The Fascinating Tale of Dugan & Helterbrand
In the early 1980s, a small silver refining company named Dugan & Helterbrand (D&H) emerged in Marshfield, Missouri. The firm specialized in extracting silver from discarded x-ray films, a process they managed to perfect over time. This story offers a glimpse into the history of this enterprising company, shedding light on its operations, unique silver bars, and eventual decline.
D&H was founded by Whitfield Dugan and his son-in-law, Joe Helterbrand. They collaborated with a chemist who, upon completing his education, joined the duo in refining the chemical process required for producing silver bars. The chemist, along with a pilot friend, would fly across the country to collect lithographic and x-ray film from various sources, including hospitals, government and military facilities, and private individuals. In exchange for the film, they would offer a combination of cash and silver bars.
The silver bars produced by D&H came in different styles: some featured the company’s initials (D&H) and a single scale, while others were unmarked or carried the full company name and multiple scales. Most of the silver was sent to Engelhard, a renowned precious metals company, in the form of crude castings that were later remelted. The marked bars, however, were primarily used for bartering with film suppliers.
In 1983, D&H’s team embarked on their final film collection run, after which they decided to cease operations due to the plummeting price of silver. To commemorate the end of an era, they created a special batch of silver bars inscribed with the full company name, “DUGAN & HELTERBRAND,” and two scales. These bars were reserved for the company’s inner circle, including close friends and family members.
Despite their best efforts, the company faced financial difficulties and was eventually implicated in an environmental scandal in the late 1980s. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated their property a Superfund site in 1990, as hazardous chemicals had been dumped nearby, leading to a fish kill and the death of several cattle. D&H was forced to shut down production, and Joe Helterbrand, who had taken over the company after Whitfield Dugan’s death in 1985, faced legal challenges.
The story of Dugan & Helterbrand is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of two individuals who, despite limited resources, managed to capitalize on a unique market opportunity. Their silver bars, crafted from discarded x-ray film, serve as a reminder of a fleeting moment in history when the price of silver reached unprecedented heights. Today, these rare and precious works of art are highly sought-after by collectors and enthusiasts alike.
(Color info courtesy of J. Kister)