One man's scrap is another mans material
For Wayne Baker, unused stuff has always been a treasure, particularly metal scrap.
"When I was a kid, about 11 years old, I started buying and selling junk," he said in a recent interview. "I knew if I had a dime in my pocket, I could use it to get some kid I knew to scrounge around his dads place and bring me stuff that they thought of as junk, but I could sell for $10."
Born in Afton, Wyo., in 1924, and raised in the heart of the depression, Baker worked his way through those formulative years on farms in the area and by being what we term today as entreupenurial.
He survived his teen years, but in his last year of high school his Model A was run into head on by a drunk driver, which banged he and one of his brothers up pretty bad. This put him in a bad position to finish high school.
"When I got well enough to go back to school the principal told me that I could finish out the year, but that I had missed enough time that I would have to make up what I had lost in time the next year," he said. "That wasn't what I wanted to do at all."
So off to California he went to find work. He found it in the form of Western Union. Then went to work for Kaiser in a shipbuilding facility and finally Pacific Bridge. Here was metal like he had never seen before as the companies were building 4,000 ton ships that would be used to land British soldiers by ramming their bows up onto beaches and then pulling off again to get another load of men.
Then on March 30, 1943 Uncle Sam came calling, drafting him into the U.S. Army Air Corp.
Over the next year his life would be transformed from working in a shipyard to becoming an aircraft mechanic and then transitioning into a flight engineer on B-24 Liberator bombers.
Eventually he was assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England and found himself beginning to fly bombing missions across into continental Europe in May of 1944. By August of that same year he had been on 32 missions and at that point he was done flying into battle.
"At the time the life expectancy for a crew member of a B-24 in missions over Europe to be eight to 12 missions," he said. Obviously, he beat the odds. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and was soon on his way back to the U.S.
On a furlough and heading home for Wyoming, he stopped in Ogden to visit some relatives. There he met Mariam Meister, who incidentally worked as a mechanics helper at Hill Air Base on B-24's. When he met her she was dirty and greasy, just getting home from work but they went with his cousin and Miriam's sister for watermelon in south Ogden that evening. Baker put his hand on her neck as they were driving and she complained to his cousin that Wayne was "getting fresh" but she never told him to stop either.
He was assigned to duty in Mississippi and then went to Denver where he found himself taking flights he could often catch from his base to Hill to see the girl he had met there.
On August 15, 1945, Baker's birthday, the war ended with VJ day and the military started releasing soldiers from the service. Baker was soon to be released in October so he got a furlough and was married to Mariam just before he was discharged.
For the next 10 years Wayne and Mariam would move around taking jobs in places like Montpelier, Idaho, Monterey and Alameda, Calif., Great Falls, Mont., Denver, Colo., and finally Roy, where he not only worked in construction, but soon found himself and Mariam working once again at Hill Field. They also started the "White Elephant Store" in Sunset, which eventually burned down. They then moved the business to Roy. Soon the store replaced the living they were making at Hill Air Base, but then Wayne got very sick. Miriam ran the store for the last year they had it.
The year of 1956 brought a real change to their lives. While Wayne was recuperating from the illness, the family traveled to Carbon County to visit Mariam's parents who had now lived in Miller Creek for a number of years after leaving Ogden. Mariam's father was always a wheeler dealer and one day he wanted to go to Rains, where the mine had been closed down, and the company was selling off lots of stuff.
Baker went along, not intending to buy anything, but then he saws a pile of metal, mining machines, parts and other items laying there. Knowing the metals business, it rekindled a fire in him that he had when he was a boy. He knew what scrap and equipment could bring, and he asked Phil Rains, the owner how much they would take for the whole lot. He told Baker he could take it all for $150. Baker saw opportunity because he knew he could get at least $1000 for it if he did things right. But he had no money to buy it or to obtain equipment to scrap it or move it. But he made the deal anyway, promising Rains he would pay. He returned to Roy wondering how he could come up with the money to take advantage of the situation and he found the answer in a banker friend he knew who lent him the money to start his new scrap and machine business.
Thus was born Mountain States Machinery that eventually located its headquarters in Carbonville.
"I think I made between $3-4,000 off that pile of metal I bought," said Baker. "With the money we borrowed we bought a truck to haul it and I had my dad's 1940 Chevy truck I converted into a winch truck and we were off."
As he was working around Rains, the owner continued to offer him deals on materials and scrap and he kept taking it. All the time making more and more money, and investing it back into the business.
Within a few years of buying used mine machinery and scrap, Baker had developed a lucrative business. He got to know a lot of people in Carbon County and the family settled in Price and later moved to Carbonville.
Then in almost one fell swoop he found himself getting into the actual coal mining business, and with a famous partner.
"The Lions Mining Company decided to close the Wattis mine," said Baker. "We bought the salvage rights to the equipment in the mine."
Lions was owned by the Browing family of Ogden (Browning Arms Company) and by Mariner Eccles (First Security Bank). They had been losing money every year on the operation and were getting out of the coal business. Just as Mountain States began to salvage the equipment Baker found out that Lions was going to sell the property as well.
"I was concerned about that they might sell the land and that could cause problems for our salvage operations so I asked Grant Folger (Lions manager) about how much they wanted for the property," stated Baker. "He told me they wanted to get rid of it for $1 and acre. There was 2,300 acres so I paid them cash and now I owned a coal mine."
As Baker looked at the operation he realized that the mine could be made profitable if things were done differently.
"I had never been a coal miner or in the business, but I could see that we could improve productivity and make money on the mine," he said. "I began by looking at some geological reports from the 1920's that pointed to a coal seam that ran into the Hiwatha mine. It was on the top of a bluff so we went exploring."
He hired a D-8 Cat to build a very poor road to the top of the bluff, and they dug away enought to reach the seam that was reported in the survey. It was an eight to 10 foot seam.
Meanwhile the owner of one of two of the largest coal mining operations in Carbon County was upset about the sale of the Wattis Mine to Baker. He apparently saw some possible competition he didn't like. With one order he cut Mountain States Machinery business by 50 percent by saying his mines would not buy anything from Baker's company. Baker tried and tried to convince the mining company that he would not be a problem for them, but they refused to give back the business.
Baker then saw he had to do something with what he had, and it was a lot of coal, but he needed a partner to get it going.
It was then that he approached Elbert Loudermilk, whom had done a little business to go in with him on developing the mine.
"See that mesa over there," Baker said as he pointed towards Wattis as he stood in a middle of a construction project near Blue Cut that Loudermilk's company was working on. "That's where it is at. I think it looks really good."
Loudermilk agreed to take a ride with Baker to the site and once they were climbing up the makeshift road Loudermilk kept telling him, "We need to widen this road" and once the reached the top he said, "We need to even this out and create an area where you can work."
Baker kept agreeing with him and kept telling him that why he needed a partner.
"I know, but I don't have the money," said Baker. "That's why I need you."
After examining the coal seam Loudermilk said he would join in provided his brother Hoyle would go along with it.
Hoyle didn't. But by the time that was determined Loudermilk's company had already done a lot of work on preparing the mine, and spent a lot of money. Baker agreed to pay his company for their time.
"I got a bill that was half of what it should have been for what they did," said Baker. "I owe Elbert Loudermilk a lot for helping me get that mine started."
So it was back to lookingfor a partner. Baker had heard that Art Linkletter, the famous television personality, was interested in mineral development. Baker, never a shrinking violet, called Linkletter's geologist who arranged a meeting with Linkletter, as well as Caswell Silver from Sundance Oil and John Taylor, the founder of Farmers Insurance Group. They met in Los Angeles, Calif.
"The discussion was simple," said Baker. "They already knew pretty much everything about me and trusted Cas Silver who had looked into this. They wrote me out checks for the money I asked for and with that we paid Elbert Loudermilk his money."
Thus the Plateau Mine was born.
Over the next few years the mine was to prove very valuable as it turned out much more coal per shift than the average at the time. Labor troubles at one point caused some problems, but Baker got through that by making Plateau and non-union mine. At one point he was even threatened by a man who told him that in the east he would be wearing concrete boots and be in the river.
That man was later proved to be one of the people who went in and shot and killed union leader Joseph Yablonsky and his family in 1969.
"There was a point during that whole thing that we didn't let any of our kids out of our sight without them having a guard with them," said Baker somberly.
When the mine was sold in 1971, the owners got 13 times what they had invested in it when it was purchased by United Nuclear Corporation.
Around the same time Baker sold Mountain States Machinery to George Harmond Sr.
It was time to move and the family moved to the Idaho-Wyoming line not far from where Baker grew up.
In the ensuing years Baker has taken on many other projects and even started a firearms company called Freedom Arms, which to this day make some very high quality firearms. Many national teams use Freedom Arms guns to compete with.
Baker has also developed special target systems for gun ranges.
He also came up with Baker Fence Systems, that are being used in places where heavy snow destroys barbed wire fences each year when traditional methods of attaching the wire to the posts are used. His system prevents damage to the fences.
But his first love, taking scrap and turning the material into something useful still stays with him even at 86 years old. To this day, he still builds and erects steel bridges, mostly on private property, across Idaho and Wyoming. He does it with little help and enjoys it.
Last year his 99 year old brother challenged him to a foot race during a family reunion. They raced and Wayne Baker won the race. His brother said he got a foot out first.
But then that is the way Baker seems to have done everything in his life.
He was always a doer, and often out in front when he was doing it.
(Wayne Baker's life and his accomplishments are detailed in a book called "Above the Clouds: The Story of an American Entrepreneur." It is sold at the CEU Prehistoric Museum, Mrs. Guppy's Fabric Store and other retail outlets in town.)