Hidden away in Central Point in a non-descript building between Highway 99 and Interstate 5, Crater Rock Museum displays minerals, gemstones, petrified wood, fossils and more.
As a newcomer to Southern Oregon looking for interesting things to do, a number of people suggested a visit to the rock museum, but it didn’t make it onto my to-do list.
“Are you kidding?” I thought. “I can look at piles of rocks in my neighbors’ yards.”
A year later, when family visited and we ran out of rainy-day activities, we decided a 15-minute stop before heading to a movie would be OK. We never made it to the movie.
“What a great place,” my brother-in-law said. “I’d definitely visit again when we return to Oregon.”
Trip Advisor gives the museum a 4.5 rating (out of 5 possible points), with one recent visitor saying that members in his group were “blown away with the variety of specimens.”
“There are actually quite a few rock museums in the U.S.,” Scott Garrett says, Crater Rock Museum’s operations manager. “Most are small or don’t have such a large array of rocks and minerals. They may just have things that are specific to that general area. This is probably the finest rock museum this side of the Rockies. I’ve heard comments from many people who have been to hundreds of rock museums who say this is one of the best laid out museums there is, and they compare it to the Smithsonian. This was laid out by geologists and people in education to show the process by which rocks become mineral specimens.”
The museum is more than just an exhibition hall. It has workshops, equipment and offers different kinds of interactive experiences for children and adults.
“We try to do something much more than a trophy room,” volunteer Doug Foster says. “Most private museums are like trophy rooms to put things someone has found. We’ve spent a lot of time writing explanatory signs to accompany the specimens.”
Foster’s fascination with petrified wood and his current position as volunteer curator of the museum’s petrified wood collection were launched when he sought their assistance with some things he found.
“A little over 20 years ago, the year of the big flood in Ashland, a creek deposited many tons of rocks on our pasture. I found petrified wood and agate and jasper, and I took one of the pieces to the museum because I was told they would cut it for me. When they cut it, I was amazed at how different it was on the inside from the outside. I didn’t know anything about petrified wood at that time, and then I started going to the rock club. Bill Elliot, a former faculty member at Southern Oregon University and the man who became my mentor for petrified wood, gave a talk, and I was fascinated. I became obsessed.”
The museum includes petrified wood because it is a kind of rock.
“It’s a sedementary rock with the same chemical formula as agate and jasper,” Foster explains, “except it’s also a fossil. If it’s well preserved you can tell what kind of tree it was. And if you know the geologic formation it eroded from, then you can tell how old it is. Then suddenly it’s not just a semi-precious gemstone, but it has a story to tell.
“Education of kids is probably one of the most important things the museum does,” Foster continues.
It’s educational mission and commitment to engaging directly with visitors ignited Garrett’s involvement.
“When I first started here, and I was in the workshop, I started a thing where for every kid I would cut a thunder egg. I dug hundreds of pounds of small eggs, and if I couldn’t find enough, I’d purchase them for the museum. Then to every kid who walked through the door I’d say, ‘I’ve got something for you.’ They’d come over and sit or stand next to me, and I’d put on goggles and cut the thunder egg. And I’d open it and say, ‘You’re going to be the first person that ever saw the inside of this egg.’”
Garrett’s eyes light up and his voice becomes animated as he continues his story.
“I’d open it up and show it to them and the absolute awe that would be in their eyes, knowing they were the first person to see this, was amazing. Then I’d give it to them to take home. And that rush, that ‘I’m going to be the first, and now this is mine,’ gave them something they’ll cherish their entire life.”
Thunder eggs are a particular kind of rock, Garrett explains.
“Thunder eggs,” he says, “are created as gas pockets in flows of lava that millions of years later are re-filled with mineral rich fluids that create some sort of growth inside. Sometimes it’s crystals, sometimes it’s agate, sometimes it’s jasper. But there’s always something that gets inside and fills that void.
“We look at rocks more as mineral specimens because each has its own specific chemical compound that holds it all together,” Garrett continues. He describes how it is the chemical make-up that differentiates between various kinds of rocks. “They’re all chemically bound in a particular way and that’s what separates the rocks in the museum from the rocks that are out in someone’s driveway.”
Garrett and Foster, like some of the museum’s signage, offer technical descriptions of items in the collections, such as cryptocrystalline sillica, chalcedon and trigonal crystal structures. Those less scientifically inclined may be more familiar with such things as quartz, malachite, translucent, and be attracted to the multitutude of colors and patterns in individual pieces — rich copper, brilliant blue, soft lavender, sharp zig-zags, and gentle wave-like striations. And imagine sanding, shaping, and setting some of the pieces in silver or gold to create a unique piece of jewelry.
Founded in 1954, the museum is owned and operated by the nonprofit Roxy Ann Gem and Mineral Society. Today the society has almost a thousand members whose interests range from geology to paleontology, mineralogy and gemology, and include professionals as well as hobbyists. Members have free entrance to the museum and can join field trips, use the on-site library and lapidary workshop, and tap into the individual expertise of like-minded people.
The society and the museum sponsor classes, customized museum tours, a once-a-month kids day, and an annual rock show — as in geological specimens, not popular music. Held the first weekend in April, the show allows society members to display their personal collections and includes lectures, demonstrations and vendors who sell raw stones, minerals and finished gemstones, as well as artistic creations.
From humble beginnings in what is described as a 5,400 square-foot “shack” to a 12,000 square-foot facility, the Crater Rock Museum not only houses gems, but is, itself, a gem.
“It’s quite unusual for a rock club, a bunch of rock hounds, to own a first class museum,” Foster says. “And this is a first class museum.”
They also have a dinosaur workshop. But that’s another story.
Crater Rock Museum is located at 2002 Scenic Ave., Central Point. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. See craterrock.com.