“It's probably one of the best events in western Kentucky and definitely in Crittenden County,” said Fred Stubblefield, member of the museum board of directors. “There's so much to see that people have never seen.” Museum namesake Ben E. Clement was a prominent geologist at the turn of the 20th century, according to Stubblefield. He was also a mine owner and operator. Nearly every displayed item in the museum is from his personal collection. “Mr. Clement had students come to his home from all over the world to learn about the geology of this area,” Stubblefield said. “This was the fluorspar capital of the world at that time, and he really enjoyed teaching them.”
It was Clement's children who saw the museum established. “If it wasn't for those kids, you wouldn't see this museum,” Stubblefield said. “They could have sold all of these exhibits that you see and been very wealthy, but they chose to honor their father by doing this. It's something he always wanted — a museum.” Photos within the museum show Clement with his wife, his children and lots of rocks. “I've never seen a rose garden picture, flowers and things, but look at all the rocks — the minerals,” Stubblefield said. “Every picture I have seen has been in part of a rock garden.”
Clement was a veteran of World War I, and he sat on the war board for World War II.
“They came to Crittenden County looking for a certain quantity of fluorite, a certain grade of fluorite,” Stubblefield said. “They sent the railway cars here, he filled them up and sent them back to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where it was used in making the first atomic bomb.”
Fluorite remains useful today in the making of atomic energy, according to Stubblefield. It is also used in manufacturing refrigerants, metals and toothpaste.
Clement's son, Ben E. Clement, Jr., emphasized the broad appeal of the museum. “My father never turned anyone away. I've never turned anyone away,” Clement, Jr. said. “We try to make sure everybody has a good experience. Sometimes people are hesitant because they don't feel like they can afford $5 for the tour, but I'll say this to them, 'If you're not gleefully happy once you've been through the museum, I will gleefully refund your money, but I don't want you to leave without at least experiencing what is here.'” The reassurance has often proven to be the nudge needed, but no one has ever asked for a refund. “We've never had to give a nickel back,” Clement, Jr. said.
True to Clement's legacy, the museum goes beyond history lessons and rooms full of specimens. Scheduled monthly digs along with the public dig coinciding with the show, send rockhounds to local mines to dig their own fluorite.
“There's just a thrill of going out and discovering a crystal for yourself,” said Clement, Jr.
According to Clement, Jr., the appeal of digging in dirt and picking at rock is broad.
“There's something that's in a lot of us,” Clement, Jr. said. “We get a lot of people out there who do paperwork — we get computer folks, we get bankers, we get cerebral types who just sit there crunching numbers all day long. We get schoolteachers. We get waitresses. We get all kinds of folk out there.”
The museum does not earn money directly from the show, though it benefits from the proceeds of tours and digs embarked upon by those attending the event. “We had one nine years ago. The vendors came in and had such a good time,” Clement, Jr. said. “Earth and rock people and science people are good folk for the most part. When these guys get together, it's been like a family, and they keep coming back year after year.” According to Clement, Jr., the attendees are enthusiastic and eager to share what they know.
“They have a passion about what it is that they have learned and the joy and depth of understanding they have derived from the study of science,” Clement, Jr. said. “They want to impart that. They will take forever to explain something to someone.”
Many attending the show brought children along, amounting to twice as many as last year. A corner with children's activities invited them to touch and identify minerals. “The smartest little old kids are brought through here by very good parents,” Clement, Jr. said.
Looking back on his own experiences with the museum, Clement, Jr. spoke of the unexpected joy of interviewing the subjects of the museum's collection of about 600 photos of fluorspar mines from 1899 through the 1950s.
“I had the good fortune of taking that photo album and interviewing old timers,” Clement, Jr. said. “When I looked at that album, I realized I didn't know anything about the men or the machinery in those photographs. They very often started at the mines as barefoot boys dumping tubs; then, they would grow up, go off to war, come back and mine some more.”
Clement, Jr. described the men as “wonderful.”
“I gained so much by having contact with them,” Clement, Jr. said. “My father always bragged about the miners that were in western Kentucky, that they were, as a class of people, some of the finest human beings.”
In return, the miners spoke well of Clement.
“They would say the kindest things about my father,” said Clement, Jr. “They would remark about his integrity and his abilities, and they really showed a lot of love and admiration for him, which was extremely gratifying for me as well.”Memberships in the museum, registration fees for monthly day and night digs, museum tours, and the museum mineral shop all support the continued legacy of Ben E. Clement.
SurfKY News Reporter
SurfKY News Photos/Ami Clayton
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