Evan Decker has made Mentryville his decade-long passion project.
An avid historian volunteering for the Santa Clarita Historical Society and William S. Hart Museum since he was 13, Decker and his board members work to restore the historic township to pristine condition.
“Mentryville is one of those places that is equally important in our historical narrative that isn’t being cared after,” he said. Having spent over six months establishing the nonprofit Mentryville California Inc., of which Decker serves as its president, the organization is primarily focused on raising funds for the general liability insurance needed to help do the necessary repairs to restore the buildings.
Located near Stevenson Ranch, the historic township of Mentryville was an 1880s oil “boom town” which would go on to become the longest continually operating oil well in the world until its closing in 1990. Previously it had been a company town home to nearly 200 families until the early 1930s.
Since 1996, Mentryville restoration efforts have suffered from hard times. A wildfire in October 2003 nearly wiped it out with the following year being further devastated by El Niño. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of visitors has also decreased significantly. “We’re also trying to get the historical narrative out there to the general public to encourage more people to come out to the area for hiking as well as tours,” Decker said
As a new non-profit founded during the pandemic, Decker’s faced a lot of hurdles in restoring the township. The pandemic has caused Mentryville to be overlooked with less people donating to the site.
“I understand with everything going on right now that people might be weary about donating in general, the pandemic has forced a lot of places like Mentryville to either be closed or overlooked,” Decker said. “At the end of the day it’s all about money.”
The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) had previously worked with the now dissolved Friends Of Mentryville to help restore the Pico Cottage with period accurate furniture. The MRCA is now in contact with Mentryville, Inc. to assist in restoration efforts. As pandemic restrictions are further loosened, the MRCA plans to organize a volunteer effort once the funds are raised. Due to the scale of the task, Decker expects the funds needed to be somewhere within six figures.
“It’s not just the town we’re working on preserving, there also things up the canyon like Johnson Park which was the old recreation ground for the oil men,” he said.
Today, historic buildings still standing include Charles Alexander Mentry’s grand thirteen-room mansion, a one-room schoolhouse, and a period barn. Mentryville, Inc.’s primary goal after restoring the buildings is to provide tours and education programs. Future plans also include renting out sections of Mentryville for big venues and events.
Mentry was the oil well’s driller and later superintendent of the company that would become Chevron. Born 1847 in France to a blacksmith father, Mentry was “raised to be very hands on and inventive,” Decker said.
Mentry came to California in 1864 to the area that would later become Newhall in 1876 drilling for oil in Pico Canyon. Between 1875 and 1876 he would drill four oil wells for the California Star Oil (CSO) Company which would later become Standard Oil California and then ultimately the gas company Chevron.
The oil in Pico was unique possessing an emerald green hue used by the local Tataviam and Tongva tribes, long before it was commercially produced by settlers, as a water sealant for their homes and baskets, according to Decker.
Mentry would then go on to build a pipeline from Mentryville to the Pioneer Oil Refinery, California’s first successful oil refinery located in Newhall, where the oil would be refined and shipped down to the ports in Long Beach.
Starting from 1880 a company town sprung up out of nowhere around the oil well, Pico No. 4. (now named CSO 4), with almost 200 families living and working at these oil wells at its peak. Said residents mostly hailed from Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, as well as the newly established Soledad Judicial Township (now modern day Saugus and Newhall).
At its high point, the town had everything from a dance hall to a school house and bakery, as well as boarding houses for single men, and homes built by the families of oil workers.
“It was basically a full-fledged, self-sustaining town that sprang up,” Decker said. However, Mentryville was a dry community, forbidding alcohol consumption, with most men travelling to “the only two saloons in Newhall that catered to the oil workers, the Oil Exchange and the Derek Saloon.”
Mentry would later pass away in October 1900 from Typhoid fever, with the position of town superintendent being succeeded by Walton Young. People would continue to live in Mentryville until 1932 as the amount of oil being produced slowed over time till there was barely enough to churn a big profit.
“Most of these residents would pack up nomadically, taking apart their houses board by board and rebuild them in Newhall,” Decker said. Many of the older buildings on Newhall and Market Street are in fact made of recycled material previously used in Mentryville.
The only resident afterwards was a single caretaker residing in Mentry’s thirteen-room mansion, known as the Pico Cottage. The last of these caretakers was Francis “Frenchy” Lagasse, who moved into the Pico Cottage with his wife and children in 1966.
When Standard Oil of California wanted to raze the remnants of the ghost town, Lagasse persuaded the company to allow him to restore the town. And with help from the Santa Clarita Historical Society, Lagasse eventually began offering tours of Mentryville.
Lagasse would continue to live there till 1994 when the Northridge Earthquake damaged the home.
In 1996, Chevron would donate the land to the MRCA, a joint agency with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy under the agreement that Mentryville was to be open to the public.
Decker believes places like Mentryville need and deserve recognition. On July 21, he posted on Facebook about his plans for Mentryville’s continued preservation to be completed by 2026, the 150th anniversary of Mentryville and Newhal’s founding, “to have Mentryville restored and the buildings open by appointment.”
“Without Mentryville, a huge chunk of California and United States history would be missing,” he said. “It’s imperative places like Mentryville are preserved to help illustrate crucial chapters in our history that made our country as well as our own hometown the place it is today.”
Those who are interested in donating can visit their website to find further information on Mentryville’s history. Stay up to date on news from the Mentryville, Inc. by following their social media on Facebook