My Great-Grandfather, the Oil Promoter


I didn't get very far with my plans for doing genealogy this holiday weekend. I got carried away with exploring Facebook, and cleaning up the place a bit. I did manage to get my piles of boxes in a more orderly fashion. You know what I mean - all the files that should have been entered into the database long ago, along with documents and photos waiting to be scanned - or identified at the very least.

One item I found was my daughter's certified birth certificate - the same one she frantically needed when she moved to Massachusetts and needed to get a driver's license there. Well, I found it a year later neatly stored with photos of my favorite dog ever. She is now secure to know her valuable records are safe with me....

P0048 - Thomas Abraham Neff Piper copy

I also found a box of various copies of records and correspondence from about 15 years ago. In it I found a copy of a letter given to me by my aunt from a distant cousin in Montana written by the daughter of the sister of my great-grandfather (got that?). There were also a lot of records she also sent showing my Piper genealogy into the 1600s - today I know those are not correct.

But the thing that caught my eye was the discussion of my great grandfather - "he was quite the 'promoter' - the crook of the family". She went on to talk about how he was always after money from relatives for his schemes. My two living aunts kind of sigh when talking of him and not much is said.

One of the things you learn in life is things are not black and white. It is the same in genealogy - things come in shades of gray. It is no different with Thomas Abraham Neff Piper.

In short, he was born in Saline County, Missouri in 1870 and died in Columbia, Tulomne Co., California in 1947. He came to California as a young man. One of the first things I found almost 30 years ago was that he and my great-grandmother, Anna Lines, got married in 1892 - 9 days after my grandfather was born in Visalia. I had uncovered my first skeleton and as my dad said at the time, "Well, that explains a lot of things...". But those things are another story unto themselves.

In 1895 he was in LA as a miller. But by 1900 he was in Kern County working the oil fields. He worked the oil industry the bulk of his life. In his later life in the 30's he reopened a gold mine up the road from Columbia - the Shanghai mine. I fondly remember spending my childhood summers at Yankee Hill above the mine where he had built his cabin.

Earlier this year I got around to watching "There Will Be Blood". It was about a man working the oil fields of the southern Central Valley and the tale of how wild and vicious that industry was. It got me curious as little as I know of Thomas Piper, I did hear he had made his millions and lost them in his career.

I decided to search the newspaper databases - I had started using them on another family branch and was surprised how much could be learned.

I still know little about the Kern County oil activities of Tom Piper, but early on I found a USGS report from about 5 years ago about the Los Gatos oil wells. The interest of the report was to use the oil well logs to study the ground structure. In it they referred to this "T. A. Piper" as a very enthusiastic promoter. There were also references to the T. A. P. Oil Company that they presumed was Tom Piper's.

From mostly the San Jose Mercury I learned of the Los Gatos oil "rush" from about 1910-14. It seems Tom Piper was the lead promoter in this. in one issue about 3/4 of the front page of the Merc was reserved to Tom and his oil wells - photos and all. He was quite the promoter. Since then I have found family photos of my grand-aunt and grandmother in orchards printed on the back as "near the TAP well". These photos were vintage 1918 or so, but during the years he lived in San Jose.

OK, there was this time he was arrested for fraud, but he beat the rap. Some guy accused him of fraudulently misrepresenting the number of leases he held. He was eventually acquitted of the charge, but he was arrested jailed and the case went to trial in the glare of the newspapers. There was also the bizarre case in San Francisco where he was referred to as "half oil and half candy tycoon". He was accused of selling a candy store and factory that he didn't own! This was so bizarre I was not sure it was him, but the lawyer he retained for his defense was a San Jose lawyer he had used in other cases. The charges were dismissed in this case, and he ended up suing the accuser.

One of the things that stuck me were the quotes that paralleled the movie I referred to earlier. In the Merc they often quoted Tom Piper and they were like lines out of the movie. One being telling potential leasers to sign with nobody but him - to trust no others. Then there was the early besting of big oil to only later enter into deals with them. It was indeed a wild industry.

After 1914, the news trailed off and things got quiet. In the 1930s he again started making the news, but this time as a promoter of the Shanghai gold mine which he managed and later bought. Strangely this time the press releases and news seems only to have made the Los Angeles papers. This lasted only a couple of years and after that he was out of the news until he passed away in 1947.

Well, arrested twice that I know of - but never convicted. Was he a crook? I am not so sure of that versus being the last relic of the frontier way of doing business and having big dreams. And while his fortunes swung wildly over the years he died a modest man leaving his family Yankee Hill in the Sierra foothills to enjoy for several decades. I do thank him warmly for that.

© Ken Piper 2016