Tulare County loses two pioneering spirits

Both Bob Marshall, Jeff Edwards passed away early this year leaving behind a trailblazing legacy in Tulare County

TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County was forced to bid farewell to two of the area’s most pioneering spirits.

Both Bob Marshall and Jeff Edwards hold a precious place in Tulare County history. The former as Self-Help Enterprises first executive director, and the former as a renowned historian and photographer.

Bob Marshall

Self-Help Enterprises first executive director, Bob Marshall passed away last month at the age of 96. As a young man, Bob—a Quaker—offered his services as a smokejumper during WW2 and went on to learn to become a carpenter. He joined a Quaker redevelopment project in Philadelphia, changing a square block of old houses into a housing cooperative, remodeled by now owner occupants assisted by workers like Bob.

After about ten years, Bob had an opportunity in 1966, to take a job with newly created Self-Help housing in Tulare County, which again started as a Quaker project and later funded through War on Poverty efforts. Tragically, his boss was killed in an automobile accident the day Bob and his family arrived in Visalia. Three months later, Bob was chosen to be the executive director of Self-Help Enterprises, a job he held for nearly 25 years.

Bob wrote about how he helped pioneer “Self-Help” with Bard McAllister. McAllister, working for the American Friends Service Committee in Tulare County, pushed the concept of self-help housing on behalf of farmworkers. Until 1961, the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) could make housing loans to farmers, but not to farmworkers. Bard McAllister worked with the secretary of the Commission on Agricultural Life and Labor in Washington, D.C. to draft legislation making agricultural workers eligible for housing loans. Congress included this provision in the Housing Act of 1961.

The first “official” Self-Help housing loans under this act were made to three families in Goshen, Calif. in January 1963. With Howard Washburn as supervisor, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) operated this initial program. At first, loans could be made only for the houses, not for the land. To work around that stipulation, the AFSC purchased the land with other loans and used a grant from the Rosenberg Foundation for technical assistance. By 1965, Congress removed the restriction.

Today 60 years later, Self-Help Enterprises has helped farm workers to build about 6,400 homes in the Central Valley along with other important programs to help provide sewer and clean water and $62 million in low interest loans to families. Today, Self-Help has become the housing model for the nation. It is thanks to people like Bob that made this happen.

Jeff Edwards

Long time Porterville historian and photographer Jeff Edwards died on March 11 at the age of 98. Edwards’ immense collection of photos from around Porterville and elsewhere is a treasure of his own slides and works by others—now part of the Porterville Historical Museum. Edwards has his own room at the museum that recently opened.

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Long time Porterville historian and photographer Jeff Edwards died on March 11 at the age of 98.

Edwards began working as a photographer in 1939 when he took a job with the Gainsborough Studio in Tulare. He served his country in World War II as an Army base photographer. He had a studio in Porterville that first opened in 1947.

Besides being a photographer, Edwards was an author of around 50 books, many detailing early days of pioneers from the region. Among his titles are the Zaluds of Porterville, Early Porterville History and Family Histories, Facts and Legends of Porterville and “Pixley, California … The Place to Be.” He also penned an autobiography.

Besides documenting the local scene, Edwards photography collection includes John Steinbeck and a number of U.S. presidents.

A fire at Porterville library in 2020 included destruction of some Edwards’ books. Now there is hope the library will be rebuilt.

The Porterville Recorder wrote in 2001 how Edwards became the town’s unofficial historian.

“Over the years, many of Edwards’ customers brought in old family photos of people and places around the area to be copied, and he became fascinated with the pictures and the stories behind them. That interest eventually grew into an avocation, and Edwards grew into the area’s unofficial historical expert,” the report stated.

He put out the first of his books in the 1970s, and has continued to produce the little gems of history occasionally ever since.

“People gave me so much information and brought me so many pictures that I felt obligated to put it all down and preserve it,” he said.

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