I jotted down the names of gems and minerals that can be found at Mason Mountain Mine near Franklin, North Carolina, as Tom Johnson steered his pickup truck up a steep incline toward their source. “Rhodolite garnet, pyrope garnet, smoky quartz, moonstone, kyanite, cordierite, surface copper ore, ruby, sapphire and small traces of emerald,” he ticked off as he pulled his truck to a stop in front of a backhoe and massive boulders.
“My parents bought the property in 1965 when I was six months old,” he said. “I grew up with the mine and so have my boys — Brandon, Benji and Brad. My wife Ginger and I now own the business.
“We offer our customers two different mining experiences,” Tom explained. “For option one, I load up the dump truck with soil from the mine with the backhoe and take it down to an area near the flume. We also offer enriched buckets with our gems mixed with gems from other mines.”
After heading back down the mountain, I decided to try my hand at mining with an enriched bucket. Sitting at a long wooden flume with running water, I added dirt into a screen bottomed wooden box. I was instructed to lower the box into the water to wash away the dirt. Picking up the tray, I began to sift through the washed stones.
With each scoop of dirt and swish in the water, the excitement continued to build as more gems were revealed. I found green and purple fluoride, purple amethyst, milky moonstone, small emeralds and rubies, dark red garnets, green aventurine, royal blue sodalite, rose quartz and sapphires.
After mining, I took my treasures into the gift shop to be examined. There is no pressure to have a stone cut. If miners decide to have one cut or made into jewelry later, they can mail it back to the mine.
Prior to visiting Mason Mountain Mine, I stopped by Jackson Hole Gem Mine. Here I first learned about enriched buckets. Staff member Jamie Crotts explained that gems are found at different mines around the world, combined and added to their buckets. This type of mine is usually associated with tourist areas where mining is offered.
For George McCannon, owner of Old Pressley Sapphire Mine near Asheville, there’s only one way to mine — from the source. He doesn’t enrich any of his buckets and says he is proud of the beautiful sapphires his customers find on his property.
One of the oldest operating mines in western North Carolina; it was made famous by the discovery of the 1,445 carat ‘Star of the Carolinas.’ George also recently found one sapphire that netted him a 243 carat necklace of beautiful cobalt blue gems.
“Sapphires come in different colors,” he explained as he showed me sparkling specimens. “Blue, blue/grey, pink and other colors.
“It’s a lot of work operating the mine,” George said with a smile. “But I really enjoy it. You never know what you might find.”
Where to stay
Snow Hill Inn, 531 Snow Hill Road, Franklin; The inn was built in 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (828) 349-9009
Princess Ann Hotel, 301 East Chestnut Street, Asheville. Built in 1924, the hotel was recently restored to offer guests the feel of an earlier time. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (828) 258-0986
Where to eat
Fat Buddies, 311 Westgate Plaza, Franklin. (828) 349-4743
Fatz, 107 Sawmill Village Lane, Franklin. American favorites. (828) 524-5265
Corner Kitchen, 3 Boston Way, Asheville. Features delicious gourmet meals.
Village Wayside Bar & Grill, 30 Lodge Street, Asheville. Known for meals with both Midwestern and Southern influences. (828) 277-4121
Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum, 25 Phillips Street, Franklin. The museum features more than 5,700 gem and mineral specimens from around the world.
Franklin Chamber of Commerce, 425 Porter Street, Franklin. 866-372-5546(828) 524-2516
Asheville Convention and Visitors, 37 Montford Avenue, Asheville. (828) 258-6101
North Carolina gem mine list; (800) VISIT-NC.
Tags: garnet, gem mining, North Carolina, sapphires