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By Bob Kostoff

Tourists have always been known as particularly gullible, especially when seeking keepsakes of interesting vacation spots, Niagara Falls being a noted example. Perhaps this is because they typically have been saving money for the trip and readily adopt a free-spending attitude.

And despite some good deals and honest merchants, there are always a few ready and eager to fleece the unsuspecting tourist, who has been sold everything from bottles of tap water as water that has gone over the falls to scraps of worn wood said to have come from barrels of various daredevil stunters.

But one of the most ingenious of such items (somewhat akin to the pet rock craze) was the early 1900s fad of spar jewelry.

This jewelry was made of white pebbles or stones said to be "petrified mist" from the spray of the falls.

City historian Marjorie F. Williams wrote about once receiving a letter from a man in Texas seeking information "on the spar mining industry in Niagara Falls."

She added, "He had purchased some jewelry when here and was anxious to know how the stone was obtained and processed." She wrote to tell him there was no spar mining here.

Spar is gypsum found in the Niagara River bed. It was gathered in pebbles and chunks, and sold to unsuspecting tourists as petrified mist from the falls.

The history of such stones goes way back. They were first called Erie stones, but were not favored for jewelry. Native Americans considered such stones as medicine to cure all kinds of ills. The gypsum could be easily pulverized and taken internally, as well as spread on the body.

A letter written in 1660 by one Dr. Gendron, a French medical man, mentioned the medicine. Gendron was thought to be the first doctor who visited the country of the Hurons. Although he probably never visited the falls, he heard of spar.

He wrote, "Almost south of the Neuter nation is a large lake, almost 200 leagues in circumference, called Erie, which is formed from the fresh water sea (Lake Huron) and falls from a terrible height into a third lake which we call St. Louis (Ontario)."

He added, "From the foam of the waters, roaring at the foot of certain large rocks, which are found at this place, is formed a stone, or rather pulverized salt, of a somewhat yellowish color, of great virtue for healing wounds, fistulas and malignant ulcers.

"In this place, full of horrors, live also certain savages who live only on elk, deer, buffaloes and all other kinds of game that the rapids drag and bring down to the entrance to these rocks where the savages catch them without running for them more than sufficient for their needs and the maintenance of strangers, that is, Indians from other and distant tribes with whom they trade in these Erie stones, thus called because of the lake, who carry and distribute them to other nations."

The stones were also mentioned in a 1787 letter from a soldier stationed at Fort Niagara, Capt. Enye, who said, "On our return from the base of the falls, we employed ourselves in picking up a kind of stone, which is said to be the spray of the falls, petrified ... that grows or forms itself in cavities in the cliff, about half way to the top, from whence it falls from time to time. Its composition is a good deal like a piece of white marble which has been burned in the fire so that it may be pulverized with ease."

And DeWitt Clinton wrote in his diary during his 1810 visit to Niagara, "A beautiful white substance is found at the bottom of the falls, supposed by some to be gypsum, and by the vulgar to be a concretion of foam generated by the forces of the cataract."

The use of spar for medicinal purposes eventually died out, and it began to be used to make jewelry. As visitors to the falls increased, spar was fashioned into a variety of souvenirs.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 21 2009