Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Museum of Oil

Today starts with a little departure from the normal OCYDS. It begins with a personal story.

Back in the 1950’s there was a small boy who drove his mother crazy every once in a while, so she did what every mother would do; she plopped him down in the back seat of her green Pontiac (pre-seat belt era) and drop him off at her husband’s construction shop for the workers to watch.

Actually, I wasn’t that awful a child (at least from my viewpoint). But I did always look for an opportunity to drop a punchline, and that was before I learned the importance of social filters. Okay, maybe I still need to work on that aspect, but the point is, Mom had a nice option. Daycare was rare and in its infancy (pun intended) during the 50’s, so Moms who stayed at home… and there were many more back then… had to come up with creative daycare solutions.

Enter a very good man named Sid Mitchell, a skilled machinist who worked for my Dad and had a kind demeanor. My dad had a few petroleum industry businesses. One was a shop that packaged together gas compressor units to handle natural gas. Another was a little business with a catchy name: Oil and Gas Testing Associates. Today it might have been named something like OGTA Enterprises, but my Dad had little imagination.

OGTA contracted with the local oil companies surrounding Whittier, CA to go out to their wells, draw off samples of the crude coming out of the hole, and test them for their chemical properties. It was an important step, because each oil well’s production would change as the crude was pulled out, and the refineries needed to know what was in each barrel to better refine the product. Too much sulfur in the mix and the equipment would quickly corrode.

It fell to Sid to hop in his 1956 Ford Truck (kept in immaculate perfection) and visit each well. It was a great way to entertain a kid back then, as we drove into the orange and avocado groves of Orange County to collect samples. We frequented the hills of Whittier, Fullerton, Yorba Linda and Brea, where Union Oil had “Old Number One,” their first venture tapping the great oil reserve beneath those fragrant fruit trees. On the way back we would stop at the A and W root beer shack on Imperial Highway for a float.

As the tar leaked from cracks in the Southern California ground, the local natives and early pioneers used hunks of oil infused earth for heating and waterproofing the roofs of their homes. Brea shares its name with a famous tar pit in Los Angeles for good reason. The Spanish word “brea” means tar, which used to ooze out of the hills unabated until the oil industry stepped in. You can thank the oil industry for cleaning up lots of ugly sites in California. Tar regularly bled out of rifts along the Santa Barbara coastline. Off-shore drilling relieved a lot of the pressure and captured the black stuff.

When the oil industry came, “wildcatters” (oil field workers) began building homes, and the little town of Brea was born. Oil production waned after WWII, and during the era of my trips with Sid, it became increasingly costly to suck crude out of the ground. Gradually Brea changed. During the 60’s Brea Mall brought shoppers to the town, and today downtown Brea is a thriving, classic California downtown area, with entertainment venues, coffee shops and wonderful restaurants.

Today you can capture the sights and smells I enjoyed as a child at the Olinda Oil Museum and Trail, located in the Olinda Ranch neighborhood at 4025 Santa Fe Road, Brea, CA 92823. You can still see Old #1, walk the trail, and visit a field house and museum featuring equipment and photos of those early, oily days of Brea’s past. Be sure to call first at (714) 671-4447 for hours and tours.

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