Longtime quartz miner still loves the work

Nate Olson/Contributing Writer Published May 28, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Jim Coleman poses with a host of geodes he has mined over the years. Coleman has mined quartz and other crystals from the mountains of Garland County for 55 years. His mines are the leading producers of Arkansas quartz in the United States, and the roadside location on Arkansas 7 in Jessieville makes his attraction popular among tourists, who can shop, and even mine, for crystals.

Jim Coleman has the appearance of a man who has worked for a living — and not sitting behind a desk, either. Following five decades of rigorous manual labor, Coleman has endured eight back surgeries, and now, in his mid-70s, he is walking with a cane and can’t stand for long periods.

His arms are calloused and rough from years of baking in the sun. He definitely has a look of a mountain man with a long, unruly gray beard and a brimmed hat perched atop a headful of hair.

“I’ve left a lot of work out there, a lot of work,” Coleman said as he took a long drag off a cigarette. “I used to think I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof, working 14-hour days. I don’t think that anymore.”

Coleman’s full-time quartz-mining days are over, but he still carefully oversees Jim Coleman Crystal Mines Inc. on Arkansas 7 in Jessieville, just a few miles from Hot Springs. Coleman started mining fresh out of high school in 1962. He and his father dug in the mountains on land near their homestead. By the late ’60s, Coleman had a standalone business. Now the mines are the leading producers of Arkansas quartz in the United States. People from all around the world visit Coleman’s small roadside rock shop to look for rare crystals.

“Jim and his wife, Terri, are just good people,” said Patricia Kaiser, who is in her second stint of working part time in the gift shop. “They don’t ask you to do anything they wouldn’t do. I’ve known Jim since we were kids, and he has always worked so hard.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s become so successful because I have seen the work he puts in. His wife works just as hard.”

Jim Coleman was born in Oklahoma but was reared in the mountains of Garland County. Coleman’s grandfather leased the land and ran a timber operation and mined quartz. He hauled a young Coleman with him all over the mountains, and one of those expeditions led to “nearly cutting my elbow off when I fell,” Coleman said.

Frank Coleman, Jim’s father, also mined the property while owning a welding shop. Jim wasn’t interested in welding, so when he graduated from Jessieville High School in 1962, he went to work at a screen-door factory in Hot Springs. That job didn’t last long, and he began mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs. Jim and Frank also mined quartz, “but there wasn’t much of a demand for it,” Jim Coleman said.

That changed in the late 1960s when crystal jewelry became fashionable. A Switzerland broker began visiting regularly, and Coleman had a feeling he could ditch his side jobs. More and more tourists started visiting in spurts.

“As the years went by, it got better, and we started making a living out of it,” he said. “People knew what kind [of crystals] they wanted. It didn’t happen all at once. It just got a little better every day.”

Back in those days, there was nothing easy about mining.

Coleman and his brother, Ron, who owns his own mines now, and two other crew members would begin each morning in the mountains with a pick and a shovel and dig for hours. Unlike now, there was a chance they might find a rich pocket of quartz not too far below the surface. After years of mining, heavy equipment is now required to dig deep into the ground to find crystals.

The trick was, and still is, to not damage the crystal, especially the valuable point. Coleman used, and his crew still uses, a technique the Native Americans employed. A hickory stick seared in fire will cut through the mud and nudge a crystal without damaging it. Then workers can dig carefully to unearth it.

Coleman routinely found crystals topping the 300-pound mark. All of the men worked together, rolling the large crystals onto a tarp or blanket and hauling them up a ramp onto a truck. No doubt, it was some of those heaves that contributed to the deterioration of Coleman’s back. He remembered one stretch during a summer when he worked 68 straight 14-hour days.

Coleman had up to 40 crew members. He employs eight now, but heavy equipment makes the process much quicker. Still, the crew digs by hand when the glassy soil gives a hint that crystals may be lying just below.

By the early 1970s, Coleman had renovated his dad’s welding shop into a gift shop with a loan from an old quartz miner named Ocus Stanley. Coleman traded crystals to Stanley to pay the debt in eight years.

A few years later, Coleman had enough capital to buy two mines from a timber company instead of leasing them. He bought the Mack Earl Mine (named after the former land owner) and Miller Mountain Mine. In late 1979, Coleman purchased the Blocker Leed No. 4 Mine, which was nicknamed the Coleman Mine. Coleman was barely breaking even on the lease, which stipulated that he contribute a percentage of the crystal sales. After German, Japanese and Canadian companies had no luck with the land, Coleman bought it.

As the business continued to grow in the ’80s, Ron left the operation to open his own. As motorists travel Arkansas 7, they see Coleman’s gift shop and a sign urging people to make a turn toward Ron’s mine.

“I just don’t think brothers and sisters can be partners,” Jim Coleman said. “They have their own thoughts and ideas. I thought I knew better, and they thought they knew better. We still sell to each other.”

The Coleman brothers may not be able to coexist in business, but Jim Coleman has found good success working with his wife, Terri. She works on the crew and helps with digging. She showed her strength hauling large crystals off the back of a truck with the crew on a recent meeting at the warehouse.

“She lifts like I used to be able to,” Coleman said. “She is a little younger than I am. It’s starting to get to her back.”

Both brothers still sell plenty of crystals and have their fair share of tourists. Jim Coleman’s mining package includes a guaranteed crystal find or your $10 back. Children can mine free. On a recent sunny weekday, a family of four from Oklahoma was in Coleman’s shop buying mining permits. When Kaiser started to give them directions, the father said, “Oh, we know where it is. We have been here before. We love it.”

Fifty-five years after Jim Coleman and his father started the operation, the business thrives, but its future is uncertain. Coleman isn’t sure what will happen to the business when he’s gone. Maybe one of the family members will take the reins; maybe another mine owner in the area will buy it.”

But even at his advanced age, Coleman doesn’t seem to be worried about it. He just continues to enjoy life in the mountains and stay active in the business, despite his weathered body.

“I just love it so much. You think if you had done it so long, after a while, you would want to be far away from it,” he said. “I still love it and want to be at the mine.”