Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hunting for opals in Spencer

Published in the Post Register July 19, 2009.
SPENCER – Ron Riley sits on a pile of rock, unlit cigar drooping from the side of his mouth, chisel in hand.

He works slowly, picking up grapefruit-sized rocks and looking them over, occasionally placing one down in front of him and breaking it open with his chisel and hammer. Then he dips it in a nearby bucket of water and gives it a closer inspection.

Riley is a rock hound from Del Rio, Texas. About 15 feet away, Peter Wilkinson from Gardiner, Montana, follows the same process. They are two of only four on the rock pile today behind the Spencer Opal Mines Shop & Cafe, which makes it a slow day in Spencer.

Riley and Wilkinson are working a stockpile of ore from the opal mine seven miles away owned and operated by A.J. and Claudia Couture and their family. There are several other mines adjacent to the Coutures’ and several other opal stores in Spencer, but only the Coutures operate a “mini-mine” in town and allow the public to actually go into their real mine to dig for opals.

Every few days, A.J. Couture hauls a dump-truck load of ore down from the mine and adds it to the pile. Anyone can work the pile for $10 a day ($5 for children). On busier days there can be 20 or more people going through the rock. One weekend a month, Couture opens the actual mountainside mine up to the public.

This day, in relative solitude on the rock pile, Riley waves his chisel in one hand and cigar in the other as he talks. He had a stroke three years ago, and he’s happy to be on the road again after a slow recovery.

“This is kind of my coming out,” he says. It’s been 15 years since he was last in Spencer, a tiny town of 40 souls just south of the Montana border known for its quality opals and one of the few gas and food stops on this stretch of I-15.

Claudia Couture has been in Spencer since 1968, a few years after her parents, Mark and Geraldine Stetler, bought the mine from the men who originally discovered it in 1948 while deer hunting.

Australia is the best-known source for high-quality opals around the world, with some 250,000 square miles of mines. The mines near Spencer, by comparison, cover a few dozen acres. Here, it’s about quality, not quantity.

“We have world-class opals here,” says Claudia Couture. “We probably have the highest concentration of opals in the world.”

If you just want to shop for opals and opal jewelry, you have your pick of several stores along Spencer’s only real street, all of which feature opals mined nearby. Most of the jewelry is made right there on site and the store owners are happy to tell you about the gems, the jewelry and the craft that brings them together.

Meanwhile, you’ll not get rich should you join Riley and Wilkinson on the rock pile, but there are worse ways to spend a day.

“The sun is out, it’s a beautiful day,” said Wilkinson. When reminded of the wind, he simply says, “Keeps it cool.”


  1. Hi, Just found your blog because I was wistfully looking for Pahsimeroi Valley, and then kept reading. Nice writing and I think we're probably the same age because I completely agree about the worst songs from '75, '76.
    Three summers ago I stopped with my two youngsters (yes, I'm an old mom) in Spencer to look for opals. It was dry, windy and they got hungry pretty quick. We found some promising bits of rock though. We went in to the diner, had lunch, looked at the shop a bit, filled the truck up with gas and loaded our special rocks into the back. We were headed north to find a new place to live, somewhere where summer temps never approach 105. But that's a different story.
    Thanks for the blog. I want to read about Dugout Dick and haven't found the article yet. - Pat

  2. Pat: Thanks for the note. The title of the Dugout Dick piece is "Call him Mr. Zimmerman." Since Dick passed last year his dugouts have been closed by the BLM, but they say they want to clean them up and make an interpretive site out of the. R.