There they were, glowing softly under the spotlight, appearing together for the first time. Dedicated fans, serious researchers, the envious, and the merely curious crowded closer to get a better look. The Black Hills' two biggest gold nuggets were side by side in the same display case.
First, the leg. This famous nugget found by Potato Creek Johnny in 1929 was a crooked strip about four inches long, looking a bit like the back leg of a skinny horse, minus the hoof. It was a solid, gleaming chunk of yellow metal looking just the way we non-prospecting types assume gold ought to look.
The egg, named the Ice Box nugget, was discovered in the fall of 2010. Roughly the size and shape of a hen's egg, it looked like a fairly ordinary rock at first glance, until you noticed the thick yellow veins bulging out of it on all sides.
The two nuggets were surprisingly small, considering that they added up to some $15,000 or $16,000 worth of gold at today's prices. A person could have held both of them in one hand. Theoretically speaking, a person might have even been able to sneak them out of the museum in the same jacket pocket—as long as no one noticed it sagging under their combined weight.
Theoretically or otherwise, I doubt that many of the people who came to the Journey Museum to see the nuggets had any serious urges to grab them and make a mad dash for the door. Several of them, though, were clearly prospectors themselves and were trying their hardest to pick up any clues as to exactly where the Ice Box nugget had been discovered. Gold fever in the Black Hills is still alive and well.
I didn't catch it myself, though. Listening to the discoverer of the Ice Box nugget was an effective inoculation. He was dressed in his work clothes—possibly for effect, I suppose, but also because, as he explained, this time of year when the snow is melting and water running, a placer miner needs to spend every available minute working his claim. His forearms were ridged with muscle, his hands were scarred and battered, and his fingertips were so abraded that it was doubtful he had any fingerprints left.
"Yeah, we move rocks the size of that desk all the time," he said. I don't have a clue how much money he may have made over the past couple of years working his claim, but he obviously had earned every penny. Getting rich quick by finding gold looks a lot like plain old-fashioned hard work.