Lincoln Highway history revealed through unearthed coins, spoons, other artifacts
Clarification: Dec. 7, 2017
This story was modified to include a clarification from one of the property’s former owners.
The staff at Unity’s Lincoln Highway Experience have know for some time that future U.S. President William Henry Harrison visited their museum in the mid-1800s, when it was known as the Kingston House and was a stagecoach stop along a turnpike that became modern Route 30.
Now they have further documentation in the form of a presidential campaign token. Declaring Harrison the “People’s Choice,” it is one of more than 60 artifacts dating to the early 19th century uncovered on the museum grounds. They were unveiled Wednesday during a program at the 1815 stone building.
“It’s been very exciting,” museum office manager Kristin Poerschke said of the historic items Westmoreland Metal Detection Services pulled from the property in advance of construction of a new wing. “It really is like treasure hunting.”
Armed with metal detectors, Hempfield residents and business partners Marcus Borden, Angie O’Brien and Andy Regrut spent a combined 150 hours combing the grounds and listening for signals indicating the presence of coins, tokens, clothing accessories and other metal items up to a foot below the surface.
“It was fun doing this. It was a challenge, though, because of a lot of the junk that was in the ground,” Regrut said, noting the trio uncovered plenty of discarded plow parts and ruined ax heads.
The partners learned that previous occupants of the property had dug up and removed most of the valuable items.
Victor Smith Jr. said no attempt was made to remove artifacts from the property while his family owned it — just prior to its use as a museum.
“We had to work harder to find the signals everybody else missed,” Borden said.
The partners’ modern detectors, which are more sensitive, allowed them to uncover some remaining artifacts — including weights that were used to hold down the hems of ladies’ dresses, musket balls, a pencil sharpener and a bell from a horse harness. Items dating from the early 1900s include a World War I Army button, a lead miniature of Minnie Mouse and a pin depicting a football player with an old-fashioned leather helmet.
One of the oldest items they retrieved from the earth is a large 1813 penny — roughly the size of a modern dollar coin. O’Brien discovered a silver quarter minted in 1862. In that era, she noted, “A quarter was a big deal for someone to lose.”
A penny, apparently, wasn’t as prized by then. Borden noted an 1859 Indian Head penny they found had been repurposed as a button, with two holes punched in it.
Borden also found an ornate silver spoon dating from 1891 and engraved with the name Isabella that could have belonged to one of several children who shared that name in the Johnston family, who owned the property and house for generations.
“I think I know the Johnstons at least to a certain degree after finding all their items,” O’Brien said.
The three partners agree that their shared passion for gleaning metal artifacts, rather than profit, is what brought them together.
“It’s to save the history and present it for people to look at, and rescue it from further deteriorating in the ground,” Borden said. “And it’s the joy of doing it.”
The fruits of their labors will join other displays at the museum that celebrate the history of the Lincoln Highway — particularly a 200-mile stretch in Pennsylvania that has been designated the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor.
Visit lhhc.org for more information about the corridor and museum.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622.