WOODSTOCK — “When you have something, when it hits it, and it makes that really weird noise like that, that’s when you know it’s right on the surface,” Heidi Inman tells me as she helps sweep my metal detector over the ground as it beeps, signifying there is metal just under the dirt.
It’s a hazy Saturday morning and I’m off in the middle of the woods in Woodstock looking for buried treasure with Heidi and her sister, Belinda Hagar. Buried treasure does conjure the image of pirates, but even so, I’m on a real-life adventure and we’re searching for artifacts to discover clues about what life was like during the early days of Woodstock.
Heidi and Belinda are known as the Sisters History Detectorists. They began metal detecting together about four years ago, first exploring their old homestead in Woodstock. Since then they have branched out to other areas, such as the one we’re traveling today, with landowners’ permission.
And now they’ve agreed to take me along for the ride.
Our first stop is to look at the remnants of shingle mill built on a babbling brook. The stone abutments remain a testament to the skill of the masonry work in those days. We’re not allowed to see it up close since Heidi and Belinda do not have permission from the property owner to access the land. Always mindful of this, the sisters and now, I, respect land boundaries and admire the stonework from the small, wooden bridge spanning the brook.
They point out an apple tree full of small, green apples on the edge of the bridge that has grown wild.
“We find those that are just remnants of the old,” Belinda says about this apple tree and other plants like it.
“It kind of helps you clue [in] when you’re out looking for places,” Heidi says. Belinda adds they keep their eye out for clues such as growing plants, trees, flowers, lilac bushes, lilies and even grapes to signify someone once might have lived in that area.
As we cross the bridge into the field, the grass is tall and overgrown and there are black-eyed Susans as far as the eye can see. The SUV comes to a halt and it’s time to hike the rest of the way in. We unload our tools from the trunk – bags filled with sifters, trowels, hand rakes, root cutters and hand-held pin pointers to assist with finding artifacts once you’re in the dirt (They save you time when you’re sifting through nails and other less interesting items, Heidi tells me), small shovels and of course, the metal detectors.
I had worried about the metal detectors being heavy for my crummy back but thankfully the devices were light, though my arm did feel sore the next day. Apparently, I need to pump some iron and not the old, rusty kind we found on our trip.
I turn on the metal detector and Heidi adjusts it to discriminate the iron out, otherwise, every nail in the area will cause it to beep. She shows me how to swing the detector side to side scanning the ground and then we’re off.
There is not necessarily a trail per say, but the sisters know the way to the foundation hole we’re seeking deep in the woods. Not far in, we come across a beer can that they surmise has been punctured by a bear. The snowmobile trail runs above where we’re trudging through.
“He was thirsty,” Heidi jokes. The sisters will pick up the can on our way back.
“We try to be good stewards,” Belinda says.
As we hike along, we pass some old, rusted barbed wire that runs along the short rock wall that was used as a boundary line. They tell me barbed wired first appeared in the United States in 1867, as it was invented by Lucian B. Smith of Kenton, Ohio.
We turn left and begin climbing up a steeper incline.
“We call these ‘buns of steel hills,’” Heidi laughs as she leads the way.
Belinda, who is 16 years older than her younger sister, doesn’t mind the hills.
“This is what we do. We can’t wait to get out to the next hunt,” she says.
And not much later, I find out why.
We finally arrive at the homestead that once belonged to Daniel Perkins, who was born in 1810 and died in 1889, and Drusilla Fuller who was also born in 1810 and died in 1882. Heidi reports there were different people living there in 1880, but she has yet to do the research on them. Best time for this is during the winter when the sisters are itching to go out digging, but can’t because the ground is frozen.
All that remains is the stone foundation dug pretty deep into the ground (so they could store their vegetables underneath but not freeze them), the large central fireplace and the area where the barn was located.
Scattered along the foundation and set on nearby rocks are some of the artifacts the sisters discovered when they first came to this location last fall, just as the snow started to spit. There is a rusted chain with a hook attached to the end of it, a thick bolt, and a square piece of metal we’re not sure what it was used for, among others.
We’re not there very long and Heidi begins to find nails along the perimeter of the cellar hole. For me, I look down on the ground and spy a partially covered rusty cylinder. I set down my metal detector and pick up the object, revealing its smaller cylindrical threads on top.
“You got yourself a tin can right on the surface,” Belinda calls out to me as she digs in the dirt a few feet away.
It’s confirmed to be the metal top of a 5-gallon gas can. Neat, I didn’t even have to get my hands dirty yet to find a piece of the past.
Then Belinda scores a surface find of her own.
“I was surprised, it was just under the leaves, it kept telling me there was something close,” she says as she holds up a rusty square with thinner rectangle ridges. “It was a carding tool. They would card wool. [It is a] kind of brush with teeth on it.”
In the dirt, she finds a brown and orange piece of ceramic that probably belonged to a crock. It fades from an orange to a greenish brown and I am impressed that the color is still saturated after sitting in the dirt for all these years.
Belinda reminds me we must cover all of our holes and not leave a mess.
“It’s a good thing to do. It’s the right thing to do,” she says.
I wander away from Belinda to go find a spot of my own to dig, making sure I am far enough away that our metal detectors aren’t “talking” to each other. I find a wide swath of ground that indicates there’s metal below, somewhat deep below the surface. I push aside the leaves at the sisters’ advice and begin digging a circular plug with the small shovel I brought along. After that’s dug, I remove the top layer of soil and begin digging with my hands.
Heidi comes over with her pin pointer – an orange tool that looks like a thick screw driver with a light on the end and beeps when there’s metal close by – to help find whatever set off the metal detector. At first, we find some small nails, which doesn’t impress either of the sisters, but I still think it’s cool. There are pieces of brick, too, which will set off the detectors and pin pointers because of the minerals inside.
“Are you getting the bug yet?” Heidi asks me with a grin.
I didn’t fully commit but admitted this is fun.
“You’re on the board as you would say,” Belinda says to me after finding the nails and pieces of brick.
As we keep digging, we feel something metal stuck in the earth. We take turns digging around it with our hands and low and behold, it’s the bowl part of a spoon. How cool, the Perkins and Fullers probably ate off this every day, I think to myself.
But wait, there’s more! Heidi’s pin pointer indicates there is still metal below the surface. We dig some more and find a handle to a spoon. We put them together and it’s a perfect match.
“We chased that around a little bit,” Heidi says. “It was barely making noise.”
Honey (cellar) hole
Little did I know that this location is a treasure trove of artifacts.
“This place, I think probably we were the first ones to ever come out here because it’s private land and nobody’s been allowed out here,” Belinda surmises.
After “lunch at the old homestead,” Belinda asks me if I want to detect in the cellar hole. Why not? Heidi reports she found an axe down there last year and Belinda informs me Heidi’s nickname is Lizzie Borden because of her ability to find hatchets, axes and the like when they’re out detecting.
Belinda jokes she tells Heidi’s husband to watch out for all of her sister’s “sharp tools.”
We’re not in the hole for very long and Belinda finds the turn assembly from a kerosene lantern. While we’re examining the writing on the dial to adjust the flame, she finds an intact, a small, oval eyeglasses lens. Impressive!
I swing my detector over the ground on the far end of the fireplace and it starts beeping. I swing it a couple of times to make sure it’s not chatting with Belinda’s detector. Confident that it’s not, I start digging in the dirt.
Whatever is down there is large. I uncover one end of it and Heidi helps me reveal what is in the dark, damp earth. It’s an andiron!
“What’s an andiron?” I ask Heidi.
“They would have two of them in a fireplace and they would put logs on them. It would have another piece on it to hook up [to an] old-time grate,” she answers.
“Wow, that was big,” I say. Definitely the largest piece of metal I found for our entire dig.
After that, Belinda calls Heidi and me over to sift through the dirt she’s dug up. Belinda finds a beautiful black cut glass button. As we continue to sift, the sisters each find smaller white glass buttons. And Heidi warns about acorn caps being mistaken for buttons. Then she finds a beautiful black button with iridescent jewels (possibly abalone) adorning it and all three of us ooh and aah over it.
Excited from that pretty find, I think I find a button myself. I hold it up and Heidi asks me if it’s a button or an acorn cap. Alas, it is the latter and my face definitely shows disappointment as the sisters laugh with me about it.
They continue to dig while I sift determined to find a button I will never find. Heidi finds her second scythe blade, both of which are Clippers that were manufactured in Skowhegan back in the mid- to late-1800s. Belinda digs out whole bricks and underneath she finds another intact item – a glass bottle for Johnson’s American anodyne liniment.
Metal detecting and its associated hunt are like an onion the sisters declare, you have to peel back the layers one at a time.
It gives us and others a glimpse into what life was like in days past. And that is exactly what the sisters are trying to do through their metal detecting adventures – to “put [artifacts and history] in a place where it can be seen.”
For this site, Heidi and Belinda have given many of the artifacts back to the landowner. From other digs – especially their family’s old Capt. Samuel Stephens homestead – they have donated items to the Woodstock and Greenwood historical societies, including a full display case of items now featured in Woodstock.
They both enjoy their history-based hobby, which gets them out in nature.
“We just have the fun of being the first ones seeing it come out of the earth,” Belinda says, noting she often wonders, “Wow, how long has it been there?”
“You’re always learning something,” Heidi says.
Belinda adds they often come home after each dig with at least one item they describe as “a what’s it thing.” Then they reach out to others in the metal detecting and history fields and ask for help identifying the artifact.
The sisters also put together history research for families across Maine, such as the one they recently did in Avon.
For more information about the Sisters History Detectorists, visit their website at www.sistershistorydetectorists.com/, which has a link to their YouTube channel. To learn about the history of Stephens Mills, visit www.stephensmills.net/.
Johnson’s anodyne liniment
WOODSTOCK — Buried underneath bricks at the base of a former fireplace in a cellar hole in Woodstock is a thick glass bottle with a light blue tinge. Once the dirt is wiped away, it reveals what it once held: Johnson’s anodyne liniment.
Sisters History Detectorists Heidi Inman and Belinda Hagar instinctively suggest it was probably one of the “quack” medicines popular during the 1800s and early 1900s, full of all sorts of ingredients, claiming to be the cure for many things. A quick internet search does reveal it was indeed one of those medicines, with its main ingredients as morphine and alcohol.
According to Deb Gould’s blog on Dr. Abner Johnson from Waterford, in 1810 he bottled his “medicine” to treat a number of ailments, including: “asthmatic distress, bites, bronchitis, bruises, burns, chafing, cholera, colds, colic, coughs, cramps, diarrhea, frost bites, grippy cold, lameness, nasal catarrh, scalds, and pain and inflammation in any part of the body.”
It was also used for bronchial colds, common sore throat, chaps and chafing, chilblains, muscular rheumatism, soreness, sprains and strains, according to the National Museum of American History.
“Before the 1900s, an anodyne was, simply, a drug that people used to soothe pain by lessening the sensitivity of the brain or nervous system,” Gould writes. “And, lo! it worked! (Of course it worked: the two main ingredients of the liniment were morphine and alcohol, and they both certainly make the brain less sensitive!)”