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History unearthed

Matt DeYoung • May 5, 2018 at 12:00 PM

When he was 12 years old, Ivan Perez received a gift from his father — a Sears-brand metal detector.

“I’ve been hooked ever since,” said the Robinson Township man.

While his metal detecting “career” has scored thousands of items ranging from trash to minor treasures, the local state conservation officer uncovered his most interesting find yet — a Civil War-era Union cavalry button.

Perez shared his find on Facebook and received dozens of responses.

“I didn’t think my find would be so popular with people,” he said. “I just put it up on Facebook because I thought it was neat. I pulled that little button out and I had no idea what it was when I got home.

“Right next to it, maybe 20 feet away, I found some old wire clip-on sunglasses that came from probably the 1940s,” he continued. “So, within a few yards of each other, I find a Civil War-era button and some old sunglasses from the 1940s. You just never know.”

History lesson

What Perez finds while metal detecting goes hand-in-hand with another passion of his — learning about local history.

“There’s such a historic value in Ottawa County, especially here in Robinson Township,” he said. “I’ve been here 20-plus years learning the history, then being able to find artifacts that relate to that history, it’s really rewarding.

“I remember one time searching an old spot, I found these weird little metal curved things,” he continued. “When you looked at them they looked like a deer print but larger, probably about 4-5 inches. I had no idea what they were. I went to some detective sites and it turns out, back in the logging days, it was too hard for the horses to pull through the swamps, so they would use oxen. These were oxen shoes that they would put on the ox to haul things out of the marsh.”

Perez has found countless coins and other trinkets, as well as small toys and household items.

“I love to pick up an old coin, an old button, a tool that I have no idea what it was used for, and wonder who was the last person to ever handle this,” he said.

Perez uses technology to assist in finding new spots to explore.

“One thing they did well in any state, normally when land is sold, they kept good documents,” he said. “If you know how to read old plat maps, you’ll see a hand-written name on a piece of property, then a black box where the homestead was.”

Perez will find evidence of an old home, then search digitally using the Ottawa County GIS website and search the database, combing over digital images to find out who now owns that property. He can also compare current satellite images with the old plat maps to find where houses once existed that are now long gone.

“The technology’s out there to assist you,” he said. “It all starts with homework, then getting permission to hunt the site.”

Ethical hunting

Perez never goes onto a site without first asking for permission from the landowner or checking local regulations if the property in question is publicly owned.

“First and foremost, when we talk about a code of ethics, you don’t trespass,” he said. “You always get permission, and you have to understand some people are going to say no. You’ve got to be good with that.”

Another way to practice ethical metal detecting is to be discreet with how and where you dig.

When he’s out hunting, Perez stresses that his equipment allows him to precisely pinpoint the spot to dig. He then uses a small thin-bladed trowel to dig a small hole. If it’s in a yard, he’ll cut out the plug of grass and set it on a small towel next to the hole, and place any dirt he digs up onto the towel. Once he finds his target, he replaces the dirt and the plug of sod, making it nearly impossible to see the hole.

“You’re not just out there digging up yards and leaving big holes,” he said. “It’s like hunting — you have ethics. You leave gates the way you found them. You never trespass and always get permission, and always share what you find. It’s part of the area’s history.”

Work and play

As an officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Perez has incorporated his hobby into a valuable tool in the field.

“Over the years being in law enforcement, I’ve used my knowledge of metal detectors to help in finding evidence of crimes,” he said.

He’s used his metal detector to find spent shell casings after a weapon was fired and to find a bullet lodged in the carcass of a deer.

“I’m able to get evidence of a shot fired that we can use ballistically to trace that back to a gun,” he explained. “In many ways, this hobby has assisted me in my profession.”

Equipment

Perez has come a long way from that Sears metal detector his father gifted him decades ago. Now he uses a top-of-the-line model made in France.

Perez recommends anyone interested in the hobby to visit Pro Stock Metal Detectors in Plainwell, adding that owner Al Holden offers a wealth of advice for anyone from a beginner to a veteran hunter.

Perez cautions anyone who wants to get involved in the hobby that they should look at it as such — not as a way to get rich quick by finding buried treasure.

Most of the items you will find have been buried underground for years, even decades. Even if the item is rare, there’s a slim chance it will come out of the ground in a condition that will fetch big bucks from collectors.

Still, there are treasures to be found, if you go about the sport with the proper perspective, Perez says.

“I’ve found several old coins, old Indian head pennies, buffalo head nickels,” he said. “I found a full toothpaste bottle back when the toothpaste container itself was a type of aluminum 50 years old, cap still on it. I’ve found several types of jewelry — gold rings, mixed jewelry, costume jewelry, all the way up to gold and silver.

“This Civil War button is going to be up at the top of my list,” he added. “People can go to the Virginias, the East Coast, where there was a lot of Civil War activity, and find this kind of thing. But here in Michigan, it’s kind of neat when you find something like that hunting in the woods.”

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