A HOUSE BUILT ON A GEM FOUNDATION
by Dorothy Hussey
Ruth Holbrook collected a dollar from each of us. It was the beginning of the first of many ruby hunts in Cowee Valley near Franklin. "You dig anywhere you want to around here. Dig down to the big rocks, move them and collect the gravel under them. That's where the rubies and sapphires are. You can wash them in the creek (We had brought all our own equipment including a sieve from the kitchen.). Or you can bring them here and dump them on the table and I will turn the hose on them to wash away the sand." We watched as she helped the couple from Florida pick out the sapphires which shone in the sun. To my surprise, they weren't blue, but mostly tan, brown, pink or dark. She also pointed to quartz crystals, topaz, sillimanite, rutile and garnet. Ruth had pieces of gravel on the table from which sapphires shone. "That's part of the foundation which we cut out when we made a door for a basement. Papa used sapphires and rubies for gravel when he built that house. Didn't know that thousands of people would come to this valley some day looking for that kind of stuff. He says he has to set on the porch with a gun to keep them from digging the foundation right out from under the house."
In the 1880s mineralogist and writer, William Hidden and Frederick Kunz, gemologist of Tiffany's, came to Cowee Valley. They did a lot of scouting for gems in Western North Carolina. They made borings, dug around and decided that there were rubies and sapphires of value there. The rest of the corundum could be used for emery paper. The American Gem Mining Company was formed and people were hired to sort through the gravel removed by the miners. Will Holbrook worked for them and reported that he found hundreds of gem quality sapphires and rubies, some of them pigeon-blood red. In 1895, an official of a mining company in Mogok, Burma came and said that the stones were of the same quality and were found in the same type of gravel in an old river bed as those in Burma. These two places produced the only pigeon-blood rubies in the world.
The Burmese had washed gravel for corundum in Mogok since prehistoric times. However, after about thirty years, the mining company decided that the pay scale in the United States did not produce enough profit to continue operations and mining stopped. A large warehouse was left containing many ten gallon lead buckets of corundum. Will Holbrook was paid to be the caretaker. In 1914, the warehouse burned, leaving the buckets and their contents unhurt. In time, Holbrook bought the property from the mining company and began digging trenches for the foundation of a house. He looked around for gravel to mix with cement and sand and his eyes lit on the most available source. His foundation became studded with rubies and sapphires which were not of facet quality. Remember, these were the days before the amateur lapidariest and rockhound. The people of the valley had lived with these stones all their lives. They had shot them in their bean shooters, made "cherry" mud pies and skipped them across the creek. Some kept the prettiest ones. After the gem hunters came to the valley in droves, they showed us beautiful collections they had accumulated over the years just because they were pretty, not because they knew they had stones often more valuable than diamonds. Many of these collections are now in the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, operated solely by the mineral society there. Ruth Gunther is the curator.
Sluices were later built with the creek running down them and screens furnished. One could still dig for a long time. Now, only buckets are available. Occasionally a large find is announced. Many of the mines are enriched. One should ask at the local rock shops which ones have native stones only and also where they are being found, as they come in pockets. One should check out carefully before leaving a stone to be cut and set as synthetics can be substituted.
Rhodolite garnet is equal in value to ruby. Watch for it and also Indian artifacts, including stone age tools. It is believed that the mother lode has not been found. Did it wash out and away in the floods which followed the Ice Ages? Did it wash to here from another location. Boring in the Holbrook property area produced pink and purple sapphires in hornblende schist, similar to those found at Burning Two and near the Franklin Airport. There were no rubies. My ambition and dream is to find a clear pigeon-blood ruby arrowhead. I've seen it in my dreams hundreds of times and I know it is out there waiting for me. In the meantime, those of you who join me in the search may end up with many buckets of corundum like Will Holbrook. You could build a house with them and the world will beat a path to your door, bearing picks, chisels and hammers.
Gems are measured by weight, not size. 142 carats is equal to one once. The word carat comes from carob seed.
Reprinted from Mountain Mineral Monthly, Vol.62 Number 7, July 1993. Used by permission.