Gem Mining History

Spruce Pine Gemstone Mining History

gem-mining-historyOne tradition in Mitchell Country is nearly twice the age of Spruce Pine, incorporated 1907, and more than 50 years older than Mitchell County, incorporated 1861. This tradition that has helped shape Western North Carolina’s history and practically define the heritage of Mitchell County is the Spruce Pine Gemstone Mine and it is celebrating its 200 year anniversary in 2010. “We have got one more year to go”, said Ira Thomas, whose family is the oldest continuing mining family in the United States, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Ira’s ancestor, Joe Thomas, came to Mitchell County in 1810 and worked in a sinkhole mine next to Bakersville. Every Generation following Joe Thomas has mined the county, including Ira Thomas’ grandfather Luther Thomas, who was born in Yancey County in 1911 and “was a miner ever since he could pick up a shovel.” Luther Thomas’ voice is one that Mitchell County visitors hear in the North Carolina Minerals Museum telling the story of growing up and mining in the mountains. “Originally when we came to  to this area, the family did commercial mining for minerals like mica, feldspar, and in that process of mining for those, gemstones followed the same veins, and so we collected gem stones as well, “ said Ira Thomas’ nephew Matt Housley. “As time passed in to the 1940s and 50s, when mica came in to such high demand, we transitioned over to just prospect for gem stones.”

The family mined all over the county, and the mining industry caught on like wildfire putting Spruce Pine and Mitchell County  on the map. They have been featured in National geographic ( June 1958) and in reader’s Digest ( Jan 1996). “We didn’t mine just one area,” Housley said. “When feldspar was in high demand, the family was mining feldspar. When the feldspar demand went down and mica went up, we were mining mica. We scoured the mountains everywhere in Yancey, Mitchell, and Avery County.” They found a lot and helped one of the area’s most successful industries prosper. Commercial mining for feldspar to produce ceramics used in making china porcelain wares, mica’s insulated properties to produce toothpaste, makeup, paint, and kitchen countertops, and quartz to make silicon based computer chips all came from mines in Mitchell County. “The cornerstone in Spruce Pine is mining,” Housley said. “Spruce Pine really wouldn’t be on the map if it wasn’t for the mining industry. We have other industries here, but mining is what really put Spruce Pine on the map.” Housley said it is the excitement of finding something precious out of the earth that sustained the tradition all these years. “When the generation before you introduces you to that and you see that excitement and start to dig for yourself and pull out something that is beautiful or valuable, it is exciting, “ he said. “There is nothing that can compare as far as a thrill or a high, it is almost like jumping out of an airplane. When you are digging and see a glimpse of something of color, and you know, depending on where you are digging, that may be an emerald or an aquamarine or something that is worth thousands or just a beautiful specimen, it becomes addicting.” “It is not about the potential money involved. It is about the adrenaline high of finding and digging and knowing what you are doing and raking out crystals.

luther-thomasOne of the family’s best friends came when Luther Thomas mined the world’s finest crystal of the mineral kyanite off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell. The dark sapphire blue blade of kyanite, twice the width and length of a person’s arm, is on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. “It is in our blood,” Housley Said. “Not only the digging part, but also when you take a gem that looks like an old rough rock and has no luster and you go in to the shop and fashion it and make it sparkly and pretty and set it in a piece of jewelry. There is a lot of satisfaction in that, seeing what the earth has for us to work with.” Mining is literally in the family’s blood. The family was used as proof in a metaphysical study on healing qualities of gems and minerals and its effects on the longevity of life. Out of nine generations of the family, four men have lived to be over 100 years old in these mines.

The addiction has even infected those not in the immediate family. Ira’s wife, Eloise, joined the family 49 years ago, and has loved every minute of it. “Its been really wonderful,” Eloise said. “I don’t have many roots, and to be a part of something that has gone this many years, is very special to me.” In Ira and Eloise’s home, Eloise matt-and-irahas her own workshop where she makes bead jewelry and necklaces. “I really learned a lot about the gemstones and jewelry,” she said. “I now have a love for it that I never did before.” As far as whether that contagious addiction will last, Ira says without a doubt. “It will definitely last because Matt and his wife, Lisa, and his daughters are very interested,” Thomas said. “They are living and breathing this stuff already.” Housley said he is committed to seeing the tradition continue until there is no longer an earth to provide jewels.  “it is a passion, but it is also a commitment,” he said. “If I decided to walk away, a 200 year heritage would be lost. That is very important. That is why I get up every day and come to work. I am carrying on what my ancestors started 200 years ago.”