Rock club uncovers diamonds in the rough

Monday, February 9, 2009 | 6:21 p.m. CST
Vernon Barr, 92, of the Central Missouri Rock and Lapidary Club polishes a leopardskin agate as part of the group's instructional event on Saturday near Midway as wife, Jeanne, reads in the background. The Barrs have belonged to the club since 1965. "I dearly love to go hunting for rocks but I don't do anything. Vernon does the lapidary part — it's noisy and messy," Jeanne said.

COLUMBIA — It seems as if Vernon Barr, 92, came to the Central Missouri Rock and Lapidary Club event Saturday out of force of habit as much as anything else.

Barr sold his rock grinders, polishers and saws — some of which he built himself — when he moved to TigerPlace retirement community a year ago. But after about 45 years with the club, his passion for rocks and lapidary did not go as easily as his meticulously maintained equipment.

Central Missouri Rock and Lapidary Club

The club welcomes people interested in everything from fossils and minerals to the lapidary arts, or rock cutting and polishing, President Bob McConnell said. The only requirement is that members "just like rocks." Membership is $10 a year for families and $7.50 a year for individuals.

The club meets at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of every month. Until June, meetings will be held at the Broadway Christian Church at 2601 W. Broadway in Columbia. McConnell described the meetings as both educational and entertaining, and said curious nonmembers are welcome to stop by.

"We're a group that welcomes anybody who's down to earth," McConnell said.

To join, call McConnell at 445-5415 or e-mail him at

Rock show 2009

The Central Missouri Rock and Lapidary Club will hold its annual rock show on May 7, 8 and 9 at the Boone County Fairgrounds. Members will be on hand selling, trading, demonstrating and displaying their collections.

Rocks on display

The Central Missouri Rock and Lapidary Club maintains and regularly updates two public displays in Columbia, McConnell said.

Those looking to see everything from dinosaur fossils to exotic minerals can find these displays at the Columbia Public Library or the Boone County Historical Society. McConnell said the popular and informative exhibits are generally updated each month.

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When asked about decorative stone-working, or the lapidary process, Barr couldn't resist a demonstration. A fellow club member loaned the veteran a silver-dollar-sized slab of leopardskin agate and Barr fired up one of the grinders the club had set up in club President Bob McConnell's Columbia greenhouse.

Barr pulled up a chair — his back was troubling him — and adjusted the flow of water across the grindstones to keep down the heat and dust.

He pushed the agate into the roughest of the machine's four whirling stones, carefully eyeing the template telling him the size needed for its future life as a belt buckle.

"I've been doing this for many years," Barr said, his clear, gentle voice nearly swallowed by the rasp of rock on silicon carbide. "It's good to get back and do a piece."

'Get the youngsters interested'

One Monday each month, the Central Missouri Rock and Lapidary Club's approximately 80 members meet and talk rocks. Last Saturday, many of the members and some nonmembers got together to grind and polish rocks, shoot the breeze and share their enthusiasm with a new generation of rock hounds.

"One of the main things is to try to get the youngsters interested," said Bob Tompson, 77, of Moberly. "That's the fun part."

A few feet away, Morgan Imhoff, 11, ground down the rough edge left when she used a diamond-edged saw blade to trim a chunk of petrified wood.

Morgan's mother, Lisa Imhoff, brought Morgan and her brother Garrett, 13, to the event.

Morgan said while she'd been collecting rocks for two or three years, Saturday was her first attempt at polishing them.

"It's fun to see how your rocks will end up polished and cut," Morgan said. "To find out if it has extra colors that'll come out."

Morgan said she was most impressed by the coral pink and pale blue stripes she found in a Lake Superior agate.

Her grandmother, Kate Kilgore, 63, of Moberly joined the club in September and helped stoke her grandchildren's enthusiasm for the hobby by purchasing an entire rock collection from an ailing club member.

"We had to start doing a lot of crash studies on minerals, agates, anything you can think of," Kilgore said.

Back to the grindstone

For folks like Barr who find their own rocks, the half-hour of cutting, grinding and polishing needed to prepare a decorative stone is the culmination of an exhausting odyssey for both rock hound and rock.

Rock hounding is such hard, dirty work that Barr joked he would have demanded a sizable salary for taking up the hobby if it hadn't been his own idea.

"If you're going to get a rock out the ground that's in pretty deep, you're going to have to do some diggin, and that's work," Barr said.

Finding a diamond in the rough makes up for all the limestone and pumice found in past digs. On Saturday, Barr showed off some of his holes-in-one: white rocks that he wears in a bolo tie with a matching belt buckle. He said the rocks are turritella fossils from Wyoming and are estimated to be 220 million to 400 million years old.

Barr recalled returning from field trips to fossil beds in Wyoming with his trunk so full of rocks that his rear axle almost scraped the pavement. He compared his eagerness to get out his diamond-tipped saw and begin a process similar to Christmas and Judgment Day: Either way you get presents, but as you work with the rocks, you find out if they are good or bad.

As the blade bit into the rocks he had spent hours digging and hauling across the country, Barr would learn whether he would end up with a shining centerpiece or a mythical mineral he called "leaveitrite," as in, "I wish I'd had the sense to 'leave it right' where I found it."

Born in Wright County, east of Springfield, Barr started rock-hunting after he left the Army Air Corps in 1945. After teaching vocational agriculture in southern Missouri, he and Jeanne Barr, his wife of 64 years, moved to Columbia around 1959. In Columbia, he brought his love of rocks to the classroom as an earth and life science teacher.

Vernon Barr's son, David, joined the club before he did, in the mid-'60s. In the beginning, Barr just dropped David off. Soon, he joined in the meetings. When David left rocks behind for junior high and the distractions that come with it, Barr and his wife stuck around. They were hooked. Forty-five years later, the rocks still haven't relinquished their grip.

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Marilyn Weise February 10, 2009 | 11:11 a.m.

Nice to see some more oldsters busy at my favorite hobby. I am a native Missourian (Moberly) and went to Mo 2 years ago to visit family and look for Mozarkite. Had to return to CA and look for it online...found from Lincoln Club and Mr Harms of Sedalia sent me some. Beautiful! Rocksters are great folks. Got involved when I found jade at Big Sur at age 67 and been busy ever since. Check out my club: Mother Lode Mineral Society online and see all we do. Club grew from 185 to almost 300 when we got a Jr Rockhound club started. I hang out with 80 and 90 year olds and we are busy and it is the best hobby. Keep going, Mr Barr! CAN YOU EVER HAVE ENOUGH ROCKS? Nope, Marilyn Weise, Oakdale, CA

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