By Harley Nefe
After 12 years of being at Mystery Hill, Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine has relocated to Tanger Outlets in Blowing Rock after being given the opportunity to have a bigger facility for both the gem mine and the Appalachian Fossil Museum.
Randy “Doc” McCoy, who is the founder of Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine and the Appalachian Fossil Museum, said the business has roughly double the space for the gem mine and triple the space for the museum in addition to a larger parking area and a red light.
“We don’t have to worry about people driving off of the road and coming into our parking lot by accident,” Doc said. “We’re not on a blind curve.”
Doc further said what they had going on at Mystery Hill was great, but their lease ended the first of October, and the main reason for the move was that the museum needed more space. He explained that he had specimens in storage that he had had in boxes for years that needed to be shown.
“We had so many collections that we had gotten and that we just couldn’t show,” Doc said. “When we found out this was available, we asked Tanger Outlets if we could put the museum in here, and they offered for us to move the gem mining, too. So, it worked out really, really well.”
The business closed, and personnel packed everything in two weeks, moved, unpacked everything in two weeks and then reopened.
“I’m kind of shocked at how well it went,” Doc said. “I got a great crew.”
Now at Tanger Outlets, as some family members may want to go shopping in the different stores, others can find entertainment with gem mining.
How gem mining works is customers can come in and choose their ore bucket option, being either authentic or seeded.
The seeded buckets mean staff puts stuff in it for customers, and there’s a guarantee gems will be found. Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine has also added more variety for the seeded options. These types are generally marketed toward children who don’t necessarily care about what gems they find, they just want to discover them.
“We try to cater to everybody,” Doc said.
The other option of buckets offered are the authentic buckets that have mine ore that is a mix from 11 different active mines across the Appalachian Mountain Range, including from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia. For these buckets, staff won’t know what will be found until the gems are visibly pulled out, so every bucket is a luck of the draw.
“When you find things in that bucket, we teach you about where it came from, how it formed, the minerals that made it, the history of the mine — anything tied to that rock is what we focus on teaching,” Doc said.
The state of North Carolina supplies the world with minerals and has over 800 active mines.
Some of the local minerals Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine gets from Watauga County includes topaz, moonstone, feldspar, epidote, ruby and sapphire.
Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine also has access to garnet mines in Madison County and a quartz mine in Avery County that produces amethyst, gold, fool’s gold and copper.
“We’re pulling the real stuff in different places,” Doc said.
In addition, there’s a phosphate mine on the coast of North Carolina that Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine uses as well as mines in Georgia that produce aquamarine, tourmaline and chrysocolla and a mine in Virginia that has amazonite.
After customers find gems when mining, they then have the opportunity to have them cut and turned into jewelry at McCoy Minerals, Inc., which is a sister company located at 537 Main Street in Blowing Rock, right across from Chetola Resort.
Not knowing the COVID-19 pandemic was getting ready to happen, Doc and his wife, Trina, took the retail aspect and made it its own business. The building for the jewelry store was bought back in October of 2019, renovated through the winter and opened in January of 2020 right before COVID-19, and Trina runs the jewelry store.
“That’s where we do all the gem stone cutting, all the jewelry making,” Doc said. “All that is done in house, you can visibly see us doing it right there, which is pretty awesome.”
He further said, “It seems to be working out really really well. People can come in and see what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Everything is all out in the open.”
The store also has pre-made jewelry if people are looking for specific gemstones that are already cut. In addition, it has fossils, specimens and rare minerals.
“In this building, you can find everything from watches to jewelry, and rare and collectable specimen pieces, real fossils and replica fossils, books and some stuff for the younger kids who are interested in it,” Trina said.
At the store, there are also staff on site who can talk to customers about different ideas, products, chains, rings and can help with basic jewelry repairs.
“We can teach a little about the stones here, the basic minerals, where they came from if we know,” Trina said. “But the educational part is mostly going to be at the gem mining and museum.”
Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine and the Appalachian Fossil Museum’s business goal is to educate the general public on the historical geology of the Appalachian Mountains, by explaining how they were formed and what can be found in the area.
One way the staff demonstrates that they are education based is through their summer trips, where they take people out in authentic places and teach them how to find gemstones or pan for gold. The trips generally go from May through October. However, this year, they were interrupted by COVID-19.
Other ways the staff educate the public is through helping with school projects or teaching groups or classes.
Back at their old space, Doc and the other staff used the area as a classroom. For example, they taught geology and paleontology classes for Appalachian State University students. For presentations, staff used specimens and other materials that Doc found ever since he was six years old.
“I kept getting more stuff and more stuff to teach about, and someone said you just need to make this a museum, and so that’s what we did with it,” Doc said.
The Appalachian Fossil Museum began in 2011, and it was appraised for $62,000. However, since 2011, the collection is now worth 10 million dollars currently.
The museum is a collection that Doc received over time. A lot of it he found personally, whereas other stuff was inherited. For example, many families donated specimens, as individuals passed away. Doc also bought and invested in some larger items for the museum trying to build it up over the years and add to his collection.
The museum has a lot of rare minerals and a lot of rare fossils.
“We try to get stuff that you’re not going to see if you go to Raleigh,” Doc said. “We try to stick with the unusual, the rare.”
Doc further said, “We got the biggest North Carolina collection and all kinds of cool stuff for people to see.”
One of these items Doc pointed out was a bird egg that was found in Melbourne, Florida. The outer shell is still present on the egg; however, the egg is basically a gemstone in how the inside is crystalized.
Another item the museum has is a skull of a huge 30 foot alligator hanging from the ceiling. Fossils of this same type of creature have been found in North Carolina; however, the specific skull in the museum is not from the state.
“If he wanted to eat a tyrannosaurus rex, he had that opportunity,” Doc said. “The dinosaur comes up to get a drink of water, and this guy is hanging out in the water waiting for you. There’s no getting away from it.”
Hanging directly below the alligator skull is a t-rex skull, so people can see the size comparison.
The Appalachian Fossil Museum also has a kid’s place, which includes a pit where they can get in and uncover fossils.
“We know at museums kids get bored, so we’re trying to make it all inclusive for everybody,” Doc said.
Another way the Appalachian Fossil Museum is all inclusive is that the building is wheelchair accessible, whereas at Mystery Hill, the museum was on the second floor.
At this new location, the business also has a huge party room designed for children to hold birthday parties. There’s a TV to watch movies on, and kids can draw and play games.
Doc said they don’t have to charge for parties anymore, so if someone wants to have a birthday celebration there, they can just show up.
The museum will also be adding another interactive feature for children in the future. Currently, the Appalachian Fossil Museum is still under construction.
“A lot of stuff in the museum is delicate, and if you move it wrong, you just lost a $10,000 specimen, so we have to be very careful with that,” Doc said.
Doc further said they plan to do a soft opening with the museum during Blowing Rock’s WinterFest.
Right now, the gem mining inside is operational and open to the public, and plans are being discussed about building an outdoor gem mining area in the spring. Doc said he’s thinking the full-run opening will be sometime in April.
Now that Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine and the Appalachian Fossil Museum have expanded and the businesses, including the store McCoy Minerals, keep growing, it’s interesting to note where the foundation for this all came from.
Doc retired from the US Army as an Emergency Field Surgeon in 2002, and he received his medical degree from Duke University and was specializing in orthopedic surgery. After an extensive medical career, Doc decided to go back to college to study geology. He attended Appalachian State University, where he double majored in Geology and Recreation Management.
McCoy Minerals was started in 2007, when Doc and Trina opened it in an 8 foot by 10 foot shed during Doc’s sophomore year of college. A year later, they moved to Mystery Hill on a porch, which was a minor expansion. The next following year, they moved the business into a gray building beside Mystery Hill. And then in 2011 is when the museum was started.
“It took a good five years to get established with that,” Doc said.
So, where did all this passion come from?
“I love rocks; everybody loves rocks,” Doc said.
Doc grew up in the Tri-Cities area of Kingsport, Tennessee, and his dad was an avid fisherman when he retired.
“That was what he wanted to do,” Doc said. “So, we would go fishing as a family.”
Being a young kid around 5 years old, Doc would catch a single fish and be done with the activity. Therefore, him and his mother would walk the river banks and pick up rocks.
“My mom would tell me about the fossils and all kinds of cool stuff, and that kind of sparked the beginning of this,” Doc said.
Fast forward some years — after Doc retired from the Army, he had a three month period, where he was not receiving a paycheck; therefore, he needed a part-time job. However, he said no one was really hiring, and at this time, he lived in Fayetteville.
“The only job I could find was Michaels arts and craft store. I was like, ‘I hate glitter, but it was something.’ You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes,” Doc said.
He further said he ended up absolutely loving that job.
“It was a really cool fun job, and I learned a lot about crafts that I didn’t care about before,” Doc said.
Trina was also working at that same Michaels store at the time, and Doc and her became really good friends. Trina was about to go to school in Texas, and she said to Doc, “I’m going to Texas, and I really don’t want to go to Houston by myself. Do you want to go?”
Doc figured he had nothing else to do, so they went to Texas and eventually started a life together and got married. They then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and had a son. And after trying out some other jobs for a little bit, that’s when Doc decided to go back to school for geology, and years later, is where he is today.
Doc and Trina’s son is now 16 years old, and he’s also a collector.
“He’s not really into working in the family business, but it makes me happy when he picks up a chunk of copper and says, ‘Oh, this is mine. I’m taking this home,’” Doc said. “To see him just as passionate as I was at 16. We started the gem mining business when he was two years old, and he was the reason for really getting into it.”
And ever since then, Doc’s and Trina’s business has always been based on their own personal strong family values. Them and their staff strive to treat every customer like family and to ensure that they always feel welcomed.
“We want you to come in, learn and have fun,” Doc said. “And even bring a rock in!”
Christopher Lawrence, who is the General Manager for the gem mine, said the passion for education is his favorite aspect of the business.
“We’re always striving to learn more, so we can teach more,” Lawrence said. “If we’re not working, we’re doing research on the newest thing.”
Lawrence is local to North Carolina and has lived in Watauga County his entire life. He is also an Appalachian State University graduate, and he began working for the gem mine since an internship he held over a summer.
“It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had,” Lawrence said. “As long as I can make a living, I’ll be here the rest of my life.”
Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine is located at 100 Shoppes on the Parkway Rd., and the temporary hours are from Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. For more information about the business, visit https://docsrocks.org/ or call (828) 467-8817.
Pictures From the Appalachian Fossil Museum:
Photos of Doc’s Rocks Gem Mine:
Photos of McCoy Minerals, Inc.: