Metal detecting farm fields can produce interesting finds when the fields were former sites of non-farm activity. In rural areas, it is surprising how many homes were located in various places over the last 200 years that are no longer standing. These fields also contain old picnic groves, churches and schools, with almost no visible traces left. There are vast areas of fields that had little to no activity, which means there’s not much, if anything, interesting to discover with a metal detector.
Finding a Good Site
How do you know if a particular farm field might be a good spot to detect? Well, you need to do some research. If you don’t have the patience or interest in research, then this part may not be for you. Some of the best detecting partnerships are between two people – one who likes to research and the other who is good at getting permission! Facts can come from a variety of sources though. Books, maps, word of mouth and on-site research can all yield results or be clues that lead you to a discovery.
A good place to start is an old county atlas. In Ohio, almost every county had a good county atlas published in the 1870s. These show the landowners at the time, sites of homes, schools, churches, fairgrounds and sometimes even groves, camps and meeting grounds. Many of these atlases are available online now, but local libraries and historical societies may have copies available too. You may not be able to take these old books home, but a good digital camera and a steady hand can take pictures of the maps that will probably be just fine for your use.
About that same time and into the 1880s, many county histories were published as well. While these may take some reading, there will be some clues about the area’s earliest settlers and the locations of their homes, as well as other historical events of interest where many people congregated in the past. These many times won’t be as easy to nail down to a specific site on a map, but the old county atlas may help. Many of these histories are available now online, some even as easily searchable PDF or text files.
Another good resource are old USGS Topographic or “topo” maps. These have been made since the early 1900s and show old homesites and buildings. For a site I was researching recently, I was able to find the 1916, 1945 and 1961 topo maps online. In conjunction with the 1870s atlas, and recent Google maps satellite images, I spotted six potential homesites in one particular field that had come and gone in that 138 year span.
Historic aerial photographs are available for some places online, and sometimes local historical societies or libraries may also have some. They are not available for all areas or dates, and some aren’t very useful, but it’s a resource worth checking out that can help you narrow down a location and add to your store of information. A 1957 aerial photograph helped me find several old homesites that are now suburban soccer fields.
Some historic newspapers are available online, mostly for a fee, and those from the 1870s through the 1960s can be the best source of information about old picnic groves and camp meeting sites. Often these were reported as something like “127 people enjoyed games and basket lunches at the school picnic at Foster’s grove, two miles from town” and if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you want to find out where Foster’s grove was! Often leads of this type are not as easy to pinpoint, but sometimes the surname will appear in the old atlas, other times, you may need to search old property records at the local auditor or recorders office. You may have an easier time tracking down some older locals who may remember where Foster’s farm was, or heard their parents talk about it, and they may even know who owns the property now.
Another type of searcher should be at the top of your list to befriend and that’s the arrowhead hunter. These guys search farm fields with their eyeballs for Native American artifacts. They know from visual clues already, which of “their” fields have old homesites in them. They also already have permission to search those fields. These hunters can be as protective about their hunting grounds as you would be with your detecting sites, but if you work together and are willing to forgo the Native American finds you may come across, you could share the fields you each have permission for and possibly double the sites you have access to.
On site research can be as easy as spotting a few old trees in the middle of a field or an interesting hill in a field as you drive by. Often early settlers built their homes on high ground, and usually near a water source, and trees were planted as windbreaks. While modern roads generally follow old roads, when the earliest settlers came, they had Indian trails and few roads to follow. You couldn’t build a house near a road, as there weren’t any, and there was no incentive to do so, even if it were possible. These old homesites can then appear in what seem like very random and unlikely places now. Once the homes were gone, the roads that served as access to them also disappeared, leaving no trace!
Ghost towns exist too. I’m not talking about like those out west where there still might be buildings or foundations still intact, but places that have completely vanished. Sometimes these places were just a small cluster of homes, from a dozen to fifty, often at a major crossroads of the time. Any place that was the intersection of what were major roads (or railroads) back in the 1800s may have potential to have contained multiple homesites and businesses that have long been plowed under. Prime real estate has always been at a busy corner, as long as it remains busy.
Ideally you want to find the oldest possible sites. A field from which the homes were gone before 1860 or even 1900 is going to have much less non-ferrous trash than a home site where the house was removed in the 1960s. Aluminum trash is the worst in my book, and every decade after the 1920s it seems to increase exponentially. Good finds are there, but it will be more work and digging to discover them.
So, you found out where Foster’s grove was, you compared the old maps to the new maps and know the general area you want to be in. You’ve looked at Google maps satellite images and know how to get there on modern roads. You’re anxious to detect it, but you need to get permission. To do that, you need to find out who owns the property now. Sometimes it’s easy, other times it can be the greatest challenge.
If you are lucky, the county you are researching will have an online GIS map server. GIS stands for Geographic Information Service, and will be what the auditor and recorder use to track property information. It has a map feature, and depending on what software they use, maybe much more information. Some GIS systems are very cumbersome, others are more user friendly, but if you have already found your site on a new map, you should be able to correlate it with the data on the GIS and find out the name of the owner of the property.
Once you have the name, a search online can probably turn up a phone number or some contact information. Since these are farms, and many farmers receive subsidies from the government, that’s one potential source of information. Resources listing these subsidy payments are found online and will identify the person receiving the payments with an address and a phone number. If the area you are researching does not have GIS online, then a trip to the local auditor or recorder’s office will probably get you the information you need. The auditor collects the taxes, and the taxman is notoriously tenacious about being paid, so they’ll know how to find the person who pays the taxes on that land. If you drive by the site and see a house nearby, you may want to stop and ask. Even if they don’t own the land, they probably know who does and maybe how to contact them.
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of actually asking for permission. That’s been recounted in any number of articles and forum discussions online. You’re either a person who likes to do it and can approach strangers, or you’re not. If you’re not, it’s going to be hard, maybe impossible, and nothing I can tell you will make it easier. If you’ve done your research and have a great site, my best advice is to find another detectorist, someone more outgoing, to do the asking for both of you. It may mean sharing the finds, but 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.
If all the places you are searching are in the same area, you may find yourself building a network as you go. Once you get your first permission, you can use it as a discussion point for the next one. If Farmer Smith gives you permission and then you go to ask Farmer Brown, you can “name drop” that Farmer Smith let you search his fields. If Farmer Smith is a helpful, likeable guy don’t miss the opportunity to ask if he knows of any other places in the area or other local landowners you may want to contact.
In The Field, Now What?
One drawback of farm fields is that you’re only going to get permission to detect when the crops are off the fields. This means the fall, winter and early spring are the times to hit these sites. Knowing what was growing on the fields is important too. While you can detect in corn stubble, it’s not much fun. Soybean fields may be the best you can hope for, at least in this area. Every time a field is plowed though, it has the potential to bring new coins and relics within reach of your coil, so a site that was fantastic last year, or two years ago, can be worth another visit. Something else to consider too is the timing of animal hunting seasons. It would be inconvenient at best to be mistaken for a 10 point buck.
So, you’re headed to the field. I hope you have the right gear. Boots, perhaps a short-handled shovel (your handheld digger may not be the most efficient tool) and whatever else you might need. You’ll be walking pretty far from the car in most cases, and a convenient gas station or restaurant may be miles away. Fresh batteries are a must. You don’t want to walk a mile, find your site, and have a flat battery in your detector or pinpointer. A big trash pouch is a must. You’ll want to clear out as much junk as possible, especially if you plan to return to the site next year. The only thing worse than detecting and digging junk is having to waste time doing it a second time. Axeheads, horseshoes, and other relics, while cool, are heavy to lug along. Digging is easy in the fields, and while you don’t need to be neat, you do still need to fill your holes.
You find a place to park the car, another thing that isn’t always easy, and you step out. Where do you go? Well, sometimes you’ll have a landmark like a tree or a fence line. Short of that, if you’re looking for a homesite, start walking. You’re looking for brick, glass and china fragments. With your detector, you’ll be listening for iron concentrations. I recommend setting your detector discrimination at zero, or very low, so you can hear the iron as well as any other potentially interesting targets. A bunch of iron signals is a good sign you’ve hit a spot where people have been. Remember, if the home has been gone for a long time, each plowing will have scattered some of the debris (and the treasures) further away from the center and in multiple directions.
At this point, if you see the visual clues, and hear a concentration of metal targets, you’ve probably found a home site. If you were looking for a camp or grove, there may be fewer visual cues, so the detector will help you pinpoint that concentration of signals that indicate people have been at the place. You never know what may turn up at these sites, so you’ll want to dig more than just the high tone coin signals. Buttons, oil lamp parts, horse tack, buckles, spoons and silverware parts, jewelry, bullets, heel plates, horse shoes… all sorts of interesting things will turn up and usually a few old coins. So yes, these sites can be full of trash, but more often a lot of really cool and interesting stuff.
I hope you’re interested in all those relics, some are valuable, and others have value simply because they tell the history of the site and the people who lived there. I like figuring out what things were, even if I only have a part of the whole object. One of the most interesting aspects of the whole experience can be identifying and piecing together the history of the relics. Taking what was just a name and dot on a map in an old atlas and looking at tangible evidence of that person or family and their lives. Coins are easily identifiable, they have value and help date the site, but other relics may be traceable to specific families or individuals who lived there. Discovering the site and the physical history is great fun and knowing all the research has paid off is amazingly gratifying.
Some Resources for Online Research
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