The Junior Walker
- Peter H. von Bitter
As one gets older, there is a great temptation to idealize the past and to regard it as having been simpler and better. I don't know if it really was; however, I do know that the half-decade between 1955 and 1960 was important for me and my contemporaries. Put simply, it was the time when we grew up, or, at least, when we thought we did. This is not to say it was an easy time. In fact, I was having a terrible time with my French and mathematics teachers (and they with me!) at Humberside Collegiate in west Toronto, and, as a result, I spent a lot of time in vice-principal Jack Griffith’s office.
On the brighter side, however, I discovered a new sanity-saving passion – mineral collecting – in geography teacher Bill Sager's Geology Club. It was there I connected with other like-minded individuals such as Paul Hoffman, Gordon Major, Bill Plavac and Dave Dunlop. I particularly recall the thrill one Sunday morning when Paul loaded me up with his mineralogical spares – water-clear Lyndhurst quartz crystals, sea-green fluorite from Madoc, and massive rose quartz from Quadville, among others. This was the start of my mineral collection, and I thought I had gone to heaven!
It was probably Paul or Gordon who introduced me to the Walker Mineralogical Club, the only mineral club in Toronto at that time and the one that was affiliated with, and met at, the Royal Ontario Museum. By joining the Junior Walker Club, I greatly increased my circle of friends with mineralogical interests who came from all over Toronto – Terry Seward, Charlie Spooner, Ellen Edwards, Ann Griffin, John Krug and Douglas Scott, among others.
The 1920s and 30s had seen much exploration and development in southern Ontario’s Bancroft-Haliburton region by the Ontario Radium Corp. Ltd., by its successor, International Radium and Resources Ltd. and by Canada Radium Mines Ltd. By the late 1940s and early 50s and with the blossoming Cold War, the search for radium was replaced by major exploration for uranium, often on the same properties. By the mid-to-late 1950s, the Bancroft area was an active mining camp with uranium producers such as the Bicroft, Faraday, Dyno and Grayhawk mines that had “made it” into full operation. A secondary effect of the earlier exploration was that the whole region was dotted with trenches, pits and short-lived mine workings. Some active mines yielded outstanding minerals that were usually carried out in miners’ lunch buckets – minerals such as superbly crystallized tufts of uranophane (Faraday), kainosite crystals (Bicroft) and uraninite (Dyno).
However, working mines were, and still are, difficult to get into, and it was the exploration pits and trenches. as well as the abandoned adits, that were the mainstay for great mineral collecting. The Bancroft/Haliburton area was within reasonable driving distance of Toronto. Many field trips of excited, voluble “Juniors” were led by the always enthusiastic Max Seward or by that wonderful friend of mineral collectors, Dr. “Digger” Gorman, to places such as the Cardiff Uranium Mine, a former fluorite property turned uranium prospect near Wilberforce. The Cardiff Mine was a fine collecting locality for well-formed uraninite crystals in white calcite and purple fluorite. On one such “Junior” trip, Gordon Major, using a borrowed Geiger counter discovered a spectacular vein of the very rare mineral, melanocerite, a complex cerium calcium borosilicate. This was a Canadian first. Nearly all this rare mineral came from this locality. Some that is now in major museums and research collections was collected by Gordon and his fellow juniors at Cardiff Uranium Mine nearly 40 years ago.
Because we were an impatient lot and weren’t always willing to wait for the “official” spring and fall Walker Club field trips, we also organized collecting trips on our own. Terry Seward not only went collecting with his father, Max, but he sometimes also went collecting with Charlie Spooner in Charlie’s sports car. Charlie acquired many fine specimens, as well as the nickname “Bosco” for the chocolate drink that he liked so much. In 1958, Paul Hoffman and I started collecting regularly at the Silver Crater Mine, located off the Monck Road, south of Bancroft, which was a former producer of the black mica, lepidomelane. Here, we could reach into pockets of black disintegrated calcite and pull out superb crystal after superb crystal of cubo-octahedral betafite, a still rare oxide of calcium sodium uranium, niobium and tantalum, as well as crystals of apatite, zircon and mica. Paul and I were fixated on the Silver Crater as a collecting target for quite a long time. Terry Seward had discovered that Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, an old and respected scientific supply house in Rochester, New York, would pay the then incredible amount of $1.50 per ounce for our betafites. We soon cornered the world’s supply of that mineral (the Madagascar betafites weren’t as good and weren’t appearing on the market). The prices of mineral specimens and other things like hammers that we couldn’t afford, were, in our young minds at least, calculated in terms of the BS – the Betafite Standard. This was long before we had heard of the commodity market and pork belly futures! Paul and I visited David Jensen at Ward’s many times and, although we didn’t come back with much money, we did return enriched with mineral specimens from all over the world that we couldn’t otherwise afford. Both Paul’s and my collections were largely built up by exchanging betafites and other radioactive minerals from the Bancroft region, with private collectors, dealers and institutions from all over the world. I was never again as good at letter writing as I was during that time. I still have my correspondence with Miss Sweet of the British Museum of Natural History, Mona Hansen of the Mineralogical Museum of the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Krantz, the mineral dealer in Bonn, Bill Ericksen in Victoria, B.C. and many others.
A highlight of all of this wheeling and dealing was when Paul and I were invited to exchange betafite crystals with the ROM’s mineralogy department. It was quite an experience for a couple of high school kids to negotiate with the seemingly stern Dr. Victor Meen, to meet the young new curator, Dr. Joseph Mandarino and to get to know Muriel Ward better. Muriel was the long time mainstay of the department and the “glue” that held the “Juniors” together. I came away with a much prized specimen of apple-green chapmanite impregnated with native silver from the Keeley Mine in South Lorraine Twp. Chapmanite is a rare antimony, iron silicate named after the University of Toronto professor of the last century, E. J. Chapman.
Paul Hoffman’s mother is Dorothy Medhurst a delightful going concern who taught at the Institute of Child Studies for many years. She was not only very supportive of her children’s sometimes unusual activities, but often included their friends in the family circle. I remember Mrs. Hoffman driving Paul and me up to Wilberforce to collect for a week or so, together with Abigail (of playing on a boy’s hockey team and later track and field fame) and Benny, the youngest Hoffman. Benny was a young child at the time and when we asked him on this long car ride what he wanted to be as an adult, he alternated between wanting to be a flower and a mountain. His answers were a source of amusement to us teenagers, but he never got his wish; Benny is now the “Record Pedlar” on Yonge Street in Toronto.
Paul and I spent a week at the Cudney property deep in the Wilberforce woods digging for kasolite, a hydrous uranium lead silicate and thorogummite, a hydrous thorium silicate. After several nights sleeping in an abandoned shack, we were discovered (much as one discovers racoons or squirrels in one's attic) by members of the property owner’s family and were invited to stay at their nearby lodge. We gladly took up their offer of showers and real beds; however they turned out to be honeymooners and we saw very little of them after that initial meeting!
As well as going on Walker Club field trips and collecting with Paul Hoffman, I also went off on my own. On Friday nights, I would get on the bus bound for Bancroft and be dropped off at some unearthly hour by the side of Highway 28 south of Bancroft to start my trek into the Silver Crater. Today, a much-traveled highway covers much of that distance but at the time, there was only the narrowest of roads surfaced with crushed pink calcite. Visualize a 16-year-old trudging into a dark no-mans land at one o'clock in the morning with a huge army surplus backpack, “schlepping” his mother's bundle-buggy laden with a tent, hammer and supplies. After not too successfully avoiding hazards such as the unlit sewer excavations at Cardiff (a town site built for the miners of the area), Mrs. Howard Kerr would spot me very early in the morning trying to get my gear over her fence on my trek to the Silver Crater.
The Silver Crater also attracted other collectors and several that I met there became friends. Ed Marcin, a retired New York fireman, and his wife “adopted” me and sent me duplicates of New England minerals. David Hanna was a Walker Club member and at that time collected only the mineral apatite, of which he had an outstanding, international collection. Clifford Vickery, at the time a teacher at Kimberley Public School and a long time member of the Walker Club, became an important person in my life. Cliff’s children, Claude and Charles, were still young at the time, and for several years, their father and I went on expeditions in his large, powerful car. We went to the Kemp property for the brown thorite crystals that looked like dog biscuits, or by boat to the York River blue corundum crystal occurrences, and later, farther afield, to collect native silver and cobalt and nickel arsenides at Cobalt. Cliff was a self-made man and even after all these years I remember his stories about the Great Depression, about his heading west to find work in the fields of western Canada and his unusual (for a teacher, I thought) antagonism towards the police and law and order. All of this made an impression on a 16 or 17-year-old who was always treated generously and well by Cliff.
The framework provided by the Walker Club was as structured or as unstructured as we wished it to be; however, we youngsters were impatient and must have often irritated the members of the “Senior” Walker Club. One Sunday afternoon in the late 1950s, we met with Dr. Meen at his west-end home to air our complaint that Walker Club members really weren't attending meetings for mineralogy per se but were more interested in socializing. After patiently listening to us, Dr. Meen gave us a brief but long remembered response. “Never mind worrying about the deficiencies of the older set,” he said, “concentrate on your school work and keep up your marks in math and physics.” It was not the response that we wanted to hear, of course, but he was right. We were too young to specialize and should have been more concerned not with the perceived shortcomings of others but with our own.
We must have taken Dr. Meen’s lecture to heart because soon most, if not all, of that crop of “Juniors” had graduated from high school and were university bound. Paul Hoffman and Terry Seward went off to McMaster, both eventually gaining Ph.D.s at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Manchester, respectively. Paul had a distinguished career in precambrian geology and is currently a professor at Harvard University. Terry is Professor of Geochemistry at the Technical University (ETH) in Zurich and still collects minerals actively and enthusiastically wherever and whenever he can. Charles Spooner received a Ph.D. in Geochronology from the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now operates his own environmental consulting company. Douglas Scott obtained his Ph.D. from Queen’s University in sulphide crystallography and is now an independent mineralogical consultant with much experience in solving metallurgical and mineralogical problems. John Krug is a Ph.D. in botany and teaches at the University of Toronto. Gordon Major studied chemistry at Waterloo, has spent his life working in industrial chemistry, and still collects minerals. Dave Dunlop completed his Ph.D. in geophysics at the University of Toronto in 1968; he has taught physics and geophysics there for many years. Bill Plavac took metallurgy and business at Ryerson and is currently sales manager for Atlantic Canada for Imperial Oil. I left Toronto for the Maritimes and three countries. Three universities and three degrees later, I returned to Toronto to begin my career as a palaeontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto.
To be sure, the Junior Walker Club existed before and after the half decade that I am most familiar with and was filled with equally enthusiastic, keen youngsters who created and took advantage of special opportunities. Before our time, Bill Take, when he was barely a teenager, collected one of the world's largest uraninite crystals (a six-inch monster!!) at the Richardson property of Fission Mines Ltd. near Wilberforce. The specimen has been at the ROM for more than 30 years. Bill went on to become Curator of Geology at the Nova Scotia Museum where I succeeded him in 1966. I also remember Dyke Cobb and Bill Wilson coming back to tantalize us youngsters with perfect interpenetrating twin crystals of cubic thorian uraninites that they had collected from the Canadian All Metals Explorations Ltd. prospect near Tory Hill. After our time, in the 1960s, Slade Brett, a chemistry teacher at Central Technical School, took the “Juniors” under his wing much as Max Seward had done in the 1950s, and others replaced us at collecting great mineral specimens. For example, Phil Walford and Bernie Loates, the brother of Glen Loates the artist, collected superb thick-bladed millerite crystals near Temagami. Phil, who was president of the “Juniors” in the early 1960s, knew the locality and Bernie had the transportation, and the rest is history. Phil, after graduating from Lakehead University, went on to an illustrious career in mineral exploration and mine geology, including being vice president of Lac Minerals and, currently, vice-president of Geomaque Explorations. Another “Junior” president in the early 1960s, John Carrington, studied mining engineering at the University of Toronto and McGill University and now is chief operating officer at Barrick Gold Corp., the largest gold producer outside South Africa. Other members of the 1960s crop of “Juniors” were Lawrence Grossman and Richard Herd. Both completed Ph.D.s in geology in 1972; Laurie in geochemistry at Yale University and Richard in metamorphic mineralogy and petrology at Imperial College. Laurie is professor of geochemistry at the University of Chicago; Richard is curator of the National Mineral Collection at the Geological Survey of Canada and has strong interests in public education , meteorites and sapphirine.
I was not a “joiner” in my teen years and nearly 40 years later I still avoid as many clubs and meetings as I can. However, my membership in the Junior Walker Club, and being permitted to attend and participate in the meetings of the “seniors” was the exception and undoubtedly influenced my development. Our association with one another and with the adults of the Walker Club helped many of us define who we were, what we wanted to do and what we needed to do to get there. I don't believe that it was an accident that a high proportion of the “Juniors” ended up in the earth sciences and related disciplines. The Junior Walker Club provided an environment for growth and we utilized that environment to its fullest. Dr. Meen had been right to tell us to prepare for our careers rather than worry about the distractions and frustrations of the moment.
We were competitive youngsters and much of the energy that was channeled by others into sports and other activities was, certainly in my case, directed at mineral collecting and trying to find, or exchange for, a larger or more perfect crystal of some hopelessly rare or esoteric or obscure mineral. This was a special time when the mineralogical constellations came together – great mineral localities, energetic and motivated kids that
didn't have, or need, computers and virtual reality to explore and understand the natural world around them, and adults in the Walker Club who went out of their way to help encourage and lead a remarkable group of youngsters to life long interests and careers in natural history and science.
It was at a retirement party for Joe Mandarino that Joe Brummer convinced me to write this essay. At the time, Joe Brummer thought that Terry Seward would be a “natural” to document the important influence his father, Max Seward, had on the Junior Walker Club in the 1950s. Although he knew Max far better than any of us, Terry felt somewhat uneasy about the task of writing about his father because he was so close to his subject. After he responded to my request for reminiscences, I concluded that his letter would stand very well on its own as a contribution to the “History of the Walker Mineralogical Club”.
October 19, 1995
My very great apologies for being so tardy in replying. When I spoke to you several months ago, I really hadn't appreciated how much I would be away in the coming months. I was in France earlier in the summer and then had a month in eastern Russia, much of it in Kamchatka. Almost as soon as I got back, I had to go to England to use some previously allocated synchrotron beam time and give several lectures. So now I am in Zurich and the hurly burly of being departmental chairman and dean is slowly starting to wind up. I sit here on my patio in the late Sunday afternoon on a cloudless, warm (25 C) October day looking out at Lake Zurich and scratching my head to try and recall situations and events from all those years ago.
Joe Brummer wanted me to write something about Max's role in the Junior Walker Club and how his enthusiasm helped motivate us all. But that is a difficult task because he might have enthused me but he was, after all, my father and I was more vulnerable to his influence than the rest of you. We were a group of kids, all pretty self-motivated (and perhaps rather obnoxious) and maybe he helped to channel our enthusiasm by organizing field trips, etc., which we were too dumb (when we were very young) to know how to do. So let me dispense a few disjointed memories.
I remember Ann Griffin coming down to Saturday morning meetings at the museum smoking a corncob pipe. Muriel Ward was quite scandalized by this behavior and even Vic Meen was, despite his usual good humor, a little shocked. Ann had enormous enjoyment from the effect that her behavior had on various people.
I remember Douglas Scott's perpetual calling to Max in a high pitched tone that characterized his voice before it changed. This was the typical field trip remembrance of Douglas that we all used to imitate and joke with him about when he was still a young rat-bag. I'm sure that he would be amused by such recollections now.
I remember Max throwing his hat at a porcupine on a field trip to somewhere. The hat stuck to the porcupine that took off into the bush with Max in hot pursuit. He lost his hat! The porcupine may still be wearing it.
Peter, do you recall the annual field trip to the Seward residence at Roselawn Ave? It was always in mid-winter, usually on a perishingly cold night and anything in the garage could be taken away. Gordon Major was always game for such opportunities. You could see your breath in the garage but Gordon was never deterred. He just couldn't resist those hundreds of kilos of free specimens and would cart away tonnes of absolute rubbish. Max would always say “Gordon, where did you find that fantastic stuff?” Such enthusiasm! Max was always delighted by Gordon’s attendance at such events.
The field trip that sticks in my mind was one in which we spent a week or so in the Bancroft/Combermere area. We stayed at a fishing lodge near Combermere and had a fantastic time in the evenings. You were there. So were Paul, Bill Plavac, Doni (Diane) Pugin, Ellen Edwards, Ann, Gordon, everyone. I found a very nice euxinite crystal in the Quadeville quarry on that trip.
What else? I remember those mineral auctions held at the museum at the Walker Club meetings in the evenings. Max was the auctioneer and handled everything very professionally. Sometimes he would just arbitrarily close the bidding with the strike of a hammer and whoever’s bid dominated at that moment generally got a bargain. This was done, of course, to encourage further bidding from the audience – the seduction of a game of chance.
I also remember sitting at Walker Club evening meetings as a teenager, listening to an adult speaker who, with enormous good intentions, massacred the pronunciation of mineral names. We sat there giggling like ninnies and behaving pretty appallingly.
Digger Gorman used to look after us occasionally on Saturday mornings in the Geology Department at the University which was still located in the old Mining Building on McCall Street. I still remember the high ceilings in the corridors and creaky wooden floors. He showed us how to take Debije-Scherrer x-ray powder photographs and make fire assays for gold. Really exciting for a bunch of 12-14 year-olds! And he always gave us those lovely mineral identification tests that nobody ever got completely correct because one or two specimens would be new minerals that had only just been described.
Peter, I can't think of anything else, at least not right now. Why don’t you phone Paul or Gordon or Ann? They’re bound to remember different crazy things. Did you manage to track down any of the others like Ellen Edwards? As I mentioned before, she did a PH.D.(in geophysics?) at Columbia, I think. I seem to remember that Diane Pugin went off to Chicago to marry a Rabbi. I've no idea but it was a long time ago. What about Bill Weldon? Ann Griffin might know. What ever happened to Bill Wilson. I wonder? He was a good pal of Dyke Cobb’s.
Enough for now! Let me stop babbling. I shall get this typed and faxed off to you during the week.