Ruby City Museum.
Pre-Columbian figure seems awed by the gemstone displays in the Ruby City Museum.

Ruby City Museum

Field review by the editors.

Franklin, North Carolina

In a town that calls itself the Gem Capital of the World -- because the land around it is rich with valuable rocks -- you'd expect the Ruby City Museum to showcase dazzling stones and minerals. It does, but you don't expect it to also have human skulls, a shrunken head, and a knife used to rip out beating hearts for human sacrifice.

Ruby City Museum.

The museum was assembled by Ernest "Ernie" F. Klatt (1912-1998), who first displayed its wonders in a room in his family's Franklin-area motel. That was in 1960. The collection proved so popular -- and Ernie was so devoted to it -- that it eventually eclipsed the motel and spawned a full-time gemstone business. Now in the hands of Ernie's grandson, Kevin Klatt, the small, free museum occupies a separate space behind the family's downtown jewelry and gem store.

"He kinda got the bug," said Kevin of his grandfather's passion for rocks. "It was a hobby that just got completely out of hand."

Ernie acquired the skulls, shrunken head, and pre-Columbian artifacts from another local collector, Ellis Clarke Soper, an engineer who built industrial cement plants. Ellis got his interest in collecting from his father, Daniel E. Soper, a former Michigan Secretary of State, who sold supposedly ancient relics unearthed around Detroit that featured scenes of Moses and Noah's Ark. These artifacts -- later found to be frauds -- are not in the Ruby City Museum; they wound up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and were displayed for a time as evidence of Mormonism's America-centric theology.

Ruby City Museum.
Fluorescent rocks glow under UV light.

The items on exhibit at Ruby City are all apparently genuine, and are "the largest privately-owned pre-Columbian display that I'm aware of," said Kevin, although their precise origins may never be known. "When my grandfather bought the collection, much of it was unlabeled, just in boxes," said Kevin. "I did a lot of research, the best I could, but I don't know that my grandfather ever had exact information on this stuff."

Ruby City Museum.
Human sacrifice required the proper mineral tools.

The museum is far more knowledgeable about its thousands of rocks, which include an 835-pound amethyst and the World's Largest Sapphire (385 pounds, found by a local Cherokee named Johnny Dollar). The World's Second Largest Ruby (163 carats) is not normally on display for security reasons, but anyone who visits Ruby City can see it if they ask. "Serious rockhounds leave here with a glazed look, literally washed out," said Kevin, and indeed we spent our time in the museum with a rock-happy couple on their way to Alaska, who viewed the mineral specimens with one-word whispers of awe. "Whoa." "Sweet!"

A photo tribute to Ernie, displayed on a slab of polished petrified wood, is featured in a side galley along with Ernie's flawless lapidary spheres -- "He made about a thousand of them," said Kevin -- carved from unfamiliar minerals such as Epidote and Ulexite (There are even two Berylium spheres, although nowhere near the size seen in Galaxy Quest).

Ruby City Museum.
40,000-year-old skull and "authentic shrunken head."

Kevin recalled that when school groups would visit, his grandfather would show them a particular rock from the collection and ask them to identify it. When they couldn't, he would invite the children to smell it, then lick it. Only then would he tell them what it was: fossilized dinosaur crap.

Kevin said that a large oil company -- he couldn't remember which one -- asked his grandfather to provide tens of thousands of pounds of "tumbled" semi-precious stones in the 1970s as a giveaway to gas-guzzling customers. "Then the OPEC Oil Embargo came and you couldn't get gas, so they reneged on the contract," said Kevin. "We're still selling stones my grandfather tumbled in the 1970s. We've been selling them for over 40 years!"

Recognizing the value of his grandfather's collection to his business, Kevin completely renovated the museum in 2017. "New cases, cleaning, relabeling where I could; there's a story behind pretty much everything in it," said Kevin. "I don't know of any privately owned business that has something like this. My head spins every day when I come to work."

Ruby City Museum

Address:
130 E. Main St., Franklin, NC
Directions:
Downtown, on the south side of US Hwy 441/E. Main St. at its intersection with Patton Ave.
Hours:
Tu-Sa 10-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
828-524-3967
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Wilderness Taxidermy and Wildlife MuseumWilderness Taxidermy and Wildlife Museum, Franklin, NC - 4 mi.
American Museum of the House CatAmerican Museum of the House Cat, Sylva, NC - 11 mi.
Elvis Room with JacuzziElvis Room with Jacuzzi, Whittier, NC - 16 mi.
In the region:
Forbidden Caverns, Sevierville, TN - 50 mi.

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December 18, 2017

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