Digging antique bottles from the drunken cobbler
Whether you are into metal detecting, or digging antique bottles is you’re your main interest (or maybe both equally), you must keep your eyes open as you travel. Recently, while I was in a nearby town on business I noticed that a building had recently been demolished. Lots of broken bricks and other small rubble, but the ground was basically cleared. This was in the middle of the original town-site, so I stopped back to have a quick survey of the site and see if it looked like it would be worth trying a dig.
Working to find the pit
I began walking the back of the property and immediately saw broken glass and crockery mix with the soil. Broken tooled-top sodas and medicines laid all around so I felt it could be a very good spot. Sometimes these things can take a bit of time. I had to get permission, but I didn’t have time to start the process that day. Returning home, I tried to find something online, but this town didn’t have online records available. I scheduled another trip back a few days later. I stopped in to the county clerk’s office and quickly had the name and address of the property owner. After a short drive and a talk with the owner, I had full permission to dig! Once again, I was out of time and had to find time to come back to start the hard work.
Between work and weather, it took me a few weeks to get back to the site. Believe me, I wondered every day about the antique bottles that could be waiting! Fortunately, nothing had changed. I broke out the 4-foot probe and my diggers, then set to work. Beginning at the back, where the broken glass was, but I soon discovered this was going to be tough. I was getting contacts every place I probed across the rear of the property. Either it was one giant trash / privy pit, or this was going to be a lot of wasted effort. Sadly, it wasn’t a giant trash hole! Every spot I dug might produce a few broken bits but then I hit a solid brick layer. I think this must have been a foundation or basement floor to building that had been razed.
A pit at last
After 5 empty test holes I began exploring forward. There was no more broken glass in the central area, but I began seeing it again as I got closer to the front of the property. Then I began seeing bottles; whole, intact bottles laying on the surface. Not only whole bottles, they were tooled-top bottles. Unbelievably that there were intact, 100-year-old bottles just laying around and nobody had already taken them. A short distance from the surface bottles was a foundation wall corner and the soil was filled with broken glass, ash and brick.
I didn’t have a lot of time left but I decided to dig for an hour and see if was surface trash, or if there was actually a pit at the front. I immediately began digging up broken bottles and then intact bottles. There were bottles in piles. Yep, this was what I was looking for and it needed a lot of digging! That last test dig gave up a whiskey bottle, many broken whiskeys, and numerous shoe polish bottles, and a tiny cobalt-blue medicine dose cap.
Paper labels can survive!
A week later my son and I went back, ready to dig. After quickly re-digging my test pit, we began hitting glass again. I came out in clumps. Once you found a bottle, you knew there would be more around it. The first bottles were more shoe polish bottles and then more whiskeys. We dug common, slick sided medicines, embossed medicines, more whiskey, more shoe polish (embossed and slick). There were beer bottles and a few sodas. There were slug-plated Oklahoma soda bottles that I really wanted for my collection, but they were broken. We even found the cobalt medicine that went with the dose cap found previously. In fact, we fact we 2 of them and both still had paper label remaining on them. The first one had a broken lip (and the best label) but the second bottle was in perfect condition.
We joked that this must have been a lonely and drunk shoe cobbler from the amount of liquor bottles we dug. We didn’t even dig this many whiskey and beer bottles from behind our ghost town saloon privy. Like most trash pits, most of the glass was broken but we still finished out with a big load of bottles. Nothing valuable or rare emerged from the dirt, but that’s not our goal. We had fun. We uncovered a slice of Oklahoma’s early history and a got a glimpse into the life of one of the early settlers.
Looking at the maps
Now, I had started this hunt at the back of the property. Privy and trash pits were often at the rear because it kept the odors away from the dwelling or business. This one had me confused because it appears that it would have been underneath the business. When I took an 1890s map of the city and overlaid it on the modern google-earth satellite imagery, ( here is the tutorial on how to do that ) it all suddenly made sense. The foundation wall was a property line, and the pit we dug sat in a hidden back corner of the cobbler shop and it’s attached residence. The size and the location now made perfect sense.
So, what about the glass at the rear, where did it come from? Reviewing the map overlay, I feel sure there are still more pits back there but I didn’t look quite far enough. Now its another game of waiting for the winter weather to clear and my work schedule to line up to go do some more exploring! You can watch the video ( Digging antique bottles from the drunken cobbler ) of this dug on my YouTube channel The Silver Fiend.