Won’t Quit the Oil Fields : Wildcatter and Inventor Still Going Strong at 89

Times Staff Writer

E. A. (Ben) Bender is often called the last of the great California oil field wildcatters--and, at 89, he has no thought of calling it quits.

In fact, he hopes to make a killing on the latest of his more than 50 oil equipment inventions, a long-stroke pumping unit called Prolift, in which he has invested more than 20 years and $1 million.

Three prototypes of the new pumping unit, which features a continuous mechanical stroking system, stand behind Bender’s office, ready to be sold at prices ranging from $32,000 to $72,000.

“These mechanical rigs, powered by either gas engines or electric motors, will mean much higher and more efficient production to the operator,” said Bender, who has worked in the oil fields of Kern County for 66 years.


He has done it all: roustabout, roughneck, mechanic, driller, superintendent, wildcatter, independent contractor, inventor. It would be hard to find an oil field production rig anywhere in the world that does not have something on it that Bender either invented or developed. He receives royalties from many of his patents.

And he is still going strong. He continues to own and operate several producing oil wells.

He was the third of nine children, born May 11, 1899, in a sod house on a farm at Fesenden, N. D. “On the farm, if we needed something, we built it,” Bender recalled.

He left North Dakota and the farm, and headed West, arriving in Bakersfield in 1922 with $6 in his pocket. He went to work in the oil fields.


“Rent was $5 a week. A good dinner, including soup, coffee and dessert, was 25 cents. The opportunity was here, and I took advantage of it,” he said recently.

In 1936, when steam was still used to power oil equipment, Bender assembled his first internal combustion rig and was able to bring in a well in eight hours, instead of the 10 to 20 days it would have taken to do the job with steam.

As a wildcatter drilling for oil on gut feelings rather than scientific knowledge, Bender says he hit more dry holes than anyone else in the state--62 by his calculations--but he also hit some pay dirt. He has drilled 230 wells in all. “My biggest bonanza was in 1962, in a field called Asphalto in the McKittrick area that produced more than 34 million barrels,” he recalled.

“There are never any dull moments. I’ve been stupid. I’ve been smart. It’s all a matter of timing. I have made oodles of money and had a good time. I have been everywhere in the world, China, Russia, South America, all over the Mideast and Europe--you name it.

“I came at the turn of the century and have no plans to leave before the turn of the next century. I am in good health. I don’t wear glasses. I have my own teeth. I don’t worry. I don’t smoke, and I have a Scotch and soda now and then.

“Retirement isn’t in my vocabulary. It’s a dirty, nasty word. Two of my best friends worked for major oil companies. They retired at 65, and within two years they were gone.”