Once a year the main street of Lewistown, Montana, is filled with vendors from Montana and Wyoming. They come to sell their wares and celebrate the life of a wild tart cherry bush called the chokecherry. It is the same main street that puts beds on wheels and race them down the hill; Montana country frivolity. But this bush fruit is delicious on pancakes and I found over 17 different kinds of chokecherry fudge to make one year. I sold out before 1 as the thousands of attendees are serious buyers of all western goods and creative items.
But to team up the search for Montana diamonds in the afternoon after listening to the “Ring of Fire” being played by local bands in the food court concert side sections is a good idea. You can buy your chokecherry syrup for the year, sit for a spell and then head to the mountaintop to find your treasures.
Many citizens make the trek from Great Falls or Billings to celebrate the first weekend of September after Labor Day with this huge festival so well organized and then head off to What the Hay the next day. Mini vacations in Montana are the spice of life living here.
When your partying in the morning is teamed with being on the top of the mountain a short while later, you know you have perfect living or the best lifestyle around.
Heard of this old radar station many times and thought I saw it when coming back from the Big Dig in Zortman over Memorial Day, but I had no idea. I had Jim at Falls Tire Service tell me there were Herkimer diamonds out of Lewistown in the hills and I wanted to go in search. Dean Schamp told me they were all over the place on the mountainside of this old base but he was unsure if my rig could make it up the last few miles of washboard road. No problem.
Headed out of Lewistown I asked a barmaid at the Hilger Bar where was the old radar base. She said atop of the Judith Mountains and I had passed the turnoff. She wished me better luck than she had when she dug all afternoon and only found 3 diamonds. She said the base was at the peak of the mountain.
On the road to the radar station there is the site of one of the original gold mine cities, Maiden. The activity from a century ago shows the history of this area in giving forth gems and minerals of Montana. At the top of the Judith Mountains you can see in all four corners of the state. You feel the breeze, hear the trees and find shiny stones in the ground. The view is fabulous.
When I was first told about these stones I was told they were Herkimer diamonds, but Amos Knapstad corrected me. He said they are called Montana diamonds or adobe because Herkimer diamonds are only found in New York. But they are pointed at both ends and come in little balls from Jerry Denk.
In advice as to what to look for I was told that the diamonds could be found in the middle of the road as well. Sure enough when I looked down, that was true. But as I looked at the top of the mountain I didn’t find as many crystal shiny pieces of stone as compared to the side of the road which a passerby on the road said she had found the most. I found this to be true also.
After coming down the mountain like the dirt bikers told me to do, I could see these shiny pieces of rock as I drove slowly looking at the hillside. Occasionally I would stop to check out some intriguing rock as I was wondering what the matrix was. I didn’t find the balls but I did find stones embedded in rocks.
At one point there was an entire sea of polka dot rocks. It appeared to me that this was an entire area where the rock formations created these Montana diamonds and this indeed was what I was looking for even though I couldn’t find the balls like I had in a bag from a rock garage sale. Confirmation of the smoky Montana diamonds gave me satisfaction in the sunlight I found what I went looking for in the beautiful sunlight of a fall day on the top of the mountain. Voila, I was happy with my search and compare mission; I had found the Montana diamonds.
In teaching yourself about gemstones you ask a lot of questions. One of them is, “What is a matrix?” and this was after I went looking for them. Is that the reverse order of events? What I was told was that it can both be a rock and a clump of hard mud by Amos Knapstad. Hm.. never knew that one.
Unless you have a picture of what you are looking for or someone to show you what you might find, the exploratory adventure of stone searching can be full of quandary. I heard that rocks have to be heated to temperatures well over 2000 in order to disintegrate. Does this melting take the stone out of the rock? How else would you get these shiny beauties out of that hard rock?
To me, I really don’t mind what the future holds, it is just interesting to learn about Montana diamonds, see them in the ground and see what I might do with them other than hold them in my hand. Phyllis Gunther of the Yogo Sapphire Shop says they are too soft to cut and they really don’t shine real well in a setting. They are not the most desirable stone she says, but learning about what we have to offer from Montana is really neat to me. I am sure there are things to do with Montana diamonds and it certainly is not like a cartel management over money. Montana diamonds are plain cool no matter whether in a matrix or a ball.
When you travel the back roads of Montana there is no telling who you will talk with. My trip to the top of the Judith Mountains proved to be true. My first stop was to check to see I hadn’t made the wrong turn from forks in the road. The roar of the dirt bikes stopped for a moment to tell me, “Go to the top, turn around and they are all over the place!!”
Truckloads of people out for a country drive sought the solace of the end of the road on the mountaintop. One couple from Washington said, “We always travel Highway 200 and we decided to go off and see where the road would lead us.” Checking out where the road will lead us is always a draw and we meet sharing our stories why we are in such remote spots.
The pointer that the hillside was best place to find Montana diamonds was the best advice from multiple stops along the way. It was given by someone who cared about finding these gem stones. The SUV traveler knew the best place to find these diamonds and was willing to share the information as she had just: Been there, Done that!! She was certainly a nice find and will most likely be what you will discover in your search for gemstones as well. People can be gracious and helpful making for a delightful experience.
Long history of millions of dollars being sunk into this Utica rock wall hole with the Japanese taking over and an Alaskan owner getting killed down in the hole abound or surround this area. But any way you look at it, those yogo sapphires are gorgeous blue beauties and can only be found right here in Montana.
Just outside Sapphire Village out of Charlie Russell’s old stomping grounds there was a hub of activity of all sorts. Now the mine is shut down mostly and the miners persist in their digs gathering at the local pub to swap stories and continue in their own way to dig on their property which produced bucket loads of these valuable gemstones.
Books have been written about the history of this mine. People have sued over the multiple strategies used with the residents but you would never know by the countryside view such events occurred. On the world market the yogo sapphires that come out of this mine hold their value and are certainly gorgeous. Many still surface while much activity here has ceased.
There are several ways to mine in Montana. Some work the virgin ground, while it is common to work the ground from tailings that were created by miners going through the earth previously. All over Montana you can find piles of tailing once used in the fervor of the search for both gold and gemstones.
Truckloads of twice washed tailings from the Yogo Mine went up the gulch to be dumped in a prearranged Forest Service sight and left. Those pilings are open for digging and searching the remains of a once prolific land down underground.
The style of unearthing the yogo is different than other Montana sapphires which you sift in a layering type screens. With the yogo you soak to loosen the gemstone from its matrix. Gathering the clumps of dirt and rocks from piles of ore becomes a challenge because of the aging of the remains. As in all searches there are remains that have been left behind and recreational prospectors are about finding it. Getting out in Montana land is exciting and adventurous. You will like it too!
Even though elk meat is long time through my belly this year with the season opened up in August for hunting them, the recreational prospector can encounter the hunter in the mountains of Montana. As I swung my car up the hill I passed by a wall tent, horse trailer, campsite, truck and a mule. Old Sam was ready and willing to pack out that bagged elk in the best way possible.
It is the best way to learn more about you digging site to strike up a conversation with the local hunter. A guy out of Park City, Montana had come to his usual spot to hunt elk with his buddies who were already in their terrain up top. The hunter told of how big machines had come in the area to process the tailings left from the mine.
He said there once was a sign on half of the area for several years past, but the sign was gone now. Apparently the owner of the claim might have gotten what he wanted from processing the claim and relinquished it like others have done as the sign was gone.
The other side of the tailings was not a part of his claim so I was free to dig and not interfere in the area. Both the hunter and I, there to dig rocks bid each other good luck and went on our ways peacefully in our pursuits. It was a pleasant way to enjoy Montana’s great wealth appropriately.
Late February when I was setting up the schedule for Treasure Hunting in Montana and planning on what each weekend would be like in that pursuit, I knew that the Chokecherry Festival and What the Hay would be held on this weekend as it has been for a very long time. I was a vendor at both events and know their schedule.
These are fabulous events that people from all over the state come to set up and sell their wares. Mine was fudge and it did very well except in the extreme heat of about 100 degrees. This year it was cold and windy for those Ferris wheels out in the prairie, but perfect for digging rocks in the mountains.
The road to this even was not loaded with sightseers from the north side as it is from the southern route. This year I happened to stay in Lewistown and got stuck in the long line up of cars from Hobson to Utica. At some points traffic was bumper to bumper or at a standstill. I thought I had started out in plenty of time to meet up with anyone wanting to travel up the road to dig for yogos, but I was wrong.
I was late and missed anyone who might have rendezvoused so had to go it alone. No biggie, as this is fun stuff. But the bales of hay dressed out in their messages of frivolity were hilarious and fun to be a visitor instead of a worker for this event.
The mixing of the gemstone search can be fun when combined with local frivolity of epic proportions as What the Hay. Total fun.
If you want to call a town, a “One horse town”, Utica is it. It is about one block long and one block wide. But each year the clubhouse has 3-5000 people traipse through buying homemade pies and shopping exotic African bags or remote helicopters for sale. The Ben-Yay truck and Cajun chicken on a stick do a bang up business for one day and then this town falls back into obscurity.
My former classmate who looks like David Letterman and writes Charlie Russell yarns shared his story at our poetry group about his shoot out in Utica over a spelling bee. As the dust from the shoot out settled, the sights of a former prospecting town are only a figment of the imagination.
Utica only has its draw with the Oxen Yoke Inn on the corner of the highway for travelers to chow down and get the restful feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere with some food in their bellies. The scenery of the mountains in the back ground doesn’t bring in business or help it thrive. There is a tribute to the days gone by as people drive by in search of the yogos up the road a piece.