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Rocky Past Revealed at Crater of Diamonds


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Crater of Diamonds State Park
Crater of Diamonds State Park
    Veteran gem hunters at Crater of Diamonds
Veteran gem hunters at Crater of Diamonds
       
 
Crater of Diamonds State Park
Crater of Diamonds State Park
    Crater of Diamonds State Park
Crater of Diamonds State Park
       
 
A scene from the Crater's early days
A scene from the Crater's early days
   
July 30, 2002


Rocky Past Revealed at Crater of Diamonds
*****
By Jay Harrod
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Arkansas's 27th state park, Crater of Diamonds, operates the only diamond mine in the world where finders are keepers. Visitors can also find campsites, interpretive programs and an informative visitors center. For more information, call (870) 285-3113 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

Considering its undeniable uniqueness, it's easy to understand why Arkansas created the Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro in 1972. Since the first diamond was discovered at the site, the geological oddity has been a natural draw for thousands of treasure seekers, including several failed commercial operations.

The world was rocked when John Wesley Huddleston discovered both a four-and-a-half and a three-carat diamond on his farm on an August afternoon in 1906. Until then, no other diamond had been discovered in its original locality in all of the Western Hemisphere. After his find, Huddleston quickly sold his 160-acre farm for $36,000, and, in turn, the Arkansas Diamond Company began commercially mining the site, which contained approximately 49 diamond-productive acres.

An affirmation of the area's potential came in 1909 when a former South African diamond mine operator tested the site. His findings were "excellent" and noted diamonds were found throughout the depths of a 205-foot test shaft. This report and subsequent coverage of the discovery from major American newspapers further fueled interest in the area.

Adding to the lure, M.M. Mauney, a farmer who owned the site's remaining 23 diamond-bearing acres, charged visitors a mere 50 cents for ice cream and the exclusive chance to hunt for the gems, keeping what they found.

Mauney's tourist operation combined with newspaper stories soon resulted in a treasure-seeking frenzy that much resembled California's Gold Rush of 1849. The original 10-room Conway Hotel in Murfreesboro was forced to turn away hundreds of guests, and a tent city sprang up about a mile from the site to accommodate gem-seeking tourists. Of the wood-frame bank, hotel, café and stores that were built at the quickly abandoned town of Kimberly, about a mile from the attraction, only the historic 1930 Mauney house remains.

Mauney sold most of his land to another commercial outfit, and then leased the remaining 10 acres to Austin Millar, whom Mike Hall, the Crater of Diamonds State Park superintendent since 1991, described as "the most successful of the commercial operators."

"There's always been a lot of mystery and mystique with the early mining operations, because no one person ever owned all the property at one time," Hall said. "Millar had a really good operation, and was recovering a lot of diamonds -- we have some actual records from that time. Mr. Mauney wanted to break the lease and take over operation of one plant, and, of course, Millar wouldn't do it. There were 30 something lawsuits, and that's when the big fire happened. All three of Mr. Millar's plants burned down the same night at about the same time. Of course they suspected arson but never could prove it."

The fires that ravaged Millar's plants on a cold January night in 1919 served as writing on the wall for Millar's future commercial endeavors as well a handful of other businesses that came and went in Arkansas's lustrous diamond history.

The story doesn't end there, though. Austin Millar's son, Howard, had different plans for the land. Drawing on other unsuccessful tourist operations, the younger Millar believed the site could yield a profit if managed effectively. Howard, who had lived in Little Rock and served as assistant state geologist, moved back to the family property in 1952 and called his new attraction "Crater of Diamonds."

But the younger Millar faced competition. Leasing the land previously owned by the Arkansas Diamond Company was Roscoe Johnston, "who owned and operated the 'Arkansas Mine' or the 'big mine,'" according to Hall. "He operated the same way [as Millar]. Let people go out and camp and hunt for diamonds and keep whatever they found."

Questions as to which was the "real mine" ended when, for the first time in its turbulent history, the diamond-bearing site came under single ownership. The entire crater and some 815 surrounding acres was purchased by General Earth Minerals of Dallas and operated much like it is today. The state in turn bought the land from the company in 1972 for $750,000.

Major park improvements -- Crater's campsites, a visitors center and gift shop, and other amenities -- were built in 1978 and 1979. From day one, Crater of Diamonds State Park has been one of The Natural State's most valuable assets. To the delight of its visitors, more than 22,000 diamonds have been found since the state park was created.

A living legend for the park, James Archer, 76, has combed the earth six days a week for the past 30 years and has found his share of diamonds. "I lost count about six or seven years ago," Archer said, as he glanced up from piles of sifted dirt. "But I found a bunch, though. A bunch."

But Archer's not in it for the money. In fact, he claims he makes just enough for a "little gas money from time to time." But he likes doing it, which is one thing visitors, regardless of their hunting skills or knowledge, seem to have in common when searching and hoping for that lucky jewel of a find in a one-of-a-kind place.

The diamond field and the park's visitors center open daily at 8 a.m. except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Days. Daily access fees to the field are $5 for adults and $2.50 for children 6 to 12. The field has several processing pavilions, restrooms and a clean-up station. Visitors may use their own non-motorized, wheel-less equipment, though the park rents shovels, hand tools and screening boxes for nominal fees.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF PARKS & TOURISM
1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)
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