Uncovering history, bit by bit
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
Bit by bit, Michael Travers is learning about Martha's Vineyard history.
For several hours every day, Mr. Travers, armed with a high-tech metal detector, slowly and carefully sweeps small pieces of ground in the woods and along the beaches around the Island.
He doesn't know what he's looking for or what he will find, but each of the thousands of metal objects he's unearthed is one more piece in a mural of everyday Island life extending back more than 300 years of Western settlement and 10,000 years of Native American life here.
"Anything's possible: Everybody on earth has lost something," the Brockton native said recently. "There's probably more lost gold lying in the ground than in all the banks in the world."
Mr. Travers, 47, moved to the Island four years ago and works at Tisbury Shell gas station on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven when he's not sleuthing or researching the stories behind thousands of artifacts, coins, and jewelry in his collection.
"I do a lot of research when I find something," he said. "I want to know: Who lost this? Why were they in this place? How did they live?" he said.
Mr. Travers likes to share the excitement of treasure-hunting and has volunteered to do a beach "treasure hunt" for Camp Jabberwocky campers this summer. "The camp is very excited. I'll bury 30 plastic eggs with old coins in them and each camper will get to use the metal detector and find his or her own treasure," Mr. Travers said, adding that the camp is firming up a date for the hunt.
Mr. Travers is a trim, quick man, passionate about his avocation. He luxuriates in his life today, far from the serial violence of the Brockton streets and housing projects where he was raised. "There is nothing like waking up in the morning, just before sunrise," he said. "The birds chirping, everything else is quiet. Walking the beach at low tide is best."
While the beaches constantly give up pieces of history, Mr. Travers said his favorite places are the public woods and forests of the Island. "I ask the old-timers, 'was there a school over here, where did people go for functions?' " he said.
"I'm always looking for old paths: I found a change purse eight inches underground on one," he said, displaying a small, nearly shredded, but still recognizable pouch. "It contained coins and bits of a five dollar bill from 1917 and a Civil War nickel."
"The soil here is soft. Things sink. Of course, you can pay a high price from Lyme disease. Ticks are a downside of walking in the woods," he noted.
Mr. Travers is a collector and rarely sells his finds. Although several pieces have significant value, he's not in it for the money. He shared a look at in an interview. "This is just a small fraction of the collection," he said, displaying several hundred artifacts. "I have thousands of pieces."
"Really, it's not so much the value, it's the aspect of the hunt," Mr. Travers said of his 20-year avocation that began when as a small child he accompanied his father and grandfather to a site cleanup. "My dad and my grandfather were at an old homestead where bottles were dumped. Old bottles were popular then and they were getting $5 a bottle. I found an 18-carat gold locket and my Dad gave me five bucks. That was a lot of money."
"I've always been fascinated with history and finding stuff, always good at finding things," Mr. Travers said. "I remember finding a $10 bill my brother wanted me to have, but he lost it on the way home. I looked for it and found it. We had nine kids, so everything counted."
Mr. Travers wants to know the stories behind his treasures. Some are easier to learn about than others. He held up two shoe buckles perhaps dating from the early 17th century that he found in Brockton, once the shoemaking capital of the world. "This one is sterling silver, made in the 1700s. It came from a rich man's shoe. This one is everyday metal and belonged to a working man," he said
Some artifacts tell their own graphic stories. Mr. Travers held up a ragged, marble-sized lead circle, pitted with indentations. "Know what this is?" he asked. It's a piece of grapeshot from the Civil War. Those indentations are teeth marks. They didn't have anesthesia in those days, so soldiers put a piece of grapeshot between their teeth to bite on when surgeons were working on them."
Mr. Travers has had several metal detecting machines and his favorite is an Australian model. "You want to 'null' the ground — balance the electromagnetic field — so you can get good readings," he said.
Having nulled a lot of ground over 20 years, Mr. Travers recently tumbled some of the fruits of his labor from envelopes and strongboxes on to a table at Wrap 'n Roll restaurant in Vineyard Haven.
His treasures include arrowheads, a stone borer ("for working threads through deerskin), aged coins with faded markings, a pre-Civil War promotional penny minted by a retailer promising five cents in value if redeemed at his store.
There are other stories. "I found this bag of rings and a watch buried under a tree in Brockton," Mr. Travers said. "About a dozen watches from the 1970s and 1980s. I'm guessing a thief buried them but couldn't remember where he stashed them or wasn't able to get back to them."
Mr. Travers turned several large copper coins over in his hands. "These were minted by the U.S. government and used as trade coins and peace coins to build relationship with Native Americans," he said.
Mr. Travers called attention to skilled handwork in a pewter spoon from the 1700s and evident in vintage watches and jewelry, shoe buckles, and Victorian cowl fasteners. "Here's a pendant set with mother of pearl and garnet," he said. "This was probably Island-made because it's silver, which is cheaper than gold and silver's good to set materials from the sea in."
Over the years, Mr. Travers has discovered unexpected benefits from his metal detecting avocation. "This has opened up a lot for me," he said. "It keeps you fit and learning, nonstop."
For people who want to find things, Mr. Travers has simple advice: "Keep your eyes on the ground."
For those who've lost things or want to return found things, he says, "Put an ad in the MV Times — but just say what you've lost or found — don't describe it."