American Association of University Women members founded West Kern Oil Museum
Editor's Note: Karen Kuckreja, one of the West Kern Kern Oil Museum's "Founding Mothers" furnished this history of the how Taft's signature museum covering the history of the area and the oil industry came into existence.
The Founding Mothers will be honored at an American Association Of University Women luncheon at the West Kern Oil Museum on Saturday.
Taft, California, was a busy, active, and exciting place when we arrived in the 1960’s. Oil companies had offices located here, Clubs and activities were thriving. Wives of geologists, petroleum engineers both men and women, had time and energy to serve on school boards, support and participate in many community activities such as; Community Concert Association, Camp Condor, A Junior Theatre Company and service organizations, such as Rotary, Optimists, Soroptimists and the like.
AAUW, American Association of University Women, was a vital part of the community. In addition to monthly meetings with invited speakers and presentations, there were subgroups such as a Legislative Study Group and a Book Club.
From 1960-1965 several young women came to Taft from as far away as New York, Minnesota and Illinois to begin their professional lives. Others came from northern California, Santa Barbara, and one from Modesto. Some were married and followed their husbands. Most were single. All were trained teachers representing grades Kindergarten through Community College. All were new to Kern County.
As they arrived, they met Joan Pracy. Mrs. Pracy was an avid, active believer in the value of becoming an AAUW member. Pracy could not hear the word “No”. She made it her mission to have these young women join the Association. Pracy’s insistence brought these young women to an AAUW general meeting, resulting in a life-long connection.
Note: Joan Pracy’s daughter, Brenda Haskell, is the current president of the Bakersfield AAUW. She too is a “get things done” kind of woman!
By the 1970’s these young graduates married, started families, and worked as teachers. The first AAUW President of this group was Jan Lemley, later followed by Rita Johnson. Jan recommended forming a subgroup which became,” Recent Grads”, the youngest members in the Association. The synchronicity of body clocks by 1970-1971, found several of the Recent Grads attending meetings while on maternity leave.
October 1971, the Recent Grads met at the home of Karen Kuckreja. A developing oil crisis in Kern County had caused a sudden loss of population in the City of Taft. This serious issue was on the minds of these young women. Standard Oil Company of California and other oil companies had begun downsizing and moving engineers, field workers and entire families from Taft to Bakersfield and Texas. Over three hundred families were relocated out of Taft in one summer. The focus of discussion became: How can we attract and bring people to Taft?
It was during this October meeting that the idea of building a Museum in Taft became a dream.
Since none of these young women had expertise in building a museum, they decided they needed to contact someone who did. Mr. Bailey, Curator of Kern County Museum, at this time, was invited to come to speak to them. It is recalled that, “Mr. Bailey was very patient with us! We fairly exhausted him with questions.”!
“What is the story you want to tell?” Mr. Bailey asked. “You need a single focus.” Since we lived in an oil town, telling the story of oil was a natural outcome.
Action steps to follow were:
1. How will you finance your dream?
2. Where is the site for the Museum?
3. Develop a Board of Directors
4. Establish Membership Categories
5. Legal issues include: Incorporation
6. Need a startup museum to demonstrate good faith to the community
7. Visit other museums to clarify our vision for a museum
Starting from ground zero the first effort to raise money was an event named Bailing Out Days (Bailing Out is an oilfield term). Tom Faulkner Insurance Agency, basement, became the storage area for items accumulated for the sale. Crocker Bank parking lot next door was made available for the sale day. Taft Community supported this effort with many donations and purchases. This garage sale netted $300.00. This was seed for our dream.
The annual Gardner Field Model Airplane Fly In held in Taft offered a second opportunity to earn money for the museum. This was held in July. It was hot and no shade trees in the field. People came from all over Kern County and other parts of California to compete each year. A food wagon was rented for the week-end. The Recent Grads and spouses sold Hot dogs with all the fixings, beans and soft drinks. Raffle tickets, sold by Linda Cruzan, for a Honda Motorcycle, provided by Linda and Roy Cruzan’s Honda shop in town, was the centerpiece!
This two-day event presented a problem. How to protect the food wagon over night? Jan and John Lemley volunteered to sleep Saturday night in Murray and Rita Johnson’s Volkswagen Camping Bus at the competition site.
Sales resumed briskly the next morning!
Food sales and Motorcycle ticket sales, brought in a total of $7,000.00!
The late Vance Webb, Fourth District Supervisor, was able to secure property from the Jameson Trust on Wood Street and Highway 119. This 1/3 acre, with a standing wooden oil derrick was the perfect site for a museum. The Westside Recreation District served as a holder of the deed until the Museum was fully incorporated and able to sustain itself financially.
The dream of a museum was rapidly becoming a reality! The necessity of fully involving the community was eminent.
Forming a Board of Directors was the next step;
Invitations were made to Taft College Professors, High School Teachers, Oil men in town, and others, to serve as Board members. Meetings were held in the home of John and Jan Lemley. George Morgan, Science Professor at Taft College, was elected as the first president. The Board quickly created membership categories and appropriate dues.
A local attorney assisted with forms, procedures, and filing the papers of incorporation. Jan Lemley, and Linda Cruzan completed the hard work for these documents.
Prior to securing the final site for the museum, in 1973, a Mini Oil Museum on 422 North Street was opened. This store front property was owned by Murray and Rita Johnson. The location was excellent and no rent! Ruth and Don Dudley, both teachers, became designers of this first site. They used grape crates as shadow box frames to creatively display the first small acquisitions. Displays included many donated photographs of early Taft history. A glass display case was donated which allowed the secure display of oil samples and geological formations. Agnes Hardt was one of the first volunteer docents for the museum.
Once there was a physical site, donations large and small poured in from a very supportive community. Retired oil field workers had saved and stored large pieces of equipment and memorabilia for years. They too had carried a dream of having a place to display their history. Larry Peahl, Math Professor at Taft College, developed forms and a system to record incoming acquisitions.
Berry Petroleum Company donated the first building moved to the Museum. This was an exciting gift, however moving it to the site proved to be a monumental task of procuring permits to get the process done. George Morgan and Margaret Schazer demonstrated the tenacity to bring this task to completion.
In the 1980’s the dream of a museum was now a self-sufficient reality!
Jane Kinsey, Taft native, retired teacher, counselor, dean of women at Lincoln Jr. High School, became the first volunteer Curator. The museum was now West Kern Oil Museum or WKOM. Through Jane’s non-stop creative flow of ideas and the volunteer help of former students at UCLA and the like, the museum took on a life of its own. A former student of Kinsey, a professional artist, donated her time, created and painted all the murals in the museum.
After Jane Kinsey passed, Agnes Hardt became curator. Her focus was on the exterior environment of the museum. Native trees, plants and bushes were to be the standard for plantings.
As the years rolled by, AAUW now “Golden Grads”, began to step back. Linda Cruzan continued to serve on the Board of Trustees for several years keeping in touch with the growing Museum. Currently the financial value is over a million dollars.
The Wooden Oil Derrick has its own story: It nearly lost its life!
Karen and Jan had attended one of the Friday morning activities of Oildorado Days when they decided to drive by the future site for the museum. They were surprised to see a huge hole which mirrored the derrick. When Jan returned home, she asked her husband John, familiar with the oil industry,
“Why is there a hole alongside the derrick?”,
“That means they are going to drop it!” John said.
“How do we stop this from happening?”
“I’d contact Vance Webb.” John advised
On a Saturday morning Karen called Mr. Webb.
“Vance, there is a plan to drop the derrick on Monday morning!!”.
“You ladies don’t need to worry about this. I’ll take care of it’’ he said.
The derrick survived for many years, with special cable wiring that had to be inspected, and certified each year. Finally, the derrick had to be felled. It had become a safety hazard.
The wooden derrick at the museum today is an exact replica of the old one. Chevron engineers and others, researched the original plans and constructed it with the same kind of materials and labor approach used to build the original derrick. Huell Howser came to the derrick dedication. The story of the derrick has been secured.
The “Founding Mothers “ Linda Cruzan, Sally Knost, Rita Johnson, Karen Kuckreja, Jan Lemley and Fran Sullivan are grateful and amazed that our dream came true. It is so much more than we imagined. Many people volunteered their time and talent over the years to illustrate and tell the story of oil and how it impacted their lives.
The Museum continues to grow and is served and maintained by Taft Community Volunteers who devote countless hours to keep it viable.
West Kern Oil Museum attracts visitors, from around the world. The story of oil is fascinating. Taft is proud!
Special thanks to Dennis McCall, Taft College Journalism Professor and Gaylen Wood for their journalistic talents in recording and reporting the development of the museum in the Taft Daily Midway Driller.