Kaolin - Georgia's White Gold

B Y   A L   H E S T E R

Enegetic Laura Scott spends her days surrounded by companies in a beautiful high-tech computer lab at Sandersville Regional Technical Institute. She heads up computer programming classes at Georgia's newest technical institute -- classes which have already prepared more than 300 students to play key roles in a technological revolution well underway in this east central Georgia area.

Operator monitoring control system

Many of these students have taken well-paying jobs in the kaolin clay mining and processing industry, which is the economic salvation of this "hard-times" portion of the state.

"It's fun to help people and fun to see that 'light bulb' go on when they understand," Scott said.

And Sandersville is positive proof that rural and small-town Georgians are well equipped to master high-tech courses and high-tech jobs.

Out on Deepstep Road, a few miles from Sandersville, Ga., workers are busy 24 hours-a-day, trying to meet the world's ravenous appetite for "white gold."

Kaolin-based products At ultra-modern processing plants, a mixture of water and white clay dug out of the ground in Washington and nearby counties is turned into hundreds of products essential to modern life, such as rubber goods, plastics, medicine, toothpaste, insulation, porcelain and paints. But about 70 percent of Georgia's kaolin goes to finish paper. Kaolin, which is about one-third of the total weight of the paper on which this story is printed, makes the sheet white and smooth and enhances the color of the inks.

A tour of the region's open-pit clay mines and kaolin processing plants reveals that a complex, highly sophisticated process is used to turn the white clay into a useable product.

"Some assume that since we are a mining operation, we are 'low-tech,"' said Ken Jackman, executive vice president of the China Clay Producers Association. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

To meet the demand for highly skilled employees, much of Sandersville Tech's efforts are directed toward the kaolin industry.

"Educational facilities such as the [Sandersville Regional] technical institute in Washington County, are critically important to our industry," Jackman said.

About 2.5 million tons of the stuff is shipped annually from Georgia's "white gold" belt in 13 counties along the fall line that girdles the mid-portion of the state. Mineralogists say that about 50 to 100 million years ago, particles of kaolin or aluminum silicate were washed down from the rocky piedmont hills, coming to rest at the edge of a shallow sea, marked today by the fall line. Fragments of fossilized shark's teeth and shells hint at the clay's origin near the shore of the prehistoric sea.

The clay awaits mining in pits where it shows whitely as the red soil is removed from above it. After the clay is dug out of the earth, it is sent up to 16 miles through a pipeline as a slurry, and then pummeled, mixed and purified. The finished product is shipped dry or as a slurry in Sandersville Railroad tank cars that are immaculately clean to prevent bacterial contamination. The whole process is infinitely precise, as skilled workers, technicians and scientists produce kaolin in particles smaller than the size of particles of matter in fog.

The machines that coat paper move at such high speeds that the tiniest impurity, like, a grain of sand, can cause a five-mile streak before the equipment can be stopped. Employees ride herd on this production with computerized and automated rigor to meet the stringent needs of their customers in the paper and other industries. Every day they use computer skills-skills imparted to many of them through partnership programs between the kaolin industry and Sandersville Tech.

"In the next five years, every operator will sit at a computer and enter all the data. It will be all electronic," said Daryl Hutchings, process supervisor for Thiele Corporation.

In 191 1, Washington County's population was more than 28,000-its peak. Today it has only about 20,000 residents. In 1914, Washington County farmers produced 35,529 bales of cotton and sold it at record prices. But an insect attack and a world war combined to bring the county to its knees. By 1915 the boll weevil began its assault on the area's cotton fields. And with World War I, German submarines sank so many merchant ships that cotton was not shipped, but languished in the warehouses. Cotton prices dropped to five cents a pound. By 1921, the boll weevil cut the county's yield to only 4,452 bales. King Cotton was almost dead.

African-American and white farmers alike abandoned farms and took whatever jobs they could find. This was true to an even greater extent in the nearby counties of Glascock, Hancock, Jefferson and Warren. Today, with Washington, these counties make up the five-county service area for Sandersville Tech. They share many of the same economic, educational and cultural problems.

Grim statistics are the epitaphs of a dying form of agriculture in the region. Shortly after World War 11 there were still 1,776 farms in Washington County and on these farms were 2,464 mules.

"One man claimed he traded two game roosters [for cock-fights] for two mules and got $1.50 to boot, quite a drop in price, considering that before the war, a mule sold for $100," an account in the local Washington County history indicates. But nobody needed mules anymore in a day of tractors. In the next few years, even the need for tractors would decline severely. Many fields remained unplowed and farms disappeared. In 1964, Washington County had 731 farms. In 1992's agricultural census only 299 were recorded. Warren County lost nearly three-quarters of its farms in the same period.

The discovery of the "white gold" of kaolin in the area in the 1920s and its subsequent development as an industry offered hope, however. Ben Tarbutton Sr. persuaded major corporations to come to Sandersville to mine the clay, and he extended his Sandersville Railroad, a vital short-line linking Sandersville to the main line at Tennille, to service the clay industry's needs. Many farmers got good money for leasing or selling lands to the kaolin companies. Under state law, the pits dug to get the clay must be reclaimed, and the companies spend about $1,900 per acre returning mined land back to agricultural, forestry or recreational uses.

Before and After Photos

BEFORE AND AFTER: Under state law, the pits dug
to get the clay must be reclaimed, and the companies
spend about $1,900 per acre returning mined land back to
agricultural, forestry or recreational uses.

Low crop prices and a poor economy; however, bewildered many hard-pressed farmers. In 1976, 209 farm tractors rumbled into Sandersville as a part of a tractorcade protesting poor farm conditions. Many farms were sold on the courthouse steps for back taxes.

But probably as serious as the poor economy was the hit education resources took in the five-county area. Both still have not recovered to state averages. All five counties are poverty-ridden. Approximately one of every four residents lives below the poverty income line.

About half of all the students in the five-county area never finish high school, compared with a statewide average of 29.1 percent not graduating. College education is not even an option for most students. In 1996-97, 57.9 percent of Georgia's high school graduates were eligible for HOPE scholarships, which pay their college tuition if they maintain a "B" average.

But in the five-county service area percentages of students eligible ranged from 22.9 percent in Warren County to 55.2 percent in Glascock County. And in 1996-97, nearly one of every 10 Georgians received food stamps, but about one of every five residents of the five-county area was on food stamps. Unemployment in the region was double or triple the state average of 4.5 percent in 1997.

Residents also brought home thin pay envelopes. The average weekly wage in Georgia in 1996 was $529, but weekly wages ranged from $357 to $496 in the Sandersville Tech service area. It was highest in Washington County, which had a resource being unlocked by a high-tech industry-the kaolin industry.

What the cold education and economy statistics related, Tarbutton and some area leaders knew firsthand. They realized that traditional agriculture would never play the key role it had for 150 years. New industries and existing industries, such as kaolin, absolutely required better-trained and educated workers. But in the 1960s, not everyone saw it that way, according to Ben Tarbutton Jr.

"Gov. Ernest Vandiver proposed to put a vocational-technical school in Washington County, but for various reasons the local civic and county leaders decided against it, so it went to Swainsboro," the soft-spoken Tarbutton Jr. said. "Subsequently, I saw it was a great loss to our community, and we have been trying ever since to get one."

In the 1980s, local citizens pushed hard and gubernatorial candidate Zell Miller in 1988 promised to put a technical school in Washington County, Tarbutton explained.

"He stuck by his promise," the civic and business leader said. First classes were held in the attractive brick and green buildings of Sandersville Tech in October 1996. Some courses were even offered before construction was finished, the need was so great. Today, about 400-450 students are enrolled in a variety of credit and certificate courses, as well as custom-made courses tailored precisely to industry needs, according to Sandersville Tech President Jack Sterrett.

Especially successful have been computer courses tailored to the needs of the kaolin industry-everything from basic computer skills on up to advanced work with a variety of software packages. The certificated truck-driving courses also have been very successful, since Sandersville is the home of a number of large trucking firms.

"One-hundred percent of the 150 persons taking truck-driving have been placed at jobs paying $25,000 to $35,000 annually," Sterrett said.

Sandersville Technical Institute

Matching up what a new technical institute has to offer with what the area needs is not quick or simple. Leading this effort is Leigh Evans, director of economic development and continuing education for Sandersville Tech. She knows the area extremely well-and just as important, she is no outsider who must prove herself to local residents. Evans started her work by contacting industries in the service area. At first, area business leaders had trouble seeing how a technical institute could be of direct help to them, Evans explained. But all this has changed now.

After she went to individual industries and asked them what Sandersville Tech could do for them, together they discussed how production and skills could be increased by better-trained employees.

"The companies will invest in their employees' training," Evans said. "It shows how important these employees are. It is amazing to me to see how they are spending money on their employees' future."

Area companies, especially kaolin companies such as Thiele and English China Clay International, are actively engaged in joint projects with Sandersville Tech. These range from computing programs to truck-driving training and safety instruction. Sterrett also expects to offer "Kaolin 101," a course to familiarize employees entering the industry.

Much of Sandersville Tech's efforts are directed toward the kaolin industry, since it is the brightest spot in the area's economic picture. Its employees receive $56 million annually in Washington County alone, and contractors working for the clay industry receive another $25 million annually, Ken Jackman, executive vice president of the China Clay Producers Association, said. The kaolin industry also pays more than 50 percent of Washington County's ad valorem taxes, he added. Statewide, the kaolin industry brings in more than $800 million annually and spends more than $20 million annually on research and development.

But not all the partnerships are between the technical institute and the clay industry. The area has taken some very hard hits from textile and apparel company closings in the last few years. Warren County has been especially affected, and Evans is working closely with terminated textile industry workers, getting them training for new jobs through Department of Technical and Adult Education programs, such as the Certified Manufacturing Specialist (CMS) program. And a good partnership has developed between the school and Wheland Foundry, a major employer in Warrenton in Warren County.

"She [Leigh Evans] has helped coordinate all of our maintenance training and assessment needs," said Theresa Austin, who supervises training and staff benefits for Wheland. "If Sandersville Tech didn't have something we needed, Leigh would get it from Augusta Tech or somewhere else. She has a regional approach."

Currently, Sandersville Tech is developing a CMS program for Warren County high school students, who are very much in need of postsecondary education, Sterrett said.

The real story of Sandersville Tech and its partnership with business and industry is what happens to flesh-and-blood people. Its teachers and administrators know this. There is an excitement about starting a new school and REALLY helping. Laura Scott feels it when her students "see the light bulb go on."

Evans feels it, too. A hand-written 'thank you note" is on her desk. It is from a woman taking Sandersville Tech training after losing her job with an apparel company. The note says that she enjoyed the classes and encourages the teachers and school to 'keep up the good works."

 Photos of visitors at Thiele

Upper Photo: Dr. Jack Sterret, president of Sandersville Tech, gets a briefing on the automated systems at Thiele Corporation from Paul Kirschling, manager of research and development at Thiele.

Bottom Photo: Jackie Rohoksy, DTAE assistant commissioner, economic development programs; Ben Tarbutton, Jr., Sandersville Railroad Company; Dr. Jack Sterret, president, Sandersville Tech; and Tim Gallops, quality assurance manager, Thiele Corporation, review procedures of the Kaolin-processing company.

Shonna London, a 20-year-old accounting student at Sandersville Tech, values the down-to-earth and practical instruction she receives.

"Tech has made a big change in my life," London said. "With this education, it has allowed me to do more than just come to school and major in accounting. I have gained more accounting experience in my internship at the Davisboro State Prison and I'm president of Phi Beta Lambda, a nationwide business education organization. My parents love Sandersville Tech for its training and for teaching me how to deal with people in a businesslike manner."

London will graduate in June and already has a job offer, but she wants to go after an associate degree first.

Tarbutton gives Sandersville Tech a high grade for its work so far.

"One of the outstanding features of this whole program is that it is in tune with the needs of the community." He says that bright, local persons working with industry can get more training so there is less need to recruit people from outside the community. "That's already proven to be true," he said. "One of the important things is trying to get people off welfare and to provide them incentives to come to this school and learn skills so they can earn a meaningful wage and support themselves," he said.

As the new century begins, the newest technical institute has already accomplished much and changed the lives of those it serves. When the year 2000 arrives, it appears Sandersville Tech will certainly "keep up the good works."

When Lond Came Calling

When London Came Calling
The sense of continuity and history is palpable in Sandersville, the county seat of Washington County and the self-styled kaolin capital of the world. it reflects small-town virtues and comforts, with its tree-lined streets, antebellum and Victorian homes and friendly residents.

Founded in 1784, Washington County is one of the oldest Georgia counties. It was the first U.S. city named for General George Washington, victorious over the 'British the year before and five years before he became the nation's first president. Two hundred years later, Princess Anne, representing the Queen of England, visited Sandersville as a guest of Anglo-American Clays Corporation, a subsidiary of English China Clays, Ltd., a major kaolin mining and processing company in Sandersville. She received a much friendlier reception than the British troops fighting American rebels 200 years earlier.

Even before our Revolution, Georgia clay was being shipped to England. Some of it was carried, probably from near Augusta, down the Savannah River in canoes and shipped from Savannah.

Josiah Wedgwood, famous founder of the Wedgwood Potteries in England, used Georgia white clay in the 18th century, before clay deposits were discovered in Cornwall, England. Georgia's deposits are among the purest and whitest in the world. At first, only small amounts of its kaolin were used, however, and mining it was a small-time activity in a few places. It wasn't until the 20th century that farmers in the kaolin-rich counties began to see the white outcroppings of kaolin as anything but nuisances to tillable farmlands.

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