Primarily, it’s a biography of Thomas Baker, tracing his life from his birth in Ohio in 1810 to his death in Bakersfield in 1872 — and the man’s achievements as well as the obstacles he faced during the 62 years of his life.
Lead author Judy Salamacha has written the text in a style often referred to as “creative nonfiction” or “interpretative history.” Such a technique helps to make the story more readable than an ordinary textbook and gives life to its principal subjects.
In this case, it also makes it easier to present two stories — one that took place in the 19th century, the other in the 20th century and beyond. What readers will find is imaginary conversations based on personal diaries, newspapers and other documents as well as family lore and present-day interviews with Baker’s great-great-grandson, Chris Brewer.
It also corrects errors in previous treatments documenting the elder Baker’s life, Brewer said, like the fact that Baker was a true colonel in the Iowa Territorial Militia. Some historians have suggested the title was merely honorary.
“In those days (the 1840s), the United States didn’t have an army,” Brewer said in a recent telephone conversation about the book. “Each state was responsible for protecting its borders with its own army or militia.”
Also, as pointed out in “Colonel Baker’s Field,” before moving westward Bakersfield’s founder served in several elective offices in Iowa, including today’s equivalent of lieutenant governor. In 1841 the self-taught lawyer became the first U.S. district attorney of Polk County in Iowa Territory.
The book’s prologue begins with a rather formal dialogue between Baker at age 18 and his father, Nathan Baker. It takes place in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1828, and emphasizes the young man’s adventurous spirit and his love of books and reading.
In Chapter One, the time frame shifts to 1976 and a conversation between Brewer and Frank Capezio, a friend and fellow musician. It takes place backstage at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. During their talk, which is filled with lighthearted humor, Brewer tells Capezio he’s ready to give up his successful career as a trombonist with Paul Anka’s band and become a historian, devoting himself to researching his family’s role in the development of Bakersfield.
It continues with the introduction of Chris’ father, the late Harold Baker Brewer, who thinks that everything about their ancestor is already known and there’s no need to do any further research. Chris proves him wrong with a document verifying Thomas Baker’s standing in the Iowa armed forces during a border battle between Missouri and Iowa.
The book goes on to recount Baker’s experiences in California and the San Joaquin Valley, including being arrested for treason in Visalia — a charge that turned out to be false –and the fact he had been married three times and had nine children.
It concludes with the Baker family’s move to Kern Island, as our city was then known. It got the name because although most of the area was swampland, fed by the meandering Kern River, the only inhabitable place was a low-level knoll in the area of present-day 19th and M streets.
The book is enhanced by colorful artwork done by the author’s daughter, Jody Salamacha-Hollier. In an explanatory note, the artist said: “I used black and white historical photos as a base image, retouched and added color to the images, and then used Photoshop brushes to create a painted look.”
It also contains a timeline of the colonel’s life as well as an extensive bibliography that includes websites as well as written sources. However, the book has no footnotes or endnotes to acknowledge sources and it lacks an index, which would have been helpful.
Salamacha gives full credit to Sandy Mittelsteadt, president of a company that connects businesses to education, for coming up with the idea for the book and for guidance as it was being written.
The two women first met when they worked together on projects in Bakersfield. At the time, Salamacha held public relations and marketing positions with KGET-TV, Channel 17 and Castle & Cooke. She now lives in Morro Bay and writes a weekly column for the San Luis Obispo Tribune. She also is the director of the Central Coast Writers’ Conference at Cuesta College.
Obviously, much of the information in the book came from interviews with Brewer or from sources he made available to Salamacha and her collaborators. But according to him, there’s even more digging to do and more stories to tell.
“Although we worked pretty hard on the book, there is a ton of material that hasn’t been published,” he said. “The joy of this one is going to be the next book, with all the material in it that I’ve been gathering for years.”