Thursday, April 3, 2014

Because Nothing Says "Springtime" Like a Bormann Fuse

Not every Dirt Girl post needs to be epic. I’m going to try for a short one: just a quick recap of recent finds.

In the beginning of March, Cheryl and I found ourselves back at a torn-down house site we had explored a year ago. It’s right in the midst of Battle of Nashville territory – a very fancy neighborhood now. It was kind of strange that it’s just been sitting here all this time – a big, old rain-filled hole surrounded by trash – but we took it as a sign that there was more to find. Found mostly junk, including this weird item, below. I was sure it was a piece of modern plumbing and almost threw it out. Instead, I posted it on Facebook and was surprised when a bunch of the Club guys responded, “Wow! Nice Bormann fuse!”

Plumbing? Please. I am a deadly Bormann
cannonball fuse. The notches are for the
soldiers to set my timer so that when I
explode, I do so at the appropriate time.
I am actually a rarer "Braille" Bormann
fuse -- with dots instead of numbers
so that the soldiers can set my timer
in dark and smoky conditions.
Plumbing? Seriously? Sigh.

Friends in Franklin invited me and Cheryl to come over and hunt the yards and pastures of their new farm. Delicious! We spent two sunny Saturdays there. Here's a sampling of our finds:

Beautiful mystery item + Williams cleaner.

Did not expect to find this in the horse pasture.
It's some kind of trophy from the 1950s.

This, too, was unexpected. Turns out it's a
1950s trophy for German shepherd dogs. The
 previous property owner was a veterinarian
who raised German shepherds.


Yup, that's "Muddy" -- the family pig. I touched him.

We noticed a huge church across the street and and got permission for all that property too. It’s obviously been hunted for decades, but we managed to pop out a few more tasty treats.

Previous diggers left behind this beautiful,
small sledgehammer head. Here it is all
cleaned up and polyurethaned. Apple is for
scale. Because apples are pretty.

This, my friends, is very interesting to me. I believe this
is actually a Spanish real (pronounced "ree-al") coin!
Look at the edge, at about 9 o'clock. Do you see the "I S P"?
That's part of the "HISPANIA"!
I  do not know what happened to this coin.
Perhaps it went through a fire?
What do you think????
Here's another real I found last year, for comparison.
In this case, the "I S P" is at about 2 o'clock.

My obsession with electrolysis continues unabated. At the last meeting of the MTMDC, some of the guys gave me some old, rusty junk to clean up and I’ve been slowly going through the pile. Why this is fun, I have no idea.

From top left: animal trap, step to get into a carriage,
tiny spike, horseshoe, colonial era (?) axe head.
Banana for scale...

Handles and a buckle thing.

Shears of some sort. 

Yesterday, I received an email from a woman who found this blog online. Seems her brother, Bob, had been playing football in his backyard last November when his platinum wedding ring flew off his finger. He’d rented a detector but had not found it. Would I be interested in helping? I was!

This afternoon, Cheryl and I met up at Bob’s house in a subdivision in Franklin.  I found the ring on the other side of the back fence, next to some unmowed grass. The signal had the distinctive sound of “not deep” and I knew pretty quick this was the ring. I could see its outline in the dirt; just reached down and picked it up. 

The surgical gloves give this
image a certain je ne sais quoi...

Got a nice text from Bob. He promises that his wife will spread the story far and wide to all her FB friends and score us some sweet Franklin properties to hunt – the only “payment” I wanted.

We left the ring with Bob’s neighbor (who invited us to hunt his great-grandmother’s land… you know: the place where she buried $250,000 IN MASON JARS IN THE GROUND THAT WERE FOUND WHEN HIGHWAY 840 WENT THROUGH THE PROPERTY. Yup, that place. We said yes.)

Drove back to the church property for another look around. These cool spring days won’t last long and it was pretty sweet. 

58 minie ball.

 Home by five. A very good day with only one tick.

Monday, February 24, 2014

I Am an Electrical Engineer

The sadness of losing Doug Drake, combined with a hefty serving of bone-aching Tennessee winter, conspired to keep me and Cheryl from any serious digging for a week or so after his funeral.  But little by little, the shadows have been lifting along with the temperatures and we’ve been venturing out.

For our first serious excursion, we decided to revisit a tried-and-true site just west of town, a place Doug and Cheryl discovered on their own and generously invited me to after they’d explored (decimated) it. It was there I found my first CW button – nothing special, but a coup for me.

We brought along our new Junior Digger, Ruth, who has shown great initiative, doing research, buying a good machine, inviting me and Cheryl to hunt her property, joining the Middle TN Metal Detecting Club, coming to see Dirt Girl perform at the Bluebird Cafe, etc. Ruth shows great promise!

Newbie lady detectorist, poised for adventure.
We three spent a lovely afternoon sliding around on a steep hill pulling out bullets and buttons and assorted ancient items from this bona fide CW hotspot.

At one point, I was crouched in the dirt trying to locate something with my pinpointer, when I heard a faint “woof” behind me.

Unexpected, but welcome.
Ruth started her MD career with a bang, pulling out this beautiful, old key.

There's writing on it, but, sadly, not legible.

About a week later, Cheryl and I ventured back to a favorite old home site a bit north of town. We’d covered the open areas last summer but had been waiting til winter to venture into the woods. The property owner (our hero) told us to have at it. He was pretty sure there were some old foundation stones back in there.

It’s just an amazing tract of land – 100+ acres, mostly steep, forested hills and adorable streams. After a lot of tromping around, we started getting some signals and found what might be a pile of foundation stones.

We're not entirely sure what kind of structure this was, or
if it was a structure. But there was enough stuff around it
to indicate concentrated human habitation. If it's a home
site, it does not appear on the 1871 map I have of this area.

 We spent a couple of days at the site. It was hard going -- tons of shotgun shells and thick brush -- but a lot of fun. We both found a ton of harmonica reeds; these folks enjoyed their music. I'd show you the reeds, but I can't find them...  This site was also transcendently beautiful.

Thought this was another shotgun shell but
no: it's a half of a mourning brooch, found
nestled in a huge, rusted chain.

Suspender clip.

I worked very hard for this excellent prize.

Found this in a stream bed. I assume it's a bullet
but I've never seen one like it. Ideas?

The surroundings could not have been more lovely and silent. The patterns of the water beneath the melting ice were like visual melodies. I tried to sing along.



One rainy afternoon, Ruth called desperate to go somewhere, so I offered up a yard near my house that I’d been given permission to explore. The back was filled with clad pennies and a lot of gravel – not fun. But the front was more interesting.

Looks like an Enfield, which signals Confederate soldier.
Cool. Now I just have to learn to play the darn thing.

Cheryl and I went back the next day and she pulled out a Williams cleaner. So, as far as I can guess, there were both Union and Confederate soldiers marching through the area at various times. I’ve never heard of any actual fighting or skirmishes in Inglewood, but who knows… I’m sure not every hostile encounter was chronicled in the Official Records of the Civil War. And soldiers could totally have been camped around here, not fighting, necessarily, but dropping stuff.

Found this just a foot away from the Enfield and my heart skipped when I saw the eagle but instead, I find I am a member of Captain Midnight's Secret Squadron. 

Stop in the name of the law.

Thought this was a battery until I got home and cleaned it up...

The loudest whistle I have ever heard.
So that about sums up my recent digging. BUT. There is much else to tell you.

Dirt Girl has a new obsession: electrolysis. Nope, not hair removal (though I will admit to having had my eyebrows waxed on several occasions.) We’re talking rust removal.

I’d known about this technique for a couple of years, but it just seemed totally out of my league.  (SCIENCE! ELECTRICITY! DANGEROUS CURRENTS!)

But last month, I determined to make use of those bitter, cold days and do something productive with the giant pile of rusted crap outside my back door that screams, “Hoarder lady lives here!” (Disclaimer: I am not a hoarder, but do have a problem with organization…)

We must! We must! We must collect the rust!

Yes, for nigh onto three years, now, I’ve been augmenting my collection of bullets, buckles, coins, rose tags, dog tags, toy cars, rings, keys, cigarette lighters, locks, gun parts and suspender clips with big, honking pieces of heavily rusted iron that I just can’t seem to leave behind in the fields and woods.

We’re talking axe heads, log splitters, chains, horse shoes, mule shoes, hoe pieces, stove legs and hundreds of what I call “round things.”

Anyway… I decided to build my own electrolysis rig: a plastic tub, wire, rebar, water, washing soda and a battery charger. I read many articles and viewed many youtube videos and made many trips to Home Depot where the guy in the electricity aisle looked at me with many inscrutable expressions as I tried to describe what I was doing and what I needed. And you know what? I did it. I, DIRT GIRL, BUILT AN ELECTROLYSIS SYSTEM WHILE WATCHING DOWNTON ABBEY.

It's all attached to a manual battery charger.

I did that.

Yup. Did that too.

And it’s working great. It’s extremely fun and satisfying to turn nasty, crusty, flaking ancient iron things into clean, beautiful works of – dare I say it? – art.

This was a rusty mess. Turns out it's Colonial era, used
to suspend pots over a fire. 

I’ve pretty much always got something “cooking” in the back bathroom. On warm days, I dip the derusted pieces in lacquer and dry them outside on some rocks. I’ve been giving away some of the finished pieces and so far, people seem to really love and appreciate them. I can tell because they immediately become rather distant and leave the house in a hurry.

From top left: horse shoe, buckle, two parts of a horse bit
some kind of clip (?), part of a grating, two handles
artillery hammer (?)

Dear reader, can you imagine ANY WAY I could make a living doing electrolysis? I do so want to! Ever so much! (Too much Downton Abbey is being watched in this house.)

In other news, I’m working hard on another project: a record of metal detecting songs. The ones I have written so far are:

I Dug it Up
Can Slaw
Aluminum… Foiled Again (co-written with Butch Holcomb, publisher of American Digger Magazine)
Pull Tab Ring
The Sword

A few more and I’ll be ready to do some serious recording, so stay tuned.

Another thing: your very own Dirt Girl will be the featured guest on Relic Roundup -- an online radio show sponsored by American Digger magazine -- on Monday, February 24. I’m not sure what we’ll be talking about, but my guess is metal and music. The shows are archived and you can listen in whenever you want!

Finally, this from Cheryl:

One night recently, she was driving in her car when her cellphone rang. It was Doug!
“Hey, BUDDY!” Doug crowed.
“Doug!” said Cheryl. “How are you?”
“I feel wonderful! I can’t believe how good I feel!” said Doug Drake, from beyond the veil.

And that was it. Cheryl woke up. When she told me this story, we laughed and cried.

We do miss our buddy!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Oh, Doug Drake... We Will Miss You So.

I knew it was coming but… damn.

Last Sunday (January 12, 2014), Cheryl and I went to visit Doug in the hospital. After about a year of increased breathlessness and weakness, a quintuple bypass that never quite accomplished anything, a spot of lung cancer and a boatload of radiation, Doug decided he’d had enough of hospitals and went the hospice route. They were fine-tuning his oxygen levels before sending him home to his cozy and comfortable house.

We didn’t know what to expect when we walked in his room. He was lying in bed, staring at the clock on the wall.

Sick as he was, Doug lit up when he saw us and we talked and talked. I think he must have known this would be our last visit and he wanted to be sure we knew of every site he had stocked away in his massive mental archive of Sites to Dig. Names, roads, towns, stories… Cheryl took notes furiously. We wracked our minds trying to remember the questions we had for him. It was wonderful to see him so engaged and so much himself: lucid, opinionated, funny, acerbic, generous. He told us, laughing, that the oxygen he was on sometimes made him dream he was flying a fighter jet. 

I showed him a shiny, lacquered horseshoe – my first experiment with electrolysis – and when he said it looked great, I was so proud. Somehow, as old and Cheryl and I are, we felt like kids around him and basked in his approval and excitement.

As best we can recollect, Cheryl and I first met Doug Drake in November of 2011. Novice detectorists, the two of us had been heading out together nearly every weekend not really knowing what we were doing or where the good spots were. We spent a lot of money on gas in order to dig a lot of junk, but it sure was fun.

The full story of our first meeting is described in an early Dirt Girl post, “Triune”. But the short version is that Cheryl and I had arrived at a site we’d heard about, staring at a huge NO TRESPASSING sign, when a big, brown Crown Victoria pulled up beside us and a tall, 70-something guy in overalls got out.

Doug. Overalls. Ball cap.

He had the twinkliest eyes ever, made even twinklier (I like to think now, looking back) at the sight of two disappointed middle-aged ladies with detectors.

Doug Drake to the rescue. He told us to follow him and we did. About ¼ mile away, he rolled down his window and pointed to a dirt road; then he sped off.

It was a great site and I found my first (and only) truly valuable (not to mention amazing) Civil War relic. About a week later, I went over to Doug’s house to show him my finds from the past nine months. He looked them over carefully, then looked up at me and grinned and said, “I want to go metal detecting with YOU!”

Like I was a lucky charm.

From then on, we were a three-man detecting team. Because Doug was retired and Cheryl between jobs, they went digging several times a week, while I joined them on the weekends. We learned so much from him. So many times, when I dug an unidentifiable item, I’d think, “I’ll show it to Doug; he’ll know.” And he usually did.

But sometimes he’d turn the item over and over in his hands, so studiously, then look up and pronounce, “Hmm. It’s just one of them there thangs.”

Twinkle, twinkle.

Born in 1936, Doug was a member of the fifth generation of Drakes who had settled the Madison area in the 1700s. He was a born historian, a man with an intense and coursing curiosity, and not quite of this era. Today, at the visitation, his sister told me that he used to sit out in the field behind their house, just sit there, staring at the land, ignoring his mother as she called for him. As a boy, he hunted for arrowheads, then became fascinated with caves. He began using a metal detector 50 years ago and had an encyclopedic understanding of the history of middle Tennessee. On our dozens of road trips in that swaying brown Crown Victoria, (with me battling motion sickness), he pointed out hundreds of sites he’d dug years ago. Cheryl and I tried to remember them all, but it was just too much.

He and his wife, the gentle, lovely Brenda, whom he married in the early 1980s, explored farmers’ fields and deep woods and – on their own – discovered the locations of several pioneer forts then shared the information so the sites could be properly documented by archaeologists. Doug donated hundreds of items he dug to local museums and historical societies.

About a year ago, we noticed that Doug was having to stop digging and sit down a lot. 

The long hikes back to our cars really seemed to take it out of him.  It wasn’t like him at all; we tried not to worry but as the year progressed, he came digging with us less and less frequently. 

One day, though, he felt better and he and Cheryl met up south of town. After a few hours of fruitless digging, she came upon Doug leaning against a tree, grinning from ear to ear, with a rare Confederate button he'd just dug.

In April, my dear friend, Terri Sarris, a film and video artist at the University of Michigan, came down to Nashville to shoot footage for a short film about me and my metal detecting life. It hasn’t been edited yet, but I have a strong feeling that a lengthy interview with Doug, seated in the doorway of an ancient smokehouse, in a Tennessee holler, will be a highlight of the finished piece.

Frank Pahl, Terri Sarris, Doug Drake during filming
in Doug's incredible Basement Lair of Antiquity.

 Doug's bypass took place over the summer and he never really recovered from it. Then an xray revealed the spot on his lung. To me and Cheryl, at least, he seemed quite unsentimental about it all. Sometimes, he came to a site with us and just set up a stool and watched us dig, his oxygen tank in the grass beside him. As the weather turned cool, he began selling and giving away his finds, his detectors, his bottles, his books, his maps. 

Early December. Dealer Chase Pipes inspects
Doug's collections of bottles, books and ... stuff.


(In the video above, Doug takes a break from selling his bottles to recall an amazing site...)

After about an hour, we could tell Doug was getting tired so we wrapped up the visit. I patted his arm, but Cheryl said, “Doug, I know you don't like to be hugged but I’m going to hug you anyway.” And she did. We really thought we’d be able to visit again once he got home.

Tuesday, an ambulance brought Doug home and set him up comfortably in his chair. The hospice nurse left. Brenda puttered around for a bit, then checked on Doug. He was gone.

In the midst of life… yup. Sigh.

The visitation this morning at the Madison Funeral Home was filled with folks from throughout Doug’s life, laughing and talking and crying and thinking. Then, we went outside into the cold, January gray, we got in our cars, turned on our flashers, and headed downtown with a full police escort.

I’d never driven in a funeral procession before. Here in the south, it means that all traffic stops as you pass by. Police cars speed past you to block the intersections as you sail through red lights. It was pretty impressive and I felt strangely proud that all these strangers were stopping to honor my digging buddy without even knowing who he was.  (Some of these Southern rituals – like children saying “Thank you, ma’am; I enjoyed it” when they leave the dinner table, and stopping traffic to honor the dead – are worthy and good.)

We drove to the Nashville City Cemetery where the Drake family plot was purchased in the 1830s by Doug’s great- great-grandfather, Henry Hollingsworth, who was then the mayor of Nashville. The line of cars drove slowly between the ancient stones and past huge, old trees. We stood, shivering, under a small canopy, where the casket lay draped in an American flag. (Doug served his country in the Tennessee National Guard and in the United States Air Force as a young man.)

 A young soldier stood some distance away, under a tree, and played taps, so sweetly. (That’ll make you weep for a tough old digger any time.) Two other soldiers folded the flag and presented it to Brenda.  We sang Amazing Grace. A minister said a few words. The pallbearers placed their corsages on the coffin, then Arthur, another of Doug’s digging pals, added a bullet.

And it was over.

Cheryl and I went to a meat ‘n’ three, because funerals make me hungry like nothing else.

The part that’s so hard to grasp – and it’s hard to grasp every, single time – is that he was just here. And now he’s not.

It’s just one of them thangs...

Friday, January 3, 2014


I know I’m not alone in celebrating the passing of 2013. It was a rough year, as careful readers of Dirt Girl know. Let’s recap:

1.     My daughter’s illness last January.
2.     The death of my beautiful Rottie girl, Chloe.
3.     The passing of the great John Stoecker – a terrible loss to my circle of friends.
4.     Losing my longtime job (they immediately rehired me as  “temp” with no benefits. Classy.)
5.     Giant August storm = four feet of water in the basement. Again.
6.     Al’s emergency gallbladder surgery – a bill our new, crappy health insurance is disputing because we went to the “wrong hospital.”
7.     My detecting skills seem to have crawled under a rock.

That’s right.  I’m just not finding anything lately. I tried SO HARD to dig something memorable or at least vaguely interesting so as to have a scintillating end-of-year Dirt Girl recap for ya.

But no.

The past few weekends, Cheryl and I have been trolling construction sites as more and more ancient farmland south of town is carved into curlicued streets dotted with vaguely chateau-like houses for the moneyed many and their granite countertops.

Our favorite blue-eyed foreman had told us about a barn they’d recently torn down and we set out to find it. After a massive directional misunderstanding sent us nearly to the Florida panhandle – on foot – we turned around and found the barn, right next to our cars.

And not far from the barn, in deep woods, after crossing a sweet little stream, I came upon this:

Who lived here? It's not on my 1878 map.
I yelled to Cheryl and we got to work. Our own secret home site!!!!


We’ve spent three days there and don’t have a lot to show for it. Part of the problem is the EVIL THORNS.

There was one point where three thorns were stuck into the tender back of my left hand, pulling the skin into pointy little pyramids. “Oh,” a part of my brain thought, “I should get a picture of this, since I’m certainly not digging anything worth photographing.”

But then, the pain was too great and I abandoned the plan. Also, a large amount of my hair was being pulled out by other thorns. Instead, here's a vid of the site. Note the beautiful fireplace. Bulldozers were just on the other side of a piece of plastic. 



We did come across a tiny, old cemetery, abandoned, its stones toppled and broken. (We plan to go back and do some clean up and try to get all the names.) It's a bit of a mystery. The cemetery is very close to the remains of the house. As in too close.

William Holland was born August 3rd, 1800.
I can't find him. Can you?

Here are some of our finds. Not very impressive. Lots of iron, lots of junk. Lots of thorns.

Yup. Round things.

Suspender clip. Only nice thing I found.
This is sweet too. Coin silver plate.
Cheryl's haul. I need to copy her settings, clearly.

Random item I found near my house.
What is it?????

Oh! I almost forgot! My buddy, Tom, from the Middle Tennessee Metal Detecting Club, very kindly took one of my old ax heads and did electrolysis on it! 

By "electrolysis,", I do not mean that Tom removed unwanted hair from the ax head. This is an example of a really unfortunate synonym. In MD parlance, “electrolysis” is a process involving  a battery charger, baking soda, water and various wires to remove rust from nasty, crusty items. Tom did a swell job and I am in the process of learning how to do it myself. I have almost everything ready to start, including an embarrassingly large pile of rusty nonsense outside my back door.

A few days ago, thoroughly grumpy due to my bad luck of late, I spent a cold and lonely day driving all over the Nashville metro area looking for places to dig. Al had given me a new Garrett pinpointer to replace the one I lost last Christmas and I needed to practice not losing it. Found a house being renovated and the guy in charge said I could dig. Here's the result:

Before and after. Hey, it's better than nothing.


Yesterday, the first day of 2014, was sunny and warm. Cheryl and I decided to take a break from wilderness. We headed to a park on the other side of town. A few months ago, I’d found a Civil War button right by the street.

Here's my take from the park:

Oh, the glamour, the glory of it all.
Even I cannot imagine an art project that
could make use of these.
These, however, look strangely lovely, don't you think?

83 cents. I think. Who cares.

Mystery ring (I've dug these before and
have no idea what they are), strange tags
and a token for a free car wash that I may
try to redeem, as my car is filthy.

This quickened the old pulse.

Til I turned it over. Nice. Thanks, 2013.

Later, I was nosing around the edge of a nearby schoolyard when a man approached. Would I like to detect his back yard? Why, yes! 

And that was how Cheryl and I ended the first day of the new year: digging with some adorable children (one named WHIT!) in a really cool old neighborhood. Hopefully, this contact will lead to more permissions.

Detectorist-in-training, rockin' the Fisher F 75.

Who knew that a Garrett pinpointer could
elicit such unbridled delight?
Coolest find of the day! WHAT IS IT?

Also cool. Part of a locket???

So, here we are at the start of a new year.  The last one was challenging, but loveliness emerged from it too. My daughter is fine and strong. I had a houseful of family for Christmas. Chloe is flying free, safe in the arms of eternity; neighbor she attacked greets us cheerfully and says he rarely thinks about what happened. My job? Well, I haven’t made peace with that. We’re going to wall off the basement doors so it never floods again. Al’s all healed up, and the songs of John Stoecker remind his friends to “Enjoy the Ride.”

Speaking of songs, I'm working on a record of metal detecting songs. Here's one. I dug it up.