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Oildale, CA

Updated on July 9, 2017


A brief write up about some of my observations about this misunderstood and mostly forgotten town, just north of Bakersfield.

Please see the links near the end for more information and be sure to check out the Oildale Royals music video. I came across it quite by accident and was pleasantly surprised.

Early Oildale

from a post card
from a post card
an antique photo of the skyline
an antique photo of the skyline

California's Central Valley

If you happen to be driving along California's Highway 99 and are headed South from Sacramento on your way to Los Angeles, you will find yourself passing a several cities that start with the letter M: Manteca, Modesto, Merced , Madera. You may find yourself wondering if there was a fascination with the 13th letter of the alphabet in a state that has managed to become the seventh largest economy in the world, one that could probably become a country, self efficient, with enough food and supplies to survive on its own for several generations.

This is the state that brought us the gold rush, provides the nation, and much of the world with agricultural products, and a place that young people from other parts of the country have dreamed about since their youth. Perhaps a hundred thousand or more cars pass through this stretch of highway a day. All of them oblivious to the true value of wide open spaces, much of it farmland. Urban sprawl, surrounded by hotels and gas station slip into suburban housing.

As you near the city of Bakersfield - a community of just under half a million people - you will come upon the community of Oildale. This is a city in its own right, that was the stuff dreams were made of and narrated in novels like The Grapes of Wrath. Many immigrants - most from areas like Oklahoma - settled this region during the Great Depression, and a town created and supported by the petroleum industry came to fruition.

Oildale fields

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A Brief History

According to an article by Robert Savage, the original name of Oildale was Northside and that "crossing the stream between Bakersfield and the community of Northside was either by fording during summer low water periods or paying to ride a ferry barge". To some today, Oildale is it's own distinct town, even though the city of Bakersfield has taken much of it over.

Oil was discovered in the area right at the turn of the 20th Century (1899) and soon people flooded to the area in hopes of finding work and obtaining a livelihood. Eventually over 2,000 men moved into the area, scores of oil wells began to become part of the landscape. Houses, churches, schools and a small city soon followed. According to information I could find online, the first post office opened in 1916. Resting on the northern edge of the Kern River, older parts of Oildale stretch from the Kern River to the peaks where modern housing developments and a new Walmart serve the almost 33,000 residents.

During the early years of the 20th Century, the oilfields were rich enough to make it the state's third largest reserve. The community expanded and tent cities eventually gave way to houses with subdivisions. Motorized vehicles became popular, and Standard Oil shipped hundreds of thousands of cartloads of crude oil to refineries. Markets appeared and at one time, according to the Savage article, 2,000 loaves a day were produced for the 7,000 residents. A phenomenal number.

This desert area grew over the years and even though there were periods when the oil production subsided in the 1980's and 1990's, the fields produced over 2 billion barrels. In addition to its ties to the petroleum industry, Oildale is also known for helping construct secret military aircraft. A factory in this California town was used to design and built planes that were shipped to Groom Lake - also known as Area 51.

A Few Words on it's Reputation

If you happen to ask anyone from the Central Valley what they know about Oildale, you may have to prepare yourself for some rude speech. It is a fact of human consciousness that the bad outshines the good. Shakespeare said, "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is interred in their bones" meaning that people will rarely recall your good accomplishments but will easily remember your mistakes. There is good in Oildale and a hard working middle class establishment, but that culture seems to be obscured by the underground and unsavory elements, which are associated with this community.

One of the issues that comes up when discussing Oildale is the criminal element there. The streets have a reputation for being violent. You are often warned to be careful of your possessions there, because some would be thief may discover them. When driving about town, it is apparent that there is a significant transient population that derives income from the sale of items which may have been acquired by questionable means. There is a lot of bicycle traffic, and often these cyclists will be carrying scrap metal goods, including other bicycle parts with them. Pedestrians can be seen pushing shopping carts full of recyclables and other goods that might have value on the underground market. Adult skateboarders are ubiquitous and often travel in groups of three or more.

The fact that there seem to be so many people - often young and appearing malnourished -on the streets of Oildale, supports the main reputation that plagues this community: narcotics. Some people refer to this area as "the meth capital of California", even though it is well known for its ability to provide other substances such as crack, heroin, Oxycontin, and a plethora of other mind altering chemicals. Pastor Robin Robinson says: "It wouldn't take but four or five questions to find what ever you want in Oildale. It's spice, it's meth, it's coke..." in a recent interview. Many young people can be seen walking about town, the men often with out shirts, with a dazed look on their face and a gait that one would associate with "tweeking" (quick and frantic body movements stemming from methamphetamine use.

It is probably the drug use and the need for the addicts to support their habit that influences the property crimes that occur here as well as the acts of violence.

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Some of the town's misfortunates

a cyclist carries a ceiling fan
a cyclist carries a ceiling fan
an abandoned house off Beardsley
an abandoned house off Beardsley
sometimes the streets are used as refuse stations
sometimes the streets are used as refuse stations
some local residents seeking some solace perhaps
some local residents seeking some solace perhaps

What's in a Name? And a couple of conversations...

Unfortunately, this community has earned an unsavory reputation that is repeated through whispered jokes in coffee shops and billiard halls. It is difficult to find someone to have something nice to say about it. There are quite a few videos of groups of people involved neighborhood scuffles and unfortunate addicts, unaware they are being filmed, experiencing phases of desperation. These videos are many and not hard to find. I found a band that created a song called "Oildale Royals" on YouTube. It seems to sum up very precisely, with a bit of humor, what many people believe Oildale is like.

In a street interview, I encountered man who appeared to be in his 50's and asked him a few questions about the town. He was waiting for the bus, in front of the old theater that sits across from the Standard School, on Chester Avenue. I was informed that people tend to move to Oildale because of the "cheap rent and low cost of living". There are major problems with drugs and crime and many people are struggling with unemployment. Most who come here to work are attracted by the oil industry and that some of the newer developments are a lot more appealing than the older parts of town. I was also warned to be a little cautious because of the Old Southern mentality and that the Klan is pretty active here. When he offered this information, I wasn't sure whether to interpret it as an observation or a threat.

On another occasion, I encountered a young man who claimed to be 17. He was without a shirt which probably didn't seem unusual for a July afternoon. He explained he was kicked out of his house for getting into an altercation and informed me that dope was a big problem in this area. Young people can get out of this place if "they have the right mindset". I wasn't exactly sure what he meant by that and wanted to inquire further, but I was grateful that someone from the area was willing to speak openly to me. I would think that growing up today would be difficult and that being young in an area so absent of promise and riddled with the social ills would definitely be a challenge. I didn't want to press the youth or make him uncomfortable and certainly could empathize with his plight.

During many of my conversations with certain residents and shopkeepers, I was told that Beardsley Avenue was the heart of Oildale and represented this area at its worse. I decided to drive down Chester Avenue to find out for myself. I was told that it was the last street before you reached the bridge that crossed the Kern River. Just over that often active body of water was downtown Bakersfield with its street cafes nicer theaters, coffee shops an restaurants and a group of working people that often donned business attire.

The man in front of the theater also mentioned that Merle Haggard used to play there. I'm certain you are familiar with this country legend's name, but you may not realize that he came from this part of California and was very familiar with poverty. His incredible struggles and effort led him to become an American Poet as well as a phenomenal country singer whose popularity has spanned many decades and will probably never wane. You can drive down Chester, and just over the Kern River as you head towards Bakersfield, you will see the museum where the box car he grew up in has been moved.

Merle Haggard's early venue

the art deco era theatre where Haggard once sang
the art deco era theatre where Haggard once sang

Some more photos of Beardsley and McCord

Beardsley Avenue and McCord

Perhaps the plight I witnessed on Beardsley and on McCord are some of the worse areas of abject poverty I have ever witnessed in California. There are sections of street that look like they were ripped out of Appalachia. Trailer courts, many of them worn out, dilapidated or completely abandoned populate the dirty streets. People wandered around aimlessly looking through garbage cans and picking up small objects off the pavement, oblivious to the oncoming cars.

My contact with people in this area - through email, conversations, or online billboard sites - informed me that not everyone in Oildale, or on Beardsley Avenue fit the negative stereotypes mentioned throughout this article. There are hardworking men and women who live near these intersections that are trying to survive. Aware of the stereotypes and the negative images of their community, many locals sometimes find themselves victims of some of their fellow citizens. Some have had their houses and cars broken into or deal with the vagrants that wander around, often leaving refuse in their wake.

On one of my trips to this area last year, I happened upon a trailer on fire. The entire street was lined with curiosity seekers which the emergency vehicles struggled to get around. I heard two women talking and one of them said to the other:

"Took them long enough. I called them awhile back and now they are finally here".

Woman number 2: "I know. That's the way it is here".

At least something like that is how the dialogue went. From their tone, I gathered they realized that this part of town was not a high priority area for emergency crews. I did notice though a lot of people with genuine concern, coming out to see the disaster. The trailer on fire began to disintegrate and black smoke pummeled the air. One of hydrants had some trouble functioning. Police vehicles began to arrive and divert traffic. Other curiosity seekers came from all over town - you could see the smoke from a distance - which is what attracted me.

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The Trailer on Fire - Beardsley Ave Sept. 2016

In Summary

Well I hope you enjoyed this article. I had been wanting to write about Oildale for well over a year but never got around past the second or third paragraph. I finished this draft in one day - so pardon any errors in grammar etc.

If you were offended by some of the things I mentioned in this article - particularly if you are from Kern County - my apologies. If you are from this area then you know what a sort of mess the Dale - as some like to call it is. I don't look down upon it though, I see it as an area that has struggled with unemployment, social issues, narcotics and has been marginalized and forgotten. Maybe it is even a victim of the US, Free Enterprise, Corporate Structure conglomerate. The Oil Companies made some of this town and in reality probably have a lot of influence and control.

I was told by other people - some of them from this area - that this is a place to see. They were not very flattering in their observations and giggled a bit and shook their heads. I didn't like what I heard - particularly when racial epithets (of an anti white nature) were used. I know there was a large influx of people from the Mid-West who settled in this region because they had nowhere else to go. And of course, we always were and always will be a nation of migrants.

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For More Information

Please see the references below for more information on Oildale. Some of the links below provided me details I needed to write this piece. Others contain statistics that would be redundant to repeat here.

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If you have a chance, look at the links above....and try to answer my survey questions. I like to get feedback on the topics I write about as well as my writing style itself.

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    • wpcooper profile image

      Finn Liam Cooper 4 months ago from Los Angeles

      hi amy....i know...i am looking for good things to write about too. Oildale is kind of dreary but there are good parts to it. that video by the oildale royals kind of sums things up....i was through there today and it is sad...

    • profile image

      amy lujan 4 months ago

      Sad but real. Real all over. Would like to read about the good in the town also. I want to visit Oildale sometime soon.