By Reggie Ellis

Jim Fillmore looks like a miner. He has a thick beard, plaid shirt, worn out blue jeans and beat up boots that have carried him from California's stream beds to classrooms up and down the Central Valley.

For 10 years he and his partners dredged underwater gold deposits and panned for gold.

"It was kind of a hobby that got carried away," Fillmore said. "You never really make any money. The fun is traveling up and down stream having dinner and talking with friends."

Fillmore now gives talks to fourth grade students about the Gold Rush and what life as a '49er was like. For the last seven years Fillmore has been a member of the Tule Gem and Mineral Society, a Tulare County organization chartered with the California Federation of Mineralogical Societies to promote interest in the art of lapidary and earth sciences as well as the study and preservation of nature. Lapidary is the process of cutting, polishing and engraving stones or gems.

"Kids love this stuff because everyone, at one point or another, has a rock collection," Fillmore said. "We are just kids who continued their rock collections throughout their lives."

The organization will hold its 48th annual Gem, Mineral & Jewelry Show from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday at the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building, on Highway 65 and Sequoia Drive in Exeter.

The show features eight dealers, who pay for booths, that specialize in gems, jewelry, minerals and lapidary supplies. There is no charge to enter the show which has everything from raw minerals to custom jewelry on display. Children 12 and younger get a free polished stone and "findings" will be given away every hour. Findings are belt buckles or rings that have not yet been set with a stone or gem. Fillmore, who is the incoming president of the group, said the Exeter show is one of the largest and most successful of its kind in California, welcoming 1,500 to 2,000 people each day of the event.

"I can't explain why the turnout is so good," Fillmore said. "We have dealers beg to come to our shows."

Fillmore said agate and jasper, members of the quartz family, are some of the more popular minerals for making jewelry because of their wide array of color. He said the two main ingredients for finding quality jewelry is its aesthetic value and its consistency. Fillmore said minerals must be durable to withstand the cutting, sanding and polishing process.

"You don't want malleable things like soapstone. That's what we call 'leaveright,'" Fillmore said. "That's the stuff you leave right where you found it."

Show Chairman Don Vieira has been involved with show for the last 30 years.

"Most people do it as a hobby but some sell commercially," Vieira said. "The attraction is the challenge of creating a new stone. Everyone stone cuts and polishes different and it is interesting trying new combinations."

Vieira, an Exeter Union High School ag teacher from 1958-1965, said a group of 10 rock enthusiasts began the organization in 1954. He said the last of the charter members died in 2003. The show began in 1954 in Visalia, but has been in Exeter for the last 22 years.

"Exeter has been a good host and we will continue to have it here," Vieira said.

The show is also the Tule Gem & Mineral Society's largest fund-raiser of the year. Funds raised help pay for exploratory trips, cutting, polishing and faceting equipment and overhead for the organization's shop, located on Road 156, next to the flea market east of Visalia off of Highway 198. Vieira said annual dues are only $15 and include a monthly newsletter.

The Tule Gem & Mineral Society meets at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of each month at the First Baptist Church, located at 1100 S. Sowell Street in Visalia. "Rock people are happy, easy going and a lot of fun," Vieira said. The Tule Gem & Mineral Show is sure to rock the memorial building for all the kids who love their rock collections. "There is a lot of self satisfaction in finding a stone, cutting it, polishing it and setting it yourself," Fillmore said.

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