“Be prepared to have your mind boggled,” a woman in line informs me. She’s driven five hours to get here and she’s been coming to this event as often as she can for the past three decades. “You’re going to be amazed,” she assures me as we show our wristbands and part ways. “Rocks are so much fun.” At just ten o’clock on a Thursday morning in August, hundreds of people are filing into the North Hastings Community Centre and Bancroft Curling Club.
Bancroft is hailed as the “Mineral Capital of Canada”. It’s a picturesque, small town nestled between towering hills and trees, a place with a rich history of mining, and a place where “all that glitters is not gold.” Because gems and minerals - beryl, amazonite, quartz, garnet, jade, silver, to name just a few - while not gold, definitely glitter. The Bancroft Gemboree is a 54 year old tradition held every Civic holiday long weekend. It’s organized by the local Bancroft and district Chamber of Commerce, and a host of volunteers. These people are incredibly proud of this event. “It’s 54 years of awesome” one of the organizers tells me. Outside, there’s music, food vendor trucks, picnic tables, and the Chamber of Commerce have set up their mobile van outside the arena before the Opening Ceremonies begin. Many local politicians and dignitaries speak and then cut the red ribbon to mark that it’s officially Gemboree time.
L to R: Rodney Cooney (Hastings County Warden), Paul Jenkins (Acting Mayor of the town of Bancroft), Mike Bossio (M.P. for Hastings, Lennox & Addington), Marlene Musclow and Greg Webb (General Manager Bancroft District Chamber of Commerce), Mayor Vivian Bloom (Hastings Highlands), Reeve Graham Blair (Wollaston Township), Todd Smith (M.P.P. for Prince-Edward Hastings Riding), Mike Douglas-Hecker (Councillor for Limerick Township).
Inside - the local arena and curling club are filled with endless tables and displays of rocks, crystals, gems, fossils, things made of rocks - and jewelry - all of which sparkles beneath the overhead lights. Entering the arena is like entering a glorious, new world.
The energy of the place feels magnetic: the energy of rocks is somehow an intangible music that hums throughout the building. There’s a vitality here that’s hard to describe. A vibe. Everyone is having fun because rocks really are amazing.
The arena is packed with people who are entranced. Mesmerized. I watch two children look with awe at rocks. I watch a teenaged boy hold rocks against light, testing the way light alters them. I watch women and men of all ages oggle at rings, and bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. I watch an elderly man sort through buckets of stones. I watch as vendors explain the unique nature of their wares.
Thousands of people visit - many are locals and cottagers who embrace the event, and for whom it’s an annual tradition. For others, it’s a destination event: many have travelled across the province and across the country to wander the venues for a day or for the weekend. Young and old. Tourists and locals. Soon to be rockhounds or rock lovers. Because there is something about rocks - their elemental nature, their ruggedness, their beauty, their infinite range of texture and type and colour and design that pulls us in.
There are more than one hundred vendors. Before the doors open, they have been busy setting up displays that boggle the eye in their variety and richness - rocks of all colours, kinds, shapes - from the local area, and from all over the planet.
The Gemboree began in 1963 with some rock enthusiasts, a tent, and a field. Local ‘Bancroftonians’ took their kids to see the rocks, and now those people are bringing their kids. Fueled over the years by the enthusiasm of the local community and the support the Chamber of Commerce, the Rockhound Gemboree is now “recognized as a top 100 Festival & Event in Ontario”. This is such an amazing accomplishment for a community. The Gemboree has grown because the community has fostered it.
And still fosters it.
And there is much more outside the venues. While you can pan for gold on-site, there are daily “Mineral Collecting Field Trips” to several local mines where you can search for beryl, fluor-Apatite, zircon, and rose quartz. As well, there are daily presentations by professional geologists and mining experts.
However, the Rockhound Gemboree is not just for geologists, petrologists or rock enthusiasts; there are children, millennials, boomers, people with strollers and people with canes - and every one of them is mesmerized by the endless displays of things rock and mineral.
There is so much variety and so much history. “Rocks and minerals [are] the oldest storytellers.” Perhaps this explains their appeal. There is something elemental and magnetic about the way everyone in the place is lured into the magic of the metamorphic, sedimentary, or igneous.
And most visitors are shelling out, too. Few people leave without a plastic bag in hand containing a rock specimen, jewellry, crafts, or crystals.
Which is good news for the more than 100 vendors who travelled from across the country and from the US to be at “the best show ever. The one to look forward to.” “I love coming to this show,” one vendor from across the border stated, “because Bancroft is so beautiful.”
It’s all good news for the local community. The main street in Bancroft is crawl-speed busy for the four days of the event. People come because of the geology and they boost the local economy. Everyone prospers: hotels, motels, restaurants, stores, campgrounds, tourist attractions such as the Princess Sodalite Mine Rock Shop, the Farmers’ Market, to name a few. Bancroft literally booms for four days - and the whole region benefits.
It’s akin to a four day gold rush.
So, rock on Bancroft and all the people who have made this amazing event happen every Civic long weekend for the past 54 years.
Story and photographs by Ardith Racey
As one of our six Local Wanderers exploring Hastings County, Ardith enjoys arts and cultural experiences, agri-tourism adventures, small towns, and paddling the local lakes and river systems.
Learn more about Ardith through her bio, as well as the other adventures she has shared with us. You can also read about our other five Local Wanderers and the excursions they've experienced across the County.
Our Local Wanderer Initiative is funded and supported in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Sport and Regional Tourism Organization 11 - Ontario's Highlands.