TWELVE HOUR TOUR
THE MOUSE KING. Life in the Californias Oil Fields.
The vast mouse army stirred in the grasses surrounding Tulare lake. A hurricane of life’s force filled the world of the southern San Joaquin.
Tulare Lake, in the great San Joaquin valley of California was once the second largest freshwater lake in the United States west of Lake Superior. It was fed by the magnificent rivers, born in the great Sierra to the east that flowed west into great basin at the foot of the valley. In the spring the lake was fed with the waters of the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers. Before the Isabella dam on the Kern river was built in 1953 they ran freely into the depression at the foot of the valley. One of three major seasonal lakes, Tulare was a major stopping place for migrant wildlife moving north and south through the inter-coastal region of California. Buena Vista lake, to the northeast of Taft was planted in wheat and corn as the lake diminished in the spring of each year.
Located just to the southwest were the oilfield towns of Taft, Ford City, Maricopa, McKittrick, Fellows and Reward. At the eastern foot of the Elk Hills, they comprised the greatest producing oilfields on earth. Once upon a time in the mid 1920’s over 7000 wooden derricks covered the landscape from Sunset (Southeast of Maricopa), through the Midway Valley, the Elk Hills to McKittrick and Reward, a distance of approximately 21 miles in Southwest Kern County. It was indeed a veritable forest of derricks. From the Monkey boards at the top of an oil derrick the White capped Sierra Nevada seemed to be within touching distance in those days before pollution and smog. To the south, the Tehachapi’s and rounding to the west, the Temblor range. Three quarters of a circle, verdant green east, sere and barren to the west, they enfolded a sea of oil derricks seemingly without end in the early part of the century.
There were modern rotary and old fashioned cable tool rigs by the thousands and my grandfather Bruce Hall was there to work them. He began his drilling career working for Associated oil in Casmalia California in 1919. By 1926 he was a veteran oilman. He had moved his wife, two daughters and six year old son to Taft, following the job. Now working for Barnsdahl Oil Company, he had risen to be a driller. Rope Chokers is a derisive term used for cable tool drillers by rotary drillers in areas where the two forms of oil well drilling were in competition. Rotary drillers were called swivel necks by the cable tool drilling people. Grandpa Bruce was an expert cable tool man and ran those rigs into the fifties for Signal Oil.
The cable tool rigs were staffed by two two-man crews composed of a driller and tool dresser who worked alternating 12 hour tours (pronounced as tower in oilfield lingo). The driller ran the rig and was responsible for making hole. Tool dressers were driller’s helpers who performed various tasks to assist the driller. Bits were dressed (sharpened) by heating in a coal or gas fired forge at the rig. When a dull bit was brought to the proper temperature and was sufficiently malleable, both the driller and toolie used sledge hammers to reshape the cutting edge.
Drillers had to be multi-talented. If something on the rig broke (usually a wooden part), they were expected to fix it and not call the tool pusher (superintendent) in the middle of the night. Some drillers also performed fishing jobs for drilling tools lost in the hole. After sufficient service as a tool dresser, a good hand could be promoted to driller, which was the highest paying job in the oil field.
Big oil companies operated all over California and since the time to drill a well varied from one to three months, employees were moved as needs required. My grandparents were married for forty two years and lived in seventy eight different houses. My dad used to say that they moved whenever grandma saw that she needed to clean house.
The Halls in 1927
In the fall of 1926 they moved to Taft. Grandpa Bruce immediately went to work, gone for up to 14 hours a day at the rig. Eileen unpacked herself and the kids and made a home in the small rental house oil workers families lived in. Most were furnished with the bare necessities, a table and chairs, bed frames but not much else. The rest came with the family. You moved only what could be stuffed in or tied on the car, if you had a car, which many didn’t. You could travel by train, but you carried your luggage and that limited what you could take. There was no room for any thing else. The nature of the job didn’t allow for an accumulation of many goods, you could be moved to a new job in a matter of weeks. A moving van was not an option. People who worked the wells were well paid but the cost of housing and food was high too. Nobody was getting rich.
The houses themselves were at best temporary. Some were just Shebangs with a board floor, single wall construction to about four feet and a tent above that. Nothing was considered permanent in the oil patch. Others were of the well known “shotgun” type, arranged with the rooms on the sides and a central hall dividing them. It was said that with front and back doors open a shotgun could be fired down the middle, doing no damage.
Through the work and conditions of oil field work, oil field life and conditions tended to breed self reliance and close family ties. Oil field people, because of their often isolated camps and small towns, plus the impermanence of their places of work formed close associations with others that frequently lasted a lifetime.
The image of the oil field worker does not carry the romantic image, of say, the cowboy and his horse. Roustabouts, the toolie, pushers, teamsters and drillers laboring in the oil fields dirty, greasy and often dangerous conditions, required many of the same admirable characteristics of the cowboy. Work in the oil patch took nerve, physical strength, courage and toughness of mind and spirit. The wives and children needed the same qualities and they had it in spades.
Grandma and her children “made do” in those isolated communities. They knew hardship and learned to deal with the stressful conditions that came with the life. They enjoyed the simple pleasures they found and the ones they made. Grandma met the challenges of cramped housing, sickness and loneliness by having close family ties and developing lasting friendships.
Maricopa about 1920
Neighbors met in their homes for suppers, candy making, card playing and in the warm summer evenings in the San Joaquin, men pitched horseshoes, organized baseball games or played Croquet with the wives. My mom spoke of making and pulling taffy with her sister, playing endless games of checkers with her dad, and reading, always reading.
Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Grandma’s life. Even though they lived on the most productive oilfield on earth, the streets weren’t paved. Dusty in the sweltering summer heat, slippery mud in the rainy season. There was no municipal water in the midway- sunset field in the early twenties. It was hauled in on the Sunset RR Line in wooden tanks mounted on flatcars. Water had to be carried home for cooking and washing. Two little girls and a six year old boy needed baths, clothes had to be washed by hand in a tub or sink using a washboard. Bruce’s work clothes would have been covered in oil and needed to be soaked in kerosene before washing. They were terrible chores. Until electric generating plants were built, lighting was by kerosene lantern, if you were fortunate you might have a kerosene ice box. Ironing was done, with an old Sad iron. Ironing was on the kitchen table as was practically every other household chore. The little houses were board and batt construction. Newsprint was folded and pressed between the vertical boards to help keep out the winter cold and the summer dust. Grandma hated board and batt houses with a passion, for the rest of her life. She once told me that “Those houses are only good for trash.” At the time there wasn’t much trouble from trashy people in Taft. In the twenties they had a very active KKK which made sure of that.
In the summer of 1926, drought conditions lowered the water level of the nearby lake. The Miller and Lux cattle company used a diversion channel and a small earthen dam to further depress water level and then planted 11,000 acres barley and corn in the 30,000 acre dry, but extremely fertile lakebed.
It likewise was a perfect breeding ground for the mouse. With natural enemies like the coyote, owl and hawk nearly eradicated by a new federal program that paid bounties for the killing of predators, the House Mouse ( Mus Musculus ) in the fields lived well and, with all that food, they flourished. Did they ever. The gestation period for mice is 20 days. A single pair of mice can produce more than 16-thousand offspring in a year, so by the fall, millions of the little critters flourished at Buena Vista. Hundreds of millions.
Then, in November of 1926, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. And rain. The diversion channel and the little temporary dam failed and the water from the rivers poured into the dry lakebed.
It flooded the mice habitat. The Mouse King had a decision to make. He decided to head for the hills – the Honolulu Hills three miles to the west to be exact. They mice were wet – and very hungry. The hills had little forage, instead they had hundreds of wooden oil derricks. With all the traffic, what little grass was left after a dry fall had been flattened by truck traffic. The mice gnawed at the wooden derricks and found them wanting. They ate the fabric on truck seats, they the insulation from electric cables, the steering wheels; they ate the mens work clothes that were drying in the boiler sheds, Like a biblical plague they moved west towards Taft and Maricopa
By the tens of millions they overran the town, roads, railroad tracks; madly searching for food. The roads and RR tracks were smeared with mashed mice slime, cars went into ditches and the trains could not move. The locomotives had to use sand to get enough traction to pull the cars. The mouse horde was afraid of nothing. They came on.
Eileen and her brood prepared for battle. Every crack and seam in the house was stuffed with rags, stuffed in and as tight as she could make them. The wash tub was filled with kerosene, placed on the table and an island in the middle made with an overturned bucket so food could be protected. The bedsteads had their legs placed in buckets. They practiced swinging brooms like Babe Ruth as the horde moved relentlessly onward. Nearer and nearer they came, as inexorable as the incoming tide. The horde slowed briefly to eat a sheep in a pen on Gardner Hills Rd then entered Ford City and Taft on Dec 4th and the real battle began.
The odds were against grandma and her little army, about 20,000 for each one of them to be exact. 100,000 personal mice for your family. They came under the doors, through the windows; anyplace with a crack the size of your little fingernail. There was no escape. The grocery store, the markets, nowhere was safe. The battle went on everywhere. The West side was literally overrun by mice, That year, at Taft Union High School, kids were taken out of gym classes and hauled on flatbed trucks to the Honolulu Hills northeast of Taft to dig ditches in which poison grain was strewn to attract the mice. And attract them it did, thousands piled down into the trenches and gobbled up the grain and died, after which the trenches were simply covered over. They chewed right through the wooden walls of storerooms to get at the food inside.
Ditches were plowed and filled with kerosene and waste oil; lit and the mice were fricasseed by the hundreds of thousands. Trainloads of poison were shipped from Los Angeles, spread and the mice weren’t slowed a bit. In the ditches there were five thousand dead mice per foot. Little boys could get into the Taft movie theater for the price of fifteen mouse tails. Two more generations of mice were born while the invasion lasted and the numbers went up. They tried mechanical grain harvesters but the cutter blades became choked with fur, blood and flesh and looked like sausage mills. By new years 1927, the call finally went out to the Feds for help. Please.
The Bureau of Biological Survey was called in to help, and they sent their top infestation man, Stanley Piper. Piper calculated the mice population at well over 100 million. The number had grown despite the organized murder of millions of the little critters. Piper had a plan to decimate the infestation at the source, the old lake bed, the incubator for the mouse army.
Stanley Piper set up his base camp on Pelican Island in the dry lake bed, and hired 215 men for the job. They were promptly dubbed the “Pied Piper” and the Mouse Marines. Big joke. On one acre of land they took a tally and the figures indicated the presence of 44 million mice. Tons of poison were ordered.
Piper was preparing to launch the campaign, when a kind of Biblical miracle occurred: birds suddenly arrived — every kind of airborne killer, owls, hawks, ravens, gulls and more. The old lakebed became a giant mouse buffet. Beset by man and his poison, by birds of prey and by a “contagious mouse disease that flared in the rodents ranks”, the mice war could be declared over. Heavy rains came that winter, the dike broke, and the once dry lake bed was once again a large lake. Another large rainstorm in mid-February 1927 drowned the remaining mice. It was suddenly over. Everything was back in balance, but for those who survived, never forgotten.
My mother thought it would never end, in fact, mouse killing had become almost normal. Finding a mouse in your school desk, put there by mean little boys didn’t happen, they were there already. Conley school was infested like every other building. Be sure and shake out your shoes in the morning, sleep with your head under the covers so they can’t eat your hair, don’t under any circumstances go barefoot. She once said that being in grandma’s army was why she had such a good tennis swing.
When I was a boy, we lived in an old farmhouse in the Arroyo Grande valley of California and , of course we had mice. They didn’t scare my mom though, she was an old hand, but a spider; well, that’s another story.