Through boom times and bad times,there was the Orcutt Mercantile ­ standing tall in a rough–hewn town.

Life in Old Orcutt

BIG BILL ORCUTT, always modest, was not thrilled to learn that a colleague had named a Union Oil town in his honor. The idea re­ minded him "of the practice of naming cheap cigars after cheap actresses."

But there was nothing cheap about the town of Orcutt in its earliest years. Oil companies - flushed with the success of Old Maud and other discoveries - pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into equipment, storage tanks, pipeline and supplies to keep the boom booming. Orcutt was the clearinghouse for all this material and the men who would put it to work in the nearby hills.

At the center of life was the Orcutt Mercantile. It was the only general store for miles. There was a meat. market in town, but the Mercantile was the only place to buy milk and bread, sugar and flour, vegetables and candy. It was also the place to buy feed for the cattle, nails for the barn or clothes for the kids. Just about anything was sold inside its tin walls. The Mercantile also had the only public hall in town, site of dances and meetings of social clubs. By the 1920s there were a men's store and barbershop on the first floor. Families rented second-floor apartments.

Herman Goodman, whose father was one of Orcutt's earliest barbers, remembered trips to the Mercantile. "You took a list," he said. "You didn't walk down any aisles. You gave them the list, and they filled your order for you. You were waited on. Of course, in those years things were sold in bulk, and they packaged it for you. I used to collect bottles - big wine bottles - and bring them in. They'd clean those bottles and fill them with vinegar from a big barrel and then sell them back to the public. There was no cash register. You'd put the money in a little box that was attached to a little trolley, and it went up to their office. They'd put in your change and receipt and send it right back."

Running the register was Anita Luis, who with husband Cerfee worked at the Mercantile in the 1920s and 30s and bought the business in 1940. Cerfee Luis was one of nine children who emigrated from the Azores, islands owned by Portugal. His son, Richard, said he "heard a lot of Portuguese spoken in the store. We naturally catered to them." Cerfee told many people that he learned English by reading the labels of cans while stocking the Mercantile's shelves.

"In those days people charged everything ... didn't write checks," Richard Luis said. "They'd get their paycheck and come to town and pay their grocery bills - at least we hoped they would. If the bill would get to be $50 we would get a little concerned because some of them were making only $50 a month. But that was how the community lived."

There was a family feeling at the Mercantile, too. It had a big potbellied stove surrounded by chairs. "People would come to the store and sit down and talk," Luis said. "It was a big deal to come to the store."

In 1959 - after 48 years at the heart of Orcutt - the Mercantile burned down. Another Luis boy, Jerry, was working in the store that day. "It was about 1:30 or 2 p.m.," he recalled. "Somebody came into the store and said there was smoke upstairs. I was on the volunteer fire department, so I got the fire truck and sounded the alarm. Then I got busy trying to get stuff out of the store. It was a tin building, and you wouldn't think it would burn. But the fire got inside the walls and spread to the attic. There was no way to get to it to put it out. It burned down in a half hour."

A new building was erected, but the Mercantile - and a chapter in Orcutt history - had closed by the time Cerfee Luis died in 1980.