We are talking about Thermal City, really more of a community than a city, and Thermal City Gold Mine is a place for visitors to try their hand panning for gold. Or get more involved/or relaxed for the entire day or week. Some stay a year. Those who are interested in the way things were (like moi) will enjoy a conversation with the owner, Lloyd Nanney.
Lloyd learned something about gold mining from a couple who moved here in the 1970’s from California. “She had inherited a little piece of land way up Rock House Creek, two miles from a power pole, and they bought a little cabin that used to be part of Ridgecrest Assembly, and brought it down there and set up housekeeping.” They even gave Lloyd a pan that he kept for 21 years–until someone walked off with it.
When he was between jobs building hospitals in 1992, Lloyd answered a newspaper ad about starting a prospecting club. He had noticed that interest in mining was increasing on outdoor TV shows, and he had the family property calling his name. (See last post)
“When the blizzard of ’93 tore down a whole lot of trees, I cut ’em up and hauled them up here and had Whitey Morgan saw them, and I built that first room over there and started a business.” The original building is now an office and two bathrooms for his campground.
“We started the store, and I had a few little gold pans and such as that. We were just selling a few knick-knacks, and then a couple came up from Georgetown, SC, to camp here for awhile. One day they came to me and said , “We talked it over, and this is where we want to be.” And they stayed for ten years. While the wife handled communication and sales, the husband helped Lloyd “Doin’ whatever. Diggin’. We used to handle a lot more dirt than we do now. We’d dig up and stockpile thousands and thousands of tons of material a year.” He points to a large pile, “Right there is 250 tons, and I’ve got two more of those.”
Inside the main building today are things you might see in a museum. Gemstones and small collectibles. And Lloyd loves to talk history. “The last mining that was done anywhere in this area was mica mining in WWII. They tried to get the mica in as big a piece as they could because they could get more money per pound so they were real careful about getting it out. I had a great uncle who was mining mica during the war. That was The Thing. He told me they got a piece right above the creek below our property line, and they had to trim it just a little bit to get it to lay down in the bed of a two-horse wagon!” That is a huge piece of anything.
According to Marci Spencer in her book Pisgah National Forest, mica was one of the region’s most valuable resources. “Strong but lightweight and flexible and heat-resistant, with insulating and reflective qualities, mica served many purposes. Sheet mica has been used in electronics, optics, and store windows. Ground mica is a filler for drywall compounds and plastics, and an anti-sticking agent in rubbers, roofing, and automobile braking systems.
One day a friend of Lloyd’s called to announce that he had purchased all the equipment out of the old Tar Heel Mica Company in Avery County, in the mountains north of McDowell. It had been closed for years, but a new owner wanted to try his hand at making a winery, (A very popular endeavor in this area now that seems to be replacing Christmas tree farms) Bob wanted to know if Lloyd was interested. And he was. He took his big truck and trailer and headed up the mountain to “a dungeon, a horrible place to work.” There wasn’t a flush toilet in the county when it was in business, but also that was back when people didn’t go to a middle man. Direct sales. Lloyd was captivated by the history. “Thomas Edison came to that building. Henry Ford came to that building.” In the loft of one of the company’s structures, Lloyd saw the generator that made the very first electricity ever produced in Avery County. Also, he found a shaft that was driving the punch press that punched out pieces of mica. “It was bolted to the ceiling up there in 1903.” He was like a kid in a candy store, and brought a trailer load of stuff home to add to his museum. Big stuff. An outside museum.
Then he got a call from a friend who had retired and “moved to Yarnell, AZ, a neat little gold town south of Prescott.” He had tried for years to buy a 10 stamp mill from a lady in Virgilina, VA, and was finally successful. But now he needed help to transport it back to Lloyd’s place to store it. Lloyd drove over the NC border up to an old tobacco farm in Halifax County to look at it. That area was rich in copper at the turn of the 20th century, but gold and silver were mined at Red Bank Mining. Lloyd liked what he saw and later “rounded up a crew and took a loader and 2-3 trucks and trailers and such, and got half the load and the next weekend we went back and got the other half. Two weekends and eight truckloads.” Showing me his museum pieces, he said, “They made less than 30 of these machines in 1895 and 1896. And most of them probably went for the scrap metal drive for WWII. There is only one in the world that will run, and it stayed in NC at the Reed Gold Mine” where they have lots of parts and pieces. But Lloyd has the next biggest collection: cam shafts, mortar boxes, clutches with an 1888 date. This stuff is made to last. “There’s ten hammers. A hammer weighs somewhere between 750 and 1000 pounds, picks it up and drops it, picks it up and drops it. It’s neat.”
About his family property, Lloyd said, “For some reason or other, I’d got it in my head this was all mica mining. But it absolutely was not, because there is no mica mining in placer.” Placer is a Spanish word meaning “alluvial sand.” So placer mining takes place in stream beds, alluvial deposits for minerals. And that is what Thermal City is all about.
Lloyd’s enthusiasm for mining has made his prospecting business a success. I asked him about a building with a huge exterior sign, “Nugget Café.” “Well, that’s where we eat. We spend so much time over here, we had to have a kitchen. And we also have get-togethers here ’cause we can fit 30 people in there. When things were hummin’ it wasn’t unusual to have 30 people for lunch. Once a month we do a potluck for the campers.”
Behind the office today, there are several guys panning in troughs filled with water. We jumped in a golf cart for a tour that I will share with you in the next post.
Copyright August 2016 Georgia Wilson