Perched precipitously at the top of Howard’s Gap between two mountains that loom over Tryon below, Saluda has always been a kind of frontier town. It straddles the border between Polk and Henderson counties, a rural outpost for both. Its steep terrain formed a forbidding barrier for the railroad expansion of the late 19th-century, with sometimes spiky negotiations for rights-of-way with the two families who owned much of the town, the Paces and the Thompsons. Even the town’s main street, a National Historic Landmark with ruddy brick facades overlooking the railroad tracks cresting the fearsome Saluda Grade, seems imported from a western movie set.
To complete the picture, Saluda once boasted its own town character in the person of William Crawford Ashley — W.C. to the locals. “He was a builder,” says W.C.’s daughter-in-law, Martha Ashley. “He moved here right at the start of World War Two, and was in charge of all the WPA construction projects in Polk County. And he liked rocks.”
Starting with specimens gathered from the hills around town by the locals, W.C. amassed an impressive collection of gems and minerals during forays through Western North Carolina and beyond, his fascination with rocks such common knowledge around town that folks started calling him The Old Prospector. “He was a good talker,” W.C.’s granddaughter, Becky Shropshire, remembers. “He’d drive around and make friends with people, especially kids, and ask them if they had any interesting rocks. That way, when he came back to start collecting, they wouldn’t chase him off.”
Over 20 years, W.C. had amassed enough rocks that Martha’s husband, W.C.’s son Allen, set up the Polk County Rock and Mineral Museum in 1962 to display them. “When I was a little girl I used to pester my father until he took me when we were visiting my grandparents in Saluda,” says Cindy Tuttle of the Historic Saluda Committee, the town’s preservation group. Cindy especially remembered the fluorescent rock room, with fragments of opals, rubies and amethysts that eerily glowed yellow, red or blue under a black light. The museum sat right on Main Street, in a building now occupied by the Saluda Grade Cafe, and was a noted tourist attraction until it closed in 1973, when new owners of the building had other purposes in mind.
For nearly 30 years after the museum’s closing, the rocks sat in boxes stored in the Ashley family home just a few blocks from downtown until, about ten years ago, Becky and her brother Eric helped their father carefully reassemble the museum in three upstairs rooms, the collection only open to viewers by appointment. A rare public opening took place early this month during Saluda’s biannual Home and Garden Tour, the Ashley home being one of Saluda’s first boarding houses, known early in the last century as the Crystal Springs Inn. Plans are now afoot to move the entire collection to its own building in Eric’s nearby backyard, although the appointment-only system will remain in place. “No one wants to sit there all day waiting for people,” Martha says.
About 60 percent of the rocks are local, many from the nearby ridges of the Greenville watershed, and most of the others from mineral-rich sites in McDowell and Cleveland counties. “My grandfather did some mining for a time during the war,” Becky says during a recent tour of the museum. “Minerals were important to the war effort, especially micah, which there’s a lot of around here. Micah doesn’t burn, and I’m not sure what the military used it for, but it was so important that miners were exempted from serving in the armed forces.”