First graduate prominent in southeastern mining operations


Joel Watkins: the first graduate of the geology program at Virginia Tech Joel Watkins: the first graduate of the geology program at Virginia Tech

The first graduate of the geology (now geosciences) program at Virginia Tech was Joel Hill Watkins from Charlotte Court House, Va., who successfully and proudly finished all requirements with the VPI Class of 1907. 

In 1911, Watkins published a book called Cotillion Figures (New York, The Neale Publishing Co.) that showed diagrams of floor patterns for more than 20 party game ballroom dances. 

It appears that prior to 1910 Watkins was employed as a geologist by the Southern Railroad. While working for the railroad, he is reported to have discovered a deposit of crystalline turquoise at the Bishop Copper Prospect, near Lynch Station in Campbell County, Va.

He is also listed as the draftsman on a 1:500,000 Geological Map of Virginia published in 1913.

Watkins was perhaps the first kyanite entrepreneur in the United States. During the 1920s, he began purchasing kyanite deposits in the southeast. By 1927, he was involved with kyanite mining at Bakers Mountain, located in Prince Edward County, Va., as a partner in the McLanahan-Watkins Company. 

This mining operation changed ownership several times until 1943, when a group of local investors bought the mine and began operating it under the name Kyanite Products Corporation. In 1945, Gene Dixon Sr. and his father, Guy A. Dixon, bought out the other owners and formed Kyanite Mining Corporation. This company, currently owned by Gene B. Dixon Jr., is the world’s largest kyanite producer. 

At one time, Watkins owned a famous mineral locality at Graves Mountain, Ga., which he bought in 1940.

Watkins published at least two articles on kyanite mining. His article, “Economic Aspects of Kyanite,” in the Virginia Geological Survey Bulletin 38 (1932) describes the mining operation at Bakers Mountain, and in 1942, he published “Kyanite in Graves Mountain, Georgia” in the Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society.

In the fall of 2007, more than a dozen descendants of Joel Watkins, including his son, David Watkins Sr., gathered for the Department of Geosciences 100th anniversary celebration at The Inn at Virginia Tech.

“It was a most distinguished honor to have the Watkins family with us at our celebration,” said Robert Tracy, department chair. “One of them even traveled from England to celebrate the geosciences department’s first century of accomplishments.”