In 1876, Charles Alexander Mentry would bring in California’s first commercially viable oil well in Pico Canyon.
He pulled liquid gold out of the ground, and a small town grew around the apparatus.
The well, named Pico No. 4, produced well into the 20th century, as the town grew to over 100 families.
In 1990, the well was finally capped, but not before it earned the distinction of being the longest continually operating oil well in the world.
It now sits as part of a ghost town, with the buildings and architecture of the former community, named after the original oil tycoon as Mentryville, became a California State Historical Landmark.
Despite the town having a well-studied history that dates across three different centuries and thousands of people visiting the park each year, there are still a few unique pieces of this relatively lesser-known slice of SCV history held by the stewards for this antiquated town’s special past: the Friends of Mentryville.
Leon Worden, one of the last remaining members of the Friends of Mentryville club that started back in the mid-90s, knows the modern history of Mentryville and Pico No. 4 better than most, from both first- and second-hand accounts.
He says the way the town is situated now, with the particular buildings, is because of their necessity at to the operations of the community at the time.
“Single men lived in bunkhouses up the canyon, while married men with families lived in cottages down-canyon,” said Worden. “Alex Mentry built himself a 13-room mansion that’s sort of jokingly called the Pico cottage. Some people call it ‘the Big House,’ even though it wasn’t a prison.”
In terms of the other buildings, the townspeople built a number of others in order to create “a lifestyle out of the canyon,” according to Laurene Weste, who is another member of the Friends of Mentryville, as well as being a member of the SCV Historical society.
“The town flourished for a real long time,” said Weste. “It was a beautiful community.”
The kids used to dam up the creek in the summer so that they could swim in it and create a waterfall like structure, gaslights lit the town, a recreation area that allowed them to play horseshoes and socialize and they built a school house that could hold 13-14 desks.
By the early 1930s, there were too few children, and the kids took a little bus or rode their horses down to Newhall School in order to get their daily education, according to Worden.
“There was a bakery that made a special coconut dessert that people loved,” said Weste. “And it was a dry town, so if they wanted to drink they’d have to come into Newhall.”
The town was one of a kind, Weste said.
The 1994 Northridge Earthquake rocked the region about four years after the historical well Pico no. 4, closed down.
Chevron owned Pico No. 4 at the time, and while the earthquake was a deadly disaster for the area, the Friends of Mentryville, managed to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to preserve history.
“Chevron, Standard Oil’s new name, was divesting itself of all its unproductive assets (and) Mentryville was an unproductive asset,” Worden said. “Our community had its sights set on creating an open space buffer around the developed parts of what is now the city of Santa Clarita.”
Thanks to state Sen. Ed Davis and his Chief of Staff Hunt Braly; then-Supervisor Michael Antonovich and his deputy Jo Anne Darcy; and Weste, as well as a few others, it was starting to happen, Worden said.
“They successfully rallied support for park bonds that enabled the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, an arm of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, to purchase Towsley Canyon from Chevron,” he said, “which then also donated the 854 acres of Pico Canyon-Mentryville.”
A total of about 3,000 acres were set aside, which are now known as the Santa Clarita Woodlands.
In 1995, there was a big grand reopening celebration in Mentryville, and a group of local residents and hobbyist historians formed a new group, known as the Friends of Mentryville, which would work with the Conservancy and restore the buildings in Mentryville and open them a museum, Worden said.
“We started to do it, thanks to volunteers like Richard Rioux and Duane Harte, but the Conservancy never dedicated the park bond funds to take it the rest of the way. Then came the October 2003 wildfire,” Worden said. “By that time, volunteers from the Friends of Mentryville had already removed the historic artifacts from the buildings, and the city of Santa Clarita graciously offered to store them for us.”
A number of the schoolhouse desks, chalkboards, the charcoal stove the teachers used for heating the classroom and other materials from the town are still being preserved in storage.
Ghost town rally
Worden said that the only major development since the 2003 fire has been that the Conservancy has closed off all the buildings except to film companies like HBO, who filmed their series “Big Love” on Mentryville’s grounds.
“The Conservancy hasn’t used the film permit fees or anything else to open the buildings as a museum,” said Worden. “They’re just sitting there, rotting away. It is an incredible and inexcusable shame that the Conservancy has not kept its promise to open Mentryville as a public museum.”
However, officials at the Conservancy say they have been good stewards of the park, there’s just simply not enough funds in their budget — which services over 75,000 acres of land — to put a strong emphasis on making Mentryville a “living history” museum.
“We have a lot of territory to cover and we’re a small government agency,” said Dash Stolarz, the public affairs director for the Conservancy. “If the world worked the way it should, we should do something like a museum.”
Solarz said the government agency has used its limited grant money and payments from the production companies to oversee things at the park such as new handicapped parking, regular wear and tear on the buildings and repairing much of the vandalism and graffiti that has damaged the historic landmark.
However, with the state putting emphasis on things such as water, climate change and fire prevention, there’s not enough money in the general fund to put into a full time museum like the Friends of Mentryville are requesting, she said.
“When you apply for grants, museums have a really hard time,” said Stolarz. “It’s hard to get something cool there, like living history, cause how could we open that, how would we afford a full-time staff?”
“It’s like budgeting when you’re a poor person and you only have so many quarters in your pocket,” said Stolarz. “ We love the place … and if there was a way to make it into the way they want we would.”
Regardless of the budget, there is still hope for seeing a revival in Mentryville, according to Weste.
“We’re very proud that we were able to save it,” said Weste. “And we would like to see it reopened as a living re-enactment space.”
Weste compared her vision to Mentryville to the likes of Heritage Junction in Newhall, which has actors occasionally roam its campus reenacting 19th century life, and festivals like the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival bringing thousands in to its historical setting.
“It’s one of a kind… and it’s our history,” said Weste as an explanation for why the community continues to fight for Mentryville’s preservation. “But we’ll need the community’s help.”