By Joshua Winata
The Cove Herald
A seemingly ordinary barn about 10 miles west of Lampasas hides a dazzling cargo: thousands of crystals and stones from all over the world in fantastic shapes and colors, sparkling in lighted cases more fitting for a museum than a ranch in central Texas.
Merrill Romans displays his impressive rock collection, a work in progress almost 60 years in the making, in a 5,500-square-foot barn by his home.
His gallery features the fiery red crystals of crococite, deep blue azurite, translucent green fluorite, and massive geodes of vibrantly purple amethyst among thousands of other varieties.
He also has a large inventory of various types of celestite and calcite, ranging from specimens found in Lampasas County to perfectly-formed Chinese crystals from the Hunan province.
“I’m satisfied that those were on the walls of caves, which is the reason that they’re in such pristine condition and have never been broken,” Romans said.
Vignettes arranged on shelves or in glass cases are dedicated to limestone, quartz, an impressive range of fossils and copper in its various forms.
Other portions of his gallery are more interactive, allowing visitors to view phosphorescent stones that glow neon colors under ultraviolet rays or sensitive minerals such as realgar that fade in the light.
Many of the stones in Romans’ collection are from his annual rock hunting excursions from all over North America. At 81, Romans still makes the rigorous yearly trips, which often require him to descend into mines, pry stones out of moving streams or chisel the slopes of steep cliffs and mountains.
Other stones Romans simply finds along the road or at demolition sites. He proudly shows off a large piece of limestone embedded with calcite that he scavenged during construction near U.S. Highway 183 and Capital of Texas Highway in Austin.
“I got run out three different times,” Romans said.
Another set of rocks he found in Georgetown while the school district was building a water line between the junior high school’s main building and gymnasium. An underground cavern was discovered during excavation, and Romans was able to gather some of the rocks before the cave was filled in with concrete.
In his barn, Romans has arranged the rocks he salvaged in a peephole box, so visitors can look through the lighted hole and envision how the original cave might have looked.
In addition to the strength and endurance necessary to find and collect rocks, a dexterity and delicacy is also required when cutting and polishing stones to their final brilliance.
Using a diamond blade, Romans personally cuts his own stones and grinds them in his private workshop with large corundum belts. He received his training from courses at the William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Georgia.
Romans has a deft touch when it come to finishing stones into beautiful, shiny trinkets and jewelry, from faceted gemstones to charms made of lapis and opal. He also makes beads, which are assembled into necklaces and bracelets, and for men, creates bolo ties using large cabbed stones.
Romans does not sell any pieces out of his home, but My Girls in downtown Lampasas carries several of his rocks and custom jewelry available for purchase.
Some of the rocks Romans finds he brings to shows and conventions and swaps for specimens from throughout the world. His collection contains stones from China, India, Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Uruguay, Burma and many other countries.
Romans takes an annual trip to the gem and mineral swap in Quartzsite, Ariz. and the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, both held at the beginning of the year, where he makes many of his purchases and trades. He has also befriended fellow rock enthusiasts from around the country who invite him on excursions or simply send him interesting finds in the mail.
Romans lights up as he takes visitors on a tour of his gallery, eagerly pointing out minute subtleties between the gems and minerals in his collection. With a developed eye, he is able to spot a truly unique find amid an entire quarry of rock. Discolorations, flecks, dents or bubbles are all small indicators that there is more to a stone than meets the eye.
“When you get a rock, it doesn’t mean much until you open it up and polish it,” Romans said.
One of his displays offers side by side comparisons of stones such as jade, agate, jasper and fossilized wood and limestone before and after being polished. Rough, ordinary outer surfaces belie splendid interiors with intricate patterns and colorful designs.
Romans is also fascinated by the effect of different conditions on the development of certain minerals. Two specimens of the same mineral lying only a few feet apart might develop in completely different ways because of the slightest change in temperature or pressure.
Even with thousands of gems and minerals on display, Romans knows the history behind almost every piece, including how it was formed and when and where he acquired it.
Romans’ interest in rocks began as a young boy living in Bend, Tex. along the Colorado River, where he would search for fossils and arrowheads.
“If I saw a rock that I liked the looks of, I had a hard time not keeping it,” he said.
In college, he studied natural geography at North Texas State University where his passion grew progressively, fueled by regular excursions with his neighbor to hunt for rocks.
After graduation in 1951, Romans moved to West Texas near the fossil-rich Permian Basin to teach earth sciences in Forsan, Tex. for 14 years. He and his wife Betty Jane did a lot of traveling and went on field trips with other local enthusiasts. Betty Jane was always supportive of his hobby.
“If she thought she could find something, she liked looking for it if it didn’t require busting rocks,” Romans said. “She always took a puzzle book and a novel to entertain herself, and she loved to walk.”
Romans moved to Georgetown in 1968, following his wife who had accepted a job with the Texas Education Agency. While in Georgetown, Romans joined the Austin Gem and Mineral Society and remains an active member to this day. He served as field trip advisor and still works to put on the society’s Gem Capers Gem & Mineral Show in December.
After his retirement around 1996, Romans bought a house not too far from the Colorado River bend where he grew up and consolidated his collection into the current gallery. The barn, which was originally a plumber’s workshop and storage space, was renovated into a showcase for his gems and minerals. The building had to be expanded to house his massive collection, and he and his grandsons built the rows and rows of shelving to hold all the specimens.
Romans frequently offers tours of his vast collection to various organizations, gem and mineral societies, Boy scouts school children.
“All the kids that come up there, they’re all natural rock hounds,” Romans said. “They all like the rocks.”
Romans’ gem and mineral collection is available for viewing upon request. To schedule an appointment, call (512) 556-8560.
Contact Joshua Winata at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 547-6481