Story and Photos by Helen Serras-Herman
The town of Quartzsite is located near the western border of Arizona. It’s at the crossroads of the east-west corridor between Phoenix and Los Angeles, and the north-south passage, which follows the Colorado River, towards Lake Havasu City to the north and Yuma to the south.
During the hot summer months, Quartzsite is a quiet place with about 4,000 year-round residents. That population explodes in the winter months, to over one million; making Quartzsite a spirited oasis in the desert and the destination for many rockhounds and lapidaries from every corner of the world. Some winter visitors- the snowbirds as the locals call them, come with their motorhomes and stay for 4-6 months, while others rush through the town for a few days. My husband and I fall into the latter category, as we usually visit Quartzsite for two to three days.
Winter Destination for Rockhounds
Quartzsite takes center stage in January, a couple weeks before the big gem and mineral shows in Tucson. During the months of January and February, Arizona become a spotlight for all rockhounds, mineral collectors, gem enthusiasts, and jewelry lovers. Visitors come mainly for the gem and mineral shows, but they also enjoy side trips to museums, guided tours of copper mines, and explorations of the rugged landscapes that made the West famous.
The mild winter climate fosters this annual trek for many visitors. Although some years we have been surprised by nature’s fury with intense rainstorms in Quartzsite and Tucson that flood the tents and almost paralyze the shows. However, usually, we enjoy the traditional desert weather- sunny and warm days and clear and crisp nights. Sometimes the night temperature drops below freezing, and the water in the tubs with slabs becomes ice-cold.
This makes it almost impossible to put your hands in and sort. As many attendees have limited time, they are anxious to start their show routes early in the morning but soon find out that cold nights command a slow start in the morning for the outdoor vendors.
However, when the sun is shining, it fuels a laid-back, no-pressure atmosphere that everyone enjoys. Dealers sit under their tents waiting for customers, and shoppers stroll along the aisles, some walking leisurely, others briskly; often with their pets straddling along with them or inside unique strollers.
Miner, Dealer, Buyer Annual Reunion
My husband, Andrew, and I have attended the Quartzsite shows since 1997. Some vendors will go on to the subsequent Tucson shows to sell, but several of them will never go to the “big city.” There are miners and dealers that only come to Quartzsite, and buyers come back annually to see them. We, like so many other visitors, enjoy the free admission to all shows, the free no-hassle parking, and no need for trade registration.
About 2,000 vendors go to Quartzsite every year to sell rocks, minerals, gems, fossils, and jewelry. Setting up outside is not easy for the dealers. Besides the unpredictable weather, dust covers everything and it is a daily, never-ending chore to keep the bins and displays clean. Vendors also have to secure their merchandise, tables, and tents every night, not only against theft but primarily against potential rain or wind damage.
Years ago we shared an outside booth with a friend, and almost every night we had to pack everything away. One year, the storms were so bad that the only thing we did was sit inside the cafeteria, chat and watch the wind and rain. Also, upon our return home, we had to wipe every rock, clean every bin, and replace every label that faded in the sunlight, all results of the “fun” of exhibiting outside.
Altogether there are about 10 shows in Quartzsite from late December to late February. But the main event that brings the most visitors into town is the Annual QIA Pow-Wow (the Quartzsite Improvement Association- the equivalent of a gem & mineral society — http://www.qiaarizona.org/PowWow.html).
Taking In the QIA Pow-Wow
The 53rd Annual Pow-Wow will take place Wednesday, January 16 through Sunday, January 20, 2019, at the QIA’s year-round building and property on 235 E. Ironwood Street. Besides the many vendors at this show (some are indoors but the vast majority is outside) visitors can expect to see at least 50 exhibit showcases, always filled with wonderful private collections. The specimens are often with very unique, and some of which are available for sale. A visit to the QIA Pow-Wow will be unforgettable. Even the short ride from the parking lot to the show is done in a unique carriage: a tractor-pulled wagon, courtesy of QIA If you have time, field trip attire and tools, you can join the club for special rockhounding trips.
Every time we are in Quartzsite I look forward to the surprise of treasures that fall anywhere between the new and remarkable, the unusual and rare, and the intriguing and the bizarre. It may be a small slab with an unusual pattern or a large rock with great slabbing potential. It also may be one strand of gemstone beads that I don’t have or a whole bag of tumbled rock. One specimen from a new find, or a whole tray, which becomes ours either because we tried to bring the average price down, or we simply couldn’t resist. And the hunt continues….
I also love looking at the stacks of rock boulders, huge carvings, whole logs of petrified wood, and heaps of reconstituted turquoise. I enjoy sorting through piles of lapidary rough materials, and slabs, slabs, slabs of all types. The quantity of these items, resting on the ground or on tables buckling under their weight, is mind-boggling! Finished jewelry, beads, and cabochons of every quality and style are everywhere. New and used lapidary equipment and tools are also offered by several dealers.
In addition, I love talking to dealers about their new materials and photographing some of their outstanding specimens. But, what makes me most eager to attend the Quartzsite event, is the opportunity to visit with friends, dealers, and fellow artists, especially the ones I only see there.
We talk about our experiences and adventures of the past year, swap stories and exchange tips and techniques. A great socializing spot is the all-volunteer run cafeteria at the QIA Pow-Wow, where we rest between shopping and enjoy home-style cooked meals served every day for lunch and dinner. Furthermore, if you are looking for something to grab and go there is a quick service window offering sandwiches, delicious chili, and pie. This is probably the best place to grab a bite in Quartzsite. Sitting in this area for a spell gives us the opportunity to catch up with our friends, make new ones, and talk about our finds.
Just ahead of the QIA Pow-Wow is another exciting event in the Desert Gardens Gem, Mineral & Jewelry Show. Now in its 20th year, there is always a considerable number of lapidary rough and slabs offered.(http://desertgardensrvpark.net/DGShowRGMShow.html).
Show Attendance Tips
It is always a good idea to plan your itinerary ahead of your travel. For a complete listing of the shows in Quartzsite, visit www.xpopress.com and download a free copy of the Quartzsite EZ-Guide. Or, pick up a printed copy at any show or the Chamber of Commerce in Quartzsite.
Think about what you want to buy, the shows you want to attend, and plan your days
accordingly. As the vast majority of the Quartzsite shows are outdoors, I cannot stress enough how important it is to wear comfortable shoes, a hat and sunscreen, carry water, and take breaks. Be prepared for cool, cold, colder or warm weather. That’s the desert in the winter. Be prepared to walk a lot of miles in the dusty aisles of the shows.
Also remember to keep detailed notes of what you are looking at or buying- which show, what item, what price, which dealer, what booth number, what day. At the end of the day or after a few days, it all becomes a blur, and if you want to go back and visit a dealer or order from them at a later date, those notes will be your life-savers.
Having a camera or your cell phone is smart, but always check the show’s policy and ask for permission before you take photos of booths, merchandise, and dealers.
Even though the shows in Quartzsite do not require a trade license to get in, if you own a business, it is always a good practice to bring your Business License or Tax ID Certificate. Not to mention, it helps to have many business cards, money in different forms - credit cards, cash, and business checks, as you may encounter different demands and deals.
Finally, have patience. If you are coming in at peak time, traffic on the Interstate exit ramps can be a gridlock, as there are only stop signs on the bridges. Lots of patience is also required when waiting about an hour in line for dinner at the few restaurants in town.
Coming into the town of Quartzsite from all entrances visitors are welcomed by the recently erected artistic town signs that offer a glimpse of the town’s history. The pyramid and camels have become iconic symbols for the town, reflecting the story of a camel driver that brought camels into the American desert.
Every year we take a short break from shopping and visit a landmark or a museum. If you have not seen the “Hi Jolly” monument in the middle of town, dedicated by the Governor of Arizona in 1835, make sure you do. It is a unique pyramid monument with a copper camel on the top that marks the gravesite of a camel driver for the U.S Army Corps named Philip Tedro, or Hadji Ali, known by his anglicized name Hi Jolly. After the camel experiment was abandoned in 1861, he became a prospector, and moved to Quartzsite where he married, and died penniless in 1902 at the age of 75.
Although Quartzsite itself was not a mining town, it was surrounded by many mining camps. In search of placer gold, hundreds of individual prospectors swamped the areas around Quartzsite in the 1860’s and later.
At the time, water was a precious commodity and was being hauled and delivered to the mines for a hefty price of $1 to $5 per barrel. Miners prospected mostly for gold, but also for silver, kyanite, copper, and lead. The 1864 census, the first one in the territory of Arizona, showed one out of every four residents reported their profession as miner or prospector.
Exploring Arizona's Early Gold Mining
If you want to learn more about Arizona’s early gold mining history, and how gold’s $35 fixed price per ounce after WWII made many of the mines unprofitable, head to the Tyson’s Well Stage Station Museum. The museum is located at 161 Main Street, steps away from the QIA Pow-Wow show.
The Tyson’s Well Stage Station Museum is housed in the original adobe stagecoach station built in 1866 by Charles Tyson. The station served as an important watering stop for the stagecoaches and freighters carrying mining equipment and supplies to the mines and the army from the river port at Ehrenberg on the Colorado River. Miners came up the Colorado River in steamboats and either stayed in Arizona or crossed over into California heading to the gold fields. The stop provided good water and “crude” passenger accommodations.
The Station even housed the post office from 1893 until 1895. For several years it was the town’s grocery store, and lodging and food source for the local saloons. Around 1900 it became the Oasis Hotel, but over the years it was neglected. That is until 1972 when the Rice family donated the lot with the Stage Station for a museum to be built. After extensive building restoration, the museum opened in 1980. It is operated by the Quartzsite Historical Society, and the wonderful volunteers are eager to share their knowledge.
A wealth of information is available at a new exhibit about all the mines of the area. The Cinnabar Mine, 10 miles south of Quartzsite produced quicksilver ore, which is valuable because gold and silver would adhere to it. The Copper Bottom Mine was 10 miles southwest of Quartzsite in the Cunningham Mountains. The Farrar Gulch Mine, 10 miles west of Quartzsite, was allegedly one of the richest placer gold mines. One nugget found there weighed 47 ½ pounds. Over $4 million in metal was dug out from the King of Arizona Mine (KOFA), operating from 1896-1910. The mine was so rich, that the mill had to be stopped every few hours to remove the gold from the plates.
Celebrating Heritage and History
More photos and information are exhibited about the Goodenough Mine, Mariquita, Moon Mountain, Gold Nugget mines, Bonanza Mine, Castle Dome Mining District, and the Cienega District. An area map of historical mines shows 29 mines around Quartzsite. The extensive photographic record of the mines draws the visitor into the area’s history of sweat, tears, successes, and failures of mining gold, lead, and mercury.
Photographic portraits of Quartzsite’s famous citizens are also on display. I particularly
liked the early photo of Hi-Jolly and his bride, as well as the humorous print of the “Rules of Stagecoach Etiquette”, that gives a glimpse of what stagecoach passengers could or could not do, regarding smoking, chewing tobacco, spitting, abstinence from liquor, rough language and firearms.
We were truly impressed with this little museum brimming with mining history, and the quality of the displays and the treasure-trove of information about old mining camps. There is a great display of mining equipment inside and outside the museum, among them the Assay Office from the Mariquita Mine, containing assay and mining equipment from local mines.
There is no admission fee to the Tyson’s Well Stage Station Museum, although donations are always appreciated. The museum is open from November through March 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
So, let’s pack our gear and get ready for the hunt for rocks and history in Quartzsite.
Author: Helen Serras-Herman
A 2003 National Lapidary Hall of Fame inductee, she is an acclaimed gem sculptor and gemologist with over 35 years of experience in unique gem sculpture and jewelry art.