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.


Political Rascality

Writers are obsessed with words. The meaning of a word may seem obvious and it usually is but when two or more are strung together each shades the absolute meaning of all others in the sentence. It’s akin to designing something like the quadratic equation. Something we learned as freshman in high school and long forgotten. I don’t recall a single math teacher taking the time to explain its roots in history which might have pleased me at the time. One thing; math has variables, symbols with unknown values which when, strung together and interpreted using various rules can be solved for meaning. Sentences are like that too.

Take the Adverb, please! Apologies to Henny Youngman there. Anyway an adverb simply adds extra meaning to another word. For example, works hard, work is the verb and hard is the adverb. How about the adjective? An adjective spices up a noun. Beautiful house. The adjective is the word beautiful and the noun, person, place or thing, is the house. All these are modifiers. They subtly change the meaning of another part of speech.

Here is the way we work words. For example, say I’m a politician. I’m not encouraging you to do that mind you, I’d rather muck out cess pits myself but, just imagine I was. My team, read employees, hired from the best ivy league schools, superb wordsmiths all, and pollsters, they that have no opinions themselves but rely on cleverly crafted questions to get the answers they need to promote their boss. I need image consultants, a few hucksters to collect the campaign money and last but not least a couple magna cum laude grads from Harvard with nice legs and spritely smiles to carry my latte down the hallway when I’m trolling for media.

My speeches are finely crafted and polished by the best. What I say doesn’t have relevance to the question at hand and in fact says more to the listener by what is left out or thoughts intentionally misdirected. All this of course has one and only one purpose and that is to stay in office as long as I can.

I’d like to illustrate this with some fine examples of the art.

“He raped a young woman.” A well known politician has said this. What he didn’t say was, “He forcibly had sex with a child, a little girl, held her down and brutally raped her.” Big difference right? Which one do you hear the most?

“He shot 17 school kids.” I’m sure what he meant to say was, “He used an assault rifle designed for only one purpose and that to maim and kill soldiers on the battlefield to heartlessly slaughter screaming and terror stricken little kids in their classroom where the should be safe.” Oops, killed both their teachers too.

“Democrats and the main stream media did this.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz. You see, had nothing to do with guns whose manufacturers and the NRA give me stacks of money so I can continue to stay in office.

“These shootings are not predictable.” Texas governor Greg Abbott. What does that mean, really. It means he has no plan to do anything about it, in fact he blames the City of Chicago where he claims more people are killed every weekend. His political bus just turned to the right there and drove away from any change in policy. Abbott stated that, “Changes in gun laws are not the solution.” Full stop. No solution other than thoughts and prayers or not enough study are ever offered. PS: If you don’t know, there are almost no gun laws in Texas, period.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, “It is “literally sickening to think of the innocent young lives stolen” and that he was praying for everyone involved. How do you read that? McConnell offered no solution or call to congress to act other than to characterize the shooter as a “Maniac.”

US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene tweets ‘we don’t need more gun control’ in response to the latest school massacre. Isn’t she sweet? No mincing words there. At least thats honest of her.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, some members of Congress are calling for a return to God as opposed to tighter gun control laws, saying the tragedy was a result of “decades of rejecting good moral values.” Oh, spare me.

Lets analyze the statement above. Texas school shooting, (slaughter of 19 little children with a rifle whose projectile travels over 3,000 feet per second and tumbles when entering human flesh.) some members (Conservative good Republicans all.) calling for a return to God, (Has God left Texas?) as opposed to tighter gun control laws, (Practically zero in Texas.) Tragedy was a result of decades of rejecting good moral values. (An insane 18 year old boy walks into a school and in cold blooded murders 19 children and two teachers has nothing to do with general societies moral values.

I believe the answers to these events are stark, direct and should not be spun to satisfy the aspirations and ego of those who have been elected by us to deal with problems just like this.

Good God, stop treating the people of this country like idiots. Earn your salaries or get out.

This just shatters my heart.




My Grandad was a Roughneck. He’s the guy standing on the left in the cover photo. He is twenty four years old, married with two children, one of them my mother Barbara. He’s working for Associated Oil Company on a cable tool rig in the Santa Maria/Orcutt field in Casmalia, California. He has a hard look for the camera because he was all of that. He is just starting a hard, hard forty year career following oil rigs all over California.

Bruce, for that was his name surely never envisioned a career in the oil business. His parents and brothers were all people of the soil. The worked and managed farms and ranches all over California after arriving from Tennessee. Bruce Cameron was the second son, born in ’95 and arriving in California in 1901 with his mother Vancey and older brother William “Bill” Hall. Bruce’s father Sam had come out in 1899 and worked as a carpenter around the southern part of San Luis Obispo county, renting a house at 131 Verde Canyon Road in Arroyo Grande where he later settled his little boys and their mother Vancey.

Lavance “Vancey” Hall, Shannon Family Trust photo

Bruce was trading in his life as a ranch laborer. He put away the hay hooks, the side delivery rake, barb wire and world of cockle-burrs and foxtails. No more the day spent with bumpkins and hillbillies, no more being pushed around by the stud duck. Something new was at hand.

Now he would learn the difference between a tool dresser and a tool pusher, the roustabout and roughneck, the lowly worm and the driller.

He would work for many, many oil production companies, Associated, Barnsdahl, and at last Signal. He was a specialist in the art of the old Cable Tool manner of drilling and one of the masters at wielding the whipstock.

Neither of my grandparents had much education. Remote ranches and farms in old California were frequently distant from schools and for boys and girls, they were expected to work when they were quite young. In the rural world of the turn of the century kids were put to use at an early. In a sense, work was their education. They learned how to make do. Both moved around with their families when young, never settled in one place for long as the work always beckoned. Whatever their dreams were, they are unknown to us.

Americans were optimistic in 1915. For most of them, life was better materially than it had ever been. This was a time of prosperity — a new type of materialism, more leisure time, and vacations for the emerging middle class appeared. America was now the world’s most affluent country. Access to electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing was not widespread, but most people felt that such conveniences were just a matter of time.

For every American, including the working class, there was “possibility.” Anything was possible in America. This was the place of the self-made man, the American Dream, “rags to riches.” Horatio Alger’s myth is the belief that through hard work, anyone can become successful. Generations whose education came primarily from reading newspapers and books believed that if you simply worked hard enough you could surely rise through the strata of society. The reality for kids growing up on Linne Road in remote eastern San Luis County was obvious. You could expect a life of hard labor and for Bruce Hall a life as a bachelor whose life was circumscribed by the boundaries of whatever ranch his family managed.

Then in 1915, the Law of Unintended Consequences stepped in and changed everything. On a Saturday night when they were both twenty and complete strangers they attended a potluck and dance. Over long tables and chairs brought in from the local ranches by buckboard and wagon, they sat down to a bounty of homemade food served from casserole dishes on calico checked tablecloths. Cornbread, fresh biscuits, heaps of fried chicken, the bounty of the fields laid down for all to share. Ladies had carefully labeled their dishes with medical tape, their names written in curlicue copper plate so the empty dishes would find their way home with the proper family. The cakes and pies were served with fresh ice cream from wooden buckets that young boys had laboriously spun the handles on thinking the ice cream would never stiffen, but in the end it did.

While the women and young girls cleared away, the men played a game of baseball and as the sun went down, built a bonfire in the place cleared for it and the real socializing began. Men rolled their own or stoked cigars and talked of the weather and crops, serious things, while the mothers took out their knitting and spoke of domestic things or laughed about their husbands foibles, looking over their shoulders and giggling and at the same time keeping a weather eye for the kids who were running around in all directions in the dark. The young people circled carefully about each other, sizing up opportunities as it were. Young men knew who was single in those days because unmarried women did not put their hair up and my grandmother stood out with her clouds of light brown hair swirling around in the breeze. Eileen sat by the fire and waved her hands trying to clear the smoke from her eyes. She sensed a presence beside her as a voice softly said, “Smoke follows beauty.” Just like that Bruce hit the jackpot.

Corny as can be but it made her laugh out loud. Bruce asked if he could take her home as he had a horse and buggy. She thought that over and said she had ridden over on a horse named “Fleet” but that he had been trained to find his way home if the reins were tied on the saddle horn. She accepted the offer. They courted for about three months and then one morning the phone rang on the kitchen wall in Eileens mothers ranch house. It was Bruce. He popped the big question right there and then. He said, “My brother Marion and his girl Grace are taking the train down to San Luis Obispo and getting married, do you want to go with them and be married too?” Grandma was never one to miss an adventure. They were married in the old Presbyterian church on Marsh street. After the ceremony they went to the old Andersen hotel and had a glass of wine. Years later my brother who was pretty young at the time asked her, “what did you do then,” meaning where did you go to live and she replied, “Why we went up to the room.” He had no idea what to say next. It’s easy to forget that your grandmother was once young and did what you did when you were.

Mai Polhemus Cayce Wineman. Woman extrordinaire, dressed for a parade. Shannon Family photo

Both couples got up and took the early train up to Paso because Bruce and Marion had to do the milking. You can imagine the surprise on Bruce’s mother face when she woke up to find two brand new daughters-in-law in bed asleep. Bruce’s grandmother Mary Lucinda went into the bedroom to take a closer look at her grandsons new wife. She was leaning over Eileen, corncob pipe clenched in the corner of her mouth, she was lacking a few teeth and gripped it with her gums. She was an old Tennessee girl you know, born in 1841, lost a husband to the vicious civil war battle at Malvern Hill in 1862 and was certainly a product of the pre-civil war south. She was leaning close to the sleeping girl when a string of drool splattered on Eileens cheek and woke her up. Welcome to the family dearie.

Sam and Vancey Hall were a little chagrined because they knew the new brides mother, Marianna Polhemus Cayce had a pretty “Racy” reputation, well earned too. She was nobodies woman and did what she pleased. In the short time she had lived in the Creston/Cholame area she had only added to it. Marianna was managing ranches when few women did or could. She wasn’t a woman to be messed with. She had engaged herself to marry a wealthy Paso Robles rancher. They were both in town one day when he stopped by the old Paso Robles Inn for a drink with friends and lo and behold there she was tripping down the stairs from the rooms above with a traveling salesman in tow. No wedding. Not to worry, nothing slowed her down.

Marrianna or “Mai” as she was called was married three times and had six children. She took lovers whenever she felt like it. She was a free woman She was a noted horsewoman in California, singlehandedly managed large ranches and was the first woman to dare and fork a saddle and ride down State street, Santa Barbara in the 1900 Fiesta Day parade. It was so shocking she made the editorial page of the newspaper. City people people were horrified as this simply was not done. She didn’t do sidesaddle. Growing up in the country it was of course, natural and her daughter Eileen certainly threw her leg over “Fleet” when she rode to the dance to meet her fate.

The Halls were strong Pentecostal church members and thought they might have to keep an eye on Eileen but she soon charmed them all. Whatever the circumstances they stuck together and if you married one you married them all. They were very good people, kind and generous to their two new daughters-in-law.

Aunt Grace was from the Stewart family and was born on the old Mexican land grant know as the Ranchita, One of several large holdings of the Branch family in the Arroyo Grande valley. She was one of thirteen children born to her parents in just nineteen years. Henry Stewart gave his wife no rest. He died at 45, she lived to be ninety. Louella Alice Alderson Stewart was her name. She was a tough cookie as they used to say..

Eileen Cayce, my grandmother. Shannon Family Trust photo

There was no honeymoon, Bruce went right back to work on the ranch. Grandma had to learn to be a housewife. When she married she didn’t know how to cook or keep a house. Her mother never bothered about those things and Eileen sort of grew up on her own. Coffee and a piece of toast was breakfast in her mothers house. She learned all the rest from her mother-in-law.

For the first three years of marriage they bounced around with the Halls, from the ranch in Cholame to a ranch in the Verde district of Arroyo Grande where my aunt Mariel was born. That little house in Bee canyon is still there.

In 1917 Bruce lost his job and they decided to move up to Madera and stay with his parents until he could find work. They didn’t have an automobile and couldn’t afford the Southern Pacific trains but they did have a horse and a buckboard. A “Buckboard” wagons was just about the simplest conveyance there was. Basically a box on two axles with a seat on springs for a driver and passenger. In the front of the wagon a horizontal board served as a footrest and protection from the horse if she decided to kick you, hence “Buckboard.” It had no brakes, if the horse spooked and ran away, you were along for the ride. They were bone rattlers.

They threw all their earthly goods in the box and climbed up on the seat. Eileen had little Mariel who was just a year old and still a toddler. She was eight months pregnant with my mother Barbara. In 1917 the road from Cholame to Madera was just a dirt track. They were going a hundred thirty miles the hard way. Out through the Kettlemen Hills, which they would someday be very familiar with and across the San Joaquin valley to the old road which would someday be highway 99 and up to the ranch in Madera. Dry and miserable hot in, August, they bounced along behind the walking horse, covered in dust, fannies sore from the old wooden seat. Once, out across the valley they stopped at a ranch and inquired after some water for the horse and themselves. The rancher was happy to oblige them and they drank deeply, filled the canteens and climbed back up on the wagon seat. Their dog Brownie, who was making the trip on foot, was lying under a pepper tree, tongue lolling, panting in the shade. He had had enough and refused to follow, figuring this would be his new home. Bruce called and whistled but he wouldn’t come. Bruce and Eileen looked at each other, it was hot and they had a long way to go and they couldn’t wait. Brownie stayed, they left.

My mother was born at home as it was in 1917, midwifed by her grandmother and great-grandmother. Born in her parents bed before the doctor made it to the house, not uncommon for the time. Madera was their home for eighteen months. My grandfather was draft exempt, being married with two children and there was plenty of work with the United States in the war but as with all booms brought on by wars the minute the fighting stopped so did the need for export crops and he was out of work again. The ranch couldn’t support three families any longer, but somehow Bruce got a job at the Pacific Coast Railroad company warehouse in Los Alamos and moved down on his own, intending to bring his little family from Madera once he was settled. All this moving was never to end, it set the pattern for the rest of their lives. They never seemed be upset by it. Like all folks, they did what they needed to do. They got really good at it as you will see. Bruce and Eileen never looked back.

The head warehouseman stuck his head out of the little office and shouted out at the floor, “Hall, you gotta phone call.” Bruce hurried up to the office shack wondering who might be calling him at work. He hoped there was no problem up in Madera as he took the receiver in hand, wiping the mouthpiece with his bandana and saying hello with a question in his voice. “Bruce, its Marion, I’m in Casmalia and I got a job in the oil field here and theres one for you too if you can come up.” Casmalia was just twenty two miles and a short buggy ride from Los Alamos. Bruce knew an opportunity when he saw one. The pay was more than twice what he was making on the railroad. Sixty cents and hour was a princely sum in ’19. He hung up the phone and told his boss he was pulling his ticket and asked for passage up the line to the Graciosa station just above the tiny town of Orcutt. The boss paid him off. He went back to his boarding house stuffed his valise with his possibles and ran back to the station and took the afternoon train up the line. Marion took him to the Associated Oil superintendents shack and got him signed up. Bruce followed Marion down to the what passed for a town, threw his case down on a cot in the Shebang Marion had and then went over to the little library and called Eileen and told her to pack up the kids and come on down. He had a good job at good pay and he wanted his family with him.

Library building Casmalia Oil Field 1919. SB County Historical Society photo

Eileen had never lived without family around, husband, children, in-laws of all kinds but in Casmalia she was going to have her first home, sort of. She and Bruce with Brother Marion and sister-in-law Grace were going to be sharing a lease house. One of the so-called perks of life in the oil patch was the availability of homes built by the oil companies and rented for a nominal four or five dollar from their employees. Consider that most early fields in California were in places where rattlesnakes, squirrels and coyotes lived and the only landscaping was what nature provided. It was no woman’s dream to live in those places.

Their first home was a Shebang, a type of very small quasi building characterized be a wooden plank floor, half walls about four feet high, also made of rough planks and a canvas tent structure over it all. It was not a palace, wealthy dogs lived in better places but it was a beginning.

No one really knows where the term cShebang omes from. It’s first mention comes from Civil War letters. Confederate boys from Louisiana wrote of them and its probable the name is a bastardization of the French word chabane or cabane. They were common in the winter quarters of both armies and are seen in old glass plate negatives of the railroad camps of both the Union and Central Pacific roads as they raced towards each other in the late 1860’s. Many discharged soldiers worked on the track gangs of both railroads and would gravitate to the oil fields of California when the railroad boom went bust at the turn of the century.. They were cheap to build and easy to move when wells were complete. No one loved them but they served their purpose.

Lease home, Elk Hills fields Maricopa California. Michael J Simas Collection photo.

Bruce, Eileen, his brother Marion and his wife Grace all moved in, all seven of them. By this time Grace and Marion had a son, Don and Bruce and Eileen, two daughters, Mariel and Barbara. A four year old boy, and the girls. three and two, all in a hut that measured just 12 by 18 feet. Bruce had gone down to the tiny town of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez valley which was the end of the line for the Pacific Coast RR and bought all that was necessary to furnish their new abode. A cheap kerosene stove, a small table and chairs, two iron beds and matresses but surely the most important thing, extra blankets to be hung on a rope to divide the little tent house into halves for privacy. They were still young. The both of them just 23.




Have you ever given a thought to what happens when your grandmother dies. It is said that you can take nothing into death. That’s wrong. She takes every experience, every thought and all she ever learned with her. What she did and how she did it goes too. Things so rich with knowledge about how her world worked erased as surely as Evelyn Fernamburg cleaned the blackboards at our school with her bucket of warm water and vinegar. Everything is gone.

History books we use in school are just a tease. Dribbles of information whose text is meant to spark interest in kids who have little to no real interest in something that “That happened a long time ago,” Mister Shannon, “Nobody cares about that stuff.” I myself went to school but I never learned what I wanted to know.

What is a life? Is it a story that no one remembers? When enough time passes does one cease to be even a memory, to anyone? To whom? Is it some or just one, somewhere. Are you the caretaker of that life?

Because I was a reader I understood that my history teachers were teasing me. It was as if we were in a card game. The Napoleon card has something on the back. If I wanted to know what it was I would have to explore. I could do this by reading anything I could get my hand on that told me something about him.

That was all well and good but what about the real experience. I couldn’t go knock on his door or call him on the phone, could I? I occurred to me that I would never know. Napoleon Buonaparte lived only in the imaginations of those that wrote about him, whether they be eminent scholars or trash novelists. What I knew of him would be fine filtered. A life made up. Not to say he didn’t exist, but where is the real man?

Napoleone Buonaparte at 23 years old.

I have determined that the closest you can get is to ask the librarians. Living people who have cataloged their memories in those metaphysical drawers they use to store experience. Socrates, Plato, his student Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and and Calvin and Hobbes the twentieth centuries best known philosophers more or less agreed that it is “the inventory of all we possess through pure reason, ordered systematically”

Ask someone you know. It isn’t necessary to go far afield. Here in the central part of California there are people who walk around the supermarkets or go to high school baseball games who are every bit as fascinating as “The Corsican Tyrant.” Ask them.

At the end of the street I live on is a house where an old friend of my mother used to live. She was a kind woman. She cut her gray hair short in the fashionable Bob that women of a certain age used to wear. She said that she wore it that way because when she was a girl in the twenties her favorite actress, the fabulous Louise Brooks wore it so. She said she never saw any reason to change it either. She wore clothes that could best be described as sober. You might think she had always been that way but inside her head she had a different story to tell. Born in 1915, she had something quite unusual for a woman of her age, a tattoo. Nearly invisible on the inner part of her forearm was a crudely lettered numbered. That number.

The Fabulous Louise Brooks.

Born and raised in Berlin, she lived the Jewish experience of Nazism and the rise and fall of the Third Reich. She could and did talk about the rise of Adolph Hitler. She told of Kristallnacht and what it meant to her shopkeeper father who it ruined. She showed me a piece of official German documentation that revoked her citizenship in April of 1939.

She spoke of the roundups when her family was first taken to Theresienstadt and her transfer to Auschwitz in 1943. Auschwitz was the last stop for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish women sent to the gas chambers. When they came down the ramps from the cars the were lined up and the selection process began. Only the young and strong stood a chance of being registered in the work camp. Many of them, unwilling to be separated from their children, unknowingly condemned themselves to death. No one, she said had any illusions about what was happening by then. At 38 she knew she would likely be liquidated. When the SS Doctor asked her age she said 28, it saved her life. Those on the left went straight to Birkenau, the camp specifically designed for killing.

Birkenau Auschwitz, The Gates of Hell.

She had her registration number tattooed on the inner side of her left upper forearm. Tattooing was generally performed during registration when each prisoner was assigned a camp serial number. Since prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were never issued numbers, they were never tattooed. They simply disappeared into fog only to be remembered by those who survived.

She was liberated in January of 1945 by the Russian Army. They were so emaciated, covered in rags and vermin that the Russian soldiers could not be bothered to rape them. She said the female survivors had to face the the loss of their children, husbands and other relatives. Everything they ever knew was gone. The Jewish women had nobody to return to. The imprisonment had a terrible impact on future life. Some of them never recovered.

She was lucky though. She met an American soldier assigned to her displaced persons camp. They fell in love, married and came to America.

I was lucky too, she lived on my street.

There is something else. I also knew a Nazi, though he would never admit it. He was a soldier of the German Wermacht, their regular army. He would tell you he was really an Austrian and didn’t want to be in the army but for some reason he stuck it out for four years. He fought in Russia in the southern front trying to take the Ukraine. He told of the terrible suffering in the Russian winter when the troops starved and froze to death in their holes. He was transferred to the west in the spring of 1944 in order to be ready for the suspected Allied invasion of Europe. He belonged to the 726th Infantry Regiment of the 716 Static Infantry Division which was made up of older men from occupied countries, mostly from Ukraine. He said they were decimated in the fighting around Caen and the Villiers-Bocage, and were withdrawn to southern France to rest and refit. By this time they knew the war was over. He and another Austrian deserted and walked into the American lines to surrender. He told me they were terrified because they thought the G I’s might kill them as had been done to German soldiers who tried to surrender in western France. The fighting there against the British and Canadians was particularly vicious.

POWs, 176 Infantry Division, southern France, 1944.

They stood in plain view in the middle of the road with their hands raised, weapons in the dirt, until an American jeep came along. He was lucky, they didn’t shoot. He ended up at the Camp Cooke POW stockade. (Vandenberg AFB) Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, the prisoners received comfortable quarters and excellent care. They filled critical wartime labor shortages inside the main Army post at Cooke and in the outlying civilian communities of Lompoc and Santa Maria, performing agricultural work for which they were paid. On weekends and evenings, they enjoyed many recreational entertainment and educational opportunities available to them in the camp. For many POWs, the American experience helped reshape their worldview and gave them a profound appreciation of American democracy.

In his case that is exactly the story. After the war he was sent back to Europe where he married, had children and eventually immigrated to the US. He said we had opportunity here because there was little class structure. For white people at least, he said.

Sitting round his kitchen table he talked about what it was like for him. He hated the Germans and what they had done to his country but at the same time he was a bit of a hard case himself. He liked this country but thought Americans were too soft. He believed in discipline for his children. He said American schools were not rigid enough. He didn’t much care for people of color either. As the evening wore on and the Schnapps descended ever lower in the bottle he talked of things that would make your hair stand on end. Most of it is not for sharing for the same reason combat veterans don’t talk about their experiences. The one thing he said that struck me the most, was that all Austrians and Germans knew about the lampshades. If they said they didn’t, that was a lie. That kind of thing is something not found in any history text.

The power of an imagination arises from what it refuses to see, when it has no opportunity to see. The truth of things lie in the words of those who have experienced them. Few of those are interviewed for history texts. Generals, politicians, businessmen, they are the winners and they write history. Few are the books written by the afflicted. Those that are can be harrowing. GI’s who fought under George Patton were apt to say of “Old Blood and Guts,” yeah, his guts our blood.

Think of what’s stored in an 80 or a 90 year-old mind. Just marvel at it. You’ve got to get out this information, this knowledge, because you’ve got something to pass on. There’ll be nobody like you ever again. Make the most of every molecule you’ve got as long as you’ve got a second to go.

All you need in life is truth and beauty and you can find both at the Public Library. You can thank Louis “Studs” Terkel for that bit of advice. Studs was an American writer, historian, actor, and broadcaster. He received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for “The Good War” and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans. He collected stories and wrote “Hard Times”, which was a firsthand account of people of varying socio-economic status who lived in the United States during the Great Depression. He also wrote the book “Working:” where people Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

Every time you pass someone on the street, you pass a library. Take time to sit down with the elder folks in your family. Ask them, pry the stories out. Pry, that you will certainly have to do because most are reluctant to speak of things that are part of their lives that they believe could not possibly be of importance to you.

Once I was in a local donut shop and sitting at the little round table in the back near the coffee machine was an older gentleman. I say gentleman because I could see by his demeanor and the way he wore his clothes, long sleeve shirt carefutly pressed, hair cut and combed just so and a blue ball cap perfectly squared away that he had been a military man. He wore that navy blue cap with the gold lettering in a way that told you he was a proud man. Lettered in gold on the front was “USS Hazelwood DD-531. When I looked at him he smiled and gave a slight nod that I knew was an invitation to sit down and have a chat. I did just that. Turns out, his little destroyer was smashed to pieces off Okinawa by a Kamikaze on the day I was born. How about that. A chance encounter and the right question.

USS Hazelwood DD-531, Okinawa April, 1945. DoD photo

But as I’m wont to say, that is another story for another day.

Just yesterday my wife and I were returning from Palm Springs and we passed the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Griffith Park east of downtown Los Angeles. Her grandparents are buried there. She said, “I don’t know where they are, no one in my family has ever been to visit them.” They both lived through nearly the entire twentieth century. Nancy’s grandmother was born in London, England and served in WWI as a nurse in France. Nobody ever asked her what her life was like. Isn’t that sad? Just think of what was lost.

Cover Photo: Mrs Margaret Sheldon and Mrs Florence McNeil. Arroyo Grande High School Librarians 1962.



…Or the smell of Hells Kitchen.

Today is the day, Corned Beef and Cabbage is on the table, nested in a tasty berm of boiled potatoes and carrots. It’s the one day of the year when we eat to remember. To remember what was once a serious thing.

In the 1850’s the poor benighted Irish in New York were confined to an area in lower Manhattan known as the Five Points. It was the filthiest, evil, most run down section of the city with open sewers running down the streets and wooden tenement buildings dating back to the revolutionary war. The neighborhood, partly built on land which had filled in the freshwater lake known as the Collect Pond, was generally defined as being bound by Centre Street to the west, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south. The Five Points gained international notoriety as a densely populated, disease-ridden, crime-infested slum that existed for over 70 years. Five Points is alleged to have had the highest murder rate of any slum in the world. According to an old New York urban legend, the Old Brewery, built in the 1790s, was an overcrowded tenement on Cross Street housing 1,000 poor. iIt s said to have had a murder a night for 15 years, until its demolition in 1852. The famine Irish immigrants lived there.

The Five Points, New York 1850.

Debauched women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings. Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game… ruined houses, open to the street, the reek of boiled cabbage and corned, ruined beef, hideous tenements which take, their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” –Charles Dickens

Note that Dickens was long removed from tenement life himself and demonstrated his self satisfied views in his book written about his tours of America. He thumbed his nose at the Irish noting that the Five Points was far worse than the slums of London.

“They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brain and virtue.” The average Irishman is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.” Theodore Roosevelt.

Ireland itself was a major producer of salted meat, going back all the way to the Middle Ages and lasting through the 19th century. Under English rule, the vast majority of the products of Ireland were exported by the landowners. As to the the great famine itself, Ireland produced bumper crops of Beef, Pork and Wheat during the time Irish children were dying in ditches from starvation. One of the causes of the great migration is that tenant farmers were turned off the land in order to cash in on the export market.

“This [the Irish] is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” – Sigmund Freud

It wasn’t always called corned beef, though. That didn’t come until the 17th century when the English coined the term. The “corned” comes from the use of large chunks of rock salt used in the curing process. These were know in England as corns. Pickled beef is the correct term.

“You can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars.”–Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister

While Ireland produced large amounts of corned beef, it was nearly all for trade. Corned beef was considered a luxury, and much too expensive for the poor Irish to consume. Instead, they relied on dairy and pork, especially salt pork, a relative to bacon.

Jiggs, “Bringing Up Father.”

Jiggs was born in Ireland. He came to this country expecting to find gold on the streets of New York, but found that he was expected to pave them with bricks and cobblestones instead. He became a hod-carrier. Romance came into his life when he met Maggie, a waitress at a small café, who put heaping dishes of corned beef and cabbage before him. They were married, and Jiggs became thrifty. Instead of carrying bricks, he bought and sold them on commission. Then he manufactured them. Street brawls in the old days in New York provided a great market for Jiggs’ bricks, which were harder than ordinary bricks. He grew rich. He still loved the corned beef though._____George McManus

The Irish use of corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced back to the 19th century and the Irish immigration to the U.S. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork back at home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was prohibitively expensive in the Americas. Their best option for a lower-cost meat was, you guessed it: corned beef. What was once a luxury became a food that was now inexpensive and readily available. Cabbage was added because it was the cheapest of vegetables. No New York swell would deign to eat such a coarse vegetable, instead preferring the finest lettuce.

So it was the Irish-American consumption of corned beef that initiated its association with Ireland and the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day.

The real truth comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “Not paupers and criminals, but the Republic’s most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work.” Something that can be said of all immigrants.

My personal favorite though is from a man with a very particular set of skills, someone not to be argued with

“I’m Irish, so I’m used to odd stews. I can take it. Just throw a lot of carrots and onions in there, and I’ll call it dinner.” – Liam Neeson

As the quote at the beginning of this story written by that Dublin man, Sean O’Casey states,

“Thats the Irish all over____They treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.”

Eat hearty my friends.


Naomh Phádraig

Things to know about being “Irish” for Saint Patrick’s day.

In the deepest darkest time of night when Hobgoblins dance about on Branch Street in Arroyo Grande, beware. The wee people are out and about every March 16th. They cast a magic spell and lo and behold a brilliant shamrock green stripe appears. From Ralph and Duanes bar out and up the street, making a slightly tipsy band of brilliance until it arrives at the batwing doors of Old Bill Hendrix’s saloon. The wee man say’s, “Micheal ,ye Feckin’ Eejit it’s O’Conners now and fer taday, it’s a pub.”


My earliest American ancestor arrived in the Virginia colony in 1682 to serve a seven year indentured servitude. A form of debt bondage, meaning it was an agreed upon term of unpaid labor that usually paid off the costs of the servant’s immigration to America. He arrived on the shores of Colonial America and was auctioned to the man who then paid his passage to the shipmaster who brought him. Indentured servants were not paid wages but they were generally housed, clothed, and fed. Daniel Shannon worked off his debt and married Abigail Vaughan at Portsmouth, Virginia in 1689. The rest, as they say is history. Fast forward a few generations and we find the family in western Pennsylvania and owners of a tavern in Bethel township. The family bought it from the heirs of a man named Reynolds who was hanged by the British for the crime of counterfeiting. How Irish is owning a tavern.

The Tavern today.

Jump another hundred years or so and having somehow survived the Revolution, The Blackhawk war, The war of the Southern Rebellion and various other disagreements including my great-grandfather’s two years in Sing Sing, we arrived in Arroyo Grande in 1888. John Edward Shannon, he of Sing Sing fame and his wife Catherine Shannon, nee Brennan bought a house and small ranch just off Corbit Canyon near the old stage road and settled in. We’re still here 134 years later. Being near the sea, it’s as far as they could go.

Dad Shannon’s house, Printz Road.

If you are not a Gaelic speaker, which few are, the title of this story is the proper name of the Saint, so called, that the particular day of celebration is named for, Saint Patricks Day. According to the autobiographical Confessio of Patrick, when he was sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken from his home in Britain and sold as a slave in Ireland. He spent his days a a herder near Slemish Hill, historically Slieve Mish in County Antrim where my grandmothers family is from. My great-grandparents would have seen it from their homes. He was a Shepard, looking after the woolies.

He lived in the north and west of medieval Ireland. He was captive there for six years before escaping and returning across the Irish sea to his family in Wales. After becoming a cleric, he returned to northern and western Ireland where he went about saving souls and dealing with snakes, or so it goes.. In later life, he served as a bishop, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.

Slieve Mish, 1,434 foot elevation. County Antrim, Ireland.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on 17 March, the supposed date of his death. It is celebrated inside and outside Ireland as a religious and cultural holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland, it is both a solemn and holy day of obligation; it is also a celebration of Ireland itself.

He is not actually a canonized Saint as there was no process for making him a Saint during and after his life. He is listed on the calendar of saints but has never been officially recognized by the Pontiff. He is recognized as so by the Irish Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches though. It really doesn’t matter as nearly the entire world does so on a least one day of the year.

About the snakes. There were never any snakes in Ireland; never, ever. The snake story is a metaphor for the banishment of the so-called Pagan religions in Ireland during his lifetime. The Irish tribes of the time likely wouldn’t have known what a snake was if you threw it at them. Snakes and St Patrick first became entwined in the 17th century but it’s hard to kill a good story and if any snakes know different they don’t give a hiss.

Out damn snakes.

The angry old man in the tablet above, wearing his bathrobe is Saint Patrick. A garment never worn in Ireland. The snakes are making their escape, the busty maiden with her hands up in surrender represents the Druids. You can see she is holding a sprig of Oak leaf which are purported to be the symbol of that religion which worshipped trees. The studly guy with the torch is, of course a pagan who Paddy said were fire worshippers. He wanted them all out of Ireland. You can take it or leave it, it’s all likely Blarney anyhow.

The Shamrock was first connected with Patrick centuries after his death. He supposedly used its three petals to illustrate the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The symbolism of three has been used in religion since before time and Patrick would have found it was an easy get. In art, architecture and design the trefoil predates writing.

Now you know a little, and I mean very little about the old guy. There is a field of research that believes he never existed but as we always do in journalism the legend is much more interesting so thats what we print.

The British Parliament passed laws against dissenters and Irish Catholics in 1695. They were forbidden to own land, to school their children, vote, own a horse worth more than £2.50. They could not be a public official, be a lawyer or soldier, or serve on a jury. It was a hanging offense to speak Gaelic. Teachers, called Hedge Masters roamed Ireland teaching, literally in the bushes, another hanging offense if caught. This is the period that saw the end of many Irish traditions, including the wearing of the Irish kilt. It seems unbelievable today that this could have been so, but men, women and children were hanged for wearing a sprig of the Shamrock. These laws were designed to completely stamp out Irish culture. Instead, the Irish sailed away to America. You see, they could own land here, and school their children

And that they did. In the 1880’s our little valley was populated by many, many Irish families. There were Moores, MacGuires, Shannons, Olohans, Rices, Phelans, Donovans, Greys, Corbits, O’conners, McBanes and McKeens, many of them my relatives. My sister in law is a MacConaghy, a strawberry blonde no less.

As to the drink itself. Ireland today doesn’t even make the top ten worldwide. Sort of ruins the image of the two-fisted drinking Irish male doesn’t it. As with the many traits and characteristics of ethnicities the idea that the Irish are drunkards has more to do with politics than fact.

A letter written by then Catholic Cardinal Paul Cullen in March 1870 illustrates the attitude of those who backed the Sunday closing bill of 1905.

“Almost all the crime we have to deplore in Ireland may be traced to drunkenness; and as long as the doors of the public-house stand open during the leisure of the Sunday, it will be very difficult indeed to root out from among our people that degrading vice.” Cullen called for legislation to impose the Sunday ban, for the “spiritual and temporal welfare of our excellent people”.

Mind you though, the bill passed in the British Parliament only targeted the Irish. The Scots, Welsh and British were still allowed to partake of a Sunday. Of course they had slightly better relations with the British government even though they drank just as much. It seems the Brits have had it in for the Irish from, lets see, roughly the year 1169. More on that later.

When the barman asks you what will you have there are some things to know. If you ask for a pint, it’ll be Guiness served at room temperature. Room temperature, not warm, not chilled. Don’t forget, Ireland is not a warm country and room temperature is, well cold. If you think you’re cool and want to be like the locals and ask for a Black and Tan do it in San Francisco not Dublin. The name “Black and Tan” is not used in Ireland as a term for a mixture of two beers. The drink is instead referred to as a half and half. In Ireland, the term “black and tan” is associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, nicknamed the “Black and Tans”, which was sent into Ireland in the early 1920s during the Irish War of Independence and resulted in violent outbreaks between the Constabulary forces and the Irish people. The Black and Tans are thoroughly hated. So half and half it is, half Harp and Half Guiness stout.

One other thing. Guiness is not the only beer in Ireland and in fact the British and, surprisingly, the Nigerians drink more per capita than the Irish. Guiness breweries are now owned by a British conglomerate called Diageo, which until recently was the worlds largest brewer. There is a sneaking suspicion that the recipe for Guiness has been tampered with. Irish have every reason to be suspicious of the British.

The Diaspora refers to the dispersion of any people from their original homeland. There are far more people of Irish descent living outside Ireland than there are in the home country itself. For fourteen centuries the Irish have been starved out, shipped out as criminals, sold into servitude and simply left as my ancestors did. The Shannons arrived in America not long after Oliver Cromwell finally savagely crushed the Irish at Drogheda in 1649, killing upwards of 20,000, murdering the captured on the spot, burning the city and deporting 50,000 Irish to the New World as indentured servants which you may know is a type of slavery. Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were also often destinations for Irish fleeing starvation and oppression.

“Oh, Paddy dear and did you hear the news that’s goin’ round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground
Saint Patrick’s Day no more we’ll keep his colours can’t be seen
For they’re hangin’ men and women for the wearin’ of the green.”

In America, before it became the United States there was opportunity unlimited and a people raised under oppressive law took full advantage of it. Big George Washington wasn’t Irish but he would not have survived the revolution with out his master spy Hercules Mulligan who was born in Coleraine, County Londonderry. He was denounced as a spy to the British by that dastardly traitor Benedict Arnold. Hercules used his Irish Blarney to talk his way out of hanging. Obviously the “Gift of Gab.”

James Hoban, the architect who designed the White House was from Callan, County Killkenny. He supervised the actual building of the structure with the blessing of President Washington himself.

We take the phrase “Third Times the Charm” from the marksmanship of Timothy Murphy who on his third try drilled the Scot General Simon Fraser at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. Murphy, from Pennsylvania was a master with the Kentucky Rifle. Serving with Daniel Morgan’s hand picked rifleman, Murphy scaled a tree, took careful aim at the extreme distance of 300 yards, and fired three times. The first shot was a close miss, the second grazed the General’s horse, and with the third, Fraser tumbled from his horse, dead. The deed is credited with breaking the British and ending the battle. “The third Time’s the Charm.”

James Marshall, not Irish, discovered gold at Colma in California in 1848. The “Luck of the Irish” phrase has long been associated with this discovery. Down in San Francisco, Samuel “Sam” Brannon, son of James who emigrated from County Waterford, yes, the crystal comes from there, was the first to hear of the gold strike and spent a few days buying up every thing a miner might need for his store and then walking down Marker street shouting, “Gold, gold found on the American River. It made his fortune and he became, shortly, California first millionaire in the day when a million meant something. The majority of the first miners were of Irish descent and the phrase is said to have originated with the. James Marshall an Englishman had no luck, he died penniless near Kelsey California in 1885. No luck for James.

It doesn’t matter which political party you belong to, there are politicians and presidents of Irish descent in all of them. Eleven Irishmen signed the declaration of Independence, most born in Ireland. John Dunlap who printed the document was born in Strabane, County Tyrone.

There were four Irish born signers of the U S Constitution, two from County Antrim, one from County Carlow and one from Sligo.

Twenty-tthree of our 46 presidents have claimed Irish ancestors including ten of the last twelve. Some who pushed a little such as Nixon who was descended from Irish on both his father and mothers side but did not want the voters to think he was embracing Democrat JFK’s Irish Catholocism. Pat Nixon’s father, Patrick Ryan was from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, so he figured why not use that instead. Very Nixonest. Barack O’Bama is Irish through his fathers family the Kearney’s who hailed from Moneygall, Tipperary. His great-grandfather Fulmore was a wealthy farmer and an Uncle, John Kearney who became the Bishop of Ossory and a Provost of Trinity College in Dublin, Irelands most prestigious university. Joe Bidens mother was a Finnegans of County Mayo. Bill Clinton claimed to be Irish on his mothers side but there is no evidence of that. Sounds like him. I will say that he has the “Gift of Gab,” so there is that.

Al Smith mayor of New York and Governor of the state lost to Herbert Hoover in the presidential election of 1928. As a son of Ireland he ran as a “Wet” meaning he was against prohibition, naturally. He was also the first Catholic to run for the highest office in the land the opposition made the claim that if elected he would let the Pope run America. Interestingly, the same claim was made in 1960 about JFK. Didn’t work the second time. Al Smith got a better job though. He ran the Empire State buildings construction. Built in just 13 months he ordered construction to begin on March 17th, 1932. By the by, the Empire State is bathed in Green every Saint Pat’s day. Thanks Al.

That brings us to the Blarney Stone. For over 200 years, world statesmen, literary giants, and legends of the silver screen have joined the millions of pilgrims climbing the steps to kiss the Blarney Stone and gain the gift of eloquence. Its powers are unquestioned but its story still creates debate. My Grandmother Hall gave it a smack herself. She did it for fun ’cause she really didn’t need more eloquence than she already had.

Eileen Cayce Hall.

The stone is set into the wall of Blarney castle which was built by Dermot MacCarthy in 1446. It is inside a stone shaft affixed to the outer wall of the castle keep. The original use of the shaft was the castelleyne’s private garderobe. The Irish know what it’s original use was an don’t typically kiss the stone, being naturally gifted with eloquence by birth.

Some say the stone was Jacob’s Pillow, brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah. Here it became the Lia Fail or ‘Fatal Stone’, used as an oracular throne of Irish kings – a kind of Harry Potter-like ‘sorting hat’ for kings. It was also said to be the deathbed pillow of St Columba on the island of Iona. Legend says it was then removed to mainland Scotland, where it served as the prophetic power of royal succession, the Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Destiny is also known as the Stone of Scone and resided under the throne of Scotland before being taken by the British crown as spoils of war in 1296. There is a delightful little film titled “The Stone of Destiny” about four college kids who steal it and return it to Scotland in 2008. One of the leads is actress Kate Mara of the Rooney/Mara family an Irish girl. For the sports fan, her great-grandfathers founded the Pittsburg Steelers and the New York Giants football teams.

Kate Rooney Mara, no doubt is there?

When Cormac MacCarthy, King of Munster, sent five thousand men to support Robert the Bruce in his defeat of the English at Bannockburn in 1314, a portion of the historic Stone of Destiny was given by the Scots in gratitude – and returned to Ireland.

Others say it may be a stone brought back to Ireland from the Crusades – the ‘Stone of Ezel’ behind which David hid on Jonathan’s advice when he fled from his enemy, Saul. A few claim it was the stone that gushed water when struck by Moses.Whatever the truth of its origin, we believe a witch saved from drowning revealed its power to the MacCarthys who placed in the wall.

The rise of Saint Patricks day has taken fourteen centuries. This greening of the world began with the first recorded mention of a Saint Patricks Day parade outside of Ireland took place in the then colony of Spanish Florida in 1601. It was organized by Richard Artur the Irish born Vicar of Saint Augustine.

About 1 percent of the worlds population claim to be a little bit Irish. That percentage rises to as much as forty percent in Australia, twenty percent in New Zealand, fifteen in Canada, ten in the UK and about twelve in the United States. revealed that of the fifteen milion people who have taken a DNA test were at least 5 percent Irish. 170,000 Irish born citizens live in the United States and another 50,000 are here illegally. Oh, oh. There are an estimated 80 million people of Irish ancestry living around the world including 31.5 million in the United States. California has the largest number and New Hampshire boasts it has 21 percent of its total population of Irish descent. Every one of our 3,006 counties has at least one Irish person in residence.

Two million Irish march down Broadway on Saint Patricks day. A million do the same in Boston. Savannah Georgia sports a half million marchers. The Chicago River turn green and has since 1962.

The Chicago River.

The Sydney opera house, the great pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower are all green on Saint Patricks. So is the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the leaning Tower of Pisa, The Taj Mahal, Nelson Mandela’s statue in Johannesburg, The West Bank Palestinian Museum in Ramallah Palestine and that symbol of green, the Welome to Las Vegas sign in Lost Wages, Nevada.

When I lived in Hawaii I belonged to “The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick,” a fraternal organization primarily organized to throw a ball on the great day. Men wore tuxedo’s and the women ball gowns. A beautiful redheaded Aer Lingus stewardess was flown in each year to be the princess and believe you me, all had a wonderful time. Senator Fong, Senator Inouye, Mayor Fosse and even Hilo Hattie became Irish for the day.

George Custer, he of the glossy blonde ringlets went to his death on the Greasy Grass, galloping down Medicine Tail Coulee to the tune “Garryowen” an old Irish drinking song. Captain Myles Keogh was the only Irish officer to take part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was one of 34 Irish born soldiers who died that day.

At least 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union army, most not yet citizens, many just off the boat from Ireland. 20,000 served the south and wore Butternut including all three of my Hooper kin who died at Bull Run and Malvern Hill. There are no figures as to how many Irishmen died in the Civil War, but it is likely that it ran perilously close to 40,000.

Literature and entertainment are rife with the sons and daughters of the “Auld Sod.” On the list: Walter Disney, Kurt Cobain, Pierce Brosnan, Mary Pickford, the first great movie star and the inestimable Bill Murray. The reigning king of macho, Clint Eastwood is on the list along with Alicia Keyes, Mariah Carey and Judy Garland. Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and J P Donleavy represent some of our Irish American greatest writers.

If you watch British film it’s obvious they have stolen the best Irish talent to stock their films and plays. Saoirse Ronan, Fionnula Flanagan, Stephen Rhea, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis, Peter O’Toole and the brilliant Maureen O’Hara. Yes even that quintessential Englishwomen Judi Dench had an Irish mother, Eleanora from County Dublin.

It is impossible to leave out the great Irish poets, Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats, James Joyce. Olivia Wilde, one of Irelands great poets was the mother of Oscar. Talent ran in the family . Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and Seamus Heaney a poet who wrote with such a sublime beauty that his readings caused people in the audience to weep.

W.B. Yeats “When You are Old”

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

When you make the walk from Ralph and Duane’s to O’Conner’s on this coming Thursday, remember the stories, legends and Irish folk that have made this holiday what it is. Raise a glass for the Auld Sod and its people wherever they may be. Slainté