The 235-year-old treasure hunt that sparked a TikTok phenomenon
“It still just blows my mind every day that people are so invested in this. I just hope they’ll continue to be, as it keeps unravelling.”
When Iris Rogers, 28, returned home to her family’s farm in New York state to start her own business, she became caught up with the hunt for the original deed to the 235-year-old property.
Her unfolding story uncovered secret written notes, a message in a bottle, mediums, a bible under a staircase, old poems, mysterious postcards, gold rings and lithographs.
All shared on TikTok, her rapidly growing audience loved every step.
To date, her story – three series with added specials and Q&As – has had 187 million views, with 1.4 million followers.
Although she has a duplicate of the original deed, the intrigue of the adventure, along with the mysterious, dramatic and humorous tone Iris brings to the platform, has captured the imagination of millions.
Origins lost in family folklore
The deed was traditionally handed down from generation to generation, but somewhere along the line, the original became lost.
The family folklore held that Iris’s great-grandfather, Elbert Rogers, kept it in an old milk can for safekeeping, but given that most of the farm’s cans were used to transport milk, doubt that the original still existed became stronger.
However, Iris saw there were still many old milk cans laying around the farm, so she thought it was possible the deed was hidden somewhere on the site.
Iris Rogers at her New York farm. Picture: Macy Saddington, via Zoom.
“Initially, what had me talking about all of my family stories was during the pandemic, when we were still in lockdown. I was isolated on the farm, really only spending time with my parents and we just got into evening hangouts, drinking cocktails, and my dad telling me about when he was growing up there and what my great-grandparents were like,” she said.
“The deed story about it being hidden, which I had heard at least a handful of times, eventually came up and then all this other stuff also started unfolding with details I hadn’t heard before.
“I was like, ‘nobody’s looked for it?’ and my dad admitted, no one had. I had a million questions so it automatically started snowballing like ‘where is it?’ ‘where did you hear that?’ and ‘who heard it from who?’. It just took off from there.”
In March 2021 Iris decided to document the search process, starting by searching every remaining milk can on the farm.
She didn’t find the deed, but it did begin the adventure.
“At first when I started sharing parts of the story that I had recorded, it was with my friends on Instagram, but it wasn’t really catching,” she said.
“So I thought, ‘I’ll just keep going’. Then somebody was like, ‘you should just try to put it on TikTok and see what happens’.
“So I did and then, overnight, it just went off and people were demanding more and I had already gone on with the journey. So I had to backtrack a little because now everybody wanted to see this,” Iris said.
Venturing into social media
When season one was posted the numbers grew exponentially, and people began to respond to the story in an almost movie-like fashion.
“It still blows my mind every day how far it’s come. It’s just crazy to me. I truly never would have expected this,” she said.
“I also did not expect the demand. I’ve taken almost a month’s break because it has gotten so demanding. I know once I start releasing the next parts, it’s almost like a train. I think it’s so easy with social media to forget the people behind the viral accounts that you follow are real, and they have real things going on in their lives.”
From Australia to Germany, Iris has fans spanning the globe. Many people have reached out to the model-turned-adventurer to send support and advice.
The model-turned-farmer created a sensation when she started documenting the search for the deed to the family farm.
“Currently where I am on TikTok, I’m stuck at where I left off and it’s taken me a very long time to be able to figure out the next part of it. So it’s really helpful when people have other suggestions because it gets me out of my head,” she said.
“I think the strangest thing though, and it hasn’t happened a ton, but being recognised has been weird. I still have a waitressing job to support myself besides my business. There was a guy who came up the steps and was looking for the guy to get gas for his boats and he goes ‘Are you that girl [from Tiktok]?’ and it was totally random and I was like whoa, this is just strange,” Iris said.
The journey isn’t just enjoyable to the followers, Iris is also learning new things about her family history. The family’s beloved apple trees held one of Iris’s favourite discoveries – a message in a bottle.
The bottle in the tree was a discovery that truly shocked all of us.
That tree is very old, it’s pretty much dead, and almost every single person in my family has fallen out of that tree at some point, except for me,” she said.
“Honestly, from the top when you’re looking down, there’s no way to see inside the tree. There’s a little hole, but I never really thought anything of it and I never looked down inside of it ever. So, the fact that there was actually something in there was amazing,” she said.
When season two aired, Iris had individual videos that reached 25 million views each and that’s when things really began to escalate.
Maintaining boundaries between her online presence and her own personal life became an priority.
“Through COVID, I really started to prioritise my own space and my own mental health and that’s another reason I had to take a break. I moved off the farm into a very small apartment about 20 minutes away,” she said.
“I still go every day and I still work there but working and living at the same location really wasn’t good and I kind of realised that, through TikTok. I needed space to be able to do editing and do my own thing and have my own routine.”
Iris was mindful of evolving public expectations in the transition from the initial season into the second season of the series.
“It felt a little bit more like higher stakes and a little bit more personal and I think the burnout comes from that demand and energy. So I really had to take a solid month to be able to get my head around the mental part of going viral and to set good boundaries, and routines for myself,” she said.
Keeping focus when a million people are watching
“I would definitely say the attention is something that I’m trying to really shed a little bit more light on,” Iris said.
“I’ve been kind of like the narrator so there’s almost a wall between me and my TikTok followers where they don’t really know me personally because I’ve just been the girl that’s telling the story. I admit I like having that wall because a lot of people don’t say too many things personally to me, or want to come for me,” Iris said.
“It’s been a little struggle, mental health-wise.
This last time I went viral, I gained over a million followers in two weeks. So I had a little panic. I was like, oh, a large city is following me. It’s a little overwhelming.”
“Also the research and the time. People see the one-minute videos and they instantly want the next one and I’m like okay, that took three days for me to figure out that chunk and then the editing time and now I’m working on the next piece, but it’s going to take me a minute. It’s not just instant like everybody wants it to be.”
Although the search for the deed continues, Iris is also busy as the co-founder and CEO of her own CBD brand Homestead Hemp, developing a medicinal hemp supply business on the farm.
“That’s another part where I can’t show all sides on TikTok because of restrictions. So not everybody gets to see everything. I also have to take breaks for certain times to actually fill orders or to restock, and deal with supply and inventory. All the stuff that comes with running a business,” she said.
A different future for the farm
Many followers have let Iris know they want to visit the old 1787 homestead to experience it first-hand.
“I had to be careful. I’m hoping next season is going to be more of a tour-centered season because there are things that [the farm] is missing like, we don’t have a public bathroom, we don’t have internet, we don’t have good zone service, she said.
“So I realised I wasn’t set up for the capacity of people who wanted to visit this farm, but it was really cool that, basically overnight, I was flooded with people asking ‘how do I see this place?’ ‘Can I stay overnight?’ ‘I don’t see anything on your website about booking tours?’
“All of a sudden, a whole lot of people wanted to come see it. That’s so crazy, because I never would have thought when I started this journey or my business, that we would reach so many corners where people would want to come to this little area in the middle of nowhere.
“When I’m there every day, I think ‘this is broken’, and some things are falling apart. But it’s good for me to remember that like people actually want to see it, and the authenticity of this very old farm.”
The farm now has a variety of options.
“In my dream, like maybe in the next 10 years, I would love to turn the farm into a destination for weddings and for people to visit the house to come and stay. That’s kind of been my dream for it for a long time. We’ll see if that happens,” she said.
There also have been calls from fans of the story to take it a step further in terms of a full documentary or a show.
“I can’t say too much, but at the same time, there are definitely some outside projects in the works, which I think followers are going to be really excited about when I can finally say something.
“I wouldn’t say something like a show is completely off the table, but It’s probably a ways out if it were to happen. There has been discussion, but nothing permanent or nothing working towards that. But there has been talk which, even if it’s a pie in the sky thing, is still very exciting.”
Season three began on November 15.
A fan’s perspective
Followers such as Harrison Vavra appreciate the time and effort that goes into her storytelling.
“The story is a series of twists and turns. Just when you feel as though you can predict where the tale goes, it changes direction. There is always more to uncover and on this historical scavenger hunt each new instalment is better than the previous one,” he said.
“The way Iris has tailored this experience to the TikTok platform really heightens the telling of her story. She has an almost classic film style that captivates the viewer and her approach is executed beautifully. The direct and purposeful way the videos are edited leaves the viewer eagerly awaiting the next video. Always wanting more! I’ve found that I could just keep watching them one after another.”
“Due to the three-minute time constraint of TikTok, it’s a difficult platform to present expansive TV shows and documentaries. Having said that, short focused videos are great for people who are unable to sit down and watch a lengthy documentary but who still need the stimulation of rich content.”