Last year a friend lent me Jane Perham’s book Gems and Minerals of Oxford County. While I had heard of her father’s West Paris shop, opened in 1919, and knew about the lure of gemstones found in various places around the area, reading that book opened my eyes to the rich subculture of mineralogy and rock hunting in our region. I began to wonder if the town of Waterford, known for its agricultural and industrial heritage, might also have a similar history of mining.
In that book and others by Van King and Jean Blakemore, the Pegmatite belt where most of the mining and collection has been done was a crescent running from Rumford in the east, through Andover, Newry, Hebron, Woodstock, Buckfield, Greenwood, West Paris to Albany, Stoneham and Lovell in the west. Then , as I researched, I learned of George Howe’s discovery of gemmy amethysts on Pleasant Mountain in Bridgton in the 1920’s and a more recent discovery of the same gem in Sweden during the 1970’s. If the geological crescent ran all around Waterford, surely the same deposits must lie beneath the town’s fields and hills.
OXFORD COUNTY MAP
At the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Waterford Historical Society retired Maine Geologist Jim Dover explained how our region sits on the largest intrusion of granite in the eastern US, the Sebago Batholith. We know that pegmatites, the source of many of the world’s rare crystals and minerals, form at the edges of such large plutons. They can be seen as
“clustering like currents on its surface, or extending like fingers into the mass, or outwards into the country rock”.
By definition a pegmatite is a type of granite in which the crystals of its chemical elements are larger than ½” but can be as large as 42’ long. Such crystallization occurs because the liquid cools so much more slowly than the surrounding granitic lava flowing up through the Earth’s mantle.
One of the great attributes of the Oxford Hills is the abundance of mineral wealth which lies in such veins or intrusions that permeate the rocky ledges stripped bare by ancient glaciers. Residents and visitors alike have come to fill their buckets and sacks with choice mineral specimens, ever since the earliest finds off gemmy (gem quality) crystals of amethysts on Mt. Mica in West Paris in October 1820 as well as on Waterford’s Bear Mountain and in West Waterford (Blaguard).
In Waterford itself the history of mines and quarries is dwarfed by comparison to what happened in the towns just to the north and west. However, mineral finds in North Waterford, on Beech, Brunell, Stearns and Thunder Hill and other localities have provided some business for local farmers, investors from away and hobbyists who have combed these hills for 200 years.
The legendary discovery of lovely amethyst quartz crystal in 1820 on Mt. Mica in West Paris began the first stage of mineral discoveries in Oxford Co. Many of you likely know the story of two young naturalists: Elijah Hamlin of Paris and friend Ezekiel Holmes. As Augustus Choate Hamlin describes it in his 1873 booklet “Tourmaline, The History of Mount Mica”:
“They had been searching for minerals during the day along the Mountain and were then descending on their way to the village. It was the last day of autumn; and the glimmering rays of the setting sun were gilding with renewed splendor the then faded colors of the landscape. The view of the distant mountains, the intervening valleys softened with purple shadows, the patches of green grass in the meadows untouched by early frost, the variegated hues of the forest leaves left by the autumnal winds, the broad extents of the russet brown of the stubble fields, contrasting vividly with the glorious hues of the sunset sky, composed a scene of exquisite loveliness. As they turned to descend the hillock, a vivid shade of green flashed from an object on the roots of a tree upturned by the wind and caught the eye of young Hamlin. Advancing to the spot, he perceived a fragment of a transparent green crystal lying loose upon some earth which still clung to the root of the fallen tree. The students clutched the gem with eagerness. They closely searched the surrounding soil for other specimens. But the rapidly increasing twilight soon compelled the youthful mineralogists to abandon the search. They, however, resolved to return at daybreak, and continue the exploration. But during the night a storm arose, and covered the hill and its adjacent fields with a thick mantle of snow, which remained until spring.”
The poetic story of this historic find continues the following year, when the lads return to fill their satchels with many pounds of gemmy crystal. As they do not know exactly what has been unearthed, samples are sent to noted geologists who identify it as high grade tourmaline, some of which became gemstones set in the crowns of royalty and adorning the wealthiest women in America.
The romance with which this tale is told illustrates several of the motivations common to all who have sought to collect pieces of Oxford Co’s beauty from that day on. First is the urge to understand Nature through the collection and study of her natural elements, in this case minerals, rocks and gems. These young men were not typical residents of the region in the early 1800’s. They were college students who went on to become a lawyer and a physician: highly educated lads who were making the most of their free time by pursuing a hobby that furthered their knowledge of geology and mineralogy.
Secondly, these boys and those who followed were motivated to collect the most beautiful treasures offered by our Earth. While they might learn about the natural geological and physical processes by which the world was made by studying pieces of shale or slate or granite broken from ledge or boulder, the most stunning of specimens: quartz, garnet, tourmaline and amethysts, made marvelous trophies mounted on a mantle or in a golden ring.
The third motivation, that of mining for profit, would come somewhat later, when the lure of mineral lodes scattered about the county would lead both residents and entrepreneurs from away to seek wealth and mar the environment.
James M. Shaw, a leading citizen of Waterford, was born in 1818 to Rev. Josiah Shaw, a prominent citizen and early settler of Town (1795). Young Shaw lived in West Waterford (now called Blaguard) near the Sweden/Bridgton town lines. He became a farmer like his father near where the Pike farm is now located on Mutiny Brook Rd. Although only three years old when the distant Mt Mica discovery was made, the discoveries of amethysts in Waterford in 1822 and 1824 would surely have been known to him. Farmer Oliver Stone, while blasting ledge for a new well on his Deer Hill Rd lot was first to unearth the purple crystal in 1822. Whether this find was a loose piece dragged from far to the west by a glacier or an actual pocket of the stone, no other specimens were ever found.
Mr. Joseph Sanderson, while ploughing his field near the Sweden line two years later, uncovered a particularly select crystal. It was a six-sided terminated prism, measuring eight and a half inches in circumference by two inches in length. It was transparent and had a rich purple color. Apparently, the crystal was so perfect that locals thought it a work of Indian craft. Further searches were made of the area around Little Moose Pond, but no other such stones were ever found.
Jmaes Shaw became a very accomplished man. He considered himself a naturalist. He even listed himself as “scientist” in several national directories of scientists and engineers during the 1880’s. Several local newspaper clippings of the time paint a picture of his later years.
“There was a very pleasant gathering at the residence of Mr. James M. Shaw on the evening of October 20th. It was his 75th birthday… At the appointed hour about forty responded to the invitation. The house was brilliantly illuminated, showing off the many beautiful plants, of which he has a great quantity and many choice varieties. Mr. Shaw has a nice sunny house, and a large farm which he cultivates, raises the best apples in the market, pears, plums, and peaches, grapes and small fruits of all kinds, which he markets in season. In the winter he devotes his spare time to binding books– doing a large amount in satisfactory manner; quite often giving lectures to the Grange (Bear Mountain #62) upon Botany and Mineralogy; has one of the finest collections of minerals in the country and has many rare specimens. Who will say he is not a busy man? He is well preserved for his years, stands more erect than many of our young men. The first of the evening was very pleasantly spent in social gatherings, music and songs. We were then invited to his laboratory to look at its many curiosities and listen to their history which he kindly explained to us.”
Following Shaw’s passing in 1896, according to a September 1910 article in the Lewiston Evening Post, he had
“a collection of about fifteen hundred minerals and shells, the larger part of which he has collected by himself, and which he values at several hundred dollars.”
After his burial the more choice specimens were sold (cherry picked) off to a collector, Dr. Hiram F. Abbott of Rumford Point for $150. The remainder somehow ended up in an East Waterford attic, contained in the four heavy boxes. These boxes of rocks, each sample numbered and listed in James’s own ledger, show us that he was not only interested in alluring gems. His quest for knowledge of the natural world led him to collect samples of all the rocks and minerals surrounding him: not just the most valuable.
Another early naturalist active in this area was Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True (1815-1887) who lived in Bethel most of his life where he headed Gould Academy and was a founder of the Bethel Historical Society. True’s name is given to a small quarry on the Sweden/Waterford line near Duck Pond just a mile from the Shaw homestead. He was married to a Sweden woman in 1849 and participated in the Waterford Centennial of 1875, giving a speech on the importance of education to the town’s agricultural success. A collection of his mineral finds was at one point considered an asset of the Academy where it was housed.
As Jane Perham comments in Maine’s Treasure Chest (1972)
“The first collectors in the Oxford Hills sought out the minerals for the pleasure of possessing such wonderful and beautiful creations of nature. Many of these men were highly criticized for spending so much time tramping about the hills in search of tourmaline, beryl, amethyst and other minerals. This was a time when farming provided a man’s livelihood and he could hardly afford to spend valuable daylight hours searching for minerals simply because they were beautiful to behold.”
My research has shown that between that first recorded find in 1822 and today there have been 11 documented “mines” “quarries” or prospects in the Town of Waterford. As you may see from the local map, approximately where these may have been located. Some of these may have been only small pits and have been lost. Some, such as the Stearns Hill Mica mine on Blaguard Rd, are still remarkable scars on the landscape.
During the early 20th century commercial demand for valuable minerals brought many business people from away who wished to find commodities, such as mica and feldspar. To find optimal quantities of these minerals required more than the hand drill, sledge and wheel barrow. Introduction of heavy equipment, dynamite and gas-powered jackhammers put the process of mining in the hands of those who could afford a sizable investment.
In 1900, according to Van King in Maine Feldspar, Families and Feuds (2009),
“a mica mine was established near the southern summit of Beech Hill and was worked by the Beech Hill Mining Company in 1902, which company was sold to a New York investors. About a ton of thumb-trimmed mica was marketed at prices ranging from .08 to $1 per pound and about 10 tons of scrap mica was sold. Clarence Leslie Potter (of South Waterford) was the miner…… while Dr. Hiram Francis Abbott (the purchaser of Shaw’s collections) was the President of the company. This mine was located on the then George L. Kimball farm.”
An inspection in 1906 by a U.S Bureau of Mines geologist stated that the mine “ has been operated for mica on a larger scale probably than any other deposit in the State”. However, in 1911 another inspector found that “much of the mica is worthless for anything but scrap”. In 1913-14 a Mr. Westcott of Portland leased the mine and ran it for six or seven years.
Ober Kimball of Waterford, in a 1958 interview ,indicated that the Beech Hill Quarry lay idle until WWII when it was prospected by Stan Perham, “The Gem Man from Traps Corner”. Kimball says that the mine was opened again in 1957 by the Pechnik brothers of Paris with poor results because of “rather hard luck” with snowstorms and ice. “My sister and I got two checks, at 10% royalty it came to $28.
One of the professional miners brought into our community during the early years of commercial mining in Oxford County was Clarence Leslie Potter, born in Nova Scotia in 1870 to a family involved in iron mines. After living for a number of years in Massachusetts, He moved to Waterford in 1899. He and family, wife Lottie Adelaide nee Ritchie, a daughter and four sons (one named after good friend Hiram Francis Potter) resided South Waterford.
The following year Potter was actively mining in town. He operated a mica mine in Waterford with partners Hollis Dunton, owner/operator of the Dunton Mine in Newry, and local resident Sandy Morse. Potter was superintendent of the Beech Hill Quarry and worked at a Rumford mica quarry and the Dunton Gem Quarry.
Potter must have been a go-getter in the local mining realm. As North Waterford farmer Elmer C. Henley describes in his journal “Life on Sawin Hill”:
“ Chalk Pond has changed its name to the more fancy one of Crystal Polish Lake. A party from Vermont having leased it for a year or more, is mining it for the valuable polish they are gathering from it. The clay what is called infusorial earth, being a compound of minute shells and insects and the bones of fish. It is thought that the wash from the mountains above the lake bring into it some mineral matter, too. They are composed mainly of mica and feldspar, etc. Roy Lord has taken a contract to get about 40 or 50 barrels into powder. It is dried then ground, making a fine chalk like powder that is unsurpassed in polishing and cleaning glass and metals of all kinds. (Many of us know about this type of material used in the product Bon Ami. ) Clarence Potter, a miner from the Provinces, first formed the idea of its value, and leased a great portion of the pond and made great preparation of dredging. But he was soon after instantly killed on the railroad, and the matter was dropped until last Fall (1906).
By 1906 the Beech Hill pits had been leased to investors from New York. In the census of that year Potter is still listed as a South Waterford resident still, but he is listed to be a barber. That was the year of his death. Records show that he died in Liskeard Ontario on July 6, 1906 where silver mines were then being excavated.
Some light may be shed of Clarence Potter’s life and times by several stories found on Ancestry.com. Apparently, he was blamed for financial difficulties leading to the failure of the Dunton Mine. His good friend, Mr. Abbott, in a taped 1958 interview called him “a damned stinking skunk” because he had kept some of the money derived from a sale of gem tourmaline.
Another tale, told by George Howe of Norway, is that Potter had offered to sell him some valuable pieces of watermelon tourmaline in order to raise money for Boston medical treatments needed by his wife. Howe did not buy them; so, Clarence carried them to Boston with him. After leaving them for safe keeping with a pawnbroker acquaintance, he returned to pick them up later. At that time the broker informed him that he did not recall any gems being left with him.
“Uncle” George Howe was an important player in the mineralogy of early 20th century Oxford County. He discovered a cache of gemmy amethyst on Pleasane Mountain in Bridgton and was a world-famous naturalist who did much to encourage the education of area youth in the wonders of Nature. Here in Waterford he served as a counsellor at both Camp Birch Rock and Camp McWain during the 1920’s. Field trips to local mountains and quarries made it possible for both young girls and boys to collect beautiful minerals, crystals and freshwater pearls. Howe, although involved in several commercial digs, continued the tradition of James Shaw’ appreciation for the wonders of the world.
During the first half of the twentieth century local commercial mining efforts ebbed and flowed with the economy and a fluctuating and demand for regional minerals for industrial use. Mica, for example, was an important insulator for use in the growing electrical industry. Feldspar was much in demand as a basic element in ceramic manufacturing and as an abrasive polish, as was garnet. In the 1930’s-40’s local beryl was of great use by the government in manufacture of armaments and the burgeoning aerospace industry.
During the 1950’s and 60’s demand for mica, feldspar and beryl continued at levels sufficient to keep Oxford County mines in operation. However, working these sites required bigger and bigger pieces of equipment, larger blasts to free the material and greater risks by owners and operators.
While quarries, such as the Bumpus in Albany with its excavated tunnel, were able to unearth large beryl deposits, the shallow pits opened here in Waterford showed very limited promise. The Beech Hill Quarry, mentioned earlier, was opened by George, Prentiss and Bill Kimball in 1912-14 on the old Kimball farm. It operated sporadically under lease to several out-of-state companies for a decade before being closed.
The list of attempted operations in Waterford is lengthy: the mica quarry on Stearns Hill in South Waterford in the 1910’s, a feldspar quarry on Burnell Hill in Blaguard during the 1950’s, the C.P. Saunders Quarry north of Beech Hill in the 1940’s. There was one on Thunder Mountain, another (Willis True Feldspar Quarry) on Goshen Road just west of Blackguard and another “old mica mine” on the eastern slope of Bear Mountain on land owned by the Hubbard family. In the 1950’s the last of the commercial operations, the Knight #1 and #2 Quarries were opened on Lovell Road in North Waterford by Winn Knight and produced quantities of beryl for a few years.
As by-products of these many digs various crystals, some of gemmy quality, were found. Even today local hobbyists are able to discover impressive samples in the refuse dumps of the abandoned mines to show in their home display cases or trade. Some of this material occasionally shows up for sale on the internet.
These are times which many residents of Waterford can clearly recall. The names or the people who worked the pits have been often mentioned to me during my research. One man mentioned that “ Lester Wiley and Clayton Pike did some digging there” in Blaguard. Some people may remember visiting the “rock shop” set up by Wiley and his daughter at the Bumpus mine during the 1950’s. When I asked about the large quartz boulder in a woman’s garden, she recalled that she and her late husband had spent many a Saturday with Barry Heath collecting at whatever site he might be working at the time. Beloved educator Tony Waldeier, like George Howe, regularly entertained local youngsters at schools and the Fryeburg Fair with a presentation called “Rocks and Minerals”. I am sure that you might have many stories of friends and family who spent happy times collecting around and about.
When a friend mentioned to me that the story of mining in Waterford was minimal compared to the history of what was uncovered in the “pegmatite belt” west and north of us, he was only partially correct. Enterprises outside our town were indeed much more successful commercially. The stories of discoveries and intrigues associated with the quarries of Albany, West Paris, Newry, Rumford, etc. make marvelously interesting reading in the books of Jane Perham, Van King and Jean Blakemore, where much of my information was found. Waterford seems to have missed out on the associated commercial successes and miserable failures of the mineral business. However, the long tradition of mineral and crystal collection from the earliest days of settlement to the present time has enriched many lives.
When one views photographs of the larger mines or visits quarries which are still in operation, one might say that the past failures of local efforts to harvest the mineral wealth beneath our feet are actually a benefit to us today. Nature has easily reclaimed the small pits and cuts which early on marked farm fields and woodlots. Ills associated with the larger commercial sites, such as groundwater contamination, never developed in Waterford.
Recently my wife and I sat down to a lovely dinner with friends in East Waterford. In the center of the table was a small bowl in which were presented a colorful collection of crystals. Upon questioning the hosts about the centerpiece, they began to identify each one and relate how or where it had been found. It was at that point that I realized how much a part of local custom and lore are these precious gifts of the Earth.
These treasures are still being produced today in commercial quantities, mined at several “hand-me-down” quarries in Oxford County. Mt. Marie in West Paris continues to produce a large variety of tourmalines in many colors. The original Mt. Mica Quarry, where it all began, is pulling $1,000,000 worth of gemstones from its aged pits. While most of this material is sent away for processing, many of the most beautiful pieces are cut by local artisans or displayed at the new Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel.