Emerald Village is a privately run collection of mining attractions in the Spruce Pine Mining District of eastern North Carolina. This mountainous section of the Appellation Mountains is unique for its variety and wealth of gems and minerals, including the precious stone that the village is named after: emeralds. Yet, for the emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, and garnets that can all be mined in this 35 mile long district, it is the industry demand for mica, feldspar, and quarts that truly drives local mining operations.
Mining History of the Emerald Village
People have been mining the Spruce Pine Mining district for over 2,000 years. Early Native Americans collected mica for decorations and currency. Yet, more recently, it is feldspar that is of particular note in the Emerald Village. The early 1900s saw the rise of feldspar for use in pottery. By 1917, North Carolina was the largest producer of feldspar in the states. In the Emerald Village, feldspar was the critical component in the cleaning agent Bon Ami Cleaning Powder. The Bon Ami Mine is part of the Emerald Village complex, where feldspar was mined with single minded determination through the Great Depression. While shiny gems in a good economy would draw greater value by the carat, in the Great Depression, Bon Ami was one of the top businesses in America, providing a product that even cash strapped Americans valued: cleanser. Even today, feldspar is mined for pottery and even Bon Ami continues to be produced in the area.
The Emerald Village Complex
The Emerald Village includes a series of visitable sites, all within easy walking distance of each other. There are three structures: Discovery Mill Building, North Carolina Mining Museum, and The Company Store. Nestled around them is The Big McKinney Mine, The Bon Ami Mine, Big Deal Mine and 9 others. All mines are partially, if not completely, flooded.
North Carolina Mining Museum
The North Carolina Mining Museum features a collection of mining equipment, local gems and other rocks, and features a collection of artifacts from the Bon Ami Powder Cleanser brand. With the price of museum admission, visitors can access the back of the museum where both the Bon Ami Mine and a “hidden mine” are visible. The Bon Ami Mine has been partially pumped out so that visitors can walk into the entrance. Inside, there are more displays of mining equipment, a darkened room to observe phosphorescent rock, as well as a collection of images from the mine’s history and other regional mines. The “hidden mine” is also part of the Bon Ami mining operation but is almost completely flooded, so that only the top of the entrance is visible.
An entire floor of the museum is devoted to Bon Ami—the business, mine, and products. The walls are plastered with print advertisements featuring beaming wives with clean clothes, shining windows, and unscratched dishes with their Bon Ami product of choice. In one corner, there is even a collection of antique washing machines.
The Bon Ami cleaning formula was developed in 1886. At the time, such scouring powders were quartz based. Funnily enough, to mine this quartz, quite often it had to be separated from feldspar, which was discarded. The J.T. Robertson Soap Company discovered that this previously discarded feldspar was actually a usable and less abrasive cleaning agent. The slogan “Hasn’t Scratched Yet!” speaks to a long history of use and a time where cleaning was a much more complicated activity. Even today, Bon Ami has seen a resurgence in use, as one of it’s more recent advertisements—from 1980—has asserted: “Never underestimate the cleaning power of a 94-year-old chick with a French name.”
Bon Ami Mine
The Bon Ami Mine nearly exclusively collected feldspar. The vein of pegmatite where the feldspar was mined was discovered by Theo Letterman when digging a root cellar. Along with Geter Mace, Letterman mined the vein for feldspar by hand. When Theo tripped and broke the handles off the wheel barrel used to transporting rock and feldspar, the already cash-strapped enterprise was over but the mine itself was not.
Bon Ami held mines throughout the Spruce Pine Mining District under it’s mining division: Whitehall Company. The Bon Ami Mine, as its name attests, is among these. When most industries floundered, Bon Ami remained among the “golden 16” companies on the stock exchange that did not reduce their dividends even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unlike many goods, families still consumed the cleaning agent at near pre-depression rates. Even so, the company has experienced many dips and peaks in the past, yet the company and it’s chore ingredient continue to be produced, even today. While the mine itself is closed, the company continues to source its feldspar locally.
The Company Store
The Company Store is a small building with a series of rooms visitors can peak into, encapsulating a mining town in a single building. Peer into the mine bosses office, the post office, and the company store.
The Discovery Mill Building
The Discovery Mill Building boasts a series of themed rooms atop a large gift store. Explore a room of model trains, the haunting tale of the miner’s daughter, or an eclectic collection of farming tools and musical instruments. From here, visitors can buy tickets for The Gemstone Mine.
The Gemstone Mine
At the Gemstone Mine, visitors can do their own gem mining, cutting, gold panning, and jewelry mounting. Pay dirt for gold panning is sourced from a local gold vein. While it is seeded, the sands come from a natural gold deposit.
The Big Deal Mine
Behind the Gemstone Mine is the Big Deal Mine. Owned by Pete Deal, the Big Deal Mine shared access to a 200 yard long mineral vein that was also being worked by the Bon Ami Mine and the Big McKinney Mine. Deal leased the mine in 1926 and mined it until the land was purchased by the Whitehall Company—the mining division of Bon Ami—in 1930. Even after the purchase, Deal continued to mine on the land as Bon Ami focused on other locations. The mine was then acquired by Carolina Minerals, which developed the mine through the 1930s, 40s, and into the early 50s. While the Bon Ami Mine focused on feldspar to the exclusion of most anything else, the Big Deal Mine mined all minerals found in pegmatite. The mine finally closed with what is locally know as the “Big Boom.” An explosion, meant to release feldspar bering pegmatite, also shook loose the upper layer of slate and buried mining tools and trucks overnight. Mining soon ceased at the Big Deal Mine in 1965. In 1979, the property was purchased for the North Carolina Mining Museum.
While there are no tours of the mine, as it is flooded, visitors can walk to the entrance and see the resulting lake.
The Big McKinney Mine
Once the largest feldspar mine in the world, producing over a million tons of feldspar, the Big McKinney Mine belonged to S.D. McKinney. McKinney’s sons mined mica for sale in 1918. After one son died, McKinney leased the property to Carolina Minerals Company in 1922. It taps into a 200 yard long vein of feldspar, mica, and kaolin among pegmatite and was the first big mine in the area. By 1964, the Big McKinney Mine had reached the property line shared with Bon Ami. The Big MicKinney Mine closed with the exhaustion of the pegmatite vein. Meanwhile, Bon Ami, which had been mining a parallel vein for their main mine, started an additional tunnel to collect the continuation of the McKinney vein that extended under their property.
Arguably the most scenic of the visitable mines, The Big McKinney Mine is similarly inaccessible due to flooding, but the lake around the entrance and dramatic cliffs make for a picturesque view.
Visiting the Village
The Emerald Village is an excellent followup after an introduction to North Carolina’s geology at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals. Bring a picnic lunch to round out the day in the wooded area by the Discovery Mill Building and the Amphitheater Mine.
To Learn more about mining in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, we recommend reading Down the Crabtree by Robert J. “Bob” Schabilion.