How to Metal Detect Old Homesteads and Farm Fields With Brian Tobias

How to metal detect old homesteads and farm fields.

When it comes to skilled detectorists who mastered metal detecting old homesteads and farm fields, I think of Brian Tobias from Michigan. He is one of the best relic metal detectorists I know. To help our readers find farm fields and homesteads to metal detect and best approach how to detect them, I have interviewed Brian. See my questions and his answers below.

Brian how did you get into metal detecting, how long have you been doing it and what metal detectors have you used in the past and currently use?

I’ve been metal detecting since I was about 15.  I had collected Indian artifacts in fields and occasionally would stumble on a metallic relic here and there as a surface find.  My grandfather one day handed me his old Jetco Mustang and said “here, maybe this will increase your finds in those fields”.

I’ve used since the Mustang all kinds of cheaper off brands until I was out of college.  I bought a Garrett GTP 1350, later a Whites Spectrum XLT, then a Garrett AT Pro, and nowadays I am swinging an XP Deus (first generation).

Can you share with us some of your favorite metal detecting finds from old homesteads and farm fields?

I’d say that for me some of the best finds are the truly personal finds, finds that you can somehow tie directly to the people that once lived in the house that is now just a memory.  I’ve found spoons with the monograms of the occupants, a canteen tag from the civil war with the owner’s name on it.  A gold wedding band with the name engraved inside the band, a locket with the initials of the neighbor on that same 1875 plat map, etc.  Coin wise, I’d have to say my two favorites are the 1874 seated silver half dollar with arrows I found and civil war store cards or tokens.  I love the later as there are so many varieties out there (literally thousands).  You get to a point where you’ve found most or all of the U.S. coins that are out there to be found but you will most likely not every find all the civil war tokens every minted and so each one of those found is generally a new find for me.

How do you find farm fields and old homesteads to metal detect?

How I go about doing my research to locate old homesites in the fields in Michigan could really fill another entire article and many people go about it the same way but this is how I go about it.

I usually pick a township to focus on and locate the old plat maps (the older the better) from the Library of Congress believe it or not (loc.gov).  I know a lot of people who use Historic Mapworks but I really don’t know why, they are watermarked unless you pay or find a way around that and the LOC’s maps are super high resolution and so far I’ve not found a county plat map they don’t have digitally. 

I upload those into Maprika, calibrate the plat to the current street map (I use the OSM view in Maprika, it shows the township boundaries for “anchoring” or synchronizing the two maps).  I then uploaded my new map (this is all done on your desktop or laptop computer btw) then download that map to my phone.  Usually as I’m building the map I’m looking for open fields on the satellite view and simultaneously looking to see if the old “black square” icon on the old plat maps that designates a home falls into any of the current day fields.

From that research, I develop a list, of sites, record those on onX (onxmaps.com) and set out to find who owns the property.  A lot of times using onX it lists the property owner’s name and address (that is what the app is used for but usually by hunters).  A lot of times they live right by the field so I can just drive there and speak to them personally, often the property is owned by a LLC and that can make things difficult, but not impossible.

One way to locate a phone number for an LLC is to actually go to the corporate online filing system of your state.  This is all public information and is the digital interface to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. You can search the LLC name and there is generally a “View filings for this business” option, in there you can filter by “Annual Reports” or Annual Statements” and 9 times out of 10 they have a phone number listed on those documents.

Once you know the property owner’s name, what is the best way to gain permission to detect the land? As well what have you found doesn’t work and to avoid?

I generally will just call if I have a phone number, take a deep breath, and just be as open and honest about what you would like to do, tell them your name, that you metal detect as a hobby let them know you are interested in the in history of the area and that from your research you’ve located a homesite on their property.  I generally tell them up front how I came about their number as well and I might make a joke that I’m not trying to sell them anything…humor I’ve found is good.   I then just politely ask would you be open to detecting this property. I also do this via email a lot if owned by a developer, etc.

Again, if I’m in the area and the owner lives next to the field or it is part of their current homestead I will drive there and knock on the door. I’ve found personally good success doing that but look presentable but look local.  Don’t knock on a farmer’s door with a button-up shirt and wingtip shoes and talking like a car salesman or the opposite, your jeans hanging down 50 gold chains and your hat cocked off to the side.  Blue jeans, “CLEAN” t-shirt, and a baseball cap usually fits just fine.  Know what you are going to ask and how ahead of time and be willing to show them on your phone a where the home site shows up on the old map, they love that!  I often offer to swing buy with a printout of their homesite on the old plat as well (they also appreciate those).  I’ve learned don’t knock on Sundays and generally just be considerate and conscious of the fact you are at someone’s home and they do not know you yet.  If you sell them anything sell them on the idea that you will do what you say and are more interested in the history than riches and they will more often than not say “go for it, let me know if you find any gold bars” (I know, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that very statement).

For homesteads, if they are not standing anymore how do you locate them on the property?

Well, as part of the mapping process I detailed previously Maprika and onX will graphically show when you are by the “black box” (Maprika) of the plat map icon for the home or the waypoint (pin) you dropped in onX.  So you just started out walking toward those two.  You can show up walk toward that marker and start to listen for the “iron patch” taking note of surface finds as you go, shards, glass and stoneware.  You can also look this site up on Ancient or Historic Aerials ahead of time and get an indication of where it sat if it survived into the late 40’s (aerials weren’t around much before 1947).

Also a dead give away is the “hump” or “mound” left by an old homesite.  A lot of times early settlers and home builders would build on a high spot, the highest in a given parcel of land and even if not they’d naturally build up an apron at the footprint of the house.  Think about how homes site today, they rarely sit on a perfectly flat lot.  So when you are in a field you will often see a small hump or mounding in a localized area that just quite seem natural or fit it…that is a lot of times the homesite “ground zero” as we like to call them.

Lastly, and not everyone agrees with me, I look for the driveway the tractors take into a field…my feeling or my experience rather has shown, these are often the location of the original drive into the homesite and a good place to start.

With homesteads, how do you discriminate between the trash and good targets? Relics can be iron. Do you dig everything? 

I run several programs on my Deus, and I have one go to program I use when I’m locating the position of the homesite in the field but generally I don’t by default discriminate a lot on these sites.  There are exceptions and every site is different, for instance 10/25 feet from the edge of the road is usually a “road trash” zone full of aluminum cans and whatever else can be launched out a car window at high speed.  In those areas I do try to discriminate the higher end of aluminum but aluminum is a nasty metal and fools you so often.  I have a program I use in those areas that is a full tone break program and that tends to intensify the scratchy, metallic sound and the end of a swing over aluminum that you can sometimes hear and makes it stand out more.  In general though I’m not discriminating large iron signals.  I collect a lot of good old iron targets and electrolysis those for display.   Iron is easy to ignore mostly, I just don’t.  Plus, it helps you find the homesite to begin with, I like to dig a square nail so I know I’m on ground zero.  I find with relic hunting the line between trash and good can be a personal opinion.  I lot of the old homesites that are devoid of road trash are mostly good old period stuff only made trash to a relic hunter if broken badly I guess is a better way to put it.

Where do you start metal detecting a farm field, and what route do you take?

I try to locate the “ground zero” footprint as using the methods talked about earlier then I work front to back, I start generally from the drive, follow the front of the supposed footprint and work lines toward the back and then switch 90 degrees and work back across that way.

For United States farm fields, how deep are the older targets generally?

This question can be as problematic as asking a room of interior designers what color blue paint is that on the wall.

It can really vary by the age of the homesite (how far back they lost items), amount of tilling that has gone on, how deep it was tilled and soil type.  The weight and size of the item can also affect how deep these end up of course and size.   I find old iron can be several feet in fact on some sites.  Generally, though coins sized relics can be anywhere between surface and 12”.  Most lie between 4 and 6 on sandy or clay soil as an average.

You use an XP Deus and are an expert with it, what setting do you like for farm fields and homesteads?

Expert? Expert in training maybe.  Well, it isn’t so much a setting but of all the programs out there I’ve found, I like Gary’s Ultimate the best (https://youtu.be/utPNstqB5L8).

Also, the “Full 5 tone break” program detailed in Andy Sabich’s book I’ve also really learned to love, as I mentioned before, when I want to really identify aluminum trash.

Before the XP Deus, you mastered the Garrett AT Pro. Can you share the best farm field and homestead setting for the AT Pro?

Without a doubt, set it to

Pro, Zero Mode, Iron Disc. Between 30 and 34 and leave it wide open (full sensitivity or as much as the ground conditions allow), use your ears with this and the AT does the rest.  That is still an amazing machine and I still use my AT Pro in the field now and then.

Are there any other tips you want to share about metal detecting old homesteads and fields?

Gain as many permissions as you can up front and plan a day to hit several, they don’t all produce and sometimes you just can’t find anything (I’ve had sites that had lots, I mean lots of glass and pottery surface finds but no targets, these for whatever reason are often SUPER old sites).

Be patient and meticulous, cherry pickers miss the best stuff in my opinion.  Not all great finds are “high” tones.

Once you’ve found and detected ground zero and detected all the finds you can don’t just leave, take a little time (especially if there were a lot of targets at the ground zero) to spread out, spiral a good 100’ min. around that area.  Think about it, if you live in a nice home on a big piece of property do you just walk in a path 10 feet out from the perimeter of your home?? No, you live on the property, you walk to the front of other outbuildings, play with your pets, run around the front yard, have picnics, do cartwheels…and in the day, hang laundry.  If you can see where the clothes were hung on an old site on maybe an ancient aerial…go there!  People didn’t check their pockets any better 100+ years ago than they do now.

Above all, be persistent and have fun. Research, both for the site and the finds is half the fun!


I would like to thank Brian for sharing his best practices for metal detecting old homesteads and farm fields.

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