Flipped for coin, Local contractor thrilled to find halfpenny

December 26, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

BOONSBORO - Masonry contractor Clyde Barnhart didn't have to finish his renovation to the historic Boone Hotel building in Boonsboro before getting paid for his work. He dug up a reward worth more to him than money soon after he started the project this fall.

The self-described "history nut" and relic hunter discovered a 1775 British coin beneath the rotting floorboards of the more than 200-year-old building. The front side of the worn, copper half-penny includes a bust of King George III with the words "Georgius III Rex." The back side of the coin reads "Brittania."

Despite its age, the coin isn't worth much - to anyone except Barnhart and Boone Hotel owner Mark Webb. The 229-year-old coin today is worth between $5 and $10, said John J. Kraljevich Jr. of Annapolis, director of numismatic research for New Hampshire-based American Numismatic Rarities. That half penny would be equivalent to about a half dollar in today's economy, he said.


"I don't care about the value; it's the historical significance to me," said Barnhart, 55, of Hagerstown. After finding the coin with his metal detector, he cleaned it up with lemon juice and gave it to Webb to frame and mount above the old brick fireplace near where he uncovered his treasure.

"That was pretty nice," said Webb, who has owned the building on Main Street for about 15 years and plans to turn it into a restaurant.

The hotel was one of the first five buildings constructed in Boonsboro after William and George Boone founded the town in 1792, town historian Doug Bast said. He estimated the original two-story stone hotel's construction date at between 1796 and 1800. A third floor was later added to the building, which served a variety of purposes as it changed hands over the years, Bast said.

Barnhart can only imagine how the coin ended up buried in the dirt next to the spot where another fireplace once stood. Perhaps it fell out of the pocket of a weary traveler who stopped to warm his hands by the former Eagle Hotel's fire more than two centuries ago.

"You probably could have gotten a drink for it back then," Kraljevich said. "It's a common coin, and one that turns up in Maryland a lot."

Kraljevich said he found a similar "copper" near Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg and has examined other half pennies uncovered at Fort Frederick in Big Pool. "These things were seen in circulation up through the 1840s, alongside lots of other foreign coins."

American mints started producing the U.S. one-cent coin in 1793, but many foreign coins were considered legal tender in the United States until the mid-19th century, Kraljevich said. Although copper coins didn't make that list of legal foreign coins, most merchants still accepted them for small transactions, he said. The federal government outlawed the use of all foreign coinage in 1857 because there were then enough U.S. coins in circulation to serve the public, Kraljevich added.

He said that by the late 18th century many "coppers" were worn out or counterfeit - including, according to a 1787 survey, more than half of all the copper half-penny coins circulating in New York.

"They had less than a half penny's worth of copper in them," Kraljevich said. "If you counterfeited gold or silver coins, you lost your head, but they didn't prosecute as heavily for counterfeiting copper coins."

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