Daughter’s collection of father’s photos from 1940s Bakersfield opens a fascinating window to the past

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – Time capsules are a fascinating way to bestow upon generations to come to a sampling of life in eras past. That’s why schools and other institutions like to stash them away for posterity.

Well, time capsules need not always be entombed in concrete. Sometimes they reside innocently in attics, garages and photo albums stuffed into closets. That has been the case for a longtime Tehachapi resident.

Cindy Dodd’s time capsule brings to life Kern County scenes from seven and eight decades ago that might look, for example, like a typical bustling day on the streets of New York or Chicago. But look again: It’s Chester Avenue, downtown Bakersfield, 1945, and the sidewalks are packed.

In those pre-shopping mall, pre-Amazon days, downtown Bakersfield was the heart of the city. A much smaller city too, although you wouldn’t know it looking at some of the photos in Cindy Dodd’s collection.

Most were snapped by Bernie Dodd. That was Cindy Dodd Tomasulo’s father.

“He was born in 1928, in Missouri,” she said via Zoom from her home in Mexico. “They left in the midst of the Dust Bowl and they were part of the Grapes of Wrath migration to California for my dad to find work in the oil fields.

Cindy Dodd Tomasulo is a retired middle school teacher who grew up in Tehachapi. This year she decided it was time to share some of the work from the ‘30s and ‘40s of her professional photographer father.

Some of Bernie Dodd’s prints have faded with time but they’re still a window to Kern County’s post-war past. Pre-war too in some cases. Not all the photos were snapped by Bernie Dodd. Some feature him as the subject, like one that depicts him on a motorcycle with a cute girl on the back. Go, dad.

“Yeah, that was the age he was when he was snapping those Bakersfield photos, right there,” his daughter said. “The love of photography runs deep, deep in our family. My grandma was the one who started taking tons of pictures like in 1910, 1912.”

Like one classic – Ma and Pa Somebody, identities not known, in front of the house with their shotguns, an old-fashioned oil derrick behind them. So Bernie Dodd was born to his craft.

“And he realized by taking pictures and developing and printing them himself in a bathroom, that he could make money that way and he could help contribute to the family,” said Dodd Tomasulo. 

Bernie Dodd seems to have been the official photographer for this group, the Missouri Club, Dust Bowl transplants from the Show Me State. 

“I literally did not know that I had this treasure trove of photos,” said Dodd Tomasulo. “When you grow up a photographer’s kid, you’re surrounded by photos and negatives, and slides, and everything, your entire life. You just are. And plowing through tubs and tubs of photos can be daunting. And it wasn’t until I retired that I was like, OK, I’ve got to digitize these. The amount of photos that I have is insane. And this album, when I cracked it open, I was like, Oh my gosh. Oh my God. This is amazing.”

“My first thought was, I need to find a way to share these. I need to find a way to get them to the people that are, at this point, relatives. These are photos that they might not know about.“

The album is full of long-lost Bakersfield landmarks … like the shot of a giant swimming pool, young swimmers lining its edge.

“OK, so that’s the old Bakersfield – I think it was called the Plunge,” said Dodd Tomasulo.

And indeed it is. Like lost characters abound in the photo collection, such as a wacky-looking radio announcer.

“If anybody out there can identify who this guy is – it sounds like he was a pretty cool late-night deejay guy kinda guy,” said Dodd Tomasulo.

Naturally, there are a lot of Dodd family characters, such as the young man in the baseball uniform with “Coca-Cola” on the front of his jersey.

“That’s my dad’s other cousin, Kenneth Gables,” said Dodd Tomasulo. “The huge thing in our family is he’s the one guy who actually played professional baseball.”

Check out the 1940 Navy recruitment banner directed toward women on the city’s Beale Clock Tower. And check out the mystery Dodd Tomasulo would like to solve – photos of a mixed-race rail car full of young men.

“I’m hoping that some of the history buffs of the Bakersfield area dive into this because I’m thinking these young men are being deployed,” she said. “Where did these guys go, where did they come from, where were they going to? What base was it they were … You know, I would love to (know) what the history of the military was in the Bakersfield area.”

One photo has led to some online speculation. It’s the Sill Building at 18th and Chester, downtown Bakersfield, in 1945. A dozen or more people are gathered at a bus stop, and an unusual amount of paper litters the curb in front of them.

“I’m assuming that it was the (post) war (period),” Dodd Tomasulo said. “I just don’t feel like the streets would be that dirty, so I’m thinking it had to be some sort of parade or some sort of celebration.”

Like V-J Day? Another photo poses the question, late night milkshake, anybody? It’s a now-anonymous burger joint from the ‘40s.

“Like a drive-up, and you would expect some waitresses in roller skates to come to your car,” she said.

Another set of photos prompts the question, when did teenagers ever get this dressed up?

“I’m thinking maybe a prom of a debutante kid of a dance, cuz they all look like they’re wearing their finest,” Dodd Tomasulo said.

She said the photos are really Bakersfield’s property.

“I know that dad would want us to share these,” she said. “And get them to the people who are in the pictures. I don’t know that that’s possible. Sharing photos and history, is  – it’s huge.”

It seems like Bakersfield changes from year to year, but looking at a 70-year old photo, you see just how much it has changed and how much it really hasn’t changed. And for the opportunity to grasp that truth, we can thank Bernie Dodd and his daughter, Cindy Dodd Tomasulo.

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