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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

'Borax King' Cleaned Up, but Died Washed Up

March 12, 2000|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

It was the indispensable cleaning solution in virtually every turn-of-the-century American home, and for 13 years, Thomas Thorkildsen had a near-monopoly on it.

Its chemical name is calcium borate. It was known to the Egyptians as a mummifying agent and to late Victorians as a good cleanser. Thorkildsen knew it as the stuff that would make him rich, when he set out to corner the California market on the product.

Before he died in 1950, he would acquire a title--"the borax king"--and an empire, with a Beverly Hills estate, a sprawling Craftsman mansion in Los Feliz and a company-town mining operation in the borax deposits of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Thorkildsen's business started with a threat and ended with extravagant living.

He was born in Wisconsin in 1869, the son of an immigrant Danish lumberjack. Twenty years later, Thorkildsen was working for Pacific Coast Borax (later U.S. Borax). He rose to be sales manager in the Chicago office but soon was sent west to the company's diggings in Death Valley.

Thorkildsen hit it off at once with his boss, super-salesman and advertising manager Stephen Mather, who conceived the "20-mule team" symbol, which was the centerpiece of the company's advertising campaigns and packaging for the next century.

Future President Ronald Reagan would earn part of his TV fame as host of "Death Valley Days," a western show sponsored by Borax.

But when Thorkildsen was caught backdating orders for friends just before a price increase, he was pressured to resign. Thorkildsen angrily threatened to go into the business for himself.

Company founder Francis Marion "Borax" Smith laughed and then snarled at his insubordinate subordinate, "If you do, I'll break you."

It was 1898. Thorkildsen set off for Los Angeles and plunged his life savings of $17,000 into a borax mine on Frazier Mountain in Ventura County. Drunken mule-skinners transported the ore down Drunkard's Hill to Lancaster and Bakersfield for rail transport to processing centers in the East, to be sold under Thorkildsen's new label--Sterling Borax.

His new partner was Mather, and together they became Smith's biggest competitors.

In 1905, when two grizzled gold prospectors were driving a tunnel deep into an old Spanish mine in the Santa Clarita Valley's Tick Canyon--so named because of the Western black-legged tick that infested it--they noticed a white formation in the cliffs below.

Their discovery was "white gold"--a rich deposit of borax. The substance had been employed as a cleaning agent for centuries, while the ancient Egyptians used it to preserve the dead and the Chinese to make glass. Marco Polo introduced it to Italy from Mongolia in the 13th century.

News of the strike soon reached the acquisitive Thorkildsen, whose Frazier Mountain mine was already showing signs of playing out. He bought the prospectors' claim for $80,000; it would make him a millionaire.

But before he could set up his company mining town, another businessman staked out several claims along the vein and then proposed a partnership. Incensed, Thorkildsen drew a pistol, forced his prospective competitor to pull his stakes out of the ground and warned him never to return.

Thorkildsen replaced the fabled mule teams with a private six-mile railroad spur from Lang Station, five miles south of the mine. (It was at Lang Station that Southern Pacific joined up its San Francisco and Los Angeles lines in 1876.) A "dinkey"-type engine puffed up and backed down the hill, hauling 20,000 tons of marketable ore per year to the depot, which also served as a shipping point for the area's cattle and grain.

By 1908, the very rich 39-year-old Thorkildsen, who had himself become the "borax king," decided to wed Dora Garinger, the mining camp cook in Death Valley, a twice-divorced, olive-skinned beauty of Blackfoot Indian heritage.

Three years later, instead of breaking Thorkildsen as he had promised, Smith was forced to offer him $1.8 million to buy out the company. Thorkildsen jumped at the deal and worked out an arrangement whereby he and Mather could remain on the payroll for more than a decade. In 1916, Mather would be appointed the first director of the National Park Service by President Woodrow Wilson.

Even before he sold his mine, Thorkildsen spent his income lavishly. He bought six acres in what would soon become Beverly Hills. For the hilltop site at the end of Alpine Drive, architect Thomas Franklin Power in 1912 designed a stately 20-room mansion, which actress Carol Burnett would later tear down.

But as Thorkildsen's life accelerated--

including dalliances with equally speedy women and exotic hunting expeditions--his wife grew disenchanted. She begged him to consult a psychic about his increasingly haphazard business deals. Large sums would roll in, then quickly disappear, to be replaced by equally large debts.

The couple never made it to the psychic; instead, they ended up in divorce court.

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