Agate Collector’s Heaven

I was 8 years old when I first looked at Professor Ade’s rock collection. Seventy-five-year-old Ade Skolberg liked to be called Professor Ade by the kids in the neighborhood. He had been collecting rocks and fossils since the 30s.

I came across a beautiful multicolored banded agate with hairy inclusions. “What is this?” I asked Professor Ade. “It’s Laguna agate with sagenite.” He knew what every rock was. “Where is it from?” “Deep into Mexico.” Wow, I thought, my dad has told me about some of his trips to Mexico. It must be a wonderful place.

The moment of seeing and holding that rock left an impression that has stayed with me to this day and set the stage for dreams of pursuing agate deep into Mexico. This was agate collector’s heaven, Valhalla, where when digging into a dirt bank, large, colorful Laguna agates rolled to your feet. This dream came true in the spring of 2002.

Gene Mueller and I were invited by the owners to mine Laguna agate on the Alianza Claim near Estacion Ojo de Laguna, about 150 miles south of El Paso, Texas. With the risks and challenges of setting up and running a mining operation in Mexico, some might think this adventure was an example of a hobby gone amuck. I’m sure they’re right, but the challenges associated with this operation were dwarfed by the opportunity to collect some of the finest agate in the world.

On this trip to agate heaven, we would use the most efficient digging machine ever used to locate these Laguna treasures, operated by an expert machine operator who probably knows more than any other agate prospector that has dug the Laguna deposit. The groundwork was laid and the stage was set for the agate collector’s ultimate dream.

Gene, owner of the Gem Shop in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, has been importing Mexican and other agate for many years. He presently is the sole U.S. importer of rough Ocean Jasper from the Paul Obinach mines in Madagascar. He had dreamed for many years of mining Laguna agate. In his pursuit of fine agate and jasper, Gene learned some years ago how to operate heavy equipment. His digging machine of choice is a Caterpillar 320 Excavator. This is what we used.

I first visited the Laguna agate deposits about seven years ago with Gene. Fascinated with the beautiful sagenite and plume agate – my main focus – I began wondering how we could be involved in the mining of this material ourselves. After numerous visits and contacts with the Mexican mining officials, Mexican attorneys, land owners, claim holders, the Mexican Consulate, insurance companies, immigration and naturalization officers, import brokers and a few others, we finally cleared the way to buy a small trailer and start packing our bags for the six-week dig.

We had to consider many needs in our preparations, but menu planning posed a challenge of its own. We would be 60 miles from the nearest city, and a half hour’s drive from the town of Estacion Ojo Laguna and the very limited supplies available there. We also didn’t know whether or not we’d have to provide three meals a day for our two helpers. My goal was to be completely self-contained, and my many years of experience of camping in Baja California and other parts of Mexico told me to have plenty of food for unexpected guests, as no restaurants would be near our camp. Shopping at Costco and Sam’s Club proved a big help.

We each took a small travel trailer, food, water, mining tools, and at least three pages’ worth of other stuff. Arriving at Ojo Laguna, we left one of the trailers and took Gene’s truck to Chihuahua City to pick up the Caterpillar excavator. A truck hauled it to within three miles of the mine.

Early the next day, Gene started repairing the road to the mine. Armando, his son, Lalo, and I walked behind the machine with picks, pulling up mesquite bushes with thorns up to 1½ inches long, which would easily flatten any four-ply tire. This turned out to be one of the longest weeding projects I had ever been involved in. The bends in the road had to be widened, boulders removed, and the grade reduced for the last 150 yards before camp.

Our campsite was one of the few flat spots in those mountains, which rose more than 2,000 feet above the valley floor. Care was taken to remove as few prickly pear and other cacti as possible to make room for the two trailers. We soon discovered we weren’t the first humans to occupy this camp. Ancient skinning tools and broken arrowheads practically littered the ground. Our camp was adjacent to a mountain pass where hunters of another era must have lain in wait for prey.

Once the campsite was leveled, a loading dock built for the fuel barrels, and brush and cacti moved, Gene took the machine a quarter-mile farther to the mine site. The road needed much work and once at the mine, a road had to be built for the machine to the area where we would dig agate. Overburden had to be cleared for access to the agate-rich layers of rock and ash. A day and a half of work lay ahead for the machine before we could find our first Laguna agate.

While chomping at the bit, I had a chance to utilize our work crew to make our campsite more comfortable. The three of us cleared all the brush and cactus stickers and built a wind-protected camp fireplace, complete with the necessary flat rocks to set pots and skillets on and such. We also laid gravel for a 15-foot radius around the fireplace to keep dust from blowing into the food and prevent grass fires. Nearly a cord of wonderful mesquite firewood was gathered, cut and stacked, along with dry grass and kindling for starting the fires.

Next, and very important, was the commode. A deep hole was dug, flat rocks were stacked on each side, and the crowning touch, a toilet seat, was added. A 100-foot trail was made back to the trailers. We parked the trailers so that refrigerators were facing north where they would receive the most shade. We then built a rock monument where two 20-gallon water barrels were placed. Holes were dug for the trailer sewers, and finally the camp was set. We were ready!

Our mining started on March 15 as Gene approached the last 100 feet of road building to where we believed the best agate at the Alianza claim was. He had hit very little agate on the way up. About 50 feet from the top, we found a few nice agates. The excitement was mounting. Armando, who has worked this claim by hand for 40 years, marked prime agate locations at the mine with orange flag tape. He and I found a few choice pieces in the marking process. There are some wonderful agates here.

A full day of preparation work at the mine followed. The road to the agate deposit was completed and a pad for the machine was made. In digging the pad we located some agate. After a dinner of steelhead trout, fresh broccoli, and halved onions with butter and garlic wrapped in aluminum foil, we shared our excitement for the next day over our first campfire.

Gene and I awoke with more excitement than the average person should experience. After s great breakfast of pancakes and bacon, at 8 a.m. we were on our way to the mine to dig in what we believed might become one of the best areas on the Laguna Ranch.

Gene soon struck 8-ton boulder. Though he was determined to move it to get to some agate, the rock won and took an outside tooth from the excavator’s bucket and inflicted a number of structural cracks. I called the rental company and tried to get a new bucket. This was the first of several problems with the bucket, which shut us down for nine days during our dig.

The next day we moved a lot of dirt and rock and ended up with about 150 pounds of agate. Only about 20 pounds of this agate was #1, including a fabulous tube agate with wonderful, banded eyes. (#1 agate is any nodule over 2 inches with color, of which 75 percent will cut a full pattern. #2 agate is under 2 inches in size with a full pattern and colorful or exceptional color with a broken pattern. #3 may have a broken pattern with possibly one color. #3 often makes excellent cabbing material.)

Sunday, March 17, was our light day. Our trailers had settled with the 40 to 50 mph winds rattling their frames, so some adjustments were necessary to re-level them. Sleeping in the trailers during these high winds was like being in an airplane in turbulence. We cleaned up camp, repaired the latches on my trailer door, and gave attention to food inventory. Gene hiked up the hill to the south opposite the mine to take “before” pictures.

I left camp in search of the source of some plume we had found the day before. I found some sagenite with black needles in white to clear banded agate. I traced the plume float to where it disappeared and picked up a few good pieces. Prior hand-digging and earth movement made it difficult to pinpoint the plume deposit.

Gene and I were back at camp by 11 a.m. for lunch, and went back to digging with the machine until 5:30 p.m. Our work netted one good agate and 50 pounds of #2 and #3, mostly red moss with some banding and a few nodules. We needed to find more concentrated areas of nodules-pockets or veins with good agate would be wonderful. We knew they were here. We would surely settle for that dirt bank where the nodules roll out on your feet.

On March 18 we dug a hole 50 feet wide, 15 feet front to back, and 12 feet deep, which produced only 300 pounds of agate, including a scant 15 pounds of #1. Some of the digging was slow due to hard rock. We decided the Mexican agate industry could not survive on such little production from such quantity of dirt moved. It appears the Mexican miners with hand tools had not only taken the easy-to-get material, but much of the hard-to-get, also.

The following morning we found some stalactites and six or eight awesome agates. The quality was spectacular; we just didn’t see the quantity. It is clear why this agate is so expensive.

The Caterpillar repairman arrived March 21st to fix the machine’s bucket. Gene had dealt with Caterpillar in Idaho. There, they send out a highly trained technician in a clean blue uniform with his repair truck – complete with a welder, a steam cleaner for your engine, and every spare part imaginable – all within 24 hours. Somehow, my gut (considering my experiences in Mexico) told me to look for a man on a horse with a hammer, mañana. Only a half-hour late, a small truck appeared carrying three people, a portable welder and one piece of 3 inch by 30 inch plate steel.

I left for Chihuahua City and the nearest gas station, 60 miles away. Five hours later, I returned to see the mechanics were done welding. The welding job didn’t hold.

When I arrived at the mine after using my cell phone to try to get some more assistance to repair the twice broken tooth, Armando was extracting a nice red and white #1. I thought things would turn around. Production was slow, but major rocks were removed, allowing the machine to get lower in the hole and to continue toward the center of the deposit. So it was a good day from a mining standpoint, but not from a production standpoint.

The day’s digging revealed some nice agate. The hard andesite we were working in was loaded with tiny nodules and occasional larger nodules. Rocks up to 3 or 4 feet across had to be broken with sledgehammers and points and nodules were extracted. People who do bad things in life go to prison and break rocks like we’re doing. Sometimes I think this is a crazy thing we do.

On March 24, we spent three hours removing dirt around a 6-foot-diameter rock. Behind it was a vertical calcite vein and a rich, soft area that had a concentration of agate nodules. It appears there was a fault, which provided an area where water could carry and deposit silica. Moisture stopped at the rock barrier and agates were formed in the moist environment, along with the calcite.

After a long day of digging, we ate pasta with alfredo sauce and watched a movie in my trailer. Don’t tell anyone that Gene watched a movie while mining. Somehow that doesn’t fit the rugged miner image.

March 26 was a great day! Fifty pounds of #1 were dug. We needed that day. Most were found in nodule-laden andesites, but some in soft, claylike material. Professor Ade would have been proud. It appeared that the concentrations of agate were where water had accumulated next to impermeable rock layers, along fault zones where springs had occurred. Often, calcite veins crisscrossed agate-bearing earth.

On March 27, Lou Wasny and his friend Jim came to visit. Both are avid collectors and were great company. They helped out at the mine and joined us for a nice steak dinner with good conversation around the campfire.

The next morning, Caterpillar delivered and installed a new plate with six new adapters for the teeth on the old bucket. The teeth they brought were the wrong size. We would have been broken down five more days unless we could find teeth of our own. I called Caterpillar in Odessa, Texas, and arranged for six teeth to be delivered the next day from Denver to El Paso.

I took our dirty laundry and went to El Paso to pick up the teeth. We were back in operation the next day with new teeth and clean clothes. The teeth were installed and we worked in 40 mph winds for two hours until it was almost dark.

The dust and pebbles blasted us horizontally from the sides of the hole. When Gene dumped a bucket of dirt, the wind sometimes threw it back at him. Small rocks rolled in our ears and stuck in my newly grown beard. Our eyes blurred with the grinding dust.

On March 30, we decided we needed a change in our game plan. We moved a lot of dirt for three #1 agates at the very bottom of the hole. We were mining very few agates. Typically, two of us stood on one side of the bucket and one person on the other. We sometimes found only half an agate, but we usually found the other half shortly after. We were being very thorough. Gene and I were uneasy with her poor production, as we were more than halfway through our trip. We decided to move the machine to two other areas in the mine.

Gene left early for the mind the next morning. It is really nice to have a partner that works so hard. I sorted and cleaned rock until Armando and Lalo showed up at 8:30 a.m. We worked the new area and found about 30 pounds of round, nodular, baseball-sized agates, which were pink, red and purple.

April 2 was a dusty day. The top layer of earth we were working with was ash, and with each scrape of the bucket, high winds swirled the dust around, making it nearly impossible to see the agate. The temperatures were rising, as the days got longer. The daytime temperature was about 85° with an occasional, welcomed cloud.

On April 3, the bucket broke again. This time, the whole front bent open. I called Caterpillar and they brought a new, narrow rock bucket. This was easier for digging rock, but much slower for moving earth.

With the bucket broken, we took time to explore other nearby agate claims. We hiked to the north end of the Alianza claim to a hill called Punta de Las Hermosas – The Point of the Beautiful Ones. About 25 years ago, fine, wonderful, multicolored, banded agate came from this hill. The name alone excited us. We wanted to see if mining it would make sense.

We awoke the next day with new enthusiasm. With the new rock bucket, we were able to work different and difficult rocky areas. Gene’s first challenge was an 8-ton boulder that broke the old bucket. He pulled on it slightly with the new rock bucket and it easily came forward. We continued to work the same area all day and before dusk moved to a new area below our original hole. A cave that had been hand-dug here years earlier produced beautiful purple-banded agates with white snowflakes.

The following day, Brad Cross, author of Agates of Northern Mexico, and the Hector Carrillo family visited around noon for short time. Brad was impressed with the operation. Hector owns the Mexican coconut geode mine and he and his wife, Jeanette, own the Gem Center Rock Shop in El Paso. The Carrillos had never been to Laguna before. They were also favorably impressed with the operation.

On April 9, we split piles of rock and drew straws. The rock was packed 20 kilos to a bag. Most of the agate crossed the border with a licensed broker before we left.

The following day was a good production day. Caterpillar delivered new teeth for the rock bucket. Once back at the mine, we found a good vein, which we chased off and on all afternoon. We found nodules mixed in the same rock from time to time. Some pieces of vein were 3 inches thick. We ended up with about 100 pounds of agate, 50 of which were #1.

The next day we drove the Cat to the El Agata Claim, four miles away, to dig test holes. We had made prior arrangements with the claim owners to work the mine for an extended period of time if our one-day exploration was fruitful. We dug five holes, which netted very little #1. Our total tally was about 50 pounds of #2 and #3. Overall, the agate was not as colorful and the bands were not as well defined as Alianza agate.

We dug up on the top of the Alianza claim, finding about 20 pounds of #1, plus nice crystals and drusy, which I carefully packed in boxes. Preparing and wrapping these crystal specimens seemed to take a lot of time. It’s easier to throw agate in a bucket than go to all the trouble mineral people go through.

April 18 was our last day of digging. I stayed in camp for two hours packing, cleaning up camp, and filling sewer holes, then went to the mine to check for stray tools and clean up any trash. Our final tally was 525 pounds of #1 and 1,500 pounds of #2 and #3.

The next morning, we left early and crossed the border successfully. It was a wonderful trip, an adventure, an agate collector’s ultimate dream. Now I start a new adventure in cutting. I can hardly wait for these nodules to drop from the saw’s vice. Wish me luck.