Some People just call it Kyanite Hill, although its real name is Willis Mountain, but nobody is quite sure what it is doing here, an abrupt geological surge amid the gently rolling countryside.
What is certain is that its foliage covers one of the world's largest deposits of kyanite, more often spelled cyanite, an uncommon mineral unse in everything from space vehicles to spark plugs because of its heat-resistant quanlities.
What is equally certain is that it has made millionaires of a down-home family from Southwest Virginia who ended up here after going bust in a Roanoke lumber mill during the Depression.
Kyanite has been quarried in modest quantities from this part of Southside Virginia since the 1920s, but nobody truly appreciated the grayish blue rock until the late Gene Dixon, a cigar-chomping former coal miner from the hills of Grayson County, came along in 1940.
"They were sitting around the stove one day in a country store, and about six of them just decided to see if they could go down and buy it," recalls Dixon's son, Gene jr., who runs the company today.
The "it" they bought was a bankrupt quarry in adjacent Prince Edward County. When the original six got back from Richmond that day with a deed to the quarry and its brokendown equipment, Dixon set right to work, his son said.
"He was a salesman," his recalls. "He went around the country to these compaines and knocked on these fellas' doors, and said, 'Look, we're into something good down here. You fellas want to mix it with your clay and see what happens.'"
What happened was that kyanite became a key ingredient used in kilns and steel mill furnaces, among other things, because it withstands searing heat. And in the process, Kyanite Mining Corp. expanded from its original site to include the quarry on Willis Mountain, a vast lump of 30 percent pure kyanite.
Gene Dixon Sr. became wealthy and eventually bought out the five partners whoe started with him that day by the country store stove. When he died in 1974, he left his family a growing enterprise with 130 longtime employes that had bought up kyanite reserves and expanded into farming and hotels.
He also left behind a life that became a legend.
Local residents still talk about the time the management of the posh Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach gave Dixon a choice: Put on a necktie or leave. Instead, he bought the hotel. His family still owns it.
Then there was the time a bulldozer hit his Cadillac near the company offices. The car wouldn't run, so he did what many drivers have dreamed of doing. He called the bulldozer driver over, told him to push the car into a ditch, and walked home. Or at least that's the way they tell it here. "He didn't loke the color anyway," his son says.
Since the company is privately held by the Dixon family, its financial data is secret, but Dixon describes it this way: "If it grew anymore, you couldn't deny it was big. If it got any smaller, it would just be another business." And business, he admits, isn't bad.
The demand for the heat-refracting mineral has spread. It is used today in the heat tips of spark plugs and molds for special castings, and was an early factor in the U.S. space program. "Twenty years ago they said there was a 300-year supply here," company vice president Bill Coleman said while showing a visitor the quarry that is still only scratching the surface of Willis Mountains.
That's not true anymore. Kyanite Mining Corp, now supplies half the annual U.S. demand of 70,000 tons and ships 25,000 tons more overseas. The view from Willis Mountain includes a new quarry at the company's Dast Ridge plant, and even with three other quarries in the area, the younger Dixon expects he will someday have to tap reserves the company owns in Canada. Kyanite is also found in Georgia and Idaho, and overseas in Brazil.
The company, like Dixon's father, has inspired several stories locally. One has it that even the Soviet Union uses Dixon's kyanite in its space program. Dixon denies that almost as flatly as he refuses the overtures of mining conglomerates that try to buy the Dixon family out.
Another, which Dixon confirms, has it that his father was almost outbid for the bankrupt company that day in Richmond by an agent from a large mining company who knew kyanite had potential, but couldn't get his corporate headquarters to approve the purchase.
"The man he had to talk to was at lunch," says Dixon, "so the local people got it."