Treasures come in all different shapes and sizes, but for retired Monroe County Treasurer Merrill Prange, treasures are thousands of years old and represent Monroe County’s past.
When Prange got out of the Army after he was wounded in the Vietnam War, he didn’t have a job for a few months.
“I was bored,” he said with a chuckle. “I started walking around right outside my house in Fults and happened to find a couple of arrow points.”
From there, he was hooked.
“I’ve always been interested in archaeology, ever since I was a kid,” he said. “It just grew from there.”
After working in the hustle and bustle of both Valmeyer and Waterloo, he enjoyed being able to go out in the peace and quiet of nature and look for artifacts.
“When you have a desk job, it’s good to get out and do some walking,” he said.
Prange has a collection of Native American artifacts that he’s never counted, but he guesses he has a few thousand pieces. His collection contains everything from arrow points to tools to pieces of pottery.
“I have a lot of shell beads and bone implements,” he said. “There was a lot of agriculture as well, so I find a lot of hoes, too.”
The pieces range in age, and he said his oldest pieces are around 10,000 years old.
Two archaeologists came to the area last year to catalog Prange’s collection, and he said it took them six days because of how many pieces he has.
“They took 10,000 photos before they left,” he said. “I keep everything catalogued with where it came from, so it makes (my collection) valuable not monetarily, but for informational purposes.”
Prange knows the value of his collection, and takes steps to preserve his artifacts like keeping them in a safe deposit box and a fire safe.
“You’d hate to lose these things because they’re irreplaceable,” he said. “They’re one-of-a-kind; once they’re gone, they’re gone. Things like these go way beyond monetary value.”
Over the years, many people have shown interest in Prange’s collection.
“It seems like Native American things always draw a crowd,” he said. “People hang around and ask questions.”
Much of what Prange has learned about his collection over the years has been from other experts and archaeologists in the field, and his knowledge has grown with his collection.
Though he has never worked directly with any museums, he does have archeologists who come and look at his artifacts and photograph specific pieces.
He doesn’t get out to look for artifacts for as many hours as he used to, but Prange still enjoys going out for short periods of time to see what he can find.
The way local farmers till their soil now doesn’t bring as many artifacts to the surface, he said, but the best time to go look is still right after they’ve turned up the soil.
“You can still find artifacts all over Monroe County, though,” he said. “Things will wash out of creek banks and people will find things in their gardens.”
Locals often come to Prange for insight when they find artifacts, knowing he can help them figure out more about where a piece came from and how old it is.
“I try to give them a straight answer to the best of my knowledge or find them a book that can help,” he said.
Prange speaks highly of his favorite set of artifacts found over the years: a cache of six spearheads he keeps in a display case.
“When I found those, I was kind of losing interest in the hobby because I hadn’t found anything for a while,” he said.
He’s also fond of a Mississippian chisel he found because of how perfect it is.
“I’m never going to sell it because it’s just such a beautiful piece of workmanship,” he said. “It’s finer than anything you can see made out of metal.”