James Leroy Nickel, Jr. Passport Photo 1917

James Leroy Nickel, Jr.

James Leroy Nickel, Jr. was a man of many conflicting faces.  He was an ardent patriot, a man who fought for the survival of others at his own cost, a man charged with fraud by his own family, and a man who in the end committed suicide.  He has been one of the hardest people that I have attempted to write about. 

James Leroy Nickle, Jr. was the third child of Nellie and James Leroy Nickel and was the grandson of Henry Miller.  He was born on May 21, 1895 in Menlo Park, CA into a wealth and highly respected family.  When World War I broke out in 1917, he was a student at Yale University, he applied for a passport in New York City on July 17, 1917 to travel to Paris, France and join the American Field Service.  He was 22 years old.  During the War, he drove munitions trucks to the front for France thru heavy bombardment.  After the Americans joined the war effort, he joined the American Forces and continued to serve until the end of the war in 1919, continuing to courageously drive trucks to the front.

By 1922, he was back in California, and well ensconced in San Francisco Society.  On the night of February 10, 1922, a tragic accident occurred.  The Madera Tribune has the most complete report;

J. L. NICKEL HURT IN SMASH

One man was burned to death and three other men and a woman were seriously injured in an automobile collision early yesterday on the Great Highway at Lawton street.  One of the machines carried Mrs. Russel Slade, Miss Geraldine Grace, Lieutenant W. E. G. Erskine, James Leroy Nickel, Jr., and Coy Filmer, prominent in the social life of San Francisco.  They had attended the society wedding of Miss Ruth Lent to Herman Leonard Underhill earlier in the evening and later had gone to Tait’s-at-the-Beach.  They were returning from that place when they collided with the wreckage of two other automobiles, which had crashed head-on on the highway.   The dead—Larsen, Harold, 26. The injured—Nickel, James Leroy Nickel, Jr., vice-president of the Miller & Lux Company and heir to the estate of the late Henry Miller, cattle king of California.  Nickel was driving the car containing the prominent San Franciscans.  He received cuts, bruises, lacerations, and burns.  Was treated at the Park Emergency Hospital and later removed to Adler Sanatorium.  Filmer, Coy—An occupant of Nickel’s machine; badly cut, bruised, and burned, Anderson, Julian—Who was with Larson; burned.  Meyer, Mrs. May—Cuts, bruises, and lacerations.  According to the police, Leo McInerney, a musician at the Portola theatre, was driving south on the highway.  With him were Otto Jerichau, and Harry Carney, another Portola musician, all of whom escaped injury.  A second machine was coming north, driven by Walter Miller.  The two machines struck head on.  Mrs. Meyer was the only occupant of the two machines injured.  Later in the day McInerney was arrested and charged with driving a machine while intoxicated.  He was released on $l00 bail by Police Judge McAtee.  The complaint was made against him by Miller.  Miller also claimed that in addition to being intoxicated, McInerney was driving on the wrong side of the street.  Detectives George Collins and Al McGinn are investigating.  Both cars were wrecked and a call was sent in for a tow car.  Larson and Anderson responded, but found, on reaching the scene of the accident, that another tow car was needed.  While waiting for this car the machine driven by Nickel came along in the darkness and crashed into the wrecked cars.  An explosion occurred and the three machines burst into flames.  Larsen was working under one of the wrecked cars and was burned to death before he could be extricated.  Nickel, Filmer and Anderson are said to have worked heroically to save Larsen, notwithstanding their own injuries.  Hugh B. Porter, host at the supper party at Tait’s, which Nickel and his friends had attended, was in a car directly behind the one Nickel was driving.  Russell Slade was in a car ahead.  Porter took the injured to the Park Emergency Hospital.  Later Nickel and Filmer were removed to Adler Sanitarium, where Nickel is said to be in a serious condition.  Police said that it was probable that a technical charge of manslaughter would be placed against him.  Nickel, through his attorney, Edward I. Treadwell, made a statement concerning his part in the tragedy.  They were returning from Tait’s, he said, when suddenly the three machines, extending all the way across the street, loomed up.  All were without lights.  Lying in the street in front of one of the cars and directly in Nickel’s path was a man.  Nickel says he swerved his car to avoid running over him and crashed into one of the stalled cars.  Just as he swerved one of the cars, he said, burst into flames.  Larsen was the son of Mr. and Mrs. A. C. Larsen of Eureka.  The body will be taken to that city tomorrow.  —Examiner. 

(Alder Sanitarium, built in 1909 on the corner of Van Ness and Broadway was reportedly ‘fireproof’.)

After his recovery, James continued to work for the Miller & Lux as Vice President, managing farm operations.  He had joined the company in 1919, after returning from the War.

By 1931, James had married Gladys Annie Williams.  Gladys was born on March 30, 1901 in Fostoria, California.  She was the daughter of Richard G. and Elva ‘Sadie’ Williams and had a younger sister, Elva.  Her father was in the oil industry.  In 1910 the family was living in Sutter, Sacramento, California and soon after relocated to Oak Park in Southern Sacramento.  In 1932, James and Gladys were in the San Francisco Society Blue Book and living at 1055 California Street in the City.  (They had a flat in the building and rented it for $125.00 per month) James and Gladys did not have any children.  The couple loved to travel; their favorite destination was Europe.  Belgium and France being the locations that showed up most often on the itinerary.  Between the years of 1935 to 1938 and 1948 to1956 they made at least 5 cross Atlantic trips. 

James did have to register for WWII, but since he was a Rancher, he had an occupational deferment.  James was the only family member in his generation to work for Miller & Lux.  His brother George worked for the company for a short time, but soon became interested in other pursuits.  When his father retired in 1925 from running the daily operations of the Company, the work fell mainly to James, Jr.  By 1939, James was President of Miller & Lux.  He had very little practical knowledge and had not worked on the ranches during his younger years.  Due to WWI, he had not finished his education at Yale.  To say, he was overwhelmed is probable an understatement, in my opinion.

In Following the Cattle King, George Wilmarth Nickel, Jr. remembers when he went to work for Miller & Lux after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1939. 

“Well, I tried to do what he wanted me to do to the extent that it was feasible and worthwhile.  But he was not very open minded about the opportunities that existed, like you know I mentioned to you, the dairy business, and the farming business generally and the water business.  It’s just too bad because he could have been a lot more progressive.  And as I’ll probably be telling you later, he also was rather involved in some improper things that I didn’t know anything about initially.”

In an interview with Jamy O. Faulhaber, George relates how he became aware of some improprieties in his Uncle Leroy’s business dealings.

“We were talking about Leroy and my business contact with him.  I said I made every effort to try to get along with him because he was the boss, and I wanted to get him to do things that were progressive for the company.  I look back to the day when we first found that he was improper in his business relations particularly in Kern County.  That is when my friend, Muir Woolley, was down here.  That was way back in forties.  Muir Woolley was a classmate of mine at UC Berkeley and also the nephew of Judge Woolley, one of the three trustees of the Henry Miller Trust.

Muir Woolley was doing some legal work in Kern County for an oil company or two, putting together deals.  He had become an attorney down there in the area near Taft, Tupman, and Buttonwillow, and came upon information about oil leases which showed that Leroy Nickel was working with Elmer Houchin.  Leroy was getting paid off on various Miller & Lux deals on oil matters.  So, he had a nice spread there and only had to collect the money which he would share with Uncle Leroy.  So that Uncle Leroy wouldn’t have a problem tax-wise, Elmer Houchin would get the money taken over to the gambling joints in Europe, like that famous one in Monte Carlo.  I don’t know how Uncle Leroy did with his gambling, but he spent a lot of money over there in Europe, and he didn’t have to report any income.

I think it’s a shame about Elmer Houchin and the stealing and all.  I became acquainted with Elmer Houchin when I worked in Buttonwillow in the summertime when I was at the University of California.  He was a very personable guy and very bright.  I think that if Leroy Nickel had been a little cleverer and more backed off this business of stealing and all, Elmer Houchin could have been brought around too.”

James Leroy Nickel, Sr., was not a good manager of the Miller & Lux company, giving James Jr., no real role model to work from when he took over the family company.  It is said that James, Sr. lost millions of dollars for the company through his mismanagement.   I may be totally wrong, but it appears to me that there is the strong possibility that James was unduly influenced by Houchin and that was a major part in James’s down fall.

In 1954, the Nickel vs. Nickel suit was filed to remove the former Trustees of the Miller & Lux Company for mismanagement of the Miller & Lux estate, among these was James Leroy Nickel, Jr.  As a result of the suit, George recalls that;

“(James) he had to relinquish any properties that he had taken from Miller & Lux however he got them.  I don’t think that needs to be spelled out.  Whatever they were he was supposed to deed them back.”

…(he)also agreed to resign from all of his posts and employment at Miller & Lux in exchange for the family not suing him further.”

…” I think that was very important for him because he was so guilty.  And this is admitting his guilt.  He also continued to get money as the other members of his generation did, but he wasn’t around very long because he committed suicide.”

(James Leroy Nickel, Jr. died on May 28, 1959 in his home in Marin, California)

There is a clause in Henry Miller’s will that states;

for anyone to benefit from the trust “he must be sober and industrious and shall have entered upon some useful and honorable business or calling and if at any time either before or after said income is first paid he proves lacking in these qualities he shall be entitled to only $250 a month.

Leave it to Henry Miller to have the last say.

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References

One Man Show Henry Miller in the San Joaquin, Edited by Charles Sawyer, Interviews by Ralph Milliken,  (Los Banos: Ralph Milliken Museum Society, 2003)

George Wilmarth Nickel, Jr., “Following the Cattle King: A Lifetime of Agriculture, Water Management, and Water Conservation in California’s Central Valley,” an oral history conducted in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001 by Jamy O. Faulhaber, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2002.

Madera Tribune, Volume XXIX, Number 85, 11 February 1922

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I hope that you found this story interesting and enjoyed learning more about James Leroy Nickel, Jr.

Next, we will take a look at some of Henry Miller’s favorite sayings.  

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