The Treasure Hunters

I ran into Carl Swanson and Barb Van Norman by one of my favorite benches in the city the other day, right off 42nd and Humboldt near Lake Harriet. The sound of Carl’s metal detector caught my attention and reminded me of the last metal detectoid I came across in the Rose Gardens: a college kid who told me that, in the springtime, what he finds most in the unthawing dirt and beaches of the Twin Cities are wedding rings and Alcoholics Anonymous sobriety coins, chucked into the frozen winter blackness towards a new start or another dead end.

Preaching to the metal detectoid converted, Carl and Barb chuckled at the story, and when they did their joyful voices harmonized together in two-part harmony.

Carl is a retired foreman, graphics artist, and former paratrooper who has lived in his home on 46th and Lyndale for 42 years and who has spent the last four decades digging around the parks, lakes and yards of South Minneapolis. She’s an anthropologist and landlady with properties in the Black Hills. They both own their own homes but have lived together as a couple for six years. They’re retired “fix-it people, handy people,” and their easygoing zest for life and each other is apparent, even after just one meeting: He delights her and she him.

“We’re writing a book about all of his stories,” said Barb. “He’s had an interesting life because he doesn’t have boundaries.”

“She treats me like I’m some kind of Scandinavian case study,” said Carl.

“I like to sit and read the paper while he looks, but I’m all in it with him,” said Barb. “I was educated in anthropology and so when I met Carl I thought, ‘My gosh, he’s taking all the artifacts with him.’ So this was kind of startling to me, but then I found out it’s very intriguing. There’s a lot of bottle caps here; this general area is probably populated by people who drink a lot of beer. You find a lot out about what’s going on, wherever he is, and it’s always interesting.”

Carl was armed with his original metal detector, bought for $150 in the mid-’80s. He hovered the detector over the rolling leafy park lawn until it hit on something, then he got down on all fours, ferreting around in his plastic kneepads, two pairs of blue jeans, and a tool belt with digging utensils and a pouch for his booty. His curiosity was as locked-in as any other of the Rose Garden’s acorn-gathering critters.

“I was born in Minnetonka Mills, we moved around farms and stuff, but I didn’t like the farming so much so I moved to the cities to get a job and I’ve enjoyed the parks and I use my metal detector,” he said. “I would always ask my dad, ‘When do you get to have fun with all this work?’ He always said, ‘You get your fun from your work.’ That didn’t sound real good to me, so I’ve always liked a lot of hobbies. I don’t have children so I have a lot of hobbies.

“I used to look for things when I was a kid. I went to my old school grounds in Castle Rock, Minnesota, and I found a bracelet that belonged to my first-grade teacher. Her name was Rose Marie, can’t remember her last name, but that was kind of exciting for me to go to my old schoolyard and it reminded me of my childhood.”

What is he looking for?

“I hid a can of pennies when I was a kid on the farm, and I went back to try and find it but all the buildings were gone and it was an open field where the old farm place was,” he said. “I couldn’t find it, but I think that kind of keyed me to thinking that there was buried gold treasure around. You know, kids read all this stuff about buried pirate treasure and I think that’s probably what I was thinking, because they didn’t trust the banks in the ‘30s and they’d hide a jar of silver coins.”

These days Carl goes out looking almost every day. The most he finds is coins, costume jewelry, rings, good luck charms, arrowheads, and “some scrimshaw stuff.” He keeps the best of it in a jar on his mantle at home, and gives most of it away. The most interesting thing he found this fall was a trolley token from the turn of the century, which, he noted, is still accepted by the Lake Harriet trolley conductors today.

“I go to the Black Hills and I’ve found some black sand and I’ve started gold-panning since I met Barb,” said Carl. “She says this is not an option because I’m supposed to be a handyman and doing all this painting and putty, but I kind of get the gold fever.”

“You can’t think small, either,” said Barb. “One day he was going out and he said, ‘I’m going out to find a penny and a nickel.’ And you know what he came back with? A penny and a nickel! I said, ‘Think of bigger things!’ Next time he said, ‘I think I’ll go out and find some rings’ and it was amazing. He found one ring, and another ring a yard away.”

As Barb talked, Carl’s metal detector hit on something. He stooped down, brushed aside some dirt, and there it was: a vintage 2014 bottle cap. Carl held it up to the sunlight and inspected it like it was museum-worthy. One’s man trash is another man’s…

“It is treasure,” he said. “I’ve found enough to where I’m satisfied, but I’m never totally satisfied and won’t be until I find the big treasure.”


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]