I. Black Gold Rush

The turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth was the occasion of a second wave of people into California, not for gold in the north this time but to the southern sections in search of the "black gold" -- oil. Less dramatic than the first migration that populated the North with "Forty-Niners" a half-century before, this one had a far greater and longer-lasting impact on the state. The ground beneath large areas of southern California contained deposits of oil, and with the beginning in the 1890's of the automobile revolution, suddenly there was great demand for it.

In 1897, E. L. Doheny (who was later responsible for the downfall of the Harding administration in the Teapot Dome scandal) formed the Brea Canyon Oil Company to drill for the large reserves discovered there. The same subterranean oil fields underlaid the entire Los Angeles area and had trapped and embalmed specimens of prehistoric life in the La Brea Tar Pits, which had also been named by the original Spanish settlers for the pitch which oozed and bubbled out of the earth. Doheny formed a partnership with the Santa Fe Railway, which in 1899 ran a line to the oil fields of Olinda. The operation was incorporated as the Olinda Crude Oil Company, and within months the hills and valleys of the area were dotted with wooden derricks forcing the black stuff to the surface.

With the derricks came jobs of all kinds luring thousands of workers from around the state and other parts of the country. Among those drawn there were a pair of brothers from Missouri, Frank and Clifford Perry. They found work in the oil fields and a good life in the area. In November, 1901, Cliff made a trip back east to Humboldt, Kansas, to visit his older sister Minnie and her husband Frank Johnson. A long spell of bad weather had forced them to sell their farm and move their five children into the town of Humboldt. Frank was receptive to Cliff's accounts of work for the asking in the oil fields, and when Cliff returned to California early in 1902, Frank Johnson went along to see for himself. Finding the situation just as Cliff had described it, he brought his family west. Years later Walter Johnson described the situation this way: "There is nothing like a drought that makes a farmer think of moving to another part of the world to try his luck."

Frank Johnson -- sober, diligent, a hard worker -- had no trouble making his way in the oil fields. Settling in the small village of Olinda, he secured a job as a teamster and loader for the Santa Fe railroad, hauling supplies by horse and wagon from Fullerton, six miles to the southwest and the closest town of any size, with a population of 1,700. The Johnson family moved into a house on Olinda's main street, Santa Fe Avenue, about a hundred yards up the hill from the general store anchoring the tiny commercial district of the town. Their house, like all the buildings on the oil leases, was owned by the railroad and rented out at reasonable rates to employees.

Minnie Johnson said later that the ten years she lived in Olinda were the happiest of her long and eventful life. (She died in 1967 at the age of 100.) A good part of the population of Olinda was made up of family: Her parents, John L. and Lucinda B. Perry, had moved to Olinda at about the same time; all of her brothers and sisters were there; and there was her own still-growing brood, which filled out to six in 1903. Compared to the isolated and sometimes precarious existence on a Kansas farm, life in Olinda was nothing less than abundant. The houses had plumbing, electricity, and gas for heat. Food of all kinds was delivered to the door by wagon from Fullerton, and the fenced backyards were large enough to accommodate cows, chickens, and other livestock. The Southern California sun shone almost constantly through clear blue skies, and the view from anywhere was of velvet-green hills in all directions. When the groves in nearby Placentia were in blossom, a sweet orange fragrance blanketed the area. The foothills of the coastal mountain ranges were full of game -- rabbits, squirrels, large flocks of quail, and even deer and bear at higher altitudes, and large cookouts celebrated the return of hunting expeditions. The big social event in Olinda was the Saturday night dance at the company hall, where a three-piece orchestra played until midnight (and could be bribed into staying until two in the morning.)

If Olinda was a good place for adults to live, by the accounts of those who grew up there, it was almost heaven on earth for the children. "It was all kids and dogs... a happy place to play," reminisced one long-time resident about her childhood there at the turn of the century. "A neighbor's dog was affectionately treated like a member of the family. At night the constant pumping of the wells would rock us all to sleep. Our parents told us that each creak of the pump whispered, 'five dollars', 'five dollars', 'five dollars', until we finally dozed off." In addition to playing all the usual children's games, kids slid down the gravel-pit hill on corrugated metal sleds, and poked around the oil pumping houses for 'trapdoor' spiders and the satin-like tunnels they spun. When they got thirsty, they just drank the pure mountain water from hillside springs. But for the boys, one activity -- baseball -- ranked in importance far above all the others.

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