Burnie’s Rock Shop Madison, Wisconsin

Burnie's Rockshop

Burnie’s Rockshop

For all those curious about the ancient world of minerals, here is the sweet lowdown on lapidary. Collecting and learning about the geological landforms of the earth can be a fun, educational and outdoorsy hobby. Similar to most life pursuits, you will need a starting point, and no Wisconsin shop is more equipped to help do it than Burnie’s Rock Shop, where people have been gabbing about gems since 1963.

The majority of rock collectors are aesthetes,” said Nevin Franke, owner of Burnie’s Rock Shop. “Some like the looks and some have a technological interest. For me, it’s all the above, and there’s a sentimental value to it.”

Mineral collecting is a hobby requiring one to learn and study. It can be a lifelong endeavor and the neophyte’s smartest approach would be to cozy up to experienced lapidarists. Rock lovers, like Nevin, are eager to share their knowledge of minerals and explain what makes a certain rock distinct.

Hundreds of rock and mineral clubs exist in the country as solid reference sources. If you are interested in rock hounding, the Madison Gem and Mineral Club, is a fine place to learn, listen and tag along. It meets monthly at the Geology and Science Hall at UW and welcomes new members. Founded in 1962, it was chartered by Burnie Franke, the same year his son Nevin was born.

“The club has had outings nearby on the edge of town at limestone quarries and gone to Ontario, and to sapphire mines in Philipsburg and Helena, Montana,” said Nevin.

Essential ingredient number one, said Nevin, is finding a good resource guide to help identify your finds. Field publications such as Roadside Geology of Wisconsin are chock full of data, maps and graphs. GPS oriented guides make things even simpler for newcomers by eliminating the hassle of trying to comprehend arcane topo maps.

Burnie at work

Nevin Franke at the grinding machine

“After you’ve got the books, taking a mentor with you is the best way to have a good start,” said Nevin. “You want to be with somebody who will show you their favorite spots and is happy to help.”

Once you have rounded up some field guides and a few friends, you will need to purchase a standard-issue, 22-ounce rock hammer and rock chisel, a short pry bar, gloves, and a pair of safety goggles to protect your eyes. Then you can start whacking away.

“It’s a real inexpensive way to experience the out of doors with family and friends,” said Nevin.
Other optional accouterments, which tend to make rock-hounding excursions more enjoyable and safe, and a little less stressful, include a backpack to plop your specimens in, a compass, and a big water jug, as junkets tend to take place during warmer months.

Rock hounding enables outside adventuring and it usually inspires hounders to try other new things, such as stone carving, or bead and jewelry making. It keeps enthusiasts engaged – physically and socially – whether it is through traveling to new dig sites or conversing and trading with like-minded lapidarists at mineral shows and rock swaps. The ethics of rock collecting are simple and quite similar to the principles of other outdoor-based pursuits. Don’t trash a site, litter, trespass, or pilfer protected areas.

As far as attractive local haunts, Devil’s Lake State Park is a standout geologic feature worthy of exploration. Other close by beauties are the 1,700- million-year-old sandstone deposits in the Baraboo Range and the Wisconsin Dell’s 14,000-year-old glacially carved sandstone beds.

If you don’t want to go personally plucking rocks, well, that shouldn’t prohibit you from reconnecting to that natural rock collecting spirit you had as a frisky, muddy little kid. The vast majority of Burnie’s inventory comes from vendors, importers and mine owners, and visitors are greeted with everything from Montana agates, Russian garnets, Moroccan fluorites, Chinese pyrites, Brazilian rutilated quartz, and Czech orpiment. Some of the inventory is perhaps as old as the soil it was discovered in, like the late Cambrian, Paleozoic trilobite fossils, estimated by Nevin, to be at least three quarters of a billion years old.

Whether you are interested in collecting rocks and minerals straight from the depths of the earth or purchasing them at a familiar 901 East Johnson Street favorite, just remember that the rock itself may not always be cherished as warmly as the experience of the hunt.

“The rock is often secondary to the time you had searching,” said Nevin. “So, go and have fun—you have to start somewhere. With rock hounding, wherever you start is the right place.”

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