Iron flowerets and chicken cacciatore

A story by John Gaumer

Nipomo, California, was our destination. It was 1952, and we were on a quest to find marcasite. Marcasite is iron sulfide, which can be found in fragile, flower-like, plume structures. If the iron sulfide is encased in chalcedony, the beautiful plumes are preserved making for beautiful gem material.

Marcasite dig near Nipomo, California, circa 1952
John digs while Mabel sorts and Miss Kip supervises

We had learned about the deposit of marcasite from the field guide, “California Gem Trails” and wanted to make the trip. The land was owned by Louie Freddy and he allowed visitors to dig on his ranch for a small fee.

My parents, Al and Mabel, and I, drove to Louie’s ranch. Louie told us where to go dig, and we worked very hard mining the rock. Louie didn’t allow dynamite, so with sledge hammers, gads, and picks, we tirelessly worked the land. Chunks of the vein we worked were 1 – 25 lbs apiece and we managed to dig about 1000 lbs of material. Once we were finished, we drove down the mountain to settle our bill with Louie.

Marcasite dig near Nipomo, California, circa 1952
John Gaumer takes a well deserved break for a photo while digging for Marcasite near Nipomo, California, circa 1952

Louie was a very sharp man, and he had a unique payment structure. Not only did he charge a small fee per pound, but he also took half of what you dug, and he got to choose the half. One for him and one for you and he shrewdly chose his pieces. He had very good taste!

We were feeling well used as he divided up our labors. We had lost 500 lbs of hard-earned rock, but as we were about to head back to the car, he invited us to his home for dinner. His wife had made a homemade Italian dinner with all the fixings. My parents had a glass of wine and we all tucked into our chicken cacciatore. We may have lost some weight in rock, but the hospitality of Louie and his wife made up for it in spades. The dinner was the highlight of the trip!

Though we didn’t know it at the time, in the surrounding area there were bean farms that also contained beautiful marcasite material. The bean farmers would dig up the nodules and discard them, as they interfered with their tractors. After the harvest, the farmers welcomed anyone to remove the nodules out of their fields. Had we known, we might have been able to keep more of what we had mined. Regardless, we found some gorgeous pieces which we have made into custom jewelry over the years. Our favorite pieces are featured in our museum to this day. Come visit them in person to get a closer look.

Some of our favorite specimens of Nipomo Marcasite – come visit in our Museum