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Finding a Buffalo Nickel in Your Pocket

It wasn't often that a kid of the 60's had change in his pocket. At least it wasn't often that I did. Come to think of it, I'm short of cash right now.

Some things never change.

But go back to 1967, and if a fortunate youngster found himself with a chunk of change in his pocket, the odds were pretty favorable that among the coinage was a Buffalo Nickel or two.

I capitalize the name out of regard to the greatest coin ever minted in US history, IMHO, as well as the opinions of millions of other fans.

And once upon a time, long years ago, the Buffalo Nickel was common coinage in the US.

We have Teddy Roosevelt to thank for the beautiful, timeless design of the nickel, which paid homage both to the native American and the bison, both of which were once commonplace across the vast, free plains of pre-Columbian North America.

Roosevelt was not a fan of the Liberty head nickel in usage when he assumed the office of President. He found its simplistic design ugly, and was also unimpressed with its relatively flat relief. So in 1911, he authorized the head of the US Mint to hire James Earle Fraser to design a radically new nickel.

Fraser used a composite of countenances from three different Indians: Iron Tail, Two Moons and John Big Tree. He created the dignified, proud image that would adorn the nickel's obverse during its lifetime from 1913 to 1938. And on the reverse side, of course, was the magnificent buffalo.

By 1880, the beast was nearly extinct. Fortunately, a concerted effort was made to preserve the few that were left. In 1911, the numbers of bison were perhaps 2,000 (down from 100 million). Legend has it that Fraser used Black Diamond, who lived at the Central Park Zoo, as his inspiration for his artwork.

The nickel had some growing pains. The original design put the the value at a high raised point, which meant that it wore down very quickly. Fraser redesigned the coin during its first year to lower FIVE CENTS' position. The date was placed on a similar high spot, but that was never addressed. Thus, heavily worn examples are truly timeless, showing no date at all.

I remember my sweet grandmother giving me a box full of nickels that she had accumulated over the years when I was perhaps six years old. I was pleased to find a passel of Buffalo Nickels in the mix. Of course, being a kid with a sweet tooth, I wasn't pleased enough to hang on to any of them. Thus, I contributed to the fact that there were still quite a few Buffalo Nickels in circulation in the 60's, some thirty years after the design was discontinued.

But little by little, they were grabbed up and stuck in sock drawers. Supposedly, one in 25,000 nickels in circulation today is a genuine Buffalo, according to Wikipedia.

There has been clamoring for reissuing the much-beloved design almost since its initial discontinuation. While the US Mint has resisted the reinstatement of the original coin, in 2005 Boomers were delighted to find in their pocket change a new nickel with a buffalo on its reverse, commemorating the westward expansion of Lewis and Clark.

They were grabbed up by collectors in short order, but there are still quite a few kicking around.

Perhaps one day the classic design of Fraser will again see light. Who knows, maybe President Obama has some sweet memories of discovering a Buffalo Nickel in his own 1960's pocket change.

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