My Grandad was a Roughneck. He’s the guy standing on the left in the cover photo. He is twenty four years old, married with two children, one of them my mother Barbara. He’s working for Associated Oil Company on a cable tool rig in the Santa Maria/Orcutt field in Casmalia, California. He has a hard look for the camera because he was all of that. He is just starting a hard, hard forty year career following oil rigs all over California.
Bruce, for that was his name surely never envisioned a career in the oil business. His parents and brothers were all people of the soil. The worked and managed farms and ranches all over California after arriving from Tennessee. Bruce Cameron was the second son, born in ’95 and arriving in California in 1901 with his mother Vancey and older brother William “Bill” Hall. Bruce’s father Sam had come out in 1899 and worked as a carpenter around the southern part of San Luis Obispo county, renting a house at 131 Verde Canyon Road in Arroyo Grande where he later settled his little boys and their mother Vancey.
Bruce was trading in his life as a ranch laborer. He put away the hay hooks, the side delivery rake, barb wire and world of cockle-burrs and foxtails. No more the day spent with bumpkins and hillbillies, no more being pushed around by the stud duck. Something new was at hand.
Now he would learn the difference between a tool dresser and a tool pusher, the roustabout and roughneck, the lowly worm and the driller.
He would work for many, many oil production companies, Associated, Barnsdahl, and at last Signal. He was a specialist in the art of the old Cable Tool manner of drilling and one of the masters at wielding the whipstock.
Neither of my grandparents had much education. Remote ranches and farms in old California were frequently distant from schools and for boys and girls, they were expected to work when they were quite young. In the rural world of the turn of the century kids were put to use at an early. In a sense, work was their education. They learned how to make do. Both moved around with their families when young, never settled in one place for long as the work always beckoned. Whatever their dreams were, they are unknown to us.
Americans were optimistic in 1915. For most of them, life was better materially than it had ever been. This was a time of prosperity — a new type of materialism, more leisure time, and vacations for the emerging middle class appeared. America was now the world’s most affluent country. Access to electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing was not widespread, but most people felt that such conveniences were just a matter of time.
For every American, including the working class, there was “possibility.” Anything was possible in America. This was the place of the self-made man, the American Dream, “rags to riches.” Horatio Alger’s myth is the belief that through hard work, anyone can become successful. Generations whose education came primarily from reading newspapers and books believed that if you simply worked hard enough you could surely rise through the strata of society. The reality for kids growing up on Linne Road in remote eastern San Luis County was obvious. You could expect a life of hard labor and for Bruce Hall a life as a bachelor whose life was circumscribed by the boundaries of whatever ranch his family managed.
Then in 1915, the Law of Unintended Consequences stepped in and changed everything. On a Saturday night when they were both twenty and complete strangers they attended a potluck and dance. Over long tables and chairs brought in from the local ranches by buckboard and wagon, they sat down to a bounty of homemade food served from casserole dishes on calico checked tablecloths. Cornbread, fresh biscuits, heaps of fried chicken, the bounty of the fields laid down for all to share. Ladies had carefully labeled their dishes with medical tape, their names written in curlicue copper plate so the empty dishes would find their way home with the proper family. The cakes and pies were served with fresh ice cream from wooden buckets that young boys had laboriously spun the handles on thinking the ice cream would never stiffen, but in the end it did.
While the women and young girls cleared away, the men played a game of baseball and as the sun went down, built a bonfire in the place cleared for it and the real socializing began. Men rolled their own or stoked cigars and talked of the weather and crops, serious things, while the mothers took out their knitting and spoke of domestic things or laughed about their husbands foibles, looking over their shoulders and giggling and at the same time keeping a weather eye for the kids who were running around in all directions in the dark. The young people circled carefully about each other, sizing up opportunities as it were. Young men knew who was single in those days because unmarried women did not put their hair up and my grandmother stood out with her clouds of light brown hair swirling around in the breeze. Eileen sat by the fire and waved her hands trying to clear the smoke from her eyes. She sensed a presence beside her as a voice softly said, “Smoke follows beauty.” Just like that Bruce hit the jackpot.
Corny as can be but it made her laugh out loud. Bruce asked if he could take her home as he had a horse and buggy. She thought that over and said she had ridden over on a horse named “Fleet” but that he had been trained to find his way home if the reins were tied on the saddle horn. She accepted the offer. They courted for about three months and then one morning the phone rang on the kitchen wall in Eileens mothers ranch house. It was Bruce. He popped the big question right there and then. He said, “My brother Marion and his girl Grace are taking the train down to San Luis Obispo and getting married, do you want to go with them and be married too?” Grandma was never one to miss an adventure. They were married in the old Presbyterian church on Marsh street. After the ceremony they went to the old Andersen hotel and had a glass of wine. Years later my brother who was pretty young at the time asked her, “what did you do then,” meaning where did you go to live and she replied, “Why we went up to the room.” He had no idea what to say next. It’s easy to forget that your grandmother was once young and did what you did when you were.
Both couples got up and took the early train up to Paso because Bruce and Marion had to do the milking. You can imagine the surprise on Bruce’s mother face when she woke up to find two brand new daughters-in-law in bed asleep. Bruce’s grandmother Mary Lucinda went into the bedroom to take a closer look at her grandsons new wife. She was leaning over Eileen, corncob pipe clenched in the corner of her mouth, she was lacking a few teeth and gripped it with her gums. She was an old Tennessee girl you know, born in 1841, lost a husband to the vicious civil war battle at Malvern Hill in 1862 and was certainly a product of the pre-civil war south. She was leaning close to the sleeping girl when a string of drool splattered on Eileens cheek and woke her up. Welcome to the family dearie.
Sam and Vancey Hall were a little chagrined because they knew the new brides mother, Marianna Polhemus Cayce had a pretty “Racy” reputation, well earned too. She was nobodies woman and did what she pleased. In the short time she had lived in the Creston/Cholame area she had only added to it. Marianna was managing ranches when few women did or could. She wasn’t a woman to be messed with. She had engaged herself to marry a wealthy Paso Robles rancher. They were both in town one day when he stopped by the old Paso Robles Inn for a drink with friends and lo and behold there she was tripping down the stairs from the rooms above with a traveling salesman in tow. No wedding. Not to worry, nothing slowed her down.
Marrianna or “Mai” as she was called was married three times and had six children. She took lovers whenever she felt like it. She was a free woman She was a noted horsewoman in California, singlehandedly managed large ranches and was the first woman to dare and fork a saddle and ride down State street, Santa Barbara in the 1900 Fiesta Day parade. It was so shocking she made the editorial page of the newspaper. City people people were horrified as this simply was not done. She didn’t do sidesaddle. Growing up in the country it was of course, natural and her daughter Eileen certainly threw her leg over “Fleet” when she rode to the dance to meet her fate.
The Halls were strong Pentecostal church members and thought they might have to keep an eye on Eileen but she soon charmed them all. Whatever the circumstances they stuck together and if you married one you married them all. They were very good people, kind and generous to their two new daughters-in-law.
Aunt Grace was from the Stewart family and was born on the old Mexican land grant know as the Ranchita, One of several large holdings of the Branch family in the Arroyo Grande valley. She was one of thirteen children born to her parents in just nineteen years. Henry Stewart gave his wife no rest. He died at 45, she lived to be ninety. Louella Alice Alderson Stewart was her name. She was a tough cookie as they used to say..
There was no honeymoon, Bruce went right back to work on the ranch. Grandma had to learn to be a housewife. When she married she didn’t know how to cook or keep a house. Her mother never bothered about those things and Eileen sort of grew up on her own. Coffee and a piece of toast was breakfast in her mothers house. She learned all the rest from her mother-in-law.
For the first three years of marriage they bounced around with the Halls, from the ranch in Cholame to a ranch in the Verde district of Arroyo Grande where my aunt Mariel was born. That little house in Bee canyon is still there.
In 1917 Bruce lost his job and they decided to move up to Madera and stay with his parents until he could find work. They didn’t have an automobile and couldn’t afford the Southern Pacific trains but they did have a horse and a buckboard. A “Buckboard” wagons was just about the simplest conveyance there was. Basically a box on two axles with a seat on springs for a driver and passenger. In the front of the wagon a horizontal board served as a footrest and protection from the horse if she decided to kick you, hence “Buckboard.” It had no brakes, if the horse spooked and ran away, you were along for the ride. They were bone rattlers.
They threw all their earthly goods in the box and climbed up on the seat. Eileen had little Mariel who was just a year old and still a toddler. She was eight months pregnant with my mother Barbara. In 1917 the road from Cholame to Madera was just a dirt track. They were going a hundred thirty miles the hard way. Out through the Kettlemen Hills, which they would someday be very familiar with and across the San Joaquin valley to the old road which would someday be highway 99 and up to the ranch in Madera. Dry and miserable hot in, August, they bounced along behind the walking horse, covered in dust, fannies sore from the old wooden seat. Once, out across the valley they stopped at a ranch and inquired after some water for the horse and themselves. The rancher was happy to oblige them and they drank deeply, filled the canteens and climbed back up on the wagon seat. Their dog Brownie, who was making the trip on foot, was lying under a pepper tree, tongue lolling, panting in the shade. He had had enough and refused to follow, figuring this would be his new home. Bruce called and whistled but he wouldn’t come. Bruce and Eileen looked at each other, it was hot and they had a long way to go and they couldn’t wait. Brownie stayed, they left.
My mother was born at home as it was in 1917, midwifed by her grandmother and great-grandmother. Born in her parents bed before the doctor made it to the house, not uncommon for the time. Madera was their home for eighteen months. My grandfather was draft exempt, being married with two children and there was plenty of work with the United States in the war but as with all booms brought on by wars the minute the fighting stopped so did the need for export crops and he was out of work again. The ranch couldn’t support three families any longer, but somehow Bruce got a job at the Pacific Coast Railroad company warehouse in Los Alamos and moved down on his own, intending to bring his little family from Madera once he was settled. All this moving was never to end, it set the pattern for the rest of their lives. They never seemed be upset by it. Like all folks, they did what they needed to do. They got really good at it as you will see. Bruce and Eileen never looked back.
The head warehouseman stuck his head out of the little office and shouted out at the floor, “Hall, you gotta phone call.” Bruce hurried up to the office shack wondering who might be calling him at work. He hoped there was no problem up in Madera as he took the receiver in hand, wiping the mouthpiece with his bandana and saying hello with a question in his voice. “Bruce, its Marion, I’m in Casmalia and I got a job in the oil field here and theres one for you too if you can come up.” Casmalia was just twenty two miles and a short buggy ride from Los Alamos. Bruce knew an opportunity when he saw one. The pay was more than twice what he was making on the railroad. Sixty cents and hour was a princely sum in ’19. He hung up the phone and told his boss he was pulling his ticket and asked for passage up the line to the Graciosa station just above the tiny town of Orcutt. The boss paid him off. He went back to his boarding house stuffed his valise with his possibles and ran back to the station and took the afternoon train up the line. Marion took him to the Associated Oil superintendents shack and got him signed up. Bruce followed Marion down to the what passed for a town, threw his case down on a cot in the Shebang Marion had and then went over to the little library and called Eileen and told her to pack up the kids and come on down. He had a good job at good pay and he wanted his family with him.
Eileen had never lived without family around, husband, children, in-laws of all kinds but in Casmalia she was going to have her first home, sort of. She and Bruce with Brother Marion and sister-in-law Grace were going to be sharing a lease house. One of the so-called perks of life in the oil patch was the availability of homes built by the oil companies and rented for a nominal four or five dollar from their employees. Consider that most early fields in California were in places where rattlesnakes, squirrels and coyotes lived and the only landscaping was what nature provided. It was no woman’s dream to live in those places.
Their first home was a Shebang, a type of very small quasi building characterized be a wooden plank floor, half walls about four feet high, also made of rough planks and a canvas tent structure over it all. It was not a palace, wealthy dogs lived in better places but it was a beginning.
No one really knows where the term cShebang omes from. It’s first mention comes from Civil War letters. Confederate boys from Louisiana wrote of them and its probable the name is a bastardization of the French word chabane or cabane. They were common in the winter quarters of both armies and are seen in old glass plate negatives of the railroad camps of both the Union and Central Pacific roads as they raced towards each other in the late 1860’s. Many discharged soldiers worked on the track gangs of both railroads and would gravitate to the oil fields of California when the railroad boom went bust at the turn of the century.. They were cheap to build and easy to move when wells were complete. No one loved them but they served their purpose.
Bruce, Eileen, his brother Marion and his wife Grace all moved in, all seven of them. By this time Grace and Marion had a son, Don and Bruce and Eileen, two daughters, Mariel and Barbara. A four year old boy, and the girls. three and two, all in a hut that measured just 12 by 18 feet. Bruce had gone down to the tiny town of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez valley which was the end of the line for the Pacific Coast RR and bought all that was necessary to furnish their new abode. A cheap kerosene stove, a small table and chairs, two iron beds and matresses but surely the most important thing, extra blankets to be hung on a rope to divide the little tent house into halves for privacy. They were still young. The both of them just 23.