The Time Ranger | Oil Balls: An Ancient Fashion Statement?

The Time Ranger
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A most warm and Western howdy to you all, dear saddlepals. We’ve a most excellent adventure ahead. We’ll be oohing and aahing over 8-pound gold nuggets, epic tunnels, August flash floods, and some local sheriff’s deputies who had a pile of paperwork to fill out after a wild chase. 

We’ll be saying “Howdy!” to a passel of historical characters, from prizefighters to Prohibitionists. From a safe distance, we’ll spy up on some meth labs and break down just what coyotes eat, and no, it’s not just naughty children. 

C’mon. Adjust your heinies in the saddle, nudge those heels and spurs in the stirrups, and let’s move our posse ahead toward the halcyon climes of yesteryear through yon spinning vortex… 

Hm. Sorry to hit the brakes. But, “Vortex?” Great baby name… 


AS A RING, I’D THINK IT WOULD PLACE UNDUE STRESS ON ONE’S HAND, WRIST, FINGER, AND LOWER BACK — The date was Aug. 15, 1849. A local prospector unearthed a gold nugget weighing more than 8 pounds up Santa Feliciana Canyon off present-day Highway 126. I’d like to make the promise right about here that should any of you saddlepals find an 8-pound gold nugget, or a 100-pound gold nugget, or even an 8-ounce gold nugget, drop it on by The Mighty Signal. I will be happy to give you a laurel and hearty handshake along with my deepest appreciation. 

WHAT ANNIVERSARY YEAR GIFTS ARE PETROLEUM BALLS? — For centuries, the Tataviam Indians used the oil that bubbled out of Pico Canyon to make decorative balls on the ends of grass skirts and to seal baskets, making them waterproof. We’ll never know any of the names of those first people who discovered the oil. But, on Aug. 14, 1875, Charles Mentry begins drilling in Pico Canyon, starting a local oil boom that is still going strong today. 

RE: THE ABOVE — Notice the restraint in the above graf for not making any off-color reference about “Petroleum Balls…” 

AUGUST 19, 1923  

ANOTHER EPIC PROJECT THAT NEVER MADE IT OFF THE DRAWING BOARD — On this date, engineers and surveyors for the Santa Fe Railroad were in Newhall, studying plans to create a railway linking the Santa Clarita Valley to Bakersfield and beyond through the mighty Tehachapis. The rail crew made a tent camp in Judge John Powell’s famed oak grove. The original plans called for a 3.5-mile tunnel from Castaic to Piru canyons. Then, the tracks would jut north to Tejon Pass. About a half-century later, different engineers drew up a plot to make a 26-mile-long tunnel from Castaic to Bakersfield. It would have been three levels, trains on the bottom, big trucks in the middle and cars on top. 

AUGUST 19, 1933  

STUPID, STUPID, STUPID HOT — One of the worst summer weeks on record struck the valley. Temperatures hovered over 110 with thick humidity. Before the sultry days and nights hit, we had a hot dry spell where two small cyclones touched down in town. One wrecked the local machine shop, tearing the roof off. The other bounced down the main street and tore out a full-grown tree. Locals were all complaining that it was too hot to stay indoors and too hot to stay outdoors. 

MY ABSOLUTE, ALL-TIME FAVORITE AND THEN-SOME WEATHER QUOTE — Signal Editor A.B. “Dad” Thatcher noted he had been chatting with an old cowpoke earlier in the week on the topic of the SCV’s epic and miserable scorcher. The ranchland varmint quipped that it was so hot, he spotted a coyote chasing a jack rabbit — and they were both walking. 

UNITE FOR ONIONS — Reps from the Farmers’ Educational and Co-Operative Union of America were in Saugus, signing up local farm workers. 

AUGUST 19, 1943  

OUR HONEST INDUSTRIALIST — While many in the military/industrial complex were profiting hugely from World War II, one local businessman gave $1 million back to the federal government. Pat Lizza was president of Bermite, the Saugus fireworks factory, which had turned into a munitions plant. Despite paying some of the highest wages of any factory anywhere, Lizza noticed he had a surplus of money from military contracts. He flew to Washington and returned the cash to a surprised War Department. 

OUR HONEST INDUSTRIALIST, PART II — Just what did someone make working at Bermite during WWII? Women employees started at around 75 cents an hour, being brought up with regular nickel raises on a schedule and taking into consideration performance. Some women made more than $1 an hour. Other women workers in similar plants around the country started at 60 cents an hour and didn’t have as many raises. The men made around 25 cents more than the women in similar jobs.  

ZOOT SUIT WARS HIT HOME — A sailor, John Horan, was hitchhiking back to base when some gangsters on old Highway 99 in the oversized dress suits stopped and gave him a lift. About a mile later, they tried to hamstring him. Horan suffered cuts on the leg and forehead but was able to escape more serious injuries and possibly death. The Signal described their oversized clothes and noted Horan’s assailants, “… were both badly in need of a haircut.” 

ATTACKED BY THE FRENCH? — Another sailor, Leland McCoy of Saugus, also escaped with his life. But he was half a world away off the coast of North Africa. He was sitting in the galley when a German U-boat torpedoed his ship. McCoy was one of the 26 who stayed behind. Luckily, the boat was towed into Casablanca, where it was shelled by French — not German or Italian, but French — forces. None of the shells hit. The tugs and the ship managed to sail back out until communication lines could be opened with our alleged allies. 

THE BIG BLAZE OF ’43 — A family of four barely escaped with their lives after a 600-acre brush fire in Tick and Voorhies canyons, near Lang. The Kinerims were evacuated in the biggest fire of 1943. Their home was spared. 

AUGUST 19, 1953  

SEND A SEARCH PARTY FOR THE SEARCH PARTY — The hills around Santa Clarita were crawling with hunters — about 15,000 of them — from here to Bakersfield and over to Mt. Baldy. The hunters took 234 bucks in the first two days of deer season. Several nimrods were arrested by Fish & Game officers and dragged back to Newhall for fines. One hunter was stuck on a ledge behind Piru. After a big search and rescue posse was launched, it turned out the man had been rescued by two hunters. He had it easy. The posse was stuck out there for the night. 

LITTLE DID ANYONE KNOW — On this date, a “B” movie actor starred in the Western, appropriately titled: “Law and Order.” It played at the old American Theatre (which is the American Legion Hall today, behind the Newhall Library parking lot.) The actor? Future U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Democrats might like the line his romantic lead (Dorothy Malone) offered to Reagan’s character, Frame Johnson: “You’re big and you’re ugly and you’re stupid, and I happen to be in love with you…!” 

TODAY, THAT’D GET YOU 2.3 ADMINISTRATORS & 3/4 OF A CONSULTANT — The 1953-54 budget for the entire William S. Hart Union High School District was adopted on this date. It was $821,712. Of course, that was just for the one-and-only school, Hart High. 

BESIDES EVERYTHING, WHAT COYOTES EAT — A state Fish & Game survey shed some light on the dining habits of one of our neighbors. After sampling the stomachs of 2,200 coyotes (dead ones) over a 12-year period, the findings were these. Coyotes eat cow dung, rattlesnakes, watermelon, birds, skunk, and even poison oak leaves.  

Rodents make up the No. 1 diet choice. In half the stomachs examined, rats, mice, wood rats, gophers, ground squirrels, and even porcupines showed up. Rabbits were added to that 50% figure. Deer (13%) and livestock were the next most popular item, with cattle and horses not being hunted, but eaten as carrion. Some coyotes even ate grass.  

The last category in the survey was, “Miscellaneous.” It included pine nuts, three bats (the flying mammals, not the baseball kind), and a piece of leather. One ky-yote was found with 640 grasshoppers and 250 spiders in his tummy. I can’t even remotely imagine a creature that small housing nearly 1,000 bug-like things in his stomach.  

One brave coyote had partially digested a bobcat. I’m betting the wild dog didn’t vanquish the cat in a fight.  

BILL GETS HIMSELF OUT OF — FORGIVE ME FOR SAYING — A PICKLE — William Lenox’s big rig, loaded with cucumbers, lost control barreling (get it?) down the Grapevine and Lenox had to bail out. Cucumber pickles, before they went to market in 1953, were valued at $150 a ton. That’s going to be on the final, by the way. 

AUGUST 19, 1963  

ONE OF NEWHALL’S BEST-EVER CITIZENS — He lied about his age and fought in the Spanish-American War. He was also a prizefighter. Charles Kingsburry came here in 1919, the same year as this paper was founded. He worked on big water projects and later opened up a butcher’s shop in town. But, mainly, Kingsburry was famous around the valley for his big heart. He worked on several community events and helped start the local Kiwanis. He was noted for his lifetime work that no local child would see Christmas without a present. 

WATER TANK HISTORY — For more than 50 years, most of the folks in the downtown Newhall area used water that poured from a single, giant redwood tank. The Newhall County Water District had asked for bids to destroy the giant wooden structure, but no one applied. It ended up that a local contractor, Bill Ghione, tore the thing down in less than an hour. Ghione wrapped a large cable around the structure and squeezed. The planks fell like giant dominos.  

Newhall’s very own and former presidential candidate, Henry Clay Needham, constructed the 387,000-gallon tank in either 1910 or 1912. The huge tank was originally built in Happy Valley. Needham then sold his water company nine years later to A.B. Perkins. In 1931, Perk and others thought the tank was rotten. They emptied it out and tore it down, then found that the old redwood wasn’t rotten at all. Perk moved the tank over to Pine Street behind the Hart Mansion, using all the original wood to reconstruct it.  

Perkins called his public utility the Newhall Water Company until 1953 when he sold his operation. Stock was sold and the Newhall County Water District began in 1954. The tank was 20 feet high and 60 feet in diameter. NWC had built a new steel tank between Placerita Canyon and San Fernando Road that held more than 750,000 gallons and the old redwood structure was used as a secondary source during hot days. Before it was torn down, the old redwood tank was full of holes, some of them plugged with wood or even rags.  

It was leaking about 35,000 gallons a day. Yet another tank was built in 1963. NWC was supplying locals with about 2 million gallons of H20 a day. 

AUGUST 19, 1973  

HOLE IN ONE — You probably wouldn’t want to shoot yourself in the leg anywhere. But you especially didn’t want to shoot yourself in the leg in Frazier Park. A Culver City man aerated himself in the thigh while target practicing. Richard Murphy, 23, limped for a mile and happened to find a sheriff’s deputy parked by the side of the road. The lawman bandaged Murphy’s wound and called for an ambulance to take him to Newhall for treatment. The Gorman ambulance driver arrived, carting a heart attack victim in the back. The driver took his two fares toward Newhall, then had to pull over because of front axle problems. While Murphy bled, the driver flagged down a motorcyclist, who got a highway patrolman, who got another ambulance. 

INFLATION — The sign painters and Realtors were busy. Property values went up $1,900 in one day. A signsman was spotted on Soledad Canyon, retouching a billboard for Vista del Oro homes. The price went from $23,000 to $24,900 with a stroke of the brush. 

COWS ON CAMPUS — It happened not overnight, but in little increments. We’ve gone from ranchland to suburbia. Even our elementary schools had a hand in that. On this date, Castaic School sold their last herd. Twenty head of Aberdeens, which pastured on school grounds, were sold. The kids at Castaic were some of the best fed in the country. Over the years, the cattle had been butchered and sold as lunch in the school cafeteria. Nothing like filet mignon for lunch. The Castaic school district’s janitor had double duties. He also had to feed, water and wrangle the herd. The school also got a pretty good lease deal on the large pasture — $30 a year. 

POOL CLOSED — The Tollefson family thought they were getting a swimming pool and they ended up with a swimming hole. A pool contractor started a large pool in their Saugus backyard, then he and the work crew just disappeared mid-job, leaving a yawning hole with rebar. 

I WON’T SAY, ‘HOLD THE MAYO’ BEFORE ‘NEWHALL’ THIS TIME — Speaking of holes, there sure was a giant one at the intersection of McBean and Orchard Village. They were just starting to build something called Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. 

AUGUST 19, 1983  

THE SMELLER’S NOT THE FELLER — The smell of ether in the early morning Val Verde air led sheriff’s deputies to a half-million-dollar PCP lab. Two L.A. men were arrested and 12 pounds of the hallucinogen were confiscated. 

THE DEPS ARE STILL FILLING OUT PAPERWORK AS WE RIDE — Two sheriff’s deputies had a boatload of paperwork to handle. They had pulled over a man north of Castaic on a routine traffic violation and found marijuana and a concealed weapon. They arrested Ellery Younger and promptly received a report of a drowning victim at Pyramid Lake.  

With Younger in the car, they rushed to the rescue and were joined by a park ranger. Deputy Steve Newman, who was also an emergency medical technician, got there in time, performed CPR, and saved the swimmer’s life. While Newman and his partner Steve Jenkins were saving the guy’s life, Younger wiggled into the front seat and stole their patrol car. The two local cops commandeered the Forest Ranger pickup and gave a wild chase, with Younger ramming them with their own vehicle.  

Newman and Jenkins eventually forced the perp off the road, wrecking their car. The doors were so badly jammed that they had to break a window to pull Younger out and while they were pulling the kicking, swearing fellow, he kinda sorta got some cuts, scrapes, and contusions. Can anyone down at Santa Clarita sheriff’s spell: “P-A-P-E-R-W-O-R-K?” 

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE — A rare August storm punished the Santa Clarita, sending flash floods down the canyons and starting lightning-spawned brush fires. A 5-foot wall of water rushed down the Santa Clara River near Pinetree, but then spread out as it roared downstream. Dozens of accidents were reported because of the water/road oil phenomenon. Another car lost control and hit a fire hydrant, sending a 50-foot stream of water into the air. A lightning bolt hit Castaic Lake, sending boaters and swimmers scampering for shore. Another bolt hit a transformer, cutting electricity to Castaic for over an hour. 

IT’S THE PRINCIPAL OF THE THING — Laurie Strauss, the world’s only basketball player with negative vertical leap, was appointed principal of Hart High on this date. Some of us still blame City Councilman Cameron Smyth’s dad, Clyde, the then-superintendent, for that decision. We kid Laurie because we like him — the guy’s good medicine. 

•     •     • 

Sure nice sharing the old dusty trails with you saddlepals. Look forward to seeing you all next weekend with another exciting Time Ranger adventure. Until then, ¡vayan con Dios, amigos! 

If you enjoy the Time Ranger, you’re going to love his local history volumes. Visit Order John Boston’s terribly exciting Volumes I & II on “SCV Monsters, Ghouls, Ghosts, Bigfoot” & all our local paranormal stories. Great summer reads. Leave a kindly review… 

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