Jane Kinsey knows a lot about oil camps. She was born in one, raised in one, and after a 37-year teaching career, she returned to one.
The difference between then and now? Then she lived in the camp with hundreds of others, families that were drawn to the oil fields and steady work even during the Depression.
Now, she's trying to restore the same camp for posterity.
Kinsey is director of the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft, Calif., a volunteer-run operation that is slowly-but-surely becoming one of the country's great examples of oil industry heritage.
"We're trying to save all of this ... all of what it was like," Kinsey said. "One day, when we're finished, it will be just like it used to be."
"Used to be," in this case, is a term of endearment for Kinsey, because she remembers her oil camp world as something that helped both her and others achieve successful lives.
"In the 1930s there were 26 kids who grew up in the pipeline camp," she said, including herself in the group, "and 21 became college graduates."
Kinsey herself went to school at Berkeley, Calif. Her father was a gauger for Standard Oil -- an agent who bought oil from independent producers for the home company.
Her passion for all the "good" that was part of that earlier world is what brought her back to Taft, she said, in hopes of restoring a part of American history before it was lost for good.
"At one time there were over 7,000 wooden derricks here," she said. "When it got down to the last one, we decided we'd keep it and build the museum around it."
Although there are a few scattered oil museums across the United States, most oil company owned, this one is by far the largest and most extensive.
Run entirely by volunteers, the museum is dedicated to collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting artifacts, books and equipment that tell the story of oil in California -- particularly in West Kern County.
That mission covers a lot of territory -- rather than just showcasing old oilfield memorabilia, the museum tries to tell of the businesses, communities and people affected by the whole historical experience.
In other words, a lot of Kinsey's and others' personal experiences are included.
But the museum also is dedicated to increasing the public understanding and appreciation of the oil industry itself.
Moreover, it has been steadily expanding its mandate, housing not only historical artifacts, but also creating a "living history," putting the grounds and machinery to work in a way similar to how they functioned in the past.
Thanks to donations and restoration efforts on the part of the museum volunteers, you can find not only actual, vintage oil field equipment, but also examples of:
- Furnished residences, for both families and "singles."
- Old pipeline departments.
- Machine shops.
- A cook house.
- A pipe perforating plant.
- And, soon to open, an original "shotgun house."
"Just recently we opened a 1912 office building on the grounds that was given to us from Texaco," Kinsey said. "One of the owners gave us $20,000 to restore it to its original look."
And about the shotgun house?
"That was a house in the camp that started as one room, and then people kept adding rooms to the back of it," Kinsey said. "It would just get longer and longer."
The restored shotgun house, the newest addition to the museum's grounds, will be officially opened November 18.
"As we get money from members, donations and oil companies," she added, "we restore."
The museum also is a living history in the sense that it sits on top of the Midway Sunset field, until 1998 the top producing field in the continental United States, and still very close to the top in terms of reserves.
To turn first to the history, the story starts with the Tulumne Yokuts Indians who lived in the area over 7,800 years ago, and who, according to a Smithsonian archeological dig in 1935, used the asphaltum -- the oil from the seeps -- as a glue, a trade item and a waterproofing agent.
It continues with the miners and the McKittrick Tar Pits. Not only did the Indians get some of their asphaltum from these tar pits, but the first oil company in the San Joaquin Valley, the Buena Vista Petroleum Company, started nearby in 1863.
What that producer sought in the 1860s was kerosene, an alternative to whale oil, which in the 1850s had become scarce.
The Buena Vista Petroleum Company, 200 miles from the nearest railhead and far from any settlements, did actually bring a distillery by ship from San Francisco, hauled it overland in spring wagons, and for four years distilled kerosene and sold axle grease for wagons. They hauled these products by wagon to their agent in Stockton, Calif. This, despite the fact that from their hand dug wells, one third of the material was bones. The kerosene produced was considered of excellent grade.
The start of the Midway Sunset Field dates from 1890. By 1915, one half of the oil in California came from this field, and California led the nation in oil production.
The field became famous when the gushers started raining in. The Pritchett Act, passed by Congress in 1910, stated (in simple terms) that everyone had to prove his claims or the land would revert back to the public domain. Oil had been classified as a mineral, and therefore the land could be patented.
The Westside contained a tremendous gas field, and so, as the producers drilled to prove their claims, gusher after gusher came in -- 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 barrels a day.
The most famous was the Lakeview Gusher, which gushed for 544 days -- a year and a half -- and at its peak hit 90,000 to 100,000 barrels a day.
By the mid 1920s, over 7,000 wooden derricks dotted the landscape from Sunset (southeast of Maricopa) through the Midway Valley, the Elk Hills to McKittrick and Reward, a distance of approximately 21 miles in South West Kern County. It was indeed a veritable forest of derricks -- but by the late 1960s, all but two were thrown. In 1974 Jameson #17 was scheduled to be torn down, too.
"That's when the idea for the museum started," Kinsey said.
Recreating a Memory
The local American Association of University Women and other dedicated people organized. The Jameson Company donated the derrick and three acres of land, and the West Kern Oil Museum was born.
It's only fitting that a museum be on the west side of Kern County, for even today about half of all the oil in California comes from these fields. Two other giant oil fields are located in this oil-rich southwest corner of the Central Valley, Elk Hills Navel Petroleum Reserve and the South Belridge Field.
The remaining derrick, built in 1917, stands over the original well, which was drilled during the first weeks after the United States entered World War I. The cable tools used to drill and produce this well are still in place.
"The derrick was in use until around 1982-83," Kinsey said. "Our goal now is to rebuild it ... right over the original hole, with original tools."
Helping the effort is the California division of oil and gas, which is working to restore as many original parts as possible.
When entering the museum's main building, one can journey from the lifestyles of the original inhabitants, the Yokut Indians, through the times of the first gushers and original towns to the present. Exhibits, which are periodically changed, allow you to feel the trials, tribulations and accomplishments of those early oil pioneers with stories of fires, pestilence and storms -- right up to the present time.
In the story of the oil room, oil is traced from its origin. Artifacts showing drilling practices from early times to a model of an offshore drilling platform are displayed. Exhibits showing conservation methods and the more than 5,000 products made from petro-chemicals are also on view.
Restored outside the main building are the tent house, blacksmith shop, fire house with the restored 1937 fire truck, the oil tool supply house and an extensive collection of historical oilfield equipment.
A recent addition to the display was a metal cookhouse, which is part exhibit but part working kitchen -- for pancake bakes, barbecues and other meals that are held for fund raising purposes.
Also being worked on is a new addition to the main museum, a machine reclamation shop, an early portable drilling rig and an old time natural gas plant. Future plans include coverings for the outside equipment and laying out roadways -- all to create an old time company oil lease. There is also a gift shop, a growing research library and office.
Just last month the museum played host to about 40,000 people who were celebrating "Oildorado," which marked Taft's 90th anniversary.
With the exception of Oildorado activities, the museum attracts about 8,000 visitors annually -- last year from 38 states and 27 foreign countries.
The museum grounds are landscaped using California Native plants. A pond, stream and waterfall can be enjoyed as one sits in the outdoor classroom in the shade of several oak and cottonwood trees.
This, too, has Kinsey's special touch, because it carries her special memories.
"When we lived here there were five gardeners with us, and they always had the grounds looking so nice," she said. "It looked like a park."
Admission is free, though donations are accepted. There are some 500 members who offer membership donations.
The museum is open five days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and from 1-4 p.m. on Sundays. It is located just off Highway 33 at 1168 Wood Street.
Tours are offered; to book a tour, contact Jane Kinsey at the museum.
The mailing address is P.O. Box 491, Taft, Calif. 93268. The telephone number is 661-765-6664 -- and for further information you can visit the Web site at www.westkern-oilmuseum.org.