Orcutt was named after one of the major figures of the California oil industry, William Warren Orcutt, and was founded as a boom town, riding a high tide of oil production in the Santa Maria Valley in the early 1900s. For a time, Orcutt was the major trading and shipping center for northern Santa Barbara County.
W.W. Orcutt was a native of Minnesota and came to Santa Paula at age 12 with his family in the early 1880s. He was a member of Stanford University’s first graduating class in 1895 and earned an engineering degree. He was a classmate and good friend of Herbert Hoover. He returned to Santa Paula and opened an engineering office. In 1898, he went to work for the Union Oil Company, beginning a career with the firm that would last 42 years.
Orcutt was a pioneer in the use of geology in the exploration for oil, examining the structural terrain of an area to determine the likelihood of the presence of oil. Union Oil assigned him to survey the Santa Maria area. This region had been an area of oil exploration since the mid 1860s, but without result. Orcutt’s report in late 1901 urged the company to be aggressive in the area, and within a year, the company had leased more than 70,000 acres.
The Santa Maria oil field proved to be a rich one, and within a couple of years, Union Oil and a number of smaller companies were pumping like mad. By the end of 1903, Union Oil, the major player in the region, had 22 wells in production. With the growth of oil production, workers and their families flocked to the area. In April 1904, Union Oil directed Orcutt to layout a town site. He selected a location near a siding of the narrow-gauge Pacific Coast Railway. The company insisted the town be named after the reluctant engineer, who thought the idea was akin to “naming cheap cigars after cheap actresses.” The town grew rapidly, and, by October 1904, had its own post office.
A major event in the history of oil production in the Santa Maria Valley also took place in 1904. In June, a work crew was preparing to sink yet another well when a boiler fell off a wagon en route to the site. Rather than manhandle the boiler back onto the wagon, the crew decided simply to drill there. The well looked to be a bust until, without warning on December 2, a geyser of oil shot up through the derrick 150 feet into the air. It turned out to be the largest oil strike in North America up to that time, and the well soon was producing 12,000 barrels a day. Crews scrambled to build earthen dams to channel the seemingly limitless flow of oil. In the first 100 days, the well yielded one million barrels of crude. It was a fantastic strike. Officially named Hartnell No. 1, the well was popularly known as Old Maud, the name in honor of either a prostitute or a mule, depending on the source. Old Maud continued to produce until 1988. Ironically, Union Oil later drilled where the crew was supposed to set up and this well never yielded more than 95 barrels a day.
The years immediately following the strike of Old Maud were boom times for the town of Orcutt. Two additions were laid out, and, in the space of four years, three additional school districts were created for the town and surrounding areas. By 1906, Orcutt had several stores, two restaurants, a hotel, and three saloons. Yet there was no electricity, public water source, or fire department, and indoor plumbing was a rarity. Population fluctuated around 1,000.
The boom era ended in the 1920s. Union Oil cut production in half between 1921 and 1927. In 1926, the state rerouted the main highway, bypassing Orcutt, which badly hurt business. During these years, Santa Maria became the primary population and trading center of northern Santa Barbara County.
The town’s founder continued his career in oil exploration. Another oil town was named for him in Colorado. He became known as the “dean of petroleum geologists,” and sat on the board of Union Oil for 34 years. Upon his death in April 1942, his namesake town shut down for a day to honor his memory and to remember the glory days of Old Maud and the boom times of Orcutt.
More like this story
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara's history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.