Western Maine is home to many gem-quality minerals. Commercial mining is tough, but even a weekend rockhound can strike it big.

At about 1 p.m. on June 26, 2009, Dennis Durgin found something that caused him to be late for his own daughter’s wedding rehearsal.

That afternoon, the Newry miner looked into a hole he’d blown into Mount Marie, his mine in Paris, and saw a shimmer of brilliant blue. Durgin had opened up a pocket of hundreds of carats of tourmaline of such a dark shade of blue that an untrained eye might mistake it for sapphire.

His discovery was a long time in coming.

Durgin caught the rockhounding bug when he was just 7 years old. His school bus driver was a mineral collector who brought some specimens to show the kids. The boy was so enthralled that the man invited Durgin and his brother to dinner at his house that evening to see the rest.

“I saw extraordinary things that night that I remember to this day,” he recalled.

Durgin got his start in mining on Deer Hill in Stow in 1969, where he found several pockets of amethyst, and began mining at Mount Marie in Paris in 1993, first through a lease agreement and later as owner. Durgin was interested in the area because he knew it had produced some quality tourmaline in the early 20th century. He hit some small pockets in his first year, and a little more in the following years. It was enough to keep him interested in the site, but not enough to cover his operating costs.

It took more than 15 years for Durgin’s hopes to pay off, but the blue tourmaline wasn’t the end of his good fortune. Two years after uncovering what he named “Abby’s Wedding Pocket,” Durgin found numerous pockets of tourmaline in a rainbow of colors — burgundy, yellow, green, blue, pink and champagne — in Mount Marie.

“It doesn’t take a big difference in the chemical composition to change the color of a tourmaline,” said Durgin.

Durgin created collections of some of his finds, naming some of the watermelon-colored stones with deep burgundy centers “Wine Suspended in Time,” and another set of stones that seem to almost glow in low light “Firefly Tourmaline.”

“The tourmaline from Mount Marie has an almost fluorescent quality to it. It’s indescribable,” said Dennis Creaser, owner of Creaser Jewelers in South Paris.

Hunt focused on Oxford, Androscoggin counties

Gem mining in Maine — the search for tourmaline, amethyst, garnet and aquamarine found primarily beneath the state’s western mountains — is almost as old as the state itself.

It all started in 1820, the same year Maine was granted statehood, when Augustus Choate Hamlin of West Paris discovered a small fragment of tourmaline glittering in the cavity left behind by a fallen tree while hiking with friends there on Mount Mica. The find sparked an era of prospecting in Oxford and Androscoggin counties that peaked during the early decades of the 20th century, but continues today.

Many of those discoveries have been accidental, such as in 1927, when miners blasting for quartz at Mount Apatite in Auburn found themselves showered in a rain of tourmaline fragments.

“Oxford County has to be, on the East Coast, the most highly desired area to find minerals. People have found millions of dollars’ worth of minerals here,” said Zoltan Matolcsy, co-owner with his wife, Jody, of Maine Mineral Adventures in Woodstock, a business that takes both experienced mineral enthusiasts and amateur rockhounds to area mine dumps to pick through the leftovers in search of missed treasures.

At a time when gems mined in Africa and elsewhere can be had for a fraction of the cost of Maine gems, local stones, especially tourmaline, remain a coveted commodity among those with a love for the area.

“When you come on vacation to Maine, a tourmaline is the best souvenir you can get. If you take care of it, it will last for generations,” said Creaser, adding that, in his opinion, the quality of Maine’s gems is at least equal to, if not better than, those mined anywhere else in the world.

The appeal is such that a small handful of Maine miners still dedicate a large proportion of their lives to the hunt, with no guarantee of a payoff.

“It’s a gamble, but there’s always that hope that you’ll find the Holy Grail, the mother lode,” said Durgin.

The godfather: Frank Perham

That’s exactly what happened to Frank Perham, a West Paris miner who, at 80, has mined the mountains of Maine for more than six decades.

Perham was born and brought up in a mineral family. His father and uncles were all mica and feldspar miners, and his family owned a mineral shop in West Paris. During World War II, Perham’s father took him into the mines to extract mica and beryl for the U.S. government. (Mica isn’t gem-worthy but is highly valued in making roofing materials, paints and insulation to name just a few uses. Beryl is used in jewelry as well as to produce wire and other electrical components.)

“It just got to be second nature for me to be in a mine,” he said.

Perham was a geologist by training, a graduate of Bates College. Though he never formally worked as a geologist, he found his training came in handy in his mining work. He’s mined at Paris’ Mount Mica, the birthplace of Maine gem mining, as well as on the coast in Georgetown and many other locations he remembers fondly.

His moment of glory, however, came in 1972 at the Dunton Mine on Plumbago Mountain in Newry. Perham had been hired by Plumbago Mining Corporation to search for tourmaline on the mountain.

“I knew there was a big pocket in there from some other work I’d done there on a limited scale, but I didn’t know how big,” said Perham.

That year, Perham unearthed a pocket of tourmaline that was six feet in diameter, 24 feet long, and weighed nearly two tons. It was the largest single tourmaline pocket ever discovered in North America. Much of it had the coveted watermelon coloring, featuring a center of pink surrounded by green.

The “Jolly Green Giant,” a chunk of crystal from the pocket, now resides in the Smithsonian.

In typical miner fashion — it’s considered bad form to boast about one’s own discoveries — Perham is understated about his historic find, but he admitted that the experience was electrifying at the time.

“You could almost say that while I was digging it out I was fondling it,” said Perham.

Creaser is less restrained in describing Perham’s discovery.

“That was the mother of all tourmaline. It was mind-blowing, awesome quality,” said Creaser.

A lifetime of amethyst

As both a jeweler and a miner, Creaser understands Maine minerals from every angle.

Creaser began his gem-cutting career at the age of 12, when his aunt taught him how to cut his own cabochons — any precious stone that is shaped and polished, as opposed to faceted. As soon as he became good enough, he began selling his creations at local stores.

It wasn’t until college that Creaser first began to dig for minerals himself, heading out on weekends to scour through the dump piles at some of western Maine’s legendary tourmaline mines.

After getting an associate’s degree in music at the University of Maine at Augusta, Creaser transferred to Arizona State University to pursue a degree in geology. When the math and chemistry requirements became too daunting, though, he switched to art with a concentration in jewelry design, graduating as one of the top students in his class.

Creaser and a friend started their own mining company, Intergalactic Mining, in the early ’90s and, over the course of the next eight years, found several large pockets of high quality, deep purple amethyst in the Maine section of the White Mountains.

Creaser is one of the few jewelers able to say he has had a hand in every aspect of a piece’s creation. He sells amethyst pieces at his store from stones he mined, cut and designed the settings for.

“I will never run out of amethyst, and it would hold its own against any material in the world,” said Creaser.

For Creaser, as for other area mineral enthusiasts, the thrill of the hunt is almost more rewarding than the discoveries themselves.

“Every kid goes through a dinosaur phase. Dinosaurs lead to fossils and fossils lead to rocks. I never grew out of it, I guess. Treasure hunting is part of the appeal, and mining is the ultimate treasure hunt,” he said.

“You don’t have to be a little kid to have wonder. It’s a miracle when you find something,” said Mary Groves, owner of Poland Mining Camps, where many rock hounds from around the world stay when digging in Maine.

And indeed, many of Maine’s mineral miners describe finding a pocket of crystals as an almost spiritual experience.

“It’s a labor of love. When you do find a pocket, whether it’s quartz or tourmaline, when you reach in and pull out a crystal, you’re the first person since creation to touch that crystal. If that doesn’t make your spine tingle, then you don’t have it,” said Durgin.

Maine mining: Like throwing money in a brook

Despite the millions of dollars’ worth of potential gem-quality minerals in the hills of western Maine still waiting to be discovered, miners say they’re not in it for the money.

“To make a profit is highly unusual,” said Perham.

“It’s not the cash value I’m interested in. It’s the formation of the minerals in the earth. You’re always hoping for the money stuff — the tourmalines and things like that — but I always say that if I ever open up a pocket full of quartz and feel disappointed that it’s just quartz, it will be time to hang it up.”

Matolcsy said the risks often outweigh any potential for a monetary payoff.

“Mining is very dangerous. It’s not profitable, and it’s very hard work. You have to be willing to expend a tremendous amount of resources with no guarantee of payback. That’s worse than gambling,” he said.

After his dramatic discovery in the ’70s, Perham has had plenty of offers from potential investors hoping to strike it rich from a Maine mine.

He said, “I always ask them, ‘Would you go to the bank, cash a check for $10,000 in one dollar bills and go down to the babbling brook and throw them in one at a time?’ And they always say ‘No.’ So I ask ‘Why would you want to invest in mining, then?'”

Though Perham is one of the most renowned gem miners in the world — he even has a mineral, Perhamite, named after him — mining was never how he made his living. He’s worked as a used car dealer and mechanic, and as an excavator, including work blasting for the state, just to make ends meet.

“I had a wife and four kids. You have to make a living. But I consider myself a miner more than anything else,” he said.

‘It’s about the adventure’

Creaser cuts tourmalines and other minerals found by another local miner with a similar attitude, Gary Freeman of Coromoto Minerals, an outfit that’s been mining at the legendary Mount Mica since 2003.

“It’s not really about the money for him. A lot people have million-dollar fishing boats for a hobby. This is his million-dollar fishing boat,” said Creaser.

It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to blast away just a few feet of ledge in the hopes of unearthing a pocket. To date, the mine at Mount Mica is hundreds of feet deep, said Matolcsy, who, along with the guides at Poland Mining Camps, has the only public access to the dump pile at the mine.

“Mining is a difficult job, so you really have to have that treasure hunter desire to do it. It’s physically demanding and it’s very dirty. You don’t come home clean,” said Durgin.

For some, though, that’s part of the appeal. Perham said he loves every aspect of the extraction process, from the heavy machinery to the minerals themselves, but especially the dynamite.

“I love explosives. I’m like a real old little kid when I get around a mine,” said Perham.

For those who are willing and able to invest the time and money required to be successful at gem mining, the bug doesn’t go away easily.

After more than a decade away from serious mining, Creaser plans to get out into the field again in the near future, reopening a tourmaline mine in Newry with his former mining partner, Jay Windover.

“Probably, we won’t find anything, but we’ll have a great time looking, and that’s what it’s about. It’s about the adventure.”

Big finds by novice rockhounds

While mining is an expensive, time consuming and highly specialized process that’s not generally for the weekend hobbyist, it’s possible for weekend rockhounds to get out and find some remarkable, even gem-quality minerals in Maine.

Active and abandoned mine sites alike all have dump piles, where the byproduct of blasting is left behind after any major mineral pockets have been removed. These piles, called tailings, contain fragments of minerals.

A few area businesses specialize in taking groups on guided digs through these dump piles, often at sites that would otherwise be off-limits because they’re on private property.

The oldest such business in the area, Poland Mining Camps, offers multi-day guided trips to area mines to scour through the tailings, as well as a day-trip option. Owner Mary Groves operates the camp, which was started by her late husband, Irving, in the 1960s. Groves also owns some active quarries on the western side of Mount Apatite in Auburn.

“This is a destination vacation,” she said, noting that a guide is essential for novice mineral hunters.

“Maine has over 100 different minerals, and that’s why a knowledgeable guide is so important,” she said.

Zoltan Matolcsy agrees. Along his wife, Jody, he runs Maine Mineral Adventures in Woodstock, a business that leads day trips as well as multi-day outings to area mines.

“It’s a long process. If you don’t have a modicum of knowledge of what you’re looking for, you have the possibility of overlooking a whole lot of worthwhile material,” he said.

“You have to be like a crime scene investigator, scrutinizing everything you come across. You have to stop just looking around and start seeing,” he said.

The Matolcsys are both lifelong mineral enthusiasts and experienced miners. Jody has mined alongside area mineral and gem miners Frank Perham and Gary Freeman.

Thanks to these trips, average Janes and Joes can find some striking mineral specimens with just some basic garden tools and a set of clothes they don’t mind ruining.

“Some people think they need a big hammer, but you find more with just a screen,” said Groves.

And those finds are sometimes pretty big.

Two years ago, a couple on a guided trip with the Poland Mining Camps found a 74-carat green tourmaline among the rubble outside a local mine.

“We thought the man was having a heart attack after they found that,” said Jody Groves.

She asked him the following year whether he had it cut up for his wife.

“He said, ‘Oh, no, I have it in a box. When I’m feeling down, I take it down and I look at it and talk to it,'” said Groves.

One woman from Rhode Island who went on a dig with Maine Mineral Adventures found a 2-inch-long blue tourmaline.

“That was the finest blue tourmaline that came out of Mount Mica that year. It would have cut 30 carats, clean, at $1,000 a carat. It’s the finest tourmaline I’ve seen anybody find who wasn’t a mine owner,” said Matolcsy.

Another young customer found a 25-carat watermelon tourmaline while sifting through a $15 bucket of mine tailings at Maine Mining Adventures. The stone was so rare, the mine owner bought it back from him, giving him a large check for his college fund.

For the Matolcsys, though, digging for minerals is about more than just the lucky big finds.

“It’s deep for us. It’s very deep. We love what we do. We start out trying to get people to engage with the environment, get down, get your hands dirty and remember what it was like to be a child and view things with wonder,” said Matolcsy.

Guided digs

If you’re a novice itching to go on a treasure hunt for Maine minerals, identifying something of significance is easier with the help of a knowledgeable guide. The following businesses will take anyone from beginners to seasoned rockhounds out for digs — from day-trips to overnight excursions — at privately owned mine sites that are otherwise closed to the public.

Maine Mineral Adventures

1148 South Main St., Woodstock

207-674-3440

www.digmainegems.com

Maine Mineralogy Expeditions

At Bethel Outdoor Adventure

121 Mayville Road, Bethel

207-824-4224

www.rocksme.biz

Poland Mining Camps

Route 26, Poland

207-998-2350

www.polandminingcamps.com

Quarries open to the public for self-led digs

Want to try looking for Maine minerals on your own? There are several former quarry sties that are open to the public. Here are a few of the most popular:

Hermit Island

Phippsburg

It’s possible to find garnet crystals up to a centimeter long along the beaches of this camping destination.

Mount Apatite

At the end of Stevens Mill Road, Auburn, past the National Guard Armory

Hikers at this 325-acre city-owned park can sometimes find small pieces of garnet, tourmaline or apatite. Digging is allowed, using hand tools only, to a depth of two feet. From Minot Avenue in Auburn, turn right on Garfield Road for half a mile, then turn left onto Stevens Mill Road and park near the baseball fields.

Auburn Department of Parks and Recreation: 207-784-0191

Songo Pond Mine

Bethel

This is a privately owned fee site. For permission and directions, call Rodney Kimball at Kimball’s Antiques: 207-836-3945.

Swift River

Route 17, Byron

You can pan for gold in the river, which runs alongside Route 17, about halfway between Rumford and Rangeley. Get panning supplies and advice on where to look from Coos Canyon Rock & Gift, 472 Swift River Road (Route 17), in Byron. Their number is 207-364-4900.

Places to pan through mine tailings

If spending a day getting filthy under the hot sun isn’t your idea of a good time, you can hunt for treasure the easy way. The following businesses offer sluices where you can pan through mine tailings for valuable minerals the commercial miners missed.

Desert Of Maine

95 Desert Road, Freeport

207-865-6962

www.desertofmaine.com

Maine Mineral Adventures

1148 South Main St., Woodstock

207-674-3440

www.digmainegems.com

Dig Maine Gems South

At Smedberg’s Crystal Spring Farm

1413 Main St., Oxford

207-890-9753

www.digmainegems.com

Maine Mineralogy Expeditions

At Bethel Outdoor Adventure

121 Mayville Road, Bethel

207-824-4224

www.rocksme.biz

Treasure Hunterz

18 Littlefield Lane, Farmingdale

207-557-4369

www.treasure-hunterz.com

Places to look at Maine gems

Don’t want to get your hands dirty? You can look at, and learn about, Maine gems here:

Maine Mineral and Gem Museum

Under construction at 103 Main St., Bethel

207-824-0218

www.mainemineralmuseum.org

(It is temporarily housed at the location below.)

Mountain Jewelers

57 Main St., Bethel

207-824-3030

www.mtmann.com

Maine State Museum

230 State St., Augusta

207-287-2301

www.mainestatemuseum.org

New England Mineral Conference

May 9-11, 2014

Sunday River, Newry

www.nemineralconference.org

Western Maine Gem, Mineral and Jewelry Show

July 12-13, 2014

Telstar Regional High School, Route 26, Bethel

www.oxfordcountymineralandgemassociation.blogspot.com


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