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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.