I would like to let those of you who have yet to win the lottery in on a little known fact – you have an opportunity to strike it rich right in central Virginia. It’s a little bit messy but for those of you who don’t mind getting your hands dirty – Morefield Mine in Amelia offers the perfect opportunity to seek treasure and reap the rewards of your own hard work. Although this mine is world re-known for its Amazonite (a blue-green gem) and has a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the owners of the mine, Sam and Sharon Dunaway, prefer a small town approach in the way they run this mom and pop shop. They work very hard to maintain an atmosphere of family oriented education and fun.
Instead of the over-commercialized glitzy glamour associated with gems and jewels, Morefield Mine offers a more down-to-earth operation. There are no high tech computers or mechanized processes. The 75 year old mine still operates basically the same way it did when it opened in 1929 – blasting rock and carrying bucketfuls of earth to the surface where for a mere $10 a day, gem seekers can find approximately 70 different minerals and crystals. Here’s a little tip for those of us telling a gem from a “plain old rock” – think green, blue and purple and you probably have something.
With our head full of jewels and early retirement, we pulled into the small gravel parking lot. Our first stop was to check in at the museum and shop where we found display cases containing gems found in the mine, scrapbooks filled with photos and articles, jewelry, crystals, grab bags and a very friendly Sharon Dunaway, who was quick to offer information and advice. She informed us that we were very fortunate as they were just about to “dump a fresh load of material” and she further stated that if we hurried, we would have an opportunity to be the first to sift through the fresh batch of rocks. We were instructed to go down the hill, get a bucket, a shovel and trowel. Not wanting to miss this great opportunity, we decided to thoroughly check out the shop later and immediately headed off to follow the front-loader full of potential riches.
We joined dozens of people waiting for the load to be dropped like kids waiting for Santa at Christmas. We couldn’t help but notice that the ground was shimmering as the sun glinted off of the Micah fragments. We were initially side tracked by the multitude of blue-green Amazonite stones that appeared to be everywhere but as soon as the load dropped the digging frenzy began. There were shouts of glee as everyone moved in. Adults and children alike began sifting through and exclamations of “look at this!” could be heard from all directions. Kent and I quickly realized that we in over our heads as we noticed that the children around us were much more knowledgeable either of us. We were using words like “Pretty” and “Shiny” and asking each other things like “Is this purple thing something we should keep?” whereas kids 1/3 our age were saying things like “This is the fifth Common Opal that I found today” and “Here’s another Smoky Quartz”.
Since we had no idea what we were really looking for, we decided on the quantity was better than quality. So we quickly filled our buckets and headed to the sluicing area. Here we sat next to a lot of other folks in front of a large trough filled with running water that had been pumped out from inside the mine. We put a handful of our findings on the screen that was provided and gently shook the contents back and forth letting the water wash the dirt and debris away. Next, we gingerly picked out what we wanted to keep and threw the rest over the side to the refuse pile. (Somehow everything seemed to look a lot prettier in the ground than it did after I washed it.) I couldn’t help but think that I was probably discarding the best stuff. Later, my conversations with the owner, Sam Dunaway, confirmed my suspicions by informing me that the grainy stuff has gems in it, the smooth does not. He then handed me something that looked like and ordinary grey rock with dark freckles in it and informed me that the “freckles” were garnets. I then had the sudden urge to go back and re-sort through my refuse pile (which happened to be full of grainy rocks) but the mine had closed for the day. Oh well, now I can really appreciate the saying “diamond in the rough”.
At the end of our dig, we were offered the bonus of a private tour of the mines. The friendly openness of the owners became apparent after only a few minutes of conversation. Their true love of mining was clearly evident, as was their love of nature – Sam had temporarily halted mining in one of the shafts until a mother bird had finished using the nest she had built on the top of the ladder. After looking down the 45 ft hole (the shorter of the two shafts – the second one being about 100 feet below the surface) we swapped stories about motorcycling and mining. Though he could appreciate motorcycling, he couldn’t understand the desire to ride long distances out in the elements. Just as we could appreciate beautiful gems, we certainly didn’t understand the desire to climb down rickety wooden ladders deep into long narrow tunnels, called drifts, far below the ground. Finally, we mutually decided that he would leave the world of motorcycling to us and we would leave the world of mining to him.
The best way to experience the mine is to arrive early. You can check in and out all day long. Picnic tables are on the grounds should you decide to stay for lunch. Vending machines are also available for sodas and snacks. (Please note that no alcoholic beverages are permitted.) Remember to dress appropriately for digging and don’t forget to bring a bucket or bag in which to carry your treasures home.
For those looking for a “hands on” activity, Morefield Mine is a great way to get dirty while having good clean fun. You don’t have to be a knowledgeable rock collector to appreciate the shiny Micah or the blue-green hues of the Amazonite but it helps. At the end of the day, be sure and check back at the shop to see how you fared. The owners are happy to help you identify your treasures. If you are lucky, they will register anything exceptional in the logbook. If not, you may end up like us, with a couple of pretty rocks and some great memories. Sure, we can’t retire on it but we did end up with an experience we will never forget.
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