Anybody that has spent time in a small town knows that directions are often given by landmarks rather than streets. Bakersfield, California, despite having a population greater than Iceland is not unlike many other small towns in that there are several such places around the sprawling city. One landmark of particular interest is the center intersection of Chester Avenue, Golden State Avenue, and 30th Street known as the Garces Circle (technically it’s called the Garces Memorial Traffic Circle).
As the Westchester neighborhood around the circle grew in the 1930s, the circle was built by the Division of Highways as a method of easing traffic. At the time is was commonly used as a public park. Originally built as a part of US 99 in approximately 1932 it was the first (and still one of the only) traffic circles in Bakersfield and features a large sculpture of Father Francisco Garces constructed in 1939 by John Palo-Kangas, a Finnish born artist raised in Michigan.
The statue was originally placed directly in the center of Garces Circle and was at the time one of the most prominent features of US Route 99. By 1955 traffic congestion had become an increasing problem requiring a bridge to be constructed over the circle and the Father Garces statue was moved 55 feet from the center of the circle to its current location to make room. In 1964 US Route 99 was moved to a new freeway facility and the highway is now known as State Route 204.
A plaque placed at the site to allow anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves stuck there that proudly notes that something somewhat interesting happened in the past of California and particularly in the Southern San Joaquin Valley Basin. The Plaque reads:
Francisco Garces 1738 – 1781 Spanish Franciscan
Padre Garces seeking a new route between Sonora, Mexico and Monterey crossed Rio de San Felipe (Kern River May 7, 1776) at Rancheria San Miguel now Bakersfield. First recorded white man in this locality, he brought Christianity to the Indian and on Rio Colorado his brave life was crowned with martyrdom. Greater love hath no man than this. That a man lay down his life for his friends.
Garces Circle Facts
- The Garces Circle was designated a California Historical Landmark #277 on October 21, 1937, only two years after construction and almost two full years before the statue was built.
- Geographic coordinates: 35.387°N 119.019°W
- The sculpture by John Palo-Kangas was part of the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States.
- The Father Garces statue is 16 feet 4 inches tall (4.9m). Including the base it stands over 22 feet (6.70m).
- The circle was built by the Division of Highways in 1935.
- The Big Shoe, the famous shoe shaped building is just over 1 mile away down Chester Ave.