Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Spudding In: Recollections of Pioneer Days in the California Oil Fields. By William Rintoul. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1976. 240 pages. $12.95.
Reviewed by Gerald White, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. Professor White has written several articles and two books on California oil history: Formative Years in the Far West: A History of the Standard Oil Company of California and Predecessors through 1919 (New York, 1962), and Scientists in Conflict: The Beginnings of the Oil Industry in California (San Marino, 1968).
The history of petroleum in California deserves to be better known, for oil has been as surely the significant California mineral in the 20th century as the more glamorous gold was in its predecessor. In this coal-short state, oil has long fueled our industry, public utilities and transport. It has contributed to our agriculture by powering distillate-driven pumps for irrigation and in numerous other ways. Above all, through its most valuable refined product, gasoline, it has helped make the automobile our massively preferred form of personal transportation, affecting our patterns of population growth and, in recent years, making us acutely conscious of the hazards of air pollution.
Spudding In can whet popular interest in oil history. Its handsome format, superb illustrations and easy reading make it fit for a coffee table, but it is by no means lacking in substance. The author, a longtime, respected oil journalist, has drawn heavily on taped interviews with thirty-five prominent oil figures of early in this century systematically gathered since 1963 by the Petroleum Production Pioneers of California and has supplemented this rich source with a variety of printed materials and his own wide knowledge.
The result is a descriptive, impressionistic, anecdotal and inevitably uneven history which focuses primarily on crude oil production and transportation during the first third of the twentieth century. The focus, determined by the interviews, is sound. Prior to 1900 the California oil industry was at an early stage of development. After the first great oil fields came into production at Kern River and Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley and Santa Maria near the coast, California in 1903 became the nation’s leading oil state. Thereafter, for a quarter century California kept that leadership in most years until it was permanently superseded by Texas. Because of this early preeminence and the high quality of technical education in California universities, California oil men contributed disproportionately to the new technology of oil exploration and development which characterized these years. In the beginning “practical” oil men of limited or no formal training had controlled exploration and development; gradually, they were replaced by applied scientists trained in university departments of geology and petroleum engineering. The thirty-five interviewees who have buttressed this book with their memories include members of both groups.
Spudding In is not a balanced history, nor is it notable for analysis. But it does utilize in a colorful, clear, and interesting way the reminiscences of important participants in the oil field developments of the period. Hopefully, other more balanced treatments will follow.