Book Review:
Exploring and Mining Gems & Gold in the West (Fred Rynerson)

Reviewed by Richard Busch

Lithosphere (September 1995); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

William Rynerson brought his family to California in 1885, when his son Fred was only 3 years old. Ten years later Fred held a gem tourmaline crystal in his hand for the first time. In 1902, a 20-year-old Fred read a newspaper account of a "Great Gem Discovery" at Mesa Grande, California, whereupon he moved to San Diego. For the next 54 years of his life, Fred Rynerson was a prospector, tourmaline/topaz/gold miner, jeweler, lapidary, oil well driller, and explorer of gem and mineral deposits in southern California and southwestern Arizona. Exploring and Mining Gems & Gold in the West is the autobiographical account of his adventures, discoveries, and thoughts during this latter 54-year period of his life.

These days, in the 1990s, we tend to think nothing of piling into a 4-wheel-drive vehicle and traveling to remote collecting sites in air-conditioned comfort -- grabbing refreshment at our choice of various fast food restaurants along the way. None of these conveniences existed when Fred Rynerson started prospecting and mining in the early 1900s. Automobiles simply didn't exist. Roads were, more often than not, dirt trails. Rynerson relates accounts of many prospecting trips he made using horses, with or without a buckboard, and a string of burros for transportation and hauling. In later years, he acquired a Hupmobile which eased the situation somewhat -- but not without some measure of additional adventure.

The difficulty and discomfort of making these trips apparently did not deter him from spending a great deal of time in the field. Although he appears to have ranged over most of San Diego, Imperial, and Riverside Counties in the search for gem material and gold, the majority of his time seems to have been spent at the major gem-bearing pegmatite mines which we know of today -- the Himalaya, Esmeralda, Fano, and various Pala mines, to name a few -- mining relatively prodigious quantities of gem tourmaline. In his book, he describes not only the alternating thrill and tedium of mining, but also relates the rigors of living and working in isolated mining areas for months at a time. At one point he writes:

"I have heard people remark that it must be a thrilling experience to take gem crystals out of the pockets. Yes it is at first. But there's no way you can work the pocket while sitting in a chair, so you sit on the cold foot-wall until your legs itch and your joints are stiff. After several weeks of this the thrill is gone. Then a few days of making a new exploring hole, and you are ready to be thrilled again."

Some thrills were better than others, like this experience at the Himalaya Mine:

"One of my [dynamite] shots cracked a round spot right on top of the vein. Every time I dipped my hand in, I brought out one or two tourmaline crystals. This continued until I had taken out about thirty pounds of fine crystals, all pink; the largest about three inches long by one and a quarter inches thick."

When Fred Rynerson wasn't actively mining gems, he was usually cutting and polishing them in his lapidary shop in San Diego. In addition to what we would regard as "standard" gem and jewelry fabrication and repair, much of his work consisted of making buttons and other ornaments out of gem tourmaline for shipment to China.

I found it especially disheartening to read Rynerson's accounts of his slicing up large, well-terminated crystals of multi-colored tourmaline for the express purpose of making buttons (of all things) until he noted that, in the early part of this century, no one cared much about mineral specimens. A prize watermelon tourmaline, sliced-up and made into buttons, was worth two to three times the value of the original crystal.

Exploring and Mining Gems & Gold in the West chronicles all this and more. The book is divided into 36 individually-titled chapters. The temptation is to select and read first those chapters for which the titles hold special interest; however, the chapters are meant to be read in order since each frequently refers to topics covered in the previous ones.

Rynerson writes in a clear, easy to read, yet articulate, style. The mental imagery evoked by his descriptions is supported by numerous, historical, black-and-white photographs presented throughout the book. Although the book was published posthumously through the efforts of his wife, the manuscript appears to have been completed before his death. Beulah Rynerson did the southern California gem, mineral, and mining community a great favor when she published this book. The only thing I would have liked would have been for it to have an index; but this omission is only a minor deficiency. This volume should find a place on the bookshelf of every mineral collector, lapidary, and historian in San Diego County.

Exploring and Mining Gems & Gold in the West by Fred Rynerson; 204 pages; Naturegraph Publishers, Inc.; 1967; ISBN 0-911010-61-0 (cloth), 0-911010-60-2 (paper).

Copyright © 1995 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the September 1995 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002