VILONIA — A grand finale for Vilonia Elementary School third-graders who have been studying rocks and minerals was a trip to Jessieville to find a diamond in the rough.
The miniature miners are in the Gifted and Talented classroom under teacher Chere’ Beavers. Days before the field trip, Beavers instructed her students to wear shoes and clothes they didn’t mind ruining, as they would be mining in clay mud. She also told them to bring a sack lunch. She said she would bring the safety glasses, sunscreen, digging tools, drinking water and a first-aid kit.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on April 17, following roll call, 13 students and a handful of parents boarded a school bus headed to the Ron Coleman Crystal Mine in Jessieville, south of Hot Springs.
The bus was filled with chatter during the two-hour ride. The students and grownups could be overheard talking about what they would do once they reached the digging site.
Student “Little John” Blazier was accompanied by his dad, John Blazier. The younger Blazier has been collecting rocks and minerals for about two years. In his collection, he said, are rocks with fossils; iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold; and sandstone. The family has gone exploring, but this was their first official dig.
“At baseball practice, I look up, and there he is digging in the dirt trying to find rocks,” the elder Blazier said. “I’m his coach. That’s not good.”
Waiting for the students at Jessieville were a few more parents and grandparents who had opted to drive to the site rather than ride the bus.
When the students arrived, liability forms were signed and fees paid — $5 per person for about a two-hour dig. Then the group began the trek down a hill to begin digging.
As the prospective miners trekked, tour guide Pernell Mitchell told them about the mine. It is owned by Kevin and Kathy Coleman, Mitchell said. Kevin is the son of the mine’s namesake, Ron Coleman, and the mine has been in the Coleman family for many years.
Mitchell pointed out that the actual mine sits on a much lower level than where the public is allowed to go. He also pointed to an area in the distance where an artesian well is located on the property. The water from it, he said, is piped up a hill at a rate of 200 gallons per minute, bottled and sold in the gift shop.
“That is some of the cleanest and best-tasting water around,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t have any chlorine in it, either.
Approaching the dig site, Mitchell motioned to the designated pile of dirt for the Vilonia group. The pile, called the “tailing pile,” was a small mountain of fresh dirt that had been brought from the large pit mine and staged for the children to dig in.
A couple of other school groups were digging in other areas.
There are two ways to search for crystals in the tailing piles, Mitchell told the group waiting to dig. One is surface collecting, he said, in which you walk across the piles and pick up what you see. The other is to find a spot that looks good and dig in. He suggested the latter approach.
In their natural surroundings, Mitchell said, crystals are camouflaged. They are not clean or sparkly and most often are muddy and iron-stained. Once they are cleaned, however, he said, some are so clear you can read a newspaper through them. But not all crystals are clear, he said, referring to them as blue phantoms.
Members of the group were told they could keep whatever they found while digging. On a safety note, he warned that small cuts are prevalent on bare hands during crystal digs.
It didn’t take long for the students to hoot and holler concerning their finds.
“We make sure the kids have fun,” he said. “If they don’t find something, it’s not our fault.”
Elaborating, he said, the dirt for the student digs is generally seeded.
Asked about the actual open-pit mine operation, Mitchell said anyone who goes down in the mine has to have a mining license issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, whether the person turns a scoop of dirt or not. The process, he said, involves a lot of “studying of rocks,” including the direction of veins and safety issues involved in mining, such as how rocks tend to fall.
Interacting, Mitchell showed signs to use to locate veins of crystals. Look for dark lines in the dirt, he said. Also, he said, chop up the clay balls to find the smaller crystals. When students located shale in one area, he said crystals aren’t found below shale.
“Once you hit the shale, the crystal is over.”
Mitchell, who was born and raised in Jessieville, has been an amateur hunter of crystals most of his life, he said. He has hunted all over the Jessieville area and has some impressive finds. He has been working at the mine for about six years and refers to it as the best public hunting site in the area. Every day there, he said, is exciting.
“You don’t get used to it because you never know what someone is going to find,” he said.
The Vilonia group found huge clusters, single points and scepters of all sizes. All had value.
One parent was told by Mitchell that she had scored a plate that if for sale in the mine’s gift shop could bring a “good chunk of change.” He estimated the plate’s value at about $600. Another point that she found, he said, would bring about $150. Lastly, he shared some tips on cleaning mud from the crystals by using a water hose and a commercial acid-based product.
Students washed their hands in mud puddles, dusted their pants and tried to stomp the mud from their feet before hiking back to the bus. Taking advantage of a photo op, they climbed a rock and gathered around Beavers as cameras clicked. Taking care of one last piece of business, Mitchell praised the students for adhering to the rules and for their good behavior.
The public digging site, Mitchell said, is visited yearly by more than a million people. Not only do they come to dig for crystals, he said, but some also harvest the mud for its vitamin and mineral content, using it in face masks.
“Some people also eat a little of it,” he said.
The most comfortable times to dig are spring and fall because of weather conditions. You usually find more crystal on the surface in the tailings after a rain, he said. As well, he said, you will also find more clay on your feet and body after a rain.
“They come from all over, and they come rain, shine and snow,” he said of visitors to the site. “But, really, the best time of year to dig is anytime you get a chance.”