by people utilizing the results of her research.
"From my perspective, I wrote my books because I wanted to share what I had learned," Judy explains. "They gave me so much joy to write, since I was learning more about places and people that interested me so much. I loved it."
Judy Lee passed away about 5 years ago, but her books remain a valued resource for those interested in Tehachapi, and she herself was a treasure whose generosity and enthusiasm for sharing knowledge have enriched this area's culture.