A Museum Devoted to Geological Treasures Opens in Maine

When Jane Perham decided it was time to close Perham’s Maine Mineral Store in 2009, the beloved institution her father founded in 1919, she worried about what would become of the collection of minerals and gems that her family had acquired over the decades.

“I prayed and suffered a long time about what I was going to do with it,” Ms. Perham said. “I knew I wasn’t going to break it up. That wasn’t going to happen no matter what.”

Then Lawrence Stifler and Mary McFadden expressed interest in purchasing the entire collection. The Perham legacy would be kept intact, and in Maine.

Mr. Stifler and Ms. McFadden, married philanthropists based in Massachusetts, have dedicated themselves to helping preserve western Maine’s rich mining history, of which the Perham store was an integral part. The material they received from Ms. Perham constitutes one of 10 major local collections of minerals, gems and rocks that the couple have acquired. Now those items form the cornerstone of the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum, located in the town of Bethel, which Mr. Stifler and Ms. McFadden opened to the public Thursday after years of development.

The 15,000-square-foot museum, designed by the Paulus Design Group and 1220 Exhibits, will display about 3,000 of its finest minerals in interactive exhibits that highlight the stories and the people behind the specimens. The museum is also home to a world-class meteorite collection that includes the five largest pieces of the moon found on earth, the largest known piece of the Vesta asteroid and an igneous rock that, at over 4.5 billion years old, is the oldest volcanic rock in the solar system to ever be discovered. The largest of the lunar chunks, unveiled by the museum over the summer, weighs almost 128 pounds.

“Everybody in the meteorite community is really excited for the museum,” said Carri Corrigan, a meteorite expert at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “I think this small town in Maine is going to be inundated.”

The couple took the first step toward creating the museum in 2005 when they bought the Bumpus quarry, a disused feldspar mine abutting their property. They then began devising plans to showcase and safeguard the area’s mineralogical wealth. The project was further bolstered when Carl Francis, the former curator of Harvard University’s Mineralogical and Geological Museum, joined them after his retirement in 2011.

Throughout the planning stages, Ms. McFadden and Mr. Stifler, the founder of Health Management Resources, kept an eye out for important specimens, especially those held by aging collectors who wanted to ensure that their life’s work would be cared for after they were gone.

They also sought to repatriate Maine treasures that had left the state. In 2017 they received, on long-term loan, one of the two sections of an enormous beryl formation that were acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in 1930 after it was found at the Bumpus quarry. “My wish was that we could bring it up the main street in Bethel by horse-drawn carriage just as it left,” Ms. McFadden said.

And the meteorite collection, amassed with the assistance of Darryl Pitt, doesn’t simply supply a cosmic complement to the museum’s emphasis on local history. “The geology of space, supernovas, life on Earth — they’re all related,” Mr. Stifler said. “When you see all this material, you realize it’s all part of a process, and we’re part of that process too, that unites everything in the universe.”

When they began buying land in western Maine, Mr. Stifler and Ms. McFadden didn’t know they would eventually become stewards of the area’s geological patrimony. Mr. Stifler was first attracted to the region because land there was cheaper than in New Hampshire, which he had fallen in love with as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College in Hanover. More than 70 deeds later, the couple now owns around 15,000 acres.

The couple’s ambitions were originally limited to setting up a land preserve to protect the area’s natural beauty and ensure that residents maintained access to it. The region has become increasingly developed since the 1970s, and second homes have proliferated around the nearby Sunday River ski resort.

As Mr. Stifler and Ms. McFadden added to their property and word about their preservationist tendencies spread, locals encouraged them to protect what can be found beneath the ground as well as what grows upon it. Oxford County, they learned, was a mining center famous for its tourmaline, quartz and beryl.

Commercial mining, however, has largely been in decline in western Maine, leaving many mines inactive and in disrepair. Dedicated “rockhounds” continue to scour the area for choice mineral specimens, but that tradition is waning.

Mr. Stifler and Ms. McFadden, whose family foundation supports the Bedlam theater company in New York, the Grab the Torch youth leadership program and other organizations, intervened in part because they feared that much of this area’s history was in danger of being lost. “Conservation started it all,” Mr. Stifler said, “and this is a form of conservation as well, conserving a great part of the heritage of Maine and making that available to the public.”

Maine Mineral & Gem Museum

Opens Dec. 12 at 99 Maine Street, Bethel, Maine; 207-824-3036, mainemineralmuseum.org.

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