Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 26

MOUNTAIN CURIOS

'BOOKS OF THE EARTH'

Virginia's Soapstone Legacy
The versatile, utilitarian rock is found at
Schuyler, Virginia, and mined there by
the nation's oldest and largest producer
of American soapstone.
By ANGELA MINOR
FACING PAGE UPPER: The
children and grandchildren of
former Alberene workers come
in to look at old photos such as
this one.
FACING PAGE LOWER:
Ancient soapstone artifacts
are on display at Great Smoky
Mountains Heritage Center in
Townsend, Tennessee.

I

t is said that rocks are the history books of
the Earth. If so, the Blue Ridge region has a
geo-library of favorite reading material for
humans-soapstone. This metamorphic rock
with a "soapy" soft feel has recorded our practical lives, spiritual pursuits, artistic endeavors
and technological innovations from the Stone
Age to this day.
Once early humans realized this amazing
rock would not burn at wood-fire temperatures, absorbed and radiated heat and was
nonporous and easy to carve, they started
making pots, cooking slabs, and hearth liners,
and then created molds for casting all manner of metal goods. For example, First Na-

tions in the region carved bowls, effigies and
smoking pipes out of soapstone from 60001000 BCE. Specifically, all manner of soapstone cookware dating back to 2000 BCE has
been unearthed from Virginia to Georgia.
During the late 1800s, a fellow with a
sharp eye spotted an outcropping in the Blue
Ridge. In Nelson County, Virginia...or rather
under it...he found a vein of soapstone that
eventually measured as one of the largest in
the world.
Known as the Albemarle-Nelson Belt, this
"massive deposit of soapstone...between
Lynchburg and Charlottesville, with an exposed section near Schuyler, [had] a greater

'MONA LISA OF THE MOUNTAINS?'

The Stone Face of the New River Gorge
The enigmatic face was likely carved into soapstone in the 1950s by a coal miner.
by SU CLAUSON WICKER| Photo by DAVID SIBRAY, WV EXPLORER

V

isitors to West Virginia's New River Gorge
are hunting for a mysterious carving
highlighted recently in the West Virginia
Explorer tourism guide. Hiding in the mossy
rock along a narrow path below the Canyon
Rim Visitor Center, the life-sized stone face can

The mysterious carving is on National Park
Service land near the New River Gorge.

26

BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

easily be missed.
But then again, some visitors just might
sense its presence. Referred to as the "benevolent spirit of the forest" by Gene Kistler, who
first encountered it 35 years ago when he
began climbing nearby cliffs, the carving has
a calm, if stony countenance. The sandstone
face gazes up at hikers and rock climbers
picking their way along the path to access an
outcropping known as Ambassador Buttress.
Kistler and his wife, Maura, are now coowners of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, the region's go-to shop for rock climbers. They can give directions to the stone
face, which they regard as a minor attraction
and a noteworthy piece of folk art. They have
compared its enigmatic quality to the Mona
Lisa; it's impossible to tell if the face is happy
or sad.
Though the origins of the stone face are
sometimes regarded as a mystery, the bas-

relief countenance was likely carved in the
1950s by a coal miner who lived nearby, says
David Sibray, editor/writer for the West Virginia Explorer. The foundation of the miner's
house is still visible among the ferns a little
farther down the path. The miner also carved
his surname, Johnson, into a stone that hikers
use to cross a little run that cascades into the
New River Gorge.
"He was a coal miner who liked to carve
as a hobby," Sibray says. "In the 1950s, coal
mining went into decline in this area, and
he probably had some spare time. I think he
carved this face for the pure joy of expression."
The stone face is located in National Park
Service land off Fayette Station Road near
the New River Gorge Canyon Rim Visitor Center. For specific information on how to view it,
visit Water Stone Outdoors, 101 E. Wiseman
St. in Fayetteville.


http://www.BLUERIDGECOUNTRY.COM

Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020

Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - Intro
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - Cover1
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - Cover2
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 3
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 4
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 5
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 6
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 7
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 8
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 9
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 10
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 11
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 12
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 16
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 17
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 18
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 19
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 20
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 21
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 22
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 23
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 24
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 25
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 26
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 27
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 28
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 29
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 30
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 31
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 32
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 33
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 34
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 35
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 36
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 37
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 39
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 40
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 42
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 55
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 61
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 63
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 65
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - 66
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - Cover3
Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2020 - Cover4
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