Reprinted From the Grit, Volume 43
Written by Jeff F.
You'll see them combing the beaches and scouring old school yards, clutching what looks like a space-age vacuum cleaner and listening intently for a signal to indicate treasure or trash buried in the sand or soil.
These are modern day '49ers, a new breed of prospectors.
But today's treasure hunters, adventurous souls who use metal-detection devices to locate buried coins, jewelry and other artifacts, differ greatly from their California gold rush counterparts.
In striking contrast to the intentions of many prospectors panning for gold in the 1800s, many of today's treasure seekers report they aren't out to make a fortune or lay stake to some large claim.
"We're definitely not doing this for monetary gain," says prospector Darrell Peterson, of Hayward, Wis. "We do it as a hobby, not for profit. You do it because you enjoy it."
Peterson points out that although he has been pursuing his hobby nine years, he probably hasn't found enough valuables yet to pay for his metal detector.
"It takes long enough to find enough just to buy the batteries," he jokes.
For Peterson and other members of the Trash, Treasure and Artifacts Club in Hayward, the old "finders keepers" adage doesn't necessarily hold true. Club members try to put jewelry such as class rings back into the hands of their original owners whenever possible.
"There's nothing more fun than finding a class ring from 10, 20, 30 years ago and giving it back," says Fred Miller, another member of the treasure-hunting club.
Miller points out that the club offers its expertise to individuals who have lost items such as bracelets or necklaces.
And when members discover items of historic value, Miller adds, they often donate those relics to museums and historic societies.
Items that Miller has found and donated to museums include a copper spearhead dating back to the 15th century and a cannon fuse he found near Brownsville, Texas, that was traced to the Mexican War.
Although he has been hunting buried treasures for 12 years, Miller says he only recently persuaded his wife, Donna, to become involved in the hobby.
"Once you pop your first silver, you're hooked," Donna Miller says.
She says most of her treasure-seeking activities have taken place at events known as treasure hunts, where coins, jewelry and other items are buried in the ground by the sponsor of the even, only to be unearthed again by those who pay to participate in the hunt.
While Jim Brining, of Chesterland, Ohio, says he too enjoys treasure hunts, he says he particularly like to set out for a day of detecting at parks, ski slopes, school yards and church grounds.
Brining says he has found several watches, a gold bracelet, thousands of coins and countless pull tabs from soft-drink cans since he took a shine to metal detecting about 14 years ago.
"The detectors don't owe me anything," he says, alluding to the fact that what he has found has more than paid the purchase price for the machine.
Brining points out that last year, during one-month vacation in which he scanned parts of Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Canada, he was able to dig up more than 1,600 coins.
Many of the coins he finds are only worth face value, although he counts among his treasures an Indian Head penny from the first decade of the 19th century.
He says that coin shooting is his chief interest when metal detecting, although he "gets a bang" out of finding gold jewelry.
"Sometimes you're going to get nothing," Brining notes. "Other times you come back with some real goodies."
"If I can find 10 coins in an hour, then it's worthwhile going, even if they are only pennies," he says. "You don't go with the idea of finding a whole lot of money."
Brining says the money that he does find while prospecting is placed in a jug and later (buried in the yard?) taken to the bank.
All of the treasure hunters interviewed by Grit today they feel their hobby has been growing steadily over the years.
"I think it's becoming more popular," Brining notes. "I know I've convinced a half-dozen people to buy detectors myself."
Peterson maintains "the spirit of adventure" remains the allure of the hobby. He points out the Trash, Treasure and Artifacts club has grown to over 50 members in just four years of existence.
But Thomas, of South Williamsport, PA, notes there are some hunters who search for buried treasures on a professional level.
Thomas, who invented and manufactures a device known as the Electroscope®, this summer held what he claims was the first world championships for metal detecting at a ski resort in north-central Pennsylvania.
The main event drew 30 professional treasure hunters who competed for a $25,000 grand-prize package using a combination of Electroscopes® and conventional metal detectors.
Electroscopes® are long-range metal detectors that he says can signal a metal object buried in the found from nearly a quarter-mile away. Conventional metal detectors can only pick up signals from metal items that are directly under the sweep of the device.
Electroscopes®, he says, can detect a gold ring buried six feet deep.
He says the world championship was the first step in turning the hobby into a sporting event.
"That was history right there," Thomas says of the hunt. "It was the first time treasure hunters ever competed against each other."
He says he envisions eventually conducting a series of playoff events that will lead up to the world-championship event.
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