EX­PLORER

Get out your shovel and pick. Dig­ging for gold may be a thing of the past, but dig­ging for crys­tals and fos­sils is a grow­ing pas­time in Florida

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY ANN MARIE O’PHEL AN

Strik­ing It Rich

The gold nuggets found in the Sacra­mento Val­ley are what ini­tially sparked the craze be­hind the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush from 1848 to 1855. Thou­sands of prospec­tive gold min­ers, known as “forty- niners,” worked fever­ously to re­cover the gold from the ground, streams and riverbeds. Their tools in­cluded rocker/ cra­dles to re­move large amounts of gravel from the rivers, stamp mills for min­ing in deeper rocky sur­faces, and ar­ras­tre, a crude ap­pa­ra­tus of axles with spokes, for pul­ver­iz­ing ores.

In Okee­chobee, you can of­ten catch a glimpse of to­day’s min­ers armed with tools like shov­els, picks, chis­els and buck­ets in the hopes of also strik­ing it rich. How­ever, it’s not gold they’re min­ing. In­stead, it’s crys­tal- bear­ing clamshells ( crys­talline cal­cite) and ver­te­brate fos­sils ( mastodon, mam­moth, sloth, lions, dire wolf, gi­ant tor­toise and horse). All told, there are about 180 dif­fer­ent types of finds one can search for at the dig­ging site near the Fort Drum Crys­tal Mine. The site is about 700 feet long and 80 feet wide and is ac­tu­ally a plot of land where ma­te­rial ex­tracted from the mine and full of earth’s trea­sures is dumped.

Ed­die Rucks and his wife Deb­bie own the Fort Drum Crys­tal Mine, for­merly known as Rucks’ Pit. A beef farmer, Rucks was aware that a lime­stone mine was lo­cated on his 200- acre ranch; how­ever, in 2002, he found out that

WHAT LOOKS LIKE A PLAIN OLD ROCK ON THE OUT­SIDE SOME­TIMES HAR­BORS BRIL­LIANT CRYS­TALS ON THE IN­SIDE— A DIF­FER­ENCE THAT IS EAS­IER TO SPOT FOR THOSE WITH EX­PERT EYES.

the mine held more riches than just lime­stone, a road base ma­te­rial. It was the year that ge­ol­o­gist Dr. Thomas Scott, for­merly of the Florida Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey ( FGS), made a trip down to in­ves­ti­gate the sto­ries he heard about the mine and dis­cov­ered sev­eral cal­cite- filled fos­sil clamshells. He soon re­al­ized the mine had a re­crys­tal­lized zone, which was ap­prox­i­mately 75 feet deep and con­tained crys­tals and fos­sils.

His find­ings were elab­o­rated on by Har­ley Means, P. G. As­sis­tant State Ge­ol­o­gist, Florida Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, Florida Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion. “The de­posit is ac­tu­ally a nearshore ma­rine de­posit that rep­re­sents a for­mer shore­line,” said Means. The ge­o­logic strata that these fos­sils come

from con­sist of sand and fos­sil seashells that are thought to be up to sev­eral mil­lion years old.

Scott was al­lowed to dig for ge­o­logic pur­poses un­til 2005, when Rucks opened up the mine to trea­sure hunters. Rucks wanted oth­ers, be­sides him, to en­joy a shot at strik­ing it rich. How­ever, in­stead of al­low­ing vis­i­tors into the mine, which has the po­ten­tial for dan­ger, he digs out a truck­load and pours it on the ground at the dig­ging site des­ig­nated for vis­i­tors. The pile of ma­te­rial is re­freshed on a fre­quent ba­sis, and folks can sort and sift through it. Wa­ter hoses are brought in to rinse the rocks and make the find­ings eas­ier to spot.

If one is lucky and knowl­edge­able enough to know what to look for, they might very well strike it rich. What looks like a plain old rock on the out­side some­times har­bors bril­liant crys­tals on the in­side— a dif­fer­ence that is eas­ier to spot for those with ex­pert eyes. “Forty to fifty per­cent of our vis­i­tors are se­ri­ous col­lec­tors/ re­sellers, thirty per­cent are

ALL TOLD, THERE ARE ABOUT 180 DIF­FER­ENT TYPES OF FINDS ONE CAN SEARCH FOR AT THE DIG­GING SITE NEAR THE FORT DRUM CRYS­TAL MINE.

look­ing for fos­sils, and the rest are hop­ing to score some­thing to keep for them­selves,” said Rucks.

Al­though the min­ing that vis­i­tors en­joy is done on the sur­face, it’s a dirty job. The process calls for clothes that can get dirty, sturdy shoes, a hat and a trash bag for those dirty, wet clothes. Min­ers bring a chair, small boxes, news­pa­per for wrap­ping spec­i­mens, and a five- gal­lon bucket, plus food and drink­ing wa­ter. The ac­tual min­ing is hard work. You have to “whack and wham,” ex­plained Rucks. First you rinse the rocks with wa­ter, then bust them open and hope you find some­thing of value. “Vis­i­tors get to fill their five- gal­lon bucket, and they can dig for a full day,” he said. Al­though the mine pro­vides some tools, ex­perts and se­ri­ous trea­sure hunters of­ten bring their own gear.

The largest trade shows sell­ing fos­sils, min­er­als and crys­tals are lo­cated in Tuc­son, Ari­zona, and Denver, Colorado, as well as over­seas in Ger­many, Ja­pan and Korea. Rucks and his wife travel to these shows to sell their own find­ings. Crys­tals and fos­sils are col­lectibles and can be worth thou­sands of dol­lars.

Crys­tals, in par­tic­u­lar, are en­joyed for their sym­me­try and color. “I think the main rea­son why people like crys­tals is that they are sym­met­ric,” said Means, who ex­plained that not too many other things in na­ture are as sym­met­ric as a nicely formed crys­tal. “Some people also be­lieve that crys­tals pos­sess heal­ing prop­er­ties,” he added.

At the Fort Drum Crys­tal Mine site, you can shop for trea­sures as well— if Lady Luck let you down. A re­tail store is filled with some of Ed­die and Deb­bie Rucks’ crys­tal finds, along with land­scape rocks, aquar­ium rocks, fos­sils and min­er­als from all over the world. And, of course, you can also pick up a dozen fresh freerange eggs from Rucks’ farm. So don’t for­get a cooler.

Trea­sure hunters spend hours at the F ort Drum

Crys­tal Mine in Okee­chobee, Florida, sift­ing through rub­ble to un­veil earth’s riches. In­set:

Merce­naria, cal­cite- filled clamshells.

A bril­liant dis­play of a cr ys­tal­lized for­ma­tion found in Rucks’ mines.

A lucky find on the site. These clamshells con­tain cal­cite crys­tals, which some­times ex­ceed an inch in length.

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