Fascination with underground leads to mining career

Benzie has large rock collection

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Matt Benzie, of Fort Dodge, looks over a Bristol mine gypsum crystal in his office at USG recently. The crystal is one of about 400 rock samples Benzie has in his collection.

Matt Benzie was more interested in studying underneath the earth’s surface than studying aircraft designed to transport people above it.

“I thought mining would be a more enjoyable occupation,” Benzie said.

As a result, he chose to major in mining engineering at Pennsylvania State University. He originally enrolled at the college to study aerospace engineering.

He graduated from Penn State in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree.

Benzie, a native of Burnside, Pennsylvania, was hired by United States Gypsum Co. to work at a plant in Oakfield, New York, in the 1980s.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Matt Benzie, of Fort Dodge, sorts through his extensive rock collection at USG in Fort Dodge recently. Benzie is the mill and quarry manager at the Fort Dodge plant.

“That was an underground gypsum mine,” he said.

According to Benzie, the average height of the mine was 42 inches high.

“The mine, at its widest part, was two miles wide, its narrowest was 600 feet wide, and from end to end was 12 miles long,” he said. “And the plant was right in the middle of the seam.”

USG is a gypsum product supplier. The company has 36 sites in the United States, seven in Canada, four in Mexico, two in South America, one in the Middle East, and one in Australia.

The uncertainty of mining is intriguing to Benzie.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Razor sharp crystals from India are shown here. The crystals are part of Matt Benzie's rock collection.

“You’re dealing with the unknown every day,” he said. “If you are going to mine on the other side of that wall and see what you are going to extract, you just really don’t know.”

“Every day is unique,” he added. “And that’s the greatest thing about mining is it’s never the same. Anything from future plans, where we are going to mine, and how we are going to mine. In my operation, there’s something new every day. You take another 10 ton, 20 ton of material out and you have new material exposed. Then you go further, to different spots. Different locations.”

While in New York, Benzie said mine rescue competitions were memorable.

The competitions would simulate different mine disasters.

“We would simulate a fire or someone lying on a stretcher,” he said. “These were some of the most unique things. It was the camaraderie, the skills.”

Benzie compared being in the mine to being in a closet with all the lights turned off.

“It’s dark as dark,” he said. “You can’t see your hand in front of your face, and our operation, we are 42 inches high, so you can’t stand up.”

In the late 1990s, USG underwent some changes at that plant.

In 2001, Benzie moved to Fort Dodge to become quarry manager at the USG plant.

He said Fort Dodge is similar in landscape to Oakfield.

“In Pennsylvania there was a lot of hills and trees, so when I moved to western New York it was very flat with a lot of agriculture,” he said. “We lived in an area that heavily depended on agriculture.”

One difference is the amount of snow Iowa receives, he said.

“We moved out here to Fort Dodge and the summers are much hotter, winters are much colder, but everyone talked about how much snow there was,” he said. “We really haven’t seen as much snow as we had when we lived around the Buffalo, New York, area.”

At the Fort Dodge plant, gypsum is ground up into a fine powder, according to Benzie.

“We mill it, we change the crystal structure through calcination and by changing that crystal structure, that gives us the requirements for the different products we make at the plant.”

Levelrock, oil well cements, and dry joints are produced there.

Aside from his work at the plant, Benzie has another hobby involving minerals.

Through the years, he has acquired an extensive rock collection.

He said some of the rocks were given to him, while others he finds on his travels.

“When I go on vacation, I’ll pick up a rock or two,” he said.

He estimates that he has about 400 different samples.

His collection started in the 1970s.

“I was probably in high school,” he said. “I picked up a few, here and there. A piece of gold from Alaska was probably one of my first pieces.”

“It was probably less than $32 an ounce at that time,” he said.

He said geology classes in college furthered his interest.

Today, Benzie has collected gypsum crystals from Australia, gypsum core from Fort Dodge, desert rose from Algeria, salt crystals from Poland, and coral from Hawaii, to name a few.

Benzie said each rock is special.

“I think each one has its own unique features,” he said. “They all have a story.”

Benzie said salt crystals he acquired from Poland are fascinating.

“The salt mine in Poland is really unique because everything underground was carved out of salt. Chandeliers, statues — a whole cathedral underground.”

Another piece Benzie appreciates is from the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Crazy Horse Memorial is located on private property in the Black Hills in South Dakota.

The monument remains under construction.

“The one from Crazy Horse is special,” he said. “That’s something that’s going on. I may never see that completed in my lifetime, and the rocks will be there long afterwards.”