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Mentryville boasts link to SCV's boom-town past

Old oil town has a rich history

Posted: March 21, 2009 12:23 a.m.
Updated: March 21, 2009 4:55 a.m.

In this June 1905 photo, the Walton Young family tends to their homestead in Mentryville.

 
Imagine "Little House on the Prairie" meets "The Beverly Hillbillies" and you'll have a good idea of what Mentryville was - a remote boom town sprouted from gushing rivers of oil more than 130 years ago.

Today it's considered a ghost town.

Its quiet allows the visitor to soak in the singing birds overhead, the wafting wind through the trees and the pungent smell of eucalyptus.

In fact, Mentryville - located at the end of Pico Canyon Road just four miles west of the Lyons Avenue exit off Interstate 5 - is one of the few remaining places one can visit in the Santa Clarita Valley today that effortlessly transports the visitor to another time - namely, the late 1800s.

"There's no difference now than what it was then," said Duane Harte, Santa Clarita resident since 1974 and treasurer of the board of Friends of Mentryville. "When you go out there by yourself, you can picture what it was and feel like you're there."

The hiking, biking and equestrian trails, along with picnic spots, are enough for a nice afternoon. But when you realize you're standing at the first commercial oil well in the western United States - which was also the longest running through 1990 and responsible for giving birth to an industry - it gives you perspective.

"We take it for granted that it's there," said Harte, who spends many an afternoon on the porch of the old school house quietly reflecting on what this area use to be. "California history only goes back about 150 years and Mentryville is a part of that."

The restored school house still stands proud today. Built in 1885 so the children of Mentryville no longer had to travel five miles to attend classes in Newhall, it is just yards away from "the Big House," a 13-room mansion built in 1898 by French immigrant and oil man, Charles Alexander Mentry.

Through the early 1900s, as many as 100 families lived in what was known then as Pico Camp. There was a machine shop, blacksmith shop and a bakery whose foundation remnants can still be seen.

Young oil men lived in bunkhouses, while those with families built clapboard cabins, which were subsequently torn down and moved piece by piece when migrant workers began to leave as the canyon's oil depleted - and after Mentry's untimely death due to an insect bite in 1900.

"The Big House" remained occupied by Standard Oil Company employees and their families through 1994, when the Northridge earthquake forced the final occupants out.

"We never called it ‘the Big House,'" said Darryl Manzer, whose father worked for Standard Oil Company and who spent six years of his childhood, 1960-1966, living in the house. "It was called Pico Cottage according to Mr. Mentry and the old-timers I talked to when I lived there."

Manzer, currently living in Virginia, also explained that Mentryville was a derogatory term used by the rough-and-tumble oil field workers at the time, since Mentry had a no-cussing and no-alcohol policy in the town.

"The saloons in Newhall outnumbered the churches at the time," said Manzer. "Mentryville had neither."

Bill Rundberg, a San Mateo resident, also lived in the Pico Canyon house from 1948 to 1953, when he was 13 to 18 years old. He recalls that even in the '50s, people didn't live the way they did in the outside world.

"It was a do-it-yourself experience," said Rundberg. "When we moved into the house, there was a butter churn and we made our own butter. My mother cured olives from the grove next to the house. We had cows, turkeys, ducks, chickens. ... When I went away to college, we even sold a steer for the money."

Rundberg said it was a self-sustaining lifestyle that familiarized him all too well with how difficult life was before modern conveniences.

"Almost every room had a gas chandelier. There were pull-chain toilets, alabaster sinks, and huge clawfoot tubs," remembered Rundberg. "We could only run one appliance at a time and had natural gas coming right out of the ground."

Standard Oil Company eventually became part of the Chevron USA Inc. operations.

According to Harte, as the house stood vacant and the town practically forgotten, the oil of Pico Canyon became more expensive to pump than Chevron could get for it, leading to an agreement to transfer more than 3,000 acres of land, including Mentryville, to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which manages the land today.

With the structures standing as an unmistakable reminder of the past, Hollywood has taken full advantage by using Mentryville as a filming location.

Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" filmed there, and more recently CBS's "The Unit" used it as a site to stage an explosion.

"The restoration has been slowed to a crawl because of that," claims Harte.

Both Mr. Mentry's famous "Pico No. 4" oil well and the town of Mentryville itself are California State Historic Landmarks.

Harte, Manzer and Rundberg would all like to see the site treated more like a museum. "It's a historical site - the school house, the Big House, the whole town," said Manzer. "It's not a movie set."

"It is a special place," said Harte. "I was never much of a history buff until I got involved with Mentryville. For me, it's a great part of our history and should be preserved so our grandkids and great grandkids can go out and see it."

Harte conducts Mentryville tours for groups at no charge and by appointment only. For more information, visit Friends of Mentryville at www.mentryville.org.

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