When Zoltan Matolcsy was a child growing up in South Paris in the 1960s, he was terrified of the local miners — men who worked with dynamite every day to blast away bedrock in search for feldspar and mica.
He remembers the day his father, an artist, invited a miner from the nearby Ryerson Hill Mine to the house to sit and have his portrait painted.
“Walden Ryder was about 6-feet 2-inches and 220 pounds with an eyeball missing. He didn’t wear a patch,” Matolcsy said. “He had fingers missing and teeth missing, and when he came into the house, I ran and hid behind the sofa.”
Eventually, Matolcsy got over that fear. Today, he and his wife, Jody Matolcsy, own Maine Mineral Adventures, a guide service for recreational mining in western Maine. Since opening in 2007, their success had greatly depended on their relationships with local mine owners, who allow them special access to gem-rich areas that are otherwise closed to the public.
“It’s our life, collecting minerals,” Zoltan Matolcsy said. “It brings a lot of enjoyment, and it’s very educational. With Maine being very rich in geology, it only makes sense to go out your backdoor, begin looking, and goodness knows, you might find something incredible.”
When people first visit Maine Mineral Adventures, they typically start by sifting through a $15 bucket of debris that the Matolcsys purchase from the gem mines of Mount Mica in Paris, Maine, the location of the oldest tourmaline mine in North America.
Typically, the best places for recreational miners to search for gems are dump sites, places where mines “dump” discarded material they’ve blasted apart with dynamite. These piles of broken rock usually contain small, semi-precious gems for those willing to painstakingly sift through them.
“You really have to slow down and focus in order to see,” Zoltan Matolcsy said. “I come across people who are just in the rat race, stuck on their phone, who don’t have a clue how to slow down. But actually, they’ve just forgotten what it’s like to be a child and play, because essentially, I’m out in the dirt playing.”
After the Matolcsys show the family what to look for — the point of a quartz crystal, glitter of pyrite (fool’s gold) or striations found in tourmaline — they embark on an outing to a local mine.
“Everyone wants to go to Mount Mica because there’s a possibility you could find a gem that they miss,” said Zoltan Matolcsy, who has permission to bring clients to the mountain each Sunday during mining season. “I’ve seen someone find an electric blue tourmaline, about $25,000 potential value, probably 25 carats and flawless.”
The couple also leads treasure hunters to the Orchard Quarry in Buckfield, Albany Rose Quarry in Albany, and several other locations where they’ve gained permission to search for minerals.
Every mine owner has certain regulations for recreational mining groups, Zoltan Matolcsy said, and he himself lays out a few rules for clients to follow.
“No starting fires by the dynamite magazine — that’s probably the biggest rule we’ve got going,” he said.
Recreational miners use simple tools — a bucket, safety glasses, gloves and a variety of handheld, non-mechanized tools — and leave the explosives to the professional miners.
Zoltan Matolcsy started becoming interested in local geology and gem hunting about 30 years ago. When he mother passed away in 1982, she purchased him a 100-acre parcel of land that contains Ryerson Hill Mines and Quarry, ironically, the old workplace of Walden Ryder, the miner he feared so much as a child. The mine is no longer in operation, but 42 minerals have been found in the land’s underlying pegmatite. Matolcsy visits the land often, but it’s so remote that he doesn’t typically bring clients to mine there.
Jody Matolcsy’s interest in rocks began before she met her husband. Soon after moving to Maine to buy a house in 1988, she visited Perham’s, a rock shop in West Paris (since closed) and was introduced to Maine’s most sought after hidden gems: smoky and rose quartz, tourmaline, amethyst and beryl gems of many colors.
“I saw their museum and I was like ‘What? I’m walking on all of this stuff?’ And I was hooked from that point on,” she said. “I wanted to find my own stuff.”
Maine’s gems are typically found in pegmatite, a coarse granite in which miners search for pockets, voids where precious gems find the right conditions to grow, given the correct elements are present.
“I tell the kids, rocks are very similar to cookies,” Zoltan Matolcsy said. “You need all the right ingredients.”
The band of pegmatite is found throughout central and western Maine draws geologists and “gemologists” from all over the world.
To find new places to search for minerals, Zoltan Matolcsy refers to a self-published document by Mechanic Falls gold prospector Gary Baril. The document lists more than 1,000 mines and mineral locations in the state, along with the deed information for the land so recreational miners can ask landowner permission to search for minerals.
“Geology has taken over,” Zoltan Matolcsy said. “The Earth, our natural history, our environment blows me away the more I learn.”
A popular place to learn about recreational mining is at the Poland Mining Camps, which (like Maine Mineral Adventures) enjoys exclusive access to famous pegmatite quarries for collecting mineral specimens. Customers can stay at the camps for a day or a week, learning about mineral collecting and geology.
In most public areas, including state parks, recreational mining is not allowed. But people can hunt for minerals for free at Mount Apatite Park in Auburn, where green and pink tourmaline, as well as quartz and mica, have been uncovered. Park rules state that within the quarry and dump areas, visitors are permitted to use hand tools to explore mineral and gem specimens to a depth of two feet.
Another opportunity to learn about recreational mining is provided by the Maine Geological Survey, which is organizing four mineral collecting field trips for 2013. Participants will be selected by lottery for trips to Newry Mines on May 18, June 15 and August 17; and Palermo Mine in North Groton, New Hampshire on Sept. 7. Lottery signup periods begin in April.
And, of course, don’t forget to stop by Maine Mineral Adventures at 1148 South Main St. in Woodstock, where the Matolcsys share their love of Maine’s many hidden gems.
For information about Maine Mineral Adventures, visit digmainegems.com; for the Maine Geological Survey field trips, visit maine.gov/doc/nrimc/mgs/explore/minerals/; and for Poland Mining Camps, visit polandminingcamps.com.