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Llano Gold

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Washed in golden sunset, from a distance Llano County's Sharp Mountain looks like a giant Paleolithic flint hide scraper lying on its side.

At 1,594 feet above sea level, the landmark barely deserves its mountain designation. Its summit rising 400 feet above the land around it, the huge pile of cedar-studded rock sits on private property about five miles southeast of Llano. Few today know about the long-abandoned mine shafts the mountain hides.

The nation's economy rested in a dark, deep hole itself back in 1936, when energetic promoters touted Sharp Mountain as another American gold bonanza.

"Profits in Gold," read a brochure distributed by the Laburma (for Llano, Burnet and Mason counties) Corp., "Not in Alaska…Mexico…Africa…But right here in TEXAS."

Whoever wrote that Depression-era sales piece would have done any snake oil hawker proud. The six-page brochure talked of the ancient lure of gold, a quest that has long attracted man because "GOLD is the measure of empire and with GOLD empires are made, and lost."

The brochure continued: "After years of prospecting, opening cross-cuts, sinking shafts, driving tunnels on Sharp Mountain…an enormous body of gold bearing ore has been discovered. Assays of ore…show high values which are increasing with the depth."

Indeed, since the days of the Spanish missions in Texas, the belief persisted that the Hill Country held gold and silver as well as quartz, pyrite and other minerals. In the late 1890s, someone did discover a gold ore deposit in Llano County and mining operations began on the Heath Ranch. Two freight cars of ore shipped to Pueblo, Colo. for smelting in 1901 assayed at $35 a ton. That's roughly 1.75 ounces of gold per 2,000 pounds of ore.

Though hardly equivalent to Colorado's storied Cripple Creek district (which by 1935 had produced $500 million worth of gold calculated for the most part at $20 an ounce), some production continued in the Llano area until 1916. A local bank displayed a 32-ounce gold brick made from Llano County ore that would be worth more than $18,000 today. But that may have been the most gold that ever came from the area.

The 1936 claims by Laburma might have sounded promising to some, but many Llano residents had been previously deprived of their hard-earned money in assorted unsuccessful mining ventures. Most local folks took news of the latest "find" with a grain of another mineral -- salt.

"People here have been taken so many times you couldn't sell stock in Llano for a-nickel-a-$100-share," one old-timer recalled in the late 1970s. He said jaded locals came to call mine promoters "snake hunters."

To compensate for that cynicism, Laburma brought potential investors to Llano from San Antonio and other places by bus, putting them up at the old Southern Hotel. Taken to the mine site after being subjected to a dog and pony show, the prospects saw armed guards patrolling the fence around the 800-acre property, examined ore samples and read optimistic assay reports. Then they got the opportunity to buy shares of Laburma stock.

"Procrastination is the thief of time," the Laburma brochure warned. "THE OPPORTUNITY IS NOW: WISHING, THINKING, and CONSIDERING! will not develop mines; help to build up the mineral wealth of Texas, or enable you to share in the millions that should be obtained from the production of Laburma Mines."

In the end, the only people who made any money off the Llano County gold mine were the property owners, who got $1,000 a mile for creek frontage to the center of the bed. Lawrence Bruhl, who as a young lawyer represented the corporation, later estimated he paid $20,000 to $30,000 in cash to ranchers used to eking out a living back when roast beef sold for 29 cents a pound.

The Laburma mining operation, Bruhl told a reporter in the 1970s, "was not a fraudulent deal. The mines were open, they were digging and sending samples to Denver. The [assay] reports were good."

Just not good enough. The mine never produced ore in sufficient quantity to make the members of the Laburma Corp. any money, not to mention all the hapless investors, left with nothing but fancy stock certificates as reminders of the venerable truth that "not all that glitters is gold."
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - June 15, 2006 column
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