If you were a sheep farmer from the Basque region in France around the turn of the 20th century, you were in good company here in Kern County.
Wool Growers is located in a part of East Bakersfield, a district which is home to many Basque cuisine restaurants. This is known to many as the Basque Block.
In 1874, the Southern Pacific railroad was extended to the southern San Joaquin Valley. Bakersfield was positioned to be a whistle-stop, but a land dispute developed between the city and the railroad. Southern Pacific wanted two blocks of land from the city, Bakersfield was only willing to give one block. The result of the dispute was Southern Pacific building its tracks five miles east of Bakersfield and founding their own town. That town was called Sumner in honor of Joseph W. Sumner, and mine owner and judge. It would eventually become East Bakersfield. The Sumner post office opened in 1876.
Since the train went through Sumner, instead of Bakersfield, it was a serious competitor to the city. However, the citizens of Bakersfield rallied, and maintained a presence in their city. By 1888, a street car line was built between Bakersfield and Sumner. The route was down 19th St, and was the only road that connected the two settlements.
By 1892, Sumner, which was now known as Kern City, would incorporate into a city. Bakersfield, which deincorporated (or dissolved as a city) in 1874, would begin to reconsider becoming a city. Six years later, Bakersfield would vote to reincorporate, and became a city again. It was also the same year Bakersfield became its own whistle-stop with the building of the San Francisco and San Joaquin Railroad, which was later bought by Santa Fe.
With the construction of the railroad, the need for Kern City diminished. By 1910, Kern City voted to join Bakersfield. It also became known as East Bakersfield. This became Bakersfield’s first major expansion outside its central boundaries. Most of the cities second service locations would be in East Bakersfield. These would include: second fire station, second library (Baker Street Branch), and high school (East Bakersfield High School).
Old Town Kern is located primarily around Baker Street, and was the former central business district for the town of Sumner (which was later renamed Kern City). This was the location of the original train station in Bakersfield and competed to be the commercial downtown, eventually losing to the present location west of Old Town Kern.
And there’s no better person to learn about Basque culture and cuisine than from 86-year-old Mayie Maitia.
Maitia opened Wool Growers in 1954 saying, "This business is many hours, when you have family, it’s hard. But it has it’s good thing, you help a lot of people and they help you too.”
She and her husband immigrated from the Bascue region of France in 1947.
Maitia always had a dream of owning her own restaurant, so, in 1954 the couple opened Wool Grower’s. She said, "It's family, you always feel welcomed."
First comes family, then comes the food. And in Basque cuisine, it’s all about the setup.
”It's good for families, the beans, the soup,” Maitia said.
After that, comes pickled tongue, pasta, French fries and your choice of meat.
When 23ABC News' Tim Calahan visited the restaurant, chefs prepared hundreds of orders of fried chicken.
And something most may not be familiar with is the ox tail, which is a Basque favorite.
"Food, enjoyed in a group setting, with family close by—all by design," said Wool Growers owner Jenny Maitia-Poncetta.
Jenny Maitia-Poncetta, said, "It gives you a family feeling. It’s served family style so you feel like your in a family atmosphere, and it’s getting everyone together, everybody’s is happy. You have plenty of food, and of course you have to have a little wine to go along with the Basque meal and that makes everyone happy."
Jenny Maitia-Poncetta, who is now the second generation to help run Wool Growers, is helped along side by her daughter.
Jenny Maitia-Poncetta and Christiane Camou
Jenny Maitia-Poncetta says the success of the restaurant is due to the hard work of her parents.
“They're very proud of what they've accomplished, considering they were two immigrants that came from France with nothing," Jenny Maitia-Poncetta said. "I was only 2-years-old when my mom started the restaurant, my brother was only two-weeks-old. I don’t know how she did it.”
Calahan met Charles J. Schmidt, who was celebrating his 97th birthday said that Wool Growers still feels like home. Schmidt said that he lost his wife years ago, but still frequents the restaurant.
”It makes me happy, it makes me happy coming here," Schmidt said. "The Basque is our special occasion, if we have one in the family. We come here.”
The Maitia family now realizes they’ve built something special in Kern County, something long lasting.
This success only came with time, and hard work.
“They grow up and then they’re your customers," Jenny Maitia-Poncetta said. "They come back with their family and their kids.”
Now the common folk aren't the only ones who have dined at Wool Growers; celebrities have also eaten at the restaurant.
- Fergie, of the Black Eyed Peas, dine at Wool Growers in 2013.
- Barbara Streisand and James Brolin enjoyed dinner on several occasions at the restuarant.
- Judge Wapner, from the People's Court, regularly dined at Wool Growers.
- Former Governor and US President and Ronald Regan was often seen at Wool Growers eating the fries.
The late Huell Howser also spent some time at the restaurant during one of his tapings of California's Gold.