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.
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.
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.
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.