They were hooked on the legend as kids. Now, brothers Rick and Marty Lagina could be writing a 200-year-old mystery’s final chapters on History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island.
“Hey, you’re the guy from that show.” The voice comes from down the stairs, where a man in work clothes spattered with paint and wood stain is finishing trim work in Marty Lagina’s mammoth Tuscan-inspired winery-to-be on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula. Marty actually passed him 15 minutes earlier on the way down the stairs. But the time in between down and up has apparently helped him place Marty’s face.
“Oak Island, right?” the man says, now confident he’s got the right guy.
Marty halts his step in a way that suggests he knows what’s coming next. The man switches into celebrity fan mode, forgetting for a moment the work Lagina is paying him to do. He explains how The Curse of Oak Island—the History channel’s popular reality show in which Marty and his brother Rick star—is one of his favorites. How he, like millions of others, follows the Lagina brothers’ Monday night adventures in cracking a more than 200-year-old mystery of buried treasure on a wild Nova Scotia Island. Like a lot of fans, he isn’t shy about floating a few of his own theories about the mystery either. Or swinging his arm up over Marty’s shoulder to pose for a photo. And then, post-handshake, post-nice-to-meet-you, comes the question. The one that seems to be nagging the Lagina brothers these days. And the one about which people are increasingly blunt.
“So you think you’re gonna actually find something this year?”
Marty’s brother Rick’s version of that story stars a tell-it-like-it-is grade-schooler from Escanaba, who, during a presentation at her school, unapologetically explained that if she’d found as little as the guys had in six years of digging on Oak Island, she’d have given up by now. Rick admits she has a point. In fact, his best explanation as to why they’re still at it after turning up only enough to make you wonder why they still have a television show is that they’re “Yoopers—and Yoopers don’t give up.”
To be fair, the Lagina brothers did not set out to make a reality TV show. That, like the legend of Oak Island itself, more or less found them. As Rick remembers it, he was 11 years old when he discovered the classic story of buried treasure inside a 1965 copy of Reader’s Digest he’d checked out from the school library. According to the article, a century’s worth of treasure hunters had tried and failed to excavate a mysterious depression on Oak Island rumored to be hiding something of great significance.
The prevailing lore among island residents had always been that a pirate colleague of Captain Kidd stashed a fortune in the so-called “Money Pit.” Other more creative theories suggested the buried cache contained the lost manuscripts of William Shakespeare.
Early digs at the site didn’t give up anything quite so interesting. But they did produce a handful of strange discoveries that would fuel the hunt for another century: a stone rumored to be engraved with strange symbols, platforms of timber buried at regular 10-foot intervals. Every excavation attempt, though, was eventually thwarted when the mine inexplicably flooded—leading to a theory that whoever stashed the cargo had also engineered a series of booby-trapped underground tunnels to protect it. Such unforeseen events only added to the mystery—as did the fact that several of the men who had become obsessed with the treasure had died trying to unearth it.
The legend had everything two kids who grew up devouring Hardy Boys books could ask for, and they both fell hard for the story. After reading it, Marty remembers they’d play out various versions of their own Oak Island mysteries—stomping around the woods near Iron Mountain, spending the better part of three summers digging for “Indian treasure” under one particularly immovable Upper Peninsula boulder. But though they came to the legend as children, their fascination proved to have surprising durability. As young adults, they found themselves still discussing it at holiday family gatherings. They talked about making a visit to the island someday.
Rick even made a habit of following the latest developments of Dan Blankenship—a rough-and-tumble Florida man who retired from a construction business to devote himself full-time to hunting the Oak Island treasure. In the storied lineage of those who have pursued the treasure, Blankenship stands out as folk-hero type figure. Starting in the 1970s, he excavated a whole new 200-plus-foot-deep “back door” into the Money Pit with not much more than pickaxes and muscle—reinforcing his mine’s walls with a system of railroad tank cars with the ends sawn off. To Rick, it was a feat of armchair engineering worthy of its own damn legend.
In the early 1990s, Rick even reached out to Blankenship, who he heard had run out of money and was looking for investors to continue the search. The closest he could get to Blankenship was his wife, Jane—who greeted Rick’s initial inquiries into coming to Oak Island simply by saying she couldn’t stop him from making the 1,400-mile trip to Nova Scotia if he really wanted to. It was invitation enough. And he and Marty, who were now in their 40s but just as curious as ever about the legend, decided they would make a pilgrimage to Oak Island.
“When we got to the causeway, both of us were so nervous, we were each trying to get the other to be the one to drive across,” Rick remembers. “And then, when we finally got the nerve to do it, we drove over, and who’s there but Mr. Blankenship. This very imposing man that we’ve read about is actually standing there at the other end of the causeway clearing trees. And we got out of the car, and he looked up, and he didn’t say a word.”
Not knowing what else to do, Rick said he spontaneously started to pitch in—helping push over trees that Blankenship was whipping with a chainsaw. The silent gesture, aided by a bottle of whiskey they had brought as a gift, eventually won a cautious entrée back to the house. The initial exchange of pleasantries seemed to be going better than Rick hoped. But just as he was working up the nerve to broach the subject of possibly joining in the hunt, Blankenship was unexpectedly called away on other business. He left hurriedly. And there was no mention of picking up the conversation at a later date.
“We basically got the bum’s rush off the island,” Rick says, laughing. “Don’t get me wrong, Dan wasn’t unfriendly. He just got up and said ‘I’ve gotta go,’ and ‘thank you for coming,’ and that was it.” The next day the brothers retreated back across the causeway and home to Michigan, taking with them only a vague feeling in Rick’s gut that they’d be back.
The brothers quibble over which one of them spotted the real estate ad in Islands magazine. Marty’s version of the story is that he was thumbing through the pages, killing time while on a trip in Florida. Rick thinks it might have been him. Either way, they both have the same memory of the most important details: More than a dozen years after their initial visit to see Dan Blankenship, Oak Island, of all places, was for sale.
“I remember seeing that and calling Rick and saying, ‘Hey, do you think we should look into this?’” Marty says.
He knew Rick, who had never been able to escape the orbit of the island’s mystery, wouldn’t have to chew on that question very long. They called the real estate agent’s number listed in the magazine. It turned out the island wasn’t exactly for sale. Instead, there was a plot of land on Oak Island that was about to go on the market. But for the brothers, it was a way to gain a foothold on the island and lay the groundwork for realizing a dream they had left—along with some half-finished glasses of whiskey—in Dan Blankenship’s living room.
It would take a few years, but their strategy and patience ultimately paid off. Buying Lot 25 on the island proved to Blankenship that the “Italians from Michigan” were serious. And around 2005, when one of Blankenship’s partners decided he’d had enough of the treasure-hunting business, the Lagina brothers put in their bid to buy the shares that would more or less amount to 50 percent ownership in the island, which measures shy of a mile east to west and not even a half-mile north to south.
At first, their chances didn’t look good. They were competing with a Swiss developer who actually put in a higher bid. But Blankenship, who had right of first refusal on the sale of his partner’s shares, chose the Lagina brothers’ lower offer. To Blankenship, they were like him: They were treasure hunters. And with the sun setting on the now 80-plus-year-old folk hero’s chances of solving the mystery, he likely realized partnering with the upstarts from Michigan might be his last best shot.
In reality, it was a partnership that made a lot of sense. Marty, who had made his fortune in Michigan’s oil and gas boom in the 1980s, knew how to dig a hole with more than just pick axes and sawed-off tank cars. And Rick’s near reverence for Blankenship was a key ingredient in always making the veteran treasure hunter feel like the decades he’d already sunk into the search were given their proper place.
“I still sort of think of us as the upstarts,” Rick says. “And I’m still not sure we’ve won Dan over even now. You have to understand that there are aspects to treasure hunting where one tends to get very protective. It’s treasure, after all. And Dan wants to solve this thing and is looking for answers. I’d like to get him some answers.”
With larger-than-life characters, a solid backstory and a potentially history-making ending, the situation had all the makings of a good TV show. And as it turned out, it didn’t take long for an actual TV producer to notice. It was Kevin Burns—the man who’s brought you everything from the History channel hit Ancient Aliens to The Girls Next Door, E!’s reality tour of Hugh Heffner’s (mis)adventures with his three live-in girlfriends. When Burns caught wind of what the brothers were up to, he went out to Oak Island himself to ask if he could document their adventure.
The Yoopers weren’t so sure they wanted to be on TV.
“Kevin really had to talk us into it,” Marty says. “What carried the day is that Rick is a true believer in this legend. In his heart, he believes something of historical importance really happened in this place. And he wanted to get the story out.”
It would be Readers Digest all over again. But on cable.
The Curse of Oak Island turned out to be that and then some. In its first season on History channel, the Laginas’ weekly adventure in treasure hunting found itself making Top 10 lists of cable programs—beating out favorites like Discovery’s Alaska: The Last Frontier, a reality show about an extended family of kooky off-the-grid homesteaders; and HBO’s McConaughey-fueled thriller True Detective. To be sure, Curse is much more like the former than the latter. Like almost all reality shows in this genre, it documents the goings-on of quirky people doing something quirky, crafting a slightly juiced-up storyline that more or less follows real events.
In the case of The Curse of Oak Island, the narrative thread is pretty obvious: We, as viewers, are following Rick and Marty as they try to find something at least resembling treasure. But when that plotline lags—as it often does—the producers spice it up with relevant trivia taken from the ancient lore of the island. For instance, in episode one, we learn that according to legend, seven people supposedly have to die in the quest to find the treasure before it will “reveal itself.” (The creators have titled this operation The ‘Curse’ of Oak Island, after all, and that is presumably the reason why.) Six have died so far, implying that either Rick or Marty could be next. The younger brother says they did have one close call where he almost knocked Rick’s head off with an excavator, but as of yet, no characters have been killed.
Both brothers are adamant they haven’t reached a point yet where the tail is wagging the dog: This adventure is still first and foremost a treasure hunt, not a television show. Marty insists there’s no script, nor are they asked to embellish things. For sure, they have to accommodate a few made-for-TV distractions they wouldn’t have to if this were just a treasure hunt—like being mic’d up all the time and doing the occasional on-camera interview to frame the action for viewers. But they both see these as small inconveniences.
Marty even seems understanding of the fact that the show’s producers have to take a few creative liberties to keep the storyline afloat. At times, it’s no doubt a challenge: In six years of digging, the most exciting things the Laginas have found are some coconut fibers dating back to the Middle Ages and a 17th-century Spanish copper coin. Not uninteresting, but not exactly mystery-solving either. Still, it’s enough to keep his older brother Rick going. And at least so far, History’s betting that it’s enough to keep viewers like the guy painting trim in Marty’s winery tuned in. After much speculation, the network is confirming Curse fans will get a season four.
But like when writers are coming off a slumping season of a popular TV series, you get the sense that Rick—who doesn’t even watch the show—feels some pressure to deliver something more substantial to viewers.
“This summer, we’re going to throw everything we’ve got into the search,” he says. “We’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it and we’ll continue to adapt and persevere. And hopefully, at the end of this summer, we’ll have the answers that we all seek. We’ll be able to walk into Mr. Blankenship’s kitchen and say, ‘Here, Dan, here’s your proof.’”
Indeed, the legacy of the Laginas’ search on the island may ultimately not be what they find, but what they do if their search fails. It’s clear now that the brothers are no longer mere outside admirers of the Oak Island mystery, as they were as kids. They’ve been absorbed into the story itself—as characters, participants—and pivotal ones, capable of writing the mystery’s future, and potentially final, chapters. One of the consequences of Curse has not only been a spreading of the gospel of the Oak Island mystery to millions of viewers, but raising the island’s profile in a way that likely means the investors that follow when the Laginas leave will have more of an interest in tourism and development. And a high-end resort on the island could easily put any treasure hunting to bed for good.
Rick, whose love for this legend now spans 50 years, is particularly troubled by this possible unintended outcome. He has always been fond of describing his brother and himself as “stewards of a great mystery” more than treasure hunters, and that may prove to be more true than he ever realized. Not only in bringing some kind of closure for living legend Dan Blankenship. Not only to make fans feel like they weren’t pouring their time into a reality TV sinkhole. But because treasure or no treasure, they are now burdened with being the men with the biggest say over whether the long lineage of Oak Island treasure hunters ends with them.
I guess one might call that a curse after all.
This feature on Rick and Marty Lagina was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
All photos of Rick and Marty Lagina used in this article are courtesy of Prometheus Entertainment & Oak Island Tours Inc.