Pay dirt

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Amethyst crystals from Wilkes County, Georgia.

It’s unlikely you’ve run afoul of Marvin Culver, who retired last year from the trooper force of the Oklahoma State Police. Around his hometown of Nowata, Okla., south of Coffeyville and north of Tulsa, “we didn’t get much truck traffic,” Culver says, before in recent years opened a distribution center in the area. “But we always had a good rapport with the drivers out here,” he says.

In March 2006, Culver had been scheduled to retire for five years when, a few months before his last day, he and his wife Lyndall saw a special on the Travel Channel about Crater of Diamonds State Park outside the small town of Murfreesboro, Ark., in the Ozarks (870-285-3113, “We’d been trying to get there for 10 years,” Culver says. On impulse they loaded up their niece and nephew and made the 7-hour drive that afternoon.

A few days later the party of four was on the Today show, talking with Sotheby’s about the value of a 4.21-carat gem-quality yellow diamond they’d unearthed at Crater’s 37-acre dig area. “They told me between $15,000 and $60,000,” Culver says.

He eventually sold the rock to preservationist and collector Jim Houran of the Mineralogical Association of Dallas, which is dedicated to collecting Arkansas diamonds, for a sum Culver can’t divulge. He named the find the Okie Dokie Diamond after his home state, but he casually refers to it as his “retirement diamond.”

Not bad for a day at the park.

Last year marked the 100-year anniversary of farmer John Wesley Huddleston’s first find of a diamond on what was then his recently purchased Arkansas farmland. Subsequent attempts at commercially mining the Crater site have failed, and numerous private tourist businesses have come and gone. Crater of Diamonds has been the only public diamond-mining site in the world with a “finders keepers” policy since 1972, when Arkansas opened it as a state park.

North American geologic history has left behind a wealth of minerals in crystal formations, which become gems after cutting and finishing. Sundry can be found at sites both publicly and privately owned all over the country (see “Other Dig Sites and Resources”), but diamonds are today almost exclusively associated in the U.S. with the Crater site.

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A mineral enthusiast is often called a “rock hound,” a term used to describe both scientists in the fields of geology, gemology and mineralogy and amateur collectors, two groups that have been mutually beneficial to each other over the years.

Bill Dameron says there was a time when rock hounding was “the most popular hobby in the U.S.” Dameron is the outgoing president of the Friends of Mineralogy, an association of collectors and professionals as well as curators (

Dameron, a now-retired foreign service diplomat, says serious rock hounding’s “like a disease – it gets in your blood.” Collecting inevitably leads to more serious study and a wellspring of knowledge of the chemical compositions of and physical processes that created the minerals, which Dameron notes are defined as naturally occurring compounds with definite chemical compositions. A mineral belongs to a definite crystal class and will form crystals. Rocks, on the other hand, are substances made up of many minerals.

Paleontology, too, can be within the purview of amateur collectors.

A shallow inland sea once ran up to a shoreline in an area comprising parts of Kankakee, Will and Grundy counties in Illinois about 50 miles southwest of Chicago.

The area around Mazon Creek there has been picked over since the 1950s, when amateur collectors’ relationships with scientists at Chicago’s Field Museum led to the identification of a prehistoric invertebrate species, the Tullimonstrum gregarium, or “Tully Monster,” named after Francis Tully, the pipe fitter and amateur collector who first brought the wormlike creature’s fossil to the attention of the museum’s former invertebrate curator Eugene Richardson.

Perfect fossils can be as valuable as diamonds, though their scientific values often supersede monetary concerns in collectors’ minds. In a world where land untouched by human hands grows ever scarcer, gems, minerals and fossils supply precious contact with the planet’s past.

The Crater of Diamonds site is the result of an ancient volcanic pipe, where molten rock deep within the earth rose to the surface through cracks among tectonic plates that collided in prehistoric times, creating contemporary Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. Diamonds, having formed deep within the earth in environments of intense heat and pressure, were brought to the surface with the molten rock, where they remained after the molten material cooled. Over time, erosion broke down the surrounding rock to reveal them.

Owner-operator Ernie Walker, leased to Cochran, Ga.-based regional hauler Lumber Transport, caught the rock-hound bug when his two sons, now in their 20s, were young. The family made a trip up through the Appalachians and, says Walker, “we made the mistake of stopping in Franklin, N.C.”

They stopped at the mineral museum in the small town’s center, housed in the old jailhouse on Phillips Street, and soon enough, at the behest of the kids, stopped in some of the tourist-friendly rock shops to search for rubies in gravel buckets sold there. Walker’s sons started asking questions about what they were finding, “and the next thing I know,” he says, “I was the one going through the buckets.”

Walker became a member of the Georgia Mineral Society, which broadened his experience with dig sites and deepened his knowledge about what he was finding. At the same time he developed new friendships with people all over the country. He describes the attraction of rock hounding this way: “If you have to dig it up, there’s just a feeling that there’s not another person who’s ever seen that. The only other person who’s seen it is God, and he made it.”

Digging techniques vary by individual and site. Trucker Warren Jennings makes the trip to Crater of Diamonds every October – he’s got a baby-food jar “half full of diamond chips,” he says. Immediately after a torrential rain, scanning the dig field’s topsoil may yield small finds as rainwater washes away the dirt covering small stones. “One thing to remember is that a diamond is so dense that all water runs off,” Jennings says, pointing out that surfaces of “diamonds in the rough” have a soapy, filmy look.

Culver found the Okie Dokie Diamond by turning the soil with nothing more than a trowel. He didn’t realize he was looking at a diamond at first. “I put it in my pocket and kept on working. I would’ve quit three hours earlier if I knew,” he says. “I didn’t realize there were yellow diamonds.”

Diamonds can indeed be yellow, pink, white, blue and other colors. At Crater of Diamonds, prevailing colors are yellow, white and brown.

Many visitors to the site dig in the topsoil and separate the gravel with simple box screens, available for rental. But some experienced, repeat-visiting miners dig deeper with shovels looking for tailings from the waste piles of the industrial operations of the 1920s and ’30s. Any equipment you can get to the site without motorized transport and that requires no electrical or gas power is allowed.

Last year, a total of 488 diamonds were found, a slightly below-average year (600 or so a year is typical). Most are the size of the tip of a matchstick, park officials say – or “pencil lead” size, as Culver notes. Other semiprecious gems and stones found in the dig field include amethyst, garnet, peridot, jasper, agate, calcite, barite and quartz. Park staff are trained to identify your finds, free of charge.

Even if you don’t find anything of value, Culver says, the dig field and the greater park is an experience unto itself. “I spend most of my time helping other folks, letting them know what to look for,” trucker Jennings says. Campsites are available, and lodging in Murfreesboro is likewise a possibility. To dig, it’s $6.50 for adults, $3.50 for children age 6-12, under 6 free. Hiking, fishing in the Little Missouri River and swimming at the recently built Diamond Springs Water Park on-site are among other attractions.

Other Dig Sites and Resources
The area around Helena, Mont., is well-known for its sapphires. While sapphire crystals, like diamonds, require extensive professional “faceting” and finishing to realize their full worth, and most advertised “mining” sites are just rock shops where you can buy a bucket of gravel and sift through to find potential gems, some old mines in the Canyon Creek area northwest of Helena reportedly allow digging for a fee. You might visit the Gold Fever Rock Shop in Helena sometime June through October for more info: (877) 344-4367,

Throughout the Appalachian range are a host of rock shops and dig sites where sapphires, rubies, garnets, quartz and amethyst crystals and other mineral fragments can be found, most heavily concentrated in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Gem Mountain (888-817-5829, in Spruce Pine, N.C., northeast of Asheville, hosts 10 a.m. Saturday tours June through August of the Brushy Creek Aquamarine Mine, from which the family-friendly tourist spot gets most of its material.

For the rock hound, locales throughout the Appalachians have mineralogical societies that organize field excursions for collecting and digging, including the Asheville, N.C.-based Southern Appalachian Mineral Society (828-298-4237, and Georgia-based Dixie Euhedrals (contact Rodney Moore at (404) 975-8005,, which recently added the Diamond Hill quartz and (occasional) amethyst mining site near Abbeville, S.C., to its mining locations. Mike Streeter, a member of SAMS, is the author of a field guide to the Blue Ridge, A Rockhounding Guide To North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and maintains an archive of pictures from and info on SAMS’ many field excursions (

The mine at the Ace of Diamonds Mine and Campground, though far north in upstate Herkimer, N.Y., shares a reason for being with Diamond Hill. The site is known for the presence of distinctive “Herkimer Diamonds,” quartz crystals long admired for their beauty (315-891-3855,

In Thunder Bay, Ontario, at Amethyst Mine Panorama in the warmer months you can dig for the small fee of $3 (

The annual Tucson Gem & Mineral Show (520-322-5773,, going on its 54th year, is the biggest financial event in the city and held the second full week of February – ground zero for serious collectors. As Bill Dameron, outgoing president of the Friends of Mineralogy, describes it, a carnival-like atmosphere prevails in the city even weeks prior to the main event, with myriad vendors showcasing their minerals and fossils. Hotels along Freeway Avenue next to I-10 downtown are typically full and some have their own, less formal shows in the parking lots, enthusiasts referring to the avenue as “the Strip.”

For collectors looking to more closely examine the science behind gems and crystals and learn to better identify their own finds, Dameron recommends above all the Peterson series edition of Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals, by Frederick Pough, and suggests visits to some of the better mineralogical museums around the country (see “World-Class Museums” on page 109).

In your time off, do a little research into your home base or an area you’re frequently stuck looking for a load – it’s likely some rock hounds are organized there. Google “[insert your town’s name here] mineral society” for starters.

Owner-operator Ernie Walker stresses this as key to enjoyment of collecting – the more you know about what you’re looking for, the more you’ll find. “And anybody can do it,” he says. “You can take the kids – you can walk, you can stop and use a sledge