By Steve Carey
Nestled among the stately pines and oak trees on the University of Mobile campus is one of Alabama’s unique educational experiences – the Albert S. Dix Outdoor Rock and Mineral Museum.
About 60 rock and mineral specimens, part of a large collection of rocks and minerals donated to the university in 1982 by the late Mobile physician, rock collector and lapidarist Albert S. Dix, occupy a three acre site near the university’s rustic Dwight Harrigan Forest Learning Center. Originally established in the area between Ram Hall and Ingram Hall near the current location of the metal cross-and-vine sculpture “I Am the Vine,” the museum was relocated rock by rock to its current location and reopened to the public in 1987.
Transporting a lifetime of collecting rocks and minerals from Dr. Dix’s home to the university (then Mobile College) was no easy task, and it took the combined efforts of the college’s staff, science students and members of the campus club football team to get the job done. It took years of planning between Dr. Dix, the Department of Natural Sciences and public school officials to make the museum a reality.
In the early years, science professor Dr. Thomas Bilbo had the responsibility of establishing and maintaining the outdoor museum. Many were the days one could see Dr. Bilbo, equipped with only a shovel and a wheelbarrow, moving specimens into position or improving museum trails. On good days, a few student “volunteers” were recruited to assist in the project. Much thanks must go out to Dr. Bilbo, now retired, and all the others whom, despite variegates in the weather, yellow jackets, briars and weeds, worked hard to make the original Albert S. Dix museum a reality.
After the museum was moved to its current location, oversight of the museum fell to me and the Natural Sciences Department. At this time the museum was expanded both in area and numbers of specimens on display. Jackie Brown, then a teacher at Clarke Middle School (now Clarke-Shaw Middle School), was instrumental in developing interpretive information and establishing the initial layout of the museum.
Today, a winding, self-guided pathway leads museum visitors past common and not-so-common rocks and minerals including a boulder-sized specimen of corundum weighing over 900 pounds. Examples of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks are on display as are important ore-bearing minerals and those used in the jewelry arts. Ore-bearing minerals on exhibit include hematite (iron), sphalerite (zinc), chalcopyrite (copper), bauxite (aluminum), and galena (lead).
One of the more unusual rocks on display is unakite, a semiprecious stone composed of pink, green, and colorless minerals that takes a good polish and is used to create jewelry, polished spheres and carvings.
Museum visitors can see large specimens of petrified wood and numerous examples of rocks and minerals that have played an important role in the development of Alabama’s mining and manufacturing industries, both past and present.
The museum serves as an outdoor classroom for UMobile students taking courses in earth science, many of whom are majoring in teacher education. Students gain hands-on experience creating new interpretive materials including trail guides, interpretive kiosks and self-quiz stations. Biology students
are also involved in identifying and labeling the trees and shrubs within the outdoor rock and mineral museum as part of establishing a campus arboretum.
The museum also serves elementary and secondary private and public school students from Mobile and surrounding counties studying rocks and minerals, geology and environmental stewardship.
Complementing the outdoor mineral display is a collection of fossils, semiprecious minerals, gems and crystals housed within the Harrigan Center building. Special exhibits within the Harrigan Center include dinosaur bones and skin impressions, a collection of Alabama petrified wood and fossils and a display dedicated to the rocks and minerals of the Bible. Visitors to the outdoor museum are welcome to view the exhibits inside the Harrigan Center which are housed in lighted display cabinets just inside the building’s main entrance.
Dr. Dix recognized the need for teachers at all levels to have examples of rocks and minerals in their classrooms for student study. To make Dr. Dix’s dream a reality, the UMobile Natural Sciences Department has prepared and donated collections of rocks and minerals to earth science teachers in Mobile, Baldwin and Washington counties. Additionally, UMobile faculty members have conducted workshops for earth science teachers and made rocks and minerals available for study by students preparing to enter earth science competitions such as the National Science Olympiad’s Rocks and Minerals event.
Plans for future additions to the outdoor museum include construction of a formal entryway and placement of educational kiosks highlighting important mineral uses, the role of minerals in Alabama’s economic development, and how minerals impact our daily lives. A picnic area and pavilion are planned for those wishing to take full advantage of the museum’s attractive outdoor setting.
The Albert S. Dix Outdoor Rock and Mineral Museum is indebted to The Mobile Rock & Gem Society that has contributed much monetary and volunteer support, but more is needed to realize the museum’s full potential. Construction materials including lumber, nails and screws are needed to construct the entryway, kiosks and pavilion. Monetary donations will help purchase new signs and brochures. Landscaping plants such as azaleas and camellias are needed. Persons or organizations interested in donating to the museum should contact the Development Office at 251.442.2497 or give online at https://giving.umobile.edu.
The Albert S. Dix Outdoor Rock and Mineral Museum and the indoor display in the Harrigan Center comprise one of the largest rock and mineral displays in south Alabama. Both collections are designed to accommodate the needs of school groups, nature enthusiasts and individuals having an interest in geology and earth science.
The museum is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday when the university is in session. Admission is free. Car and bus parking is next to the museum.
Steve Carey is an associate professor of biology at the University of Mobile. His varied interests include storm chasing, photography, cave exploring and collecting rocks and minerals.