Note found in antique chair spurs treasure hunt

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 | 3:11 p.m. CDT; updated 4:57 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 30, 2009

ST. LOUIS — Patty Henken always thought she found great value in the rickety rocking chair she plunked down $200 for at an auction, figuring she could restore the century-old relic to its former charm.

Doing so turned out to rock her world, sending her on a treasure hunt straight out of a mystery novel.

Five months after hauling the chair home last November, Henken spent hours in May prying the seat off it in her garage in Mount Sterling, Ill. A small envelope fluttered from it as she tossed the seat aside — the words "Finders Keepers" typewritten on it. Inside, a key was taped to a note.

"This DEXTER key (number sign) 50644T will unlock a lead chest," the note began, before spelling out a location in Springfield, Ill. — 1028 N. Fifth St. — where a chest containing more than $250 in gold coins supposedly was buried 12 feet below ground.

The stash, the note claimed, included eight $20 gold pieces, six $10 gold pieces, five $5 gold pieces, three $2 1/2 dollar gold pieces and two $1 gold pieces.

The note, signed by a "Chauncey Wolcott," included a request to contact the Springfield newspaper if the chest was ever found. Henken finds that intriguing, thinking Wolcott perhaps has left a confession in the chest or "wants to give us an answer to an old mystery."

For now, any treasure remains elusive. A search of the site — currently a vacant lot — with a donated backhoe last Sunday came up empty, though Henken pledges to be back at it this weekend.

Whatever the outcome, "it's the fact that there's a story there that's exciting," Henken, 48, said Wednesday from her hometown, where she works part-time as a window clerk at the post office.

The note at the crux of the mystery isn't dated — though its insistence that the chest "cannot be located by metal detector" suggests it could have been written anytime since about World War II, when the first practical metal detectors came to be.

At the supposed burial spot, the home on the lot was torn down many decades ago. The owners of the land — retired state corrections workers Dennis and Sharon Chrans — live next door and, at least initially, disregarded Henken's voicemail approaches as the workings of a telemarketer.

"We were skeptical all the way," Sharon Chrans recalled. But the couple eventually were swayed and met with Henken and her husband, hashing out a deal to split any costs of the dig — and the proceeds of whatever they found.

Henken's scouring of genealogy records and courthouse documents in Sangamon County, which includes Springfield, has offered no clues to anyone named Chauncey Wolcott. Dennis Chrans found no such name on his property's abstract.

Yet last Sunday, the dig began. A couple dozen people showed up, many of them friends of the Henkens. Some brought lawn chairs, others drinks and snacks. A co-worker of Patty Henken's brought a toy magic wand they generally keep behind the counter at the post office, using it to change their attitude whenever a grumpy customer leaves.

"It was a happy event, a party-like atmosphere," Sharon Chrans said.

The women waved the wand over the backhoe for luck, and the machine began clawing up earth and eventually turned up a cistern — something onlookers considered promising until it yielded only bricks and antique bottles. Elsewhere on the lot, the digging revealed a well too deep to really scrutinize despite their efforts to siphon out some water.

"Some people think it's still down there," Chrans said, speculating that if the booty really does exist, Wolcott knew what he was doing by leaving it in a lead box that wouldn't deteriorate.

Still, everyone accepts that it all could be a hoax. Henken isn't sweating that prospect, having lost a lot in recent years — a brother to brain cancer, a son in an Easter Sunday rollover crash and a nephew to leukemia. One of her sisters died of breast cancer in 1990.

She admits the effort could be fruitless, much like the time in 1986 when TV host Geraldo Rivera and a demolition crew drew a worldwide television audience when they blasted away a 7,000-pound concrete wall of a basement chamber billed as 1930s gangster Al Capone's vault in Chicago's former Lexington Hotel. Even the Internal Revenue Service was on hand to lay claim to any cash or bullion — but all Rivera found was empty booze bottles and an old sign.

The Henkens expect to resume the dig Saturday, hoping with the Chranses that there's some resolution.

"I really don't have a gut feeling," Sharon Chrans said. "We just had to try once that information presents itself. You just can't leave it there with it just tempting you."

Henken isn't willing to let their dream die.

"There may not be a penny in it, but I want to finish this. I want to complete the task this note started," she said. Given the recent tragedies, "I don't have a lot of positives in my life. But this has kept me busy all summer, and nobody's going to dash this for me."

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