Drilling for Black Gold: Promotional Materials for the Snowolene Oil Company, Los Angeles, 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After the stunning discovery of oil on the Temple family ranch near Montebello in 1914 and the subsequent small fortune derived from royalties realized through the drilling of some two dozen wells in following years, Walter P. Temple launched his own independent operations in the industry.

The late 1910s and early 1920s were boom years for oil prospecting in greater Los Angeles and Temple tried his hand in several areas, including Whittier, Signal Hill, and Huntington Beach, as well as in Ventura, Mexico, Alaska and Texas.  Though his ambitions outstripped his successes, Temple was among many speculators in a highly competitive, expensive, and risky business.


Tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection relate to another short-lived oil company that was active during much of the same period as Temple was: the Snowolene Oil Company of Los Angeles.  Launched in 1922, the firm boasted having near 2,000 acres of leases in Huntington Beach and Santa Fe Springs locally and in the Sunset-Midway and Coalinga fields of the burgeoning San Joaquin Valley.  After formation by John McKeon, who had his own drilling company, and H.L. Bentley, the two arranged a buyout of the California Central Oil Company, headed by Ralph Arnold, a former U.S. Geological Survey expert on petroleum.

The items in the small collection include a stock certificate for one share issued to Mrs. E.J. Bailey, who lived in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where today’s Interstate 5 and California Route 110 meet, on 21 March 1923 and signed by McKeon as president as Bentley as the secretary; a business card from a salesman from the oil company and Bentley’s sales company, both situated the Lane Mortgage Building at Spring and 8th streets (now in the process of being renovated residential use), across from where Temple and his associates were involved in developing two office buildings; a shareholder letter from Bentley and dated 10 June 1923; a six-panel brochure on Snowolene; a four-panel pamphlet on the firm; an envelope from the company to Mrs. Bailey; and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to return to Snowolene’s subsidiary, the Angeles Snowolene Refining Company.


The letter noted that the refining company was marketing Peacock Gasoline, to be generated from a refinery in south Los Angeles at Alameda Street and Florence Avenue, and claimed that “city records show PEACOCK GASOLINE to be the best gasoline in Los Angeles.”  Shareholders in Snowolene were offered discounts on coupon books to buy the product, so that a $5 book cost $4.48, a $10 book was $8.95, and a $20 book was $17.89.

It was added that “to have a ready dependable market for our crude oil” was essential to the success of Snowolene, so shareholders were encouraged to start using Peacock so “that you are aiding your company and giving your car the advantage of a superior fuel.”  There was an application blank included with the letter and, because it is not in the collection, Mrs. Bailey may well have taken advantage of the offer.


The four-panel pamphlet’s front cover has a photo of company officials and others at a well site at Jacalitos Dome in the Coalinga field.  The second page has a message to “our large family of investors who have stood with us through the bright days and the dark” and observed that “we have secured holdings in the four best oil fields in California—holdings that in point of location and size, we believe could not again be duplicated.”  The goal was to “develop many wells, and not be dependent upon the success or failure of any one or two wells.”

It was considered “a most propitious time” as “on all sides oil companies are achieving success with almost a mushroom growth.”  With the skyrocketing use of automobiles for gasoline and lubricants meant that

the oil business . . . has today come into its own—each day it stalks abroad in the land—feeding the fires of industry—lighting the torches of civilization—assuaging the thirst of power propellers—easing friction of driven machinery—and remedying the ills of stricken humanity—crude or refined OIL is a tireless worker—a worker with boundless energy—who keeps step with the giant strides of industry from sun to sun.

Highlighted as essential to the enterprise were Arnold, the “world renowned geologist,” and McKeon, “the master driller,” who were proclaimed “an unbeatable combination.”


In order to carry out the ambitious aims of the firm, however, shareholders were urged to help.  The document stated that “if our six thousand clients were to send us only two people who would buy a unit, the total sales would reach the staggering sum of $1,200,000.  This amount of money would drill many dividend paying gushers!”  But, instead of a pair, stockholders were requested to send the names of five people who might be interested in hearing more about Snowolene.

The third page included another photo of Snowolene and Bentley company members at an old well at Jacalitos Dome with some text about “The Romance of an Oil Field.”  It was stated that there was high-gravity oil at the site, which had been reserved by the government, but was now leased out for development (at the time, federal oil reservation lands were the subject of a massive scandal called Teapot Dome that involved such figures as Edward L. Doheny, oil mogul of Los Angeles, and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, the prototypical “fall guy” who was convicted for his role).


Some 1000 acres, half of the firm’s total, were leased by Snowolene in the field and the pamphlet rhapsodized that “we seem to visualize countless derricks with their huge drills grinding away to unloose the precious liquid that lies innate in Nature’s treasure house.”  It was expected that this field would surpass Santa Fe Springs, Signal Hill and Huntington Beach combined so that “yes, a King’s ransom is but a pittance to the riches that may be unleashed by the gnawing of the drill . . . yes, there’s romance and thrill in an oil field.”

The large six-panel fold-out brochure asked prospective shareholders “We Are Sending Out Thousands in Dividend Checks Monthly, Are you getting yours?”  To entice those looking to invest, it was noted that the company’s Hamilton No. 4 at Huntington Beach, “has earned over 60% on par value of units sold since December 1, 1922,” while well number 5 was drilling at over 4,000 feet, with stock oversubscribed in two weeks.  Over $1 million of stock was sold within the last year with 75% of that drawing dividends of 6 to 15% per month and the other 25% invested in Hamilton #5 and which “should soon by drawing dividends as this well is now very near the famous Meyer sand” in the Huntington Beach field.


Seven features were promoted, including have fourteen properties worth millions of dollars; having nearly 2,000 acres of leases; the location of the fields at Santa Fe Springs, Huntington Beach, Sunset-Midway and Coalinga; contracts in place for three new wells; “high calibre men of proven ability and integrity as trustees;” a large firm “doing business in a big way” and positioned to pay dividends “for years and years to come;” and “last but greatest” having every investor at the Hamilton lease sharing in the proceeds, with “perhaps a hundred or more to be drilled on this vast oil acreage.”

State oil statistics for the period ending 31 December 1922 were also provided for the five fields in which the company had leases, with Midway at over 350 million barrels, Coalinga at over 266 million, Sunset at 92 million, and Santa Fe Springs and Huntington Beach at much smaller amounts of about 11 and 14 million barrels, respectively.  Other fields were also listed, including Kern River at 235 million, Santa Maria-Lompoc at 109 million, Fullerton at nearly 100 million, and Montebello at over 46 1/2 million barrels to date.


As for those three wells soon to be drilled, they included a sixth well at Hamilton, another Huntington Beach well next to one being drilled by child actor Jackie Coogan and “surrounded by producers;” and the Jacalitos Dome well, still to be sited by Arnold.  McKeon’s drilling company was readied by contract to begin these wells soon.

Speaking of the two men, there was also a section devoted to “The Management,” including McKeon’s alleged status as the “greatest driller operating in California fields” with 50 wells in operation at the time and great success at Santa Fe Springs.  As for Arnold, who “needs no introduction to petroleum men anywhere in the world,” the pamphlet stated “he is credited with having told the British Government that there was oil in Mesopotamia [modern Iraq and Iran]” and whose 1906 report while with the U.S. Geological Survey was considered essential in the documentation of the potential for California oil production.  With respect to Bentley, it was stated that he “has a splendid record of successful accomplishments’ in finance in greater Los Angeles dating back a dozen years, including the financing of the Hamilton wells and the launch of the Angeles Snowolene Refining Company.


For those three wells and any others to come on those nearly 2,000 acres controlled by Snowolene, there were 4,500 units, or shares, of stock to be issued to the public with a par value of $100 each out of $100,000 total capital for the project.  This was the largest offering to date and was proclaimed “worthy of your life-time investment . . . in which you may place your savings with the feeling that you are creating for your children a trust estate that should continue to earn dividends for years and years—your heritage and theirs.”  If any additional shares were to be released for public sale, it would be “considerably advanced in price.”

The document also appealed to “your foresight—VISION” so that the prospective shareholder “must be capable of visualizing, through the splendid personnel and excellent organization of this institution, the ultimate success that is so surely apparent.”  Indeed, Arnold, McKeon and the others involved “give to the people an oil company of fitting stature to embrace the great opportunity apparent in the development of the yet virgin fields of California, and to perfect an organization capable within itself of managing so ambitious an enterprise.”  Bentley concluded this segment by proclaiming, “you are being presented a singular opportunity to become identified and association with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, independent oil organizations ever offered to people in the State of California.”


Bentley not only had a main office in downtown Los Angeles, but there were eighteen branch offices in such places as Artesia, Gardena, Huntington Park, Monrovia, Pomona, Santa Ana, San Fernando and San Diego.

Naturally, this type of promotion was being peddled by any number of the many oil firms proliferating in greater Los Angeles during the height of the boom that raged during the time.  By 1931, however, the firm had shut down, another of those that aimed high and, in some cases, had some measure of success, but eventually failed to fulfill the promises made in these promotional materials.  Walter Temple, too, had much the same ambition and, though he realized some productive projects, most were unsuccessful and his oil enterprises ended a little sooner than that of Snowolene.

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