It has been said that fortuitous events will occur when the stars align in their courses.
My Great-Grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall came to the Arroyo Grande Valley around 1900. He had come west without his wife of seven years, LaVance or Vancey as she was called. She had been temporarily left behind with two little boys, William and my maternal grandfather Bruce Cameron in Johnson City, Carter County, Tennessee.
Vancey was crowned with luck. Her father was killed along with his two brothers during the Civil War. Twenty five year old Tad was killed at First Manassas (Bull Run), McKamie, 23, at Seven Pines and her father Nelson Hooper who was just 21, died of wounds at Richmond. Nelson was shot at Malvern Hill on one of the bloodiest days of the war. Vancey’s luck was that her mother Mary Lucinda was six months pregnant. The Hooper family lost all three adult sons to the war. All served with the 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment which was mustered in from Iredale County as most regiments were in those days were, especially in the south. They fought and died with boys from their hometown which made it especially brutal for the families.
Grandpa Sam, was the son of a Virginia veteran himself, his father William served with the 27th Virginia Infantry, part of Stonewall Jackson’s troops. Like many veterans and their families they went west after the war perhaps preferring to get as far away from the places that held such awful memories. More than 50,000 Tennesseans died for the south and roughly 5,000 for the north. For the men and boys this represented about 14% of the male population of the entire state. It created a world of widows. Prospects must have seemed awfully bleak. One out of seven is a staggering percentage.
Out west Sam he worked as a carpenter in Lemoore, California for a time before moving to Arroyo Grande’s Verde District, off what is now Corbit Canyon Road. Vancey waited almost two years before coming to California. She finally had had enough of the waiting and came on her own, bringing the boys with her. She joined him here in a little house which still stands in Deer Canyon. Sam Hall worked at farm labor and soon graduated to managing ranches which would be his life’s work.
Vancey and Sam’s son Bruce was living and working on a dairy near Creston when he met my grandmother Eileen in 1915. They were both at a Barbecue and he sort of sidled over to her while she stood around the campfire and said, “Smoke follows beauty,” which has to be the worst pick-up line ever devised. I worked though. They courted for three months and almost on a whim tied the knot in San Luis Obispo’s Presbyterian church. When you know, you know, I guess. Grandma Eileen was asked where they went after the wedding and she said, “Grandpa gave me a little glass of wine and we went to the hotel.” The questioner, my brother was both amused and taken aback by the answer. No young grandchild expects the answer to a question to even hint a sex.
They soon came down to Arroyo Grande to stay with his parents in deer canyon. Eileen was pregnant with my aunt Mariel who was their first child. She was born in that little house. Most babies were born at home in those days. Doctor Charles Clark, the towns “Baby Doctor” was likely the attendant. Perhaps he became a doctor because of what he had seen riding with Custer in the final campaigns of the Civil War. Delivering those new to the world might have made up for the losses he was responsible for. A balancing of the scales if you will. Regardless, aunt Mariel came out yelling’ and remained that way her entire life.
The population of Arroyo Grande was quite small then. In 1900 it hovered around 500. An interesting thing about our family is that with such a small population it’s very likely that Sam and Vancey Hall knew my paternal great-grandparents John and Catherine Shannon who lived on Printz Road just a short distance from the Hall home in Deer Canyon. They would have also known the Patrick Moores. Mrs Moore was aunt to my future grandmother.
Sam and Vancey were living up in Madera, California when my mother was born in 1918, but it wasn’t long before Bruce received a phone call from his brother Marion telling him that there were good jobs in the oilfields around the Casmala/Orcutt area. The pay was good, the work steady and it included housing. The housing was a company owned lease tent or Shebangs as they were fondly called, not gracious nor palatial but a place to live. It was an improvement on living three families in the same home as it was in Madera. Bruce and Eileen moved down to Casmalia and shared a Shebang* with Marion and his wife Grace. They hung blankets on clotheslines to create some privacy. Something like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did in the movie “It Happened One Night.” Nevertheless my Uncle Bob came along soon after. Uncle Marion didn’t like the work and he and Grace soon left but Bruce and Eileen stuck it out and never left the business. Thirty eight years, wherever the job took him, she and the kids followed. Bruce worked the rigs but Eileen and the kids were oilfield workers in their own way. She kept up with him the whole way.
So, my mom was an oilfield girl. The new job required them to move to the oil patch, where they would remain for the best part of the next 38 years.
It’s hard to imagine her life as she grew up, she lived in dozens of different houses, 78 to be exact, sometimes more than one place in the same town. She and her sister Mariel were only a year apart and became each others friends and most of the time, allies against a world in which it was difficult for girls to find a solid footing because they were here for a short while and then they were there. A necessity if nothing else, for they changed schools more than once a year for 11 of their 12 years of education. My grandparents were fortunate enough to remain in Santa Barbara long enough for them to complete two full years of high school so they could to graduate together. The very first time that had happened to mom in her entire school career.
Don’t think they didn’t move though. Dad said grandma would rather move than clean house. He said she was so good at it she could pack up the car, load the kids and be off in two shakes of a lambs tail. When they were living in Santa Barbara, they moved four or five times so maybe the joke about cleaning house had some merit.
Santa Barbara in the thirties was quite the place to grow up. Wealthy and exclusive it was a playground for the elite. Movie stars, rich landowners, some who who dated back to the very beginnings of California and pioneer money raked in during the development of the southern California desert now known as Los Angeles.
Bruce was transferred in 1936. He worked for Signal Oil now. The work good and he was busy. He had been sent down to Long Beach and the family would follow, Eileen and the the kids would pack up and go as always. The problem was, my mom loved Santa Barbara and the life she had there. She played tennis at the country club and hobnobbed with some of the wealthy kids she met in high school. Riding in a convertible around Montecito with Leo Carrillo was pretty heady stuff for a girl whose father worked with his hands and came home smelling like gas and oil, everyday. She had a job at the Biltmore Hotel on State street serving cocktails and a boyfriend who was a tennis pro at the country club. She stamped her foot and refused to go.
Things had been very tough while the lived there. Bruce had worked for Barnsdall Oil at Elwood north of Goleta and in Summerland but Barnsdall went belly up and in the middle of the depression and he was out of work. Gasoline prices had dropped by nearly forty cents a gallon and the oil business was staggering. It got so bad that Eileen packed up her pride, put it away and went down to the office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Known as Relief, it was a pejorative term even then, working people were shamed by having to ask for help. There was no such thing as unemployment insurance in the thirties. The women in the office told Eileen that they didn’t qualify because they owned a car and would have to sell it. There was no way to get to work without it, they couldn’t sell it. At the last possible moment Bruce got a job with Signal Oil. He was so grateful to Sam Mosher, Signals owner and president that, though in later years he was offered more lucrative work, he stayed with the company. Such was loyalty then. He worked for Mr. Mosher until the day he died.
In 1940 my grandparents moved back to Arroyo Grande to the house my great-grandfather built on Short Street. Grandpa Bruce was transferred up from Long Beach to oversee Signal Oil production in Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande’s Dolly Adams lease in Price Canyon, east of Pismo Beach.
Mom was living with the family again and wanted to stay in Long Beach but her Woolworths job didn’t pay enough for her to be able to live on her own so she came too. Not really willingly, but she did come. She worried that she wouldn’t find any new friends or a job. She was wrong on both counts. Finding new friends was something a girl from the Oil Patch could do. When her dad was transferred the kids had to move schools and all of them learned how to spy out the popular kids. They learned how to make friends quickly. It was a defensive mechanism. New kids in school are suspect, and have to find a way to fit in right away. It was her greatest social skill. If you ever talked with her you felt like you were an old friend right away.
In 1940 Arroyo Grande had a population of about a thousand people. The census area in those days included all of what is now Grover City, Oceano, Halcyon and the Western addition. All of the valley as far south as Los Berros was included. It was a pretty typical small town, the kind that were all over the country in the 1940’s.
Every bit of business was carried on between Crown Hill and Buzz Langenbeck’s orchard west of town. It was all of three blocks. There were a couple of old Saloons left over from wilder days, three grocery stores, two women’s dress shops, Hilda Harkness’ and Cornelia Conrow’s, directly across the street from each other. the Hub, the Quitmans mens clothing store which smelt of rich fabric and the only place in town where you could but a Homburg hat for dress up occasions. A man needed to look good at an Odd Fellows, Masons or a church meeting. There was Morris Pruess Rexall Drug store, complete with a soda fountain where high school kids hung out when the school on the hill let out. There was the library, next to the ice cream parlor and across the street from the Commercial Company. At the Commercial you could buy groceries along with what were once known as “Notions,” the variety of small objects and accessories, including items that are sewn or otherwise attached to a finished article, such as buttons, lace, greeting cards and post cards. Practically anything you wanted, including furniture, they stocked it. Next to the old Pacific Coast railroad tracks, the Loomis feed mill and just down the street two Blacksmiths, even in 1940 a dying breed. Across the street was the old two story newspaper building where the Herald-Recorder was put together each week.There were several mechanics, two auto dealers, a hardware store, four churches, the Arroyo Grande grammar school and the high school. The Bank of America sat imposingly on the corner of Branch and Bridge Streets. Nearly every one who came to town for Saturday shopping knew each other.
An old home movie taken during the “Gay Nineties” celebration in 1938 features nearly everyone in town. You can sense the fraternity amongst the people as they wave and smile at the camera. If there were disputes or social problems, family secrets, they were kept under lock and key. Folks did not broadcast their dirty laundry. Secrets were meant to be kept. Many forever.
A few homes sat up on Crown Hill by the brick building that was the High School. Most people in town lived in the Western Addition across the state highway near the old horse racing track and the Chataqua grounds or east of the Arroyo Grande creek along the several little streets named for pioneers. Ide, Myrtle, Nelson, and Allen streets were bisected by Mason, Short and the eponymous Bridge Street. Poole Street was still just a dirt path. There were three automobile bridges and one walking bridge at the end of Short Street, named for the man who built it so he could conveniently cross from town to his little farm on the opposite side of the creek.
My mother lived on Short Street. She lived with her parents and her baby sister Patsy at number 225, a little white house with a tiny garage in the back. The same house her grandfather Samuel Harrison Hall built in 1934 after the death of his wife Vancey. She was new to Arroyo Grande, she was 22 years old, single and beautiful.
Note* An oilfield Shebang in the Kettleman Hills.