MENTRYVILLE — Just months after wildfires threatened to destroy what's left of California's first commercial oil town, local historians received an office supply box that might as well have been shaped like a treasure chest.
A peek inside the cardboard box revealed contents that will take perhaps a year to properly catalog: original black-and-white photos from the 1920s and '30s of Charles Sitzman, the last superintendent of Mentryville, and his family, as well as a work log from the 1880s.
"I figured it would be of more use to (the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society) than it would sitting in a box in my basement in Missouri," said Merle Cook, 57, one of Sitzman's grandsons. "My mother grew up in Mentryville and she saved all this stuff."
Tucked in Pico Canyon, just southwest of Stevenson Ranch, Mentryville's most productive well — known as Pico Number 4 — gushed oil in 1876 and became the first commercially successful oil well in the western United States, luring dozens of families, according to the Historical Society.
By the time Charles Sitzman began his 10-year run as superintendent in 1927, moving with his wife and two children into the 13-room mansion originally built for the town's namesake, Charles Alexander Mentry, most of the transient working families had moved on.
But Cook's mother, born Barbara Sitzman in 1921, relished her years in the oil town, her son said. She and her brother, Phillip, attended the one-room Felton schoolhouse, just a skip from their house.
Jeff Boultinghouse, a SCV Historical Society board member, is familiar with the layout of the once vibrant town — copies of old photographs have been around for years. But the volume of documents and images contained in Cook's recent donation is invaluable.
"Anytime you get even one thing, it's important," Boultinghouse said. "This isn't just a box about the Sitzmans, though. This is about the oil workers, it's about the how people lived, it puts things in context.
"You put all of this together and it tells a story. That's what history is," he said.
Barbara Sitzman Cook died in 2002 at 81. After she suffered a series of small strokes in 1995, her son, Merle, who grew up in Newhall and moved to Missouri nearly four years ago, asked her to document the collection of photos while she was still able.
Together, they made a collection of audio tapes that now serve as a guide to numbered images contained in two large photo albums.
"We had been going through some of her old steamer trunks and I knew if we didn't make these cassettes, we'd end up with all these pictures and no one would ever know who the people were," Cook said.
"She was always very nostalgic about (Mentryville). She had fun growing up there and I think talking about it was a way to keep it alive for her," he said.
Anne Marie Mills, recently hired as a curator for the SCV Historical Society, has started listening to the tapes and said she was touched not only by their existence, but by their personal quality.
"You can't underestimate the importance of oral history," Mills said. "Just hearing her voice, knowing that these are her authentic memories, it's very special."