SPRING HILL - We walk on them, kick them around, and curse them when digging a hole. Like the late, great comic Rodney Dangerfield, rocks get no respect at all.
But that’s not the case among the members of the Withlacoochee Rockhounds, a longtime Hernando County club dedicated to the hobby of collecting and transforming rocks and gems into art. Membership is $20 per year for adults and $5 for children under 18. The group meets the second Wednesday of the month at the Weeki Wachee Senior Citizens Club, 3357 Susan Drive. It’s headed by Judith Birx, club president for four years. The website is www.withlacoocheerockhounds.com.
“It’s really amazing,” said Eric Kessel of Brooksville, a member and relatively new to the hobby. It’s a father-and-son activity. “There is an amazing wealth of info in this room and they are all willing to help me and him (his son, Colin) learn.”
Kessel said he and son got the bug when on vacation in the north Georgia mountains they stopped at a roadside mining attraction that allows tourists to mine for precious and collectible stones. They later attended a gem show and they were hooked, joining the Rockhounds soon afterward.
Roberta Oldread has been a member for two years, at the recent meeting she displayed scores of polished stones, jewelry made from stones and other interesting things from the ground.
“I’ve been collecting rocks since I was a kid,” she said. “I never knew what they are, then I found this club online and joined.”
Since taking up the hobby, she’s amassed a big collection, some of which were left to her by a deceased friend. She picked up others while traveling and she always asks friends traveling to bring her back “some rocks.”
“I had a friend bring be some back from St. Thomas,” she said. “Another friend collected some from Hawaii; when I travel I take one suitcase just to bring rocks back.”
So, it goes with Rockhounds, who always search, collect and trade to round out their collections.
Quartz is Birx’s weakness. She loves the crystallized mineral, which she’s collected from Georgia, Arizona and other states around the country. She also is drawn to Pasco agatized coral, a lighter-colored variation of Tampa Bay agatized coral, which often is found in gift shops.
“The Tampa Bay coral is dark and is more desirable, but Pasco coral is unique because it has a peach-blue hue,” Birx said. “I just love the look of it.”
Birx said another element of the Rockhounds is fossil collecting. While Florida isn’t known for its stones and minerals, as are mountainous states, the one thing it does have is lots of fossils, as well as bones and teeth of long-extinct creatures. The group makes regular expeditions to Vulcan Mine, in Brooksville. One member found a crab fossil millions of years old that confirmed that it lived in this part of the world, a major discovery that now resides in the University of Florida’s collection.
Mark Moore, a longtime member of the Rockhounds, volunteers to take schoolchildren on fossil hunts. Working with children and making school presentations is a big part of what the Rockhounds do, he said.
“The kids love it,” he said. “There are so many fossils at places like the mouth of the Withlacoochee River.”
Moore, a former nuclear engineer who worked for the U.S. Department of Defense specializes in what some might consider a very undesirable type of rock: radioactive.
“I guess it’s my nuclear background,” he said. “They just fascinate me.”
Moore said the stones are not dangerous, as they only have small, trace levels of radioactivity.
Moore also has a solid collection of meteorites, and he likes to leave a piece of one at schools he visits.
In addition to talks about rocks, gems and fossils, the Rockhounds have classes on lapidary techniques, jewelry making and silversmithing. The group is recognized by the Southeast Federation of Mineralogical Societies and the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies.
The Rockhounds always welcome new members, said Brix, and are focused on establishing a scholarship for students who want to pursue geology or paleontology. The group also established an endowment for the University of South Florida geology department.