History of Shafter


General William Shafter

Bakersfield and Shafter are growing closer by the day. One day, in the not too distant future, the two will only be separated by a sign. But hopefully no one will forget the history of Bakersfield’s northern neighbor and its importance in the development of Kern County.

Shafter is named after General William Rufus Shafter. Shafter was born Oct. 16, 1835, in Michigan.  He served as a first lieutenant in the Union Army’s 7th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment and earned the highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for his heroism during the Battle of Fair Oaks. Shafter was injured on the first day of the campaign, but concealed his injuries from his troops and continued to fight in the second day of battle.

Later, he was captured at the Battle of Thompson’s Station in Tennessee on March 5, 1863, and spent three months in a Confederate prison camp. He earned the rank of colonel and commanded the 17th Infantry, which was composed of African-American troops. As the Civil War ended, Shafter was serving as a brevet brigadier general. He was mustered out of the Army in November 1866.  But, not wanting to go back to civilian life as a teacher, Shafter petitioned the Army for a commission. In January 1867 he was offered the rank of lieutenant colonel and commended the 41st Colored Infantry. He served in this capacity for 15 years in West Texas and became known as Pecos Bill. In addition, Shafter did have one encounter with the Sioux Indians in South Dakota. In 1897, Shafter earned the rank of brigadier general and commanded units in the Spanish-American War. His role in the Spanish surrender in 1898 made him an instant hero.

After retiring from the military in 1901, Shafter moved onto a large ranch owned by his son-in-law and daughter, Captain William and Mary McKittrick. He eventually bought about 60 acres south of Bakersfield near Wible and Bear Mountain roads.  Near that site is where you will find the General Shafter School named in his honor. One last note on Shafter: He was a large man weighing 300 pounds or more. Thus, previous historical accounts indicate that whenever he traveled around Kern County he was likely to hire youngsters to accompany him to open gates so he did not have to get in and out of his buggy. He passed away on Nov. 12, 1906.

The town of Shafter got its start in 1913. It was that year the Kern County Land Company began to offer land for sale and built the Green Hotel, which opened that November to provide lodging for prospective buyers, according to the city of Shafter’s Web site. The hotel is the town’s oldest commercial building. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a California Point of Interest. The hotel, located in downtown Shafter near the corner of Central Avenue and James Street, is fully restored and is open by invitation throughout the year. Tours may be arranged by appointment. For details, call 746-1913.

The famous lot sale of downtown Shafter was held in l914. I learned more about this many years ago while I was giving a program to the Shafter Kiwanis titled “You Never Know What You Will Find in a Dumpster.” The program was a series of old slides that had been found in the Fox Theater’s Dumpster. One slide, which had Shafter 1914 written on it, was of the famous lot sale complete with the Green Hotel in the background. The joy of that program for me was that each time I gave it I learned something about Kern County history.

Early settlers called Henry Jastro the father of Shafter as the town was a KCL project, from laying out the town, naming its streets, enticing farmers to settle, and offering free lots for churches, schools, etc.  

Along with McFarland, Shafter was one of the first two communities outside of Bakersfield to be part of the Kern High School District. Shafter High School opened in 1929.

The town is a bastion for agriculture, and in 1918 the U.S. Department of Agriculture established an 80-acre experimental farm there with a focus on cotton. This farm is where the Acala variety of cotton was developed, tested and perfected.  Over the years, the station has been an important part of keeping not only the Central Valley but also the United States a leader in agriculture.

Over the years, Shafter has laid to claim the distinction of being the potato capital of Kern County and California.