Arkansas state park offers opportunity to strike it rich

Visitors to ancient volcano site can keep any diamonds they find

November 08, 2006|By Miguel Bustillo | Miguel Bustillo,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MURFREESBORO, ARK. -- His friends razzed him. His wife rolled her eyes. But whenever Bob Wehle could get away, the warehouse manager from Wisconsin would head to the Crater of Diamonds in search of treasure.

Last month, Wehle was sifting soil through a stainless steel screen when he picked up a peculiar pebble. It was gleaming, and the color of a lemon drop.

"Now that is a diamond!" he recalled hollering. It was a serious sparkler indeed: a 5.47-carat canary yellow gem of unusual clarity. He called it Sunshine.

"My wife, she's OK with this now," Wehle, 36, said with a chuckle. "My friends, they're not laughing at me anymore."

The discovery of Sunshine was another glittering chapter in the legend of Arkansas' Crater of Diamonds State Park, one of the more unusual public attractions in America.

For a $6 fee, visitors can scour the mouth of an ancient volcano in search of a priceless stone. Most days one or two get lucky, as a 9-year-old from Illinois did this spring when she scooped up a clear white diamond with her toy shovel and named it Sparkles. The 50,000 people who visit each year find ground rules that are tantalizingly simple: finders keepers.

"It's like going to Las Vegas and pulling the lever on a slot machine," said Alan Opel, 58, of Monrovia, summarizing the park's appeal after a day of mucking through the mud in vain. "Only here, the chance to hit the jackpot costs a whole lot less."

Since an illiterate farmer named John Huddleston found what he called "diamints" here a century ago while preparing to plant turnips, this gravelly, greenish patch of dirt about two hours from Little Rock has yielded more than 75,000 diamonds: shimmering marvels worth thousands as well as brownish stones too cloudy to cut into jewels. It continues to attract dreamers in search of instant riches; cheapskate fiances desperate for free engagement diamonds; and die-hard rockhounds yearning to uncover a gem so precious that it will grant them immortality.

Typical of the tourists fantasizing over finding "retirement rocks" were Brandon and Harmonee Sanchez. After watching a television report on Sunshine, the young couple - she sells homes; he sells ads for a phone directory - jumped into their car and drove six hours that night from Oklahoma City to Murfreesboro.

The next morning, they enthusiastically raked the diamond field and picked up one glimmering rock after another. After 45 minutes, they were exhausted - and excited. They named the largest An-gem-lina Diamond in honor of actress Angelina Jolie, and were preparing for lives of fame and fortune. But when Brandon and Harmonee showed the stones to park officials, they learned that they had found worthless quartz.

"She said she was having a lot more fun when she thought quartz were diamonds," said Brandon, 29.

Tiny Murfreesboro (pop. 1,800) long ago capitalized on the public's fascination with precious stones. Restaurants and souvenir shops that ring the old courthouse at the center of town, and hotels such as the Queen of Diamonds Inn and Diamond John's Riverside Retreat, cater to starry-eyed tourists

The state park also features a campground, a small water park, a shop that sells gems and diamond-themed knickknacks, and booths where prospectors can rent shovels and screens. Many families bring picnic baskets for a daylong outing.

Diamonds often are spotted right on the surface, especially after a hard rain washes dirt off the stones. But most are found through a laborious process: scooping buckets of dirt, sifting it through screens, and scanning the gravel.

"The fact is that most of the material that comes from there is not very valuable; the diamonds are clouded," said William G. Underwood, 74, a Fayetteville jeweler who was the first certified gemologist in Arkansas.

Still, most of the major diamonds found in the United States were found at the park, providing plenty for amateur diggers to dream about.

Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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