Apr 16

Hobo Life

Hobo Life

In 1918, just five years into the new ‘Buffalo’ design, the first recorded instance of an altered nickel appeared in print. The Numismatist contained an entry that told of a nickel with the obverse intentionally fashioned to show our loyal Indian as the German Emperor Wilhelm II, complete with moustache and a pointed pickelhaube headgear. This was the modest beginning to a tradition that would span decades and soon be adopted as the accepted art of the American underclass – the hobo.

What does it mean to be a hobo? This term should not be confused with seemingly similar slurs such as ‘tramp’ or ‘bum.’ A hobo was an honest, albeit penniless, traveler who would take on short-term unskilled jobs in order to sustain his independent lifestyle ‘riding the rails.’ A tramp, it has been said, would only work if forced. And lastly, bums made up the lowest rung in this transient hierarchy, generally assumed to be destitute beggars and alcoholics.

Hobos had many everyday dangers. Jumping into empty or partially empty boxcars is not without risk. If detected by one of the “bulls,” a slang term for the abusive railroad police, a hobo could be beaten or maimed. There are even accounts of water hoses or hot coal ash being used to wake up a sleeping freeloader. More than a few travelers met their demise locked inside of a refrigerated boxcar at the hand of a particularly sadistic bull. In some cases the shifting freight was the offender, crashing down onto an unsuspecting hobo while he rested. This hazardous lifestyle made for a strong fraternity among respectable hobos and gave rise to an impressive network of ’jungles’ just to stay alive.

A hobo ‘jungle’ was where fellow drifters would congregate. It was almost always located within a short distance of the railroad and had certain basic amenities. Most were equipped with pots and pans for cooking, as well as a water source and clothesline for laundering garments. Typically it would be located on the outskirts of a city or town in order to avoid attention. Beyond meeting certain physical needs, the jungle provided important social interaction for the sullied flock. Slang was learned, stories and experiences were shared, and old-timers taught younger hobos how to survive.

It was in these very camps that a “jocker” (mentor) would take on an apprentice and show him how to carve a common ordinary nickel. This was no idle activity, however. The end product, a carved or punched nickel, could be swapped for a sandwich or a hot meal. It could also be used as ‘salve,’ in other words, barter material – possibly even to a railway official in exchange for safe passage. Many of these early 20th century Hobo Nickels were formed with crude pin-pricks, while others were skilled carvings. A favorite theme was to give the obverse subject a derby, a beard and other various accoutrements of the day. It was truly folk art and satire blended to a tasteful consistency and the skill arose from absolute necessity as the artist was concerned.

Let’s take a look for a moment at the host coin used for this activity. The venerable and quintessentially American workhorse coin, the Buffalo Nickel. No other coin captures the sense of America in the way that this coin does. The Native American portrayed on the obverse is reverent and stoic. The buffalo, or more accurately bison, reverse shows this Great Plains creature in her full majesty. Up until this point in United States coinage, the predominant animal of choice was the eagle. It should be pointed out, however, that there is nothing uniquely American about an eagle; this same bird having been depicted on coins of Germany, Russia, and Poland, as well as ancient Greece and Rome. One important numismatic fact worthy of note is that when Hobo Nickels are carved from circulating coinage the new creation takes on the status of a ‘token’ and loses efficacy as legal tender.

The characters who carved these early Hobo Nickels are an interesting lot themselves. One such hobo was Bertram “Bert” Wiegand who was known to sign his work by removing and smoothing ‘LI’ and ‘Y’ from the word ‘LIBERTY’ on the coin’s obverse. Bert was a bearded white man who stood roughly 6’ tall and weighed around 200 pounds. He was said to be an educated man but had a cold and distant demeanor with the outside world. The rumor was that he stayed on the run because he was wanted for a murder he had committed as a young man.

Despite his withdrawn personality, Bert came to befriend a fellow hobo named George Washington “Bo” Hughes. Bo was the youngest of eleven children and the son of a freed slave. He was diminutive in stature, standing only 5’ tall and weighing approximately 110 pounds. With Bert teaching him the ropes he learned how to live on the road as well as how to carve. In time Bo became the most prolific Hobo Nickel artist of all, creating new Nickels well into the latter half of the 20th century.

Many of those altered nickels that might have won a favor or a hot meal are still out there waiting to be found. As many as 100,000 are estimated to have been carved and they have turned up in pockets of Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and the Carolinas. Keep your eyes open and you just might uncover a small piece of Hobo Art!

Apr 05

Highland Games


A Taste of Scotland in the Western N.C. Mountains


Here is an interesting medal that commemorates the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games & Gathering of Scottish Clans, a summer event now in its 61st year. The reverse of the 38mm medal, struck in .999 silver, honors Agnes MacRae Morton who co-founded the Highland Games and also donated the land on which the Games are held. Supposedly only 1,000 of the medals were produced but I have yet to find documentation to support this.

North Carolina has a long tradition of Scottish immigration. Many Scots came after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 enticed by generous land grants. I have written previously on the Presbyterian influence they brought, which can be studied through surviving Communion Tokens. Gaelic culture and ways are still on display each year as up to 120 clans make their pilgrimage to Linville, North Carolina.

Celebrated Tartan customs include: dancing, bagpipe music, drumming, traditional dress, and the always popular athletic feats. The Cabor Toss is most impressive to watch and requires unbelievable strength. Imagine, if you can, attempting to hoist and then throw end-over-end something nearing the size of a telephone pole!

Attendance of these Games needs to be included on the ‘bucket list’ of anyone reading this. All are welcome and the kilt is optional.

Apr 05

Whist, Whirligigs and Wad Cutters

Whist, Whirligigs and Wad Cutters….

As many of you know, I love Large Cents. I love everything about them. The simple design, the heft of the coin, the chocolate brown surface all equal perfection in my opinion. That these particular coins have been enjoyed for as long as they have is a testament to their importance within this hobby of ours as well as to their usefulness in everyday life.

After Froussard, Andrews and others catalogued the subtle die varieties of these venerable coins in the late nineteenth century, a popular game to play with competing collectors was ‘Whist.’ It was played by putting your Large Cents in a head-to-head battle against those of a fellow collector. This, no doubt, fueled the desire for collectors to find each variety of a given date.

Whist was a very simple game. Participants would start with the Cents of 1793 which would mean the first coin would be the Chain Cent ‘AMERI’ variety (which would later bear the designation of Sheldon-1). You scored one point for having the variety and potentially a second point if yours was in nicer condition than the same variety of your opponent. A maximum of two points could be scored with any single coin. Contestants would many times wager on each outcome.

In a way this early method of ranking coins, with quality serving as the primary variable, was the genesis of today’s standardized third-party grading. Prior to this, just owning a low grade example sufficed to fill that empty spot in a coin cabinet. Only now was there some notoriety in having the nicest example.

Switching gears for a moment, I will occasionally run across a Large Cent with two decent size holes in it, resembling a button. A few of these perhaps even served as replacement buttons, however, if the holes are accompanied by a serrated edge then you probably have something known as a whirligig. A whirligig was a child’s buzzer toy in a time where store-bought toys were the exception and not the rule. Hours could be spent playing with such a homemade item.

The way it worked was to poke two holes in a Cent. Now you must run a piece of string or twine through those holes and twist the string until it is fully taut. Once you do that, you can then pull each end of the string in opposing directions to get the coin spinning at full speed. All the better if the coin has a serrated edge, resulting in a buzzing sound.

Now this next one was a new one for me. I was showing off a Large Cent recently that displayed numerous cuts to the reverse. Randy Snyder, a long time collector of copper, commented that it might be a ‘wad cutter.’ I, of course, had no idea what he meant by this.

It turns out that chewing tobacco was once available in the form of a thick block. To aid in cutting off a ‘plug’ or a ‘wad’ one would carry both a pocketknife as well as a Large Cent. The coin provided a flat surface against which the user could press the knife blade into the hard tobacco block. This resulted in a Large Cent that would eventually exhibit numerous lines across the coin. I now have a newly developed appreciation for coppers that display these very utilitarian scars.

Apr 01

A Night With Old Duck Shelton


A modern-day fictional story, that happens to be based on historical accounts. If anyone has additional information on the Shelton coins, please contact the author.

Certain grammatical and spelling errors intentionally occur within the body of this piece and reflect Appalachian pronunciation and jargon.


Duck’s Bucks


The phone rang. I was engrossed in the task of assigning variety numbers to a group of Large Cents while Michael finished filling the Morgan Dollar trays. We heard Shelley trying to calm whoever was on the other end of this phone call.

“Slow down, Broyhill” she pleaded.

Broyhill was a fellow we all knew from Yancey County who was a dealer in anything he could make a buck on. From Indian artifacts to pedal cars, he probably knew about it — and if he didn’t he sure pretended like he did to get the deal done.

“What’s a Shelton Dollar anyway?” she asked in a frustrated tone.

Michael and I both looked at each other. We had heard the tale, but no one had actually ever SEEN a Shelton Dollar.

Hanging up the phone, and now with our full attention, Shelley told us that Broyhill had unearthed a mold used to make something called a Shelton Dollar. We knew exactly where we would be heading that evening after the shop closed.

That night the three of us drove to an old barn in Burnsville to meet our friend. Broyhill was already there when our headlights lit up the side of the faded red structure. The air was thick with the smell of tobacco hanging to dry as we exited the car. Intense brightness from the lantern Broyhill held obscured all else, but I could tell there was something in his other hand.

“Well, this is what ya came to see I reckon” he said handing me a dark slender object.

A look of disappointment must have been noticeable as Broyhill sharply barked, “Not what you were expecting, huh?” I didn’t say a word, I just handed it over to Michael to inspect.

Michael said what was on both our minds, “This is only half of a mold — where’s the rest of it?”

Our host gave an indignant huff and came back with “Heck, Ol’ Shelton is probably laughing at us all right now from the great beyond…..You didn’t think he’d keep the thing intact so we could mint his Dollars after he was gone, now did ya?”

Come to think of it, no, it wouldn’t make much sense for him to have left it in one piece. By this time, the object had made its way to Shelley and she was holding it with a pensive look. The instrument itself was pretty crude and simple: a roughly seven-inch plank with two holes for pouring in the silver. It was rumored this Duck Shelton character used to have his own silver mine. Had the Cherokee shown him where to find silver in these hills?

“So, where did you find it?” I asked.

“Frank plowed it up in a potato field over in Madison and he wasn’t sure what to make of it so he brung it to me”

Content with the answer, silence set in. The next few minutes found Shelley, Michael and myself contemplating our next move in our heads. We needed to find the other half so that the mold would be complete. We were already here in the neighboring county and to be in Shelton Laurel would just take another half hour’s drive. But it was the dead of night, what could we possibly find in the dark?

Michael broke the stillness by saying what everyone was thinking, “How far is it to Duck’s place?”

Ha, “Duck’s place!” I thought. Spoken as if he were still among the living. This was getting more ridiculous by the minute, but for some reason we all wanted the adventure.

“Not far, I reckon I could draw ya a map” Broyhill said. “Take ya right up Duckmill Road at the head of the hollar”

“But now I’ll warn ya,” at this point holding the lantern even with his leathery face, “those Sheltons are a skittish bunch…..I play poker with a Shelton boy right up there every Friday night” he said pointing a finger towards the barn’s loft. “They don’t like to talk much and they keep to themselves”

With that the three of us had made up our minds to see what we could find on this mystic night. Shelley asked Broyhill if we could take the partial mold piece with us, saying something about it being a trigger object. It didn’t make much sense at the time, but he obliged. Broyhill must have thought we were half crazy.



“Where is this place supposed to be anyway?” I asked from behind the wheel.

“Just a little farther” Michael assured me. It seemed as if we had been driving for an hour. Every gravel road looked the same in the glow of our high beams and I could swear we had already been on this stretch just a while ago. We weren’t traveling in circles, were we?

We carried on for five or ten more minutes and the overgrown path that passed for a road was getting more narrow all the while. The radio was silent as all stations were well out of range at this point. Wild brush and limbs could be heard scraping the door of the car and I wasn’t sure how much longer we could drive on our dwindling tank of gas.

The road was steep but at the top began to plateau and we came upon a clearing. Acting as if we knew where we were, I stopped the engine and we all three got out of the car simultaneously.

Under an oak tree was what looked to be a grave marker. The stone was blank. We were very mindful not to step on the area that might have been a gravesite, opting instead to search the surrounding area for any clues.

I happened to notice the distinct smell of pipe tobacco in the thick night air. On top of that, I began to notice the sound of running water from the nearby Duckmill Branch. All of the sudden, a man emerged from the dark woods. Michael instinctively placed a hand on his ever present firearm. The man was in heavy sack clothing and looked as if he belonged in another time period. His straw hat and corncob pipe completed the look and he was encircled by a hazy aura.

“What are you doin’ snoopin’ around here?” He scolded.

“Uh – Well” a stuttering attempt at language was all I could muster. Shelley calmly finished my thought for me.

“We are here to find Duck” she said.

“Well you ain’t gonna find him poking around here at this unholy hour” the mysterious man countered back.

And what did she mean by saying we were here to find Duck. He has been dead for over a century and a half. We were only looking for artifacts – though I wouldn’t want to admit that to this fellow, in case we were on his property.

“…But maybe I knew him, and maybe I could tell ya what ya’ll want to know”

I could scarcely believe he was being so cooperative, or so it seemed. What should we ask him? Where would we begin? Did he know of the legend and the coins?

His attention quickly turned to the object in Shelley’s hands.

“Whatcha got there?!?”

Michael chimed in, “It’s a mold for minting coins”

“Don’t look like much of one” was the answer from our newfound acquaintance. “Looks all busted up”

In fact he was right. It was merely half of the fully operational apparatus. But how on earth did this guy know that?

“You said you’uns was looking for Duck — that’s his resting spot over there but he may not be around here no more”

The old traveler pointed a bony finger towards the stone marker we had seen earlier.

“Why do you say that?” Shelley wanted to know.

“Cuz he had the ends of his coffin left open when they laid him down in the ground. Said he wanted to be able to outrun Old Lucifer if he saw him comin’ for him”

Once again, how would this gristly wanderer know such a specific detail. I was beginning to wonder if, and I cant believe I am saying this, we were actually talking to Duck right here and now!

Shelley seemed surprisingly at ease during this entire exchange. She had a fascination with the paranormal that I had never really understood but maybe, just maybe, there was something to it after all. I was at least ready to consider the possibility as we stood on that cold mound of earth, in a corner of Madison County forgotten by time. It also occurred to me that our humble coin shop was uniquely qualified to take on this assignment with Shelley in our corner.

I believe this gentleman began to suspect our collective revelation that he was our man. To test this I gathered enough courage to ask him, “So did he ever come for ya? Lucifer, I mean”

The man smiled and peered up at us, the brim of his hat partially blocking his eyes, “Nope, never did. How did you kids know I wuz Duck?”

Shelley volunteered an answer, “Your face told the story. You did nothing wrong. You are just watching over your land.”

“You’re darn tootin’ I didn’t do anything wrong!” he said with a growing agitation to his speech. “And I wuz just watching over my land that day when I saw that coach turnt over.”

We just stood there and let him continue his story.

“Those fancy stagecoaches don’t know these mountain trails worth a darn. Turnt up this way at Hickory Nut Turnpike, arount Asheville, and didn’t know what they wuz in for. I found ‘em down in the ravine, both riders deader than dead”

This was amazing! So he never had a silver mine. He went on to tell us that it was an overturned federal stagecoach, delivering silver ore from Cowpens up North. But who else in Duck’s day knew of this accident we all three wanted to know.

“I didn’t tell no-body, I mean no-body! I would leave in the morn with a sack of cornbread slung over my shoulder and they wouldn’t see me for days. Took a differnt path each time in case I wuz follered. All that silver wuz hid in a cave — and before ya ask; No, I ain’t showin’ ya where”

“People just assumed I had struck a mine, and I reckon in a sense I did. It just had PROPERTY OF U.S. GOVERNMENT wrote on it so I had to get to smelting”

“I’d get it up good and hot and pour it in that there mold and when it all cooled, I had me some coins. Everybody took ‘em. I could spend ‘em freely around here with no questions. People knew they wuz even more pure than the one’s made by the government because I melted out the slag. Phillydelphia and N’awlins wuz puttin’ out 89 percent when mine wuz comin’ in at 100”

In that moment, we knew we needed to return the artifact to Mr. Shelton. Solemnly, Shelley handed it over to him.

“Thank ya kindly” he said, tipping his hat in our direction.

As we stood there the wind began to pick up and we felt a chill. Those mountains had held many a moonshiner’s secret over the years, but perhaps no secret was bigger than the one we discovered that cold night. We had just met the ultimate bootlegger face to face. A tough and industrious old timer who charted his own path. Something that the folks of Appalachia have been doing for as long as can be remembered.

Old Duck faded back into the woods from where he came and on the walk back to the car I was thinking how coin collecting is so much more than grades and mintmarks, and also how ‘dead’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘unaware.’ I am sure any one of us would gladly trade a box full of gold treasure for just one look at a Shelton Dollar.

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