Ruggles Mine once drew visitors from all over the world, but it’s been closed and for sale since 2016. NHPR’s Daniela Allee has more now on what the mine off Route 4 in Grafton once was, as its future remains unknown.
Jean Brewster Gove only uses one brand of scouring powder: Bon Ami.
“Because the feldspar came up from on the hill, that I could look out my backyard and see,” she said.
Gove, 89, grew up about a mile away from Ruggles Mine in the 1930s and 40s, when it was still a working mine.
She watched trucks roll by from her front porch, filled with chunks of feldspar making its way to the Bon Ami factory in Keene.
Gove says a lot of Grafton men worked at the mine. She’d watch them come in to her parent’s general store at the end of the day, covered head to toe in white dust, from the feldspar.
“I used to watch all the people coming and going, it was part of my entertainment as a child,” she said.
Feldspar wasn’t the only thing mined there.
There were big chunks of mica and other minerals.
But by 1961, market forces had pushed the mine to close: it was cheaper to get some of these minerals from abroad.
That’s when a man from the area named Arvid Wahlstrom, saw another future for the mine: Shiny minerals with a view had the makings of a roadside of attraction during the road trip’s golden age.
His daughter Andrea Brownell remembers the family story.
“He heard the Ruggles mine was up for sale,” Brownell said, “and I think he hiked up that road in the middle of the winter and saw that amazing main pit, picturesque main pit, and was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this.’”
By 1963, that picturesque main pit had been transformed into a tourist attraction: Arvid had installed an outdoor snack bar and gift shop, and later on a museum was added.
Tourists were greeted with a video, which Andrea Brownell practically has memorized.
“Welcome to the Ruggles Mine,” the video starts, “you are on top of Isinglass mountain. You are about to enter the oldest and largest mica mine in the country.”
(The original video was voiced by Fritz Wetherbee, but that’s locked in the mine’s museum.)
“What can we find? You know, gold? It’s like a gold rush you know.”
Inside, mica made the mine sparkle, the mineral forms in thin sheets, packed together into a book, some of which were three or four feet wide.
The view from the mine site is something a lot of people remember, too: the bald top of Cardigan mountain, the frozen ponds surrounding Grafton, Route 4 snaking its way east.
Deb Clough grew up nearby, and says it was magical for her as a kid.
“I’d always try to find that crystal clear quartz, I always thought, that’s a diamond!”
Visitors could rent a hammer for a few bucks. Or, after watching the video, take off, using their own gear to hammer away, bucket close by, working to find one of the 150 minerals in the mine: quartz, garnet, mica, aquamarine.
Clough says she had a strategy for her digging: either go where other people had been chipping away, or she’d head to the spot that had been freshly blasted that year.
“That was the draw, the adventure of it,” Clough remembered. “What can we find? You know gold? It’s like a gold rush you know.”
There was always a steady stream of visitors, about 200 a day, recalls Wendall Clough, Deb’s brother-in-law. He worked at Ruggles Mine for 10 years.
He says visitors came from all over the world: England, France, Germany, the Netherlands.
“Even Russians,” Wendall said.
A lot of people came in from around New England, too. Local school kids would make annual field trips.
That was Wendall’s favorite part of the job: helping kids and adults alike explore the mine.
“As soon as I could, I would go down to the pit and help them identify minerals they were going after,” he said.
But by 2016, it became harder for the family to keep Ruggles going, so the family decided to sell the mine.
The last day Ruggles was open was a sunny, blue June day.
“The last day they did for free. Anybody could come. The traffic -- they literally had to turn people away,” Deb Clough said.
The cars stretched in a long line. The local newspaper memorialized that day in a video, “Visitors overwhelm Ruggles mine," people eke their cars out of line, deciding the wait isn’t worth it .
Others have parked on the side of the road, trekking up the hill to the mine.
After it closed, locals started a petition to make the mine into a state park, but N.H. State Parks has said it’s “not in a position to pursue any offers for Ruggles Mine.”
But there is some good news for fans of the mine: a prospective buyer recently put in a bid for the $900,000 property.
The real estate agents aren’t sharing any details about their plans.
Locals are hoping the mine will be reopened. They say there might still be some gems to be found in Ruggles.