History in Hand

Relic Hunters Discover Treasures of the Past Buried in Earth

By Lisa Gregory | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 09.13.21 – Feature, History, Lifestyles

Would Today be the Day?

Sitting in his father’s truck heading out to a colonial-era home and property in the Frederick area, 14-year-old Maddox Fisher was on a mission. “He looked at me and said, ‘I want to find a bullet today,’” says his father Brad. Armed with metal detectors, the two are joining others for some relic hunting. 

Maddox isn’t just looking for any bullet; he is looking for a Civil War bullet. After all, the property they are heading to dates back to the mid-1700s and has seen much history, including nearby Civil War encampments. On previous relic hunts, Maddox had other finds. His first was quite rare—a Union eagle breast plate. 

“Something that took me 10 years to find,” notes Brad. 

But no bullet. Yet.

Maddox is just the latest of three generations of relic hunters. His father, grandfather, Sonny Fisher, and even Sonny’s uncle have all pursued the hunt for historical items. “My uncle even made his own metal detector,” says Sonny. 

A downstairs room at Brad’s house is full of items ranging from Civil War bullets and a Civil War bugle to colonial sleigh bells, coins and shoe buckles, among much, much more. More than 1,000 items in all. And in an effort to share their finds and celebrate the area’s rich history, Brad and his friend and fellow relic hunter, Dustin Wortman, recently created a Facebook page, called Freedom Diggers. In a matter of months, the page had garnered over 1,000 members. 

And on this hot day as storm clouds threaten above, they are on the hunt again. Pulling up to the old mansion and property, Brad and the others jump out of their vehicles and look around. Brad seems almost giddy as he announces, “This place is old. I’m excited. This is a good place.”

The men begin unloading the metal detectors. Car trunks are also full of other tools of the trade—knives, pickaxes, gloves, shovels, extra pairs of boots, flashlights and batteries. Brad and Sonny also have at their disposal World War II and Vietnam War entrenching tools. “It makes for better digging and also makes it easier to cut through roots and rocks,” says Sonny. 

They spread out, heading in different directions. Dustin makes his way to an old kitchen separate from the main house and under the shade of an ancient tree. He is eager to begin. Kitchens, of course, mean human activity and the higher likelihood of an item dropped or left behind. And so does the tree where people no doubt gathered and sat beneath its shade through the years. 

Within minutes, Dustin pulls up a rusty head of a hammer. A very, very old hammer. The wooden handle has long since disintegrated. It’s not a colonial-era coin or a Civil War bullet, but it is a start. And where one item is found others may be discovered.

Or not. 

With his earphones on walking about and swaying his metal detector back and forth slowly and deliberately, Brad talks of the not-so-good finds. Or junk signals as relic hunters call them. 

“It will tell you it’s a bullet,” he says, referring to his metal detector, which not only alerts the user that something has been found but actually identifies it on the tiny display. “But sometimes it’s just a piece of scrap metal.”

Despite that, the metal detectors are impressive pieces of technology, costing between $800 and $2,000. “The depth you can go really depends on the size of the object you’re finding and the soil conditions,” says Brad. “On a coin you can expect eight to 12 inches in good soil.”

When a historic item is found it is cause for much excitement. Thus, the appeal of the hunt. And the hours upon hours the Freedom Diggers commit to it. “Let’s just say I have a very forgiving wife,” says Dustin with a chuckle.

For Brad it is also an opportunity to not just hold a piece of history in his hands but a moment of history as well. He often wonders, he says, “Who was this person? What were they doing when the item was lost or discarded? What were their circumstances?”

Buttons, for example. “We find a lot of Civil War buttons because they just tore off the uniforms,” says Brad. But one button, in particular, comes to mind. “I found a handmade button to replace one that the soldier lost. And then he lost that one, too,” he says. 

Living in Maryland and more specifically Frederick offers prime hunting areas, says Brad. “There’s so much history here, colonial to the Civil War,” he says. 

PAST TIME FOR PASTIME??

But time is running out. As areas become more and more developed, the opportunity to find historic treasures dwindles. For example, the site of a former Civil War encampment in the Frederick area is now a Walmart. “We try to get there before [the property is developed] and do as much hunting as we can,” says Dustin. 

Development is not the only threat. According to Brad, the internet has turned what was once just a hobby into a means for some to make a quick dollar. “People have discovered that they can find items and list them for sale,” he says. 

This can make for questionable hunting techniques, he adds. People coming onto private property without permission, digging hurriedly and sloppily, and maybe even not bothering to cover the hole they have dug. Displeased property owners may refuse access to those like the Freedom Diggers and their good intentions after such an experience. 

“It makes it harder for the rest of us,” says Brad, who adds that the Freedom Diggers are always looking for farms, old houses and other areas to search and welcome offers from the community. 

As Brad talks, he is digging a hole for a possible find. He takes his time gently teasing the dirt from the earth with a trowel. He digs a square hole, retrieves the item, unfortunately a piece of scrap metal, and then covers the hole up. One would be hard put to even know that he had dug there. 

“If someone lets you come to hunt, you want them to welcome you back,” he says. This courtesy is valuable because relic hunters rely on private property owners as their main source for providing sites to dig. Metal detectors are prohibited at Civil War battlefields and other U.S. national parks. 

But sometimes finds can be found in the most unlikely of places. Dustin tells of a friend in the area who was doing some digging in his own backyard while putting in a patio when he unintentionally came upon a splendid find. A Civil War sabre.

“You just never know,” says Dustin, smiling and shaking his head. The friend asked Dustin for his assistance in identifying the sword and gathering more information about it. Dustin was happy to help. 

Identifying relics is a huge part of the relic hunt. Before the internet, says Brad, he and his family relied on books and old photographs. “Hundreds and hundreds of books,” says Brad. Much like everything else, the internet changed all of that. “You find an item, take a picture of it and post it,” says Brad of the various websites that hunters can visit. 

Speaking of objects, Dustin who is continuing to hunt around the kitchen and old tree, has another find. This time it’s a suspender clip from a Civil War uniform. He is happy with the find and goes right back to work after discovering it. 

LAST SHOT

The day is looking more and more promising but only an hour or so since arriving dark clouds loom closer. Rain may be on its way. Getting wet is not a good thing for metal detectors with their delicate technology. “We may have to get out of here,” says Brad as he eyes the skies. 

But, at least for now, the hunt continues. Maddox, after all, has not found his much-sought Civil War bullet. As father and son continue their search, Dustin’s own father, Dan, announces that he found a coin. Dustin is intrigued because coins are among his favorite finds. “I’ve found coins with the image of King George on them,” he says of the colonial-era coins he has found in the Frederick area. Yes, Great Britain’s King George III from the Revolutionary War. 

Thus, there is a ripple of excitement among the group until it is discovered that it is a Euro coin, complete with an Irish harp decoration, from 2005. “It happens,” says Brad with a smile. Back to work. 

While today’s spot is quite promising, Brad says that searching farm fields is also a prime area. “The best time is spring and fall before the crops come in,” he says. 

Through the years farmers, unknowingly or not, found historic items more of a nuisance than a delight. “They would toss them off to the side of the field and out of their way,” says Brad. 

Sonny and Brad discovered the Civil War bugle that way. The result of a farmer’s scrap heap on the edge of a field. The bugle was in pieces and Brad and Sonny were not sure it was anything of value. Until they took a closer look. Piecing the parts together like a puzzle. 

The bugle is still missing a piece but is displayed in a place of honor with the countless other items in Brad’s home. Where it and the other items will stay. Unlike those who choose to make a profit, the Fisher family does not sell what they find. Sonny, who began relic hunting in the 1970s, says he has never sold an item. Brad agrees. 

“I want to hand these items down to future generations,” he says.

And Maddox is attempting to add his own haul to the collection. He is still searching with his father when raindrops begin to fall. It is time to pack it up for the day. But not before one last dig.

Suddenly, the metal detector alerts Maddox. Those who had scattered about the property doing their own searching now gather around.

Brad steps in and begins to dig. And then there it is—a bullet, a Civil War bullet. Maddox holds it in the palm of his hand as the rain comes down more heavily. The bullet appears to be one that was fired, given its mangled appearance. Or nibbled on by a squirrel, says Brad. “It happens,” he adds with a chuckle. 

Squirrel-nibbled or battle-fired, it doesn’t matter. This is a real Civil War bullet. 

As his father looks on with pride, Maddox is asked if he is excited. He looks down at the bullet cradled in his hand and nods as he closes his hand tightly around it.