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Man lends treasures to Shepherd

By Staff | Dec 16, 2011

John Gracen Brown looks into a display case of his findings at the Scarborough Library on the Shepherd campus. Brown's artifacts will be on loan to the library until Feb. 6. (Chronicle photo by Mike Cramer)

Every summer, when it gets hot and dry and the Potomac River begins to recede, John Gracen Brown goes treasure hunting in the murky water. But he is not searching for gold or silver. For Brown a good hunt means finding an old toy.

Brown has been collecting Native American artifacts in the West Virginia area his entire life. The 75- year-old has found dozens of items which now sit in display cases at museums across the area.

Shepherd University is displaying some of Brown’s findings in the Scarborough Library on campus. The display consists of carvings, tools and some incredibly rare Native American toys.

According to Brown, he asked about the display case on the second floor while visiting the library one day. At the time, the university was using the case to display some pictures which had been up for a while. Brown offered to show the library some of his findings and loan them for the display. Brown said the library staff were quite taken by what they saw and offered to display Brown’s findings.

The resulting exhibit has been so popular that the university has twice extended its loan of the artifacts. Currently, the exhibit is scheduled to stay up until early January but Brown says that date may be extended yet again.

“It would be fine with me if they kept them on display as long as possible,” Brown said.

Some of the artifacts in the exhibit include tools like hammers and thimble-like pushers. Brown says the rarest items to find are toys. He may find one toy for every 25 tools he finds. The toys often include carved models, like a 10 inch-long canoe carving on display in the case. Brown said he wanted to have a good mixture of artifacts in the case, which houses over two dozen items.

“I am amazed at the level of craftsmanship, the variety of objects and the condition of the artifacts. I expected to see stone tools, but the stone toys were a delightful surprise,” Ann Henriksson, coordinator of reference and government documents for the Scarborough Library said.

Henriksson said that library patrons have come to staff members with a variety of questions about the artifacts such as how their use is determined. According to Henriksson, the library often shows student and local artwork and the uniqueness of Brown’s findings has attracted a lot of attention.

Loaning out artifacts is a new practice for Brown. He has typically donated his work to small museums, never asking for money. He said he prefers to donate to small museums because they tend to have space to display one’s findings, whereas large museums struggle to find room for all of their exhibits.

“I’m just happy to see the general public show some real interest in these artifacts,” Brown said.

For several years, Brown’s partner in verifying the authenticity of the artifacts he collected was a prominent specialist at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, Rico Newman. For years Newman would verify pieces which Brown found as true artifacts. Newman was also the one who turned Brown on to how rare Native American toys can be. Brown took artifacts to Newman in Washington, D.C. twice a year until Newman retired about a year and a half ago.

While searching for artifacts in the Potomac, Brown says he likes to stay as close to the West Virginia side of the river as possible, as not to disturb the parks which belong to Maryland. He says this decision is also a practical one as many of the artifacts which could have been found in the state parks have been destroyed.

Brown said he has no intention of stopping his search for artifacts. Despite being in his seventies, he continues to swim the Potomac in the summer and scour the river banks for toys and tools.