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Metal detecting: Finding Florida relics and new friends

<i>Paul Keech looks for all sorts of treasures while metal detecting on Melbourne Beach, Florida. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)</i>
Paul Keech looks for all sorts of treasures while metal detecting on Melbourne Beach, Florida. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)

Thom Parham is on a mission to uncover parts of Florida’s buried past.

The 64-year-old history teacher and conventional archeologist in Keystone Heights has his sights on finding Seminole War Fort No. 11– using his metal detector.

The Seminole Wars started in 1817 and consisted of three wars lasting until 1858. Taking place in Florida, remnants of the battlegrounds and forts are still being unearthed today.

Parham, who moved to Keystone Heights about six years ago, has been looking for any remains of Seminole War Fort No. 11 since. He got lucky when Pete Wickham, a 77-year-old Keystone Heights resident, wrote him about a coin he found on his property.

“They had found what we call a diagnostic artifact, and that’s an 1837 half dime, a silver coin,” Parham said. “With that date, it matches perfectly with the establishment of the fort in 1838, one year later, and we know that they paid the soldiers in those half dimes.”

Called metal detectorists, many say they do it just for fun. But for Parham, he said it's a means to an end.

“When you’re doing urban archaeology like this, it can be very challenging, and a metal detector is not a lot of help,” Parham said. “It just helps you locate the basic site; the real archaeology comes after that.”

<i>Thom Parham searches for buried historical Florida relics. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)</i>
Thom Parham searches for buried historical Florida relics. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)

Once Parham and his team find artifacts concentrated in a specific location, they start looking for… garbage.

“If we’re really lucky, we’ll find one of their trash pits, their garbage dump,” Parham said. “The material culture you find in garbage dumps from a fort will tell you a lot about who was there, what kind of soldiers and what their life was like.”

Parham’s goal is to eventually produce a site map and a report on Fort No. 11 for The State of Florida Department of Interior.

“With the evidence that I provide, they’ll establish it on the master site file for archeological sites in the state of Florida,” he said.

Parham, who gives away most of the artifacts he finds to museums, has already helped discover one Seminole War fort site in Middleburg: Fort Heilman.

He is not alone in his passions for metal detecting and history. Florida residents from all over the state come together and share a love for the search.

Shane Greenway, a 52-year-old Ocala resident who helped launch the Nature Coast Metal Detecting Group on Facebook, said the metal-detecting community in Florida is very supportive.

“Everybody works together to help each other out. It’s not really a competitive thing at all,” Greenway said. “It is more of a community-driven or Florida-driven thing. Here, everybody is pretty much [in] a tight-knit community.”

Metal detecting clubs on Facebook are all over Florida and provide a forum for metal detectors to discuss their finds, ask for tips and share their passion for the hobby, Damien Wohlfert, 54, said. He has been a member of the Daytona Dig and Find Metal Detecting Club for 20 years.

“If you go to a coin club or a motorcycle club, you don’t get the family treatment you do like [in] metal detecting,” Wohlfert said. “We welcome everybody. We’re friends with everybody, like brothers and families. Everybody’s always helping out.”

Gregg Papallo, 53, who started The Gainesville Metal Detecting Club, has turned to organizing community metal-detecting hunts following a health scare.

“What I enjoy doing is organizing the hunts, honestly, because I had a stroke last March,” Papallo said. “Then, I was basically in rehab learning to walk again. I haven’t truly detected since.”

“I like finding old things, and it’s kind of interesting that you can dig something up that someone had in their hand over 115 to 25 years ago,” Greenway said. “It blows my mind from time to time that I dig up an old coin, if that coin could talk, it’s just very interesting to me.”

Papallo recalled the time he uncovered his best find while metal detecting on the grounds of Santa Fe College.

“I saw an American needle, and then, of course, I went home and cleaned it. I realized that it was a belt plate, and I was like, holy smokes,” Papallo said. “It was post-Civil War because of the way it was made.”

Greenway, who has only been metal detecting for a little over a year, said his best finds are an 18-karat gold ring and a 1908 dime.

“There’s quite a few, a lot actually, that are old things. You know, we tend to find a lot here in Florida, especially in the parks where there used to be old homesteads and things,” Greenway said. “You’ll find shotgun shells and stuff like that from the late 1800’s.”

Susan deFrance, an anthropology professor at the University of Florida and a zoo archaeologist, said metal detecting isn’t common in archeology but can be helpful.

“If an amateur through their metal detecting work found coins or some material, and they were working with a museum or something, that could be really helpful for figuring out where or identifying an unknown site,” deFrance said. “So, there’s certainly some value to that.”

<i>Pete Wickham holds the 1837 half dime he found on his property. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)</i>
Pete Wickham holds the 1837 half dime he found on his property. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)

However, not all metal detectorists stay on dry land.

Brandon Carmichael, a 41-year-old St. Petersburg resident, used to be more interested in finding historical objects than modern sunglasses and jewelry, he said. Now, he thrives on the beach.

“I kind of forced myself to do it, and it took a little while to get used to because it’s much different than detecting on land,” Carmichael said. “But, as I did and the more time I spent out there, the more stuff I started finding, and it was crazy.”

After Carmichael found a lost wedding band for a family staying on the beach, he was inspired to start his own metal-detecting group on Facebook, Pinellas County Florida Ring Recovery, to help reunite people with their lost items.

“I sort of realized, man, I can actually make people pretty dang happy finding stuff that they’ve lost out here,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael established a team of detectorists from all over Pinellas County to help find lost items when he couldn't.

“If I’m busy working or my detecting buddy is busy working, maybe some other people in our group, maybe they’re retired or just have some free time or whatever,” he said. “Maybe they could get out and help somebody before I get off work at 5:30 or before my friend gets off work.”

Carmichael said time is of the essence when looking for a lost item, especially on a Florida beach.

“The whole idea is to get out there as quickly as possible because if it’s in the water, the tide’s changing, the currents, the wind, even just the winds actually shift things around,” Carmichael said. “Everything impacts where things are and where they move to.”

Wohlfert, who prefers beach hunting over land, said there are a lot of lost items to find for people on the beach.

“It’s a treasure hunt, and that’s all the stuff you're going to find on the beaches,” Wohlfert said. “We find cell phones and keys, and we actually do a lot of finding stuff for people who lose rings, diamond rings, you know, like they lose their class rings on vacation.”

Carmichael said the Florida beach climate isn’t the only challenge when finding a lost item.

“There are some people in our hobby who are less than honest, and I’ve come to find or lurk on Facebook and social media in general,” Carmichael said. “They try to find posts that people are making saying ‘I’ve lost something’ simply so they can go out and find it first and not give it back, so it’s really disappointing.”

Parham said people looking to unethically turn a profit can harm the reputation of the community.

“I view the metal detector as a tool of the more conventional archaeologists,” Parham said. “There’s a stigma around metal detector usage in the past because of these people.”

But for the most part, Greenway says, the community is mostly good.

“Everybody is very supportive of one another and helps each other out,” Greenway said. “Whether it be for technical questions with their machines that they’re operating, or somebody may have the same type of machine and have a couple tips and tricks.”

Carmichael said he can rely on detectorists from all over the state to help him find a lost item.

“We’ve been able to network between the east coast and west coast of Florida,” Carmichael said. “I’ve got friends over on the east coast, and I’ve got friends down in South Florida, so when things get lost in different areas, I’m usually trying to think who lives in this area.”

Papallo said the metal detecting community in Florida is his favorite part of the hobby.

“We are all kind of like a family of sorts,” Papallo said. “We are all different ages, different backgrounds and different races. We all get along with one common goal, and that’s to save history before it’s forgotten.”

Still on the hunt for Seminole War relics, Parham said his drive to continue is constantly being renewed.

“About 80% of what you find is trash, it’s junk, and that can be really discouraging if you go a long time without finding anything,” Parham said. “But all it takes is one really good artifact, and you’ve got the enthusiasm, and you got motivation again, just like that.”
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Savannah Rude