John Irwin, whose name is inseparably interwoven with the history of oil development in southern California and who became one of the most widely known oil men in the United States, had attained the age of four score years when he passed away in Santa Paula on the 12th of March, 1921. He was born in Cherry Tree, Venango County, Pennsylvania, May 4, 18741, a son of William and Eliza (Stewart) Irwin. The paternal great-grandfather, Richard Irwin, was born in County Armagh, Ireland, in 1740, and immigrated to the United States and Pennsylvania in 1761, at the age of twenty-one years. The paternal grandfather was one of the early settlers of Venango County, and lived to be eighty-seven years of age. In 1809 one of his brothers, John Irwin, built the first grist-mill at Cherry Tree, and the first sawmill in the township was built by another brother, Ninian, in 1823. John and Ninian Irwin were appointed justices of the peace and held office for many years.
When John Irwin, our subject, was yet a small lad, his father kept a dairy and he became interested in stock at a time when the average boy knows little outside of his rudimentary studies. At the age of eleven he bought and sold cows and was as familiar with their good and bad points as are many men of mature years. By practical experience he also became familiar with the arduous work around the farm, and thus no royal road led to the success of later years. The death of his father when the son was but nineteen years added to his responsibilities, for his mother, six children, and the management of the farm, practically devolved upon his none too strong shoulders. In connection with his other interests had ever been that of oil production, of which he was incessantly reminded by its close proximity to his home, and during the few intervals of leisure allowed between his farm duties he worked for wages at the oil wells. In time he picked up quite a bit of knowledge of the oil business, and eventually had an outfit and took contracts to sink wells, the owner of the wells furnishing the boiler engine and wood rig, the other material being furnished by the driller. Gradually working his way up, he in time became the owner of wells, and among the wells with which he became connected by right of purchase or development was the Old Sherman, which was drilled to a depth of six hundred feet by himself and an older brother. This famous old spouter had an industrious career of over twenty years, and when its days of usefulness were at an end it was established it had flowed one million and nine hundred barrels, or about twelve hundred barrels a day.
In 1880 Mr. Irwin spent six months on the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and among other undertakings drilled a water well at Tower City, In April, 1883, he came to southern California on a prospecting tour in company with Lyman Stewart and immediately recognized the hidden possibilities of Ventura County. He ventured upon what is known in the west as “wild-catting,” but which settled into a fine substantial business after roads were made, machinery brought from the east, and the general preparations perfected for oil development in this part of the state. For assistance Mr. Stewart telegraphed for W. L. Hardinson, whose interest became vital as his own, and in July, 1883, was formed the Hardinson-Stewart Oil Company, of which Mr. Irwin became field superintendent, and continued in this capacity until 1887. He then went to Tar Creek, in the Sespe district, and there was formed the Sespe Oil Company, Hon. Thomas R. Bard being a member of the same. In the producing of wells with a pipe line to the field, Mr. Irwin acted as superintendent of the field work, having complete supervision of the business of sinking the wells, of their production, and of the roads leading to them. Thomas R. Bard was president and W. L. Hardinson general manager. After the consolidation of several of the oil companies into the Union Oil Company of California, Mr. Irwin became identified with the concern as general superintendent, and was thus employed up to January of 1900, when he retired from active business life. His years of experience contributed to rend him one of the most widely known oil men in the country, and his advice was often sought where the soil produced evidences of its existence. Nor must it be supposed that his field of activity was limited to oil production, for he was variously interested in the general development of his county and was one of the organizers of the Santa Paula Hardware Company and of the Santa Paula Refinery. “John Irwin,” said one who knew him well, “was known as one of the keenest and best judges of oil territory, and also had the faculty of being able to handle a big job as he could get more out of a crew of men than anyone else in the territory. His men loved and respected him, knowing he never asked what he could not do himself.” He cast his first presidential vote for Abraham Lincoln and always voted the straight Republican ticket.
In 1868 Mr. Irwin married Caroline B. Canfield, a native of Niagara County, New York, who was eighty-nine years of age when she passed away on the 25th of October, 1931, and would have been a nonagenarian had she lived until the following March. She was buried beside her husband in the family plot in the cemetery at Santa Paula. Ralph M. Irwin, son of John and Caroline Irwin and the only surviving member of this honored pioneer family, was born at Cherry Tree, Venango County, Pennsylvania, September 9, 1874. He has never married but remained the devoted companion of his mother until her death. He has manifested marked business ability in carrying forward his father’s various interests and has acquired valuable oil land.
Transcribed by V. Gerald Iaquinta.
Source: California of the South Vol. IV, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 591-593, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis. 1933.
© 2012 V. Gerald Iaquinta.