My Uncle Bob

Uncles. I had three. The photo above is my uncle Robert Hall, uncle Bob. He was my mothers brother, only boy in a family of girls. Two older, one younger. Of the children in the family he held the distinction of being born in a lease tent in Casmalia. You see, my grandfather was a driller in the heyday of the California oil boom. My mother Barbara was only a year old when he got his first job as a roughneck in the Casmalia oil fields. Grandpa Bruce was just 24 with a wife of four years and two little girls. The late teens and twenties marked a shift in how wells were drilled, the newer rotary rigs pushing a Hughes Tool bit, yes thats Howard Hughes, could drill deeper and faster than the older Cable tool rigs which had been state of the art for 100 years and were still more economical in medium and soft grounds, shallow wells to be exact.

casmalia 1920

left: My grandfather Bruce C Hall, Oil Rig Roustabout on a cable tool drill rig, Casmalia California, 1920

For my grandparents, this created a lifestyle that would move them all over California for the next 25 years. Both of them came from farming families and in fact my aunt Mariel was born in Deer Canyon in the Verde District just off of Corbett Canyon Road in southern San Luis Obispo county. That was 1917 and that little house is still standing. My mom followed in 1918 and uncle Bob in 1919 the year grandpa Hall started in the oil fields. Uncle Bob was born on the oil lease in Casmalia and for the next sixteen years moved with his parents from one drilling job to another as they struggled to survive in a notoriously fickle business. Casmalia to Orcutt, Taft and Maricopa to Bakersfield. Santa Barbara, Ellwood, Price Canyon in the Arroyo Grande field, Coalinga and all through the Elk Hills.

When Bob was sixteen they decided to send him to live with his sister, my aunt Mariel and her husband Ray Long who lived in the foothills of the Sierra in a little place called Watts Valley. Uncle Ray was a cattleman in the old style. He owned a little ranch on which he and my aunt lived, running cattle for himself and hiring out to the larger ranches and the stockyards as work was available.

moving cattle Miramonte 1932

Moving cattle Miramonte Ranch, 1932

Sending him to live with his aunt and uncle meant that he could go to the same high school, Sierra in Tollhouse, for two years instead of checking him in and out of schools as they moved to new leases as the job required. Wells could be drilled in as little as six weeks and this meant you followed the work. It was rough on kids of school age. They moved their few things in  small boxes as there was little room in the car for extra possessions, just what was necessary to set up a household in a hurry. Bruce would come in from a tour (Pronounced Tower)at the wellhead a say, “Eileen, I’ve got to be in Bakersfield day after tomorrow to spud in a new well.” Grandma would get the house packed up, check the kids out of school and be ready to go. I once asked my father how they managed that and he told me, “Mike, your grandma liked to move, it was easier than cleaning house, in fact, in Santa Barbara, when Bruce was drilling in Summerland and up at Elwood, they moved at least five times.”

Oil_wells_just_offshore_at_Summerland,_California,_c.1915

The old Summerland fields south of Santa Barbara 1920’s

So think about this. A sixteen year old boy living on a cattle ranch, a ranch hand in every sense of the word. That’s Bob in the photograph that heads this story. If you look closely you can see that he is doing a real job of work. No fancy buckles, 5x Stetson or creased Wranglers, rather an old crushed Fedora, trousers too big tucked into his socks to keep the burrs out, plain lace up shoes, a rifle for coyotes, a lariat and Bobby Dog hitching a ride. The hammer headed bay horse is Doc, the three of them, a team suited for working cattle from one place to another. He wanted to go to college at Davis and be a Veterinarian. The lesson that cowboys were just laborers on horseback was not lost on him.

 

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