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Prospecting in Panhandle takes precious mettle

September 24, 2000

Prospecting in Panhandle takes precious mettle



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W. Va. - Pointing to the mountains of West Virginia that loom in the distance not far from his home west of Hedgesville, Joe Freeman's eyes light up as he talks about his favorite subject.

"There's gold in those hills," said Freeman, 72, retired from the construction trade. Born and raised in Pikeside, he remains in the Eastern Panhandle and is a pan handler in another sense of the word.

Freeman has a love of precious metal that began at an early age, when he went to live on his uncle's ranch near Yellowstone National Park.

"There was lots to do on that ranch," including looking for gold, Freeman recalled. In the service, he was stationed near gold country in northern California.

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"In the service, I did lots of it," he said. Then came the post-service years, helping raise his six children and working to meet the regular bills. It didn't leave a lot of time to look for gold.

About five or six years ago, he saw a Discovery Channel show on the subject and his interest was reignited. He never wanted to make a living out of it. He does it more for the camaraderie, he said.

"I figured I'd go have some fun," he said. "Pretty soon I'd met five or six people and I really enjoyed it. I go to these places and I talk to these guys. Some people make a livelihood out of it. There's guys doing it. But it's work."

Freeman looks like he could make a living out of it. He can give a lecture on how to start out literally using a pan to search for gold.

"Wash and shake, wash and shake," he said of the technique.

He also owns a a piece of equipment behind his house that looks something like a Jet Ski with a hose and suction unit attached to it to take out dirt to filter it for gold. There's a sluice to shake the gold from the mud.

He subscribes to "Gold Prospector" magazine and his wife Merle will take out the photo album to show the places they've been and some of the people they've met while looking for gold.

He's been a lot of places prospecting, and just returned from a trip to North Carolina.

He doesn't have a lot of use for state regulators who don't approve of his equipment, he said.

"They think you're going to kill the fish," he said. The fish are a lot smarter and quicker than state officials think they are, he said.

Sometimes, he'll put his equipment in the water and help other people use it.

"I let anybody operate it," he said. "It's exciting to see gold show up in your sluice."

Serious prospectors won't reveal where their sites are, Freeman said. Even Freeman is reluctant to do so.

"I could find gold from here to Charles Town," he said. "But I'm not going to tell you where it is. For one reason only. Somebody would be on your (backside) telling you not to do it."

"When you've got parks, you've got rangers," said Merle Freeman. She accompanies her husband on his trips.

Even as a hobby, gold prospecting can be challenging, he said. His next goal is going to Alaska to see what kind of gold he can find in the state that witnessed one of the largest gold rushes in history.

"It's such a lot of work, more work than people think," he said. "But if you enjoy it, that's all that counts."

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