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.
Next Week: Friends, Neighbors and the crew.