Early Tales From Tucson

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By Bob Jones

The early days of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show™ are full of history and are certainly the source of lots of odd and unusual tales.

I’ve been involved in the show for 60 of those years and watched it develop. I seriously doubt the rockhounds who founded the Show had any idea they were giving birth to one of the great mineral events of the world. The setting, the warm winter desert in a mineral-rich state and bordering, even more, mineral-rich Mexico has resulted in a truly amazing world renowned three-week event.

Helen Keeling Elementary School was where the first Tucson Gem and Mineral Show ™ was held in 1955.

The first Tucson Gem and Mineral Show™ was held in a school cafeteria with a handful of local dealers who paid a few dollars for a table on which to display their minerals. Fast forward more than 60 years, and today the City of Tucson is financially benefiting from about 50 different gem, mineral, and fossil shows spread out over three weeks. The period from late January to mid-February is the single most lucrative financial event time for Tucson. Few would argue that the Tucson Show has become the most famous gem and mineral event in the world.

I doubt the tens of thousands of visiting collectors and countless hardworking dealers who depend on the Show for much of their annual income, realize the Tucson event started at the suggestion of a Denver mineral dealer named Bob Roots. After finishing a gem show in Phoenix, Roots headed to Tucson to buy minerals from wholesale dealers and to also visit friends who were members of the Tucson Gem & Mineral Society (TGMS). He felt Tucson was perfectly positioned to have a mineral show, and he encouraged his Tucson friends to give it a try. They did, and Tucson’s world-famous mineral event was born.

I also doubt it’s widely recalled that the earliest mineral show in Tucson was held in April, and not February. That first show, held in 1955, was so popular that the next year the TGMS changed the show location, to a World War II Quonset hut at the County Fairgrounds.

Making the Best of Each Situation to Usher In Growth

As the show grew each year, an area for wholesale deals was added when the TGMS expanded the show to include a second nearby building. That second building was the cow barn, which had only just been used during the county fair. County crews had not yet cleaned the cow barn, so TGMS members, armed with brooms and shovels, did the job, spreading sawdust to absorb any liquid mess. Talk about a dusty venue! Wholesale dealers had a heck of a time just keeping their minerals clean during that show, and visitors had to deal with a very dusty atmosphere — but the wholesale event was a success!

The growing demand by dealers to be in Tucson during show season led to more and more sales in motels and on street corners. One dealer even rented an abandoned gas station across from the fairgrounds to conduct sales. The Holiday Inn, where the TGMS housed visiting lecturers, like Smithsonian’s Curator Paul Desautels, also attracted dealers, and eventually organized satellite shows began to appear.

Unexpected Evacuation

When the Show moved from the fairgrounds to the Tucson Convention Center, the nearby Desert Inn, which is no longer standing, quickly became the evening gathering place. Filled with dealers during show season, it served as a perfect social center, as dealers introduced new finds, friendships grew, and swapping of countless stories became traditional entertainment.

A certain new mineral discovery gave rise to one of the more memorable

In the early days mineral dealers would set up anywhere they could find space
in Tucson during show time.

Desert Inn stories. A dealer staying at the hotel had just received a large shipment of superb wire silver in calcite specimens from Batopilas, Mexico. The silver specimens needed cleaning, and the enclosing calcite had to be removed so fine silver wires would show. The dealer, pressed for time, bought gallons of pool acid (hydrochloric acid) and dumped it in his room’s bathtub immersing the calcite and silver specimens. Well, that certainly did the trick! The calcite dissolved, the silver wires were exposed, and as a result, the Desert Inn had to be evacuated because of the noxious fumes.

Another year just before showtime, as dealers were beginning to check into the hotels, a resident who had been convicted of a crime and granted a day to clear up financial affairs checked into the Desert Inn. Fearing incarceration, the man went to his room, climbed into bed, and ended his life.

Of course, the body was removed by police and the mess was tended to and the room cleaned. But, the motel owner, to save money, did not replace the mattress, which was greatly compromised. The mattress was just flipped over, and the room was rented to an unsuspecting mineral dealer. Sometimes the truth is truly more disturbing than fiction.

Elephant Incident

Another example of the unusual involved the year of the incident with the elephant. When the TGMS originally took over the Tucson Convention Center for the show, they did not use all of the space, including the arena. While the wholesale sales took place in a large room in the upper level of the center, the Main Exhibit Hall on the ground level housed the show. Next to the building, was the arena, which the city continued to lease or rent out for other events. Sporting events like ice hockey and basketball were held there.

In the early years, it was common practice for events to be booked into the Convention Center immediately before the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. But one year a serious problem arose.

That year the City of Tucson had booked a circus in the arena just before the Show. When it came time for the circus to move out on a Monday before crews began setting up for the mineral show, tragedy struck. One of the circus’ elephants died on the arena floor. Can you imagine having to move a deceased adult elephant in a hurry? The crews were able to remove the elephant, after much effort, just in time for the start of the Show. That situation convinced the TGMS Show Committee that it would be best to have the show occupy the arena as well.

The first year we used the arena, I volunteered to be the dealer chairman. Time was short, so it was a real scramble to fill that place. After that first year, things settled into a regular, and until now, undisturbed routine with a dealer waiting list.

Quick Response Relocation

In 2019, the Tucson Show added another chapter to the history of the arena. By this time, the City had given overall management of the Convention Center to a private company. The new management continued accepting bookings at the arena for basketball and hockey games and concerts, just before the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. Due to this schedule, the hockey ice is commonly left intact on the floor for use, even during the show. In the past, the ice was covered with a wooden deck, so the arena could be used for the Show.

It was Bob Roots, a mineral dealer from Denver, who suggested the TGMS have a mineral show, and the rest is history.

Such was the case during the February 2019 show. The arena floor was solid ice. Naturally, the Tucson Show Committee assumed the ice would be dealt with as usual. But the company managing the convention facility said the ice would remain and would be covered by temporary plywood covering, which required all tables and equipment to be carried in manually. This meant no motorized equipment could be used. How could a mineral show with heavy tables, metal curtain posts, and dealer suppliers be set up on such a weak floor? It was an impossible situation.

This left the TGMS Show Committee with a huge problem. The arena show had to be relocated. So, the Show Committee moved the dealers scheduled to be in the arena into another Convention Center area, the Grand Ballroom, which is off the main Galleria entrance. The American Gem Trade Association Show had ended a day or two before the Tucson Show, and with many sighs of relief, it worked out beautifully.

Last-Minute Ruling Keeps Show on Schedule

Another of the Tales from the Tucson Show archive saw the near cancellation or delay of the show, due to a pending court case. We did not find out until 9 am opening day of the show if the court would rule in our favor! Fortunately, the show did open on time, and the crowds of collectors entered the convention center to view the superb dealer exhibits.

The cause of this near delay/cancellation happened a year earlier, with a dispute over a dealer contract. Show contracts do not guarantee a dealer any future show space, only for the year of issue. One show dealer was not issued a contract the following year, so he sued to be allowed in. The matter went to court, and on opening day, with all of us standing around waiting, we finally got the phone call that the show could open on time!

Even before the Tucson Show opens each year the local motels are full of dealers. Motel reservations have to be made well in advance, which can be a bit of a challenge for visitors from other countries. As it happened, the curator of the Sorbonne, Paris asked a club member to make him a timely hotel reservation. The club member, fully intending to do it, forgot! When the French guest arrived, the only room available was at a motel named the “No Tell Motel?” Enough said!

The year I was chairman of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show™, Rock & Gem readers and I certainly benefited. For a dealer to have space in the Show, the dealer had to describe the business and send pictures, if available. If space was available, the dealer’s request would be considered. One local dealer sent in his information and photos, including one of exceptionally large selenite crystals in a cave setting. Naturally, I was curious, so I called him and was told the dealer had visited the cave in a silver mine in Mexico, which was full of giant crystals in a super-hot atmosphere. I asked if he could take me to the cave. He said he could, so I gave him a dealer space in the arena.

Later that spring, the dealer organized a cave visit for me, my wife Carol,

The Desert Inn was the main social gathering place in the early days of the Show.

son Evan, and friends Elva, and Benny Lee Fenn. The cave turned out to be full of the largest selenite crystals known, crystals over 40 feet long in a cave atmosphere of about 140 degrees and 95 percent humidity.

I wrote an article about our visit, which was published in the September 2001 issue of Rock & Gem. You also may have seen a report about this spectacular cave on the National Geographic television channel, as the Nat Geo team also entered the cave, about three years after our various visits.

I’ll keep collecting Tales of Tucson, as I’m fairly certain future Tucson Gem and Mineral Show™ will continue to produce fascinating stories.