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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (10/2002) Relic Hunter (06/2002) Relic Hunter (11/2002)   Vol. 36 October 2002 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the October 2002 edition of W&ET Magazine

Ye Olde Button Factory

By: Ed Fedory

"Well, maybe it wasn't a button factory, but it sure produced buttons like one!"

These words were spoken as Jimmy dumped bag after bag of buttons and other interesting relics of the past onto the surface of my workshop bench. Within seconds, my fingers were flying among the displayed buttons, checking for backmarks, shank attachments, and interesting surface features. In a glance you could tell that the buttons spanned well over a century of construction and style. You might find buttons that span that number of years around most old cellar holes, but never in such quantity. It was a puzzle to me- that is, until I heard the whole story.

When all of the facts behind this interesting site were revealed, it threw me back to some of my earliest memories? to fruit cake tins filled to the brim with buttons by my grandmother? to the sound of a bell and the unfamiliar clatter of a horse's hooves as it pulled an old cart down the paved road? memories of a young boy running to the window and then to the sidewalk to watch the giant animal slowly make its way up the busy city street. I remember the old man sitting high up on the wagon, the reins loosely held between old gnarled fingers. With barely a twitch of the leather reins, the horse would stop on the side of the street where a housewife would be standing with a bundle of old and tattered clothing. After a short, negotiation the bundle was thrown on the massive pile of clothes in the bed of the wagon. The old man would climb back into his seat, make a clucking sound with his mouth, and horse, wagon, and man would continue their seemingly endless route along the streets of the city.

I doubt if this job exists outside of Third World nations today, but for a young boy, it was always great to watch and listen every time the "Rag Man" went by my grandmother's house.

I guess we were recycling even before we had a name for it. With immigrant frugality, my grandmother would clip the buttons from clothing that had long outlived their usefulness and put them in a tin, before dealing with the Rag Man. Apparently, there must have been some pretty wealthy people around who didn't need all those hundreds of spare buttons my grandmother hoarded, and I guess such affluence is the genesis of this story.

The site of the old mill was clearly marked on the 19th century county map. In an area abounding with creeks and streams, we've had all kinds of mills in the past? sawmills, grain mills, tanning mills? mills for gunpowder production, and even a mill for making wooden handles for all the 19th century's hand tools. So, I guess it must have been quite a surprise when buttons started turning up at high frequency on the site Jimmy Meade had just found.

"You couldn't walk more than a couple feet without getting a strong signal running through your headset," related Jimmy. "I thought it was pretty neat finding several early buttons when I first started searching the site, but then I saw that buttons were pretty much all that I was digging. By the end of that initial hunt, I thought I had found the site of a button manufacturing center, except for one fact: a few of the buttons may have been similar, but no two were alike."

I looked over the buttons spread out on the top of the bench and saw buttons from the 18th century in a corner with two-piece buttons from the 19th century? buttons of brass mixed with buttons of cast pewter? a Militia Rifleman's button sitting in the center. It certainly was an amazing assortment!

I guess you couldn't process the fabric unless they were sans buttons, and that undesired part of the shirt, skirt, or uniform was pitched out the window of the mill. Seeing a Union Civil War era button sitting among the masses presented me with the picture of some old veteran whose closet had just been cleaned out and sent to the mill after his death? the rag heap for a uniform once so proudly worn.

One particular button caught my eye as Jimmy dumped a small bag containing only a couple of finds. On the surface was a log cabin, and I knew I had seen the button before. My mind immediately leaped to the fact that Abe Lincoln had been born in a log cabin and that the button might have been associated with his run for the presidency, but on checking Albert's button book, I saw that I was only half right. It was a presidential campaign button, but one dating from the campaign of 1840 when William Henry Harrison ran against Martin Van Buren. According to Albert's book, there were over 50 variations of the Harrison buttons, most containing the image of a log cabin.

It was obvious, from the variety of artifacts recovered in the area of the mill, that there had probably been some dwellings in the area. I mentioned this to Jimmy, and he confirmed that at least part of his finds were made around an old limestone foundation that sat near the creek, scant yards from the site of the mill.

"My first target near the foundation was another button which was larger and older than most I had found at the mill," related Jimmy. "I really only got an idea of how old the site might have been when I dug up my first shoe buckle. I was able to recover two buckles from the site, along with a Colonial era keg spigot and a number of rifle balls. Interestingly, one of the balls had been flattened and pierced to be used as a fishing sinker."

With few additional targets being found in the area of the foundation, Jimmy went back to his search of the mill. "I got this one particularly strong signal and I figured it was just another button, but once I had isolated the target in a clump of soil and saw the image of a lady on the face, I knew the hunt would be heading in a new direction. It was the first and only large cent I was to find on the site, but it sure got my heart pumping! It wasn't too long after that when I pulled a piece of silver from the ground. Initially, I thought I had found an old, silver-plated button, but when I saw the Seated Liberty and the date of 1876 on the quarter, I was amazed."

Jimmy recovered a number of Indian Head cents and a Seated Liberty dime from the site, but the main target was always the buttons. "They were everywhere!" according to Jimmy, who seemed to get more excited as he continued with his tale. "Even today, when I go back to the site, I never know exactly what I will be pulling from the ground, but I am sure of one thing: the majority of the targets will still be buttons!"

In earlier days, if someone had said to me, "Hey, we're going to search the site of an old rag mill? do you want to come along?" I'm pretty sure of what my answer would have been. I would never have associated rags with buttons and coins. Today, I am shocked that I hadn't seen what now appears to be obvious, and my answer to that relic hunting question has certainly changed.

"What time do you want to leave? I'll be the Rag Man for the day!"

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