Friday, November 26, 2021


By Caroline Clemmons

Francis Marion Smith may not be a household name, but you’ll recognize his contribution—Borax, which also became one of his nicknames along with Frank and the Borax King. He was born on February 2, 1846 in Richmond, Wisconsin. He graduated from Milton College in Wisconsin. The West called to him and he left home at the age of twenty-one. He traveled through Idaho, California, and Nevada, where he spent considerable time in mining. He settled for a while in Nevada. Another person mentioned in this article is his first wife, Mary “Mollie” Rebecca Smith, who also made contributions, and Frank's second wife, Evelyn Kate Ellis Smith, who continued the legacy.

Francis "Frank" Smith

In the late 1860s, Frank Smith was working under a contract with several ore mills near Columbus, Nevada, to locate and provide timber for mining camps. At Teel’s Marsh, he discovered a rich deposit of borax.  He had samples assayed and learned the ore was higher than any other known sources of borax. He staked several claims and launched his career as a borax miner.

Early partners were his brother Julius and two Storey brothers. They formed the Smith and Storey Brothers Borax Company. The four men established a borax works at the edge of the marsh to concentrate the borax crystals and separate them from dirt and other impurities. Later Frank Smith acquired the Storey brothers’ interest and the company name was changed to Smith Brothers Borax Company and later to Teel’s Marsh Borax Company. I wonder if the Storey brothers regretted selling. The Teel’s Marsh deposits soon became the world’s principal supply and remained so for many years.

Borax was first discovered in dry lake beds in Tibet and was imported via the Silk Road to the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th century. Frank Smith’s company brought borax to popularity with a variety of applications.

In 1875 there was an American financial depression. Even so, Frank Smith opened a retail store and office on New York’s Wall Street to expand the borax market. He advertised that borax would clean cashmere, cameos, and coral, keep milk and cream sweet, as well as prevent diphtheria, lung fever and kidney trouble. Gross exaggeration? His claims helped popularize borax as an additive.

Mary "Mollie" Smith

During this time, Frank Smith married Mary “Mollie” Wright of Brooklyn. In 1881, the couple moved to Oakland, California, where Frank invested in real estate. In 1884, Frank bought out Julius’ interests in their partnership. Frank never stopped operations at Teel’s Marsh, but developed interest in Death Valley, California. He worked with a renowned concrete engineer to design two new refineries for him. One was in West Alameda, California, and the other in Bayonne, New Jersey. The California refinery was recognized as the first structure of its kind built with reinforced concrete. (I am not ignoring the early Roman roads in Western Europe with their own type of reinforcement that are still usable today.)

In 1892, Frank and Mollie bought a summer home on Shelter Island, New York. Beginning with 42-acres that included a colonial-style home, they added to the house to give it 35 rooms. He purchased additional acreage until the home sat amid 435 acres. The Smiths called their new summer retreat Presdeleau. Just a tiny summer cabin get-away, right?

Presdeleau in 1900

In Oakland in 1895, Frank Smith and Frank Havens formed the Realty Syndicate. In addition to buying real estate, they acquired and consolidated small independent transit companies to create a system of streetcar lines and rail extensions to subdivisions the company was developing.

Also in 1895, Frank and Mollie completed a mansion in Oakland, California. Mollie oversaw the planning of a 42-room home on a 53-acre hilltop east of Lake Merritt off of Park Boulevard. Called Arbor Villa, the house had a ballroom and a bowling alley. Mollie and Frank often opened both their homes for charity-raising events. In 1896, Mollie hired Evelyn Kate Ellis, one of the girls she had helped through her charity work, as her personal assistant.

Arbor Villa

Ah, the life of the rich and famous! From June through October, the family with their Chinese staff and maids would board their private railroad car and an additional Pullman at Oakland and travel to Jersey City. From their they transferred to the Smith’s personal steam yacht and traveled down Long Island Sound to Smith’s Cove, where they stepped ashore at Presdeleau. Their girls, including Charlotte Sperry who they adopted in 1895, Florence Nightingale, and Mollie’s secretary Kate Ellis.

In the meantime, Mollie was still actively pursuing her charity work for orphaned girls and wished to expand. Frank gave her 30 acres of land, which she converted into the Mary R. Smith Trust and built thirteen cottages to house orphaned girls. Governed by a board of trustees by the women of the First Congregational Church, the first cottages were built in 1901. The cottages housed girls from the ages of four to twenty-five in need of a home, and girls were allowed to stay as long as necessary. Each cottage had a house mother selected by Mollie. Girls were taught to make most of their own clothes and help with housework. They attended public schools and many attended college.

Mollie died of a stroke on December 31, 1905. A year and a half later, Frank married Evelyn Kate Ellis, who had been Mollie’s secretary. Molly had requested Frank marry Evelyn if she preceded him in death. Over the next six years, the couple had four children. I wonder how Evelyn felt about the marriage that was Mollie’s legacy.

Evelyn Kate Ellis Smith

By 1928, Frank began to suffer a series of small strokes and was forced to retire. His manager was John Sherman, who took over—aided by Evelyn and her younger brother, George C. Ellis. Frank and Evelyn moved from their Oakland mansion to a smaller home across Lake Merritt in the Adams Point neighborhood. By 1930, Frank had lost the ability to speak, though his mind appeared clear. On August 27, 1931, Frank died and is buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

Frank and Evelyn and children

In 1932, Evelyn took over as president of West End Chemical. Several years later, she turned it over to her brother, George. When the State of California took over providing for orphans, the funds in the Mary R. Smith Trust were redirected toward providing nursing education for qualified young women. Evelyn died in California in October 2002.

How man of you know what 20 Mule Team Borax is? I remember being fascinated by an old television commercial showing a large wagon pulled by twenty mule teams, the method by which borax was originally hauled out of the California and Nevada deserts. I think the show was “Death Valley Days”, but I’m not certain. I couldn’t imagine anything heavy enough to warrant that many animals. Recently, my husband found a fascinating YouTube video featuring a man who built such a wagon and the harnesses for that many animals. That made me wonder how much demand there is for borax and what it’s used for besides adding to older-style laundry detergent.

In 1877, Frank Smith founded the settlement of Marietta, Nevada, from which he shipped borax in a 30-ton load using two large wagons and a third wagon for food and water drawn by a 24-mule team for the 160 mile trip across the Great Basin Desert. The trip ended at Wadsworth, Nevada, where the nearest Central Pacific Railroad siding was located.

20-mule team in Death Valley

According to Wikipedia:

"The twenty-mule-team wagons were designed to carry 10 short tons (9.1 t) of borax ore at a time. The rear wheels measured seven feet (2.1 m) high, with tires made of 1-inch-thick (25 mm) iron. The wagon beds measured 16 feet (4.9 m) long and were 6 feet (1.8 m) deep; constructed of solid oak, they weighed 7,800 pounds (3,500 kg) empty; when loaded with ore, the total weight of the mule train was 73,200 pounds (33,200 kg; 36.6 short tons).

The first wagon was the trailer, the second was "the tender" or the "back action", and the tank wagon brought up the rear.

With the mules, the caravan stretched over 180 feet (55 m). Due to their rugged construction, no wagon ever broke down in transit on the desert.

A 1,200-US-gallon (4,500 l) water tank was added to supply the mules with water en route. There were water barrels on the wagons for the teamster and the swamper. Water supplies were refilled at springs along the way, as it was not possible to carry enough water for the entire trip. The tank water was used at dry camps and water stops.

The June 1940 issue of Desert Magazine confirms that the primary water tank was 1200 U.S. gallons. This detail is also given in "The History Behind the Scale Model".

An efficient system of dispersing feed and water along the road was put in use. Teams outbound from Mojave, pulling empty wagons, hauled their own feed and supplies, which were dropped off at successive camps as the outfit traveled. The supplies would be on hand to use when a loaded wagon came back the other way, and no payload space was wasted. There was one stretch of road where a 500-US-gallon (1,900 l) wagon was added to take water to a dry camp for the team that would be coming from the opposite direction. The arriving team would use the water and take the empty tank back to the spring on their haul the next day, ready for re-filling and staging by the next outbound outfit.

The teams hauled more than 20 million pounds (9,100 t) of borax out of Death Valley in the six years of the operation. Pacific Coast Borax began shipping their borax by train in 1898."

Display at the Harmony Works Desert Museum

Borax is a component of many detergents, cosmetics and enamel glazes. Additional uses include to make buffer solutions in biochemistry, as a fire retardant, in an anti-fungal compound, in manufacture of fiberglass, as a flux in metallurgy, neutron-capture shields for radioactive sources, a texturing agent in cooking, a cross-linking agent in Slime, as an alkali in photographic developers, and as a precursor for other boron compounds.

Warning! Borox is also an insecticide along with boric acid. Because our family has immune problems, we have to avoid insecticide sprays. We use boric acid in hidden places to discourage bugs which are abundant in the South. CAREFUL! Don’t use this where pets (especially cats) can get it on their pads and fur because it’s harmful when they lick it clean and ingest it!

Borax is banned in foods in most countries but is found in noodles from China and Indonesia—even though those countries have the ban. There are mixed reports of the danger. Some say prolonged ingestion causes liver cancer, others say it is safe. 

Borax, also known as sodiumborate, sodium tetroborate, and disodium tetraborate is an important boron compound, a mineral, and a salt of boric acid. Powdered borax is white, consisting of soft, colorless crystals that dissolve in water. Commercially sold borax is partially dehydtrated.


Here you have examples of how men and women of great wealth have made life better for the rest of us. Through his hard work, clever investments, ingenuity and philanthropy, Frank Marion Smith aided our life in a myriad of ways. Mary Rebecca “Mollie” Smith aided many lives through her charitable work and Evelyn Ellis Smith continued that mission.



1 comment:

  1. I knew about 20 mule-team borax, and using it as a pesticide, but didn't know the rest of this. These rich people used their money wisely and helped a lot of people, unlike some rich people now.


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