by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Economic booms obviously are periods of intense frenzied activity by speculators bent on making fortunes, often quickly. Whether with real estate, stocks, or commodities, there will always be the few who will emerge with a bonanza and the many who will come out with little, nothing or debt to show for their efforts.
The early 1920s was another in a series of booms which burst forth in greater Los Angeles, with the first sustained one a half-century earlier involving William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple as main participants and the current one including the latter’s son, Walter.
For all three, one of the areas in which they speculated was oil. In the Seventies, F.P.F. Temple and, by association, Workman, were among the earliest to seek for petroleum in the San Fernando field, north of Los Angeles where the modern city of Santa Clarita is today. There was just the barest returns from one well before the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank brought ruin to the two men and, naturally, the end of their oil drilling enterprises.
Forty years later, a stroke of remarkable luck came to Walter P. Temple when his 9-year old son, Thomas, ran home one spring day in 1914 breathlessly informing his father that he found oil in the Montebello Hills adjacent to the family’s residence. Three years later, Standard Oil Company of California brought in Temple well #1, one of many producers on the family lease over the next several years.
The small fortune generated from this stunning turn of events allowed Walter Temple to create his own oil company and seek to duplicate the staggering success of Montebello. One of his first projects was in west Whittier, where Beverly Boulevard and Workman Mill Road/Norwalk Boulevard meet in what was then called Whitley Heights. Whittier was one of many oil fields of note in the region.
Another was Huntington Beach. The city, incorporated in 1909, was largely developed by its namesake, railroad magnate and real estate tycoon Henry E. Huntington, whose library, art galleries and botanical gardens in San Marino is widely known. The town, however, grew slowly until oil was discovered in 1920 with a Bolsa Chica well by Standard blowing the lid off. As is so often the case, the oil boom took off with incredible speed.
Walter P. Temple joined a syndicate of investors in the West Whittier Oil Company, who purchased his Whitley Heights well and also went to work at a lease in Huntington Beach. Among these colleagues of Temple was Thomas B. Talbert, a prominent figure in Huntington Beach and Orange County and known today for his namesake street running through the area.
Another early small firm plying for petroleum there was the Huntingon Central Oil Company, which was organized on 22 November 1920 with $300,000 worth of stock and headquarters in the Isaias W. Hellman Building in downtown Los Angeles. The company was controlled by brothers J.R. and S.C. Woodward, who were president and secretary, respectively.
Four days later, a map was issued the fledgling firm and is today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection. It shows the layout of the seaside town, the extensive Bolsa Chica wetlands (of which a small portion has been preserved after significant effort) to the west and the nearby settlements of Wintersburg and Smeltzer, both of which were later incorporated into an expanding Huntington Beach.
The map also shows two locations where the new company had leases and was in the process of beginning operations. The Woodwards and associates hit the ground running with an aggressive advertising campaign launched soon after incorporation. A late December 1920 ad, for example, asserted that Huntington Central “is all set to break speed records going after gusher production at Huntington Beach.”
The firm noted that its two leases “lie in almost a direct line between that monster producer, the Standard’s Bolsa Chica, and the Standard’s other wells.” Of course, the ad proclaimed that hitting a gusher was all but a sure thing and that, this taking place, “SUCH success would mean FORTUNE—FORTUNE—FORTUNE!!”
The ad continued that “we have prepared a special, large map showing the locations of the various companies’ properties in the Huntington Beach Field. This distinctive map should prove very valuable in helping you to locate holdings in companies in which you, or your friends may be interested.” This is the map that is reproduced here. Moreover, stock was priced at just ten cents a share.
Another ad, from late January 1921, provided a variation of the map, and proclaimed to potential investors “You want ACTION—18-karat action—for your investment, for without action the BIG OPPORTUNITY would go to seed.” It added that the company was moving rapidly, selling stock immediately after incorporation and getting the first well’s derrick up earlier in January.
Soon, that well would spud, meaning drilling would commence and then the derrick for the second well on a separate lease would be installed. It went on to state that “if honest, thoroughgoing effort ever helped to bring about success, Huntington Central is certainly in for big things.”
Continued consistent promotion in the press and reports of drilling on that first well culminated in a report at the end of April that “Well No. 1 of the Huntington Central Oil Company, at Huntington Beach, ‘came in’ at 9:50 Friday night, with a reported flow of 10,000 barrels.” Moreover, the article stated, “so strong was the flow that the streets about the well were roped off by the authorities to prevent dangers of autos rushing to the scene igniting gas coming from the well.” Naturally, the article observed that stock prices in Huntington Central jumped dramatically.
Confident of its future, the firm formed a subsidiary, the Huntington National Oil Company, which secured a nearby lease and had others in the area and at Signal Hill near Long Beach and expected to start drilling on a first well very soon. Notably, this was located adjacent to a lease operated by the Pantages-Huntington Oil Company, owned by theater magnate Alexander Pantages, who was the subject last month of a “Female Justice” presentation concerning his sexual assault of Eunice Pringle, a young woman from nearby Garden Grove.
Quickly, however, problems began to mount for Huntington Central. After the expectation of a massive gusher at well #1, production tailed off dramatically because of issues with sand and obstruction in the casing. Then, in early July, a fire erupted at the well, destroying the derrick, damaging machinery, and causing an estimated $20,000 in loss.
It was reported that “the conflagration is clouded in mystery and arson is suspected” with J.R. Woodward telling the press that a worker on a nearby well saw a man running from the Huntington Central well. He was asked if there was knowledge of anyone with a grudge against the company, Woodward demurred by telling the reporter there was nothing to say at the time.
Two weeks later, Juan Fasolino was arrested on suspicion of arson and it was reported that there were rumors of a worker threatening retaliation against Huntington Central for unpaid wages on the day of the blaze. Nothing was found subsequently about Fasolino and the arson allegation.
When an experienced drilling supervisor, “Silent Joe” Erwin, who’d overseen Standard Oil’s operations at Huntington Beach, was hired by the firm, that seemed like good news, but this was shortly afterward followed by more bad news. A block of shareholders, holding some half million units, met later in July “to take steps to secure control of the company and oust the majority of the board of directors.”
It was claimed that “a ‘family circle’ controls the management and that little or no consideration is given the interests of stockholders when it comes to the matter of conserving the interests of the ‘family circle.'” Obviously, this was criticism of the Woodwards, including their brother William and brother-in-law, William Sanford, who constituted two-thirds of the directorate.
Among the 150 men and women attending the meeting was oil man and shareholder James Macklin who proclaimed, “as long as you let the Woodward brothers remain in control of the company you will get nothing—if you oust them you will get your money back.” He alleged that the lack of production from well #1 was due to mismanagement, including by one of Woodwards directly overseeing drilling and maintenance. There was also anger over a one-cent per share assessment purportedly made for future work and repairs on the damaged well.
Moreover, Macklin asserted that, instead of managing the initial flow from the well when oil was struck to accommodate the width of pipe needed for proper conservation of crude, the Woodwards allowed it flow at full capacity, which wasted product, but also was designed to inflate the stock price of the firm. On top of that, the pressure from the gusher allowed sand to penetrate the well and blocked the hole, affecting future access to crude. If the quarter inch pipe was placed immediately, Macklin went on, it would have kept the sand out.
F.W. Foster, a vice-president and director, reported that there was over $200,000 in stock sales. About $15,000 of oil from the well was sold before it sanded up. Moreover, no one was paid a salary in the firm, but there were $20,000 in debts. The obvious question was what had been done with all of the collected funds, to which Foster could only reply that “with the work that is in evidence I can’t figure where the money has gone.” With that, the goal was to get two-thirds of the stockholders to vote, as required by law, to remove the existing officers.
As subsequent meeting ensued to unseat the Woodwards and Sanford, the firm advertised that stock considered delinquent because of unpaid assessments for rebuilding the first well and continuing work on the second would be sold. The ad claimed that the first well’s derrick was completed and work on the two wells to get them into production was imminent.
On 11 August, a meeting attended by about a thousand persons took place in Los Angeles and the Woodwards and Sanford were unseated after a boisterous discussion led the stockholders to leave the building and gather at a nearby hall. Though J.R. Woodward tried to adjourn the meeting, he was forced to gather the votes and count them at the company office, with the result against him and his family members.
Despite this outcome, the Woodwards tried to work their way back to control as the year wound on, but were not successful in that endeavor. While well #1 was put back onto production and generated a modest 200 barrels per day and then was down to 120 by July 1922, the second well languished in its work. By early 1923, it was finally completed and generated a very small amount of crude, though problems with water forced a shutdown. A third well became a producer that year and brought in about 125 barrels per day.
Given the checkered history of Huntington Central, it is notable that one of its lease properties was acquired by C.C. Julian, a colorful and controversial promoter previously discussed in a post on this blog and whose shenanigans constituted one of the biggest oil-related scandals in greater Los Angeles history.
By summer 1925, two of the wells were producing, but the first was 60% water, requiring a sump pump and separator to draw out the crude, while the third well brought in about 40 barrels of clean oil per day. The first well was redrilled the next year, but it doesn’t appear it was successful.
In September 1929, Huntington Central lost a court decision concerning a lease that was cancelled and which resulted in a loss of $100,000. Then, a well that was lost previously, was redrilled at les than $100 in cost in just a few days by two former company employees and was successfully brought into production.
Though the company tried to keep momentum going into the 1930s by electing a new president, who was a founder of Occidental Petroleum and an officer with other firms, the last that was located of Huntington Central in press accounts was in spring 1931. The firm was drilling a well in the Bartolo district on lands owned by prominent dairy farmer F.F. Pellissier, when the bones of a mastodon, estimated by professors at CalTech to be about a million years old, were located.
Otherwise, the lack of further success at Huntington Beach, as well as other attempts in other fields, and, perhaps, the onset of the Great Depression, appears to have meant the end for Huntington Central in the early Thirties. The story of the firm, with its map as a tangible artifact, is pretty typical of boom and bust cycles, whether it be in oil or other speculative ventures.