Part 6: Century Ends in Memorable Destruction

In 1886, a tremor from a killer earthquake in Charleston, SC, travelled up to Brackett Town, NC, and cracked one of the chimneys on the Sprouse Home. Years later, Nora Sprouse Worthen remembered the constant maintenance that resulted. “Dad was always patching it with cement. Until electricity came to the valley in 1951.” Then the fireplaces were closed.

Fire didn’t cause any damage in the valley, but one day it took control of  the county seat.

“Former Resident Recalls Burning of Marion in 1894.” This is the title of an article appearing in the McDowell newspaper in April 27, 1950. John Ratcliffe told a tale of the terror and grief that the town had experienced on a cold, clear Sunday in November.  Church services were interrupted by the sounding of alarm bells. A strong north wind had fanned a fire that started in a tenement building, commonly called the Ark. (The location of present day McDowell County Courthouse.) The fire swept through the downtown area, destroying the jail (the calaboose), and homes and businesses in its path. Picket fences served as kindling. The General Store of William McDowell Burgin was next to a vacant lot which provided a buffer. “The townspeople fought to save this structure by taking blankets and quilts and fastening them to the comb of the roof of the Burgin Store and, forming a bucket brigade, poured water on this.” “The store was saved and the fire stopped. The wind was so strong that embers were blown west as far as Mt. Ida” and the mountain caught fire. A day to remember.

An alternate reporting style told about the fire in an article in The State on November 9, 1946. “Never has there been such intense excitement in Marion as there was a few minutes after the fire broke out. There were 23 prisoners in jail. All are secured under guard, but one escaped. Secrest, the wife murderer, who feigned insanity, was the first to call for help when danger appeared. Not only that, but in the moments of great excitement, he was so entirely rational that it now is apparent he was merely trying to fool the court.” The prisoners, who were so grateful they avoided a fiery death, were critical of the guy who escaped.(This would make a good story for those who are searching for a plot.)

The woes of rebuilding Marion did not affect the JJ Sprouse family who would raise four children in their south McDowell County home. Margaret (Maggie), George, Virginia, and John Henry. But they were not immune from heartache. Twins who died as infants were buried in the Brackett Town cemetery.

The Brindletown mine that Sam Martin discovered and John McDowell Carson purchased was passed down to generations of Carson descendants. For over ninety years, except during the Civil War, the property was operated continuously. The daughter of Civil War veteran Joseph McDowell Mills, May Mills, became more knowledgeable about gold digging than anyone else in the southeast. “She admits she was practically born with a gold pan in her hand.” Her mountain neighbors called her “The Little Sheriff” with affection and respect for her iron will in getting her way. I especially like her reported comment about a leasing company with which she tried to do business. “They made the mistake so many people make–they spent thousands of dollars on a useless survey when the same amount of money could have been spent for machinery enough to put the mine in operation.”

Mills directed the construction of a ten-mile-long water flume that harnessed gravity at the top of Pilot Mountain. To accomplish this, two tunnels had to be bored through the mountain. With this hydraulic system, the stone and gravel were pumped up the hillsides and allowed to flow downhill under tremendous water pressure through sluice boxes. In each of the removable sections of the sluice boxes was a series of crosspieces about three inches tall that kept the water churned. The gold, heavier than the rest, settled to the bottom and the flakes were drawn together with quicksilver. Property controlled by the Mills family and that of relatives, Miss Maude Cox, owner of Green River Mansion, and the Wehunts was used to secure a $40,000 dredge, the first in Eastern America, according to the article in The News and Observer paper in Raleigh, November 26, 1927, (if I read the faded date right).

Mining Leftovers in Tailing Piles

Mining Leftovers in Tailing Piles

Brice’s story: Marion Bullion came as a small mining company from upstate New York, and I guess what they couldn’t buy in this area to mine gold, they leased. They owned a lot of property. It was cheap back then. They were breakin’ up housekeepin’ and leavin’ here when the mines closed due to legislation enacted because the creeks of South Muddy in Dysartsville were stopped up. The company called a meeting of the stockholders, my grandfather was one of them. They couldn’t pay him because legislation came so fast. And back in those days, you were kinda on your own. Now there are lobbyists. They were doin’ hydraulic minin’, something new that had never been dealt with before, so they just closed everything down.

Marion Bullion wanted to give granddaddy this valley for what they owed him. Taxes were about 25 cents an acre then, and he said he didn’t have enough money to pay taxes “on this poor land” which was then rock piles and nuthin’ else. So he picked out what he wanted and got that, but the rest of it was sold to farmers that could afford to buy it.

In a tour of his farm, Brice pointed out piles of rocks that still remain near the old flume. “The top of the mountain is roughly four miles from here. Can you imagine bringing a water sluice that far? They didn’t have no surveyor back in those days. The water told them when they were on the level. They dug this by manpower.” In order to farm, deep pits had to be filled. By manpower, or kidpower.

Nora Sprouse Worthern noted that it was the kids’ job in her generation to fill the holes that were sometimes as large as a house. A task made more difficult because the red clay was like cement when it was dry. The compensation was that after a rain, it made good mud pies. A more positive comment I have never heard.

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