by Marvin Oesterle
Recently, the Red Metal Retreat in the U.P. at Houghton/Hancock was mentioned and it took me back to the pilgrimage I made there several years back. I've always considered rock-hounding and club membership to be an educational experience. So after I convinced my non-rock-hounding wife that a week poking around mines was just what was missing in her life, I dove into researching the history of the region. Nevertheless, my real education didn't begin until vacation time. Then I learned several lessons that have served me well.
My first lesson came the evening of the first day, after a day of classes on mineral identification and other fascinating stuff. A silent auction was held for our group with a live auction afterwards. There I picked up a find of a lifetime. A half dollar sized Michigan greenstone was mine for a song. It seems that the more serious collectors were saving their capital for the showpieces in the live auction. Lesson number one was that you can find great stuff at a silent auction without having to get dirty in a mine.
The next day we went down in a nearby mine. With helmet, lights and tools, I was prepared to do battle with the mine to steal away her treasures. The mine guide had us gather around while he pointed out obvious datolites. At least they seemed to be obvious to him. They looked like small ugly rocks to me. However, I did find some rocks to take home and, at the end of our tour, began trudging out of the mine. Nearing the end of the tunnel, the mouth was blazing sunlight and everything else was pitch black. Suddenly, WHAM, I was sitting on my butt on the ground after having run smack into an overhead rock beam. Mr. Grit Turner, who was walking out behind me, said "And that's why we wear hard hats." That was lesson number two.
The next day, my wife and I decided to explore on our own. It was a perfect day to be underground with temperatures in the mid 90's and 100% humidity. Unfortunately, we weren't. We drove by the town of Phoenix, about which I had read. Currently, it consists of a cluster of run-down Sears and Roebuck houses and an abandoned general store. But the mine's tailing were obvious in a nearby field. I grabbed my gear and attacked the mound. My wife, the more intelligent one of the family, stated that she would be waiting at the bottom under the shade of a huge tree.
I sweated and dug in the hot sun and after an hour or so decided that mining probably wasn't my calling. As I went to join my wife under the tree, she called out "Hey Honey, look what I found!" It appears that other people had been digging in the tailings and had rested under the tree to high grade their treasures. Without saying a word, I dumped my pitiful specimens on the ground and picked up her stuff and left. I even gave my wife a ride back to the motel. Lesson number three.
All good things must come to an end and upon leaving the U.P., we spent the night at the Best Western motel in Alpena. Getting up early the next morning, I grabbed my tools and hiked out behind the motel to an area that I had spied with some old ground works that had been abandoned. I was wearing comfortable traveling gear: shorts and a T-shirt. There were sparse ankle high weeds but I could easily see several Petoskey stones that made it into my collecting bag. Then, I came upon a boulder that was filled with corals and plants and small animal fossils. I started working on a gorgeous cephalopod (I think). Twenty minutes later it popped out of the boulder. At the same time, my ankles started itching and I noticed that those ankle high weeds all had three leaves. Lesson four tortured me for a week and a half. All in all, it was a memorable and educational vacation that I won't soon forget. My wife no longer allows me to pick the vacation. She says the garage is too full anyway.
A Cautionary Tale by Marvin Oesterle
The Pioneer History of Ingham County states that: in 1872 it was announced that coal had been found three miles north of Mason in Alaiedon Township. "the vein that is now being worked is about four feet thick, lies about twenty feet below the surface, and can be taken out with little expense." Thus began what I call the Misery Mine, since it has not had a happy history.
The 1872 mining effort soon fizzled out despite the efforts of property owner Almira G. Brown and miner, James Jenkins of Jackson. It wasn't until sixty years later (1933) that property owner Allen Smith leased the mine to the Chippewa Coal Co. of Saginaw, MI. This venture didn't even get off the ground before the lease was canceled in 1934, due to the Great Depression. Dr. Corsaut of Mason then leased the mine and began mining operations in 1935. The lease terms were 25 cents per ton for the first 3000 tons & 35 cents per ton thereafter.
Two of my uncles worked at the Corsaut Mine for the princely sum of 25 cents per hour -- at least it was princely during the Depression. One uncle was hired to haul coal in his Model T truck to the woolen mills in Eaton Rapids. On the night shift, he worked the pumps to make sure the mine would be dry in the morning for workers. The other uncle pushed a wheelbarrow to transport coal out of the mine. The mine closed after two years. Lawsuits followed, and in 1939 the property was surrendered in a mortgage foreclosure.
Today, the mine is filled with water and the tailing piles are covered with a 70-year stubble of trees and brush - perfect prospecting land for me and my "mule", a Black Lab named Boo. The two of us were walking the crest of a tailing pile when I slipped in the mud and tumbled through a wild raspberry patch, pulling some muscles along the way. Boo came bounding up with that silly dog laugh on his face. I could tell he was thinking "that wouldn't have happened if you walked on four legs instead of two." Knowing the hardships that this mine has caused, I should have exercised more caution. My superior friend got his turn on our next trip to the mine. While I was diligently digging, Boo discovered a new friend with black fur and a white stripe down his back. Rock-hounding suddenly took a back seat. On the ride home, I wished my back seat was IN another county.
When the glaciers passed through our area, they left an esker that runs near the Misery Mine. Since we try to farm on top of it, we have more than our share of rocks. We pick up the rocks and take them back to the mine, mostly because it makes such a satisfying "Ker-splash" when you toss them into the mine pond. One day, I was pitching rocks into the mine and found a specimen that just begged to be broken open. Not carrying my goggles or my cracking hammer, I thought, "Why don't I just fire this rock against that big one? What could happen?" Well, I was lucky: a small chip flew up and put a scratch in the middle of my right prescription lens, rather than in my eye, and the bigger chunk scored a direct hit on my shin. -- Of course, as I was doing my dance, I didn't feel lucky. So, Misery Mine is the perfect name for that blasted hole in the ground!
By CML&MS Member Marvin Oesterle
“Honey, did you know that a blacksmith is working in our basement?” Hurrying toward the basement, my wife gave me her adoring look. Or it may have been her disgusted look… I get them confused. Soon the clatter ceased and she returned bearing the offending items in her hand.
“Somebody left some stones in their laundry again. Why do you pick up these plain white stones anyway? Are you trying to test the warranty on our washer and dryer?”
Ah Hah, I thought. She’s given me a
philosophical question that I can really sink my teeth into. (Also, she made me resolve to find those
“That is a genuine piece of quartz and you should have seen it sparkling in the sun. It was winking at me and saying ‘Hey sailor, would you like to take me home!’”
She gave me another adoring look and said “Quartz is the most common mineral on the planet. Why
don’t you leave some for somebody else?”
Of course, she is right. Why DO we pick them up? Rocks can be beautiful or ugly, useful as money, an obstruction, a raw material, or a tasty addition to dinner (salt). Why are some people “bitten by the rock bug” and other people are not? -- And why do the opposites marry each other?
After several seconds of deep thought, I came up with an answer: We’re nuts. Not so much as to be
institutionalized, but we definitely qualify for “character” status – and we enjoy it! The USA cable
channel’s slogan is “Characters Wanted” and they have a project to show characters in all walks of life. So we are not alone.
Sometimes I think that it is not so much the rocks but the people that are so interesting. – Naw, it’s the rocks AND the people.
I once served on a board with the Chair of the Geology Department at MSU. I was forever bringing to our meetings samples to identify or simply show off. Finally, he said “Don’t you have anything interesting?”
How could he say that about my treasures!
What he was telling me was that he was a fossil man. Fossils are what appealed most to him and all that he cared about. I told him that I didn’t have the imagination or nerve to be a fossil man. I couldn’t look at some faint shadows in a stone and solemnly proclaim that this was the remnant of a 150 million year old dinosaur that died facing the south and eating a peanut butter sandwich. It takes supreme confidence and a lot of “character” to be a paleontologist.
Or take the miner who digs a hole in the earth and then tunnels for perhaps miles digging at the walls that are holding up the ceiling; that takes “character” and a certain amount of faith. Or the prospector panning for gold in a cold mountain stream as he slowly loses feeling in his feet – “I’m going to be rich, I’m going to be rich”. Or the flint-knapper who still is practicing a craft that was mastered tens of thousands of years ago – “those Neanderthals aren’t going to beat me!” And there must be a psychiatric term for the precision fetish of the faceter (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, perhaps?).
Yup, we’re characters all right. I don’t know why we pick them up but I wonder if Maytag knows what a good job their washers do on cleaning up my quartz treasures. – Now, where’s that washer warranty?
Yet Another Cautionary Tale by CML&MS MemberMarvin Oesterle
I say, “Honey, we are out of butter.
”She says, “No, try the third shelf.”
I reply, “Nope, you must have forgotten to buy some.
”She shuffles into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and locates the butter. As she hands it to me, she mumbles, “Worst case of refrigerator blindness I have ever seen.”
And she is right! I have never worried about my refrigerator blindness because I know I can call upon her uncanny ability to locate absolutely anything in our refrigerator. For this reason, I have never asked her to find Jimmy Hoffa, particularly not in our refrigerator – or our back pasture.
I tell her that it must be her Indian blood that makes her such a good scout. She says that 1/32nd probably isn‟t enough for scouting, but it‟s more than enough for scalping.
However, refrigerator blindness aside, this brings me to something that does bother me -- Arrowhead blindness!
Yes, it is true. I have searched and searched and in my entire life, I have found perhaps 5 or 6 arrowheads, and no artifacts. Now this might not be so bad, except it seems that Native Americans not only lived in our area, but that this was a major pathway for Native Americans seeking to trade for goods in the Lansing area from their homes around what is now Stockbridge.
I had a neighbor named Owen Smith, who was a master arrowhead finder. You would see him slowly wandering around the fields. He would stop and poke his toe at the ground; then he would bend over and pick up yet another arrowhead for his collection.
Although not one to give up his prime collecting fields, he did offer some tips. “You will find arrowheads where you have found them before.” I loved that one since I had never found any before.
We do live near an area of muck. Muck is highly organic soil that used to be an old lake bottom. Near us, Dobie Lake is the remains of a lake that used to cover a much larger area. Muck is great for growing vegetables like onions that used to be grown in the Dobie Lake muck, and grass which is grown now as part of the Green Acres Turf Farm. A tip from Mr. Smith was to search the land as it breaks into the old lake bottom because that is where the Native Americans would hunt and sometimes camp.
This tip proved to be golden. One day, as I was hurrying across a field that fit the above description, I stumbled upon an arrowhead. I mean stumble in the literal sense. I had tripped on something (I believe it was my shadow) and there, inches from my nose was a gorgeous arrowhead. I treasured that arrowhead until I lost it. The last I saw of it, my niece was going to show it to her friends at school. Which proves the last tip from Owen Smith…“You can find „em anywhere.”
Although Mr. Smith has passed away now, you can still see his large arrowhead collection at the Smith Farm Museum located on Harper Rd. Also at the Museum, you can see some Mastodon bones which were discovered on a nearby farm.
It appears that, before Native Americans developed the ability to run casinos, they were skilled arrowhead “knappers”. This skill is practiced today by some very talented craftsmen (and craftswomen). At the Jackson rock show a few years ago, a gentleman was demonstrating how to make an arrowhead. I thought that I would try my hand at it. It wasn't long before my hand was tired and bloody -- those shards are sharp! Contrary to what my wife might tell you, I did NOT scream like a little girl…my voice was much deeper.
Indian artifacts, other than arrowheads, also seem to be able to hide from me successfully. A neighbor brought over a couple of his finds. One was obviously a 6 inch spear head, but the other was a mystery. So I carted it over to my resident expert, Roger Laylin. He took one look at it and pronounced it a “bird stone”. It was shaped like a bird and we don‟t know if the object was religious or simply art.
It was difficult for me but I did return the artifacts to their owner. Another farmer neighbor brought a circular artifact over to taunt me. He had taken it to some experts at MSU and they did think that it had religious significance. This farmer wouldn‟t even let me touch it. I think he could see the larceny in my heart.
So, if you should drive by some old lake bottom land and see a person wandering aimlessly around but with empty pockets -- that would be me.
By CML&MS member Marvin Oesterle
Q. Why is it important to educate people about our underground treasures? A. Because a “mine” is a terrible thing to waste.
Rock clubs are made up of volunteers that are ready, willing, and able to share the hobby.
A few examples from our own club might be Kara “Have Sandpaper Will Travel” Miller who has never met a wild Petosky stone that couldn’t be improved with a little elbow grease. Or Dan ”The Pied Piper” Sine who constantly volunteers for Science Fairs and hopes he has somebody following him when he gets there. Or Saint Mary Gowans who organizes the club’s Children’s Tour at our annual Show and gets over a thousand excited grade school kids though the exhibits in just a few hours. Or Ernie Aughenbaugh and the Turner’s who spend hours and hours demonstrating their skills at shows. -- The list goes on and on.
Several years ago, one of our members volunteered to judge the rock category for the 4-H members at the Ingham County Fair. Roger Laylin was doing the honors and was moving right along until he came to a certain 11 year old girl. As Mr. Laylin was reviewing her collection, he was talking with the young lady to see how much she knew. Then he came to a misidentified specimen and told the girl about it. She told him that, no, he was wrong and it was properly identified. Mr. Laylin said that he could understand the confusion because the stones looked somewhat alike. The young lady, much to the horror of her nearby mother, said that she was correct because she found it in a rock book. After a few more unsuccessful attempts to change the youngster’s mind, Mr. Laylin awarded her a blue ribbon and the Best of Show award. He must have thought that she had learned about her rocks and done the work herself because she, obviously, wouldn’t listen to anybody else. The difficult child was my daughter, Alexis, who accompanied me to rock club meetings for years as a junior member.
Many club members take some of their collections into local schools. My favorite group of kids was Mrs.Barry’s 2nd and 3rd grade class at North Aurelius Elementary. At that age, they treat you like a “rock” star. My least favorite group was a 5th grade class. There was a group of rowdy boys who were obviously headed to juvenile delinquency. We were talking about metamorphic rocks and I was displaying a hunk of gneiss. They thought it was a funny name until I showed them a piece of schist. One smart aleck wanted to know if I used toilet paper to pick it up.
Some days you just miss corporal punishment. But they had a point. Who names these rocks anyway?
By Marvin Oesterle
Me: Honey, this salad tastes kind of Blah.
Wife: Did you remember to shake the bottle to mix the oil and vinegar?
Me: Well no, I didn’t know that I had to cook the dinner tonight.
This exchange made me think of something else that doesn’t mix well. That is, the farmers that own the land and the sand and gravel operators that want to mine the resources on that land. When they work together, of course, everybody benefits. When they don’t, the salad can get a little bland.
My grandfather farmed just south of Mason and his farm straddled the Mason Esker which is the sand and gravel esker that runs from St. Johns to Jackson. I grew up on stories of how the sand and gravel robber barons took advantage of the poor honest farmer. Remember, this was around the Great Depression and there wasn’t a great amount of cash in anyone’s pocket. There were no scales to weigh the loads so the farmers were paid an agreed amount on each truckload that was removed. Somehow a few loads or so were accidently missed in the counting especially if the farmer was not always present. Sadly to say, there was plenty of suspicion and distrust to go around.
Many years later, I was to see the other side a lot better. My father-in-law turned out to be Stan Hartman. Many of you probably know him as the co-founder of Hartman Fabco, a Lansing manufacturer of sand and gravel equipment. Stan traveled all over the state and throughout the Midwest selling equipment to “pit” operators. He was able to get us into pits that were usually closed to outsiders for rockhounding and fishing. I think that there is a direct relationship between fishing and the sand and gravel guys. Part of the reason they get into the business is to dig holes so they can grow fish. I’ve heard that the first question on the job application to work in a pit is, “Can you fish?” The second one is, “Would you be willing to clean the boss’s catch?” In fact, the biggest Pike I ever caught was off a dredge in the Boichot pit, north of Lansing.
Once, Stan invited me to accompany him to a pit. He said I could drive. Turns out, he needed my pick up. It seems that he had located an outstanding rock that he wanted for his yard. It was a conglomerate boulder that had split in half. Each side was over 300 lbs. No way were we going to lift them. Then, like some huge monster (or the government debt), out of the pit came this very large front-end loader and scoops up our rocks. I thought, “My God, he is going to flatten my truck and not even know it!” But I needn’t have worried. The operator, like so many of them, could have performed surgery with that loader and those rocks just kissed the bed of my truck.
Stan was not only a master salesman but a strong advocate for the industry. Pit operators were always calling on his expertise. He said that he knew he was going to heaven because he had already spent his time in hell (other people called it testifying at Planning Commission hearings).
Both my grandfather and father-in-law have passed on now. They were both gentlemen with strong opinions. I wish they could have met each other. I’ll bet the salad would have tasted great.
By Marvin Oesterle
As my wife and I were preparing to go out for the evening, I was preening in front of the mirror. “Hey, Honey, when you were young did you ever dream that a handsome man would sweep into your life and take you away?” She looked sadly at me and said, “It is still my fondest wish.”
This exchange got me to thinking. Was there something in one’s early life that kindled a fondness or even passion for rocks? Picture, for example, a young boy sitting on the steps of a Gothic style church built entirely of large square blocks of stone as he waits for a ride home after Sunday school. In his mind’s eye, his Sunday suit of clothes becomes a suit of armor. With his back up against the solid stone wall, he battles dragons and foes that would bring harm to the princess. The princess is very beautiful and just happens to be the same age as me ... er, him.
Besides being the backdrop to a young man’s fantasies, the First Presbyterian Church of Mason is a grand structure with an interesting past. It was constructed in the summer and fall of 1900 with rocks and boulders from the nearby townships of Vevay, Alaiedon, and Aurelius (although at least one load came from a faraway place called Lansing, Michigan). The sand and gravel for the base came from the nearby Hogsback Pit. The driving force behind the building of this stone church was the Rev. Andrew S. Zimmerman. He soon got the nickname of All Stone Zimmerman. He would call on the farms in the area in an attempt to increase his flock and, by the way, to inspect their stone piles.
The building of this church was not just a Presbyterian project. The entire community pitched in. The boasting rights for the most loads of stone hauled in one day went to the Ingham County Farmers Club for 98 loads. (And they did boast.) Finally, the Mason Merchants had enough and organized to beat the record by 10 loads. Even the area school districts, like the Hawley School and Alaiedon Center School got in on the action and sent many loads. As the farmers got busy with field work, the area military people kept up the supply. In all, nearly 1000 loads of stone were “broken up, squared, and blocked.”
When the church was dedicated on Sunday April 7, 1901, it was almost entirely free of debt. Some families donated 2 large and several smaller stained glass windows. Later, in the 1960’s, a rock would play another role in the stone church’s history when a couple were thrown through one of the large windows. The cost to repair those stately windows was huge and so a plastic exterior was placed over the windows which dimmed them a little but they are still impressive.
The stone church that was inspired by Rev. “All Stone” Zimmerman is a tribute to community spirit and cooperation. It has stood on the town square of Mason across the street from another impressive stone building, the Ingham County Court House, for 112 years. (The centennial publication called it Rockin’ the Square for a hundred years.) And the fondest wish of those local rocks is looking forward to serving for many more.