Gem of a Find: Amazing Rock Collection Found in Basement Donated to SUNY Potsdam's Geology Department


Junior geology major Brittany Snyder clutches two specimens from the Patterson family donation, while sporting her SUNY Potsdam geology sweatshirt.

From time to time, local residents will donate rock collections to SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Geology.

“Everything finds a good home here,” Associate Professor Dr. Christopher Kelson said.

But a recent donation was unlike any other the College has ever received.

A pile of 14 aging wooden crates discovered in a Norwood carriage house was donated to the geology department at the beginning of the semester. Inside, wrapped carefully in farm journals, postcards and newspapers dating from 1904 to 1958, is a remarkable assortment of rocks and minerals—which will dramatically expand the College’s existing collection.

“We didn’t expect anything like the variety we found,” said Dr. Robert Badger, chair of the geology department. “There are very good minerals coming from nationwide. This is from someone who really knew what they were doing.”

Potsdam residents Beth and Jerry Patterson contacted the department about donating the collection, which was found in the barn at the house of Mr. Patterson’s stepmother, Laura Bishop Patterson of Norwood, who passed away in 2011. Uncertain of the original owner, the family decided to share the collection with those who will appreciate it the most.

“This is a very healthy and welcome addition,” Kelson said. “There are some fairly exotic species in the donated collection. I would argue some specimens are museum-quality. We can’t tell if the owner had geology training or was just an avid rock hound, but the labels and the extent of the collection indicate that the owner had a passion for rocks and minerals. They collected some spectacular specimens.”

Sorting through the specimens is no easy task, but two geology students are happy to have the learning opportunity.

Mitchell Haller, a junior geology major from Brewerton, N.Y., has spent his spring semester internship sorting through the boxes, unwrapping specimens, identifying and cataloguing the samples.

“There are very few duplicates. There’s a lot of different stuff, some with museum-quality labels,” Haller said.

Brittany Snyder, a junior geology major from Horseheads, N.Y., was awarded a Kilmer Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship to support her research on the collection. She has spent the semester analyzing and identifying samples that are not labeled, while learning to use two high-tech pieces of equipment—a scanning electron microscope and an X-ray diffractometer, which are both based at neighboring Clarkson University.

“It’s not as easy to identify these as you’d think. There is a lot of interpreting. I had four minerals that looked very different but they look to be coming out to be the same thing,” Snyder said.

Most Potsdam students do not get the chance to work with such advanced equipment, but thanks to the Patterson family’s gift and the Kilmer funding, Snyder can expand her skills and make a difference within her department.

Kilmer Research Apprenticeships encourage and support student/faculty collaborative, independent research projects. The Kilmer Fund was established through a generous donation by an anonymous donor to honor Dr. Frederick Barnett Kilmer, a physician and analytical chemist who was the director of scientific affairs for Johnson & Johnson from 1889 to 1934.

The learning opportunity is one that Mrs. Patterson would have appreciated. Following her retirement as a longtime science teacher for Norwood-Norfolk Central School, she went on to serve as the supervisor for student teachers at SUNY Potsdam and was honored as Sponsor Teacher of the Year.

Geology students at SUNY Potsdam have numerous opportunities to study outside the classroom, with an array of research opportunities, field trips and internships, and a network of accomplished alumni to learn from.

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Founded in 1816, and located on the outskirts of the beautiful Adirondack Park, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 50 colleges. SUNY Potsdam currently enrolls approximately 4,350 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its handcrafted education, challenging liberal arts and sciences core, excellence in teacher training and leadership in the performing and visual arts.