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Meteorites turn sleepy village into a boomtown

By Chris Welch, CNN
  • Livingston, Wisconsin, is the town nearest to the April 14 meteor strike
  • The sleepy village has seen an influx of meteor hunters
  • First-grader found 35-gram meteorite during recess, sold it for an undisclosed amount
  • The meteor fragments can sell for between $10 and $20 a gram

Livingston, Wisconsin (CNN) -- It's the end of the day in rural southwest Wisconsin, and the Trocke family wanders through a ditch along a county road, their eyes fixed on the earth.

Dan and Laurie Trocke, and their three kids, are on a mission for fragments of rock that came from about as far away as one can imagine.

"We're not finding a lot, but that's beside the point really," Laurie Trocke says. "We're not professionals. It's purely for fun."

It all began the evening of April 14, when what looked like a giant fireball came crashing through the atmosphere.

Video: Meteorite fever hits small town
Video: Mysterious fireball lights up sky
Where meteorites are being found

"It just lit up the whole sky," she says. "You thought it was thunder and lightning, but it just kept going and going and going."

"It really didn't sound natural," Dan Trocke adds.

What they were witnessing was a meteor -- and a pretty spectacular one at that.

Watch the video

Michael Farmer, whom the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, calls the "world's top meteorite hunter," said that as soon as he saw video of the display, he hopped a flight to Wisconsin.

"Most of them don't make a light show or a sound show," Farmer said. "When this one came in, the energy released was like nuclear bomb-type energy. ... [I knew] there would be thousands of pieces on the ground."

By definition, those pieces are what scientists call meteorites: the remnants of the meteor that don't burn up along the journey and instead make it all the way to the ground.

Farmer headed to the sleepy Wisconsin village of Livingston, which was about to become ground zero for the latest meteorite hunt.

Livingston, with a population of 597, was the town nearest to where the otherworldly bits were turning up.

Soon, everyone wanted a piece of the action -- from internationally known experts to the locals, like 7-year-old Jackson McCluskey.

Jackson, along with dozens of other students at Iowa Grant Elementary School in Livingston, learned about the meteors from geologists and meteorite-hunting experts at a school assembly. Later that day, the kids combed the school grounds for meteorites during recess.

McCluskey found a rock that one of the experts confirmed was a meteorite, weighing 35 grams. He sold it to a collector, but they wouldn't say for how much.

It's been great for the town, great for the whole area.
--Tim Loeffelholz, store owner

On average, prices for pieces of this particular space rock have been set at about $10 to $20 per gram, according to Farmer. He added that a meteorite's worth can vary, depending on the amount of buzz surrounding an event and how much media attention has been devoted to it.

It's easy to compare it all to a mini gold rush. Most folks aren't hunting with the mere hopes of winning bragging rights. Brian Nodolf, who lives on a farm near Livingston, said his wife found a meteorite weighing about 100 grams.

"I'm told it's worth maybe a thousand dollars," Nodolf said.

So far, about two dozen pieces had been found, one expert hunter said. But there's no way of knowing for sure, since many don't announce it when they do find one.

But what do the residents think about the influx of people to their small town? They've welcomed them with open arms -- primarily because it's a boost to the economy.

Who needs a government stimulus when you've got money falling from the sky?

"We've gotten business we never would have had," said Tom Brown, village president. "I mean, who was going to come to Livingston? It's off the map."

Tim Loeffelholz, owner of The Friendly Place, a local gas station and convenience store, says business is up by about 30 percent since folks started finding meteorites.

"It's what we needed, a little boost," Loeffelholz said. "It's been great for the town, great for the whole area."

His store has become a pseudo-trading post, where people looking for or wanting to sell meteorites have put their contact information on signs along the counter.

If and when the Trocke family gets their hands on a meteorite, they say it won't be from a want ad. They'll do it all on their own.

As 11- year-old Connor put it, "It's a sense of pride to find one."