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It was the talk of the town the year that The Black Hole founder Ed Grothus sent President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore cans of “organic plutonium” for Christmas.
In no time at all, a couple of unhappy members of the United States Secret Service arrived at his doorstep. Grothus recounted the story with a twinkle in his eyes. The cans were actually filled with vegetables.
It took his daughter Barbara vouching for Grothus and his sanity before the agents were satisfied that he was harmless.
Grothus came to Los Alamos March 23, 1949 and initially worked for two years as a machinist and then 18 years as a technician in the R-Site weapons development group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He said his work contributed to the creation of bombs 30 times smaller and 30 times more powerful than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – an increase from 15 kilotons to 475 kilotons in a nuclear package the size of a bowling ball.
In 1951, while still working at LANL, Grothus founded the Los Alamos Sales Company, which eventually became known to all as The Black Hole because “everything goes in and nothing comes out.”
Over the years, Grothus became an anti-nuclear peace activist and quit the lab Dec. 1, 1969 to pursue his business and activism interests full-time.
He started out in a small metal shack at the North Mesa horse stables. His first purchase was more than 500 pairs of size 30 khaki shorts he bought from the Army. Grothus sold the entire lot to a reform school in Colorado.
Today, the Black Hole at 4015 Arkansas St., is filled inside and out with old scientific equipment that he collected from the laboratory. Grothus also bought and filled a church on adjacent property with surplus equipment, expanding over the years to fill a 30 foot by 50 foot metal building and a home on two acres in Pajarito Acres along with a garage and shop loaded with stuff.
Grothus died at his Los Alamos home surrounded by his family on Feb. 12, 2009 at the age of 85. His son Mike Grothus who lives in Colorado and his daughter Barbara Grothus who lives in Albuquerque oversee The Black Hole and hired a fulltime manager, Ed Beaty, to run the day-to-day operations.
“We’ve scaled way back on the procurement side of the business,” Mike said. “We’re working to provide better access for customers – there still is a tremendous amount of stuff but the inflow has been considerably reduced and we’re working on organization and presentation.”
Some 500,000 pounds of materials have been removed from The Black Hole including 120,000 pounds of scrap metal and 380,000 pounds of electronics and other materials, he said.
The Black Hole continues to draw people from around the world. On Friday, a Kalamazoo, Mich., couple visiting for the first time said they read about the establishment in a guidebook called Off the Beaten Path.
“We’re on vacation and staying in Abiqui and we bought some scrap aluminum and steel to use as counter displays for knitting stitch markers at our business back in Michigan,” said H.J. and Mary Anne Dubrule.
A television production team also visited The Black Hole recently and shot enough film to create a couple of episodes to shop around as a reality show. The premise is to follow people home and reveal how they repurpose the items they bought at The Black Hole.
“They said they don’t think it’s likely that the show will be picked up,” Mike Grothus said, adding that The Black Hole business continues to thrive. “A tour company recently communicated with our manager that it plans to bring a group here on a technology discovery trip later this year. We just want to thank people for their continued support and to let them know that The Black Hole isn’t going anywhere. We are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and we intend to be a resource for years to come. People can still find all those unique treasures here.”
He said they recently came across his father’s Assumption High School class ring from Davenport, Iowa buried amongst some stuff in The Black Hole. He took it back to Colorado to have it repaired to present to his mother, Margaret Grothus who was married to his father for 57 years and resides in the family’s Los Alamos home.
“So even Ed Grothus lost stuff in The Black Hole,” Mike said, "only to be found years later.”