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Cellar Dweller by John
Be a Cellar Dweller

One of the reasons that I started in the detecting hobby in the early 80’s was the prevalence of searchable places, primarily cellar holes in Cheshire County, where my parents had land since the late 50’s.   When I bought my first detector, a White’s 4DB from George, I was in the woods in an hour.  Somewhat successful with relics and a few buttons, I returned from my yearly vacation to my home in Corning, NY and continued on a mostly coin searching focus.  In 2006 I returned to live in the area to take care of my elderly parents.  I looked forward to restarting my hobby and subsequently purchased a Minelab from George last year.

New Hampshire, and most of New England, is plastered with cellar holes.  If I spent every day of the rest of my life looking in just the cellar holes in my town of Stoddard, I could never cover 5% of them.

When beginning your cellar hole search plan, the first step to take is research.  Lots and lots of research.  Visit your local Historical Society and library to start gathering information.  In regards to my town, there are two historical books and five maps drawn before 1900.  The maps, however valuable, all seem to contradict each other.  In one map an old school is on the inside of a corner, another on the outside, and another has it 500 yards south.  Your best ally in order to find a good searchable spot truly lies between your ears, not on the map.  Many of the old mapmakers and historians relied on hearsay, not actual documented facts – it can be safely said that much of the information on the old maps is based on verbal lore - “the Borden place, which burnt down in 1840, was 2 rods past Whistler’s Rock on Eaton’s Road.” – And so it gets placed on the map.  Also many of the potential hot spots could not be on the map.  If they are, these old dwellings could be marked with an X or not at all.

Although it takes much more time and effort, a scouting mission without detector is in a good bet.  When that machine is on, you are looking at your feet, not at the big picture. A scouting mission is an investment in future opportunities.

These people were not lazy; no one who farmed and logged in Colonial New England could be called lazy; however they mostly took the easy way out.  Look for evidence near the road that you are on.  The early settlers didn’t have a need for a view or long driveway; they needed an easy way to move feed, animals, and wood, to commerce.  For the early farmer, access to the road, stream, pasture, or barn, needed to be short and sweet – keep your scouting mission close by.

Search the terrain and seek the flat spots.  The cellar hole or foundation is going to be on a high flat spot.  When peering off into the woods look for that flat area or mound within 100 yards of the road.  Head to it or just above it and open your mind! If there is no cellar hole there, look for rocks in the corners where foundation logs may have been laid on.  

A week ago I was out scouting a formerly heavily populated road, now abandoned.  Many, many cellar holes dot the landscape; many of those cellar holes have been visited by my detecting brethren.  A full 100 yards from the nearest mapped and documented cellar hole, I noticed an interesting flat spot and the slightest evidence of a path.  In walking in from the road, I could see no evidence of a building or cellar.  When walking back to the road, I tripped over something. I looked down and saw a carved keystone and it all came into view – examining each corner of the flat area under the leaves and forest duffle, was the corner stones of an old building that didn’t exist on any map.  I may not find anything worth while there but rest assured that I wouldn’t have found this spot with my Minelab in my hand.  It is now on my GPS for sure. 

If successful, scan out from the area and imagine yourself in the mind of the settler – how they lived and worked.  Ordinarily, you will begin to picture the layout of the property that has a commonality with many other old properties in your searches. The main house is usually situated in a high spot close to the road or entrance to the property.  Close by the house is the main family water well.  If you look at the main foundation there will be large stones or slabs that appear carved – generally, those are the entrances to the dwelling – one often to the front facing the road, and the other on the side.  The side entrance often heads to the well and in the direction towards the barn and main work areas – look about 30 yards from that entrance and you may see another foundation that would be the barn.  That foundation, depending on the family finances, may be a full above-ground foundation or just a few rocks that held some logs for the barn’s side walls.  Near that barn, may be the evidence of a corral for the family animals.  Somewhere close to the sources of “fertilizer” would have been the family garden.  Downhill from the house and well would have been the family privy or outhouse.  If there is a stream or body of clean water nearby, that could have been the family bathing and clothes washing area – you would expect that this area would be above the privy.  

The Artifact Search:
Put yourself in the mindset of the residence of the property and how they lived and worked.  Although the cellar hole itself is tempting, with dreams of coin and jewelry caches, it is generally a collapsed or burnt building.  The main cellar and immediate few feet around the perimeter are often littered with nails and their halos – an almost solid ferrous mess.  Worth examining though are the front and/or side entrances, and the paths from these entrances to the road, wells, privy, and barn/work areas.

The rock walls surrounding the property offer the temptation of caches and riches.  Perhaps yes, but your searches should focus on areas where people worked and transacted business.  Importantly, when you move a stone in a rock wall or old foundation, then you become susceptible to the grey areas in the historical artifact laws.  In my opinion, its best to leave them be.

Are there random large rocks and around the house and work areas?  They could be resting and visiting areas.  The entrances to the properties, close to the house and barn, hold promise for a place where monetary transactions might have been made.  Always remember, if there are rocks on the ground underfoot where these entrances are, or there are rocks overturned with less moss than the others, the area is more than likely a logging egress that was made by loggers well after the historical period that people resided.

Check in the road.  Often, peddlers, neighbors, and traders would stop by in the road and business was transacted right in the road either in front of the main house or in front of the barns and work areas.  Families often were entering wagons and mounting horses in the road itself. I have been more successful finding coins in the surrounding roads than I have near the dwellings and barns.

Cellar holes and abandoned properties are an aspect of the hobby that is both more difficult and rewarding.  The good ones take time to get to and are often overgrown and hard to search. Yet they are fun to research and can potentially yield interesting and valuable find.  Look at them from a different perspective and happy hunting.

John Quist

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