Seldom has the west seen as successful an entrepreneur as Asbury Harpending, whose development of Havilah high in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada led to the formation of the county.
When Harpending, a Kentucky native already wealthy at 25 through various speculations, came to this region, he was dodging federal officers because of his activities in the San Francisco Bay region on behalf of the Confederacy.
Commissioned a captain in the Confederate Navy by President Jefferson Davis, Harpending had outfitted a ship to prey on federal shipping on the Pacific coast, but due to the loose mouth of the master of the vessel, the project failed and Harpending was sent to prison.
He made his way out and, aided by friends, skipped south to the Kern River country where Southern sympathizers were numerous.
As word reached San Francisco that Harpending was in the Kernville area, the pressure was on again and he moved, this time south to the valley between the Kern fork basin and Walker’s Basin. He found a good deposit of gold, but experience had taught him that more money was to be made through the mining of people than of the hills, so he organized a mining district, laid out a townsite, and sold lots in the new town that he called Havilah, from a reference in the Books of Genesis to a “place of much gold.”
Word got back to San Francisco that Harpending was doing well in the Kern mines and a troop of U.S. Cavalry was dispatched to investigate. He and his associates, which by now had numbered many men “whose loyalty to gold was stronger than to the Union cause,” met the soldiers outside Havilah and invited them to breakfast, which enabled Harpending to convince the officer of the troop that he was “neither outlaw nor rebel.’'
The ruse succeeded, but Harpending had to use some friends in San Francisco to save his hide.
The wealth from his mine enabled him to establish a stamp mill and set himself up well. As he tells it in his book, “The Great Diamond Hoax”:
“The year 1865 was a busy one for Havilah and the Clear Creek mining district. It became a heavy gold producer.
“Miners, capitalists, speculators swarmed into it from all over the Pacific slope. I laid out my townsite in due season and sold it out at fancy figures. The main street brought an average of $20 per foot. A boom was all along the line. I was offered fancy prices for my mining claims. I let them go.
“My principle was to avoid what is vulgarly known as ‘hoggishness.’ When I could make a million by a business turn, I considered it a good day’s work.”
His “reticence” was probably one of his most prominent traits.
His distaste for “hoggishness” generally enabled him to pull out of deals just before they fell of their own weight or because of some deficit unperceived by others. He says he banked some $900,000 in San Francisco from his enterprises in Havilah “long before the end of 1865” and this was the second or third time he had been a millionaire since reaching adulthood.
But Harpending, in the end of his fantastic career, retained a warm thought for Havilah, which he recalls in the memoirs, “Must have numbered nearly 3,000 inhabitants; it was a brisk center with hotels, livery stables, large merchandise stores, lawyers, doctors, preachers, open gambling houses, hurdy-gurdies, saloons, banks, bangnios and the other evidences of advanced civilization.”
With his own genius, he had brought all this into being, and the old man, writing of the days long ago might well have been proud of his handiwork. But he was also proud of something else. He tells of this:
“ . . . I assisted in the passage of a bill that cut off from Tulare the county of Kern and named Havilah the county seat . . .”
And there is a triumphant statement:
“I was literally chased from absolute poverty into the possession of a million dollars. I discovered a great mining district and founded a thriving town. And if the matter of paternity is ever brought in court, it will probably be proved to the satisfaction of a jury that I am the father of Kern County.”