The Old Man and the Secret

An eccentric Texas inventor discovered a magic formula he believed could save the earth. Fifteen years after his death, scientists and entrepreneurs are betting he was right.

June 1990By Comments

June 2010: More than 21 years ago, on March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska, permanently fouling the once-pristine Prince William Sound with more than 10 million gallons of crude oil. Senior executive editor Paul Burka suggested that I find out what could be done to clean up the next big oil spill, since virtually nothing tried in Alaska seemed to have worked. And thus began an initially frustrating but ultimately exhilarating year-long odyssey. Eventually, I got a tip about a little Texas company that had oil-eating microbes they asserted could digest the Valdez’s oily mess.

The bugs had been collected from across the globe by a University of Texas professor of microbiology and marine science since 1969. The Texas company claimed to have something else, a mysterious “biocatalyst” that could cause the microbes to rapidly multiply exponentially. If true, this would overcome the major problem facing those wanting to use microbes to clean up pollution—boosting the “biomass” so that clean-ups could be accomplished in weeks and months instead of months and years.

I discovered a few facts about the unnamed inventor—“the old man”—and these were sufficient to lead me to his name, his obituary, and his role co-founding another company, still extant, that produced a “soil activator” that appeared to work with soil microbes, much as the professor’s did for ocean-dwelling microbes. Eventually I found a handful of small companies in Texas alone with links to the old man that produced similar biocatalysts, commonly known as enzymes, that were used in agriculture, bioremediation of polluted sites, and sewage treatment. All seemed to have another property: They were said to produce a sequestered and highly reactive form of oxygen in prodigious amounts.

Is it possible that the answer to remediating BP’s Deepwater Horizon continuous oil spill has been hiding in plain sight in the pages of TEXAS MONTHLY for the past two decades? I think it is not only possible but also probable. On May 25, 2010, almost twenty years to the day after my story was published, Scientific American released a feature story online echoing the scientific consensus with this headline: “Slick Solution: How Microbes Will Clean Up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.”

The experts’ conclusion: The microorganisms would operate very slowly, because the scientists quoted knew of no way to get the naturally occurring bugs to multiply faster and thus to do their work more rapidly. And they certainly didn’t know about the “secret” Texas enzymatic biocatalyst that seemingly supercharged microbes to vastly increase their numbers and their apparent ability do to in months what might otherwise take years.

For more than sixty years, a handful of small Texas businesses have safely and effectively used the enzyme-producing, microbe-sparking process described in “The Old Man and the Secret” to cause naturally occurring microbes to multiply rapidly and do a variety of disagreeable jobs, including cleaning up oil-polluted water. Many pioneers of this process have died over the past twenty years since I wrote my piece. This remarkable knowledge of a relatively simple, cheap, and easy “silver bullet” that may yet undo much of the damage we have done to our planet is in danger of being lost.

If you want to get involved, consider writing a letter, or sending a copy of this story, to President Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and your members of Congress, and ask them to give this remarkable technology a prompt and rigorous scientific study.—Tom Curtis, June 8, 2010


No one seems to know for sure just where or when the old man discovered the secret of life, but my guess is that it was in El Paso, sometime between 1950 and 1953. James Francis Martin was already well into his fifties back then and had come back to live for a few years in the town where he was born. An archetypal American inventor in the tradition of Thomas Edison, he was a self-taught chemist, metallurgist, and naturalist who got no further in school than the fourth grade. Though he made his living traveling through the desert Southwest as a railroad fireman, Jim Martin’s lifelong passion was figuring out how to make things, things he often put together from ingredients he found in the natural world—a natural insect repellent for plants, a patented pollution-reducing muffler, a way to preserve fruit for years, a procedure for making synthetic opals, and an array of alloys.

But Jim Martin’s crowning achievement—an invention he often said was fifty years ahead of its time—was not fully accepted during his lifetime. From the early fifties to 1975, when he died in a small town in Central Texas, he worked relentlessly to bring his discovery to the world’s attention.

It was a colorless, odorless liquid he sometimes called “the living water.” It was derived from seawater, cow manure and yeast—simple ingredients that were transformed by a fermentation process into a substance with remarkable qualities. It could stimulate microbes that exist in nature to multiply rapidly and cleanse polluted water and soils, neutralize dangerous chemicals, eat sewage sludge, even make the desert bloom. Starting nearly forty years ago, Jim Martin demonstrated virtually all these uses, but he was ignored at the time. People just couldn’t believe that his innocuous-looking water was the environmental panacea he believed it to be.

Today at least Texas six companies are quietly peddling variations of Martin’s seminal breakthrough, even everywhere from the Middle East to your local garden shop. These substances only recently have come to be studied seriously by scientists impressed by their phenomenal abilities. Horticultural specialists and farmers have been struck by the power of these products, confirmed in controlled tests, to dramatically increase crop production and to stanch soil erosion. Others have noted their capacity to reclaim salt-stressed soils and allow crops to thrive with salt-water irrigation. Studies commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy have verified that microbes treated with a version of Martin’s water can boost oil production.

All of these products can be traced back to Martin, and some of the people making them knew Martin personally. One acquaintance refers to him simply as “the old man.” Over the years Martin’s name faded away, and so did claims that the substance could work near-miracles. Instead, the companies tailored Martin’s discovery for specific uses, mostly in agriculture and sewage treatment.  And they stopped talking about Jim Martin all together.

Ultimately, though, several people who had worked with the old man did talk frankly. One of them, now in his eighties, told me about Martin’s conceptions of the secret of life—or, more precisely, the secret of how life as we know it arose on our planet. Billions of years ago when the Earth was new, when methane and ammonia and water surrounded the planet, something extraordinary happened to send oxygen rushing into the atmosphere. Martin believed his greatest breakthrough was figuring out that process and duplicating it in a remarkably simple invention that had profound implications.

Though several entrepreneurs told me that Martin’s process couldn’t be patented, Martin did in fact patent it. Then, as now, it was often relatively easy to make, and it incorporated astonishingly cheap and abundant raw materials. Scientists remain mystified about exactly how it works, but there is growing evidence that a backyard Texas inventor produced a wondrous elixir that may undo much of the damage man has done to his planet.

The Professor’s Problem

Carl Oppenheimer has been trying to perfect a way to use microbes to clean up oil spills since 1969, when President Nixon named him to the panel studying the disastrous Chevron blowout off Santa Barbara, California. A 68-year-old, two-time Fulbright fellow, Oppenheimer holds professorships in marine science and microbiology at the University of Texas at Austin. For much of his career, he has studied single-cell ocean-dwelling organisms that eat oil and have been doing so for eons. These bugs, which Oppenheimer carefully culls from petroleum-polluted areas around the world, gobble up the oil and leave behind harmless byproducts, including carbon dioxide and fatty acids.

The problem is that they take a very long time to do their job, if left to their own devices. Indeed, the main technological hurdle facing those who hope to profit by using biological means to clean up pollution—the new field called bioremediation—is this: how do you cheaply generate enough “biomass” of microbes to accomplish in months what would normally take nature years?

Oppenheimer learned the answer to that question back in 1984, following a West Texas hunting trip with William Blakemore, a Midland oilman-rancher who for many years was the commissioner of the Texas Department of Public Safety. One evening after the hunt, Oppenheimer mentioned his interest in using microbes to get hard-to-recover oils out of the ground and described the problems he had keeping them alive in the inhospitable brines down-hole.

Perhaps, Blakemore suggested tentatively, Oppenheimer might be interested in a remarkable biological catalyst he and some associates had been experimenting with since the early seventies. It seemed to help freshwater plants and fish tolerate salt water. It also helped some polluted areas cleanse themselves.

Blakemore had learned about the catalyst from a longtime friend, a Washington lobbyist and former Republican congressman from Memphis named Dan Kuykendall, whose late brother Tom had owned a Western Auto store in Hondo, a pleasant agriculture hub of six thousand people an hour west of San Antonio. Tom had heard about it directly from Jim Martin, who had moved to Hondo around 1960 and had died there in 1975. About 1970 Martin had begun telling Tom Kuykendall about his remarkable cleansing water, trying to get him involved in developing it commercially.

The Kuykendalls, Blakemore, and Martin had all been shareholders in a company called CLEW, which had paid Martin a modest retainer and, like several companies before it, had attempted to market Martin’s process. CLEW was formed in 1971, around the time Martin helped Tom Kuykendall set up a fermentation tank capable of supplying the living water to a seven-acre lagoon along Nonconnah Creek in Memphis, which had been fouled for thirty years by oily runoff from the Louisville and Nashville railyard. According to Dan Kuykendall, they returned the lagoon to health in just seven weeks. In 1972, the former congressman said, another tank that had been set up at the waste lagoon of the Frosty Morn Packing Company in Clarksville, Tennessee, eliminated a layer of grease and solids a foot and a half thick. But as had happened so often before, observers refused to believe that the watery catalyst had been responsible.

When Blakemore introduced Oppenheimer to Dan Kuykendall, now a Washington lobbyist, Kuykendall was wary. Kuykendall had been down this road with scientists many times before, and the talks always had come to nothing. Bluntly he asked: would Oppenheimer be willing to suspend disbelief and test some of this substance without knowing what it was or why it worked? “Don’t try to understand it,” Kuykendall cautioned. “Just use it.”

In early April 1984, Tom Kuykendall showed up in Austin and put a quart jar of what looked like water in Oppenheimer’s hands. For six weeks the professor performed a series of experiments in a make-shift garage lab. The test confirmed that the catalyst caused microbes to reproduce at about one thousand times the normal rate. Other tests showed that with help from the special liquid, freshwater microbes could survive in waters three and a half times saltier than the ocean.

Oppenheimer was elated. He recognized that the catalyst would make it economically feasible to cultivate enough of his own carefully selected bacteria to recover petroleum in played-out wells and fields. But he also saw myriad other uses, including getting the bugs to eat oil spills, sewage, and more intractable organic pollutants like PCBs. “The potential,” he told me, “is essentially unlimited.” Today Oppenheimer and Alpha are trying to persuade the federal government to employ microbes treated with Martin’s water, which Oppenheimer calls a biocatalyst, to digest what’s left of the Alaska oil spill. Oppenheimer joined with Blakemore and associates to form Alpha in 1985. By 1986 Alpha had already won the first of what would total nearly $800,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy after UT-Austin joined as a subcontractor. In effect, the funds subsidized research and development of one aspect of Alpha’s work-projects to demonstrate the effectiveness of Alpha’s catalyst-activated bacteria in boosting oil production, a field known in petroleum-industry jargon as MEOR (for Microbially Enhanced Oil Recovery).

Like some other oil-service companies, Alpha uses microbes in place of expensive “hot-oil” treatments to liquefy the paraffin that commonly gums up drilling pipe. But farther down-hole, the high salt and low oxygen concentration in the brine found in many formations inhibit the bugs’ growth.

Jim Martin’s catalyst lets the bacteria thrive under these tough conditions. Oppenheimer hypothesizes that somehow it produces atomic oxygen and gets it to the microorganisms—thus allowing oxygen-using bugs to operate in hostile environments where free oxygen is reduced or absent. It seems to do for the microbes more or less what a scuba tank does for a diver. Thus fortified, the bugs injected deep in oil formations position themselves at the interface between the rock wall and the oil, Oppenheimer believes, forcing the oil loose both by producing natural detergents and carbon dioxide and simply by growing between the rock wall and the oil.

Today, Alpha and its licensees are treating more than 2,500 wells in the U.S. and Canada with the company’s catalyst-fortified bugs. The bacteria, Oppenheimer says, boost yields an average of 30 to 40 percent; in some cases the increased oil flow is as high as 300 percent. Assuming that this still-experimental technique proves usable in enough wells, the potential market is huge. According to a 1987 report of the National Petroleum Council, 210 billion barrels of oil remaining in the ground of the United States can’t be removed by conventional secondary recovery techniques. That compares with 136 billion barrels that have been extracted over the past century. And that’s just in the U.S. Currently Alpha has an interest in a company that is negotiating with the Soviet Union to launch an enterprise to use its microbial process there. Essential to that process is Alpha’s biocatalyst. But even within Alpha little is known about the biocatalyst’s creator.

The Living Water

According to family records, James Francis Martin was born December 13, 1894, at 309 Wyoming Street, which is now part of Interstate 10 near downtown El Paso. He was the third of eleven children born to Jeanette Peak Martin, daughter of a Civil War physician-turned-pecan-farmer, and a black-haired Irishman named Philip Joseph Martin, who worked as a signalman, telegrapher, and clerk for various railroad lines. Around the turn of the century the family settled in Tucson, Arizona.

In 1912, at eighteen, Jim Martin went to work for the Southern Pacific as a fireman—the man responsible for keeping a steam locomotive fueled. Five years later he married the seventeen-year-old daughter of Tucson roadmaster for Southern Pacific. The young couple lived in Tucson and had three sons. Even as a young father Martin was an inveterate inventor—formulating toothpaste using a desert brush he called the cacahuate, creating a mouthwash from an extract of the Manzanita tree, and making pressed-paper fireplace logs.

Fourteen years into his marriage, in August 1931, a terrible train wreck left Martin painfully recuperating at Southern Pacific’s San Francisco hospital for nearly a year and contributed to ending his marriage. Twenty years later, when he retired from the railroad, a settlement from that accident gave him the cash and freedom he needed to develop his living water.

Jim Martin’s son Jack, who was nine years old when his parents divorced in the early thirties, saw his father just twice afterward—once in 1950 at Jim Martin’s residence in El Paso and once during a visit to Tucson in 1952, a year after Martin retired from the Southern Pacific. Among the ventures Jack Martin remembered his father being involved in was an agribusiness in Tolleson, Arizona, twenty miles west of Phoenix. After our discussion I located a patent describing a “process for producing microorganisms and soil conditioners” issued to James Francis Martin of Tolleson, Arizona.

The Martin patent—Number 2,908,113—was applied for in March 1956. After two rejections, it finally was awarded on October 13, 1959, and it was assigned by Martin to a company called Arizona Activite. In Tolleson, a dusty and somewhat forlorn backwater, I found someone who remembered Arizona Activite and “the stuff they made out of manure in vats.”

As described in the patent, Martin’s process propagated blue-green algae by combining filtered cow manure—not just any cow manure but the manure of milking cows—with fresh seawater containing algae, which was allowed to stand until all that remained of the blue-green algae was its enzymes. This so-called “master culture” eventually produced new blue-green algae, or phytoplankton, which was fermented in a digester with regular infusions of cow manure along with large volumes of fresh water and small quantities of yeast. The liquid was then further diluted with fresh water until only byproduct and enzymes were left.

Arizona Activite had opened in a rural stretch west of Tolleson. By high noon one very hot day, I found myself near the dead end of El Mirage Road—not far from where Interstate 10 barrels past on its westward journey across the Sonora Desert to Los Angeles. To the west loomed the White Tank Mountains. To the northeast, in the distance, dust devils danced in the hot air.

A hundred yards or so south of an old, once-red dairy barn stood a row of six ancient-looking large concrete tanks, streaked with a blue-green residue. Old plumbing connections and small pipes lay scattered around their bases. The second tank was ten or twelve feet high, more than twice as tall as the other five. Walking across the adjacent field, I sank up to my ankles in rich, soft, black soil that seemed oddly out of place in this hard-scrabble desert. Despite the sweltering heat I shivered with the realization that I had come to the right place.

Cow Manure?

Martin was aware, his patent makes clear, that other people had used blue-green algae as a soil conditioner and as an aid to decomposition in sewage ponds—though apparently no one before Martin had been able to propagate the algae. Yet since finding the patent, I’d puzzled over why Martin specified the excrement of milking cows. That was the only kind of manure that would work in his process, he had insisted. What was special about that stuff as opposed to, say, the bull variety?

There were a few clues. In his amended patent application, Martin had cited articles from Newsweek and the Saturday Evening Post about the disastrous floods of 1953 that had wracked Holland. After a freak winter storm, seawater had breached the dikes and inundated many farms and dairies. Those stories hadn’t said that the dairy farms made any swifter recovery from the toxic effects of the salt on the soil, but perhaps Martin believed that was the case.

As Martin was quietly developing his process, a graduate student made history by simulating primordial conditions on Earth. The year was 1953, and the famous experiment was performed by S. L. Miller under the guidance of American Nobel laureate chemist H. C. Urey. Miller produced simple organic molecules like amino acids by mimicking primitive conditions of the early Earth with a stew of methane, ammonia, water vapor, and hydrogen, sparked by electrical flashes. The simple experiment has since been repeated by high school students.

Martin’s longtime protégé Floyd Lillard told me that Martin had attempted to replicate the conditions that gave rise to life on Earth billions of years ago, before there was an oxygen atmosphere—back when methane, ammonia, and water surrounded the planet.

Cow manure contains methane and ammonia—and something more. Arguments in Martin’s second amended patent application stress that bacteria found in manure from milking cows are unique. All cattle need calcium to build their bones, but lactating and pregnant cows have an exceptional need to make calcium for both milk and calves’ bones. Scientists believe that before there were aerobic, or oxygen-using, microbes on Earth, there were anaerobic bacteria, those that don’t use oxygen. Their descendants are found in deep muds and also in one of the cow’s four stomachs—anaerobic microbes help cows extract calcium from hay and grass, something people are unable to do. Those bubbling anaerobic bacteria, like the yeasts Martin also employed in his process, use fermentation to break apart organic molecules and free the energy that held them together. Excreted in cows’ feces, those tiny creatures, along with the yeasts, would help a creative chemist like Jim Martin spark a biochemical reaction in his stew of methane, ammonia, and seawater.

From this stew, a microbiologist familiar with Martin’s process says it is possible that the fermenting anaerobic bugs helped Martin culture an ancient form of bacteria called photosynthesizing prokaryotes, much like those that are believed to have evolved three billion years ago. Those bugs needed hydrogen for photosynthesis and got it directly from the water around them by splitting the water molecule into its component parts: two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. They used the hydrogen for photosynthesis and released the single atom of oxygen as waste.

That atomic oxygen—O1—was highly reactive and was initially chemically neutralized before it could have much effect on its surroundings, scientists speculate. As the early photosynthesizers proliferated, however, the oxygen reached critical mass and combined to form earthbound, molecular oxygen—O2 –as well as O3, the ozone layer that shields life on the planet from deadly ultraviolet radiation. Meanwhile, scientists such as Lynn Margulis of Boston University believe the prokaryotes symbiotically attached themselves to—or became incorporated into—a successor life-form known as eukaryotes, which include blue-green algae and all higher animals and plants.

When blue-green algae’s successors spread to the soil of the planet’s land masses, they engendered incredible fecundity—a virtual Garden of Eden. That lush fertility was what Martin was aiming to regenerate—and perhaps did regenerate in those places where he got the chance. It seemed fitting to me as I drove west of Tolleson—past barren wasteland chockablock with verdant, irrigated fields of alfalfa, cotton, and peanuts—that Jim Martin had perfected his process here, in the desert that he had grown to know intimately. The chief obstacle to growing crops in the desert and in other infertile regions of the world besides the lack of water is that the soil is often too alkaline—too basic—to support plant life.

The easy solution would be to neutralize the alkalinity by adding an acid. The trouble with adding acids to bases is that they react in the soil to form salts. Plants can’t grow in salty soil because the salt sucks all the water out of the plant by osmosis. But some bacteria use salt as a nutrient. So if one had a means to create a community of bacteria that eat the sodium or potassium in salt and release the resulting chlorine into the air as a gas, then plants could thrive. One of Martin’s protégés claims that is exactly how the old man’s discovery works.

Among other documents, I was able to look at a dozen or so of Martin’s notebooks. A spiral notepad proved to be a meticulous record of Martin’s early efforts to develop his microbial technology, including much of his practical and theoretical thinking. In November 1952, Martin visited the sewage-treatment plant in Azusa, California. His notes indicate that in a matter of days his catalyst-generated bacteria dissolved an eight-foot cake of sludge. Over the next few months he applied hundreds of gallons of what he called Compound X to cesspools and chicken coops from California to Texas. The notes say it worked well. From December 1952 through March 1953, Martin field-tested the remaining solids from his process together with Compound X as a fertilizer. He used it on roses, gardenias, and azaleas at Monrovia Nursery, a large California grower. By March 12, his notes say, the tests were “100% perfect.”

Exactly how the microbe-producing process worked remained a mystery. Martin wrote in his patent application with evident frustration that “the present arts of biological or botanical science contain no specific explanations for the production of blue-green algae according to the present process.” But, Martin stressed, there was ample evidence that the process did work.

Jim’s Bugs

One of the first places Jim Martin tested his substance was at Earl Thurston’s small farm in El Paso’s lower valley, south of the city, near Clint. When Thurston took over the farm in 1950 the soil was alkaline and far too hard to plow. Martin applied his unique water to the soil and it began to soften, becoming loamy and spongy. Meanwhile, Martin formed the manure used in his process into one-foot-square cakes, dried them in the sun, and then placed them in the main irrigation ditch flowing into Thurston’s rows of cotton, so the water would flow around the cakes, picking up nutrients on its way to the crop.

Thurston died in 1970 but his daughter Betty Joe Blackwell remembers that the pima cotton plants grew above her father’s head—he was five eight—and produced an abundance of cotton. Thurston’s friend, nurseryman Charles Black, Sr., says the farmer also tested the stuff on corn with dramatic results.

Martin recognized that he would need help to bring it to the marketplace. That’s when he seems to have struck his ill-fated deal with the incorporators of Arizona Activite—advising from the sidelines and not taking an active part in running the business. Business bored him; he was always too intent on developing other inventions or new applications for his old ones. Operating with trucks that dumped Martin’s water into big irrigation canals, Arizona Activite promised to “return virginity to the soil,” Arizona’s skeptical agriculture commissioner recalled.

According to Keith Haien, who became Martin’s lawyer, business manager, and confidant around this time, Arizona Activite had “poor leadership” and “milked” Martin without compensating him adequately. Haien helped Martin sell his stock back to the company for a pittance. “After we sold Jim’s stock, the company just dissolved,” Haien said.

Haien, who represented the inventor for the last fifteen years of his life, considered Martin “about the most honest guy I ever ran into.” That was a problem. Because Martin trusted everybody, he was “gypped so many times,” the lawyer said.

To prevent Martin from being cheated, Haien devised a protective stratagem. If somebody wanted to use one of Martin’s ideas, the interested party had to pay a consulting fee. Actually, the payments usually were turned over to Haien, who would dole the cash out to Martin, buy Martin supplies to continue his experiments, and prepare his taxes and contracts.

Although Haien knew of many of Martin’s other inventions, “the agri-chem thing”—as Haien called the process for activating microorganisms—was Martin’s most successful creation and his main generator of funds. Still, Martin wasn’t concerned with business or dollars. He loved his microbes the way Luther Burbank loved his plants. “He used to call them Jim’s bugs,” Haien recalled. Then, his voice rising and lilting as if the memory warmed him, Haien continued: “He said, ‘I can make billions and billions and billions and billions of them. They’re my friends. My pets. My bugs.’”

Once, pondering the financial potential of Martin’s microbial process, Haien urged him to sell the idea to a big company for a pile of money. “I don’t want to cash in,” Martin had responded tersely. “I’m just working for humanity.”

Like some latter-day messiah, Martin crisscrossed the country finding others to help him develop his process. “He told a lot of people how to do it, and it was sold under a lot of names,” says Charles Black. “He wasn’t interested in money—he wanted to help people.” For that reason, friends say, he was often cheated. To make sure he was dealt with fairly, he grew secretive and began to keep details of his process from associates. He even gave them misleading clues he called “white feathers” to throw partners off the track and kill the process if they dealt him out.

Marketing Jim Martin’s invention was frustrating. It was too easy and too cheap a process to make much money, no one really figured out the best way to package it, and people had trouble believing that something invisible was causing observable effects. “It would be simpler if we were dealing in elephants,” Martin groused to an associate. Then you could point it out to “any idiot.” Moreover, the process came into being before the demand for it was clear—long before the decline in U.S. oil production and just as companies were poised to make millions of dollars manufacturing chemical fertilizers and building municipal sewage-treatment plants. Martin’s successors say that those companies did not look kindly on a process that claimed to render their products obsolete.

Martin’s discovery appeared decades before mainstream scientists began to fear that the world might be on the brink of ecological disaster. It wasn’t until 1989, for example, that the National Academy of Sciences published a report advocating the use of organic methods for growing crops instead of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are poisoning the Earth and its inhabitants.

Today, however, the world may be ready—even desperate. In addition to Alpha Environmental in Austin, other Texas companies—Medina Agriculture Products Company in Hondo, Appropriate Technology Limited in Dallas, Spray-N-Grow in Houston, APR Products in Dickinson, and BioPlus in Hawkins—are making their own versions of the microbe-activating substance Martin invented. They’re using it in agriculture, waste treatment, pollution control, and enhanced oil recovery. Medina, like Alpha, has a product on the Environmental Protection Agency’s short list of substances to be tested for use on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Another company, called Natural Oxygen Products, in El Paso, disclaims any connection to Martin but uses a startlingly similar patented process to make a product with similar effects.

The biggest hurdle still facing Jim Martin’s invention involves basic research. To get science to embrace a new technology, it’s not enough to show that it works. You have to propound a convincing theory to explain why it works. Even today this mystery baffles the scientists who have examined Martin’s living water and take it seriously.

Hondo Holy Water

Floyd Lillard, now 84, was a middle-aged truck driver and a part-time uranium prospector when he met Martin, an ardent rock hound, in the mountains east of Yuma, Arizona, sometime in the early fifties. It soon became a weekend ritual for Lillard to visit Martin’s motel room at the Desert Inn in Phoenix for long philosophical conversations. “Some thought he was crazy,” Lillard volunteered, “but he was a good man and very brilliant.”

Around 1960, Lillard agreed to follow Martin to Texas—first to Monahans, where a short-lived company was formed to make Martin’s water, and then to Hondo, in Medina County, where the pair met a middle-aged German American bachelor farmer named Arthur Franke. In 1962, the three men incorporated the Medina Agriculture Products Company. But the company’s official history mentions only Lillard and Franke; there is a thick black mark where Martin’s name belongs.

Three miles west of Hondo is a cluster of corrugated metal buildings that house the Medina Agriculture Products Company. Franke, now a balding 83-year-old man, greeted me in his company’s front office last fall. Medina, he explained, is a “soil activator—it loosens it, makes it soft and mellow. It increases the activity of microbial life in the soil.” It was made using a “secret process” that wasn’t patented, he said (Alpha’s leaders had used similar language in describing their catalyst). He added, “If you patent anything, you tell people exactly how you did it and then they go and improve on it and get their own patent.”

I had learned Jim Martin’s name and obtained his notebooks elsewhere in town, and Franke seemed startled when I asked if Martin was the chemist who created Medina’s product. He nodded. “I got to know him early in 1961.” Back then, Franke often ate dinner at Hondo’s old Frontier Café. Martin inevitably would be there nursing a cup of coffee when Franke arrived. Franke concluded that Martin knew more about religion than most preachers and quite a bit about mining. But he didn’t know much about business.

Franke recalled: “Mister Martin told me, ‘I don’t know anything about farming, but I know about the soil. This is what you need. It’s not a product –it’s a process.’ In a nutshell, Mister Martin said if you don’t have the bacteria in the ground to digest the soil chemicals, the plant can’t use them. He said, ‘Bacteria eat at the first table and plants eat at the second.’” Today, Franke said, “most farmers don’t have a ton of living organisms because they’ve killed them” with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

By fall 1961 Martin had convinced Franke to acquire the tanks and material necessary to make his living water. “If he had what he said he had, for a few thousand dollars I could prove it,” Franke reasoned. So Franke ponied up the cash. “Then he made it,” Franke said. “He didn’t tell you anything.”

Around January 1962 Franke put the water on six hundred acres of land where he was planning to grow wheat, barley, and milo maize. Within a few months, he said, the soil seemed looser and more granular. When Franke walked across it in early spring of that year to plant his crops, the soil under his feet felt like a cushion. That year, Franke says, his grain weighed in nearly three pounds heavier per bushel than it had the year before and was that much heavier than most grain sold that year in Medina County.

Having the equipment on hand, Franke figured he might as well launch the company along with Martin and Floyd Lillard. “The whole town thought they were nuts,” said Medina’s longtime office manager, Mary Howard.

The start-up proved timely. Hurricane Carla had struck the Texas coast in September 1961, inundating low-lying rice fields between Houston and Beaumont with salt water, which is toxic to most land plants, including rice. In early 1962, newspapers detailed the plight of the rice farmers who were about to lose their spring crops. Martin believed his water would solve the problem.

Floyd Lillard put three 55-gallon drums of Medina in the bed of a pickup truck and drove down to Chambers County. There he persuaded a farmer to let him hire a plane to apply the stuff to eighty acres close to the Intracoastal Waterway near High Island, where the water table and the salt content were high. After the application of Medina, the rice seeds germinated. The farmer then applied Medina to numerous alkali knolls where nothing—not even grass—would grow. Those areas also began to support rice. At the end of the season, the farmer told me, three different testing labs confirmed that the head rice from the test fields was significantly heavier than similar rice from the untreated fields.

Before long other farmers in Chambers and Jefferson counties were signing up to buy Medina. Later that spring, as the crop on the test farm near High Island matured, the company sent a bobtail truck with twenty-two 55-gallon barrels to the region; it sold three or four such loads there the next year. Soon the company began to sell the liquid retail in gallon bottles.

Meanwhile, Lillard gave samples of the product to the late Dewey Compton, a former Harris County extension agent who tried it, saw that it worked, and began to tout it on his Garden Line call-in show on Houston radio station KTRH. Word of mouth propelled Medina ever upward. By the mid-seventies, the company’s sales were nearly $2 million a year.

Vegetable farmers like John Martin of Hollister, California, who began using Medina in the seventies, found that it had a dramatic effect on virtually everything they grew. The first time he used it, one of the workers inadvertently applied thirty gallons of the liquid across ten acres instead of the intended dilution of one gallon per acre over thirty acres. The result was phenomenal. “It was a jungle,” the farmer recalled. “The peppers were so heavy they cracked the vines.” The lettuce from Medina-treated soil was lusher and greener than his previous lettuce and much bigger: While normally he could pack 24 heads of lettuce to a carton, with this crop he could squeeze just 17 heads into each carton. In all, he harvested eleven tons more produce from each treated acre than from untreated tracts.

Other farmers found that Medina helped the soil retain moisture, allowing them to cut down their water costs and halt soil erosion. Many others remarked on its ability to make soil fluffy and mellow and to encourage the return of earthworms. “I didn’t believe it, like most hardheads,” said Houston radio garden-show host Bob Flagg. “But I put it on my flower beds twice, and in a year I could stick my arm into the beds almost to the elbow.” Untreated beds remained the same hard, clay-like black gumbo, impenetrable to even a finger.

Then, in 1974, disaster struck. Texas A&M—a champion of modern chemical agriculture—issued a widely distributed, much-quoted report entitled, “Effect of Two Soil Activators on Crop Yields and Activities of Soil Microorganisms in the Southern United States.” The stark conclusion was that neither Medina nor the other Martin-influenced product, called Supernate, increased activity of microorganisms or crop yields. Critics began to ridicule Medina as “Hondo Holy Water.”

The Medina company protested in vain that in several instances the product was diluted incorrectly, vitiating Medina’s effect. And the company cited a number of alternative studies showing that Medina did indeed enhance crop yields. Moreover, it complained that one set of test results that were positive to Medina, submitted for inclusion in the report and performed by a former Texas A&M scientist, was simply ignored.

In fact, a close examination of the charts and tables in the report suggests that many of the crop tests had been ambiguous rather than flatly negative, as its harsh language indicated. But the report, readily distributed even today by A&M county agricultural extension agents across the state, had the ring of scientific objectivity. Medina’s aggrieved rejoinder sounded like the self-serving prattle of snake-oil salesmen.

The young company barely survived. Sales plunged from a peak of nearly $2 million in 1974 to less than $500,000 two years later. Not until this year, a decade and a half after the Aggie blast, have Medina sales begun to edge back toward the $1 million mark.

Not all researchers agreed with A&M’s report. A University of Tennessee-educated agronomist named Daniel F. Jones field-tested Medina combined with fertilizer on rice crops in a salty, sandy region near Eagle Lake, Texas. Under those inhospitable conditions, Jones found, Medina consistently produced yields between 8 and 14 percent larger than rice raised with fertilizer alone.

Today one A&M expert finds merit in a Medina cousin—a product called Spray-N-Grow, manufactured by a San Antonian named Ferd Staffel who was introduced to Martin in the late sixties by KTRH’s Dewey Compton. The expert is A. E. Nightingale, a recently retired horticulture professor at Texas A&M and consultant to Chevron Chemical, maker of Ortho garden chemicals. In controlled tests, Nightingale found that Spray-N-Grow boosted yields of peanuts by 32 percent and tomatoes by 60 percent. Although use of the product didn’t seem to increase the number of watermelons or pumpkins in Nightingale-supervised trials, he reported that it did increase their weight by 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively. As others have discovered with similar Martin-inspired products, Nightingale Spray-N-Grow is “effective on salt-stressed soil.” The retired professor, who has been playing with Spray-N-Grow for about three years, said tests in Washington State suggest the product is a promising substitute in apple farming for the banned chemical Alar. It improves apple appearances, crispness, sugar content, and storage ability. Meanwhile, one major Texas apple grower—a  Chip Landry of Baxter Adams’ Love Creek Ranch – is currently testing four microbe enhancing products, including Medina, Agrispon, and BioPlus. Though definitive results aren’t in, all seem to improve the crop Landry says.

Appropriate Technology

Beginning in 1974, Martin had cemented a relationship with yet another disciple—a Dallas-based manufacturer’s representative for electronics products named Robert S. Sinks, Sr. The year before, Bob Sinks had become a regular traveling companion on Martin’s frequent trips into the desert to collect materials. All the while, of course, Martin was subtly doing what he always did: impressing his pupil with the potential of his process and demonstrating how to use nature and natural law as Martin understood it.

“We’ve got a lot to do, and we only have a year to do it,” Martin abruptly told Sinks in the fall of 1974. After that, Sinks said, Martin proceeded with a fervent intensity to teach him many of his processes and methods, preeminently his method for activating microbes. When Sinks asked why the remarkable water worked as it did, Martin snapped, “If you try to understand why, we’ll never get this done.”

In late July 1975 the old man suddenly became quite weak and infirm, and Sinks put him in a Hondo nursing home. Even then Martin’s mind remained clear. On September 23 Sinks rose from his chair in Martin’s room and told the old man he was heading back home to Dallas. “He kind of got a smile on his face and said, ‘You’ll be back,’” Sinks recalled. “Then he said, ‘Remember the work.’”

After hitting the road, acting on instinct, Sinks stopped along the way and called his Dallas office. He was told that his friend Jim Martin had just died.

Today, after fifteen years and some modifications to Martin’s original process (Alpha, Medina, BioPlus, and Spray-N-Grow also say they have made changes), Sinks and his three sons operate a Dallas-based alternative agriculture company named Appropriate Technology Limited, or ATL. The Sinkses have been faithful to Martin’s injunction to take his invention to the world. They have carried his microbe-activating technology via their own agricultural product, called Agrispon, to more than seventy countries.

Since 1977 ATL has commissioned toxicity studies at the University of North Texas in Denton (the most recent of which was reported in March 1989) and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The tests report that Agrispon isn’t toxic to mice or fish and isn’t carcinogenic.

For a little outfit with about ten employees and about $500,000 in annual sales, ATL has devoted remarkable effort to documenting superior performance of its product versus or in concert with chemical fertilizers. A 1977 test by a researcher at the University of Zagreb, Yugoslavia, for instance, demonstrated a 10 to 20 percent increase in the yield of Jonathan apples treated with Agrispon and a low application of nitrogen fertilizer compared with the yields of trees receiving a high dose of nitrogen fertilizer alone. Tests around the world on green peas, melons, oranges, peanuts, peppers, potatoes, sugar beets, sugar cane, tomatoes, wheat, bananas, rice, and coffee also showed significant increases attributable to Agrispon when it was used with a fertilizer.

According to Bob Sinks and researchers acquainted with Agrispon, the soil additive achieves dramatic results when applied to soils regarded as highly stressed. A 1988 test conducted by the Agricultural Production Department of the Ministry of Defense in Egypt, for instance, showed a nearly 100 percent increase in alfalfa yield using Agrispon.

Such positive results aren’t limited to food crops. ATL cites half a dozen university tests in Texas and eleven government tests in China and Egypt showing that Agrispon-treated fields produced from 13 to 45 percent more cotton than similarly fertilized controls.

The Waste Treaters

Even as ATL, Medina, and other Martin successors seem poised for success in the burgeoning world of organic agriculture, Medina continues to expand its business by selling in the U.S. and abroad, a dozen liquid formulations of Martin’s water. Two named d-part and Actina are used for wastewater and sewage treatment. Similarly, Alpha has begun to use microbes to treat municipal sewage systems and is working with other companies to design new sewage plants. Both Alpha and Medina seemed determined to market an application Jim Martin identified and successfully tested nearly forty years ago.

Like Alpha, Medina is now being seriously examined by those interested in getting rid of hydrocarbon pollution. Mike Piotrowski, senior project scientist for Woodward-Clyde Consultants, a large national environmental consulting and design firm, recently tested a Medina product as part of a study for the U.S. Air Force. Piotrowski said that in just three months the Medina product reduced the concentration of jet fuel contaminants in soil from 1,350 parts per million to 50 parts per million. One other substance worked slightly better than Medina, Piotrowski said, but it was much more expensive.

Piotrowski is monitoring yet another project that tests various products to see how well they reduce contaminants in soil from a decommissioned Air Force base in arctic Alaska. In four weeks, before cold weather stopped biological activity, bacteria unleashed by Medina soil activator devoured 50 percent of the weathered diesel fuel in a sample of dirt, reducing the concentration of that pollutant from 10,000 to 5,000 parts per million.

“I’ve read the literature over the last fifteen years and it’s been verified time and again that bacteria eats all kinds of hazardous organics—compounds like TNT, formaldehyde, PCBs, DDT, dioxin, and benzene,” Piotrowski told me. “In fact, we’re finding out that almost every organic compound on the EPA’s priority pollutant list is eaten by bacteria.”

As a microbial ecologist, Piotrowski—whose Ph.D. is from Boston University in a field called biogeochemistry—is untroubled that he doesn’t know exactly why Medina works or precisely which microbes it activates. As Professor Nightingale believes about Spray-N-Grow, Piotrowski assumes that Medina supplies tiny bits of things microbes need to eat—he calls them micronutrients. The fact that his tests confirm the Medina product energizes a community of microbes equal to the task is good enough for him.

The point, he believes, is to find something that adjusts conditions in the soil so that all natural bacteria can work together. “Natural bugs can do the job,” Piotrowski said, “if you give ’em a chance.” Because of their comparatively low price, he said Medina products may be “the best way to go” in sparking microbial activity for many pollution cleanups.

The Bandwagon

And what about that puzzling company called Natural Oxygen Products in El Paso? Though NOP disavows any connection to Martin, it has a process similar to Martin’s for making its water, right down to the cow manure and the yeast and the blue-green bacteria. Its 68-year-old proprietor, Al Gough, who patented his process in December 1974, told me he had never heard of Jim Martin. Nevertheless, Gough’s water seems to work much like the others. Moreover, NOP cites as related patents one that directly credits Martin’s original discovery and another that cites it indirectly as a related invention.

Howard G. Applegate, a retired professor of environmental engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso, has been working with Gough on a modest, Meadows Foundation-funded pilot project to use Gough’s product called AG-14 to treat wastewater in home sewage lagoons of El Paso County’s unincorporated, disease-ridden colonias, one of Texas’ longest-running national scandals. The crowded colonias—where residential cesspools pollute home water wells and rates of infection rival those in the Third World—certainly need the help. The yearlong study is already halfway finished and so far looks like a success, Applegate says.

Like those scientists studying Alpha’s biocatalyst, Medina, and Agrispon, Applegate (who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry) can’t say exactly why AG-14 works. But he has tried the substance on a variety of pollutants in the laboratory, and he knows in part how it works. Applegate said that in respirometer tests AG-14 added to sewage produces “oxygen in enormous amounts very quickly.” That’s how water treatment plants work too—but they have to use lots of expensive electricity to aerate sewage.

Yet another company in the Martin tradition is BioPlus of Hawkins. J. L. (Bob) Wellmaker incorporated BioPlus in 1981 to produce a “soil-builder” called HV 682, which seems a lot like Medina, Agrispon, Spray-N-Grow, and Alpha’s biocatalyst. “All these products work,” the former Agrispon distributor told me. “The real secret is how you market and sell them.”

The other secret was how to survive attacks by the chemical manufacturers. “Over the years, the fertilizer boys have been hammering on us pretty hard,” Wellmaker said. Now he thinks that’s nearly over. “I’m negotiating with several multi-million dollar chemical companies to [produce a] private label [product] for them,” he said. The companies have taken samples of his products and have told him they have “eighteen different universities testing them.”

Coming Full Circle

My yearlong investigation of Jim Martin and his amazing discovery had started with a tip about a little company in Austin that claimed to have bugs capable of eating the Alaskan oil spill. Three weeks after the Exxon Valdez disgorged eleven million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Alpha made its pitch to an emergency meeting of microbiologists and other scientists, which the EPA had assembled to consider how to clean up the spill. Alpha’s chief scientist, Carl Oppenheimer, told his peers that his company was prepared to unleash up to fifty tons of oil-eating microbes on the mess. Never before had anyone claimed to be able to deliver so many bugs so fast.

The microbiologists listened politely and thrashed over his proposal for half an hour. The decisive argument killing the idea was that importing “foreign” bugs to Alaskan waters was unwise—a consensus which ignored the fact that the Japanese current carries billions of “foreign” microbes daily to those same waters.

But there was yet another reason Oppenheimer’s proposal was rejected. He had said little about the biocatalyst Alpha used. That substance allowed Alpha to pack a thousand times more bugs into a pound of powder than any other company ever had. He wouldn’t say much more about it for the same reason that no one at Alpha would tell me the name of the old man who made the mysterious substance: Alpha regarded Martin’s discovery as its trade secret. For that reason, and because Oppenheimer couldn’t explain why it worked, he faced an uphill battle persuading skeptical fellow scientists to accept Alpha’s offer. More than fourteen months later, the EPA still hasn’t decided whether to use Alpha’s microbes in Alaska.

Science demands an open environment where information is shared freely, allowing successful experiments to be repeated by others. But those businesses marketing Jim Martin’s technology, including Alpha, consider secrecy essential to keeping their competitive advantage. This may be one reason why the world has not learned about Jim Martin’s discovery.

Maybe now Martin’s breakthrough will be looked at seriously. Maybe rising demand for its myriad uses will make the substance cheap enough for everyone. Envision Jim Martin’s catalyst-dispersion units, devices that look like hot-water heaters, dotting every city and farm from the developed nations to the Third World. They are all busily ginning out the water of life to clean up sewage, grow crops, and help restore the lost balance of nature. Who knows? Maybe the creation of that obscure Texas inventor, a man who labored tirelessly not for money but for humanity, will really make a difference.

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