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Rural Missouri Magazine

Hidden Treasures
Geodes from Betty Sheffler's Rock Shop
reveal nature's beauty

by Bob McEowen

Tim Sheffler displays a typical geode, a naturally hollow rock containing quartz deposits. While geodes are found in many parts of the Unkted States, the gem-like qualitiy of these stones are unique to the extreme northeast corner of Missouri where the Sheffler family has welcomed rock hounds for four decades.

A small collection of aging buildings sits like a tiny island surrounded by asphalt where Route 136 joins Highway 61 on its way through northeast Missouri toward Keokuk, Iowa. The metal barns look a little worse for wear and the old white frame house is nearly as weathered as the large sign atop it which faintly declares "Rock Shop."

But one stone building shines in the sun, its walls adorned with rose-colored quartz, "Angel Moss" barite, turquoise, opals and geodes — lots of geodes.

"Geodes have been the love of my life," says Betty Sheffler. "I was probably 2 or 3 years old when I fell in love with geodes and I've never quit."

Formed by organic deposits within 300 million-year-old mud, geodes are ordinary-looking rocks which, when split apart, reveal a gem-like treasure of sparkling quartz hidden inside. Sheffler Rock Shop near Alexandria is a bit like that. What you see on the outside cannot compare to what's inside.

In addition to geodes, the store carries intriguing fossils, strange rocks and dazzling minerals from around the world. Clearly, the most valuable treasure at the shop, though, is Betty herself.

Known far and wide as "The Geode Lady," 75-year-old Betty has stepped back from the business she founded more than 40 years ago. Her son, Tim, runs the shop now but Betty is still a fixture, sipping coffee with an ever-present cigarette dangling from her fingers at the kitchen counter that stands unexpectedly in the midst of the store.

Although her health has deteriorated and her hearing is failing, Betty gladly shares her love for geodes with anyone who asks.

Betty Sheffler began collecting geodes as a child. As an adult she started selling geodes from a display case in her kitchen. That case grew into a fulltime rock shop and two geode mines, earning her an international reputation as "The Geode Lady."

"I just love the idea that they are so ugly and you open them up and they are so beautiful," she says.

"I think God wanted us to take the time to find all that beauty in his world. I really think that's it," Betty says. "You dig out that geode and open it up and you're the first person on Earth to ever look in there. You and God, that's it."

As a child, Betty scoured the countryside near her home in Keokuk for geodes and split them apart with a hammer and chisel borrowed from her father's tool chest. By the time she was 15 she had read "The Geology of Iowa" twice and was starting on the equivalent Missouri textbook. Her parent's yard was littered with geodes.

"Oh, you don't know how my mother celebrated when I got married and moved out of the house," Betty says. "She could have her yard back."

Her late husband, Harold, indulged her interest which grew from a rock collection to selling rocks from a small counter in the family kitchen. "Living in the junction here, people would come in to ask directions, or people would stop and try to sell you things," Betty recalls. "Well, I'd end up selling them rocks."

Her husband even built her the semi-circular rock house that is as much specimen showcase as family home.

Sheffler Rock Shop has long been a landmark at the junction of Highways 136 and 61 in Clark County. The proposed "Avenue of the Saints" threatens to pass through the shop and one mine.

"I wanted the beauty on the outside so people could see it," the Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative member says. "People come from all over to walk around the house. It's a landmark."

But mostly, people come for geodes, which sell for just a few dollars for small stones to $40 or more for larger specimens. Others dig their own at the Shefflers' two mines. While the mines appear to be little more than creek beds, they earn their name before a day of collecting is done.

"A lot of people come here expecting them to be laying all over but it doesn't happen that way," says Tim Sheffler, who moved back to Keokuk to take over the business. "You have to dig them. It's hammers and chisels and hard rock mining. It's a lot of work."

The mines are open from April through December, unless a warm spell makes winter digging possible. Visitors pay $15 per person to extract up to 50 pounds — about a 5-gallon bucket load — of rocks from the mines, the only geode quarries registered with the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Diggers must bring their own shovels, hammers, sledges, chisels and pry bars.

While first-timers often open their geodes in the field, experienced rock hounds wait until they get home in order to protect the delicate formations inside. Either way, geodes are sure to please.

"It's like a Christmas present. You never know what you're going to find," Tim says.

Stan Reed of Alexandria chisels geodes from the frozen ground of the Sheffler Geode Mine. Visitors to the mine pay $15 for the right to collect and take home 50 pounds of geodes Ñ enough to fill a 5-gallon bucket.

Geodes have formed in a number of places around the world. Some, like the amethyst geodes of Brazil, are ablaze in color. But the geodes here are glistening white, being primarily composed of quartz crystal with enough other minerals thrown in to keep geologists and mineralogists interested.

One website which sells them describes Sheffler geodes as coming from "the only mine in the United States that contains gem quality geodes." Betty even remembers one customer, former Philippine ruler Ferdinand Marcos, who used to order geodes to decorate his palace.

Last year, more than 25 tons of geodes were collected at the two Sheffler mines including specimens collected by customers and the geodes Tim gathered to sell. "These geodes are famous because people like the 'geminess' of this particular pocket. They have good clarity and there's a pretty diverse mineral group within the quartz," says Tim.

The enthusiasm for Sheffler geodes goes beyond the rocks themselves, though. In 1997 geology and mineral fanciers from around the country descended on Clark County for a "Betty Sheffler Day" celebration, complete with geode hunting at the mine, a swap meet and a dinner banquet which included readings of letters of appreciation from rock hounds around the world.

Today, Betty's health keeps her from digging geodes or even visiting the mines. Her husband died four years ago and Tim moved his family from Texas to take over the business. In addition to opening the second mine — which Betty has never seen — he's added fossils to the store's inventory, preparing many of the specimens himself.

Tim Sheffler prepares a fossil for sale in the shop. When Tim Sheffler returned from Texas to take his mother's business he added a variety of fossils, such as this fish fossil from Wyoming, to the storeÕs inventory.

But at the same time Tim works to save the business, another force may destroy it. Plans for an expanded Highway 61 — the "Avenue of the Saints" from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis — could mean four-lane highway will pass where Sheffler Rock Shop now sits. Even the new mine lies in progress' path.

While the Shefflers see no way to avoid their fate they are determined to carry on, continuing operations at the old mine and relocating the store if necessary. For Betty, the beautiful geodes buried in the ground require that they keep the business open.

"There's geodes all over the world but there's no geodes quite like these. These are gorgeous, just absolutely gorgeous," she says. "Where else can people go and legally dig something out of the earth that formed there 300 million years ago. Where else can they go and do that and come home with such a treasure?"

For more information write Sheffler Rock Shop and Geode Mine, Rt. 1, Box 172, Alexandria, MO 63430; or call (660) 754-6443. You can also visit them on the Internet at www.commean.com/rocks/sgm/.

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