Can an unearthed clump of rusty metal show junior high school students that General Sherman and his Union Army troops did not burn down Atlanta during the Civil War? Well, Butch Holcombe, publisher of “American Digger” magazine and co-host of the “Relic Roundup” radio show, believes it does.
Holcombe believes that when teaching history, a little show-and-tell of artifacts from the past trumps books. When Holcombe was in 10th grade he was flunking history. But when his teacher challenged him to find cool stuff and write a report about what he found, he combined his passion for metal detecting with facts of the past. “I was already metal detecting, but I just liked finding cool stuff. Regular history books bored me, but when I could touch it and see it, well, I passed the class,” he said.
Now, after making a career out of his love for history, he is passing along that passion. His daughter, Aimee Holcombe, used to roll her eyes at dad’s hobby, she is now an 8th grade history teacher at Austin Middle School in Douglasville, Georgia. She invited him to talk to her classes about Georgia’s history and show some of the pieces of history that have come out of the ground. “It was a great time,” Holcombe said. “She wanted her students to know that history really happened right here where they live. The kids got real excited. I could tell I got some of them. We talked about facts they wouldn’t find in their history books, with real relics and artifacts, and we talked about how it related to each area. They were asking all kinds of questions.”
Holcombe brought a display case full of artifacts dug in nearby counties. Holcombe had photos and a slideshow, but the thrill was the 12-pound solid-shot cannonball. “It’s amazing the things we find that get recovered,” Holcombe said.
So the Union Army didn’t Burn Atlanta? “No,” Holcombe says. “The Southern folks burned Atlanta. They were burning ammunition so the Yankees wouldn’t get it. The whole story has been dramatized because of “Gone with the Wind.’”
What is not dramatized is Holcombe’s desire to teach and preserve history. “I love getting kids involved. If the kids don’t pick up on it, they are going to forget that there was a battle where Wal-Mart sits,” he said. Holcombe’s involvement goes beyond schools. “We donated Civil War artifacts to the Boy Scouts camp in Ohio. It was a big one-day event called Trailblazer Adventure Day, where they took items and buried them in the sand and let the boys find them. They dug things up like a button from a Civil War soldier, and a bullet shot from the Civil War. You can teach this stuff in books, but you can’t get them hooked that way,” he said.
For Holcombe, the education provided is worth the time investment. “Simply put: I call it shaking hands with the past. When I dig a mini-ball bullet, I think back and realize I am the first person to touch that since that soldier touched it. There is no middle man in that. It is almost a mystical feeling when you can do something like that,” he said.
Holcombe’s only goal is to unearth history before it’s “bulldozed over,” not to make money off his passion. “If you are interested in the monetary value of things, stick to the beach. The artifacts are not as valuable as people make them out to be. It’s the love of the history and trying to preserve it. We are losing our battlefields and they are being bulldozed over for construction sites. It happens so quick that the archeologists can’t even get involved.”
Holcombe also said corrosion is a problem. “We are talking about metal artifacts. There is a tremendous difference in the quality of things I found in the 1960s compared with things I dig now. In another 20 years, artifacts will just be rust spots in the ground.”
Before they become rust spots, they are a valuable connection to the past, and Holcombe says there is just one word to describe them. “Cool. It’s just cool stuff,” he said.
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