- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) | The squirming children assembled at the Fairy Stone State Park did their best to listen as Lee Rakes explained how they were going to search for little stone crosses and shapes that, by legend, are the crystallized tears of fairies.

“Any questions?” asked Mr. Rakes, a naturalist at the park.

Silence.

“No,” he continued. “You just want to find some fairy stones.”

The more than 4,500-acre park, near Martinsville, includes attractions found at many recreation areas across the state - a lake for swimming, cabins for camping, trails for hiking and paddle boats for floating. But this one - just three miles from the entrance and behind the Haynes 57 Service Station - also has the fairy-stone hunt site.

The park was one of Virginia’s original six state parks, opened in 1935 on land donated by Junius B. Fishburn, who was publisher of the Roanoke Times and president of the Southwest Virginia Trust Co.

It is named for the fairy-stone legend, a tale spun to explain that the park, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is home to so many staurolite crystals.

Staurolite create long, prismatic crystals that form in the shapes of X’s or crosses. According to one legend, fairies long ago roamed free in this enchanted place until one day, an elfin messenger arrived to share news of Jesus Christ’s death. The fairies reacted with tears that fell to the ground in the form of fairy stones that are still found to this day.

Here at the hunt site, one of the only rules is that stone seekers are not allowed to dig. You don’t need to, Mr. Rakes says of the site where a packed-dirt trail snakes into the woods, where the treetop canopy blocks the summer heat and puddles of pebbles line both sides of the leaf-littered footpath. Everything around them is fair game. There’s no shortage of stones. A new supply washes down, swept there by a good rain.

The group pads into the trees, heads and gazes directed downward. They scatter and crouch on the ground raking the pebbly surface with fingers or sticks.

It’s not long before little hands holding rocks are raised in the air and children are calling, “I found one!”

Mr. Rakes quickly becomes the judge and jury, surrounded by children who look up at him with big eyes, staring as he makes quick judgments through sunglasses on whether stones they hand him are fairy stones or fool’s gold.

“Good. Good eye,” he says. Or, to ease the news, “You’re on the right track.”

Mr. Rakes leads fairy-stone hunts twice a week, on Wednesday mornings and Sunday afternoons. Otherwise, the park is full of life, dotted with people fishing and families picnicking. There are activities such as “canoeing with ghosts” inside the park, and outside, there are nearby golf courses and wineries.

On this hot July day, the center of life is the lake - complete with its own beach. Called the “beaver pond,” it’s a place where lifeguards sit under umbrellas, twirling whistles around their fingers as children climb over floating plastic gators, snakes, beavers and bobbing synthetic logs. Farther out is a wooden, dock-style island with a diving board and a line of children who wait to scoot down a water slide.

Susan Elgin, of Martinsville, has visited this park all her life. She came here as a child, when the middle-of-the-lake water slide seemed so far away. She brought her own children here. Today, she stands in warm, calf-deep water watching her grandson, Nicholas Fisher, in a tiny life jacket climb steps to a water slide. Here, she and family members come to camp and launch fishing boats and spend nights around the campfire.

“A lot has stayed the same, but there’s a few changes,” she said. “But it’s always a fun place.”

Down the road, the stone hunters are still hard at work, even as Mr. Rakes announces the scavenging is coming to an end. Children filter out of the woods, treasure bags in hand. It’s back to the park to swim away the lazy afternoon.

“Ryan and I are good at this,” one boy says as he leaves. “I found four.”

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