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The Unknown Jerome (Idaho) Meteorite

A few months back I was asked to help with an appraisal of a 14.6 pound stone meteorite that had been in a family’s collection since the mid-1950s. All I was given by way of provenance was a 1986 letter from Dr. Jim Schwade asking to buy a portion of the meteorite, and a photocopy of a 1970 Arizona State University meteorite collection catalog page listing a piece of the Jerome (Idaho) meteorite. Thinking it would take just an hour or two, I agreed to write a short description. I had no idea the endeavor would grow into weeks of online research, two trips to Jerome Idaho, and locating family members across two states to interview. But the time was well worth it, as it resulted in the identification of an Idaho treasure all but hidden for 66 years: the state’s first officially recognized stone meteorite.

The story begins on July 7th, 1952. Utah State University geology professor Clyde T. Hardy was out on a field trip when a large bolide streaked across the sky. Certain it must have survived its fiery entry, he interviewed eyewitnesses in Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, then calculated a likely impact site just south of the small Idaho town of Burley. But after two years and 25 fruitless trips to the area, he gave up trying to find it.

Falls City, Idaho is a small community just a few miles east of Jerome, and about 40 miles northwest of the area Hardy had searched. In March of 1954, Clair Ricketts and his father J. T. were preparing their bean field for planting. But their work came to an abrupt halt when a rock broke one of the tines on their cultivator. Clair recognized the regmaglypted stone as something unique, and thinking it was metal, he hit a corner with a wrench to let his dad hear the characteristic ring. Instead, a seven ounce piece broke off along a shock vein, revealing a matte black surface underneath. Had he struck it anywhere else, nothing would have happened; but it was fortunate Clair hit it where he did, as that piece would later play a pivotal role in the meteorite’s history.

Disappointed their find wasn’t metal, Clair took it to the Magic Valley Gem Club’s annual rock show later that month, where affluent Jerome lawyer William A. Peters saw it. William had suffered a heart attack in the 1930s, so his doctor told him to take up a hobby to relieve his stress. He decided to collect unusual rocks and have them slabbed, cabbed, or made into spheres. When he saw Clair’s meteorite at the show, he immediately recognized what it was and wanted it for his collection. Clair collected Indian artifacts, so William was more than happy to trade arrowheads for the meteorite.

William also owned the Jerome city water company. By 1954 he’d amassed an immense lapidary collection that he kept in custom display cabinets at his office, where the public could enjoy it when they came in to pay their monthly bills. H. O. Stockwell was a lapidary and meteorite dealer famous for using his homemade wheelbarrow-style portable metal detector to find the 1040 pound “Space Wanderer” Brenham pallasite in 1949. William’s lapidary collection was well known, so Stockwell stopped to see it on a 1954 trip through the Pacific Northwest. While he wasn’t expecting to find a meteorite there too, he was impressed by what he saw and offered to buy it. William made it clear it was not for sale, but the next year, in July 1955, Stockwell wrote directly to Clair to explain that in his opinion, the meteorite was but half of one that had split on impact. In that letter, Stockwell included a pamphlet describing how to identify a meteorite and offered to buy the other half should Clair come across it. Despite that incentive, Clair was unable to find any additional pieces (as Hardy would be quoted two decades later, “I drove out there and a person could look for a long time before finding another piece.”).

William’s water company was municipalized in 1955, so he had the seven floor-to-ceiling display cabinets and their lapidary and fossil contents moved into the basement of his son’s house. There the meteorite stayed on a bookshelf, relatively unknown for 65 years, with one brief moment of notoriety that would occur almost two decades later.

It’s likely that during his 1954 visit, Stockwell suggested William send the broken piece of the meteorite to Harvey Nininger. Nininger later identified it as a stone meteorite, and while the reason is unclear, he also associated it with Hardy’s bolide observation, as evidenced by a folder in Nininger’s archives titled “Meteor: Idaho (July 7th, 1952) 1954” (years later, Hardy would note that he saw the meteorite described in a pamphlet of Nininger’s, but the author has not yet been able to locate that document).

Nininger kept William’s broken piece until the 1960 sale of the remaining half of his meteorite collection to Arizona State University (the first half had gone to the British Museum of Natural History two years earlier). ASU opened their Center for Meteorite Studies in 1961, and Brian Mason – an advisor to the center from the American Museum of Natural History in New York – offered to classify the broken piece. In late 1963, he assigned it a rather nondescript “L-chondrite” classification; the following May, it was officially listed in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database as “Jerome (Idaho)”.

Unfortunately, William had passed just a few months before it was published, so he didn’t get to see Clair’s find become Idaho’s first recognized stone meteorite. But while it was consistent with the format for the 1960s, William would have been disappointed with the brevity of that listing: besides the generic L-chondrite classification, the only other information was the year Clair found it, its 6.8 kg weight (the current 6.6 kg main mass plus the broken piece sent to Nininger), and an erroneous location 20 miles away, far outside of its namesake county (in fact, the meteorite should have been named Falls City, where the Ricketts’ farm still resides). Notably missing were the finder’s and classifier’s names, the holder of the main mass, and other relevant details typically included in modern MetBul listings.

After William’s death, his son Ralph maintained the collection. And while Ralph didn’t add to it, he appreciated its significance to his father. But the Jerome meteorite was never again shown publicly, with the exception of a brief appearance after an event in 1974 that conjures up the phrase “astronomical odds”.

That year, Clair was preparing his same field for planting, this time with the help of his brother Dean. Clearing the field of the “winter crop” of rocks that frost heaves brought to the surface during the prior winter, Clair again recognized a stone that looked different from the typical basalt rocks in the area. To his surprise, it was another meteorite – the other half of his original find twenty years earlier!

He called Ralph, who brought the 1954 piece to compare. By 1974, Nininger had long since closed his American Meteorite Museum, so Ralph instead contacted nearby Utah State University’s geology department to ask if someone would verify the pairing. The department head was none other than Clyde Hardy, who in 1968 had been promoted to that position as a consequence of years of dedication to his students and the university. That July, a local newspaper article detailed a meeting between the three, describing Hardy’s original bolide observation and his failed attempt to find anything. Hardy was also quoted as saying the two parts formed a single meteorite whose “pieces fit snugly.” And an accompanying photo showed Ralph’s 1954 stone alongside the smaller 1974 one held by Clair.

After that, the 1954 stone went back into Ralph’s basement. Clair wasn’t interested in meteorites, so he let Dean keep their 1974 find. In 1977, Hardy wrote to both Dean and Ralph asking to purchase the pair. But like his father’s response to Stockwell, Ralph was adamant his meteorite wasn’t for sale. So Hardy tried again a year later, doubling his offer to Dean because “I don’t expect to see the other piece”.

And in 1986, Dr. Jim Schwade, having learned of the 1954 stone’s owner from ASU, wrote to Ralph on behalf of the Chicago Field Museum requesting a kilogram of it in exchange for either $1,000 or “an impressive 2,000 gram slice of an iron meteorite from Mundrabilia [sic], Australia which has spectacular troilite inclusions”. Again Ralph refused, and Clair’s first find remained secluded in the family’s basement for another 34 years.

While Ralph wouldn’t part with the first stone, Dean would eventually sell his. On a trip in 1986 to visit his aunt Joy in Illinois, Dean brought Clair’s second find to Dr. Schwade for cutting the requested 1 kg. At the time, Dean still wanted to keep the main mass, but in April of the following year, Dean decided to sell Schwade the remaining 6.4 kg to raise money for an Indian motorcycle Dean wanted to buy from his uncle. Schwade included his new acquisition in the 1990 and 1993 listings of his meteorites, but by 1996 he’d removed an additional 2.4 kg in slices that he distributed to other collectors.

Professor Martin Horejsi acquired one of the slices cut from Schwade’s piece and later sectioned it for trade material. Then in 1996, while living in Idaho, Martin made arrangements with Schwade to loan the remaining 4 kg piece to the Idaho Museum of Natural History for a temporary meteorite display. Later, Martin would buy that piece for his personal collection and feature it in his May 2016 Meteorite Times article.

Ralph Peters died in 2012, but Clair’s 1954 find remained with Ralph’s wife Blanche until her death earlier this year. As part of the dissolution of her estate, the meteorite was put up for sale by her children (hence their need of documentation to help with an appraisal). Except for the piece broken off during Clair’s “test” to see if it was a metal meteorite, it has remained uncut and otherwise unaltered from the day it was found, still retaining both the metallic markings on the back side where it was hit by the cultivator tine, and the classic John Deere green paint that rubbed off when the meteorite was placed onto the tractor before returning from the field.

After decades of obscurity, Clair’s 1954 find has once again resurfaced, unaltered since the day of its discovery, but now with the knowledge of a rich history that involved some of the great historical figures in early American meteoritics, a seemingly unconnected observation of a fireball across three states, the pairing of half-stones an unbelievable two decades apart, and some chance occurrences without which it would not have become Idaho’s first official stone meteorite.

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