Skip to main content

Metal detector spurs dreams of gold finds

Even back in 1980 when gold was over $800 I had the same point of view as I do today.

Even back in 1980 when gold was over $800 I had the same point of view as I do today.


Looking at a double eagle or other gold coin of the United States or anywhere else for that matter is deceptive. The coin is nice, but it does not tell the whole story. Behind the gold in that coin there is a lot of very hard work and that is the tip of the iceberg.

Seeking gold has been one of the goals of many people for ages, but actually finding gold is a very tough job that requires not only skill but also luck. For every story of success there are usually hundreds of stories of failure.

There are not a lot of “perks” in the writing business. About the only thing journalists get free are press releases and books and the way the mail works half the time we have to pay the postage.

In fact, the most valuable “perk” I ever got was not from writing for numismatic publications but rather for treasure hunting and metal detecting magazines. The pay for those articles was terrible, but once I was established a metal detector company sent me a free metal detector that was probably worth about $400 at the time.

I was thrilled and felt like it made sense. After all, if I found an enormous treasure, the pictures would all show their metal detector as the one that made the difference in finding the treasure. Moreover, even if I didn’t find treasure I would probably mention their metal detector enough to make up for the cost just in free publicity.

As I said at the start, finding gold, however, requires a lot of hard work. It also requires some skill and I definitely came out on the short end of the stick when it comes to the skill department. I should have known that right away as I dashed out into the back yard with my new metal detector, turned it on and the thing made a noise that could be heard all over the block.

My jumping up and down shouting “Eureka” and other appropriate phrases I had learned from Westerns as a kid was cut a little short when I realized that I had not discovered a previously unknown but massive deposit of gold in rural Wisconsin, but rather my outdoor grill where I intended to cook that evening.

Fortunately I had only one neighbor so the whole unpleasant display had relatively few who qualified as witnesses. My dog was one, but she was so frightened by the noise that she crawled under the car and would not come out.

My neighbors, however, who were basically used to odd behavior coming from my yard were legitimately worried that I had somehow electrocuted myself. They came running out to be sure I was not injured. After being assured that there was no permanent damage except to my pride, my neighbor took a shot at the device and quickly found a cent I had probably lost pulling weeds the day before. “Yep, it works. Maybe you can loan it to me on the weekend. I could use some extra money,” he observed.

The next few months probably caused him to reconsider. Actually, after a couple days of practice, which mostly involved finding nails, I did start to get better with the device. I was able to at least keep the size of my major finds to a beer can or less.

That said, I was finding very few coins. In fact, I had found just a single nickel until I tried a back door to the house that at one time led to a shed where the buggy would have been parked back in the 1890s. Suddenly I had a bonanza of sorts.

I did not have gold, but I had a 1907 Indian Head cent. The condition was not the best, but over the next couple days it was one Indian Head cent after another. I was beginning to think that the metal detector was the ticket to vast riches as all I needed was an 1877 or 1909-S and I would have a coin probably worth as much as the machine.

As it turned out, the spot was apparently the way people had entered the house in the early 1900s. There was no other good way to explain why there were nearly 50 Indian Head cents in that one location. After all, in a Wisconsin winter, trying to pull out their keys, if a cent fell into the snow there was probably no attempt made to find it. Had the coin dropped been a silver dollar or gold coins, they probably would have looked much harder, but it appears that the former owners did not care if they lost a cent or two just before reaching the warmth of the house.

That early good fortune did not last. If anything, it caused an assumption on my part that was not helpful. I had seen cases with the Indian Head cents where I would find one and the detector would still register metal so digging a little further I would find another. That unfortunately gave me the idea that additional coins were often found in the same place but only deeper than the first one recovered. In a small area it made no difference, but when expanded it can create significant problems.

Actually what it created was what the neighbors dubbed “the trench.” It turned out to be a summer project involving quite literally a trench across the front of the house sometimes a couple feet deep. The process lasted a few months and when I was satisfied that no more metal would be in an area I would fill it up and plant new lawn.

I rationalized the whole process as a way of replacing weeds with a rich, full carpet of lawn. I was full of it. I was expecting to find something good. In fact, I did in the form of a 1945 Mercury dime, a silver ring and a few other odd items along with additional cents and nickels, but no denomination over a dime and little of any value even approaching a dollar.

This treasure hunting was definitely much more work than I had imagined and I probably would have ended my checkered career with that summer, but the Wisconsin winter leaves you with a lot of spare time on your hands riding out winter storms and as the fire crackled I was cheerfully reading about gold and the possibility of still finding it.

A few things happened that saw the next summer become the summer of my great gold hunting expedition. The first of these events was that the metal detector company sent me a very small coil for the detector claiming that it was perfect for finding gold nuggets and small gold items in streams.

It got put to the test when my neighbor came one night after a few inches of snow had fallen. She had dropped her wedding ring in the snow in the alley between our houses. I put on a coat and gloves and headed out to test the new coil and sure enough in a very short time I had her ring located in the snow.

Once again a small success produced some large assumptions. If the new coil found her ring, certainly gold nuggets in streams all over the country were within reach. In fact, in the snow in a paved alley it could have been hard to not find the ring as it was the only piece of metal within 15 feet of where I was looking, but in the joy of the moment while celebrating with my neighbor, that was overlooked.

About the same time my girlfriend approached me with the idea that we needed to plan a summer vacation. With time on my hands I began to read books and write letters to various places that seemed of interest. What I did not tell her was that every place of interest was suspiciously close to major gold deposits in American history.

When confronted with an assortment of brochures and information, she surprised me by suggesting that camping in the Black Hills looked like an interesting way to escape for a week in the summer. My idea of camping at the time usually involved a Hyatt and room service, but it seemed like an interesting idea and her 16-year-old son, who was regularly in favor of camping in Wisconsin and nearby parks, was recruited to help as we agreed that someone who knew vaguely what he was doing might be a good idea.

I will say one thing and that is that in the middle of January you can get pretty good deals on tents and camping supplies as well as a camping location near Deadwood, S.D. Moreover, the place we chose offered gold panning lessons, which sounded right up my alley, although I was pretty certain that no lessons were needed as gold nuggets the size of baseballs would probably just naturally find their way into my pan.
I still had to buy a pan, which the treasure hunting magazines have in a large percentage of their advertisements. By the time the snow started melting we had enough stuff to potentially require a covered wagon simply to get it all to South Dakota.

In defense of the fiasco that followed I have to say that the Allied forces invaded Europe with only a little more planning than we had when we stumbled into South Dakota. I had read book after book about some of the legendary characters who frequented the Deadwood area back in the 1800s. I had studied gold panning and mining from virtually every angle. I had even bought a couple dinners for a friend who was a full-blooded Sioux to discuss the Black Hills and what they meant to the Sioux.

On paper all was ready and the fortune in gold was only waiting for us to finish packing the car, which was no small task.

Things went well for a few hours and then the first sign of trouble hit. It was a thunderstorm unlike most thunderstorms I have ever seen. We had to pull over simply because it was raining so hard you could not see the front of the car. Already my finely tuned schedule was thrown off.

Things from there went from bad to worse. A meal just over the South Dakota border went without incident and the first view of the Black Hills inspired great hope. The first view of our camping area was a different matter.

Actually under normal times the camping area probably would have been fine, but somehow in all my planning I had missed the fact that our arrival date was also the start of the yearly motorcycle rally in the Black Hills. Our camping area was alive with people and all of them were members of various motorcycle gangs.

As it turned out, many of them were very nice people and we certainly got to know them well as there was only one bathroom with a cold water shower in the place. No one really wanted to shower as it was close to the freezing mark at night. In fact one image from the time that is not possible to eliminate from my mind is one rather muscular woman from one of the motorcycle gangs pulling a huge log to her group’s fire in the hope of keeping warm.

In an attempt to get off on the right foot with the owner, we signed up for the gold panning class. I don’t remember the cost although it was probably about $5 each. The man gave us a nice lecture about how gold no matter how small sinks and then we got to practice.

It was an amazing thing as everyone in the class was delighted to find a gold flake in their pan. The thought of having their pan “salted” did not seem to cross anyone’s mind but mine and my suspicions were only raised when the man had a small test tube ready where you could keep your gold flake – I looked long and hard suspecting the gold flake might well carry a small promotion for the camp grounds on it but I could never prove that.

The first day of exploring saw us end up near an old mine that sat in what I would call splendid disrepair. An old train would pass by periodically and tourists would wave with a great deal of enthusiasm when they saw the three of us up to our knees in the stream clearly looking for gold. At first we waved back, but as time passed and our spirits sank the temptation to wave back without using all our fingers became very real.
It took about two hours to realize this was hard work and it produced a small flake and nothing more. The climate did not help. Daytime temperatures soared to nearly 100 degrees while at night you could see your breath.

Standing in a very cold stream while having the sun beat down on you seemed to be the closest thing to tolerable as that way at least some of your body was both hot and cold. The problem was my back and that quickly made me decide it was time to explore the large mound of dirt outside the old mine with the famous metal detector coil that had found my neighbor’s ring.
Even climbing around the old mine was work. I was cautious not knowing precisely what things were stable and which ones were not. Moreover, my reading had suggested that there were potentially snakes I did not want to meet living in the very sort of places I was investigating.

The work continued for a few hours without success and then it was decided it was time to visit Deadwood and see the sights such as they were. It was interesting and certainly gave you at least some feel of what the place must have been like in its heyday, but I got distracted by coin shopping.

I thought an 1876 double eagle would be especially appropriate as it was the nation’s Centennial, which was spoiled a bit by the news from the area as it was 1876 when Custer met his fate along with his entire command at the Little Big Horn.

While I wanted the double eagle or at least something gold other than that pathetic flake floating around in the test tube, there appeared to be what might be called a Black Hills surcharge attached to everything with a price tag on it. I tried to rationalize the situation. Heck, that nugget that has $10 in gold and is priced at $100 might well simply reflect the amount of time it took to find it. That made sense and after a morning of misery I was willing to believe that finding anything larger than a flake might well take years.

All that said, I decided to wait, figuring tomorrow might be the day. On the way back to camp we stopped by the cemetery to see the graves of the famous and infamous from the area. My girlfriend’s son questioned how many persons resting there had met their end at high noon in the Deadwood street and I replied, “None. “They all froze to death at the same place we are camping.”

I was not far from the truth as the second night was even colder with a lovely added feature in the form of rain. The motorcycle gangs and we fortune seekers all ended up huddling in the unheated bathrooms simply to get out of the elements.

We had tents, but things were getting slightly soggy in there as well. The night took an eternity and it got colder every minute. By morning none of us wanted any part of the cold streams, so we took off to Mount Rushmore. While certainly impressive, the most memorable part of Mount Rushmore in the minds of all of us when we discussed it a year later was the fact that the bathrooms were heated. It was the first time we had felt good in a couple of days and I was seriously tempted to spend the rest of my vacation at Mount Rushmore.

The temptation was real, but we had yet to find our treasure. Two more days of trying and the closest thing to treasure we found was a tube of Ben Gay to try to do something for our ailing backs. In the meantime, early signs of colds were appearing, which was certainly no surprise considering the conditions.

We all began to question whether anyone seriously looking for gold in the 1870s could have lasted a year. We lasted three days before breaking down and finding a nearby hotel room just for a night of sleep in a dry and warm bed.

It would be fair to say we were a little discouraged, but it would be equally fair to suggest that the long trip home was something we all did with much enthusiasm as at the end of that trip would be warm showers and comfortable beds.

Upon my arrival home, I did not dash directly to a bed or shower but rather to my gold coin type collection. It had suddenly taken on a great deal of new meaning for me. To find that much gold outside a mint would have been a major achievement and one that would have come at a terrible price in terms of labor and pain in the 19th century or any century for that matter. I had never realized that nature does not give up gold so easily.

A year later as we sat around talking about our efforts at finding gold, the whole vacation somehow had taken on a glow of a great adventure with the pain and discomfort somehow lessening over the course of the year. That said, I still could remember how uncomfortable it was. I certainly was never able to look at a gold coin or at least one from the 1800s without giving serious thought to the effort required to find that much gold.

At $800 or $1,000 an ounce or more, any gold coin will always seem like a great deal as I know firsthand what it’s like to try to wrest any from nature