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TOPIC: Artifact club: on the trail of historical treasures

Artifact club: on the trail of historical treasures 7 years 9 months ago #9322

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Roger Montgomery, of Raytown, Mo., right, laughs as Steve Warren of Overland Park, Kan., shows off his find of three tent stakes. “I always find three, never four!" Warren joked. Both are members of the Mid-Western Artifact Society Metal Detecting Club.

By Jill Draper / McClatchy-Tribune News Service

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They look for places where pioneers heading west climbed from covered wagons to assess a creek crossing. Places where blue coats and gray coats camped and perhaps traded gunfire. Places where families picnicked and played at the water’s edge.

And when they find these places, they look for buried treasure.

Once a month they gather to wave their wands across the earth in search of traces of the past before a modern-day picnic of grilled hot dogs and potluck fare. Welcome to a typical meeting of the Mid-Western Artifact Society.

One recent Sunday morning, two dozen members combed the grounds of an old Boy Scout camping spot at the southern edge of Swope Park in Kansas City, Mo. After a little socializing, it was time to do some “ground fishing," as metal detecting is sometimes known.

Some members wandered with their instruments in the shade of old oak trees and at the edges of woods. Others paced in a grid pattern across open, grassy areas. All wore some type of utility apron to pocket trash as well as any treasures.

Their findings would not be remarkable: a Red Ryder belt buckle, three Mercury dimes (also known as Winged Liberty dimes, minted from 1916-1945), a silver quarter, a World War II German artillery badge, a Boy Scout neckerchief slide and three tent stakes — not nearly as lucrative as trips to an old swimming hole in south Kansas City where the group has uncovered some 200 coins.

Every item tells a story

But the loot isn’t really the point. What matters is the thrill of the hunt, camaraderie and a little outdoor exercise.

“What’s the story behind this stuff? How did it get here? That’s what I like to think about," says Bob Kerr of Miami County, Kan., who keeps his findings, neatly sorted, in a plastic tackle box.

His thoughts are echoed by club president Dan Spielbusch of Overland Park, Kan. “When I was in high school, I hated history with a passion," he recalls. “Now I love it."

Passion is a common trait among metal detector enthusiasts. Few go as far as one aficionado who was buried several years ago in Kansas City’s Floral Hills Cemetery with his metal detector (polished, with fresh batteries) and a silver half-dollar between his fingers.

But “I’m hooked" is a frequent refrain among club members on the forum page of their well-organized website ( They post tales about digging up their first silver (usually a Mercury dime). They trade coin books and study old atlases and plat maps. They keep tomes such as “Uniform Buttons of the United States" and “History of the Dog Tag" by their reading chairs. And they share their first experiences with humor and humility.

One message board entry reads: “I went up and down a dry creek bed on a private lane to find enough barbed wire to go all the way to Missouri. Enough scrap iron to build a ship, 10 pounds of aluminum cans, a golf ball and some great fossils. Then I went to the local park to find pop tops and tabs, some other trash and five quarters, three dimes and three pennies. Hello McDonald’s. What a great first day!"

Although not quite as old as the Civil War, the first metal detectors date to the late 1800s. Alexander Graham Bell used a crude machine in an attempt to locate an assassin’s bullet in President James Garfield’s body. The search was unsuccessful, befuddled by the fact that the president was lying on a bedwith steel springs.

Detectors were used to find landmines and other explosives during World War II, and later by the mining industry to locate ore-bearing rocks. But detecting as a hobby took off only in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when equipment became more portable and affordable. Some club members recall ordering self-assembly kits from the back of comic books and magazines like Popular Mechanics for as little as $14.

Today’s high-end detectors for hobbyists now run between $1,000 and $1,300 and use computer technology that allows the user to set sensitivity, discrimination, tracking speed, threshold volume and other factors. Beginners often make do with inexpensive wands from yard sales and pawn shops.

Whatever the equipment, there is a certain art honed by experience and technique in locating buried objects. Silver, for instance, is relatively easy to distinguish from trash, but gold rings up like an aluminum can pull tab.

Show and tell

The group’s monthly meetings follow a standard format: two hours of hunting at a spot where they have obtained permission to search, followed by a potluck picnic and a show-and-tell competition, where items discovered at any point since the last meeting are placed in an organizer with clear plastic pockets.

There are seven categories for the items: most coins, most silver, oldest coin, best coin, best jewelry, best military and most unusual. Votes are tallied and small prizes go to the winners.

Club members found 2,416 coins in June. In May, when the weather was better, the haul was 4,426.

A different type of hunt takes place each September, when the society buries 1,500 silver coins, 500 wheat cents (a penny made from 1909-1958 with Lincoln on the front and two wheat sheaves on the back) and 75 prize tokens at a private location for a members-only event.

John Irby, the artifact society’s vice president, sometimes brings his personal collection to meetings to encourage newcomers who attend. In Swope Park he shows off a tray of metal trade tokens distributed by merchants at stagecoach stops and train stations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like today’s coupons, he says, the tokens offered discounts (2 ½ cents, 5 cents, 25 cents off) for merchandise or a saloon bill.

A second tray contains Civil War relics: heel plates from boots, buttons from uniforms and bullets — lots of them, including some that were flattened into discs to serve as checkers or poker chips. Irby picks up a piece of lead molded into a teardrop shape and rolls it around on his palm. After more than 100 years buried in the dirt, the surface has turned chalky white.

“Can you imagine something like that flying through the air at you?" he asks. “You know a soldier touched that. It takes you so far back in time. There’s a real connection."

Irby, of Osawatomie, Kan., likes to research surrounding small towns for possible hunting sites, especially areas abandoned after floods or other setbacks pushed residents out. He dug up his oldest coin, an 1810 Capped Bust silver half dollar, in a field. “When you find something like that you have to sit down for a minute," he says. “It’s a rush."


The group recognizes that some people use metal detectors in unscrupulous ways, and it emphasizes the need to follow local ordinances (listed on the artifact society website) as well as a strict code of ethics.

“Remember, there are no un-owned pieces of property!" writes Don Vickers, who manages the website. “Make sure you know who owns it and who is responsible for granting permission before you attempt to detect it."

Vickers, who also blogs about the hobby, says his best finds have come from approaching older landowners in older houses on back roads. If the yard is a bit weedy and the road is unpaved, chances are even better.

“People who have spent their entire lives in a house are usually curious about what oddities from their past you’re going to find," he writes on the website. “They’re almost excited to have you there."

Of course, property owners often refuse a request from club members to examine their yards. But enough say yes to make the hunt worth pursuing.

What happens to what’s dug up? That’s usually negotiated at the beginning. Occasionally property owners will request a 5 0/50 split, but most are content to have a look and then let the hunter leave with any relics or coins discovered.

“I always reassure the owners that it’s just a simple hobby with small rewards," Irby says. “I tell them I’m not going to make a mess — no deep or big holes to retrieve a coin — and I show them everything I find. If it’s a Mercury dime or a piece of jewelry they might have lost at some point, I let them have it."

Forty years ago, when the world was mostly undetected, coins and relics were easier to find, club members are not deterred by well-hunted spots.

“People have been dropping stuff for thousands of years," Warren points out. “They’re going to continue to drop stuff. We’re going to continue to hunt for it."

Lost and found

Since its establishment in 1976, the Mid-Western Artifact Society has assisted almost every local police and sheriff’s department and occasionally the FBI. Sometimes members and their metal detectors are called to a crime scene to look for guns and bullets. Other times they provide a final check to prove that evidence cannot be found.

They also are happy to help people find lost items. They have many stories about lost wedding bands. Here’s one:

A couple married just three months were driving on U.S. 69 near Drexel, Mo., when the wife removed her wedding ring and placed it on the console. The husband joked, “If you’re not going to wear that, I’ll just throw it out," as he dangled the diamond ring near the open window. She reached for it in alarm and accidentally knocked the ring, worth about $4,000, from his hand. It flew through the air and landed in the highway median.

When the couple contacted the society for help, they knew just where it had landed — within 1 mile!

“Bob Kerr and I were out for six hours looking for that thing," says Roger Ring, who helps coordinate the society’s police hunt committee. “We finally got it — one of our best finds."

Courtesy The Bulletin
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