The rush to find precious gems is back on in Maine.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
Gary Freeman aims his flashlight at the cavern wall, illuminating a cavity big enough to hold a child playing hide-and-seek. A yellowish prism angling out of the hollow’s floor is briefly but excitingly disorienting. That quartz crystal was locked in this rocky cell for three hundred million years, unseen by man until now. It’s as if we’re gazing through a portal to the past.
Freeman and I are perched atop a mound of fresh blast debris deep inside Mount Mica, the United States’ oldest gemstone mine, located about a mile east of the western Maine village of Paris Hill. We walked here by way of a two hundred-foot tunnel dimly lit by lights strung along a sloping floor of parchment-colored stone and glinting mica. The air is cool and damp. Overhead, ninety feet of schist lies between us and sunlight. The daunting layer of metamorphic rock is the reason Freeman abandoned quarrying in favor of burrowing into the hill to find the tourmaline and other rare minerals that unfailingly give him “a rush” each time he chips into one of the rockbound jewelry boxes rockhounds call “pockets.” The one that has our interest now is the latest of scores that Freeman, 61, has exposed since he bought the mine in 2003.
By Mount Mica standards, the cavity is a dud. It yields only a tiny bit of green tourmaline, and that prehistoric hunk of quartz is, Freeman says, “pretty beat up,” not worth the effort required to extract it.
That’s the way it goes sometimes. “It’s hard to find a pocket,” explains Freeman, wearing a hard hat and a heavy-duty back brace buckled over dirty jeans, “and harder still to find one with good material in it, but we haven’t had a dull day here yet. We don’t always find great gems, but we always find something to keep us interested. At Mount Mica, you don’t have to be smart. You just have to dig up rocks.”
Freeman is being modest. A few years ago, Mount Mica was believed by some to have been mined out. Under Freeman’s direction, it is giving up world-class green, blue, and pink tourmaline crystals that are as good, and often better, than any found here in the past. Freeman has found unusual blue apatites, giant smoky quartz crystals, and extremely rare crystallized pink quartz reminiscent of a splendid Brazilian specimen that made news forty years ago. The owner with his wife, Mary Freeman, of a Florida-based clinical laboratory instrumentation company, Gary Freeman spends $150,000 a year, “plus or minus,” on his avocation, which he pursues with the discipline of a shrewd businessman, except that he keeps much of the best product for himself.
“Most of us are amazed by Gary’s consistent success,” says Woodrow Thompson, a mineralogy specialist at the Maine Geological Survey. “He’s found pocket after pocket. He is very systematic and thorough. He’s going end to end and top to bottom and has a far more serious gem-mining operation than anyone has done in the past. He’s also very lucky.”
Mount Mica is at the center of a modest mining renaissance under way in Oxford and Sagadahoc counties, areas riddled with retired quarries for feldspar and mica, two minerals that occur in pegmatite, the lumpy oatmeal-colored granite also known for hosting gemstones. Aquamarine is being harvested in Albany Township and Topsham, amethyst in Stowe, green and golden beryl in Phippsburg, and tourmaline — the Maine state gemstone — in Newry and Georgetown. Dennis Creaser, a South Paris jeweler and serious rockhound, traces this modern era of mining to the 1989 discovery of the “Rose of Maine,” one of the world’s largest known gem morganites, by Ronald and Dennis Holden in Buckfield. “The Holden brothers were just ordinary people like the rest of us,” Creaser says. “They didn’t have any special knowledge or equipment. Local mineral enthusiasts sat up and took notice. They began to say, ‘Wow, these old mines can still produce.’ ”
Gems mined in 2008 in Maine were valued at $282,000, placing Maine tenth in the nation in gemstone production, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey. All it takes is one big discovery to spike production values. That’s what happened in 1993 when Dennis Creaser, Gary Howard, and Jay Windover uncovered the Fourth of July Pocket, which ultimately yielded more than ten thousand pounds of amethyst. That year Maine’s gemstone production values leapt from $9,690 to $235,000, propelling the state from twenty-first to second in the nation.
The national press was captivated by the three personable Mainers who mined with little more than an old beat-up excavator, a hand-held drill, and a wheelbarrow. Working under the tongue-in-cheek name of Intergalactic Mining, the trio spent two years plucking purple crystals, the most valuable form of quartz, from the multi-chamber pocket. “We’d go through seams of amethyst that looked like teeth,” Creaser recalls. “You’d run your hand over them and they’d come falling out.” In the fifteen years since, Deer Hill has continued to give generously, although the size of the pockets have paled in comparison to the “Fourth of July” trove, one of the milestones of Maine mining history.
Maine’s first significant tourmaline find was in 1820 on Mount Mica, the most consistent producer of the semiprecious gem whose color ranges from white and black to dazzling reds, greens, and blues. The single biggest gemstone discovery in North America, however, occurred thirty miles northwest at Dunton Quarry in Newry in 1972. There, the Plumbago Mining Corporation extracted hundreds of pounds of high quality red and green tourmaline, including the “Jolly Green Giant,” a fat, ten-inch long, six-sided crystal that now resides at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. At the time, the takings were valued at more than one million dollars.
The site atop Plumbago Mountain had been largely idle for thirty-four years when new owners Louise Jonaitis, a specialty real estate developer, and Robert Brown, a retired logger and former Plumbago Mining security guard, last year began exploratory mining a short distance from the historic mother lode. “Neither of us is a geologist,” Jonaitis says. “We just have a theory that this area has more to offer than that one giant pocket, and we’re making educated guesses about where to dig. We are becoming miners. We really are naturalists.”
So far, their instincts have been rewarded. They uncovered a large black tourmaline crystal in July and finished the season in November with a tantalizing find, a basketball-sized pocket of blue tourmaline. “It was such a thrill,” says Jonaitis, who believes she and Brown are on the verge of a big discovery. “They are high-grade crystals, almost flawless. It was magically primitive, reaching in and taking them out of the pocket. We felt blessed.”
A rock’s value is determined by several factors, including color, size, rarity, condition, and transparency (gem quality, or “gemmy,” crystals are translucent, like stained glass). The best are not necessarily destined for rings and bracelets. “I have customers who think nothing of spending a couple thousand dollars on a mineral specimen in its natural state, especially one that is in its matrix, or host rock,” Gary Creaser says. He is writing a book about significant Maine gemstone jewelry. The most famous piece, the seventy-stone Hamlin necklace at the Mineralogical Museum at Harvard University, has inspired him to create his own masterwork, a necklace featuring amethyst, tourmaline, and other local stones. The piece will be whole only once, at its official unveiling, after which the numerous pendants will go home with their individual owners.
Money is not what motivates the handful of people working Maine mines. “It’s strictly a hobby,” Gary Howard says. “You’re not going to make a living at it. If we make enough money to pay for explosives or fuel, we’ve done well.” He estimates that he and his partners spend three hundred dollars a day when they are going full bore at Deer Hill.
“I’m a treasure hunter,” says Howard, the retired Brunswick fire chief, fit and trim from his outdoor pursuits. “I love the thrill of the hunt.” He caught the bug when a friend took him gold panning on the Swift River in Byron and has since developed a knack for finding all sorts of prizes, like arrowheads and old coins. In addition to Deer Hill, he mines for aquamarine and garnet in Topsham, tourmaline in Georgetown, and beryl in Phippsburg.
Jan Brownstein’s aquamarine quarry on Songo Pond in Albany Township turned a rare profit last year, thanks in part to a rutile crystal that he “sold for more money than I ever would have thought possible.” And how much was that? “Let’s just say I was very happy to sell it,” says Brownstein, whose friendly weathered face and lanky frame could land him a role as a prospector in a Hollywood Western. “This one was heavy and had a beautiful metallic look to it. It is extremely rare to find rutile in pegmatite, and some of the largest crystals ever found in Maine were found here last summer.” He beams. “And I used to think of rutile as an ugly black mineral.”
His good luck last year included gem-quality black tourmaline, from which he cut a 5.37-carat stone, a state record, and some nice pieces of smoky quartz. “You don’t know what it’s like to take something like this out of the ground,” Brownstein rhapsodizes, cradling a baseball-sized piece of smoky quartz in his palm. “It’s got that coldness of the ground in it, that feeling of Mother Earth. It’s covered in mud, and you have to spray it with water before you see all the crystals and really know what you’ve got. That’s what this is all about. It’s not about money or fame. It’s about opening a rock and being the first person in the universe to see the beauty inside, beauty that you couldn’t possibly have imagined.”
As Freeman and I make our way back to the surface, he points out other pockets and recalls their contents. Here is Pocket 11 of 2004, whose multiple chambers include a room forty feet long and twelve feet high. It produced many fine large tourmalines. There is Pocket 6 of 2006, “one of the best spaces we ever found. It was full of gems.” He aims his flashlight again at the dark end of a side tunnel. “The most spectacular tourmaline we’ve found came from right here,” he says. “It is blue, about twelve inches long, and that big around.” He curls his fingers, indicating a diameter of roughly three inches.
Freeman inherited his love of rocks from his father, whose work in the steel industry took the family to Brazil and Venezuela. “We were right in the thick of mineralogy down there,” Freeman says. “Every Saturday and Sunday, my dad and I would be out looking for rocks, mainly diamonds, but we’d pick up anything we could find.” His interest was reignited a few years ago when he and his wife, Mary, stumbled upon some aquamarine crystals while hiking in Maine, where Mary grew up. “That let the genie out of the bottle, where it had been dormant for years,” Freeman says.
Operating as Coromoto Minerals, after a Venezuelan mine where he worked with his father, Freeman has mining interests in Newry, Buckfield, and Andover, but it’s Mount Mica that captivates him. He is the only person tunnel-mining for gemstones in Maine, and the scope of his year-round operation dwarfs all the others. He has expensive equipment — a bulldozer, an excavator, and a dump truck designed for underground mining — and he travels from Florida every few weeks to work alongside his one employee, Richard Edwards. Locals, eager to witness the opening of a pocket, frequently join them as volunteers.
Digging stops whenever Freeman steps away on an errand. “For me, the discovery rush is the most rewarding aspect of mining,” he writes on the Coromoto Minerals’ Web site. “It is nice to see what came out of [the mine], but there is nothing that competes with the actual moment of the find.” On occasion, work is halted so Mary can fly up from Florida and share the thrill.
It’s not just Freeman’s budget that sets him apart from his peers. He is unusually meticulous. While other miners advance through the pockets they’ve emptied, Freeman digs around them, preserving the underground landscape for others to someday enjoy. He adds to the historical record with online reports detailing his progress. “I’m a year behind on the writing,” he confesses. “If I’m here mining, I don’t need to write, but when I’m away, I discharge my pent-up need to mine by writing about it.”
Freeman sells some of his findings, and Mount Mica even made a profit one year, but he says he doesn’t need that money to keep mining. His mineral specimens, which he stores in a bank vault, have grown substantially since 2007, when MaineBiz reported an inventory valued at $375,000. Declining to be more specific, he smiles confidently and explains, “I don’t spend a lot of time counting my marbles.”
- By: Virginia M. Wright