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July-August 2014

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In Memoriam: Benny Fenn (1926–2014)

Benny Fenn was a quiet, confident man, always interesting to talk with about his stories of early Mexico and its mines and minerals; one could learn so much in a conversation with Benny Fenn. I'm sorry I won't get to have those conversations again: Benny died on 23 February 2014.

Benny was born in Colonia Juárez, Mexico, the son of Americans Lee and Ada Fenn. Benny's father was a miner and a cattle rancher. His grandfather mined for gold and silver in Sonora and Chihuahua. What it must have been like in those days and to have Pancho Villa (an acquaintance of Benny's grandfather) stop by to chat! Benny's great-grandfather had come to Mexico in 1886 from Utah.

Having a grandfather and father mining in the area made it easy for young Benny to learn how to run a mining operation, and he learned well. By age twelve Benny was an avid mineral collector. Many of his specimens came from the family's mining operations. It seems that those growing-up days at the ranch and the mine set Benny on his life's path. After high school in Mexico, Benny went to Utah to stay with relatives and then joined the U.S. Army, serving four years between the Korean and Vietnam wars. Money from his military pay was sent home to buy cattle, so that when he returned to Mexico after being in the service, he had accumulated a substantial herd of cattle. Benny maintained dual citizenship in both Mexico and the United States.

Benny met Elva Miramontes in Colonia Juárez while she was still in high school. Her father was a local rancher, and, according to Mexican family custom, Benny and Elva had a chaperone accompany them on any outings. They were married on New Year's Day in 1965. I sometimes watched the two of them from a distance and could tell that after so many years the love and respect were still as strong as the day they married.

Benny and Alva started mining opal and agate from the famous silica fields of Chihuahua after a local cowboy showed them a piece he had found. They could not mine enough to create a market for the material, but soon crystallized minerals caught Benny's attention—and we are all thankful for that! In Tucson a knowledgeable mineral dealer named Susie Davis was especially helpful to Benny. From Susie he learned quickly about mineral identification, what to look for in collector specimens, and about the mineral business in general. Those of us who were around in those days still marvel at the material that came across the border into Tucson. (As a side note: it was the late Paul Desautels who first clued us into this pipeline and suggested we head to Tucson, which Wayne and I first did in 1969.)

Benny and Elva concentrated on the northern and central states but traveled extensively all over Mexico. Those early years, from 1967 to about 1994, were some of the most exciting in mineralogical history. Benny brought to the collecting community a major pocket of legrandite from the Ojuela mine in 1968; Allende meterorites in 1969 (Benny was one of the first to arrive at the site); two years' worth of Los Lamentos wulfenites in 1969 and 1970; and the beautiful brilliant yellow mimetites from San Pedro Corralitos in 1970.

The rancher in Benny, however, was still there, and in 1971 he used his profit from the mimetite sales to purchase his 5,000-acre cattle ranch in the Sierra Madre, 46 miles southwest of Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. He also had a newspaper with a partner in Colonia Juárez that was forced to cease printing because of the exposure given to the not-so-honest governor at the time. He also had the cleanest pigs in town at his ranch—they were fed special food and given showers! That was always a source of amusement for the family during the many reunions held at the ranch. Benny and Elva loved to dance, and there were always mariachis at these family events.

Benny continued his mining activities, and luck struck for him and Elva once more with the major find of smithsonite from the Choix mine, and in 1994 he began to work with local miners at the pink grossular deposit at Sierra de Cruces (almost always mislabeled as Lake Jaco). This is a prime example of Benny's fairness and honesty. He could have had this deposit as his own, but when one of the locals showed him what he had found, Benny proceeded to teach him how to extract specimens and get them to the marketplace. He was so highly respected by the local miners that he was always welcome to any areas in which they were working. And, of course, Benny was fluent in Spanish.

One of the most interesting finds involved a coyote. Benny had a license to sell furs and had trap lines around the area. One day, while out checking the lines, he found one of the traps was missing. The trap anchor was broken and apparently, with an animal still inside, was dragged across the desert. Elva and Benny followed the drag trail until it led them to the trapped coyote. However, around the area, Elva picked up some small, clear yellow rocks that turned out to be high-quality gem labradorite! A mining operation was set up, and soon truckloads of labradorite were being shipped to Asia for faceting. How many of us are wearing one of these beautiful stones and have a coyote to thank for it!

I like to think of this family as “The Fenn Family Mining Company” because everyone in the family seemed to be involved: the two sons, Benny Lee and David, Benny's sister Verla and her late husband Harold Jorgenson, and Benny's grandfather who taught him so much about mining. Verla continues to operate a mineral shop in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Benny and Elva were wholesale dealers at the Tucson Show for many years (back in the day, the Main Tucson Show had a large wholesale section) and eventually moved into the retail area in 1971. After a time, they switched to one of the many hotel shows in Tucson.

In 1991 they moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and established a mineral shop there—well, really a mineral shop, minimart, and gas station, which makes for a good stop. In recent years their trips into Mexico have been limited because of continuing drug violence around the country. Benny was very saddened by this turn of events in his homeland, and it did hit home years ago when one of their sons was at their mine with a friend and the friend's ten-year-old son. The boy was kidnapped and held for ransom. That's when the Fenns gathered their family together in the States and have not returned to mine. Benny Jr. is hopeful that there will be a turnaround, and he can return to continue his father's legacy.

Refreshingly, Benny was not a boastful man. He loved what he did and just presented the specimens for everyone's pleasure. Someone once said that you can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs: Benny was a pioneer in the mineral business. He brought us specimens, he brought us knowledge, and he brought us a genuine kindness in a business that can sometimes forget the simple acts of kindness and consideration.

He is survived by his dear wife Elva, sons Benny Lee and David, five grandchildren, one brother, five sisters, and an extended family of nieces, cousins, in-laws, and his endearing mother-in-law, Dona Maria Miramontes. Benny was cremated as per his instructions, and for now he sits among some of his favorite minerals.

Adiós a un hombre excelente, excelente. (Goodbye to a fine, fine man.)

Dona Leicht and her husband, Wayne, have owned and operated Kristalle in Laguna Beach, California, since 1974.

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