An Urban Gulch

It was an ugly, damp, fog covered morning in Toronto on Thursday 27th September 2007, but that’s ideal weather for digging up old dumps.

Marked by Timbits as a ‘sure thing’, the day’s secret location was tucked away behind some factories on the east side of the city near Lake Ontario. Tim had driven past the gully a few times earlier in the summer, and had wondered about its historic past; now he was sure it was an old dump.

I could see why. The prescribed dig zone was at the base of a small hill where a chain link fence had once kept animals and debris from emerging onto a busy road. The fence is gone, washed away, and the ever expanding washout now shows furnace ash peppered with glass and broken bits of pottery. The grass on the surface of the site was littered with plastic water bottles and cursed with stinging nettles. These feisty weeds scratched my legs real bad before I donned my dirty pair of ‘dump pants’. Tim used his shovel to define the hole; together we would spend the day digging the 5×5 portal to early industrial Toronto. Digging here was easy at first. The ash was like wheat flour and gave no resistance, but unfortunately, yielded no treasure. Only when Tim used a pick axe to expand the sides of hole, did anything interesting emerge… Tim recovered a small blue Bromo Seltzer and an unusual face cream jar. I found a medicinal vial that could have contained cosmetic oil or perhaps an exotic fragrance… or opium. All of this ‘crap’ was discarded to the right, and it was in that spot that our ‘stash’ started to grow. After crumbling the sides and digging straight down into the ash, we encountered a dark layer filled with charred metal. Underneath the heavy black strata the ash continued again, and below that, Tim spotted egg shells. This was a good sign. White egg shells preserved in rust colored dust are all that’s left of century old kitchen trash. After Tim dredged up a clear Lydia Pinkham’s vegetable compound, he knew we were getting close to domestic refuse.

Minutes later, Tim’s shovel punctured a rich ‘goody vein’ filled with century old bottles – this was pay dirt at the bottom of the hole. One after another Timbits found three crown top Toronto soda pop bottles from approx 1910-15. In order, Tim found AMERICAN SODA COMPANY / TORONTO; JJ McLaughlin / Toronto; Union Soda Manufacturing / Toronto. All these bottles are relatively common, but the thrill of finding them encouraged us to continue our ash mining operation. When it was my turn in the hole, I went even deeper – right down into a maelstrom of burnt bricks and cobble stones. These yellow red cobblestones were hand carved and imported from England in the late 1880s. Old English cobble stones are very valuable, ironically they’re probably worth more than all the bottles we had so far discovered… But who cares? Sure old cobble stones are highly prized by landscape decorators, sure they can sell for a thousand dollars a truck load, but who would dig all day for stones? Tim pointed down into the hole. ‘What’s that beside your boot?’ I saw the top of an ink crock buried in the red ash clay – the fragile neck just inches away from my steel toed work boots.. Carefully I knelt down and excavated the relic – it was a four quart jug in absolute mint condition. Sadly, it contained no embossing. When Tim got back down in the hole (getting in and out of the hole was becoming more and more of a problem) we started finding stuff again. Broken dishes gave way to broken milk bottles, and two came up intact. Fortunately, both were embossed. One very common milk bottle reads ACME DAIRY / TORONTO and the other, more valuable vessel has twenty or so half inch panels all around the circumference and is embossed with the words OAKLAND DAIRY / JOHNSON BROS / COLL. 638. As we expanded the hole, we encountered more material in the carbonized layer – more evidence that the dump was burnt off early in its life and the buried garbage had reached high temperatures… The charcoal fossilized remains of wooden boxes, lamp shades and paper cups could easily be identified, but just one touch and these objects would crumble to dust. Tim stopped digging when he struck a block of burnt newspapers. These had been packed together and then perfectly incinerated. When I cracked the block open I could read the headlines (from the Globe and Empire) that was world news almost one hundred years ago. Have a look at December 12th 1915 – Allied bombing exploits make the front page. On the other side of the block were Christmas ads for fur coats, and ‘well chosen blouses and shoes’. None of these items cost more than twelve dollars.

My favorite finds of the day must include the short square American drug bottle from the apothecary of Mary T Goldman / St. Paul Minn. and a near worthless Canadian drug bottle embossed NERVALINE / PREPARED BY THE CATARRBOZOHE CO / KINGSTON ONT which I like because its an old school Canadian patent medicine that succeeded in becoming world famous . In the future I’ll clean this bottle and write a piece on the history of the Catarrbozohe company.

At the end of the day, Timbits declared the entire stash to be worthless junk. He was disappointed that so much of the site was burnt. It’s obvious that this gulch was a fire pit in 1915, and the tiny ribbon of household trash at the bottom of the crevice was just one or two family’s winter cleaning – it was just the old newspapers and bottles from one or two houses. Someone back there was taking Nervaline, and used Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Someone else enjoyed a variety of common soda pops, and another dumper tossed in a couple of milk bottles. Someone who lived around here in 1915 migrated from St Pauls Minneapolis. They brought their personal medicine. But it all ended up under a century of Toronto’s ashes. When we photographed the hoard Tim acted disappointed, but I was proud of our work– it was trip back in time with a bucket full of glorious keepsakes. Monetarily, these relics are almost worthless. The Johnson Bros milk bottle would probably be the only bottle worth taking home, and I’m sure Timbits wouldn’t bother… He raised no objection when I stuffed the piece in my duffel bag along with the others. To me every relic is a word or a sentence in the story of that particular place, one hundred years ago.

Digging Dumps in Downtown Toronto, again.

On Sunday, August 26th 2007 Timbit the Treasure Hunter took me dumpdigging in downtown Toronto. The dig master had a few spots lined up, and he let me choose a new situation in a dump he calls ‘Cherry Street.’ We had an immediate discussion (disagreement) about the concept of gentrification, which was just defined here on Wondercafe.ca this week. Tim denied the area around this dump is improving, but I contend that this region of Toronto is rapidly ‘gentrifying’ and that the contaminated grounds are being removed one by one as each properties’ market value escalates.
Tim is a veteran adventure conductor; he reasoned that the amount of digging required to hit pay dirt in this spot was just about equal to the amount of daylight remaining and the amount of bottled water in our bags. Obscured from the curious glances of cyclists and passing automobiles in the thin shade of some soft maple trees, we sunk a new shaft beside an older hole.
Timbit had dug in this particular spot before, about ten years earlier, and now there were small trees growing up through the top of his old dirt piles. Tim noticed with mild amusement that the hole he had created in 1997 was now square in one end, where, no doubt, one of Toronto’s many homeless people had sheltered. I always find it ironice that if they had the time or the inclination they too could burrow for treasure in this sleepy hollow…
As Tim described his earlier escapade I listened carefully to the details… he had found a few crocks here and some whiskeys. I opened my ears as he related the history of the area, and I nodded in agreement when it felt appropriate – when he proposed the exact position in which we should expend our energies, I started digging, Tim Braithwaite is a professional dumpdigger; he is a fulltime treasure hunter and an avid bottle collector. When other dumpdiggers share their stories he listens with patience and understanding; he has already seen everything once and dug everywhere twice.

I am a faithful servant, a documentarian who details his adventures, a soldier with a shovel who moves a lot of dirt.
A BENT HORSESHOE

More than a little superstitious, I marveled at a bent horseshoe I uncovered in my first shovel full of dump. This object was our dig’s first omen – was it good or bad? A bent horseshoe must signify something… “What would cause a horseshoe to bend like this?’ I wondered aloud. “One hell of a traffic accident’ Tim replied and of course I then imagined a cart horse going too fast, cornering too hard, and upsetting his cargo… but that was nonsense – this horseshoe had been crushed by a machine. ‘That horse was eaten… ’ Tim said with conviction ‘and a glue factory worker removed that shoe after it was bent in some machine or plow or sledge.’ Anything was possible – we dumpdiggers could only speculate. JAM CROCK Early on our August 26th dig in the Cherry St dump Timbits uncovered many broken jam crocks. The small white stoneware is an enduring icon to the pioneer age. This was locally manufactured kitchenware that allowed settlers to preserve native fruits and berries throughout the winter. In the summer months a 1800’s family might enjoy home baked bread, butter and jam, cucumber sandwiches and cold pork. I’m sure the aboriginals taught the European settlers a thing or two about making jam in Canada. Both the Iroquois and the Huron peoples had been making some of North America’s best pemmican for ages, and had evolved a very sophisticated trade network – depending on the season and the territory, blueberries, cranberries, and wild currents were combined with dried deer meat, sunflower seeds and other nuts; all was thoroughly mixed in animal fats, and pounded into a mash before being dehydrated in the hot August sun. Timbits laughed when I suggested that blueberry pemmican and strawberry pemmican were no doubt crowd favorites. TWO COMMON DRUG BOTTLES In the next goody vein we hit Timbits dredged out some small medicines, blanks and a T Eaton Drug Company bottle. A small cobalt blue Bromo Seltzer bottle which, when recovered in absolute mint condition is only worth about five dollars. THE REBAR RITUALS Dumpdiggers are not wont to walk away without a fight and the rebar in the hole that prevented us from getting a good swing was really annoying.
OT SAUCE BOTTLE Three feet beyond those finds there appeared in the hole a sheer top OT sauce bottle, this clear glass specimen featured a sharp embossing of a hot pepper. Imported sauce bottles were common in the early 1900’s. Timbits incidentally dismissed all of his discoveries so far as junk, and in his opinion nothing yet recovered was worth ‘cleaning time’- he is right of course. I found this LINK on Ebay to a Seller in Australia trying to merchandise a beautiful green antique OT sauce bottle that’s older than mine and better embossed with the words ‘Granny Sauce’ for five bucks and getting no buyers.
L.T. KIRKLAND SODAS A pair of LT Kirkland pop bottles came up next – the two units appeared intact, they had been sitting beside each other for ninety five years. The aqua glass was stained and a little ‘sick’ but the embossing on the sides of each bottle was quite sharp. If cleaned and polished the units might fetch two dollars each – but I doubt anyone would buy them. Toronto soda pop collectors probably already have enough L.T Kirkland bottles. One of the more interesting conversations that erupted that day was ‘when was the golden age of bottle collecting?’. I tendered the notion that perhaps the golden age was still in the future, and I pointed to all the new information resources and sales portals on the internet feeding a future collecting frenzy. Tim however shook his head – negative. In his mind the golden age was twenty years ago when many bottles were more common. People who found the bottles back then were more apt to try and collect more specimens – and they were more apt to go digging for them too… TIM’S TREASURE At the end of the dig Timbit recovered only one item worth keeping. I suppose this object, an amber crown top quart SANFORD INK & LIBRARY PASTE will be vended down in the USA among ink collectors as soon as Tim tumbles it clean…
In this photo the amber Sanford Ink and Library Paste bottle is on its side in front of the Kirkland sodas and the small medicines.

Click on the photos — they expand.

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