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Unearthing MN history

A man’s quest to dig up treasures from Minnesota’s past

By Scott Thoma

Doug Ohman displays an 1881 Indian penny he found in the central Minnesota area recently. Contributed photo

Putting a metal detector in the hands of Doug Ohman is like giving a map to a pirate. They both will eventually find treasure.

Ohman wears a myriad of hats as an author, photographer, storyteller and more recently, metal detector. But they all evolve around the same subject.

“My focus in on Minnesota history,” he told. “History should be shared through stories.”

For many years, Ohman has put his photographs into book form such as Minnesota barns, churches, schools, state parks and more. In all, he has published 16 books on various historical subjects.

Six years ago, he took up the hobby of metal detecting and now places that hobby above all others.

“If you ask me if I would rather go fishing or take photos or any of my other hobbies, I would choose metal detecting,” he said “It has absolutely sunk its claws into me in a very positive way.”

1942 Swastika. Contributed photo

Ohman, 60, grew up in Anoka and graduated from St. Francis High School. Before that, however, his parents (his father was a pastor) were missionaries living in Jordan (now Israel) where they ran an orphanage.

Ohman’s parents were avid readers and encouraged their four children to explore and learn history through reading.

From those early parental urgings, Ohman takes what he has learned and travels around the state giving presentations on Minnesota history. In 2019, he gave 330 presentations on historical subjects such as Minnesota’s role in the Civil War, the Dakota Conflict, the 1930s New Deal Era and much more.

“I love to bring along some things that I have found and put the relics on the table and allow the kids to hold them and guess what they are,” the personable Ohman said. “We always teach kids not to touch. I don’t believe in that.”

Doug Ohman has found items like this gold spoon. Contributed photos

Because of the pandemic, Ohman expects to give around 200 talks this year. He is currently traveling to county fairs and among his presentations include the history of Minnesota fairs and the roles 4-H and FFA have played in them.

Ohman’s newfound hobby of metal detecting also centers around finding Minnesota historical treasures.

“I don’t do it to for the money,” he said. “I do it discover things about Minnesota history and to share those discoveries through stories. There are countless stories out there and many of them have not yet been discovered.”

Among his many recent discoveries that came while metal detecting in south central and southwestern Minnesota were a 1942 German Swastika coin, several horse bridle rosettes and a rare 2-cent piece.

Doug Ohman with his metal detector in hand. Contributed photo

Metal detecting wasn’t even a thought in Ohman’s mind until a friend received a metal detector as a gift and asked Ohman to join him looking for treasures.

“I wasn’t really interested in going metal detecting,” Ohman laughed. “It didn’t really sound all that interesting to me. But I told him since he was my friend, I would go along with him.”

The two men shared the metal detector and the first thing Ohman found was a foot-long piece of barbed wire.

“I still have it,” he said. “We didn’t find anything interesting or valuable that day, but I told my wife when I got home that I really had fun and that I wanted to buy a metal detector. She just rolled her eyes, but she supported me.”

Ohman found a metal detector online that he liked and made the purchase.

Doug and his wife, Krin, have been married for 35 years and have two children and four grandchildren.

Some of the items Ohman has unearthed over the last six years have been coins, knives, vintage toys, horseshoes, rings, tokens, political buttons, and license plates.

“Probably the most unusual discovery I’ve had was a copper cultured knife found near Princeton that Minnesota archaeologists have dated back four to six thousand years ago,” Ohman said with excitement still in his voice. “That’s something I never imagined I would find in my life. I didn’t even know what it was at first and fortunately the guy I was metal detecting with knows a lot more about these things than I do and told me he thought it was something rare.”

An 1881 Indian penny found in central Minnesota. Contributed photo

That knife will be donated to a museum in Cambridge, Minn.

Ohman looks at old maps to plot out where he will look for historical treasures.

“I go online and look at Google Earth images to see what was on a certain piece of land in the 1930s and 40s,” he explained. “If it looks like something interesting used to be on that land, I might metal detect there.”

Finding coins is common among metal detectors, but it’s those rare discoveries that make the hobby exciting. Ohman’s rare coin discoveries include a 1909 Lincoln wheat penny, which is the introduction year of the Lincoln penny, and a 1788 Spanish Silver Reale (silver dollar coin) that was minted in Mexico City.

“For every positive discovery, you find a lot of worthless junk,” he said.

A Woodman of American horse’s bridal rosette found in southern Minnesota. The glass rosette has a metal backing which allowed Ohman to detect and unearth it. Contributed photo

Ohman urges other metal detectors to show respect when locating a place to search.

“All property is owned by someone, so ask permission before exploring,” he said. “I literally door knock and explain what I’m doing. Most of the time the people are okay with it.”

Ohman recently published a historical fiction book entitled Is it Possible about his metal detecting discoveries. There are 40 short stories, each pertaining to something he has found throughout Minnesota with his fictitious version of how that item could have found its way to the location he found it.

“For example, I found the German Swastika coin from 1942 and I thought it was an amazing piece of history during World War II,” Ohman said. “And I wondered how it got to Minnesota. So, I made up a story of how the coin might have got here.”

A 1918 license plate found by Doug Ohman in southern Minnesota. Contributed photo

Ohman’s fictitious story centered around an Italian POW being brought to Minnesota on a train, as our state did house prisoners during WWII. He said the Italian soldier was playing poker with some German soldiers on the train and won the coin. It eventually ended up lost and found nearly 80 years later by a metal detector.

“I’m a storyteller,” he said. “That’s what I like to do. There is nothing better for me than finding history and then sharing it with others through a story.”

To contact Ohman for a presentation or to purchase one of his books, email or call him at 763-670-9529 or 763-543-1049.

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