Bittle Mineral collection uncovered and restored

A hidden era of Roanoke College history is unfolding, and soon it will have a permanent place on campus.

Dr. Jon Cawley, an Environmental Studies professor at Roanoke, and four students-turned-geologists have spent the past eight months cleaning, identifying and displaying approximately 240 rocks that David Bittle, Roanoke's founder and president, purchased for the College long ago.

The collection brought wide recognition to Roanoke in the 1800s, according to College records. It totaled about 11,000 minerals at the time of Bittle's death in 1876, and eventually, with assistance from other collectors, peaked at 14,000. At some point, the collection was stored away.

Fast-forward to last fall when Roanoke students, Tucker Prisley '13, Sophia Rodbell '14, Alejandro Ramos '15 and Jonathan Wright '13, discovered at least 200 stones, among 1,000, in Crawford Hall's attic.

"It was sort of like a treasure hunt," Rodbell said.

This year, the restored portion of Bittle's collection will come full circle. It will be displayed on the second floor of Roanoke's Administration Building, its original home during Bittle's time, said Dr. Gail Steehler, Roanoke's associate dean for academic affairs and general education.

The story of the stones begins with Bittle, an avid collector who purchased collections and gathered rocks from students' travels to Peru and Bolivia, as well as stone from Mount Vesuvius, dinosaur bones and more.

The rocks ultimately were packed away. But in the early to mid-1990s, Linda Miller, College archivist, learned that bins of rocks, found in College Hall's basement, were headed for a landfill.

"That's the Bittle Mineral collection," she said she told a colleague. "Get out there and stop them."

Miller stored the rocks in the Massengill Auditorium, though they eventually relocated to Crawford.

New detective work began last fall when Cawley enlisted four students to restore at least 200 rocks for display in Fintel Library in time for Bittle's 200th birthday celebration in November.

Prisley, Rodbell, Ramos and Wright worked afternoons and evenings, nearly 10 hours weekly, cleaning the rocks with soap and toothbrushes.

The students used an old name list from the College's archives to identify each mineral. But many names changed over time and matching them with the correct identity took extra digging, Prisley said.

Their research continues. The students are creating a collection history book, and they plan to hunt for more rocks that may be hidden on campus.

Still, now that part of the collection will be a campus fixture, "it means that the school is taking it seriously," Wright said.

Cabinets for the rocks will be made from the wood of trees on campus.

Bobby Minnex, of the College's Buildings & Grounds Department, is crafting two 4-foot-wide cabinets, with glass shelves and tops.

-Jenny Kincaid Boone '01

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