Detecting a need for enthusiasm

A few hundred feet away from the Edgewater home of "Lil" John Reichenberg - one of the area's best-known metal-detector-using treasure hunters - a small beach rests on the shore of Glebe Creek.

It is an inlet used more by neighborhood residents than outsiders, which is the reason why Reichenberg, 61, says it's been years since he has hunted there. Treasure lies buried in places where lots of people lose things, but this spot draws relatively few visitors, Reichenberg explains.


But on this day in early May, Reichenberg decides he will put on a show, even though the chances of finding a prize, such as a gold ring, are low here. He strips down to his boxers, slides into a black and blue wet suit and wades into the water, metal detector in hand and headphones over his ears. Reichenberg, who claims to be one of the earliest water hunters, starting in 1983, does so to highlight the joys of the sport, though he and many of his counterparts fear it is dying with every passing day.

Today's youth, Reichenberg claims, have little desire to metal detect, and the older generation won't be able to maintain the interest forever. Reichenberg loves to say that treasure hunting, if you stick with it and don't mind collecting every coin, pays for itself. And Maryland, with its beaches, historic churches and Civil War battlefields, is as good a place to start as any.


"A lot of young people don't have the stamina to do something for an hour and not find something," said Reichenberg, who collected a dollar's worth of coins in less than 10 minutes. "They don't have the intuitiveness to stay with it. But for me, if somebody needs to get out and exercise, then a metal detector is the best thing to grab."

Reichenberg, whom his family dubbed "Lil John" as a child, should know. His vast collection includes more than 350 gold rings, 2- and 3-cent pieces that date to the mid-1860s, Civil War breastplates and belt buckles from Union soldiers, bags of coins that probably weigh as much as a small animal and bullet casings with initials engraved on the inside. Reichenberg keeps the valuables in a safe deposit box and estimates an overall value of at least $50,000.

A Vietnam veteran, former body builder, mechanic and loan officer, Reichenberg has logged thousands of hours hunting since 1978, the year his friend Joe Vedral put the first detector in his hand. Vedral, 67, who moved to Florida 15 years ago, remains close with "Lil John," and when the two get together, as they did for a club meeting of the Chesapeake Society of Treasure Hunters last month, it is like watching old ballplayers relive their glory days.

Vedral talks of their trips to Italy, where they started hunting at 8 a.m., scarfed down lunches, took an hour break for dinner in the evening, then hit the beaches again until 2 a.m. for two weeks straight. Reichenberg tells of the time when he was arrested water hunting in an area in Maryland he felt he had a lawful right to hunt, although the authorities disagreed. He never spent any time in jail, and the case was eventually dropped.

These are the thrills, good and bad, from treasure hunting, and the reason why this group of 30 gathered at a library in Glen Burnie for an open house. Reichenberg is the featured guest speaker to a crowd whose average age is in the mid-50s. His task is to sell this sport to the newcomers, especially the younger ones, in attendance.

Membership numbers in this club are down, so leaders turned to a familiar face to lead the revival.

"In metal detecting, there's a lot of nice people, sincere, helpful people. It's camaraderie," said Reichenberg, who has traveled in Maryland and to Las Vegas and other places across the nation to lecture treasure-hunting groups over the past 20 years. "We're not crazy people. People make fun of you out there on the beach, but the ones that make fun of you, like I made fun before I got started, it's because you don't know what they're really doing out there. I had no idea those guys were picking up gold rings and coins."

Sometimes to the chagrin of those who lost them. Treasure hunters vary as to whether they try to return found items, many fearing accusations of thievery if they do so.


A number of archeologists resent treasure hunters, faulting them for collecting items that could help re-create history. "They hate us," Reichenberg said.

Many beachfront owners and preservationists don't have treasure hunters on their Christmas lists, either. They see them as nuisances, walking around swinging those detectors, then using knives to dig up the land or sand. The good treasure hunters, though, always cover their holes.

"In general, archaeologists are not fond of treasure hunters," said Elizabeth Ragan, vice president of the Archeological Society of Maryland Inc. "Because when we go out, we're looking not only for the object, but how they relate to other things. There is a lot of opinions about [treasure hunters], but in general, we like to show them how the way they do it is not quite right."

A bigger issue for treasure hunters is declining interest, according to Reichenberg and other Chesapeake Society members.

Club members say enthusiasm for metal detecting peaked in the mid- to late 1980s, but there has been a steady decline ever since. There are 17 members now, about three times fewer than when treasure hunting was in its heyday.

"We've lost a lot of people who were in the sport," said Sandy Anderson, a club member from Annapolis who has hunted since 1983. "We've gotten older and can't do it as much anymore."


So what is the best way to draw people in? Speak to their wallet and peace of mind.

Vedral said a person could make back the money invested in a metal detector within a couple of years, calling it a hobby that pays, unlike golf. Machines sell for as low as $150 but can run into the thousands of dollars.

Reichenberg acknowledges that making treasure hunting relevant to 20- and 30-somethings will not be easy. He has a son, two daughters and a son-in-law, and none of them cares to hunt. His ex-wife, whom he was married to for 21 years, didn't hunt either, but she did reap the rewards.

"Our deal was, she got the diamond rings," said Reichenberg, who makes a living primarily as a loan officer and part-time mechanic.

Reichenberg is engaged again to a woman equally supportive of his hobby. Though he is nearing an age when many start slowing down, he maintains the body and energy of someone 15 years younger. "Not many 60-year-olds look like me," he said.

He says he will continue to hunt treasure eight hours or more on a given day for as long as he can. Reichenberg, an authorized dealer and seller of metal-detecting equipment, says he has trained hundreds in the art of treasure hunting over the years and will continue to do so.


It is his way of making sure the sport continues.

"It's a hobby that I fell in love with, and it always draws you back," he said.

"All you need to listen to is in those earphones, that metal detector and wondering what the next target will be? A gold ring? A coin? Pool tap? Screw tap? It just makes you feel better, feel alive again. You're out there treasure hunting."