Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society turns 75

By Sarah Brown
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

Treasure-hunting seems to be an innate inclination from an early age, a curiosity and sense of adventure that propels people to seek and find the hidden. It’s this drive that prompts both young and old to unearth one of the world’s most prolific treasures: rocks.

Best in Show award winner in 1959, top, was this display of polished petrified wood, fossils and more. Jess Emmert, president of the Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society that year, was honored with a “special” award for the display of polished spheres in the lower photo. An estimated 4,500 people attended the show that year.

For 75 years now, the Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society has made the perfect home for area residents passionate about geology. Now it’s gearing up for its 73rd annual (COVID-19 proved a two-year stumbling block) Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Show, a popular affair that draws thousands of people to the city.

The 2023 event runs Saturday and Sunday, April 1-2, in the activity gym at Sweet Home High School, 1641 Long St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Highlights include displays, demonstrations, vendors, children’s activities, raffles and food available for purchase.

Admission is 50 cents, with children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult. For more information, call (541) 451-2740 or (541) 451-1577.

What became the Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society began in 1948, attracting 25 aficionados to share their common interests. Attendance doubled to 51 by the second meeting, when plans were made to formalize the club, vote on a name and elect officers.

The fledgling group held its first annual banquet and rock show the following year, but limited attendance to its members. Among the displayed collections was an exhibit featuring a log truck fashioned from petrified wood.

In 1953 the Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society’s annual banquet filled the cafeteria at Sweet Home High School with 172 attendees. Some 3,000 people visited that weekend’s exhibit.

Then came a new decade and a new approach, when the event went public, drawing about 300 visitors. The numbers multiplied astronomically from there. An estimated 3,000 people showed up in 1953, and by 1969, as many as 6,000 visitors passed through. Today, the show attracts between 1,000 and 3,000 attendees.

Show chairperson and three-decade club member Joe Cota said 15 vendors will be on hand this year, and the club-sponsored rock auction will feature better rocks than it’s had in a while.

Club members have a pretty good idea where to look in Oregon, but some of their hunting grounds have been closed over the past several years. Member Ed Anderson said he hopes new recruits will join and offer hunting opportunities on their own land.

Like many of his peers, Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society President Rich Holt has liked rocks since his youth.

“I always collected them, had to bring some home and put them in a pile,” he said. “Oregon is such a great place because there’s so many different kinds of agates and jasper and petrified wood.”

Among his particular interests is petrified wood, and he said he’ll probably display some of his collection at the show. He admitted, though, that while he may be good at collecting rocks, he’s not so good about cutting or polishing them.

Rock show chairperson Joe Cota shows a raw thunder egg among a collection of polished specimens at his Lebanon store, Rock Castle.

Luckily, Cota, who owns the Rock Castle in Lebanon, provides those services, making rock-hunting a little easier for people who don’t want to travel too far or work too hard to find that special something. He was once like Holt and most other children who searched for that treasure beneath the dirt and hauled their discoveries home in pockets and wagons.

“It’s kind of like looking for gold,” he said. “You’re always looking for that special rock. It’s kind of the excitement of the hunt, and to find that perfect lam or perfect piece of agate. To me, that’s what it is.”

Cota continued his hobby while stationed in Germany during an Army stint. Following his service, he settled down with his wife, Lucy, and started learning lapidary work.

Today, his Rock Castle sells his lapidary treasures and glistens with all manner of colorful geodes, crystals, stones and gems. More inspired enthusiasts can pick raw specimens from an assortment of collections, take them home and discover the hidden delights themselves. They can also join the club to glean knowledge from experts.

First-time rock hunters might feel unsure about what to look for when kicking rocks around, but club members say they enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience. Cota noted that most newbies end up bringing home a lot of what he calls “leave-a-rights.”

Jackson Melvin shows off the arrowhead his grandfather just purchased from Dana Killian of Sunstones and Such in 2018.

“When you start, you’re picking up everything,” he said. “An old rockhound will say, ‘That’s a leave-a-right’: leave it right there because it’s worthless.”

The Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Society meets monthly in Lebanon, where most current members reside. The club holds a potluck at 6:30 p.m. every second Wednesday at Santiam Place, 139 S. Main St., Lebanon, followed by a 7 p.m. meeting. For more information, contact Rich Holt at (541) 760-0904 or Joe Cota at (541) 451-2740.