Metal detector yields many finds, if you can dig it.

When I was 11-years-old my father bought a used White’s mineral and metal detector. In the summer of 1970, I often borrowed the detector from my dad and walked over to historic Jones Park, which was only a few blocks from our home in Fort Atkinson, WI. The popular oak covered parcel was purchased by the city from Newton Jones, who inherited it from his father, Milo Jones. Milo Jones settled in Fort Atkinson in 1838 and started the Jones Dairy Farm on adjoining property. The park was dedicated in 1897, it seemed like a logical place to search for valuables of years gone by.

As a youth, I recall digging many worthless pull tabs from beer and soda cans in the park. These pull tabs were developed in the early 1960’s so you wouldn’t have to carry around a can opener to open your favorite beverage. But they caused so much litter, they were replaced with stay tabs in the 1970’s.

I found several coins too, the most memorable were three Mercury (Winged Liberty Head) dimes dug from the same hole. They were dated 1937, 1942 and 1943. Mercury dimes were 90% silver and were produced from 1916 to 1945, when the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought requests for the dime to be issued with his image, which happened in 1946. President Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 in response to the U.S. epidemic of polio, which Roosevelt was diagnosed with in 1921. The foundation requested children donate a dime to help the cause, and thousands did. The organization was later renamed the ‘March of Dimes Foundation.’

My father passed away in 1998 and handed down to me his used detector along with a new model. With work and family I found no time for the metal detecting hobby so these units gathered dust in the closet until this year when my first stop was to Banker Park in Viola, Wisconsin. The park sits among the hills of Vernon County along the Kickapoo River. The park was once a flour mill known as the “Cushman Mill.” A wooden dam built around 1856 furnished power to the mill. The site also was home to an electric power house that gave Viola its first electric lights. The village bought the land in 1941 and sometime after that, Lee Banker, a local citizen, cleared the unsightly weed patches for a park. Today, two old iron water wheels from earlier days greet visitors at the park entrance.

It wasn’t long after I arrived at Banker Park that the metal detector was sounding a beep, beep. I was finding buried pieces of aluminum cans and other junk. But several beeps later resulted in coins, such as pennies, a quarter, and a Roosevelt dime to be exact. I also dug up evidence of fishing along the clear, fast flowing river. A lead sinker, a rod holder and a fishing plyers were found. I also uncovered an old spark plug and a small, rusty iron spool. It’s possible the spool is a remnant of the power house demolition from many years ago

My next stop was at a paint peeling, one-room, country school house in Wisconsin’s Crawford County, near the Richland County line. It is believed that the framebuilt school house was erected in the 1800’s and was called the Lower West Fork School. Current landowner, 86-year-old Kathryn Steiner, of Blue River, walked over a mile to attend school there as a child. Steiner said two of her three daughters studied at the same school as well.

All classes had the same teacher who taught students from grades 1 through 8. Steiner remembers over 30 kids in the classroom when she started the 3rd grade in 1937. Specific grades sat together, and all grades were in the same room, she remembers. The teacher would call individual grades to the front for specific teachings while the rest of the students did their homework.

To stay warm during cold days there was a wood-burning stove in the back. “My brother made a fire every morning.” Steiner said. “After recess we all had to carry in one stick of wood from the wood shed.” Before electricity, wood-burning stove tops in many schools also were used for cooking.

Steiner said the teacher kept very busy. That is probably why several kids had after-school duties such as emptying or cleaning the water fountain, sweeping the floor and washing the blackboard. These jobs were shared by all and there was a monthly rotation. Steiner remembers asking the teacher why she always had sweeping duties. The teacher replied, “Because nobody does it as good as you.”

I unloaded the metal detector from the truck and started searching the grass close to the school. Almost immediately the machine was barking like a hound dog. I got out my shovel and dug up nail after nail. I moved my search area and found several small pieces of a TV antenna. Steiner informed me that many years ago they watched TV in the abandoned school house while they stripped tobacco. I also found small pieces of rusty iron that could have fallen off farm equipment or have been from an old wood stove. Then, as the sun was going down and I was ready to call it a day, I heard another “beep” behind the school house. I unearthed an old, shiny metal spoon about 8 inches below the ground. Steiner looked at the spoon and said they made hot lunches at the school. “They served a lot of soup,” she said.

Note to readers: if you live in Wisconsin or northern Illinois and own historic property that may contain interesting artifacts for a future metal detecting story, email Jim Furley at jimfurley@charter.net


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