DIGGING IN THE DIRT: TWO LOCAL METAL DETECTORISTS UNCOVER FRANKLIN’S HIDDEN TREASURES

It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in February when I ventured out to Franklin’s City Cemetery to take some photographs for another article I was working on. As I wandered among the graves, a chorus of beeps would occasionally break through the quiet. I followed the sound to a corner of the cemetery where I saw two people–a man and woman–waving metal detectors around an empty lot across the street. Three 1920s-era homes had recently been bulldozed from the site, and a new foundation was being laid, which meant freshly turned dirt and untold treasures. 

Franklin metal detectorists, Harrison and Courtney, pose in front of the historic 1830s Kenneday House on 5th Avenue South.

I made my way over and introduced myself to the couple, hoping they’d let me see their finds. I’m not a metal detectorist, but I never pass up an opportunity to peek at a piece of the past. The pair was quick to explain they had permission from the builder to search the lot (as I later learned, they never illegally metal detect a property), then they happily obliged my request to see their discoveries.

My curiosity paid off–they showed me porcelain buttons, an ornamental stickpin from the 19th century, a vintage motorcycle toy, pottery shards, and pieces of antique bottles. Pictured above is part of a French-Empire-revival stickpin. Victorian men often used these to secure their neckties.

Here’s what the stickpin once looked like. It featured Napoleon’s bust on the chest of an eagle.

The scar in this bottle fragment is called a pontil mark, which was left by a pontil rod. This means the piece was blown freehand rather than using a mold.

This may look like trash to some people, but each item is a tangible piece of history.

On that Indian summer afternoon, not only did I receive an impromptu history lesson, I got to meet two of the most fascinating young people in Franklin. 

Meet Harrison and Courtney

Courtney Frasier and Harrison Donini

Courtney Frasier and Harrison Donini are an engaged couple who share a love of history and metal detecting. They spend much of their free time trekking through the fields, forests, and streets of Franklin in search of the past, and they have an uncanny ability to find it. Though the pair have only been metal detecting for two years, they’ve amassed an impressive collection of artifacts, some of which they showed me during an interview we scheduled after our initial meeting at the empty lot.

They often find spoons and buckles at former Civil War campsites.

“Everybody says I have luck,” Harrison says, “but I put the hours in. Sometimes, I’ll be out there from sunrise to sunset. I just enjoy it. It’s time to think about life and be outside, and while I do it, I end up finding some cool stuff.”

A Union belt buckle sits at the center of this case above. The two studs and single hook on its backside are what’s called the “puppy paw” pattern, making it a very rare find.

The first artifact the couple discovered together was buried beneath a field in Franklin. After searching for three days, their metal detector issued a strong signal over a particular spot. However, as they dug into the earth, their excitement was quickly replaced by disappointment. “A Kroger bag was in the hole,” Harrison says, “so I thought whatever was in there wasn’t going to be old.” As it turns out, he was wrong–a Civil War bullet was hidden under the plastic sack. “I then realized in order to find treasure, we were going to have to dig a lot of modern trash!”

The horizontal lines on bullets are rifling grooves that put a spin on the shot. If vertical lines are present, it indicates the bullet has been fired.

Since then, they’ve dug up loads of incredible relics such as Civil War belt buckles, Victorian jewelry, old coins (including a Spanish real that dates back to 1802), parts of parasols, a Franklin Police buckle from 1870, antique doll parts, and a pair of bone dice.

The two tiny dice (at the bottom of the photo above) were likely carried by a soldier to use during downtime at encampment. Note the Franklin police badge in the center.

BURIED IN RESEARCH 

Judging by Harrison and Courtney’s copious number of artifacts, one might be inclined to think metal detecting is as simple as walking into a field and digging, but there’s an art to the hunt. 

Courtney holds up one of the bone dice she dug out of an old trash pit in Franklin.

The work begins before even stepping foot outside. “We do a lot of research,” Harrison says. “A lot of planning and research goes into finding a good site. We don’t just waltz out somewhere and hope we find something.” 

The couple can often be found at the Williamson County Archives, studying old maps and newspaper articles to scout out potential hunting grounds. They also pore over history books to learn as much as they can about their finds. Sometimes, research is required to simply identify an object as they often discover pieces broken off of larger items (like a heel plate from a Victorian shoe or a part of a Civil War rifle).

Harrison’s find of a lifetime: a Confederate belt buckle

All that groundwork paid off in spades for Harrison one June day in 2021. He’d spent the previous night flipping through Arms and Equipment of the Confederate States, a book that includes all the belt buckles worn by the soldiers. “I noticed that the back of the Army of Tennessee buckles had three prongs on it,” he says. With this detail fresh in his mind, he went digging the next day and got a clear signal during his hunt. “It sounded like a beer can right on the surface, but I dug my hole and flipped [the plug of grass] over. I saw green in the hole, which is a good sign because it’s caused by brass leaching out over the years. I wiped the dirt away, saw the hooks, and knew immediately what it was.”

As Harrison explains, a Confederate belt buckle is a treasure hunter’s dream. “The Confederacy didn’t have the manufacturing like the Union did, so there are far less [Confederate relics] to find. I know people who have dug for sixty years and never found one.” 

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

While Courtney appreciates the historic value of the Civil War artifacts, her favorite finds are the more feminine items, such as a brass lid from a perfume bottle or pieces of jewelry.

Courtney in the middle of a dig

She shows me a Victorian mourning ring that Harrison recently discovered in Franklin. A large, black stone–either obsidian, glass, or onyx, she says–twinkles from a metal setting that has held up quite well considering it’s been underground for the past hundred-plus years. “When a family member would pass away,” Courtney explains, “women would go into a period of mourning. Sometimes, it could last as long as ten years where all they would wear was black. Even their jewelry was black.”

The Victorian mourning ring found by Harrison in Franklin

Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing Victorian mourning jewelry. When her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, she spiraled into a deep depression. For the next four decades, Queen Victoria clothed herself only in black crepe dresses and mourning jewelry. 

Queen Victorian, image courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust

As she held enormous influence over the public, mourning jewelry became quite fashionable. Cherubs, clouds, urns, and weeping willows were common symbols on rings and necklaces, and human hair was often incorporated into the designs. The Victorians believed hair contained an essence of the person who had died, and it was a means to keep their lost loved ones close.

Here in Franklin, Walton’s Jewelry has a couple of Victorian mourning brooches in their inventory. Take a look at them below.

Photo courtesy of Walton’s Jewelry.

This piece features exquisite hair designs on both sides.

Photo courtesy of Walton’s Jewelry.

The pearls represent tears, and at the center, strands of dark hair are so finely woven it looks like cloth.

A DEEP-ROOTED LOVE OF HISTORY

Harrison and Courtney’s interest in history began long before they took up metal detecting. “We’ve always liked old stuff,” Harrison says. “We’ve always loved being in Franklin and walking around, looking at the old houses.”

Courtney’s passion for the area’s history is bolstered by her family’s deep roots in Tennessee. In fact, her mother’s maiden name can be found in countless textbooks: Boone. Yes, that Boone. Daniel Boone is her mom’s seventh great-uncle. Generations of her family have lived in Tennessee, and her maternal grandfather once owned almost all of Leiper’s Fork. Courtney has resided in Franklin her entire life and says it’s the perfect place for a history buff like herself. “Most everything here is old–the homes, the downtown buildings. Being in Franklin, you’re surrounded by the past.”

Courtney pauses for a picture in front of the Wells-Cron House in Franklin.

Harrison and Courtney’s foray into treasure hunting began with a metal detector rented from the Williamson County Public Library. Courtney’s house is situated near the site of the heaviest fighting of the Battle of Franklin, so they first tried their luck in her yard. After finding a penny, the couple was hooked, and, well, the rest is history.

Lucky for them, Franklin is prime hunting grounds. Not only are its streets lined with historic homes whose yards are sprinkled with relics of antebellum and Victorian life, the place is brimming with Civil War artifacts. The town was ground zero for the Battle of Franklin, which is said to be the bloodiest hours of the war.

THE BATTLE OF FRANKLIN: A NIGHT OF TERROR

In late November 1864, Confederate General John Bell Hood moved his troops toward Nashville to reclaim the capital, which had fallen under Union control in early 1862. 

Confederate General John Bell Hood, photo courtesy of Rick Warwick

Meanwhile, a Federal army led by Major General John M. Schofield was dispatched to Middle Tennessee to slow Hood’s advance.

Federal Major General John M. Schofield

On November 29, 1864, Hood approached Franklin and almost flanked Schofield’s troops near Spring Hill, but the Union army marched right past the Confederates during the night. While Hood’s men slept, the Federals hurried to set up earthworks in south Franklin.

Map courtesy of Rick Warwick

The next morning, Hood was furious when he discovered the enemy had slipped by. He prepared for a frontal assault on the Union trenches, believing this was his last chance to defeat Schofield before the Federals made it to Nashville. At 4 p.m., about 20,000 Confederate soldiers began their advance toward the heavily fortified Franklin. It wasn’t long before both armies were embroiled in savage combat.

The sun set on a grisly scene of flashing guns and bloodshed, but daybreak revealed an even more horrific sight: piles of dead bodies heaped three or four deep, and hundreds of wounded lying in agony throughout the battlefield. About 10,000 American soldiers were killed in the Battle of Franklin, and around three-fourths were Confederates, including six generals.

The battle left its mark on Franklin in a number of ways: shattered families, bullet-riddled buildings, blood-stained floors, and artifacts buried in the town’s soil. “You’re in the perfect spot for metal detecting,” Harrison says. “If you find two feet of sidewalk in Franklin pulled up, go detect it. You’ll probably find something.”

RULES OF THE GAME

However, if you do decide to embark on your own metal-detecting adventure, there are a few unwritten rules you should know.

“First of all, make sure you get permission,” Harrison says. “Someone will come and question you, so it’s best to ask ahead of time. Do it the right way.” The couple also makes a point to work with the property owner and share what was discovered on that individual’s land.

When you dig, create a circular plug to preserve the grass, as seen above.

Metal-detecting etiquette also demands that you don’t leave behind any trash you may have dug. Also, be respectful, and always cover your holes.

But Harrison says the biggest misstep a metal detectorist can make is not properly documenting the artifacts. He and Courtney keep detailed records of where they uncover each item. “I have printed maps of all the places we hunt, and I mark where we found each item. It shows a broad picture, and when you overlay it on a Civil War map, it lines up and makes sense why that item was there.”

They also group the items by location, rather than type, in their display cases. “If you store everything together, you lose where it came from and what that piece was,” Harrison says. “You basically strip away the history. It’s just an item and doesn’t have a backstory.”

And sometimes that backstory is unexpected, disproving commonly-held notions about the past. “Metal detecting shows that things aren’t always as they seem,” he continues. “The things that you dug sometimes tell a different story than what people are telling.” 

EDUCATING OTHERS

It’s these unadulterated glimpses into the past that drive Harrison and Courtney’s passion for metal detecting. Sure, it’s exciting to uncover buried treasure, but the couple values its history more than the object itself. Rather than selling their finds, they aim to preserve each relic, interpret the story it tells, and educate others about what they’ve learned. “It keeps the history alive instead of just pocketing it and taking it home,” Harrison says.

Courtney agrees wholeheartedly: “Part of the fun of finding this stuff is getting to inform other people about it.”

The truth of that statement is apparent in their enthusiasm during our interview. Every one of their artifacts was coupled with an interesting anecdote or tidbit of information, and the way they shared their historic knowledge made the past come alive in a way I’d never experienced.

“You hear about the Civil War all the time,” Courtney says, “but until you touch a bullet that was fired or a button that was last buttoned by a soldier, you don’t truly experience the story.”

“I can just imagine that soldier going into battle that day,” Harrison says, “buttoning his jacket and knowing he might not make it back. He touched that, and we are the first people in a hundred years to touch it again.”

Courtney with her eagle breastplate

That same sentiment could be applied to other pieces of military equipment as well. In the photo above, Courtney holds up a government-issued, Union Eagle breastplate she unburied. This accessory was worn on the shoulder strap of a cartridge box, which was a leather satchel that held ammunition.

Eagle breastplates were affixed to the straps of cartridge boxes.

Eagle breastplates were purely ornamental and often discarded during wartime due to several reasons. For one, the circular object sat right above the soldier’s heart, creating a perfect target for the enemy. Plus, the shiny brass made the Union soldiers much too conspicuous, and the excess metal only weighed them down.

A close-up of the breastplate discovered by Courtney

DIGGING UP TROUBLE

Metal detecting can answer questions about history, but it can also shed light on crimes. Last year, Harrison’s knack for finding things landed him square in the middle of a police investigation. 

In September, a fleeing burglar shot a local homeowner’s Labrador after the dog ran through its electric fence to chase the criminal. In the week following the incident, law enforcement scoured the area for the bullet and shell casing. They even brought in the canine unit but turned up nothing. It was difficult for authorities to pinpoint the precise location of the shooting because the dog had run around several yards and left blood spatter everywhere.

The miraculous survivor of the shooting, Gus, was hailed as a hero.

Rain was forecasted for the next day, and everyone was worried it might wash away the evidence. As a last-ditch effort, the homeowner called Harrison’s metal-detecting club and recruited him and a friend to search the property. 

Harrison and a fellow metal detectorist pose with Gus.

“We were about to call it a day,” Harrison says, “and we got the signal on our machine. We looked in the grass, and there was the shell casing.” While waiting for the police to arrive, they decided to continue searching for the bullet. “We knew its trajectory based on where the casing had landed and the wound angle on the dog’s head, so we thought we could find it. Believe it or not, the bullet was about two feet away, right where we predicted.”

Harrison and his partner use a metal-detector wand to uncover the shell casing.

Needless to say, the homeowner was overjoyed, and the burglar landed himself in jail with a hefty sentence. As for Gus, he was recognized for his heroics by the Brentwood police who made him their honorary canine and presented him with a badge and medal.

THEY DIG EACH OTHER

Harrison and Courtney Carnton Engagement Franklin TN

Perhaps the old adage “couples who play together stay together” should be changed to “couples who metal detect together stay together.” In March 2021, Harrison proposed to Courtney on the front porch of Carnton, a home that was used as a Confederate field hospital for wounded soldiers after the Battle of Franklin.

Courtney’s engagement ring

The couple even incorporated their shared love of history into Courtney’s engagement ring. The gold setting dates back to at least the 1880s, but the diamond is much older. They didn’t realize the age of the gemstone until they took it to Walton’s Jewelers. “The jewelers were flabbergasted,” Harrison says. “It’s an old mine cut diamond, which they no longer do and haven’t for a long time.” These rare diamonds are hand-cut and feature a squarish shape with soft, curved edges. 

Harrison and Courtney at Carnton in Franklin

Their wedding will be held this October on a 1700s-era farm in Leiper’s Fork–in case you’re wondering, yes, they’ve metal detected the property–and the event will be antique-themed, complete with oil lamps on the tables.

Harrison and Courtney look forward to a lifetime of metal detecting together, but as many treasures as the couple has discovered, none is worth more than the value they’ve found in each other.

If you own a historic property and are interested in having Harrison and Courtney metal detect it, you can contact them via text at 615-878-2921 or email at Donini.h@gmail.com. Watch their fascinating story here:

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