Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Ten

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.

L-R: Fargo Adelman, Harry Weaver, Charles Fylling, Luton Bellio, Bruce Hall, Dolly Adams Lease, Signal Oil, Arroyo Grande Field. Family Photo.

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.

Curb Service. 1934.

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 Cameron Hall early 1920’s family photo.

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.


Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Nine

Bruce and Eileen Move up. Central Californias Black Gold, or movin’ to the Kern.

Bruce Cameron Hall, Family Photo.

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.

Doheny Fields, Beverly Hills, California. LA Times photo 1908

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.

2nd October 1929: Left: The former Secretary of the Interior, Albert B Fall (1861 – 1944) with (from left) Edward Doheny (1856 – 1935), Frank Hogan and Mark Thompson outside a Washington DC court. Fall was convicted of taking bribes in the Teapot Dome scandal when government oil rights were illegally leased out. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

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.

Oh you kid, Roaring Twenties,

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.

North Chester Ave, 1927,

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.

Road out to Oildale. Oil families living in rag tents, foreground. 1924. Family photo.

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.

Chapter Ten

Burning Out of Control. Oildale.

Next Week: Friends, Neighbors and the crew.


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.


The Way of the Jay.

The California Scrub Jay is first of all not a Blue Jay. The Blue Jay is a completely different species and lives in the eastern part of the states. You can recognize one by its crest which is similar to the haircut of a Mafia killer of the 1930’s. It is greased straight back with a little tail. Like that. Peaky Blinders, though not for the same reason.

Here where we live we have the real deal, the official California Scrub Jay. Like a bunch of really smart birds he is a Corvid or Corvidae if you speak Latin. You all remember Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order and all that other stuff you just pretended to learn in Natural History class unless you had Professor Ron Ruprecht. He’s the one that opens the semester by saying, “Since I was a small boy I always wanted to be a Herpetologist.” Thats fair warning that you are going to have a bumpy ride in a class you figured would be an easy “A.”

I have a pair that live in my big Oak. Each morning, early it take eight peanuts out to the back porch and place them on a small, red circular table for the birds to enjoy. I use my wedding ring to bang on the bronze handrail, three taps, two times and within a minute or two the the birds arrive.

According to the book male and female are indistinguishable from one another but being a completely untrained ornithologist I’m sure I can tell them apart.

You see, one of the Jays lights on the rail as soon as I step back two steps, give me a couple head bob’s by way of greeting, or so I think and then hops down to the table top, grabs a peanut, hops back up on the rail and flies off with his prize.

The other, who I’m sure is the female waits until I step back into the doorway, jumps onto the rail, head bobs and then scolds me. A lot more suspicious of any ulterior motive I might have such as Scrub Jay fricassee for example. After a bit she hops on the table then picks up two or three different peanuts, drops them, picks them up again spins around a time or two then almost always picks up the peanut she hasn’t touched and flies away, in a different direction than the male. That made no sense to me at first but I’ve learned they are likely piling the peanuts in stashes for later. They are paranoid that other Jays or Crows might spy them out so they hide them, even from each other. There is no limit to their caution.

Oh, and by the way she has a more pronounced set of feathers on her back that looks like a shawl. That’s what clinched it for me. She must be perpetually cold or waiting for it to be cold or even, no longer cold but why take a chance? Her feathers are touch more bouffant too which might resonate with those that went to high school in the sixties.

You see, it reminds me of going to Von’s. Men are hustling around grabbing two things and then heading for the express line to get out in a hurry. They are on the run from domesticity. They move as if someone has just thrown a grenade at their feet.

The women on the other hand pick up every single Zucchini for the full inspection, carefully turning it over and end to end for whatever reason I can’t imagine. As a farm bred boy who has packed more Zucchini than a dog has fleas, I would be willing to testify before a congressional committee and under oath too, that they are all the same. No Zucchini gets to the store without being inspected by the farmer, the picker, the packer, the shipper and the grocer.

The can in the back of the shelf is better than the can in front, the milk in back is fresher than the one in front though they were likely loaded at the same time. It’s a mystery to me.

This is meant to be funny of course though the observations are, I think valid, but it brings to mind the absolute complexity of life in all its forms and yet shows how individual traits are really not so individual. Observed behavior in something so simple as a pair of blue colored birds eating peanuts is reflected in the way Homo Sapiens act goes to show us just how interrelated we all are.

As we have styled ourselves Homo Sapiens Sapiens, we’ve done a disservice to all species for certainly all are Sapiens as the word means wise or astute in Latin. Just a tad arrogant on our part.

By the way, Jays are not really blue. The color you see is visible light reflected off their grayish brown feathers. When light touches tiny pockets of air on blue jay feathers, the full color spectrum of light is absorbed except for blue, which is reflected in the light. Thats what the eye sees and the brain records.

I had thought to name them but then it occurred to me that they must have names already. Bird names, family names passed down generations, so I’m going to leave that alone. I do know though, that my dogs real name is Zordax the Tan, barker of great volume.

Isn’t it all marvelous?


Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Seven

Uncle Bob Comes Along.

Newly pregnant in March 1919, Eileen faced some real terrors. Living in a Shebang in the Casmalia, California Oil Field was akin to living outside. Dust and dirt blowing in through the floorboards made them impossible to keep clean, Her little girls played outside in the dirt and Bruce himself was filthy to the point of distraction. Eileen and Grace strove constantly to protect their families from all that they could.

Pregnant all through the summer of 1919, Eileen faced not only the lack of prenatal care we take for granted today she faced the extreme threat of the “Spanish Flu” which ahd begun wreaking havoc world wide in 1918. The flu would eventually kill between 50 and 100 hundred million people worldwide. In the states, returning military would bring it home during and after the war. The exceptionally contagious, unknown strain of influenza virus spread rapidly and attacked all ages. Whereas previous epidemics had affected those under five years of age or the elderly, the new virus especially targeted young adults, ages twenty to forty-four—the age range of sailors, marines, soldiers, pilots, physicians, nurses, and oil workers. Influenza spread from person to person by close contact, especially through sneezing, coughing, or sharing items such as drinking cups. All the men working oil rigs were young and in an age where tobacco chewing was rampant the constant spitting on floors spread the flu like wildfire. Add to that Tuberculosis, which was the leading cause of death in 1919. spread in the same way.

For women in the early twentieth century, pregnancy and childbirth were natural facts of life. But because of economic, cultural, and demographic circumstances, pregnancy and childbirth could also present great risks. Women, especially rural women, often lacked access to reliable care and information. Remoteness, harsh weather, poverty, and cultural taboos against openly discussing pregnancy made childbirth unusually hazardous.

Several factors contributed to the high risk of pregnancy. Economic realities meant that rural women had limited access to prenatal care and education and had to continue to work no matter their condition. Women in remote areas also had trouble finding qualified physicians or midwives. The vast majority women had no prenatal care, and while many tried to arrange for professional care at the time of delivery, plans could, and did, fall through. One young woman and her husband who worked on the lease “had planned to have a physician, but she went into labor so quickly it was impossible to send for him.” The nineteen-year-old mother gave birth alone while her husband was away on his tour at the well. She delivered the baby, cut and tied the cord, cared for her infant, and “did all of her own cooking and housework until her husband arrived with help a day later.” She and the baby survived but she was too weak to work for the next six months.

Sometimes lacking reliable medical care, women frequently called on neighbors for help. Almost 40 percent of the women in 1919 had a neighbor or a family member help them deliver. Those who helped often did so “with fear and misgivings,” and only because a woman “can’t be left alone in such a time.” Some communities had women who, though they lacked formal training, had extensive practical experience. A midwife “whose only training was having ten children herself.” Said she acquired most of her skills as she went. “You learn as you go along,” She said. “You feel the pulse in the cord and when it quits pulsating you tie it. You tried to make it so there wouldn’t be any infection.”

Pregnancy Support 1920.

Starting in the 1920s, women more often began to opt for hospital births. Hospitals were seen to offer the “newest technological and scientific methods to aid women giving birth while affording patients comfort and freedom from domestic duties.” As obstetric practices became regulated in the 1930s, and antibiotics and transfusions were used to treat the problems of infection and hemorrhaging, maternal death rates dropped dramatically.

However, as the process of birth was professionalized and doctors replaced midwives, women lost a great degree of control over the birthing process. An increasing emphasis on “scientific motherhood” took away women’s agency as mothers: “Mothers were pictured as passive learners, taking their direction from experts, usually a male physician who insists that female patients must heed his every instruction.”

Eileen had had her two little girls at home. Mariel in the little house the family shared with Sam and Vancey Hall and grandmother Pritchard, she of the generation born before the civil war. Both women were likely veterans of home birth and may have had the help of Doc Clark who lived just a few miles away in Arroyo Grande. Barbara was born just eighteen months later in Madera. The Halls were working a ranch with the family that September. WWI had just begun a scant five months earlier and Barbara and Mariel were the prime reason he wasn’t training to go overseas with the army. He was ruled exempt from conscription in May of 1917 because he was married with a family.

Bruce and Eileen had moved up to Madera to live with his half-brother Marion and wife Grace because Samuel and Vancey, along with Grandma Pritchard had pulled stakes for Arizona. They traveled by buckboard from Creston to Madera in the heat of early fall when Eileen was 8 months pregnant. 130 miles across the Temblor Range, country they would someday know very well, to Madera where just a month later she gave birth to my mother. At home, no doctor just a neighbor woman, Grace and Bruce attending the delivery. The resourcefulness, courage and sheer practicality of those women is astounding by todays standards. Don’t discount the men either. As a farm boy Bruce would have seen and assisted in many births and though they would have been animals, There isn’t much difference in the processes of nature.

Two years later Eileen was about to birth another child in Casmalia, in a tent this time. It had been a tough year all together. Earlier Mariel had seen her little sister Barbara holding a knife in her hand, something she wasn’t supposed to do. She promptly said, “No,” and pulled the blade from Barbaras little hand, slicing the palm to the bone. With blood squirting everywhere and Barbara screaming, Mariel screaming too, scared to death about what had happened. Eileen grabbed Barbara who was just two and leaving Mariel with her sister-in-law Grace careened out the door. They had no car so she turned towards the hills and ran across the plowed fields as fast as she could carrying the shrieking child more than a mile up to the drill rig where Bruce was. Bruce tied a handkerchief around the little girls hand and calling to the Tool Pusher that he needed to take the car down to the doctor at Los Olivos, he quickly they jumped in the Ford and bounced down the dirt road, racing the 34 miles into town where they found the doctor at home. The knife had cut nearly through my mothers tendons and there was fear that she would be permanently damaged but that old town doctor, used to patching up all kinds of wounds from hands crushed on the rigs to farmers slashed with knives during harvest quietly sat down with my mother and carefully pulled the tendons together, suturing them together and then closing the wound and applying a bandage. With her arm in a sling, Barbara rode home with her parents. The wound took months to heal and had to be massaged every day to keep the muscles supple but hard work, time and the luck of a child prevented any permanent damage. Consider that this was long before antibiotics and specialized therapies and the operation was done without anesthesia other than a little chloroform. The unknown Doc really knew his business. He was soon to have another occasion to be of service to the little family.

Casmalia Field overlooking the Santa Maria Valley. 1917

On the 16th of November Eileen’s water broke and she went into labor. In the early twentieth century labor and birth could well be a death sentence and in fact about one in every six babies died. Even though Eileen had been through two births she must have been anxious for she knew well the risks. Bruce did too. The delivery was to be a bad one.

My uncle Bob was born in his parents bed. Aunt Grace and uncle Marion kept the other children away as Eileen lay sweating and groaning as she did her best to bring Bob into the world. A phone call from the Associated Oil library brought the doctor up from Los Olivos in a hurry. He doctor stood on one side of the bed and Bruce on the other as Eileen strained and pushed to deliver. Aunt Grace came over to the Halls side of the tent with the ubiquitous pans of hot water and stacks of clean towels and rags. The doctor asked Bruce to take cotton placed in a small cup and pour a few drops of chloroform into it and as Eileen began to push in earnest, hold the cup over her nose and mouth, counting to three and then removing it to allow her some relief from the pain and overwhelming fatigue. As a mother’s conscious participation is regarded as highly important for a safe and efficient birth, the chloroform served to keep Eileen calm but not to hinder her labor. The doctor had Bruce put the mask on and then take it of in a carefully thought out rhythm. Just enough chloroform to keep her relaxed and lessen the pain but not enough to cause unconsciousness.

In 1919 researchers already knew that chloroform could decay and release Phosgene gas. Phosgene in its gaseous form was a type of mustard gas used in WWI to disable and kill soldiers. It causes a build up of fluid in the lungs and in severe cases the soldier dies choking a day or two later. Bruces’ brother Bill was lightly gassed in the trenches of France and it affected his lungs for the rest of his life. The great pitcher Christy Mathewson died at the age of 45 from the lingering effects of Phosgene he inhaled during the war.

The doctors instructions were explicit, Bruce was to hold the cup over Eileens nose and mouth for the count of three and then lift it off until the doctor nodded to him to put it back on for a further count of three. One, two, three and lift.

With the baby coming very slowly, Eileen began to hemorrhage, her blood soaking the towels Grace held, one after the other. Bruce saw this and in a panic forgot to take the mask away after the count of three. The doctor saw this and said, “Take it off now man, you’ll kill her if you don’t.”

Bruce calmed down and pretty quickly little Bob was born. As the doctor took him up and placed him on Eileens stomach in order to cut the cord, a great gout of blood flooded out of her the result of a postpartum hemorrhage. It frightened Bruce even more.

Associated Oil Camp, Casmalia California. 1919.

Eileen was greatly weakened by the loss of blood and was initially nearly unconscious. Grace, Bruce and the doctor moved Eileen to the little girls bed and began cleaning up the bloody towels, disposing of their own mattress until Bruce could get down to Los Olivos to buy a hew one. Eileens blood loss made her very weak and aunt Grace and Bruce had to take up her duties. Aunt Grace had her own husband and little boy Don to take care of and helped when she could. Bruce took his tours on the rigs but came home every day, put his head down and became the de-facto mother. He cooked, cleaned, did laundry, took care of the girls and baby Bob for a long time as Eileen gradually regained enough strength to began normal life.

The daily routine slowly returned to normal or as normal as it could be for a small family living in the Oil Patch. Like most families, they did it because they had too and like many, it brought them together. For all the trials they endured simply taught them to rely on one another.

Cover Photo: Associated Oil Ball Team, Casmalia California 1920. Bruce Hall, back row, fourth from left.

Chapter Eight, Here We Go, Off to Oildale.


Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Six

Life in the Oil Camp, Casmalia, California

With two women, sisters-in-laws and three little kids, two, and three years old and husbands working twelve hour days seven days a week what is the worst that could happen. The icing on the cake? Eileen was pregnant. Again. Just a bit of added stress in a life full of it. As they always did they would make the best of it.

Life continued though. Bruce went to work each day. He closely studied his chosen craft. Though there were many opportunities to try different jobs he focused on being a driller. Casmalia had opportunities to learn both Cable Tool drilling and the emerging Rotary style of making hole.

Rig building which was essentially a carpenters job paid well but didn’t last long enough. A good crew could put up a derrick in two to three days which required a field that had a high percentage of wells being drilled. An older field such as the fields around Orcutt/Casmalia and Santa Maria, established twenty years earlier didn’t need large numbers of men to put up wooden derricks. Steel derricks were beginning to appear in the fields and unlike wood they could be easily relocated to another drill site. Not much future there.

Lucky Jim Rig Builders. WWW photo

There were tank building crews too. In the middle of the second decade of the twentieth century crude began to be held in tanks instead of pits and lakes. Steel, wood and concrete were used to build not just the storage around the rigs but the immense tanks like the Union Oil tanks near San Luis Obispo.

There were few lakes of oil as there had been with Pinal No 1 or Old Maude. As demand for gasoline and oil increased more efficient ways of storing and moving oil were appearing.

Casmalia oil was hauled in the tank cars of the Pacific Coast narrow gauge railroad to the storage depot along the eponymously named Tank Farm Road. The 332-acre facility held the oil until piped to Port Harford at Avila Beach where it was held until it could be loaded on tankers for shipment to the refineries in San Franciscos east bay at Martinez, Benicia and Davis Point.

Tank builders who proudly called themselves “Tankies,” took great pride in their work and boasted that they “were the meanest, hard drinkinest, toughest, fightinest men in the oil fields and were known to prove it on payday. They earned the boast. Erecting steel tanks made of heavy sections of curved steel left few men unscarred. It was said you could tell a “Tankie” by the scars on the top of his head from falling debris. Rawboned, muscled, almost always single they were the bane of Lawmen in the little towns they worked in.

The man who built this immense concrete tank below, which when complete in 1912 held 1.25 million barrels of oil was a local San Luis Obispo contractor, Joseph Maino. His is a company that still exists. Using all mule drawn equipment, the basin was two hundred yards in diameter, the length of two football fields and was one of a complex of 19 tanks that were the terminus for oil piped from the west side wells of McKittrick, Maricopa, the Elk Hills and Buena Vista oil fields. Tank cars and pipelines delivered oil from the Santa Maria/Orcutt fields too. At the time it was the largest complex for oil storage in the world.

The tank farm kept the tank crews busy for two years. Boarding houses in the Railroad district and attractions like “The Row,” which was located near downtown and included saloons like the California, the Klondike and the Palace. Established on property owned by Nancy Emeline Call, the widow of Silas Call, who had originally purchased the property. After she took ownership in 1880, she established a number of “female boarding houses” — a polite term for what were in fact notorious houses of prostitution. She did a very good business for a long time. Frequent campaigns to shut down the houses were mounted but closing one just caused another to pop up somewhere else.

Mrs Emeline Call and her children. San Luis Obispo Public Library collection

Pipelines were being built everywhere in California.It wasn’t a job for married men with families for the crews were rarely home. Perhaps the most grueling job in the oil fields was laying pipe. In the days before much of the work was taken over by machines, men had to clear the right of way, dig the ditches, wrap or coat the pipe with coal tar and asphalt or asbestos fabric, applied with rags or brushes, bolt the joints together, lay the pipe in the ditch and cover it. It was backbreaking physical work by men who called themselves “Pipeline Cats.” Like the “Tankies,” they lived as hard as they worked.

Pipe connection crew, 1921. Union Oil photo

Typically less educated than other oil field workers, Pipeline Cats rarely advanced beyond foreman for a pipe gang. Because the only qualification for a worker were a strong back and weak mind, anyone could hire on with the gangs. Despite the hard, rigorous work, pipeliners were still among the lowest paid workers on the job. Men with families could not afford decent accommodation and often lived in ragtowns or shacks set apart from the more skilled. Because of this they developed a society generally closed to outsiders and practiced a different set of morals and values.

Steam ditcher, 1915. Citi Petroleum photo

When a field is really rolling in oil, pipe is laid to anywhere oil can be sold. Harbors like Port Harford and Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo county and Ventura all had ships terminals. San Pedro and Wilmington to the south and Martinez/Benicia to the north were also terminals. Pipe runs from Oildale/Bakersfield and Westside Kern county to San Pedro and the refineries in Carson were dug and buried, many, many of them. Before machinery was introduced, every foot of the 140 miles from Bakersfield to San Pedro was dug by hand. Bruising pick and shovel work seven days a week. Often the crews were far from home and simply camped alongside the route. Today you can see pipe runs above ground where it was simply too difficult to dig through the rock or Monterey sandstone in the Coast Range. Hundreds of men were employed swinging pickaxes and pushing shovels, strung out over miles of ground. In the early to mid-century, California put in nearly 6,00 miles of underground pipe to carry the oil from well to terminal and refiner. Much of it is still there. A large percentage still in use nearly a hundred years later.

The knock out. Tankies lunch time entertainment. Midland Oil Museum.

Bruce and Eileen understood all of this pretty quickly. It was obvious that working the drilling floor offered the best advancement and gave Bruce an opportunity to use his intelligence to move up in the business. It offered the best pay too.

Houses on the lease were on the rough side, quickly built and not meant to last but in some ways Eileen had it better in Casmalia than women in the cities. She had the convenience of gas from the wells piped into her house years before it was commonly available in Los Angeles. Plus, it was free. A byproduct of the wells and in plentiful supply, gas was furnished free of charge to residents in the little company town. While women in Los Angeles were still cooking with coal and wood, grandma could bake a cake in her small gas oven which had controlled temperatures resulting in much better baking than on a wood stove. Those cakes were greatly appreciated particularly when the cakes made their way out to the cable tool drilling rig for an evening of family socializing mixed with work. Eileen occasionally brought dinner to the hands that worked with Bruce, they being mostly of the single variety. The gas not only furnished a source of fuel for cooking but provided heat in the winter and light at night. Gas lights, consisting of a globe and mantle attached to the wall or ceiling provided constant bright light, a vast improvement over kerosene lanterns. Another thing gas provided was hot water. Steam boilers powered the wells and Associated in 1919 ran steam lines to it’s houses which was captured in wooden barrels mounted on a platform outside the house. The steam condensed and dripped into the barrels which provided hot water for bathing, laundry and cooking. A vast and labor saving system that took some of the workload off grandma. A bonus not often available even today is that water from steam is soft water. In order to provide some boiler safety, the companies installed blow off lines for excess steam, thus controlling pressure in the boiler and lessening the chances of explosions. Lines were run some distance from the wells and then terminated in a standpipe with a perforated, lidded box at the end. Women discovered that oil soaked clothes could be soaked in distillates and then placed in the boxes and the live steam would clean them better than any hand washing. At times, people had to wait in line. They were very popular.

Orcutt town was small and offered limited services for families. The general merchandise store offered a fair variety of dry goods and canned food but was limited by space to a small variety of brands or sizes. Perishables were limited too for lack of refrigeration. Serious shopping often required a trip on the little narrow gauge Pacific Coast railway from Graciosa station into the much larger town of Santa Maria. Located in the large valley from which it drew its name, it was prime vegetable and beef growing country. A little farther away, Guadalupe located on the Southern Pacific RR was a prosperous and in 1919, larger than Santa Maria.

Santa Maria, CA, SMVHS photo.

In those early days Eileen could also depend on peddlers. There were the Japanese farmers from Guadalupe who drove their double deck wagons with the canvas roll down sides to protect the merchandise up the hill to sell fresh vegetables, fruit and candies. Their was the dry goods man who carried trunks of needles and thread, yardage, trimmings, linens and tablecloths to the lease. He might also have samples of chinaware which could be ordered and shipped to the home. The samples were the size of doll dishes and the peddler might give some to the little girls like my mother for her dolls. She still talked of this wonderful thing 60 years later. The Watkins man who appeared several times a year carried such things as spices, extracts, baking soda and powder and liniment. He carried enough merchandise so that if Eileen bought some he could provide it immediately. The company cookhouses and kitchens offered free meals to these men to encourage them to come around because it eased the discomfort , especially for the families who worked in these places.

Eileen could walk her two little girls down to Orcutt, most people didn’t own cars, and buy them ice cream. A real treat when homes didn’t have refrigeration. The girls played around the camp with other children their age, getting muddy and dusty as the seasons advanced. They learn about stickle burrs and how to get them out of their hair, which plants would sting and which ones smelled good. Fennel and Anise grew near the gullies where there was some shade and a child could rub it on their skin like perfume. Licorice smelling kids did abound. Every old time kid remembers the smell. Horsetails grew down in the hollows where there might be a trickle of water and later when I was a child, mom showed me how to take them apart and put them back together. My mother said when she was little that if you didn’t know you had so little, you were fine with what you had.

Picnic, Old Careaga Ranch, Casmalia, 1919.

On Sundays Eileen would dress her two little girls in their Sunday best, patent leather shoes, white dresses, Mariel with a pinafore to keep hers clean which possibly says something about my aunt Mariel as a girl. Bruce sporting his Associated Oil baseball uniform, ready to head down to the ball field for a game. Eileen and the girls with a picnic lunch and blankets to sit on while they watched him play. Bruce was a serious ballplayer in the days when every little town and most companies had teams. His brother Bill was good enough to have played professional baseball even listing “Professional Ball player” on his Selective Service form in 1917. He played for the Boulder Colorado “Black Diamond Coal Company.” He didn’t dig any coal though, he got paid to play as was the custom for really good ballplayers in those days. Bragging rights for good teams were important as they still are today.

Bruce and his little girls, Casmalia 1919. Hall family

Camps were small communities where people relied on each other. They had little but they had little together. They were making friends who they would see all over California as the family fortunes rose and fell over the years as Bruce chased the work.

Cover photo credit: Hall Family, Bruce Hall Tool Pusher, Kerndon No. 5, 1916, Oildale, Ca.

Next: Chapter Seven, Uncle Bob comes along.


Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Five

Grandma stayed home. She had to. Her job was as hard as Bruce’s. For a girl that grew up with an absent father and inattentive mother she had had to learn on the fly once she married. Bruce’s mother and grandmother taught her most of the things she needed to know while they lived with the family but once she was out on her own she had to do it all.

Marianna Polhemus Cayce gave birth to Eileen on the 16th of April, 1895 in Anaheim, California. As the story goes, Eileen was the result of a walk on the beach with her mother and her father, Robert Ernest Stone Cayce. The couple married on October 31st and their first born, Eileen was born five months later, that’s the family math. Eileen was joined by a brother, Dean and a sister Marianna, each one born about two years apart. That was about all for Robert Ernest, he hit the road and by 1909 was living at a boarding house in Louisiana.

Marianna Polhemus and Ernest Stone Cayce.

He was, by all rights a boom and bust kind of guy. There was a time when he rode around the country in his own private railroad car and lived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. He played high stakes poker for a living and referred to himself, when asked, as a Capitalist. He counted John D Rockefeller Jr as a friend. You can look at the photo above and easily imagine all of that is so. He was an absentee father to my grandmother Eileen and she grew up with little use for him. When he died in 1935 the coroner in Tarrant County Texas, old Fort Worth, sent a telegram to Eileen asking what she wanted to do with the remains. She replied, “I don’t care.” They buried him in potters field where there is no marker or record of his placement in the cemetery. He made almost no mark on the family and is remembered by practically no one.

Robert Ernest Stone Cayce. The name Stone was given him by his father, a veteran of Company E, Calhouns Rifles of the 2nd Mississippi infantry Regiment of the regular Confederate States army. His father had served in the east with his regiment attached to the Army of Northern Virginia and had seen combat in nearly all the battles in the east from 1st Manassas to Hatchers Run in April 1865 and was among the last 18 serving members who laid down their arms at Appomattox. Colonel John Marshall Stone, later governor of Mississippi had been his commanding officer and obviously much admired, hence the name.

The Cayces had been a prominent family in Itawamba County Mississippi before the war. With the loss of their 23 slaves their farms were ruined and sold off. Colonel Stone arranged a postmastership for Jim Cayce soon after the war. By all rights, Colonel Stone had been a good commanding officer, leading his regiment from the front as they did in the war between the states.

There is one little story though, told around the family. You see, he always wore a bright red carnation in his lapel and once upon a time when Eileen was little he reached up, took it off and gave it to her and said, “If you plant this it will grow.” She toddles outside, planted it and it did. This made quite an impression on the little girl and she began to think about all the things she could grow. I occurred to her that she’d like to do something special for her mother so she went to her mothers room and took a most beautiful opal ring from her jewelry box and carried it outside. She found a good spot for it, nice and sunny, dug a small hole and planted it with the brilliant stone facing up, filled the hole and gently patted the dirt down over it. To her surprise, because she waited patiently for a few days, It did not grow. Saddened and in tears she told her mother what she had done and wanted to know why? Taking Eileen by the hand Mai pulled her outside and asked her to show her the spot where it was buried. Predictably when Mai opened the hole there was no ring. Frantic, because the ring was of great value, she dug and dug. Still no ring. She enlisted her neighbors. They all brought their flour sifters and dug up the entire garden, sifting like mad, making the dust fly. No ring, ever. The ring still resides at 318 Valerio St. Santa Barbara, at the same old victorian house the Cayce’s lived in. One hundred twenty five years and still no sprout.

Valerio Street

Eileen did not grow up a daughter of privilege not withstanding her fathers private car and his rich friends. Her little family moved around living with various family members. They lived often with her grandparents in Anaheim where her grandfather, Henry Dean Polhemus had an orange orchard. He was born in Valparaiso Chile in 1843, emigrated to the United States in 1851, served in the 23rd New Jersey volunteers during the Civil war and afterwards ended up in the old Anaheim Colony by 1868. Eileen’s mother was born in Miraflores (Behold the Flowers) a quite beautiful name for a town. That was in 1873.

An Oil field wife had a long, hard row to hoe in the early part of the twentieth century. Californias population had grown rapidly since statehood but was still only 3.5 million people. Los Angeles county boasted 577 people which made it the largest in the state. By comparison todays Fresno has nearly as many people as Los Angeles did in 1920. When Bruce said they lived in very Hellhole in the state he meant it. Oil was rarely found in populated areas. The westside of LA, La Brea, Los Alamitos, West Wilshire Boulevard and the Long Beach area were still farms and ranches then not the megalopolis they are today. There were vast areas of Central and southern California with little or no significant population but they did have oil underground. This is where Bruce and Eileen made their life.

Even a tent house, if its all yours is different than the farm. Bruce and Eileen had been tied to those old dirt farm ranches all of their lives. Those farms were so poor in those days, they ate well and everything but they never had any money. When they went into the oil fields they had real money. Didn’t have much of anything else, but they had money.

Eileen and Grace both thought, “My, how rich we’re going to be.” Bruce was making eight or ten dollars a day. For the first time in their married lives they could buy things they needed, even things they wanted.

The shebang had no running water but the company brought it up to the camp on trucks and she could fill her buckets every day. Wellhead gas was piped in to workers housing so they were able to have heat, light and were able to cook. Except, of course, when the gas was contaminated with crude oil and gummed up all the burners which had to be disassembled and cleaned.

One of Eileens almost daily jobs was laundry. Mariel and Barbara played outside in the dirt, there was no such thing as landscaping and any attempt to keep them or their clothes clean was an exercise in futility.Bruce’s cloths were so filthy with oil and grease that they had to be soaked over night in kerosene and then rinsed, soaped and ground back and forth on the washboard, soak, wash and rinse and never completely clean. The caustic soap, kerosene and Naphtha used for cleaning were very hard on her hands. Mom said when she was little they were like sandpaper.

On bath day she filled a washtub with warm water heated bucket by bucket on her little gas stove. Behind the blanket dividing the tent house she could then take her bath. When she was finished it was Bruce’s turn then the two little girls. The soapy water, now cooled was in turn used to do laundry and finally at the very end, Bruce’s oil stained work clothes. The now dirty water was then dumped on the Geraniums alongside the cabin, an attempt to liven up what was otherwise a bleak environment with little color.

Patsy Hall, bath day. Shannon Family photo

In the winter months when coastal fog hung on the hills, the laundry hung inside to dry. The fog held a fine film of oil which sprinkled itself on every thing left outside.

An oil field smells, but it smells like money, they say. Part of the price of living in a boomtown like Orcutt is learning to tolerate the strange odors that accompany oil and gas production, like the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide. Crude oils can smell different depending on their composition. Sweet crude oils have a more gasoline-like smell, whereas sour crude oils contaminated with high levels of sulfur smell of rotting eggs. The term sweet originates from the fact that a low level of sulfur provides the oil with a relatively sweet taste and pleasant smell, compared to sulfurous oil. Nineteenth-century prospectors, before the study of geology refined the art to a science, would actually taste and smell small quantities of oil to determine its quality.

Everything in Eileen’s home had that faint smell. It clung to their clothes, bedding and when walking down a street in Orcutt she could identify another oil field wife or child by their smell.

Orcutt, Gray Family photo

Oil field people quickly get used to it. They can smell the difference between different kinds of oil distillates. Crude, either high or low sulphur, gasoline, white gas, kerosene or diesel each has a particular odor. My grandparents could do this just like my father could identify row crops by the smell. Celery, cabbage, broccoli, all have distinct odors to the trained nose. The faint smell of Hydrogen Sulfide brings back memories for those that grew up around oil. The memories are good but it came with a price.

Hydrogen Sulfide kills. It kills by inhibiting the ability of the lungs to process oxygen. Death can be nearly instantaneous. There are stories of workers dying while still standing. Best described as drowning the gas is present in the atmosphere around wells, pipelines and storage tanks. On cold, damp days such as are common in the coastal areas of California it can collect in hollows, ditches and low spots around the leases. It is invisible. Fog will hold it down on the ground. A oilfield truck driving into a hollow where gas is present can kill the driver in seconds. A blast of pressurized gas from an oil storage tank will kill the tank worker just as quickly and pipeline workers, exposed have little chance of survival.

None of this was any secret in 1920. My grandparents knew it and were careful, or as careful as they could be while they lived on the lease.

Orcutt town was barely a dozen years old but was a thriving little place. The oil companies that did not offer housing for “Boomers” as they were called, mostly single men, had to rent cots in boarding houses or jerry-built shacks in the hills around the leases. Hacked together out of wide vertical boards with some tin for the roof they rented for much more money than they were worth. The siding, known as Board and Batt was the simplest kind of finish and in the oil patch was home to the roughest element population. Grandma told me when she was old that only Trash lived in those kinds of old houses. I paraphrased that, what she said is best left unsaid. But believe me her expressed opinion was very strong.

Orcutt was home to the hundreds of men that worked the fields. Rig builders, tank men, pipeline crews, teamsters, the worm, farmer, roustabout, toolie, engine men, tool pusher, driller, derrick man and farm boss made up the labor that made drilling possible. The little town was home to the grocer, druggist, cafe owners and haberdasher. Toughs, gun thugs, bartenders, gamblers, thimblerigs, dime a dance girls and the inevitable working girls who lived upstairs and focused on drilling the drillers, they hit paydirt.

Lady of Pleasure. Carl Mydans photo

Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Four

Casmalia field California, Associated Oil camp. Santa Maria Historical Society

…and he went off to work. He would be there for forty years. Seventy eight different homes, wife and four children, “Farmer” to Superintendent, a life well lived.

A lot to learn in a short time. Bruce and Marion hauled themselves out of bed dressed, ate and stepped out into the night and waited to catch the solid tire Mack truck that made the rounds at the handoff of each tour. Jumping up on the bed amongst the clutter of hand tools, heavy open end wrenches, the occasional box of Dupont high velocity dynamite, buckets of grease and hanks of heavy manila cable they made themselves as comfortable as they could. As the flatbed struggled up the hills, dropping off the midnight tour men and picking up the day crew the Flying A logo was still stenciled on the side of the open cab, smudged, muddy and with a few dents but still advertising which company you belonged to.

Bruce hopped down from the moving truck, it stopped for no one, always somewhere to go. He climbed the short ladder to the drilling platform and reported to the Tool Pusher, the boss on the rig. In a world of mostly young men from all over the country nicknames and esoteric words to describe the days work were common and almost the first order of business. Bruce may have known a little that he learned from his brother Marion but deciphering this new language was going to take some work. There were, not just the Tool pusher but a tool dresser as well. Called a “Toolie,” his job was to do all the work that kept the drill bits in shape. There is the pipe slinger or derrickman who works up on the “Monkey Board” at the top of the derrick where he stacks pipe as it comes out of the hole or back in as the case may be. These guys are collectively known as Roughnecks. The Roustabout is the tool pushers helper and is expected to feed the boiler, tend the cable as it winds its way down the hole and do any job the “Stud Duck” tells him too. The Worm or Farmer is the low man on the totem pole. He is at the beck and call of all crew members, its the way he is going to eventually learn each of the jobs on the rig if he lasts.

The Farmer, because he doesn’t know “S….t from Shinola” as the old saying goes also fills the role as butt of all jokes. Sent for left-handed wrenches, sky hooks, the key for the vapor lock or the ever handy cable stretcher. Bruce heard them all. Luckily he had a good sense of humor and understood it was all part o the initiation into this new world.

He began his career in what are called “Cable Tool rigs.” The simplest of drilling types, their origins are lost to history. There are records of the Babylonians using simple cable tools to drill for water in Asia Minor 4,000 years ago. Its likely the simple machine pre-dated that by millenia. Simply put, a chisel like bit is raised and lowered from an arm or platform and by repetition pounds its way into the earth creating a well. By 1919 when Bruce went to work in Casmalia the technology had reached its zenith and though the heavy duty rotary rig had been successfully introduced to California fields by Texas wildcatters in 1908, the older technology was much more economical in shallow wells and was still in common use.

Although rotary drilling techniques had been patented as early as 1833, most of these early attempts at rotary drilling consisted of little more than a mule, attached to a drilling device, walking in a circle. It was the success of the efforts of Anthony Lucas and Patillo Higgins in drilling their 1901 Spindletop well in Texas that catapulted rotary drilling to the forefront of drilling. The ability of the rotary rig to drill very deep outstripped the cable tool drilling method when wells began to be drilled over a thousand feet. The rotary drill was also much more effective in types of geologic formations composed of very hard rock.

in December 1908, Howard Hughes Sr patented a roller cutter bit that dramatically improved the rotary drilling process. This allowed wildcatters to go very deep searching for the big payoff. Today the world’s deepest oil well, known as Z-44 Chayvo, goes over 40,000 ft into the ground. It is equal to 32 Empire States buildings stacked end to end.

Bruce would learn how to operate both in his career but in Casmalia the wells weren’t deep. At 1,500 feet or less they were fairly easy to drill through the Diatomaceous sandstone formations below the Casmalia hills and the area surrounding Solomon pass. The low cost Cable Tool drill rigs were suited for this type of formation and in the beginning, the 80 plus rigs on the ground used this technology. There is still one cable tool pump jack operating in the hills, the Careaga 3. Named for the family who owned the land on which it was drilled, it was the first producing well in the field and today, 121 years later it still trickles about 5 barrels a day.

Bruce Cameron Hall, left, Casmalia. 1920. Shannon Family photo.

The photo above was taken by an itinerant photographer who traveled around the state taking pictures of people at work. He would set up his tripod and box camera, pose the men and click the shutter. Taking the mens names and addresses he would mail the finished prints to them. He likely charged each person in the photo about .50 cents for a copy. At $2,25 for this photo he could make a pretty decent living in a field where there were upward of 80 wells like Casmalia. It is a minor miracles that the phot has survived over a hundrd years particulary because Bruce and Eileen packed up and moved so often in their lives.

My grandfather is just 24 here with a pregnant wife and two children under four. He has a serious look as well he might. His clothes are filthy with grease oil and dirt as are all the men. You can see the little round tab dangling from his shirt pocket that indicates there is a bag of Bull Durham tobacco in it. He was a life long heavy smoker but in 1919 most cigarettes were still hand rolled and as my father told me wouldn’t stay lit very long unless you worked at it. He said most men used plug tobacco, cutting a generous slice from your RedMan with a clasp knife and chewing that instead. Grandpa was 5’9″ so the young man next to him is a big-un. Half a head taller he must be 6’4′ or more, tall for the time. He looks young but notice that his watch fob hanging just below his belt line is in the shape of a rotary bit which means he likely has been around the rig for a while. Oil companies handed out trinkets like that only to the experienced and likely permanent employees.

Bruce is the only one with a belt. Belt loops were a relatively new invention then and were slowly replacing braces which the big guy wears. Everybody else sports boiler suits to protect their clothes. You could wear them until they simply wore out instead of having your wife do your laundry. Perhaps they are unmarried as most oil field hands were then. Still are for that matter. Unmarried, they would have gone into Orcutt or Santa Maria and had their clothes laundered. The laundries wouldn’t do oil soaked clothes, which had to be soaked in kerosene before scrubbing on a washboard. Not a very pleasant job for the wife.

Grandpa wears engineers boots with his cuffs rolled. Loose cuffs or shirttails hanging can be caught in machinery with disastrous results. It shows that he was a careful man, after all he survived around this kind of machinery for 40 years. He would learn and do every single job in the oil patch at one time or another and never shirked a job no matter how difficult, from the lowest to the highest.

Posed for the camera, the men in it give us all kinds of information if you look closely. First of all its obviously not a cable tool drilling rig but rotary. In the background, behind the man with no hat is the worm gear that is part of the drilling table, the device that spins the bit as it grinds downward. My grandfather is standing with one foot on a sheave block used to multiply the power of the one cylinder steam engine used to operate the rig. On the floor to the right is the big shackle which attaches to the top of the drill string. This is used to steady the pipe as it spins into the hole and to lift the pipe sections when it’s necessary to haul it out. photo page 120.

Rotary crew, Coalinga 1912. Long Beach Public Libraary

The drill floor is cluttered with pipe, buckets of grease, manila rope, pieces of wood from the derrick and engine house; just general clutter but and indication of just how dangerous these places were to work.

The old time rigs were powered with steam boilers, which if not properly cared for could and did explode often scalding or killing the boiler tender who was likely just a roustabout and not a skilled fireman. Rotary tables were chain driven with no guards to protect the man who fell into or on them. Fittings falling from the monkey boards killed men in the days before hard hats. Smoking around live wells in the presence of gas caused explosions and fires. Before the advent of wire cable, manila rope was used for lifting cable and though it was hawser laid and strong it could and did snap under strain. In a filthy dirty environment it was next to impossible to keep it clean and the dirt and rock particles that became embedded in its coils frayed and broke strands until it was dangerous to use. The companies pinched pennies and crews, being mostly young and fearless often used equipment long past the time when it should have been retired.

In 1921, on a rig in Huntington Beach, Jameson Oil Company’s No. 2 had a cable under severe strain snap, whipping like a scythe across the drill floor killing the Toolie and sent the driller to the hospital with leg injuries which ultimately cost the man to lose one. Another roughneck was so un-nerved he was sent to the hospital in Santa Ana. He never returned to work.

On a cold, foggy winters night on Signal Hill where the Anticline Syndicate company was drilling a well the entire drilling crew, going off shift went into the changing room near the end of the tour to change. One of the men struck a match to light the open gas burner in order to dry the dirty suits hanging on the clothes line. The explosion of the trapped gas in the shack seriously injured the entire night crew before they could escape the flames.

In January of 1922, the crew on the afternoon tour at Union Oil’s Alexander No. 1 in Santa Fe Springs was down to 2,000 feet when mud started to boil out of the casing pipe. The driller screamed at the men to run. The derrick man was up on the monkey board and started to clamber down the ladder but when he had gone part way down and was still forty feet from the ground a powerful column of mud, sand and rock began shooting out of the hole, reaching higher than the crown block at the top of the rig. The derrick man had no choice but to jump for his life. It was his luck that he landed in the sump where the drilling mud pooled. Though shaken, he had the good sense to crawl out, slathered in heavy liquid mud and bolt from the rig. 2.000 feet of drill pipe flew into the air, crashing down all around the rig crushing the two cars the men had driven to work. The wooden derrick collapsed and the drill hole cratered swallowing the entire rig. Within hours all that was left was a vast pool of swirling mud and debris.

A collapsed well, Kern County Westside, 1903, Kern County Oil Museum

The standing casing on the left is all thats left. The coils of cable are from the Bull Wheel which has been incinerated. The standing man adds scale. This was not an uncommon occurrence in Californias early days.

All these accident were part of the sad picture. The casualty rates in California’s oil fields were very high. In the twenties when Bruce and Marion were on the job Californias oil companies produced 100 million barrels of oil, the highest it has ever been, the accident rate rose. Between January 1921 and 1922, 4,109 accidents were reported from just ten of the companies engaged in drilling operations. The majority of companies tried not to report. In this one year 98 men were killed and more than 400 were permanently disabled. 1922 saw thirty four boiler explosions. Almost all took at least one life.

The rotary rigs had no clutch on their chain drives and the chains clattered constantly, sagging and tightening as loads were added or reduced. Falling into the exposed chain could kill. A chain that broke sent pieces flying around the drilling floor like shrapnel from a bomb. They could and did kill.

When the driller was running pipe back into a hole he could brake the pipe string too rapidly and the heat build up in the brake flange rims caused them to fracture losing the pipe string down the hole and sending pieces of cast iron flying. The use of steel didn’t come into use until the mid to late 1920’s.

None of the traveling blocks had guards. When the derrick man needed to turn the blocks, he did it by hand. A moments inattention could throw the hand between the cable and the spinning blocks taking off fingers and whole hands.

Rotary rig, chain drive, 1920. Huntington Library

On top of this the rush to drill brought “Suitcase” men from all over the country. Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wyoming boys took the train, drove a car or just used Shanks mare, hoping to cash in on the California boom. The overabundance of labor caused the oil companies to begin using independent contractors to do the drilling rather than carrying a payroll. The companies provided all material but the contractors did the actual drilling. In the beginning the companies paid by the amount of hole the contractor made. It was essentially piece work. A certain amount paid out at 1,000 feet, another at 2,000. Pressure to keep the money rolling in was intense. It’s no wonder the drilling foreman was known as the “Pusher.” The contractors quickly realized that safety cost and speed paid. All across California, Signal Hill, La Brea, Huntington, Kern’s westside in McKittrick, Reward and Fellows, up in Summerland and Ventura, over in Oildale and Kernville tales quickly spread about crews who could push drilling speeds to the limit. A crew in the Dominguez Hills field set a world record. That crew claimed to have made 3,250 feet in just fifteen days. They averaged 239 feet a day and in one single tour made 280 feet.

At speeds like that, almost no thought was given to safety. Some contractors were man killers. They pushed so hard that hoist drums blew up, drilling lines broke, chains broke or men fell into them. Derrick men who worked with no safety belts fell. The pushers pushed as hard as they could, nearly killing men to make hole as fast as they could. Hiring men was no problem at all, hundreds of “Boomers” were sleeping in cars, rag tents or anywhere they could lie, waiting for a job. The superintendents carried a checkbooks in their pockets.

Old Checkbook Myers, he got the name because he’d fire men off the job, he always carried that checkbook with him, and he’d pay them off on the spot if he didn’t like the way they worked. He’d just expect them to work the way he’d do. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t, why he’d pull out the book and fire them right there. Get somebody else. Those guy’s would be waiting around. No problem.

When Bruce went out on the rigs he learned one thing right away. “It don’t cost no more to pay a man off today as it does on Friday.” He never forgot it.

Burning waste oil from the sumps, “Old Maude,” Orcutt, California.c. 1904. Robt. B. Moran

Twelve Hour Tour

Chapter Three

Old Maude was cantankerous as mules can be and on this morning in 1904 she wasn’t feeling like doing any work. The teamsters hauling the heavy wagons up hill in the Solomon hills to the new well site muttered under their breath at the old mule. She stood there refusing to move. If the leader won’t move neither will the other five mules in the team. One of the men strode up to the old girl, turned his head and shot a stream of tobacco juice into the mud and proceeded to lambast the mule with a vocabulary of profanity that belongs in the archives of the Smithsonian for its sheer inventiveness. Maude could have cared less. He laid his whip across her rump with a will but she stood her ground. Finally he walked to her head, grabbed her ear and twisted it like a dishrag being wrung out. This final indignity made her do what mules do, change her mind. Without any word from the teamsters she lunged forward in her harness puling the other mules with her, starting the team with a yank. The two wagons heavily loaded with baulks of timber for the new derrick and the boiler for the steam engine promptly dropped their loads in the middle of the road. Maude threw back her head, showed her teeth and brayed to beat the band for this what Old Maude lived for.

The teamsters and the rig building crew stood around the wrecked wagons scratching their heads and shifting their chaw from one cheek to another trying to figure out what to do with the mess. Finally after a bit the foreman said “To hell with it, its easier to build the rig right here than to get that damn boiler back on the broken wagon.” So they did. Named that well “Old Maude” too.

The Union Oil company named it Hartnell #1. When Old Maude came in on December 2nd, she came with a hiss of gas followed by a solid stream of crude blasting skyward, throwing the pipe string hundreds of feet in the air, tearing the derrick to pieces with a roar that could be heard in the boomtown of Orcutt just down the hill. People stood in the streets of Santa Maria and Guadalupe to listen. She became the largest producing well in history at the time

. She spewed 20,000 barrels a day, flooding the Graciosa canyon with oil as hand crews struggled to contain tens of thousands of barrels of the black goo running downhill. Earthen dams were hurriedly constructed by shovel teams working day and night. The company had to roust extra help from the saloons and farm fields. The lakes ran for more than a mile before she was finally capped and put on the pump three months later in March 1905. Old Maud was the largest oil producer on the continent at the time, producing more crude than the more famous Spindletop gusher in Texas. She produced over 3 million barrels of oil until she was finally capped and abandoned on 1988.

Old Maude herself? Nobody knows where she ended up but like mules of her ilk, she didn’t care what you think. Union Oil should have put her likeness on their signs because she made them.

Snortin’ and a blowin’ Old Maude 1904

Both Bruce and Eileen were born in the same year, 1895. They were to live through some of the most innovative and fantastic periods ever recorded. Californias first economically productive oil well was just one of the new inventions and industries that would transform the state.

The Wright brother flew the first powered aircraft in 1903 and by 1919 planes were being used to scout new oil fields. Railroads were beginning to convert from coal to oil powered locomotives. The Navy was also rapidly replacing its power plants to the cleaner burning, more efficient oil. Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model T in 1908 and by the time Bruce first stepped foot on a drilling floor you could buy one for under $300 dollars.

The boys were home from the war too. They had seen Gay Paree and thumbed their nose at the Kaiser. They also knew the truth of it and thought that their fathers life wasn’t for them. “Live it up while you can,” they said. Francis Scott Fitzgerald was the poet laureate of the “Jazz Age,” a term he popularized to convey the post-World War I era’s newfound prosperity, consumerism, and shifting sexual mores. Hemingway, Picasso, Coco Chanel, Cole Porter and Louis Armstrongs “Hot Five” were tearing up the old rules and tossing them the air. Radios, phonographs, and Saturday night at the flickers. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the first real movie stars. “Wings” won the very first Oscar in 1927. Clara Bow, the “It” Girl was its star.

Clara Bow the “IT” Girl

Grandma Hall did not approve of any new-fangled ideas and as long as Eileen lived in the house with her she would wear her skirts down to her shoe tops and her collar up under her chin. In 1919 while she was visiting her mother in Anaheim, Mai took a pair of shears and lopped a foot off the hem of that dress. It was the end of corsets and the beginning of the shimmy, rolled silk stockings, public smoking for women and the vote which came their first year in Casmalia.

Senator Warren G Harding, a boozing ,cigar smoking womanizer of no particular intellect was the chosen candidate for president.The big oil men, Edward Doheny, One of the richest men in the world, Harry Sinclair of Sinclair Oil, and the chairmen of Standard Oil Indiana Robert W Stewart were all happy to pony up millions of dollars to get him elected. He was handsome and outgoing, a “Manly-Man” and his backers figured this would play well with the new women voters. It apparently did. He won by a huge margin, the greatest to that time. The country would be very sorry. So would my grandparents.

The Associated Oil Company was based in San Francisco and considered one of the best companies on the west coast, Associated took care of its workers, building decent housing, providing libraries, electricity and phone service. They usually built a community center. All of this was in order to keep their men on the job. There was a fast-growing market on the Pacific for petroleum distillates as well as crude oil and since the high gravity crude oil from the Casmalia/Orcutt, Santa Maria and San Joaquin Valley fields required some sort of refining to make fuel usable for locomotives and ships burners,

they built their first refinery near Martinez on the upper San Francisco bay. Oil was piped to the coast at Avila beach’s Port Hartford then shipped by tankers to Martinez. Associated had until 1913 produced and marketed fuel oils only and but with the completion of the refinery were launched into the manufacture of gasoline and kerosene.

SS Lyman Stewart loading, Port San Luis, 1919.

As Bruce quickly found when he walked onto the drilling floor, the work was unlike any farm work he had ever done. That of course, he saw as a good thing for many reasons. Farm and ranch work is endlessly repetitive, the same jobs every day, six and seven days a week. You work on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Milk cows are basically all the same, four teats, a fly wisk for a tail which can be used effectively if she is irritated with the milker. A good smack on the side of the head with the tail and a frisson of manure left on your cheek only has so much romance in it. Ranch hands like my grandfather really had nothing to look forward to in the way of advancement. My father was a dairyman’s son and never got paid by his own parents though he worked for them 20 years. The prospect of employment at high wages and what was a challenging job with, he thought, was room for advancement made Bruce eager to get started.

Being the new guy he likely started on the midnight tour. Midnight to the following noon, half a days work. Waking after eleven pm, getting dressed while Eileen made up his lunch bucket and prepared breakfast, he must have been excited by the prospect of something entirely new. He would be right about that.

Crowd watching a gusher.

….To be continued.




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.