WAGERSVILLE— Lamon Flynn lives a quarter mile down the road from the spot where he was born in Estill County. His house is on land that used to be his daddy's farm.
But he was 30 years old before he knew anything about the rare, beautiful and valuable agates that turned out to be literally under his feet.
"I found some people rock-hunting on my property," he said. "I questioned what they were doing here and they told me."
That was a little more than 30 years ago. Flynn has since become one of the top agate people around.
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He will be showing off some his prized agates, and the jewelry he makes from them, at this weekend's Gem, Mineral, Jewelry Show and Sale in Lexington.
The "rocks" those people were looking for are technically minerals. Geologists say they are microcrystalline quartz, which means the crystals are so tiny they can only be seen through a powerful microscope.
But there is confusion about the rock/mineral distinction at the highest levels. The General Assembly, for example, has declared the agate to be the official state rock. It also has named coal, which is a rock, as the official state mineral, but that's another story.
Agates are found all over the world. But some of the most beautiful anywhere are in Kentucky, and they are found only in Estill, Powell, Madison, and Rockcastle counties.
Agates come in many colors, but Kentucky agates are the only ones that have red and black bands, which makes them highly prized.
Agates form in small spaces in rocks that could have been left when some soft material, such as a fossil or clay, eroded out.
It is replaced by fluids saturated with silica. Iron in the fluid produces the red; calcium or manganese make the black.
Kentucky agates are in what is called the Borden formation of sedimentary rock that is about 360 million years old.
Because the agates form some time after the rock, no one is sure how old they are, said Ann Watson, a geologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey at the University of Kentucky.
The Borden formation is at the surface in other parts of Kentucky, she said. But, for some reason, agates have only been found in a few counties.
And, considering how long people have been in Kentucky, agates were discovered only recently. Sam Settles, a geologist from Danville, found them in 1964. The world didn't really become aware of them until he published a paper in the Rocks & Minerals magazine in 1981.
By that time, Flynn was becoming more interested.
"I got to picking some up and bringing them in," he said. "The first thing you know I was cutting and fooling with them."
The way most people find agates is by walking along creek beds, or wading in shallow creeks, looking for what looks like an ordinary, dull-colored rock. (Even after agates are sliced in half, it takes a lot of polishing to bring out the colors.)
This time of year is not good for agate hunting, Flynn said. That's because the creeks are muddy, rocks are covered with algae, and leaves are starting to fall.
But if a big rain comes after Christmas, the mud, algae and leaves clear out. The high water from the rain uncovers agates.
"We'll get our wading boots on when it's not froze," he said. "That's the best time to go."
Just because a creek doesn't produce something on one trip doesn't mean it won't be full of agates the next time around.
"Mother Nature has hidden these things for millions of years," Flynn said. "She has this way of hiding things for 10 years or 20 years or 100 years. These streams shift from one side of these valleys to the other. What is buried this year, it might dig out again this year or 100 years from now."
And Flynn finds plenty of agates that are nowhere near a creek.
There are the ones he found, for example, when he dug a couple of flower beds behind his house. There are the ones that, when he used to raise hogs, would get rooted up by those hogs.
He still has the first agate he found. And he keeps some of the nicer ones that he can't bear to part with.
A dozen years ago, Flynn started fooling around with silver and gold smithing. He now turns out agate rings, earrings, necklaces, pocket knives and belt buckles.
Flynn was hesitant to talk about what agates are worth.
"They are worth what people are willing to pay for them," he said.
Larry Lipchinsky, who is curator of the W.G. Burroughs Geology Museum at Berea College, said that for jewelry, "really good" black and red agate can sell for $100 a square inch.
A really good agate that is 12 inches across, with nice red and gold bands, can fetch $10,000.
He said some Kentucky agates are offered for sale on the Internet for $30,000 or $40,000, but he's not sure anyone is paying those prices.
Agates for sale at this weekend's show will top out at around $3,000 to $4,000, he said.