You rock. Stone-faced killer. That movie starring The Rock. So many rocks, so little time. Ah but, these are not the “rocks” we’re looking for. We’re looking for the buried treasure, the ancient dirt crushed into hidden gems formed eons ago in the earth and crusted over in dullness. The Big Bend is a special place for rocks, and the landscape and raw geology attracts earth scientists and rock lovers from all over.

Suzanne Franklin is one of them, although she may not have known her destiny lay in rocks. She was born in Sylvania, Ohio, and moved to California as a young girl, probably giving no thought whatsoever to rocks and stones. Somewhere in her mid life, she became tired of California and headed east to Oklahoma, where her sister lived. Through a journey that led Suzanne to Del Rio, Texas, she met Leon Hughes, a retired, rock-loving gentleman.

A Texas boy, Leon was born in Brady, but was no stranger to West Texas. (At one time he was the foreman of White House Ranch before it was parceled out into the Terlingua Ranch of today.) Leon’s passion was fire agate, and he once owned the Deer Creek Fire Agate Mine in Arizona. After Suzanne and Leon married, Leon began to teach Suzanne everything he knew about rocks; how to identify and what to choose, how to cut, how to polish.

At the time, Suzanne still telecommuted to California, so she began to buy equipment: grinders, polishers, everything you’d need to take a hunk of something from the ground and grind off the centuries to make it into a sparkling piece of jewelry or interesting work of art. When Susanne bought Leon a grinder, she said, “He was like a little kid in a candy store.” Leon loved the rock grinder and would be out there at all times, even in rare snow, grinding away. “It was like opening Christmas presents every time he cut.”

“We came to Balmorhea for the rocks,” Suzanne said. “Leon knew he was going to pass and he always said he was creating my retirement.” They found a spot ‘downtown’ and opened the Balmorhea Rock Shop. The area was remote but not too remote; Leon didn’t want to leave Suzanne alone in the middle of nowhere when he was gone.

Leon did pass away in 2011. A few years later, Suzanne met Jim, an avid motorcycle collector. Funny thing is, Leon knew Jim Franklin via other paths. Jim lived in Verhalen, Texas (north of Balmorhea) and his wife, Sandy ran a second-hand store there. Although Leon and Jim knew each other, and Suzanne had met Sandy briefly at the store, Suzanne and Jim had never formally met. Sadly, Sandy was killed in 2012, leaving Jim a widower. In 2013, Jim came into the rock shop to learn about rocks, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jim and Suzanne got married in the Calera Chapel in Balmorhea six years ago.

Jim Franklin was born in Fort Worth but lived close to Study Butte, Terlingua, and Marathon most of the rest of his life. Although he was an only child, his two uncles, who came to live with them early on, were closer in age to Jim than his mother, so they just called themselves brothers. Jim ended up buying land in Verhalen. At one point in time, Jim and a friend used to joke that they owned almost everything in Verhalen.

After Suzanne and Jim got married, they lived on Jim’s land. They loved sitting outside and looking at the stars and enjoying the nature provided by West Texas, they said. But one day the oil wells came.

Fracking wells began to pop up around their house. A well went up right across the street from their home. “The flare burned and roared all night,” she said. “It never got dark.”

Through some financial wrangling and trading, Suzanne and Jim were able to buy property in Fort Davis in spring of 2019 as a satellite location for the Balmorhea store. They opened on July 4 of last year, even though it was still a work in progress. “Although there was hardly anything in the store, people still came in and bought,” Jim said. Their Grand Opening and ribbon cutting was on November 9. Suzanne and Jim love Fort Davis. “There’s no friendlier town, no safer town, no prettier town,” Jim said.

One thing that helped shape Suzanne into who she is now was the Vietnam War. The youngest of five children, her oldest brother went off to college and was spared the war experience, but her two middle brothers both went even though they didn’t want to, she said. Suzanne was young, but remembers how awfully people treated them when they returned to the States.

Now Suzanne offsets the unkindness in the world with compassion and generosity. One of her kindnesses when she lived in Balmorhea was taking in an elderly person. Paul was an 85-year-old man whose wife had thrown him out. Suzanne and Leon took Paul in as a guest, letting him park his trailer behind their shop. Paul wanted to earn his keep and made pieces out of turquoise for the shop. He had started working with turquoise when he was 15 and kept at it his whole life, going so far as to make his own stabilizing formula. Paul lived about a year with them before passing on to the next realm.

Suzanne’s favorite thing about living in West Texas is the nature, the animals, the beauty and the peacefulness.  Her least favorite thing about West Texas – the oil wells.

Jim’s favorite thing is the star shine. “At night you walk out and look up at the stars and it seems like you can just reach up and take one.”  His least favorite thing is to leave.  When I have to go to Odessa or somewhere farther than Alpine, he complains.  “Any town bigger than Fort Davis is too damn big.”


 – by Rani Birchfield