My first order of business on Saturday, July 24, was to maneuver through the ongoing merriment in the streets of Asheville to visit Rusty James at the Cornerstone Minerals tent. It was on the sidewalk less than a block away from the Cornerstone Minerals store at Lexington and Walnut. The jewelry here along with plenty of relatively inexpensive rough gems and minerals, some with metaphysical connotations, was selling brisquely. They were in a different league, however, from the ajoite and papagoite included quartz crystals from the Messina Mine, Limpopo Province, Transvaal, South Africa, that Rusty had waiting for me to check out down the street at his store. He was too busy to leave his tent right then, which worked out just fine. Mad Tea Party was playing "ukebilly" music but two blocks away at the Haywood Stage. That's Ami Worthen, Asheville's ukelele rock star, in the picture at right.
Two hours later, enough people were staffing the Cornerstone tent for Rusty to accompany me to the store, which was almost as busy as the tent had been. From under the counter he pulled out several flats from which I purchased two small ajoite included crystals , one loose, the other in matrix. both relatively free of the difficult to remove white material that frequently encrusts them. Rusty has been to South Africa four times to purchase crystals from the owner of the mine. On his most recent visit this past December, he received permission to dig and believes he's the only American ever granted that privilege. Ajoite and papagoite included quartz crystals occur nowhere else on earth. They command astronomically high prices that could go much higher, and Rusty questions how much longer the Messina Mine wil be able to continue producing them.
With business to deal with back in Baltimore on Tuesday, I left Asheville on Sunday early enough for a visit to the renowned Little Pine Garnet Mine (almandine), in Haywood County approximately 25 miles northwest of Asheville. Rick James Jacquot's book Rock, Gem, and Mineral Collecting Sites in Western North Carolina provided good directions for getting to the parking area for the mine on Robert's Branch Road. Immediately past the parking area, the road forks. Blocking the road heading left was a sign stating that the garnet mine was closed and could be visited by appointment only. Therefore, I followed the main road to the right hoping to reach some dumps the book had mentioned and soon found myself heading up the driveway to the home of a farmer. A third road, overgrown enough this time of year that its presence hardly seemed apparent at first, heads from between the other two roads 100 yards into the woods to these dumps. Once there, I managed to dig from the top three inches of pleasingly soft soil a few loose crystals similar the one pictured below at right.
To make arrangements to visit the Little Pine Garnet Mine, collectors should first go to the Sandy Bottom Trail Rides establishment reached by turning from Little Pine Road onto Caney Fork Road a short distance north of its intersection with Roberts Branch Road. The people there couldn't have been nicer. After I signed a waiver, they readily granted me permission to visit the mine.
Without so much as a flashlight, I did little more than stand at the entrance to look inside the mine. My impression was that even with proper equipment, going in further could be problematic for one without experience. Every inch of the walls and ceilings that I could see had been worked and showed markings where crystals had been extracted. Rusty James' associate Greg, pictured next to Rusty and wearing a blue T shirt in our image from the Cornerstone minerals tent, had informed me that as recently as two years ago, he had chiseled some attractive crystals from the walls of a little "crow's nest" just above and to the right of the mine entrance. Perhaps not for the younger and surely more limber Greg, but for the likes of me, attempting to climb up there and whack away with a sledge hammer and chisel could very likely spell big trouble. Therefore, I opted instead to crawl around and dig amidst the schist and soapstone in the dumps immediately adjacent to the mine. While unsuccessful at locating any appealing crystals, either loose or in matrix, I found significant amounts of the kind of rough almandine once mined there to be ground into sand and used as an abrasive for industrial purposes. At different times, the site is said to have been mined for this kind of material as well as gem garnet.
The Little Pine Garnet Mine remains a popular spot for collectors prepared to work underground (or perhaps in that "crow's nest" that Greg mentioned) and willing to undertake a lot of extremely hard work. At this point, I would be curious as to the quality and quantity of what they are able to collect.