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Digging for diamonds at Murfreesboro

There are certain things every Arkansan should do at least once.

— Eating an entire hubcap cheeseburger at the original Cotham’s in Scott.

— Riding in a canoe down the Buffalo River.

— Calling the Hogs at football games in both Fayetteville and Little Rock.

— Searching for the Gurdon Light late at night.

— Having a catfish dinner at the Georgetown One Stop.

— Fishing for trout early in the morning on the White River.

— Watching the sun rise from a duck blind on the Grand Prairie.

— Spending a night at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs and the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.

— Attending a Battle of the Ravine.

Yes, there are some things you simply must do in order to earn your Arkansas bonafides.

Digging for diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro is one of those things.

I know you’ve talked about it. But how many of you native Arkansans have “played tourist” for a day and actually gone and done it?

I have.

It’s unlikely you’ll come home with a diamond, but you’ll have fun. The state Department of Parks and Tourism has made massive improvements to the park during the past dozen years. It’s well worth the drive to southwest Arkansas.

You’ll search for diamonds in a 37-acre plowed field. For history buffs, though, the park’s Diamond Discovery Center might prove more interesting than digging in the dirt. The interpretive center outlines the various methods used through the years to find diamonds and is home to a diamond hunters’ hall of fame.

Using proceeds from Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution, the Parks and Tourism Department also constructed the Diamond Springs Water Park, which covers 14,700 square feet. It features a wading pool with spray geysers, water jets, animated waterspouts, cascades, two water slides and waterfall hideaways. It’s open during the summer and is a good place to cool off after being in that plowed field with no shade.

There’s also a restaurant that’s open from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

Here’s how the Arkansas State Parks website describes the history of the mine: “For years, locals wondered about the unusual green dirt about two miles south of the small farming community of Murfreesboro. Geologists examined the soil in the late 1800s and found it to be similar to diamond-bearing volcanic material elsewhere in the world, but they failed to uncover any of the precious stones at the time.

“Early in the 20th century, a local farmer named John Wesley Huddleston purchased land near Murfreesboro that included part of this volcanic material. In August 1906, he discovered the first diamonds on his property. Known as Arkansas’ Diamond King, Huddleston soon sold his land to a commercial mining company for $36,000.

“A diamond rush developed as soon as word of the find got out. In fact, the Conway Hotel in Murfreesboro is said to have turned away more than 10,000 people in just one year who could not be accommodated in the hostelry. The tent city of Kimberly was established between Murfreesboro and the diamond mine, but nothing remains of it today.”

The Arkansas Diamond Co. began commercial mining operations on land purchased from Huddleston. An adjoining landowner named M.M. Mauney refused to sell his land. Later, however, Mauney sold an interest in the property to Horace Bemis, who died soon after forming the Ozark Diamond Corp.

Bemis’ heirs sold his interest in the property to Austin and Howard Millar, whose commercial operation was destroyed by a January 1919 fire.

In 1951, land leased from the Millar family was turned into a tourist attraction and opened under the name Diamond Preserve of the United States. The name later was changed to Crater of Diamonds.

Ethel Wilkinson of Logansport, Ind., owned adjoining property and opened a competing attraction known as The Big Mine.

The two attractions had billboards across southwest Arkansas.

In 1969, General Earth Minerals of Dallas purchased both attractions. Extensive studies were done, but it was determined that commercial mining was unfeasible.

Gov. Dale Bumpers made expansion of the state parks system one of the cornerstones of his administration, and the state purchased the land from General Earth Minerals for $750,000 in 1972.

For students of Arkansas history, it seems fitting that the diamond mine ended up in state hands. That’s because a state geologist named John Branner had been the first person to say the land might contain diamonds. Diamonds were being found in the peridotite soil of South Africa, and Branner knew there was a similar area of soil near Murfreesboro. He searched the property in 1889 but found no diamonds.

When Huddleston made those first discoveries in 1906, he sent the stones to Little Rock jeweler Charles Stifft, who confirmed that they were diamonds. Stifft, in turn, sent them on to New York, where they were pronounced to be of fine grade.

In a later interview with the Arkansas Gazette, Huddleston recalled finding the first diamonds: “I was crawling on my hands and knees when my eyes fell on another glittering pebble. … I knew it was different from any I had ever seen before. It had a fiery eye that blazed up at me every way I turned it. I hurried to the house with the pebble, saddled my mule and started for Murfreesboro. … Riding through the lane, my eye caught another glitter, and I dismounted and picked it up out of the dust.”

There’s a historic marker to designate the approximate spot where Huddleston made his find.

The Strawn-Wagner Diamond, found at the state park in 1990 by Shirley Strawn of Murfreesboro, is the most perfect diamond the American Gem Society has ever certified.

The diamond weighed 3.03 carats in the rough. Following the recommendation of certified gemologist Bill Underwood, the diamond was sent to Lazare Kaplan International of New York in 1997 for cutting. The gem was cut into a round diamond of 1.09 carats. The cut allowed the maximum amount of light to be reflected.

Among the other famous discoveries at Crater of Diamonds is the Uncle Sam Diamond. At 40.23 carats, the white diamond is the largest diamond ever found in North America. It has been cut twice. The second cutting resulted in a 12.42-carat diamond.

The 4.25-carat Kahn Canary Diamond was worn by first lady Hillary Clinton at presidential inaugural galas in 1993 and 1997. It was loaned to her by owner Stan Kahn of Pine Bluff. George Stepp, a logger from Carthage, had found the diamond at the state park in 1977. Kahn later purchased it from him.

Since Crater of Diamonds became a state park, the largest find has been the 16.37-carat Amarillo Starlight Diamond. W.W. Johnson of Amarillo, Texas, found the diamond in 1975 while vacationing in Arkansas with his family.

The weather has warmed. Before it gets too hot, you should make a trek to Murfreesboro and live Arkansas history by sifting the soil at Crater of Diamonds State Park.

It’s a must-do on the Natural State Bucket List.

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