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California Agates -- Incredible "find"


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I wrote to the Los Angeles Times reprint office to try to get permission to share this whole article from 1924. First of all I wanted to simply find out if it was still under copyright, and then I asked how to go about getting permission to share in case it was. I got an answer which wasn't an answer, and then didn't hear back when I asked for clarification. So I shall share part and hope that this falls within the Fair Use provision of the copyright law. I tried to paraphrase it earlier but that was nowhere near as good as the real thing.


by A. L. Godwin, in the Los Angeles Times

December 7, 1924, page C13

German Monopoly of Stone Marble Trade Heavily Cut Into by Local Concern, Which is Manufacturing Them from Onyx Supplied by Near-by Quarries

Having done his bit on the battlefields of France in defeating Germany, G. D. Mitchell, a fighting Irishman, is now carrying on a little war of his own in the commercial field against that country. Los Angeles is the scene of his activities and all signs point to a complete victory over the Teutons.

Through the enterprise of Mr. Mitchell, the ancient trade of cutting and polishing stones for toy marbles has been established here. Three years ago he arrived in Los Angeles with his wife and two small children. Badly gassed in the war he came to California to recuperate. While looking for a job Mr Mitchell met T. D. Meagher, a travelling salesman and a shrewd business man. Meagher had an idea. Mitchell developed it. It was this:

To capture the old-established agate toy marble trade from Germany.

Mr. Meagher, while traveling for his company during the war, discovered that America depended on Germany for marbles and that the war had cut off the supply. The demand remained. Millions of boys all over the United Stated and Canada had to have their agate "alley taws."

"Our optimism in believing that we could provide serious competition to Germany for the stone toy marble trade of the world was fully justified," said Mr. Mitchell, for while Germany has to import agate from South America we can get onyx-marble in unlimited supply from Lower California."

. . .

So, that's some history of one American marble maker. The story was in part to announce the move the company had made from the rented shed where they first set up shop to a new building made specially for their growing business. Mexican (lower California) onxy was very popular in the 1920's for many items, for children and adults.

And that was an exciting find. To remind you, here are some of the images we've seen before. The search started with an awesome picture of a man who may or may not be R. W. Walker. We don't know who he is. We do know he is not the father of "Frankie" because Frankie was Frank Doig Mitchell, the son of George Douglas Mitchell. The 2nd pic is Frankie at 12 or so, as he appeared in Popular Science. Then boxes the company sold. And a 1931 ad from George Sourlis.

But the best "find" was still to come!

You know me. As much as we had learned it seemed like we were only in the middle of the story. I couldn't stop there! So I did a "bit" more searching on the net and ... I found Frank's children, Mia and Doug, thanks to a poem Mia wrote about her dad.

It has been fantastic. They are so nice. And so proud of their father and grandfather. We 'chatted' a bit. It was awesome.

One technical point they told me is something I suspected was true -- at some point the company name changed from the "California Agate Co." to the "California Onyx Co.".

Among other things, I also learned that Frankie grew up to work on the Apollo spacecraft. How cool is that?

And here .... I really need a drum roll. This is just sooooo wowww...

Some of the family treasures, photos courtesy of Doug Mitchell. A couple of hundred California Agate marbles, practically factory fresh. Some of the other things the company made -- gear shift knobs, the base of a pen holder set, and a decorative piece of polished onyx with one edge left rough. And the real father of Frank, George Douglas Mitchell, the fighting Irishman who settled his family in Los Angeles after WWI and started making aggies.

Note there are two different styles of gear shift knobs there. One is thicker than the other. Some have the metal inset with the name Calif. Onyx. Others don't. One thing which is still not clear is what their radiator caps looked like.

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This is sooooooo cool!!! There are some distinct differences in the colors of agates... This info (pictures) may be able to help a lot in determining whether an agate is of US or German origin...

Were they faceted?? (Was that covered in the previous thread? I don't remember.... :blush: )

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Thank you Ray. And it's just too GREAT. The "club" of children and grandchildren of the company founders is very exclusive. It's awesome that they're so willing to talk to us.

Sue ... I don't know! Doug has all those mibs so maybe he could tell, but I'm still just learning how to recognize facets myself so if he doesn't already know how to find them I don't know if I could explain it well. But I think, yes, they would have to be faceted ... wouldn't they? Look at that belt in the picture of "R. W. Walker". Can you imagine it? Standing there, holding the stone up to the belt for a bit, maybe rocking it back a forth a little, and then rotating your grip, and holding the marble against the belt some more.

When were the machines invented which could grind them without facets? I don't know.

Joe ... basically the fella who donated the pix of R. W. Walker and the California Agate boxes ... he made me WANT to do it. That's about it. I went in circles on Google. I went in circles at Newspaperarchive.com. I went in circles at Google Books. And then I thought I'd go in the same circles in the Google News archive, but what the heck, I gave it a try and got a break -- found the LA Times story. :-)

Thanks everyone. It's been so fun. And I know Doug and Mia will appreciate your remarks. (They have the link!)

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Interestingly enough I just came across an original box of 25 count #15 (+/- 5/8") California Agates box in decent condition. I can confirm that the agates do not have facets. They are polished in one way to lose the facets. That confirms by 1924 at least in the US Agates were not handcut. Almost all the ones I picked up from the box were translucent base with yellowish vains, reminding of Peltier Honey Onyx.


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Here's a passage from later in that article:


From the first their product found a ready market in the toy centers of the continent and young America's supply of "alley taws" was assured without the aid of Germany.

Now the little shed on Temple street is a thing of the past. The increase of business necessitated moving to much larger quarters. Mitchell, Meagher and McElroy, or the California Agate Company, have their own factory at Huntington Park. According to Mr. Meagher, president of the company, they have a daily production of 6000 marbles and theirs is the only firm in America competing with Germany for the toy-stone marble trade.

An earlier article, from July 27, 1924, was printed while the new factory was being built. It said they expected to employ about 15 people. That article said they manufactured "marbles, beads and various agate and onyx novelties." While I'm thinking of it, a Dec. 27, 1925 article says they added more machines and had to double their number of employees but it didn't say how many they had. In 1925, their line was given as marbles, radiator caps and gear shift balls.

So matching the 1924 figures up for an estimate -- 6000 marbles with 15 employees -- that would be an average of 400 marbles per day per employee, plus the other novelties. I guess the process was more mechanized that I had originally pictured.

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I believe those are leather drivebelts(not sanding belts) on the machinery in the pic. That was a common drive method on the type of equipment seen in the picture. Notice where it is sewn together on top of the pulley. That big bump could not be there if used for sanding or polishing. Peace,Galen

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Thanks. lol. I keep telling people machinery is over my head.

I actually have a gigantic wheel a lot like this one. Coz' it's 'pretty' (lol). (it's painted red inside.) But I never had the slightest idea what made it "go". A leather belt, hmmm. Good to learn.


Carskadden's book on Colonial Period marbles has been recommended to me in connection with this. Onyx being softer than marble marble, from what I'm hearing it sounds like a process similar to that used to grind limestone might have been employed. . . okay, I'm getting lightheaded. machines!!!!!! *whoow* I need to go look at something fluffy now. ^_^

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My kids have taken tours of the Lowell (MA) cotton mills which were entirely belt driven....

Here's a link to the concept, Steph...

Mill Power Drives

I went once.... The weaving rooms are about 2 football fields long and FULL of these belt drives.... The noise is absolutely DEAFENING!! (No matter what the article says about it being quieter!!) And, these women worked all day, long hours in that environment.... :Sad_headshake_tweetz:

Interesting fact...

Contemporary glass artist and marble maker, Ro Purser's studio and machine shop on Whidbey Island, off the Coast of Washington, is entirely belt driven!! ;)

(To the extent that he is able to keep it so...)

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It is an Old World joy to behold.

Until you need a new belt!!! LOL

The last time I saw him, he was concerned about that!!

If need be, I was going to try and find out who handles that sort of thing for the Lowell Museum...

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