Peter Zegler always does two things when driving to a job: keeps an eye out for houses in need of a power washing and scours the surrounding neighborhood for older properties.
The former is to continue building clientele for his business, Hamptons Power Wash, which he started five years ago after painting houses on the East End for a quarter-century. The latter is to continue feeding his metal-detection-hobby-turned-obsession, and he explained that his longtime stomping grounds provide plenty of opportunities to dig up buried and lost treasures—if one knows the best places to look.
“Whenever I see someone digging up dirt, whether it is with a backhoe or a shovel, I’ll stop,” said Mr. Zegler, 60, who recently moved to Hampton Bays but has lived in the Hamptons since his 20s. “I’m always on the prowl … I’ve got my metal detector right now in the back of my truck.”
He says he picked up the hobby almost on a whim a decade earlier, shortly after the death of his mother, when he drove from her Westhampton Beach home to Patchogue to clear his head. Mr. Zegler stopped at Treasures Unlimited, which has since closed its doors, and was captivated by the stories of found treasure—in some instances, boxes of gold and silver rings recovered from Long Island’s beaches—shared by the shop owners.
He immediately dropped $1,200 on a White’s DFX-300, the brand that he and fellow metal detecting hobbyists swear by, tossed aside the instruction manual—at least until he realized just how complicated it is to operate—and began looking for places to test out his device.
Mr. Zegler always tries to search the ground near older structures, namely those with brick and stone foundations. He had painted plenty of houses in Quogue and was familiar with the area and its locals. He secured permission from the then-owners of The Inn at Quogue while it was still under renovation, and immediately got a hit.
“I dug down 4 to 6 inches and pulled out a Standing Liberty quarter,” he said of the silver coin first minted in 1916 and worth between $3 and $4 today.
Following the advice of other hunters, he then scanned the freshly dug up ground and found a second silver quarter from the same era. “I pulled two from one hole,” Mr. Zegler said.
“They always tell you that before you put the plug back in the ground, scan the area again.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is easy!’” he continued, noting that he also found a ring on his first metal detecting expedition. “I was green, and just learning how to metal detect. I quickly realized that there is more to this than just turning the machine on and scanning the ground.”
As with real estate, metal detector hobbyists agree that the three keys to a successful hunt are: location, location, location.
Unless they’re planning on hitting the nearest beach after a hot summer day and scanning the sand for the latest lost coins and misplaced wedding bands, or have an infinite amount of free time, enthusiasts should first spend their energy on identifying the places that should offer the best return on their investment.
And those places typically aren’t indicated by markers, though they can often be found on older maps of Long Island, according to Bill Seabrook of Rocky Point, a self-proclaimed history junkie and a member of the Long Island Metal Detecting Facebook group. Before heading out on his weekly adventures, usually with his father, Frank, he secures copies of maps dating back several hundred years and overlays them on older aerial photographs of Long Island that he’s also procured from online resources.
He follows this practice to better pinpoint areas that could possibly contain trinkets from the past.
“It’s really about location — that’s the thing that I’m learning,” said Mr. Seabrook, who started metal detecting with regularity about three years ago so that he and his father could spend more time together. “Long Island is extremely heavily hunted. If you have a bright idea, chances are that 100 people had the idea long before you.
“You’ll show up at some places and you’ll find fresh holes in the ground,” he continued, referring to the marks left behind by other hunters digging in the dirt.
That is why he relies on old maps to help guide him. While he hasn’t found many valuable coins yet, Mr. Seabrook has unearthed some interesting and historic items with his White’s Spectra V3i. For example, the Revolutionary War enthusiast has found several decorative military pieces, including items worn by both Continental soldiers and their horses, as well as an assortment of buttons from the same era, across eastern Brookhaven and western Riverhead towns.
Near a large rock on the shoulder of Route 25A in Rocky Point in early May, he unearthed a horseshoe made sometime between 1750 and 1850. With some gentle cleaning, the horseshoe revealed the marks where the blacksmith had leveled his hammer against it.
“I don’t know his name … but I’m holding his work in my hands,” said Mr. Seabrook, who works for an insurance company in New York City. “I’m fascinated by that. Call me a nerd if you want.”
Like Mr. Seabrook, Mr. Zegler, a self-proclaimed “nerd athlete,” agrees that the hobby is geared for those who love learning about history or have an interest in older architecture, or both. While they don’t need to be experts in either field, he stressed that natural curiosity is essential for metal detecting enthusiasts because there will be many days when they come home empty-handed, or uncover an interesting item — such as 250-year-old brass shoe buckle — that has little monetary value.
“People ask me what it is like, and I tell them it is like going fishing,” said 70-year-old Charlie Webb of Southampton Village, a fellow enthusiast who has been metal detecting for 50 years.
“You go and you have a good time. Sometimes you catch something, and sometimes you catch a big one,” continued Mr. Webb, who used to own a coin shop on Jobs Lane in the village. “A lot of times you don’t catch anything, but you’re out there in nature, walking around, and that’s never a bad place to be.”
That’s not to say that Mr. Webb and Mr. Zegler have not dug up their fair share of valuables over the years or helped others recover their lost possessions.
Mr. Zegler uncovered one of his most prized items — a Spanish 1 real coin from 1741 — several years earlier by following his learned instincts, and cultivating friendships made along the way.
He explained that he had previously befriended local developer Lawrence Citarelli, who had purchased the former Webb property in Remsenburg and was building a new subdivision there. Whenever crews would clear a section of land to make way for a road or another house foundation, Mr. Zegler had permission to scan the newly cleared forest for hidden treasures.
The nearly 400-year-old coin was found only 50 feet from South Country Road, under 2 feet of dirt. “That’s the oldest coin I have found,” Mr. Zegler said, adding that, based on its condition, it is worth about $50.
Also unearthed on the same property were a Seated Liberty dime from the 1870s, and a British Hibernia penny that was manufactured in 1776, according to Mr. Zegler. Seated Liberty dimes were only made for a few years because they looked too similar to quarters, while British Hibernia pennies date back to the reign of King George III.
Mr. Zegler focused his efforts on Remsenburg after learning, again through research, that the town’s earliest settlers would often harvest wood from the hamlet. He speculated that a harvester could have accidentally dropped the coins, or that someone else living off the land misplaced them hundreds of years earlier.
“I collect and I look at these things … this is where the whole metal detecting thing turns into a history lesson,” he said. “It’s like throwing a stone in the lake, and the ripples keep going and going and going.”
He unearthed his most valuable find, a Liberty Bust Large Cent from 1798, alongside a dirt driveway serving a Sag Harbor home built in 1810. The owner was holding a yard sale before moving, and Mr. Zegler simply asked for permission to scan the land before the property exchanged hands.
He estimates that the coin, manufactured roughly five years after America began making its own coin currency, could fetch between $1,000 and $4,000 if he ever decided to sell it. “I didn’t even have to dust it off,” Mr. Zegler said of the coin. “You can see all of the detail on it.”
Like Mr. Zegler, Mr. Webb has found his fair share of valuable coins over the decades, including Spanish pieces of eight and Connecticut Coppers, with the latter being pennies manufactured in the late 1780s and containing, at the time, a penny’s worth of copper — making them as large and as heavy as a modern quarter.
He’s also dug up discarded firearms, rusted knives, and plenty of cans. Mr. Zegler unearthed so many old faucets that he regrets not keeping them and selling them for their copper.
But today, Mr. Webb says, he gets the most enjoyment by helping others find their lost trinkets and valuables, usually for a small fee to cover his time spent scanning a property or a stretch of sand. He estimates that he’s helped at least 15 people find their lost valuables, mostly jewelry, over the years.
“The most rewarding thing you can do is find something that is lost by somebody else, or their family, and finding it and returning it,” Mr. Webb said.
Mr. Zegler can attest to that. In April 2018, he reunited former Southampton Town Trustee Fred Havemeyer with a ring that he had lost 50 years earlier in a farm field in Water Mill. Mr. Zegler discovered the ring, which had Mr. Havemeyer’s name inscribed on it, while scanning the ground where The Green Thumb at Hayground now stands.
In addition to his eternal gratitude, Mr. Havemeyer has given Mr. Zegler a friendship that continues to benefit him, especially when he’s looking to access privately held properties in the town.
“I returned the ring, and I made a new friend,” Mr. Zegler said. “Fred loves history. He gave me permission to metal detect on his property. He also got me a power washing job in Southampton.”
That discovery, the ensuing reunion, and the newfound friendship all continue to inspire Mr. Zegler as he continues to pursue his hobby. “If I’m not power washing, or sleeping, or taking a shower, I’m metal detecting,” he said. “Unless the ground is frozen stiff.”
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