BY DENNIS MCCALL, Contributing writer
The western Kern County town of Taft owes its roots -- and the backbone of its economy -- to the frenzied search for oil more than a century ago. That's the reason the community sets aside 10 days every five years to pay homage to black gold and the pioneers who gave birth to one of the most productive oil patches in the country.
Well, that, and the need to cut loose and throw a big party now and then.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dennis McCall is a retired Taft College communications professor who works part time as a reporter for the Taft Midway Driller.
"We only do it every five years, but this is how we honor our heritage -- how we acknowledge our history," said 86-year-old Taft native Pete Gianopulos, a former teacher, counselor, town mayor and president of the celebration. "We have a lot of fun doing it, and I think this one is going to be the best of them all."
Taft will celebrate its 100th birthday with the Diamond Jubilee edition of Oildorado Days Oct. 15-24. A busy agenda includes the dedication of a $1.2 million bronze monument that salutes oil workers past and present.
Gianopulos teamed with Larry Peahl 10 years ago to pen "A History of Early Taft," which chronicles the city's beginnings. They noted that although oil seeps were discovered near McKittrick in the early 1860s, interest in the region didn't gain momentum until the need for fuels to replace coal produced a cost-effective method of refining around the turn of the last century.
As cable tool drilling gave way to the rotary process, production increased and, before long, the original settlement of Boust City became known as Moron and, a short time later, Taft.
Production and growth surged after the famous Lakeview Gusher blew in, spewing an estimated 9 million barrels (378 million gallons) of oil for almost a year and a half. It was then, and still is today, the greatest gusher of all time.
Eight months after Lakeview captured worldwide acclaim, the city of Taft was incorporated following a general election that passed overwhelmingly, 212 to 18, the book said.
Oil production in the area topped 2 million barrels in the two years after incorporation and by 1914 the town's population had tripled to 3,000. The explosive growth in the 1920s spawned veritable cities of oil camps .
According to the Gianopulos/Peahl saga, the first was a 100-acre site northwest of town that was home to more than 800 people. A short time later the Standard Oil Company (now Chevron) built its 11-C Camp on the western edge of Taft, which became the Cadillac of all oil camps until it was phased out in the late 1960s when the oil giant moved its headquarters to Concord.
Until then, Taft was known as a "company town," and Standard Oil was that company.
Chevron continues to play a major role in Taft's economy but has been joined by others like Aera and Occidental. Independents are a vanishing breed -- a sad reality that old-timers mourn.
The best -- and worst -- of times
Throughout its history, the Oil Patch has celebrated the booms and weathered the busts -- a cycle that still serves as both an accelerator and a brake.
The industry -- like most others -- has been smacked around by the recession, bringing with it another round of belt-tightening that inevitably leads to layoffs.
Roger Miller, who has been in the pipe perforating business for 31 years, is optimistic about the resiliency of the oil business despite the economic downturn and the black eye that resulted from the recent Gulf oil spill.
"Companies around here are still drilling 1,000 to 2,000 wells a year, so that part of the business will be strong for at least 10 years," he said. "As a result, contractors and service businesses like ours will continue to be strong. We probably won't see boom times again, but it's a steady industry."
One of the reasons, he said, is that oil companies have embraced technology that allows them to be more efficient.
"Now you can drill a well in 20 percent of the time it took 10 years ago," Miller said. "We used to live and die by this heavy oil, but now they are turning to diatomite. That's the future."
And, he said, the fields are safer.
"One of the most positive changes in the last 20 years has been safety," he said. "The oil companies have all made a commitment to be safe, and they really mean it."
A future beyond oil?
Over the years, efforts by city leaders to diversify the economy to soften the impact of downturns in the petroleum industry have achieved only modest success. A privately operated federal penitentiary, a community correctional facility run by the city, and a large composting plant a few miles east of town have helped.
In the past year, the city has launched an ambitious effort to spread its sphere of influence east to the I-5 corridor. However, oil and agricultural interests pushed back, and the move is in jeopardy.
One bright spot on the horizon is a narrow corridor that slices through town from Highway 119 to the western border of the city -- a strip of land purchased from Southern Pacific Railroad that has been transformed into what is known as Rails to Trails.
The city turned the railroad line -- once a vital link for oilfield supplies -- into a landscaped and lighted walking/bike path with displays and exhibits that will help chronicle the area's history.
Rails to Trails is a work in progress, and so, too, are ambitious plans to transform land on both sides into a mix of residences and small businesses.
Mayor Dave Noerr sees the project as a catalyst to a more diverse and prosperous future for Taft.
"I think the city as a whole will transition from simply being an oil town to a destination city and small college town," he said, building on the area's heritage and its community college, which has seen tremendous growth over the past five years, primarily by attracting students from Bakersfield and other areas of the county.
"Taft College will, no doubt, play a larger and larger role in the direction of the city," he said. "It represents such a great value in education for parents, not so much in terms of the tuition, but in the living experience. The safety and stability of the community ranks right up there, and it's only going to get better."
Noerr, who operates a crane service and has donated labor and money to the monument project, sees the railroad property transformation as a way to perk up the adjacent downtown area with its many empty storefronts.
"I see it as a revitalization process. We don't want to leave Center Street behind when we do this. When it's finished, my hope is that you will not know when old Taft ends and the Rails to Trails project begins."
The Oildorado Days celebration, he said, comes at a good time.
"Oildorado gives us an opportunity to take a step back to refresh our memories and it gives us an opportunity to showcase our community and allow people to experience what we have to offer."
KEY EVENTS IN TAFT'S HISTORY
May 1, 1901: Midway oilfield is discovered.
1908: Town of Moron (later Taft) is founded near Midway oilfield.
April, 22, 1909: "Taft" post office established.
Oct. 10, 1909: President William H. Taft speaks at Southern Pacific depot.
Oct. 22, 1909: Town is destroyed by fire.
Nov. 27, 1909: Well No. 2-6 blows over its derrick with production of 2,000 barrels of oil per day, making the Midway oilfield famous.
Feb. 26, 1910: Taft Midway Driller begins publication.
1910: Taft receives electric power (April), water supply (July) and domestic gas (September).
October 1910: Taft is incorporated.
March 4, 1912: Petroleum Club is organized at Taft.
March 31, 1913: Fatty Arbuckle movie "Opportunity" is filmed in Kern oilfields, and later shown in Taft's C & C Theatre.
1913: Gas pipeline is built from Midway oilfield to Los Angeles.
1915: Taft High School opens.
1916: Auto stage line, operated by Kitchen and Getchell, begins runs between Taft and Los Angeles.
April 1917: Taft-set book "Polly of the Midway-Sunset" is published.
Jan. 21,1920: Taft's Blaisdell Opera House is destroyed by fire.
1922: Taft Junior College is established.
June 1934: Buena Vista Lake gas field is discovered.
Nov. 18, 1938: Construction begins on replica of Sutter's Fort at Taft. (Dedicated May 22, 1940, it housed county, state and federal offices.)
March 22, 1941: Gardner Field, an Army-Air Forces training location, is activated.
1948: Radio station KTKR in Taft begins broadcasts.
Sept. 20, 1965: Taft native Staff Sgt. Larry Pierce is killed in action in Vietnam. He would become the first county resident to earn the Medal of Honor -- just the second man to be so honored in the Vietnam conflict.
1973: West Kern Oil Museum is established in Taft.
1982: Taft College, under the direction of Coach Al Baldock, wins the first of two national championships in football (the program was eliminated in 1994).
February 1986: The movie "The Best of Times," starring Kurt Russell and Robin Williams, is released. The film recounts the historic football rivalry between Taft and Bakersfield.
1995: Taft College starts the Transition to Independent Living Program. It is nationally recognized as being a leader in post-secondary educational experiences for adults who have developmental disabilities.
Jan. 25, 2008: The film "There Will Be Blood," based loosely on the early days of the west side's Oil Patch, is released in Bakersfield. Lead actor Daniel Day Lewis goes on to win an Academy Award.
March 27, 2009: The design of Taft's oil worker monument -- created by Taft-born artist Benjamin Victor -- is unveiled.
Source: "Historic Chronology of Kern County," with additional information from Jeff Nickell, director of the Kern County Museum, and Californian research