Hunting lost treasures beneath the Glen Ridge sod

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
At left, Jack Wooten holds a model stagecoach he found in the borough with his metal detector.

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — It is safe to say that Glen Ridge residents do not ordinarily think of their borough as a treasure island, and for the want of a map there’d be a pirate’s plunder for the taking. But consider Glen Ridge High School sophomore Jack Wooten and his metal detector. For the last three years, using this instrument, he has been steadily unearthing bits of lost eras in local parks, streets and backyards. This past Saturday, at the Glen Ridge Historical Society where he currently has an exhibit of these artifacts, he talked about what lies just beneath our hurrying feet.

“It’s all about research,” he said about the tell-tale signs of a possible discovery. “I look at the ages of the houses down a street. People who lived there dropped things.”

Jack received his first metal detector a few years ago. Actually, he received two at the same time.
“I got one from my grandparents and my parents,” he said. “They got me the same present by accident. It was a coincidence. I said I wanted to try this hobby.”

For technical reasons he chose the detector his grandparents gave to him. And his first find came pretty quickly. It was in Brookdale Park. The object was small and hook-shaped, almost delicate. It revealed an encased spring where a part had broken away. But he did not know what it had been. He showed it to friends and his parents. His parents suggested a website for treasure hunters. Jack posted a photo of his find on the site and within a week he received a response.

“It was a Model-T Ford hood latch,” he said, holding it in his hand, turning it to show the encased spring. “It was made between 1909 and 1929. It was in the dirt-covered road. It was probably there since the teens. It was just dumb luck, but now I figured I could find things.”

Once he gets a signal from the detector, Jack uses a small, sharply pointed shovel to dig around the indicated area. The shovel, he said, is good for digging hard, compacted soil and cutting through roots. He uses a jeweler’s loop for close-up inspections.
“I made the mistake of using a hammer to take dirt off the latch,” he said. “It made a crack.”

The detector will send out an audible signal when it is over metal. The strength of the signal depends on the depth of the object and the metal. The detector a hobbyist might use may detect metal buried 7 inches deep. Steel, iron and nickel trigger the weakest signals; gold and bronze are in the mid-range; copper, silver and some aluminums produce strong signals.

Jack likes to search his own backyard, the backyards of friends and public parks. But the best place, he said, is his own backyard. There he has found toy soldiers and a large, lead figure that was possibly a doorstop. These are in the exhibit.

Forest Avenue is a good place to treasure hunt, too. A stage coach and racing car were found there and in the exhibit.
“It’s an old street,” Jack said. “And I do like houses. If it was built in the 1880s, there’s a lot older stuff. In parks, there’s more modern stuff.”
Recently he found a bar token on Forest Avenue. It had an address: “8 Duane St.” and possibly the name of the tavern owner: “Peter.” The facade of a building was imprinted. Most probably it was the bar.

“This proves Forest Avenue is a really a great street,” Jack said.
Jack looks up the ages of a houses and if it is an older house will ask the owner for permission to come onto the property to detect. He said only about one-third of the people say OK.

“My parents think I might discover an oil tank and it could cost a lot of money to dig up,” he said. “Or I might damage the yard.”
But backyards are better than front yards for treasure hunting.

“If I had to choose, I’d look in a backyard before a front yard,” Jack said. “There’s less foot traffic.”
He thought because there is less foot traffic in a backyard, there is less chance of finding something manufactured recently. Another reason is that backyards are closer to their farmland origins.

His prized-possession is a 14-karat, gold ring which he found and sold for $122. One of the displays at the Historical Society has what looks to be a glass ball encircled by a metal ring. Inside the ball is what appears to be a drop of blood. Another mystery is a Chinese coin that was found in Brookdale Park.

“I don’t know how that got there,” Jack said.
Exhibited is a sterling ESPO ring.

“It’s named for the designer,” he said. “They were common in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
ESPO is the signature for the Esposito Jewelry Co.

With all his searching and researching, a detective learns a lot.
There is a brass wedding ring.

“Soldiers didn’t want to wear a gold ring and die in battle,” Jack said. “They wore a brass wedding ring and gave the gold ring to their wives to pay for the funeral.”

There is a large collection of coins in the exhibit. Many of them have been mounted within small frames. A spread of wheat-pennies, which were minted between 1901 and 1956, form a filigree-like decoration in the lower part of the exhibition case. There is also Mexican and British coinage found on his own property.

Jack uses social media to let people know that he has a metal detector and would be willing to search their property. And people have contacted him to do this. About 35 homeowners have responded, he said. But one time he tried detecting on Linden Avenue School property and was told to leave by a custodian.

The GRHS is open the second Saturday of each month, from 9 a.m. to noon and Jack is planning possible exhibits at the Montclair Historical Society and one at the Ridgewood Avenue train station here.

But there was one mystery of the exhibit that all of Jack’s research could not answer and that was the mystery of the spoons. And there are a number spoons, all in a row. But Jack has yet to discover a knife or fork.

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