Part 5: Captain Sprouse

Marion Bullion came to Brackett Town, NC, as a small mining company from upstate New York and bought or leased property in this area to mine for gold. The evidence of that era is still visible in the “tailin’ piles” of stones. Gold dwindled in the late 1890’s. According to Richard Buchanan in his tour for the Historical Society of McDowell County, “There were three reasons that the miners’ operations was a lot less. Number one was the gold strike in California, number two was the Civil War, and number three was the hydraulicin’ that washed so much silt down the stream that legislation was passed” to protect the farmers downstream.

Brice Sprouse tells his story of those times. “My granddaddy was involved with the mining. He called it greenback mining. We got a letter that now hangs on the wall in the old homeplace. It was from New York and addressed to Captain Sprouse and told him to take what gold (he had) and put it into the new pit cause they had a bunch of investors comin’ down. They found a little gold and moved it from one pit to another. People invested their money and if they lost it, they took it off their taxes. Nobody got hurt.” Everybody kept their jobs and the community survived. “That’s why my granddaddy called it greenback mining. It was a money racket that everybody survived from. There wasn’t no manufacturin’ in those days. You either mined, you farmed, or you made liquor. The only three ways to make a living.”

John J Sprouse lived with the other workers in what was called “the company house,” built by slaves. It was a two story house with two rooms that were long, like barracks. Across the dirt road they built an ice house and packed the walls and ceiling with sawdust. In the winter, they cut ice blocks and stored them there in order to have ice for the summer.” Brice tells the story his granddaddy gave him when one of the New York representatives of the mining company in Brackett Town came to make his inspection. “He brought his liquor with him, and one day he was laying in his bunk, drunk as a skunk.” The brave Chinese boy who was dispersing the cold water for the day offered it to the man from headquarters, and he refused it. Just then, there was an earthquake which must have given the boy a jolt of impudence. It was reported he said, “We’re all going to pitch off into the fiery brine. Where you’re goin’, you’re gonna need some ice water.” (The storyteller didn’t include the ramifications of that outburst.)

Sprouse courted the daughter of John Bright who owned a farm and ran a small store on what is now named Vein Mountain Road, about half way between Brackett Town and the tunnel started in 1902. He was known for his wisdom in taking his horses up the mountain before Stoneman’s Union soldiers came foraging years before. LeNora Mae Bright was the great granddaughter of Adkins Brackett and granddaughter of Ann and Benjamin Brackett, who were recorded on the 1800 census as residents in this area. JJ married good fortune in 1888.

Sprouse Home Today;  Chimneys by Friday for Uptons of 1800's

Sprouse Home Today;
Chimneys by Friday for Uptons of 1800’s

LeNora’s mother, Julia Amelia Brackett Bright, left for Seattle in 1898 after the death of her husband. She took her younger children, sons Charley and Edgar, and daughters Lauren Angelina “Annie,” Martha “Dulcie”, and Hannah. They joined her son Luther who had earlier travelled west looking for business opportunities when the gold mining in the Brackett Town valley declined. LeNora’s old family circle moved, but she started a new one in the old Upton House, now the Sprouse Home. It started out with two rooms downstairs and one large room upstairs and went through many renovations. Her Aunt Polly lived with them until her death in 1902. Brice’s daddy, John Henry, was born in 1902. The family tree grew taller.

“Miz Nor” had the backbone to play hostess to company men from New York who brought investors to see the mine. She was not impressed by their money or position. She was willing to exhibit Southern hospitality and prepare their breakfast, but if they dallied, the food was put away. “This is not the Battery Park,” she scolded, referring to an exclusive hotel in Asheville.

Brice Sprouse told me, “All my life I wondered why everybody in this country called my granddaddy, Captain Sprouse. And I asked Dad many times, but he didn’t know. The guy over him was Colonel Demming. (At Vein Mountain Mining they had a General Thomas H. Hubbard) These were titles from an army background, possibly their best references to job description. Brice showed the visiting Historical Society a copy of a stock certificate dated 1891 that was made out to John Josiah Sprouse and was signed by Demming.

And it was Demming’s name that was given to the post office at Brackett Township where Captain Sprouse was appointed postmaster in 1892. He later hired his wife to run the place. The letter slot is still visible in the wall at the end of the company store built for the convenience of the gold miners, although most of the building is now in ruin. Brice said, “Between here and the tunnel there was another store over where the Lucky Strike mine is now. Miles P. Flack owned it. These local stores formed a wagon train and went to Charleston, SC, to bring back their supplies. And my granddad said it took about eight days.”

Brice’s sister, Nora Worthen, showed us visitors the script that reads Brackett Town, NC. It usually lives at the Carson House Museum in Marion. There was one for $5 and one for $100. A duplicate of one of them is in a Raleigh museum.

An old building and pieces of paper are remnants of a busier time when thousands of people came through, sprouting towns now forgotten, proving the extinction of history could be only a generation away. Written memories and stories keep it alive.

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