They are Buried in the Fence Row – Field Permissions and Lessons Learned
Disappointment to Joy, In the Same Day
Some requests for metal detecting permissions don’t always go the way you want them to, well at first. In fact, this particular “quest for treasure” at this site started with a rejection! Yes a rejection. I have been researching this particular township near me in Michigan the better part of 5 years. I had selected this 40 acre field in Southwest Michigan because of its historical time frame and because it was “two-fer”. It was comprised not only of a piece of land that had one of the oldest schools in the area located on it until about the 1930s but also a homestead. The Bureau of Land management research I had done showed this land granted back in 1850 to a soldier under the service of Captain Patton’s Company, Georgia militia. As was often the case the service warrant land was never settled on by Private Lawyer Suggs and was sold to another man who came to settle there in 1852. Side note, the Bureau of Land Management can be an amazing tool to use when researching home site field permissions…I use it often (glorecords.blm.gov/search). The local plat maps in my county only locate homesteads as far back as 1876, a home was shown there and the acreage labeled with the name on the land patent, the home however being gone by the 1912 plat…excellent! I thought, just the sites I like. Almost immediately visions of old coins and bucket listers began to fill my mind.
I located the owner of the property today in 2021, ugh, a trust. Trusts are notoriously hard to find the true owner of and hence the phone number here in Michigan. A lot of farm fields in this area (like three-quarters it would seem) are in Trust. Fortunately, I was able to find through some web sleuthing the phone number of the owners of said trust property…check number two. I called the number and was greeted by an anomaly today, a landline answering machine. I actually like those, I usually can get all of my introduction/request for permission out along with my phone number before I am cut off (the trade off is without first contact with a warm body it seems you often never hear from them). I left my message, hung up the phone and crossed my fingers….1 week went by, no call back, I left another message…another week, no call back. I reluctantly called a third time and left a message but said that if I didn’t hear back I would respectfully not bother you again. No sooner had I hung up but that number was calling me on the phone! Yes I thought, I can almost feel the fresh plowed field under my XP Deus’s coil.
… Nope, the very nice older lady explained she had not wanted to give permission to anyone really. In fact the first question she asked was, “where do you live”. I passed that test, I lived just 5 minutes north of her…a “pseudo” local. She explained she had lived here in this area all her life and that they have owned/farmed that field for years. It seems the onslaught of people metal detecting and making YouTube careers out of the hobby had made her feel as though most people were finding things to sell and to her if that is the case, they should stay in the ground. I explained I understood how she felt but that I was more interested in the history. She went on to explain that the family that had lived in that home (as her mother and her mother’s mother had told the story) had all died due to a plague at the time, people at the time not wanting to handle the bodies buried them all in the fence row that forms the East boundary of the field. Wow I thought, I didn’t know that was even a thing.
We had a very nice conversation, about 40 minutes, I think she grew to like that I knew the history of the area. I had one more thing I explained. A pdf copy of the history of the township from around 1890. “Oh my she said, that is awesome!” I said “you know what if you’d like a copy I’d be happy to put one on a flash drive and give it to your husband if I see him out plowing that field sometime.” She said she’d like that very much and that he’s plowing it today. Unfortunately she said that her husband had just given permission to some other local man just that week to do the school house part of the field even though she’d not wanted him to do so…but, she said if you come back in the Fall maybe you could hunt here even though he’d already have hunted it. I thanked her and said I hoped to talk to her again in the fall. We hung up and almost immediately I thought…wait a minute, she didn’t mention the home site permission was given, that is when I put my thinking hat on.
I decided right then to put that history book on a flash drive and drive out there to see if I could talk to the owner. As I pulled up I could see him making passes with his tractor and chisel plow across the middle of the 40 acres. I grabbed the drive and marched out to the middle of the field waving to him as I approached being mindful to stay out of his path. He pulled up stopped and motioned with a smile for me to come up the ladder to his tractor. I introduced myself, told him I just had a nice talk with his wife, I explained the history book and reached out with the flash drive in hand, he smiled and said you know my wife is going to love this, she loves history, and we’ve lived here all our lives and didn’t know there was even a book like that around. We had a good talk about things, farming, the area, and what I looked for metal detecting and that I try to pull out all the old long sharp iron “tire killers” and take them with me. When I was done he said “So you think you know where the house was over there, you know the people all died that lived there of a plague, and they buried them in the fence row.” He asked if I’d get close to the fence if I detected there. I said no I had no desire to do that. He got a big smile and looked over towards the site and said, “you know, I only gave permission to the other guy for the school house and you seem like you really like the history, he winked and said go ahead and hunt it until I plant in 2 weeks”. He only asked I show him where exactly the house sat and to take out and large iron.
Finds and More Finds
I came out later that night, I was so excited as I walked right up to where my GPS app put the home’s past location and there strewn about was glass and pottery everywhere…I thought bingo! I had set my XP Deus to the “Deep” program to pick up the iron bed but it really wasn’t necessary, targets were everywhere. I could already tell I was on ground zero. I switched to a custom program that lowers the iron volume a bit and runs a bit hotter with good tone breaks on nonferrous targets. I thought please let this be a virgin site. Within 20 minutes I had dug a 1860 fatty Indian head penny and a 1868 shield nickel, my first ever actually. I worked at it slow and methodically and for the first time in a very long time decided to hit the front of the field where it meets the grass before the road first, you know the “road trash” zone, the “I think it is a silver half but it is really a Miller beer can” zone. Only this time, it wasn’t full of trash, this was the coin zone. I dug another shield nickel, then a two-cent piece, then two more 1860s Indian heads 2 feet apart, then 3 more 2-cent pieces one a first year (1864). By the time I walked out of there I had not even covered 10% of the house footprint. I had dug 12 coins and several very nice relics including several civil war union general service buttons, there were just good signals everywhere. I forced myself to call it a night and left. The next day I had my hunting buddy come out to get on a good site and it again this site did not disappoint. He pulled a rare civil war store token from a local store and a counter stamped Canadian half cent. The next time he hunted he found his first seated half dime, again in the road trash zone, low and slow.
He swings an Equinox 800 and had set it to “Field 2”, and hunted the area next to the road as well, low, slow and meticulously. That is the secret really in any field home site when you’ve established the “ground zero”. I pulled out a couple of large cents, more Indian heads and something I’d never found a “Whist” token or game marker. These were made for a game which was popular in England between 1720-1840 and my particular token looks to be from the later part of that having the inscription “Keep Your Temper” on the obverse with a lady holding cards in a very regal outfit. The obverse has a crown and wreath design with impressed dots at each point of the crown which aided in the counting for the game. (https://www.wopc.co.uk/history/whist/gaming-counters).
Whist Counter Token – Victoria Keep Your Temper (La Vie Est Un Jeu.)
Electrolysissed – Before and After
The following day the owner came out while I was metal detecting it solo again, and we talked for a good hour, showed him some of my finds and even tried to give him an ox shoe (rare for Michigan believe it or not) or something else, but he didn’t want any of the finds. I always try to offer something to the owners if I have a chance to, rarely does anyone take me up on this…maybe if I found a gold bar?
In the process of talking with the owner, he mentioned he’d not seen the other guy out to detect the school house site yet and that maybe I should give that a go. I was reluctant and told him that because he’d already promised it but he said he would be planting soon so I might as well. My metal detecting buddy and I hit that as well and found a few coins and cool relics but nothing to the degree of the other site. We found over 25 coins/tokens by the time we were done on the home site. The one thing I did find was actually a top piece to a two piece late 1800s local carnival souvenir that matched the bottom piece to that identical relic that my metal detecting buddy had just found a few weeks prior at his own home…he’d looked quite a bit for it at his home. What are the odds of finding a mate for it at a site 10 miles away? Well I did, and I am giving it to him to complete it as I didn’t find the bottom piece to mine and one of us needs a full specimen.
While hunting that spot (school house site)…as luck would have it, the guy who originally got the school house permission (you guessed it) showed up while we were hunting it with his two sons. His sons were who really wanted the permission as they were just starting out. We explained what had happened and the wasn’t any hard feelings so we all went about hunting the site. The one son had a new Minelab Vanquish and both of us explained to his dad and him that it is a great machine to start with and kind of the Nox’s little brother having some of the same features but at a great price point. We both did as much as we could to help out with the two boys, gave some tips etc. and so that meeting ended well, in fact I left the site with one of the boys checking out the home site, wasn’t expecting to see him walking all the way to that end of the field but I didn’t mind. I am hoping he found a nice coin one of us missed swinging over. The last I saw he was stuffing some iron piece he’d dug into his coat pocket…that made me smile, dig it all and take it with you I thought. He was also filling his holes…the future is bright with this one.
I did some further research on the site realized the home was only owned by two families. The first one that built it around 1850 had 11 children, 5 were born before moving to this location that I was metal detecting and the firstborn son fought for the Union in the Civil War, dying on November 10th, 1862. No doubt the buttons came from his uniform as nobody else was would have been of enlistment age and his father was not in the muster for this area either. This family moved elsewhere in Michigan after 1869. The second family and last to own the house was a mother, father and daughter it appears. I was able to match up the names of the second family to gravestones in the area. My thought is that some of the first family passed away, maybe including the fallen soldier and that they were the ones buried there, under the fence row. I may never know if they were even buried there, but I am curious enough to keep researching. One of the artifacts I found actually has a name on it that does not match either family, it looks possibly like the brass keyhole cover to a lock, it is stamped W. PASSER JUNR. (Junior). There are Passers in Michigan and Wisconsin (the first family lived in Wisconsin first) so who knows?
Final Thoughts I might be unique as a detectorist in that I love the history more than the finds sometimes, but I doubt it. I enjoy tying together the finds with the history. Just digging up things and putting them in a box with no connection to the site they came from is not how I am personally wired. To me the whole A to Z process of locating the sites, via knowing the history of the local, getting the permission, finding ground zero and making some amazing finds gives me enjoyment and validation but is just part of why I love this hobby. Connecting those finds, if only in my brain, completes the experience for me. This was a great site, with lots of reward and it almost didn’t happen. I learned that going the extra mile pays off. Don’t give up, “No” still means “no” but a “maybe” can be turned into a “yes”. Sometimes getting to really know owners, explaining your love for this hobby and why you do what you do can not only help gain a permission but can build networks within the community ensuring future permissions, build friendships. It can also really serve as a positive representation of what we do as a hobby, and help dispel any misconceptions of us as hobbyists. Word of positive and negative interactions with field permission landowners will travel in a local area and you definitely want to make sure that when people talk about that “metal detector” guy/gal, it is positive. Finally, don’t abandon what you know about this hobby but also don’t be afraid to try something typically unconventional like hunting 15’ from the road, it can pay off.
Brian Tobias is a XP Deus user as well as a Garrett Fanboy still swinging his Garrett ATPro as well as a selection of older detectors, such as the White’s XLT. His venture into detecting started as a boy after randomly finding a few metal relics in the fields where he hunted Native American artifacts. His grandfather suggested he try to increase his metal finding odds and handed him his old Jetco Mustang metal detector. There was no turning back from there and a hobby grew from a boy of 15 to to now a “detectorist” at 48. Brian detects mostly in West Michigan and specializes in field detecting and researching old home sites dating from the mid 1800’s. He’s also heavily involved with his local detecting community in Michigan, belongs to several groups, mentors people new to the hobby, serves as the secretary to the Southwest Michigan Seek & Search Club and publishes their monthly newsletter. He also enjoys conserving the relics he finds using electrolysis to clean and preserve relics for himself and others. For him this hobby is about the history that each find represents and increasing the knowledge of that history for those people that seek it today.