June 2004 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts




Tall Tales Along The Kernville Trails

by Cecile Page Vargo

This month we take a break from our Western Mojave adventures and head for the Piute Mountains high in the Sequoia National Forest.  Join  us as we sit around the campfire sharing the stories of the liars of Old Kernville.  


Lying George Pettingill

The Genius Who Couldn’t Spell His Own Name

           Somewhere above the town of Wofford Heights, and before the summit of Greenhorn Mountain, a dirt road leads to what was the home of the greatest liar of the Kern River Diggins. In a flat area beside Tilly Creek, George Pettingill ran the tollhouse for the old McFarland Toll Road. In addition to collecting tolls from weary travelers, he often entertained them with his tales, tall and true.

          George Pettingill spent his younger years sailing, fighting Indians, and soldiering.  He had no particular skills in reading and writing but he “wuz hell for single-handed talkin’.” His outlandish stories have been passed on from generation to generation. Although people laughed at his yarns in the old days, and still do today, Pettingill was not out for only a laugh. As the boys sat around the old tobacco stained stove, Pettingill would come up with spur of the moment stories to ease the boredom of another’s careless truths. George Pettingill couldn’t stand half-baked liars, but was “mighty hard hit by it himself.”

 The Chemist of La Mismo Gulch

           While working his La Mismo Gulch claim, George Pettingill became familiar with the neighboring claim owner. This fellow spent Sundays, and rainy days as an amateur chemist. He had a bench in a blacksmith shop where he did his chemical experiments. He rushed out of that shop one day with his eyes “shinin’ kinda queer-like” and told Pettingill about the most “explosive” explosive he was working on. He not only told George Pettingill, but he told all the scientists he knew, as well, and invited them into his blacksmith shop for a demonstration. When the day came and the scientists were gathered around the amateur chemists bench, he took a pin and touched it’s point to the contents of a whiskey glass. The whiskey glass held the new-fangled explosive. The glass was then handed to a Mexican boy that was waiting on his mule. The boy was told to “ride hell fer leather” four miles up the river and hide in an old tunnel so he would be safe from the impending explosion. The chemist touched an anvil with the explosive coated pinpoint and grabbed a single jack, tapping the anvil in the same place. The explosion happened so suddenly the poor man didn’t have time to let go of the handle of the hammer and was thrown right in to the roof of the blacksmith shop. George Pettingill said that the hole in the roof was so small, the chemist's boots were jerked off.

 Hard Rock Miner & Jerk Line Skinner

           George Pettingill was a man who held many jobs over the years. At one time he worked as a mucker in the Mother Lode mines. He claimed to have lost that job because they couldn’t break enough rock to keep him busy. All day the miners would drill the face of the tunnel. The drill steel was eventually dull from all of the drilling. A double shift was worked so they could sharpen the steel. When the next shift went back into the tunnel, Pettingill said the drill-holes stuck out three and a half inches from the rock. 

          At a time when the roads were “considerably rougher and much more crooked”, George Pettingill hauled timber from My Harmon’s old mill on Greenhorn Mountain to the famous  Big Blue mine in Whiskey Flat. When he returned, of course, he would haul supplies back up to the mill. On one of the return trips, Pettingill allowed his black and white coachman pup to follow behind the wagon. At the top of the summit, he stopped his eight-horse team to pitch camp. He looked around and realized his dog was missing. George Pettingill re-traced the crooked road for three and a half miles by foot, then suddenly came to his dog cramped on a turn.

 “Feenominal” Growth

           When George Pettingill wasn’t talking about his mining and prospecting days, he enjoyed talking about the “feenominal” growth in the area. He loved to tell about the “punkin” seeds that were spread on the ridge above J. W. Sumner’s Ranch. Sumner’s cow grazed in the area where the seeds were spread. One day she wandered into a pumpkin blossom and “got caught up in the growin’ process.” George said that cow disappeared until fall when the “punkins” had grown to enormous proportions. One was so huge that it’s sheer weight pulled it from the vine. That big old “punkin” rolled down the ridge and fell against a big boulder.  When it busted, Sumner’s cow walked out from where it had been grazing that spring. That cow had gotten caught up in the “punkin” blossom and wound up spending it’s summer growing as it grazed inside the pumpkin.

          George Pettingill also enjoyed telling stories about the gooseberry vine that he passed by every morning and evening when he was “going and coming” to work on his La Mismo Gulch placer claim. The bush always attracted his attention because it had just one blossom that grew right out of its top. The berry grew up on one side and down on the other side from the stem, taking on an amazing size. One evening Pettingill realized that the under side had grown down until it “almost teched the ground.”  The next morning, much to his surprise, Pettingill found the berry and the vine had rolled off down the slope to the bottom of La Mismo Gulch. “That darn gooseberry had kept right on growin’ till it pulled the vine right up by its roots!”

 Hunting Stories

           Hunting, of course, was another activity that George Pettingill enjoyed. One time he was up at Bar Trap Flat and ran into a big old grizzly bear. Pettingill shot at him with his old muzzle-loader, and the “bar” made for him before he could reload. He headed for the nearest tree, dropping his gun as he jumped up and reached for a low limb.  As he grabbed for  “greater heights”, the “bar” swiped at him and raked his left boot off. He hurried on up to safety higher in the tree, then finally looked down to see that “bar” pointing his rifle at him.  The grizzly snapped the trigger and motioned to Pettingill to throw down some ammunition. After awhile, Pettingill said the “bar” grabbed the boot he had slapped off of him, and slipped it on his left rear leg.  Many hunters claimed to have seen the grizzly bear track, but would not follow it because it appeared he was being tracked down by a one legged hunter.  Word has it that the “ ‘bar wore George Pettingill’s boot ‘till the heel turned and the sole wuz gone.  Pettingill could tell by the fringe left around the foot imprint, that the “bar wore that boot like a spat.”

          Pettingill also talked of hunting for buck along the foot of Sawtooth Mountain . Near the bluff at the mountain top, he saw a big buck. It was a long shot, and way up the hill, but Pettingill aimed high and pulled extra hard on the trigger. As he stepped aside to see around the powder smoke the buck staggered and fell. He scrambled up the slope to find the carcass “laying there “festerin’.” “It was bad enough fer that venison to spile before I could reach it; but wuz an extra heavy blow fer me to reelize later that I strained my gun in makin’ that long uphill shot. The gun would never carry up worth a damn after that.”

          Out at Greaser Gulch, George Pettingill ran across another big buck. He aimed and fired and the buck dropped in his tracks. Pettingill traveled across the canyon where the animal was. He leaned his empty gun against a boulder while he stood and admired his game. As he whipped his knife out in his right hand to cut the deer throat and bleed it, the buck jumped up and started down the draw. Pettingill didn’t have time to re-load his gun but lunged and grabbed for the deer tail with his free hand, as it startled. George Pettingill said it was a lucky lunge, as he managed to insert his middle finger up the buck’s ass half way to the first joint. “I chased that buck seven and a half miles up hill and down before I could gain enough to crook my finger.”

The Genius Who Couldn’t spell His own Name

           An old timer said that George Pettingill was “a genius who never took the trouble to put anything down fer keeps.” Folks said that the storyteller from the Kern River Diggins couldn’t even spell his own name.   In fact, the only place his name was ever seen spelled out completely was on his tombstone, which is decorated with a flag by Whiskey Flat Veterans every Decoration Day because Pettingill had always said he had “done some soldierin’.” George Pettingill will always be remembered for his yarns “that’ll be floatin’ around from mouth to mouth long after his headstone has crumpled like an old dump on Cula Vaca Mountain.”

 The Prevaricators

           A man by the name of George Washington King ran a store in old Isabella. He was known for grubstaking a lot of the prospectors in the area and it was said that he held quick claim deeds to a lot of prospectors’ dreams. King enjoyed dreams of his own, as well. He was quite proud of the stories he told that darned near approached the status of those told by famous George Pettingill.

          Like George Pettingill, George Washington King had a few buck stories of his own.  He loved to tell of the wise old buck roaming Cook’s Peak on Greenhorn Mountain. Cook Peak appears as a round inverted cone thick with trees where it rises from the main ridge. The old buck took advantage of this every time someone would try to track him, and would begin circling the peak, until the buck was actually tracking the hunter from a safe distance. King would go round and round that cone shaped mountain and never could “ketch” that buck. This happened several times before King realized what was going on. Once he did, he waited until the next time he was out on the bucks trail and “follered” him half way around Cook’s Peak. King jumped behind a nearby tree and watched his backtrack.  As expected, the buck came up sniffing King’s tracks, and peering ahead for a glimpse of him through the thick fir trees. George Washington Kingh waited until the buck got abreast of him and “shot him right through the holler.”

  Civil War Soldiers

           George Washington King had a bit of competition in his tall tales. “Truthful” Brown, the Bodfish postmaster, enjoyed telling exaggerated stories of his own. The citizens of Isabella and Bodfish enjoyed aggravating the prevaricators hoping to prod them on to “greater creative heights.”

          King enjoyed telling stories of his Civil War adventures as a Confederate soldier. He always included the details of his eventual capture by the Union Army, then ended his narration with praises of the man who commanded the forces, “That man was an officer and a gentleman. He granted me all the courtesies of his camp and treated me as an equal in every respect.“

          Truthful Brown enjoyed telling his own military stories. He always presented himself as the “one who gallantly fought to free the slaves and save the Union .” Upon hearing George Washington King’s tale, he announced, “This is one time old George has spoken the truth. I ought to know. I was the officer who captured him.”

          In addition to winning the battle over Civil War adventures, Truthful Brown enjoyed telling people about his trip down the winding crooked canyon road to Hobo Hot Springs. He was hauling hay down the road one day, and kept hearing unusual noises behind him. Each time he heard the noise, he would try to look behind him to see what was going on, but the road was so crooked it demanded more of his attention than the noise did. At the sharpest of curves he heard the noise once again, and decided this time he had to take a longer look. When he did, he realized the noise he was hearing was the sound of his lead horses eating hay from the back of the loaded wagon.  

 King vs Murray

           George Washington King may have lost the round with Truthful Brown, but he made up for it when he ran into Bill Murray. George Washington King and Bill Murray were friends until King lent Murray his horse and buggy for a trip to Kernville. Halfway to Kernville, near the power canal, King’s horse dropped dead and Murray was thrown out of the buggy. When King found out about the accident, he took Murray to court, suing him for damages incurred in the death of his horse. Murray, of course, counter sued hoping to collect for the emotional upset and physical damage suffered in the “demise of a pore old horse that never should have been loaned out.”  After testimonies and counter testimonies by both men, Judge Vrooman threw the case out of court. Both men felt wronged and refused to speak to each other for the rest of their lives.

          George Washington King and Bill  Murray managed to ignore each other most of the time, each pretending the other wasn’t around, even when they were physically in presence of one another. Often third parties were enlisted to help the two of them ignore each other. The day that Bill Murray decided to clean out the premises of the deserted Murray Brothers Saloon, Ardis Walker walked up to see what was going on.  Walker told Murray that George Washington King was watching him as he placed old bottles into cases. Murray saw his chance, and asked Walker to tell George Washington King that he was going to wash the bottles and use them for bootlegging. When Ardis Walker did approach George he asked him what he thought about Bill Murray’s bootlegging ambitions. King’s answer was, “They ought to give the old son-of-a-bitch 365 days for the next 300 years!”

          The following morning, Ardis Walker  ran into Bill Murray once again, and Murray couldn’t wait to find out what George Washington King had said.  Of course when Ardis repeated King’s reply, Bill went into a rage and kept yelling, “I’ll sue him, I’ll sue him!”

 The Bed Bug Bites

           One Sunday a bunch of the local men were chewing the fat around the porch of George King’s Store. Bill Murray saw them and decided to join them. As usual he managed to approach everyone without acknowledgment of George Washington King’s  presence. Murray’s mouth opened and closed several times before he spoke his carefully rehearsed message, “I found a bedbug in my bed this morning.” 

          After everyone but George Washington King had responded to Bill Murray’s news, he added, “ He was dead.”

          George Washington King “uncoiled his battered Douglas chair like an angered rattlesnake” upon hearing this.  He looked directly into the face of the man he had not spoken to in 20 years and snapped, “Musta bit yuh,” then viciously spit out a half chewed quid of tobacco across the porch.




James Longstreet Walker


The Rough And The Righteous of the Kern River Diggins

by Ardis M. Walker

Copyright Ardis M. Walker 1970, 1990


Kern River County

by Bob Powers

Westernlore Publications 1979


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