Rock Hounds Share Good Times and Lasting Friendship Bonds

In order to tell the story of the Orcutt Mineral Society, one must first tell a bit of the history of William Warren Orcutt, the man for whom the club was named.

In the early days of the 20th century, big Bill Orcutt, with his spring wagon and camp outfit consisting of grub box, blankets, food and water for his horse and mules, a geologist’s pick and a map, was a familiar sight in the hills of southern California.

William Warren Orcutt, a Stanford graduate, first became associated with Lyman Stewart’s Union Oil Company in 1897. Eventually, under Orcutt’s direction, Union Oil became the first company in the world to establish a geology department for research work, research which led to the discovery of new fields for exploration. Not generally known, though, is that in 1899, curiosity brought Orcutt to investigate a wildcat oil well drilled by Stewart & McFarland at the Rancho La Brea (‘’brea’’ being the Spanish word for tar) in Los Angeles. The presence of tar was generally considered to be a good sign of other oil deposits. At the edge of the pond Orcutt found bones that were different than any he’d ever seen before. Although not realizing it at the time, he had stumbled upon, what proved to be, the largest group of Pleistocene Ice Age fossils ever found in a single place.

For more than five years Orcutt spent his spare time in hiking out to La Brea to do more digging. His curiousity and tenacity brought bones of early camels, elephants, bison and several kinds of birds to the surface, animals who had lived on earth 10,000 to 40,000 years before, all preserved in the tar. After finding the entire skull of a saber-toothed cat, the first ever found in the world, Orcutt contacted a paleontologist at the University of California at Berkeley. A university professor, who came down to Los Angeles by train, confirmed the findings and notified the newspapers about the discovery. Paleotologists from the university began their own excavations and, since that time, have brought forth more than 600 species of mammals, reptiles and insects. Orcutt never received much credit for his discovery of the La Brea Tar Pits, located on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, next to the Museum of Art. But, then again, he was not the sort of person who sought notoriety. Bill Orcutt, the father of modern geology, is said to have become the first person to ever use geology in oil exploration. Before that prospectors did little more than sniff gopher holes. On Orcutt’s recommendation, Union Oil leased 70,000 acres of land in the area, some of which was leased from the Hartnell family. It was from this Hartnell property that the historic gusher, ‘’Old Maud,’’ on December 2 of 1904, brought in the biggest producer of oil that the world had ever seen up to that time. It only seemed natural that when a group of rock hounds in the area decided to form a club, they’d want to use the name Orcutt in commemoration of the famed geologist, William Warren Orcutt. On November 24, 1958 charter membership in the Orcutt Mineral Society closed with twenty-one members. In general, the purpose of the club is to educate the public about the beauty of rocks and to promote good fellowship and proper ethics in the pursuit of the lapidary arts.

Lapidary classes began in 1974 with Barney Miller and Charlie Azevedo as instructors in a workshop that was constructed by the members, with the Society furnishing the equipment. After Barney Miller passed away, Charlie continued as instructor, a labor of love that he continued until about a year ago when he retired, and Marshall Reeves (who served as president in the year 2000) took over as instructor. The City of Santa Maria terminated the classes in 2000. The group, now numbering about 60, meets once a month and participates in many ‘’digs’’ throughout the year, taking members to such places as Utah in search of topaz; to Arizona in search of turquoise, fire agate and malachite; to Nevada in search of petrified wood, and to many other sites throughout the western United States.

Our last living charter member, Alma Defreitas, passed away in 2011.

In the early days members of the club did their prospecting out at the Freddie Ranch in Nipomo, looking for jasper, marcasite and Sagenite agate. Marcasite, which was found in a quarry located at the old ranch, was used in the building of the first Santa Maria river’s levee. When the marcasite began to deteriorate, the levee had to be torn out and replaced with a more stable rock, like limestone. Wes Lingerfelt, who joined the club in 1983, was dubbed ‘’mountain goat’’ (because of his speed in going up and down hills) by Emmett Biddle, long-time owner of ‘’Dad’s Rockshop’’ in Arroyo Grande. After Mr. Biddle passed away the shop was sold and is now operating as ‘’Dad’s’’ at Fort Mojave in Arizona. Lingerfelt remembers his first ‘’digging’’ when it snowed. Although he had an air mattress, it had a leak, causing him to try to get some sleep on a cold ground. He finally gave up ‘’roughing it’’ and slept in his van. On an earlier trip to Tuscarora, Nevada, an area located about 65 miles from the nearest paved road, local prospectors found a sign perched on the side of a hill in this middle-of-nowhere place reading: ‘’City of Bakersfield.’’ The Bakersfield Mineral Club, Orcutt’s friendly rivals, had been there before them! After putting the sign in the four-wheeler as a trophy, the group starting digging, coming up with a strawberry-colored piece of petrified wood. The Bakersfield group hadn’t depleted the area, after all. There was, and most likely still is, enough petrified wood there for both rockhound groups.

Another trip last fall took the local rockhounds to McDermitt, Nevada in another search for petrified wood. They had prospected in the same place the year before, digging down about seven feet to volcanic ash when they found petrified tree limbs and even cherry pits, very rare findings. When they returned to the site this year, it took the strength of Marshall Reeves, Wes Lingerfelt, Ted Hoogenbosch and Ralph Bishop to dig down to about nine feet below the ground’s surface. They found eight-feet crickets, and dry limbs, (ranging from between the sizes of twigs and logs) with knots in the wood indicating that they had been new wood about 12 million years ago when the volcano erupted. Marjorie Hoogenbosch, 1999 president of the Mineral Society, reached over from her lawn chair and picked up a petrified cherry, complete with stem, an extremely rare finding! But as to eight-feet cricket findings? Well, the prospectors had to dig eight feet into the ground to find them! In addition to having a lot of fun, the local rockhounds have awarded many scholarships to students at both Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo as well as the University of Santa Barabara City College.. The club provides funds to the Santa Barbara County Social Services Department to purchase clothing for abused children in the department’s care. The biggest fund raising event of the year takes place in August of every year when the Mineral Society holds its annual tail-gating Gem Festival. This is the time when rockhounds from all over the state gather together to show and sell the creations that they’ve made throughout the year. They come in their recreational vehicles, vans, trucks, and by foot, to set up their wares on tables, or on boxes, with some of their wares encased in glass cases, in order to best display their jewelry, mineral specimens, rough rock, rock slabs, petrified wood, etc. Some sleep in their vehicles while some sleep in tents. This family-oriented gathering brings together friends of many years to catch up on activities of the past year. In August 2011 the Rainbow of Gems show took place in Nipomo, CA when the Orcutt Mineral Society members played host to various such clubs throughout the state. This show brought in about 2500 people from the Central Coast who came to admire the museum-grade displays made from earth treasures. In addition to their love of rocks, rockhounds have a good time and have bonded friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Like true friends, they celebrate each others’ happiness and are there for each other when life takes a downturn. Members insist that rocks are the greatest common denominator of man. My brother, Leo, who prospected in the Gabbs, Nevada area, was a great storyteller, some of which I’d take with a grain of salt - but eight-feet crickets???

Article published in the "Santa Maria Times" by Shirley Contreras, OMS Member
Updated in July 2004 and January 2012 to remove old references a reader might find confusing rather than delete this interesting article.
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