Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i

Hilo’s Hidden Gems

Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photo by Andrew Richard Hara.

Take a sharp left at the lava tube just past the seashells and you’ll find yourself surrounded by crystals, stones and minerals from across the globe: golden pyrite from Spain, diamonds from Siberia, urchin-like mesolite from India and stunning quartz from Portugal.

It might seem surprising to find a collection of this quality near downtown Hilo, but in 1983 the Smithsonian Institution’s mineral curator named the Lyman Museum and Mission House as having among the ten best mineral collections for a museum of its size in the United States. Included are some extraordinary pieces, from a nearly two-hundred-pound amethyst geode to neon-colored stones that glow under black light, to a branching, coral-like specimen of gold twenty-five centimeters across.

The rarest piece is a chunk of orlymanite—one of only two known specimens in the world—named after the late Orlando Lyman, the Hawai‘i rock hound who acquired it after it was found in a South African manganese mine. “Orlymanite doesn’t have the vibrant colors of the other minerals, but it’s truly unique,” says Barbara Moir, the Lyman Museum’s executive director and curator. “It might look like just a rock, but it’s not. What it says to me is that we should open our eyes to the world around us because we might be looking at something really rare.”

Lyman was an agronomist, but his interest in rocks started during a family trip to the mountains when he was 12. As it happens, Lyman family members had been interested in collecting minerals for several generations. (His grandfather was a geologist, and a cousin, Chester Smith Lyman, was among the first to discover gold in California.) Orlando Lyman meticulously recorded his finds in large, handwritten ledgers detailing the intricacies of each stone. Eventually his collection would grow to thirty thousand specimens, filling the family home. “It was so large,” Lyman wrote, “that my wife protested,” so the new Lyman Museum building was constructed in 1971.

Moir says the Lyman Museum’s collection is exceptional because of the quality of the specimens. “Orlando spent virtually his entire adult life building this museum, wanting it to be first-class,” she says. “I think he felt if he could open this window of opportunity for local kids, who knows? They might be inspired like he was.”