The small city of Taft in the southwestern corner of the San Joaquin Valley exists because of oil. The first oil field was discovered nearby in the mid-1800s. More discoveries followed with the one gusher producing 18,000 barrels of crude a day for 18 months.
Surrounded by major oil and natural gas fields in a seemingly forsaken area of California, the Petroleum Highway runs through the city of about 9,000. Originally, Taft was called Siding Number Two and later changed its name in honor of the 27th president of the United States, William Howard Taft.
Today, there are no gushers; the oil and natural gas must be coaxed from the ground.
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Fracking has been employed since the 1950s.
The main street, called Center Street, proudly displays Taft’s link to oil. The city has installed oil-extraction machinery as sculpture, painted as shiny black as oil. They’re beautiful and very cool.
Its main street also speaks to simpler times with simple storefronts. There is a Sears and a Wards, an antiques store, a jewelry store, a flower shop, a bridal and tux shop. Bright colors in store windows – red, green, blue and yellow dresses – contrast starkly with the surrounding landscape of black pump jacks dotting barren hills. Fox Theatre’s neon lights wait for sunset to illuminate the current attraction, “Deepwater Horizon.”
Waiting for friends and customers, shopkeepers relax in chairs in front of their stores. After taking a seat with the friendly owner of the jewelry store, the florist joins us. “How much demand can there be for jewelry and flowers with such a downturn in the oil economy?” I ask. They agree that times are tough. The flower shop is for sale. The jewelry shop is just hanging on. A young couple bought the building in between and plan to open a yogurt shop.
At Black Gold Brewing Company, owner Michael Long loves making beer. But, he says, “It’s craft beer in a Bud Light town.”
Stephanie Taylor is a Sacramento artist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at stephanietaylorart.com.