I’ve seen plenty of this earthly world, viewed its splendor and mystique;
I’ve watched the Sierra scenes unfurl, but my pick’s still Blossom Peak. —Earl A. McKee Jr.
On Thursday, April 11, 2019, the incomparable Earl Alfred McKee Jr. died. Surrounded by his loving family, his unstoppable spirit rose above to his beloved Blossom Peak, made a left turn toward the High Sierra, and then moved on to the heavens above. He was 87 years old.
A Celebration of Earl’s Life will be held Saturday, May 18, at 11 a.m., at Riata Ranch, 42390 North Kaweah River Dr., Three Rivers.
Earl was born July 12, 1931, in the community of Three Rivers, California, to Earl A. McKee and Edna (Finch) McKee. He lived his entire life in same home where he was born. He attended Three Rivers Union School and Woodlake High School, graduating with the Class of 1949.
In 1915, Earl’s parents started the Bar O Ranch in Three Rivers. They raised cattle and horses and operated the horseback riding and packing concessions in Sequoia National Park. Earl Jr. learned the trade from his father, and by the time he was 13 years old, he, too, was riding, herding, and guiding High Sierra pack trips for groups including some notable names: William Crocker (Crocker Bank) and George Eastman (Eastman-Kodak).
Over the span of 73 years, he ran cattle over the hills of Lemon Cove and Three Rivers. He attended Three Rivers Union School through eighth grade and, in 1949, graduated from Woodlake Union High School. Earl was a player on the tenacious Woodlake High football team that won two back-to-back Valley championships. Also during high school, he was a FFA State farmer.
In December 1950, Earl married his high school sweetheart, Gaynor B. Hardison, at Community Presbyterian Church in Three Rivers. They had three children, Linda, Chearl, and little Earl III.
If Earl would have never learned to play the tuba, we would have never left our front yard! —Gaynor McKee
Second to ranching was Earl’s love of music, and this provided the opportunity for Gaynor and him to see the world. It all started in Old Three Rivers with his grandfather, Frank Finch, who was the state fiddling champion in 1931. He lived just up the road and taught Earl to play the fiddle, ukelele, and piano. He and Gaynor passed down their love music to their children and formed the McKee’s singing group in which Earl accompanied on the guitar.
Gaynor’s cousin, Leuder Ohlwein, came to town, and he and Earl discovered they shared a love for Dixieland music. In the early 1970s, the Jazzberry Jam Band was created, which in 1976 evolved into the High Sierra Jazz Band. As an original member of HSJB, Earl, along with Charlie Castro and Bruce and Stan Huddleston, played together for 42 years and traveled to five continents to perform.
For the last two years, health issues kept Earl from playing his beloved sousaphone, but the silver voice remained. He crooned with the band whenever his health allowed.
Earl was a man with a keen memory; he was always ready to tell a story about old times and local legends. In recent years, Earl wrote two books: Echoes of Blossom Peak: Cowboys, Horsemen, and History of Three Rivers (2013) and, with Gaynor, Echoes of Three Rivers: Landmarks and Lore (2017). His voice shines through in both these books.
For the last 20 years of his “retired” life, breeding and raising American Quarter Horses was his passion. In the photos above are Earl’s mares and Spring 2019’s foals that graze the Salt Creek hills, where they learn to be “mountain horses.”
Earl was a member of the Three Rivers Lions Club for 70 years. In the 1970s, he was elected to the Woodlake High School board of trustees. In 2003, he was named Tulare County Cattleman of the Year. In 2016, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, he was presented with the Musician of the Year award. Earl gave many talks about his storied pack trips through the High Sierra. And he was a go-to resource for anyone needing information on the early days in Three Rivers.
Earl was preceded in death by his parents, Earl A. McKee Sr. (1891-1946) and Edna Finch McKee (1893-1986), his dear son, Earl A. McKee III (1957-1984), and his two sisters, Blanche McKee Maloy (1915-2004) and Earleen McKee Monaghan (1927-2017).
Left to honor Earl’s legacy are his wife, Gaynor, of 68 years; his daughters, Linda and husband Mike Amaral of Visalia and Chearl McKee of Three Rivers and Laguna Beach; grandchildren Gracie and husband Brandon Lovenburg, Hilary Robello, and Katie Robello; and great-grandchildren Jacob and Mia Rodriguez, Cash, Ty, and Harlow Lovenburg, and Gianna Serafin.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that remembrances be sent to the Earl McKee scholarship funds for the Three Rivers Lions Club (P.O. Box 206, Three Rivers, CA 93271), Sierra Traditional Jazz Club (P.O. Box 712, Three Rivers) or the Woodlake High School Foundation.
Jazzberry Jam Band and early High Sierra Jazz Band photos from the Bud Kilburn collection.