MICAVILLE — They were called the “Mica Men.”
They were the ones who toiled in the mica mines and helped process the translucent mineral abundant in southern Cleburne and northern Randolph counties starting in the 1950s, according to Charles Merchant, who had one of those mines.
Of men such as Glen Short, Eldon “Pee Wee” Key and Don Turner, only Key is still alive.
Merchant, 67, and his partner, John Mays, operated one of the last mica mines in this isolated crossroads community from 2000 to 2010. A sign still alerts drivers to the shuttered mine on County Road 10, just down the road from “downtown” Micaville, where 10 intersects County Road 29. Next to the sign, a large steamshovel full of mica ore sparkles in the summer sun, a testament to the industry that gave Micaville its name.
When Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto explored Alabama in 1540, he thought mica was melted silver that a person could see through, according to Merchant. Native Americans had multiple uses for mica; caskets of mica have been discovered in Moundville (west of Tuscaloosa), used to preserve deceased chiefs, Merchant said.
Harry Holstein, professor of anthropology and archaeology at Jacksonville State University, said that mica was used by Native Americans dating back to 1000 B.C.
“Any Indian village I have worked on in the 40 years I’ve been here, nine out of 10 times you’re going to find some mica,” Holstein said. “Indians used that stuff for trade. They traded that stuff from the Choccolocco Valley all the way up into Michigan, Ohio and the Midwest.”
Mica mines spring up
In 1901, an Anniston paper published an article touting the economic benefits of mining mica and gold.
“There is mica in vast quantities,” the article stated, “which will contribute to the wealth of the people and the greatness of the people and the greatness of Anniston … the era of prosperity that is to make them famous and rich.”
According to published reports, over 15 mica mines sprung up between 1900 and 1915. At the onset of World War I, mica was used for defense needs. After the war, there was a lull in mining until World War II, when the government encouraged mining for the essential mineral.
Eldon “Pee Wee” Key, 83, remembers the days when Uncle Sam wanted mica.
“Everybody about it had a hole dug,” Key said.
The government wanted sheet mica, which was very thin and clear.
“It was used for insulation in aircraft and so forth,” Key said.
Key said that Micaville got its name in the 1940s when large blocks of mica were brought in and “sheeted” to sell to the government.
Key has been around mica all his life. He worked for Dixie Mining and its subsequent owners, which included Western Mica and US Gypsum, for 44 years.
There used to be a 200-foot mine shaft, a pit that Key remembers well.
“Water dripped like it was raining. It was dark, we had lights down there,” he said.
Tragedy at the mine
In June 1953, a miner lost his life and another was rescued from the mine shaft after an accident.
“What it was, a straight-down shaft we call it, there was a square shaft about 8-foot square. We had ladders in half of it, bucket with winches to pull out ore,” Key said.
Key said that the second shift had arrived and were working near the bottom of the shaft. Timber was being lowered to them.
“They got to fussing about the timber being tied too tight with the old grass rope,” said Key.
At the bottom of the pit was about 20 feet of water.
“It came loose and it knocked them off down in there, and we hadn’t pumped it out. Got to hunting and found one of them,” Key said.
Published reports said the man was found clinging to a timber in the water. He was taken to the hospital with a possible concussion.
“Couldn’t find the other one, had to pump and pump and pump,” Key remembered.
Key said he was finally found under one of the timbers.
”He was dead, hit him across the head,” Key said. “I remember that very well.”
A thousand uses for mica
From 2000 until 2010, Charles Merchant and his partner operated JMays LLC mica mine to furnish mica to the cosmetics industry.
Merchant said that he sold to Avon and Shiseido, a Japanese company that is one of the oldest cosmetics companies in the world.
“For years, they had good ol’ mica from Micaville, Alabama, in ’em,” said Merchant.
He said that mica has about 1,500 uses, including oven doors, microwave doors, paint, insulation for hair dryers and the lens material on the Hubble Space Telescope.
“It will stop an EMP, electromagnetic pulse — you know, the one the government is sweating,” Merchant said.
Merchant said that he used a track hoe to dig the mica ore for processing, instead of digging a precarious pit.
Everything was going fine, he said, until 2010, when new federal regulations governing lead content stopped the steam shovel in the dirt.
“We were out of spec by 2 parts per billion,” Merchant said of the lead content in his mica.
“We were getting $1.80 per pound; we couldn’t make it anymore,” Merchant said.
“Now they changed the specs back,” Merchant said. “Somebody could get in there and make money.”