A Vacation in the Springs

A great week in the mountains.

For the seventh time in nine years I spent early July in Colorado Springs at the American Numismatic Association (ANA) summer seminars. And just like the other years, this year was nothing but fun. Where else can you spend a week talking about coins or paper money and not have your listener sooner or later change the subject? Here they just ask you more questions or tell you their own coin story.

I usually drive so I can spent a leisurely time getting there and a week in the mountains afterward. This year I had more time. I went early and stayed longer. I wasn't due until Saturday, but I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, July 4. At the entrance to our Colorado College dorm I ran into my friend Sonny Henry and Gail Baker, the brains of the summer seminar. I told Sonny I had my new book along and wanted to present it and sell a few copies to the first week's seminar students. Gail immediately offered to set up a book signing during the ANA Library sale Sunday morning. I quickly accepted and eventually sold a respectable four copies of my new CD-ROM book, Money Meandering: An Introduction to Numismatics at the book signing. Thanks, Gail, you gave me some much needed exposure. You can learn more about this book and order a copy at my web site www.WorksandWords.com.

This year the YN (Young Numismatists) auction was held during the first week's seminars. The proceeds of this auction that the YNs prepare and put on go towards scholarships for the YNs. Everyone donates numismatic items to the auction. The YNs reap the benefits. I was here three days early so I could attend the auction on July 4th. Sonny Henry, our man from Illinois, did a bang up auctioneering job again. It was fun as always, but I like the old days when everyone was there at once, when the seminar was only one week instead of two separate weeks. In those days the auction seemed a lot better and made a lot more for the YNs. They made around $11,000 this year, only half of what they have made in some recent years. Besides, with the YNs attending classes the first week, we missed them during our classes the second week.

Randy'L Teton, the 24-year-old woman who modeled for the Sacagawea dollar, is an intern at the ANA this summer. Very outgoing and positive, she attended classes and gave an uplifting speech at the end of the first week. She told about her mother's work curating the Albuquerque Native American Museum and how Glena Goodacre, the artist who designed the coin, came into the museum looking for information about Native Americans and went out wanting to use her mother as a model. The mother said, "No way. But I have three daughters who would do much better." Glenda choose Randy'L and the rest is history.

With time on my hands before classes, Thursday I went up to Cripple Creek, a former gold mining boom town. I crammed myself into a four-by-four lift bucket with six other visitors. Eight more crammed into a similar bucket stacked below us. The lift took us down a thousand feet into the Molly Kathleen gold mine. We walked through a quarter mile of rock tunnels and saw the cumbersome tools of the trade and vertical shafts, the result of god-awful labor. A lamp remained lit telling us it was safe to stay. If it goes, out everyone has to get out or die for lack of oxygen. As I left, the thirty-something, ex-miner guide told me, "Don't ever be a miner, whatever you do." I won't.

Still free the next day, I went the other direction--up--to the top of Pike's Peak to take in the view that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful" in 1895. This time I choose the cog railway for a beautiful ride through evergreens and aspens and, above 11,500 feet, past bare rock, climbing grades as much as 25 percent. I had driven up the 14,000-foot mountain three times before, but this was my first time on the railway. Both ways offer unique views of the ecosystem and the mountains to the north, south, and west and over Colorado Springs into Kansas to the east. Take either trip if you ever have the opportunity.

Saturday morning came and I signed in and took up residence in a hot but completely adequate college dorm room. My friend Rich shared the room with me. Settled in, I headed for the Colorado College cafeteria for a full and wholesome meal, the first of many good meals. This week of living and learning only cost me a bit over $500 for room, board, and tuition--a small sum for a week's vacation complete with learning and the companionship of all manner of numismatists.

Later, several of us took a shuttle bus over to the Colorado Springs Coin Club coin show. The room was awfully hot, but there were so many coins to look at. I sold a copy of my book and bought the only coin I bought all week, a little cup-shaped coin of the Himyarites made around 100 of the common era. The Himyarites are one of the South Arabian countries that colonized the northern Ethiopian plateau. Their alphabet, the one on this coin, was the forerunner of the modern Ethiopian alphabet.

Classes began Sunday afternoon. This summer I took the seminar on obsolete currency lead by Roger Durand, a prolific author on the subject. His writings include the major work on Rhode Island obsolete notes and several other books, many with titles that start with "Interesting Notes about ..." About Denominations, About Territorials, About Vignettes (1 and 2), About Portraits, About Santa Claus, About Allegorical Representations, and About Historical Vignettes. More are coming.

One of my classmates was Wendell Wolka, author of the upcoming book on Ohio obsoletes. Roger and Wendell left few questions unanswered during the week. Dealer Judy Kagin and Iowa regional ANA representative Brian Fanton along with five other lesser-knowns (including me) made up the remainder of the class.

Roger began by defining obsolete currency as almost any currency made between the 1790s and the 1860s when the government began making currency and put private bank currency out of business. Insurance companies, railroads, stores, and many other places issued paper currency right along with the banks during that time. Many bad notes circulated with the good. It wasn't easy to determine whether the money you received across the counter was good or not.

Early on we learned about counterfeiting and counter-counterfeit measures. We then spent an afternoon talking about odd denomination currency, like, 1/90th dollar, 1 cent, 4 cent, 6-1/4 cent, 12 cent, $1.87-1/2, $2.25, XI dollar, and $65. Confederate notes took up an afternoon and more. Then there was the afternoon in the library learning about the currency books available as resources.

Historical vignettes (pictures) like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Henry Hudson discovering the Hudson River, Pocahantas saving John Smith, Red Stick (Baton Rouge), the battle of Lexington, and many more took one afternoon. Not to be outdone by history, we studied notes with Santa Claus. Seven different Santa Claus vignettes are on 30 to 40 different notes. (I forgot the exact number of notes for this important fact.)

Finally, we spent Thursday, our last day, learning how to determine what these notes are worth on the currency market--what we should pay for them and what we should ask for when selling them. Roger gave us charts based on rarity and where the notes came from. Then he told us that, in reality, a few specialists in the field establish the market pricing by the seat of their pants. Most collectors and many dealers use the extensive catalog listings of currency dealer Hugh Shull as a price guide. We looked at 25 to 30 notes and priced them according to Roger's charts and then compared our guesses to Roger's and Hugh's numbers. With practice, we got closer to Roger and Hugh, who didn't always agree between themselves.

Thursday brought a grand banquet with swordfish and all the trimmings. The college caterers did a wonderful job. Instructors were recognized and awards were presented. People began to filter to the airport and their cars. Another seminar was over.

Obsolete currency was a new subject for me. Like every other ANA seminar I have attended, I came away with a large body of information that will take me a while to digest.

The vacation was only half over. Friday morning I boarded a post-seminar ANA bus for Denver where we toured the mint and the Colorado Historical Society's museum. Most mint visitors walk along closed-in catwalks high above the floor. We were privileged to take a special floor tour where we could put our hands in bins of thousands of cents, nickels, dimes, and Rhode Island quarters and look closely at the equipment. Security at the mint is very tight. They do not easily grant permission for floor visits. Some of us had to even take off our shoes on the way out because the steel toes set off the metal detector's alarms. Our 1993 floor tour was the first granted in 17 years. Barbara McTurk, then outgoing director of the mint, gave permission as a special favor to the ANA. Since then the ANA has been able to get the same floor tour almost every year.

The mint has cleaned up and soundproofed most of the plant since my first floor tour in 1993. It's a much quieter and tighter ship today than it was then. But I regret that we saw neither the counting room nor the die engraving room. That's where the mint has made major changes recently. In the counting room they now package the coins in big containers rather than the $50 and $1000 bags of old. The engraving room is entirely new since 1993. Both places were high on my list of things to see this time. Both were off limits that day. Maybe some other day.

Jay Johnson, the outgoing director of the mint, went on the tour with us and fielded questions before and after the tour. His answers were very diplomatic and politically correct. The plant manager and foremen told the real stories. In one exchange, Mr. Johnson took fifteen minutes to navigate his way around answering why we don't just quit making the paper dollar and mint only the coin dollar. He droned, "Well the dollar bill is known and trusted around the world...." [It isn't the dollar bills around the world, Jay. It's the hundreds and the fifties.] "We have been using it so long and there would be a public outcry...." [After a while, Jay, they'd get used to it and begin to realize how much money it is saving for the government.] "There's a long tradition of the dollar out there...." [Come on, Jay, tell the truth, there's a vested interest in keeping the paper: there is a big lobby in the person of a lot of Bureau of Engraving and Printing workers who are likely to loose their jobs if we stop printing the billions of paper dollars we print every year.]

On the way home I spent two days camping on the remote northern rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, drove down a favorite canyon on Rt 141 in western Colorado, went through Silvertown and Durango, took pictures of a steam engine pulling several cars of waving tourists across a remote, rolling mountain valley north of Chama, New Mexico, went to the source of the Rio Grande, and slept at 11,000 feet on the continental divide. I stretched my mind in Colorado Springs; I stretched my soul in the Rockies.

But the coin vacation was not quite over. In the middle of a very hot and humid day, I spent three hours viewing the Byron Reed coin collection in the Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Large, vertical display cases showed both sides of coins, tokens, and medals. Gold and silver type coins, Civil War tokens, Indian Peace medals, merchants tokens, mint tools and errors, and many other themes each stood in their own case. Text clearly described what I was viewing.

I completely enjoyed my afternoon with the collection, including viewing a Class 1 1804 dollar in PF-65, PF-67, or some obscenely higher grade. What a beauty! An 1877 $50 Half Union gold pattern, a remarkable NE Shilling, a mint state 1797 capped bust gold eagle, and an 1850 Dubosq $5 gold piece shared the case with the 1804 dollar. I gawked! I came back again and again to the case. I walked around and around it. What a display! The dollar alone probably would go for three or four million on today's market. And the sign said, "No pictures please"! Curator Larry Lee, after doing such a great job here, has left this collection and taken up the helm at the ANA museum.

What a busy two and a half weeks! Once again, early July on the edge of the Colorado Rockies was flat-out fun. I cannot wait till next July. Bring it on!

Copyright © 2001-2006 Mike Metras, www.WorksAndWords.com