How the Tucson Shows Got Their Start

Editor’s Note: Today “the Tucson show” a.k.a. “the gem show” comprises some 40 wholesale, retail, and wholesale/retail venues sprawling across the city, lasting more than two weeks, and selling gems, minerals, fossils, beads, jewelry, and related supplies, tools and equipment, and then some. It is the largest mineral and fossil show and the largest gem trade show in the world.

It started, however, as a once-humble, now world-recognized, club mineral show, still running: the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show presented by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society. Here is a personal account of the first shows by long-time contributor to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist Terri Haag, a Tucson native, a fossil and jewelry fan, daughter and sister of mineral miners, collectors, and dealers, and so much more.

This story orginally appeared in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist in January, 1995.
ABOVE IMAGE: Mookaite cabochons at Barlows Gems at the 2017 shows; photo: M White

Tucson: The Quonset Hut Days

A personal account of the development of what has become the world’s premiere gem, mineral, and fossil event

calcite on amethyst specimen

Calcite crystals on an opened amethyst geode seen at Tucson in 2003; photo: JS White

My earliest recollection of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show involves getting spanked. I had gotten into a fracas with some other “pebble pups” and I was crying. A kind woman stoppd to comfort me, but instead of offering candy or gum, she offered me a nice, cold carton of milk. I believe I responded with something like, “Yuck! I hate milk!” whereupon my mother intervened, making my day even worse.

Hard on the heels of that memory trip a thousand others — of running up and down the long concrete aisles, picking up speed at the ramp where the show’s two quonset huts (remember, these were the early days) were rather haphazardly joined; of spending quarters slipped to me by other dealers on forbidden Pepsi-Colas at the snack bar; of the unforgettable but indescribable smell of dusty rocks wrapped in yards and yards of toilet paper and packed like bright, beautiful sardines in empty beer cartons.

As I reminisce, the names of rockhound royalty come back to me — names that were household staples (at least around my household): Bob Root, Clayton Gibson, Dan Caudle, George Bideaux, Paul Desautels, Claude Motel, Bill and Milly Schupp, Ann Rutledge, “Rocky” Murchison, Mr. and Mrs. Ontiveros, Ed McDole, and dozens of others. They stir in my head like bats in an attic. Those who never attended a Tucson Gem and Mineral Show prior to 1971 can never understand or appreciate the true flavor of the event, then or now. Certainly, no one who went to the wholesale show in the cow barn and experienced the lingering odors and the green sawdust firsthand (or should I say first-foot?) can possibly forget the roots or the history of the largest mineral and gem show in the world.

1955 Start

It all started in 1955 when Bob Root, a Denver, Colorado, mineral dealer, somehow convinced Dan Caudle, Harold Rupert, and Clayton Gibson of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society to try hosting a rock show there, similar to the one held in Phoenix. The three Tucsonites came back and persuaded the rest of the society to sponsor a show, which was held at the Helen Keeling school at 435 East Glenn on March 19 and 20. I didn’t go to that one — one of the few I ever missed.

The society had to beg for, or borrow, and construct display cases, while card tables were used for some of the exhibits. Dan Caudle told me that he and Clayton Gibson and a few others stayed up all night before the first show opened, fashioning light bulb reflectors from aluminum foil and jury-rigging the wiring. Admission was free. 1,500 people showed up, and the newspapers featured an article with a picture. It was, by all accounts, a whopping success.

Some of the categories for competition in the judged exhibits included cabinet specimens, miniature specimens, “thumbnail” specimens (standard box of 50, no localities required). Cabochons had to be cut and polished by the exhibitor and could not number more than 10 or fewer than five.

Other categories contained entries such as “paleontological oddities,” a classification that presumably did not refer to the dealers themselves — although Lord knows, that description fits just about all the fossil folks of my acquaintance. Richard Bideaux of Tucson, Arizona, a college student at the time, won the first-place ribbon for his cabinet specimens entry, the first of many such triumphs.

Richard Bideaux, instrumental in starting the Tucson shows.

Later known for his outstanding mineralogical books, mineral collector and dealer Richard Bideaux was an early entrant and winner at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show competitions; photo courtesy JS White

1956 at the County Fair and Rodeo Grounds

Since the first show was such an unqualified success, the society decided to try it again the next year, but first they moved it to the commodious — if sometimes malodorous — Pima County Fair and Rodeo Grounds. The grounds were located in what was then the boonies, at the corner of Irvington Road and South Sixth Avenue. To give you an idea of just how long ago and far away this was, to make a reservation for exhibit space, one dialed 4-1353.

The bigger, improved, 1956 version of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society’s Gem and Mineral Show featured such exotic exhibits as a 100-piece set of dinnerware for six, hand-carved of striped onyx by Mr. and Mrs. Walter Pilkington of Victor, California. Other notable displays included uranium minerals and an exhibit of jade. Once again, Dick Bideaux won the blue ribbon for cabinet specimens. And, despite all the bad wiring, drafts, uneven floors, and other inconveniences, the old quonset huts had worked out just fine. In fact, 3,000 people came to the show, despite the whopping admission fee of 25 cents.

In 1957, the show highlight was a fascinating display of dinners instead of dinnerware. Mrs. Emma Clark, a 53-year-old widow from Redlands, California, brought her rock food. Everything on Mrs. Clark’s plates looked not just edible but delicious — but everything on the menu was a natural rock or mineral that she had collected, cleaned, shaped, and polished. There were mouth-watering meats, a pot roast, bacon and eggs, loaves of crusty bread, peas, carrots, and mashed potatoes — even apple pie and chocolate cake!

Several years later, Mrs. Clark and a friend camped out in a travel trailer at my folks’ house, and I got to see the rock foods again. Up close, they looked just as yummy, except for the rhodochrosite “ham,” which as far as I was concerned looked just like a slice of rhodochrosite on a plate. Nevertheless, I was and still am powerfully impressed by Mrs. Clark’s petro-culinary accomplishments.

Guil and Mary Dudley were show chairs that year and — you guessed it — Dick Bideaux won the blue ribbon for his exhibit. His competition was growing, however. The three Pardos — Don, Louis, and Della — all won first-place ribbons in the under-12-year-old exhibitor category that year, and had their names and faces in the Tucson papers. By 1959, the show, along with Tucson, had grown appreciably. One now had to dial MA2-9873 to make reservations.

1960: The Smithsonian Comes to Town

The 1960 show was even better than its predecessors. There were more exhibitors and more visitors, and Mrs. Mary Aspaas of Cornville, Arizona, brought her “singing rocks.” The singing rocks were a sort of hanging-xylophone-like affair which consisted of pieces of phonolite, a variety of felsite, that rings when struck. These were strung on leather and suspended from a wooden frame. By using different-sized chunks which were carefully trimmed and “tuned,” Mrs. Aspaas created a truly unique musical instrument, the like of which hasn’t been seen since. (The closest thing I’ve seen was the “rock group” at the Tokyo show a few years ago. They played a variety of more-or-less musical instruments constructed from stones, but this ensemble couldn’t hold a candle or a mallet to Mrs. Aspaas and her singing rocks.)

Until that point, the Tucson show had been growing, but its draw was still limited pretty much to Arizona and a few neighboring states. But the following year, Clayton Gibson, the show chairman, had an inspiration. He invited Mr. Paul Desautels, then assistant curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s mineral collection, to come to the show and to bring with him a noteworthy exhibit from the shelves of the Smithsonian itself. Gibson fully expected Desautels to refuse this impertinent request — so you can imagine his surprise when Desautels accepted! Included in the invitation was the unprecedented offer to pay Mr. Desautels’ travel expenses. This “expense account” was rather on the thin side, however, as it entailed Mr. Desautels’ sleeping in Bill and Milly Schupp’s guest room and driving Milly’s battered old car around.

It set the stage, however, for what is arguably the single most important factor in the unmatched success of the Tucson show: the active participation of the Smithsonian, one of the world’s great museums. In fact, Desautels was to remain deeply involved in the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show as a judge of exhibits, guest speaker, educator, buyer, and general VIP for most of the remainder of his very illustrious career at the most illustrious of institutions.

When Paul Desautels (back row, center) agreed to bring some of the Smithsonian’s treasures to the Tucson club show in 1960, he set the stage for the show’s launch to stardom. He is flanked by noted mineral dealers Wayne and Dona Leicht. In front is gem and mineral photographer phenom Erica Van Pelt. Photo: JS White

When Paul Desautels (back row, center) agreed to bring some of the Smithsonian’s treasures to the Tucson club show in 1960, he set the stage for the show’s launch to stardom. He is flanked by noted mineral dealers Wayne and Dona Leicht. In front is gem and mineral photographer phenom Erica Van Pelt. Photo: JS White

1961: The Arizona Wulfenite Legend

In 1961, the Haag wulfenite and vanadinite “empire” became firmly established as the stuff of legends. According to Robert W. Jones, author of Silver Anniversary History of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, published in 1979 by the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society, Al Haag “wowed the crowd with a superb wulfenite display from the Glove mine, most of which was purchased by Mr. Desautels for the Smithsonian collection.”

“Cal” Sedony, ace rockhound reporter for the Brewery Gulch Gazette, Bisbee, Arizona’s venerable newspaper, noted that “Al and his wife, Bernie, will deliver it [the wulfenite] when they drive back to the East Coast to take a boat trip for Belgium and a European visit.” Ah, those were heady days for the Haags! (My parents always did have a clear set of priorities about life and money, to wit: get some money, go on a trip. Luckily, they passed this important value on to their children.)

Al and Bernie Haag: in 1979, the couple displayed wulfenite from the Glove mine that really wowed the crowd and was purchased by the Smithsonian; photo courtesy Terri Haag

Al and Bernie Haag: in 1979, the couple displayed wulfenite from the Glove mine that really wowed the crowd and was purchased by the Smithsonian; photo courtesy Terri Haag

This was also the year showgoers were treated to such exotica as a 19,227-carat ruby corundum crystal from Ceylon, and the Hall of Giants, a hernia-inducing display of huge specimens hauled out of the University of Arizona’s mineral museum. Bob and Betty Fordham won Best of Show with a spectacular display of calcite crystals. Sadly, 1961 also brought the deaths of two of the show’s best-loved regulars, Walt and Mary Pilkington of onyx plate fame. The couple was killed in a sandstorm-related car accident outside of El Centro, California, on their way to Tucson.

By 1962, Bill Schupp was chairman, admission had risen to 35 cents, there were 87 competitive entries in the show, and its national drawing power was well established. Companies as far away as New York City were sending representatives such as Mr. Frank Gruber, who arrived to display $35,000 worth of uncut emeralds and to demonstrate emerald-cutting (your stones or his) for the crowds.

Not that the locals had been sitting on their tumblers. Mr. and Mrs. Motel’s rock shop was doing well, as was the Bideauxs’, and Ann Rutledge was very busy. But one of the busiest and most dynamic dealers to emerge from the melee was Mrs. Brooks (Susie) Davis. Mrs. Davis had been the original claim-holder for the Old Yuma mine — another Arizona wulfenite locality — and when my father, a “big-time” mineral dealer from Iowa, came along, she leased the mine to him and to the Bideauxs, father George and son Dick. According to Dick, the arrangement was that the Bideauxs would put up the money for an air compressor and plenty of dynamite, and Al Haag would do the work, with the proceeds to be evenly split between them. Mrs. Davis, whose mother had been a collector of fine Bisbee material but who had never really bothered with minerals herself, then made an astute, if rather surprising decision. As part of the terms of the lease, she was to receive one-fourth of all the specimens removed from the mine.

With these initial specimens as an impetus, her passion for collecting, buying, selling, and trading minerals grew exponentially, and within a very short time, Susie Davis was a force to be reckoned with. She had become one of the largest wholesalers of mineral specimens in the United States, as well as one of its most impressive private collectors. As Pima County, Arizona’s Daily Reporter noted on February 9, 1962: “Mrs. Brooks Davis will display a marvelous group of Tiger Mine’s minerals — priceless collector’s items of rare pseudomorphs (malachite after azurite) and specimens of wulfenite, formacite, linarite, caledonite, diaboleite and cerussite with azurite and aurichalcite.” Susie also was known for her fine specimens of wulfenite with mimetite from the Theba mine.

Some 4,000 people attended that show, ogling the incredible displays of crystals and marveling at the other “oddities,” such as the skull of an unidentified “prehistoric animal” that was possibly a metamynodon or an archeotherium. (The skull and its owner, William B. Harvey, were both shown grinning in a photo published in the Tucson Daily Citizen.)

By 1963, the show had gotten “huge” and the admission price had jumped to 50 cents. According to Robert Jones, that year also had a “stimulating effect on satellite activities” because the entire wholesale section of the show had been shut down due to problems in deciding who should and who shouldn’t be allowed in. (Sound familiar?) Undaunted, Mr. Jack Young set up wholesale operations in an abandoned gas station across the street in what may be the first recorded instance of “show sprawl.”

International, Jewelry Demos, and Mega Gems and Crystals

It was also the third year of attendance by Señor Joachin Folch Girona, a multi-millionaire industrialist and mineral collector from Spain, whose patronage heralded the birth of true internationalism at the Tucson Show. Señor Folch had a private collection of some 7,000 specimens, making his the best collection in Spain and one of the best in Europe. Every year, he bought more specimens in Tucson.

When Señor Joachin Folch Girona, a wealthy industrialist and mineral collector, began attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society’s show, it helped put the show on the worldwide map; 1979 photo: JS White

When Señor Joachin Folch Girona, a wealthy industrialist and mineral collector, began attending the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society’s show, it helped put the show on the worldwide map; 1979 photo: JS White

Besides being a wealthy collector, Folch was an urbane, delightful generous man and a personal friend of our family. In fact, he often stayed with us when he came to town, and I still have an exquisite 18-karat gold charm in the shape of a tiny tambourine with a matador inlaid in stone on its front that he gave me as a child. To this day, I can rummage through my mother’s closets and find beautiful handbags of Italian and Spanish leather and an ebony-inlaid silver bracelet that were among his gifts to her.

The next several years saw the Tucson show grow larger and larger. It was soon attracting more than 9,000 visitors as well as incredible talent — showgoers thrilled to watch guest exhibitors such as 97-year-old Ralph Tawangyama, a Hopi elder who demonstrated Native American silversmithing techniques, and Edward Tennen, a Tucson jeweler who hand-carved tiny, intricate gold kachina dolls that were just 1-1/2″ tall.

Every year visitors relied on the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show to produce something new and spectacular, and every year it did — things like a $440,000 diamond necklace featuring the “Great Chrysanthemum Brown,” a 104-carat, light-brown diamond surrounded by 410 other stones set in platinum, shown by Tucson jeweler Newton Pfeffer. There was also a huge, half-million-dollar Transvaal diamond that had been used in a Tarzan movie as a prop. The Smithsonian’s Desautels continued to make his annual appearances, arriving with one spectacular exhibit after another, and he continued to judge displays and present erudite lectures on mineralogy and crystallography to eager audiences.

By 1966, admission was up to 75 cents and, for the first time, Tucson Gem and Mineral Society members didn’t have to clean the restrooms themselves! Box office and exhibitor receipts were up, and a janitorial service was finally retained for the task. Of course, electrical circuits still overloaded, it was either too cold or too hot inside the old, round-topped, metal sheds, and the wind blew in through the seams in the metal and under the walls, but most people were so excited by what they were seeing and hearing that I doubt they even noticed.

This also was the first year the show lasted three days. And Dick Bideaux, who in the past had received only regional recognition, was the proud winner of the 1965 American Federation (of Mineralogical Societies) national trophy for his thumbnail minerals. By then, I was 13 years old and more interested in the boys who came to the show than in anything the show itself had to offer, although admittedly, the jewelry still held considerable fascination for me. Bangle bracelets with dangling Herkimer “diamonds,” earrings of glossy black apache tears on bell caps, agate rings that turned your finger green, and pendants of rose quartz and blue chalcedony: these and other treasures stuffed my jewelry boxes in those days, and bits and pieces still surface unexpectedly from time to time in odd places.

Aquamarine crystal cluster from Pakistan in a case of beryl specimens on display at the 2007 Tucson show; photo: JS White

Aquamarine crystal cluster from Pakistan in a case of beryl specimens on display at the 2007 Tucson show; photo: JS White

Iconic, Eccentric Ed McDole

Sometimes, my childhood seems to have consisted of one long parade of eccentric rockhounds with names like “Garnet” or “Sidewinder” knocking at the door, all of whom apparently considered the Haag front yard to be much better than any campground or motel. None was more noteworthy than Ed McDole, however, and no account of either my life or of the early days of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show could possibly be considered complete without mention of him.

I was just a child when McDole first started coming around to our house with mineral specimens, but he made quite an impression on me with this faint Scottish burr, long unruly eyebrows, and an evil, stinking, black stogie clamped eternally between his teeth. By his own account, he lived in his cars, an (almost) endless procession of black Lincoln Continentals, the trunks of which were invariably crammed with the ubitquitous beer cartons full of generally excellent mineral specimens for sale and trade. Then there was Ed himself — who was always generally full of it — bragging endlessly about his incredible private collection stashed in a Nevada bank vault, drooling cigar juice, dropping ashes on your tablecloth, and swigging from a bottle of rum.

Much of Ed’s fame rests in feats such as his purchase of a very valuable legrandite specimen from my folks, for which he paid the then astronomical sum of around $1,000. He didn’t quite like the shape, however, and after borrowing a screwdriver, some pliers, and a hammer, proceeded to sit outside on the front stoop and wallop off chunks of the matrix, while my horrified parents watched through the window.

No matter where he went, Mr. McDole had an uncanny knack for timing his arrivals to coincide exactly with dinner. Some, like my mother, took it to be their reluctant duty always to feed him, but others wearied of the game. After years of putting up with Ed’s unannounced, preprandial appearances, Mrs. George Bideaux got tired of it. The next time Ed showed up at dinner time, Mr. and Mrs. Bideaux calmly ate their supper in the kitchen while the luckless Dick drew the job of entertaining Ed in the living room.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about McDole, however, was the fact that he was colorblind and utterly unable to see the glorious red, orange, and pink hues of the crystals he bought and sold. To him, they all looked gray. This fact was vividly underscored the day he showed up at my folks’ house in a brand-new, bright maroon Lincoln. Surprised, my parents asked him why he wasn’t driving a black car as he always had in the past. Ed was forced to admit that couldn’t tell the difference. The dealer hadn’t bothered to inform him, either, assuming no doubt that his client wanted a burgundy car, or else why would he buy one?

After Ed’s death in 1969, it was discovered that, like any true Scotsman, he’d had a way with a good yarn, and the fictitious bank vault in Ely, Nevada, was full of an equally nonexistent private collection of fabulous minerals. But it didn’t matter. Ed was already a legend. In his honor, the Ed McDole Memorial Trophy, conceived in 1972, has been awarded every year since then to outstanding exhibits. With the honor comes the obligation to swig from Ed’s own bottle of rum, carefully replenished every year — teetotalers not exempted.

Winners of the Ed McDole Memorial Trophy for outstanding exhibits are obliged to take a swig from McDole’s signature rum bottle, although this is not a picture of the original bottle, still used.

Winners of the Ed McDole Memorial Trophy for outstanding exhibits are obliged to take a swig from McDole’s signature rum bottle, although this is not a picture of the original bottle, still used.

1970: Bigger Still

By 1970, the show had completely outgrown its quarters in the old quonset huts on the fairgrounds, and even the cow barn had been pressed into service to house the wholesale show. The club members were also pressed into service, as someone had to shovel out the ankle-deep “organic material” left behind by the barn’s previous occupants.

In all, there were more than 100 exhibitors and $2 million worth of collections on display, and huge amounts of cash were flowing through the place like sand down the Santa Cruz’s riverbed. “Probably $300,000 to $400,000 will change hands during the three-day exhibition,” University of Arizona graduate Dick Thomassen told a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star (a figure that is undoubtedly reached within the first three hours, if not the first three minutes, of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show today).

According to chronicler Bob Jones, 1970 was the year that marked the show’s transition to a truly international event, attended as it was by Mr. Peter Embrey of the British Museum of Natural History, and by the arrival of Mr. Campbell Bridges, who brought tsavorites and emeralds from Tanzania. Embrey had been allowed to bring only those specimens which he could hand-carry to the show — a noteworthy occurrence, since the museum’s directors never before had authorized removal of any specimens from the facility. Among the specimens he brought were some brilliant green Gunnislake torbnerites.

A decade after the Smithsonsian started to participate in the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, Peter Embrey came carrying goodies from the British Museum of Natural History for display; photo: JS White

A decade after the Smithsonsian started to participate in the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, Peter Embrey came carrying goodies from the British Museum of Natural History for display; photo: JS White

Something called the copper dress made its debut in 1970. It was a wildly inventive garment created by local dress designer Cele Peterson, which apparently had the Arizona Daily Star reporter covering the event in stitches (no pun intended). He described the cuprous creation as “homely beyond description” but insisted that it “should be seen just for laughs.” A photo of the outfit in question showed a front-crossing, bandeau-style top which left the midriff and shoulders bare, paired with a long, full skirt, all constructed of fluttery-looking leaves of thin copper foil over a coppery fabric. (Personally, I thought it was quite stunning.)

This year was also the next-to-last hurrah for the quonset huts. However, virtually no one — particularly those who had alternately broiled, frozen, shoveled, and swabbed over the years — was feeling nostalgic about leaving for grander quarters. The general sentiment was the sooner the better. Besides, there just wasn’t room anymore for all the schoolchildren, the winter visitors, the dealers, or the exhibitors, to say nothing of Dick Bideaux’s collections. It was time to move.

1971 Ends the Early Era with a Bang

The last year at the fairgrounds was 1971, and it was fittingly apocalyptic. The Tucson Ring Meteorite was hauled back to Tucson from the Smithsonian for the first time in more than a hundred years. A new magazine, The Mineralogical Record, made its first appearance, a specimen of bideauxite was displayed, and Peggy Sill of Phoenix displayed a collection of lifelike agate butterflies and superb foreign minerals. The price of admission jumped to a dollar, yet more than 9,000 people still showed up to see the pretty rocks.

That show brought an end to an era. Ironically, it was also the year that Bob Root, the man who started the whole ball rolling, passed away on February 24, at age 79. (Bless his heart, he even waited until after the show was over to do it.) No doubt there are many women besides me who still remember Bob. He was the sweet-faced man who, when a pretty (or not-so-pretty) girl passed his booth, would ask, “How about a kiss?” Then, with an impish grin, he would hand the startled girl a foil-wrapped Hershey’s chocolate.

The following spring of 1972, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show was ensconced in fancier quarters in the newly completed Tucson Community Center, complete with sophisticated snackbars, bright, shiny restrooms, escalators, and a climate-controlled environment. Yeah, it was spiffy, but to me, it just didn’t feel like the real thing.

The quonset huts are gone now, and so are Paul Desautels, George “Cal” Sedony Bideaux, Susie Davis, Clayton Gibson, Ann Rutlege, the Motels, and scores of others who created the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show. It was their unflinching dedication and boundless enthusiasm, and their putting up with all kinds of adversity that kept making the whole shebang just a little bit better “next year.” I wonder if they would even recognize what they created. I think they’d be thrilled.

Australian opal beads at the 2017 Tucson shows; photo: M White

Australian opal beads at the 2017 Tucson shows; photo: M White

Today no one, not even those who are supposed to keep track of such things, has any idea how many people come to town for the first two weeks in February every year, or how many millions of dollars change hands. The Tucson show writ large — all of the shows, all of the venues, all of the tailgaters , you name it — is unquestionably the biggest show of its kind anywhere on Earth. If you can’t find it here, it probably hasn’t been discovered yet.

As for me, it took 38 years of coming to the Tucson shows nearly every single year to find exactly what I had been looking for — the most priceless geologic treasure of all — and I found it in the coffee shop at the Desert Inn! One morning in 1992 I turned around with my hands full of donuts and walked right into the best specimen I’d ever seen at the show — my future husband, a tall, handsome geologist named David Spatz. Now that was a good year!

Have a Tucson memory to share? Please leave a comment below.

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