Five years ago, in December of 2012, Bruce Cohn decided that his fellow Petalumans needed to get out and explore their town more often, preferably with their eyes open and their heads up.
“I’d been hiking and biking all over Petaluma, which is just a beautiful town, one of the most beautiful in the world, I think,” explains Cohn, speaking by phone. “And I saw a lot of people sitting around, even walking around, while looking down at their cellphones. They live in Petaluma, but they aren’t looking around at Petaluma. That gave me an idea of how to get more people outside, and looking up from their devices.”
That idea was the Petaluma Holiday Treasure Hunt, which just turned five years old.
Ironically, since it was people’s addiction to those “devices” that largely inspired Cohn, the city-wide Treasure Hunt he eventually devised delivers its clues through an online Facebook page.
Call it fighting the internet with the internet.
“To start out, I hid my business card somewhere in town, then took a really wide picture of it, a picture of the card surrounded by whatever benches or bushes or fences there were all around it,” Cohn explains. On the Facebook page he created, he posted a closely cropped version of that photo, with a promise that whoever identified the location and found the card, then contacted him, would win $25. Every day, Cohn revealed a little more of the photo,. Eventually, one of the Facebook viewers made a calculated guess, ventured out into the wilds of Petaluma, and found the card. “That first winner, she’s still playing, all these years later,” Cohn says. “She’s probably won more time than anyone else. She’s really into it.”
“Really into it” also describes Cohn’s commitment to the unique, somewhat eccentric activity he created. Having started the hunt at Christmas, and hoping to keep the treasure hunt from becoming routine, he decided to stick to the holiday theme, linking each new treasure hunt to a different holiday — Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving — spreading them out throughout the year.
“And in December, we do a new hunt every weekend throughout the whole month,” Cohn says, “just for fun.”
Cohn admits it took a while for the page to catch on, with new folks discovering the Treasure Hunt mainly through word-of-mouth. He knew that the more people who “liked” the Holiday Treasure Hunt page — if you’ve been on Facebook, you’ll know what that means — the more folks were out there playing.
“It took forever just to get to fifty likes,” Cohn recalls.
Gradually, as more people started playing, certain details of the game evolved, while Cohn tinkered with the concept. The prize amounts have grown, for one thing. This last December, every weekend saw two separate hunts, one with a $25 prize, and one with a $100 prize. To make sure that plenty of different folks have an opportunity to win, the rules have been adjusted so that only one member of a family can claim a prize during a specific hunt, and must post a selfie of themselves having found the Winner Card, then call Cohn to make arrangements to pick up the prize.
“The selfies are great,” says Cohn. “If you look at the faces of these kids after they’ve found the prize, the smiles on those faces, it’s just the best thing in the world. That, for me, is what it’s all about.”