By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Mark Fleming
From our May 2020 issue
In 1820, the year Maine won its statehood, two college students were hiking in the western foothills when, in waning autumn daylight, they spotted a glint of green among a tangle of upturned roots. From the dirt they plucked a piece of what they soon realized was tourmaline. The pair had made the first recorded discovery in Maine of what’s now the official state mineral.
Other gemstones also lie under Mainers’ feet: amethyst, aquamarine, quartz, topaz. Tourmaline, though, is most prized (nary a fancy jewelry shop in the state is without it in pendants, earrings, and rings). The fragment the two students found in 1820 now belongs to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, but the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, in Bethel, recently had it on loan, set in a case in the middle of the lobby. The stone’s nickname is Primus — Latin for first, foremost.
When Maine mining got underway in earnest, in the mid-1800s, gems weren’t the target. Instead, miners wanted feldspar, which was ground to powder and used to make porcelain. By the early 1900s, large feldspar deposits had been found in western Maine, and the state was the country’s biggest source of the stuff. Other earthly materials had commercial value too. Mica, a mineral resistant to both heat and conduction, went into industrial lubricants, microwave ovens, and military airplanes. And though mining for metals (nickel, copper, zinc) boomed and busted, mining for nonmetals (granite, marble, slate) continues today.
It wasn’t until 1972, with the feldspar business in decline, that tourmaline became a major payoff. In mining circles, the moment is remembered as “the Big Find.” On Plumbago Mountain, in Newry, prospectors opened up the largest deposit of gem-quality tourmaline in North American history. A plaque in the museum quotes Jane Perham, sister of Frank, one of the prospectors: “Had the men only known just what lay below this rubble, their shovels would have been weightless.”
To tell this full sweep of Maine mining history, the museum team aimed to present more than “just cases full of rocks with little labels,” as director Barbra Barrett puts it. The museum opened this past winter, after seven years of build-out, with an interactive blasting simulator — guests depress a detonator to create a digital explosion of rubble, at which children shriek with a mix of fright and glee. Filmed oral histories from miners are placed throughout the exhibits. And visitors can stand at the base of an 18-foot-tall cross section of earth, like stepping inside a diorama, and use a touchscreen to illuminate points of interest.
Larry Stifler and Mary McFadden — respectively, the founder/former president and former corporate counsel of a Boston-based health-care firm — founded the museum after an old mine on land they acquired in Albany Township piqued their mineralogical interests. Their enthusiasms also took a far-out turn: one large gallery is dedicated not to terrestrial minerals but to meteorites. Visitors can touch a piece of Mars and view an unrivaled collection of moon rocks. “We have more of the moon than NASA,” Barrett notes.
Still, one of the most out-of-this-world artifacts is in the earthly galleries: the Maine Tourmaline Necklace, presented to Governor James Longley in 1977. For inaugurals and other fine affairs, the state’s first ladies — and current governor Janet Mills — have worn the necklace, which Bethel jeweler Addison Saunders made from two dozen Plumbago Mountain gems, including a 25-carat pink one, plus gold panned from the nearby Swift River. State pride helped spur the necklace’s creation. So too did advertising — the Maine Retail Jewelers Association sponsored the project. But motives aside, the lasting impression is of the play of light through the vivid stones. Is it so crazy that a person would blast and chisel and crawl through tons of rock to find something so shiny?