THE STORY OF THE WHEELER BROTHERS MICA MINES
During the 1950's and early 1960's the federal government through the GSA was purchasing and stockpiling mica as a strategic mineral. There were mica mining operations and prospecting going on all over Oxford county and other places in New England, the search was on for high grade plate mica.
Mica’s electric and heat resistance made it a prized material for the electronic applications of the defense industry.
The local GSA agent was Addison “Sonny” Saunders, some people may remember his wife Diane owned and operated a mineral shop where Mallard Mart now sits in Bethel, Maine and operated it successfully for many years.
In 1954 the Wheeler brothers Roger, Ted and Abe started their mining operation on Pine Mountain, just over the Bethel town line in Gilead, Maine.
The Brothers were home-grown Bethel boys, who made a living logging, farming and taking on whatever work there was around and knew nothing about mining. They did however own a piece of property that had good showings of pegmatite with the potential for mica extraction.
Dennis Wheeler recalls going up to the future site of the number one mine with his uncle Roger Wheeler and discovering a large outcropping of mica.
With the help of Ernest or Avery Angevine and Emerson Clough providing a dozer to get the equipment to the prospect they made the first blasts and discovered a viable vein of mica.
It is unclear where the story comes from, but it is told that on the initial blast the air was filled with mica and it covered the ground after the blast...true or not it makes for a good story and an auspicious start.
Like most Mainers the Brothers were a quick study and though under capitalized managed to get Wheeler Brothers mining off the ground and producing mica.
The Wheeler Brothers Mica Mines became noted for the high quality plate mica that they produced.
For the next eight years the mines created jobs for local people at the mines and at their mica trimming operation which was located in Bethel on main street where Northeast bank now stands.
There were many local people who worked for Wheeler Brothers at different times. To name just a few, Lewis Sargent, George Luxton, Norn Hale, Bo and Kenneth Lovejoy, Elmer Stone, Leo Buck, Emerson Clough, Arden, John, Howard and Richard Andrews, Sid Abbott and many others. In the mica shop Millie Jackson, Sid Murphy, Vie Luxton, Diane Saunders, Kitty Fox, Tootsie Merrill, Carol Jordan and others I don’t recall.
These were all familiar faces to my siblings and myself as we grew up. Years after the mines and the mica shop closed people would say, "oh I remember working for your father or uncles". And many times they would tell a funny story or something interesting that had happened working there.
Ted Wheeler kept daily journals of the activities at the mines, and we are fortunate to still have many of those journals. He detailed the amount of mica that was mined each day, who was working, the weather, broken equipment and just so much other information.
The Brothers opened up two mines, No.1 and No.2 and a sizable prospect on the bordering government land, No. 3. Over the course of their operation they mined many tons of high grade mica and at later dates, beryl and feldspar. They moved millions of tons of rock in the process as the quarries and mine “dumps” still attest to.
The main mining thrust was the high grade mica they mined and processed. The trimmed mica was sold to the GSA based on the size and clarity of the mica. The top grade and size was purchased for up to $70 a pound which was a substantial amount of money in the 1950’s. The scrap mica which was a byproduct of the trimming and mining process was also bagged and sold as well.
The GSA depot for the trimmed mica was in Franklin, New Hampshire, 120 miles from from Bethel, which is a solid two hour drive on today's modern highways. During the 1950's it was was a much tougher drive in a pickup truck loaded with mica.
We have included a short video made in 1957 of the ladies in the shop trimming mica. You will find it on the website menu under "Wheeler Brothers Mica Shop".
The first part of the video shows Richard Andrews and Addison Saunders, “cobbling” mica, getting it ready for the mica shop ladies to trim and size. Then the video features the ladies in the shop doing the actual trimming. There is also a short section showing the mines, which unfortunately is not very clear.
The Government’s purchasing program for mica ended in the early sixties and the increased importation of low cost mica from India and Africa hastened the end of most viable mica mining operations in the USA.
Today there is still demand for mica of all grades but the vast majority of that mica is imported and controlled by China. We have included a video and some more information on our site menu under, "Where Mica Is Mined Today".
The mines and their operation are part of our family and local history. Mica mining was a tough way to make a living and hard rock mining was back breaking, dusty, dirty, deafening, freezing, wet and dangerous. It was a small wonder that no one was ever seriously injured. We believe despite those hardships the Wheeler Brothers considered mining like treasure hunting. Who knew what the next blast would reveal?
One of our goals is to keep this piece of local mining history alive.
A NEW DAY AT THE WHEELER MICA MINES
Wheeler Brothers Enterprises wants to offer an interesting experience for the avid and novice rock hounds and collectors as well those who have never had the opportunity to try their hand at mineral collecting.
There wasn’t a lot of specimen collecting or rock hounding at the Mines when they were in operation. That means the dumps still hold nice specimens of garnet, aquamarine beryl, golden beryl, black tourmaline, microcline crystals,apatite, very dark smoky quartz, rose quartz, biotite, chrysoberyl and other minerals.
And there’s an abundance of nice mica specimens, ranging from small diamond shaped books of nice clarity to much larger books of very good quality.
We offer two different options :
First for the experienced and novice rock hounds there will be access to our recently turned areas of mine tailings at both mines. We will show you areas open to prospecting and leave you to your own methods for discovering minerals. There is access to water for rinsing specimens at both mines. We will prohibit commercial and bulk collectors in order to extend the resource, we appreciate your cooperation .
Access to the mines by foot only. It is a moderate uphill walk to the Mines on a well maintained road. There is more information on the All Day Rockhounding page.
Second a tour designed for those who have an interest in the history and operations at the Mines as well as a chance to dig for specimens. We will provide some light equipment. The tour includes both mines and is a moderate walk of approximately 1.75 miles round trip from the parking area.
The walk is on a well maintained road it's a great hike for kids with the chance to find some treasures.
There are excellent views of the Western Maine mountains and the Androscoggin River Valley from both mines which is well worth the walk. And there is a wide variety of native plants and trees to be seen .
We provide a safe area to get a close look at the Mines and will answer questions you may have about mining, minerals and the history of our mines. There is more information on the Our Guided Mine Tour page.
We look forward to sharing our family's good fortune of being part of mining history here in Maine and hope you enjoy visiting our mines.
Wheeler Brothers Enterprises