By Frank Colletti
I can clearly remember hunting some older schools, from the 1940s and 1950s years ago. At that time, I found that there were strange “bottle cap” signals that occurred infrequently while “dirt fishing.” What made them strange was that they were unusually deep, about four inches or better. Under normal conditions, while exposed to the elements, bottle caps tend to deteriorate, that is, they will rot in the earth.
While they rot they will give off ragged signals, and that is usually a clear sign that the item that you have found is junk metal that is not worth digging, unless you enjoy digging up junk. Normally I don’t mind unearthing these signals, since their close proximity to other possibly good finds may conceal the [hopefully] better silver coins lost long ago.
When I once belonged to a local metal detecting club I had found two two-cent pieces in consecutive months. One of the members there accused me of buying stuff since he had been detecting for over 25 years and had never found one of them. I replied that they are pretty rare finds especially since he only detected the beaches. And that I doubt that he would ever find one there.
It is possible to find these unusual two-cent pieces while metal detecting. I do believe that, in the right location, it is possible for anyone to find one if you think ahead. First, do a little bit of research. One of the first two-cent coins that I found, an 1864, large motto in very fine plus condition, net of the corrosion that was present, was located in an old schoolyard.
Surprisingly, this “old school” only dated to the early 1950s. However, further research, in this case, easy research, dated the area to the mid-1800s. I say easy because while detecting the grounds of the school (with permission, of course) I met a local resident who proclaimed to me that he had become interested in the history of the area and proceeded to give me an excellent 15-plus minute education about it. I was amazed to learn that this school had formerly been the site of a farm stand.
The small street that backed up the school had originally been a major north-south road that bisected Long Island during the 19th century. Just think about the coins in the pockets of those travelers 150 years ago. Seated dimes and quarters, possible Bust dimes and quarters! The finds of dreams. This really fired up my imagination and I couldn’t wait to get back to the hunt.
The historian explained that the farm stand was right “over there.” And had been there for many years. Well, this explained why I had been able to find a number of Indian Head cents, plus some Barber dimes and a Barber quarter. In addition, I had dug up some amazing old buttons. But, I also dug many pounds of garbage.
As an aside, whenever I go to an area to detect I always look around before I start detecting. Many times, if not most times, I will find a lot of trash left behind by the students, or the older individuals who hang out at the schoolyards at night. I will easily spend 10 minutes or more cleaning up the area. Remember, the next day the maintenance department may mow the lawn, and that soda or beer can may be shredded to small pieces that will give off possible good signals and take you far longer to dig up and clear an area than the 10 minutes of cleaning will cost you.
Back to my historian, my thoughts circled around the possible coins that could have been lost in the dirt 150 years ago. But, probably the last coin on my mind was a two-cent piece. While clearing the area, I noticed that I had gotten a number of bottle cap hits that were unusually deep. After seeing a few of these signals, I decided to clear out the trash. Amazingly, it was only my fourth hit that I saw a coin in the hole. Plucking it out, I realized that it appeared to be a copper coin, but, obviously larger than a cent.
At that time I just rubbed off the soil on my pants and saw a familiar design. I was instantly grateful that I had remembered to carry my pill bottle of water with me that day. I always keep it in my pouch, after a hard lesson.
Copper coins found in the soil and unearthed after decades or even after a century will tend to have the soil turn to near concrete on the surface if allowed to dry on the coin. I placed it in the vial and impatiently waited until I got home to attempt to clean it off.
Returning home, I first heated up some water and placed the coin in hot water changing the water several times. Then I used a soft toothbrush to remove the encrusted dirt. Remember, this is a coin that has already been abused by many years of being buried. After removing the crud, I realized that the coin was an 1864 Large Motto two-cent piece.
The two-cent piece is composed of 95 percent copper and five percent tin and zinc. The copper is fairly stable in the soil, even after over a hundred years in the ground. However, the tin and zinc tend to degrade in the soil and that is why the coins are usually found with some pitting and poor surfaces. Even the one that I found, in nearly Extremely Fine condition, was pitted and very difficult to clean.
My first find of that denomination after only about five years of metal detecting. The next month I showed it off at the club and no one could believe it, since they didn’t even know that that type of coin existed.
Strangely, less than a month later, and nearly 10 miles from that school at another 1950s school yard, I found my second two-cent piece. It was also dated 1864, and also a Large Motto. Since that time, I have added other two-cent pieces, both of those also dated 1864, and still missing the elusive Small Motto.
The biggest lesson that I took away from that day was that you truly can’t judge a book by its cover or a school yard by the cornerstone.
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