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A Look at Oildale, CA: History and Reputation

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Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues and creative writing.

An early photo of Oildale from a postcard.

An early photo of Oildale from a postcard.

Oildale: A Misunderstood and Forgotten Town

This article is a brief write-up of some of my observations about this misunderstood and mostly forgotten town that's located 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.

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 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-sufficient, 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 is 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 are oblivious to the true value of wide open spaces, much of them farmland. Urban sprawl, surrounded by hotels and gas stations, slips into suburban housing.

Approaching Oildale

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

A Brief History

According to an article by Robert Savage, the original name of Oildale was Northside, and "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 its 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 the area in hopes of finding work and obtaining a livelihood. Eventually, over 2,000 men moved into the area, and 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 1980s and 1990s, the fields produced over two 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 build planes that were shipped to Groom Lake—also known as Area 51.

A Few Words on Olidale'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, many of whom appear to be under the influence of intoxicants.

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There is a lot of bicycle traffic carrying scrap metal goods, including other bicycle parts with them; pedestrians push shopping carts full of recyclables.

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 whatever 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 without shirts, with a dazed look on their face and a gait that one would associate with "tweaking" (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. If you'd like to assist an Olidale family affected by fentanyl, visit Robert Shields' GoFundMe.

The art deco–era theatre where Merle Haggard once sang.

The art deco–era theatre where Merle Haggard once sang.

What's in a Name?

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 this community. I once heard someone say "post-apocalyptic" when talking about Bakersfield area neighborhoods, and I knew exactly what they meant.

A Couple of Conversations

In a street interview, I encountered a man who appeared to be in his 50s 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 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 social ills would definitely be a challenge. I didn't want to press the youth or make him uncomfortable, and I 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, theaters, coffee shops, restaurants, and working people dressed in 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.

Beardsley Avenue and McCord

Perhaps the plight I encountered on Beardsley and on McCord are some of the worse areas of abject poverty I have ever witnessed in California. There are sections of streets that look like they were ripped out of Appalachia after a bomb attack.

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 unspeakable 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, that a lot of people with genuine concern came out to see the disaster.

The trailer on fire began to disintegrate, and black smoke pummeled the air. One of the 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.

Looking Forward

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, and narcotics and has been marginalized and forgotten. Maybe it is even a victim of the U.S. free enterprise, corporate structure conglomerate. The oil companies made some of this town, and in reality, they probably have a lot of influence and control.

I was told by other people—some of them from this—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 Midwest 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.

Thank You for Reading

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.

Opinions from people who read these articles are important.

Thank you.

A Music Video Parody of Oildale

  • Sean Flowers - Oildale Royals - YouTube
    Download the mp3 for free at: Follow Me and my music at: https://www...

Oildale References and Facts

  • 3 Oildale Poems
    Just some stories about some things I've seen in Oildlale.
  • A Very Short History of Vice: A Look at Bakersfield's Hidden Gambling Halls
    Gambling certainly is not a new fad - it's probably one of humanity's oldest vices. And Bakersfield isn't the first place that comes to mind when gambling is mentioned. However, the internet has ...
  • The Mean Streets of Oildale
    Hyacinth has lived in the Bakersfield suburb of Oildale since the late 1990's. Upon her arrival, she managed to find an office job. After relapsing, her life took a turn and she found herself in turmoil. She shares her true story and some of the unde

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 Finn


Finn (author) from Barstow on June 21, 2019:

i agree with you that there is a lot of prejudice against those who live in the community which is one of the reasons I wrote this article.

I am displeased to hear about your story, but it is probably typical of many and demonstrates another form of prejudice. Hopefully the new Amazon center will help change the image and bring some positive light to the area.

If you want to tell me more and share your story, please feel free to email me.

Catrina brown95 on June 21, 2019:

It’s really hard living in Oildale and having friends outside of Oildale because (at least for what has happened to me) as soon as someone finds out I live in Oildale they disassociate with me, they treat me differently and they turn their nose up like I’m not worthy of their friendship.

People at work also treat me like I’m a lower class citizen almost because of my housing. And I don’t even live in the “bad” part of town and I’m not even a bad person just like so many of us in Oildale we aren’t all bad people it’s because we needed an apartment or house to live in and still be able to survive.

Finn (author) from Barstow on March 06, 2019:

I am hoping it will give opportunity to the area economically with employment and support to the local businesses. Unfortunately one of the bigger benefactors will probably be Walmart. Some of the smaller restaurants might do well.

I don't know what it will do for the culture in the community. It might have a positive influence, although I think there will be some people who will continue to exploit, turn to substances and take advantage. We'll have to see. Amazon might also bring in people from other areas and I'm sure people from nearby communities will seek work there.

Hopefully the benefits will outweigh anything else.

good points

Mark on March 06, 2019:

Do you think amazon fulfillment center opening in Oildale will help reduce it's poverty? Do you think the area will eventually gentrify?

Finn (author) from Barstow on September 11, 2018:

Well Pati...I tried to be. I had other reactions to the other article and people were upset. Someone told me to back off or i might end up dead. There are people there and some misfortune happened that took their livelihoods.

I appreciate your thoughtful words....thank you.

Pati Nolen on September 11, 2018:

Well written article. Described the 'Dale very accurately. If anything you were way too nice, and glossed over how 3rd-World impoverished Oildale is.

Finn (author) from Barstow on August 03, 2018:

I've heard the phrase Dalians (spelling). There is a facebook page for them. It's considered a not so flattering terms by some people in Oildale. I have heard rude things about it from people of various backgrounds and wanted to investigate it myself.

I try to see the good in things wherever I go.

thanks again

Melissa on August 03, 2018:

I live in LA and have a difficult time describing Central Valley stuff to the occasional person who asks about it. I was trying to describe Oildale to someone a few weeks ago and just came up with half chain link fences, people on bikes at all hours doing who know what and seeing fights... I think it’s easy to understand the poverty/lack of opportunity/drug use cycle but I really do think Oildale is a unique place. Your article summed up the area well in my opinion. And in an objective way too. I don’t know what hubpages is I was just searching Oildale. I also remember the term “0-eighters” (last 2 digits of the zip code) to describe a person living Oildale. The Central Valley is a very interesting place, the ag, the trucking industry etc. And the people are very friendly and generous for the most part. And family oriented! I will always call it home and I visit often. I wish more people would write about it!

Finn (author) from Barstow on August 02, 2018:

Well this is a nice comment. I've heard of La Tapatia but I don't think I've been there. There are a lot of other nice restaurants there Knotty Pine is really popular and gives good portions - been there once.

appreciate the nice thoughts.

Just wonder how you came across this article because I don't see you on hubpages

Melissa on August 02, 2018:

Thanks for this article. I lived in Oildale when I was a kid in the 80s. I go back with my family to drive around and see where we used to live and where my dad worked. I thought of a positive: restaurants! La Tapatia comes to mind. I don’t think Woolgrowers is officially in Oildale but it’s nearby and excellent.

Finn (author) from Barstow on July 17, 2018:

Yes. It's on the outskirt's of Bakersfield...terrible poverty and drugs

Frances Metcalfe on July 17, 2018:

Don't think Oildale's backdrop helps addicts. Must be tough living there, in an ugly unsafe city. Interesting hub though.

Finn (author) from Barstow on May 27, 2018:

Richard Dale Watts: Yes it is ironic that there is so much agriculture in this area - and that we are able to provide so many other nations with nourishment. And that the oil companies dominate the economy. And that in the shadow of these truths is so much poverty Thank you for your comment.

Finn (author) from Barstow on July 09, 2017:

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...

amy lujan on July 09, 2017:

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

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