They’re called rock hounds — those who go digging in the depths of the earth to collect rare stones, minerals, fossils and crystals.

It’s a dirty job, but one Hillsboro couple lived for it. Their love for rocks began in 1938 with a handful of coastal agates. Soon enough, Richard Rice, a lifetime logger, and his wife Helen, a mother and antique collector, were traveling all over Oregon and abroad to uncover the best of the best.

In 1952, to display their growing private collection, the couple built a 7,500-square-foot house off the highway in Hillsboro. Sitting on 33 acres and surrounded by trees, it was made almost entirely with native Oregon woods. Myrtle and bird’s eye maple make up the interior of the house and Arizona flagstone adorns the exterior.

In beautiful lighted cases, the Rice’s set their stones — South American emeralds, gold, silver, diamonds, sapphires and rubies. The “Alma Rose” Rhodochrosite, discovered in the Sweet Home Mine in Alma, Colo., came to be their finest and rarest specimen, worth up to $3 million.

“It was grandma’s favorite piece,” said Melena Wallace, one of the granddaughters of Richard and Helen Rice.

Museum opened in 1997

The Rices opened their private collection to the public in 1996, shortly before Helen fell ill and passed away. Her husband died six months later of a broken heart. A year later, with the help of Sharleen Harvey, eldest of the Rice’s three daughters, their working collection of over 20,000 specimens became the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals.

Today, the Rice residence and museum is cared for by a board of directors, including Wallace, who is executive director and a curator and lives less than 500 feet from the collection.

This summer the museum will host its ninth annual Summer Festival and Gem Fair on Saturday, Aug. 4 and Sunday, Aug. 5.

While in the past the fair has mostly lured the rock hound crowd — dealers, traders and collectors — this year the museum hopes to appeal more to the masses. “We are hoping to get more than just rock people out here,” said Wallace’s assistant, Katie Witherspoon.

Visible from Highway 26, just east of North Plains, the Rice Northwest Museum has been recognized as one of the finest rock and mineral museums in the Pacific Northwest and the nation.

The Rice’s home, with its unique architectural structure, became a historical landmark in 2006 as the first “ranch-style” house in Oregon to be accepted to the National Registry of Historic Places.

In the museum, there is a gift shop with jewelry, books and polished stones. There are more than 10 galleries and displays of petrified wood, dinosaur eggs, fossils, meteorites, agates, 4,000 crystals and the largest opal-filled thunderegg in the world, found in Oregon.

Visitors can learn the arts of faceting, geode cracking and thunderegg cutting.

Despite its acclaimed reputation, Witherspoon says the museum remains one of the state’s best-kept secrets.

Special events

September through June, the Rice Northwest Museum is rented for private events from weddings, birthday parties, banquets and family reunions to corporate meetings, business events and fundraisers.

During the year, the museum fills up with school children. Monday through Friday, up to 120 kids from Oregon and southwest Washington arrive in busloads for a day of Earth science studies.

So when foot traffic dies down in the summer, the festival fills the void of visitors and boosts revenue.

This summer, classic car drivers can rally on the front lawn and eat a free breakfast. There will be a hot rod dragster and a replica of The Flinstones’ car, complete with Fred and Wilma.

“Bring a picnic,” said Witherspoon. While people enjoy the collection, they can also check out the grounds.

“It’s a wonderful place to come and sit and enjoy nature.”

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