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March-April 2015

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In Memoriam: Terry Lee Ledford (1956–2014)

The world of mineralogy lost a friend, a fine mineral dealer, and one of the best field collectors in the Southeast with the death of Terry Ledford on 17 September 2014. Terry died in a freak mining accident in Hiddenite, North Carolina. He is survived by his second wife Cheryl, son Ryan, and many other relatives. He is remembered as being a loving husband and an “amazing, supportive father.” Terry was fifty-seven years old.

Among his contributions to mineralogy, he is best known for his 2009 discovery of a 310-carat emerald, later to be cut as the 65-carat “Carolina Emperor,” the largest faceted emerald found in North America. This remarkable find came naturally to Terry. He grew up and lived in the mineral-rich district of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, and spent his entire life prospecting for gems and mineral specimens.

Terry Ledford holding the uncut Carolina Emperor 30 feet below grade at the Adams farm, August 2009. Photo courtesy Jeff Schlottman.

Terry was born 26 September 1956, the third son of the late Ted and Lora Ledford. Ted, a former mica miner, had a rock shop and operated the Crabtree Emerald mine in Spruce Pine. As young boys, Terry and his late brother Gary ran a gem stand on weekends; they later helped their father at the Crabtree. The two brothers worked the Henson's Creek aquamarine mine in nearby Avery County and opened their own rock shop, Emerald City, where they sold mostly local specimens they had collected.

The game-changer for Terry happened between 1998 and 2001 after he and his late wife, Jean, had many productive digs at Graves Mountain, Georgia. Recovering thousands of exceptional rutile and lazulite crystals, they set up in Tucson to sell their specimens and had a number of successful shows there. This experience “kick started” Terry into the world of high-end minerals. He closed the shop and dedicated himself to pursuing specimens for the connoisseur.

In 2001 Terry and owner Renn Adams formed a partnership to mine the Adams farm in Hiddenite, North Carolina. The property had been known for hiddenite and emerald since 1880 and had, up to that time, been operated as a fee site. Terry began mining it with a track hoe, and in 2002 he recovered fifteen hundred hiddenite crystals including a 9.1-cm crystal considered the largest American specimen to date. The operation produced thousands of hiddenite crystals, in addition to specimen-quality siderite, calcite, and quartz crystals as well as rutile needles in mica. It was not, however, until the 2009 discovery of the Carolina Emperor that a significant emerald find occurred on the site. Two years later, Terry hit an emerald pocket that produced some of the largest emerald crystals found in North America. Three uncut crystals from that find, weighing from just under 600 to more than 1,200 carats, along with the “Emperor,” were purchased by an anonymous buyer and donated to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

In 2005, Terry began what would become a series of evolving partnerships to mine and expand the amethyst mine at Jacksons Crossroads, Georgia. Previously a weekend operation, the pace increased as did the production of specimens. The site was already renowned for producing the best amethyst in the United States, and through his efforts many outstanding Jacksons Crossroads amethyst specimens went into collections worldwide.

Those who knew Terry recall a “super nice guy” with a great sense of humor, easy to get along with and always smiling. He shared site information with other field collectors and worked with mineral clubs to allow collectors access to Jacksons Crossroads. He was also quiet and not one to be the center of attention. He loved coffee, and it was said that the best thing you could do was to bring him a fresh cup down in the pit where he was digging.

As a dealer, he is remembered as being honest and fair, but also as an entrepreneur, a shrewd businessman, and a good negotiator. He had a sharp eye for selecting his top specimens and was keenly aware of their value; over the years he developed the contacts to get specimens to major collectors. He also dealt fairly with the “average” collector and made sure his specimens ended up in museums through personal donations and working with donors. Some of the specimens went into his personal collection, and at the time of his death he was planning a coffee-table book on the collection.

Mostly, Terry should be remembered more as a miner than a dealer. He had a knack for knowing where to dig, combining his lifelong experience, intuition, and “nose” for success that led him to outstanding specimen finds where others had dug and failed. He was a hard worker, driven and tireless when he was on the hunt. He was also very conscientious when recovering specimens and would stop and carefully wrap every piece for safe transport and later inspection.

Terry died while prospecting a new site that had the potential for producing emeralds and hiddenites. Those who knew him say that he was happiest when he was field collecting. Said one, “Every time I think of Terry, I think of his smile, his grin, because he was doing what he loved.”

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My sincere thanks go to all who shared their stories and insights on Terry: Steve Barr, Bob Cook, Julian Gray, Rick Jacquot, Chester Karwoski, Ryan Ledford, Mark Randle, Jeff Schlottman, Shaun Shelton, and Mike Streeter. This portrait of Terry would not have been possible without their help.

Author's postscript: Bob Cook, Julian Gray, and I are publishing an updated book on the Minerals of Georgia. Months before Terry's death we selected what we felt was the best photograph for the cover: an outstanding amethyst from Jacksons Crossroads, donated to Tellus Science Museum by Terry Ledford.

Jose Santamaria is the executive director of Tellus Science Museum, Cartersville, Georgia.

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