By Rob Passons
Como Park is an old neighborhood with old houses and old yards. For a guy with a metal detector, it’s Valhalla.
For Nick Torok, the community was a playground when he was growing up: a world to explore. “I was born and raised here,” he said. “My grandpa helped build a lot of the houses around here.”
It wasn’t until his mid-30s that Torok delved into the dirt beneath his feet to find out what lay beneath the surface. That’s when he got into metal detecting. “I saw a YouTube video and I was hooked,” he said.
Torok’s passion soon outgrew his own yard and the public spaces around Como Park, and he and his metal detector became something of a fixture in the neighborhood. “People were always asking me if I was ‘the metal detector guy,’ so my wife set up a Facebook account called ‘The Metal Detector Guy,’ ” Torok said. “That’s how most people contact me.”
Relics, coins and precious metals
Torok cleared his afternoon on July 23. He had invitations from three property owners, and Torok’s excitement was palpable. The first lot on his itinerary sounded promising.
Torok had spoken to the owner prior to his arrival and got a brief history lesson. “This is one of the first houses built in the neighborhood,” he said. “It was built as a store in the 1890s, and it was converted to a house sometime between 1910 and 1920.”
A lot of customers had crossed the front yard with change from their purchases more than 100 years before, and Torok had high hopes.
Before he began, Torok calibrated his metal detector to compensate for the iron found naturally in the soil in Minnesota. He made adjustments on the digital readout that differentiated between ferrous (iron) and nonferrous (copper, silver, gold, etc.) metals. “I spent a little more money on my detector so I wouldn’t spend so much time digging for junk,” Torok said. “I’m after relics, coins and precious metals, not old nails.”
Even after his calibrations, Torok’s detector continued to stubbornly chirp over a point in the test site. “I think there’s something here,” Torok said.
He marked the center of the signal and set his detector aside. He spread a small towel on the grass and pushed a specialized trowel into the turf. He dug a shallow hole in the topsoil and placed the 5-inch patch of grass and roots on the towel. “I like to leave the ground looking like I was never here,” he said.
Torok pulled a small pinpointer detector from his belt and prodded the soil beneath the sod. The wand beeped, and Torok followed the trail, depositing the loose soil beside the patch of grass on the towel. A few moments later he pulled his first treasure of the day from the dirt. “It’s a wheatie,” he said. “Looks like a 1922.”
Pennies make up the majority of the coins Torok finds on his forays, and he divides them into “wheaties” (wheat pennies) and “Stinkin’ Lincolns” (newer pennies adorned with the Lincoln Memorial).
The Lincoln Wheat Cent was produced from 1909 to 1958. With the exception of the 1943 steel cent, the average wheat penny contained 95 percent copper. The Lincoln Memorial pennies retained their copper mass until 1982, when the cost of copper far outpaced the value of the coin. Modern pennies are 97.5 percent zinc with a thin copper coating. At a cost of more than one-and-a-half cents a penny, they still cost the United States between $55 million and $60 million a year to produce.
Torok has yet to find an Indian Head penny, which were minted from 1859 to 1909.
Torok eyed the crusty bit of history in his hand. “Just think, the guy who dropped this penny is dead,” he said. “When he dropped it there were horses around.”
Criss-crossing the yard, Torok’s detector alerted him to a lot of junk metal that had accumulated in nearly 130 years. He’s had plenty of experience digging up old hinges, doorknobs, pop tops, nails, razor blades and bits of siding. He’s learned to tell the difference between buried treasure and junk, for the most part, but sometimes he just has to dig to find out.
“I’ve got multiples here. It could be a pocket spill.” he said as he neared the house. “I don’t like the readings, but I like the sound of it.”
Pocket spills are exactly what they sound like: a bunch of coins from roughly the same timeframe found in a small area. Torok once found a pocket spill of four coins from the 1860s. “The weird thing was they were all from different countries,” he said.
Torok was dubious but spread his towel and began his process. A minute later he pulled a small piece of sheet metal from the dirt. “I think there might still be something there,” Torok said poking his pin pointer into the trough. The detector beeped and Torok followed the trail to a 1909 wheat penny. While wheat pennies aren’t uncommon finds, a wheatie from the first year they were minted is, at the very least, noteworthy.
Torok gathered his tools and loaded them into his SUV. He took a moment to eye the small pile of coins he pulled from his pocket. The total face value came to 28 cents. “This was a productive yard,” Torok said. “It’s not exactly a lucrative hobby.”
Torok keeps the coins he finds, but returns jewelry or lost family heirlooms to the owners of the grounds he explores. On occasion, he is called on to search for lost wedding rings, and Torok is happy to oblige. “I never take tips or payment when I find lost wedding rings or something like that,” he said. “When you hand someone something that’s truly important to them, well, there’s just no better feeling than that.”
Torok drove a short distance to the second property on his list. Mary Wrobel came out to greet him when he arrived.
“Torok, I want to thank you for everything you do around here,” Wrobel said. “It’s just nice to know you’re keeping an eye on things.”
Torok was a reserve police officer for the city of St. Paul prior to joining the Army in 2006. He served with the Military Police for five years, including 15 months in Iraq, before returning home to work as a full-time law enforcement officer.
The tiny front yard of the Wrobel property proved fruitless, but when Torok moved to the side yard his detector began to talk. Torok added a few more Stinkin’ Lincolns to his haul and another wheatie. He also found a 1989 dime and a 1987 quarter that looked like it had been soaking in coffee for decades. The U.S. Mint ceased production of silver quarters in 1964. “If that were a silver quarter it would be as shiny as the day it was made,” Torok said. “They don’t make money like they used to.”
In four years of detecting, Torok has only found three silver coins. “A Mercury dime is definitely on my bucket list,” he said.
Torok added the new finds to his growing pile of coins. “Feel free to come back if you ever want to look for more beer money,” Wrobel said.
The bucket list
The final property of the day was a prim four-square built in 1926. The back yard had been excavated, and with the exception of a few bits of scrap siding gave up nothing.
The front yard appeared undisturbed by excavation, and moments after Torok began his sweep he got a strong signal. He dug into the turf with his trowel, dipped his pinpointer into the cavity and got multiple readings. Torok found three wheat pennies, all from the 1940s. “Yep, this is a 1940s pocket spill,” he said.
The yard gave up more wheaties as Torok continued and an old watch buckle.
Torok shifted his focus to the east side of the yard. Moments later he froze, staring intently at the digital readout on his detector. “This one sounds really sexy,” he said. “It’s definitely not iron.”
Torok knelt in the grass and creeping Charlie and began to dig. As is often the case, he was slightly off center, and the leading edge of a coin peeked from the side of the small hole.
Torok stopped his excavation. “It’s silver, and it has grooves so it’s at least a quarter,” Torok said. “I’ve never found a silver quarter before. My hands are shaking.”
Torok paused a moment, much like a weekend golfer savoring a tap-in birdie. He reached into the hole and gently brushed dirt away before pinching the coin and wiggling it from its burrow.
Torok ran his thumb across the face of the coin, and the dirt fell away. “Oh my goodness, look at the shine—1942,” Torok said. “Absolutely stunning. That’s a bucket-lister for sure.”
Torok’s hands were still shaking when, a few minutes later, he made his last find of the day: a Medal of the Immaculate Conception (better known as the Miraculous Medal) buried in the north end of the yard. The silver talisman hung from a chain, its clasp still connected. The cross and capital “M” on the backside of the medal were still easily identified. On the front the Virgin Mary stood on a snake that writhed on the top of a globe. Her likeness had been rubbed to the point it was barely discernable.
Torok’s total take for the day came to 99 cents at face value, but he won’t soon forget the thrill of the hunt or the neighbors he connected with, however briefly.
“The best part of this is meeting people from the neighborhood I never would have met without this hobby,” Torok said.
Rob Passons lives near Mille Lacs Lake and worked as a reporter for the Mille Lacs Messenger for seven years. He is a frequent weekend visitor to the Como Park area.