Originally published in the Herald and News paper, of Klammath Falls, Ore. Reprinted with permission.
VIRGIN VALLEY, Nev -- In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cowboys and sheepherders collected those sparkling stones, later known as black and fire opals, from Virgin Valley fields.
On their days off, collectors would travel to bars in Cedarville and other Surprise Valley communities, where they'd swap those shimmering, glittering stones for shots of whiskey. They'd walk away laughing, knowing they'd gotten the best of the bargain.
History has a way of playing tricks.
One of those early buckaroos was Harry L. Wilson, who was born and raised in the Surprise Valley community of Fort Bidwell. For 25 years, he worked for Miller & Lux, who owned massive cattle ranches in Oregon, Nevada, and California. Wilson rode horseback and worked cows at places like Virgin Valley, about 80 desert miles from Cedarville.
When the Miller & Lux empire collapsed in 1925, Wilson partnered with two other suddenly jobless friends, Dave Beebe and Billy McClusky. They bought homesteads that eventually became consolidated as the Virgin Valley Ranch.
In 1944, only because his wife insisted, Wilson bought the Royal Peacock mine, located just across the valley. In the early 1900s it was learned the sparkling curiosities were opals, fiery colored remnants of cryptomeria, an ancient tree species. The first underground workings were developed in 1905, and the Royal Peacock developed in 1912.
Nearly a century later, those rare "pretties" are regarded by some as the world's most beautiful gemstones.
"He wasn't a rockhound. He could care less," chuckles Harry L. Wilson's son, 74-year-old Harry W. Wilson, of his father's regard for opals.
In recent years, the opals have become Wilson's economic life. For years, the Wilsons operated a cattle ranch and raised horses. It became surrounded by the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, which was created in 1931 and eventually expanded. As cattle were forced off the refuge, the Wilsons sold their 1,600 acres, the refuge's largest inholding, to the Nature Conservancy.
Wilson, who was born in Cedarville but lived and worked summers and weekends at the Virgin Valley Ranch, for many years refused to return to the Valley.
"It was very hard because he was raised there," tells his wife, Joy, whose own Surprise Valley roots go back to the 1800s.
Joy and Harry met in high school in Cedarville. After they were married in 1953, "I thought he brought me to the end of the world," she admits. "I tell everybody I took her shoes so she wouldn't run away," Harry quips.
Virgin Valley is remote, but it was genuinely nestled in the boondocks in the 50s. Harry lived on the ranch before Highway 140 conected Virgin Valley with Lakeview, about a 100 miles west. It was a time when Modoc County's Surprise Valley towns of Cedarville, Fort Bidwell, and Lake City were the nearest waterholes. There was no electricity until 1968 or telephone service until 1970.
When the Wilsons sold their Virgin Valley Ranch, they used the money to buy the historic Andorno Ranch near Winnemucca, Nev. Since then, the Wilsons and their children have operated both the mine, and the Andorno ranch, a cow-calf operation with 400 to 700 mother cows, mostly Angus and Hereford cross.
Said the senior Wilson of running the mine, "I enjoy the people here. Rockhound people are wonderful people."
Business is good, especially since the mine was featured in a Travel Channel documentary with Kristin Gum.
When the Wilsons owned the Virgin Valley Ranch, they worked with the Army, which provided thoroughbred stallions that were bred with the Wilsons' standardbreds. The Army had first choice of the geldings for cavalry horses. The rest were sold to ranches like ZX near Paisley or herded to Alturas, where they were placed on rail cars and shipped to buyers.
The Wilsons find it ironic that the "pretty rocks," which can sell for thousands of dollars, have replaced ranching as their livelihood. Over the years, millions of dollars of opals have been taken from Virgin Valley, which has several commercial operations and more than 200 private claims.
History, they've learned, has a way of playing tricks.
This story was edited slightly for accuracy and clarity from the original.
Click the images below for a slideshow of Wilson Family photos