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Treasure Hunt

Destination: Mason County

Travel time from:
Austin – 1.75 hours
El Paso – 6 hours
Dallas – 3.75 hours
Houston – 4 hours
San Antonio – 1.75 hour
Lubbock – 4 hours

Mason County lures visitors who dig topaz and Hill Country scenery.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Bluebonnet seedlings and a few prickly pear cacti poke up from a granite sandbar that we’re crossing on the Bar M Ranch in northwestern Mason County. Around us, northern cardinals, mourning doves and a mockingbird trill morning songs from the live oaks. In front, my husband totes a long shovel. I’ve got the metal sifter that’s as big as a cookie sheet.

With high hopes and eyes peeled, James and I are on the hunt in early March for a Texas treasure like none other — rare Mason County topaz. Bar M owner Mark Hahn is one of three landowners who offer public hunts for a fee.

“We will find some,” I tell James firmly as I lean down to examine some gravel. Surely, sheer determination will make my words come true.

Our quest for Texas blue topaz — designated as the state gem in 1969 and found only in Mason County — tops a three-day itinerary in Mason. But picturesque back roads and a vibrant downtown also beckon in this historic Hill Country town of nearly 2,200.

mason

Offices and eateries line the square in downtown Mason.

First, innkeepers Brent and Monica Hinckley usher us to our upstairs accommodations at the Red Door Bed and Breakfast, housed in an 1895 building on the square. In 1995, the couple renovated the second floor into four guestrooms and their private residence. To get to work, Brent simply walks to their downstairs business, Hinckley’s Country Store, and down the block to City Hall, where he’s served as mayor for a decade.

Our visit starts with Sunday lunch at the Line Shack Cafe, where we dine on crispy fried shrimp and oysters. The locals give us warm smiles. One even recognizes me. Bob and I worked together years ago at an Austin newspaper.

For the afternoon, we head south to the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve. We don’t expect to see the cave or bats (Mexican free-tailed mothers raise pups there in the summer), but we’ve been told the drive is scenic.

Sure enough, gravel-topped James River Road meanders through rugged ranchland, past limestone-bluffed creeks and alongside scrubby hillsides dotted with yucca and juniper. A white-tailed doe pauses near a patch of red-berried tasajillo, then flees with her sisters into the tall grass.

At a river crossing, we decide the water over the road looks higher than our Camry can handle. So we double back, pull out our county map and choose a route that will put us on the south side of the James River. Off FM 783, we pull off to admire a ranch home and sandstone church built in 1902 at Hilda, a mere dot on the map. Back on unpaved county roads, we notice that the topsoils change in hue from red sandy loam to reddish brown, light brown and gray. At a creek crossing, a sheer bluff topped with bare-limbed trees reveals ancient rock layers and the empty mud nests of cliff swallows.  

Finally, we reach our destination. Owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, the high-fenced Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve is open mid-May through October from around 6 to 9 p.m. when the bats emerge from the cave at dusk to forage. We’ll come back another time to watch.

mason

Bats emerge for a nightly meal at the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve.

Back in Mason, we briefly tour the reconstructed officers’ quarters — a dogtrot-style cabin perched atop Post Hill — at Fort Mason. Built in 1851, the frontier fort protected settlers from Indian raids. Several sparsely furnished rooms depict the era’s rustic living conditions. After supper, we walk across the square to see a sci-fi flick at the Odeon Theater. Rescued by the Odeon Preservation Association in 1994, the 1928 theater also hosts live musical and theatrical performances.

The next morning, we dine on pancakes and French toast at the Willow Creek Cafe on the square. Then we stroll to Mason Country Collectibles, a short walk north on Fort McKavitt Street (U.S. Highway 87). Owners Warren and Susan Grote — the go-to gurus about the area’s topaz — inherited the two-level compound from Warren’s father, Oliver, who opened the offbeat antique business in 1978. The elder Grote, who passed in 2011, also sold jewelry set with Lone Star cut topaz from Mason County (which Warren sells, too). Oliver’s most spectacular gem — a 587.15-carat faceted blue topaz — stays locked in a vintage bank vault.

“Daddy bought the potato-sized stone from a farmer who plowed it up in the 1940s and used it as a doorstop,” says Warren, who allows me to cradle the sparkling topaz in my palm. “Our cutter studied the stone for nine months, then he took another nine months to cut it. He’d only cut 30 minutes a morning because he didn’t want to make a mistake.”

Oliver, who thereafter carried the topaz in his pocket, ultimately decided against selling it.

“People ask me all the time how much this piece is worth,” Warren says with a chuckle. “Since it’s not for sale, it’s either priceless or worthless.”

Eons ago, when the earth cooled, the difference of two fluorine atoms determined whether a quartz or topaz crystal formed. That said, amateur rock hounds often mistake plentiful quartz for Mason topaz, generally frosty and transparent in its raw state. Topaz also occurs in brown, yellow and light-blue colors. Glass dishes on Warren’s counter contain small raw topaz stones for visitors to examine.

mason

A gem hunter searches for topaz at the Bar M Ranch near Mason.

“They’re hard to find,” he warns. “I’ll take a look at what you get, if you want.”

For lunch, James relishes a hefty burger at the Square Plate on the square. My Chinese chicken salad comes packed with sunflower seeds, ramen noodles and slivered almonds. Our shared chunk of carrot cake kissed with cream cheese icing tastes divine.

Later, Dennis Evans meets us at the Mason Square Museum, where exhibits trace Mason’s geology, early German settlers, Fort Mason days and cattle rustling feuds. But what most folks want to see is Mason County’s nearly 3-pound, uncut topaz displayed under glass. Found by Albert McGehee in 1904, the stone was sold to the Smithsonian Institution for $75.

“We’ve had it on temporary loan since 1995,” Dennis says. “We’re hoping to make it permanent.”

A quick stop by the Mason County M. Beven Eckert Memorial Library wraps up the day. James wants to see displays on the late Fred Gipson, a Mason native who authored the classic children’s book Old Yeller.

For breakfast the next day, luscious blueberry muffins and hot coffee at Topaz Confections on the square hit the spot. We squirrel away a box of iced cupcakes and assorted cookies for later. Then we head northwest to the Bar M Ranch, where owner Mark Hahn and his dog, Zeke, meet us at the gate.

“This place has been in my family since 1923,” he says. “I grow cattle and run a deer hunting operation. This is my fourth year to offer public topaz hunts. Personally, I’ve never found any topaz. But a month ago, a family in a van got stuck in mud on a road and found a gem-quality topaz while digging out their vehicle.”

Mark goes over gem-hunting guidelines with us (such as don’t do any off-road driving, close the gates and leave hunted areas in pristine condition), then hands us a ranch map, shovel and sifter. We must also sign a liability release. (FYI: Bar M offers topaz hunting from Feb. 1 to Oct. 2. Rates run $15 per person per day. Metal sifters and shovels may be rented for $6 each per day. The Seaquist Ranch and Lindsay Ranch also offer public gem hunts.)

“Anything you find is yours to keep,” Mark continues. “You’re more apt to find Indian artifacts in the pastures. Someone found a 4-inch spear point last year. For topaz, Honey Creek is the best place to look. I’d recommend that you walk up and down the creekbed. Or dig a hole and sift through what you find. Just please refill the hole.

paloalto

An uncut piece of topaz found in Mason.

“Topaz is difficult to find,” he concludes. “It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack. Good luck!” 

Optimistic, we drive south on a bumpy ranch road and park at a picnic site. We tromp through tall grass to reach Honey Creek, which is barely flowing. As we hike, I scan the granite gravel and pick up an occasional crystal. Maybe topaz, I think hopefully. Soon we venture up a grassy slope, sparsely covered with juniper, prickly pear and shrubby vegetation.

I pause to admire a cacti garden, growing within limestone bedrock, that features a small nipple cactus, clumps of claret cup cacti, a twist-leaf yucca, two Buckley’s yuccas and young agaritas. A photo barely captures the natural beauty.

On the ground, I find what James later identifies as a small Native American scraper and a broken spear point. After an hour of searching, we decide to drive to a different pasture on the Bar M’s southeast side. I pocket a few more crystals.

This time, we tote the shovel and sifter to a dry creekbed. James digs into a sandbar, and we sift through the debris a few times. But, honestly, tearing up habitat isn’t our thing. So James fills the hole back up, and I replant a displaced bladderpod. We agree to surface hunt for another hour or so.  

By morning’s end, we’ve collected several large rocks to accent our native gardens and a pile of unusual stones along with a few artifacts. In Mason, we track down Warren Grote, who’s repairing a roof on Post Hill Street. I show him my handful of small treasures.

“Yep, young lady,” he drawls, “you’ve got some mighty nice quartz crystals there!”

I’m not surprised. Or disappointed. Because we did have a mighty fine time topaz hunting in Mason County, and that’s what counts.

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