My dad was not what I would call a scintillating conversationalist. He tended to speak in analogy and metaphor. When I was a kid this was likely the correct thing to do as I remember those kind of things today. Conversations, when there was one always ended with the phrase: Well, lets put it like this,” which meant that his opinion was right. When you’re young there isn’t much reason to disagree because you don’t know too much.
The only time I knew that I had him dead to rights was when he insisted that the old saw, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning,; red sky at night, sailors delight,” was wrong and red sky at morning was the sailors delight. After a long discussion with my brother and I, who both insisted he was wrong, even showing him in the encyclopedia, he nevertheless ended the talk with his tried and true phrase. And, that was that.
When I grew up I spent many years at sea and I can testify today that he was wrong. Pretty sure he would still argue his point though. Opinions, stubbornly held can become personal law and be handed down from father to son like crown jewels.
Other things he said, stuck. His little stories about things have stayed with me and in fact, have become more true, if you will excuse the grammar as nothing can be “more” true, being that truth is an absolute. There is no such thing as alternative truth, it either is or it isn’t.
If you understand that my father was a man who came of age in the depression and with the exception of his two years at the University of California, lived his entire 88 years in our small town. We lived in a farmhouse less than three miles from where he grew up. He was raised on a dairy and as an adult grew, table vegetables all the rest of his working life. To say he was a conservative thinker would be an understatement. I spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases seated at the poker table after dinner listening to my father, his brother and my uncles expound on farming. I learned a great deal about potato farming off Division Road in Oso Flaco or running cattle up on the Shandon Ranch. They all believed that the weather was out to get them; it was, and they were on constant lookout for the State and Federal “College Boys” who wanted to tell them how to farm. They didn’t force conservatism on us boys but it was there for the taking. Some advice I took. Some I didn’t. I understood as I grew up that none of that was meant box me in, but was simply to offer me a way to look behind the curtain, see what was there and make up my own mind.
If I may I’d like to present you with one of his classic analogies. This one is undateable and it’s been making the rounds, likely for centuries. You can take it or leave, another of my dads go-to phrases.
With anything you do or anywhere you go you may find yourself riding a Dead Horse. My father said this was true of government, especially ours. He said,”Democracy is very messy and most of the time stumbles over it’s own two feet and like a blind hog will, or might, find a Truffle once in a while. You can imagine the rider standing over the quite obviously Dead Horse, hands on hips trying to figure out what to do. Buttonholing three or four passersby he asks what they think he should do. The group tries to come up with a strategy for getting the Dead Horse to move.
“Should we give it a swift kick in the ribs,” says one.
“How about a bigger whip,” says another.
“How about a better rider.” says a third.
“We could change his diet or better yet, buy a better Dead Horse,” that’s an idea, they all agree.
The rider is irritated by the comment that he should have been a more accomplished horsemen.
“Perhaps,” says one, “we should appoint a committee to study the issue, or better yet, put together a team to revive the Dead Horse, yes that’s it.”
“Don’t you think we ought to buy a few more Dead Horses, and harness them together? Wouldn’t that be twice as good?”
“They’d be much faster and could really pull their weight.”
“We could get professional jockeys to ride them too. I bet they would spring to life then.” Lots of head nodding.
“What if we hired a trainer to increase the Dead Horses performance.”
We could increase funding, we could study Alfalfa production to make sure the Dead Horse was properly fed.” Yes, that’s it.
We could save money too, because the Dead Horse doesn’t have to be fed. That’s right, it’s less costly, decreases overhead, and therefore contributes more to the mission than a Live Horse.”
“Best of all, we can promote the rider of the Dead Horse to a cabinet position, create a new department called the Dead Horse Committee and they can issue a critical report on the efficiency of Dead Horses.”
“We’re sure Democrats and Republicans can agree on that, right?”
“Not so simple,” replies the man from the north, “We don’t grow Alfalfa in our state and taxpayers won’t want to spend their money on a Dead Horses from somewhere else.”
The Dead Horse lies there.
“You know,” they all agree, “The Dead Horse is beginning to smell.”
Bruce and Eileen on a tour of California’s Oil Patch.
The boys on the rig. Leather hard, raw boned just as likely to fight as breath. The men who spudded in, made hole and spent their money hell-raisin’, drinking and fist fighting just for fun.
Bruce Hall learned to Boss. To be a Boss, get men to work, move the job along, not an easy thing to do. Turnover was high, roughnecking wasn’t a job for many. Bruce Hall earned a reputation for handling men and because he was fair, he had hands waiting to work for him. He ran a safe rig, he organized to reduce waste and worked hard to bring wells in on time.
A man who laborers for a living is always looking for someone who can make him money. You can classify bosses by their many different styles. Each one can be more or less effective and many times will attract men who see things as they do. Mostly farm boys worked the rigs in those days who were used to hard work and seeing an opportunity to do a job that has a ladder you can climb to a better life. They brought with them attitudes inherited from their families, some times good, some times not so good. Bruce had to, each and every day stir a diverse group of young men to do what was needed. None of those skill could be found in a book. Close observation and an innate ability to see a path that motivates the man is required.
Bruce thought constantly about how to improve his crews. He taught what he had learned form others and his own observation. He knew by now that companies had one interest only; profits. Profits came from speed making hole, safety; no lost time accidents and most of all forethought. A man that uses his experience to anticipate problems on the rig and puts the fix in first is worth a great deal.
He had another advantage, his wife. Eileen stayed home, raised their children, kept their home and most important of all understood that his job had to come first and foremost. When the phone rang he had to go. She never knew when he would be back. If something happened on a rig he stayed out until it was fixed and back on line. He might be gone days. In the twenties it might not be possible to call her. Individual rigs had shacks, the so-called Doghouse, where the trip log was kept and clothes were dried. It was a place to get out of the weather but had no phone. Typically the best he could do was send a note by someone going into town. Eileen didn’t fret, it served no purpose. Perhaps her early life living with her self-absorbed and itinerant mother prepared her for this one. What ever you think her life was, it was most definitely hers and she embraced it. In all of her life she never lost her sense of adventure. They both did whatever had to be done and the children never heard either of them complain. Ever. My mother told me they never fought or argued. Eileen went where Bruce went. They were yoked together.
Something they learned early on was to stay away from the camps. Though interviews with oil patch families speak of the camaraderie and neighborliness of people, they helped each other when they could. No one had much so it was impossible to put on airs. Most of the problems revolved around the men. Spending their pay at the saloons, gambling on payday, chasing the floozies didn’t make for a happy home.
Some companies set up tables for crap games on payday and had a tent where a man could have a woman. Even though it was the depression, liquor was readily available and the company would set ’em up. They were guaranteed to get some of that pay envelope back.
Bruce knew that if he needed or wanted to know something about drilling operations he had to get it himself. There were no books to read, no instructions. You asked questions, you watched everybody on the crew. You had to figure out what worked and what didn’t. In the twenties, full time geologists were just beginning to put together the science of drilling. Oil bearing rock and sand could be convoluted, twisting and turning through the rock strata, sometimes more than a mile down. A good well could be ten feet from a dry hole. Some fields were huge like those along the Kern River. The Kern Front Field where Bruce worked was ten miles long and 2.5 miles wide and at it’s peak was home to over 9,000 producing wells. It’s best year, 1929, it pumped 4,535,039 barrels. The two fields along the Kern just to the north were even larger.
The amount of oil being pumped was vast. So vast, in fact, that for the last fifty years there had been little though of conservation. Excess oil was stored in pits and in some places simply allowed to run out onto the ground. Creeks and gullies ran black withe oil and mud waste. Production was everything. Hundreds of companies for the past twenty years had been in a race to find and exploit new fields and bank the money made that little thought was given to what might happen next.
The cost per barrel had slowly declined from its peak of more than $3.00 in 1920. Companies countered this loss of revenue by cutting wages. After the war oil workers had begun unionizing in California with the usual back and forth of walkouts, shut downs and the consequent attacks by law enforcement in the pay of the corporations, bringing in scabs to man production sites. This back and forth had led to the 8 hour day and a rise in pay during WWI. Companies had put up a fight but during and right after the war prices were high enough that they found they could maintain profits and the bosses could still take a ship to England and shoot grouse with the lords and ladies. Just for a bit, all was good on both sides.
Standard and Union Oil were among the first to raise wages and also amongst the first to go after the oil-workers when price began to decline. Big companies began to lay off the men on company payroll and began using independent contractors to do the drilling. This allowed them to put much of the financial risk of drilling on the independents. This increased the pressure on the drill crews to make hole in a hurry because thats how they were paid. A price per foot was negotiated with the drilling contractor, with the added attraction for the owners of a specific depth of hole, and beyond which you won’t be paid. As always the low bidder won the right and the opportunity to role the dice on profit. Make well, get paid, dry hole not. Payday for the crew came when the well came, if.
For Bruce the upshot was that if he was able attract good men, highly trained and motivated he could drill in a hurry and finish with money still in the contract which was the company profit. If he couldn’t, he’d be looking for another job.
Good crews that work together were a necessity. A winning team tends to attract good players which makes it better. The problem is there are not enough really good players to go around. Perhaps his baseball career helped him understand this. Men that get along and work as a team need a good coach. Bruce was that man.
There is an old saying that a man who works with his hands “Needs only a strong back and a weak mind.” No one who takes his lunch in the “Doghouse” on a drill rig and reads Shakespeare is going to escape ridicule. If you have a book with anything but pictures of naked women you are probably in for some grief. Stories abound. You might have to be good with your fists.
Over on a Standard well, a fight that quickly included an entire crew, roughnecks, pumper, motorman and mudman, something like you might see in a John Wayne movie got out of hand and a young worm, a Dutchman took a shot to the head with a “dumb” wrench. His skull was fractured and he died the next day, nailed into a plain pine box and buried. No one knew who to notify or apparently his real name. No charges were filed or the sheriff even notified, life in the oil patch could be cheap. The next day they same crew was back to making hole.
Two brothers who worked in the fields around Taft were known to jump down from the drilling floor and go at it at frequent intervals. Each one had wins in which his brother lay in the oil and mud around the rig while he other crowed over his success. By all rights they were both good hands and had no trouble finding work plus they offered some entertainment to break up a dull day. The brother with the false teeth always took ’em out before ceremonies commenced, that was his advantage.
Over in Oil City, a man’s wife, he was a first class Toolie, came home and caught him in bed with his floozie and run both him and her off. The next day she come out to the rig in an old Ford, walked right up to him on the floor, commenced to hitting him and after a bit off that pulled a little .32 out of her purse and shot him in the butt, twice. Satisfied, she took him to the hospital to be sewed up. Next day he showed up for his tour, wife drove him to work. All was settled.
The fields were full of uneducated, men who worked hard and made their fun where they could. In the twenties men still carried pistols in their pockets, spent their money like water and would still show up for work. Something in his character made Bruce different. They were careful to stay away from the trouble that plagued the oil camps. Three little children and their bond kept them at a distance form the wilder side of things.
Bruce and Eileen both had little formal education but they were smart. Bruce understood where the money was. Pipeliners, truck drivers, and roughnecks didn’t make the money, Tool Pushers and Drillers did. The way up from the bottom was to learn everything to know about putting in a well.
Next: Chapter Eleven, Shooters, Torpedo’s, Whipstocks and the Christmas Tree.
Bruce and Eileen Move up. Central Californias Black Gold, or movin’ to the Kern.
The Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s shocked Americans by revealing an unprecedented level of greed and corruption within the federal government. The scandal involved ornery oil tycoons, poker-playing politicians, illegal liquor sales, a murder-suicide, a womanizing president and a bagful of bribery cash delivered on the sly. In the end, the scandal would empower the Senate to conduct rigorous investigations into government corruption. It also marked the first time a U.S. cabinet official served jail time for a felony committed while in office.
A couple of the big boys, Edward Doheny, “Richer than Rockefeller” as the song goes and Harry Ford Sinclair concocted a scheme to get their hands on all three of the Federal oil reserves. The two high rollers worked with Albert Fall, former Senator from New Mexico, and the Secretary of the Interior to lease the reserves from the Federal Government. This would give them access to hundreds of millions of barrels of high grade crude for next to nothing.
Edward Doheny sold his oil holding in the United States in 1902. Doheny then went down to Mexico looking for more oil. He leased a million acres around Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico, and his Mexican Petroleum Company became the largest oil company in Mexico . Mexican Petroleum built roads, cities, railroads, and pipelines. During the Mexican Revolution Doheny hired his own private army to protect his Mexican oil fields, which by 1922 had brought him $31 million. By 1925, Doheny’s net worth passed $100 million and he was richer than John D. Rockefeller. He would have liked to be even richer though and it would take just a pittance to pay off the massive personal debt of Albert Fall in return for a small favor.
So, in 1921, Doheny persuaded his friend Fall, in exchange for a suitcase with $100,000 in cash, an interest free loan, no need to pay it back, he said, delivered to a Washington Hotel by Doheny’s son Ned, to lease to Doheny’s oil company large holdings of oil-rich lands owned by the U.S. Navy at Elk Hills and the Buena Vista field in Kern County, California . Part of this deal included construction of storage facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii , and an exclusive no-bid government contract for Doheny to ship the oil from Elk Hills to Pearl Harbor. It would be carried in his own tankers for which he would be paid by the Navy. A similar deal was struck at the same time between Secretary Fall and oilman Harry F. Sinclair for a less valuable Navy oil property at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, for which Sinclair gave Fall $300,000.00, all cash. No receipt necessary. No paper trail needed.
Bothe vice-president Calvin “Silent Cal,” Coolidge and president Warren G Harding were implicated in the deal but as Harding said, “No man with a $100,000,000.00 dollars will ever be convicted in this country.” He was right. Both Doheny and Sinclair were acquitted on the bribery scheme, that is, giving Fall and others cash for services, Fall himself went to prison for accepting the money. No one should have been surprised then or now. Jury tampering, the Denver Post on the payroll and legions of sharp lawyers tipped the scales. Once the scapegoat was chosen, the end was inevitable. None of that should be surprising, think of Oliver North, Lt. Calley, the Watergate burglars and “Scooter” Libby all men who stepped in to take a bullet for their bosses.
Newspapers at the time were the only mass market source for news. Reporters, as always, were digging like mad beavers and oil business tycoons were shoveling in the holes a fast as they could. Reporters dogged the oil barons and their lackeys at every step and along with the Senate Committee who did the formal investigation, it all came out. A few inconsequential heads rolled. The big money boys, and there were a lot of them, took a stroll and Fall, now the former Secretary of the Interior went away for two years of free accommodation in a federal prison. Though our history is rife with Senators, Congressmen and Judges, he was the first U.S. cabinet member to ever be convicted and jailed. Pretty exclusive company.
Bruce would read about it in the Bakersfield Californian. A national scandal affecting his business was big news. Every change in the business side of oil might change the prospects for the Hall family and close attention was paid to moves in the industry.
After a decade in the oil fields he had gone from roustabout to driller. He knew the drilling business inside out. From bits and bailers to fishing and torpedos he had done it all. He felt pretty good about the future. Like a lot of Americans the decade after WWI was one of immense progress, both social and industrial.
Drilling in the US was going like a runaway train. Huge fields had opened in California. Not the least was the Kern River fields which he worked in. Signal Hill had come on line in 1921, Inglewood in 1924, Torrance, 1921, the Westside of San Joaquin valley from Maricopa to Avenal and Coalinga in 1928. Goleta, Summerland and Ventura, Huntington Beach,1920, Santa Fe Springs, 1921 were all producing. On top of that the immense field in Kilgore Texas was pumping so much oil that much of it simply ran onto the ground. There were not enough tanks or pipelines nor refineries to process it. It was estimated that only about 40% was recovered.
The first well in Mesopotamia (Todays Iraq) came in on October, 14th, 1927. This opened the giant field in Kirkuk, northern Iraq. Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela opened its first well in 1922. The Baku, Azerbaijan wells were flowing again after destruction and rebuilding by the Russian Bolsheviks in WWI. Sumatra and the Dutch East Indies, today Indonesia and Borneo were also major producers.
Known from 1918 to 1939 as the “War to end All Wars,” WWI was the first war to run on oil and gasoline. Tanks, trucks, automobiles, ships and the warplane all used oil products . Advances in Tank ship design made it possible to ship huge quantities across the globe which began weaving together the skein of the international oil business which we know today.
Producers were involved in a mad scramble to wring as much profit out of oil as they could. Big firms bought small firms and bankrolled wildcatters to make hole. The oil flowed like a seemingly endless river.
The 1920’s saw one of the most transformative times in our history and the world. Skirts went up, morals went down. The Volstead act which was passed in 1919 prohibited the sale of alcohol with a content over 0.05%. One of the deciding factors was the inability of many soldiers overseas to vote. Many states worked hard to repress the soldier vote and it is believed the 2.8 million Doughboys overseas may have tipped the balance against it. As it turned out, alcohol consumption went up and so did crime. Watch out for what you wish for.
Bobbed hair, flat chests, rolled stockings, lipstick, smoking cigarettes and drinking in public, riding in cars with boys; necking, the world turned upside down. Oh my. The differences in my grandmothers worlds was vast. Eileen, born in 1895 and Annie born in 1885 were just a decade apart in years but much different in the worlds they lived in. Grandma Annie wasn’t a prude but she never caught up. Eileen took it all in stride of course.
Oil workers had money to spend too. Standard Oil had instituted the 8 hour work day in 1917. Unions were at work organizing labor and trying to raise the standard of living for its members. Wages had gone up during the war but in the twenties some corporations were trying to put the squeeze on labor and Bruce was to see many strikes and labor stoppages in the decade. By this time he had risen far enough so he was betwixt and between neither pure labor nor pure management.
Bakersfield didn’t skip a beat. A classic boom-town, saloons, dance halls and sporting houses advertising the finest high society girls imported from Chicago and Kansas City, ran wide open, 24 hours a day. Land along the river bluffs was leased, re-leased and sold to the highest bidder. There was a wildcatter behind every tree and two to take him. Men resorted to fists and sometimes pistols carried in the front pocket to settle their differences. Nothing was prohibited and the sheriff was getting rich on that. Claims were staked and jumped by the dozens and if one promoter went broke another moved right in. Kern river had become a major producing field.
The twenties began with oil at $3.07 a barrel. Today that would be over $45 a barrel or roughly a dollar a gallon for each of the 42 gallons in a barrel. Inflation makes it hard to see the contemporary value of things in the middle twenties. Take the food you put on the table, A dollar in 1920 could buy around three dozen eggs, or, just under three pounds of butter. Butter back then was 36 cents — $8.72 in today’s dollars, or nearly double what it costs in most places in the US today. Milk would set you back about .35 cents a gallon, delivered, That’s a little over $5.19 a gallon, about a dollar more than today. Gasoline for your car ran from .21 to .30 cents a gallon.
So how does a company make any profit if the 1925 cost of a gallon of raw petroleum is more than gas at the pump? The answer is in refining as it was in 1925. Yes, gasoline was refined but so was Bunker or Fuel oil for ship and locomotives, Diesel and Heating oil, Naptha, Kerosene, and Butane. Propane and Paraffin were also by-products of crude. Today there are over 6,ooo products made with or partly made with Oil. It is and was a lucrative business.
My grandparents moved up from Casmalia and found a house on North Chester avenue, then and now the main drag n town. The two girls, Mariel and Barbara were enrolled in school, always the first order of business. Eileen set to arranging the house and putting things in order.
In those days they were still Boomers, traveling to each new field and job by car. When they left, nothing went that didn’t fit in the car. Everything else was sold or given away. Bruce would call from the rig or come home and say I have to be in Bakersfield, Taft, Santa Barbara, whichever it might be and they’d be off.
Compared to little Casmalia and Orcutt, Bakersfield was a metropolis. Almost everything in town was the result of the oil boom. Oil had transformed a dusty little farm town practically overnight. The Southern Pacific railroad had built a major shipping point to haul oil north to the refineries in the bay area. A major development in 1924 was the building of the first steel derrick up on the Kern field. It was a sign that wooden derricks and the cable tool rig were looking at the end. Steel was stronger and could carry the weight of of the much heavier rotary tools and most of the California fields, at least the shallow ones had been drilled. Wells were putting in strings to the tune of thousands of feet.
The Oildale fields were still drilling some shallow wells and thats were Bruce went to work. He headed up the road to Associated Oils well, the Kerndon No. 5. Nearly ten years on the job was taking its toll on Bruce. He was showing the effects of the heavy work. At 30, he was losing the edge that younger men have in doing the kind of heavy work required on the drilling floor. The imperative to move up, learn more, produce more was obvious. Pulling and hauling heavy tools that weighed half a ton had taken its toll. The beginnings of the back pain that would plague him all the rest of his life had appeared.
Cable bits could be taller than a man, cast iron or steel, and were moved by lines strung on the derrick which helped, but they still had to be horsed around by muscle power alone. There was little relief either, the pipe string had to be hauled about every three feet and then the bailer lowered into the hole in order to remove the crushed rock and other debris. The work was nearly constant. The drill string weighed more each cycle as the hole got deeper.
The bit was raised and dropped which crushed the rock at the bottom of the hole. Water would be poured in the hole to create a slurry of debris which was picked up by the bailer The bailer was a simple hollow pipe with a gate at the bottom. The gate was similar to the flapper in a toilet except it worked in reverse. As the bailer entered the debris at the bottom, the flapper was pushed up, allowing the mud and sand to flow up into the bailer. When the bailer was pulled up the flapper closed trapping the slurry. Lifted out of the hole and swung outside the drilling floor a roughneck tripped the flapper and the waste flowed out. When the hole was empty, the drill string was lowered back in the hole. In the old days they called this a trip and trips were nearly constant during the tour. If you ate lunch, it was on the fly.
Each time the bailer was pulled, Bruce would take a hand full of mud from the open gate, roll it between his fingers, smell it and even taste it. This told him what type of formation he was in and the various combinations of rock and sand present. Geologic formations each had a particular odor and taste. Oil of different consistencies smelled differently and tasted differently. Combinations of water, oil and gas were recipes telling Bruce what was going on at the bottom. Kneeling down a taking a little sniff at the hole itself was like reading a book for the best drillers. With a cable tool rig, taking cores of the hole, much like coring an apple isn’t possible so a more intuitive approach was required.
Coring sends down a smaller bit connected to a hollow pipe, boring a hole, trapping the geologic formation inside the tube, hauling it out and inspecting the contents for information about the down hole progress. The old logbooks are full of the guess work and intuition of those old cable tool guys. It might seem silly, sniffing, touching and tasting, but it was deadly serious.
Dry holes cost jobs, blowouts were disasters, gushers were spectacular and made great news, especially the photos in newsreels and papers. Grandpa always said a driller who lost control of his well would be showed the door. On top of all that all those things were deadly and cost a fortune to correct. A gusher, an out of control well in southern Texas blew for over nine months until it was exhausted. Men died jumping from the monkey boards, crushed by falling casing, incinerated by fire and killed by the immense power of oil blasting through twelve inch casing, rising hundreds of feet over the rigs. Grandma knew this too. When Bruce went to work she worried all tour until he returned home. Occasionally should could hear the roar of a wild well from her home.