Friday, August 31, 2007

I - The lure of Vicksburg's treasures

The hills, streams, and homes of Vicksburg and Warren County are filled with treasure! Not the type you find diving on old Spanish galleons, or dug from a sandy island beach where Blackbeard buried his hoards. No, Vicksburg’s treasures are within the walls of its residences, or lie on a table at a local thrift shop, rest in the hands of an auctioneer, were lost by a schoolboy or buried years before by an old gentleman who didn’t trust banks, or were lost, discarded or fired by the soldiers of several different wars who fought or camped all around our city and our county. For nearly forty years I’ve searched Vicksburg and Warren County for the treasures that abound here in such diversity. It’s been a fascinating hobby that has brought me a great deal of enjoyment, so much so that I feel I should share my experiences with my friends and neighbors – you.
Many of my treasure-hunting years were spent searching the hills around Vicksburg (and other parts of Mississippi) for coins and relics of the War Between the States; my primary experience, therefore, is with a metal detector. But yard sales, flea markets, auctions and estate sales, pawnshops, and plain, ordinary people have all been great sources of treasure. In my quests for Vicksburg’s treasure I’ve dived in our rivers, dug a million holes in our hills (I covered each one), seined our innumerable streams, traded with hundreds of local residents, and bought from hundreds of others by placing wanted ads in our newspapers. I’ve bought from eBay or from local auctions, and walked miles and miles to eyeball the treasures found in the freshly plowed fields all over our county.
I have discovered that the hobby is so enjoyable that treasure hunting can gradually rule your life. “It’s a Disease!” That’s the title of a short piece I wrote for North South Trader’s Civil War magazine many years ago, back when I was Plant Manager at the Baxter Wilson power plant. The story is true, though I’ve fiddled a bit with names and places to avoid revealing certain details. I think it’s fit to share it with you:

It’s A Disease!

“Plant Manager! Line 1!” I heard myself being paged on the plant PA system. The Shift Supervisor sounded excited. I picked up the nearest handset, the one on Sarah’s desk, and answered.
“Dispatcher just called! Said they lost another unit in Arkansas!” the voice screeched. “Said for us not to touch a thing! If we lose our units, half the people in Mississippi will be without electricity. And a bunch in Louisiana and Arkansas!”
“Low water?” I asked. “Did low water cause them to lose the unit?”
“Yeah, they lost cooling water. Gage is under a foot now. This is the lowest the Mississippi has been in years.”
“Well, keep everybody alert. Call me if there’s any problem,” I said. “Day or night. Keep those units humming.”
Quite satisfying, I thought, though rather nerve wracking at the moment, to know we were so badly needed. These Vicksburg units were the largest in the entire state; they supplied electricity for many of the people who lived in Mississippi, and for a huge number of folks in other states as well.
“There’s one thing,” the Shift Supervisor continued, “We had two Operators call in sick. We can’t find the off men, so we’re short handed. We’re okay for now, though, just hope nobody else calls in sick.”
“What?” I replied. “Don’t they know how critical things are right now?”
“Keep trying to find them.”
Sarah the Secretary had come in by now, and was answering telephones and making coffee and rushing around as usual. “Chief,” she called from the break room as I headed toward my office, “Tommy called in, wanted a day’s vacation. I told him you wouldn’t mind.”
“What?” I growled, turning, “Things are critical. Half the people in Mississippi…”
“He wanted off sooo… bad, I just couldn’t tell him you wouldn’t let him…”
“Aw, all right,” I answered.
I settled down for a well-deserved cup of coffee. I had only been in my office a few seconds when the Mechanical Supervisor burst in. “Chief, I need to be off for a while. You don’t mind, do you?” he asked breathlessly.
“Joe, you know the situation,” I said patiently. “Half the people in Mississippi…”
“It’s an emergency, Chief!”
“Well,” I relented, “if it’s an emergency… Just stay in touch.”
“By the way, Chief, do you have any double A batteries? Save me a stop if you do.”
“Sure,” I answered. “In the car. I always keep an extra set in the glove box for my metal detector. But what…”
“Thanks, Chief.”
And he was gone. Strange behavior, I thought, for such a reliable supervisor.
AA batteries? Suspicion began about then.
I took care of several phone calls, including one to my boss in Jackson to assure him that the station was in tip-top shape and could be relied upon to keep the juice flowing to all those homes and businesses throughout the mid-south area. Like all good bosses, he complimented the performance of my crew and its leader, and assured me that heads would roll if anything went wrong. What a guy!
“Sarah,” I said into the intercom after a while, “tell Ralph I need to see him. We need to discuss what we’ll do if the river drops much lower.”
“He’s not here, Chief,” she answered.
“What? What the devil is going on around here? Where is the Lead Mechanical Engineer?”
“He said if you were looking for him to tell you he had to go check on the river, north of town.”
“On the river? What’s he doing on the river north of town?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you that.”
“What?” I screamed.
“Maybe I will… He’s up there picking up cannon balls.”
“Cannon balls…,” I said softly. My mind worked furiously. “Do you know where, exactly, Sarah?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you, unless it’s an emergency.”
“Well, it’s gonna be an emergency, real shortly!”
“Okay, okay. It’s a place called Haines Bluff. Do you know where it is?”
Haines Bluff. Everybody knew where Haines Bluff was. That was a Confederate fortification and camp north of town. Our Southern boys abandoned it after the Battle of Champion Hill. They moved into Vicksburg. They and the invading Yankees dumped the fort’s munitions into the river. They dumped the…
“Sarah!” I screamed as I rushed from my office and headed to the front door. “If anybody calls, tell them I went to check on a leaking valve in the tank farm.”
“But Chief,” she said, “You can’t leave. Half the people in Mississippi…”
“It wouldn’t hurt them to do without power for a little while,” I yelled as the door slammed behind me.
The nerve of those guys! I thought as I steered my car north. I trained half of them on how to use a metal detector. Heck, I got most of them started in the treasure-hunting business! Now this! I just hope there are enough of the crew left at the plant to keep it running…
The woods were full of cars, all of them familiar. I parked among them and jumped out. That was when I remembered I had on my new Florsheim shoes and my best pin-stripe suit. Oh, well… the stores were full of clothes. I tore off my tie and coat and jerked my detector from the trunk, then followed the path that led down to the water, the river, to the wealth of relics that must lie there now, exposed, waiting…
They were ending things up. Groups of them. Operators. Engineers. Mechanics. Warehouse personnel. Joe and my AA batteries. They had piles of cannon balls and artillery projectiles and all sorts of rusty and interesting objects that were valuable. There were holes everywhere in the now-bared river banks, holes with shapes like round balls, and Read shells, and Schenkl shells, and Brookes, and even Confederate buckles. My crew was winding up the hill, half the plant employees, I thought, like a busy trail of ants, laden with object d’art, back toward their cars. They didn’t speak. They had more important things on their minds.
I rushed to the water’s edge, thinking that perhaps it had dropped a little more in the last few minutes, that I might at least pick up a Minie ball. My detector hummed that soft little buzz as I searched, the buzz that tells you there’s nothing there. I got a signal. Square nail.
They were gone now, and I was left alone, standing in my muddy Florsheims, detector drooping to the ground. I wondered what the river level would do tomorrow. I wondered about half the people in Mississippi, and the huge number in Louisiana and Arkansas.
I trudged sadly into my office after the drive back, leaving muddy footprints along the way. The power was still on. Some of the employees had returned to work. I marveled at the force that had taken hold of them, a force that had compelled half the people at the plant to drive north.
It’s a disease! I thought then. A fatal disease for which there’s no cure. And most of the people in Vicksburg have it.
“Hi, Chief.” It was Ralph, my trusty Lead Mechanical Engineer, at my door. “Get anything?”
“No, Ralph,” I answered, “But you’re fired.”
“But Chief! I couldn’t help myself!”
“I know, Ralph. It’s a disease. You can stay.”
“I got a six-point-four Brooke shell. Strange fuse. Confederate. Must be rare.”
“I’m gonna kill you, Ralph.”
“No, Chief. Remember. It’s a disease.” He left hurriedly.
I settled back into my chair and pondered vengeance. But had I any reason to feel vengeful? It struck me that we all, from Operator to Engineer to Plant Manager, had considered the opportunity to dig a few cannon balls reason enough to neglect our duties and perhaps place all those people in Mississippi and Louisiana in jeopardy…
It’s a disease! I realized once more with a shudder. A disease!

Need more proof? Well…
Several years ago, after researching much of Vicksburg’s War history, I became convinced that the Yankees had camped on a certain hillside within the city. I found that two large churches had been built atop the suspect plateau, but that there was plenty of open ground down the hillsides around them. I proceeded to call the pastor of one of the churches; he subsequently gave me permission to hunt the grounds – as long as I didn’t leave any holes.
The next opportune day I loaded shovel and detector, drove to the church, and began hunting. Within a few minutes I located bullets and buttons – enough to confirm the presence of the invaders.
I was having a great time when a gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing. I told him, and added that I had gotten permission to do so. No, he told me, I hadn’t, because he was the pastor of the church, and he had done no such thing. It dawned on me then – I was hunting the grounds of the wrong church!
The pastor wasn’t too upset when I explained. After telling him who I was and the reason for my presence, I was allowed to go on with the hunt. The pastor hung around and watched as I pulled relics from the ground, often expressing his wonder and excitement. I explained to him what each item was, and how it was used. When it was too dark to hunt, I thanked him and left.
That night I got a call from the pastor. He had decided, he said, that I should not come back on the church grounds, that all that digging might cause the hillside to wash, the congregation didn’t want me there, etc., etc. No amount of begging on my part could persuade him to change his mind.
But I still had permission to hunt the other church grounds, and a couple of days later I did so. And guess what I found when I returned? Yep. That pastor had his metal detector out scanning his own church grounds, digging relics. I got out and hunted the opposing church grounds right up to his church’s property line, all the while exchanging indecent glances with the renegade pastor.
That night I got another call from the pastor. He was quite upset. I’d gotten too close to his digging grounds with my detector and shovel. So he told me, in no uncertain terms, and in language no pastor I’ve ever known would use, the exact location of each and every property line. I was nice to him, though I had to grit my teeth, and I promised him I would never ever trespass upon his claim. In hindsight, I wish I had used some language just as strong as what he used with me.
You think it’s not a disease? Oh, but yes. Even the Holy are not immune.
I have a friend who is so badly afflicted with the addiction that he once used a bulldozer to unearth the treasures lying in a local river at the scene of one of the battles of the War. Of course, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers were quite upset with him, and he wisely abandoned the project.
A great aspect of the treasure-hunting hobby is this: Treasure hunting is for everyone. Young men and women, old men and women, kids, even those who are handicapped if they can read a newspaper and operate a telephone, or have access to a computer. Let me give you a striking example:
I recently met an elderly gentleman who had brought along some bottles for me to take a look at, with the thought that I might purchase them. In the course of our conversation I learned that he had a metal detector, and that he had found lots of War relics. I was taken aback, for the gentleman was obviously advanced in age. I asked him his age, and he replied that he was 89. Naturally, I wanted to know how long he’d been relic hunting, but when he told me “about 15 years,” I realized that he’d begun the hobby at the age of 74! In the ensuing year he and I shared spots and hunted together; I developed a great respect for him. He’s well over 90 now, and still digging. And he has a fine collection.
When I speak of “treasure” I’m referring to anything that can be converted to cash. By that definition, real estate is treasure. So are automobiles. Rare paintings. Oil wells. You get the drift. Within the context of my treasure-hunting experience, however, the perception of treasure will be primarily assigned to money, antiques and collectibles. This definition hardly limits the number of things that can be classified as treasure. The list includes: Coins. Currency, especially collectible notes. Bullion. Stamps. Jewelry. Antique furniture. Guns. Gems. Rare documents. Clocks and watches. Knives. Autographs. Rare bottles. Railroad artifacts and documents. Audio records. Diaries. Tools. Stained glass. Old appliances. Clothing. Radios. Military artifacts. Photographs. Art glass and china. Carnival glass. Cookie jars. Dolls. Indian artifacts. Marbles. Baseballs and baseball cards. Decoys. Postcards. Books. Silverware. Paintings. Art work. Antique automobiles. Rugs. Tokens. Posters. Musical instruments. Insulators. Flags. Comic books. Fishing lures. Pens and pencils. And on and on and on.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve amassed a large collection of the “treasures” that I love over my forty years of searching. Perhaps after reading of my many experiences (if you’re so inclined), you’ll want to begin your own treasure-hunting expedition.

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