By – Kerri Rempp Northwest Nebraska Tourism Director
From a 9-year-old on Cloud Nine after finding two Fairburn Agates to women in their 20s searching for quartz or crystals and fossil hunters from around the globe, a must-see stop in Northwest Nebraska is Prairie Agate Rock Shop.
Owned by Gary and Valerie Homrighausen, the shop, located along Highway 20 in Crawford, is instantly recognizable by the large, mounted metal sculpture of a T-Rex head out front.
The business, inspired by their now-grown son Tyrell’s fascination with fossils, showcases finds from Northwest Nebraska and around the world.
“You meet a lot of interesting people from all over,” Gary said.
That 9-year-old, he’d visited the shop to learn what and where to look for native rocks in the area and returned with two Fairburn Agates.
“He was fired up,” Gary said.
“I love show and tell,” Valerie added.
Prairie Agate Rock Shop opened in its current location in 2012 but started just up the road prior to that after Valerie lost her job at a local nursing home.
“My son Tyrell had been collecting fossils for many years, and we’d been doing the (Crawford) Rock Swap,” Valerie said. By age 4, the young boy could identify several fossils and Christmas requests were always fossil-themed.
When the opportunity presented itself, Valerie decided to embrace the interest and purchased a relative’s rock collection out of storage.
“I spent a year in Brazil but didn’t care what a rock was,” she said of an exchange student experience.
Today, she’s a local expert, pointing visitors and residents alike in the direction of interesting finds or educating them on fossil hunting.
“Did you know, when you strike rose quartz together it will light up inside with pink sparks?” she explained to a California woman who stopped by the shop recently.
From the beginning, her son’s finds have been displayed at Prairie Agate Rock Shop, serving as examples of what can be found in Northwest Nebraska. Amateur fossil hunters and rockhounds are shown the “local table” so they can see what the fossils or rocks looks like in the rough – and what can be made of it.
“Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my public and reading,” Valerie said.
Until the last few years, Prairie Agate Rock Shop was mostly a hobby, Valerie said, and when they moved into their current building in 2012 she remembers one thought: “I can remember walking into it and thinking we’ll never fill it!”
Fast forward to 2021, and they’ve added on and Prairie Agate Rock Shop is a destination stop for many.
“It was wall-to-wall people at times in 2021,” Gary said.
Travelers to Denver, Yellowstone and the Black Hills often stop, and regular clientele are from Scottsbluff, Alliance, Rapid City and Hot Springs.
This summer three visitors from Alaska showed up and international visitors from France, Germany and South Africa also made their way to the shop. Two other guests recently relocated to Omaha from Panama and Ecuador, Gary said.
“We have people who drive up from Denver just to go to the shop,” he added.
“Rock shops are becoming few and far between,” Valerie explained.
Upward Bound students at Chadron State College visit during the program and bring their parents back, and young kids have always loved rocks and fossils.
Traditionally, the demographics have skewed older, but the Homrighausens are noticing a shift downward in age. The fossil hunting demographic that seems to be growing the fastest is 13-18-year-old girls.
“They know what they’re talking about,” Gary said.
And as crystals have come into fashion again, many visitors poke through the shop’s collection, holding this one or that one for a while before deciding if it’s the one they want.
Prairie Agate Rock Shop sees everyone from beginners searching for advice and guidance to experts who want to show off their finds.
The Homrighausens suggest places in Northwest Nebraska for rockhounding and fossil hunting and schools them on the rules – no vertebrate fossils, teeth or artifacts can be collected from Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands.
“I also give them my card so they can call if they get lost, stuck or have car trouble,” Valerie said.
It’s a long way from helping her son set up a table at the Crawford Rock Swap when he was 7. This year was the 35th annual swap, and Valerie now helps coordinate the event with Wade Beins.
Held over Labor Day Weekend each year at the Crawford City Park, the Rock Swap offers opportunities to buy, sell and trade rocks, gems and fossils and is the location of the annual Fairburn Agate Collectors meeting.
Demonstrations and field trips are also on the agenda.
The 2021 Crawford Rock Swap was one of the biggest ever.
“I think it shows how rocks are in,” Valerie said.
And while the Homrighausens share their passion for Northwest Nebraska rockhounding and fossil hunting at Prairie Agate Rock Shop, they carry a much larger variety.
“We’ve got stuff from everywhere,” said Gary.
Buckets of bulk rock are available by the pound from a consignor, and the pair heads to Quartzite, Arizona, each January to meet with dealers from all over the world.
“They set up in the whole town,” explained Valerie, who does books for the twice-weekly auction during the event. “It gives me a lot to look at and lots to buy!”
The product she comes home from Arizona with includes rocks direct from Madagascar or Brazil, for example, or stalagmites and stalactites from China or Morocco.
“I carry more than just rocks,” added Valerie.
There’s metal sculpture art out front, Native American prints and cards inside and horsehair pottery made in Washington.
After more than a decade, Valerie’s favorite fossil hasn’t changed: it’s a titanothere juvenile, a large rhino-like animal, her father and Tyrell, then age 14, found. Her favorite rock is harder to land on; originally it was petrified wood because it was the easiest for her to identify. This month it was a yellow fluorite new to the shop.
“It changes daily. There are so many things,” Valerie said.
“Be careful when you pick up a pretty rock,” Gary said. “It could lead to all of this.”
Prairie Agate Rock Shop is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, seven days a week from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. However, during the off-season, a phone number is posted on the gate, and they are willing to open upon request.