A string of coincidences that inspire the phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ began to unfold when Clint Venable and two friends pulled over at Steve and Jill Williams’ house at 113 West Oakdale St. a few months ago and asked Steve Williams a question.
Venable and his friends are members of N.C. History Diggers. They travel around the state using metal detectors to dig for history, and history is exactly what they found a few feet from the front of the Williams’ house where a drain had been moved.
Williams said that Venable asked if he and his friends could sweep Williams’ lawn with their metal detectors and excavate any interesting finds.
“I was hesitant at first,” said Williams. “I was getting ready to mow, and I didn’t want them digging up my yard. Clint assured me they wouldn’t leave a mess, so I thought, ‘Why not.’ And they didn’t make a mess. I mowed right afterward and couldn’t tell where they had dug. They were looking for stuff I’m not going to find. I figured they’d find some nails from when I put on the new roof.”
What Venable found was not some roofing nails, but a belt buckle of sufficient age that it was marked NC State College (not University) and a coin.
And not just any coin. It was a silver French coin, a two-franc piece dated 1918. But not just any silver two-franc piece. The back of this two-franc piece did not have an image of Lady Liberty and the words “Liberte – Egalite – Fraternite” as would be expected, but instead read “Samuel R. Pruett, 2398382, 7th Co. 4th Regt. Mech Air Service A.E.F Mount Airy, NC U.S.A” and two holes were punched in the coin, one on each side.
Venable explained that dog tags were not issued to soldiers in World War I. The phrase ‘dog tag’ was not yet in use. Each soldier was expected to provide himself with a service tag, as they were then called, and most of them were simple affairs of stamped aluminum. But Samuel R. Pruett of Mount Airy took a more deluxe route.
Williams said he was a machinist, and the work was done professionally with a jig and a hydraulic press after the original engraving was scraped off.
“I’ll bet if you put that coin next to a similar coin, it will be thinner,” he said.
Steve and Jill Williams had no idea who Samuel R. Pruett was. The Williamses had bought the house only 15 years ago and had no connection to the Pruetts.
Venable went online and started searching. John Pruett of East Bend said he had gotten three phone calls within a few hours of Venable beginning to ask questions online.
“He Facebooked me and inquired if I knew of a Samuel Pruett,” said Pruett.
Indeed he did. Samuel Pruett Jr. was his father and Samuel Pruett Sr. was his grandfather. His grandfather had been a World War I vet.
Carol Pruett Gagin, another grandchild of Pruett, produced some family photos, one of Pruett and his brother Fred in their WWI uniforms. Fred Pruett had lived across the street and is buried in the cemetery at the end of the street.
Another photo showed Pruett with his wife and six children standing beside the Williams’ house, posing beside the chimney with its flanking windows. The exterior of the 1926 house has not been materially altered since the Pruetts lived there, save for vinyl siding and a new roof, and is easily recognizable in the photo.
After finding the Pruetts and concluding they were descendants of Samuel Pruett, Venable returned with them to the Williams home on Saturday to return their grandfather’s service tag to them.
The coin showed that Pruett was a mechanic in the Air Service, where he would have worked on WWI biplanes. John Pruett said that his grandfather had four slate pool tables at the race track at the hotel out at the hot springs that burned as well as owning three meat markets in Mount Airy, one of which was named Sanitary Meat Market.
Venable said he has been digging for history for five or six years. “But hardcore for the last two years,” he added. “It’s been every weekend.”
He said he focuses on houses of the approximate age of the Williams house, as that is where he’s had the best luck.
“We’ve found Mount Airy receptive. Seventy to eighty percent of the people we approach let us look. Some towns it’s a different story.”
Between Venable’s initial appearance at the Williams home until his return on Saturday, the parties involved noticed a string of interesting coincidences.
The 1918 coin, altered to identify a soldier in a war that ended in 1918, was found exactly 100 years later, in 2018.
Carol Pruett Gagin had met Venable previously, when he used his metal detector on her East Bend property and found a property marker for her that had gone missing.
Samuel Pruett Sr., whose service tag was lost, has the same birthday as Clint Venable, the man who found it.
And the drain that was moved, making it possible for the French coin to be rediscovered, was a French drain.
“I’ve knocked on probably 300 doors,” said Venable, and sometimes people won’t let us in their yards. “But I didn’t even get out of the car here. Steve was in the yard.”
“If I had found a silver franc, that would have been a good find,” said Venable. “But finding this special one with the history behind it and being able to find the connection to the person it belonged to, and the thrill of giving it back to his family has made this the best find I’ve found, bar none.”
After Venable had presented the service tag coin to the Pruett grandchildren, John Pruett put it away carefully in his wallet.
NC History Diggers can be found on Facebook.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.