Article 06

Orcutt’s Heydey at the Turn of the Century

This column is taken from, From Boom Town to Bedroom Community: A History of Orcutt, California, 1904-1982, by Sally L. Simon.  Copies can be purchased at The Loading Dock, Company’s Coming, OTORA and the Santa Maria Historical Society.


Orcutt experienced its heyday between 1904 and 1920, becoming a larger trading center than Santa Maria.  By 1906, the town had two general stores, a furnishing store, a millinery shop, a vegetable and fruit market, a meat market, an ice cream parlor,  two restaurants, a hotel, three saloons, two barber shops, a livery stable, a blacksmith shop, a post office, a shoe store, three oil well supply companies, a railway depot and siding, the Union Oil Company headquarters and the offices of the local Standard Oil Company operations.

James F. Forbes built the first store in Orcutt, part of which consisted of the old Graciosa school, which he had moved from the southwest corner of Clark Avenue and Marcum Street to his property on the southwest corner of Clark Avenue and Broadway. The entire structure, however, was de­ stroyed by fire in 1910. In fact, most of the commercial structures constructed during Orcutt's initial period of development were in later years destroyed by fire or torn down. According to Adelina Phillips, descendant of the pioneer Marcum family and longtime Orcutt area resident, the only commercial building remaining is the Commercial Hotel. It was built in 1905 and operated by members of the Marcum family.

During the early development period, the town's residential area also grew. Twitchell's Addition was laid out north of the original town; that is, on the north side of Clark Avenue. Gray's Division was just east of First Street. Longtime Orcutt residents maintain that some of the original homes built in these sections of town are still in use. By 1921, the town had grown to include a hospital, a bank, a reading room and branch library, a church, a school, three garages and filling stations, and two dance halls. The locally prominent Orcutt Mercantile was built in 1911 on the southwest corner of Clark Avenue and Broadway, after James F. Forbes' first store was destroyed. A landmark in Orcutt for many years, it too burned down in 1959.

The first official Orcutt School, a two-room, wooden structure, was located on the north side of the 300 block of Clark Avenue. It was torn down in the early 1920s. However, the hospital, church, and bank buildings are still standing.

While many people lived and worked in the town, a large population center also developed in the hills to the south. Oil workers' camps were established among the derricks on the hillsides. Workers and their families lived there for years, first in "tent cities" and later in cottages. Many of the houses were built by the Union Oil Company employees. The population in the hills was large enough to require the forma­tion of three additional school districts between 1904 and 1908. The Bicknell and Careaga districts, established in 1904, were south of the Graciosa Ridge. The Newlove School District, established in 1908, was located on Union Oil Company prop­ erty on Newlove Hill (now called Orcutt Hill) just southeast of Old Town Orcutt. The school constructed by the district is the only early school building remaining in the Orcutt area. A large, two-room structure, it is used today for community gatherings.

     Public services in the Orcutt area were fairly primitive in the boom years. There was no public sewer, electricity, or fire protection in the town until the 1920s. Roads were unpaved for many years. The main oiled County road, laid out in 1861, came up from Santa Barbara, passed through Los Alamos, ran westward, down the San Antonio Valley and turned northward through the Graciosa Pass. The road veered right to turn into Orcutt (where it was called Clark Avenue), proceeded through the heart of town, and then turned left to continue running northward toward Santa Maria. It was taken into the state highway system in 1909 and renumbered Route 2, but no improvements were made until 1915. The road was also a segment of the main San Francisco-to-San Diego coastal highway. Travelers stopped to eat and rest in Orcutt; their patronage was important to the local economy for many years.

Water was supplied from several private sources. Union Oil had its own water company which served the people on the hill and in the town, south of Clark Avenue. The Twitchell family, which originally owned much of the land north of Clark Avenue, supplied water to residents living in that section of town for many years. Those living outside of the area served by those two sources provided water for themselves from their own wells.  Fires were a severe problem in the early days because of the widespread use of wood in construction and reliance upon kerosene lanterns and gas stoves. Buildings that caught fire were totally destroyed. Residents simply concentrated their efforts on removing belongings from the burning structure and on pre­ venting the spread of the fire.46

Union Oil Company first sold natural gas to Orcutt's residents and later the Santa Maria Oil and Gas Company provided gas to the town. In 1928, the latter company was acquired by Pacific Lighting Corporation, but it continued to operate independently until 1941. It was then merged with another Pacific Lighting subsidiary, Southern Counties Gas Company. In 1970, Southern Counties was merged with yet another Pacific Lighting subsid­ iary, Southern California Gas Company, which now serves the Orcutt area.

Policing, for the most part, was left to the Town Constable. The County Sheriff's Department came into Orcutt only if a particular situation was especially difficult to handle. Then, according to Willard Forbes, son of Orcutt's first merchant, the Sheriff would "come up and arrest people for gambling and they'd arrest the prostitutes too, if they could catch them.” As a boom town, early Orcutt saw its share of drinking, gambling, and carousing.

Petroleum development gave Orcutt its reason for being and business was brisk. Oil production rose from 95,000 barrels per year in 1902 to 3,742,249 barrels annually by the middle of 1920. While small oil companies continued operating in the area, Union Oil Company was by far the largest operation. It was the major employer and consumer of materials and supplies, pro­ viding income for local farmers, ranchers, and contractors as well as oil field workers. Then, in the years 1914-1918, the First World War gave a strong new push to the already thriving local economy. More oil workers arrived to increase production in response to wartime demands. Farmers also prospered during the war, for the price of beans and grains rose. However, this was a boom that could only be temporary.