New mineral museum aims to involve local residents
Posted July 15-Larry Stifler likens his effort to bring world-class Maine gems back home for display in a new museum in Bethel to “a Greek coming to the British Museum to take back part of the Parthenon.”
Stifler and his wife, Mary McFadden, own a summer home in Albany. Their permanent home is in Massachusetts, where he owns a national health care company.
They have been working with local jeweler/miner Jim Mann and others to help preserve western Maine’s gem and mineral heritage through purchasing properties (including the Bumpus Mine in Albany); noteworthy Maine gems and minerals from collections around the world; historical materials; and now, the Kennett Realty building on Main Street in Bethel.
The building will be converted to a gem and mineral museum, to showcase the collections, educate the public (particularly young people) and provide a center for research.
Stifler hopes to have it open in about two years.
Some of the current “stars” of his growing collection include a 158-carat, flawless morganite gem, the largest and finest cut from “The Rose of Maine,” which was discovered in the Bennett Mine in Buckfield in 1989; a 106-carat red tourmaline gemstone, one of the largest from a Dunton Mine find in Newry; and a 6.4-pound tourmaline crystal from the Dunton Mine.
Stifler said he has been told by museum curators that this is now the world's largest collection of Maine gems and minerals, with thousands of specimens.
He is acquiring collections and gems through outright purchase, as well as on long-term loan, from sources such as Harvard University and the American Museum of Natural History.
Many of the gems have been hidden away in storage for years. In one case, a collection of tourmalines had been kept in a cigar box for the past century. In another, Stifler recently purchased the entire Maine collection that was being de-accessioned from a museum.
As word has gotten out about his plans, said Stifler, “the response has been enormous.”
A wide variety of people have shown interest, he said, noting that one acquaintance said his plumber had raised the subject in conversation.
On July 1 Stifler began an effort to involve the Bethel community in the project, which he hopes will also serve as a boost to the local economy.
He hosted a gathering of about two dozen community members. Stifler described his plans, displayed some gems that have already been acquired, and spoke of the need for volunteers at the museum and behind the scenes, for tasks including staffing the museum, leading tours and changing displays.
He said he envisions a wide variety of people coming to visit the museum, ranging from serious gemologists from around the world to house guests visiting local residents.
Noting that 600 children had visited the Bumpus Mine in the past year, Stifler projected that a thousand youngsters might visit the museum annually. He also plans to have a science curriculum created based on the museum's resources.
To support the educational part of his mission, Stifler hopes to forge strong links among local mines that are open to the public, such as the Bumpus, sluicing businesses (in which guests may pan for gems in mine tailings) and the museum.
The museum building will be set up with a research/cutting workshop in the basement, and classes will be offered to the public.
As an example of the possibilities, Bob Ritchie of Freeport spoke briefly at the gathering on sphere-cutting, the cutting of stone into spherical shapes for display.
Display areas at the new museum will be located on its first and second floors.
There will also be a gift shop, featuring everything from uncut gems for kids to $50 pendants to $5,000 necklaces.
But, stressed Stifler, “there’s no income in it for us.”
Any income will go back into the museum, he said.
He also plans to sell some gems from collections that include many duplicates, and use the funds to purchase or trade for others.
While the major focus of the museum will be on Maine gems, Stifler has also been collecting specimens from much greater distances – across the solar system and the galaxy.
He has about two dozen meteorites so far. A large one will be on display for youngsters to touch, and small pieces will be available for purchase.
As Stifler plans the museum, he says he is aided by the fact that he knew little about gems and minerals before embarking on this project. As a novice, said Stifler, he can visualize what will appeal to the general public.
And he will continue to bring the perspectives of other community members into the project, with more gatherings planned.
Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, was among those attending the July 1 gathering.
“The chamber is thrilled to have the incredible support and passion of Larry and Mary in their new endeavor,” she said afterward. “We also feel blessed to have Jim Mann on the chamber board. He is a relentless advocate for Bethel, and a visionary who is responsible for planting the seed with Larry and Mary. We’re convinced that this world-class gem and mineral museum and educational facility will be an economic stimulus for our area.”