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Presentation by Denver Mint makes cents to students

Children join Rotarians to get the scoop on legal tender

By Patty Unruh

Gilpin County School fifth graders and their teachers broke “bread” with Peak to Peak Rotary Club members at the Rotarian’s weekly lunch meeting April 11. As National Coin Week will be observed April 21 through 27, it was appropriate to have the Denver Mint’s public affairs representative, Tom Fesing, on hand to educate the children and Rotary members with fascinating facts about coins.

The 34 students – and Rotary members – were good as gold during Fesing’s entertaining and informative presentation. The meeting was held at the Isle of Capri Casino, a fitting setting for the group to learn about cold, hard cash. The field trip gave the pupils a chance to escape the school cafeteria for a more sophisticated buffet lunch in a grown-up atmosphere.

Not many of the youngsters had had the opportunity to visit the Mint. Fesing made coin history relevant to the group when he related that if gold hadn’t been discovered in Gilpin County, there wouldn’t be a Mint in Denver today.

Fesing’s audience observed Power Point photos of mintage history while he filled them in on events. In 1858, Fesing said, gold was discovered along the banks of the South Platte River. Most of the gold discovered was in the form of dust, called placer gold. John Gregory found gold in a gulch of upper Clear Creek, and Black Hawk and Central City were born. By 1865, miners were extracting gold and silver from the rock, melting it, making it into bars, and shipping it to the Mint. Coins were made in $20, $10, $5, and $2.50 denominations.

In early Denver, miners used gold dust as money. A pinch of gold dust was worth 25 cents. The problem with using gold dust was that it could fall out of a pocket and blow away. Banks might underpay the miners, or miners cheat the banks.

To solve these problems, a private bank based in Kansas set up a mint in Denver and produced gold coins. President Abraham Lincoln was not too happy about a private bank minting money, so he met with attorneys at the Treasury Department. They said he couldn’t do much about it but buy the business, so the government did buy it from the bank in 1863 and made it into the first Federal mint. A watchtower was added for workers to look out for attacks by Native Americans, but ironically, no money was then minted. Instead, the Mint was used as an assay office – they checked to see how pure the gold was, formed it into bars, and shipped it to New Orleans, where the coins were made.

Finally, construction on the Denver Mint was done from 1898 to 1904. The building was designed after a palace in Italy, and the first gold coin was made there in 1906, worth the grand sum of five dollars. The Mint is now the largest in the world, with the capacity to make 50 million coins a day, though twenty-five million is closer to the actual quantity.

There are four mints in the U.S., located in Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and West Point, New York. Denver makes coins for the western half of the U.S., and Philadelphia for the eastern half.

San Francisco produces 90 percent silver proofs for collectors. Those are encapsulated in hard plastic to protect the coins from dirt and fingerprints.

The West Point, New York Mint was just started in 1986, but it makes the most expensive coins in world. A very special one mentioned by Fesing was the September 11 National Medal. Another was a fifty dollar Buffalo coin, which would cost $2,089 to buy as an investment coin – not exactly chicken feed. People who buy this type of coin keep it in a safe or other secure place and hope the value goes up.

Fesing stressed to the children and Rotary members that the mints only make coins. “Who makes the paper money?” he quizzed them. The answer was the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, DC and in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Fesing displayed a photo of a building that looked much like a prison or military stronghold, with wire fences and machine gun nests. The U.S. Bullion Depository, more commonly known as Fort Knox, is where gold bars are stored. “This is where we keep the butter reserve for the U.S.,” he joked.

The Denver Mint is actually the fourth largest storage place for gold on the planet, Fesing informed the group. Even some gold from Gilpin County is stored there. No visitors are allowed, and the Mint has its own police force to protect it. “Even I don’t get to see it,” Fesing admitted.

He went on to describe some of the new coins being made. The children were able to tell him that the new penny has a shield on it, and he explained that the penny is called the Lincoln “Union” cent. Every 50 years, he said, they make a new kind of penny to honor Lincoln on the anniversary of his birthday, adding that four designs were made in 2009 for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday.

The 2012 Native American dollar shows Sacagawea on the front, and on the back, the Plains Native Americans. This year the Delaware tribes are depicted, and every year a different tribe will be honored.

The “America the Beautiful” coin program has 56 new quarter designs that the Mint began releasing in 2010. The coins will be released at five per year, depicting national parks and other sites. Colorado has more national federal sites than any other state, Fesing advised, and the artwork for the Colorado quarter will show the Great Sand Dunes National Park. That coin will be released in June 2014.

Artwork is of paramount importance in coinage; in fact, it is the first thing needed to make a coin. Fesing invited the students to enter a contest to design the new Baseball Hall of Fame dollar coin, which runs from April 11 to May 27. Details about the contest are available on usmint.gov/kids.

The Mint has eight artists, who begin by making line drawings with paper and pencil. Their challenge is creating the art in a small space. They also work in plaster, engraving with a knife on clay. The front of the coins is re-sculpted annually to show the new year.

The artists have been using computer technology since 2007. They move a special pen over the screen to engrave and sculpt. The image is computerized, and stamping tools and dies are produced to make the artwork on the coin. The image produced is negative, or backward, as in a mirror; when stamped, the image will be positive.

The Mint works with metal companies from South America, Europe, Colorado, and many other places. These companies provide the metal in coils and truck the coils to the Mint, where they are put on a spindle and fed into a machine at the rate of 14,000 blanks per minute. The coins are heated so they will soften up enough to be stamped with the artwork. Then the coins are washed with soap and water.

Next, a raised rim is made around the sides of the coins in an “upsetting mill.” The purpose is to protect the artwork from wear and tear and make the coins stackable. The blanks are spun around in the upsetting mill, squeezing the interior of the hot coin and raising the rim. The scrap metal that is left is recycled. The blank coins are fed into the top of a coining press, shot down a “roller coaster” in single file, and stamped.

Fesing told the kids that they would each receive a free sample of a new 2013 penny and a blank. After that exciting news, he challenged the children and adults to race with one another in their imaginations to see who could make the most coins the fastest. When he gave the signal, they were to begin pounding their fists together to simulate the coining press. “Go,” he said, and about a second later, “Stop.”

No one went quite fast enough to compete with the Mint’s 50 coining presses, each of which make twelve and a half coins per second. But Fesing encouraged everyone. “We do need people to engineer and design these machines,” he said. He showed video of the machine’s action – it was like a machine gun, stamping out the coins with a constant “pocketa-pocketa” and popping them into collection bins. Mint workers quality-check one coin every ten minutes with a magnifying glass, he said.

The coins are then dropped into the basement through a hole in the floor, where they are counted, put in bags, and sent to banks in – obviously – unmarked trucks. If there is a mistake, all the coins from that batch get “waffled,” or destroyed and recycled. “Denver doesn’t make mistakes, though,” Fesing affirmed to general laughter. “That’s Philadelphia.”

After all that work, the coins end up in piggy banks, purses, and slot machines as small change and meter money – quite a change from the gold dust days.

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