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Now and Then in the SCV | Commentary by Darryl Manzer
| Thursday, Oct 30, 2014

darrylmanzer_blacktieI was going through some photographs of Mentryville and Pico Canyon and realized how few people know about the old oil boom town. I write about it a lot, but it seems even the folks who read this commentary often seem to miss when I write of Pico.

We learn more and more of the history of Mentryville just about every day. On the tours, I stated that I didn’t know of anyone who had died or was killed in the old town. Well, that has changed. We know at least one worker died when a huge tank was being constructed, and there is also the sad story of Alec Mentry’s father going into Newhall and never returning. His body was found in the canyon years later.

I’m sure others were killed in industrial accidents and health-related issues of the day. If you look at many of the photographs, you realize they moved heavy equipment up and down the hills of the canyon in many places without a real road. It looks as if they became adept at dragging stuff up the hillsides.

Those hills are steep, too. Way steep. Imagine a 10-ton steam engine being placed to drill a well 200 feet up the sides of CSO Hill.

There were two “hills” in the Pico Canyon oil field. They were named after the company that drilled them. The first wells were on CSO Hill. CSO is the California Star Oil Co. It is on the north side of the canyon above CSO No. 4, the first commercially producing well west of the Mississippi.

The hill to the south is called PCO Hill, and wells on it were drilled by the Pacific Coast Oil Co. The two companies were combined and became Standard Oil of California.

Seen from the back of the canyon, CSO Hill is at left (north) and PCO Hill is at right. Click image for more.

Seen from the back of the canyon, CSO Hill is at left (north) and PCO Hill is at right. Click image for more.

When I give a tour of the canyon today, it takes a while. From the large, 13-room mansion to the wells, it is almost two miles. That mansion is called Pico Cottage. Some folks call it the “Big House,” but those of us who lived in it like to call it by the name that was on the rental papers from the oil company, “Pico Cottage.”

Thanks to many movies that were filmed there, we can see what the town looked like in the 1920s and on with buildings and fences long lost and forgotten. We also know almost exactly where a lot of the homes were built because of a map that was located at the Huntington Library. It doesn’t show Pico Cottage in place in 1891, so we tend to think the house was built just after that.

Felton School, among the first school buildings in the SCV, originally was situated parallel to the road and was turned so that the entrance faces the road when the coat room, library and front porch were added. We don’t yet know what year that took place. The Felton School District started in 1885 and continued with classes until 1932. We do think the school building dates from 1885.

We know some really great things like the recipe that Mr. Cochems used to make macaroon cookies at the Mentryville bakery. We know the canyon that is at the bakery is called Minnie-Lotta after two girls who lived in Mentryville.

The fences at the barn are new. Well, new in the sense that the original ones were wood. What is there now are old pipes and sucker rod from the wells. For those of you who don’t know, sucker rod is a solid steel rod that screws together in sections to be connected to the pump at the bottom of the well. The walking beam and grasshopper-head-looking fixture on the end of the beam pump the well as it is moved up and down. It isn’t “sucking” anything but in reality pushes the oil up the casing of the well and out to pipes that take it to tanks.

Today we call oil field workers by many names. Roustabout, pumper and drill foreman are examples, but in the early days in Pico Canyon they were called “miners.” They guys who ran the drilling operation were called “Drillers.” Alec Mentry was a driller.

We went for years telling the story that Mentry died of “kissing bug” bites on his lip that got infected. Well, not quite right. We know now he died of typhoid. Pretty common in those days.

It was quite a town. Upwards of 100 families lived there at the height of drilling operations. Once the field was mostly tapped out, many drillers moved off to new fields and took their houses with them. Some Pico houses were moved to the fields around Taft.

But a lot of the old town remains in the stories and lore of the place. Like the “Shepherd’s Grave” on top of Mustard Hill (the hill behind the school house). It is a geological marker for surveys, but sure enough, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times in 1961 started the “graveyard stories.”

Now that the heat of summer is nearly over, a walk up the canyon is darned refreshing. Pack a lunch and plenty of water. Stroll up to the well and back.

Oh, it takes only a group of 10 or more to convince me to give a tour. Send a comment and I will reply.

With or without a tour, you can visit our very own SCV ghost town, Mentryville. Just head west on Lyons Avenue over Interstate 5 where it becomes Pico Canyon Road. Keep driving until you see the signs for Mentryville. Follow the signs for parking, and don’t forget to pay the $5 fee.

I’m ready when all y’all are. I love to show off my real “home town.” You see, for a time in the 1960s, I was the only kid in Mentryville.

 

Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at dmanzer@scvhistory.com. His older commentaries are archived at DManzer.com; his newer commentaries can be accessed [here]. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].

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9 Comments

  1. Maybe if you gave exact location ppl would want to go check it out, is their a trail to get to it ECT it’s hard to find if you don’t know where to look Pico ??? Trail ???

    • By Josh Premako, SCVNews.com says:

      He gives the location at the end of the column: “Just head west on Lyons Avenue over Interstate 5 where it becomes Pico Canyon Road. Keep driving until you see the signs for Mentryville. Follow the signs for parking, and don’t forget to pay the $5 fee.” Trust me, it’s really hard to miss.

  2. Russ Batt Russ Batt says:

    That would be cool to see

  3. Amanda Clark Amanda Clark says:

    Mentryville is not like it used to be…

  4. It’s an awesome little place to visit, especially when you know the history! We had an SCV history class in school, and we visited many locations of notable history here in the valley. Mentryville was fun to walk through and imagine what life was like for those that had been there.

  5. Do any of these buildings exist today

  6. Yes. Ive been there before . Its very nice . But theres 2 roads that lead to separate ways. There is a path on the right but u dont take that one. U go straight . And u will see the mansion

  7. Brian Durand Brian Durand says:

    Pico Canyon was so much nicer without Stevenson Ranch

  8. Going with cub scouts tonight to tour! Yay

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