Francis Marion Smith, known as the “Borax King,” and “Frank,” was a Death Valley mining magnate and businessman who headed the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Born in Richmond, Wisconsin on February 2, 1846, to Henry G. and Charlotte Paul Smith, Francis attended public schools as a child before graduating from Milton College in Wisconsin.
At the age of 21 he left his father’s ranch and, answering to the irresistible call of the west, he made his way toward the Pacific, visiting Idaho, California, and Nevada, spending considerable time in mining and other work in those states, before settling in Nevada for five years.
In the late 1860s, Smith was working under a contract with several ore mills near Columbus, Nevada, locating and getting out timber for the various mining camps. While working at Teel’s Marsh, he discovered a rich supply of borax. Collecting samples, he had them assayed, which proved the ore to be higher than any known sources of borax. He soon staked several claims and began his career as a borax miner.
With the help of his older brother, Julius, and two brothers by the name of Storey, the men established a borax works at the edge of the marsh to concentrate the borax crystals and separate them from dirt and other impurities. Operations began in 1873 under the name, Smith and Storey Brothers Borax Co. Later, the Smiths acquired the Storey brothers’ interest and the company name was changed to Smith Brothers Borax Co. and later to the Teel’s Marsh Borax Co. The Teel’s Marsh deposits soon became the world’s principal source of supply and remained so for years, bringing borax to a wide commercial use around the world.
In 1875, during a national depression, Smith opened a retail store and office at 185 Wall Street in New York City to expand the borax market. His advertising claims that borax would “clean black cashmere, cameos and coral, keep milk and cream sweet” and “prevent diphtheria, lung fever and kidney trouble” may have been exaggerated, but they helped to popularize the cleaning additive in a prime market and in a period when sales were slumping. That same year, Francis married Mary “Mollie” Rebecca Thompson Wright, a divorcee from Brooklyn, New York.
In 1877, Smith founded the settlement of Marietta, Nevada, now a semi-ghost town, from which the borax was shipped in a 30-ton load using two large wagons with a third wagon for food and water drawn by a 24-mule team for 160 miles across the Great Basin Desert from Marietta to Wadsworth, Nevada where the nearest Central Pacific Railroad siding was.
In 1881, Smith and his wife, Mollie, moved to Oakland, California, where Frank began to invest in real estate, while continuing his operations at Teel’s Marsh, Nevada. In 1884, Smith bought out his brother’s interest in their partnership and Frank began to turn his eye to potential development in Death Valley. When William T. Coleman, who owned the Harmony and Amargosa Borax Works, the Lila C Mine, the Furnace Creek Ranch, and other properties in Death Valley, California, began to have financial troubles in the late 1880s, Smith provided Coleman with the capital in exchange for mortgages on the property.
In 1889, to expand the processing of raw minerals that formed the borax product, Smith worked with a renowned engineer and reinforced concrete innovator Ernest L. Ransome, to design two new refineries for him — one in West Alameda, California, and the other in Bayonne, New Jersey. The California refinery was recognized for being the first structure of its kind to be built with reinforced concrete.
Unfortunately for William T. Coleman, his empire collapsed and Smith gained all his properties in 1890. The name of Smith’s properties then became the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Smith ceased operations at the Harmony and Amargosa Borax Works in order to focus on mining operations at Borate, California in the Calico Mountains. Initially, the ore was hand sorted at the mine and hauled to Daggett, California using the 20 mule teams and wagons that William T. Coleman had first used in Death Valley.
In 1891, Stephen Mather, the administrator of the company’s New York office, persuaded Smith to add the name 20 Mule Team Borax to go with the famous sketch of the mule team already on the box. The trademark would be registered three years later. Mather would go on to own the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, and in 1916, was appointed the first Director of the new National Park Service.
While Frank was busy with his borax interests, his wife was busy with charity work — especially working hard for aid and assistance for orphaned girls. Mollie, after a tragic miscarriage, could never have children of her own, but she yearned for them. Raising money for their assistance, the couple also took in a number of young girls as wards over the years. In 1883, they had adopted an infant girl, who they named Marion Francis Smith. Ten years later, they would take in two young teenagers named Anna Mae and Sarah Winifred Burdge. While there were many others they looked after, these three would become part of the “Solid Six,” as Frank affectionately called them. Over the years, Mollie’s contributions and assistance to these many girls would continue.
In 1892, Frank and Mollie went east to Shelter Island, New York, to find a place to build a summer home. This was probably for two reasons, the first of which was that New York was Mollie’s original home; and the second, Shelter Island was also the place where his friend, and soon-to-be partner, Frank Havens, already had a summer home. Before they left New York, they had purchased a 42-acre homestead, which already included a colonial style home. Frank then hired an architect to add to the original home, which would eventually feature 35 rooms. He also added significant acreage over the years until the estate sat in the midst of some 435 acres. They called their new summer retreat “Presdeleau.” Over the next several years, Frank would continue to buy more property in the area, adding to the estate.
Convinced there was a more efficient and profitable way to haul the ore from the mines to the railhead at Daggett, Frank began to experiment with a steam tractor called “Old Dinah” in 1894. Unfortunately, due to the roads from the mines, the experiment failed and he would continue to utilize the 20-mule teams for the next several years.
In the meantime, Smith had also been investing heavily in real estate and public transit in Oakland. He, along with partner, Frank Havens formed the Realty Syndicate in 1895 buying area real estate, as well as acquiring and consolidating a number of small, independent transit companies to create an integrated system of streetcar lines and rail extensions to a number of subdivisions the company was developing.
The same year, a mansion was completed for the Smiths in Oakland California. In the previous few years, Frank had acquired an estate of some 53 acres and his, wife, Mollie, oversaw the planning and building of a new mansion. Designed by famed architect Walter J. Mathews, Frank set out immediately to acquire additional property and soon, the mansion was surrounded by 53 acres, where tame deer and peacocks roamed freely. Called Arbor Villa, the 42 room mansion sat on a hilltop east of Lake Merritt off of Park Boulevard. Filled with luxurious furnishings and art, including a pipe organ, the mansion featured a ballroom and a bowling alley for the many guests the Smiths often entertained. Over the next decade, Mollie would often open her homes in both Oakland and Shelter Island, New York for charity raising events, entertaining as many as 5,000 people at one time. A year later, Mollie would hire Evelyn Kate Ellis, one of the very girls that she had helped through the years, as her personal assistant. Evelyn would later become Frank’s second wife.