Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for numerous publications. He spent this summer at the University of Maine, and with wife, Debby, traveled the state.
While I wouldn’t call myself a dedicated rock hound, I do occasionally enjoy unearthing rocks and minerals. One of the last stops during our summer visit to Maine was the historic Wheeler Mica Mines on Pine Mountain, in Gilead, about five miles west of Bethel Village on Route 2.
While they are no longer an operating mine, the Wheeler brothers — John, Roger and Tim, all lifelong residents of Bethel — opened their two old mines to the public last May. Visits are restricted to small group tours by appointment only (www.wheelermicamines.com).
We began our tour by meeting at the parking area with John Wheeler, who gave a fascinating short talk about the mines and their history.
The round trip to both mines is about 1.75 miles and for those walking it includes a moderate to strenuous uphill hike. But for groups of five or less, John will ferry visitors to the mines in his four-wheel-drive vehicle.
On the day we visited, there was a slightly larger group, so he enlisted the aid of brother Roger and his 4×4 truck to transport us along the bone-jarring, steep, half-mile road to No. 1 mine, then back down, and up again to No. 2 mine. It was an exhilarating ride, making it almost worth the admission price ($45 per person) just for that.
“When I get larger groups, we walk up to No. 2, I talk about the mine, and then we dig,” John told me. “If people have the desire and the time, we’ll then walk over to No. 1 and I’ll show them that mine and then walk back down to the parking area.”
While neither mine is very deep, they are nonetheless impressive, especially the No. 1 mine when gazing out through its cavernous openings.
Despite having no mining experience, the Wheelers’ father and uncles became interested in mining the 130-acre property in the 1950s, since the area around western Maine was known for its deposits of pegmatite, a coarsely textured rock composed of valuable quartz, mica, beryl and tourmaline. So drilling equipment was brought in to perform a prospective blast.
“According to Wheeler family legend, the explosion left the ground covered in mica,” John explained. “So, my family got into the mica mining business!”
The timing was perfect. In the 1950s, the federal government was buying and stockpiling strategic minerals such as mica for use in nuclear research. And due to its unique physical properties which, according to Wikipedia, include being “chemically inert, dielectric, elastic, flexible, hydrophilic, insulating, lightweight, platy, reflective, refractive, resilient,” the flaky mineral had a myriad of other applications from sparkling flecks in makeup to the electronics industry.
Moving to the No. 2 mine, we were surprised to find it filled with water due to recent heavy rains, unlike No. 1, which was dry. So it was only possible to observe from outside.
However, the abundance of standing water provided a unique opportunity for the rock hunters, who were given digging tools and buckets and let loose on massive piles of tailings. John turned on a pump to direct the mine’s water over the dig area, washing away dirt and smaller particles to reveal the larger rocks that we set about searching through for a mineral treasure or two.
While aquamarine, garnet, apatite and black tourmaline have all been found in the area, there are no guarantees visitors will find valuable gems. However, samples of quartz, mica, feldspar and other common rocks are plentiful. During our visit, one lucky digger struck “gold,” or at least garnet. Sherry Hyman, who splits her time between homes in Bethel and West Palm Beach, Florida, was thrilled to uncover a large, deep, red garnet set in pegmatite.
Although we had the luxury of being “chauffeured” during our visit (it was also a damp morning), those willing to make the trek on foot can expect a breathtaking, steep hike — in more ways than one. Because once reached, the summit at No. 2 mine overlooks the western Maine mountains and the view is quite striking.
Before leaving the area, I recommend visiting the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum in Bethel, which opened in 2019. The gift store and Discovery Gallery are free to explore, but there is a cost ($15 for adults) to enter the main display area. It contains a world-class collection of minerals and gems from Maine, but also one of the largest collections of meteorites in the world. There’s even a case featuring Wheeler Mine specimens. The museum will be offering free admission to all Maine residents on Sunday, Sept. 24.
Adhering to the area’s geological theme, visit or at least drive by the local theater which features movies and live performances. Quaintly named “The Gem,” the building is painted with an eye-popping rainbow of vibrant hues.
While John Wheeler emphasized the mine tour would most likely appeal to the novice rock collector, anyone intrigued by minerals or mining should find the day excursion to Bethel and the Wheeler Mines a rewarding adventure, especially if they’re seeking a short hiking experience with an unusual destination.