Popular American rockhounding began in the 1930s. Native Americans and other amateur geologists had collected, carved, and polished stones of various sorts, but electrification and automobility pushed a new mass of rock-hungry hobbyists into the mountains and deserts of the American West, where myriad varieties of agate, jasper, petrified wood, and other precious stones were waiting to be picked up. Rock and gem clubs were eventually established throughout the country, publishing news of "agate rushes" and other geoevents in newsletters with such names as Tourma Lines, Chert Chatter, Alaska Pebble Patter, and Rockhound's Bark.
Social and natural forces converged to foster the hobby. The rise of the westward family vacation was important, as was road building and other heavy construction, which exposed new kinds of rock to human eyes. The Great Depression played an interesting role, as people fleeing unemployment ended up wandering the canyons, quarries, and ploughed fields of California and other areas of the west looking for whatever gems they could turn into jewelry and an extra buck. Many of these early rock hounds set up rock shops along popular desert highways where vacationers might stop in.
After World War II, some of these first-generation rock hounds began to share their knowledge in popular "how-to" gem-cutting guides, giving simple instructions on rock tumbling, metal craft, and the use of the diamond saw and silicon carbide grinding wheels for gem cutting. "Gem trail" field manuals were also published—at least fourteen in the 1950s alone—usually with crudely drawn maps to appeal to the treasure hunter. Rockhounding came to be regarded as a wholesome, instructive, and to some extent patriotic activity, as when amateurs were urged to prospect for radioactive rocks for sale to the Atomic Energy Commission.
In 1963, there were an estimated 3,000 rock shops and 900 gem and mineral clubs in the United States, many of which were listed in the Rockhound Buyer's Guide, published annually by the Lapidary Journal (founded in 1947). Ready-made saws, laps, tumblers, and templates were available from companies like Covington, Frantom, and Highland Park. Whereas rock hounds were, prior to about 1940, primarily adults who had built their own equipment, postwar rock hounds were often teens or even preteens who could now purchase equipment on a modest budget. Lelande Quick, in his 1963 The Book of Agates and Other Quartz Gems, proclaimed rockhounding "a great leveler of people" (pp. 84–85).
America's rock hound romance peaked in the early 1960s, when the Bureau of Land Management estimated there were 3 million American rock hounds in the country. A 1972 pamphlet declared there to be at least one rock shop for every western town with a population above a thousand, though by this time the hobby was already showing signs of decline. Television was taking its toll, and people were beginning to wonder whether grinding a lot of rocks in their garage or basement was a healthy way to spend their time. Many of the early "easy" rock-gathering sites were becoming exhausted, and military expansion and privatization were closing access to other sites. Commercial and urban development also destroyed many sites. The coastal towns of Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach in southern California, for example, used to be popular spots for collecting; both sites became barren, since the building of breakwaters and boat harbors altered the tidal action that once tossed stones onto the shore. Mining laws and machines also limited many sites. Liability laws made mine owners reluctant to allow gem hunters onto their property, and new kinds of mining techniques—such as the crushers that break up Lake Superior gravel—destroy many gems before they are ever seen. Many once-beloved rockhounding sites have been bought up by ranchers or retirees who frown upon collecting: tire tycoon Les Schwab, for example, purchased the Teeter Ranch of central Oregon, home to Teeter Plume Agate, and permitted no mining. Many interesting rocks were out of reach within areas protected by the Wilderness Protection or Wild Rivers Acts, both of which barred collecting.
One positive sign for rock hounds was the establishment of rock hound state parks (for example, at Deming in New Mexico), where collectors were guaranteed the right to dig in perpetuity (using only hand tools). Rock hounds were also still able to use their "silver picks" at gem shows and rock hound gatherings in places such as Quartzsite and Tucson, and in virtual commercial spaces such as eBay. The idea of rockhounding as some kind of familial glue or escape from the mundane now seems quaintly archaic, judging from the (interestingly apocalyptic) paean to the hobby authored by Ellis Wilhite of Deep River, Iowa, in 1965:
Will there still be any people in a thousand years or so,
To be strictly on the level, I'll admit that I don't know,
But if there's one survivor, and he's a rockhound tried and true,
He will burst if he finds something, and [has] no one to show it to.
Fry, Paul. Meanderings of a Montana Rockhound. Miles City, Mont.: Paul Fry, 1972.
Proctor, Robert N. "Anti-Agate: The Great Diamond Hoax and the Semiprecious Stone Scam." Configurations 9 (2001): 381–412.
Quick, Lelande. The Book of Agates and Other Quartz Gems. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1963.
Wilhite, Ellis. "Out of the Dinosaur's Gizzard." Rocks and Minerals (August 1965): 593.
Zeitner, June Culp. Midwest Gem Trails. Portland, Or.: Mineralogist Publishing Company, 1956.