Mar 30, 2010, 12:27 AM
DIGS O' THE DAY (2010-03-29): IVANHOE PLANTATION & OWENS FERRY RECON
DIGS O' THE DAY (2010-03-29): IVANHOE PLANTATION & OWENS FERRY RECON
Today's outing was a reconnaissance mission, so don't expect to see much in the way of detector finds. I typically do more driving than detecting on my recon missions. I thought I'd bring y'all along for the ride on this one, though, just for fun.
I might not be able to produce good finds on every outing, but I can always take pictures. Unfortunately my camera is no longer field-worthy, so I usually borrow my wife's. It was in her car today, though, and she was off at work, so I was forced to bring along the less-than-ideal camera that belongs to my eight year old daughter. The morning and early afternoon were photogenic enough-it was another glorious spring day.
Peter Bufkin, a personal friend who happens to be my boss now, is a member of a hunting club in Camden County, Georgia, just south of where we live. This club, called Ivanhoe Plantation, is situated on the Satilla River. Peter had mentioned it being the site of an old rice plantation. High ground along a river is always prime real estate for relic hunting, because the rivers were the main travel arteries here, back in the days before railroads and modern highways. The high river bluffs were where people usually built their houses. Long before white settlers, the Indians did the same, so shell middens and burial mounds are not uncommon in such places, either. This area definitely sounded interesting. Peter had spoken of it several years ago and told me he'd get me permission to come out. Just last week he came to me and told me they'd cut some woods down and were clearing part of the land. This is always a good time to search, when the land is plowed up. If you've read any of my other stories, you know how much I love "naked dirt". Peter said he'd gotten permission for me to go, so off I went today.
My first stop was in the town of Woodbine, at the Bryan Lang Historical Library. I did a little bit of quick reading (just skimming, really) on Owens Ferry, to supplement what little I'd picked up from online sources the day before. The library didn't have any old maps like I'd hoped, but I read some interesting tidbits.
The famous naturalist William Bartram passed through here in the 1770s. From what little I've gathered, the first white settler of the tract was named Brown, and he was a Revolutionary War patriot. The place was called Brown's Ferry prior to 1860, when it was renamed Owens Ferry. Lumber was the major cash crop in the latter part of the 19th century, and remains a big business in this area today, so plenty of old steamboats used to navigate the river in bygone days, chugging back and forth carrying logs and supplies.
Below: The steamer C.H. Evans at Owens Ferry, around the turn of the last century. She began service around 1903 and made three weekly trips from Brunswick, with stops at Jekyll Island and all along the Satilla River up to Burnt Fort.
(Photo from a newspaper clipping, courtesy of the Bryan Lang Historical Library.)
In time, the lumbering took its toll on the woodlands here, the sawmills closed, and as modern roads and railroads developed, the river traffic decreased and eventually all but disappeared. By about 1930, the steamboats were gone. Owens Ferry, at one time a small village or hamlet with a population of around 250 souls, withered away to nothing. Today the site has been reclaimed by forest and I can't help but wonder how much it resembles what William Bartram would have seen some 240 years ago.
Bartram might have approved of my musical choice. Today's driving soundtrack was Baroque, including selections such as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by George Frederic Handel and some of the usual Bach concertos. Later it Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez- I love classical Spanish guitar and wish I could play it, but sadly, I can't carry a note in a bucket. In my listening, I can rock out with the best of 'em, but lately I've been on a Classical kick.
I passed a sign for Maryfield Plantation, which said it had been established in 1808. As I rolled down a muddy road that would have looked familiar to a British redcoat, plantation slave, or Confederate soldier, I could feel time begin to slow down and seemingly move backwards. I do love some of these remote places where the aura of the past lives on. I found the Ivanhoe Plantation sign and drove through the gate. When I stopped the car, the soundtrack changed to nothing but breeze, birdsong, and the rhythmic, knocking whirr of a red-headed woodpecker at work high up in a pine tree. Then there was the clamorous barking of dogs as I came upon an old white frame house with a green tin roof.
A man in a red shirt came out. I introduced myself and told him what I was doing, and how Peter Bufkin had gotten me permission to poke around out here. The man's name was John MacDowell (or maybe he said McDonald?), but he told me everybody called him Johnny Mac. He was the caretaker of Ivanhoe plantation. He seemed friendly enough, and told me the dogs wouldn't bite.
"Your pond's barely big enough for your boat," I said, gesturing towards the tiny pond to the left of the house. An aluminum johnboat was pulled up on the bank on one side of it.
"Yeah, the boat's mostly just for show," he chuckled.
"Got anything stocked in there?"
"Yep, there's bass and bream in there."
The house had character. All sorts of old relics like giant saw blades and old iron tools hung on the exterior walls. Johnny Mac explained to me that he'd found many of these items himself. I asked if he had a metal detector, and he said he did, but apparently most of the finds had been made while they dug in the garden or wandered around the place.
"I love the old house. When was it built?" I asked him, and speculated on the date. "Looks to me like sometime around 1900." I complimented him on its charm.
"It's just an old shotgun shack." He shrugged. "You're close. It will be a hundred years old this year."
"Ah, so 1910, then."
I think he said it had been in his family for generations, and had belonged to a great-great-great-grandfather ("three greats").
I asked where the new clearcut was and he pointed up the road. He warned me that turkey hunters might be up there, and that I'd better have boots on, because it was muddy in patches. I had figured that much out from my drive in. I had on suede leather moccasins which were OK for sand, but definitely not mudworthy.
We discussed an old slave cemetery that was nearby. He said there were only about eight markers left, all of them illegible from the ravages of time, but someone had surveyed more than 160 graves there. The sunken graves were supposedly visible only because the soil had collapsed into them, leaving depressions in the ground.
Old cemeteries fascinate me, but I decided to check out the ferry site first. Money was carried and spent at ferry crossings, and coinshooters like me try to sniff out the spots where nice old coins are likely to be found. Johnny Mac pointed across his front lawn to a nearly invisible trail through the grass, which ran right past his garden and into the woods. I was surprised when he said I could actually drive back in there. He told me to drive to the fork in the trail, and then walk down the left fork to the river bluff. At certain times, the remains of the old dock would be visible.
I followed the trail as instructed, and soon could see the river through the trees. This was a high bluff indeed, perhaps thirty or forty feet above the river. The trail followed the contours of the bluff as it wound down to what must have been the old landing. At first I thought I saw the pilings of the old dock sticking up from the mud, but these were in fact the "knees" of cypress trees- a common swampland sight. The river flowed by at a reasonable pace, whirling and eddying around deadfall trees and cypress trunks. Somewhere on the other side was the very old town of Jeffersonton, which was described as having all but vanished by 1883, according to an article I'd read at the library. That intrigued me, and bears further research. There were thickets of vines and overgrowth everywhere along the bluff, which would make rough going, but the trail itself was wide and clear in this spot, scattered with little more than an accumulation of live oak leaves. It was detectable.
I returned to the car and got out my detector and gear, then began searching along the trail. Just as the detector beeped its first signal, there was another electronic chiming from my front pocket. I had forgotten about my cellphone. Unlike most modern Americans, I am not particularly enamored of my cellphone, and seldom keep it turned on, but I learned long ago that it is nice to have one for emergencies when out in the field or on the road.
It was my mother, calling from Florida. We had a brief but pleasant conversation. I reflected for a moment on how surreal it was to be out in the middle of nowhere, crashing through a thicket on the site of a long-vanished village while talking to someone who was hundreds of miles away. For a brief moment I was pulled out of the 19th century and back into the 21st. I can only imagine what the folks who once rode their horses down to this old ferry crossing would have thought of my cell phone and metal detector. Surely such technology would have seemed like sorcery to them. It does to me, too, sometimes.
I dug the target and removed the dirt from it with a small nylon brush. it proved to be a knoblike brass doodad. From the greenish patina on it, it was clear that it had been in the ground a century or more. Sure, it was just a doodad or a whatzit, but an encouraging clue that I was on the right track towards some older finds.
The next target was also a brass doodad and also greenish with age. This was clearly some kind of small pipe fitting. It too might have been a hundred years old, but not too much older than that, because it was threaded on one end.
The third signal was difficult to pinpoint and rather deep. It was a well-rusted nail, but it looked like it might have been one of the old square headed kind.
By this time the sand gnats had gathered in clouds and were harassing me mercilessly. These were actually a little bigger than the average gnat, though not as big as mosquitoes. My wife calls 'em "shad gnats". They weren't biting much, probably due to my liberal coating of insect repellent, but they were crawling all over the back of my neck and in my hair. Georgia gnats love human scalps. To judge by the constant buzzing and squirming sensations, there were also dozens of them crawling in and out of my ears. It is virtually impossible to focus on any rational thought whatsoever when your ear canals have been invaded by insects! I gave up searching and headed for the car, hoping I'd find my head net. It is similar to what a beekeeper wears, but smaller and lighter, being made entirely of a fine mesh material. It probably looks goofy, but who cares, when one is alone in the woods and being offered up as a sacrifice to the gnat gods? (Somewhere I saw that there's a book called "Chew Toy of the Gnat Gods". Haven't read it yet, but I laughed out loud when I saw the title- love it!)
When I got to the car I was so gnat-chewed and frazzled that I decided to pack it all in rather than find my head net. Though I hadn't been walking much at all, I felt fatigued and all itchy and crawly. There's the downside of springtime here- the insects don't take very long to come out. They'll be followed shortly by the humidity, and then the uncomfortable season will be in full swing. I wish I'd found this place in wintertime. But it is intriguing enough that I'll probably be back, gnats and humidity notwithstanding.
I drove back out and stopped at the house to thank Johnny Mac for the hospitality. We briefly discussed the local history some more. He told me his wife was the historian and knew more than he did. She must have a pretty respectable knowledge, then, because he told me all sorts of things- more than I could absorb in one sitting.
Suddenly he stopped talking and looked over his shoulder.
"Huh, there they are!" he exclaimed. "Funny, they were just out here lookin' for those this morning, and now here they are."
Since I was obviously in the dark about who or what "they" and "them" were, he explained, pointing skywards.
"Look! Swallow-tailed kites!"
For the nanosecond it took my mind to process this, I mentally pictured Ben Franklin's kite, with a key hanging from the string. Then I realized he was talking about a bird. I knew there were hawk-like birds called kites- they're raptors. Sure enough, there was a large black bird in the sky, soaring past the top of a tall pine tree. It was all black with a white underside, and its tail was very distinctly forked, like that of a swallow. In fact, it looked like a huge swallow on steroids. I was mesmerized, never having seen such a bird before. Sadly, it was far too fast to capture with my daughter's balky old camera. I guess some naturalists or birdwatchers must have been looking for the kites- surely "they" couldn't have meant hunters. In the short glimpse I got, I could see it was an impressive and beautiful bird.
I took my leave of Johnny Mac, thanking him again and taking his card so I could call him in advance before my next visit. I forgot to investigate the old slave cemetery and drove down the muddy road to find the clearcut Peter had mentioned.
It was still rough, not having been root-raked or plowed. A bit too rough for my taste, I confess, since I am a somewhat lazy relic hunter. I probably should have gotten out and walked it to look for telltale clues like old glass or pottery sherds. I was weary and wary from battling the gnats, though, so I was not feeling intrepid enough to walk the site today. I wonder how close to the river it is. It certainly bears further investigation. Who knows when they'll plow it up? If they do that, I'll be all over it.
On my drive back out, I noticed what looked like a black tree root sticking up from the sand roadbed.
As I drove past it, I realized it was not a root at all, but a snake! That makes TWO snake encounters in the last two outings! I'd passed so close to this one, I thought I might have run it over. Carefully backing the car up, I went to investigate. It lay with its body in a straight line, but scrunched up somehow, as if it were dead or in distress.
It was black and grey- not much longer than the little black snake I'd met on my last outing, but much thicker and more muscular in appearance. Its triangular head and menacing appearance told me that unlike the previous snake, this one was probably poisonous. I got out of the car and gingerly touched the tip of its tail with the toe of my moccasin. It came to life rather suddenly, slithered a foot or two, and then adopted the classic threat posture, switching its tail to and fro.
Whoah! I stepped back quickly. It was a small rattlesnake!
Its rattles were so small that I hadn't noticed them when I gently toed it, nor could I hear them rattling, but it was plain to see that the snake obviously trying to rattle them vigorously. As I've said previously, I'm not terrified of snakes as long as I can see 'em from a safe distance and I don't have to touch 'em, but I've heard that in some poisonous species the young ones are even more venomous than the adults. I don't know if that applies to rattlers, but I wasn't about to stick around and find out. I got back in the car and shot my pictures from the window. Unfortunately the camera I was stuck with today lacked a zoom lens.
If I'd been so inclined, I probably could have killed the rattlesnake by running it over with the car. (I'd almost done that accidentally, and probably did run over its tail, which might be why it had a silent rattle, but then again it might not have grown its rattles yet.) Killing critters is not my style, though. That's why I'm a relic hunter instead of a deer hunter. I'm a soft-hearted, "llive-and-let-live" kind of guy, except when it comes to sand gnats or other biting insects. This was his territory, not mine. I left him alone and drove on. There was a car in my rearview mirror, coming in my direction from a long way back. Ironically, I might have saved that rattler's life by nearly squashing him and then prodding him to move out of the middle of the road.
Back on the paved road on the way home, I looked back and saw swallow-tailed kites circling in the sky again. I pulled off the road and aimed the camera over the roof of the car, patiently waiting in vain catch a shot of them. It just didn't happen, so I'll have to rely on a stock photo to show you what they looked like.
(Photo below by nature photographer Joe Nicholson of bugwood.org, via Wikimedia Commons.)
Well, it isn't my painted bunting, but a swallow-tailed kite will do nicely. I might not have added any old coins to my "dug keepers" album, but I penciled another little checkmark into my bird book. (I also encountered my first poisonous snake while out exploring, but that's a milestone I'd rather not repeat.) I also got in some good recon on several potential detecting sites.
Thanks for comin' along for the ride. Hope you'll follow me around next time, too. Who knows- maybe we'll turn up something interesting.
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