Centennial Spotlight: ‘There's gold in them there hills:’ Mica mining in Avery County
Michael Hardy / (email@example.com)
A variety of minerals have been mined from the ground in Avery County. People have dug for gold on Grandfather and in Roseboro; silver on Beech Creek; lead from the Linville Falls area; clay from Linville; and iron from the famous Cranberry Mines. While the Cranberry Mines are probably better known, one mineral, mica, has had a far-reaching impact on world history.
Mica is a sheet mineral used in glass and electronic equipment. It can come in "books," sometimes weighing scores of pounds, or in flakes embedded in other rocks. For several millennia, mica has been mined in different parts of the world. Native Americans had mined mica for a considerable period of time prior to contact with Europeans. Cut pieces of mica have been found in burial sites in the South, from the St. Johns River basin in central Florida, through Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The Hopewell of the Ohio Valley also traded with the indigenous peoples of Western North Carolina, as mica has been found in excavation there, and Hopewell artifacts have been found in excavations in the southern Appalachians. It is believed and often repeated that the Spanish worked the Sink Hole Mine in Mitchell County in the 1600s, carrying on the work of the Cherokee before them.
Little opportunity to mine mica (also called isinglass) profitably existed after the Civil War, even though the Wiseman and Childs families were mining in the southern parts of present-day Avery County. Mica was sometimes used as windowpanes in local houses and in the doors of coal stoves. One newspaper reporter wrote that large sheets of mica could be “seen in the cornfields to frighten the crows away.” With the arrival of rail transportation, it became possible to get mica out of the mountains.
In 1881, Thomas Edison invented an electrical motor that used the both a mica-laminated armature and a mica-insulated commutator. With that, a market developed for mica to be used in electronics. Mining by local people took off. Mica from Toe River Valley was displayed at Vienna in 1892 at the world’s fair. Mica was mined on a part-time basis. Once the crops were in, a farmer could head to his secret spot and start mining. Often, mica was the only cash-producing substance to which most farmers had access.
On Henson’s Creek, Joe Davis was a mica miner. He mined a cliff that today bears his name: the Joe Davis Mine. Davis would take the mica down the mountain and trade it for green coffee, with which he would pay his workers.
In the early days of mica mining, many miners went into business alone, mining mica on their own property, or on a relative’s or trusted friend’s land. Local historian Myron Houston once told of an African-American miner by the name of “Fuddlin’ Joe.” Joe mined alone and had quite a singular way of operating.
“He would start in here after a streak of mica, follow the streak whichever way it went, take out the good mica, leave the bad stuff, pack his dirt behind him and never roll a dump nowhere. All you could find was a small hole just big enough to crawl into. He would stay in that hole until he starved out.” Myron said his dad said he would come to their house and his Mother would give “Fuddlin’ Joe about a two-pound chunk of raw fat meat and a pone of cornbread. He would sit right there and eat every bit of it, then go back to that hole for a week. [Joe] just disappeared one day and my Dad stuck to it as long as he lived that Fuddlin’ Joe packed the dirt behind him and could never get out; he just laid there and died. He said sooner or later somebody will dig up his bones in some of these ridges where he went through.”
By 1891, H. Raymond Jones and Thomas B. Vance had erected the first mica-grinding mill in North Carolina on Henson’s Creek near Spear.
“When we first started mining mica in the Toe River Valley ... there was no use for mica except for a chimney or a gas light, like a streetlight ... and it took a large piece of chloromica,” recorded Ivor Vance in an interview. “There was no market for small mica.” Cutting mica in sheets, with the size determined by the client, produced much waste, and a use for the scrap mica was sought. The mica was often cut in informal “mica houses.” Large books of mica were taken to these mica houses where employees, often women, would split the mica into sheets and cut it to size. Before markets for the small pieces of mica were found, the waste mica was ground into a powder as fine as flour. This ground mica was used in wallpaper, fireproof roofing, and from its extract, as a lubricating oil. Not long after going into business, Jones sold out to his partner and David T. Vance, Thomas’s younger brother. They continued to develop their business, the Vance Brothers. They had a flume that diverted water from the Toe River into an overshot waterwheel and turbine, which powered their machinery. In 1909, David founded Tar Heel Mica Company in Plumtree. David T. Vance became known as the “Mica King. ” He constructed a log dam on the Toe River in 1910. The dam powered both his machinery and provided electricity for Town of Plumtree. Both of the Vance brothers, Thomas and David, were entrepreneurs. Thomas had his interest in the mica business, was postmaster and ran one of the two stores in Plumtree. Davis served as sheriff of Avery County, was a member of the highway commission and on Southern Tariff Commission. He has been called “one of the most astute and aggressive business men of Avery County.”
A booklet issued by United States Bureau of Mines in 1912, a year after Avery County was formed, listed two official mica mines in Avery County: the Plumtree mica mine, alluded to above, and the Avery Meadow mica mine. For the next couple of decades, mentions of the mica mining industry could be found in newspapers scattered across the state. In 1923, Winston-Salem Journal proudly proclaimed that Tar Heel Mica Company in Plumtree was "the second largest mica manufacturer in the world."
The depression of the 1930s hurt the mica industry, and many of the mines were worked periodically as demand justified. It was cheaper to import mica from India than to mine it locally. Once World War II started, the supply of mica from other counties was cut off, and the United States was forced to rely upon domestic production.
On April 17, 1942, the federal government created Colonial Mica Corporation. The government was the sole buyer of domestic strategic mica and was able to set the price. Seventy-five percent of the mica mined in the United States during the war years came from Western North Carolina. Not only was mica found in the electrical components of every plane, truck and tank, but also in the eyeholes of gas masks, road goggles and armored car peep holes. Another use was on runways. One historian recorded that building asphalt plants to construct runways “would have been a difficult, slow, time-consuming job. One central plant would be built, and asphalt would be rolled into thin strips and up into huge rolls. To prevent these rolls from becoming one huge glob, ground mica would be placed between the layers. When these rolls arrived at specific locations, they would be ... rolled out ...”
Old mica mines were reopened, and the search was on for new mica veins. The Big Birch Mine on Henson’s Creek produced a 600-pound block of mica in June 1943. In September of that year, the newspapers reported that mica mining was considered a “critical occupation.” Harris Clay Company in Ingalls was forced to enlarge its operations, and by the end of 1943, the company was producing 600 tons of fine mica a month. The plant was running 24 hours a day, six days a week, and employing 180 people. Signal Corps of the United States Army even manufactured a 30-minute film about how mica was being used to defeat the German and Japanese forces. Some of the film had been shot locally and was available for viewing in Spruce Pine in January 1944.
There were scores of mica mines spread out across Avery County. The Vances and Clarks worked mines on Hawshaw Mountain. The Mill Race Mine on the old sheriff Aden Wiseman property was “producing a good quality mica” in 1943. With the war coming to a close, the demand for mica began to wane. Colonial Mica removed its subsidy, the prices dropped and all of the mines eventually shut down.
Mica is no longer mined in the United States. Once again, it is cheaper to import that mica from other counties than it is to mine it locally. One day, that supply might once again be cut off, and the mica-mining boom will once again strike Western North Carolina.