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Gem of a Business : Alaska Town's Youngsters Hit Pay Dirt With Sales of Local Garnets

October 30, 1988|SUE CROSS | Associated Press

WRANGELL, Alaska — A mayor's gift of a mountainside of garnets to the children of this remote island town has turned two generations of its youngsters into industrious gem dealers.

Paper routes and lawn mowing provide small change compared to the $1,000 or so a Wrangell child can earn each summer by hawking garnets to cruise ship passengers and other tourists.

Crowds of children meet almost every ship at the Wrangell waterfront, carrying their gems in everything from muffin tins to Tupperware. Some stand shyly and depend on tourists' curiosity to draw customers, but most warble, "Wanna buy a garnet?"

Tourists pay a quarter for a pea-sized purple gem, $20 or more for a golf ball-size garnet embedded in a chunk of the silvery schist from which it was chiseled.

Mountainside Lode

The garnets come from a mountainside at the mouth of the Stikine River on the mainland about 9 miles from Wrangell.

The property was deeded to the Boy Scouts of America in 1962 by the late Fred Hanford, a former mayor of Wrangell, a town of about 2,100 in southeastern Alaska. Under the terms of the gift, only Boy Scouts and the children of Wrangell have rights to mine and sell the garnets.

In reality, garnet collecting is a back-kinking, knee-scraping, thumb-smashing chore that falls to the gem sellers' parents.

"I don't know what's more work, the kids' homework or selling garnets," says Kay Jabusch, one of the self-described "garnet moms" who accompany their children to the docks.

About every six weeks, Kay Jabusch and her husband, Jeff, pilot their river skiff through the shifting channels of the Stikine to reach the garnet ledge and replenish their sons' supplies. They lug pails, chisels and hammers up the quarter-mile trail that climbs to the garnet ledge.

A few stones can be screened from loose soil and rock next to a nearby stream. But most must be chiseled out of huge faces of rock.

Power tools and blasting are forbidden. Adults who want to go to the ledge are asked to buy a $10 permit at the Wrangell Museum and turn over a portion of their take to the Boy Scouts. The Scouts also ask people to sign a liability-release form.

Old Wrangell newspapers say the ledge was mined from 1907 to 1923 by the Alaska Garnet Mining and Manufacturing Co. of Minneapolis, Minn., a company run by two sisters.

A geological study done in the 1940s says Wrangell garnets are superb for industrial uses such as sandpaper, but that few become jewels. The garnets have quartz inclusions that cause them to fracture when cut. Most buyers want them as curiosity pieces, though some say they will try to set the stones.

Polished for Granddaughter

"I'm going to get mine polished for my granddaughter, for her 21st birthday," says Rhoda West of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

A North Carolina couple getting off the same ship bought garnets for their son, a geologist, and a New Mexico woman bought a garnet-studded rock for her mother's knickknack shelf.

Selling can be hard work. Children get up before dawn to meet early ferries and often stand in drenching rain to make their sales.

Watching her sons work the state ferry dock, Rynda Hayes explains why it's worthwhile for Raymond, 7, and Ryan, 9.

"They want new bikes. They've always had secondhand, put-together bikes," says Hayes, who recalls selling garnets when she was their age.

The Jabusch boys bought their own tickets to Hawaii for this year's family vacation. Garnet moms also say their children don't ask for allowances and get better grades in math class after a summer of making change.

Many young garnet sellers have opened their own savings accounts, though in their minds, the "saving for college" angle is mostly a sales gimmick.

"Most people say they're doing it for college, then they go buy a bike," says 11-year-old Mike Jabusch, confiding his sales secrets. Adds friend Toby Dow: "If it's for college, more people buy."

Toby, also 11, likes to tell people they can buy one garnet and get another free. Ten-year-old Bob Roppel has another sales tip: "Try to look sad."

The boys talk business over cups of hot cocoa at a dockside restaurant. One proposes lowering prices to boost everyone's sales, launching an earnest debate over whether the discount should be 50 cents or a quarter.

Sales Champ

Earnings are secret. The only boy who will say what he makes is the undisputed sales champ: 7-year-old Jake Jabusch.

In less than an hour on the dock, Jake collected $33.20. He quickly added it up and figured his three-day take--$98.

With a mop of blond hair and an urchin grin, Jake doesn't have to do much to make a sale. Tourists, many of them grandparents, flock to tousle his hair, hug him and buy his garnets.

But Kay Jabusch says Jake's glory days are numbered. Like other Wrangell youths, he'll find sales dwindling as he gets older. "They get taller, and the tourists like the younger kids," she says.

Most children abandon their garnet trays, she says, the day they look around and realize that they are the oldest kids on the dock.

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