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Local treasures lie just under our feet

By Staff | Oct 2, 2009

Rick Swope has been unearthing treasures for some 30 years, using a metal detector, vintage maps and his knowledge of local history. Photo by Daniel Friend/Chronicle

Just about every day, Rick Swope digs up a few more bits of Shepherdstown’s history.

It’s the story of the everyday Joe – what he drank, the medicines he took, the games his children played. And it’s about the Revolutionary War and Civil War: bullets, breast plates, buckles and uniform buttons, 5-pound cannon balls. There are records of local merchants: Hill’s Pharmacy, located in the present-day Greentree Realty offices, for example. This former U.S. Marine has copper pennies from the early-1700s.

Swope isn’t a bespectacled researcher cloistered in the archives section of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission. He doesn’t get his information from C.S. Musser’s venerable “Two Hundred Years History of Shepherdstown.”

No, this is primary resource material. Physical artifacts. He digs up old bottles, coins and all manner of relics from out of the ground. Real history – that innumerable people have unknowingly stepped on or over through the decades – Swope holds in the palm of his hand.

Much of the metal he has found with a metal detector capable of indicating not only the type of metal, but also coin denominations and how deep the item is buried in the ground. Most of what he finds is just a few inches below the surface.

“Every bit (was found) in Jefferson County, within a three-mile radius of Shepherdstown,” Swope says.

Swope once sifted through four-feet of dirt from an entire crawlspace of one of the oldest houses in Jefferson County, where he found children’s marbles, early English and American coins, arrowheads, bullets, buttons, just about anything one could imagine falling between the wide-spaced floorboards of a 200-year-old home.

“This tells me how people lived,” Swope says during a recent interview at the Chronicle, for which he brought in a Dr. Kilmer’s Ocean-Weed Heart Remedy bottle, a 7-ounce “Warranted Flask,” a Hill’s Pharmacy bottle, even a Holy Water bottle. All of these are undamaged, yet tossed out in much the same way one would toss bottles into a recycling bin.

As late as the 1950s and ’60s, rural property owners simply tossed out their household garbage into a gully or a favored sinkhole.

Towns had out-of-the-way “dumps,” on their outskirts where everything was simply tossed over an embankment. Shepherdstown’s two most-remembered sites were near Rocky Street above Town Run and outside the town limits not far from the present-day Clarion Hotel & Conference Center.

The sinkholes that are prominent in our karst geology are the subject of fascination for those studying underground aquifers. Years ago, property owners used them as dump sites. (Sadly, some still do.) Swope has unearthed some of his most treasured items in and around sinkholes and other former dump sites that dotted the landscape before the advent of weekly trash pickup and the regional landfill. (He cautions anyone who even goes near a sinkhole to “tie off” to a tree or some other fixed point.)

Two important tools for Swope’s successful finds include a 1852 map of the area, showing all the roads and houses of the period and an inclusive Civil War atlas. And Swope only digs on ground where he has permission to dig.

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Swope grew up in the house his father Martin Swope built just west of town on the edge of a field (now the Food Lion parking lot).

He has begun to pursue his metal detecting with renewed interest. He first took up bottle-digging and metal detecting with his brother, Ron, who passed away at the age of 32 in 1988. Whenever Swope talks at any length about his treasure seeking, the conversation always leads back to his late brother.

“Everyone that owns a metal detector has a story,” says Swope. His originates in the mid-1970s when Swope’s sister Melody was playing with their brother Ron’s high school class ring in the front yard of the family’s home off W.Va. 45. She lost the ring in the yard.

Martin Swope – nearly 20 years later, and a few years after Ron’s death – asked Rick to try to find the ring with the new metal detector he had bought. After a few searches, Rick failed to find the ring.

Some time later, though, Rick tried again.

“One day, I just went out there and took my time,” he recalls. After a while, the detector indicated “a nickel 1-inch down.” Under the coin, Swope saw a blue glimmer, reached down and pried out his brother’s class ring.

“It was Father’s Day, and I had put that ring in my dad’s Father’s Day card,” Swope remembers. “It was worth every penny I spent for that metal detector … when I saw the smile on his face.”

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Many of artifacts that could have been saved on historic properties have been turned under or hauled away after excavation for new housing developments or additions to existing homes.

Swope encourages people to go over the land with a metal detector before any earth is disturbed. He also offers to do the metal detecting himself.

“I show them everything I find,” he says. “I don’t expect to keep everything I find. But I don’t expect to walk away with my pockets empty, either. … I dig the smallest hole I can dig, not to disturb their back yard.” Typically, Swope takes along only a long knife and a screwdriver to unearth objects in residential lawns.

For those who want to search already-disturbed soil, Swope recommends making a screen sifter.

Also, he suggests taking careful notes. “Keep everything you find, write down what you find, where you find it … and you can put a puzzle together.

“It’s just surprising how much stuff is still out there,” Swope says. “You’ve just got to know where to look and what to look for.”

– Anyone interested in contacting Rick Swope to allow him to use a metal detector on their property may contact him through the Chronicle.