Metal-detecting unearths Granite State mysteries, history

Union Leader Correspondent
September 18. 2012 1:05AM
Auburn residents Bruce and Joann Dionne hunt together for fun and to get a little exercise. In past hunts, Bruce has found gold rings and silver chains for his wife, but on Sunday's meeting of the Granite State Treasure hunters, he dug up a metal piece of a mop. (BARBARA TAORMINA PHOTO)
On Sunday morning, several dozen members of the Granite State Treasure Hunters Club took their metal detectors and diggers and fanned through Lone Tree Scout Reservation in Kingston.

Most wore headphones attached to beeping detectors, kneepads and wide belts with deep pockets where they stash old pennies, spent bullets, chunks of machinery, rusty tools and the occasional pieces of silver and gold that they find buried a few inches below the packed topsoil.

'Each time you hit a target, it's a mystery,' said Hampstead resident Steve Pearsall whose specialty is old coins. 'It's like a Christmas present. You can't know what's in the box.'

The club, which was started back in 1974, is the oldest metal-detecting club in the state. Once a month, members get together and search woods, shorelines and fields.

There are plenty of odd and interesting items made from metal just below the surface. Some of it's rare, some of it's precious, and some of it's just old junk. The treasure hunters love finding 18th-century coins, gold jewelry and other bits and pieces of bling, but that's not what keeps them going.

'It's the thrill of the hunt,' said Art Bushnell of Meredith, who has dug up plenty of corroded pennies, nails and bottle caps. But like other treasure hunters, Bushnell keeps hunting.

'It's something that's in your blood,' he said.

Ethical treasure-hunting

Beyond the camaraderie, the Granite State Treasure Hunters are out to give the hobby of metal-detecting a good name.

'Our name is actually the Granite State Treasure Hunters for Historic Preservation,' said Dave Waterhouse, the club's vice president. 'That's the part of the hobby we want people to understand.'

For the treasure hunters, many of the best finds are old tools and pieces of household equipment and early American technology.

Pearsall once dug up two cone-shaped pieces of metal about five inches long. Neither he nor the other club members knew exactly what they were, but after some research and some asking around, Pearsall learned they were part of the rigging of a horse cart used to stabilize it when it was stopped or being loaded.

'It's everyday history,' said Pearsall. 'I treasure those more than a lot of the coins I've found.'

Often, if members find something of historical significance, they donate it to local historical societies and organizations. When they are invited to hunt on private property, they offer their discoveries to the owners first.

'It's responsible treasure hunting,' said Waterhouse.

Members who dig up jewelry and class rings take pains to track down the owners. They are happy to help property owners find boundary markers or other items lost underground.

And they are constantly cleaning up old scraps of metal, cans, pop tops and other trash.

'That's what we're about,' said the club's president, Franklin resident Doug Sargent. 'We show respect for people and property.'

New Hampshire has a few laws about metal-detecting. State historical sites are off-limits, and treasure hunters are required to restore areas to their original condition after they dig.

The American Antiquities Act prohibits any digging on federal land, and penalties include fines up to $500,000, jail time and the scorn of the metal-detecting community. In the past, there has been friction between metal-detecting hobbyists and archeologists but, over time, the two groups have forged a relationship of cooperation; members of the Granite State Treasure Hunters say they want to maintain that relationship.

Not getting rich

The club draws people from all parts of the state who started metal-detecting for all sorts of reasons.

Milford resident Joe Reilly needed to have his septic system pumped, so he bought a small $50 metal detector to help find the cover.

'We failed,' said Reilly. 'Our system had a plastic handle, but I spent enough time doing this to know it was something I really enjoyed.'

Reilly has since upgraded to a detector that can approximate whether he's standing above a coin, a ring or a crumpled piece of aluminum foil. It's not a foolproof system, but that's not a problem for the treasure hunters. The fun is in hearing the detectors beep and digging down to find what's there.

Manchester resident Jim Barclay built his first metal detector when he was 12 after reading a story about the hobby in the magazine, 'Popular Electronics.' That was 40 years ago.

'I used to go hunting around a church and people would come up to me and ask me what I was doing,' he recalled.

Today, however, metal-detecting has become much more mainstream. As a result, the Granite State Treasure Hunters say a lot of areas have been hunted clean. But they also say you never know if something has been missed, so they keep searching.

Most of the treasure hunters have dug up gold and silver jewelry. During Sunday's hunt, Auburn resident Bruce Dionne unearthed a metal section of an old mop which he affectionately offered to his wife, Joann, one of the few women who belong to the club.

But he's also given her a few of his more high-end finds.

'I've found a 30-inch silver chain with a cross, a diamond ring with nine stones, a lady's bracelet,' said Dionne. 'A lot of rings are found in the water.'

But that's really the exception to the treasure-hunting rule.

'This isn't a hobby for people to get rich,' said Concord resident Bill Burroughs, who has been with the group since the start.

Burroughs' favorite hunting sites are old cellar holes and the spots where people lived during the 1800s. His favorite finds are metal scraps of daily life.

'We're really relic hunters; we look for old pieces of history,' he said. 'I would rather find an old lock than anything else.'

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