Old house helps turn Andrews woman into ‘treasure’ finder

Sonya Harshman, of rural Andrews, shows off the collection of objects she found while using a metal detector. She has traveled to several states to enjoy her hobby, which has netted some important finds including a gold coin.
Sonya Harshman, of rural Andrews, shows off the collection of objects she found while using a metal detector. She has traveled to several states to enjoy her hobby, which has netted some important finds including a gold coin. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published July 13, 2017.

Sonya Harshman moved to Andrews about three years ago so her husband could be closer to work. But an old house located on their new property provided the inspiration to hunt for historic treasures. And, catching the “bug,” Harshman hasn’t stopped hunting.

“That’s an 1857 log cabin,” she explains. “Whenever we moved here I thought, you know, I’m going to get a detector and just see what’s out in the yard. And that was it.”

She found a bunch of Indian head pennies, a silver Barber dime and a crotal (sleigh) bell in the yard, plus several buttons and other miscellaneous metal objects. The backyard treasure was enough to lure Harshman to branch out, digging her way through her neighbor’s fields and beyond.

“What I hunt mostly are farm fields,” she says. “You just find where the old homesites were. You get plat maps, or whatever. I’ve got some from 1865 and it shows where the homes were. And you just go and talk to them and get permission.”

Harshman, who describes herself as a “metal detectorist,” indulges in her hobby about five days per week. She prefers searching fields to other areas such as homes, parks or beaches to find treasure. She estimates she’s covered around 13,000 acres and 65 to 70 homesites in the short year and a half that she’s had her metal detector.

The goal of a pro coin shooter is to leave the area they hunt looking like they had never been there. She uses a landscaping shovel, which makes a C-shaped plug of turf that can easily be replaced without leaving a mark or killing grass.

“I hate the misconception about hunting yards, because I think people think you’re going to go out and dig a hole,” she says. “You can tell by looking out there — you can’t see one place where I’ve dug.”

The thrill of the hunt is in what the “beep” of the metal detector reveals. When she hits “treasure,” Harshman mainly finds more modern coins, what she calls “clad.”

But she has also unearthed several older coins as well as historical metal items, such as Civil War bullets, buttons, rings, a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) belt buckle, a bridle rosette and even a cavalry saber blade found at a Virginia battle site. Most were found in Huntington County.

She has also found several non-metal objects, such as clay smoking pipes, marbles, a porcelain china doll’s head and trade beads.
The weirdest object she found was a lead denture mold, found in Huntington County and dating from the mid-1800s.

“They have taken an impression of somebody’s teeth, and filled the impression with lead to make the mold of the teeth,” Harshman explains. “I found it in a farmer’s field. Isn’t that crazy?”

Harshman has filled multiple display boxes with her finds, showcasing unusual coins such as a silver 1852 3-cent piece and a Spanish real coin dated 1789, found in Ohio.

She’s also found metal Civil War-era store “cards” or tokens, one from Huntington issued by W.K. Lanphear dated 1863 and an aluminum saloon token from the Huntington Brewing Company. She also discovered some scrip coins from the Stearns Coal Company in Kentucky.

“My grandpa used to work there, so that’s was pretty exciting to find those,” she adds. “Really, none of my stuff is worth anything, but it’s worth everything to me. I’ve never sold any of my things and never will.”

The best treasure she’s found is an 1857 “Indian Princess Head” $1 gold coin, about the size of a pea, worth around $200, she estimates. Unearthing a gold coin is tantamount to finding the Holy Grail, as metal detector hunts go.

“A lot of people have hunted (coins) their whole lives and they’ve never found a gold coin,” Harshman says. “I was out with the owner and publisher of American Digger magazine yesterday, and he says he’s hunted for over 50 years and he’s never found one. … I’ll never find anything else like it.”

Her finds have gained her notoriety in the treasure-hunting world, becoming the subject of articles in two magazines with the gold coin gracing the cover of American Digger magazine.

Harshman’s hobby also performs a service for farmers, as she removes any trash she finds in the fields. She says she takes out far more trash than coins, saving farm implement breakdown from running over the unforgiving metal found in the fields. She has containers of the trash in her garage, which she then donates to her local detecting club to sell for scrap.

Harshman belongs of the East Central Indiana Treasure Hunters of Hartford City, which attracts detectorists from across the state. She believes she is the only member from Huntington County.

Harshman says she is interested in helping people find lost objects such as rings or searching fields. For details, email her at sonya4587@gmail.com.

“You never know what you’re going to find. It sounds like it would be boring, but I think it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “You’re out enjoying the sunshine, and it’s the thrill. You never know. I dug a gold coin in a field in Huntington County. Who would have ever thought that?”