At noon on a blustery October Sunday, Lewes Beach came to life with the electronic sounds of beeping, the clatter of stones on metal and laughter.
The Mason Dixon Treasure Club, about 20 strong, gathered for its semi-annual beach hunt. Most of the members are from Delaware, but some come from as far away as Pennsylvania. The “field” was a small section of beach, designated by flags, in which “regular” coins were buried (or “seeded,” in treasure-hunt parlance), as well as some color-coded tokens and costume jewelry that could be turned in at the end of the day for prizes.
Club Secretary Janet Marvel of Clarksville, who founded the club with her husband, Paul, 40 years ago, watched from the sidelines. Since Marvel herself seeded the field, she knows when each hunter is about to hit on one of the prizes. The secret to successful placing of “treasure” for the hunts, according to Marvel, is all in the wrist.
“You just whip it,” she said, demonstrating the necessary action.
Marvel’s husband, Paul, started selling metal detectors at his Christian book store, Gospel Lighthouse, near Millville, in 1969. At that time, he said, “9 out of 10 people didn’t know what a metal detector was.” Times have changed, and metal detecting has become a popular hobby, particularly on beaches and around historic areas.
Metal detectors have also changed in the past few decades, becoming more sensitive as technology has improved. Club member Reese Simon of Magnolia said today’s detectors can pick up the differences in metal content in various “targets.”
For example, he said, pennies from before 1982 have different composition than those after that date, going from mostly copper for the earlier pennies to mostly zinc in the later ones. Post-1982 pennies “don’t hold up as well” in salty beach weather because of the higher zinc content, he explained.
Simon, who has been treasure hunting since 1976, said he likes to hunt in historic sites, looking for relics of bygone eras.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” he said. While “bullets, buckles and buttons are what everybody wants,” he said an old comb is one of his favorite finds.
Inland areas in Delaware are still good hunting grounds for treasure hunters, Simon said.
“You can find colonial buttons, some Civil War stuff, Spanish silver,” he said, adding that Spanish silver was used as legal tender in the area till the 1850s because it was so plentiful.
“You learn a lot about history,” from treasure hunting, Simon said. Asked about the most unusual thing he’s ever found, however, Simon had a very un-historic answer.
“An unopened can of sardines, about 14 inches down,” he replied. “Somebody must have really hated sardines,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s a fascinating hobby, and it’s good exercise,” Simon said of the walking, the swinging of the detector and the frequent bending. “Good cardiovascular exercise.”
Sometimes, hunters get extremely lucky and find items much more valuable than a can of sardines. Club member Jane Austin said she once found a sapphire and diamond Vera Wang ring beneath the sand in Rehoboth Beach. At 1.8 carats total gem weight, the ring is worth about $7,500. Austin said she has tried to find its owner, with no success so far.
Simon said he has found numerous pieces of jewelry over the years and has had some success in tracking down the owners. The interesting thing about that, he said, is the reactions when he returns the item to its owners.
“Some people are extremely grateful and want to pay me something,” he said. “Some don’t even say, ‘Thank you.’”
He recalled one man, though, whose class ring he found 20 years after the man had lost it.
“He cried,” Simon said.
With about 40 dues-paying members, the Mason Dixon Treasure Club meets monthly in Milford. Members share their latest finds, and videos on treasure hunting and related subjects are shown. Yearly tallies are kept of members’ finds and, at the end of the year, awards are given based on points earned from the finds.
In addition to returning found items to their owners when possible, club members donate found eyeglasses to the Lions Club, which distributes them to those who cannot afford to purchase glasses. Often, Marvel said, club members receive requests to look for specific items, such as jewelry, wallets or cell phones.
Pull-tabs from soda cans are also collected by club members and donated to the Ronald McDonald House charity, which provides housing for families of ill children while they are hospitalized.
At the end of the Lewes Beach hunt, members made their way to the prize table, where Janet and Paul Marvel supervised the distribution of two tables’ worth of silver coins and some commemorative coin sets. The color-coded prizes matched the colors on tokens that had been “seeded” prior to the hunts.
This year, the club recognized long-time members Marty and Theressa Berdinka of Ocean View. Theressa Berdika provided prizes for the hunt, in memory of her late husband, who worked with Paul Marvel in planning the hunts for many years.
The Mason Dixon club meets on the third Wednesday of each month, except in December, when the annual club Christmas party takes precedence. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. and are held in the Milford Parks & Recreation building on Franklin Street. For more information, call Janet Marvel at (302) 539-9488.