Most Arkansans are vaguely familiar with the state’s diamond story. They’ve read about John Wesley Huddleston, an illiterate yet charismatic hog farmer, who discovered some yellow flakes on his rural property near Murfreesboro and — thinking they might be gold nuggets — scooped them up. When he washed his find, the yellow matter proved to be worthless mica, but he then noticed a pair of unusual crystals among the loose stones in the bottom of his pan.
Those he took to his local banker, who in turn, shipped them to Charles Stifft, a Little Rock jeweler. Stifft promptly forwarded the two stones to New York City where Tiffany & Co. confirmed them as gem-quality diamonds: one a 3.0-carat white stone and the other a 1.5-carat yellow. Shortly thereafter, representatives from Tiffany and the Smithsonian paid a visit to the Huddleston homestead. Meanwhile, Stifft, A.D. Cohen (Stifft’s son-in-law), and banker Samuel Reyburn (a member of Little Rock’s prestigious XV Club) established the Arkansas Diamond Company. On Sept. 19, 1906 — a mere six weeks after he found those first two gems — Huddleston sold his 160-acre farm to the brand-new Arkansas Diamond Company for $36,000 — reportedly insisting on payment in $10 bills. The diamond rush was on.
And what a rush it was. One historian describes the scene thusly: “The whole countryside from Texarkana to Murfreesboro was overrun with a rowdy, moiling throng of would-be diamond kings.” An instant community, New Kimberly (apparently a misspelling based on the original Kimberley diamond mine in South Africa), appeared out of nowhere. A South African appeared, too — a distinguished gentleman by the name of Ernest Oppenheimer who happened to be affiliated with the international diamond cartel (and later head of De Beers). That may have been his only visit to Murfreesboro, but he had a hand in its fate from that day on.
Officers of the Arkansas Diamond Company had initial success with their rudimentary techniques, producing at least 1,400 stones worth an estimated $12,000. Needing some expertise, they hired John Fuller, an American engineer and — perhaps not coincidentally — a former manager of one of the De Beers’ mines in South Africa. Despite Fuller’s extensive experience, the mine did poorly, and the Arkansas Diamond Company failed in 1912. Locals suspected that Fuller had deliberately crippled his own plant.
Prior to the company’s collapse, though, Reyburn had visited New York with a sack of Arkansas diamonds in his hand to secure additional financing. Close associates of De Beers offered him $500,000 for a 51 percent interest in the mine, hinting they’d shutter the operation once they bought it. Their offer was refused, but Reyburn soon took a lucrative position with J. P. Morgan, a firm closely allied with Oppenheimer’s cartel.
Stockholders of the Arkansas Diamond Company reorganized the corporation in 1919 and brought Stanley Zimmerman on board to reopen the mine. Before settling in Murfreesboro, he took a quick trip to South Africa where he happened to meet with Oppenheimer. After Zimmerman returned to the states and got his Arkansas mine back in operation, the yield was less than 1 percent of its previous production — and Zimmerman claimed it was a “hopeless” situation. But a 1921 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the matter had this to say about Mr. Zimmerman: “His function appears to have been to sabotage the mine.” When local investors attempted to resume production, Oppenheimer — working through Reyburn and Zimmerman — made sure the plant was permanently closed.
Henry Ford, who’d been favorably impressed with the Arkansas diamonds, attempted to purchase the mine in 1927 as a source for industrial-grade stones, offering $1.15 million for the deposit. Again, the owners refused to sell. An attorney with the Justice Department wrote: “I recently heard why the Arkansas mine shut down. Just when it was in full swing and doing nicely, the manager and largest shareholder was invited to take a job with De Beers company at $15,000 salary per annum. From London, he went back to New York as a partner in the firm of Morgan and Co. who are large shareholders in De Beers. It looks like a clear case of bribery and corruption.” That $15,000 salary in 1927 would be worth around $200,000 in today’s economy.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, several Arkansans — including Gov. Homer Adkins and Sen. Hattie Caraway — met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House regarding the mine’s fate. They showed him a sample of Arkansas diamonds, mentioned how important they could be for the war effort and asked for his assistance in getting the mine back in operation. Roosevelt promised to help, but even he couldn’t trump Oppenheimer’s power. The Justice Department later determined the U.S. War Production Board was staffed with men loyal to the diamond cartel. One member of the Board’s Facilities Committee said, “Sir Ernest Oppenheimer will spend a million pounds sterling to keep these properties from going into production.”
With one commercial mining effort after another quashed by the De Beers cartel, the property eventually opened as a tourist attraction in 1949. In 1972, the State of Arkansas purchased the diamond-bearing tract for $750,000 — and it’s been operated as the Crater of Diamonds State Park since that time. Any geologist now roaming the property is strictly an amateur out for a good time. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who died in 1957, would be pleased.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.