Kids are fascinated and love collecting rocks, but not every child develops a true love for minerals and becomes a serious collector.
For Fred Wilda of Hadley, his interest in minerals began much later in life when he was in his 40s.
“I was planning a trip to visit my brother in North Carolina and he wanted me to bring a tent along, so we could go camping in the Smoky Mountains. We spent a week there going from mine to mine collecting rubies, emeralds, sapphires, quartz and other specimens,” Wilda said.
Wilda, who very much enjoyed the experience, didn’t have the time to pursue the hobby with children at home and a busy advertising and art business to attend to. It wasn’t until about 20 years later in 1995 when he met his longtime partner, Helen Rodak, that the couple planned a trip to South Carolina to visit relatives.
“We took a day and a half detour to North Carolina where I did some digging for minerals and the experience re-energized my interest in the hobby, and Helen became hooked as well. The next year we took a more detailed trip to North Carolina and visited more mines collecting much better-quality specimens than before. And that is what really got us started,” Wilda said about a hobby that grew into an obsession with minerals.
After visiting more mines and collecting a wealth of minerals, their hobby turned into a small business called Natures Finest Creations and they began going to mineral shows around New England selling some of their “precious stones.”
Along the way Wilda and Rodak met Dr. Warren I. Johansson, a geology professor at Greenfield Community College and fellow mineral collector, who was instrumental in developing the college’s science department.
“We became great friends with him and he became a “mentor” for us, and he encouraged us to join the Connecticut Valley Mineral Club where we would learn even more about collecting and the science of minerals,” Wilda said.
It was while on their 1996 expedition that Rodak found “a very good star ruby” and decided to have it cut and made into a pendant and earrings. That piqued Wilda’s interest in the lapidary arts and cutting their own stones. While on a vacation to Cape Cod in 1998, the couple visited a lapidary shop only to learn it was for sale.
“The price was so good that I couldn’t refuse and purchased the equipment and some cutting rough minerals and soon began cutting my own stones back home in Hadley and making cabochon jewelry, mainly earrings and pendants, for sale,” Wilda said.
Cabochon refers to a gemstone that has been shaped and polished, not faceted, seen in a special exhibit called Cut ‘N’ Rough now through June 2022 on display in Earth Hall on the second floor of the Springfield Science Museum. The exhibit is a collection of stones cut by Wilda that are displayed side-byside with the same stone in its original rough state, including some that are just polished to reveal their inner beauty.
Wida’s life suddenly came to a crossroad around 1998 when he was plagued by cluster headaches - what he called “migraines on steroids” - and also received a life-threatening diagnosis of prostate cancer. He had to put his commercial art business on hold because of the effects paints and thinners were having on his condition.
“A friend who owned the Palermo Mines in North Groton, New Hampshire, suggested that I put my talents as an artist to work, painting minerals in watercolors. I thought the idea was crazy and that nobody would buy them. Helen kept after me to try some because I had nothing to lose. Much to my surprise, the paintings took off like crazy and became a life changer for me,” Wilda said.
It was Martin Zinn - whose production company organized gem, mineral and fossil shows across the country - who saw Wilda’s works of mineral art and recognized their value for collectors.
“His 2000 East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show was sold out to dealers with a waiting list of over 50 people, but Martin told the show’s manager to find me a spot. I ended up against a wall between the men’s and lady’s rooms, but it started off a chain of events that saw my work ending up in museums around the country and my prints being sold all over the world. Martin later hired me to do mineral paintings which were used to promote his shows,” Wilda said.
His original watercolors and limited-edition prints are in private collections throughout the United States and abroad. The Gem Institute of America (GIA) in Carlsbad, California, has a permanent display of his originals and limitededition prints. Wilda’s paintings have also been featured in a variety of national publications, and over 130 of his watercolor renderings were featured in a published hardbound book titled “The Pegmatite Mines of Palermo.” His artwork has also appeared at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, the largest, oldest and most prestigious gem and mineral show in the world, which has enjoyed international stature since the 1970s. In 2004, he was honored as “Featured Artist” at the Mineral and Fossil Show in Munich, Germany. And, in 2012, Wilda was the featured exhibitor at the East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show in West Springfield filling 52 cases with his artwork and many specimens.
When an original work is finished, a limited-edition print series is produced, making the image available to more people. A series is usually small, consisting of 30 to 100 prints. Many Fred Wilda originals are commissions by collectors who own unique, unusual, or self-collected specimens that they want to immortalize.
Today Wilda and Rodak remain active members of the Connecticut Valley Mineral Club founded in Springfield in 1940. The club is dedicated to the study, appreciation and preservation of rocks, minerals, fossils and all other aspects of earth science with a special focus on schools with lectures and hands on presentations to students.
“With the many changes in our educational system over the years, science seems not as important as it once was with children missing out on learning the basic earth sciences,” Wilda said about visiting various school and sharing his knowledge of the mineral world.
He noted kids need to know what makes our Earth so unique.
“I tell them it is the great variety of elements on this planet that create our minerals. They are what make the Earth so unique and the reason we are having trouble finding another Earth in our galaxy. Minerals are made up of different elements such as gold, copper, hydrogen, oxygen and others. If it weren’t for the elements we would not be here. All plant, animal and human life depends on minerals for existence. If not for them, we would be just another big stone floating in space,” Wilda said.
The avid collector noted when making a presentation to school children, what excites them most is learning about minerals found in Massachusetts.
“I had an idea and working with the Connecticut Valley Mineral Club we created a display case that we call Significant Minerals of Massachusetts,” Wilda said.
The case is filled with seven specimens, each on its own stand with a label. Most are official state symbols, such as a dinosaur footprint, the state fossil; the state mineral, babingtonite; and the state gemstone, rhodonite. Galena, margarite and clay concretions are other significant minerals included. The club has given away about 40 of these cases to local schools and other educational establishments in the Pioneer Valley.
A special oversized case also resides in the State House in Boston. It was chosen to be permanently installed by the Collection’s Curator in 2018 because of its educational attributes. The Springfield Science Museum also has a wall-sized exhibit of “Significant Minerals of Massachusetts” on permanent display, funded by the Connecticut Valley Mineral Club.
The Connecticut Valley Mineral Club celebrated its 80th Anniversary in 2020. Current members meet during the first Wednesday of each month beginning at 7 p.m. in the Springfield Science Museum. Meetings include mineral talks and presentations as well as holding numerous collecting field trips during the season. The club also sponsors the annual Western Mass. Mineral, Jewelry and Fossil Show. Proceeds from the show fund all of the club’s education programs.
Wilda and Rodak can be seen at the Western Mass. Mineral, Jewelry and Fossil Show on March 26-27, where they will be showing and selling their mineral paintings and prints, as well as mineral specimens they have accumulated over the years.
The yearly event will be held at the Castle of Knights Meeting House on 1599 Memorial Drive in Chicopee. Show hours are Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Admission for adults is $5, youngsters 12 and under with a paid adult admission are free and receive a free mineral specimen. Scouts in uniform are also free.
If you miss the couple at the Chicopee show, you can see them at their return to the East Coast Gem, Mineral and Fossil show on Aug. 12-14 on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield.
For more information on the Connecticut Valley Mineral Club,