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The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has the distinction of being the largest offshore oil spill in U.S history. But the largest U.S. spill on land actually occurred a hundred years ago in a small town in California.
The Lakeview Gusher, at nine million barrels, helped create the town now known as Taft. And there, locals are once again gathering up for their regular tribute to oil, a festival known as Oildorado Days.
Gloria Hillard has the story.
GLORIA HILLARD: To get an idea of just how important oil is to this town of 9,000, you need just visit the Oildorado Days souvenir store. In honor of the centennial observation, it opened early, and business is brisk.
Unidentified Woman #1: There you go. Thank you very much.
Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.
Unidentified Man: Thank you.
Unidentified Woman #1: Come back and see us again.
HILLARD: There are oil-themed Christmas ornaments, coffee cups, key chains, barstools, posters and puzzles. Oildorado Days, held every five years, is in honor of the town's oil history, and that can be traced back to the Lakeview Gusher.
Ms. AGNES HARDT (Docent, West Kern Oil Museum): It blew in on March 15, 1910.
HILLARD: That's Agnes Hardt of the West Kern Oil Museum. She says the gusher shot some 200 feet in the air and rained down onto the surrounding hills for a year and a half.
Ms. HARDT: Many people have been trying to compare this to the Gulf disaster. The only problem was no one here ever considered the Lakeview Gusher a disaster.
HILLARD: It was a time when lakes of oil covering the landscape meant only one thing - wealth and prosperity.
Eric Cooper is president of the Oildorado Days Festival.
Mr. ERIC COOPER (President, Oildorado Days Festival): During the boomtown days of the early 1900s, we had hippodromes, we had opera theaters, we had all kinds of incredible infrastructure here in town.
HILLARD: Today, many of the original buildings that oil built are still standing, but they're faint ghosts of their former selves. Only the gleaming art deco marquee of the Fox Theater stands out on this nearly deserted historic part of town. Cooper is quick to say...
Mr. COOPER: Don't judge a book by the cover, and there is a lot of money here in Taft. And you could very well be talking to a millionaire and don't even know it in Taft.
HILLARD: Like right now?
Mr. COOPER: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HILLARD: As far as the eye can see, petroleum fields dotted with oil derricks surround the city of Taft. And nearly every pickup truck in the packed parking lot of the Ot Cookhouse & Saloon belongs to an oil company.
In eager anticipation of Oildorado Days, a number of men in town have facial hair. With at least 2 inches of growth underneath his chin, Randy Miller is a serious contender for the festival's Whiskerino contest.
Mr. RANDY MILLER: The men are supposed to grow a beard. And if they don't grow a beard and get caught by our sheriff and the sheriff's posse, they'll be arrested and have to buy a Smooth Puss badge to get them out of jail.
HILLARD: And women aren't off the hook. If you're not sporting a ponytail or a bun, he says, you'd be advised to buy a Tessie Garratt badge. Miller gave me a second glance.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, you will need to get one if you come back to town.
HILLARD: The town recently dedicated a 26,000-pound bronze sculpture as a monument to oil workers. And concern that the town's celebration of oil would be tainted by the images of the BP spill appears to have subsided.
Twenty-two-year-old Kayla Hillygus is the reigning Oildorado Queen.
Ms. KAYLA HILLYGUS: We're proud of, you know, our Oildorado. I don't think we're trying not to pay too much attention to the negatives.
HILLARD: Even the site of the Lakeview Gusher, which spewed millions of barrels of crude, is now covered with sagebrush and has become a tourist attraction.
For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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