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
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.