I didn't get to know Byron until relatively late in his life. During the mid-1990s I was involved with a small group of collectors who were trying to secure a lease on a tourmaline-bearing pegmatite in San Diego County, Southern California. All being tourmaline fanatics, we had become obsessed with the notion that it might be fun to dig some ourselves. Unfortunately, none of us had any real mining experience; fortunately, we knew someone who did. Byron had long been a fixture in the local community of miners and collectors who worked the various gem pegmatites in the area. At the time, he was part owner of the Katerina mine (the original source of the gem spodumene now known as kunzite) and had even spent a number of years living with the famous miner and lapidary George Ashley at his home in Pala. He also had a reputation for invariably being able to find the right spot to dig. The results of this talent were immediately obvious to anyone who stopped by his modest home in Pala, as you would be greeted by a display of self-collected specimens—mostly tourmalines—the market value of which likely exceeded the value of his humble accommodations by a considerable amount. I recall at one point hearing him complain about not having the money to deal with some plumbing problems at the property and suggested that he could easily raise the money by selling a specimen or two (of course, hoping that I might get a chance at one myself). His incredulous reply was, “Why would I want to do that?” He certainly knew his priorities, and tourmaline trumped a working shower!
Byron was born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, in 1940. His mother taught school, and his father was a butter-maker; but the dairy business was evidently not in Byron's blood. After graduating from high school he went to trade school to learn diesel mechanics and then enlisted for a four-year stint in the U.S. Marines, working as a radio technician. The timing of his enlistment coincided perfectly with the increased hostilities in Vietnam during the mid-1960s. As a result, he spent much of his time either there or in Okinawa. While in combat he worked directly with artillery units and ended up with damaged hearing as a result of the sound levels. Providing ear protection for soldiers was evidently not a priority for the U.S. military at the time, but it did mean that Byron retired with a partial disability, which gave him a small pension that came in handy later in life.
After leaving the Marines he settled in Southern California and for a number of years ran a secondhand and antiquarian bookstore in Del Mar, near San Diego. A lost lease eventually forced him to close the business, at which time he decided to go back to school, studying geology at San Diego State University. Around this time he evidently came to the conclusion that a life of regimented employment was not for him, and he decided to “retire” early. I recall him telling me about walking on the beach shortly after he had closed the bookstore, looking at his wristwatch and thinking, “I don't need this thing anymore”—whereupon he took it off and threw it in the water!
After finishing his studies in the early 1980s, he relocated to Pala in north-central San Diego County to be near the pegmatites he was fond of digging. For the next fifteen years or so he supported himself doing part-time saddle and tack repair and became quite an expert at leatherwork. When he wasn't off on a digging expedition, he also taught himself jewelry making and lapidary, and he became quite skilled at these, as well. Despite his almost chronic shortage of money, I could never convince him to mass-produce and market any of his jewelry or stones. He said that would be “real work”; besides, it was more fun to give it away. (I did manage to actually pay him for a couple of necklaces I had him make for my wife, however.)
When we first met, Byron was living with several other collecting friends in a small rented house almost in the shadow of Queen Mountain in Pala. Stopping by was always interesting, not only because of the wealth of specimens on display, but also for the almost continuous stories one could hear about the mines, minerals, and miners from this historic area. It wasn't long, however, before the elderly woman Byron was renting from passed away, forcing another move. With the assistance of a loan from his brother, Byron and several friends purchased an undeveloped parcel of land in the hills just south of Pala, and put in a rather haphazard collection of workshops and dwellings that we, perhaps charitably, referred to as “Byron's Ranch.” Life there was truly off the grid. There were no utilities to the property, so septic tanks were installed, wells drilled for water, and a bank of solar cells erected for power. This seemed to suit Byron perfectly. During the week he could carry on with various projects without interruptions, and on the weekends crowds of friends would invariably arrive for afternoons of barbeques, beers, and story-telling.
Things didn't stay so simple for long, however. After spending about a year chasing this ever-elusive lease on a tourmaline mine, we had just about given up on the idea when the opportunity to take over the operation at the Rogerley mine presented itself. Already set on the idea of mining for mineral specimens, the timing was perfect. The only trouble was that, rather than being nearby, the proposed mine was one-third of the way around the planet, in Northern England. However, as the saying goes, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, so in March 1998 off we went to see the property, meet the landowner, and negotiate terms of the takeover with Lindsay Greenbank, the former mine operator. With leases arranged, equipment purchased, and local accommodations secured, we arrived in Weardale in May the following year, with Byron in the capacity of “Head Miner.”
In retrospect, it is obvious that we really had no idea just what we were getting ourselves into. All any of us had envisioned was spending a couple of summers in England, digging a few specimens, and having some fun. Things changed quite quickly, however, when after spending about six weeks rehabilitating the mine, we broke into a very large cavity that immediately overwhelmed us with a large volume of specimens. It soon became clear that what we had on our hands was not just a collecting adventure, but the potential for a real business. For twelve years now, we have been returning to the mine each summer, and though some mining seasons have been better than others, we have managed to find and sell enough fluorite to pay the bills and go back for more. Byron's skills and efforts were an invaluable part of all this. His ability to find the “good stuff” remained as strong as ever, and his ability to shift rock in cold, wet conditions to get it out seemed at times super-human. Each year, although he would complain about how spending three months away from home was disruptive to his routine and kept him from completing his seemingly endless list of projects at the ranch, come spring when it was time to discuss returning to the mine, he was ready and willing to give it another go.
At the end of our mining season in 2009, he noticed some hard lumps in his abdomen. Thinking he was getting a hernia, he made a rare visit to the doctor after returning to California. It turned out that he had lymphoma, something his doctors told him was typical for people exposed to the Agent Orange defoliant widely used during the Vietnam War. During the winter he underwent chemotherapy treatments for the cancer, and when we discussed another season at the mine, he insisted he was well enough to go, claiming that he wouldn't have known he was sick if the doctors hadn't told him. During the first month at the mine he seemed fine, but in July the disease turned aggressive, and he passed away from complications of the cancer at the Durham University Hospital on 28 July 2010.
Though he sometimes complained that the Rogerley mine project disrupted his life, he also really seemed to enjoy his summers in England and all the friends we have made there through the years. He was always a person who lived life by his own terms, and I suspect that spending his final days in a hospital undergoing medical treatments that would likely, have made him miserable was something he didn't want to do. In the end, he died “with his boots on,” doing what he wanted to—digging specimens. He was a good friend, and we will miss him greatly.
Jesse Fisher is a partner in the UK Mining Ventures specimen recovery project at the Rogerley mine, England.