An 'Odd Couple'

An 'Odd Couple' and Twenty Mules

The Fortune of the Sterling Borax Company in California's Santa Clarita Valley

By Edward Keebler  

Evidence of Mather’s marketing savvy was displayed on the outside of every box of borax the company sold. Rather than promote a product with a difficult name that few could remember or pronounce, i.e., Thorkildsen-Mather Borax, the label depicted the currency symbol for the British Pound and simply read in bold print, “Sterling Borax.” It’s interesting to note that the best man at Mather’s wedding was a prominent writer who worked with him at the New York Sun newspaper. His name was Robert Sterling Yard. The regal sound of the name “Sterling” promoted a sense of value and power. It’s likely this name was filed away in Mather’s creative mind until he had a use for it.

Within three years the mine was operational and began producing approximately eighteen to twenty thousand tons of marketable borax a year. This translated to an annual gross profit of approximately $500,000, which in 1908, was a huge fortune.

The mining operation itself was in a community named Lang, which was comprised of not much more than couple dozen structures. It was a very small community that has all but disappeared after the mine closed in 1921. What little remains of the mining operation is fenced off by current property owner, Rio Tinto Minerals, a successor company that evolved from Pacific Coast Borax and U.S. Borax. Access to the property is possible by special permit, usually through a rock hound or hiking club that is given permission to traverse the area a few times a year. The site of the mine is located in modern-day Sanata Clarita Valley, just off of California State Highway 14 via the Aqua Dulce Canyon Road exit to Davenport Road. On the north side of the road is the U.S. Borax “No Tresspassing” sign, and to the south is a continuation of the old Sterling Borax mine wash. Samples of Colemanite, tossed aside as worthless during this time, can be seen near the side of the road.

Pacific Borax Co.

In all likelihood, Thorkildsen was a resident of Lang and ran the operation from there. All appearances are that the partnership agreement between Thorkildsen and Mather were such that Thorkildsen ran the day-to-day operations of the mine while Mather was not only a joint financial investor, but supported the operation by running the marketing and distribution of the product. In subsequent years, Mather is reported in third party accounts as coming to Lang and meeting with Thorkildsen but the two are never cited as working the actual mine site together.

In 1911, only three years after the Sterling mine became operational, an offer to purchase the Sterling Borax Company was made by none other than Francis “Borax” Smith, owner of Pacific Coast Borax and former employer of both Thorkildsen and Mather. Thorkildsen quickly accepted Smith’s price of $1.8 million as well as a concession to keep Thorkildsen and Mather on the payroll for an additional ten years. Taking into account that the Sterling mine produced a gross profit of $1.5 million during its first three years of operation Thorkildsen and Mather walked away with nearly $3 million and a job for the next decade. In today’s economy, some financial experts state that $3 million in 1911 had the purchasing price of approximately $500 million today. In the end, both Thorkildsen and Smith’s threats came true. Thorkildsen did in fact, go out and start his own borax company and Smith, did in fact bury Thorkildsen…but he buried him in a pile of cash. Both Thorkildsen and Mather had become very wealthy from their borax mining venture.

Although Pacific Coast Borax owned Sterling Borax, it continued to operate as a separate division under Smith’s conglomerate and Thorkildsen remained as president of the operation while Mather served as vice president. Only a few years later, Francis Marion Smith became financially overextended and went bankrupt. Pacific Coast Borax and Smith’s holdings were eventually acquired by U.S. Borax and today, U.S. Borax owns the property in Tick Canyon where the Sterling Borax mine operated over a century ago.Next Page

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The Mather Family | More Mather Family | Pacific Coast Borax | Thomas Thorkildsen | Mathers and Thorkildsen | More Mathers and Thorkildsen | Mather's Marketing Savy | Mather and National Parks | National Parks | Conclusion
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