By: Douglas Love, Chairman, California History Board Napa Parlor #62
The California Dream has captivated millions. From the earliest native peoples to the first Spanish explorers to Yankee traders, Mexican rancheros, Gold Seekers from around the world, and today’s High Tech innovators, our beloved land on the western fringe of a continent has drawn those seeking a better life. Thirty five miles south of Visalia, near the small town of Erlimart, there stands a monument to one man’s dream; a testament to the struggle for equality for all men deep in the heart of the Central Valley.
Colonel Allen Allensworth was the man with the dream. Born into slavery in Louisville, Kentucky in 1842. As a young child, he was a body servant to his master’s son. When the young boy started school, he began to teach Allensworth to read and write. Eventually, Col. Allensworth was sold to another family and the mistress of the family, who was a Quaker, continued to teach him to read and write. This led him to being sold “down river” in New Orleans to his final owner, Fred Scruggs, who trained him to be a jockey. In 1861, Scruggs took his stable of horses and Allensworth to Louisville to race in the fall races. There the future Lieutenant Colonel met some Union soldiers who helped him run away and join the US Hospital Corps where he served as an unpaid orderly. In 1863, Allensworth joined the US Navy eventually being discharged as a Chief Petty Officer.
After the Civil War, Allensworth operated two restaurants in St. Louis with his brother and became involved with the Baptist Church and with teaching in several schools established by the Freedman’s Bureau. He put himself through the Ely Normal School and was ordained a Minister in 1871. He then attended the Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. He married his wife Josephine in 1877.
In 1886, Allensworth was appointed a Chaplain in the US Army and was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of the famed “Buffalo Soldier” regiments. While he was in the Army, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the first African American to achieve that rank. In 1906, after his retirement, Colonel Allensworth moved to Los Angeles and formed an association to start a “Black Colony” in California. On June 30, 1908, he founded the town of Allensworth on 20 acres which had been purchased in Tulare County. Later, Allensworth purchased an additional 80 acres.
By 1914, the town had some 200 inhabitants, a school, store, post office, Baptist Church, library and hotel. It was a railroad stop and had many civic and social clubs. It was the first settlement in California founded, funded and run by African Americans. It was not to last, however. Colonel Allensworth tragically died after being struck by a motorcyclist in 1914 and the town began to fail. The Great Depression, arsenic contamination of the town’s water supply and lack of the founder’s leadership caused many to move away. By 1972, the population had shrunk to almost zero. A developer wanted to purchase the land and demolish the remaining buildings. A determined effort by the descendants of the original inhabitants saved the town and in 1976 the town site became a State Historic Park.
Today, there are several restored and reconstructed buildings including the hotel, a store, the barbershop, the school, the library, the Baptist Church and several residences including Colonel Allensworth’s. All of the restored buildings are furnished as if it were still 1912 and there is a self guided audio tour, a visitor’s center with a small gift shop and a small exhibit space. The park has 15 camp sites and there are several camp grounds in the area. There is an $8.00 day use fee.
While Allensworth is not the thriving “Tuskegee of the West” which Colonel Allen Allensworth envisioned, it stands as a monument to one man’s dream of equality for all men and his story serves as an inspiration for all Californians.
GETTING THERE: Allensworth SHP is about a three and one half hour drive from 414 Mason Street. From 414 Mason Street take I-80 East to I-580 East. From I-580 East take I-5 South to exit 305. Turn left onto Utica Avenue. Turn right onto 6th Ave/Dairy Ave. Turn left onto Virginia Ave. Turn right onto Rd 16/4th Ave. Continue straight onto Ave 54/Center Ave. Continue to follow Ave 54. Continue onto Borchardt Dr. Continue onto Ave 56/W Sierra Ave. Turn right onto CA-43. Turn right onto Palmer Ave. Turn left onto Rd 84.Turn right onto Stowe Ave. Turn right at the 2nd cross street onto Young Rd.
There are several restaurants in the area. One of my favorites is Wool Growers in Los Banos. There is also Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella and Harris Ranch in Coalinga.
The park’s phone number is: 661-849-3433 and it is open every day from 10:00 am to sunset. For further information please visit the park’s website at: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=583