A Tree Became a Gem

Assorted vignettes related to this collection

The Louisiana Connection
The greatest outdoor rock and gem show of all time was Clouds in Quartzsite, Arizona. I was fortunate enough to have enjoyed that show for a number of years before the state of Arizona confiscated the land for a highway cloverleaf and ran Dick Cloud out of town. Every year at Clouds I’d spend time with a dealer from Louisiana, E. P. Akin, known as Papa Akin to many. We became good friends. He was a true southern gentleman with an inquisitive mind. An expert on pecan trees, he also bred gorgeous new varieties of camellias and thought that Louisiana palmwood was the most stunning substance on planet Earth. Mr. Akin was in his late 80s when I first met him in Quartzsite. He helped me with my book Petrified Wood by sending his finest specimens to Colorado for me to photograph. He always had the best quality material. He was a wise man who taught me much about wood and about life. Mr. Akin called me one winter and told me about a collection for sale. Mr. Daniels, he said, you have to see this collection. It’s the finest collection of petrified palmwood ever assembled, period. You have got to get down here. It was the collection of Captain Foshee, who had been the main source of Mr. Akin’s wood all those years. Due to my trial schedule, I couldn’t get down there until the Fourth of July. I stayed with Mr. Akin who was 93 and happy for the company. He bought his house in 1943. After dining at his favorite restaurants—one had crawdads cooked seven different ways—we drove down to Flatwoods, which is the epicenter of great palm wood country. The accessible wood was mostly all dug by then, but I got the full history along with the tour. We went to Poor Boy’s house, another guy I knew from Quartzsite. He had a petrified tree on his front porch that went clear through the roof and then another five feet or so higher. The walls of his humble abode were covered with polished rounds of petrified palm wood. His dining tabletop was petrified palmwood. A full wall of shelves was stacked with a hundred or more beautiful small petrified logs. He’s an interesting and unique man.
Poor Boy was a heavy equipment operator. After he retired, he continued on as a rock dealer in Quartzsite every winter. He had a large shop behind his place with petrified wood in various stages of preparation. Last I heard (2012) he was still in business.
Mr. Akin had previously taught me that the finest petrified palmwood comes from The White Ground. After our visit to Poor Boy, he said we were headed over to the visit the Whites, who grow red beans and have good wood on their property. I asked, Is that The White Ground? He said No. So why is it called the White Ground, I asked. Because the ground is white, he answered. We went there later, and I can tell you that the ground is as white as a bleached while cotton sheet – pure silica.
Mr Akin always had a few small pieces of petrified palmwood in his pocket, and wherever he went, he gave them away with a smile – It’s the Louisiana State fossil, he proudly declared. Every waitress in Shreveport had a few. One morning after a big breakfast at the IHOP, his favorite place for breakfast, Mr. Akin took me to see the collection. I drove his older model Mercury Marquis, which he felt was the most beautiful car ever made. The collection was enormous. Table after table of polished palmwood of the most amazing quality. I knew the asking price, so I took out a pad and pencil and spent three hours making a list of all the pieces and their values, did the math, cogitated, and decided to make an offer. One small piece alone was so astounding that I knew I’d be buying the collection just to get it. This was just south of Shreveport, Louisiana. It was the Fourth of July and the outbuilding with the wood had no air conditioner. It was 100 degrees and 99% humidity. I was soaking wet with sweat. The negotiations went like this: I told you the price and I won’t take a penny less, said he. All right, said I. I packed 3500 pounds of palmwood into a U-Haul truck, drove like a maniac through Dallas rush hour traffic, slept in some fleabag trucker motel in Kansas, and brought the greatest Louisiana palmwood collection of all-time over the Rocky Mountains to my home.

I first traveled along the Oregon Coast in 1973 and fell in love with its pristine wildness. Beginning in the 1980s, once I’d been infected by the petrified wood collecting bug, I made annual pilgrimages to the Northwest seeking out the finest specimens. The rockhound pow wows at Madras and Prineville were always on my schedule, as were the home addresses of local rock cutters and polishers. For a million reasons, Oregon was gifted with a large variety of beautiful fossil wood and a decent quantity of top grade specimens. As a Colorado and Utah wood hunter, I knew how rare specimens of this quality are. Our most colorful specimens come from the Jurassic Morrison formation and are generally quite fractured. My policy then was to buy all of the top grade specimens I could.
I also sometimes went rock hunting on these trips. Oregon has long been a Mecca for rockhounds. It’s estimated that in the 1960s, two hundred thousand rockhounds from other states came to Oregon to hunt rocks annually. That continued for decades. Like all wood-collecting locations, the first hunters had the benefit of thousands of years or erosion. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The golden age of collecting wood in the wilds in the USA is but a pleasant memory. That said, I very much enjoy petrified wood hunting and go on several trips a year now at age 74. I don’t expect to find much of anything, yet sometimes I’ll find a nice small piece or a few. It’s really more about being out there, in awe of all that’s around us.
Quants Rock Shop: This old rock shop in Prineville was owned by a legendary character named Shirts Quant. He’d been a player in the local rock scene for many decades. His shop was famous for the large chalcedony pinecone on display – not for sale. I photographed it for Ancient Forests. He let me go through his storage rooms. I spent all day examining box after dusty box, and I found some great stuff, including some excellent South Fork wood. He never got to see Ancient Forests. I gave a copy to his daughter.

The first piece of petrified wood I saw from Madagascar was in a gift shop in Key West. I bought several small sticks and tracked down the supplier when I arrived home. Since then, I’ve searched through tons and tons of wood from Madagascar at rock shows in the American West. Madagascar has been the source of a wonderful array of beautiful petrified wood specimens. As with most places, there’s more poor quality than great quality. The great stuff is super nice wood – solid with beautiful colors in a wide range of patterns, often with an attractive exterior and identifiable cell structures.

The Woodworthia connection
When I began looking for petrified wood beyond my collecting areas in Colorado and Utah, I turned to the most famous wood locality in the world: Northern Arizona. If you haven’t been to Petrified Forest National Park, you should go. Early on my Arizona-wood learning curve, I learned that most of the wood from Northern Arizona is Araucaria, but a small percentage is Woodworthia, and an even smaller percentage is Schilderia. I’d seen a few really nice Woodworthia specimens, but they were quite scarce. I have found Woodworthia in the Chinle formation in Utah, but with rare exception, it’s not much to write home about.
Years later, the first petrified wood from Zimbabwe made its way to the Arizona shows. At first, the wood wasn’t that great, but it included some standout Woodworthia sticks that were long and had attractive, well-preserved, and markedly dimpled exteriors. I’d never seen such well-preserved Woodworthia surface detail. The wood was exciting, but it would not take a much of a polish – the best anyone could get was a boring dull greenish-brown finish.
Then one year I was at Tyson Wells in Quartzsite where I stumbled upon a new vendor’s booth. It belonged to a very nice couple from Zimbabwe who’d been forced out by the Mugabe government, having had their lands and hotels seized. They offered solid specimens of Woodworthia and Araucaria with world-class preservation and stunning colors. I bought the best pieces they had. Three of them appear in this collection.
Years later, in 2008, a Tucson vendor from Zimbabwe brought the amazing African Well Log to America. This was the finest quality and most beautiful Woodworthia I had seen. One of the finest slices resides in this collection. The finest chromium green wood in the world is found in two places – Northern Arizona and Zimbabwe – both in very limited locations. If you examine a map of the world as it existed in the Triassic, you’ll see that these places were not all that far apart 220 million years ago.

Serendipity of the Banks Collection
One of many instances where the scarcity of top quality specimens really hit home for me happened at the Denver Gem & Mineral Show in September 2013. It set me off on a fascinating journey.
I arrived at this venue a day early. It was the main outdoor venue for the Denver show and was partly under an overpass. I slept in my camper up in the mountains at the base of Grays Peak the night before and drove in early, stopping at Whole Foods in Golden for coffee, a turkey sandwich, and a large bottle of carrot juice. Several dealers were setting up and ready for business. On my way to find a dealer friend who sold my books, I wandered through the setup of a new dealer who had a great many uncut rocks set out on tables in the bright Denver sunshine. One piece stopped me in my tracks. My theory is that three decades traversing the wilds of Utah’s Morrison formation and numerous visits to many great rock shops in that state gave me a unique perspective on Utah Morrison wood and also gave me the radar to spot it from a distance and to see it for what it was. The dealer was still putting out pieces. It called to me like a Siren. I picked it up and marveled at the remarkable surface features of the log, which was obviously an old-time surface-collected piece. Whoever found it must have been the first to hunt wood in the area because no rockhound would have left it behind. It was likely found in the 1940s. I hefted it, looked it over, and cradled it in my arm while thoroughly scanning the dealer’s remaining inventory. Seeing no other Utah Morrison specimens to entice me, I reached a deal for its purchase and asked if she had anything similar. A month later I met with the dealer in the home of the previous owners of that rock in Sedona, Arizona. Fortuitousness has landed me many fabulous pieces. It’s hard to describe how amazing this log is to me, and also was to its original discoverers. At the time I bought it, I was unaware that I’d spoken with the previous owner of this log on two or three occasions, some fifteen years earlier. Doris Banks contacted me – by letter, I believe – in 1998. She had a copy of my book Petrified Wood, was excited about it, and wanted to speak with the author. I don’t recall who called whom, but regardless, we had a very nice, animated, conversation about the days when she and her husband collected petrified wood in my vicinity back in the good old days when there was plenty to find. In that first conversation Doris straightened me out on how Yellow Cat got its name, as I explain in Ancient Forests. This fortunate couple hit it just right – the right time to find the right stuff. Their family was one of many in the midcentury American West to be given abundant joy by the rockhound hobby, camping out in beautiful places and hunting for geologic treasures. Doris noted in my book that I was the District Attorney and that I lived in Grand Junction, Colorado before telling me that her husband, John Banks, was the City Attorney for Grand Junction, Colorado from 1942 to 1952. When I was born in 1949, these people were already out collecting wood in places like Yellow Cat, the Henry Mountains, and Farson, Wyoming. Even after they moved the family to Denver, where John had accepted the position of City Attorney (1952-1959), he and Doris kept traveling out west to hunt rocks. Eventually they moved to beautiful Sedona, Arizona. Their hilltop Sedona home reflected the serenity of its long term inhabitants. Avidly collected rocks with alluring colors, crystals, and/or shapes, were in evidence before your first step landed on the colorful tiles decorating the breezeway between the lapidary shop and the living quarters. A plantless rock garden housed thousands of agates and other colorful and shiny stones. Views in all directions showed red sandstone cliffs and lush greenery with flowering trees beneath a still, blue sky. Chirping songbirds filled the warm, scented, desert air with myriad melodies. Hanging on the wall in the hallway was the framed law degree Mr. Banks earned from Law School at the University of Colorado in 1935, where I earned my law degree in 1982. John and Doris had moved on from this life, yet I felt their presence in what they left behind. They lived a beautiful life.
There was nothing in the way of fossil wood remaining in the main house as the family had taken what they wanted, including a large display case of Yellow Cat red wood from the Grand Junction days, but the shop and the backyard offered several interesting old-time specimens to a keen-eyed rockhound. I was fortunate to be the one of the first to see what remained. The best wood pieces I noticed were on shelves on the welcoming warm sandstone patio and in rock piles that lined a gravel path that led down the flowery back hill. Most were uncut and unpolished. There had to be several thousand pounds of rocks altogether. A tiny minority was Henry Mountain wood. As an experienced rockhound, it was interesting to me to see which pieces this other experienced rockhound decided to leave as is rather than cutting and polishing. I’d seen his shop. He had all the equipment you’d need to cut any of them.

I am an eyewitness. When I first went to the desert specifically looking for petrified wood, I was taken to some of the old time wood areas by a friend who had hunted there since the 1950s. This was in the Circle Cliffs and the Henry Mountains of Utah in 1985. There was still some decent wood to be found. It had mostly been picked over, first by the homesteaders (although they had little use for it), then by uranium explorers (who had the benefit of the air strips and roads into the area), and later by the early rockhounds and by locals who realized they could open a rock shop and earn a living from it. The supply seemed endless. But it’s The Tragedy of the Commons, just like always.
A story I was told by people I expect would know is that in the early seventies a California rockhound came to a remote corner of Utah desert with his better idea for rock collecting: a backhoe, a boom truck, and a flatbed trailer. Apparently, this guy made repeated trips throughout the winter, pretty much cleaning out the Hansen Creek drainage, which had been home to a great many sizeable, amazing colorful petrified trees. As the story goes, he built a petrified wood rock wall on his ranch. I’ve heard other stories like this. When I began hunting down there, I had to hike way out past where a jeep could go to have a chance to find anything decent, meaning that after a rough jeep road ride for maybe an hour, I had to walk two miles across a hot, shadeless, rattlesnake-infested, spiny cacti and scorpion-filled coyote paradise of a desert. It was super exciting.
The second generation of rockhounds to walk the desert seeking gem quality wood— like the old guy who first took me down there— didn’t take everything, not by a long shot. For one thing, you could only carry so much with all the other stuff you had to carry: water, rock hammer, extra clothing, rain gear, food, space blanket, compass, flashlight, knife, gloves, and so on, and my friend was already 65. If he found a full round limb section that looked like it had good color and was solid enough to polish, he was interested, otherwise he left it. He taught me rockhound names for different quality petrified wood. Leaverite: wood that’s junk – leave ‘er right there. Crapite or poopite – obvious. He once tricked me with a piece I asked him about: That’s sexstone, he said before pausing … just a fucking rock.
During my early years wandering around out there, and to a number of other locations in the 1980s and 1990s, one had a decent shot at finding something good. I returned to these places over the decades to witness the wood completely disappear in all but the most remote and inaccessible locals. Gone. As if there had never been petrified wood there. Every last chip. I covered many miles on foot in the Henry Mountains. I was a climber back in those days and have climbed the 62 tallest peaks in Colorado. I climbed all over Morrison and Chinle formation exposures and whatever it took to get to them. I once found a baby dinosaur skeleton. I told the local museum and the BLM about it, and they had no interest. It disappeared too. Human pilfering. In another area in the 1980s, I found a large dinosaur eroding from Morrison conglomerate – rib, rib, rib, vertebra, vertebra, vertebra, and so on. This was in a very remote and rough terrain. I returned every five years or so to see how it was doing. This dinosaur is gone too, but solely due to erosion: Turned into sand. This is what will happen to fossil wood if it is not collected. Once collected, a piece of a tree from 150 million years ago can now be an everlasting gem. But leave it exposed in the desert and it turns into sand, faster than you may think. The Universe creates and The Universe destroys. It also allows us to borrow, and thereby preserve, its magnificent creations, which should be preserved.

A Truncated History of Petrified Wood Collecting in America
Once the Great Depression and World War II were behind us and individual incomes began to rise, Americans suddenly found themselves with free time and the means to enjoy hobbies and outdoor recreational opportunities. Many in The American West turned to rockhounding and the lapidary arts. Rock and gem clubs were established all around the country. Western states saw the greatest number of rock hunting enthusiasts due to vast areas of public lands and the arid and semi-arid climates which left billions of rocks on the surface, including some of the finest petrified wood in existence. What had been a hobby enjoyed by a few became the pastime of tens of thousands practically overnight. As spring arrived, hundreds of thousands of rockhounds ventured out to the collecting areas. In the 1960s and 1970s as many as 200,000 out-of-state rockhounds a year explored the rockhounding areas of Oregon alone. New companies sprang up to manufacture improved machinery for the cutting and polishing of gem quality rock. The most popular and often the most beautiful materials for lapidary use were agate, jasper, and petrified wood.
My own club, the Grand Junction Gem and Mineral Club, was founded in 1946 and once had almost 200 active members. Rockhounding has provided thousands of families with a wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors with its abundant fresh air, sunshine, beautiful sunsets, astounding vistas, and opportunities for exercise. Add to that the thrill of the hunt, increasing knowledge of geology and mineralogy, elevated appreciation of nature, and the stunning character of the best finds. After making their finds, the rockhounds returned home where they would work their newly acquired rocks as they saw fit. Some collected for specimens and others for material to make into jewelry. Specimens for a petrified wood collection are typically either cut and polished transverse slices or limb sections with one or both ends cut and polished. Petrified wood specimens with particularly interesting natural character were sometimes left as found.
Serious collectors were sure to keep records of the location of the find and identification of the wood to type and genus when possible. Microscopic examination adds a wonderful dimension of enjoyment for a petrified wood collector.
Back in the early years, things were a bit different than they are today. Although travel in many remote locations was difficult, often resulting in flat tires, failing transmissions, and snake bites, there were plenty of great rocks to be found. Rockhounds in those years had the benefit of thousands of years of erosion. Beautifully preserved petrified logs were available to those brave enough to make the sometimes arduous journeys to places newly opened to vehicular travel. All you needed was a good jeep, good weather, a strong back, and the spirit of adventure. Prospectors and ranchers were frequently the first to locate virgin collecting areas. But seventy years of rock hunting has taken its toll. Thousands of rock hunters scouring the best collecting areas decade after decade have left many once amazing collecting areas devoid of collectible rocks. Places I went rock hunting thirty-five years ago with some degree of success have been so heavily hunted that it is hard to believe that collectible material once was available. Petrified wood that we left behind as leaverite was later considered to be a great find to newcomers. As the succession of newbies continued, each successive generation was happy with what they were able to find. It got to the point that one cannot find even a trace of petrified wood in places where tons once lay out for the taking. While one can still easily get snake bit out there, top quality petrified wood is hard to find.