The more I read of this brief biography of Vernon Pick, the more and more awestruck I became. How could one man know so much and do so much? I guess some people are just born to wield power over the material world. I am not one of them. The day I build my own dam and power plant is the day I fly to Saturn on a gasoline-powered broomstick.
Pick truly is the definition of the rugged American hero. Although his story reads like science fiction to me, I am grateful that people like him exist. Stories like his inspire me to do the best I can and be the best I can.
The following story was written by Bill Morgan of the St. Cloud Times in my home state of Minnesota.
VERNON PICK: A LIFE WELL LIVED
by Bill Morgan
People knew Vernon J. Pick was in town when they saw his red Ford pickup, long hair, battered hat and torn leather jacket.
In 1942, Pick, a self-educated electrical engineer, bought a 25-acre plot three miles west of Royalton in Morrison County’s Two Rivers Township. A four-story flourmill, built in 1875, and three-frame buildings stood beside the picturesque stream that still flows through the site today.
Pick, who dreamed someday of finding a place to erect a hydro-electrical plant, spent the next decade building a dam and a concrete structure to accommodate a power plant. Pick also used the old flourmill to house a factory where he could build furniture by hand.
Pick’s life began on a farm near Portage, Wis., in 1903, the same year his parents moved to another farm near Redwood Falls, Minn. Later, the family settled on a farm near Warroad, Minn.
Bored with farm work, Pick left home at age 16. In the early 1920s, he joined the Marine Corps and later worked in a Manitoba goldmine. Sometime during that period he also learned how to fly airplanes.
With a nest egg in hand, Pick moved to Minneapolis where he started and for 17 years ran an electric company. With but one year of high school, Pick took Extension courses in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota and furthered his education by devouring books in philosophy, science, religion and literature.
After moving to Two Rivers, Pick cut down an oak tree and fashioned a loom so his spouse, Ruth, could make drapes from fine fabrics. The couple and their daughter, Virginia, ran a hand-fed printing press. In his shop, Pick repaired electric motors using waterpower from the river that ran beneath the plant. Ruth helped support the family by teaching in Benton County and by canning vegetables, berries and fruits.
Disaster struck May 9, 1951, when fire destroyed the mill where Pick stored tools and machines. When he found that insurance covered only one-third of his holdings, Pick decided to use the insurance money to buy a trailer and, with his family, head west for a combination vacation and job hunt.
In Grand Junction, Colo., a mining engineer at the Atomic Energy Commission headquarters circled on a map the tiny community of Hanksville, Utah. Pick might just find uranium near there, the engineer said.
Pick’s life was about to change forever when that idea sparked a nine-month search for treasure.
The area that Pick explored is as rugged today as it was in the 1950s. To find the deposit he later called the Hidden Splendor Mine, Pick left his truck and walked 25 miles into the site. For one six-mile stretch he had to ford a stream 21 times.
In a 1954 Time magazine article, Pick said, “My feet got wet over and over again, and then they softened and the sand got in my boots and made blisters. At night I would pick the grains of sand out of the blisters with a matchstick.”
One day, while resting on a rock, Pick’s Geiger counter indicated that he was sitting on a solid chunk of uranium ore. After staking his claim, the prospector fashioned a crude raft that would carry him back to civilization. When the raft capsized, Pick began a four-day journey on foot during which he subsisted on dried milk and oatmeal.
Back in Colorado, Pick used his truck as collateral to buy a jeep and rent a bulldozer. In Utah, he proved up 300,000 tons of ore that Time magazine called “one of the richest finds in the Colorado Plateau.”
He later sold his mine for $9 million, collecting $6 million after taxes, a sum equal to around $100 million today. As part of the deal, he also acquired a $250,000 seaplane.
With a fortune in hand, Pick purchased an historic cottage on an 800-acre site in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. In honor of his hero Thoreau, he named the place Walden West. There, he built an electronics and geology lab where he employed 20 scientists.
In the 1970s, Pick began another project he called Walden North in British Columbia. Until his death in 1986, Pick stayed abreast of new developments in computer and scientific calculator technology.
A writer once said that Pick “spends a lot of time in a log cabin hidden in a forest a couple of miles from the main house. There, in absolute seclusion, he likes to putter about, making kitchen utensils, cutting his own wood, cooking his own food and, most of all, reading and dreaming.”
I like Vernon J. Pick’s story because it defines the American Dream: A life that combines the pioneer spirit, Yankee ingenuity, the pursuit of Thoreau’s simple life, and the rags-to-riches theme as found in the novels of Horatio Alger.
Ann Marie Johnson from the Morrison County Historical Society in Little Falls provided sources for this story. Jim Hanson, Maple Plain, helped corroborate certain facts about his uncle’s life.
Finally, here is a video offering a brief history of Vernon Pick and a tour of Walden North.
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