April 10, 2020by Jon Kramer

Agatized Coral | Deliverance In South Georgia

Agatized Coral
Deliverance In South Georgia

Copyright 4-10-20  /   3,736 words
by Jon Kramer

Nonfiction.  These events took place in the mid 1970s.

In the deep, musty backwoods of south Georgia there flows a dark and mysterious river called the Withlacoochee.  For some several miles it winds along the remote and wild northern edge of Florida before finally merging with the storied Suwanee south of the border.  The country here is a dense canopy of mixed deciduous and pine forest, abundantly draped with Spanish Moss. In the cool early mornings of fall the misty river acquires an ominous, other-worldly appearance.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Deliverance, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, suffice to say the Withlacoochee can give you the creeps.

In the early 1970s,  just after Deliverance hit the big screen and scared the living bejesus out of me and my siblings, our rockhounding family took a road trip that led ultimately to the eerie dark waters of the Withlacoochee in search of ancient coral reefs that once thrived here in the mid Cenozoic.    As we motored south of Valdosta, the ragged mobile homes along the potholed, crumbling pavement were gradually replaced by woods that grew thicker, and darker, and more ominous, and then – – the river.

At that time, the only structure within several dozen miles of the old river crossing was Mozel’s Bar, leaning rickety up against the bank of the state line on the Georgia side of the bridge.  The local story was, when Prohibition became the law of the land, Georgia wasn’t in a big hurry to give up the drink and the authorities dragged their enforcement feet for quite some time.  Mozel Senior seized the opportunity, bought the land and built his establishment with the original title “Mozel’s Roadhouse” in a half-hearted effort to throw the feds off the scent.  With all the locals coming from Florida, Mozel did quite the moonshine business.  For a while. Eventually, though, he got cross-wise with the law, at which time he started a sloppy, smelly pig farm out back.  Later, when Prohibition was reversed, he repainted the sign and proudly stenciled “Bar” in big letters. No more monkey business and no more pigs.

What Mozel failed to see, unfortunately, was once the ban on alcohol was lifted, no one from Florida had any earthly reason to cross over to Georgia for liquor, and things went rather abruptly down the proverbial toilet. By the time we got there, four decades later, the pigs were back and the bar was about as operative as one might expect – for a ghost town.  Excepting there was no town, only ghosts.  That, and the dilapidated building they occupied which termites were rapidly reducing to frass.  What was still standing doubled as the (pig) farm office and roadside beer joint.  But we didn’t need a pig, nor a beer.  What we needed was a boat, and that’s why we were standing here in the first place.

Mozel Junior – Senior had passed on by this point  – was now the proprietor and made it clear he was not too keen on renting any of his watercraft to a family of strangers.  Northern strangers, at that.   Northern, Big City, strangers, on top of it.  Even after Dad had purchased a warm six pack from a cooler that didn’t cool (but for some reason still made a lot of noise as if it was diligently doing its job while hiding behind a squealing fan motor),  “Junior”– as he’s known to his friends, which we were not, obviously –  was unrelenting.  So we left the haunted darkness of Mozel’s joint without a boat.  What we did have was the clear impression we were not welcome in these parts.  Nonetheless we spent the next few days blithely driving along the riverbanks, periodically checking to see if there were fossils sticking out of the mud.  Indeed there were.

Lucky for us, the river had receded due to the lack of rain and there were several ancient reefs exposed as rapids along its course.  We waded in and began scouring the rocky bottom for a rare treasure – agatized coral –  hollow, fossil coral heads that have insides coated with carnelian agate (“agatized”).   By dumb luck we found some.  It became a numbers game – if you looked through enough coral heads you were bound, sooner or later, to find a nice piece.  Once cleaned of the dark mud and tannins of the river, some of these are truly incredible, with beautiful translucent agate lining the old coral architecture like a miniature cave coated in various shades of amber.

The shallows near the shore were investigated by Grandpa and Mom, while the rest of us headed out into the river.  These corals were originally trapped in limestone.  As the river cuts down through the old sediments, it erodes the softer limestone and sets the agatized coral heads free. Since the corals are replaced by quartz, they’re much harder and more durable than their parent matrix and tend to tumble around and pile up along the bottom.

After our initial discoveries, we armed ourselves with rock hammers and fanned out into the shallows.  As we moved through the rapids,  we’d pull pieces from the bottom and chip off a corner to see if it was agatized.  It became apparent that only about one out of every 100 or so pieces was actually hollow and agatized.  The vast majority were rotten and uninteresting.   As we progressed, we piled up the rejects in distinct mounds among the rapids.  Whenever we found something of promise, we took it to shore.

I supposed it’s natural for all people – family or not – to have unique views and feelings such that, as a species, we most often are not on the exact same page.  But there are times from my upbringing that I look back upon and recall every member of our family completely in tune with one another, all enjoying the day and each other’s company.  I don’t know what you call that, but joy is a term that comes to mind and nothing brought us more joy than family road trips – especially rockhounding excursions.

Despite the strange setting and the encounter with Mozel our entire family got so totally into digging rocks that we lost ourselves in the warm weather, cool water, and the discoveries of our expedition.  It seems to me that in such a way we experienced something few families ever have a chance to realize – a sort of primal instinct as the family tribe works together to hunt and gather.

By the end of that first day, everyone had scored several incredible pieces.  I still have and cherish one of the first pieces I ever pulled out of the river – a soccer-ball sized beauty with a natural open end that frames a perfect view of its gemmy inside.  Some of the pieces we collected did not require anything but a thorough cleaning.  Most, however, would require cutting open with our diamond saw before they revealed the hidden splendors inside.

Naturally, we took some photos of those forays.  One of them shows my brother Bill smiling at a piece he just pulled out.  Four decades after that photo was taken, I discovered, to my surprise, the very same piece tucked away in my garage, still awaiting cutting.  I finally finished the job – cut and polished into a beautiful pair – and presented it to Bill for his birthday.

When we, as a family, decided to open a rock shop called Nature’s Exotics  on Antique Row in Kensington, Maryland, agatized coral became one of our staples and a genuine revenue stream.   Expeditions to the Withlacoochee were taken regularly, sometimes twice or three times a year, depending on the river conditions and the supply we had at the shop.  The diamond saws were operating full tilt, as were the tumblers, arbors, and vibrating flat laps which polished the rocks we cut.

Now, considering all the equipment – which is noisy and creates a huge mess – you might think the Kramer clan lived on a sprawling family farm that utilized outbuildings like the old barn to house its industrial processing plant feeding its retail empire.  Or, at the very least, they’d have an old warehouse converted to “wet lab” with 20,000 square feet of floor space which would be hosed down in a biweekly cleaning.   But that’s a far cry from the reality.  The six of us lived in a cramped three-bedroom, second floor apartment, and all of the rock processing equipment was housed with us.  As Dad would say,  I kid you not!…

The tumblers, which were commercial size, were in the bathroom.  The tile floor and tile walls helped to echo the tumbling noise day and night. The laps got housed in the coat closet.  With an unending vibratory tango, they banged around their enclosure willy-nilly.  If the door wasn’t properly shut, they would get out and ping-pong down the hallway until their electrical umbilical ripped from the socket.  Our grinding wheels and polishing arbors were in what would have been the linen closet outside the bathroom.   Only problem with that idea was you had to stand in front of the wheels when in use and a linen closet has only so much room.  Somehow, we managed it nonetheless.

The biggest logistical problem was finding a place for the industrial diamond saw.  There was just no room left in the apartment.  The balcony was seriously considered, but it was filled with inventory and being out in the elements was a concern if you had to cut rocks for the Holiday Season while it was 20 degrees outside.  Lucky for us, Mom happened to be the Property Manager of the apartment complex where we lived and, as they say, rank has its privileges.  She arranged to house the saw in a maintenance storage area right next door to our apartment.   Another advantage to Mom’s position was whenever anyone from the adjacent apartments called to complain about the noise coming from our unit, she took the call and explained it as simply “building mechanical equipment”.  That was that.

In those first trips the Withlacoochee seemed dismal and spooky to me.  Perhaps I had seen Deliverance too many times or maybe it was just the foreboding darkness of its setting and its waters.   Whenever we encountered good-old-boy fishermen on the river, the Deliverance fiddles started playing in my head.   I was always on the lookout for strange goings-on, like a secret Ku Klux Klan ritual with burning crosses and white hoods.  The encounter with “Junior” had not helped my paranoia about the place.

On about our third trip we were walking along the river and happened upon a guy with a john boat.  He was on shore, hunched over what looked like some poor animal that he was beating absolutely senseless with a kind of rod.  He was just wailing away on it!  The poor creature didn’t move, and I surmised it was dead.  He hadn’t notice me or my siblings tucked into the palmettos along the bank.  I was scared shitless and about to make a run for it when he suddenly looked up and saw me.   I froze.

As it turned out, I was right about the poor creature – it was dead, dead as hell.  Dead, that is, by about 20 million years.  The thing he was wailing on was a coral head –  a large one.  So it was, he happened to be engaged in the same rockhounding adventure as we were, looking for agatized corals.  His name was Elmer Painter and he lived 40 miles up the road in Valdosta.  Elmer was a very likeable and funny fellow who loved rocks as much as we did.  Although he had that southern, good-old-boy appearance, he was quite the opposite of Mozel.

Oh that old crab?, Elmer said of Mozel, He’s mad at the world.  But don’t pay him any mind, he’s harmless.

Elmer had retired some years before.  He used to come down to the river to fish and pass the time.  Fishin wasn’t my calling, so I took up hunting – rocks that is!  I’m better at that.  On occasion he’d hook up the boat and head to the river to collect rocks.   Before the day was done Elmer invited us over to his place. We went, met his wife, and were treated as family from that day on.

The next trip we brought Elmer and his wife a hand carved onyx chess set from Mexico.  They were thrilled.  Ever after, when we headed down from DC to spend a few days collecting, we visited them in Valdosta.  Elmer insisted we use his boat.  Don’t even think about getting a boat somewhere’s else, he commanded, I’d feel hurt if ya did.  Several times he even towed it to the river for us when we didn’t have a hitch.  And he always refused payment.  Instead we paid him in rocks and fossils we collected around the country. Each trip we brought new treasures.  Elmer always said he was getting the better part of the deal, Since that old boat would just be sittin there anyway…

Elmer and his wife always implored us to stay with them. Our house is always open for ya, they said. But there was no way we were going to subject them to our grubbiness, especially after a long day of digging in the mud.  So we stayed in a motel near the truck stop south of town and would head out early in the morning for the river.

Being SCUBA divers, we began packing tanks, masks, fins, and wetsuits to go after the corals in the deepest parts of the river.  Diving in the Wihtlacoochee was a bit scary even after Elmer dispelled the Deliverance fiddles.  Due to the thick, dark tannins infused by the surrounding swampland, you literally could not see your hand in front of your facemask once you were 6 feet down.  But you could feel the rocks easily enough and distinguish the rough edges of a coral head from the smooth surface of a limestone nodule.  We got pretty good a discerning underwater the hollow heads from the solid ones and our diving yielded many excellent specimens.

Early one fall morning Mike, Bill, and I took a run south and met Elmer at his house in time for an evening of good old southern Bar-B-Que.  We got on the water early the next day.  As we motored upstream, we found the water level a little higher than normal, so we had no trouble passing over the reefs we had explored on previous occasions.  Some miles upstream we discovered a productive spot and tied the boat to a tree.  In eight hours the three of us had the boat loaded full to the brim with agatized coral.

It was late afternoon when we called it quits and crawled aboard, situating ourselves as best we could atop the rocks piled high over the bench seats.  We pushed off.  In an instant Mike noticed there was a mere two inches of freeboard below the gunwales.  Two inches! We were heavily overloaded but were already out in the main flow being sucked along with the current.  There was only one thing we could do about it – jettison some of the load to save our skins from sinking. Mike, being the Captain, issued an order to that effect and commanded us to – very carefully! – deep-six some of the corals.

He pointed, How about sending that one over?  Carefully!

Bill looked at it,  No, can’t toss that, it has crystals, it’s way too good.

OK, how about that one to the left? 

Nope, it’s multi-chambered, couldn’t possibly throw that…

And so it went.  As it happened, when we loaded the boat, we had put the choicest pieces on top, so they wouldn’t be damaged.  Even in these dire straits, with sinking imminent, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to toss any overboard.

If we sink, at least we’ll know where they are, Bill said, helpfully.

Mike, seeing the futility of his order, immediately went to Plan B.  Okay, let’s just float it.  We can’t start the motor – it’d sink us for sure.  So, if we just sit super still, I’ll rudder with the oar and we’ll float down to the landing. 

Time passed slowly, in a pleasant quiet pace set by the river herself.  We floated along in an almost meditative state, talking low as if the very noise of our dialog would rock the boat too much.  The sun was setting now and the warmth of the day was cooling off.  We sat atop our rockpile happily exhausted with our day’s rewards, settled contently into the slow groove of floating with the river.

Then the mosquitos attacked. With a vengeance!

We had packed bug spray, of course.  It was on the checklist and we’d just bought some new on the way down.  During the heat of the day, however, while diving in the river, mosquitos are not a problem and the juice stayed in the boat.  It’s in the evening – like now! – when the blood-thirsty monsters come after you, that you really need it.

Who’s got the bug spray? Mike asked.

It’s in the pack, I replied.  I distinctly remember putting it in with the rock hammers.

Oh, you mean the pack that’s on the bottom of the boat under this mountain of rock?  The bug spray may as well have been on the moon.

We were therefore instructed by the Captain to not swat at the little bastards, least such action create too much disturbance and we become the first vessel in the history of sailing to be sunk by a mosquito.  All aboard were in favor of not acquiring such an ignominious title, so we endured the rest of the journey by carefully rubbing our hands across our bare skin to thwart their attacks.  The mosquitos had a field day.  Eventually, however, we floated around a bend and the landing came in sight.  We were almost home.

About this time a critical thought occurred to the Captain: While it was true we were floating along at a lazy rate, our super heavy load meant we had acquired a tremendous momentum, one that would not easily be brought to a stop, especially with no freeboard to spare.  Mike realized – quite correctly, as it turned out – that when the bow hit the shore, the remaining part of the boat would most likely deflect downward and sink like a stone.  Being that there were no real shallows at the landing, this became an immediate concern.  There was nothing at all we could do about that but he came up with a plan in which we hoped to save Elmer’s motor from extinction.

He let us in on the idea: I’m going to disconnect the fuel line and unscrew the motor mount.  I’ll have my hands on the motor and as soon as we touch, I’ll yank it free and pass it up to Jon.  Then Jon passes it to Bill, and Bill gets it up on the shore.

It wasn’t pretty.  We had hoped to sort of glide the front of the boat into the embankment.  But since we had little control, we hit a tree head-on and the ship went down immediately, just as Mike had predicted.  I remember watching the Captain yank the motor off the transom and hold it over his head as the back plunged underwater and he went down with it.  The rocks were sliding akimbo as I grabbed the motor and swung it around to Bill, who was able to jump off the sinking vessel, gaining dry land just as the wreck slid down to the bottom. The motor, at least, was saved.  Mike and I swam to shore.

We then spent the next two hours diving the river a second time to retrieve all the rocks, gear, and everything else off the bottom.  Including the bug spray.  When we finally pulled up the boat, it was none the worse off, excepting the dent in the bow from the tree. We cleaned it up and returned it to Elmer the next day.  When we told him the story, he laughed so hard he had a coughing fit and had to sit down.  You oughta charge twice as much for them pieces, he howled.

Two decades later, in the late 1990s, Mike’s company – the Gilders Studio –  landed the job of gilding the Georgia capitol dome in Atlanta.  Since the project was to be done off ropes, he hired me to manage that aspect.  After several weeks, we were finishing up the first phase.  Early one morning, while hanging on lines 350 above the pavement, Mike turned to me and asked, How far do you think it is to the Withlacoochee?

A few days later, without much of a plan, he and I were headed south toward Valdosta.  We stopped at a hardware store and bought rock hammers and pry bars.  But what we needed most was a boat.  It had been decades since we had last seen Elmer and the Withlacoochee.

Do you suppose old Elmer Painter is still around?  I asked.  We called, and to our surprise his wife picked up the phone.

Oh, yes I remember you boys!, she exclaimed,  You’re Elmer’s rockhound friends from up north.  What a nice surprise!

It was bittersweet – Elmer, she explained, was on his death bed.  Cancer was taking him down.  He couldn’t speak and was not expected to live more than another day or two.  But while we held the line, she told him who was on the phone.  When he heard it was us, he nodded his head several times and a smile came to his face.  We were in tears by the time we hung up.  Even now, more than twenty years further on, it brings tears to my eyes to remember that call.

The kindness of strangers can make or break your attitude about places and things.  In our case, the kindness of Elmer Painter took a dark, spooky, backwoods river and turned it into a colorful carnelian gemstone.

Not unlike an agatized coral.