EMBDEN, Maine — Earlier this month, a man with a metal detector found a long-hidden, 222-year-old coin under a few inches of soil outside a church. The copper penny, dated 1798, comes from the first decade of American-minted money in North America.
“I found all kinds of interesting stuff while I was up there,” said Shane Houston, from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Houston was on a metal-detecting trip with a friend from New Hampshire when he found the coin. On the same trip, he also found an 1818 penny, a full wagon wheel and a musket ball. The ammunition measured-out at .75 caliber, making it British in origin.
Houston located the older penny outside a church, where he had permission to look. He thinks other metal-detecting folks who were there before would have missed it.
When looking for valuables, most hunters set their devices to ignore iron but Houston leaves his switched on because he enjoys finding hand-forged nails. The penny was right beside one of those nails, which was masking it — and Houston’s metal detector was giving him the tone for iron.
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As Houston dug it up from under a few inches of dirt, he immediately saw the 1798 mark on it and knew it was something special. It’s the oldest American coin Houston has found in ten years of serious metal detecting.
“Honestly, 99 percent of the things I dig up are garbage,” he said.
Houston later removed layers of green corrosion from the penny with special cleaning pencils, revealing its full design.
The “heads” side shows the draped bust of Lady Liberty in profile. Above her is “liberty” and below is the year. It was designed by engraver Robert Scot at the Philadelphia mint, after a painting by New Englander Gilbert Stuart.
The fledgling federal government had just started making its own money six years prior, in 1793.
The “tails” side of the 100-percent copper penny shows two olive branches tied with a bow. Above it reads “one cent” and below is the fraction “1/100.”
It’s larger than a contemporary penny, more akin in size to a modern half-dollar coin.
The penny is not in pristine condition. Houston said it might fetch $200 on Ebay but he has no intentions of selling it.
That’s because it’s not the value of the objects he finds that keeps him looking, Houston said, it’s the value of the experience. He loves the peace and quiet he finds outdoors.
“It gets me out of the house, it’s great exercise and I just really love finding these old relics that people have lost or thrown away,” Houston said. “And it’s cheaper than therapy.”
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Like a good fisherman, Houston is cagey about just where he found the penny. He wants to return to the same location and search some more next year.
“I don’t want to share the spot — where I might find some more goodies,” Houston said. “And with metal detecting, it’s getting increasingly hard to find spots where it’s legal.”
He said he’ll most likely be back in the spring, when the weather warms back up.
“I’d never been to Maine before and I absolutely fell in love with it,” he said, “the scenic views, the people and the beer — and the history. It’s a great place.”