By Brandon Johnson, GPAA/LDMA President
Ever since I was about 10 years old, I have lived a life constantly aware of the Massie legacy within the prospecting and mining communities. I was born in Nome, Alaska, raised primarily by my mother and moved to Southern California at a very young age with my stepfather, Tom Massie, my mother, Cindy, and my sister, Aly. My mother and Tom met when she was working as a heavy equipment operator in Nome at the airport, and Tom was working for the Gold Prospectors Association of America Cripple River Operation during the summer. As the story goes, it was love at first sight, and within a few years our family was moving to Fallbrook, Calif., where George Massie and the GPAA were based.
As the oldest child, I was a little nervous getting to know Tom, George, Wilma and Perry. Tom quickly became my best friend, constantly playing with my sister and me, seemingly a big kid at heart himself. I can recall my massive Lego collection as a kid, building small cities and odd vehicles. Tom would help me build things for hours; sometimes even falling asleep late at night on the floor with toys in hand. Even now, I reflect on how lucky we were to have such a great addition to our family. Soon after we got to know him, we packed up all of our belongings and came to California in my mother’s Pathfinder towing a trailer, driving a few thousand miles from Anchorage, Alaska, and settling in an apartment in Fallbrook.
My grandfather, George Massie, loved his grandchildren. He was very funny and loved to laugh. He had surrounded himself with a close group of hard-working people and most of his close friends had the funniest stories I had ever heard — from Woody Caldwell to Jake Hartwick to David “Boo Coo” Haas. George and his crew were the best I had ever seen at organizing a group of men and conducting themselves as a club. He had been doing it successfully from the ground up since 1968 so he had plenty of time to perfect his system. Before he died in 1993, he had built everything we see today from the Outdoor Channel to the Alaska Expedition. The majority of the LDMA campgrounds were purchased directly by him, the development of the properties, and a national membership at least three times larger than what remains today. It was very obvious to me, even as a young boy, that he and my grandmother worked hard, were careful about their spending, and most of all they loved the club they had spent so much energy to create.
On show days, (days when grandpa’s shows would air nationally on satellite), day or night, we would be at the little mobile office in Fallbrook answering phone calls and taking orders. I vaguely remember finding ways I could help run paperwork around the office or take trash out to be a part of the crew. Other than that, I was out catching lizards and digging holes in the yard. When gold shows were operating, Tom and I would drive out there and meet up with the rest of the crew. If it was a three-day weekend or I was out of school, we were almost always at a gold show or an LDMA outing. I really learned to pan at the gold shows, tending to the panning area with Fred Buesuer, another good friend of the club. Pretty soon he was out pitching people on panning, saying “so easy a 12-year-old could do it.”
The outings I remember most were at Italian Bar, which always seemed to happen Easter weekend, and at Duisenburg during the winter months. As a child, all of the new prospecting equipment always looked like the coolest toys in the world! I would always beg Tom for a new sluice box, pick, shovel, or even a highbanker but was always given one to borrow from the camp. I don’t blame him because I would usually haul it out somewhere to set up and start mining, run material, find gold, and leave it all sitting in the creek when I lost interest.
The Alaska Expedition was another place we spent a lot of time growing up. Tom had originally stayed in a very small cabin off the beach. It was about 10’ by 12’ with a bed and an open closet. To accommodate the family, he had built onto it a kitchen area, two bunk beds, and a wood stove. Grandma and grandpa had a nice cabin, “The Buzzard’s Roost,” set up a couple hundred yards down the beach from our cabin. It had a private bedroom, shower, flush toilet, a big wood stove, laundry room, and a separate kitchen area with a beautiful big window. My grandma always had a cooler full of Tang and plenty of snacks for visitors when they came over. Grandpa was always working the common mining operation and spending time with the members who had come up on the expedition. Every Friday, when they would clean up the concentrates from the outer camps, I would set up a mini sluice on the bank outside the gold room. And, using the water coming off the tables, I would run beach sand to find a little color. Much like Tom tells me all the time, it was not so much having the gold as finding the gold. To date, I have not started a personal collection of gold, but I have found gold all over the country.
George “Buzzard” Massie passed away the day after Christmas in 1993. He had suffered a massive heart attack and passed a few days after. My sister and I were spending time with my father and grandparents in Hunters, Wash. at the time and received the call from my mother who was in shock and was obviously upset. A few weeks prior, he had pulled me out of school (without my parents knowing), told me dirty jokes, made plans to build a garden in his backyard, and took Tom and I golfing. He had helped me open my first bank account. He was the light for everyone in my world from my parents and all of our friends to the employees of a growing organization and its members. He was also one of very few people who would actually take the time to talk to me, to teach me lessons, to dream big dreams with me, and to take me flying on the Buzzard Airlines.
The tragic loss of George Massie is something from which I have never truly recovered. He had given me so much, without asking anything in return. The one thing that was closest to him, his passion, his fire, was the beating heart of the GPAA, survived by progress he had made to keep lands open for future generations to learn about mining, educating new members, helping them find gold and understand the importance of our right to access public lands. When George died, the light that made me believe — that made me a part of his dream and his success — went with him.
In the years that followed, I would go to the office as always, but I was just a kid wandering the halls. Friends that I had known for years became businessmen. Wilma fought to keep focus on our strength as an organization and not as a business, as the single largest shareholder on the publicly traded entity until her passing from cancer roughly 10 years later. Gone were the days I had a chance to be involved in something fun like LDMA outings, GPAA gold shows, late night order taking and weekend mailing parties, which meant thousands of statements stuffed by hand with the help of volunteers. (I was a big basketball fan, and one day came across a member by the name of Michael Jordan out of North Carolina. It was very exciting, but I never knew if it was actually who I thought it was.) In their place were board meetings, new “television executives” and lawyers, locked doors and no place for volunteer help. Darkness had fallen over the dream of the organization, and gone was the glimmer in everyone’s eyes to be a part of something larger than life. I quickly realized we were no longer a family-run organization; I was to have no place in the new “business” and set out on my own path, trying to ignore the sense of disapproval I felt from the empire that had fallen.
After graduating from high school, I attended San Diego State University with a declared major of Business Administration. I also began to pursue a career in real estate. At the time Tom purchased the organizations out of the public entity in 2007, I was just starting to close transactions and build a base of clients. I had studied stocks, business models, company earnings reports and press releases since fifth grade, the result of my father’s wise investment of my college savings in Microsoft and Intel — a middle school child watching his thousand shares rise in value from $20 per share to just under $80. I planned to make my fortunes investing in companies and one day starting my own, just as my grandfather had done.
Then, something amazing happened. Tom saved the GPAA and the LDMA from being spun off by the board of the Outdoor Channel and took it back into family control! After talking with my mother and working with the board to determine the details of the purchase, he bought the Gold Businesses out from the television network which had originally been built on gold prospecting television and made it a family organization again. A glimmer of light had shown itself in the faith and commitment Tom had shown to continue the legacy his father had undertaken years ago.
Before the transaction had even closed, Tom came and discussed with me his reasons for purchasing the organization, his plan once the deal was complete, and his intentions for change in the first few months. He had not officially offered me a position and it was difficult for me, after so much time and distance had been created, to see myself involved. I offered Tom my congratulations on the opportunity he had created for our family and the courage he had shown in making such a large investment in the very club which had brought our family so much purpose. When Tom finally did make it clear he wanted me to be involved, I passed on the opportunity. I had spent so much time and energy developing myself in my chosen career; I was learning valuable lessons and forming great relationships I was hesitant to leave behind. A few days later, Tom returned and again asked that I consider getting involved to continue the legacy of the organizations. Knowing he was serious about involving family overwhelmingly brought me to the decision that my place was at his side.
I showed up to the office my first day in a collared shirt, slacks, tie and dress shoes ready to learn about the day to day operations of the company. I was hired as the Director of Operations, Ken Rucker was the General Manager, and we had cut the staff down from over 30 employees to 16. Our first order of business would be to release half of our current staff and address the remaining members as to our direction and dedication for the organization moving forward. That was a very difficult day, seeing so many people pack their belongings and leave behind a role they had played serving a loyal, kindhearted and enthusiastic membership. Left behind were so many empty desks and offices, boxes of paperwork, phone messages and emails with responsibilities that were going to have to be reassigned and maintained.
Within the first few months, I had focused on reorganizing the responsibilities and the office space, reminiscent of those that had departed making way for a new day. All of those involved were committed to take on new tasks, work extra hours and make the changes to improve the service we provided to our members. I was constantly running around the office tying up loose ends, and within three months, I had worn the souls of my dress shoes to the point of visible holes. We had three months to change all the accounts, create our own accounting and IT departments, change all the locks and answer all the questions before the team at Outdoor Channel would move on to other things. Our team performed beautifully and before long we were standing on our own two feet.
In the days of George “Buzzard” Massie, the GPAA had been at the heart of the prospecting industry. Our Claims Club Membership Mining Guide
contained the largest collection of gold-bearing claims in the country, rumors of 85,000-plus members were alive in the minds of those who remained from the good old days, our magazine offered feature stories and our Pick & Shovel Gazette
kept our membership in lockstep on the latest issues affecting our rights to prospect and mine. George had developed a network of trusted representatives across the country responsible for educating new members about their right to mine on public lands, basic prospecting techniques for identifying gold deposits, maintaining our properties across the country so people everywhere had access to locations to prospect, programs for schools so instruction was available to those who asked for demonstrations on panning, and support was offered for individuals actively involved in the fight to maintain our rights of access. Outings were held at all of our LDMA camps allowing new members the opportunity to experience the LDMA and to sign up. Gold shows were organized all over the country to introduce prospectors to the latest and greatest in mining and prospecting equipment, which was also represented in the magazine, on the television programs, and demonstrated during chapter meetings. I was anxious to see how everything had progressed in the years of his absence.
It did not take long to realize the issues that had been created as the club had deteriorated from the days of the Buzzard. It was very difficult to pull membership numbers, but once we did I found that we had only 12,000 active GPAA annual members. We had approximately 3,000 Gold Life (GPAA Lifetime) members, and our records indicated over 6,000 active LDMA members. Our system was being maintained using Microsoft Access, which would compare to using basic QuickBooks to manage accounting at Apple or Google. LDMA membership balances were being manipulated (if a member was past due on membership or maintenance by $1,000, someone could go in and wipe out the past due balance, bringing the membership current.) People who owed maintenance dues, per their contract, were not being charged. The Pick & Shovel Gazette
was now produced once or twice a year to update the Mining Guide
and the claims had not changed much since the late ’90s (most claim files that have agreements dated between 1994 and 1997.)
In the days of 30-plus employees, the club had been a loss leader (probably hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, if not a million) for the Outdoor Channel. Nobody was responsible for maintaining relationships with our GPAA chapters, our state directors or our claim holders, and none of our content, from our television programs to our website to our publications, was responsible for coordinating our effort to protect our right to prospect and mine. I could go on and on, but I will leave you with the idea that we could not even tell how many phone calls came in during the shows. All we could do was sit by the phone and wait for it to ring.
My focus in the first year was to make the necessary changes to our organization to improve communication with our members. We invested in our phone system so we could effectively route phone calls and to know how many calls were coming in (along with monitoring agent phone time per call and wait times), updated our website to reflect contact information and events for the club, and most importantly dropping our membership pricing for the “Buzzard Special” back to $67.50, just like the Buzzard always said. We would invest in our membership benefits offering more value and visibility to the purpose and direction of our club. We would strengthen our relationships with our industry as a whole so they understood the reasons to support the club and we understood the ways we could support them. Tom trusted me to run the entire organization from the accounting department to signer of\ payables and the director of policy.
I will spare much of the smaller details, but today we have a system to monitor payments for Lifetime Memberships so all members are accountable for their contribution to the club. This has provided the funding necessary to invest over $1.6 million into camp cleanup and development within the last five years without increasing fees or maintenance requirements for LDMA members. GPAA has grown to over 30,000 active members and GPAA Lifetime (more actively promoted in recent years) has added 1,000 members to its rolls. We have our Pick & Shovel Gazette
back in our members’ hands, not just to update the Mining Guide
, but to inform members on current events affecting their access to public lands (in large part, the work of Brad Jones, Managing Editor for the GPAA and LDMA.) The LDMA section of the Pick & Shovel
offers LDMA members a place to discuss club news privately among our now 7,000-plus active memberships. Most notably, even as this article is being written, we are prepared to introduce and distribute to our membership, the next volume of the GPAA Mining Guide
with cutting edge mapping technology, new claims which have been shared within the last two years, more accurate GPS coordinates, and a 50-page instructional section expanding on basic prospecting, mining claims, geology, detecting, and more.
I have thoroughly enjoyed, and am thankful for, the privilege I have been offered this last seven years to lead the rebuilding of our great organization. Without Tom Massie and the vision of his father before him, the GPAA and the LDMA would no longer be the driving force they are, introducing thousands of new members each year to gold prospecting. I recently made Tom an offer to purchase the GPAA and the LDMA. It is here that I believe I have had the biggest impact and see myself providing the most value. It is here I feel I can have the largest impact to realize the dream of a man who dreamt big and inspired so many. Having seen my commitment, my desire, the fire which burns inside of me to realize the dream of my family, Tom accepted my offer and allowed me the honor of becoming the next owner of the GPAA and the LDMA. When I assured him it would stay in the family, thanking him for the amazing privilege he had offered, he told me he did so because he could not think of a better leader for the organization and knew I would do what was best for the club. It is my honor to take on the responsibility of managing the business of our club, working with the members to grow our numbers.
I have been around the club most of my life, over 20 years now since my mother and Tom met. I have talked to members all over the country and I am committed to spending more time in the field with our members, our chapter, our vendors, our manufacturers, and the organizations responsible for representing our rights to prospect and mine. At the heart of their success, GPAA members will be the outlet, the voice and the ambassadors of growth in the mining industry. We are not a family business; we are a family organization. You are not customers, you are members and this is our club, the club my grandfather started out of his garage some 40 years ago with nothing more than a gold pan and a strong message of unity. I am driven to see our club, and our industry, succeed to realize his vision. Each day, each new member, every time someone learns to pan and catches gold fever for the first time I feel closer to a man so influential in my life and the life of others, taken before his time, who lived a dream protecting the natural calling in the hearts and minds of this nation. I am counting on your support to help us realize the vision of our founding father.