You Tube algorithms know me well. A few weeks ago, they suggested a metal detector video.
Within hours, I’d dipped my toes into the world of treasure hunting with some young men scoping a Victorian yard in Kansas, a Southerner searching a Civil War site and a hiker from New Hampshire braving swamps and underbrush to locate a 1600s cellar hole.
I was mesmerized.
The most prolific and intriguing detectors are the Hoover Boys, a group from Baltimore who are You Tube’s metal detecting rock stars. Bound by the ethics of not revealing where they are, these modern-day treasure hunters are careful to conceal their locales, which is as it should be.
Having vicariously watched these men (and a young woman or two) hear the signal, then using spades and trowels to overturn a chunk of soil, I’m as breathless as they are to see what’s found. A small green disc can be anything from a corroded modern penny to a priceless Spanish real. Until now, I had no idea that Spanish coins were among the first used by Americans and were considered legal tender until 1857.
Metal detecting is all about coin collecting with bits of lost jewelry, buckles and buttons thrown in. I’ve shared their frustration being fooled by modern bottle caps and tuna cans versus such trophies as a Morgan silver dollar with the image of a freshly permed Lady Liberty. If you’re like me, you received one of those coins for your birthday as a kid, back in the days when one would actually spend a silver dollar for a dollar’s worth of goods.
If you collected coins as a youngster, you probably kept them in blue Whitman folders purchased at—where else–the dime store.
I remember searching my parents’ change purses for wheat pennies, buffalo nickels and fairly common Mercury head dimes. Once I found a coin worth keeping, I’d press them into its space in my blue folder. I eventually found one or two steel pennies from World War II, but never the elusive 1943 copper “error” pennies. The S version is reportedly worth a million dollars today; the D, $1.5 million.
As any US coin collector knows, “S” stands for San Francisco mint, “D for Denver and “P” or no mark means Philadelphia.
Every silver coin minted before 1965 was basically that—silver. All that changed (no pun intended) with the introduction of debased “sandwiched” coins with a layer of copper. This happened the year I was in fifth grade. My Whitman folders, I noticed, stopped at 1964 for good reason. Silver coins were one thing; sandwiched ones were quite another, and I was witnessing the end of an era.
On a recent trip to visit my friend Mary in Delaware, I primed the pump, telling her about the Hoover Boys and what they were finding on old properties in her neck of the woods, or rather, sandy farm fields.
Intrigued, she asked around and managed to borrow a metal detector from her neighbor. That first day we were off to an abandoned farmhouse and, later, to Woodland Beach at low tide, braving brisk winds and chilly temperatures, listening for beeps and growls from the borrowed machine. We quickly realized that metal detecting is a fair-weather hobby that requires more than a fair amount of patience. Our first time out yielded rusty nails and spikes and a pop tab that, for a second or two, looked an awfully lot like a dime.
The land doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Maybe next time I’m on the Eastern Shore I’ll take a longer look at some old land. There’s something magical about digging up coins and other items long-lost, knowing that they haven’t seen the light of day in generations. Maybe not since Colonial America.
There’s something magical about discovering and actually holding objects that were lost years or centuries ago. I think of the lost-object stories my mother told me driving through farm
country where she grew up. I wondered if those objects might still exist. Now I know that they do. Though discs and planters and plows have scraped the soil for more than a century, metal tends to stick around, as do side attractions of this hobby: arrowheads, pottery, beads, bottles and such.
I also know that it’s far easier to be an armchair detector and watch someone else brave insects, snakey vines, brambles, mud and weather extremes on You Tube.
But whether it’s “real” or imagined, hunting for treasure intrigues all ages. My five-year-old granddaughter who has watched me watch the Hoover Boys, told me the other day to turn on You Tube and watch “those metal detectors” instead of cartoons.
Meanwhile, I’m asking Santa for a metal detector and permissions to search old properties.