Rock stars: Whidbey Island Gem Club members might joke around a lot, but they’re serious about sharing their passion for rocks

In a moment of levity, Chip Batcheller can’t escape an opportunity by Dick James to display one of Batcheller’s wrapped-wire insects he made. - Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
In a moment of levity, Chip Batcheller can’t escape an opportunity by Dick James to display one of Batcheller’s wrapped-wire insects he made.
— image credit: Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

The teasing never ceased.

Before Joe Higgins could finish a sentence, Bob Bower would toss a zinger at him.

Chip Batcheller and Dick James listened and smiled, very much aware they could be next, and checked their own mental inventory for a witty line of their own.

The four friends are making the most of retired life, preferring not to sit still too long.

They take a special joy in rocks, and have a passion to share what they know.

As members of the Whidbey Island Gem Club, they take an active role in teaching people what they can do with rocks and what others have done through history.

They’ll give demonstrations and display their works with others at the 49th annual Rock & Gem Show Feb. 8-9 at the Oak Harbor Senior Center.

“I’ve always had an interest in rocks but also had a career,” said Batcheller, who served in the Navy. “Now that I’m retired, I can pursue those things I like doing.”

Batcheller is crafty at creating arrowheads and other primitive items using a method calling knapping. This involves a tool used to press firmly on a cut section of rock and chip away tiny pieces, creating a sharp edge.

But Higgins, a retired dentist, is the master of the bunch at this method. He teaches classes at the senior center on how to make arrowheads and other primitive tools and art out of stone.

“I’m slightly petrified myself,” Higgins joked.

“He’s been around before most rocks were even formed,” howled Bower.

Each shared stories of how a fascination of rocks began in childhood during a time when kids spent most of their time outdoors.

They worry younger generations will miss out. Part of their mission, and that of the club, is to make sure they won’t.

“We’re all teachers,” James said. “That’s what the rock club is all about, passing this on to the next generation.”

James teaches a wire wrap class every Thursday night at the senior center. Wire is used to wrap polished stones or stone beeds to make jewelry and other items.

Batcheller’s specialty is making wire-wrapped insects.

“He’s the bug guy,” Higgins said. “He bugs everybody.”

Whether it’s making bugs, necklaces or primitive tools, some of the skills taught by those in the Whidbey Island Gem Club go beyond making something that just looks pretty or cool.

“You can survive with this technology, too,” Higgins said.

He pointed to a primitive-looking knife he made out of stone and a deer antler, bound together by rawhide and hide glue.

“We use them,” Higgins said, referring to hunting ventures. “This knife skinned three deer without even cutting the deer skin. It doesn’t cut through the hide.”

Gem club members do their rock cutting and polishing at a shop near the senior center. The club has been around since 1938, has more than 100 members and meets monthly.

Anyone age 14 and up is eligible to join. The club offers a Junior Rockhounds program for younger kids.

The Rock & Gem Show is the showcase event put on each year by the Whidbey Island Gem Club.

There will be demonstrations in silver smithing, cabbing, intarsia, stone bead making, wire wrapping, knapping and primitive tools.

Cabbing is a term used for making cabochons ­­— oval shaped, polished rocks.

Intarsia is a knitting technique.

Several vendors will be on hand with many items for sale, including those made by the Whidbey Island club.

The show essentially takes over the senior center, a club partner, for the weekend, according to Batcheller.

The Rock & Gem Show will go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 8 and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 9. The Oak Harbor Senior Center is at 51 S.E. Jerome St.

Promoting an interest in geology is part of what the show is all about.

It’s a passion shared by several club members, including Higgins, Bower, Batcheller and James.

“Maybe we are prehistoric,” Higgins joked.

“Check any kid at school and he’s got rocks in his pockets,” Bower said. “It starts there.”


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