King for a Day

John and Karen Jernigan lead a historic tour of King City. They wear historic railroad outfits, and here, Karen shows one of many photographs they have collected: El Camino Hotel, which had a spotting tower to watch for enemy airplanes during Wold War II.

Wearing blue and white striped railroad costumes and pushing a cart of sepia-hued photos is how John and Karen Jernigan start the History, Food and Fun Tour in downtown King City on a sunny Saturday morning. Throughout the walk, they talk about a King City that doesn’t exist anymore.

That town’s day-to-day scenery was captured in John Steinbeck’s writing – a transit city for the railroad in the path of Highway 101, which ran along Broadway splitting the town in half.

The four-hour walking tour of the past began at the future Downtown Plaza, on the corner of Vanderhust and Broadway, and ended at the historic Masonic lodge. Holding prints of old photos, the Jernigans showed buildings that were moved or torn down, as well as the many still standing.

King City was a temporary home for thousands of pilots posted there for combat training during World War II. What is now an insurance office on North Vanderhust was once the USO club.

They pause at murals depicting the history of King City, and make several stops at local restaurants, such as the popular taco shop Tacos La Potranca de Jalisco, The Cork and Plough, Hestia Coffee, La Plaza Bakery and La Michoacana Paleteria. (There’s plenty of sampling along the route.)

The idea for a walking tour came up in 2017, after the Jernigans escorted judges from America in Bloom, a national nonprofit that promotes historic preservation and beautification. At that time, King City was coming out of dark times. From 2014-2016 the police department was mired in scandal after a towing scheme targeting low-income residents was uncovered. Karen Jernigan, who was a city council member at the time, wanted to present a different face of King City.

“There are a lot of inspiring people here and a lot of people who have made a big difference in the town, and those stories have kind of been left behind,” she says.

So the Jernigans appointed themselves as unofficial local historians, found railroad outfits and began walking, leading the Antonio Valley Historical Association’s annual spring tour. The couple then started offering regular tours at least once a month, customizing them to their audience. That includes focusing on hospitals for healthcare workers, showing photos with kids when leading elementary students, or speaking about agricultural products once more common in the area, including wheat and sugar beets.

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They also emphasize future developments. There’s a planned visitor and history center that many locals remember as the Jo’s Flower Shoppe building. The Downtown Plaza project has received over $2 million in state funds.

The Jernigans hope the city will once again be a railroad stop. Little by little, they are reconstructing layers of King City’s history, but with an eye for the future in that past.

“Part of the fun of what we do – part of what is motivating – is when you find out there’s something out there that you don’t have a picture of, or you don’t have an article about,” John Jernigan says. “You make that your quest. You’re kind of looking for the Holy Grail.”

For John, one of those Holy Grails was finding construction pictures of King City’s auditorium. He searched for seven years until he found a few.

Both have been gathering facts and photos for over 10 years. They have collected at least 5,000 images, which John admits is modest compared to the late Pat Hathaway’s historic imagery haul of over 80,000. They are scanning all of their postcards to make them available to everyone.

John knew Hathaway and 15 years ago, when John was buying an image, Hathaway made a recommendation: Start a postcard collection “He was an impetus to start collecting,” John says.

Besides running the tour, the Jernigans and their writing partner, Howard P. Strohn, 82 – also possessing a vast knowledge of local history – have a book coming out next month. Images of America King City from Arcadia Publishing will be available July 25.

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