Panning for gold makes a comeback in bad economy
NEW LONDON, N.C. -- Ashley Michalak and Nate Neitz are dipping pans of dirt into a long wooden trough on a hot summer day. But these aren't ordinary pans, and it's not ordinary dirt. They're gold pans, and the dirt — they hope — is pay dirt. The two cousins are panning for gold at the Cotton Patch Gold Mine in the heart of the nation's oldest gold-mining country. "It's cool. You never know what you're going to find," says Nate, 12.
Ashley, 11, has found two small pieces of gold, about the size of a pencil tip. By the end of the day, the two will bring home 10 small flakes of gold in tiny plastic bottles.
Bob Michalak, their grandfather, brought them to the gold fields just to have fun hunting treasure on a hot summer day. But the nation's shaky economy has sent gold rocketing to $950 an ounce, as investors spurn greenbacks for the yellow metal — which, they figure, will always be worth something. High gold prices, combined with increasing economic uncertainty, means that more families are including gold panning in their vacation plans. And, because a little bit of gold can become a lot of money, gold panning for some people is more than a hobby: It's a source of much-needed income.
Down the road from the Cotton Patch Gold Mine, in Midland, N.C., is the Reed Gold Mine, site of the nation's first fit of gold fever. In 1799, Conrad Reed, 12-year-old son of farmer John Reed, discovered an unusually heavy 17-pound rock, which his father used as a doorstop until selling it for the rock-bottom price of $3.50 a few years later. (It was worth $3,600 then, or about $193,000 at today's gold prices.)
Today, John Reed's gold mine is a state park and, after more than 200 years of mining, it still yields some gold. That brings 300 to 500 people a day to look at the underground galleries and pan for gold. Workers bring the gold-bearing dirt from the nearby creek, and the park charges $2 a pan.
"You get a piece of gold in every six or seven pans," says park interpreter Michael Scott. "Nobody's getting rich."