Part 22: Gold Mining Continues

“Our Dad was a very gentle man,” said Nora. “Henry Sprouse had a dry sense of humor. He enjoyed people, enjoyed conversation, and he was a good man. He was an honorable man. If he told you he would do something, you could count on him doing it.”

I observed that his son Brice had those same qualities. And he had a special talent for putting other people at ease.

Earl Brice Sprouse Contemporary Farmer

Earl Brice Sprouse Contemporary Farmer

When Brice had a pacemaker put in, his pastor went to visit him in an Asheville hospital. When he walked in the room Brice was lying in bed, “hair all over and his beard getting long.” Of course the first thing you ask someone in the hospital is “How are you doing?” And the preacher did. Brice replied that he had a heart attack. But he was kidding. He referred to his first look at himself in the mirror.

One of the stories Brice told me was about the mining of South Muddy Creek on his property. He maintained that he and his daddy worked daylight to dark filling up the pits left by the miners. And he didn’t want “nothin’ to do with no mining.” But one day a guy just walked up and said he’d like to do a little mining in the creek. And Brice said, “Go to it. So he’s come back every day since.” That was six or seven years ago.

They had a casual relationship where a private joke was expanded and nurtured for years. “I was out feeding the cows, and Tom come out of the creek and said ‘I really appreciate you letting me mine.’ I said ‘No problem. I’m going to set this 5 gallon bucket at the corner of the bridge. Every afternoon you come out you put my toll in the bucket’.” Years later the toll bucket disappeared, because Tom replaced it with “a little ole can. He wants me to put some change in it to help buy fuel for his machine.” Brice chuckled. “He’s here four hours, every day he comes, and it’s quite all right with me. He’s from east of here, Burlington, down below Charlotte, and he just come up with an outfit down there that does mining and found my creek and never left. He’s got a motor home he lives in around here. He’s a fine fellow, and I like him. On mornings when there’s frost everywhar, he says, ‘Long as you stay in that water you’re warm’.”

“Tom comes back nearly every day. All year round. If it’s extremely cold, freezing, he don’t come. When a storm comes, he ties his rig. He started down here by the bridge. And he worked this far up. (about a quarter mile) He just keeps moving on. He sucks all that up with his hose, and it doesn’t do any damage to the creek. The government says it does but I never seen any.”

Brice said, “Back in the 50’s, they wanted to put a water shed project back here. Twenty-two streams feed into Muddy Creek that originates at the head of Brackett Town.” (That is where the pavement runs out and branches out into three gravel drives.) As a result when we get a big rain, “the whole creek bottom is covered. People down the hill below us don’t see it because it spreads out up here.” Brice said that his neighbor wouldn’t sign because somebody told him the project would flood out his farm. “Like all government projects, one person fails to sign, that ends the project.”

Tom's Dredge in Autumn South Muddy Creek
Tom’s Dredge in Autumn
South Muddy Creek

Two summers ago, I was with the group from McDowell Historical Society who tramped through a cow pasture to stand by the side of Brice’s creek. Vein Mountain neighbor Richard Buchanan described the process. “Tom will suck up the (creek bottom) like a vacuum cleaner and run (the sand and soil) thru that machine. He’s got a box back there with real quartz in it and it’ll catch the gold as it goes through it and every so often he’ll pull a carpeted drawer from that box to pan it out.”

Tom showed a pinch of gold. “How much? A gram anyway.”

Richard plucked something from the pan. “Now this is lead right here, isn’t it? Birdshot where they’s shootin these turkeys. I don’t see any mercury in it. If it gets on the gold, it’ll cover the gold up. But you always want to look for black sand. Eventually you’ll get rid of that but not the gold. If there’s any mica or pyrite, it would already be flushed out.”

One of the neighbors irreverently commented, “It looks like what I see in the back of my toilet tank.” I knew what she meant. Every time somebody shakes the hill drilling a new well, the closest homes have to be vigilant. We frequently have to run our water filter overtime because the little grains of sand can complicate the plumbing. Can’t have that.

Brice commented, “When my granddaddy worked for Marion Bullion, I doubt that anybody had any claim on mineral rights in the creeks. I expect like most things, that all come about as the gold mining increased. Like now, they don’t want you minin’ in the creeks, don’t want cattle in the creeks. Each year they add more and more restrictions.”

Richard added to the story, “On the positive side, those old timers used mercury, and we’re taking a lot of it out doing what we’re doing today. We’re actually improvin’ the water quality, and it stirs up things for fish. They’ll come to ya ‘cause you’re generating food. They’ll get right in the hole with you.”

But we didn’t see any fish. Even I can spot them.

From the creek, Tom said, “See what happens when you tap it? That’s called ‘walkin’ the gold.’ You can tap it and it’ll come right out. It’s the heaviest thing in here.” Standing in his rubber waders, he flirted with the woman on the creek bank looking intently at the dredge. “Enough for a ring, lady.”

She played along. “Half for me?”

“You could get it all, if you be right. Get down here in this creek.” He thought he had her, but she smiled and stepped back. No doubt she figured that she would be doing all the work. For not much profit.

And the glamour continued to fade when Tom told our group he paid $1500 for the dredge he used. There are online stores and local brick and mortar places that specialize in mining equipment. Magazines such as ICMJ Prospecting and Mining Journal, or Gold Prospectors of America, reveal the popular interest in following the gold thread from NC to CA through Arizona or Oregon. I saw the modern equipment demonstrations when I went to the NC Gold Festival last June at the Mountain Gateway Museum in Old Fort, NC. (You can catch an overview of gold mining and the festival at McDowell Country Oral History webpage.)

Considering the current market value of gold, maybe it is worth the time. A miner we watched at the Lucky Strike mine confided he spent his vacation living in a camper and leasing a space on the creek. It was relaxing and sometimes he even got lucky. He showed us a small nugget of gold, one ounce, that he had accumulated. In other words, his vacations had produced entertainment for very little expense, and he got a cash rebate. He pointed out that it was quite the opposite from taking a vacation in Las Vegas. A co-owner of the mine, Liz McCormick, suggests anyone can find gold in the creeks of western North Carolina. “Gold did not run out, miners did.” http://www.mcdowellhistory.com/gold-mining.

At http://www.ncgold.org, John Dysart, a NC gold historian, talks about techniques for placer mining (finding gold in streams.) Next year the gold festival is scheduled for June 6-7, 2014, in Old Fort. They will have the latest in drywashers, trommels and metal detectors. I definitely want to check out the Camsports Coach POV glasses- a camera! I might even consider getting a designer NC mining license plate.

Start penciling in future plans on those 2014 calendars you get in the mail.

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