By Celeste Huttes
If you’re not a bona fide rock hound when you arrive at the Funk Gem & Mineral Museum, you may be by the time you leave.
Located near Shirley in McLean County, the museum stands as a testament to one man’s 30-year passion for rock collecting.
“Lafayette Funk II fell in love with rocks and minerals at the age of 53 while on a field trip with his son,” says Bill Case, museum guide and historian.
It was fortuitous, then, that Funk’s job as a construction engineer for Funk Seed took him around the globe, allowing him to collect some of the planet’s most exotic specimens.
Entering the rock-covered building, visitors are greeted by a striking display of colorful sliced minerals mounted on glass and backlit by light bulbs. And thus begins a journey through a seemingly endless array of rocks, fossils, gems and minerals.
Some of the museum’s more rare specimens include the skull of a saber-toothed tiger from the La Brea Tar Pits, Tektite from the moon and a delicate petrified dragonfly that has mystified even the experts.
“We have things that even the Smithsonian Museum doesn’t have,” says Case – and that includes a refreshing “hands-on” policy. From the petrified flesh of a fish to the tooth of a baby woolly mammoth, many items in this museum are tantalizingly touchable.
“We’re very hands-on,” says Case. “Kids learn better that way.”
Kids will also enjoy the surreal world that awaits in the museum’s dark room. There, ultraviolet light makes ordinarily drab-looking rocks glow in a rainbow of fluorescent colors. Another room invites guests to step back into Illinois’ history with a fascinating collection of American Indian artifacts, ranging from arrowheads to fish hooks and ear ornaments.
As your guide through this maze of minerals, Case is an engaging encyclopedia of a man, eager to educate visitors.
“I try to help people see the impact of minerals on our lives,” he says.
He does so by peppering his tour with fun facts about minerals. For example, did you know that rubies are used in lasers, and copper gives redheads their distinctly colored hair? You might also be surprised to learn that petrification is a relatively quick process – taking years rather than millennia – and that minerals help slow the body’s aging process.
“Minerals are the building blocks of life,” says Case. “Pretty much everything in the universe is about minerals.”
To contact Funk Gem and Mineral Museum, please call 309-827-6792.