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The Pegmatite Mines Known as Palermo.

The Pegmatite Mines Known as Palermo

by Robert W. Whitmore and Robert C. Lawrence Jr., mineral illustrations by Frederick C. Wilda. Published (2004) by Palermo Mines Ltd., 934 Stark Highway, Weare, NH 03281. Hardcover, 8.5 X 11.25 inches, 213 pages. Price: $150.

In his "Foreward" to this book about the famous Palermo phosphate pegmatite at North Groton, New Hampshire, senior author Robert Whitmore makes plain that for him the book fulfills a longtime dream of memorializing a place he has always loved. Along the way of offering the mining and cultural history and comprehensive mineralogical survey that we expect from a "locality" volume, this book offers also a real celebration of a place that has been much loved by many besides Whitmore, down through about eight generations of the New Hampshire folk whose faces look warily back at us from the past, in the volume's generous profusion of old photographs.

In fact, the photos in the 63-page chapter called "History of Palermo" delve into rural New England history as industriously as the Palermo workers once dug the mica and beryl: here are white clapboard houses seeming depthless against bleached skies; mud-chowdery village streets; loaded buckboards ready to go; roads curving on into austere pine forests; steam locomotives; and of course miners posing, alone and in groups, in the stiff but soldiering-on way that people used to pose for cameras in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Abundant photographs of the Palermo mine excavations themselves are here too, with creatively selected scenes of, for example, rock shooting out of a tunnel during a blast, the arching quartz core of the pegmatite, three-foot crystals of beryl in situ, and even two full-page color photos of ice stalagmites. The text is clear and thorough enough, but it is the visuals which fascinate--to say nothing of the mineral specimen paintings (see later). This book is expensive because its makers have sought to make it both lavish and just a little eccentric, with deluxe packaging--thus the crinkly parchment-like dust jacket, the landscapes in spidery brown pen strokes inside the hard covers, and the luxuriantly thick paper throughout.

After "History" comes the book's most "romantic" chapter of all, a short one called "Secrets of Palermo" containing only photographs and their captions, and here, besides those ice stalagmites, are photos of spacious underground mine rooms lit in ways almost mystical (one of these rooms is known locally as The Room With The View). However, between the short "Secrets" and the necessarily long "Palermo Minerals" chapter which follows, the book gets businesslike with a helpful two-page spread offering a "Palermo No. 1 Timeline" to show the various periods of mining in their historical contexts.

The commercial life of the Palermo No. 1 mine began perhaps as early as the Civil War and lasted until 1968, with just two short intervals of dormancy (ca. 1898-1913 and 1928-1942). Throughout this time the mine produced muscovite mica, the many uses of which, past and present, are described by the authors at the beginning of "History." And after 1913 it produced feldspar for use in the glass, ceramics and enamel industries. World War II inspired production of an exotic, classified, "strategic" metal: beryllium, taken from the mine's great reserves of beryl. In the early 1960's, quartz mined from the pegmatite's core was mixed with cement to add sparkle to new buildings rising in East Coast cities.

After the late 1960's, however, industrial mining gave way to disciplined explorations by mineralogists and collectors--for the Palermo pegmatite is one of the world's sacred places to those interested in the rich suite of secondary phosphates which have formed from the alteration of pegmatitic apatite and triphylite. From 1968 to 1974, expert New Hampshire mineral prospector Peter Samuelson leased the mine and sought mineral specimens in it, and since 1974 the mine has been owned by Robert Whitmore and worked by him and his associates for mineral specimens. To date, almost 150 species have been identified from the pegmatite, almost all of the really interesting ones being rare phosphates which occur, superbly well-crystallized, as micromount and thumbnail-size specimens, a few of the species being unique to Palermo. If you can lay hands on a copy of vol. 4, no. 3 (1973) of the Mineralogical Record, see "Phosphate pegmatites: descriptive mineralogy and crystal chemistry," written by Paul B. Moore, one of the Palermo mine's most famous and faithful adepts (he is represented by 15 of the 93 titles in the bibliography of this new work).

The chapter title "Palermo Minerals" sets up the book's second half by introducing a 20-page section composed of (1) lists and tables detailed enough to get down to things like which species occur in which individual triphylite pods; (2) a color cross-section of the mine with plastic overlays showing collecting sites, and (3) what is perhaps the book's most surprising feature to come on unawares, an Index to Minerals with page numbers and species names keyed to little paintings of crystal specimens.

This turns out to be a foreshadowing. The chapter "Palermo Phosphate Minerals," we find, contains short, straightforward discussions of each species accompanied and dominated by much larger paintings in the same impressionistic style--beautiful, dreamy, minutely detailed colored flights of mineral fantasy by the obviously highly gifted Frederick C. Wilda. These images are presented, it seems quite frankly, not as formal "scientific illustrations" representing what the minerals actually look like but, rather, as what the finest micromount specimen just past the limits of your imagination might look like. Colorings, crystal morphologies, associations, etc. are correct enough, but only in a Platonic sort of way. I think that the artist, by being so frankly impressionistic, succeeds in (if you prefer, "gets away with") his approach, and should not be carped at from "scientific" perspectives. If a caption says that the painting depicts a 0.5-mm specimen of dickinsonite, and the painting is a phantasma of gleaming gray-blue wedges, a Star Wars cityscape, thrusting at all angles over a third of a page, well, just enjoy it; this is not dickinsonite but a Dream of Dickinsonite. I am trying to say that the paintings are not only beautiful, they are also playful and fun, and they seem to me to relieve the sometimes excessive solemnity of the book's earlier parts. [Editor's note: If you'd like to see some examples, check out Frederick Wilda's gallery in the Art Museum section of the Mineralogical Record's website (, where 31 of Fred's mineral paintings are on exhibit, including several showing Palermo minerals.] The text here is, once again, workmanlike and efficient in any case: when you finally unhitch your eyes from the painting, you read plainly what the species in question is all about, what its associations are in the mine, and where (and often when) its best specimens have been found.

After "Phosphates," a short chapter covers "Palermo Quartz and Other Minerals." After that, an even shorter chapter called "Palermo Gems and Carvings" presents photographs of some splendid faceted gems, mostly aquamarine and heliodor beryl, from the Palermo mine, and a couple of carvings. The book concludes with that 93-title bibliography, a rather minimal index, and some final line drawings. You close the book feeling grateful for what has been not only a solid educational read, but an excursion through some substantial and out-of-the-way New England history, and an interesting experiment in mineral-book aesthetics. The only possible drawback is the price, but for a labor of love like this, where someone has pulled all the stops out trying to do the very best possible job documenting a great mineral locality, we should probably just be thankful and give him his money.
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Author:Moore, Thomas P.
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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