The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum on Main Street in Bethel is set to open Dec. 12. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A new museum boasting the five largest lunar meteorites found on Earth and likely the largest and best collection of Maine minerals and gems ever assembled will open next month in what might seem like an unlikely place – the picturesque Main Street in the tiny resort town of Bethel.

The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, set to open Dec. 12, was founded by Larry Stifler and Mary McFadden, a Massachusetts couple who began coming to western Maine in the 1970s, became enamored of the area’s rich mineral mining history and began collecting all manner of rocks, from precious gems to fallen meteorites.

The 14,000-square-foot museum will display more than 100 gemstones, 2,000 minerals and 250 meteorites. There will be a specimen from the state’s – and what’s believed to be the country’s – first reported tourmaline find on Mount Mica in the town of Paris in 1820, the year Maine became a state. Tourmaline has since been named the official state gemstone and is sold around the world. Most of the meteorites on display are from asteroids, but some are known to have fallen from Mars and the moon. Of the five largest lunar meteorites, one weighs more than 120 pounds.

The museum stands out not only for its location in a small Maine town known for quaint inns and outdoor recreation, rather than a major city or university campus, but because of the rarity of what’s on display. Maine’s state geologist, Robert Marvinney, says it’s an “exceptional” collection of Maine minerals and gems, likely “the best in the world.” Alan Rubin, geology professor and curator of the meteorite collection at the University of California Los Angeles, says the sheer mass of the museum’s lunar meteorites, including the five largest-known specimens, “is far greater than of any other museum or private collection” he’s aware of.

“There are specimens of Maine minerals and gems in the Smithsonian, at Harvard, but this will be the biggest collection to focus on Maine anywhere,” said Marvinney. “I’m very eager for it to open.”

A LOVE OF THE LAND

The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum’s focus on Maine’s mining history and its location are, in part, due to land prices in neighboring New Hampshire. Stifler, 78, grew up in Baltimore and went to college at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. His primary work was in health care, as the founder of a company that focused on obesity and at-risk patients called Health Management Resources, which he sold in 2013. But he also had a passion for land conservation and bought up parcels in New Hampshire to create preserves that could be used for hiking and other recreation. Stifler said northern New Hampshire, because of development, was getting too expensive, so in the 1970s he began buying land in western Maine, which now comprises some 11,000 acres and 70 miles of public trails in a preserve they call Northern Retreat. He and McFadden have a vacation home in Albany Township and otherwise live in the Boston area.

Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler, founders of the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum. Photo courtesy of the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum

While buying land in Maine, they learned about the area’s rich mineral mining history, including in tiny towns like Greenwood, Albany and West Paris, where feldspar was mined for porcelain manufacturing and tourmaline and other gemstones are still mined for collectors and the jewelry business. They started collecting Maine minerals and gems in a big way, which sparked an interest in collecting meteorites as well.

Stifler and McFadden bought a tract of land that included the Bumpus Mine, which had produced feldspar and the gemstone beryl beginning in the 1920s. Like many mineral mines in the hills and mountains of western Maine, it was discovered on farmland. While most Maine mineral mines are open-pit types, mined with a combination of drilling, blasting and excavation, the Bumpus Mine also has some tunnels into the hillside. Stifler and McFadden have been bringing school groups to the mine for years, something that helped spur the couple’s interest in starting a museum.

Planning for the museum began more than a decade ago. The hiring of full-time staff from around the country began around 2011. The museum’s curator, Carl Francis, had retired as curator of Harvard’s Mineralogical and Geological Museum and was excited to be part of a new museum being built from the ground up. The museum’s three-person mineral research staff had all worked together at the University of New Orleans, and after being notified their positions would be cut, all accepted offers to work for the new Bethel museum. They brought some of their own equipment, but also were given new equipment in a state-of-the-art lab in the museum’s basement. The researchers at the museum have a focus on pegmatites, the rock masses in western Maine hills where pockets of gems and minerals are found.

Museum officials wouldn’t say how much money has been spent over the years amassing the collection – some 40,000 rocks, minerals and fossils, plus several thousand meteorites – and creating the museum. Barbra Barrett, the museum’s executive director, said it was a “multimillion-dollar project” that involved donations and fundraising efforts, which will continue. Admission costs $10 to $15 and is free for children 12 and under.

WHAT LIES BENEATH

The museum displays are on two floors, in a structure that includes a renovated 1880s Odd Fellows hall, a former real estate office and new construction. Many of the exhibit spaces are long and relatively narrow, like tunnels or paths through the mountains, creating a visual and audio journey through Maine’s 200-year history of gem and mineral mining. An exhibit near the beginning of the journey shows impressive specimens of some of the iconic gems and minerals found in Maine – amethyst, aquamarine, beryl, tourmaline – along with information on some of the major locations where they’ve been found. On display is some of the tourmaline that was found in 1820 at Mount Mica by Ezekiel Holmes and Elijah Hamlin, which made people aware of the rich mineral and gem pockets in Maine. It is on loan from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Fred Bailey, facilities and collections director at Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, holds a pink beryl specimen while putting the final touches on a display case. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As visitors wind through the museum’s halls and galleries, there are video interviews with people who worked with minerals in Maine, including people who mined and people who worked in feldspar processing plants. There’s also a video on a movie-size screen of actors simulating blasting in an open-pit mineral mine in the 1950s, explaining the process step by step.

Technology is used throughout the museum, including touch screens that let people read about the histories, locations and other details of many of the minerals and gems on display. By using interactive media, the museum can offer a lot more information than by trying to cram everything onto small exhibit labels, said Barrett.

Companies hired to implement the design and exhibits include Paulus Design Group of Bath and Washington D.C., whose clients include the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service, and 1220 Exhibits in Nashville, which installed exhibits at The Country Music Hall of Fame and The National Civil Rights Museum.

One exhibit is a recreation of Perham’s Maine Mineral Store in West Paris, which was owned by Maine’s best-known mineral mining family and served as the state’s de facto mineral museum for some 90 years, until it closed in 2009. The museum also acquired the collection of the store, which was owned by Jane Perham when it closed, and that of miner Frank Perham, Jane’s brother. Together, they represent several thousand pieces.

The Perhams’ grandfather had accidentally discovered feldspar on his property more than 100 years ago, and the family was instrumental in opening a feldspar processing plant in West Paris village, said Frank Perham, 85. Mining for feldspar, which was used in stoves and toasters because of its resistance to heat, led to the discovery of other gems and minerals, like tourmaline and quartz, Perham said.

Perham himself mined for much of his life, while also running an auto garage. He and others in the area sold to jewelers – Cross Jewelers in Portland specializes in Maine tourmaline – and to collectors. Perham said that tourmaline cut up might have brought a price of $100 a carat, but that a large 6-inch crystal might have brought him $40,000 at certain times, given the right buyer. He hasn’t been to the museum yet but is planning to go soon.

The story the museum tells has not ended, as mineral mining continues in western Maine today. One modern-day miner is Jeff Morrison, who owns the Havey Tourmaline Quarry in Oxford County. He’s happy the museum is telling people about the gems and minerals found in Maine and the people who work to bring them to light. One interactive map of Maine in the museum literally brings to light all the places where mineral and gem deposits are found in the state at the push of a button.

“There are probably more people outside of these Maine towns who know about (the mines) than the people who live here,” said Morrison. “Mineral collectors all over know about these mines.”

WHAT SOARS ABOVE

After a visitor is done meandering through the gem and mineral displays, there’s a separate meteorite gallery to explore. A video and audio presentation lights up the gallery with images of planets, meteorites and outer space, accompanied by music and narration. Although most of the meteorites are from asteroids that fell to Earth, some are from the moon and Mars, as determined by an analysis of their makeup. On display will be the four largest pieces of the moon on Earth, museum staff and other scientists said. There’s another large one in storage.

The Maine Mineral & Gem Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of lunar meteorites, including the world’s largest specimen in the center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The pieces of  the moon didn’t exactly fall. When asteroids hit the moon, creating the famous craters we all know about, pieces of the moon get catapulted into space. The same happens with Mars. The lunar and Martian meteorites in the museum’s collection have been listed in scientific journals and are well known to meteorite experts, said Rubin, the curator of UCLA’s meteorite collection.

Many of the meteorites at the museum were found in the deserts of northern Africa, where there aren’t a lot of trees and brush to obscure them, said Barrett. Stifler and the museum bought many of the meteorites from Darryl Pitt, a New York-based meteorite dealer and collection curator who works directly with meteorite hunters in Africa. For some idea on the value of these objects, a 12-pound lunar meteorite found in northwest Africa in 2017 was auctioned in Boston a year later for $612,500. Pendants and rings with small pieces of tourmaline can sell for $2,000 or more at jewelry stores. Other gemstones on display at the museum include amethyst, aquamarine and quartz. The museum also has a gift shop selling jewelry with Maine gems, some created by Maine artisans.

Though valuable, not everything in the museum is hands-off. Barrett said museum docents have been told it’s OK to have pieces of meteorites on hand for school kids to touch. And as part of the grand opening weekend, the first 200 kids to enter the museum on Dec. 14, with an adult, get a small piece of a meteorite, plus a certificate of authenticity.

For the past several years, while the museum was under construction, local school groups were invited to come and experience parts of the collection. Lydia Eusden, a fifth-grade teacher from Hebron Station School, brought her class to the museum in 2016 as part of a lesson on Earth’s place in the universe. She said many of her students had never been to a museum before and found the experience, especially holding pieces of the universe in their hands, “mind-blowing.” The one negative came later in the day, back at school, when it was time to wash up for snacks. The children said they didn’t want the water to rinse the moon from their hands, Eusden said.

“It really is one of the greatest pleasures of my job, handing a group of kids a piece of the moon or Mars and just watching the wonder ooze right out of their pores,” Barrett said.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: