by Barb Chapman, Wheatland Town Historian
Soon after settlement of the area, vast deposits of gypsum were discovered beneath the ground. At first, the Garbutt family and others conducted thriving businesses of mining, grinding and selling gypsum as “land plaster,” believed to enhance the growth of crops. By the late 1800s many other uses for gypsum had been developed, including water lime cement, plaster board and gypsum blocks. In 1900 the Lycoming Calcining Company bought the Garbutt family gypsum business, and in 1906 the Empire Gypsum Company took over the plaster mine and mill of William Weeks.
The Empire Company was located on the north side of Oatka Creek about 1000 feet east of the Union Street bridge. The mine entrances were on the south side of the creek in the side of the hill. The Ebsary Gypsum Block Company was established in 1911.
In 1976, Joe Resch, a former mine worker, described his work in the Empire Gypsum Mine. The workers went down into the mine through the shaft that had a stairway and pipes for water. According to Resch, there were seven layers of gypsum in this area. The first layer was 80 feet below the surface. Then there was a layer of limestone and under that another layer of gypsum. There were two types of jobs in the mines, that of shooters (or drillers) and shovelers. The shooters calculated the amount of dynamite to use, then drilled and placed it. The dynamite was set off as they left the mine each day. The next morning, men were sent in to check the overhangs to see if they were safe and replace any props that had been blown down. Then shovelers went to work loading the gypsum into cars than ran on a wooden track. The cars each held 2 ½ tons of gypsum and were pulled by mules across the narrow wooden bridge to the mill to be ground into plaster.
A shoveler earned 25 cents a ton. He hung a tag showing his number on the car he had loaded. When the car was weighed in the weigh house, his pay was tallied. A good day’s work was ten to twelve cars. The shooters made 30 cents a ton. They had to buy the dynamite out of their pay. All the workers wore caps with lights that burned carbide and had to be refilled every two to three hours from the little cans they carried with them. They bought their own caps, lights and carbide as well as rubber boots, as water leaked in, and the floors of the mines were often wet. The water was pumped out through the shaft. In the winter, mine workers saw very little daylight. They went to work at 5:30 A.M. and got out at 3:30 P. M. six days a week. They ate their lunches in a little room about a mile inside the tunnel.
These men risked their lives every day when they entered the mine. Accidents were frequent. In 1902 Edward Behan, a Garbutt resident, was crushed by a five or six hundred pound rock that fell from the ceiling. Nicholas Brennan suffered the same fate in 1905. A blast of dynamite literally blew Onofrio Augello to pieces in 1911. Two other Italian immigrants had died when they were overcome by gas the previous year. Chester Hardman of Belcoda was killed by the explosion of fifty pounds of dynamite, and another man was crushed between one of the gypsum cars and the wall of the mine. These are a few of the stories found in newspaper articles about local mining accidents.
In 1927, Augustus Wolf, the president of the Empire Gypsum Company died, and the business was sold. The new business failed before it started because of the stock market crash. None of the other gypsum companies in Garbutt survived the depression. The hamlet of Garbutt became a ghost of the former vital community it had been. Today, foundations of former buildings and bridge abutments have been overgrown with vegetation and are no longer visible. These reminders of both the glories and the tragedies of the early days are gone forever.