Click on any picture to see a larger version.
If you mentioned “Los Angeles” in a word association test, people who don’t live there might respond with “Hollywood,” “Disneyland,” “surfing,” or perhaps “earthquake.” People who do live there might respond with “traffic” (along with an obscenity or two). One word you probably wouldn’t hear is “oil.” But underneath the Los Angeles Basin is the third largest collection of oil fields in the United States. Although most of the oil was extracted during the twentieth century, as of 2010 more than 3,000 active wells scattered around Southern California still produce around 66,000 barrels daily.
The oil was first discovered by scouts on Gaspar de Portolá’s 1769 expedition to chart Spain’s Alta California territory. Passing by what is now the Wilshire Boulevard “Miracle Mile,” they found springs and bubbling “geysers” of tar, which they named Los Volcanes de Brea, “the Tar Volcanoes.” These are now known as “the La Brea Tar Pits,” a redundant macaronic phrase that means “the the tar tar pits.” The Tongva Indians had been using the tar and asphalt to waterproof their boats for centuries before Portolá, but of course that doesn’t count.
In the early nineteenth century, the tar was a valuable resource for waterproofing the roofs of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. The tar pits later became part of Rancho La Brea, a Mexican land grant named for the tar. In 1860, lawyer and surveyor Henry Hancock bought Rancho La Brea from the destitute descendants of its original grantees. In 1916, Hancock’s son deeded to Los Angeles County the nine hectares of the Rancho surrounding the tar pits, now called Hancock Park.
The tar pits are a tourist attraction because of creatures that lived well before the Tongva. Sediments containing the remains of sea life that became oil and gas accumulated for millions of years, until the ocean receded about 100,000 years ago to expose the Los Angeles Basin. In a few places like Hancock Park, the oil and gas seep and bubble to the surface without any drilling. Crude oil is a mix of hydrocarbons, of which tar and asphalt are the heaviest, thickest, and most persistent.
During the last Ice Age, between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, Southern California’s climate was similar to that of present-day San Francisco. On a warm summer or autumn day, thick tar and asphalt could become sticky enough to ensnare even a large animal that unknowingly stepped into a pool of it concealed by vegetation, dust, or water.
The Ice Age population of Los Angeles included many large mammals that
are now extinct: Mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, and giant ground
sloths, along with the saber-toothed cats and wolves that ate them. They
didn’t get trapped in the tar very often; maybe one prey animal and ten
predators got permanently stuck every decade. But over 30,000 years that
added up to a lot of fossils, especially since the tar and oil are good
preservatives of the victims’ remains.
Paleontologists began excavating in Hancock Park at the beginning of the twentieth century. But until 1977, visitors who wanted to see the discoveries had to visit the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, 11 kilometers away. When reconstructed mammoth skeletons attracted attention in the 1950s, the Natural History Museum built the Observation Pit, a circular brick building overlooking an excavated tar pit that still contains fossils.
The lack of a museum in Hancock Park irked George C. Page, a former Nebraska farm boy who moved to Los Angeles in 1917 and made his fortune shipping California oranges around the country. In 1973 he endowed a museum that interprets the tar pits and displays a collection of fossils and reconstructed skeletons. The Page Museum, a “satellite” of the Natural History Museum, opened in April 1977.
You can also visit a viewing station overlooking “Pit 91,” the last
active excavation site in Hancock Park. During the summer “field season”
you can watch the excavation team at work. That work was temporarily
suspended in 2007, so the team could excavate the 23 boxes of new fossils
discovered during the construction of an adjacent parking garage. Although
it’s the large mammals that captivate the public, paleontologists are just
as interested in the remains of insects, plants, dust, and pollen trapped
in the tar. These “microfossils” provide valuable clues to Ice Age climate
Arthur Fremont Gilmore, another Midwestern farm boy, moved to Los Angeles from Illinois in 1870. He bought a 104-hectare parcel a kilometer north of the La Brea Tar Pits and started a dairy farm. While drilling for water in 1905, he struck oil. He quickly abandoned his cows in favor of that much more lucrative enterprise.
His son, Earl Bell Gilmore, took over the business in 1918. With a talent for marketing and promotion, “E.B” expanded Gilmore Oil into the largest independent oil distributor in the western United States, with some 3,500 Gilmore gas stations. (The Gilmore brand disappeared in 1945, after the company that became Mobil Oil bought a controlling interest in Gilmore’s company.) He dabbled in auto racing, built a stadium for his minor-league baseball team on the former dairy farm land, and invented the self-service gas station.
In 1934, local businessmen Roger Dahlhjelm and Fred Beck approached Gilmore with a plan to let farmers rent space on a vacant section of Gilmore’s land at the corner of 3rd Street and Fairfax, where they could park their trucks and sell produce. Even during the Great Depression, the “Farmers Public Market” was so successful that Dahljelm and Beck provided permanent wooden booths to replace the farmers’ trucks. And they removed “Public” from the name.
The Los Angeles Farmers Market (officially spelled without an apostrophe) began to take on its current form in 1952, after CBS built their Television City studios on the former site of Gilmore’s baseball stadium. The stars and the people who made them shine needed a place to eat lunch, and the nearby Farmers Market met that need with vendors selling prepared foods.
Although some of the booths still sell produce, meat, and baked goods, the Farmers Market is now mainly known as a food court offering diverse cuisines. It also has exhibits about the site’s history, including “Earl’s Service,” a complete replica of a 1936 Gilmore gas station. Farmers Market blends into a newer (and considerably more upscale) mall, The Grove. It isn’t clear where Farmers Market ends and The Grove begins; but you’ll know you’ve crossed into The Grove when a merchant refuses to validate your Farmers Market parking ticket.