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A Gold Skeleton in Our Closet

July 21, 2017

I was unable to locate the accompanying photograph when I first published this piece in 2012. I recently found the photo in my late mother's things.




Most families have their own stories and legends, and mine is no exception. In Hayes family lore, Great Great Grandpa Phil is credited with finding the second largest gold nugget ever discovered in the state of California.


As I understand it, my ancestors were once wheelers and dealers in Central California. They lived on an impressive ranch near Hollister and rode around in monogrammed carriages. The source of their affluence was—GOLD. In 1886; Phil Hayes found a single gold nugget weighing in at nearly forty pounds. He was clearing out a dried-up arroyo near Sierra City when he saw something gleaming in the roots of a tree. The nugget was exhibited in San Francisco before being sold. When finally smelted down, it coined out at nearly $7,000, a fortune in those days.


The money was invested in a gold mine near the site where the nugget had been found. The gamble didn’t pay off; the mine was soon exhausted and never yielded enough gold to pay for itself. That nugget must have blasted out of a volcano a thousand miles away and washed down the arroyo to end up where it did. The family fell on hard times, and eventually The Hayes Mine went bankrupt. My dad would eventually be born into a family that was among the poorest of the poor.


This was the story I ran with as a kid, but I later came to doubt it, especially after checking the Internet and finding nothing about the so-called Hayes nugget. I remained a Doubting Thomas until my research turned up a book published by the Sierra County Historical Society—with a photograph of an impressive forty pound nugget. The caption stated that it was the property of The Hayes Mine. It didn’t say anything about the nugget being the second largest ever found in California, but it was pretty darn big.


Shortly before my dad died I asked why he never mentioned it.


“Why should I?” he said. “It’s nothing to be proud of.”


An odd response. “Why not?” I asked.


He looked at me sheepishly. “I’ll let you in on a family secret. The big gold nugget found in that arroyo?”



“Grandpa Phil discovered it all right, just like you’ve heard.”


I waited for the shoe to drop.


“But Grandpa didn’t own the land where that nugget was discovered. Someone else did.”


“You mean…?”


Dad nodded solemnly. “My grandpa stole that nugget.”





A photo of the nugget, which wasn't actually found inside the Hayes Mine.





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So I guess the mine not paying off was karmic payback. I wonder how much you'd get these days for a nugget like that? A couple million at least I'd wager.
By: PT Dilloway on July 21, 2017
He stole it? That's why the mine never paid out.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on July 21, 2017
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. The outcome is a case of bad luck.
By: Daniel LaFrance on July 21, 2017
What a fascinating story! (I kept picturing the gold nugget on display in downtown Las Vegas)
By: Kelly on July 21, 2017
So your great grandpa was a thief?
By: fishducky on July 21, 2017
Wow. I guess that's why it wasn't discussed too much. Great story, though. Thanks for sharing, Stephen. Take care.
By: Mr. Shife on July 21, 2017
Karma at work, I guess. But I still would have talked about that as family lore. To point out the concept of ill-gotten gains, if nothing else.
By: Val on July 21, 2017
What an interesting family story, though.
By: messymimi on July 21, 2017
Whoa, that's a heck of a story! Very interesting!
By: marcia @ menopausal mother on July 21, 2017
I,love that story! It is true...and not true. I guess he thought "finders-keepers". It's great when truths come out finally.
By: Birgit on July 21, 2017
Oooopsie ... :)
By: jenny_o on July 21, 2017
Wow. What a story. I wish my family had stories like these... shameful or otherwise. They're all a bunch of white collar crooks (well... not ALL).
By: Mitchell is Moving on July 22, 2017
Wow, what a story. I loved it. My family use to brag over which side had the most horse thieves, wreckers and crooks. It is always best with a generation or so removed.
By: Arkansas Patti on July 22, 2017
Ouch. That is not pleasant to find out about. Oh well, everyone has a skeleton here and there.
By: Tabor on July 22, 2017
Still a great story, though!
By: Pixel Peeper on July 22, 2017
Sadly, the only family legend we have is that time my father swathed our toilet in shag carpet.
By: Al Penwasser on July 22, 2017
Oops! Minor technicality.
By: scott park on July 23, 2017

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