‘Detectorists’ unearthlost or tossed history

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Kevin Kamphues (from left), Merv Spaw and Jon Spillson represent the Miami Valley Coin and Relic Finders Club at the Grabill Country Fair. Members took turns showing and explaining boxes of coins and other artifacts.

Hundreds of coins and curios that were dropped or discarded more than a century ago are inspiring displays and imaginations once again thanks to the “metal detectorists” of the Miami Valley Coin and Relic Hunters Club.

“You find an old penny or a dime from the 1870s and you think ‘Wow, I wish that thing could talk,’” said Kevin Kamphues, club treasurer.

So the finders study their finds, learn about the history of that object and era, and sometimes even locate recent owners.

For instance, Kamphues found a University of Michigan 1953 class ring. The owner’s name was engraved on the ring. With the help of an alumna, Kamphues found the owner in Florida. The woman had lost the ring in Ohio the year she graduated.

Ken Talarico searches in unlikely places and discovers unlikely finds. “I found a lead toy soldier, a marble, a British-Indian quarter-rupee and a Swiss 20-rappen,” he said of the objects he brought to the September meeting. The foreign coins probably just fell off a table at a coin show, he surmised.

Sometimes the discoveries aren’t metallic or even antique. “I found a wallet with $1,180 in it,” he said. The owner’s driver’s license was still in the wallet. Talarico went to the address and found that the owner had moved. A neighbor told him where the owner worked, and Talarico took the find to that store. “When I found him I recognized him,” Talarico said. “He was standing at the counter where he worked. He commenced to tell me a story about it. He said he had a pair of shorts on the week before and he was in a hammock and his wallet fell out of his pocket. He was wearing the same shorts the following week when he lost his wallet again.”

He considers that his most unusual find, but not his most valuable. “I found a couple gold rings that I was never able to find a home for, and I found a couple that I did find a home for,” he said. “And I think the most valuable was probably a Greek coin, or maybe it was a copy.”

Mark Koch has been a detectorist since 1981 when he was 12. He lives in Leo now, but grew up in Harlan. “I found a Civil War belt plate,” he said of one of his favorite finds. Koch studies his search sites as closely as he studies his finds. “I look at old maps for some sites that used to be there,” he said. General maps as old as 1860 are available for inspection at the Allen County Public Library, he said. “By 1900 a lot of the 1860 and 1880 stuff is gone,” he said.

Dan Pulver of Fremont attended his first club meeting in September. He has enjoyed the hobby for about four years and now is retired and wants to get more involved.

“We went to Montana two weeks ago and we found a metallic object that seems to be a meteorite,” he said. He plans to take it to Michigan State University to be authenticated. He also has searched a former air base in Florida where he recovered spent 50-caliber rounds. “And I found fake bombs dropped from airplanes — they just sent up a puff of smoke,” he said.

“Any time we find something unusual it’s a piece of history that no one will see unless you pick it up,” he said.

Merv Spaw brought an old three-piece ring to a recent meeting. Spaw searches on land, of course, but also in swimming areas. “We find a lot of rings that they lost there,” he said.

Spaw and friend Paul Moeller team up at any site where the ground has been disturbed, such as where a sidewalk has been torn up. “I found a couple silver dollars,” Moeller said. “I found a brass hat badge for the Fort Wayne Traction Company. [the interurban railroad]. It said ‘Conductor 555’ on it. So that was around 1900, 1915. That was probably the most historic item I found.”

Moeller and Spaw found an 1891 nickel and a 2-cent piece at a local elementary school. They found an 1858 half-dime where the State Boulevard curve was straightened. “It makes you think of what was happening at the time,” he said.

Club members hold team hunts at city parks. They also put down their detectors and pick up their rakes for a public service project, a cleanup at McCullough Park.

They bring their favorite finds to their meetings, at 7 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month at the Aboite Township Trustee’s Office, 11321 Aboite Center Road, Fort Wayne. They enter their finds in a display and vote for their favorites in several categories.

Jon Spillson admired a find, a standing Liberty 1916 quarter. “That’s one of the coolest coins ever minted,” he said. “You never find them in good condition.”

Gary Keipper runs the “finds of the month” table. “Many years ago I made up all the rules for what goes in each category,” he said. “It’s pretty much an honor system. We just vote for whatever we think is the best, and it’s a personal thing so it’s not necessarily what is in the best condition. People can vote for whatever they want.”

So it’s coin vs. coin and toy vs. toy to determine favorites in 11 categories. Then the 11 class winners are put up for a second vote. Winning can be expensive. The category winners who do not win the overall title draw tokens for “loser’s revenge,” which can cost the winner nothing or a quarter or perhaps a dollar.

Club secretary Rick Merriman won — and paid for it — recently after finding an 1881 2-cent piece. He even told fellow finders the name of the park where he found it. After all, it’s a big park, he said.

Membership is $15 a year, or $10 for senior citizens, or $20 for a family. The recently issued 30th anniversary T-shirts are still available. Find contact information on Facebook.

President Steve Vevia of Fort Wayne said a detectorist can buy a basic finder for $100, and it’s easy to pay more.

The club heard a report from the members who represented the club at the Grabill Country Fair. “It was a 100 percent success,” Kamphues said. “We had a couple people join at Grabill, and one old member rejoined.”

Visitors saw rings of every description, a wallet that held coins from 1953 and earlier, keys, military items and badges. The admirers kept their distance until they were assured that the club isn’t trying to sell anything, Kamphues said.

“I think we were extremely good ambassadors for the hobby of metal detecting, positively promoting it,” he said. “We tried to relieve people’s fears of this hobby. They see a guy with a shovel and a detector and they think they’re digging big holes. We don’t do that. Hopefully we sparked some people’s interest in the hobby.”

“Most of us have a real interest in our history, not only Fort Wayne and Indiana but a history of the country,” Kamphues said. “One time a few years back I found a ring, a brass ring, not an expensive metal at all. But all it said on the ring was ‘Anzio’ and the guy I was hunting with said that was a battle in World War II. So when I got home that day I got chills when I did the research. That ring is called trench art. Whoever was over there made that. I found that so fascinating.

“We are interested in our history and we love to do research on an item that we found. And besides, we meet a bunch of good guys and we get a little exercise.”