WEST BURLINGTON — It’s a mystery. The shining 1833 silver coin that West Burlington’s Caleb Colter holds must have an improbable history, but unfortunately for Caleb’s curiosity, that history probably is lost forever.
That seemingly unsolvable puzzle and scores of others like it are what provide an endless fascination and no end of frustration for the 15-year-old, soft-spoken West Burlington High School student.
Caleb is among a dedicated cohort who arm themselves with high-tech metal detectors to scour the countryside, river banks and city streets for long-lost scraps of local and personal history.
Caleb ventured into the arcane world of searchers two years ago when he received an entry-level detector as a gift from his mother. But hard and enthusiastic application soon consigned that devise to the scrap heap.
A second and more robust detector was purchased and spurred on by a friendly competition with his father, and Caleb soon was out searching for the lost reminders of an early Burlington and its people.
“My dad and I do a lot of metal detecting together,” Caleb explains. “And it is sort of a contest who will do the best. Right now, my dad had found more things than I have, but I think my finds are better. I go for quality rather than quantity.”
Colter estimates that although the his quantity might not be great, he still has scores of items in his collection, and some of these items offer up intriguing questions.
Pennies remain his most common find, and Caleb guesses he has more than 200 “wheat” pennies already in his collection.
Foremost among the young metal detector’s finds is the 1833 “Capped Bust” silver dime that would today command perhaps $200 from coin collectors.
This is among the first of the coins the neophyte detector unearthed, and when first drawn from the ground, both Caleb and his father doubted it could be real.
The coin was found on the site of a long ago torn-down home, and its mint date presents an intriguing question, because the coin actually predates the founding of Burlington.
In 1833, the Black Hawk Purchase opened the territorial Southeast Iowa region for settlement. At the end of that year, perhaps only a dozen rough log cabins clung to the Mississippi River bank.
Perhaps the coin remained for many years safe in some unknown settler’s pocket as a keepsake. But a close examination of the coin shows it is very good condition with little wear in the soft metal.
How the virtually uncirculated coin came to be lost and remain in the soil until Caleb discovered it is just another intriguing mystery attached to the hobby of metal detecting.
Caleb pursues the answers to these questions on his computer or at the library where he searches the internet for information regarding both the find and the history surrounding where the item was discovered.
Other items Caleb displays offer similar baffling questions. There is the 1858 silver French “dime” coin with the Napoleon III image found on a wooded bluff overlooking the river. Caleb can only guess that perhaps a passing French immigrant dropped this link to his homeland.
The mysteries continue as Caleb reaches deeper into his collection. There is the 1920 “Standing Liberty” quarter drawn from the overgrown lot of a house the collector discovered was torn down in 1921.
The 1914 watch fob bearing the logo of the Burlington Merchant’s Life Association recovered from beneath a brick street on a city resurfacing project and the strange molded lead death’s head taken from alongside an abandoned church pose unanswered riddles.
Some of the finds are more contemporary — such as a woman’s gold wedding band recently discovered in shallow river bank sand.
“The ring is a gold and is heavier than the surrounding sand,” Caleb explains. “So, as the river levels go down, things like the ring are forced to the surface. The river banks at low water are a great place to metal detect.”
Not all the items Caleb discovers make it to his collection or warrant any research.
“What keeps turning up more than anything,” he said, “are beer can pull tabs from the 1970s and '80s.
“The metal detector has a feature that helps me tell what is buried so I don’t spend a lot of time digging up the beer can tabs. But if someone wanted to start a collection of the openers, a metal detector would be a great place to start,” he said with a laugh.
Caleb’s enthusiasm for the thrill of the discovery and the mystery such finds bring with them has lured a couple of Caleb’s friends to take up the hobby and join him in his hunts.
But, the young metal detector confesses, his greatest satisfaction still comes from besting his father on a hunt.
This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: West Burlington student finds historic treasures with metal detectors