Discovering Montana agates
Kehoe’s Agate Shop is a rockhound's paradise
By Kay Bjork for Montana Living
Tucked in a little pocket of Bigfork that has remained relatively unchanged for decades, is the charming Kehoe’s Agate Shop.
Established by James Kehoe in 1932 along the riverbank of Flathead
River in the old settlement of Holt, it is operated today by his children Leslie and James.
They too reflect a simpler time with their small town friendliness and willingness to share extensive knowledge of agates, and other rocks, gems and minerals from around the world. Intelligent and thoughtful, they also have a wealth of information about Montana history and its features.
The shop is housed in a storybook white house with blue trim and a cat on the doorstep. Right next-door are relics from The Helena, a Flathead Lake steamboat captained by their grandfather in the early 1900s.
This 70-year old shop began with James Kehoe’s passion for agates. He loved the entire process – agate hunting, cutting the stone and polishing each slice to make the miniature scene jump out of its shiny surface.
Following in his father’s footsteps, James Jr. started cutting agates when he was just six-years old. With a sheepish grin he displays a small scar on his knuckle acquired in his early apprenticeship. James has formal training in Gemology and Jewelry Manufacturing and does silverwork and sets stones.
Leslie came to the business later, after leaving Montana to earn her Masters in International Management.
Stunning displays of polished Montana agates, Yogo sapphires, sparkling lavender crystal, custom jewelry, petrified wood specimens, fossils, and minerals transform the shop into a geological wonderland.
Puffin the cat lounges at the door or on the counter and like he’s part of the display. He acts like he’s been there for the entire 70 years but don’t let him fool you – he’s only been around for the last 15 years.
Kehoe’s Agate Shop
— editor's note: the above article appeared in a 2004 issue of Montana Living magazine
By Kate Bertin for Montana Living
Head down, shoulders hunched forward, a man walks slowly along the gravel bank of the Yellowstone River.
Walking this way in any other setting, he might be taken for a down-and-out vagrant, a man with no hope and no future. But here along the Yellowstone, most would recognize the man for what he is — another rock fanatic in search of his own kind of treasure — Montana moss agates.
Stan Rosengren has been a rock collector all his life, and caught the
agate bug during the time he lived in Montana in the 1980s. Today he
lives in Oregon, but still comes back to hunt for agates now and again.
He stops and stoops, fingers brushing away dirt from a promising rock.
Taking a spray bottle from his pack, he cleans away the grime and holds
the rock to the sun. Through the rock, he sees the promising yellow-clear
silica that is the agate's signature. The stone, bigger than his fist,
makes its way into the pack he carries along the beach.
"That was a good one," Stan said, looking up and down the rock-strewn
beach, a smile breaking across his face. "Usually the ones I find are
quite a bit smaller."
He shoulders his pack and moves on, head bent, his small, shuffling steps
moving him one rock at a time across the beach. Like hunting big game,
hunting agates requires a great deal of patience, persistence, and
knowing where to look.
Rockhounds travel to the Yellowstone valley every summer to hunt for the
beautiful stones, some coming hundreds, even thousands of miles to search
for the perfect agate. But agate enthusiasts don't all come from out of
state — local collectors are thick as rocks on the beach. Many have been
collecting since early childhood and have extensive collections of the
lumpy gray stones, called "rough," that are the agates before they are
cut an polished.
Rose Leary, 90, started gathering agates from the hillside of her
family's ranch in the 1940s. Rose was born in a dugout in the hills 20
miles north of Forsyth, one of 10 children. As she wandered the hills
growing up, she hunted for rabbits among the sandstone outcroppings and
learned to keep her eyes on the ground.
After she married and moved closer to Forsyth, Rose again had reason to
wander the hills. Every day she had to move her milk cow from one pasture
to another — and cows being cows, the animal would never move very
quickly. As she went, Rose quickly learned to spot Montana agates half
buried in the sandy soil.
"Everybody around here looks for agates," Rose said, her bright eyes
sweeping over a tray of polished stones. "Your eye just catches
something, and there you are."
But what draws the rockhound to spend hours and hours in the hot sun with
his head down? Some people ski, others fish — hunting for rocks is just
another way of relaxing.
"In the 1960s, I had troubles," Rose explained. "My husband was awful
sick. But I could take my agate bag, go up in those hills and I could
just relax. It clears your mind, and you forget your troubles for a few
In the old days, agates were abundant in the hills and along the river,
Rose said. These days the pickings are a little slimmer, but the rocks
are still out there, waiting for the practiced eye to pluck them out of a
pile of gravel or a dirt bank, freshly washed out by spring rains.
The rocks are easy to spot once you know how, Rose explained. Agates in
the "rough" are usually shaped like lumpy potatoes. They even have the
odd little dimples and criss-crossed rough texture of a potato. And some
of them, Rose said, even have a little "window" that will allow you to
see what kind of treasure lies inside.
Rockhounds use two basic methods to determine whether a rock is an agate,
and often use them in conjunction. The first is to wash off the grime and
muck and get the stone good and wet. A wet agate will reveal the texture
and color much better than a dry one.
Second method, if the stone isn't too large, is to hold it up against the
sun. Agate is translucent and will allow collectors to see through parts
of the rock.
Collectors who aren’t serious about using the rocks as jewelry sometimes
crack them open against other stones to see what lies inside. Doing that
will show whether or not a rock is an agate, but may ruin what lies
Unique and beautiful jewelry is created using Montana agates. The most
expensive pendants and rings contain tiny scenes of Montana scenery:
lakes, trees, mountains, sometimes even birds.
The flecks and bands, which look very like bits of moss trapped in the stone, are called “inclusions” and “dendrites.” They are impurities in the stone, where
iron deposits blossomed in the silica while the agate was forming.
Most collectors cut a great many stones before finding a perfect
Rose purchased her own rock equipment piecemeal and has made
jewelry with her finds for many years. Stan does the same, using a
high-speed diamond rock saw to cut slim slices from fist-sized stones
(“slabs”), a smaller saw to cut shapes called “cabuchons,” then three
different grinders to polish them. Mounted in settings of silver or gold,
the stones create a piece of jewelry like none other in the world — like
a snowflake, every stone is different.
Agates can be found from Billings through Glendive, Montana, all along
the Yellowstone River. They also dot the hillsides and gulleys along the
Yellowstone valley. Although the gravel beaches of the Yellowstone public
domain, much of the land alongside the riverbank is privately owned.
Like other hunters, agate collectors should ask permission from the landowner
before crossing private land.