A hunter of history: Levi Durst's metal detector helps him align past treasures with the present

Milford native gives his finds to property owners
He discovers history, then gives it back
He discovers history, then gives it back
He discovers history, then gives it back
He discovers history, then gives it back
He discovers history, then gives it back
He discovers history, then gives it back
Posted at 7:05 AM, Aug 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-10 07:10:01-04

MILFORD, Ohio -- Levi Durst is an unusual treasure hunter.

His $700 metal detector helps him see through up to 16 inches of topsoil and unearth Civil War buttons and bullets, early 20th century arcade tokens, 1960s children's toys, antique silver spoons and pieces of porcelain. Not everything he finds is valuable, but many of the artifacts are keepers worth money.

Yet Durst never actually sells the treasures he finds. He gives them to the people who live on the properties that are his hunting grounds.

It's not that he doesn't make money treasure hunting. People actually hire him to do it. His part-time gig is called Historical Hands Research & Discovery.

"My keeping the artifacts sort of jumbles up history," Durst said. "I thought if the owners could see the stuff in its totality, they would see the value of my service.

"It started to bug me ... and I felt compelled to give them back to the property owners. And when I started to give back, everyone was so appreciative they started to give me money for it," he said.

Levi Durst and Vanessa Hannah, executive director of the Valley View Foundation, examine the finds he made at Arrowhead Farm.

Durst, 33, is a Milford High School graduate and a single father of a 13-year-old girl. He serves breakfast at First Watch in Kenwood five days a week. In what little spare time he has, he hunts for buried artifacts and spends hundreds of hours researching their significance.

What has become his passion and side business grew out of his and a friend's concern that the United States' monetary system might fail. The two looked into buying up gold and silver. Online searches, Durst said, linked them to several YouTube videos made by what he calls "charismatic" coin hunters armed with metal detectors.

The videos hooked Durst and his friend. Both purchased AT Pro detectors and started hunting. An early property for Durst was right near where he was living: Promont, the 1865-built home of the Greater Milford Area Historical Society.

"I'd sneak through the woods and up a hill, and I'd find stuff," Durst said. An early find was a vintage matchbox with silver inlay and the maker's mark of Silvercrest. "I didn't know what it was, so I had to research it."

His sudden interest in treasure hunting began to sneak into his subconscious.

"I had dreams about digging into this deteriorating hillside," Durst said. Those dreams would come true.

Levi Durst created this display of buttons he found with his metal detector.

Fertile hunting ground

A favorite property has been Arrowhead Farm on Garfield Avenue near where Durst used to live in Milford. Anchored by an 1820 stone farmhouse, the 39-acre property was owned for 164 years by the Gatch family, who were early pioneers and farmers in Milford. The land was known to be rich in Native American artifacts, and Durst wondered if it might harbor Gatch family treasure as well.

He got permission from Cathy Gatch about four years ago to search around Arrowhead Farm and went to work. The discovery of a World War II dog tag worn by Cathy's father, Princeton graduate and foreign diplomat John N. Gatch Jr., propelled Durst to study a subject that had been his least favorite in high school: history.

"I had the most 'a-ha' moment," Durst recalled. "It sent me off to learn about the stuff I was finding. And I realized that what I was doing was what I was meant to be doing. It's been crazy, but this is very fulfilling. It gives me such gratitude."

Durst began to post his finds on Instagram and websites frequented by others in the metal-detecting world to identify the objects. He turned to Cathy Gatch and the local historical society to learn about the Gatch family. His discoveries included the fact that a silver spoon engraved with "Orpha 1893" that he unearthed was a first birthday gift for her grandmother, Grace Orpha Gatch.

Levi Durst's discoveries range from coins to tokens to items people who lived on the land had tossed away.

The collection of Arrowhead Farm finds and history write-ups Durst has put together are invaluable to the Valley View Foundation, a nonprofit, grassroots organization that bought 190 acres of Gatch family land, saving it from certain development. Today, Valley View is a public preserve with miles of walking trails -- and a lot of history to share.

"To me, this is stuff that comes out of the ground, but Levi is adding the rest of its story," said Valley View executive director Vanessa Hannah. Durst's discoveries "paint a picture of daily activity, what everybody did when they lived here," she said.

The big break

Durst has searched close to 10 historical properties, making finds similar to those at Arrowhead Farm, researching and organizing them in display cases and presenting them to landowners for an up-front fee.

He said he hopes that business model will propel Historical Hands to greater heights.

No matter what happens, he will always be thankful to the first person to throw him a some coin for sweeping land with his metal detector.

Durst's big breakthrough came in March 2015 when a casual conversation about his hobby with a First Watch customer, Doug Oppenheimer of Madeira, turned into his first paying job. Digging at the Madeira Historical Society's museum -- a Sears kit home on Miami Avenue known as the Miller House -- brought immediate results in the discovery of a Civil War uniform button.

"I found toy cars the Miller boys played with in the 1960s," he said. "One of my favorite things to find are children's toys, army men and cars. You get the idea of where the kids played on the property. I think it's amazing."

Each place Durst has surveyed, he said, has been unforgettable.

"If you're on an old property and you walk into the home, sometimes it'll give you the heebie-jeebies," he said.

"There's a definite feeling. It's thick. There are properties like that that just open up. The whole world just opens up."

Meet Levi Durst

Durst and the Arrowhead Farms artifacts he found will be on the program of a Nov. 16 fundraiser called Toast to the View at Arrowhead Farm, 790 Garfield Ave., Milford. For information, visit Valley View online.