Eldon George: “Yes, that was back in ‘68.”

Eldon George telling the story

Eldon Tells the Story — Photo by Ahchee Hsu

Eldon George was honoured at a celebration hosted for him at the Fundy Geological Museum last Sunday (Nov. 15.) Feeling an it’s-about-time gratitude, I wish I could have attended.  The Parrsboro Rock Shop Project announced:

The Cumberland Geological Society, operators of the Fundy Geological Museum in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia (Canada), are pleased to announce plans to establish a permanent exhibit featuring the Parrsboro Rock and Mineral Shop and accomplishments of Eldon George.

http://www.parrsbororocks.ca/

I wrote the following several years ago after yet another visit to Parrsboro, and I’d like to offer it as a tribute to Eldon. But let us not forget the contributions of amateur collector Don “Keeper of the Cliffs” Reid who opened his private centre in Joggins long before the Joggins Fossil Cliffs Interpretive Centre was completed in 2008. Nor should we forget the contributions of Sonja Wood and Chris Mansky who gave the public access to their collection at the Blue Beach Fossil Museum near Avonport, Nova Scotia.

I’m grateful to the Fundy Geological Museum and to its current curator Dr. Tim Fedak, because for some time I’ve heard the academic geologists dismiss the likes of Eldon George, Don Reid, Wood and Mansky—people for whom the word “amateur” is a misnomer. These people are serious, dedicated and knowledgeable. They’re people whose passion and talent for sharing the treasures of Fundy with an appreciative public put them in the vanguard. They’re the people who put Parrsboro, Joggins, and Blue Beach on our maps.

_________________________

I changed the status line on my Facebook page the other day. I noted that we had been in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, and that Eldon George had told us a story of finding two and a half tons of amethyst. I rarely get comments on my Facebook status updates, but friends (okay, relatives) commented that they wanted the story, my mother adding, “No pressure.”

I first wrote about Eldon George in an unpublished travel piece (rare for me, the travel writing, not the want of a publisher) entitled “Five Islands—A Holiday None Too Far.” That was back in 2005 after my wife, Alanna, and I made our first visit to the area. In that article I had written:

We turned left at the main intersection in town and headed toward the Parrsboro Rock and Mineral Shop — a home-grown operation in an outbuilding next to a modest home on Whitehall Road. It was well-marked with a gravel parking lot large enough for a half-dozen cars. Outside the shop were plastic dish tubs on long tables filled with rough stones sorted by colour and a not-too-fearsome ten-foot dinosaur painted a fearsome green.

Inside were shelves and shelves of rock, semi-precious gems and finished jewelry. In another room, the “museum,”photos and awards were displayed— tributes to Eldon George the proprietor. Here were the glass display cases, one of which housed the smallest dinosaur tracks found in the world. Eldon’s find in 1984 at Wasson’s Bluff were penny-sized of a three-toed creature now thought to be no larger than a robin. In the case were also those reputed to be the largest tracks—another of Eldon’s finds. After Eldon’s discovery Dr. Paul Olsen of Columbia University led a team that collected 100,000 pieces of dinosaur fossils making this the largest find in North America. According to the Museums of Nova Scotia website, The 200 million-year-old assemblages of well-preserved reptiles apparently just post-date a mass extinction event at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. They comprise the largest discovery ever made in North America of vertebrate fossils from that period, and are the strongest evidence so far supporting a mass extinction prior to the emergence of dinosaurs and mammals. Though not yet proven, it is speculated that the impact of a large meteorite threw enough debris into the atmosphere to block out the sun, killing off plants and seriously disrupting the entire food chain. Approximately 43% of all life is thought to have died out about this time. 

Propped against the stone in the case was an artist’s rendition of the crocodile-like prehistoric creature assumed to have walked the earth leaving the tracks—something that I could not discern in the stone.

Alanna looked at jewelry and selected purchases for possible gifts when Eldon stepped in. I struck up a conversation with him by telling him that I had been interested in rocks and minerals since my first trip to Canada in 1972 when I stopped in… where was it?… someplace in Ontario.

“Bancroft,”he answered.

“Yes, that’s it,” I replied, grateful for the answer.

“You know, forty years ago I telephoned the people in Bancroft,” he said. “They had a rock show and I said, ‘Look, we want to start one in Parrsboro, but we don’t want to conflict with yours. We’d like to have it a week after yours.’ The guy in Bancroft was happy to hear that. He said to me, ‘You’re wise to have it a week later. That will give people a chance to go back home and get ready for yours. We’ll advertise it for you.’ And they did, and that was the beginning of the Parrsboro Rockhound Roundup. One year we had six thousand people come. It’s dropped off a bit, the figures aren’t in yet for this year but it’s probably around four thousand.”

“Yes, it started when I was nine. I found my first amphibian fossil and I’ve been at it ever since.”

“You’re a lucky man to have done this, spending a lifetime walking the beaches,” I said.

“I’ve discovered the smallest dinosaur tracks; that’s now a world record. And the largest; they won’t give me the record because you’ve got to find three tracks together and I’ve only found two, plus the tail track. The rules say three and they were set back in 1884. The tracks are in the room back there.”

“I know. I saw them, but I can’t make anything out of it. All I see is a mottled stone.”

“Come.” He led me back to the display case.

“Some people don’t see it. It’s all in how you look. Some people are expecting impressions. Try seeing it in reverse. See this raised part?” He placed his hand on the case, spreading his fingers. “Like this.” Then he pointed with his other hand to the other claw prints, raised in relief. “There they are, one, two.”

I did see them. Above the case was a colour photo of Eldon crouched over a yellow and white boulder on the beach, the blue water at his back. “What is that?” I ask.

“It’s a three-hundred pound agate. Too heavy to get it out of there. You can’t get a vehicle down there or anywhere near it. I go back every year to check on it, to see if it’s still there. So far it is.”

We walked back to the front counter where Alanna was with the clerk, his granddaughter, we learned. A man and his two young boys came in. “We’re wondering if you can give us some information. We’ve just been to Joggins, and the people there said this is the place to look for semi-precious stones. Can you tell us where?”

Eldon took a Parrsboro tourist brochure from a stack on the counter, opened it and pointed to a map. “Here,” he said. “This is Partridge Island. Drive up this road and take the first road after the Ottawa House, the one that goes down in back. Follow it down all the way.” He began to mark the map with a pen. “You’ll find stuff on the beach on this side of the island. Here, on this side you’ll find the amethyst. When the tide is out you can walk all the way around. Up on this coast, further up, you might find some fossils.”

The man thanked him, and he and his boys left. They came back a minute later. “You don’t know where we can find a washroom?”

Eldon turned to his granddaughter. “Take them to the house,” he told her. He bent to put a clasp on a stone Alanna had chosen to buy for a necklace. When the granddaughter returned Alanna asked her, “Is there a restaurant you would recommend?”

“Try the Harbourview, down on the beach past the Geological Museum.”

Fearing that she might be offering a suggestion to meet a typical tourist’s expectation for an up-scale eatery, we asked, “It’s not an expensive place is it? We’re not looking for anything fancy.”

“No. I think you’ll find it reasonable.”

It was. Not the dim-lighting-against-Victorian-wallpaper-please-wait-to-be seated type of venue we feared. (If there is such a place in Parrsboro, population 1634, we don’t know where it is.) The Harbourview is a summer place frequented by locals for a breaded and battered fare. From it’s deck you can see fishing boats tied up at the wharf, their keels on the dry harbour bottom when the tide is low. Partridge Island is visible in the distance.

Inside several tables had been put together for a family gathering. The adults chatted and a couple of young mothers held infants. Two young boys ran around the tables taking turns chasing each other. The waitress offered us simple menus on laminated pages and apologized, “We’ve just had to raise the prices of the scallops.” I ordered what I hoped was the least oily of the meals, pan-fried haddock and Alanna tested another seafood. While we waited I picked up a tourist flyer wrapped around a complementary copy of the local weekly—The Citizen published in Amherst. Inside was a full-page feature, “Gems and Mineral Show Celebrates 40 years” and there was a picture of Eldon and another one of the founders of the show cutting the commemorative cake.

Such were my notes of four years ago. Alanna and I have been back to Parrsboro many times since having become enamored with the beauty of the Bay of Fundy and intrigued by its geology. We’ve taken the curatorial tours of Five Islands, Two Islands, Wasson’s Bluff and Thomas’ Cove, and each time we return to Parrsboro we go to Eldon’s Rock and Mineral Shop. Last Spring “For Sale” signs had been installed on the lawn, and another sign in the window said “Closed.” We learned from the locals that Eldon was in hospital for heart complications and we feared that we’d never see him again, or set foot inside his famous shop. The “For Sale” signs are still up, but the seventy-something Eldon is back, yet we still fear that each visit with him may be our last.

This month (August 2009) we went back to Parrsboro taking with us ten others, close friends, including two families recently emigrated from Taiwan. How is it that when you take friends to a favourite place, a place you have frequented, you see it as though for the first time, afresh, as you imagine it to be in their eyes. We had wanted them to meet Eldon, prayed that he would be well and in the shop.

And he was. When we entered he greeted us and asked, “What are you interested in?”

“We’re interested in you,” Alanna said.

“Yes, you’re the jewel in the gem shop,” I added.

In a moment he led us into the back room “museum” and began to explain about the smallest dinasaur prints. He must have told that story hundreds of times, but his enthusiasm was undiminished. He then began to explain a more recent find. He had found the fossil of a winged dragon-fly like creature, unusual in that it had three sets of wings. Eldon went back for a file folder, returned and extracted 8 x 10 glossy photos of fossils and photocopies of prints of dragon-fly wings, spreading them out on top of a display case. Since our last visit, the story has progressed. A paleontologist with a doctorate specializing in insects saw the same 8 x 10 glossy photos of the fossil that we were looking at and told Eldon that he had a very rare find and suggested he contact another paleontologist in Germany. From his sheaf Eldon extracted a copy of an email from the German doctor. Evidently he had shown it many times as it was well-worn and finger stained along the frequent folds. He had underlined in pen the more significant and confirming paragraphs. Specialists would be coming to examine the fossils where he had found them, a location he could not disclose. It seems that Eldon had learned early in his explorations that fossil finds cannot be verified if they are removed from the sites of their discovery.

“You know, there are hundreds of fossils of wings, hundreds. But no bodies. Why do you think that is?” He paused and smiled at the attentive group assembled around him. “I’ll tell you why. Mind you, this is my understanding, such as it is. This beast”, he said pointing a finger at a photo of his fossil, “was a hungry feller. He ate the others. Ate everything but the wings.”

Then Ann, another woman in our group, asked the question, “What was your most exciting find?” It was just the right question, and I suspect that she was inspired to offer it. She had recognized in Eldon a skilled story-teller and had been captivated, as we all had been, with his words.

“This is, of course,” pointing again to the photos on the display case, “very exciting, and it will be again when they verify it. Finding the smallest dinosaur tracks, that was another thing of course. When that was confirmed it made news the world over. But then there was the time I found two and a half tons of amethyst. Excuse me a moment. I need to look after this customer.” He headed out to the register where a young girl (was it the same granddaughter we had met years ago?) was tending to other customers. The shop was particularly busy that day, and one middle-aged man needing special attention counted over five-hundred dollars in twenties for fossils he carried out to his car. When he was through Eldon came back.

“Yes, That was back in ‘68. Me and my dog,” he went on, “were walking in a field and I saw this water squirtin’ up. It was a hot day, a very hot day, much like today. (The temperature was in the 30s.) Anyways, my dog went over and started making fuss, sniffin’ around and barking. Finally it took a drink. Then I went over and had a drink too. And when I bent down to take the drink I noticed these crystals, about this long.” Eldon held up his one hand, and with his other indicated the length of two joints of his index finger. Four, maybe five of them, now that was something. I was pretty excited about that. I got down and picked up the crystals. Anyways, I started feeling around where the water was squirting up and my hand went down into a hole. ‘Oh my God,’ I said to myself. I felt around the hole and I could feel all these crystals. ‘Oh my God’ I said to myself. I knew I had found something. I knew there was big deposit there.” Again he looked into our faces as if to check on the gleam and twinkle in our eyes to see if they matched his. There is more to story-telling than words.

“So me and the dog walked up the field to a house, and there was a farmer on the porch in a rocker smokin’ a pipe. He looked at me and said, ‘I see you stopped down there in the field.’”

“Yes, I came up to see if you’re the owner of this land,” I said to him.

And he said, “Well, I’ve been paying taxes on it for close to sixty-year. I guess that makes it mine.”

“So I told him, ‘We stopped down there to get a drink, and I found some stones.’”

“’I can tell you there’s no water down there. Never has been,’” he says. ‘And there’s no stones.’ He says that like he was pretty sure of himself.”

“’Well, there is,’ I told him.

“I could argue with you,” he says, and I said “Don’t, ‘cause there is now. And there is a lot of stone.’ Then I showed him the crystals. There had been heavy rains a few days before. The run-off must have exposed them. Anyways I said to the farmer, ‘Look, I want to make you a little proposition.’”

Earlier I had noticed Ahchee’s two sons hanging on Eldon’s words, and I had been tempted to run out to the car for the camera. I checked myself, figuring that by the time I got back, the moment would be lost, and besides, I would have missed what Eldon was saying. At this point in his story I was again tempted, but saw Ahchee across the room with his camera, and I hoped that he would capture something of this moment. (Judging from the photo above, I’d say he did well.)

Eldon had paused, a natural teasing. Then he went on, “’I’ll give you seventy-five cents for every pound of stone I take out of there’. I knew what I had found. I knew there was a lot of stone there. It was easy enough. We came to an agreement, and then I said, ‘If you’ve got any sons, or nephews, I’ll pay them ten dollars an hour to help me.’ Well, we took two and a half tons of amethyst out of there. That’s a pretty big deposit, you know. Now that was very exciting. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”

Later, at the Fundy Geological Museum we saw a specimen of amethyst crystals that had been donated by a local. The stone had come from the other side of the Bay and we wondered if it was from the farmer’s field. I noticed that Eldon had come in to have some photocopies made. Alanna and the others went in to view the exhibits and I lingered in the lobby speaking with Ken Adams, the curator. We were talking of the museum, and of Joggins being designated recently as UNESCO world heritage site, of engaging the public, and of the promotion of geological heritage. Not an easy job. Ken noted that much more needs to be done and wondered how the people of Parrsboro could be given a pride in knowing what they have.

I suggested to him that “a lesson could be learned from the man who just went out the door,” nodding to the back of the capped figure of Eldon George. Ken turned his head to see who I had been referring to, then turned back to me. “Yes,” he acknowledged. “Someone should write a book about him.”


 

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