Nestled between orange orchards and oil derricks rests the sleepy city of Santa Paula, a short trip up from Ventura on the 126 and a slight step back in time. As with any city or county that has existed for more than a century, there exist rivalries and small-town feuds — especially where local high school football is concerned. Ventura versus Oxnard, Camarillo versus Oxnard, Oxnard versus Oxnard — these are your standard Friday Night Lights examples. But for a taste of history not commonly found across the country, take a look at Santa Paula’s near-century-old rivalry with Fillmore, a football tradition dating back to the 1920s.
The two teams, having played their 100th match against each other in November, are the subject of an installation at the California Oil Museum in downtown Santa Paula. “Red, White and Rivalry: A History of Santa Paula High School Football” is a working time machine, transporting visitors back to 1924 when it all began with a victory for the Santa Paula team.
Adorning the walls of the small space allotted by the museum in the old headquarters of the Union Oil Company (itself a historical landmark) are patches and varsity coats, black and white photos of players wearing leather helmets and nondescript uniforms; on a stand rests a large cheerleader’s horn, the lettering worn and faded after years of use.
A mural made by a former Cardinal’s player takes up a large portion of the far wall. Caricatures of player’s bodies are drawn in detail, while cutouts of their heads taken from real photos are pasted to each. Though the piece of art shows much water damage and wear, the feeling of camaraderie and friendship still resonates, a theme that runs through the many years of photos and memorabilia on display.
Robert Colvin, volunteer docent for the museum, waits behind the counter near the front, greeting visitors and taking names down in the registry. He appears to be genuinely happy to be surrounded by the county’s oil history. Large, old-fashioned oil pumps, lit up like an oil mogul’s Christmas tree, are housed just around the corner from the football exhibit.
“There was a gentleman here earlier who played for one of the teams in the ’40s,” he said, stopping midway through the tour of the museum. “He could point at every player in the picture and have a story about him. He could tell you which guys were alive and which weren’t any longer.”
Some former players, highlighted in the exhibit, made a name for themselves in the trenches during World War II. Tom Rafferty, who played for the 1929 Santa Paula team, was drafted and awarded several medals in the course of his service; his military portrait rests beside a much younger image of him in full football attire surrounded by his former teammates.
Felix “Zeke” Garcia, who, at 89, is the oldest surviving member of the 1940 team, graduated high school and tried out for another Cardinals team, that of St. Louis fame. Whether or not he would have gone on to football stardom will never be known, as he, stopped playing after he was drafted to fight in World War II.
Coming out of the exhibit, it’s easy to feel nostalgia for a time most of us have only experienced through film or literature. Though small in scale, this exhibit packs an enormous amount of passion that echoes the town’s love of the game, loyalty to tradition and, most of all, its respect for those who played, past and present.