Hunting agate in Estill County ahead of this weekend’s big festival

April 25, 2015

150421Agate-TE0064Cindy Striley of Cincinnati, left, examined a rock she found along Station Camp Creek while hunting for agate. James Flynn, right, who led the hunt, discussed another specimen with Richard and Linda Schlabach of Nashville, Tenn. Back left is Jerry Parton of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. People from more than a dozen states went on agate hunts last week leading up to this weekend’s 25th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

IRVINE — Jerry Parton waded slowly down Station Camp Creek, scanning the rocky bottom beneath shallow riffles.

He carried a plastic bucket in one hand and a three-pronged rake in the other, using it to turn over stones now and then. Parton bent down, picked up one and rolled it in his hand. Then he shook his head.

“It’s just a piece of hamburger,” he said, referring to a round, ridged rock that looks like Kentucky agate but isn’t. “I always have high hopes for those.”

Parton, who lives in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, was part of a record crowd of 150 rock hounds from 13 states who came to Estill County last week for three guided hunts before the Kentucky Agate, Rock Gem & Jewelry Show.

The show is part of the Mountain Mushroom Festival, which began Friday and continues through Sunday. This is the 25th year Irvine has celebrated the tasty morel mushrooms that grow wild in the surrounding hills and the eighth year the festival also has showcased rare Kentucky agate.

Other events include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations, car and craft shows, a beauty pageant, the Fungus 5k Run and the Speedy Spore River Run. Last year’s festival brought 20,000 people to this town of 2,400.

150421Agate-TE0003“These are things that make us unique, and we want people to see what a nice community we have here,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairwoman. “We’re salt-of-the-earth people.”

Kentucky agate is found only in Estill and parts of five adjacent counties: Madison, Lee, Rockcastle, Jackson and Powell. Spring is the best time to find it. Heavy rains tend to wash chunks out of underground bedrock formations into creek beds freshly cleared of algae.

The General Assembly declared agate the state rock in 2000, even though it is mineral quartz and technically not a rock. (Legislators struggle with science. They also declared coal the state mineral, even though it is a rock and not a mineral.)

Geologists think Kentucky agate was formed as part of the Borden layer during the Mississippian period, about 350 million years ago.

Agate stones appear rather ordinary on the outside. When broken open, they look like translucent glass with irregular, concentric bands combining red, orange, yellow, black and gray. The coloration is caused by various chemical impurities.

Collectors often use rock saws to cut agate into slices. They then polish them for display or use in decorative items such as jewelry or bookends.

Rondle Lee was giving away pieces of unpolished agate last Tuesday morning to people who signed up for one of the festival’s three official hunts. Lee wanted everyone to know what they were looking for, because locals say the stretch of creek on his property contains some of the finest agate in Kentucky.

James Flynn of Irvine, who has been hunting agate for 35 years, led the group on a one-mile hike to the creek, followed by a long wade upstream.

Bright sunshine made it a good day for hunting, Flynn said, because the agate’s coloring would stand out better from limestone and sandstone. Hunters tried to be choosey: whatever they put in their bucket or backpack had to be worth carrying around all day.

“Until about the 1960s, nobody knew this agate was here,” Flynn said. “A lot of people come and hunt now. I’ve gone many a day and not found a piece. Other days, I’ve found a pack full.”

Dan Newbauer of Apple Valley, Minn., came to hunt last April and enjoyed it so much he returned this year. Others, such as Esta Helms of Columbia, Mo., and Richard and Linda Schlabach of Nashville came after hearing about it from other members of their rock hound clubs.

“It’s just a totally different kind of agate,” said hunter Chip Burnett, a retiree from Killeen, Texas, who collects rocks, makes jewelry and has sold his wares at the Irvine show for four years.

“If you want some of this stuff, this is where you have to come,” he said. “But it’s beautiful country with a lot of friendly people.”

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Irvine festival celebrates wild and tasty morel mushrooms

April 19, 2014

140417MushroomFest0211Jen Collins scans the forest floor for tiny, tasty morel mushrooms in Estill County. The 24th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine is April 26-27. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

IRVINE — “I found one!” Jen Collins called out from the top of the ridge. Her fellow mushroom hunters groaned and giggled.

By family tradition, Collins’ older sister, Joan Murphy, is supposed to find the first tasty morel mushroom each spring when they hike into the woods to search for them. But within a few minutes, Murphy had found one, too.

Collins and Murphy are fifth-generation ‘shroom hunters. They have walked these hills each spring since their father, Dennis Stacy, brought them and their five siblings here as teenagers more than 40 years ago. Now, they hunt mushrooms with their children and grandchildren, and many other Estill County families do the same.

“We know when it’s spring we go mushroom hunting,” Collins said. “It’s just a way of life.”

140417MushroomFest0054This local tradition prompted Irvine to start the Mountain Mushroom Festival in 1991. About 20,000 people are expected April 26-27 for the 24th annual festival, which will include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations.

The festival also incorporates another local specialty: Kentucky agates. The gemstones are found only in Estill and parts of five surrounding counties. There will be public agate hunts along creek beds April 22-24 and an agate, gem and mineral show in town April 22-27.

Festival activities include a pancake breakfast, tractor and car shows, a parade and the annual Fungus 5k race. Festival admission is free. (More information: mountainmushroomfestival.org.)

“We’re trying to educate, and promote our cultural heritage,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairman. “We want to highlight what is unique about our home and share it with visitors.”

Morel, or Morchella, mushrooms are difficult to cultivate, but grow wild in deciduous forests around the world. They can be found across Kentucky and surrounding states. The mushrooms start popping up in late March or early April, when overnight temperatures have warmed and there has been enough rain to dampen the soil.

140417MushroomFest0050A morel looks like a sponge or honeycomb and is hollow. Old-timers called them “dry-land fish” because they taste a little fishy. Hunters must take care not to confuse them with “false morels” — mushrooms that look more like brains than sponges and are poisonous.

Estill County hunters rarely find more than one or two morels growing together. The mushrooms range in color from black to golden and are often only one-to-three inches long. It takes skill and experience to see them poking up among the dead leaves and wildflowers on the forest floor.

The sisters took me mushroom hunting last Thursday, along with Collins’ son, Michael Collins Jr., president of the Estill County Chamber of Commerce, and Bonny, the festival chairman.

We drove up into the hills outside Irvine to their favorite spot, then hiked down one ridge and up another. Every few minutes, each hunter would stop to carefully scan the forest, poking a walking stick at fallen leaves when they thought they saw something — a mushroom or a snake.

When a morel was found, it was picked with a pinch of the stem. Hunters take care to protect the roots so they will produce more mushrooms. They carry picked mushrooms in a net shoulder bag on the theory that loose spores will fall off as they walk, increasing the chances of more mushrooms in the forest in the future.

When the hunters found leaves that looked disturbed, it often meant wild turkey had been there. “Deer and turkey both like mushrooms,” Collins said. “So you have to beat them to ’em.”

After a couple of hours, the hunters had found 28 small morels. That explains why they sell for about $40 a pound at the festival’s mushroom market. I hadn’t found a single one. I’m sure it was because I was too busy taking pictures. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The sisters were kind enough to give me a handful of their morels, plus cooking instructions. When I got home, I cleaned and sliced them in half, soaked them in saltwater, rolled them in cornmeal and a little flour and fried them in butter. Delicious!

The next time I go mushroom hunting, I will leave my cameras at home. I want to focus on dinner.

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