The mining community has lost legend Jerry Keene, the well-known patriarch of the Keene Engineering empire. He passed away July 14 at the age of 83 from heart failure.
Though he never officially retired, Keene had handed over much of the third-generation, family-run business to his sons, Mark and Pat, in recent years. His sons will continue to lead the multimillion-dollar mining equipment manufacturing operation based in Chatsworth, Calif.
Jerry Keene was born March 14, 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression before the Second World War.
To understand the kind of man Jerry Keene was, one only needs to look as far back as his father. Ernie Keene, originally from Oklahoma, who served his country in World War II, returned to graduate as a mining engineer and geologist from the Colorado School of Mines and later moved to Southern California where he launched his own businesses, including six United Aqua shops and Keene Engineering. Ernie Keene was a hard, disciplined worker and pushed his son, Jerry, to succeed.
Living on the coast, Ernie got into scuba diving, treasure hunting and water-skiing.
“He built a couple of ski boats out of hand-laden mahogany and my father ended up becoming a champion water skier. He had an entire garage full of trophies,” Pat Keene said.
Ernie Keene’s goals of becoming a mining engineer for a large mining corporation didn’t pan out. He got a job in heating and air-conditioning where he worked with sheet metal, and before long, his entrepreneurial spirit started to shine toward his true destiny.
“My grandfather was an engineer for a building maintenance company and he was building a machine shop at home,” Pat said. “He had a good piece of property in North Hollywood, and he started to build a shop on it. My grandfather invented the first gold dredge in the late ’40s and he started Keene Engineering in 1950.”
And although the business has expanded from gold dredges to many different types of mining equipment, the gold dredge remains Keene’s greatest claim to fame.
The business outgrew its location in North Hollywood and was eventually moved to Corbin Avenue in Northridge, Calif., in 1972. Then, in 1980, Keene built a machine shop on Bahama Street in Chatsworth, Calif.
Like his father, Jerry also served in the military. He was drafted in the Korean War, but never saw combat. He served as a helicopter mechanic.
By the time Jerry had served three years in the military, he had married his first wife, Jacqueline. The couple had three children: Mark in February 1960, Patrick in September 1963 and Sheri 15 months later. He was later recalled and served awhile longer in the Military Reserve before returning to civilian life.
As Mark Keene recalls, once his father finally got out of the military for good, he never looked back, mainly because of his strong sense of independence.
“He wanted nothing to do with the military because he didn’t like people telling him what to do,” Mark said with a laugh.
Tired of following orders, Jerry Keene didn’t want his father telling him what to do either. So, he went to college, got a degree in business and chose a career in commercial real estate. Jerry was strong-willed and determined to achieve success on his own terms.
“My grandfather was not an easy guy to get along with,” Mark said.
For Jerry, it seemed fatherly approval was always in short supply but with ample high expectations.
“I don’t think my dad wanted to work with my grandfather, who was really tough on him. He had a hard upbringing,” Pat said. “My dad was looking at ways of making money. He had the gift of gab. He was great at dealing with people, and he got involved in real estate. The San Fernando Valley, at that time, was exploding.”
But when Ernie Keene died in 1962, Jerry was faced with a difficult decision. As Ernie and Jean Keene’s only child, he could either sell the family business and continue in real estate or follow in his father’s footsteps. Jerry took the helm of Keene Engineering and captained the business for more than five decades with the help of his sons.
“He had to help his mother, Jean, run the business,” Pat said.
The New Gold Rush
Between 1933 and 1971, gold prices hovered at about $35 an ounce, but after President Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard in 1972, gold prices began to spike. By 1974, the price of gold had more than quadrupled, hitting about $183 an ounce, but one has to consider that $100 in 1974 had the purchasing power of about $500 today.
As a child, Pat Keene remembers customers lining up outside the shop to buy dredging equipment and stake their claim in the new gold rush. The family business was thriving.
“I think the real turning point for Keene Engineering was when we got off the gold standard in the early ’70s and gold shot up in price,” he said. “It went from about $30 an ounce to almost $200. That’s what really put Keene Engineering on the map. All of a sudden there were thousands of people who wanted to go gold prospecting and take a chance on finding gold with newfound technology called the gold dredge.”
By 1975, the fall of Saigon signaled the end of the Vietnam War. The civil unrest that had begun in the late ’60s was over and the United States was at peace. As the American bicentennial approached on July 4, 1976, families had reunited and were eager to celebrate, enjoying good times and exploring their own backyard — the Great Outdoors. Camping was a popular pastime and gold prospecting became much easier with the advent of small-scale suction dredges and better metal detectors.
Though the price of gold dropped in 1976, another spike from 1979 to 1980 sent gold prices skyrocketing to about $600 an ounce.
Another high point was when the price of gold jumped to almost $2,000 an ounce in 2011.
“When gold hit $1,900, we had a line out the door of people who wanted to buy mining equipment at Keene Engineering,” Pat said. “There were people who tried to bribe us, some offering to pay more than what the equipment was worth to get one of our machines to go look for gold.”
Today, the price of gold is about $1,300 an ounce.
Father and Businessman
Though he is remembered fondly by his family, Jerry Keene was known to constantly raise the bar of high standards for himself, his sons and his employees, and yet he would do anything he could to help them succeed.
“As a businessman, he was very astute and he had a work ethic that was completely off the charts,” Mark said. “I mean, if there was a job to be done, he’d work into the next day, nonstop. He wouldn’t quit until the job was done, and he kind of instilled that in my brother and me, but maybe not to his level, which was almost to a fault.”
Whether it was producing a new Keene catalogue, delivering a quote to a client or working in the machine shop, Jerry Keene was unrelenting in his effort to finish the job.
“He was really tough on me and Pat,” Mark said. “He was very loving and all that stuff, but he had a little of the same mindset his dad had — not super hard core like his dad, but still, approval was not easy to get sometimes.”
Though he would commend his sons for their work, he was critical and there was always room for improvement.
But boys will be boys and some of the criticism was deserved, Mark admits. As their father mellowed with age — and as he and Pat matured and became more responsible — Mark conceded approval was easier to get.
“In his later years, he wasn’t like that as much. He learned to appreciate us more,” Mark said.
Though his sons have managed the business for the last two decades, Jerry Keene remained active in the business and was, in the words of both Pat and Mark Keene, “the referee.” If there was a disagreement, Jerry was the decider and his word was law.
But, for the most part, Mark and Pat make a great team and agree on how to run the business, and Jerry left them well prepared to lead Keene Engineering into a new and challenging era.
The Early Days
Some of Pat Keene’s earliest memories were at the shop and going dredging with his father.
One of them was when GPAA founder George Massie showed up with a plan to create a nationwide prospecting network.
“George Massie came into Keene Engineering with a folder in his hand. I remember, but I was a very young kid at the time. He was telling my dad about this gold prospecting venture he wanted to get into, which was the Gold Prospectors Association of America,” Pat said. “George was friends with my dad. I don’t think George wanted my dad to be a partner or anything. I think he just wanted to get my dad’s blessing, support and help in creating the GPAA, which became a huge, nationwide organization.”
Pat and Mark later got involved in the GPAA and Pat remains the longtime president of the San Fernando Valley Gold Prospectors GPAA chapter. Keene Engineering has also been a major sponsor of GPAA TV shows, Gold & Treasure Shows and an advertiser in Gold Prospectors magazine.
Dredging on the Yuba
For years, Jerry Keene would take his sons dredging for gold on the Yuba River.
“My dad loved to dredge and prospect. It was one of his favorite things to do. He used to take our entire family up to the Yuba River where we used to vacation every year for two to three weeks,” Pat said. “My dad and Frank Sullivan (of Motherlode Pioneer Mining Supplies) used to go up every year to mine and dredge for gold on the North Fork of the Yuba River. He was my dad’s lifelong dredging partner.”
And, if Jerry and Frank were into good gold, they would even stay longer.
“As far back as I can remember, Mark and I would take a 1.5-inch dredge and hunt for gold. And whenever Mark and I would find good gold, my dad and Frank would pull us aside and bring in the big dredge,” Pat said. “Sometimes gold is where it’s least likely to be found. Nature creates its own scenario with high water events which change the fluid dynamics of a river and put gold in places you’d never expect or in areas where most people would never hit.”
Mark Keene shares the same memories.
“Some of my fondest and best memories are when me, my brother and sister were growing up. My dad would always go gold dredging every vacation. I remember him throwing us in the back of his El Camino with a camper shell on the back ... I still remember me and Patrick in the back of the truck and we would have to talk to my dad through a piece of one-inch Clear Flow hose,” Mark said with a chuckle.
Dredging on the Yuba River was where Mark and Pat learned about dredging.
“When most kids are learning how to ride a bicycle, my dad put us on a Hookah system ... on a two-and-a-half -inch dredge. And, when we were finding better gold than my dad, I remember him kicking me and Pat out of our hole, and him and Frank diving into it,” Mark said. “I still remember dredging north of Downieville ... and at the end of the day, Pat and I would jump on the inner tubes and float back into town.”
Like most people who have grown up around prospecting, Jerry Keene had gold fever.
“Definitely,” Pat said. “I think everyone in the family has gold fever. Can you imagine how difficult it is to work in this kind of business and see hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have found big gold and who told us about secret spots and not have the ability to just pick up and go with these people to find gold ourselves? You have to maintain business at all costs.”
But there’s no doubt the Keenes have found their fair share of gold.
“My dad would never brag too much about the amount of gold that he found, but at one time he had small Alka Seltzer jars that were marked Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and filled with large nuggets,” Pat said. “He found many pounds over the years.”
No matter how much or how little gold one unearths, there is always that special find.
“I know my dad found a lot of very large nuggets, but one of his most interesting finds was a nugget that he found on the North Fork of the Yuba River at Goodyear Bar,” Pat said.
After the yearly family vacation, Jerry decided to stay a few more days. He had invited a good friend and neighbor to come prospecting
“He and Frank and the whole family had been dredging for a couple of weeks and the gold was pretty good,” Pat said.
He had already sent most of the mining equipment home with Sullivan — except for a 1.5-inch dredge with a one-inch intake at the suction tip designed for sniping,
“He just wanted our neighbor to find a little bit of gold and have some fun on the weekend. I remember this myself because I was standing over my dad when he found it,” Pat said. “He was dredging out some cracks and crevices in the bedrock and he hit a pocket. That’s where he found the Goodyear Bar Nugget. It was a three-and-a-half-ounce nugget. Jerry clogged the dredge nozzle with the nugget, nearly swallowed his snorkel and almost drowned in a foot of water. I think that was my dad’s most exciting find because he didn’t expect it, especially right there in the swimming hole at the campground. In about a day-and-a-half, he found nearly a pound of gold right in the most obvious spot in the camp at Goodyear Bar where hundreds of people had previously worked.”
Jerry later wrote his first book, titled “Gold in a Campground,” which is a compilation of articles about basic gold panning, sluicing, dredging and drywashing as well as stories about the “thrill of the chase,” the adventures and dreams of finding gold, Pat said.
Jerry also helped author Matt Thornton with a book titled “Dredging for Gold: The Gold Diver’s Handbook”.
He had taught both of his sons and many others to find gold.
“When I was about 16 and got my first truck,” Pat recalls, he and his buddies would take an eight-inch dredge up the Yuba River.
“There were times when I was finding a pound-and-a-half a day. But, when you’re finding real good gold, you also have to think of all the times when you were barely finding anything—maybe not even enough to even pay for a can of beans,” Pat said. “Lots of times you’re spending more money looking for gold than actually finding it. When you get a big strike, you quickly forget about all the hardships and about the money and time that you’ve spent looking for it. You forget about all of that.”
Keene Mining Equipment
As a businessman, Jerry Keene not only knew how to expand his product line, but he quickly learned how to improve existing models of dredges, drywashers and other equipment.
“The first dredge was a submersible dredging tube. It didn’t have a platform. It was simply a hose, motor and compressor tied together, sitting on an inner tube,” Pat said. “My grandfather built the first dredges out of galvanized sheet metal that was used for heating and air-conditioning ducts. Some of the first designs of boxes even by today’s standards were pretty revolutionary because they had flares and graduating riffles. Then, it went to a subsurface dredge where a power jet was hooked up to it. We soon started using sumps on the underbelly of the recovery tray, pumping concentrates up to the surface. Then we moved along to some of the first triple sluices.”
Keene has built pumps used in firefighting equipment, drywashers, dry concentrating machines and Hookah surface air supply pumps.
Today, Keene Engineering manufactures dredges in nine basic sizes, ranging from 1.5-inch to 10-inch. And then, there about 20 variations of those nine dredges.
“The size of the dredge platforms range from mini backpack dredges to ocean dredges and bucketwheel, cutterhead dredges used in harbors,” Pat said. “The dredges weren’t built solely for gold mining. The technology also evolved into machinery used in land reclamation, environmental cleanup and transferring sand and sedimentation through large-diameter pipes over a distance, sometimes pumping material three to five miles away.”
Keene Engineering has diversified into equipment for land reclamation and environmental cleanups as well as equipment for military contracts, new technology for pile driving and excavating material.
“We’ve finally developed a large commercial drywasher, which I think is going to open up another huge market for Keene worldwide in areas where you don’t have water,” Pat said. “Our company will continue to grow and take the direction of whatever is needed for mining, reclamation or the environment.”
Mark agrees that while the business is focused mainly on mining equipment, the uses for Keene products and variations thereof are constantly changing and boosting demand.
“We’re going to continue what we’re doing because it’s a winning formula, but we are expanding into other things,” Mark said.
In his business ventures and in prospecting and treasure hunting circles, Jerry Keene met many movie stars, treasure hunters and television personalities.
Some of the most famous treasure hunters and underwater explorers were Jacques Cousteau and Mel Fisher.
In fact, when Ernie Keene owned six United Aqua shops, Mel Fisher ran one of the locations for him.
“My dad and my grandfather knew a lot of the big treasure hunters and over the years supplied them with Hookah rig underwater breathing apparatus and dredging equipment to move sand off the wrecks,” Pat said. “Dredges weren’t just used for finding gold deposits, they were used for finding buried treasures in oceans and rivers where ships have gone down.”
Jerry knew famous underwater archaeologist, treasure hunter and author Robert Marx.
Jerry also knew former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s father, Chuck Heath, and other dignitaries.
He knew actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr., known for his starring roles in the television series “77 Sunset Strip” and “The F.B.I.”
Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney and many of his family members got involved in dredging.
“It’s amazing, some of the people who got involved in dredging,” Pat said.
All in the family
At one time in the late ’70s, Jerry Keene Engineering toyed with the idea of making Keene Engineering a publicly traded company, Pat recalls.
“The company was going to go on the stock market. Jerry was getting ready to sell some of the shares, when he quickly realized he shouldn’t do it, and stopped. He held on to all the shares,” he said.
It was probably this moment of truth when Jerry Keene discovered that he had made the right decision to give up his earlier dream of a career in real estate to run the family business, though he never gave up real estate investments completely.
He always dabbled in real estate.
“He bought houses on the low side and sold on the high side,” Mark said.
Jerry also bought the Northridge Tennis Club in Northridge, Calif., in the early 1980s and owned the club and property for many years. He later sold it for millions of dollars.
“He made a lot of money on that deal,” Mark said.
For Mark and Pat, running the Keene empire is not always about the bottom line. Their work is a labor of love, and their passion for gold prospecting and the people they’ve met in the mining community has never waned.
“Pat and I are going to have a lot of fun at our business. We enjoy going to work every day, and that’s as important as anything else,” Mark said. “It’s just something that we like ... We love what we do.”
Faced with ever-increasing environmental restrictions on mining since at least the early 1990s and California’s statewide 2009 ban on suction dredge mining, the Keenes have been fighting not only for their business but for the rights of gold prospectors to dredge and mine on public lands.
“We will continue to support the rights of people to prospect and prosper on public lands,” Pat said. “With the legal knowledge I have gained ... I plan to continue to be an advocate for land rights. And even though I am no longer involved with Public Lands for the People, I plan on working closely with many other groups, including the American Mining Rights Association.”
The Keene family legacy
“Keene Engineering will always be around. My brother, Mark, and I are very dedicated to our family business and we understand the importance of carrying on the Keene name and the legacy of our family’s business,” Pat said.
Though the brothers Keene have no children of their own they look to their sister Sheri’s 17-year-old daughter, Brianne, to carry on Keene Engineering someday.
“My niece, Brianne, is the last of the Keenes at this point,” Pat said. “I hope to get her involved in the business once she is old enough and mature enough. She is in school and is going into her senior year. We have hopes that she will go to college, and my brother and I both hope she will get involved in the business in the future.”
Besides Mark Keene and his wife, Elizabeth; Patrick and his wife, Rue; Sheri and her daughter, Brianne; Jerry Keene is survived by his wife, Ché, and her two daughters, Ramell and Karnel.
Celebration of Life
A celebration of life for Jerry Keene is being planned for a yet undetermined time and place in the very near future.
“My dad hated funerals. He did not want a funeral, but, we are going to have a Celebration of Life. We’re trying to find a location — the best place to have it — because we know that people from all over are probably going to want to come and show their respects,” Pat said. “My dad knew a lot of people and he had a lot of friends. He was a likeable guy, and he was very passionate about everything he did. A lot of younger people looked up to him as a father figure, as my brother and I did.”
Despite his high expectations, Jerry Keene was a compassionate man with a good sense of humor who treated his workers fairly, Pat said.
“Any time any of our employees needed help, my dad was a kind-hearted person and would do anything within his power to help people.”
For more information about the Celebration of Life for Jerry Keene, check the Keene Engineering website: www.KeeneEng.com.
Brad Jones is a GPAA member, gold prospector, metal detectorist and freelance writer based in California. He can be reached at AmericanLibertyPost@gmail.com.