Family reopens mining supply store in new location

By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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For more than 30 years until he retired on Aug. 31, Frank Sullivan sold equipment and dispensed advice at Pioneer Mining Supplies in Downtown Auburn. Now his daughter, Heather Willis, is resuming the business. She and her husband, John Willis, have opened S&W Mining Supplies across the street from the former location. Willis credits a wave of support from the community for her decision. “The main question was why was I letting the storefront close since it had been in the family for so long?” she said. “I was offered a great location at an affordable price that made the decision for me to open up the store.” Former customers will find a lot of familiarity and continuity at the new site. “Basically everything is set up pretty much the same,” Willis said. “I purchased a lot of the leftover inventory from my father’s shop and purchased some new stuff.” She’s added more rock-hounding tools, as well as small hammers and chiseling tools for reaching into small crevices. But she’s no longer carrying topography maps because more and more people utilize the Internet for things like that, she said. A substantial amount of the business comes through the website, which Willis updated as part of opening the new store. “There was not a fully functioning online system before,” she said. “I created an Amazon-style shopping cart for customers with more ease of use. They can go on and shop and also get information on historical gold prospecting areas in the area.” A few people still make their living as gold miners, but S&W sees more weekend warriors. “They’re already out on the river and looking for more things to do — like a hobbyist style,” she said. And it’s actually an inexpensive hobby, she said. “Most things people already have — screwdrivers, hammers, buckets,” she explained. “Most customers can get a good how-to-start book, pan, vial, sniffer and a small classifier for around $30.” Would-be prospectors can also get a small map for $4.50 that gives nine areas to go panning and sluicing along the American River. Like her father, Willis knows gold mining from personal experience. “My earliest memories are of being at Iowa Hill watching him dredge for gold,” she said. “… The best find I’ve had is a quarter of an ounce in one day. For me it is more about the experience of being one with nature and being out on the river. There’s nothing that can compare to it.” She’s often called on to put that expertise to use. “We get a lot of school districts that come in and history teachers,” she said. “We sit and go over some of the principles of basic gold mining and they can go back and utilize those tools in the classroom.” Along with mining paraphernalia, S&W has an extensive book collection. “We’re one of the biggest resources for books on jewels and gems,” she said. “(Some of the) books we carry are required reading for college courses.” Another unique aspect of the business is that Willis and her brother, Robert Sullivan, manufacture some of the mining equipment sold in the store. Sullivan works for Saber Engineering in Auburn and designs computer programs for machinery. “We set up a little shop and started making our blue bowls and other things in a corner of his shop,” she said. Blue bowls are for sluicing when there’s a high volume of black sand with gold in it. “We make our own pans and classifier screens, scoops and digging tools,” she said. “A storefront was the way to retail out some of our products that we sell online. At last count, I had 47 vendors worldwide selling our products. … It’s definitely exciting. We have new people calling all the time who want to be added.” Interest in gold mining may be increasing but the government’s moratorium on dredging has made it very difficult for anyone to actually make a living from it. “Without dredging, you have to pan,” she said. She described the difference in panning and dredging as like making bread by hand instead of a bread machine. “With a machine you can have it done in a couple of hours,” she said. “By hand, you’re into a day or two. By taking away dredging, it is taking three or four days of work to get the amount of gold you’d get in one day. The truly disturbing part is industrial dredging still continues to clear waterways and canals. It has only stopped for gold retrieval.” Longtime customers Don and Annie Robinson, who are president and vice president of the Gold Hounds, are pleased to see a mining store open for business again in Auburn. “It was like a meeting place for most of us,” Annie Robinson said. “I’m sure that is what’s going to happen with Heather’s store. Frank has been here for so many years. He sponsored us and it was a meeting place for all of us. With Frank having to leave for health reasons, Heather came along and we will definitely support her.” Reach Gloria Young at ---------------------------- S&W Mining Supplies Where:?878 High St., Downtown Auburn Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday Phone: (530) 823-9000 On the web: