Golden Years

It's 11 a.m., give or take, and Ed Phillips has just arrived for work, carrying a bag of King Soopers pastries and a vinyl suitcase bound with a belt.

He opens the door, which sets off a ringer and a set of lights in the back furnace room. Phillips's assistant, Carl Brewer, is in the lab cooking down some metal in an acid solution.

It is an undistinguished entrance into a nondescript building that blends in perfectly with the neighboring tire shops and homeless shelters on the north edge of downtown.

But each time he opens that door, Phillips is preserving a bit of history. He is the proprietor of the Colorado Assay Co., the last of several dozen assay offices that once existed in Denver. Now eighty, Phillips says his business at 2244 Broadway may not last much longer. He says his building may be ground up like so many of the rocks that have come in the door over the past hundred years.

And when that happens, Denver will no longer have a place to which a person panning for gold can bring a pouch of dirt and rock and find out if he's struck gold--or fool's gold.

In the meantime, this office seems frozen in time. After Phillips removes his gray windbreaker and--like Mister Rogers--puts on a gray sweater, he shuffles over to log some rock samples into a book with the words "1978 Standard Daily Journal" on the front.

The samples come from a box sent to him by a Nevada miner hoping to sell his rocks to a plant in Mexico that produces silica. When Brewer explains all the steps that it takes to determine what percentage of the rocks is silica, it's easy to see why nobody is clamoring to get into the assay business. "More or less, it's continuous labor involved," Phillips says.

Brewer will grind the rocks into a fine powder, weigh in a sample of exactly one half-gram, burn and melt it, then boil it in a solution of acid. There are several intermediary steps before Brewer can weigh the final sample and determine the percentage of silica. All of this will take three or four days, and for all of this service, including a typed report, Colorado Assay charges $10.

This was once a more exciting business, born during the mining frenzy a century ago. Colorado Assay was founded in Cripple Creek by E.P. Welch. It moved to Denver within the first few years of its founding and was later turned over to Welch's nephew Aaron H. Holland.

During the Great Depression, business boomed as the jobless went looking for gold in streams and mountains. Business was so good that Aaron Holland hired his nephew Ed Phillips to help with some of the work.

Those were heady days. The business was of such importance that postal clerks had to memorize the Colorado Assay address so that any package with that name on it would get through without delay. "If you didn't know where we were, you couldn't be a clerk," Phillips says.

Phillips took to the work of unlocking the secrets of rocks. He even tried panning for gold a few times back in the 1950s in the South Platte River near Fairplay. Any luck? "Very little," he says in typically laconic fashion. He says his is not the kind of business in which it makes sense to do a lot of talking. Miners and those who deal in precious metals appreciate discretion, he observes.

Phillips learned from his uncle how to keep mum, along with the motto of Colorado Assay: "What there is in it. No more, no less." While other assayers had flashy ads in business directories, Holland and Phillips displayed only that motto and their phone number. The motto still graces the water-stained invoices that Phillips uses today.

In the 1950s the company boomed again, thanks in part to the hunt for uranium, and Phillips moved from Welton Street to his current location. One of the items housed at the new spot was a Geiger counter as big as two full-sized microwave ovens. These days it's used primarily as the place for Phillips to rest his suitcase.

Phillips himself is looking for some rest. He tried to retire in the early Eighties, when his son, Edmund Jr., took over the business. It didn't last.

"He just couldn't make a living at it," the elder Phillips says. "It's kind of a hard game." So his son went to work for the Postal Service and Phillips came out of retirement. When he finally does retire, Phillips says, Colorado Assay will probably fold, much to his regret. "I don't have a solution to that at the moment," he says.

What he does have at the moment is the box of samples from the Nevada miner.
Standing over a molten blob of metal slowly cooling from red to pink to a greenish-yellow, Brewer already knows that it is not going to be good news for the Nevada man. "I can tell just from looking at it that it's the wrong color," Brewer says. "He's going to be disappointed.

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Scott C. Yates