NORWAY, Maine — For this week’s Outside Edge, we make our way north into Oxford county for an adventure that has deep historic roots and a dazzling element of surprise.
In the mid-1800s, it was realized that gemstones and associated minerals were commercially valuable, specifically felspar and mica. However, that industry failed in the 1950s and 60s.
The resultant mine dumps from that time contained gemstones left unnoticed by miners, and discoveries of those pockets led to a mining renaissance, especially after the tourmaline discovery in Newry, not far from Sunday River in 1972.
The value of that discovery was over 80 million dollars at the time.
Dennis Creaser, self-proclaimed treasure hunter and owner of Creaser Jewelers in South Paris, started his rockhound journey during a crossroads in life in the 80s.
“I was in the Maine Mall one day and walked by a jewelry store and there was a piece of Maine aquamarine that was set inside a piece of jewelry in the window," Creaser explained. "And I think the price was $800 or something, and I look at this thing thinking 'Somebody found this in Maine somewhere.'"
His biggest discovery in 1993 was one of national proportions. It was the second-largest deposit of amethyst in the U.S. found in Stow, Maine.
“We were just out there having a good time and we happen to drill in the right place and we found this pocket, it was just beyond description," Creaser expressed. "There are bits and pieces that I remember of the day, but it was hard to process and overwhelming."
There are simple ways you can dip your toes into rockhounding. The easiest way is by visiting Dig Maine Gems.
"Those guys move material in from mines so you don’t even have to go to the mines and charge you a nominal fee to look through a 5-gallon bucket for gemstones," Creaser said. "We have cut a lot of gemstones for people at our store who found gems at this location. There are tents over the dumps so it's easy to do when it's rainy or too hot."
One step further is to move onto public quarries that are still active in collecting. You can make a homemade screen with a quarter-inch hardware cloth set into a wood frame. Simply scoop the material in, shake out excess dirt, and wash it off in the water.
“Mount Apatite in Auburn, for example, is probably the best one for this sort of thing," Creaser said. "It’s a city park, so there’s walking paths and bike paths going all through these quarries. The dumps are very extensive, and there are people who find very nice things in those dumps. That would be the next step, and beyond that, well you're done. This [mining by yourself] is the next step."
We joined some members of the Intergalactic Mining group in a quarry now owned by Creaser, where they hope to find kunzite and more tourmaline within as there was a large pocket found there previously.
Currently, they're finding quite a bit of spodumene, a source of lithium. Our search with the group turned up mica, quartz containing a radiation burn, muscovite crystals, black tourmaline, and green apatite.
Creaser says this is more about the joy of the hunt than the possibility of striking it rich.
“You have to have your mind open to possibilities, you have to be curious about things, you have to not be afraid to not find something, there’s a lot more of that than there is finding something," Creaser said. "So you have to be patient, you have the be diligent, and you have to keep it fun."
Most of the significant gemstone discoveries in Maine have actually been found by accident while looking for something else, or simply enjoying time out in nature.