Preserving History with the Driftless Digger


Morgan Fuerstenberg graphic

In the April 16 edition John Rodwell wrote about the Driftless Digger. This piece adds information onto that article.

Jim Winter, known as the Driftless Digger, gave an informational talk on May 6 at the Platteville Public Library.

Originally from Decatur, IL, Winter is a metal detectorist operating primarily within the Driftless Area. He coined his moniker in 2021 after picking up his childhood hobby again in 2019.

He works remotely as a digital content director, which allows him to create his own schedule where he is able to allot plenty of time to digging and metal detecting. He also works with a non-profit organization in Dubuque, IA, where he helps to preserve relics.

Winter’s goal was to educate attendees on how they can begin metal detecting, too. “My philosophy on metal detecting is to save history,” Winter said, “The more people doing it, the better.”

His lesson was divided into four sections: Code of Ethics, Obtaining Permission, Equipment, and Process.

His code of ethics is, “Leave the place better than how you found it. Leave no trace you were there,” Winter said. Additionally, he stressed the importance of following all local laws as well and to respect private property.

He instructed to “be an ambassador for the hobby.” If people are digging on private property, the property owner gets a right to anything they find first and foremost. Anything of major historical significance should also be reported to the local authorities. Lastly, he stressed that people should never dig in a way that hurts the vegetation and wildlife.

According to Winter, the best place to start digging if people are new to the hobby are public parks, so long as local law allows for digging in the area. They can also ask family and friends if they will allow digging on their property.

A great resource he recommended was using old maps of local areas to find interesting spots people might like to dig. For instance, you might see that there used to be an old school house on a friend’s property, and it could be a rewarding place to go check out.

He recommended using the website Historic Map Works or utilizing the Southwest Wisconsin Room archives on the UW-Platteville campus. “They have a wealth of resources you can use,” Winter noted.

For equipment, Winter suggested starting with a Garrett Ace 200 or Garrett Ace 400 metal detector. Other tools needed are large and small shovels, gloves, a pouch for finds and trash and a tool called a pinpointer. A pinpointer is a small, handheld metal detector that can help to accurately find the location of a relic in a small area.

Finally, he went into details about the best process for digging and detecting. He recommended dividing the yard or area into sections, following a grid pattern. Start by walking a line in one direction, swinging the metal detector in a slow, three foot wide arc and then going down the opposite way in a new line. “I do it slow and deliberate,” Winter said. “In this hobby, you have to have patience.”

Once you hone in on a signal, people are going to want to dig the dirt up in a plug formation so it is easier to fill the hole. Another pointer he gave was that something that does not give a signal in both directions is probably a nail or piece of aluminum.

After the target is located, people have to make sure to replace the hole, and make sure they are straight down digging the dirt up so they do not kill the grass.

Some final words of advice he gave were to always bring water, always be respectful and never dig in a drought because it is hard to replace the dirt properly.

Metal detecting can be a slow and challenging hobby, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. “Treasure hunting,” Winter said. “I hate that term. I like to think of it as saving history.”

His most interesting find was a Civil War token, which private businesses minted to get people to spend money during a time when money was tight. There are only three to five of the specific token Winter found known to exist in the world.

People can follow Jim Winter’s adventures on Facebook at his handle, “The Driftless Digger.” If you’d like him to come metal detect your property, you can find his contact information there as well.