‘Diggers’ help discover real site of Ashland’s Civil War skirmish

September 24, 2013


“Ringy” Tim Saylor, left, and “King” George Wyant, right, hosts of the National Geographic Channel show Diggers, used metal detectors to search for artifacts at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Eric Brooks.


When Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, invited the public over last fall to mark the 150th anniversary of a Civil War skirmish there, curator Eric Brooks needed a convenient but inconsequential place to put portable toilets.

He didn’t want them near the mansion, historic outbuildings or gardens. And he didn’t think they should go near the corner of Woodspoint and Fincastle roads, where it was thought that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry surprised a camp of sleeping Union soldiers on the morning of Oct. 18, 1862.

He found a nondescript spot for the toilets about 20 yards from a back corner of the mansion. “But we’re not going to do that this year,” he said about Saturday’s second annual Living History Event.

That’s because metal detectorists with the National Geographic Channel show Diggersmade a surprising discovery when they visited Ashland last spring to work with Brooks and archaeologist Kim McBride. The Union camp wasn’t where everyone thought it was. It was right where the portable toilets had been placed.

“The beginnings of protecting a resource are identifying where it’s located,” McBride said with a laugh. “Now that area will get the respect and special treatment it needs, and we can study it further.”

Ashland staffers and docents will be there Saturday, explaining how Morgan’s men used rifle and cannon fire to quickly subdue the Yankee camp. They also will show whatDiggers found there: a button, a rations tin, a knife, bullets, a mortar fragment and the brass handle from a cannon’s leveling mechanism.

Saturday’s event will focus on the war and the preceding Antebellum period, when Clay played the central role in stalling Southern secession.

“The bitter, brutal irony is that once he died, there was no one to keep that from happening,” Brooks said. “And the consequence of secession literally came to his back door. That’s a pretty amazing story.”

McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, has done occasional work at Ashland since 1989. She excavated former privies, finding a trove of broken china and crockery, and she recently checked for artifacts on the mansion’s north lawn so geothermal wells could go there.

McBride had never done any excavation related to the Civil War skirmish. So when producers forDiggers asked permission to explore the 17-acre grounds, she and Brooks saw an opportunity.

McBride set up a grid near Woodspoint and Fincastle, beside a stone monument erected decades ago to mark the skirmish. Diggers hosts George Wyant and Tim Saylor searched there but found nothing.

“We thought that was odd, and quite disappointing,” Brooks said.

Then he remembered an old book that a visitor had brought in a few weeks earlier. It was a history of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, the unit that set up camp at Ashland the day before the skirmish.

When Brooks read the book more closely, he found this passage: “Our camp was in a fine grove of native forest trees on the south side of the road, and a short distance east of the Clay mansion.” So Brooks, McBride and the Diggers hosts went to that side of the Ashland property and started finding artifacts.

Discovery of the camp’s true location helps explain a couple of old stories, Brooks said. One was that Union soldiers came to the mansion the evening before the skirmish because they heard piano playing. The other story was that Susan Clay, Henry’s daughter-in-law, held her 5-year-old son, Charles, on the floor because he kept wanting to look out the window at the battle.

“She was afraid he was going to get shot,” Brooks said. “And no wonder! The fighting was really close to the house. That’s a cool dimension to the story we didn’t have last year.”

There will be plenty to see and do Saturday. Civil War re-enactors will drill and fire cannon. Others in period dress will cook, do laundry and demonstrate farm work. Artisans will make and sell crafts.

Milward Funeral Directors, which handled Henry Clay’s burial in 1852, will have its old horse-drawn hearse there, along with the same type of metal coffin used to bury him.

And if visitors need toilets, they will find them on the north side of the mansion, where the geothermal wells will soon be dug. Brooks and McBride are pretty sure there’s nothing important under there.

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If you go

Ashland Living History Event

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.

Admission: $14 adults, $7 ages 17 and younger, $35 family rate.

Information: (859) 266-8581, Henryclay.org

Using technology to find the hidden history beneath our feet

May 21, 2013


Ed and Kay Thomas watched as Scott Clark used a metal detector around an old bur oak near a circa 1810 farmhouse they are restoring in Bourbon County. Photos by Tom Eblen


PARIS — I always thought it would be fun to have a metal detector. I wasn’t so much interested in hunting for buried treasure as finding bits of history hidden a few inches beneath my feet.

Scott Clark, an Internet business consultant in Lexington, has similar interests. An avid metal detectorist since 1985, he has become quite skilled at it — and increasingly passionate about improving the ethics and image of his hobby.

Metal detecting doesn’t have the best of reputations, thanks to “treasure hunters” who look for relics on Civil War battlefields or pock-mark parks in search of lost valuables. Many historical archaeologists view detectorists about as favorably as a brain surgeon would a witch doctor.

130430Detectoring-TE0074But serious detectorists are trying to change that. Earlier this year, Clark was part of a group that worked with archaeologists to explore James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia. Clark co-authored an article with Montpelier archaeologist Matthew Reeves on the blog of the Society for Historical Archaeology about how the two groups can work together and literally find common ground.

Clark has a blog at Detecting.us and often writes about best practices in the hobby. Those include always asking landowners’ permission before detecting, sharing finds with them and digging carefully so grounds are not damaged. He also avoids truly historic areas, such as battlefields.

Clark often donates his services to people who have lost valuables outside. Last month, he found a wedding band for a Versailles man after it slipped off his finger while he was mowing his yard.

Clark said he never accepts payment or rewards, but people often thank him by arranging access to interesting sites he can search. “The currency of the hobby is permission, which requires being trustworthy and transparent,” he said.

Clark detects to relax and for the love of history rather than profit. He said he has never sold anything he found — and even if he did, it wouldn’t begin to cover the thousands of dollars he has invested in detecting equipment.

Mostly, Clark finds old shoe buckles, keys, buttons, tools and coins. His most valuable find? A silver 1838 half-dime, worth a couple hundred dollars.

130430Detectoring-TE0408Clark said he likes to detect in places where people would have gathered a century or more ago — and lost things out of their pockets. That includes the grounds around old homes, schools, churches and stores.

Clark offered to show me how detecting works, then asked if I knew of a good hunting place. I immediately thought of Kay and Ed Thomas.

The Thomases live in a beautiful home in Bourbon County that her ancestors built in 1792. While restoring the place, the fun-loving couple delighted in finding interesting objects from the past. They are now restoring another place nearby — a circa-1810 brick farmhouse that her family bought in the 1940s.

As I suspected, the Thomases jumped at the chance to have Clark search their yards. Ed Thomas tagged along with Clark for the better part of three days while he carefully went over the ground with his detector, watching its dials and listening to its beeps, squawks and squeals.

To the untrained ear, the detector sounded like an arcade video game. But to Clark, the tones and gauges indicated the presence of objects in the ground — how big they were, what kind of metal they were made of and how deep they were, indicating how long they had been there.

Clark’s most interesting find on the Thomases’ property was a coin silver filigree bracelet with ivory cameos, which Kay Thomas thinks a long-dead relative bought on a European tour. He also found a few old coins, including an 1868 penny; spoon bowls of silver and pewter; a 1937 American Legion fob; old livestock tags and pieces of horse tack; and the remains of tools.

“Normally, I find three times this much stuff,” Clark said, clearly disappointed.

But the Thomases were thrilled — and not surprised that he didn’t find more.

“My relatives were frugal people!” Kay Thomas said. “If they had lost a gold ring, they would have been out here 24/7 until they found it.”

Ed Thomas also found something: a new hobby. For his birthday last Friday, his wife gave him a metal detector.

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