PAWTUCKET — Nathan Matthews considers himself a mighty lucky guy right now, and why wouldn’t he?
He has three wonderful children he adores spending time with and a business that he says is flourishing even in these dreadful times of the coronavirus pandemic.
He’s also one of very few “go-to” guys across the United States in his professional field of metal detecting.
Matthews, 39, even runs what is arguably the most renowned metal detecting gathering in the country. The event is adequately named the Rhode Island Relics’ “Pound The Ground” event, in which Matthews plants rare coins and other artifacts in the dirt of a historical site for other enthusiasts to find.
And to think he owes it all to being diagnosed with Progressive Multiple Sclerosis six years ago this month.
“How I got into this, I consider it absolutely amazing. I’m a changed man,” he stated recently while relaxing in his Rhode Island Relics’ business “office,” located in Loft 120 of the Lofts at Columbus, 211 Columbus Avenue. “Metal detecting is the best. It’s helped me so much.”
Matthews described himself as a “pretty depressed guy” before he discovered metal detecting.
“I went through a divorce right after the diagnosis (in November 2014), and my twins were on the way; they were due the following June,” he added. “I was at a real low point, but now I can’t believe where I’m at. My company is very successful right now; I’m selling metal detectors and other equipment just about every day, even in the midst of COVID-19.
In fact, it’s partially because of the pandemic that he is enjoying so much business.
“People will come in and want to buy a metal detector; obviously, they want to go outside, and when they do this, they can be out in the fresh air and find history themselves,” Matthews said.
According to Matthews, the historical aspect of metal detecting is his favorite part of it.
In his office space, which isn’t big but is spotless and well-designed, Matthews has two large glass cases filled with all sorts of artifacts he’s discovered. Those encased include only hundreds of the 10,000-plus in his entire collection.
“I’ve got so many favorites I can’t name them all,” he grinned while pulling items from their “new” resting spots. “One of the most special is a 41st French Regiment button from the Battle of Rhode Island, Aug. 29, 1778, but I also found a Spanish real, a coin from the 1700s. I found that on a property on the (University of Rhode Island-Kingston campus), but I received permission first.”
“Then there’s a Daughters of Liberty, Fidelity and Patriotism metal badge from 1890-1910, Colonial-era wedding bands that people actually threw away after they discovered were coated with fake gold and a suspender clasp dating back to 1822.”
Easily the most exciting find he’s ever had, he says, came while scouring the English countryside in Maidstone, about an hour outside of London’s Heathrow International Airport. That’s when he happened upon a Roman coin that dates back to 317 A.D.
“I found that last September (2019). To find out just what I had, I had to look up the Roman emperor depicted on the coin, and it was of Flavius Julius Constantius the First,” he noted. “I didn’t know how old it was until earlier this year.”
“When I was still in England, someone had told me initially that it dated back to the 300s A.D. When I heard that, I became flustered, blown away and thrilled all at the same time,” he added. “It’s one of those finds that gives you chills.”
For Matthews, metal detecting isn’t just a passion, it’s an obsession.
“Anybody remembers when they were a child and digging in their backyard, pretending they were a pirate and finding something, even a nickel,” he said. “You think to yourself, ‘Wow!’ You think you’re a real-life archaeologist; it’s the greatest feeling in the world. That’s how I feel, but – unfortunately – I’m older.”
Matthews didn’t know a thing about metal detecting as a kid, or when he attended Lincoln High School in the mid-to-late 1990s. Upon graduating in 1999, he chose to major in psychology, and after receiving his Bachelor’s degree, began working in psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation homes for people with developmental delays.
He admitted that the job became quite difficult over the years, but he threw himself into distance running and music as his coping mechanisms.
“I used to run constantly for exercise, and sometimes my oldest daughter (Akoda Ocean, now 15) would follow me on her bike, which was fun,” he said. “I’d run between nine and 13 miles a day, sometimes farther. I did a ton of 5Ks, and that helped a lot.”
“I also spent some time as a professional musician; I worked with Scott Riebling, who played for Letters to Cleo and Weezer,” Matthews said. “Scott also had done some production for several major label artists. I’d play the guitar, bass, harmonica, piano, but that’s not something I pursue now, not with Akoda Ocean and my five-year-old twins, Elliot and Edie.”
In 2014, Matthews experienced a life-changing moment, though he didn’t realize it at the time. He had been driving in Lincoln when “I was in a pretty bad car accident and I got knocked unconscious,” he recalled.
After multiple MRIs and CT scans, Matthews said, he ended up at an appointment at Rhode Island Hospital.
“The doctors told me they had some white matter damage on my brain, and I told them I had problems holding on to coffee cups or bowls,” he said. “I’d have random tremors and end up throwing things. I also had some numbness and tingling in my legs.”
After spending several days in the hospital, he received devastating news: He had multiple sclerosis. Days later, he discovered it was progressive.
“They told me I couldn’t run anymore, and that drove me out of my mind,” he stated. “That’s what I existed for.”
In early 2015, a good friend, Jeff Muthersbaugh, suggested that his buddy take up metal detecting as a hobby- it wasn’t running, but he’d still be outside and walking around.
“When he said that, I thought, ‘Thanks but no thanks, Jeff,’” he laughed. “I had no clue about it. I always thought it was just people at the beach with these long things in their hands looking for a few quarters.”
“But then Jeff reminded me that I love history, and that maybe there were some historical things in the ground that I could find,” Matthews said. “When he mentioned the historical angle, that sort of reeled me in.”
He borrowed Muthersbaugh’s metal detector and sought out such items, and was thrilled on his first endeavor in Cumberland.
“I found a silver 1800s ‘Barber’ quarter; those were named after the chief engraver during that time,” he said. “That was only a few days after I first started. When I found that, I was, like, ‘I want more!’ I was hooked.”
“The great thing about it is, if it’s a coin, it has the year it was minted on it, so you know immediately how old it is. Say you find something from 1894, you think that way back then, someone was walking here at this precise spot and dropped a coin. Then you think, ‘I’m the first person to touch it in 126 years!’ It’s wild!”
Since then, he’s traveled to the 48 contiguous United States, as well as to England, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic and Scotland, to metal detect.
Back in April 2018, he decided to conduct his first “Pound The Ground” event at Franklin Farm in Cumberland.
“They already had some events out there, but I considered most of them a waste of money and time,” he shrugged. “I’d go to them and return home with a couple of Buffalo nickels, so it was a waste. I wanted to form an event where I could ensure if people came to it, they would leave with more than they had ever found before.”
His second event was at the same place a year later, but he added a twist: He buried his entire collection at Franklin Farm.
“I gave away everything I had – some of the rarest American silver coins I had ever dug up and my first-ever gold coin, which was minted only 2,550 times; that’s mighty rare,” he said. “Why did I do it? Because seeing someone’s joy of finding it far outweighs the joy of keeping it.”
After the event, Matthews said, he had to restart his entire collection.
“Since then, I’ve found thousands of valuable coins and historical relics,” he said. “But when I moved from one loft to this one (a year or so ago), I lost some significant finds, including an oval U.S. Civil War belt buckle, dagger scabbards from the 1700s, buttons dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, a trade token from the 1600s, a King George coin that dates back to 1757 and house keys belonging to a general from the Grand Army of the Republic in Cumberland.
“Then there’s a silver trime, one of the smallest coins ever minted in America, that goes back to 1853,” Matthews said. “I remember where and when I dug up every single one of these pieces. I’ve never sold anything in my personal collection because it means so much to me.”
Matthews said he will never stop metal detecting.
“I have a progressive disease, but I still go out every chance I get,” he said. “I was out just yesterday on a 1712 property in Thompson, Connecticut. All of this more or less started on a whim, and I initially thought it was crazy.”
“That’s why I try to explain to anyone who wants to know that metal detecting isn’t what people think it is,” Matthews said. “Not only is there amazing history to be discovered out there, but after you purchase one, it will pay for itself in a month’s time, if that. I know people who have found coins that are worth $40,000 plus. It’s beyond fun.”
For more information, or for an appointment to meet with Matthews, call (401) 500-2121.