By Pete Wurdock
Lake Superior earned its name by being a magnificent body of water. With an unprecedented amount of fresh water, and hundreds of mysterious shipwrecks resting its lake bottom, it’s also a rock hunter’s dream.
In Grand Marais, Michigan, the rockhound’s centerpiece used to be the Gitchee Gumee Agate and History Museum. Unfortunately the beloved and historic museum is now permanently closed.
However, curator Karen Brzys—also known as the Agate Lady—is keeping the tradition alive in her new location, just two miles from the original museum. The new store officially opens on June 1. A building on her property was renovated and is now aptly called the Agatelady Rock Shop. Brzys sells rocks from all over the world but her focus has always been on Lake Superior Agates. She also has an impressive offering of her seven books, sells original artwork, and offers private visits to her new location.
Geology is amazing, but what’s even more amazing is that Karen was blind until she was 10 years old. To this day, doctors say it was a miracle that she regained her sight.
She was “adopted” in a sense by Axel Niemi, who opened the Gitchee Gumee Agate and History Museum in the 1950s. Niemi, who’d never had kids, was a popular fixture in town. He was an entertainer who made instruments and played them for townsfolk, and shared his love for agates. In his museum Niemi also kept several historical artifacts which were preserved from the heyday of Grand Marais when the logging boom was thriving and the population was in the thousands.
One day Niemi invited her to meet him in front of the museum long after dark. At 10 years old her vision remained impaired but she made her way from her grandparent’s place to meet Niemi and upon her arrival the conversation went something like this:
“Gosh Mr. Niemi, is that a telescope?”
“Yep, I made it because I want to show you something,” he replied.
Karen looked through the scope and saw the rings of Saturn.
“Karen, given your vision problems, if you can see the rings of Saturn, you can do anything.”
“That was the first day of my life I believed that to be true,” Karen recalls. That moment had a profound effect on her and changed her life.
After spending summers in Grand Marais as a kid, Brzys made the permanent move to Grand Maris in 1994. Her family has a long history in the area; her mother, grandmother, and two kids graduated from Burt Township schools. She is also a former co-owner of the Dunes Saloon, now known as the Lake Superior Brewing Company.
Brzys never made a living per-se with the museum. Everything she made went back into it so she could continue doing what she loved. Next month she will put the old building up for sale with the intention of putting the proceeds into her retirement.
“I really enjoyed the years at the museum because it was all people who were eager to learn,” she said. Her die hard customers, aka, the rock hounds, understand and that’s what has made this endeavor worthwhile for her. Karen’s new business model centralizes her demographic so she’s dedicated to the people who want to learn and the long days are over.
The price of Lake Superior Agates has gone through the roof with internet auctions. In many cases the quality is mediocre and what sets Brzys apart is that she refuses to sell inferior product to her customers. The agates she sells are from all over the world and her knowledge is invaluable.
Last year she started her “semi-retirement” hours. This change was instituted because so many people were just “killing time” and looking for something to do in Grand Marais. Given all that she has to do, her new appointment policy better protects her time.
She still enjoys sharing her passion with rock hunters, and always stresses to individuals and groups that come to her museum the important reminder that you are only allowed to collect 25 pounds of rocks per person per year on Michigan beaches.
The museum is open from 2-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday in June, July, and August as well as by appointment. In addition to booking private appointments you can reserve seats at lectures held each Friday evening during the summer season at 6 p.m. The weekly lecture is $20 per person and can only accommodate 20 people per lecture. Attendees are invited to bring three specimens each for her to examine and identify. Visit the web site for details.
E21739 Brazel Street
Grand Marais, Michi