May 24th is National Scavenger Hunt Day, so we decided to share a family’s story of their Buried Treasure!
As the deep blue of the pre-dawn sky enveloped The Point of Oak Island, two men were quietly at work. They were moving sand, the inked forearm of one rippling as he lifted each shovel-full. Sweat began to bead on the goateed face of the other. They moved quickly and quietly, knowing that their job needed to be completed before dawn. No prying eyes could know the location of the treasure.
It probably took a full hour for the two to create a hole wide and deep enough for the large chest, to hoist it along with its contents inside and to cover the evidence of their mission.
During the magical time of twilight, it is easy to imagine this scene with the participants in rich velvet waistcoats and large hats with feathers. Had this been the 1700’s when the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet had vessels moored in the Cape Fear River, the men may have boarded a small row boat to return to the Royal James, the secret location of their treasure passing as lore through the ages.
But these men had a much different mission. They wanted their treasure to be found, just by the right group of treasure seekers – a group of young explorers who were still soundly asleep in their beds inside Brigantine II.
A Grand Plan
The goateed figure, known to the explorers as Poppy, is no pirate. Known to the rest of the world as JR McKenzie, he is an engineer with a penchant for creating memorable experiences for his loved ones.
JR and his wife, Penny, first came to the area in the late 1970’s. “Everything was just so quaint and authentic,” says Penny. “Everyone made you feel like family when you got here.”
As the couple’s family grew, they continued to make the drive from Andrews, SC, to Oak Island for vacation. In the early 2000’s, JR began to nurture the spirit of exploration in his grandkids.
“I’m always taking seashells, you know the real pretty ones, and lining the beach…for my granddaughter or grandchildren to find,” says JR.
The idea for a treasure hunt grew in the back of JR’s mind year after year. In 2014, he buried an antique vase in the sand for his family to find.
“They [are] always looking at me when they dig it up like ‘yeah, I know you did this,’” says JR.
He was further inspired by a legend that he found on the internet. A story of a man finding a bag of clay balls in a cave, each clay ball filled with precious stones.
Inspiration for his plan kept revealing itself. During one vacation, their rental home had a pamphlet that told of Blackbeard’s exploits and of his ties to North Carolina.
And so the idea was hatched. JR knew he wanted to plan a treasure dig for a future vacation, but now he had to find treasure.
A Patient Hunt
During his travels for work, JR would take his lunch breaks and go to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. He knew that if he wanted to pull this off that he would need help. Unlike some of the pirates who sailed the waters off the North Carolina coast, JR had no trouble finding willing co-conspirators for his plan. Whether it was recruiting the ladies he met at the Goodwill in Monk’s Corner or a shopkeeper at Corner Collectibles in the same town, he would simply tell them “I’m going on vacation this summer with my grandchildren and I want to bury them a treasure chest.”
With this newfound help, he was able to locate much of the jewelry that looked like gold at Corner Collectibles along with some African combs. About 12 inches in length, JR says the combs “look like a shovel with a person on top of them.”
JR came across a wood cross that looked like it fit the right period at Goodwill for just 49 cents.
Penny found a mixture of real and costume jewelry in her own jewelry box that became part of the collection, including broaches that had belonged to her grandmother.
On a trip to Marshalls, JR found “diamonds” of various sizes and other faux gems that he would later hide in homemade clay balls.
The clay balls were a true labor of love. JR would collect buckets of clay from the hills near his home. He had experienced making something similar when baiting shrimp in South Carolina and put that knowledge to use to fashion clay around the faux rubies and diamonds.
For an extra flourish, he would scratch BB for Blackbeard on the balls before he would he would bake them in the sun on an iron table in front of his garage for around 10 hours.
JR conscripted one of his former co-workers, now the owner of a furniture store in Andrews, to help him locate a chest. The search proved to be a difficult one.
“Well time kept ticking by and he never could get his hands on a chest,” says JR. “So finally about a month and a half before we went the only chest he came across was that big one, which was bigger than I wanted.”
A bigger chest meant JR needed more treasure. The McKenzie’s were arriving on Oak Island a week before their grandkids, so there was a mad dash for the items that would top off the chest.
Penny took to the internet to order bags of faux pearls and pieces of 8 coins. JR set out to local thrift and pawn shops.
One local shopkeeper “dug threw all his junk boxes and came out with probably a double handful of fools gold…and a couple of old boxes,” says JR.
Perhaps one of his best resources for pirate’s booty was Cash Unlimited Pawn Shop on Long Beach Road. “I went in there and talked to the lady that owned the store and explained what I was doing and she sold me 2 swords, a dagger, a bunch of coins,” says JR. “She came up with a tremendous amount of stuff.”
The McKenzies, seasoned vacationers to the area, knew there could be other hurdles to overcome for their plan to work. At the forefront of their minds was the actual process of burying the chest and where it should be buried. They knew The Point had recently been re-nourished and young sea grass planted near their vacation rental.
Penny contacted Skip Cox with the Oak Island Beach Ambassadors to get their plan approved. “You don’t want to go out there and disturb things that shouldn’t be disturbed,” says Penny.
Penny found Cox and the Town of Oak Island were a great resource. They directed and guided the McKenzies to ensure they would not disturb any nesting turtles and would minimize their impact on the beach.
Priming the Explorers
With the treasure secured and a stamp of approval from the beach ambassadors, other members of the McKenzie clan and some friends started to arrive. Their daughters Juliana McKenzie and Katie Painter were in on the ruse along with their son-in-law Brandon Painter. Juliana had brought her metal detector with her to the beach and would spend lazy afternoons searching the beach for treasure prior to the big day.
JR had located a copy of that same pamphlet they had come across during a previous visit and read it to the children in the house along with a book on pirates.
Penny, otherwise known as Mama 2, told stories during the week that not all of Blackbeard’s treasure had been found.
Penny says that Juliana would throw in there “oh my gosh wouldn’t it be something if we found Blackbeard’s lost treasure.”
As far as the children knew, that coming Tuesday at the beach would be like many they had spent before. They would wake to the smells of chocolate chip pancakes, waffles, bacon, eggs, sausage and blueberries muffins cooking in the kitchen (Mama 2 and Poppy are quite famous for their breakfast spreads at the beach). Mama 2 had told them a photographer was coming for family pictures, but little did they know what was in store.
“They really and truly didn’t have a clue,” says Penny.
With only JR and Brandon knowing the exact location of the treasure, the crew set out for the beach on a cloudy morning. Still dressed in their clothes from the family portraits, they headed toward a row of beach chairs where Kayden Painter, 6, grabbed the metal detector to go treasure hunting with her aunt Juliana. The rest of the young children, Landon Thomas, 8, T.J. Thomas, 11, and Liam Flaherty, 5, quickly joined in on waving the metal detector across the sand as it emitted a methodical “beep, beep.”
Within minutes the beeps began to come more rapidly. The young explorers had found something!
They took to their hands and knees and began to dig, first with hand shovels and then, feeling that this slowed them down, with their hands.
Reinforcements were summoned. Cindy Willard and Katie brought larger shovels. Carson Willard, 14, joined the children on the ground and began digging.
One of the first items that were unearthed appeared to be an old metal lamp – something that a pirate could have placed a candle in to light up a dark night on the high seas.
Before long, T.J. hit upon something very solid. As more sand was moved, he revealed the gold hilt of a sword. As he pulled the sheathed sword from the sand, Kayden gasped in disbelief.
Could it be possible that they had uncovered Blackbeard’s long lost treasure?
With each find, the urgency grew. Landon unearthed a small clay ball and a necklace with multi-colored stones. As if he didn’t believe his luck, he turned from digging just long enough to show the necklace to Carson and Juliana.
T.J. found a long strand of pearls and another clay ball. Landon held up a broach with stones that gleamed blue, green and purple. Poppy had to bring an orange sand pail over to start to collect all of the items.
Buried eight inches under the sand, the top of the chest had not appeared after close to 20 minutes of digging.
Convinced there was more treasure to be found, the children called in JR and Brandon to unearth what they had secretly buried that morning.
After much digging, a rusty chain and the top of a wood chest began to peek through the sand. With the top revealed, T.J., Landon, and Carson used the small shovels to dig the sand away from around the chest so it could be opened.
As the chest opened there was a mad dash to free the chest of its contents. Kayden grabbed a green, glass box. T.J. carefully removed a sculpture of a serene ivory figure. Landon handed a sheathed dagger to Poppy.
As the noonday sun beat down from above, Liam pulled out a braided gold chain, a delicate gold bangle and a spiral seashell from the chest. Anna Carson, 17, held up another gold necklace for the children to add to their buckets.
The contents of the chest seemed to contain items that had come from Africa, Asia, and other far-flung countries. There were boxes of coins and exotic sculptures, jewelry galore and even a wooden cross.
As the clouds began to part, the boys stripped off their white polo shirts so they could continue to dig unencumbered. In the parching heat, JR braved a swig of a red liquid he found in a glass vessel, puckering his face in a bit of playacting for the grandkids.