By Paul T. Choate
Aug. 16, 2012. Brothers Matt and Chris Leonard have always been interested in rocks and minerals. After a lot of hard work, they can finally share that with everyone at Banner Elk’s newest business.
The Leonard brothers opened the Sugar Creek Mining Company gem mine on Saturday, Aug. 4, and business is already picking up. It is, to their knowledge, the only gem mine in Avery County and they are hoping it will provide children with something fun to do during the summer months.
“We’ve been working on it since last summer. We’ve been trying to get something going and we got this building and got it redone. It came out pretty good,” said Chris Leonard.
The Sugar Creek Mining Company will only operate during the warm months, from May until the end of October. When the cold air starts to drift into the High Country, the shop will become Sugar Creek Ski and Board Rental, which will be managed by the Leonard brothers along with help from their father Bill Leonard, owner of Ski Country Sports and High Mountain Expeditions.
“We got into that building down there and it was a good location but the building was in disarray. It was falling apart, so we got it for a pretty good rate. I figured someone would put in a ski shop in there if I didn’t, so we’re putting in ski and snowboard rental in the wintertime and Matt and Chris came up with the gem mine idea for the summertime,” said Bill Leonard
The Leonard brothers are describing this year as a “soft opening” to get everything working and work out any kinks. They said a much larger scale grand opening is planned for when they re-open in May 2013.
Gem cutting equipment to make jewelry, along with a large jewelry counter, are in the plans to be installed during the winter months prior to opening back up next year. Though it won’t be ready this season, Matt Leonard said he is excited about the doors it will open to be able to make jewelry for people right in the shop in addition to letting them mine for gems.
“[Chris and I] have always been interested in rocks and I think we work well together. So we saw an opportunity over here and we went for it,” said Matt Leonard.
The inside of the shop is pretty empty right now, but with the addition of the jewelry counter, as well as candy barrels and T-shirts that are planned for next year, Sugar Creek Mining Company will be significantly spruced up next spring.
The facility has a fascinating architectural design. Large tree trunks have been used as columns, giving it a rustic and natural look fitting for Banner Elk. The outdoor gem mine itself is already fully operational. Matt Leonard said there are gems in the mine from all over the world – over 30 different types in all – and said that a majority of their gems come from a gemstone buyer in Spruce Pine. When ask who that buyer was, Matt replied, “That’s a secret.”
The mine is set up in a square shed-like structure with troughs along each side to sift through for the hidden gemstones. The water is circulated through the troughs from a large water tower sitting up on telephone poles beside the mine.
“I think their concept with the big water tower and that old shed-looking building over to the side of it will really be an iconic type of look at some point,” said Bill Leonard. “It really stands out and it’s cool looking the way they used all those old trees in there and the old tin roof.”
According to Bill Leonard, several members of the community have kicked in to help get the business open and he praised his sons on how resourceful they have been with finding building materials.
He said that Jack Anderson of Banner Elk provided them with three quarters of a pallet of bark for decoration on the interior of the shop. Sean McKee, of McKee Tree Service in Banner Elk, sold them all the tree trunks used for only $100. Richard Puckett, of High South Wrecker Service in Beech Mountain, sold them the telephone poles holding up the water tower. As for the water tower itself, well, Bill Cook, of M & M Construction in Banner Elk, gave it to the Leonard brothers for five cases of cold ones.
Four sizes of buckets are available at Sugar Creek Mining Company and attendees can stay as long as they want. For a one-gallon bucket it is $16. Two-gallon buckets will run you $32. Five-gallon buckets cost $64. If you’re trying to clean the Leonard brothers out of gems completely the seven-gallon buckets will run you $128.
Sugar Creek Mining Company (and Ski and Board Rental) is located at 3405 Tynecastle Highway, Banner Elk. For more information, call 828-898-GEMS (4367).