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Peoria treasure hunters unearthing history, one artifact at a time

Tim Shelley
Kayla and Robert Moran are the Dusty Treasure Hunters of Peoria.

There's local history to be found in the backwoods and creeks of Central Illinois. Robert and Kayla Moran are discovering Peoria stories, one item at a time.

The Peoria couple operates a business as the Dusty Treasure Hunters of Peoria. Discoveries range from glass bottles and Mason jars to old metal toys and clay pipes. Kayla Moran explained how they define a "treasure."

"I would say probably anything from the past that we've never seen before that interests us, that we get to learn what it is, where it came from, who maybe even used it, and the whole story of behind it," she said.

Robert Moran said they conduct hours of research before ever going out on a dig. That includes pulling up old insurance maps and comparing the terrain to modern Google Maps images to see what's different, and what's unchanged.

"We like to get out into the creeks and streams and then nature, and will walk into the water. You know, the common belief back then was that the water would wash away the trash. So they just dumped wherever was opportune. They would dig holes in their backyards, they would dump it down the hillside out back, you know," he said. "And so we like to get in the woods. And we'll walk around, and we find trails of glass from erosion. And, you know, that kind of gives us an idea of where we might be able to hunt."

Tim Shelley
A silver spoon and pre-Prohibition celluloid beer foam scraper are among the items discovered by Robert and Kayla Moran, the Dusty Treasure Hunters of Peoria.

A regular shovel is used to probe the ground. Once a hole is opened up, the Morans switch to smaller hand tools to dig around without damaging bottles and other fragile objects.

The Morans said it's never a good idea to just head into the woods and start digging.

"It's a good idea to give you an idea of where you might be able to dig, but you usually always have to get permission. I would never condone people just going out in the woods and tearing up holes," said Robert Moran.

He said it's important to familiarize yourself with an area before going out to dig a hole or look for artifacts.

"We have an amazing hobby here that we're trying to protect. So we don't want anyone to go out and just start digging holes anywhere and everywhere," he said.

After digging up an object, the Morans often have more research to conduct. Bottles can be dated by the glass manufacturing style, for instance. Old books and census data also hold clues which can be woven together to tell a story.

Tim Shelley
A few of the bottles unearthed around Peoria by Robert and Kayla Moran. The bottle on the far right once held water from the Peoria Mineral Springs.

Robert Moran's favorite find so far is a "fancy script" Coca-Cola bottle made before the company's logo was standardized. The bottle was only made in four Illinois cities: Chicago, Decatur, Mount Carmel, and Peoria.

Kayla Moran is fond of an old miner's carbide lamp. Her great-grandfather was a coal miner.

"The area that we were digging was around the area that he would have been a miner. And just to think that I might have found something that belonged to either him or one of his coworkers just brings you that much closer to that history, and makes it more relatable to that person," she said.

Kayla Moran said she hopes others are inspired to begin digging into their pasts for treasurers with personal meaning to them.

The Morans are fourth-generation Peorians. Kayla Moran said while many people often talk negatively about the city, their delve into local history has given them perspective.

"We see the growth that Peoria County has made, and we hope to help others to see Peoria as a community of people who are full of hospitality, rich in history and diverse in opportunity. We want others to like us take a sense take back a sense of pride in where we came from," she said.

"Too often we hear people say, 'Oh, Peoria, what are you doing here? You know, what, how'd you end up here? Why here?' You know, Peoria has great history. So being able to be a part of getting out there and discovering this history and finding is just, it's amazing for us," said Robert Moran.

Click here to find out more about the Dusty Treasure Hunters of Peoria.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.