MONROE, N.C. - For this group of modern-day treasure hunters, there are no yellowed maps or tales of buried riches. But on a chilly fall night during a meeting at a volunteer fire department, there was plenty of gold.
One man pulled a vial from his jeans pocket, rattling the shimmery flakes inside. Another produced a leather pouch from his jacket and carefully removed a palm-sized nugget, half-joking with the others to look, not touch.
Interest in hunting for gold has ballooned in recent months. That's because gold prices have surged to record levels, as people seek safer investments in these uncertain economic times. This week, gold futures hit an all-time high before closing at $1,087 an ounce - about 50 percent higher than a year ago.
Charlotte-area prospectors and mine operators say they're flooded with calls as the unemployed and underemployed turn to the hobby, drawn by its cheap startup costs and the potential payoff. One has even declared it the start of a "new gold rush."
But for Charlotte-area members of the Gold Prospectors Association of America - those who gather each month at the fire station on U.S. 601, just southeast of Mint Hill - it's not about striking it rich. Many have been digging and panning and sifting for decades and haven't sold a single flake.
Gold has a long history in North Carolina, beginning at Reed Gold Mine in Midland, 20 miles east of Charlotte. In 1799, farmer John Reed's 12-year-old son found a 17-pound rock while fishing, according to a sworn statement from Reed's son-in-law.
It was the nation's first documented discovery of gold. The Reeds didn't know it then, and the rock served as a doorstop for three years before the family sold it for $3.50 - though it was worth about $3,600 at the time.
More than 200 years later, the gold mine, now a state park, is still attracting crowds for a $2 chance to pan for gold. These days, staffers often bring up the soaring gold prices on tours - and find a number of repeat visitors hoping to cash in, N.C. Historic Sites regional supervisor Bob Remsburg said.
There's always been an interest in this region - nearly 60 gold mines have operated in Mecklenburg County over the years, and experts say there are trace amounts of gold on most properties in and around Charlotte. North Carolina was the nation's only gold-producing state from 1803 until 1828, and it remained a leading producer until the California gold rush of the late 1840s.
Now, Charlotte-area enthusiasts say, there's more talk of prospecting in the area than in years.
At the Cotton Patch mine in New London, a hot spot for seasoned gold-hunters from the Carolinas and neighboring states, people are calling every day for tips, owner Jeff Pickett said. There have been 35 to 40 new visitors this fall at the mine, 40 miles northeast of Charlotte, more than he's ever seen, though business is flat overall, because the economy has forced some regulars to keep a tighter hold on their discretionary spending.
"We've got a tremendous amount of new people showing up because they're unemployed or underemployed and are trying to supplement their income," he said. "We're seeing the start of a new gold rush."
Frank Waksmunski has been prospecting for almost 30 years and sometimes sells his finds - especially when gold prices climb - to help pay the bills. Growing up in Cabarrus County, he would ride his bike to Reed Gold Mine. Now, the home builder and remodeler has his own dredging equipment and spends almost every weekend searching Charlotte-area creeks.
A few friends with old family farms have started looking for gold recently, though they've kept quiet about their efforts, Waksmunski said. One, who lost his job with a heating and air conditioning business, has been looking for six months and is bringing in $100 to $175 a day, Waksmunski said.
It's more common to find tiny flakes than larger nuggets, but all the same, there's money to be made, Pickett said. Some serious gold-hunters pull $100 to $300 a week at Cotton Patch, and seasonal prospectors generally bring one to five ounces - about $5,000 at today's prices - each summer.
A lot of gold-hunting requires simple skills, such as learning "how to read the stream and how to read the earth," he said. A larger part, perhaps, is luck, he said.