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The prospects are good for digging into an interesting hobby at Laurel Hill Gem Mines.
That’s where Gladesboro resident Robert Dale Bowman hopes that sharing his unique pastime with others will pan out.
The mountains of Carroll County are far removed from the Yukon of the Gold Rush days. But Bowman hopes to impart some nuggets — of insight, not necessarily of gold — about searching for precious metals and minerals.
Bowman plans to build a flume for visitors to have the experience of panning for gold, the same way settlers with gold fever did in California and Alaska all those years ago.
Visitors can learn the way to hunt for gold even now.
On an overcast day in early September, Bowman’s friend and fellow enthusiast Reaford Haynes showed the technique: sloshing water around in a big plastic green bowl, removing larger rocks that could knock the bits of metals — most likely as small as flakes — and minerals out and trickling the water down.
The heavier bits, the small black iron particles and the garnets, will collect on the bottom, and that’s what’s left when Haynes finishes.
Visitors may even find a few flakes of something yellow and shiny, if they’re patient and look carefully.
Laurel Hill Gem Mines has buckets of dirt from North Carolina and Alaska to sift out. (The difference in looking for gems is using a box with a grate in the bottom.)
You never know when something precious is going to turn up in real-life prospecting, Bowman and Haynes agree. There may be a treasure in the next shovel full of earth.
After becoming fascinated with rocks he found in Carroll County while growing up, Bowman has turned earth all over the U.S.
“I've been looking for gold, prospecting for gold for many many years,” Bowman said. “I do have a claim in Alaska.”
He hasn’t struck it rich, however.
“I don’t have enough money to go back and dig it up... lets put it that way.”
Circle Hot Springs lies about 7,500 miles away, near the Yukon River at the Arctic Circle.
There’s maybe a little gold in these hills of the Blue Ridge — some flakes or a trace, but there’s a lot more of other kinds of stones and minerals, Bowman noted. He enjoyed going out and picking up quartz with his father when he was young.
He would also search for native American artifacts, like arrowheads.
Before his time, near his current home at Keno and Snake Creek roads, older generations used to carve out soap stone from the ground for grave markers or as bed warmers.
“During World War II between here and the Buffalo they picked up quartz crystal to use in radios,” he said. A few creeks in Carroll are supposed to have gold, but very little.
He’s heard the same about the Mayo River in Patrick County.
Exploring for precious stones can be tricky, not to mention hard on the back. Bowman held out a handful of small, plain looking rocks.
Gems, different kinds of stones, are something you can cut facets into and make a jewel out of, Bowman said. He identified those rocks in his hands as rubys and saffires in their natural state, not cut and polished.
“ A lot of people don’t know the difference between one rock and another and they get an education.”
Before moving back to Carroll County and after a career in the Navy and in the shipyards at Portsmouth on Virginia’s coast, Bowman started looking for places to explore in connection with his hobby.
“I just started going to the library and looking for places in Virginia where there were old gold mines that I would make short trips to.”
Laurel Hill Gem Mine displays neat items that Bowman has found in the ground, like the meteorite he found with a metal detector in the Southwest, the burned-up iron and nickel from space, quartz and smoky quartz from Carroll County, garnets, fairy stone crosses.
There’s also ruby, sapphire, citrine, amethyst, tourmaline, topaz and jewelry.
The gem mine complements the cabins that Bowman rents out and his fishing pond.
A woman from West Virginia had stopped in that morning to see what rocks Bowman had.
“She goes all over the place rock hounding,” he said. “I do the same. I see a rock shop, I’m going in — see what they have that I don’t.”
It’s fun to find rare and unusual stuff. Bowman looks forward to sharing the recreational and educational opportunities with others.
“Once I get this going, I think it will just be fun to have a lot of people come around and talk about rocks.”
• For information about Laurel Hill Gem Mine, call Bowman at (276) 398-2788. It is open on weekends and by appointment.