By Don White, CV&T Staff WriterTheir daughter’s hobby has turned into a gem dandy of a business for an Estill County couple.
For years, Gary and LaDonna Dawes had vacationed in the Great Smokey Mountains.
About this time last year, 11-year-old Jessica expressed regret when it was time to return home and leave behind her favorite hobby, mining for colorful stones.
She suggested to her parents how neat it would be “If we could do something like this at home.”
That comment put Gary to thinking about how such an enterprise might be undertaken.
A quick check on the internet revealed no gem mining operations anywhere near Irvine, the closest being in the Mammouth Cave area.
Further family discussion led to the conclusion that a gem mine in Kentucky needed to be something that could be moved from place to place.
Using a two-week break in December from his job at Okonite Cable in Richmond, Gary began converting a lawn mower trailer into a traveling gem mine, complete with troughs and running water.
By January it was ready for a test run at the fair barn in Irvine.
They knew they had something special when the mobile mine turned out to be a big hit with a group of Girl Scouts attending an outing at the barn.
“The girls (ages 5-13) didn’t run around like kids tend to do, but found some paper plates, poured out what they had found and began sorting out their stones and comparing what they had found,” says Gary.
That success, plus a suggestion from his sister that the operation would be a great concept for birthday parties, further fueled the start of a family business.
Attending a small business seminar at Eastern Kentucky University aided the start of The Traveling Gem Mine.
Plans were laid out to set up shop at festivals across the state, the first being the Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine.
Since then, they have taken their show on the road to numerous events, birthday parties as far away as Frankfort and Lexington, and to other locales where they have always been a big hit with kids.
A website, letsgomining.com was set up to let people know all about their operation and provide a schedule of upcoming festivals.
“We have people who keep up with our schedule and come to all the festivals where we’re set up,” says Gary.
The website is also being used to sell “Gem Mine To Go” kits consisting of a wooden sifter box, a three-pound bag of mining rough, and a gemstone ID card.
All the stones used in the operation come from a supplier in Tennessee, and include Amethyst, Rose Quartz, Tiger’s Eye, Red Jasper, Pyrite (Fool’s Gold) and many more.
The new business is being operated in familiar territory for Gary, next door to the home where he was reared and his mother still resides.
“My bedroom now is about a hundred feet from my old bedroom,” says the son of Irene and the late Albert Dawes, a well-known local homebuilder.
The Estill High grad of the class of ’86 says the family is looking forward to the next festival season.
“It’s been fun. When the kids are excited, we’re excited.”