Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Aunt Mary Fights Standard Oil ~ 52 Ancestors #30

I am participating in this year's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Each week has an optional writing prompt and this week's writing prompt is Colorful.

I have written about my mother's colorful Aunt Mary before (at Bald Mary) and about the five Hunter sisters several times. Earlier this year, I wrote about Mary's younger sister, Margaret, for the Maiden Aunt theme.

This story starts with the purchase of a small farm in 1943, and comes to life with the rising demand for oil, gasoline, and natural gas in the early 1950s.

On July 5, 1943, for $18,500, sisters Mary H. Gerken and Margaret L. Hunter purchased a 41-acre farm in Allison Park, Pennsylvania, which included buildings, chicken coops, and farm machinery and equipment.[1] The farm was on Middle Road and McCullough Road (now known as McCully Road) in Allison Park, north of Pittsburgh. They lived with their mother in a home about a mile south on Middle Road (see a photo at 1940 US Census - Great-Grandmother Hunter) and employed a farmer to work on their farm. Unfortunately, if I ever visited the farm with my grandmother and great aunt Margie in the 1970s, I don't remember it, but my cousins who grew up in Pittsburgh have wonderful memories of it. (See the Maiden Aunt post link above.)

Because of the increased demand for oil products in the following decade, new pipelines were being constructed across the country. In 1952, Tuscarora Oil Co., of Harrisburg, a subsidiary of Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, planned on laying a 360-mile long pipeline from Linden, New Jersey, to Midland, Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River, downriver from Pittsburgh and almost due west of the farm.

On Wednesday, May 7, 1952, the Tuscarora Oil Company reached the sisters' farm on Middle Road, and attempted to install the pipeline across their farm. The sisters fought the oil company by initially barricading access to their property with their jeep, tractor, and car and refusing to move. An attorney for the oil company claimed that a bond posted in federal court allowed them to place the pipeline on the land by right of eminent domain. On May 9, a federal judge permitted the work to continue.

Aunt Mary was quoted in The Pittsburgh Press as saying: "We’re fighting for the rights of the small land and home owner against a greedy corporation. I’ve watched their shameless exploitation, intimidation and deceit too long."[2]

The following photograph was also included in that issue of The Pittsburgh Press.

It is primarily Aunt Mary (Mrs. Gerken) who is quoted in the newspapers, explaining that they were fighting for the rights of small landowners, though it's "Miss Hunter" (Aunt Margie) who is quoted as saying: "We believe in private ownership and big business. Squeezing out the small farmer leads to Communism. The small farmer has always been considered the backbone of the country."[2]

On May 28, the Standard Oil Company held its annual meeting in Linden, New Jersey, and Mary and her sister Caroline (Mrs. William Oliver) attended to attempt to get an outside director elected to help support their cause. (They were not successful, but got a lot of publicity.) They stated that the company was misusing its power by claiming the right of eminent domain. Mary reported that the pipe was laid on a Sunday "after the sisters had maintained an 'around-the-clock' barricade and lost a first round court battle." They also reported that their neighbor farmers had "grown to fear and hate the Standard Oil organization."[3]

The next, most colorful, step in their fight came a couple of weeks later. The following photograph, picked up by the Associated Press, appeared in newspapers across the country. This happened to be the best image I could find.[4]

On June 9, The Pittsburgh Press reported on what could be read on several of the signs, which caused traffic to slow on that stretch of road:
“I regret that I have but one farm to give Standard Oil of N. J.”
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
“Fair plunder makes many a thief.”
“Sing a song of Standard, pockets full of dough; Tuscarora pipe lines don’t care where they go.
“When the court is open, and I begin to sing: Oh, what a dirty dish I can really bring.” [5]
It's unclear what happened between early June and July, but on July 21, a headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported "Pipe Line Fight Won By Sisters." It reported:
     "The two Hampton Township sisters who refused to bow down to the right of eminent domain exercised by a subsidiary of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey yesterday had won their battle.
     Mrs. Mary H. Gerken and Miss Margaret Hunter, of Middle Road, Allison Park, for months have been fighting the Tuscarora Oil Company which laid a pipe line across their property.
     The women, among other thing [sic]: blocked company equipment with a jeep, automobile and farm equipment, posted signs – mostly jingles – along the property telling of the fight, wrote a letter to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., attended a Standard stockholder meeting, threatened to carry their case to the United States Supreme Court. Meanwhile the company got a court injunction and went ahead.
     Saturday the sisters were told the company had given in and was going to take up the pipe and re-lay it on a public right-of-way a few feed from the original site. The company also will pay for damages."[6]
The Pittsburgh branch of the pipeline was completed by the end of the year, and news stories reporting Mayor David L. Lawrence turning the valve made no mention of the two sisters who didn't want the pipeline on their property.[7]

Seeing my aunt's photocopy of The New York Times with this photograph reminded me that I had never shared this story, which is just one of the many ways my great aunt Mary was colorful.


     [1] Typed agreement between M.C. Black and Mary H. Gerken and Margaret L. Hunter (signed by each of them), 5 July 1943, author's files.
     [2] Sisters Fight to Save Farm from Oil Firm,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 May 1952, p. 25, cols. 1-3; digital image, ( : accessed 20 July 2018).
     [3] Pipeline Fight Carried to Stockholders,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 29 May 1952, p. 4, col. 5; digital image, ( : accessed 20 July 2018).
     [4] “Poetic Protests,” The (Baltimore) Evening Sun, 10 June 1952, p. 2, cols. 4-6; digital image, ( : accessed 20 July 2018).
     [5] “Roadside Signs Protest Pipeline,” The Pittsburgh Press, 9 June 1952, p. 2, col. 8; digital image, ( : accessed 20 July 2018).
     [6] “Pipe Line Won By Sisters,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 July 1952, p. 15, col. 3; digital image, ( : accessed 20 July 2018).
     [7] “Oil Firm Opens Pipeline to City,” The Pittsburgh Press, 12 December 1952, p. 32, cols. 3-5; digital image, ( : accessed 20 July 2018).


  1. You go, girls! How great that they took this on by themselves!

    1. This is one of my favorite stories my mother used to tell and it was so fun to confirm the details in the newspaper articles I found.

      Thanks for the comment.