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January 26, 2016 > History: Vicissitudes of Life

History: Vicissitudes of Life

It was like a page out of a romance novel. In January 1877, Elfleda (Fleda) Overacker was riding a horse on her familyÕs farm in Centerville, California, when she saw a handsome man approaching, also on horseback. They stopped to talk and he asked where the Overacker farm was. Fleda refused to tell him because she thought he was being too forward.

He was John Antrim Bunting, recently arrived from New York with his brother, James, and their independently wealthy mother, Evelina Bunting, a widow who had just purchased the adjacent Marston farm. John wasted no time in formally meeting Miss Overacker. Courtship followed and they were married on December 5, 1877.

Sadly, the couple did not always live Òhappily ever after.Ó

FledaÕs parents, Howard and Deborah Overacker, gave them a 10-acre farm as a wedding gift. The next year, when Evelina Bunting decided to move to New Jersey, she gave John a loan so he could buy the Marston farm from her. Later Evelina bought the farm back, thus providing money for the family to survive. John and Fleda had five children: Evelina, James, John Jr. Howard and Lawrence. All lived to adulthood except James, who drowned at the age of two.

Although John was well educated and had succeeded in a variety of jobs before coming to California, he was not a farmer. One biographer states that ÒFrom all accounts it seems that John Bunting was an opinionated, stubborn man who was adverse to taking adviceÉ and it was well known that when John Bunting did not have money, he was very hard to live with.Ó

Fleda divorced John in 1885 and struggled to raise the children and run the farm.

In 1894, after his creditors forced him into insolvency, John began working at menial tasks for the railroad, then became a brakeman and later a freight conductor. Claus Spreckles hired him to bore water wells on the Spreckles sugar refinery in Salinas and to superintend construction of saturation tanks, limekilns and even a bridge over the Salinas River.

The Kern County Land Company then hired him to bore water wells. He observed that gas was being emitted from the water of certain streams and that it burned with a steady flame. He was sure there was oil underground. Unsuccessful in getting investors interested, he bought some land and put options on other parcels with the little money he had.

Then his mother became seriously ill and John traveled east to care for her. After EvelinaÕs death in 1898 he returned to Bakersfield and learned he had lost all his optioned land and owned only ten acres. He secured several sections of land from the Southern Pacific Railroad Company for $2.50 per acre. Once oil wells were drilled, he became a wealthy man.

In 1900 John returned to Centerville, paid off all his past debts and remarried Fleda, the love of his life. Fleda had inherited the farm and some money from her mother-in-law, Evelina Bunting. Almost 38 acres, Sycamore Farm, was located on present-day Thornton Avenue and Coronado Drive in Fremont.

Now that they had money, the couple began making improvements. They relocated the old Marston house and built a new mansion with an aviary and a glass conservatory nearby. The old barn was replaced by a new barn with a loft big enough to host over 100 guests. A four-story tank house with a steam plant for pumping water and driving an electric generator provided modern conveniences.

The new home had three stories and a full basement. Wide steps led to the verandah, which ran across the front and down one side of the house. The front door opened to a hall with a brick fireplace and a broad stairway. A library with connecting office was on one side. The living room (called a parlor) was on the other side, and sliding doors divided it from the dining room. A hallway from the dining room led to the back stairs, a kitchen and the nursery. Ten bedrooms were on the two upper floors.

John often traveled by train on business so in 1900 he ordered an 80-foot-long private railroad car from the Pullman Company. Built to his specifications, it was delivered to him in Chicago in 1901 and he named it the El Fleda, in honor of his wife. They often traveled in it until a friend leased it for a trip to Mexico, where it was badly damaged. They sold it in 1910.

After touring Europe that summer, the couple settled down at Sycamore Farm where they entertained family and friends. John was 61 when he died of cancer in 1916. Fleda sold the farm in 1918 and died in 1939 at the age of 81.

ÒGrandma and Grandpa Bunting left our family a great legacy,Ó observed B. J. Bunting, a long-time resident of Niles. ÒThey had their ups and downs. They lived through hard times and good times, in poverty and in wealth. In the end they were happy together.Ó

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