WINNEMUCCA — George and Bernice Austin’s rags to riches story did not necessarily begin with the Jumbo Mine, in the Slumbering Hills of Humboldt County, once one of the country’s most famous gold strikes. Neither did it necessarily begin with the town of Jungo, which they founded.
Perhaps it began with who they were as people when they wandered into the mining camps of northern Nevada sometime in 1908 or 1909. They were hard workers and risk takers.
At the time the couple was married, Bernice Austin — a nurse — had fled the loss of life and misery from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Reportedly, she was so stressed by the aftermath all her hair fell out.
George Austin, her husband, had struggles of his own as a miner in California, due to chronic asthma.
Recounting the rise of the Austins to national prominence was their grandson, Greg Austin, who lives in Reno and who carries on the family legacy of entrepreneurship in mining.
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He said his grandparents were married in northern California then they picked up and moved to Nevada where they joined thousands of others who hoped to strike it rich in mining. The riches did not necessarily follow in a hurry.
Greg Austin said his grandmother recounted stories of those early days when the family moved from mining camp to mining camp. They were so poor they lived in a tent and had “hardtack” for supper. Hardtack was simply flour and water cooked — something like a large cracker.
Along the way George and Bernice Austin made a bit of money on a piece of property called Haystack, which was about 15 miles south of what would one day be known as Jungo.
Greg Austin said that may have been where his grandparents got the money to invest in a little general store that would later grow into the town of Jungo. Initially, the business catered to the customers who wandered off the train but eventually others began to collect at the whistle stop and a little town began to form.
The beginning was modest but the town grew to have a post office — Bernice served as the post mistress — and a little school. George did triple-duty as the proprietor of the store, the bar tender and peacekeeper — as needed. Eventually the town boasted a population of about 400 people.
The community of Jungo was pretty well settled when two men came to Nevada who sought to make their fortunes in mining.
They made their way to a remote corner of the Slumbering Hills in Humboldt County where they began developing the Jumbo Mine late in 1934 through spring 1935.
The two would-be prospectors scratched some gold out of a hillside. Come spring, they walked out and stopped over in Jungo where they struck up a conversation with the proprietor of the general store, George Austin.
According to his own account, Austin offered to buy the mine. He borrowed $500 and promised the two prospectors $10,000 more within two years.
These were the dark days of the Great Depression and money was hard to come by. When asked if his grandmother supported George’s decision to buy the mine, Greg Austin said yes.
He explained his grandparents might be viewed as risk takers, but they were actually entrepreneurs at a time when that was a respectable occupation.
Austin, who was about 63 at the time, arrived at the mine site with his brother, his two sons, and some picks and shovels. They went to work digging out veins of ore that were 6-8 inches in diameter in some places and as wide as 2 feet in others.
In 1935 the family erected a small “coffee grinder” mill that could treat one and one-half tones of ore per day, but the water had to be trucked in.
According to Greg Austin, the gold was shipped to the mint in coffee cans, which weighed about 10 lbs. He said in those days the Post Office had a very secure method of shipping, and they experienced no problems with stealing.
What they needed was more hands. Back at the Jungo General Store there were men who owed the Austins money, but times were tough.
Greg Austin explained people bought goods “on the cuff”, which meant they would pay when they could. They were honorable men, he said. When given the opportunity to pay the debt by working in Austin’s new mine, they agreed.
That year, 1935, the Jumbo Mine earned George Austin $80,000 and he was able to pay off the original prospectors. Gold was about $35 an ounce.
By 1936, the rich mine was becoming famous – first by word of mouth then by news articles. Austin received two substantial offers to purchase the mine, one from former President Herbert Hoover.
Although Hoover is generally remembered for having been at the helm as the country drifted into the Great Depression, few realize he got his start in life as a miner who made his millions investing in gold mines. He once famously remarked that a man who had not made a million by 40 years old was not worth much.
Hoover was impressed by what he saw at the Jumbo Mine, and legend has it he made the owner an offer of $1 million, but George Austin declined to sell.
In an article that appeared in the Berkeley Daily Gazette in 1936, Nevada Congressman J.G. Scrugham reported on Austin’s reluctance to sell the mine. Scrugham made the comments after visiting the Jumbo Mine site.
At that time Austin, family, and miners were pounding out $500/day – net – and had received an offer of $1 million for half-interest in the property.
When asked why he wouldn’t accept such an attractive offer, Austin reportedly replied because he would have to give half to the government in taxes.
Scrugham reported Austin as saying, “That would leave me about half-a-million. I’ve got two sons. A half-million would probably make loafers of them. No, it’s better to hold the mine and work it ourselves. The boys will appreciate it more if they have to dig the money out themselves.”
Although the family agreed amongst themselves to hold the property for 50 years, in 1937 they did sublease to two rather famous men: HK Huntley and JK Wadley. The 35-year lease promised a 20 percent royalty, $100,000 minimum royalty, and a $250,000 down payment, and an end price of $10 million.
Not bad for a piece of property Austin paid $10,000 for two years before.
Greg Austin reports his grandparents, his great-uncle, Jess, and both sons met at the Humboldt Hotel in Winnemucca to split up the $250,000. George and Bernice each received two piles; the rest a single pile. As the story goes, the family’s attorney reached over and took one of the piles saying, “And this one is for me.” The family was so taken aback, no one said a word in their surprise.
By this time Bernice Austin was living in Reno with her youngest son, Wilfrid, Greg Austin’s father. She reportedly said she wasn’t raising anymore of her sons in Jungo.
Although people who come suddenly to money can sometimes live high, Greg Austin said his grandparents always lived modestly.
Wilfrid Austin’s family returned to Jumbo mine for two years when Greg Austin was a child. They lived in the mining camp in a two-room house that featured a kitchen and bedroom.
Greg’s mother acted as teacher and cook in the camp while Wilfrid mined. Greg said the times were probably hard but he and his sister had a good time.
The mine has been leased on and off over the years, but it never quite regained the promise it showed when former President Herbert Hoover declared he was “favorably impressed with the mine.”
Ten years ago many buildings still survived, but there are only a scattering few now, and the extensive underground tunnels have been blasted shut, a monument to the promise that while hard work doesn’t always lead to riches – sometimes it does.
There is nothing left of Jungo; the old buildings burned down long ago. Greg Austin said the little town was a victim of geography: there was no water. The community relied on the passing train for water.
As Jungo declined, Winnemucca flourished. Two trains went through Winnemucca, it had water, and some of the county’s riches farms were not far off.
Only the story of George and Bernice Austin is left, a testament to a time when people took chances and risks and worked hard. They were ethical people, in their lives and business, and did not take advantage of folk.
Gregory Austin said to be an “entrepreneur” in his grandparents’ time was a respectable line of work; the word did not yet carry the hint of manipulation of people that it gained in modern times.
Gregory Austin followed in his grandparents’ footsteps, developing mines and owning his own business.
Jungo is not the only town to know the influence of the Austin family. Austin, Nevada was named for a brother of George Austin’s.