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F.M. Smith: the man, the miner, the mogul

If you live in Oakland, you’ve probably heard of F.M. Smith, the Borax King. But what was borax, and how did he become the king of it? Our headquarters are located in Smith’s old office building, and we decided to look into the story behind our original landlord.

And what a story it was. Frances Marion Smith was Oakland’s own homegrown tycoon, bankrolling some of the city’s best-loved landmarks. His life reads like a screenplay: he started from nothing, outwitted his competitors to claim a mineral fortune, and lived the good life in a custom-made mansion.

Smith was born in the woods of Wisconsin, and struck out for the Western desert in his early twenties. Like most men, he was looking for gold and silver, but always seemed to be a few months behind the next big strike. In 1867, he was living in a hand-built shack in Nevada and chopping wood for mining camps when a certain salt marsh caught his eye. He suspected that the crystals might have value, and scraped up some samples for testing.

A few days later, Smith’s hunch was confirmed — he was sitting on one of the world’s richest borax deposits. Known as the “miracle mineral,” borax was the original all-purpose cleaner. People used it for everything from scrubbing pots to killing weeds and bleaching their teeth (don’t try that at home, though — it will probably give you cancer). It was also hugely in demand for its industrial uses. It took Smith a few weeks to make his claim official, and in the meantime, other prospectors caught wind of his discovery and started scoping out the marsh. Smith would trick them into thinking that the REAL borax was across the valley, twenty miles away. By the time they wised up, the land was all his.

Before Smith could cash in, though, he had to figure out how to transport his new product. To get his borax to the nearest railroad depot, he’d need to drag it across Death Valley, the most godforsaken desert in the West, then haul it over the Panamint mountains — a trip of almost 200 miles.

Enter the 20-mule team. Smith and his engineers designed custom wagons for hauling the borax, then hitched them to an enormous mule train. They stashed supplies along the route, and hired the territory’s most fearless wagon drivers. The operation was famous for its combination of daring and prudence — they never lost a single wagon or mule to the elements.

The mule train made Smith a very rich man, and became his greatest marketing tool. The image of the team symbolized man’s triumph over the wilds of the West, and hinted at the incredible cleaning power of his product. Within six years, the railroad was extended, and the mules were retired. But to this day, their image appears on borax packaging throughout the world.

Once his mineral empire was well established, Smith settled in Oakland, where he delighted in playing the part of the flamboyant Western tycoon. He built a palatial estate in the hills, then had his old prospector’s cabin installed in his backyard as a reminder of how far he’d come. The mansion also included a bowling alley, a miniature borax mine, and an observation tower that offered panoramic views of the bay. He traveled in a private rail car, and owned the finest carriages in town (so fine, in fact, that various US Presidents would borrow them for their visits to the Bay). In order to gain access to the highest East Coast society, he married a blue-blooded New York socialite, and together they adopted six children.

In the early 1900s, Smith moved on to mass transit and real estate, transforming Oakland from a frontier outpost to the “Athens of the West.” He built hotels (the Claremont), amusement parks (Idora Park), bathhouses (the Piedmont Baths), university landmarks (the clock tower at Mills College) and transit networks (the Key System, precursor to AC transit and BART). He was also a high-profile philanthropist, and threw lavish fundraising parties at his mansion.

But by 1913, Smith was on the brink of losing everything. He’d overextended himself, and creditors were coming after his estate. At the last minute, one of his early investments — some shares in a friend’s silver mine — took off, and Smith used the profits from his share to rebuild his business empire in a few short years.

An aging Smith finally moved out of his mansion in the late 1920s, just before the stock market tanked. His enormous property was sold into smaller parcels, but the main residence was too expensive for anyone to afford in the post-crash market, so it was eventually torn down. Many of his real-estate projects met the same fate. Smith died in 1931, and his remains are ensconced in a giant tomb on Millionaire’s Row in Mountain View Cemetery. The rest of his estate went towards building homes for orphaned girls throughout the East Bay, many of which still stand today.

Smith’s empire might be scattered, but he earned his reputation as one of the original Oakland trailblazers (after all, he literally blazed trails). He also saw the city’s potential as a great center of culture and commerce. We only wish more of his creations were still around (especially that miniature mine).

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