Bruce began a routine that would vary little over the ensuring years. First he would have to learn an entirely new business. Farm boys were used to hard work and they learned to suffer early. In the oil patch hard work would be the familiar and so would the suffering. Bruce and Eileen held on with both hands and would ride it out together until the end.

In those days country people were used to a rugged life. They lived an outdoor life, most of it done with muscle power. Little if any book learning was required. Both my grandparents could read and write because that was the primary focus of little rural school whose teachers understood that most of their pupils would need to work as soon as they were old enough. Bruce and Eileen found both, a rugged life where nearly everything was done by hand. They were well suited for life on the lease. Bruce was eager in fact. Hardened farm boys provided the vast majority of oil field labor. The jobs were rough and tumble with hard men. So were the living conditions. By geological chance most wells had been discovered in remote mountains, deserts and swamps These remote, thinly populated areas had little in the way of amenities already accepted as necessities in cities. Indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating were unknown in places where the term “Godforsaken” was a common word. Jobs in the fields involved very hard work and long hours. A tour (Pronounced “Tower.”) on the drilling floor was twelve hours, seven days a week in 1919. Once a well was “Spudded in” drilling didn’t cease until oil or gas was struck or it was abandoned as a “Dry hole. No one ever has a chance to really know their grandparents when they were youngsters. You need to look to your own life at 23. Bruce and Eileen must have been optimistic, excited to begin what they had to see as an adventure, on their own for the first time in their young lives.

When they settled into their lease tent in Casmalia, the California oil business was nearly fifty years old. The Union Mattole company drilled the first commercial producing oil up in the Mattole Valley near Petrolia. The year was 1865 right at the end of the Civil War. The Mattole Valley seems an unlikely place to begin the states oil industry, Petrolia is in Humboldt county just 10 miles southeast of Cape Mendecino. The problem for Union Mattole was that they were unable to supply enough crude to supply demand. California’s population had grown nearly four hundred percent since the gold rush of 1849. By 1870 the population of the state passed half a million, a far cry from the count before the rush when it stood in the tens of thousands.

The year after the Petrolia discovery, 1866, Thomas Bard and Josiah Stanford (Leland Stanford’s brother) produced oil from Sulphur Mountain in the Ojai Basin. This well still seeps a little oil today though it no longer produces.

In 1875, in the Pico canyon just seven miles from Newhall, Charles Alexander Mentry after drilling three dry holes, brought in Well No. 4, located about seven miles west of Newhall, California, in the Santa Susana Mountains. It was the first commercially successful oil well in the Western United States and is considered the birthplace of California’s oil industry. It turned nearby Newhall into a boomtown. Well No. 4 continued in operation for 114 years until it was capped in 1990.

Well No 4, Pico Field, Newhall, CA, Ca Historical Society photo

Number 4 began a long run for the state of California as one of the largest oil producers in the United States. In 1900, the state produced 4 million barrels. In 1903, California became the leading oil-producing state in the US, and traded the number one position back-and forth with Oklahoma through the year 1930.

Production at the various oil fields in the state increased to about 34 million barrels by 1904. By 1910 production has reached 78 million barrels. That was only the beginning.

Oil or asphalt has been used for centuries. Streets were paved with it, kerosene was distilled from it. Paraffin oil, the highly reduced form of kerosene was burned in lamps, people used it as a as hair tonic because it kept unruly hair in place and made it shine nicely, though it did have the slight drawback of making your hair fall out. But hey, anything for beauty, right? After all Queen Elizabeth 1st used lead to whiten her skin and she lived to a ripe old age. Paraffin could be used as a laxative, cure diaper rash, or you can wax apples with it all the better to catch the housewives eye in the vegetable aisle. Petroleum was also reduced for lubricating oils and greases. It would be hard to imagine the noise on the streets of San Francisco if wheels and axles weren’t greased.

Oil drilling technology in the last quarter of the 19th century was minimal and could only be effective in a limited number of instances. In the fall of1892, Edward Doheny, an unsuccessful prospector and miner who had operated in New Mexico and later in southern California around the San Diego area where he struck out again. In 1892 he was living in Los Angeles. One calamity after another befell the Dohenys. They had no money to pay the boarding house they lived in, their daughter Eileen was a frail child and died at age seven on December 14, 1892. Her death was caused by heart disease stemming from rheumatic fever, as well as a lung infection. Edward and Carrie’s marriage was fragile, owing mostly to the harsh reality of mining life and their many financial problems. Eileen’s death strained the marriage nearly to the breaking point.

While walking around the western part of Los Angeles, Doheny had noted some asphalt seeps in the area of the old Mexican Land grant, El Rancho La Brea. The Hancock family owned a 4,400 acre section of the rancho and was engaged in mining the seeps for asphalt. Doheny, ever the prospector looking for the next strike thought he saw an opportunity. With borrowed money from his friend Charley Canfield, another prospector and future oilman who was most famous for developing Beverly Hills and Del Mar in San Diego, Doheny obtained a lease and began a well. They didn’t drill it, though all the basic technology was already in use, they dug it by hand with pick and shovel to a bucket lifted on a windless frame. A nearby Eucalyptus tree was felled for the frame. Surely it was the most shirttail operation ever tried in the oil business but at 275 feet down they hit a pool that produced 40 barrels of oil a day.

Doheny’s well, 1895. LA Historical Society photo

1893 was the year in which two streams of American invention came together with a bang. Charles and Frank Duryea had designed the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893, and Edward Doheny brought in the first real commercial oil well. The two fledgling industries were off to the races, literally. The Duryea’s.had designed the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893, then won the first American car race in 1895. They went on to make the first sale of an American-made gasoline car the next year.

The first gasoline-powered vehicle built west of the Mississippi River appeared on the streets of Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Sunday, May 30, 1897. It was the first time a “motor carriage” appeared anywhere in Southern California. It was built in a machine shop on West Fifth Street, a street known as “The Nickel.” Shop owner S.D. Sturgis built it for engineer J. Philip Erie. Erie had conceived the idea of the vehicle some two years prior and now, $30,000 later, $1,032,532.14 in today dollars, a very expensive car rolled out of the shop. Erie and Sturgis decided to make the initial drive in early morning hours because there was some concern that their contraption would frighten horses. No horses cared, to their eternal regret for it spelt their demise.

J. Phillip Erie at the tiller. Collection of USC Library.

By 1904, just seven years later 1,600 motor vehicles cruised the streets of Los Angeles. The maximum speed limit was 8 mph in residential areas and 6 mph in business districts. By 1915, Los Angeles County counted 55,217 motor vehicles. The county led the world in per capita ownership of automobiles and still does so today. There is no record of the fate of this first motor vehicle to drive the streets of the city of angels, Los Angeles.

Orcutt and Solomon Hills, 1903, Santa Maria historical society.

In 1919 when Bruce and Eileen set up housekeeping in their rented shebang in the hills around Casmalia there was an amazing transformation going on in America. From the short ride taken in a home made automobile in 1897, the states increase in cars, by 1919 amounted to about 164 cars for every thousand people which was over half a million. Ownership was up in a state with a population of 3,426,821 souls. There were roughly enough cars for every man woman and child in greater Los Angeles. Though a new Ford Model T cost just under three hundred dollars, Bruce working six days a week, twelve hours a shift earned about forty six dollars a week. With Eileen and two little girls and with another baby in the oven, he was making just enough to get by. Though he was ankle deep in what made cars go every day, actually having one was to be no easy thing.

The nearby town of Orcutt where they went to shop was named for William Warren Orcutt. Orcutt was a petroleum geologist who is considered a pioneer in the development of oil production in California. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in geology and engineering in 1895, he was soon employed as a civil and hydraulic engineer and was soon employed by the Union Oil Company of California, UNOCAL as it’s known today. Though he had no hand in exploring for wells in Casmalia and the Santa Maria fields he was sent by the company to lay out a town to house the rapidly swelling population of workers and their families. The town was to be named Orcutt; orders of the company. Laid out in 1904 on land once owned by my other grandmothers family, the Greys. Great-grandfather Sam Grey, his wife’s uncle Patrick Moore and several other Santa Maria valley men owned oil leases on his former Graciosa ranch. The shares in the Pinal Oil company which was incorporated in 1901 and sold to Union Oil in 1917, kept my fathers family in the chips for generations.

Though both sets of my grandparents lived near each other when Bruce started his job with Associated Oil, their children, my parents would not meet each other for another 20 years. Serendipity coming though.

Oil towns were boomtowns in every sense of the word. They came with all the good and a great deal of the bad. Jobs paid well but most were located in pretty rough country in the early days. Casmalia and the nearby town of Orcutt were no exceptions. Bruce once said that the family lived in every hellhole in California and he wasn’t exaggerating. Nearby Santa Maria was a prosperous farm town but it’s “Whiskey Row” was thickly populated with rowdy oilmen day and night. They had to build a new jail. Nearby Orcutt was surrounded by steep coastal hills covered in sage and scrub oak. What services were offered in the small stores had to be hauled in from Guadalupe and Santa Maria and were priced accordingly. Good money for the work but, as always, merchants raised prices to match.

The little shebangs had no running water and no toilets. Clothes, food and personal belongings were kept in wooden boxes scavenged from wherever they could be found. With Marion and Grace on the other side of the hanging blanket there was little intimacy either. Apparently though, there was enough intimacy in January to produce my uncle Bob who was born in November 1919. All this was theirs for just five dollars a month.

Living in the Orcutt Hills, 1919. SMHS

Weather didn’t matter, you worked anyway. Blistering heat in the San Joaquin valley, fog on the coast, high winds which made the derricks sway like reeds, pitch black nights, pouring rain and freezing rain were all part of a days work. Like very young men who work the hand trades, welders, drillers, carpenters, truck drivers, they took a perverse pride in being able to hang on and do it. Strength and endurance was needed in abundance. Rigs were built by hand with hammers and saws, ditches were pick and shovel, pipe was muscled into place with rope, cut with tongs and flanges bolted with hand held wrenches.

There were few and sometimes no safety precautions on the rigs. Oil rigs were extremely dangerous places. Basic overalls, leather or rubber boots and a cap were the only protection most roughnecks had. Injury and death could come from many sources—scalding from faulty steam pumps and valves; getting caught in the rig’s cogs, wheels and pulleys; being struck by snapping belts, chains, ropes or planks and machinery shaken loose from high atop the derrick; falling from the derrick’s cathead or monkey board, just to name a few. There were no hard hats, no steel toed boots, respirators and the machinery was unguarded by any kind of device to protect the worker. The boilers that powered the rigs could and did explode, fires were frequent, rope and cable under strain broke whipping across the drill floor taking off feet and legs. Fingers and hand were routinely clipped off. Twelve hours is a long shift and fatigue and carelessness accounted for many a digit.

NOTE: The Pinal gusher pictured in the opening page was on my families property. The well came in in 1901. This was in Graciosa canyon near Orcutt, California.


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