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Prospectors find gold in Tama County

October 26, 2011
By Rod Kinnison - Staff Writer , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Gold! Archeologists have evidence of gold being used by humans over 7,000 years ago. Throughout history it has been the most sought after metal because of it's beauty and the ability to easily shape it. Even today it's still one of the most valuable metals on the planet and surprisingly, you can find it lying around right here in Tama County.

In 1858 Tama County experienced it's own mini-gold rush. The editor of the Toledo Tribune newspaper, E.B. Bolens, even poked fun at it saying they'd accept Tama County gold as payment for subscriptions to the newspaper with "larger lumps" being rewarded with a two year's subscription. Even though he joked about it at the time, he also wrote that he had personally seen both gold dust and a nugget that came from the northern part of the county. "The largest lump found was about the size of a partridge egg." It might have been a joke then, but today, a lump of pure gold that size would weigh in at around 8 troy ounces. At current prices it could easily be worth over $10,000... certainly nothing to laugh about.

If it were just this one story about gold in the area, it could be dismissed as a prank. But, that's just one story of many. The real Iowa gold rush started a few years earlier in 1853 when an innkeeper named John Ellsworth reported finding gold on his farm along the Iowa River in Eldora just northwest of Marshalltown. In a matter of weeks, some 3,000 miners decended on the area looking to strike it rich.

Article Photos

EFT- Members of the Iowa chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America pan for gold in an undisclosed Iowa stream. Panning is typically used to determine the location’s potential to produce gold prior to setting up a larger operation.

photo/courtesy IGPAA

Another verifiable report of gold in Iowa came from a geological survey by T.E. Savage in 1904. He stated that between $1.00 and $1.50 worth of gold could be panned by a "patient washer" in a day from Otter Creek in Fayette County. In 1904 gold was worth on average $18.96 an ounce. Translate that into the current gold price of $1,620.00 and the same patient panning would equal between $85.00 and $127.00 per day!

There are other reports of gold being found throughout the state as well. The Rock Island Employee's Magazine reported in 1921 that a farmer near Graettinger in northwest Iowa found gold when he was digging a hole behind his barn. The story goes that he sent a soil sample off to Chicago, had it analyzed and it came back indicating there was an ounce of gold and ten ounces of silver for every ton of dirt on his farm. And, at one point, there was even a commercial venture in Lyon County seeking the elusive metal.

So there's plenty of antecdotal evidence suggesting there's gold around, but does it really exist? According to Dr. Raymond Anderson with the Iowa Geological Survey, definitely. "We don't have any rock at the bedrock surface that would be gold bearing," he said. Gold is usually formed as a result of volcanic activity. Unfortunately for prospectors, there are no volcanoes in Iowa. However, Anderson points out that, "Iowa was covered by glaciers at least seven times. Those glaciers ran over a lot of gold bearing rocks and deposited them here." As early as 2.5 million years ago and as late as 500,000 years ago glaciers moved across Iowa. Each time the glaciers slowly pushed their way south and then retreated back north, they left a "veneer" of deposits that was scraped from surface rocks in Minnesota and Canada. And those surface rocks were volcanic.

Even though the deposits are ancient by human standards, they're relatively new in earth years. "Gold is constantly being eroded from these deposits," said Anderson, meaning there's still plenty left to be found. "The best place to find gold in Iowa is in the bend of a stream or river. You'll want to look for black sand deposits." Dr. Anderson said gold has roughly the same density as magnetite, a black iron ore. If you find the ground up magnetite in the form of black sand, you'll likely find gold. But, Dr. Anderson warns the prospective prospector that there's also a lot of iron pyerite, commonly known as fools gold, in Iowa and recommends learning how to distinguish the two.

So, there is gold here in Tama county. But, making money from it may be a daunting task. The vast majority of the gold found in the area is known as 'flour gold' due to it's small grain size. "In most states it's called 'picker' gold if you can pick it up with your fingers," said Howard White, Iowa State Director of the Gold Prospectors of America Association (GPAA). "In Iowa, it's 'picker' if you can pick it up with tweezers," he joked. "Gold is in probably every county of Iowa," said White, "and I've found it in every county I've been in. But, it's very fine." This meand that just panning for gold wouldn't be terribly profitable. But, "the odds are still pretty good of finding a little gold with a pan," said White. "In my opinion though, you'd wear yourself out before you found enough to buy breakfast." Though panning may be a bit too tedious to make a living, there are more modern methods available that White said they do have some success with. And, with some careful consideration, he agreed that it would be possible to make $85.00 to $127.00 per day. But, it would take a lot of backbreaking work. "We all have real jobs," he admitted. "Even the retired guys in the club don't prospect full time." As a matter of fact, White joked, "I have to work just to afford my prospecting trips. Our vacations consist of digging in dirt."

So if the real prospectors don't make a living off gold in Iowa, what about striking it rich with that elusive partridge-egg sized nugget? Do they exist in Tama County? Both White and Dr. Anderson agree it's very possible. "It could be in your back yard," said White. "It could be in the creek or the drainage ditch. Gold is where you find it. But, if you can imagine trying to find a quarter buried in an acre of land," then you have a good idea of what it would be like to find a nugget that size.

Even though there is definitely gold in Tama county, finding it and extracting it in any volume may not make it worth the effort at the moment. But, if some investors are correct and the price of gold hits $3,000.00 an ounce, that may soon change. And even if the price of gold drops instead, there's still no need to despair. There are other opportunities for striking it rich. "It's incredible the number of things the glaciers drug down with them," said Dr. Anderson. "Diamonds have even been found in glacial deposits."

For more information on the Iowa Chapter of the GPAA, contact Howard White at (319) 936-7291.



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