U.P. Road trip: Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum

U.P. Roadtrip

GRAND MARAIS, Mich. (WJMN) – The Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum is owned by Karen Brzys, she can tell you about Grand Marais’ history and agates, from their formation to where in the world they came from.

Brzys grew up visiting the shop when it was owned by Axel Neimi. Neimi opened the shop in the 1950s. When Brzys was a child her eyesight was underdeveloped due to being born prematurely. She says Neimi would show her rocks when she first began to see and describe what they were. One day when she was 10, she met with Neimi outside the museum at 11:30 at night.

“When I got close enough, I could see that he had a telescope,” said Brzys. “So I remarked about it and I said, gosh is that a telescope. ‘Yup I made it cause I want to show you something’ finally he said step on the stool look through the eyepiece and don’t touch the telescope, as I carefully looked through the eyepiece I saw the rings of Saturn, and he said to me ‘Karen, given your eyesight problems if you can see the rings of Saturn, you can do anything,’ and that was the first day of my life I believed that to be true.”

In the early 1990s Neimi sold the shop to Ron Marshall and moved to Ontonagon with his wife. Marshall then sold the shop to Brzys. Even before purchasing the shop, Bryzs would visit other rock shops while traveling in her previous careers.

“At first it was kind of a hobby and then in the early 2000’s, well actually July 4, 1999 I opened it as a museum, much different than what Axel had, and it’s been a delight to honor his legacy,” said Brzys.

Brzys is an agate specialist, at the Gitche Gumie Agate and History Museum you can see agates from all over the world.

“An agate is a semi-precious stone, a mineral, to be agate any specimen has to be more than 50% chalcedony which is a microcrystalline variety of silica, macrocrystalline silica is quartz so it’s kind of related to quartz,” said Brzys. “So it has to be chalcedony but it has to have self-organized structure, there’s about 30 different types of structure, what’s awesome about agates is that we really don’t know how they formed.”

There are two different schools of thought when it comes to how agates form. Brzys says there are certain principles though that do govern agate formation.

“There’s 3,000 locations on the planet approximately where agates have formed,” said Brzys. “Lake Superior Agates we used to say were the oldest agates on earth, you can’t date the agate itself you date the matrix rock in which they formed, there were some agates from western Australia they weren’t quite sure what the formation rock was, they have since decided that and they’re a little bit older, but we’re the oldest in the western hemisphere.”

Brzys uses Brazilian agate in her art. Lake Superior agate is trickier to find.

“The Brazilian agate that in my art, those are mines there are no glaciers so the agate modules are still sitting exactly where they formed they’re concentrated,” said Brzys. “That is not true here, in fact in Grand Marais, there were no agates formed at all, 100% of the agates on our beach were either moved by glaciers or by winter’s ice that pick up rocks on the shore, ice breaks off shore, moves around the lake, the spring north-west winds bring all that ice and embedded rock and it melts between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point.”

Brzys sells books about agates and how to find agates. She says she has interviewed unsuccessful agate hunters to figure out what they’re doing wrong and developed a new methodology of agate hunting.

“I can’t in 30 seconds or less, or 10 minutes or less, teach somebody to find an agate but I can direct them to the books,” said Brzys.

She occasionally teaches classes on agate hunting to small groups, but those must be arranged in advance. Brzys says her favorite part in owning the shop throughout the years has been teaching children about the rocks.

“When a kids eyes get, you know, this big and you see the lightbulb turn on and you explain stuff and they just get so excited especially when I do the class, kids are much better learners than adults,” said Brzys.

When visiting the shop and museum, you can also learn about Grand Marais’ history. Brzys has the back of the building filled with antiques and pieces of history accompanied by information on the town and some of its residents from back in its early days.

Brzys will be decreasing the shops hours this summer and transitioning to focus more on her writing. She says within the next couple of years she will sell the Gitche Gumee building and open a rock shop to sell her art nearer to her home.

Visit the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum website for information on their hours, classes, Brzys’ books and more.

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