By Bill Whitaker
Everyone has heard of gold mines, silver mines, diamond mines, copper mines, and lead mines, but one of the most important mines to the average person in earlier times was a soapstone mine. Lot Harper’s farm, located at the present site of Fairview Elementary School, covered much more land than the school property. It spread west to around Emma Grove Road and east to the Hot Dog King. The hill on Charlotte Highway between the Fairview Town Crier office and the school was known as Harper Hill. Everyone who attended Fairview School has likely heard that there is soapstone on the property, but has probably not cared much about it.
Lot Harper (1781-1866) mined and sold the soapstone on his property his entire adult life. Soapstone is a soft rock that feels slippery or soapy to the touch and is very easy to cut or carve. The stone is nonporous and nonabsorbent, resistant to heat, acids and alkalis, and has a high heat capacity. Eight thousand years ago, Indians in what is now called California traveled in canoes from the mainland 60 miles to San Clemente Island to obtain soapstone, which they needed to make bowls used for cooking and for carving effigies.
Scandinavians used soapstone to carve molds for casting metal objects such as knives and spearheads, skills that brought them out of the Stone Age and enabled them to be the Viking raiders you see on the History Channel. Soapstone tablets over five thousand years old have also been excavated in Greece and on the Island of Crete, and they can still be easily read. Egyptians made scarabs and other amulets out of soapstone, and Assyrians carved their early seals and signets out of it.
The famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, 120 feet tall and on top of a mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is made of soapstone. Since it is heat resistant and durable, and does not conduct electricity, soapstone is often used to hold high-voltage equipment and wiring; the electric panel at the Cos Cob power plant near Greenwich, Conn., is made out of large slabs of soapstone.
Cane Creek Cemetery in Fairview is not only one of the oldest cemeteries in Western North Carolina, but one of the most well marked, and it is because of Lot Harper’s soapstone mine. It was the 1880s before there was a tombstone maker in Buncombe County; until then if you wanted a tombstone for a loved one you had to go order it and haul it back in a wagon to Fairview from Charleston or Savannah or Augusta. Very few people could afford to do this. Thanks to Harper’s soapstone mine, a person could easily cut out at slab of soapstone and cut a person’s name and dates on the stone with a knife or chisel. You may say you can’t read a darn thing on those old tombstones in the cemetery, but if you rub chalk or flour on the tombstones you will find that you can read almost everything engraved on each stone — the stones may be dark, but with chalk the surface of the stone will become light and the words carved in the stone will remain dark and readable.
Soapstones were used for many things. The stone is easy to cut with a crosscut saw or an ax. High heat does not damage it, and it does not crack or crumble when water or other liquids are poured on it. Soapstone was used to line fireplaces to keep the house from burning down and to hold the heat of the fireplace long after the fire went out; every home contained soapstone bricks. During the winter they were placed next to the fire, and at bedtime they would be wrapped in flannel and taken to bed. They would not catch the bed on fire and would hold heat all night long. On cold winter days, soapstones were also heated and wrapped and placed at the driver’s feet in buggies, wagons and even early cars before they had heaters. Mantels were often made from soapstone, and food was cooked on soapstone hearthstones because it not only maintained heat but kept food like corn bread from sticking. Homemade wood cook stoves were often made with soapstone as well.
During the Revolutionary War soapstone was used for molds to make bullets. Holes were cut and shaped like a bullets in the soapstone, lead was poured in and a soapstone top was placed on top of the mold and clamped down with wood. As early as five thousand years ago, American Indians used soapstone to make bowls for cooking andslabs to cook on, pipes to smoke and ornaments to wear. Some tribes even used soapstone to make arrowheads and tomahawks.
Today finely ground soapstone is used in the manufacturing of certain types of paper, paint and lubricants, and in dressing leather. Perfumed soaps and talcum powder contain soapstone as well.
Soapstone may seem of little value today but for thousands of years it was very much needed and used.