It doesn’t look like any natural history museum you ever saw before. First, it doesn’t stand in the middle of a big park-like lawn. And it’s not a fantastic piece of Victorian architecture. Instead, it’s a pastel-painted former JC Penney store in the middle of a tired downtown block in good old Bakersfield, California.
The Buena Vista Museum of Natural History is the only museum anywhere that documents the geology, zoology and paleontology of California’s great San Joaquin Valley, which extends from the Tehachapis to Sacramento. At the Buena Vista, there's everything from dinosaurs, large and small, down to an amazing collection of dinosaur eggs and even dinosaur fetuses.
The Valley as it is now began to form about the time those dinosaurs became extinct, leaving behind the sprawling petroleum resources that gave Kern County some of the nation’s richest oil fields, and also leaving a rich fossil record.
Then came the flood, as museum board member Tim Elam explains. "Kern County," he says, "is where Northern California geology meets Southern California geology, so we've got a variety of rocks, and we are an area that was once covered by the Pacific Ocean, and that is why we tend to find marine fossils."
A primal sea lion skeleton does broad-pawed breaststrokes over the museum's display cases. The Buena Vista also has an astounding hoard of shark remains, ranging from huge, menacing maws to a flourish of shark teeth excavated at the nearby Sharktooth Hill. The museum staff takes members on regular tooth digs on the hill.
Two million years ago, the ocean was replaced by a freshwater lake, which had shrunk to three separate lakes by the time the first Native Americans showed up. The Yokuts were just one of the local tribes the lakes nourished. Once Anglo settlers began farming the Valley in the 19th century, the big lakes disappeared into their irrigation ditches.
Then all that oil was found at the dawn of the 20th century, and the story of modern Kern County began.
In its wall charts and specimen cases, the museum tells this story to around 14,000 people a year, many or most of them children. But I suspect that what excites the kids even more than the geology and the dino remnants is the thoroughly non-PC but incredible collection of taxidermied animals. These come from a benefactor who traveled and hunted in Africa, Asia and Australia.
There used to be other museums like this in Central California, but the Buena Vista is the last one left. It’s mostly volunteer run, and functions without government funding apart from some local grants. Elam says they’re nearly halfway into a $300,000 campaign to buy the old JC Penney building that houses them.
The Buena Vista Museum of Natural History is at 2018 Chester Avenue in Bakersfield. It's open Thursday through Saturday, 10 to 4, and Sunday noon to 4.
Make sure to check out the rest of Marc Haefele's writing on Bakersfield, which he says is worth more than a day trip.