The treasure man: An interview with Billy Arthur, Jr.

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, October 2007 ~~

Billy Arthur, Jr., is constantly finding things, from jewelry and coins to children’s toys and unique rocks. “I’ve always been interested in what’s on the ground,” he said. “Where am I? On the ground.” He laughed. “I live on the ground. I look in all the change slots. If someone drops a penny, I pick it up.”

For those of you who don’t know Billy, he’s not the tallest guy around.

But Billy doesn’t just rely on his close proximity to the ground. He also has a metal detector. Two, in fact. His favorite one has three different ring tones. “If it goes over silver,” he said, “I know exactly what that is.” On Saturday, Billy took a metal detector to Chapel Hill where some houses had been prepared for demolition. “They were roped off and ready for the bulldozers to knock them down,” he said. He proudly displayed his find: a miniature metal train engine.

“It’s hard to find places to look for things now,” Billy said. “So many people have moved to the area who have no idea who I am. And just because I found something somewhere 50 years ago doesn’t mean they are going to let me go tromping across their yard.” He gets animated when telling about a field on the north side of Chapel Hill. “It’s full of petrified wood,” he said. “And I still go there from time to time, but I don’t feel comfortable getting out of my car anymore because there are so many houses around now.”

Billy and his metal detector used to be regulars at the Carrboro Town Hall. He collected a “bucketful of Cub Scout necktie clasps” during that time. But at some point his permission to treasure hunt was revoked, and the police asked him to leave. He seemed to have taken it in stride. “I was a nuisance,” he said. “I always covered my holes, but I was there all the time.”

Billy has also used his metal detector on the lawn at Weaver Street Market, after asking permission to “look for some dropped keys.” “I found two sets of keys,” he said, “a pocket knife, a couple of rings, and about $14 worth of change.” He only dug up items that were less than four inches from the surface, but “there was more stuff deeper down,” he said. When asked if the rings were valuable, Billy shrugged. “I have a bag of found jewelry,” he said. “Maybe there’s a pretty girl who’s interested.“

Billy has found gold in Duke Forest. He has a spectacular collection of quartz crystals from Snow Camp. He knows he can find petrified wood in the dirt parking lot at Wallace Wade Stadium. He found an 1870 Indian Head penny in a yard off Rosemary Street and a Little Orphan Annie radio badge on Boundary Street.

But Billy is more than a “finder” in the accidental sense. He is quite a serious coin collector, and he is especially knowledgeable about historic foreign currency. In his quest for the Canadian dimes he favors, Billy was directed to a pawn shop “about 40 miles from Carrboro.” The proprietors pointed him to their buckets of foreign coins, which he began to sort. When Billy was finished, he indicated the pile he had set aside to purchase. “I showed it to them,” he said, “and they raked the coins into a bag and gave it to me. $500 worth! I just about fell out of the chair.” One of the coins Billy acquired that day was a 1625 Austrian thaler. It’s bigger than a U.S. silver dollar, and Billy plans to give it to his nephew.

Billy was back at the same shop the next week. “I walked in the door,” he said, “and they called, ‘Look! It’s our favorite customer.’ I must be doing something right.” He tried to buy all of their Canadian coins, but they declined his offer. They want to keep a few coins representative of as many countries as possible for the elementary school children who come seeking such things. “But they sold me $119 for $60,” Billy said. “I shipped it to a dealer near the Canadian border. He gave me credit so I could buy a 1909 Broadleaves Canadian silver dime in extra-fine condition. It was valued at $150, but I got it for about $25 with all my trading.”

Billy found a token on Laurel Avenue. It had a man’s name on it, and it showed the year he had graduated from Chapel Hill High School. Trying to locate the gentleman, Billy found out that he had passed away, but he had a son living in Burlington. Billy drove to the son’s home and gave him the token.

About a year ago, Billy was with a friend who found a gold class ring in a field. There was a farm house about 150 yards away. They couldn’t imagine how a ring might have wound up so far away in the field, but they went to the house to inquire anyway. A man answered the door. The ring belonged to his son, who had been playing in the yard with some M-80 firecrackers, which exploded in his hand.

Right now, Billy is seeking the answer to a little mystery. A token was discovered. It’s about the size of a quarter, and one side is blank. On the other side is printed, “E.F. Sellers – Good For One Shave.” “I want to know who E.F. Sellers is,” Billy said. He’ll probably contact the Chapel Hill Preservation Society about it, but if you have any answers be sure to let him know.

He’s easy to find. He’s the one on a treasure hunt. He’s the one closely watching the ground.

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