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Mineral mystery in Marion

Colorful and beautiful, the mineral fluorite helped win World War II. Photo: Steve Bonney/Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum
Colorful and beautiful, the mineral fluorite helped win World War II. Photo: Steve Bonney/Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum
Dig up a piece of history at the Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum. Photo: Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum

It is a thing of beauty, shiny and multifaceted, and was responsible for exempting many a Kentucky miner from war duty.

It also helped the United States win World War II.

Fluorite. The variously hued crystalline mineral known as fluorspar (CaF2) was found in abundance in the mines of western Kentucky. The Ben E. Clement Mineral Museum houses the world’s largest collection of Kentucky/Illinois fluorspar and related minerals, along with historical pictures, memorabilia, and mining equipment.

“During the war, a war production board appointed by the president was established to make sure enough fluorite was produced to be used in the making of steel and aluminum,” says museum director Tina Walker.

“Fluorite was used at that time as a flux to make those products—and a lot of steel and aluminum was required to make the weapons, ships, and planes needed to win the war.”

But there was a bigger story—and mission—in play.

As production hummed along, orders arrived to ship fluorite to ports in Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota, among others.

“Knowing there were no steel mills in these places, the board contacted the authorities and told them they thought there was a mistake on the order,” says Walker. According to Bill Frazer, chairman of the museum’s board, “The production board thought the government had lost
its mind.”

“It is believed the fluorite eventually went to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they were working on the bomb. Fluorite was used to separate the uranium to produce the first atomic bomb,” Walker says.

Want a piece of history? The museum offers digs so visitors can unearth their own minerals.

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