August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

A downpour the day before has flooded all of the three-foot holes that James Archer laboriously dug, but he is undaunted. Dressed in yellow waders and galoshes, he bails out the holes one by one, a bucketful at a time. Archer, who is 65 and a retired sawmill worker, now spends almost all his days digging in these fields. He is extraordinarily patient, which is a good way to be when you arc searching for diamonds in the rough.

Archer does his prospecting on a publicly owned, 35-acre plot of land that is unique in North America. It is the Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfrees-boro. Ark., where, on payment of a $3.50 daily admission fee, anyone can become a do-it-yourself gem hunter on a finders-keepers basis. Each year upwards of 1,200 diamonds—their average size about that of the head of a matchstick, or about one-tenth of a carat—are plucked from the site. And the dream, or at least the possibility, of finding a really big sparkler is enough to draw some 85,000 tourists to the park annually.

Even so, the future of the park is now in some doubt. At issue is whether the site might be opened to large-scale mining, a move that some fear would change the character of the park and displace the casual diggers. Last month a federal judge accepted briefs from both sides in what, if appeals are filed, could turn into a lengthy legal fight.

Diamonds have been turning up here since 1906, when farmer John Huddleston found the first one in what was then his field. Geologists determined that the land formed the top of a volcanic pipe in which pressures deep in the earth forced up a rich diamond-bearing soil. From time to time there were commercial mining operations at the site, but in 1972 the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism bought the land to attract visitors.

The biggest diamond ever found on this site was a whopper dubbed the Uncle Sam. Discovered in 1924, it weighed 40.23 carats uncut. Other kinds of stones—including garnets, peridots and amethysts—also turn up. as well as just plain mica and quartz crystals.

Real diamonds, says Park Superintendent Jim Cannon, are “shiny like a piece of polished metal, smooth and slick with rounded edges.” Some are white; others are brown or yellow. The easiest way to hunt for them is just to walk around and look, and there’s no telling who will find one. In 1963 a 14-month-old toddler at the site reportedly stuffed a handful of dirt in her mouth, and when she spat it out, her mother was amazed to see an 11.92 carat diamond (worth thousands) amid the debris.

Regulars like James Archer, whose home is in nearby Nashville, Ark., and his friend Joe Fedzora, 69, of Murfreesboro, are more methodical. They’ll probe a spot with a long metal rod; if they hit gravel, that means deposits and they’ll dig. They then wash and sift the gravelly soil through a series of progressively finer screens. At each step the prospector carefully inspects the residue, hoping for a find.

Since 1978, Archer has visited Crater of Diamonds almost daily and figures he has harvested 6,000 or so diamonds. His best one weighed 4.25 carats. For all his effort, he has hardly struck it rich. Like his pal Fedzora, Archer gives away some of his smaller stones and sells his better finds at $5 to $10 apiece to diamond-hunting tourists who wind up empty-handed and don’t want to go home without a souvenir. Profits from such sales, says Fedzora, just about cover what he spends on the park’s admission fee and the gas to and from home. “If someone told me I had to do this for a living,” he allows, “I’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’ ” For him, as for most park visitors, it’s more a matter of pleasure than profit. “The fun,” he says, “is in the looking.”

Still, speculation persists that there’s real treasure beneath the surface, that the volcanic pipe may be 100 miles deep and hold billions of dollars worth of diamonds. The state of Arkansas has authorized a mining consortium to test-drill in an effort to determine just what and how much is down there. This in turn raises the prospect that the area may be reopened to commercial mining, a move that some in economically strapped Pike County would welcome as a potential source of jobs and tax revenues. But a coalition of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Crater has filed suit to block the test drillings. “Any kind of mining in a state park is unacceptable,” argues lawyer Jim Stanley, who represents the coalition. “Large-scale mining would ruin the Crater of Diamonds, change its ecology, its geology and tourism. It would no longer be the unique area that it is.”

However the courts ultimately decide. James Archer plans to keep on digging, rain or shine. (The park is open every day except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.) “I don’t gamble and I don’t drink,” says Archer. “This is all I like to do. I guess I’m addicted, but I always have faith in finding more diamonds.”

—Dan Chu, Alexandra Mezey in Murfreesboro

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