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Treasure Trove Plowed Up

North Dakota is full of stories, and today’s story is about plowing up a fortuitous fortune.

In 1916, on a farm 6.5 miles north of Blaisdell, a hired man named Wallace Henkel chanced upon a small fortune in gold coins, silver coins, and paper money.

Henkel was doing farm work on the Alfred Larson farm in Mountrail County. He was 22 years old and had traveled west from his former home in Colby, Wisconsin. He worked for farmer Larson off-and-on, living nearby in Minot.

When it was time for plowing stubble fields, Larson again hired Henkel.  On the second day, as the plow upended furrow upon furrow, Henkel was startled from monotony by the “unusual appearance of the dirt thrown up by the plowshare.”

Henkel “kicked” the “clump of soil” and, much to his astonishment, a “number of gold and silver coins” tumbled out!

With trembling fingers, the plowman rubbed off the clinging dirt. The old silver and gold coins, dating from the 1880s and 1890s, had been underground for over 20 years.

Excited by the glinting coins, Henkel suspected that more treasure might lay nearby. Lacking tools, his bare hands tore into the freshly-turned soil.

At a depth of 18 inches, Henkel unearthed a “badly-molded and decayed” leather sack. Within the decomposed sack he uncovered a thick roll of paper-money in woefully-corroded condition, but fully-recognizable as currency.

Fearfully, hired hand Henkel told no one about the treasure trove, concealing the cash and coins in a gunny sack suspended by a rope in a 30-foot-deep water well, far distant from any farm buildings. Henkel slept fitfully for a week, fretting lest someone filtch his newly-found riches.

Finally, Henkel contacted his father in Wisconsin, who arranged to have the US Treasury replace the rotted paper money. Experts deciphered the serial-numbers to secure him “about $5,000,” along with $418 in gold and silver.

It was on this date in 1917 that the Williston Graphic newspaper disclosed Wallace Henkel’s mystifying story of accidental fortune. Henkel soon moved to far away New York City, while neighbors brooded about how a wad of cash – sprinkled with coins – became buried in a lonely wheat field near Blaisdell. Some believed it was hidden by robbers. Others imagined that a long-dead miser known as “Old John” Cawkins entombed it there.

No one will ever know.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.

Sources:

“Plowman Turns Up $6,000; Gold and Bills in Field Near Blaisdell---No Clue to Original Owner,” Williston Graphic, February 22, 1917, p. 4.

“Wallace Henkel,” U.S. Census 1900, Hull, Marathon County, Wisconsin.

“Services Are Held for Gustave Henkel,” Marshfield [WI] News-Herald, July 2, 1948, p. 5.

Note: Cawkins might be “Calkins.”

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