Dirt fishing in Old Town

Frank Russell holds a .58-caliber bullet with what appears to be bite marks on its surface.

Russell Frank holds a .58-caliber bullet with what appears to be bite marks on its surface.

The dogs pulled me along the street as I approached Camp Grover.

Russell Frank was working the southwest corner, waving his metal detector over clay and brown dirt, poking a spade into the earth from time to time before glancing over at me.

“Hey, who’s walking who?” Russell said in greeting.

At that moment, it had been seven months since I first interviewed him. Prior to that interview, I had passed by Russell dozens of times as he and a couple other guys worked their metal detectors through this lot next to the old cemetery along Gay Street. He calls it dirt fishing.

Curiosity finally kicked in. One day in October, I went back to find out what was going on.

Various rusty pieces of metal are scattered across Russell's truck bed, a common sight as he works the former Union army camp.

Various rusty pieces of metal are scattered across Russell’s truck bed, a common sight as he works the former Union army camp.

I found Russell working under the shade of an old cedar tree. A camouflage bandana covered his head, shoulder straps supported his equipment and several tools were strapped to his waist. A hand-forged Mjölnir pendant hung from his neck, occasionally catching the shade from a respectable salt-and-pepper beard.

Various rusty artifacts, from square nails to large unrecognizable hunks of metal, were scattered along the tailgate of his truck, which was parked near a dump truck filled with brush. The construction crew was off that day, but their presence was evident all around us. The ground was being methodically cleared, stripped and lowered several feet to make way for new houses.

“So, what’s going on?” I asked, walking up to him on that clear afternoon.

Russell reached into a pouch and produced a .58-caliber bullet with what appeared to be bite marks gouged into its surface.

I have lived in Old Town for some 20 years now. I never knew that two blocks away, this once gorgeous elevated lot was part of a Union army camp during the Civil War. I learned from the curator of the Johnson County Historical Society, Lisa Irle, that the camp possibly extended to Cave Hollow Park from its headquarters on the Old Town square along Main Street.

The camp’s name comes from Col. Benjamin Grover – respected Johnson County sheriff, state senator, and railroad champion who helped bring the rail line through Johnson County and who died from wounds he suffered in the battle of Lexington.

Russell thinks an injured soldier may have bitten down on that bullet he found as the soldier was being treated in the field. As an army encampment, many soldiers and supply runs came and went from this area. The dirt fishers know this, and they know the ground potentially holds many things that could serve as historical reminders today.

So, as the developer prepared the lot for new homes, Russell and a few others came fishing.

“As they layer it down, hopefully we’ll find something good,” Russell said.

A 3 Merry Widows container...not quite period, but still an interesting find.

A 3 Merry Widows container…not quite period, but still an interesting find.

The day I interviewed him, Russell had found the bullet, an eagle cuff button and a thin, round metal condom container with the name “3 Merry Widows” pressed into the lid. It was certainly one of the more interesting non-period finds.

“Oh snap guess who just made it to the Merry Widows club,” he posted on his Facebook page.

Seven months later, when I wandered up to Russell at the former Union camp, three homes were under construction. Still, he returns. Probably because he’s found a lot more stuff:

  • artifacts1 artifacts2Suspender buckles
  • Horse tack
  • A chunk of brass, possibly part of the bell from the Presbyterian church that burned down on the property
  • Horse or mule shoes, ax heads and miscellaneous iron from the Cave Hollow park area
  • .58 caliber mini balls called three ringers
  • Pistol balls and buckshot (some chewed by people and animals)
  • Union eagle coat and cuff buttons and some civilian buttons.

Russell was originally from Kansas City, Mo., spent 26 years in the military, moved to Warrensburg in 1998 and retired in 2011. Now he spends quite a bit of time listening for the telltale pings through headphones, finding artifacts, lost rings and other treasures.

I’m glad I ran into him again. I had put aside this story, but now my interest was renewed. He’s interesting to talk to, especially when he’s talking about the things that interest him – using electrolysis to clean artifacts, the recent scarcity of display cases and that cool Mjölnir pendant from White Hart Forge and their Mjölnir Project for military service members.

Maybe my interest was renewed because his care for local history is made tangible through these bits of rusted history.

Too much of our local history is being erased. The house at Selmo Park, where university presidents had made their home for nearly 150 years, was demolished in March. The former segregated Howard School across from Blind Boone Park crumbled last winter. And new cookie-cutter duplexes are being built throughout Old Town on top of ground Russell would like more time to search before being disturbed. The new construction is certainly better than the saggy, moldy, dilapidated houses the duplexes replaced. But there’s no appeal in these generic homes that I assume will mostly be temporary housing for airmen and college students.

So, it’s inspiring to see people like Russell out there working to remember and preserve our local history. As a member of the Johnson County Historical Society, he said he is putting together a display for the society with bullets, suspender buckles and buttons.

He’s already pulled in a decent haul, but he’s pushing on for as long as he can.

“I will be hitting every place that is kind enough to let me in to save some history,” Russell said. “The two places I’m working now, the contractors are outstanding folks and understand what me and a few others are trying to do. So, for how long I don’t have an exact timeframe but at the pace things are moving – a year at the most…maybe.”

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