As featured in the September/October issue of the Gold Prospectors Magazine
In the last issue of Gold Prospectors Magazine, we took this space to revel in the stories of the good ‘ol days. A box of old photos that had been hidden in the office sparked a round of stories from the founding GPAA members we spoke with. We recalled the times spent at the first digs for the LDMA and revisited what it was like launching the first print publications put out by the association. The old days of the GPAA witnessed the first gold mining TV series of any kind and from it was born The Outdoor Channel, the same that exists today.
The people we met with for the last article would continue to bring up the man, the founder, the visionary, who was George T. Massie. The man was so committed to the mining community that he brought his family into the business. In turn, his commitment was returned, the community became his family. That same family spirit lives on in each local chapter today, even if George is no longer with us. On December 23, 1993, tragedy hit, and George suffered a massive heart attack and died at age 54. Many of those who knew him, seem to divide their experiences with GPAA to the times before he died, and after. This September raise a toast to the old buzzard, because September 1st we recognize what would have been his 79th birthday.
“My name is George Massie and I’m a gold miner at least that's what I call myself. I ain’t anything else.”
- George T. Massie
To understand George’s charm, we reach back to know who he was as a child, running around barefoot in the hills around Caneyville, Kentucky. Caneyville is nestled into the shuffling mountains of bluegrass fame in western Kentucky. At the time of his childhood, Caneyville would have been a town of no more than 400 people, the kind of rural homesteads that growing up in is like living as a character in a Mark Twain novel. George would calmly recall the first time he wore shoes was when he showed up with nothing but the calluses on his feet from running barefoot in the meadow when he first went to Frankfurt. A lot of George’s charm came from his humble roots. His roots kept him humble, even when he made his first TV appearance on the Merv Griffin Show in 1980.
Merv welcomed a young George on the show with a smile asking, “How much gold has been through your pan?”
George calmly smiled and said, “More than I weigh, and I’m overweight.”
George had been prospecting for some years and had already started the GPAA at this point. He had just struck the motherlode and had brought up 800 ounces of gold from the Stanislaus claim, a claim LDMA members should be familiar with. It’s evident by the way George handled himself in the nationally televised appearance that he had a heart of gold and pure enthusiasm for seeking the stuff, but prospecting was never something he was meant to do.
George came from a military background. His closest connection to the prospectors of old was an uncle who followed the gold up to the Klondike gold rush of Alaska. His uncle who struck it rich with stories of his adventures faded in the presence of other things, George joined the military and moved to Riverside, California. There he worked in the Air Force at the base outside of town and met the love of his life, Wilma.
George and Wilma started their family like many of the rest of us. The two of them moved into a home in L.A. and worked. They worked until one day they took a vacation north, landing in Idaho. In Idaho, George first called himself a prospector. It was like a new man was hidden underneath and with careful washing, all the extra grime from the daily toil in the city was washed away. George found himself in the headwaters of the St. Joe river, quit his job in L.A., and the family moved north.
What the Massie family found waiting for them in a pan full of fresh mountain runoff was, at first, a hobby. Tom Massie, George’s son, would come to recall the man who taught them what they know about prospecting. “We went up elk hunting in Montana and met an old prospector. He had gold in fruit jars and his name was Doc Kessler.”
It seemed like such a simple thing, a few people appreciating the outdoors and connecting over a common bond. Doc and George would bond over their appreciation for the things that came from the earth and shared in the wonder of one of the more beautiful things she has to offer us.
“It ain't so easy to find but it sure is sweet when you find it, and I'll tell you what, it's pretty and it’s yella and it’s worth a lot of money when you do get it and you can find gold just about anywhere in the United States.” - George T. Massie
The principles of the GPAA were born in the sandbars of the St. Joe as George panned alongside his mentor with his family. These were the good years, the best years in the life of a man who lived a lifetime of good years. George was impressively optimistic and always looking on the bright side.
When he struck it rich and made his TV appearance, Wilma Massie recalls him being reluctant at first. He didn’t want to make the show about him. For someone so natural in front of the camera he could have fooled us watching him. Those who knew him best would call our skepticism in question. Jake Hartwick, good friend and protege to George, would have this to say about the man’s stage presence, “Some people might see the way George was on TV and they might think that it was an act, but when you saw him out in real life he wasn't one bit different. He had that rare charisma that would naturally attract. He was a natural born leader.”
Tom Massie would echo this sentiment, “He always wore his feelings on his shirt sleeve. Every time that he was on camera it was always just him, never any acting. He would get passionate about prospectors, and he would see an injustice and he would try and right it.”
George’s motherlode boosted him into television sets all over the country. In the early ‘80s, he was approached with commercial pitches and used his screen time to bring awareness to prospecting, the GPAA, and the fight to maintain prospectors’ rights over the outdoors that he loved so much. If George was uncomfortable in front of the camera, he hid it well, cloaked in a true passion for the ideals he believed in. When George had the floor, he reliably talked about good morals, family value, and giving back to nature.
“He got a lot of joy out of the kids at the shows that would ask for his autograph,” recalls son, Perry Massie. “He loved the feeling of encouraging people to get out and start prospecting.”
Now the story has moved on, but George remains a presence in the prospecting conversation today. Everyone that met George would always remember him. The newer members might see the old films and wish they had been there in the time of old jokes and old conversations. That’s just human nature, - the grass is always greener when recalled through the rose-colored lenses of the past.
He taught determination, to respect other people, and to stick with the things you believe. These ideas were bigger than mining for gold, these ideas as simple as some of the better traits of human nature. Jake Hartwick said this of George, “If he saw something and it made sense to him he would go do it, he wouldn't say that looks hard or what if we aren’t successful.”
George lived to teach people, to give them a chance to let their skills flourish. He was a person with an amazingly genuine approach to life and you will find that same quality in a number of wonderful faces today. We lost a hero when George died, but the qualities remain in each and every one of us and whether you’re panning for gold, working in the city, or just spending time with your family, the spirit of the old buzzard lives on in each of us, waiting for us to live our own dream and let our true selves shine.
Rest in Peace (and Prospecting) George, we'll see you out there in the great beyond when it's our time. Until then, may all your pans be full of color and splendor just like the Buzzard would've wanted them to be.