It All Began At The Barbershop
By: Chris A. Phillips
I was sitting in a barber shop one day, reading a newspaper as I waited my turn. As I skimmed down the page, a small bit of news caught my eye. It mentioned the pending sale of a parcel of land for a construction project. The reason it went Blip! on my relic hunting radar screen is that I had read the history of this area and knew of its potential. I also figured that it might now be a bit easier to get permission to hunt since the property was to change hands soon anyway. As it turned out, the property owners were most gracious and hospitable.
As I prefer to ask permission in person, I visited the owners. Permission was granted, without hesitation, for the entire property, including what was to be sold. During a pleasant conversation about the history of the place, they told me that two large houses had occupied the site in succession, once antebellum, and the other late 19th century. I asked about any existing wells on the site. Only one was known and it was surrounded by a structure.
I then visited the site. The old columns and chimneys of the second mansion remained. Standing amid the ruins, the columns of the old mansion are a conspicuous reminder of a bygone age. But much less conspicuous, lying all around and just beneath the soil, was far more evidence of those times. And I was eager to get a glimpse of that past, using my metal detector.
As I walked around the area to get an idea of where to start, I noticed evidence of a previous hunter but was not discouraged. By the looks of it, he must have been in a hurry. Having permission to hunt the property, I had the peace of mind to search it thoroughly and enjoy the experience.
For my first hunt, I chose an area to the side of the ruins, a flat pine woods. Things were quiet for about 20 minutes, but then I got a solid, coin-sized signal. Out flipped a button with the South Carolina state seal! After cleaning it back home, I had another surprise: it read Porter Military Academy. Doing some research, I found that the school became Porter Military Academy in 1880, and that my button was probably from that decade. Okay, it's post Civil War, but the research was interesting and it's still a great addition to my collection.
My son Jake searched the same patch of ground that had been gone over by the previous hunter. He dug a cuff-sized button with the letters DS. We guessed "Drill Sergeant, but I later found it in a button book, listed simply as Davis School. The backmark is Shannon Miller & Crane, a firm in business from 1865 to 1892. I couldn't find anything on the school.
The next hunt took us no farther back in time, but the finds were interesting: an 1898 Barber dime, an early 20th century aluminum store token, and lead cotton bale seals. As I searched behind an old shed, I got a good signal, dug, and as I broke apart the wet clod of clay I was totally surprised to find an early version of a hypodermic syringe, apparently silver plated. It has glass "windows" on each side and a patent date of Aug. 25, 1885.
At the end of each hunt we usually had quite a bit of scrap brass and copper in our collection bags. It was a revelation to me to dig up house wiring with an outer sheathing of lead.
One day as I searched the wooded area at the edge of the property, my detector overloaded as if I'd gone over a sheet of tin. When I kicked the leaves away I was surprised to see hundreds of stainless steel tweezers, scissors, and hemostats in a jumbled pile. By the looks of them, they must have been there awhile. In my mind, I immediately pictured a theft from a school science lab and the panicked thief dumping the booty in the woods. Who knows?
A month or two went by, and I learned that clearing and grubbing had begun on the land that was sold. I was able to gain permission from the new owners and the construction boss. "Grubbing" is the preliminary clearing of an area of underbrush and trees during a construction project, and is a key time to be there with your metal detector, before the topsoil is piled up or moved away.
At last I was able to go over land that had previously been too difficult to hunt, and it wasn't long before I had almost a dozen Wheaties, some Buffaloes, and three 1902 Indian Heads. After that, I went a long while without a sound, as if the machine had been turned off, but suddenly a high-pitched "dime" hit pierced my headphones. I cut my way through a mat of roots and plunged my knife a safe distance away from and under the center of the target. As I pried upward, a root holding my knife down snapped, and up into the air flipped a small silver coin!
After I had rubbed the dirt out of my eyes, I noticed that the coin had landed right beside the hole. "Dime," I said. "Maybe a Barber, or at least a Mercury." A few seconds later, with the coin in my hand, I came to the realization that I didn't know what the heck it was. Dated 1902, it was about the size of a dime, but thinner. After researching the coin, I found out that it is a Russian 10 kopeks minted in St. Petersburg.
Returning again, I concentrated on an area in back of the old mansion. Working my way down a hill toward a gully, I ran into a patch of brass that took a while to clean out. It soon became apparent that it was the complete skeleton of an old trunk - latches, hinges, and all. I was content digging up the old trunk parts, when about the seventh target, I dug up a shield-shaped tag. Exonumia! "Please let it be a train baggage tag!" I thought. But no, I could just make out the word HOTEL. Cleaning the tag at home revealed, "Hotel Jerome, 118 Columbia S.C." After an internet search, all I was able to find was a picture postcard of the hotel with 1920s cars parked around it.
Continuing the hunt, I got a big signal that turned out to be an old brass lock with a chain attached! Despite my hopes it wasn't a railroad lock, but it did bear a patent date of 1862.
After about the tenth canning jar lid, I retired from the gully and found myself back on the flat pine woods. After a few minutes of silence I got a "coin" reading on my detector. As I hacked out a plug, for some reason I didn't anticipate much, maybe because of all the lids I'd dug earlier. Then I flipped the plug over, and there it sat gleaming in the sun for the first time in ages... an eagle, surrounded by rays, with Quar. Dol. at the bottom! The date? 1853!
We continued to visit the site as it gave up a few keepers each time. One target under the pine trees proved to be a black, coat-sized button. After careful cleaning, it turned out to be a South Carolina button from the Civil War period.
One of my last finds at the site stands out from all the others. I had run into another patch of brass one day and dug several pieces of furniture hardware when I got another signal. After recovering the rectangular piece of brass, I struggled to make out what it was in the deepening twilight. It was about 2-1/4" x 3" and had clipped corners. I finally made out the design on the front: an intertwined SC. It was a South Carolina Militia plate!
I had seen a lot of pictures of Civil War plates in magazines and websites and strongly suspected that this one was from the same period. However, the site had produced artifacts from those times all the way up to today, and I just did not know enough about plates to be sure. A militaria appraiser identified it as a postwar militia plate. It was explained that the first militia plates had narrow tongues on the back, but those on later, postwar plates were wider. Nevertheless, I had a great time finding it and learned something, too.
Indeed, I learned a lot from all the artifacts that I dug. It was a great relic hunting odyssey, and I had the pleasure of meeting some fantastic people in the process. And it all began at the barbershop.
CHRIS A. PHILLIPS and his son live in South Carolina. Chris says, "I've always had an interest in history and relic hunting. Recently, I began working as a GPS and GIS Technician."