Confession: I have always loved rocks.
During my undergrad, I had a fantastic geology teacher that had the best field trips. We spent weekends roaming the southern countryside for pink quartz, mica schist and gneiss rocks. Going back even further, I remember as a little kid picking through the rough gravel around the farm to find the prettiest or most interesting-shaped rocks (yep, I was a nerd from the beginning). One of the things I always wanted, but never got, was a rock tumbler.
Even without the advanced technology of a rock tumbler, rocks that looked boring and basic on the outside revealed patterns, layers and flecks that sparkled when rinsed off and cleaned up. They were also so different everywhere I went – commercial gravel was different than what I found on the farm versus what I found when we would visit my Mom’s family in Colorado. The entire history of an area can be found in the ordinary rocks under our feet.
With that background, I was so excited to visit the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum. I’ve been to other mineral museums around the country and visited geology collections within large museums, but most of these have been more generally focused, which is great to get an overview of all different kinds of minerals that you wouldn’t ordinarily see in one place. However, the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum is remarkable for its singular focus – it’s all about the mineral fluorite (also known as fluorspar). How interesting can a museum be that’s focused around just a single mineral? Very interesting, as it turns out.
Driving to Kentucky on a rainy weekend (which, is perfect museum-visiting weather), I sat down with Ed Clement — son of the founder — of the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum. Located in Marion, Kentucky, the Clement Mineral Museum is a mineral museum with a very distinctive focus – the mineral fluorite. Fluorite is probably one of the most commercially important minerals that you’ve never heard of. Ed and I discussed the history of fluorite and the stories behind mining this mineral in Western Kentucky. Ed is a natural storyteller and the stories he shares about his family, how the museum got started (in the backyard of his father’s house), and the backstory behind some of the objects in the collection are fascinating and really highlight his family’s personal connection to this museum.
As a huge museum nerd, I’ve visited many mineral and geology-focused collections, but I have to tell you there are objects in the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum collection that I have never seen before. Remember when your chemistry and geology teachers said, “You need to know this stuff because it will come in handy someday”? Well, this is the day.
Originally this area of Western Kentucky focused on mining the mineral galena for the lead and silver content. Fluorspar was originally a waste product of the mining process. Then in 1873 it was discovered that fluorspar lowered the melting temperature of iron to remove impurities (flux) during smelting. After that discovery, additional uses for fluorite in steel, aluminum, chemicals, glass, and nuclear processes lead to a mining boom in this area of Western Kentucky from 1900 – 1950 due to the unique geological forces that created a fluorspar pocket.
Ben Clement leased mines in this area and recognized the beauty in the unique, cubic structure and variety of colors found in fluorspar when it was still thought of as a by-product to be thrown away during the mining process. His expertise and connections allowed him to collect truly unique and stunning examples of this mineral. Some weigh hundreds of pounds while others fit into the palm of your hand, some may be damaged or broken on the outside but reveal inner beauty. Each object in the collection is a rare specimen in the mineral world, but also carries a unique acquisition or personal family backstory.
Some of the key objects in this impressive collection include:
George Wild Family Carved Collection – one of two carved collections at the museum, this group includes animal and facet carvings in fluorspar by a world-renowned, family of carvers, led by George Wild from Idar-Obserstein, Germany. Very expressive faces in the squirrel, owl and bear. Fluorite is so soft that it can be carved, but too soft to be worn as jewelry. Listen to Ed tell the story of what happened when his Mom was holding one of these carved pieces. If you visit, see if you can spot the green one that’s “flawed” from this story. (Note – I couldn’t find a specific website about George Wild, but saw numerous references to gemstone carvings by him and found other Wild names in the gem carving industry. Hopefully, the family carving dynasty still remains today!)
Purple Fluorite Cubes – beautiful examples of the variety of colors found even within a single shade of color. There is also an interesting sample of purple fluorite sitting on top of white “dog’s tooth” calcite (look for the sharp white points on the bottom that look like teeth pointing down).
Octahedron Collection – unique to its natural cubic shape, if you chip off all the corners of the cube you get an octahedron. Of course, you’ve got to perfectly chip off the corners at the right angles to get a perfect octahedron. This collection is also a good example of the variety of colors found in fluorite. Natural fluorite is clear, but various impurities create the nine different colors found.
“Bird In Flight” – gorgeous, black fluorite specimen unique for two reasons: its shape looks like a black bird in flight, and the fact that it’s known as a “floater”. If you visit, look underneath the “bird” – you’ll see the same cubic shapes all over the bottom as you find on the top. That means the fluorite cubes formed on a softer surface, which then wore away without damaging the cubic shapes. Very rare and very unusual to find such a specimen whole and undamaged – and just wait until you hear the story of how it was found. This is one of my favorite pieces at the museum. Every time I looked at it during my visit, or when I see this picture, I am amazed.
Pale Purple Cube on Quartz – perfect, small, tiny purple cube perched right on the edge of quartz.
First Specimen Collected – a delicate shade of mauve in color, this is the first specimen Ben Clement collected and kept at his house before there was a museum. See the book sitting above it? This specimen came from the Holly Mine and was featured in a 1920 geology text because of the uniqueness of the specimen. What makes it so rare? Look very close in the image – see the multiple faces? The twinning of the crystals during formation is incredibly unique.
“Knife-Edge Fluorite” – natural, high-polished finish, this specimen is slick, beautiful and dangerous. Razor sharp edges finished to an extreme perfection. As Ed puts it, “we’ve never seen its equal in edge sharpness in a specimen this size.”
Divided Cube on Quartz – perfect purple cube of fluorite split in half by the quartz it grew on. The white quartz grew in a perfect flat plane finding a tiny crack within the fluorite that literally split the cube in two. Incredibly rare and almost impossible to imagine how this formed and survived intact.
Crystal Cathedral – a quartz crystal spire sitting on a “rooftop” of purple fluorite cubes – Ed’s Mom’s favorite specimen.
Acicular Ball – this one is remarkable for the calcite formation on the fluorite. Looking like a puffy white ball, this acicular ball of calcite is remarkable because all of its spikes are perfect – no breakage, damage or chips. Now, how did that survive underground?
“Slab” Specimen Room – stepping into this darkened room filled with “slab” or cross-sections of fluorite lit from below highlights the beautiful internal patterns showing how the cube structure forms. Similar to tree rings, you can actually see the cube rings in the cross-sections showing how the crystal grew. Want a cool fact to drop at your next party? Crystals are the only inorganic object that grows. Boom.
Slab Specimens Close-Up – Corner Knocked Off – it was so hard to actually get a good picture, but when you visit the museum, find this unique specimen featuring a bright, little yellow triangle on one corner. The corner was knocked off, but this gives you a tiny view into the inside of the crystal. Stunning.
Squire Riley Carving Collection – Squire Riley was a night watchman that was a master woodcarver. Picking up files and rasps instead of chisels, he turned to carving fluorite due to its softness (sitting at 4 on the Mohs Hardness Scale). Looking closer at the backside of the dog, you can see the file marks used to create its “fur”.
Glow-in-the-Dark Rocks – all I can say is “Wow!”. Totally unique and rare collection. With the room lights on, it just looks like a normal wall of ignoble rocks. But turn off the fluorescent lights and magic happens – a wall full of glow-in-the-dark rocks! What? Find out why they glow in the episode, but this room will totally bring out the kid in you. And if you happen to be visiting the museum with kids, ask them, “Can you find Nemo?” They’ll totally get it. (psst – if you want to see a picture of Nemo, email me and I’ll send you the secret photo).
After talking about some of the specimens in this collection, we moved on to the photography collection. Photography is one of my hobbies, so it was a real treat to see photographs depicting the mining industry in the early 1900’s. Listening to Ed tell the story of Hudson Mine collapse really brought home the dedication of the miners and the dangers they faced every day they went underground.
Hudson Mine Drain Hole – listen to how the Hudson Mine flooded when the water basin above the mine broke and flooded down into the mine. Find out why there was essentially a lake sitting on top of the mine while the miners were digging horizontally underneath it. In the pictures you can see the water sitting in the basin, and then see the drain hole where the water flowed down into the mine.
Hudson Mine Original Drill Shaft – the decision was made to drill a 900 foot shaft next to the original mine and then dig horizontally underneath the water basin. Hear Ed tell the stories he collected from the miners that actually experienced the mine collapse and how they already had their survival plans in place because they figured the mine would collapse at some point. And yet they still went to work every day. Remarkable people. Even more remarkable – all the men trapped underground for a week survived.
Hudson Mine Rescue Twist Drill – I’ve highlighted a tripod structure in the middle of this photograph. As part of the rescue efforts, a twist drill was put together to drill down and punch a hole into the shaft below to get air to the trapper miners. Look closely – you’ll see a man at the very top of the tripod structure. Hear Ed tell the story of this 18-year-old and his efforts to save the trapper miners.
Hudson Mine Rescue Efforts – in this photo I’ve highlighted a car in the bottom right. Guess whose car that is? Ben Clement, founder of the museum. All of the people in the area were part of the rescue efforts. Listen to Ed tell the story of how the National Guard was called in, how rescue equipment broke, how this made national news coverage, and there’s even a crazy psychic.
Additional items at the museum that we didn’t have time to cover in the podcast:
Ben E. Clement’s office – Ed literally took his entire father’s office from the basement of their family home and re-built it exactly in the museum. The jacket his Dad wore is hanging up in the recreated office as well as his desk totally cluttered with notes, documents, books, and reference material. On the back wall, journals filled with notes and lectures he was still giving into his eighties. Geology texts and books dating back to the turn of the century. In fact, Ed shared one story about randomly opening up a 1905 geological survey book to find a letter addressed to him tucked inside the book from his father.
Personal correspondence – letters from his Dad to his Mom while they were courting. Notes from his Dad to Ed about mineral core samples pulled, where to find the reference for them, and instructions about them if “he ever opened a museum”.
Equipment used by the miners (pre-1950) – miner headlamps (that used live flames to provide illumination underground), handmade mining equipment, a 9-foot-wide flywheel that powered a mill and a 12,000 pound steam engine (located outside, of course).
Get out there and visit!
It may look unremarkable from the outside, but the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum is a truly spectacular museum. No fancy signage, no fancy building, old-fashioned typed labels – this is exactly the type of museum I want to showcase on my podcast. Highlighting these hidden treasures built from a focused passion with more stories housed in one building than you could cover in a single visit. If you’re a museum nerd like me, then you have got to add this museum to your “must-see” list and tell them, “I heard about you on the Made in Museums podcast.”
If you love to document your travels to off-the-beaten-path places, then show me where you’re heading or where you’ve been by sharing your stories with me at Made in Museums on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you want to let me know about a curious museum that you’ve visited, and that I should cover on this show, contact me through social media or just send me an email.
Ben E. Clement Museum website
Gem, Mineral, Fossil & Jewelry Show – the museum hosts this annual event. 2018 marks its 13th year and was held on June 2nd and 3rd. Check the museum’s webpage about the show for additional information and future dates.
School Programs – if you live near Marion, Kentucky, the museum also hosts programs for school groups. This would be a fantastic place for kids to explore and learn.
Visiting Hours and Admissions – since this information could change, please visit the museum’s visitor info webpage to find the most up-to-date information.
Travel Guide – I’ve created a travel guide for this museum highlighting the “must-see” items in the collection and any other information I thought might be helpful when planning your visit to this incredible museum.