A Historical Column From The Fayette County Historical Commission and Fayette County Judge’s Office
Clay: Fayette County’s White Gold –Part II
By Judy Pate
Although interest in clay for the manufacture of fine china continued into the 1920s, by the 1930s the emphasis was beginning to shift to its use in manufacturing processes and the search was on for deposits of a type of clay commonly known as Fuller’s earth. In 1935, R.A. Wheeler established the Flatonia Fuller’s Earth plant right in downtown Flatonia on South Penn Street. This company invested $10,000 in new machinery, consisting of a dryer, grinder, separator and sacker, used for processing the wet Fuller’s earth into a fine powder to be used in oil and sugar refineries.
In 1936, a company called Fla-Tex Clay began building a large, modern plant just west of Flatonia. Like the Wheeler plant, Fla-Tex too would be mining and refining Fuller’s earth and it was also investing heavily in its machinery and infrastructure. Managed by J.F. Chupick, it was claimed that the Fla-Tex building at 65-feet high would be the tallest in Fayette County. An all-steel dry kiln was installed and when finished the plant was expected to be valued at $40,000 and would employ a large number of men in two or three shifts a day.
The clay would be brought to the mill in trucks, sent through a dryer, and then taken by elevators to the top floor. There it would be run through a mill consisting of corrugated rollers to crush and shave the dried clay into minute particles. The crushed product would then be sifted through a system of fine screens and either sacked and stored for shipping or sent back through for further grinding.
Unfortunately, all the hopes for the Fla-Tex plant literally went up in smoke with a fire that started on one of the upper floors shortly after construction of the plant was completed and while the new machinery was still being tested. There were no human fatalities, but as it was insured for only $5,000, the building and all the brand new equipment were a total loss.
Fire claimed yet another clay industry victim in the late 1940s, when Gus Ritchie built a plant on the old Flatonia Fairground, just southwest of downtown Flatonia. When that plant burned, he moved north of Flatonia to found the Milwhite clay plant – this plant is currently still operating as Mid-Tex.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Texas Company (later Texaco) mined clay near Muldoon, sent it to Houston for refining and then used it to filter jet fuels. This operation ceased when the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency frowned on the fuel-contaminated clay left at the end of the filtering process being dumped in the Gulf of Mexico. Through the 1970s, Fayette County supplied oil field drilling mud made from local clay to the U.S., South America and Mexico.
The crash of the oil industry in the 1980s might have killed the clay industry here, if it weren’t for the development of new applications for its use. In the 21st century, the industry is not just surviving but thriving.
Balcones Mineral Corporation, located west of Flatonia directly across Highway 90 from the former ill-fated Fla-Tex Plant, mines Fuller’s earth from those same pits. Founded in 1961, the plant has become one of the leading producers of cat litter as well as absorbent clays used in the industrial sector for cleanup of hazardous spills (large and small).
Another successful and fast-growing operation is Muldoon Minerals, established in 1996 and located between Muldoon and West Point. Muldoon Minerals mines bentonite and has found a very strong niche market selling its product as an organic fertilizer or as an additive for animal feed. Although its use in animal feed has not yet been approved by the FDA in the U.S., it is widely used overseas – touted as an organic substance which studies have shown to bind deadly aflatoxins and then pass harmlessly through the animal.
While it has changed significantly, it is clear that clay has been a valuable resource in the southern part of Fayette County for 150 years or more. Like any mineral mined from the earth, supplies are finite, but at present there is no end in sight for an industry that has provided jobs and livelihoods in the area for generations.
Contributor’s note: This article is based primarily on anecdotal accounts of the industry as reported in The Schulenburg Argus, 1877, The La Grange Journal, 1884 and The Flatonia Argus, 1903-1991. Thanks also to Gene Oeding at Balcones Minerals and Ronnie Steinhauser at Muldoon Minerals, both of whom spent considerable time talking about the industry today. Any mistakes in the text, however, are solely my own.Read more