September 3, 2017

Mayer Onyx Was Unique, Beautiful, World Famous

As Professor Price sat on the train, he looked again at the sample of onyx sent to him from Mayer, Arizona. So impressed was he by the  beautiful sample and the accounts of its source that he was now on his way from San Francisco to see the deposit for himself.

When the train pulled into the station at Mayer, he looked out the window and was astonished at what he saw. Previously all known deposits of onyx had come in the form of boulders and smaller rocks and was mined. However, this Mayer onyx was part of the natural strata of the earth! It could be cut into blocks of nearly any size like sandstone or granite! (*1)

Indeed, this was no boulder of onyx. This single deposit covered nearly two-thirds of a square mile and ran from 10 to 20 feet deep! It was more factual to call Mayer an onyx quarry. Nothing like this had ever been found before.

Before departing, Prof. Price found a onyx-rich tract of land that had not yet been claimed and quickly procured it for himself.

Spirit stone made of Mayer onyx
"The only explanation that could be advanced to account for the Arizona freak of a regular quarry of onyx...was that the valley in which it was located had at one time been the basin of a lake formed by a spring whose waters were strongly impregnated with lime to form the body of the stone, and with iron, gold, copper and other minerals to color it, and then centuries (of) evaporation under the burning suns of Arizona did the rest, and as a result gave the quarry that rivals in the beauties of colors in the glories of the opal." (*2)

Yavapai onyx was also unique in that it was "the world's only known fluorescent stone." (*3)

Onyx egg from Mayer
The onyx was first found in the fall of 1889 and brought to Joe Mayer's attention. At first, he thought it was a piece of petrified wood. His wife "sent a small piece to Roddin's Jewelry Store in Chicago and asked them what it was." Word returned that it was indeed onyx. (*4)

"For a quarter of a century, within 50 feet of Mayer's station on Big Bug Creek, in one of the oldest and what was supposed to be one of the most thoroughly prospected mining districts in the Territory, laid...acres of the most beautiful onyx that has ever pleased the eye of man." (*2)

A small company was formed with Joe Mayer, Buckey O'Neill, and George and Al McCann. "The company contracted with George Underhill of Rutland, Vermont, who had a marble quarry in the Mayer area." (*4)

"Mr. O'Neill was the first person to place this valuable product on exhibition in New York, Chicago and Boston." (*1)

Seashell design
O'Neill then "bonded it to a syndicate of New York Financiers for $200,000. Lack of facilities for marketing the onyx however, prevented its profitable exploitation at that time and the quarry was closed for many years." (*5)

Sharlot Hall went to see the onyx quarry via the railroad in 1899. She described it thusly: (*6)
"Mayer is a pretty little group of houses nestling under the very shadow of the onyx cliffs. There was no need to say 'Where is the mine?' for it was all around us; big-striped cliffs joining to the edge of the little stream so near the road that one wonders (why) years passed before anyone guessed their value. 
"Down under the trees one of the original locators, Dan Bowen by name, had a polishing factory all his own and with the aid of the most primitive tools was turning out small but exquisite specimens in as many colors and shadings of the rainbow."
This black & white onyx ball reminds
one of horsehair pottery.
"The following are among the many colors contained in this stone, some of which almost rival the fire opal in their exquisite rareness of beauty: Dark red and yellow, green and bright red, variegated colors in different figures and stripes, black and white, gray and white, white striped with golden brown and amber, and in fact, all of the hues in the rainbow, each quarry seeming to contain different colored its most beautiful form, as though nature had exhausted all of her artistic materials in the performing of this work." (*1)

For the first three decades the quarry passed through several different owners including New Jersey Congressman Charles N Fowler who bought part ownership after Congress passed a strict tariff on Mexican onyx. (*1)

Since the onyx at Mayer could be quarried, a large number of items previously thought impossible for manufacture in onyx were produced particularly for churches all over the world. These included altars, communion rails, and baptismal fonts as well as large altar candlesticks. (*7)

Still the quarry went through some tough times, shut-downs and changes in ownership.

Another sample of the colors found.
By the 1920's, however, things began to move forward. "Through the efforts of the Yavapai County Chamber of Commerce the property was purchased by the present owners and the Yavapai Onyx Company (was) incorporated" around 1924. (*8)

"The onyx is not sold in the rough state and what is taken from the properties is brought to the finishing plant in Dubuque, (Iowa) where it is made into lamps, candlesticks, bowls, tabletops, bookends, fireplaces, lamp bases, turned ornaments of different designs and gear shift balls for automobiles." (*7)

Advertisement for the popular onyx gear shift knobs, 1925.
"The onyx gear shift ball has become tremendously popular, and is now being sold in all parts of the world," it was reported. "It has found favor in Japan, Portugal, Cuba, Sweden, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Argentina, Hawaii, and even in the far away stifling humidity of the Straits Settlements (Malaysia)." (*7)

"Seven automobile concerns (were) using Yavapai onyx either as specifications for their cars or as optional equipment." (*9)

Yavapai Onyx also signed a contract with Almco Lamps of Chicago, then "perhaps the largest lamp manufacturer in the world," to use this special onyx on all their "plated lamps for the entire year of 1925." The most luxurious of these lamps retailed for $500 ($5000 in today's money). (*7)

Armco Lamp ad featuring Yavapai Onyx. (Oversized for possible reading.)

These lamps were advertised nationally in Vogue, House & Garden, Liberty, and Good Housekeeping as well as full page ads in such newspapers as the Chicago Tribune. Locals were quite proud that these national ads mentioned Yavapai County by name. (*7)

Onyx scraps and small pieces did not go to waste. These were crushed into small crystals for "stucco dash and terrazzo flooring." (*7)

Other items manufactured were pedestals, pillars, and console sets as well as a myriad of small decorative items. (*7)

"In addition, the company itself manufacture(d) a number of articles including lamps, office novelties, church goods, candle sticks, jewel cases and the like." One product planned for the future was "a doorknob of unique design." (*9)

Yavapai onyx "attracted the attention of two of America's leading architects" who planned to use it for "several office buildings in Chicago" and "for the proposed Seattle Theater." (*9)

Of course, like many other business enterprises, this all came to a screeching halt with the Great Depression and the quarry laid idle for years.

But by 1950 onyx was again being quarried primarily for Catholic churches all over the world. (*3) 

Current seniors might remember the small museum that held many interesting samples from the quarry on the Old Black Canyon Road near the quarry site. "Open free to the public including Sundays, it contain(ed) scores of onyx specimens valued at many hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars." (*3)

Eventually the commercial grade onyx played out; the operation closed; and trespassers cleaned-out all the remaining scraps several decades ago.

Such a massive, one-of-a-kind deposit of onyx is symbolic of the great and special energy of the land on which Yavapai county sits.

Yavapai Onyx Wolf
Yavapai Onyx Egg


For Further Reading:

The founding and early history of Mayer, Arizona is inseparable from the biography of the man who founded the town--Joseph Mayer.

The story of an early Mayer, AZ industry that manufactured toothpicks from cactus needles and what happened to the popular product.

The colorful history of Mayer, Arizona's iconic smokestack, with a look to its future.

Tourist Tip:
CLICK HERE for Backroad Adventures in the Bradshaw Mountains Around Mayer!

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(*1) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File: "Mines": "The Onyx Fields of Arizona" by Mamie Mauer; October, 1897.
(*2) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File: "Mines": "A Valuable Onyx Mine" 8/28/1890.
(*3) Prescott Evening Courier; 7/19/1950 Pg. 2, Col. 3.
(*4) "Joe Mayer and His Town," by Winifred L. Thorpe. Journal of Arizona History; Vol. 19 #2; Summer, 1978; Pages 161-162.
(*6) Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File: "Mines": "Mayer and the Onyx Mines" By Sharlot Hall 7/10/1899
(*7) "Genuine Yavapai County Onyx" Yavapai Magazine, January, 1925; Pg. 3-4.

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