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BEACON Senior News

America’s rock hound romance with the west

Aug 23, 2021 11:43AM ● By Scott Warren, Grand Junction Gem and Mineral Club
Grand Junction gem and mineral club members digging on site

How amateur geologists shaped western Colorado culture 

While Native Americans and other amateur geologists had collected, carved and polished stones of various sorts, it wasn’t until the 1930s that American rock hounding truly became popularized. 

Electrification and auto-mobility pushed a new mass of rock-hungry hobbyists into the mountains and deserts of the American West, where varieties of agate, jasper, petrified wood and other precious stones waited to be picked up. 

Agate rushes

Rock and gem clubs were eventually established throughout the country, publishing news of “agate rushes” and other geo events.

Social and natural forces converged to foster the hobby. The rise of the westward family vacation was important, as was road building and other heavy construction, which exposed new kinds of rock to human eyes. The Great Depression played an interesting role, as people fleeing unemployment ended up wandering the canyons, quarries and ploughed fields of California and other areas of the West looking for whatever gems they could turn into jewelry and extra dollars. Many of these early rock hounds set up rock shops along popular desert highways where vacationers might stop in.

After World War II, some of these first-generation rock hounds began to share their knowledge in popular “how-to” gem-cutting guides, giving simple instructions on rock tumbling, metal craft, and the use of the diamond saw and silicon carbide grinding wheels for gem cutting. “Gem trail” field manuals were also published, usually with crudely drawn maps to appeal to treasure hunters. Rock hounding came to be regarded as a wholesome, instructive, and to some extent, patriotic activity, such as when amateurs were urged to prospect for radioactive rocks for sale to the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1963, there were an estimated 3,000 rock shops and 900 gem and mineral clubs in the U.S. Ready-made saws, tumblers and templates were available from companies like Covington and Highland Park. 

Whereas rock hounds were primarily adults who’d built their own equipment prior to 1940, post-war rock hounds were often teens who could purchase equipment on a modest budget. In his book, “The Book of Agates and Other Quartz Gems,” Lelande Quick proclaimed rock hounding “a great leveler of people.”

The decline

America’s rock hound romance peaked in the early 1960s when the Bureau of Land Management estimated there were 3 million American rock hounds in the U.S. A 1972 pamphlet declared there to be at least one rock shop for every western town with a population above 1,000, though, by this time, the hobby was already showing signs of decline. Television was taking its toll, and people were beginning to wonder whether grinding a lot of rocks in their garage or basement was a healthy way to spend their time. 

Additionally, many of the early “easy” rock-gathering sites were becoming exhausted, and military expansion and privatization were closing access to other sites. Commercial and urban development also destroyed many sites. The coastal towns of Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach in southern California used to be popular spots for collecting, but both became barren when new breakwaters and boat harbors altered the tidal action that once tossed stones onto the shore. 

Mining laws and machines also limited many sites. Liability laws made mine owners reluctant to allow gem hunters onto their property, and new mining techniques—such as the crushers that break up Lake Superior gravel—destroy many gems before they’re ever seen. 

Many once-beloved rock hounding sites were bought up by ranchers or people who frown upon collecting. Tire tycoon Les Schwab, for example, purchased the Teeter Ranch of central Oregon (home to Teeter Plume Agate) and permitted no mining. Many interesting rocks were out of reach within areas protected by the Wilderness Protection or Wild Rivers Acts, both of which barred collecting.

One positive sign for rock hounds was the establishment of rock hound state parks (such as Deming in New Mexico), where collectors were guaranteed the right to dig in perpetuity, though using only hand tools. Rock hounds were still able to use their “silver picks” at gem shows and rock hound gatherings in places such as Tucson, Arizona; Denver and Grand Junction.

As of today, rock hounding is regaining interest throughout the world. Enthusiast and dealers now meet at annual shows and events promoting earth sciences and this wonderful hobby in ever-increasing numbers. Come out to the Mesa County Fairgrounds on September 18-19 for the annual Gem and Mineral Show, or attend monthly club meetings with Grand Junction Gem and Mineral Club to learn more about the art of rock hounding!