Gail Austin -- a rock-loving Trona treasure

Linda Saholt

News Review Correspondent

Gail Austin -- a rock-loving Trona treasureEvery town boasts its interesting characters, and desert towns seem to be unusually rich in them. In Trona, for instance… have you met Gail Austin?

Austin, 73, will be familiar to all the rockhounds, lapidary hobbyists and crystal fanciers who regularly frequent the Trona Gem-O-Rama each October. You can find him demonstrating sphere-cutting with an odd-looking machine that holds the rock in three places and somehow produces gorgeous polished spheres of stone.

A resident of Trona since 1949, Austin is definitely a person who thinks for himself. Proudly resisting as much technology as possible, he prefers doing things by hand or with simple machinery and living a quiet life with Rose Ann, his wife of 39 years.

His time is filled with crafts, repairs and volunteer work for various friends and causes, including the Searles Valley Historical Society’s Old Guest House Museum. His love of rocks goes back to age five, when he went out rockhounding with his dad.

Austin prides himself on sizing up people. He has no use for people who use others or aggravate him in some way, and he’s clear about it.

On the other hand, if he decides you’re all right, he may choose to tell you all sorts of intriguing facts and bits of history, or even teach you a thing or two about cutting rocks.

“People either accept me as I am or they don’t, and I really don’t care how they feel about me,” he said. He treasures the true friends he’s made over the years, and he’s fascinated with approximately everything. “I collect anything and everything. If it says ‘USA’ on it, I keep it,” he said.

With the sheer tonnage of accumulated rocks and collected items that stacked up in and around the Austins’ home, he bought the house across the street and converted it to his workshop, dubbed “the doghouse.” “It’s where I go to do things,” he said. “This is what I do for fun.” He and Rose Ann still live in their original house.

That doghouse is impressive. Outside, it’s surrounded by a yard full of piles and piles of rocks waiting to be crafted into something. Inside, it boasts an interior that’s full of shadows, items not immediately identifiable, nicely creaking wood floors and a faint layer of rock dust lightly sifting over everything.

The building itself is a hobby-in-progress that houses his collection of collections. Most of the walls and all the cabinets hold large and small collections of all sorts of stuff. From cigarboxes to old tools, rock and mineral specimens to small an-tiques, military memorabilia to bottles, medical scissors to finished spheres — everything here has a story.

Several side rooms hold lapidary equipment, from the “coarse room” where the main cutting and rough shaping of rock are done, to the “polish room” where the final stages are completed, free of the particles that could cause scratches on shiny surfaces.

In between the lapidary rooms are small rooms holding “stuff” that sort of has a theme, like kitchen items or tools. Frames of various sizes hold collections of small objects such as flintknapped reproductions of Native American stone projectile points.

This is clearly a place where a lot of work gets done. To another rockhound, the place seems perfect — an admirable solution to many crafters’ issues. Austin can lay out the parts of a project and leave them there until he’s done, no matter how long it takes.

Over the years he has accumulated all the equipment needed to go out and hunt rocks in areas open to collecting; store, identify and slice them; cut and polish them; make them into slabs, spheres, bases for the spheres, lidded boxes, or cabochons; flintknap them into arrowheads or knife blades; even facet them.

“I make all my wife’s jewelry. She’s the envy of all her friends,” he said.

Austin also does welding, all sorts of repairs, upholstery, shooting and reloading his own ammunition, picture framing, glass cutting and undoubtedly other skills and hobbies he didn’t mention.

Some of his work is available for purchase in the gift shop of the Old Guest House Museum. He makes and donates all sorts of handcrafted items, so the purchase price goes entirely to the museum.

From “rock bugs” with googly eyes, starting at 75 cents, to miniature pewter trains attached to sections of actual train rail or local mineral specimens in glass cases that go for up to $70, his work is always fun. For more information about the museum, see www1. iwvisp.com/svhs/, or call 760-372-5222.

If you’d like to meet Austin, he recommends coming to the Gem-O-Rama on Oct. 12-13, where he will demonstrate sphere cutting. Intro-duce yourself. Ask questions. You’ll be glad you did!

Extra points will be given if you’re interested in rocks and/or sphere cutting.

Story First Published: 2012-10-10