Cumberland County treasure hunter driven by ‘obsession’ with finding history
Steve Barnes was 16 when he first joined his father in searching for historical treasures with a metal detector. He immediately hooked.
It didn’t hurt that Barnes grew up in Williamsport, Maryland, an area rich in Civil War history. He explains that after the defeat of the Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, they formed a wagon train to return to Virginia (now West Virginia). The Potomac River was inundated by the time they reached it, so they were forced to withdraw. They then dug a five-mile-long entrenchment – the very spot where Barnes discovered his first treasure.
“I would get on my bike and get on it,” he says. “I would find belt loops above the trenches. “
During this time, he joined a group of other “hunters” who together searched for clues in the history books, such as where some military camps were allegedly stationed. Then they would find the place together, get permission from the landowners, and start looking.
Almost 50 years and 13 metal detectors later, Barnes of Southampton Township, Cumberland County, still unearths many artifacts from the 1700s and 1800s, from rare and precious colonial coins and buttons to thousands of bullets from the civil war.
Whether you call it scavenger hunt, scout, land fishing, or Barnes’ favorite – find out the story – it seems like once you’ve started it’s hard to stop.
“It was a hobby, and now it’s an obsession,” said Barnes, “because I have to go out and find stuff.”
He always enjoys doing it alongside others. He finds little pleasure in hunting on his own, saying, “When you find something, who are you going to tell?” He even formed his own informal organization called, aptly, History Uncovered. He found friends and history buffs who researched together. In the past, they would have breakfast together before heading to an old farmhouse they had discovered. They all realized that most of the things they could discover wouldn’t be of much value, but what they especially enjoyed was the fun and the camaraderie.
Bob Rynecki of Chambersburg started “fishing on the ground” about six years ago after retiring. He bought a cheap metal detector and on the first day he only found 15 cents.
“But it was a beautiful day,” he said, “and I know I was getting some fresh air, enjoying walking around, waiting to find something.”
About eight months later, he bought a better detector and “never looked back,” he says. He looked for others who were more seasoned and continued to learn.
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“You’re always trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to find anything. But when you find this little treasure, and you can see a date on it, it’s like a time capsule, you go back in time. That’s wonderful. I found some cool stuff.
His find of pride and joy is an emblem of Rice and King, which he later discovered as a car maker in Chambersburg in the 1870s.
Wanting to learn more, Rynecki joined the local historical society, and that’s when he met Barnes, who was there looking for his own treasure-seeking escapades. They struck up a conversation and soon began to go hunting together.
“He taught me a lot,” Rynecki says of Barnes. “He knows his stuff. “
Together, they found prime sites that no one else knew existed, and they and others they hunted with formed a partnership. While there is sometimes a feeling of competition, at the end of the day, Rynecki says, even if you can’t find anything “you feel good when your boyfriend finds something right”. This, he says, is what makes a successful hunting day.
For Barnes, this is an essential outlet. “I like being in the woods, going outside,” he says. “I can’t stand being home.”
He spent 20 years in the Reserves as a military police officer and held a variety of jobs, including as a machinist, welder, police officer and product manager for a supermarket chain. He would go out hunting with his metal detector in his spare time. Now retired, he spends two to three days a week searching for treasure on properties in Germantown, Maryland, Perry County.
“I go as far as I need to go,” he says, adding that fall is usually the best time to hunt, as weeds die off and ticks – his biggest enemy – aren’t as big a threat. .
He uses historical maps online to locate family properties and he always asks permission before searching anyone’s property. He was the most successful in gaining access to Mennonite-owned property, he says.
In his area of southern Pennsylvania, he says he finds more colonial artifacts than anything else, and that’s what particularly turns him on.
“I don’t like to hunt anything above the 1800s,” he says. “It’s just not old enough for me.”
Barnes says it’s the thrill of what he might find next that keeps him going.
“The way the hobby is, you can walk right into a field and ‘bam find something,” he said. “Other times you can search endlessly and find nothing.”
He has had his share of both experiences. But in the nearly 50 years he’s been doing it, he’s certainly found a lot to brag about.
For example, a 1755 8 Reale coin, 92% silver, which he found at Fort Armstrong in Edenville. Then there were George Washington’s inaugural buttons from 1794 that he found in Newville, West Virginia, and on an old farmhouse near colonial Fort Loudoun. He also discovered a 1700s button with an engraving that read “Hail Columbia” – a national anthem that predates the “Star-Spangled Banner”.
He keeps valuables like this in a secure space.
And then there are these objects which have a particular way of bringing it back in time. For example, a glass bottle he found in Antietam. “I guarantee a soldier drank this,” he said.
He found a cosmetic case with a mirror and even an applicator inside. “When I opened it I could smell it,” he says. He returned home and researched the company that had made it. Based in Paris, he says that “it is the oldest perfume company in the world”. It dates from the 1920s.
Barnes also discovered a US Marshal’s badge, for a “Special Assistant,” on a former farm that was once the location of the region’s original post office.
He’s sold many items – mostly on eBay – including enough Civil War items at one point for him to take his wife and son on a cruise.
But it was never about money for Barnes. “I don’t want to do it like a job,” he says, “because when you start doing something like a job, it’s not as fun. “
His greatest pleasure is meeting people on the farms he finds and making them appreciate and understand the history hidden in their backyards. He also typically shares items with landowners, displaying them in shadow boxes that they can keep in their homes. He also put some of his own items in ghost boxes, but admits, “I look at him a few times, and then I have to go find something else!” “
Over the years Barnes has learned a lot of skills just by doing a lot and learning what to look for. He has been able to find even more of them over the years, as metal detector technology has continually improved to the point that it can now pinpoint almost exactly where a precious metal is underground while canceling out less desirable metals. . Barnes said there is a “learning curve” involved in listening for tones and looking at the numbers on the detector to know when to dig. He also learned, after hitting too many objects with his shovel, to dig further to find an object without injuring it.
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He also acquired the knack of knowing which lands might be the best for finding treasures. Some places are considered “convenient,” he says, such as near old houses. But often it is when he has ventured off the beaten track, such as to nearby pastures and along waterways, that he has made many interesting finds.
He also learned other tricks, such as looking under trees where people would congregate to keep cool during the hot summer months.
Sometimes his successes were often simply due to taking advantage of great opportunities.
In his youth, Barnes and a group once found numerous coins and buttons on a ridge in Germantown, Maryland. The next day, a foot of snow fell on the property.
He said: “We had so much fever that we went back and tried to hunt in this snow”
They found even more pieces, dating back to the 1700s. Years later Barnes contacted one of the guys who remembered where this ridge was, then came back and found 14 more pieces. with its new and improved metal detector.
Barnes also found many Civil War artifacts in Antietam before the government claimed much of the battlefield area (according to Barnes, there are very high penalties for detection and digging on land belonging to the government). By the time the government took power, however, “we’ve already cleaned it up,” Barnes says with a laugh.
Not finished yet
Now that he’s getting older, Barnes admits his passion is strong but his physical endurance is sometimes not as good as it used to be.
“My body is starting to break down now,” he says. “I can’t swing [the detector] as long as I start to have arthritis.
However, he still has a few items on his bucket list. He has yet to find a gold coin and he says his dream hunt would be to travel overseas to places like Italy and England and find items that date back to the 1300s.
He plans to move to Tennessee someday, but the downside is that there aren’t as many historical artifacts to be discovered there.
“I’m not ready yet,” he said. “I still have a lot of history to find here.”