by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is getting increasingly rarer to find operating oil wells in greater Los Angeles as oil companies cap wells, remove rigs, close fields and sell land for development that is more profitable than continuing drilling and extraction operations that result in low yields of crude.
Ninety years ago, though, the region was forested with derricks busily pumping into one of the most productive oil-bearing areas on earth and one of those participating in the industry was Walter P. Temple, whose father F.P.F. was an early prospector for “black gold” a half-century prior to that.
So, the oil industry is an area of keen interest for the Homestead and its interpretation and a prime vehicle for developing those stories about the intensive search for crude in our region is the museum’s collection. Among many artifacts of interest are a set of issues for a little-known publication called the Deep Sand Bulletin, issued by Manuel Spagnola in Whittier. The newspaper primarily focused on the oil fields of Whittier and Santa Fe Springs, though it did touch upon on other areas.
Spagnola was the son of Italian immigrants Gaetano (George) Spagnola and Grazia Scirra and was born in 1892 in New Orleans. His father was a shoemaker and then a street-car conductor and his mother died while Spagnola was young. From an early age, he went into printing, an occupation he maintained the rest of his working life, though he did spend several months in the United States Army during World War I, attaining the rank of sergeant. He lived in New York City for a period before coming to Los Angeles during the 1920s.
He began publishing the Deep Sand Bulletin also known as the Whittier Californian in August 1928 through his Calarts Press, with this business operating through at least the mid-1930s. After that Spagnola moved to the San Joaquin Valley and continued with his work there during the 1940s. Afterward, he lived in Orange County and remained there most of his later life, though he died in Florida in 1986 at the age of 94. Because of his military service, Spagnola was interred at Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia, near the site of the notorious Civil War prison camp.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is the 11 January 1929 edition, the 23rd for the paper, of the Deep Sand Bulletin. There were two main features sharing the headline on the front page, one having to do with the expansion of the Santa Fe Springs field due to three “brink” wells in areas that pushed the field to the north, northwest and south of existing boundaries. The other was about a massive blowout and fire at a well site operated by the General Petroleum Company and which then spread to two nearby wells owned by George F. Getty, Inc., a firm well established in the field and elsewhere in the region (Getty’s son, J. Paul, later took the firm to world prominence and was a famous art collector and founder of the museum that bears his name.)
The publication observed that, not long after the 2:55 a.m. blowout “which shook the countryside, the vicinity of the well was rained [sic] with sand and rotary mud, caked in small grains by the intense heat.” From there, the mud exuding from the well moved outward and “this flood of steaming, gray substance gained ground sluggishly until it spread north across the street, onto the fresh green lawns, neatly tended by owners of the row of white bungalows.”
Oil blowouts and fires were quite common and often made news and were documented through photographs, though it was the rarer tank fires that were most spectacular and heavily covered by the press. Santa Fe Springs was a major field in the region so it had more than its share of dramatic events, such as these.
Elsewhere, the paper reported on the general progress of wells in the very active Santa Fe Springs field and to illustrate that point, a chart at the bottom of the first page provided “Los Angeles Basin Production Figures.” This showed that the field had nearly 300 wells producing over 130,000 barrels of oil. Three other fields had more wells (Long Beach at 827, Torrance at 612, and Brea-Olinda at 405), but only Long Beach had more production at 182,000 barrels, which per well was much less productive.
At Montebello, where Walter Temple’s lease with Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, began a dozen years earlier, the paltry production of just 10,500 barrels with almost 200 wells reflected a serious decline from several years earlier. This was when Temple’s income was enough to allow him to try his hand as an independent producer as well as an investor in other oil endeavors, along with a burgeoning real estate development business (much less his expensive work at the Homestead, including the recently completed La Casa Nueva.) But, it wasn’t as bad as at Whittier where 176 wells could only manage about 1,500 barrels of oil.
Other news included the announcement of new well locations in the region; permits granted by the State Mining Bureau; abandoned wells; specific projects in Long Beach; a register of new producers; and reports of wildcats, wells drilled in fields that were not geologically proven to have oil. One of these was in the “Puente Hills” field where Richfield Oil Company (now Atlantic Richfield Company or ARCO and which had a huge amount of success in Placentia in Orange County) was drilling Didier #1, on the property of prominent Puente dairy farmer Louis Didier. It turned out, as was usually the case with wildcats, that there was “nothing doing” at the Didier lease.
Spagnola was trying to make his Deep Sand Bulletin a “going concern,” so tried a new feature called “Special Reports” as “an additional service to subscribers” who wanted “the dope on your ‘favorite’ well” or news about a field not usually covered in the paper. Notably, Spagnola cautioned that “we cannot assume the burden of its authenticity” for information published in the paper, because “operators are loathe to divulge information,” a point he made elsewhere in reporting on happenings at Santa Fe Springs. Of course, oil companies generally were tight-lipped for many reasons in a highly competitive, and often cut-throat, industry.
Any publication depends on advertising revenue and a glance at the issue shows a small number of ads by local businesses, including restaurants, car dealers, pharmacies, financial institutions and some relevant to the oil industry, almost all of these in Whittier. Interestingly, the back cover was one very large ad for a new publishing venture by Spagnola’s Calart Publishing House: a magazine called Pacific Monthly.
Launched in January 1929, the publication was promoted as “devoted to the discussion of the problems of today” including literature, religion, education, science, politics, and international relations with subsidiary areas of fiction, poetry and editorials. It was touted as “a new magazine of high literary character, the first of its nature to appear in the West.” The cost was a quarter per issue or $2.50 for a year’s subscription.
Undoubtedly, the onset of the Great Depression by the end of the year and its worsening subsequently had an effect on the viability of both the Pacific Monthly and the Deep Sand Bulletin. This likely led Spagnola to move to the Central Valley to pursue his trade, though he did, as noted above, return to greater Los Angeles later.
The Homestead has a selection of issues of Deep Sand Bulletin as a rare and particularly localized source of information about the region’s oil industry, once a world powerhouse and now gradually diminishing.