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Oilmen Upset About New County Seal

Planned removal of derricks symbolizing vast oil fields does not sit well in Signal Hill.

September 13, 2004|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Giant derricks bray loudly outside Curley's Cafe as the oilmen of Signal Hill ponder the questions of the day.

At this institution in the heart of what a century ago was the nation's richest oil field, question No. 1 is: Who will get stuck with the breakfast tab? And question No. 2 is: What bonehead decided to strip the county seal of its oil derricks?

"You got to be kidding me. This is important history they want to lose," scoffs Robert Lee, 80, as he heads out to his 10-acre oil field near a Signal Hill golf course.

Much civic hubbub has ensued since the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors opted to have the county seal redrawn to avoid a threatened lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
County seal -- A story in Monday's California section about proposed changes to the Los Angeles County seal incorrectly suggested that a cross was removed from an image of a mission. In fact, the original seal had a cross above an image of the Hollywood Bowl. As part of the redesign, officials added a mission to the proposed seal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. County seal -- In some editions of Monday's California section, a photo caption with an article about changes in the Los Angeles County seal referred to a man standing in front of an oil derrick. He was shown with an oil pump.

The ACLU contends that a cross on the seal's mission suggested government promotion of a religion, so the county commissioned an artist whose latest revision will come before the Board of Supervisors this week.

Although most of the controversy over the new seal has been about the removal of the cross, it's another change that has this corner of Los Angeles County upset.

At the far right corner of the seal, officials have removed the three derricks, meant to symbolize the vast oil fields of Signal Hill and Long Beach. In its place is an image of the Hollywood Bowl above several stars; an homage to the entertainment industry.

To the folks at Curley's and elsewhere in onetime oil country, the new seal is an unforgivable slight and just one more sign that the industry they devoted their lives to is quickly fading from memory.

Over the last two decades, many of the last remaining pumping fields have yielded to development. Signal Hill -- once so covered with derricks that it was nicknamed "Porcupine Hill" -- is rapidly sprouting upscale homes.

"In my city, that history of oil is really important, especially to the old-timers," said Signal Hill Mayor Erin Ward, who plans to protest the proposed change when the Board of Supervisors takes the matter up Tuesday.

"The oil wells aren't the problem, and I don't think they should get rid of the cross either. But while they're at it, they're going to modernize the seal and take out most of the history in my opinion."

Besides Curley's, one of the bigger bastions of oil old-timers is the Petroleum Club of Long Beach, where there was indignation aplenty about the potential loss of the black gold legacy from the county's seal.

Members still clink highball glasses in red-leather booths and dance in the ballroom as they did in oil's 1950s and '60s heyday. Over the last generation, membership has declined as it ages and the petroleum industry changes and moves to cheaper operations abroad.

Nobody is a stranger here amid the suits with Chevron or Standard Oil tie clasps, observed Richard Cazaras, who started working for Chevron as a filling station attendant and spent 44 years rising in the corporation. He and his wife, Ernestine, of Seal Beach are considered younger members.

Of the seal's missing three oil derricks, Cazaras and several oil men said they couldn't believe county officials want to wipe out history, either religion or oil's role in the region's development.

"Ludicrous," said Bob Potthast, 79, who worked for Shell Oil in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio before relocating in 1955 to Southern California. He worked for Southern Pacific Pipeline, which he called the first company to pipe finished products such as gasoline and jet fuel out of the state for the government and all the big oil firms.

"The missions and the oil helped create whole cities," Potthast said as friends arrived for the group birthday dinner. "It's the history here. What are they going to do next, rename Los Angeles and Santa Barbara because they mean angels and saints? I guess they can cancel Christmas and Santa Claus next."

"I say leave it alone," growled Bob Corlett, a manufacturer's representative who sells to the petroleum industry.

Behind him along the length of the chandeliered ballroom is a mural of Signal Hill in its oil-producing heyday of 1925.

In 1921, a single well called Alamitos No. 1 gushed such a geyser of crude that it drew 15,000 spectators on its first day, a scene vividly captured by Upton Sinclair in his book "Oil!" The well at Hill Street and Temple Avenue was on 1,400 acres -- of mostly independent operators -- that swiftly became the world's richest oil field.

It also turned Los Angeles County into the fifth-largest oil producer in the world, according to "Los Angeles A-Z: An Encyclopedia of Los Angeles" by Leonard and Gail Pitt, published in 1997.

Author and lifelong Lakewood resident D.J. Waldie observed that California had no coal that fueled industrialization elsewhere in the nation.

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