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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2019 812 Magazine

Rock star


Merrill Hinshaw of French Lick has devoted his life to revealing the surprising beauty hidden in unpolished stones.


He shoves his 76-year-old callused hands into the pockets of his Levis. The sky is gray and his brown, pointed-toe cowboy boots blend into the dormant grass of his yard. He wears a cream cowboy hat, and his short, white beard crawls along just the edge of his face.

"I like to deer hunt, I like to elk hunt," he says with a thick Southern Indiana accent, his eyes squinting as he grins. "And I can't see deer or elk now because I'm always looking at the ground looking for rocks."

Merrill Hinshaw is a lapidarist and founder of Hinshaw Rock 'N Gems, his 52-year old family-owned business in French Lick. A lapidarist is someone who cuts and polishes precious and semi-precious stones. He and his wife of 55 years, Janis, have hunted more than 100 varieties of jasper, agates, crystals and petrified wood. He has dug for Herkimer diamonds in New York and traveled as far as central Mexico and Canada to find treasures buried beneath the surface.

Merrill doesn't have a college degree. He didn't want to go to college. He taught himself how to hunt rocks, cut them, polish them and turn them into jewelry. "You had to do something to make a living," he says. And he doesn't just do it. He rocks it. The Lapidary Journal Magazine listed Hinshaw as one of the 10 best polishers in the country. He helped identify rocks at Michigan Tech. And his special calcite crystal, found in Anderson, is part of a collection in the Smithsonian.

"He also appraised the agate collection for the Harvard University Museum," says his daughter Kimberly.

"You don't need to tell her that stuff."

"He is also cantankerous," she adds.

People have come from as far as New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Denmark to see his shop. "This is actually a very big field, just not very many people in it," he says. "There are millions of people that don't know what lapidary means, but when you get to one that does they will look up a shop like mine." And they do find it, in advertisements in Travel Indiana Magazine, local newspapers and visitor bureaus. Yelp lists Hinshaw as one of the top five places to visit in French Lick.

Today, Merrill's work is found all over the world. A pair of his bookends, just a polished rock cut in half, sits on somebody's mantel in New York City next to an Oscar. The family doesn't remember the name of the owners since they sold them to the father of the guy's wife, or something like that. He's also sold polished rocks to author Tom Clancy and custom buttons to Baltimore designer Lee Anderson for her clothing line.

"It is his depth of artistic talent that makes him so good," Kimberly says. "He can look at something and see things other people can't see. I don't know how to describe it except to say it is a gift from God."

In the yard outside his shop, barrels, orange with rust and age and stacked three high and 20 deep, overflow with unpolished gems. The ones that wouldn't fit in the barrels tumble from piles. He dug up two-thirds of them himself. Digging was his favorite part of rock hunting. Now that he just works out of his shop, he has to try and keep the interest alive. "I can't hunt anymore," he says. "My knees won't walk." Agate weighs 160 pounds per cubic foot, and boulders as heavy as 400 pounds are mixed into his hard-earned piles.

The Hinshaws used to work in Winchester, then formed a business with friends and went to Oregon for three years. However, things didn't work out as they planned, and they found a place in French Lick that was exactly what they were looking for. When they moved here 30 years ago, it took a couple of semis to move the 150 tons of rocks. Janis says she'll never move again.

Merrill strolls over to a pile of brownish-gray rocks the size of tennis balls. They all look the same to me. Just a pile of rocks. But it isn't just rock, it's Missouri Lace, an agate with a lace pattern inside. He paws through the pile and snatches one up.

"Do you notice anything different in it than what it was over there?"

I look at him blankly and shrug, "I don't."

"This is rock hunting."

**********

Merrill's father, Everett, liked the outdoors around their home in Winchester and picked up arrowheads every chance he got. As they hunted for relics, they'd pick up other rocks if they were pretty, if they had color in them or if they had any other defining feature. The small distinctions are what made Merrill curious about what was inside, and they started cutting. The father-and-son duo spent $150 for two machines, a rock cutter and a grinder, both of which Merrill still uses today.

Merrill had an eye for arrowheads but not always for the rocks he wanted. He took a class called Rocks for Fun at Earlham College and learned how to look. When he was getting ready for a rock expedition, he'd go into a rock shop and buy a piece he knew he'd be hunting. Then he'd toss it into the yard just to see if he could find it again. And he would. Eventually. That's how he found his knack for hunting. "The same way you hunt mushrooms," he says. "You either learn what they look like or you miss them."

Kimberly says her dad was born about 100 years too late. "He would have been at the forefront of the expedition out west," she says. "If you told him he couldn't do something, he would. He's persistent."

We walk into Merrill's small, two-car garage. One side is filled with polishing machines and grinders, green and rusty with a flat, silver wheel perched in the center. The other has three saws of incremental proportions.

"Can you tell what that is?" he asks, shoving a round, baseball-sized rock toward me.

"A rock?" I say hesitantly, looking at the rough gray mass.

"It is basically a geode. It's called a coconut. It has nothing to do with coconuts but it is always round," he says. "Now, any idea what's inside? Anyone who tells you they do just lied to you. I can't even tell ya what's inside, but I've got a pretty good idea because I cut a lot of them."

He walks over to the smallest of the three saws and carefully places the geode on top. He rocks his body from side to side looking to make sure it's perfectly centered. He takes a step back and flips the switch. The saw roars to and its $5,000 diamond blade starts cutting the stone at the rate of six inches an hour. The blade screeches as it hits the rock, but about 10 minutes later, the geode splits into two even pieces. Small, sharp grayish-blue crystals burst from the walls of the tiny caves inside.

"What you got there is a thin layer of quartz with a little calcite on the quartz," he says, holding it close to his stomach and pointing it toward the ceiling light. "And there is no way to tell me this is going to be like that."

Merrill mostly works with agates. He pulls a knife out of his pocket, flips it open and presses it into a small, pink rock. It skids across the surface leaving a skinny, white line in its track. "See how that knife cuts into that? It won't cut good like an agate." If the knife can't scratch the rock, then he knows it's what he's looking for. Also, he says if the daylight goes through a rock, it's an agate. If it doesn't it may be jasper. Agate, jasper and flint are all varieties of quartz, and he tells the difference by the way the light plays off them.

Once the rock is cut, he takes a brass pencil and marks smaller slices to cut. He uses brass because lead washes off too easily. After it's cut a second time, he uses a machine to flatten the rocks. If they aren't flat, then the grinder will polish some parts and not others, and too much pressure will make it explode.

After it's flat Merrill can start polishing it. He uses wax to mount it to a short wooden stick the size of his hand. It gives him better control on the grinder. Six grinders stand in a row, and he has to put the rock through each one. If he skips a step, he'll find a scratch in the rock later and have to go back, which can make the rock thin and fragile. Merrill's grandson Chanc Pearson slides on a thick plastic apron and flips a switch to start the first grinder. He twists a knob above the machine to start water flowing around the spinning wheel. The water keeps the rock cool.

"Most people say it's too much work," Kimberly says, explaining that we're only about halfway through the process. They used to teach classes from their shop. Merrill's philosophy is if one person can do it, so can another. There is no big trade secret, it's just grinding and polishing and getting good at it.

"You will find out you're not good at it," Chanc says.

"You're going to find another job," Merrill adds, grinning.

Merrill would tell his class they were going to cut at least one stone right. What they did after that was up to them. One older student took his class three times. Every time she worked with Rhodochrosite, a pink gem. "She finally came up to me and said, 'This is even better than you can do.' And I said, 'You're probably right, but I wouldn't have spent three years doing it,'" Merrill says with a deep chuckle.

Once the rocks are polished, Merrill sets them in silver to make necklaces, bracelets and earrings. He copies the rock onto a piece of paper so he can design a setting around it. He grabs a Crazy Lace agate. "Look at the pattern in that," he says. "That's what turns you on. That's what keeps you going. You can't duplicate that. That's the natural art. I don't float on a cloud. I just enjoy the beauty in some of them."

When he's satisfied with a design, he cuts and bends metal around his precious stone. Some have elaborate silver swirls and braids, but others are simple. His goal is to highlight the stone. His rocks and jewelry sell between $10 and $500. Some of the larger ones become small tables, bookends or just decoration.

The Hinshaw rock business is in its fourth generation. Janis and Merrill have three children, and two of them, Kimberly and Matthew, both fell in love with rock-cutting. Kimberly studied geology at Indiana State University. And Matthew has been cutting rocks since he was 14 years old. Now, Kimberly's son Chanc, a student at Indiana University, is a skilled rock cutter and polisher himself. The family hopes he will keep the business going once Merrill is gone.

Falling in love with rocks is about seeing beyond their nondescript exteriors. Janis says their rough rock collection could mean as little as a gravel driveway if they didn't take the time and effort to transform it. "It would be expensive driveway gravel, but that's a possibility," she says. "Until we do what we do to it, it's just rock."[gallery columns="2"]