Driftless Digger: The Local Legend

The story behind the metal-detecting historian and his best finds of the year


A. Trade token for the Lead Mine Saloon in Platteville – found in June at a home in Platteville, WI B. Mineral Point centennial coin – found in May at Miner’s Cottage in Mineral Point, WI C. Trade token for H.M. Gann Billiard Hall in Galena, IL – found in October at a park in Platteville D. Trade token for J.T. Marshall Cigars & Tobacco in Livingston, WI – found in September at an old farmstead in Benton, WI E. Bull Durham advertising token – found in May at an old farmstead in Benton, WI 1. Toy Derringer pistol found in Lancaster, WI 2. Metal bowl – found in Benton, WI 3. Lipstick tubes 4. Antique match holder – found in Cedar Rapids, IA 5. Pocket watch – found in Benton, WI 6. Tootsie toys – various locations 7. Aluminum comb with writing Max Rady Saloon on it – found in Platteville, WI 8. Pipe bowl – found in Cedar Rapids, IA 9. Clay shooter marble – found in Missouri Valley, IA 10. Bennington marble – found in Missouri Valley, IA 11. Pocket knife – found in Darlington, WI 12. Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Brakeman’s badge – found in Benton, WI 13. Frog brooch – found in Cedar Rapids, IA 14. Crotal bell – found in Platteville, WI 15. 1930 Grant County dog license – found in Platteville, WI 16. Toe tap 17. Silver rings

Jim Winter, also known as the Driftless Digger, is a metal detectorist, bottle digger, creek walker and magnet fisher. Winter presented his best finds of 2022 at the Platteville Public Library early in March.

The Exponent had the opportunity to talk with Winter about metal detecting, history saving and some of his favorite finds of the past year.

How did you become interested in metal detecting?

“As a teenager, I begged and begged my parents for a metal detector,” Winter began. “I finally received one at the age of 16. I hunted for treasures in my yard for a year, and then life got in the way. I went to college, had adult responsibilities and metal detecting fell by the wayside. But I held onto that metal detector.”

His first site was his yard. He found a dog tag, a Detroit Tigers pin, various coins and more.

Winter picked up his metal detecting passion again in 2019 when he found his old metal detector in his garage.

“The detector was inoperable… I said to myself, ‘Jim, you liked metal detecting as a kid. Why not take it up again?’ So, I did. I purchased a professional model, a Garrett AT Pro, and started anew.”

With rejuvenated passion, Winter’s resumed his hobby at a one-room schoolhouse near Platteville. The first find was a 1906 V nickel.

How do you find areas to dig and detect?

“Most of my permissions come via word of mouth and social media. I’m fortunate that my brand, The Driftless Digger, is becoming pretty well known in The Driftless Region Area,” Winter remarked.

He also posts in community Facebook groups and finds a healthy handful of permissions.

Outside of social media, Winter also searches out permissions through historical research, “mainly by studying old maps to identify potential historic locations.”

These historical locations are often the places which Winter enjoys the most.

“My favorite places to detect are historic locations that no longer have human occupancy. My favorite permission is an old farmstead just outside of Benton, WI. It includes a 1910 farmhouse on five acres, but beyond the farmhouse are cornfields.”

“In those cornfields,” Winter began, “there used to be a badger mining hole, at least one, if not more, 1800s houses, a railroad bed, a lead mine, a long barn on a stone foundation and other buildings. It’s here that I find amazing, old relics and sometimes coins.”

“Many metal detectorists are hesitant to ask property owners for permission to detect and only metal detect in public parks,” Winter explained. “The way I look at it is I already have a no before I ask permission to detect. So, if you say no, I already had that. If you say yes, then I have a new permission.”

Do you have a way to determining if a site is worthwhile or contains artifacts?

“Yes. Often, you can get a feel for a property by walking it, with the property owner letting you know where some key areas may be. When I detect a new permission for the first time, I wander the property looking for iron patches and hot spots where there are many good signals.”

“Once I’ve identified better spots on the property, the next time I return, I will grid out that area and walk straight lines back and forth, with slight overlap, to retrieve items.”

Winter uses a master spreadsheet to track his active, finished and desirable possible future permissions as well as coins and tokens sorted by year and any upcoming constructions in the surrounding areas that may yield churned land.

How has your metal detecting evolved since you renewed your interest in 2019?

“I call myself a history saver.” Winter continued, “I used to refer to myself as a treasure hunter, but the more I think about that, the more to me, that has a negative connotation. That makes it sound like I’m going to come on your property and take everything I find, sell it and make lots of money. I don’t do this to make money. I do this to save history.”

Outside of metal detecting Winter also bottle digs, creek walks and magnet fishes. Across all activities, he works within the Driftless community to promote a sense of historical curiosity and appreciation.

“Last August, I gave a metal detector away to a family with three children, and then this March, I gave the mom a bag of clad coins I had found that were too mangled to run through a machine so she could plant them on their property for her children to find.”

He also mentors new metal detectorists and works with historical locations to reconstruct history through found artifacts.

Winter concluded, “I took on the moniker The Driftless Digger because 95% of my saving of history takes place in The Driftless Area, and I’m proud to live in one of the most unique geographical areas in the Midwest. (But also), a couple times each year I travel to western Iowa and central Illinois to bottle dig. This year I’m also planning a trip to Wheeling, West Virginia, in June to bottle dig there.”