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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (03/2004) Relic Hunter (02/2004) Relic Hunter (04/2004)   Vol. 38 March 2004 
The Relic Hunter
As seen in the March 2004 edition of W&ET Magazine

An Old Soldier's Home

By: Ed Fedory

Older folks might remember them... deer hunters often stumble upon them... relic hunters search for them... and more than likely, you probably have at least a few of them just outside your neighborhood. They're often hidden, sometimes quite evident, and always interesting. They usually reflect the lifestyles of generations and are time capsules of American living and history. One of the key things about them that you never know exactly what will come out of the soil around them. This last statement was given further credence about three weeks ago when Jimmy Mead arrived at my woodshop with a bag of recent finds. Jimmy had been doing what Jimmy does best... finding and searching old cellar holes!

"There wasn't much left to the old place," Jimmy told me. "Just a few foundation stones, some old apple trees, a stone-lined, hand-dug well, and a big depression in the ground. I found it last year when I was deer hunting, and if it had been any other season, I probably would've walked right by it. It took a series of heavy frosts to knock down all the thick weeds and brush."

Jimmy had lined up a couple of other relic hunting spots for later in the day if the first site didn't pan out, but within the first half hour he knew he had his search plan for the rest of the day.

"You know how it is," Jimmy continued. "You get to a site and you find that either the inhabitants didn't have much to begin with, or someone had been there with a metal detector before you. In fact, I could tell that someone had been digging bottles on the back slope of the site. When I scuffed my boots through the leaves, I could see broken earth and glass fragments. I only hoped the bottle hunter didn't have a metal detector with him."

"I started my search in the area where I suspected the front of the house was, and began sweeping my coil around and through the brush and leaves. Within the first few minutes I had pulled a couple of shotgun shells from the ground, but the third target proved to be an Indian Head penny. I kept searching, and minutes later, only a few yards away, I pulled the first large cent. I knew then where I would be spending the rest of my day!"

Anyone who has searched an old dwelling site knows the kind of relics that can come out of the ground. After a while your collecting bag is filled with sections of roof flashing, an old key, a brass lock, furniture fittings, curtain rings, and the unavoidable horseshoes. If you've ever visited one of the cellar holes I've hunted, you'll usually find the latter hanging from a tree branch... I gave up carrying horseshoes around a long time ago.

Jimmy's site was little different from your typical cellar hole site- except for two things. There was an unusual amount of coins around the site, spanning well over a century. They ranged from large cents and Indian Heads to relatively modern silver coins. There was one particular area on the site where Jimmy recovered a "miniature glory hole" of silver, probably dropped by a hunter at some point in the past. The other feature that was unique about the site was the buttons that it yielded. There were several large, one-piece brass and copper coat buttons, and three really nice old military buttons.

It was the military buttons that first caught my eye as Jimmy spread his finds across the surface of the workbench. Two were early militia riflemen buttons from around the 1820s, while the third was an officer's button from the 13th Regiment of the United States infantry, dating from the War of 1812. It was easy to see why Jimmy kept referring to the site as the "old soldier's home"!

We'll probably never know who that old soldier was, but from a little effort in the area of research, we sure know where he was. The 13th Regiment was formed on July 16, 1798, and was later mustered out on January 11, 1800. During the War of 1812 the 13th Regiment was combined with the 5th Regiment and took part in a series of long engagements. Most of these engagements took place on the Niagara Frontier, and culminated with the Battle of Plattsburg, a site about 200 miles north of where the button was found.

It would not have been unusual for our "old soldier" to have joined a local militia following his active duty as a regular. In researching the history of our county, I have found that every town had its own company of militia and would meet at local farmers' fields for drilling and military exercises. It seems that the militia was almost a social experience during those days prior to the Civil War.

According to Jimmy, it was one of the most productive cellar hole sites he had ever searched.

For those just entering the hobby, or for those who want to expand their interests and metal detecting experiences with older coins and interesting artifacts, cellar holes and early dwelling sites might just be the answer. There are plenty of them out there, and finding them isn't really that difficult. Here's a little "primer" for those who want to continue the search.

Some Roads Lead Nowhere

It's a fact. Just go to your local library, get your hands on an early county atlas, and compare the road system today with the way the roads ran in the previous century. There are sure to be a couple of surprises awaiting you. Some of those early roads no longer exist. With the advent of the internal combustion engine and paved roads... with people moving faster from point A to point B, a large number of those secondary roads went through an evolution of neglect until they became little more than wagon trails and were eventually abandoned. Many of the homes that once fronted these roads became less desirable to live in, being so far out of the mainstream, and were abandoned as well, even after having been inhabited for generations. The record of these people's lives is buried in the ground surrounding the places in which they once lived.

Water Drawn & Water Borne

Population dispersal... ah, there's a phrase! However, it's a phrase that any relic hunter or seeker of old sites should keep in mind. People have always been drawn to the water's edge for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are energy, transportation, and survival.

With your copy of the old atlas in hand, check out areas where rivers and creeks were forded, or where early bridges were constructed. Make yourself especially aware of waterfalls that may have supported old mill complexes for the sawing of logs or grinding grain. Be equally aware of old wagon roads that may have led to these sites... roads once used on a regular basis, but now clogged with trees. I know of at least two local mill sites where the millstones still rest at the bottom of the falls, and flattened roadbeds lead somewhere out into the forest.

Industries rose and fell on the banks of rivers. In my backyard, the Hudson River was an ice-harvesting bonanza during the last century, and the remains of ice houses and the homes of former workers literally dot the shoreline. Where they worked and where they lived are buried the artifacts and history of their lives.

I well remember one humorous event concerning the ice industry here on the Hudson. My mine-set was strictly searching for evidence and sites dealing with the American Revolution. I had a copy of my trusty old map in hand, and set off to find the location of a blockhouse- which, by the way, was clearly marked on the old map. After a couple of hours' drive and comparisons with a recent map, I found myself near the site. I asked permission from the landowner to search the site and told him of my interest in Revolutionary War history. Permission was graciously given... not to mention enthusiastically received! As I proceeded down the trail to the river's edge, the owner called after me, "Don't think you'll find much there. It's where they used to store the blocks of ice." Block house... get it?

* * *

These are just some of the obvious places to begin your search for the past. There are hidden places along mountain ridges where whole communities once existed for logging, charcoal production or stripping bark for the tanning industry. There are lost mills for the production of boards and gunpowder... for grain... for the production of axe handles. Or, you just might get lucky like Jimmy Mead and, while on the trail for white tail, find your own old soldier's home!

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