Monday, January 26, 2015

Dig Up A Fortune of Memories at Crater of Diamonds.

The best time to find diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas is right after a good rain. But you're more likely to see the fields full of prospectors and would-be fortune finders on a sunny day. The smart ones take umbrellas or sunshades, water and provisions, and the veterans have an eye for that perfect bright sparkle.

John W. Huddleston 
Way back in 1906, a farmer by the name of John Wesley Huddleston was turning over the soil on his land and saw that glint. He shared news of his find in the furrows of his field, and the area caught diamond fever. The neighbor next over, Millard Mauney, also turned out to have diamonds on his plot, and the frenzy exploded. Mauney jumped to take advantage of that, got together a land development deal and the town of Kimberly was born.

You won't find Kimberly on the map these days. Incorporated in 1908, it was to be funded by the revenues from a genuine, bona fide producing diamond mine. A good idea, but all dependent on those diamonds. Commercial testing was done, the diamonds proved to be elusive, and by 1911 the development at Kimberly was done.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Sure, some commercial interests couldn't find a footing, but a couple did, and the Ozark Diamond Mines Corporation and the Arkansas Mining Company spent some 40 years between the two to see what else they could dig up off the top of the Prairie Creek Pipe that ran through the area. And individuals still found diamonds from time to time. In fact, a 40.23 carat diamond was found by one Wesley Basham (who worked for the Arkansas Diamond Company) in 1924... the famed Uncle Sam, the largest diamond ever found in the United States.

So mining diamonds for commercial endeavors never really paid off well. But the idea of being able to find a diamond was intoxicating, and the Ozark Diamond Mines Corporation decided to take advantage of that, opening some of its land to would-be prospectors as a tourist attraction back in 1952. They called their site the Crater of Diamonds, and for 20 years this private venture charged a small fee for people to come out and see what they could dig up. Several large diamonds were found, including the 34 and a quarter carat diamond, Star of Murfreesboro, back in 1964.

You and I both could agree, I'm sure, that diamonds are a natural resource... and so did the state of Arkansas. In 1972, the state purchased the attraction and established the Crater of Diamonds State Park. To this day, more than 70,000 diamonds have been discovered on the site since John Huddleston's first find in 1906.

When I talk about things everyone talks about needing to do in Arkansas, things that are on their Bucket List, I invariably hear "I need to go dig for diamonds." Growing up I'd hear people on TV talking about their chance to win the lottery -- but here in Arkansas, there was no lottery, and the only real equivalent was finding a large diamond. The idea of diamonds in our state saturated it from border to border so quickly, that when Willie Kavanaugh Hocker of Wabbaseka created her contest-winning design for the state flag, she incorporated a diamond into its design.

But what's it like? Certainly it's nothing like panning for gold in California or Colorado? Or like digging for silver underground in the Rockies? Nope, it's something a bit different, and fortunately for all of us it's relatively easy, relaxing and fun. Unless you forget your sunscreen, of course.

Crater of Diamonds State Park is a rather nice place south of Murfreesboro. There's a great RV section on park for those who wish to stay there. There are wildlife watching areas and a great visitors center. But of course, you're wanting to know about digging up some of those diamonds for yourself.

First off, go early in the day. Your $8 a person entry fee ($5 for kids 6-12, under 6 free) is good whether you get there at 8 a.m. when the park opens or 4:45 p.m. right before it closes, so you might as well take advantage of more time to search. Explore the story of finding diamonds in the
visitors center, and see real diamonds unearthed at the park. There's also a video presentation going that showcases many of the neat diamonds found at the park over the years.

You'll learn about the history there (more than what I've shared, of course, and if you want to read more right now, you can go here) and pick up tips on spotting stones. There aren't just diamonds out there... there are also garnets, peridot, jasper, quartz and amethyst in the field, and they're also great souvenirs.

You can bring your own shovel or trowel, pail or bucket, screen or anything else you wish, as long as it's not motorized. You can even bring your
pet, though your dog can't go into the visitors center unless it's a service animal. Hey, if you've trained a dog to dig diamonds successfully, give me a holler because that's a story I want to share! Don't have tools to dig? The park offers several items for rent, including a kit ($8 rent plus $35 deposit) that includes a bucket, shovel and screen.

So you can get in cheap, you have tools... but how do you actually go about finding a diamond? Park employees, such as park interpreter Margi Jenks, are on-hand with demonstrations to show you how it's done.

Once you're properly prepared, it's time to go diamond hunting. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, more diamonds tend to be found right after a hard rain. The hard, slick (but not oily) surface of the stone benefits from the rain, and you can see the glint easier when
surrounding soil has been washed away. But diamonds are found on all sorts of days -- hot or cold, rain or shine, anytime except dead of night (which, of course, isn't possible anyway since the park is closed).

Now, my suggestions. Take your lunch or bring money to buy lunch at the Kimberlite Cafe on-site (it's not open every day, be sure to check the website for times and dates). Bring plenty of water, or at least clean vessels to fill from a water fountain. Bring your own
shade. If you bore easily, bring a headset and listen to music or books on tape.

If you need a break, go fishing on the Little Missouri. Walk one of the park's trails. View wildlife from an observation blind. And... especially if you have kids... and it's summertime... bring your swimsuit. Crater of
Diamonds has a lovely little water park,Diamond Springs, right off the 37.5 acre field to cool off in... after you've showered, of course.

That's the other thing. You don't want to wear your Sunday best. For heaven's sake, you're going to be digging in the dirt -- dress appropriately!

Margi Jenks determines the size of a small diamond found in
the park.
And when you're done with your dig and can't dig any more, take advantage of this one secret... you're allowed to take one bucket of soil from the park home with you. In fact, many of the park's big finds occur this way -- with individuals getting a chance to dig for diamonds in the comfort of their own home or garage at their own leisure.

Just keep this in mind... there are over 100,000 visitors to Crater of Diamonds each year... and an average of two finds a day. Those diamonds are usually under a carat, though occasionally a two or eight carat stone is found. You probably won't find one that will pay off your mortgage, but you will have a good time, especially if you go with friends or family. And aren't memories the best souvenirs anyway?

Crater of Diamonds State Park
209 State Park Road
Murfreesboro, AR 71958
(870) 285-3113

Monday, January 19, 2015

Requiem for a Dead Mall - 7 Years After University Fell.

Back in the fall of 2007, the fate of University Mall was sealed, though most folks didn't have the full concept of Park Avenue that was to come.  At that point in time, I was a relatively unknown new blogger still trying to figure out what stories I would tell.  This one seemed important to me.

And later, I realized I wouldn't be able to tell it for a few years.

With the destruction last week of the UA Cinema 150, a new interest in historical places around Little Rock has been kicked up.  The Remember in Little Rock Facebook group is buzzing (and if you're interested in sharing tales of the city, that's definitely the place to do it) and people are sharing their stories of different places they recall.

JC Penney's, viewed from the south.  The old Doctor's
Hospital was behind me.
For me, University Mall is one of those places that sticks out in my memory.  When I was a young child, I rode the Christmas Train within its central section.  Restrooms were down a long ramp.  While Park Plaza on the north side of Markham was an all-outdoor multi-layered shopping center with a waterfall, University was a real mall, with
South entrance.  Osco Drug was inside to the left.
businesses that could only be accessed from its wide halls.  I ate at Franke's, got treats at The Nut Hut and cringed when Montgomery Ward renamed its stereo and TV section "Electric Avenue" after the equally embarassing 1980s song.  At that point, there was still a salon below the main level of Monkey
South entrance with sign.
Wards where one could pick up catalog orders or get one's hair did.  The ladies' restroom had an exterior room with couches.  It was painted pink all over.

As I grew older, changes came.  Everything's A Dollar moved in, introducing the idea of the dollar store to my generation.  I bought my very first CD at Capital Records, where I'd been going for years for cassette tapes.  There was a pink zircon ring in the window at Zales that I coveted for a couple of years.

Southeast corner.  That would have been the east entrance
for Montgomery Ward to the left, and of course the old
MM Cohn to the right.
When I was in junior high school, Park Plaza went under its transfiguration and became the three level menagerie of shops and stalls.  My friend Jerry and I once clambered through its subterranean halls and chambers, long before a post-9/11 world closed such fun places for teenagers to explore. University Mall had to catch up and compete, and its developers did so
There was a fence around portions of the parking lot by this
time, but only on the east side. The entrance to the mall's
parking lot was still open.  You can see the Baker Building,
now gone and replaced with Chipotle, in the background to
the right.
by adding a second level of stores between its anchors, creating an elevated food court and covering all with a "circus tent" that many of us referred to later as "old goat teats."  I mentioned we were teenagers, right?

I worked there two summers, right after I graduated high school and the one summer I came home, running the carousel in the food
Looking south from the east entrance. The building in sight is
the former Montgomery Ward auto department, which was
used by the city for some time as an auto shop.
court.  Back then I could get a parmesan garlic roll and a giant meatball from Sbarro for $1.05 for lunch.  My engagement ring was purchased at Montgomery Ward, and when I returned to Little Rock for good I went to its final sales before the doors closed.

I think after Wards died off, the mall never really recovered.  Osco Drug
This exterior stairwell was emergency access for the
underground floor of Montgomery Ward - which consisted of
a beauty parlor, catalog pick-up desk and warehouse.
went out, and Franke's moved out to the Market Street Shopping Center.  MM Cohn shrank down, abandoned its second story and eventually went out of business.

By the time it finally closed in October 2007, there were hardly any tenants left to evict.  But I wanted one more visit.  So one December day, I went over to the site to see if I could shoot some photos.  I sought a security guard to let me in, but didn't find one right away.

A view through the east entrance doors. The hallway took you to the main
concourse of the building, while the elevator to the right went to management
offices downstairs.  The double doors were access to MM Cohn's.

Another view down the hall. I apologize, but these images
were taken on a 2002 model Fuji digital camera with
limited resolution.  Also, I was a crap photographer at the time.

The east entrance.

The dual level parking deck still stands today and is all that is left of
University Mall.

As you can see, it remains relatively unchanged.

The north entrance to JC Penney's. 

The north entrance to the mall.  The overhead walkway
connected to the parking deck.

I had parked over by the south JC Penney's entrance and had walked halfway
around by this point.  All doors were locked. I was hoping someone would be at
this security desk, but no such luck.  I kept walking around and taking photos.

The view into the first floor from the north entrance. I could hear a high-
pitched whine.  Eventually, I'd find what was causing it.

JC Penney's was the last of the anchors to close.  This is the view from the
north entrance to the store.
This was a view into JC Penney's from the west. I was still looking for a security
guard.  I figured there had to be one, since every light in the mall was still on.
But I hadn't seen one, and every door of the mall had been locked.

Every one, except this one. I figured I'd go in, find that guard and see if that
person would escort me around to get some final photos. I repeatedly called
"hello?" as I went through.

The high pitched whine I'd been hearing turned out to be the fire alarm, which
emanated from the dressing rooms on the south side of the upper floor at
JC Penney's. There wasn't much left inside, except some storage materials
and artwork.

I could remember being inside this store as a very small girl, when there had
been some sort of water leak overhead and big vinyl bags hung through the
latticework of the suspended ceiling.  I thought I saw someone towards the
center of the store...

It turned out to be an army of mannequin bodies, in the shadows. It creeped me
out, and I didn't venture closer. This photo has been lightened to show those
weird dummies.

The big metal grate that separated the store from the mall was open - as were
most of the gates along the interior.  I hollered again, and heard nothing. I
noticed the neon from the Food Court sign was still on.

At one point in time, the end of the upper level went straight into MM Cohn's.
It was covered long ago.  

The spaces along the concourse were still open and equipped, apparently ready
for someone else to move in.

This was to the north of the JC Penney's entrance.

In its final days, government offices had temporarily located into the mall.

When the mall came down, this elevator shaft continued to
stand.  I don't know if it was incorporated elsewhere, but
you can see what that looked like at Wikipedia.

The food court.  In the summers of 1991 and 1992, I worked here at the
carousel.  It was moved to McCain Mall in 1993, where it stood outside the
entrance to that mall's JC Penney's.  I believe that's the entrance to the
movie theater there today.

I thought it odd to see all these living plants still in their boxes. Or maybe they
were really good fakes.

The glass elevator.

Second floor view east from the center.

Looking north to the food court.  To the right of the entrance at the back, there
was an arcade in which I had once spent many, many hours. To its right
was where a restaurant, maybe Chick-Fil-A, sat, and then McDonald's to
the right of that.

Looking west towards the entrance of JC Penney's.

The first human-like thing I spotted was a dummy left on a bench on the first
floor, outside the former entrance to Montgomery Ward.

The entrance to MM Cohn.

Another dummy, this one apparently a Christmas elf,
hung on the railing outside what used to be Everything's
A Dollar.

The former Everything's A Dollar location space.

A doorway open on the second level lead into MM Cohn's.  This upper story had
been closed for years.

It was in really good shape. Sad another tenant never came in.  Weird thing was,
I could hear something mechanical here.

From this vestibule on the north side of the building, you could see Park Plaza
a block away, and Summit House beyond it.

The noise I was hearing came from the boxed-in enclosure seen here on the left.

One of the plywood sheets to the enclosure had fallen down.  Inside, I was
surprised to see the lights on... 

but more surprised to see the escalator within was still working. As in, it
was still in motion, running endlessly to the plywood-enclosed bottom. A
suspended ceiling had been installed around it, and someone entering the building
in the few years prior probably wouldn't have noticed there was supposed to be an
escalator there.

And this is where my story could have ended... permanently.  I walked into a dressing area,
where there was a door open to a stairwell.  Having already walked through the upper level,
still calling out to see if I could find a security guard, it was time to go downstairs.  I walked
down to the first level and found the door locked.  I walked back up and found the door had
shut behind me, and I was locked in.

There was no cell phone signal.

Fortunately for me, the door knob had come loose over the years, and I managed to loosen the
screws in the plate enough to slide it around and jiggle the knob open. It still scares me to think
I might have become a permanent fixture.

I decided I was about done at that point, so I went back into the mall to make one
more attempt to find the security guard.  

After the scare in the MM Cohn's stairwell, I decided walking down the escalator
in the mall was a better choice.  It wasn't in motion.

I took a few more shots before descending.

The Sbarro had been on the left.

A look up at the "circus tent" supports.

Walking down the escalator.

A view to the east.

A view to the south.  The Nut Hut had hugged the wall on the left, and to the
far left you see the former Montgomery Ward entrance.

My last shot.  Franke's had been on the right past Zale's to the far right.

I turned and walked north to the guard station... where, surprisingly, I found a
guard. We talked for a bit, but by this point it was getting late in the
afternoon, and he wasn't interested in walking through the facility with me.
He gave me a phone number to call the next day to set up a tour. When I called
the next morning, I found it was a disconnected number.

My last walk through University Mall took place December 11th, 2007.
Demolition began 10 days later.
I don't know if these photos were the last taken within, but they are certainly
some of the last.  I had many memories here.