Cecil collector finds treasure hunting under the ground
Special to the Whig
— Treasure hunters have a saying: “There’s more gold in the ground than there is in the banks.” While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, North East resident Dan Hewitt has found his fair share of old coins — and other long lost objects — under Cecil County’s historic soil.
Hewitt, 47, who works at Aberdeen Proving Ground as an energy data analyst, said he collected baseball cards as a youngster, but got into metal detecting and collecting more seriously about seven years ago.
About twice a week, armed with one of his detectors, he roams the county’s forests and fields, searching for interesting, unusual, historic objects that have been lost or forgotten.
But one shouldn’t expect to buy a metal detector, turn it on and discover a pot of gold under a park playground or beneath one’s backyard. According to Hewitt, metal detecting demands a lot of patience and even more research.
“About 85 percent of the sites I’ve gotten permission to access involve research,” he said, which includes analyzing old maps, reading books on local history, and talking to longtime county residents. “One of my best resources are farmers who plow through the dirt. They’re able to tell me the location of an old foundation.”
While admitting he has uncovered thousands of worthwhile objects, they aren’t all great finds.
“For one good thing you find, you have to dig up a hundred pull tabs or nails or old pieces of pipe. But then every once in a while you’ll get that ‘aha’ moment that keeps you going,” he said.
Over time, new hunters will develop patience and better learn how to read the signals displayed on their machine, he added. But he also has learned to rely upon his EBD. EBD? “Eyeball Detector,” he explained, referring to increased personal analytical abilities that come with years of experience. “Also, as with any kind of hunting, you try to increase your odds by putting yourself in a good spot. You won’t duck hunt in a parking lot.”
Besides numerous coins — some dating into the 1700s — Hewitt has uncovered a wide range of objects, such as a Civil War belt buckle, black powder revolver, 6.5-inch skeleton key, War of 1812 cannonball and the Holy Grail of buttons — a 1789 George Washington Inaugural button.
To the surprise of many, all of these and Hewitt’s thousands of other discoveries have been found within Cecil County’s borders.
As the collector picked up a small “War Service Ship Building” badge, he began to talk about its history, wondering how the unusual item had found its way from Philadelphia’s Hog Island to Cecil County.
In 1917, as part of the World War I effort, the U.S. government contracted American International Shipbuilding to build a shipyard at Hog Island, along the Delaware River. At the time it was the largest shipyard in the world, with 50 slipways. One area legend claims the large sandwiches eaten by Hog Island workers were called Hoagies, the name that still refers to Philadelphia’s popular sub-like sandwiches.
Today, the present Philadelphia International Airport covers Hog Island and all remnants of its historic past.
With each item’s recovery, the hunt is only beginning, Hewitt said. There’s also a story, or stories, waiting to be uncovered.
While many would think a valuable historic find would top Hewitt’s most memorable experience list, that’s not the case.
“The most satisfying things I find are those I
can return to a person,” he said.
On the grounds of an old school, he found a class ring. Based on the engraved name and initials, he was able to return it to its owner. In such instances, he accepts no reward, and asks only for a photograph of the happy recipient for his files.
While detecting at a site of a recent carnival, he noticed a young man looking down at the ground, obviously frustrated. Hewitt learned the fellow was part Dan Hewitt discovered this shipbuilding badge while on a local hunt, but does not know how the item found its way from Philadelphia’s Hog Island to Cecil County.
of the carnival — which was preparing to leave the area — but he had lost the key to his rig. The man told Hewitt, “I’m not sure of what to do.”
Hewitt recovered the lost key and gave it to the greatly relieved man, who offered Hewitt a lifetime of free rides whenever they came back to the area.
“I told him to get another key made,” Hewitt said, smiling at the memory. “In that kind of situation, my satisfaction goes off the charts.”
With increased development and the inevitable disappearance of open spaces and farmland, many assume there are very few sites left that will yield worthwhile treasures and relics.
But Hewitt disagreed, explaining that a lot of opportunities to hunt on private land still exist, but it’s first necessary for hunters to establish and maintain good relationships and reputations with landowners.
“I’ve been fortunate to establish longtime friendships with many of the people that have been kind enough to allow me onto their property,” he said.
Reflecting on his hobby, Hewitt said, “I also love doing this because of the variety of things in our area, which is inundated with artifacts. The Chesapeake Bay was the I-95 of the Colonies. If you can find a site on high ground, near the water, that correlates with an old map location, you’ll have a good chance of finding something.”
To suggest a Cecil collector to profile, email letters@ cecilwhig.com.
North East resident Dan Hewitt finds hidden treasures and historic items with the help of his metal detector.