Drilling for Black Gold: The Strange Saga of C.C. Julian, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the latest of a series of booms that broke in Los Angeles, the early 1920s featured an explosion of speculation in oil, an endeavor in which Walter P. Temple was fully embroiled.  No one rose as spectacularly and flamed out so dramatically as Courtney Chauncey (C.C.) Julian, whose folksy ads peppered with the hip lingo of the era embodied his massive appeal until it was realized that he’d built a short-lived petroleum empire with a scam of an epic scale.

Julian was born in 1885 in Morris, Manitoba, Canada, near Winnipeg, to recently arrived Irish immigrants and his father was said to have been estranged from his well-to-do lawyer father, but who was given a $15,000 stake to start over in Canada.  In fact, Francis Julian’s occupation in the 1901 Canadian census, with the family residing in Winnipeg, was “gentleman” though he seems to have died shortly afterward.

1st Santa Fe Springs ad The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Jun_19__1922_
Los Angeles Times, 19 June 1922.

C.C. amply padded and expanded on his early years, so it is hard to know what it was like, but he sold newspapers, drove a milk wagon, was a drug-store clerk and was a clothing store salesperson.  He took a business course and migrated to Regina, Saskatchewan, where he worked in real estate in the frontier boomtown and apparently made a decent amount of money.  A stint at Edmonton, Alberta, where a boom went bust saw that equity vanish.

After returning to Winnipeg in 1906 and working as a stenographer and then going back to Regina, the restless Julian went west to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he heard about oil field work near Bakersfield.  For a couple of years, he did manual labor as a “roughneck” in the gritty oil fields of Kern County.   By 1909, he was back home in Winnipeg employed by a plumber and he married Mary O’Donohue two years later.

It s a Grand Old World The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Jul_17__1922_
Times, 17 July 1922.

Another stint in Vancouver found him working in a jewelry store, but the city was in the throes of a real estate boom and he later said he made tens of thousands in the business before moving to nearby Victoria.  Again, he later said he made a small fortune there, but that cannot be verified.  He was, in fact, bankrupt after a couple of years and returned once more to Winnipeg where he again sold men’s clothing.

By 1918, he was back in Kern County working for the Tecumseh Oil Company and he registered for the draft as the United States was fighting in Europe at the end of the First World War.  He then worked for the company at the Fullerton oil field in Orange County and drifted to Texas to work in that state’s growing oil industry.  One venture was the Texas Holding Company, for which Julian sold stock and supervised oil operations.

Ain't It Awful The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Aug_15__1922_
Times, 15 August 1922.

In 1921, he, his wife, their two daughters, and, later, his mistress (!) headed back to the City of Angels and Julian was, apparently, broke.  He was able to secure funds to lease some land in the newly developing oil field at Huntington Beach (where Walter Temple was an investor with the Talbert Oil Company), but his well there came up dry.

Then Julian found his next opportunity at Santa Fe Springs, where a major discovery was made on the former ranch of Marius Meyer by Alphonzo Bell in late 1921 (Bell went on to develop Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and other high-end communities, as well as the working class Bell and Bell Gardens.)  A blowout at a nearby well and a massive fire at the second Bell operation revealed a volatile, but highly lucrative field (it was evidently an inspiration for the film There Will Be Blood.)

Just Leave The Rest to Me The_Los_Angeles_Times_Thu__Aug_24__1922_
Times, 24 August 1922.

In May 1922, Julian arrived and he found an area southwest of the Bell lease, though he had to scramble to come up with the money to acquire the lease from the Globe Petroleum Company.  This meant borrowing from acquaintances and previous clients and promising hefty returns on their investment, handled through a trust in which units were bought and sold like stock on the market.

For the holders of units, however, they lacked the involvement in corporate decisions that a stockholder typically would have, but this worked to the advantage of Julian and his way of doing business.  To earn the trust of investors in units of his enterprise, Julian employed a masterly advertising strategy reeking with the seemingly unlikely pairing of  homespun folksiness with liberal doses of the latest slang.

#1 in #2 on the way The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Oct_30__1922_
Times, 30 October 1922.

While he wowed readers of newspapers with his eye-catching ads promising fantastic returns for his Santa Fe Springs lease operation, he impressed visitors to his suite of offices in downtown Los Angeles (where hours extended, unusually, to 10 p.m.) which were lavishly appointed, making a show of great financial acumen and success.

He hit the ground running in May 1922 and issued a steady stream of unit issues marketed with increasingly colorful and alluring ads in which he displayed supreme self-confidence with a generously applied layer of studied humility.  He regularly informed readers updates of the progress of his wells, which, by summer 1923, had grown to roughly a dozen in Santa Fe Springs and a couple other locations.  At the same time, he opened branch offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and other regional locations.

This 1923 real photo postcard from the Homestead’s holdings shows a thick forest of oil derricks and Santa Fe Springs with a C.C. Julian Lease sign at the bottom center.

Because of the intense activity in the region’s oil fields and the fierce competition, there were legitimate oil operators battling alongside hucksters.  Julian’s tactics were wildly successful, likely far beyond even his voracious dreams, as he raked in well over a half million dollars in investment in short order.  The crux, obviously, was whether he could deliver results in his wells at Santa Fe Springs.

By July 1922, drilling was underway at the first site, but even as difficulties were encountered there, he moved on to the next wells and packaged investment opportunities through a syndicate according to blocks of wells.  Remarkably, though he had yet to deliver on the first two wells, he raised hundreds of thousands through the fall for the ones that followed.

This 20 July 1923 agreement between Julian and Mary F. Burmaster of Long Beach is for her $100 investment in units in the oil promoter’s wells #s 6-9 at Santa Fe Springs.

Finally, in late October, Julian #1 came in as a producer, followed a few weeks later, by success at #2, with the two generating a decent 3,500 barrels a day.  It was just in time, as Julian was able, by Christmas, to pay a dividend and refer to himself as a real-life Santa Claus for his investors.  Moreover, units in Julian’s wells were selling with great success in Los Angeles’ stock market centered on Spring Street, the financial thoroughfare of the metropolis (no wonder Walter Temple and his fellow syndicate members rushed to build two large structures, with an insurance company and a bank as anchor tenants, on that street at that time.)

Through the first half of 1923, Julian drilled more wells, but also spent enormous sums on new leases and a proposed refinery site in Torrance, shattering records with the purchase prices for properties.  His ads continued the mesmerizing snappy prose and fulsome promises and he kept on attracting new investors.  One of these, Mary F. Burmaster of Long Beach, signed up for a $100 investment of Julian’s wells 6-9, on 20 July 1923 with that document being tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection.

Raid Arraignment San_Francisco_Chronicle_Sun__Jul_1__1923_
San Francisco Chronicle, 1 July 1923.

By then, however, problems were starting to emerge for Julian’s grand scheme.  While there were allegations that he was the victim of an extortion scheme by a Hollywood director and others involving an 18-year old woman who claimed Julian tried to seduce here, this proved to be unfounded.  But, there was also a problem with state regulators who determined that Julian lacked a license to sell securities for his oil projects.

In his breezy style, the wily promoter waved off these allegations, even as his offices were raided and Julian arraigned on the charge—all of this coming just around the time this stock sale was transacted.  Tomorrow, we’ll continue the story with the dramatic fall of Julian and his enterprise in Los Angeles and the pathetic end to his life.

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