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What did Farnesi know?

Madera County Historical Society

This derrick was all that was left after Madera’s “Great Oil Scam” costs scores of residents some of their hard-earned money during the Great Depression.


By now everyone in these parts knows about the “great Madera oil scam.” It is an oft-repeated story, but there is one thing about that caper that I have always wondered about.

According to Bill Farnesi, it all happened one night in the mid-30s. His dad, Alfredo “Skeeko” Farnesi, was fast asleep in the living quarters behind his gas station, when he heard a rap on his door. When he answered the knock, there stood a man who owned quite a bit of land in the Sharon district. The excited Madera rancher insisted that Farnesi get out of bed and sell him some gasoline; there was something big brewing out on his ranch.

Farnesi complied with the request on the condition that the rancher would come back the next morning and explain what was going on. The man was as good as his word, and the next morning he was back with the full story. There was oil on his land!

Apparently some “oil men” from the west side of Fresno County had paid the Sharon rancher a visit and informed him that in all probability a healthy deposit of black gold lay just a few hundred feet from the surface of his property. The rancher was all ears and of course quickly came up with the $200 that it would take to make an exploratory drill.

A few days later, a dignified looking gentleman dressed in a three-piece suit and wearing a derby hat drove up to Skeeko’s and inquired if he had any used oil for sale. Farnesi indicated that he had 6 barrels of old oil, and eyeing his customer, he asked to what use he was going to put it. The dandy replied that he was connected with the “oil operation” just north of town and needed it to lubricate the chain driven machinery that performed the drilling.

Smelling a nice profit, Farnesi informed the man that he would let him have the used oil for $20 per barrel. After a little haggling, the customer accepted the price and attempted to pay Farnesi with a check, which was refused out of hand by Skeeko. He informed his customer that the bank was open, and he should have no trouble cashing a check there. In the meantime, Bill Farnesi said he was given the job of guarding the oil until the customer returned with the cash.

Before long the man was back with the money and the oil was on its way to the oil-drilling site on the Sharon ranch.

It took just a few days for the rancher to learn that, indeed, signs of oil were spotted. In fact, the dirt around the drilling aperture was soaked with black oil. All that was needed was some more money to drill just a little deeper. The property owner quickly shelled out more drilling funds and then agreed to a plan that would bring in all the money they needed.

Under the guidance of the out-of-town “oilman,” they decided to take in partners. They would share their good fortune with local investors. Soon word got around town that a sure-fire petroleum bonanza was just sitting out there in the Sharon district waiting to make somebody rich.

In a few days, everybody was talking about the coming oil boom, and a few were buying in at $2 per share. Then came the denouement. The fancy dressed “oilman” announced that an oil gusher could be expected the next Saturday afternoon, and the public was invited to see Madera’s miracle.

Sure enough, on the designated day, with scores of witnesses standing behind the safety ropes, the gusher came. It shot up to the top of the derrick and over the sides. The workmen hurried to turn off the spigot, and the people lined up to buy shares in the Madera Oil Company.

As Bill Farnesi told me this story, he couldn’t stifle a little giggle. He said that if anyone had made his way to the derrick and rubbed the oil-laden sand between his fingers, suspicions would have leaped to his mind. If someone had then walked over to the lean-to work shed, he would have seen that an engine driven pump had been installed to propel used oil to the drill and up the derrick.

It was all a fraud, Bill said, and his dad had unknowingly been part of it. Perhaps that was why he didn’t blow the whistle on the scam.

By the next day, the “oilmen” were nowhere to be found, and all of their equipment, except the derrick, was gone. A lot of folks in Madera had been taken to the cleaners.

A rather curious silence settled down over the town, and not many people were saying a whole lot about the oil boom. The whole thing just kind of blew over, and folks just forgot about it.

Perhaps one day, if this writer can make contact with the family that owned the ranch, we can find out how much it cost them. In the meantime, we can’t help but to wonder whether Bill Farnesi, had anything invested in the great Madera oil scam.

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