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Metal Detector Stories - Farmsteads, Our Past

By Dan Breitenstein

Living in a rural community can be somewhat of a bummer for a person interested in digging up the past. We look for creative ways to find another excuse to "go to town" and possibly swing the coil while we're there. Just going to town to get a loaf of bread can take hours.

Here in the Midwest, every farming community you pass through looks about the same. There's a square in the center of town with a park that provides a home for the pidgins and a common meeting place for retirees. When we first get our detectors, we gaze wide-eyed at these parks as a Mecca of untouched treasure, literally jumping out of the ground and bouncing off the coil. Unfortunately most of these parks have been hunted hard since detectorists discovered their secrets years ago. That leaves us with a few clad coins, and if we're lucky, some recent jewelry. There's nothing wrong with that prospect, it's a great Sunday afternoon, but there are more lucrative things to be had with just a little effort on our part.

Finding and hunting old farmsteads is a real challenge, but if we're going to dig up history, that's a perfect place to find it. Single family farming has been devastated over the last hundred years and most of the bigger conglomerate operations have taken over. Finding no more use for old farmstead homes, the corporate farming operations razed most of the buildings where families made their homes for the last two centuries. These are the places they lived, loved, played, picnicked, and where Aunt Matilda lost her diamond ring. These are the places where Uncle Harold buried - and forgot where he buried his $3.20 jar of coins as a child. And these are the places that are waiting for us to discover.

Locating old farmsteads is not as hard as it may seem, and can even be fun to do as well. If you were to drive down a country road and spot an old corncrib standing by itself in a field, you've probably found your first one. Many times, one or more of the old buildings may still be standing (or leaning). Farmers from the last century almost always built their out-buildings near the house. For tax and liability reasons, the house was usually torn down long before the other buildings.

Finding where the old house once stood can take a little time, but generally people back then had the same way of thinking that we have now. Look around the landscape and ask yourself "Where would I build my house?" Look for remnants of an old driveway or a culvert along the road. There may even be an indentation in the landscape where the foundation was. When the ground is tilled in the spring and a rain follows, there are shards of broken glass or ceramic remnants that leave a trail for us to follow. These are all clues to the puzzle.

The farmers themselves are good sources of information because they cursed for years the foundation stones they keep turning up with their plow, as well as the nails they've pulled from their tires.

Without a doubt, you'll find more relics and junk around farmsteads than you would in the town square, but the chances of finding older coins and other interesting items is excellent. There are also the peripheral benefits of old bottles and what-nots. Almost all of the coins I've found at these sites were quite old. One of my detecting friends loves to tell the tale of how his father-in-law found a "trail" of gold coins that a plow had obviously uprooted next to an old foundation. That story always gets my heart pounding.

For the most part, these old farmsteads have been forgotten with time and swept into the landscape of what we see everyday. The average person would never know they were there. They are part of our past waiting to be discovered.