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A California city is celebrating its history as an oil town


Oildorado is back after a pandemic postponement. The fossil fuel festival in Taft, Calif., celebrates the resource that built the town. Festivities include the Maids of Petroleum pageant and a facial hair contest called Whiskerino. I wonder if BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music, participated. But Matt Guilhem of member station KCRW was there and sent this audio postcard from California's Central Valley.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: Day or night, the sheriff of Oildorado is keeping an eye out for people to lock up. It's not jail.

BRYAN SELLMAN: Well, it's not. It's called the hoosegow. We call it the hoosegow, yeah.

GUILHEM: Over more than 30 years, Bryan Selman has risen from a deputy in the sheriff's posse to the main guy. Sporting a waistcoat, black cowboy hat and a pair of revolvers, he says his primary job is making people smile.

SELLMAN: We all ham it up and have a good time with it. And that’s what it’s all designed to do.

GUILHEM: Another duty, beard enforcement.

SELLMAN: If you don't have a beard, then you have to get a smooth puss badge. Or we can arrest you, and we take you around town, just hoot it up. And it's all just for fun.

GUILHEM: That's right, gents. You could be headed for the hoosegow if you didn't purchase a smooth puss badge. For those that do get nabbed, it's not that bad. There's talk of chilly adult beverages for the scruff-less. Because it takes over the entire town, Taft celebrates Oildorado only once every five years. But like so many events, the petrol party was called off in 2020. Shannon Miller, the first female president of the Oildorado Committee, is appreciating its return.

SHANNON MILLER: You know, it's 10 days long, and there's 65 events in those 10 days. And I've been able to, you know, have a sigh of relief to see that it's happening, and everybody is receptive to it and people have shown up.

GUILHEM: Over the course of the festival, she expects some 30,000 people to participate. Among them is Les Clark. The lifelong oilman is pushing 80 and got his start in the local oil fields.

LES CLARK: There's a lot of hardworking people out here, and I think that this gives them a time to celebrate and say, hey, we're still here.

GUILHEM: As in, these blue-collar oil jobs continue to be the backbone of Taft. Those are on display in one of Oildorado's events, the Oilfield Skills Competition. There's a category for welding, crane operation and one called roustabout. That's what Alex Hernandez is getting ready for. The 23-year-old was head roustabout at his oil company.

ALEX HERNANDEZ: I had originally just joined for the welding competition. But I was talking to the president of the company, and he asked me to do the roustabout one. I'm more than happy to do it.

GUILHEM: In the oil trade, roustabouts are the grunts who do a lot of the hardest physical labor before they climb the industry ladder. For this category, the competitors have to assemble a yard-long piece of pipe using a bunch of tools, including an orange wrench the length of your arm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right, here we go. Ready? Go.

GUILHEM: Hernandez grabs the wrench and some pipe and sets to work. His focus is intense. At one point, he's pressing so hard on the wrench his feet lift off the ground. There's plenty of hammering, too. With a couple of final swings, Hernandez comes out of his trance.



GUILHEM: For not originally signing up for the roustabout contest, Hernandez didn't do too bad.

HERNANDEZ: It went just like it should. I think it's just the nervous - that kind of got to me, the me being nervous. But I think I did pretty good.

GUILHEM: Better than good - he won and is now an Oildorado champion. For the 9,000 or so people who call the town of Taft home, all the hoopla is a way to show their pride. While Oildorado celebrates the community's petroleum past, black gold remains very much a part of the town's present.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in Taft, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VINE SONG, "MARY JANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.