FROM THE ARCHIVES: There’s gold in them thar hills

From the Archives | Sandy Main

When it comes to seeking gold, California had its 49ers and Greenville had its 72ers.

A mini-gold rush in Greenville was sparked 40 years ago this month when The Daily News reported, “There’s gold in them thar hills — but Penny Tiffany, 15, isn’t saying where. Somewhere along Flat River, on a hill, she found a $20 gold piece.”

It soon became known that Tiffany found the 1876 coin at an excavation site at Congress and Clay streets where a crew was laying cables for Michigan Bell. The coin was in “mint condition, undented, unscratched, unworn,” the newspaper reported.

“Rumors began to circulate, and wire services and metropolitan newspapers picked up the story,” The Daily News said four days later.

Gold seekers descended on the site from all over the state, bringing shovels and screens to dig and sift the soil. The amount of gold found was impossible to ascertain. Many people didn’t talk about their finds.

A week later The Daily News reported, “Speculation about where the coins came from is a popular subject today.

“Generally, most feel they must have been sealed in an air tight container of some kind, because they are shiny new. All of the coins reported so far have been in near mint condition.

“The popular belief is that someone had started a collection, properly sealing the coins, and it was lost, somehow, in the dump that once existed at the location.

“When Michigan Bell workers were digging, they burst the container, spilling the coins in the soft ground. Thus the scattering of the coins.

“Dates on the coins range from 1800 upwards, with many in the 1850s and 60s, according to the finders.”

After a few weeks there were no more coins to be found, the Michigan Bell crew completed its work and the hole was filled in.

Daily News reporter Delores Major summed up the situation a couple months later in a story headlined “Greenville’s goldfield now mostly a memory.”

“It was a 15-year-old girl by the name of Penny who turned Greenville’s sights to gold. And the site that was once overflowing with people digging and sifting around the clock, is now a leveled patch of land, with pale sprigs of green that will certainly succumb to fall’s frost.

“Penny Tiffany reported the first gold coin found at a site west of Fedders Co. between a set of railroad tracks. But after Penny, it was near impossible keeping track of the coins unearthed in the area.

“Packs of miners, 30 or 40 strong, came during the day, the numbers dwindled at night, but lanterns and flashlights kept the vigil going.

“The glowing reports of gold finds nurtured imaginations and two weeks later there seemed to be more stories than coins.

“— One unnamed person supposedly found 40 $20 gold pieces — $800 face value, but worth thousands of dollars.

“— Another family found 33 gold coins in two days.

“— Rumor had it that one young man discovered a closed box during his diggings, peeked inside and took off leaving his digging equipment in the dust.

“— Overheard in a restaurant was one gray-haired woman who whispered to her companion, ‘They found a chest there, you know.’

“And people had their theories, too, on the origin of the gold.

“Some thought some miser had socked it away, and died without ever telling anyone.

“Others thought it was a gold coin collection sealed in a glass jar that was broken open.

“But knowledge of how the gold got there in the first place is scarce. Digging by The Dally News paid off with the information that the land has been in the hands of railroad companies since 1890.

“The most recent gold coin The Dally News saw was dated 1896. So the only conclusion we can draw is that if the gold was buried together, it must have been after several changes in private ownership, and that would destroy any of the miser theories.

“We stopped at the old goldfields to take a picture, and a passerby summed it up pretty well.

“‘Gee, it was exciting when all those people were here,’ he said. ‘I wonder if they’ll ever find out where it came from. I guess it really doesn’t matter.’”

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