Jefferson City man searches for relics, collects war weapons

Saturday, June 28, 2008 | 8:36 p.m. CDT; updated 1:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Going to auctions and antique sales with his father, Roger Baker was fascinated by the Civil War pieces that would come up.

But his father thought they were junk, and so Baker held onto his dream of collecting Civil War artifacts until his early married life.

He had seen thousands of muskets and other 1860s firearms sold at auctions when he was little. So, he set his sights on a Colt 1860 Army pistol and had to borrow $85 to buy his first piece.

Then, he started working odd jobs in addition to his teaching career to feed his interest.

Fascinated by the technology, and about mechanics of how things operated or were built, Baker used pieces from his collection to help teach and bring history into his industrial arts and technology classrooms.

“Military and weaponry is the one technology that has come down through history,” Baker said. “Man has always wanted to kill or fight each other.”

Weapons started crude, then developed and became more sophisticated as generations passed, he said.

Baker has collections from other military eras. But he refused to collect modern weapons after Vietnam.

“I enjoy weapons for the way they are put together. It takes a fantastic brain,” Baker said.

It wasn’t just the weaponry that drew him into collecting, it was the history and the lives behind the time.

His great-great-grandfather served with the last Confederate unit to surrender in New Orleans on June 25, 1865.

His step-great, great-grandmother was the great-granddaughter of John Colter, who served with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery. His grandfather was killed during construction of the Missouri State Capitol, and his oldest brother was killed on a troop ship torpedoed in the English Channel during World War II.

His interest in history stemmed from these kinds of family stories and continues with his public efforts to advance genealogy and historical records preservation.

In 1980, Baker began hunting for artifacts. And now he is a metal detector dealer and has written two books — “Finding Civil War Campsites in Rural Areas” and “Interpreting History from Relics found in Rural Civil War Campsites” — with some hunting buddies to help others take up the hobby.

He has found counterfeit money, jars full of bullets, belt buckles, letters, pieces of weapons and other sundry finds from the era.

Baker’s advice is to find a road that existed at that time, then look near water sources on the south side of hills because units would camp there to avoid the winter wind.

“We’re not giving away our location secrets, just what it takes to find the same things we find,” Baker said of his books.

Baker and his fellow Civil War artifact hunters want to pass on their knowledge to a new generation. They are convinced that with so much guerrilla activity before and during the Civil War, pockets of relics remain undiscovered across Missouri, Baker said.

At one location, Baker found spent bullets in a row. He suspected that it was a camp, where soldiers fired their last bullet at the ground as they came into camp.

Some of his other interesting discoveries from that site include part of a school bell, the brass company letters from a cap, which are rare, and almost perfect 1861 coins. Baker suspected that with the site’s proximity to the railroad and a town, the crossroad location could have been a supply depot.

“Anytime you run into a new site, it’s exciting,” Baker said.

He went on to say that “like a deer hunter who kills a trophy buck, you can’t walk, you get giddy and light-headed ... it’s a surge of adrenaline.”

He once found a $5 gold piece, and he couldn’t get up because he was so overwhelmed.

Sometimes, Baker and his fellow hunters will donate their services to cooperative hunts, such as when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources combed the site of the Centralia Massacre.

“We enjoy seeing stuff come out of the ground and we learn from it,” Baker said.

Baker also takes his collection on the road to schools and community groups. And, he hosts tours of the Cole County Historical Society ’s of the Jim McHenry Civil War Room.

“It’s history,” Baker said. “It allows other people to know what happened, to see equipment and discuss what it is.”

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