Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Eight.

Off to Oildale, California.

Time was passing in Casmalia, the kids were growing and Bruce and Eileen had finally moved from the Associated camp to a little house between Orcutt and Santa Maria. Mariel, the oldest had started school at tiny Casmalia school, one of a few students from the oil fields. Like many rural schoolhouses it was a first to eighth affair. Kids ranged from six years old to, well, no limits on age. Public education in the 1920’s was open to all. It wasn’t uncommon to have sixteen year olds in the third grade. One teacher taught all subjects to all grades. Curriculum was primarily reading, writing and arithmetic. Books were well use and amost always second hand hand me downs from larger urban schools. Parents did the janitoring, painting, general upkeep and provided most, if any, improvements.

The One Room School.

Education, particularly for boys had exploded after the war. The advent of progressive education and state and federal funding began to be felt in public schools. With close to 25% of the United States population considered illiterate, business and government could see the value of providing at least a basic education for its citizens.

Neither of my grandfathers graduated high school. Bruce attended only to the ninth grade. My other grandfather never finished the eighth grade. There was no high school in Arroyo Grande when he was of age, closed because the large landowners refused to pay taxes to support the school. They believed that elementary school was good enough. “Those boys need to go to work,” they said and the high school was closed down for a number of years. Donovan and Miossi led the fight to close the wasteful school.

Attitudes had changed by 1920, both public and private money became available. Teacher requirements were raised, more education for them became the norm. Graduation from high school for boys had risen from six and one half percent in 1900 to nearly seventeen by 1920.

Little Orcutt school had less than two dozen students when Mariel went there but it had much in common with all rural schools. These characteristics were still evident when I went to grammer school in the fifties. Flip top desks with inkwells, hard wooden seats all facing a black slate board with pieces of chalk lying with dusty felt erasers in the tray. Above the blackboard, paper poster board printed with the alphabet in both upper and lower case letters depicted in cursive. Above that the big black framed clock, wound by hand each morning by the teacher and above that the bracket holding the California state flag and the national flag which we pledged allegiance to first thing each and every morning. The floors were wooden planks, there was a heater in the corner, a teachers desk and some bookshelves holding reading material and textbooks. By todays standards those little schools were pretty spare but if you had good teachers as I did you could get a first class elementary school education.

All students, no matter the age learned together. Older kids helped younger kids. In effect there was not just one teacher but many. Subjects were integrated and holistic with each subject taught in the context of others.

With more liesure time than before the war the grindingly hard work of the woman began to be reduced with the introduction of all kinds of labor saving devices. Eileen, because she now had electricity didn’t have to clean kerosene lanterns or burn coal and wood to cook and heat. She could have an electric mixer, just introduced ten years before. She could buy a pop-up toaster first marketed in 1919 and a Hoover Electric Floor Cleaner could be had for just $39.00.

And, in 1920, for the first time, she could vote in the national election. Women had campaigned for over fifty years for the right to vote in California and had finally narrowly won that right in 1911 though it was not until 1918 that three women were elected to the state assembly.

The business, industrial, politicians and saloons were bitterly opposed to suffrage but perhaps not surprisingly, though the measure was soundly defeated in San Francisco and barely won in Los Angeles, it turned out the deciding factor was the men’s rural vote. Farm wives, oil patch women, school teachers and those who put up with the daily drudgery of life for which there was little future put it over the top. Men listened to their wives and daughters and did what they asked. It’s important to remember that women didn’t vote in California in 1911 but the men did and especially men outside the cities thought it was time things were equal.

The birth of Uncle Bob was bookmarked the opening of the floodgates of social reform. People looked up and said, “I’m not going to take it anymore.” Big changes were in store for the oilfield worker.

Oildale, California,

In 1924, Bruce and Eileen loaded their three kids in car, a pretty new Model T Ford and hit the road, headed for a new job in the San Joaquin . “The Valley” as Californians refer to it is the area of the Central Valley that lies south of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and is drained by the San Joaquin River. It comprises seven counties of Northern and one of Southern California, including, in the north, all of San Joaquin and Kings counties, most of Stanislaus, Merced, and Fresno counties, and parts of Madera and Tulare counties, along with a majority of Kern County, in Southern California.

Starting 2 million years ago, a series of glaciers periodically caused much of the valley to become a fresh water lake. Lake Corcoran was the last widespread lake to fill the valley about 700,000 years ago. About 12,000 years ago there were three major lakes remaining in the southern part of the Valley, Tulare Lake, Buena Vista Lake and Kern Lake. In the late 19th and early 20th century, agricultural diversion of the Kern River eventually dried out these lakes allowing farmers and ranchers access to the vast southern Joaquin. Oil followed

The San Joaquin Valley has long since eclipsed the Los Angeles Basin as the state’s primary oil production region. Scattered oil wells on small oil fields are found throughout the region, and several enormous fields near the Kern river bluffs, the Lost Hills and Taft, including the enormous Midway-Sunset Oil Field, the third-largest oil field in the United States were operating by the time Bruce and Eileen made their way north.

Headed for Oildale, 1924. L-R, Mariel, Marion, Bob, Barbara, Eileen and Bruce. Family Photo

In 1924 the was valley is predominantly rural, dotted with small farm towns with curious names like Wasco, Fruitvale, Reward, Fellows and Temblor which naturally sits smack dab on the San Andreas Fault Line.

Oildale, now there’s a name to remember. Surrounded by Bakersfield it’s not much remembered today but once it was one of the great discovery fields. In 1920 it was the third largest oil producing area in California. The only town in California other than La Brea to be named for the oil it sat on.

The Halls were moving from Santa Maria where Bruce started his career. He’d worked for Associated Oil as he’d learned his trade. Associated was at the time one of the most integrated companies in California. They had their beginnings in the Kern fields in 1900 when more than thirty smaller companies signed up to form it. Within a few years Standard Oil of California and the Southern Pacific Railroad acquired an interest in Associated Oil for the purposes of transporting their own oil to the San Francisco Bay Area where it would be refined and marketed jointly. The Southern Pacific needed fuel for its railroad steam engines. The Matson’s Pacific Oil and Transportation Company, the Matson Line was acquired in 1905, which included the Coalinga-Monterey pipeline and a refinery at Gaviota, California. In 1907, the Associated Pipe Line Company was formed as a subsidiary of the Associated Oil Company with the Southern Pacific Company providing property along its railroad tracks which ran from the Bakersfield Kern River oil fields to Port Costa, California, later being shipped to China and other parts of the world. The Southern Pacific Company attained a controlling interest of the Associated Oil Company’s stock. Like most of the larger companies it became an almost impenetrable labyrinth of subsidiaries and holding companies. The Southern Pacific Railroad had rightly earned the name, “The Octopus,” and the brag in its boardrooms was that it owned California which wasn’t very far from the truth.

Kern River fields, 1910. Calisphere photo.

Bruce was moved up to the Kern fields because by this time he was an expert in cable tool drilling. There is a thing that some men have that is a natural feel for things mechanical. Call it a sixth sense though its probably just a combination of the other five. It is an absolute mystery to those that don’t have it. Bruce had it. He could smell, hear and feel a well. The wells talked to him and he listened. The sense of things is what separates the laborer from the boss. By the time they got to their house on Bakersfield’s Chester Avenue he was a Farm Boss, in charge of drilling for more than one well. Things were looking up.

Cable tool rigs work by using a long iron bit attached to a heavy, cable laid manila rope. The cable is attached to a walking beam that lifts and drops the bit, crushing the rock, slowly pounding its way downward. By 1924 it was considered obsolete compared to the faster rotary rigs. Looking down their noses at the rotary rig roughnecks, the cable tool men derisively called them “Swivelnecks.” Typical behavior from those workers who could clearly see the writing on the wall that spelt the end of their particular trade.

Cable tool rigs were widely used from about 1870 and are still being used today, although almost all of today’s oil wells are drilled using a rotary rig. The basic machinery consists of the engine and boiler, the derrick and crown block, the bullwheel and drilling cable, the sandwheel and sanding line for the bailer, the vertical bandwheel with a center crank, and the walking beam supported by the Samson post. Bandwheels were essentially large pulleys (usually 8-10 ft in diameter) driven by a leather belt from the engine, which reduced the engine rpms and increased power. A crank on the bandwheel’s axle imparted up-and-down motion (via a pitman) to the walking beam, much like the motion of a teeter-totter. The other end of which was connected to the drilling cable by the temper screw. The walking beam alternately raised and lowered the drilling tools. Walking beams were typically 26ft x 12in x24x in size. Bullwheels and sandwheels were spools for the drilling cable and sanding (or bailing) line, respectively. Additionally, fishing tools, various hand tools, wrenches, and forge tools were required for the drilling process.

The early rigs were powered with steam. Steam was delivered from the boiler to the engine by way of pipe. The engine powered the band wheel by a turning belt. A well-braced upright post, called the sampson post, was mounted further down the platform. On top of it, and mounted with a hinge, laid the horizontal walking beam. The band wheel was connected to one end of the walking beam by a pitman and crank. As the band wheel turned the crank, the pitman was raised and lowered which rocked the walking beam up and down on the sampson post. A temper screw was attached to the other end of the walking beam. At one end of the temper screw there was a clamping device that gripped the drilling line to which the cable tool bits were attached. The drilling line came from the bull wheel and ran over a pulley at the top of the derrick. The bits, which were basically just pointed steel weights, pounded the well into the ground. The action at the bottom of the well was one of crushing, not chipping or cutting of the rock. The walking beam raised and lowered the bits about two feet. If the complete drilling tool string weighed 1200 lbs (and some weighed up to 3000 lbs.) and the velocity was 6 feet per second, the the force of the blow would be over 16 tons. After a while, the bit had to be replaced. In soft formations, progress could average 30 feet per day, sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on the conditions. The equipment was run 24 hours a day.

The drilling was controlled by a skilled worker who, by feeling the line from time to time, could tell what was going on in the well. When necessary, he could let out more line or stop the walking beam. When the bottom of the hole became clogged with rock chips, the bit was raised and a bailer (attached to the the sand line on the sandwheel) was lowered into the well to scoop out the debris. This involved a complicated process of raising the drilling cable with bit out of the well and lowering a bailer bit from the sand line. The bailer then had to be lowered and raised multiple times until it collected enough material. Then it had be raised out of the well and emptied. This had to be done until the well was cleared of loose material. After that, the drilling cable was lowered into the well and the whole process started again. This pound and bail process was repeated about every three feet.

Bruce Hall, “Feeling the Well” Associated Oil Company Well, Kerndon no. 5, Kern River Field. 1925, Famiy Photo

The Calf wheel contained the casing line. When casing was necessary for the well, the casing line was used to lower it into the well. The headache post was a safety feature that kept the walking beam from dropping if anything came loose at the other end of the beam.

As greater depths were reached, control became increasingly difficult. The cable became longer, heavier, and had more elasticity. Water often become an issue. Subsurface pressures could not be controlled causing frequent blowouts. An experienced driller was a big asset in the process.

Cable Tool Drill Bits. Kern County Museum photo

In 1914 the usual cost of drilling a 1000-2000 foot hole with cable tools was about $10,000 – $30,000. Prior to 1910, practically all wells in California were drilled with cable tools.

The Kern River and Kern Bluff fields were very shallow. Some of the early wells were less than 100 feet deep. Those wells were drilled in mere days. Lots of work and the successful companies were raking in the dough.

Things looked good in the business at Bruce’s level. There were lots of wells going down all over the fields in the southern San Joaquin. Refined oil usage had grown with the auto industry and conversion of railroad steam locomotives to oil from coal. The merchant fleet was rapidly changing its engines too. The U S Navy’s entire battle fleet had by now had adapted to using bunker fuel rather than coal. In fact the Federal Government and the War Department had set aside three underground fields, two in California and one in Wyoming as a backup for the Navy in case of war. The three fields were the Elk Hills on the valley’s west side, the Buena Vista field near Taft and the soon to be famous, infamous in fact, the Teapot Dome field near Casper, Wyoming.

Things in the oil field were beginning to simmer and that would change Bruce and Eileens life in a hurry. Dark clouds were rising and it was oil. The long odyssey through the oil patch had begun. It would continue for another thirty four years.


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