On Sunday November 18th, Roberrific and Timbits shared a hole with the Ace of Spades in his secret spot in the swamp south of Meaford, Ontario. Together, the treasure hunting trio traveled back in time to the early nineteen hundreds when the town was young and important. Less than fifty years old in 1919, Meaford was already the second most valuable steamer port on Georgian Bay. It had hotels and liveries, and five huge lumber mills. The town’s population in 1919 was already 3,100 people, and it’s not much bigger today. Our gang worked tirelessly all morning and afternoon, digging through ten feet of dump that was approximately seven feet deep with a clay bottom. We hit the bottom early on, as is the practice of the Dumpdiggers to dig as deep as hole as possible, and then fork your way up in one direction. The cardinal rule is to pick one path and stick to it – never move the dump twice. The bottom three feet of our seven foot hole was absolutely stuffed with as many as five different layers of dump. One particular strata of brown ash yielded the best and most expensive household relics. This is where a local embossed amber medicine was found. Finding the distinctive brown ash on your shovel was cause for cheer – it came to signify the imminent discovery of a rich goody vein filled with all manner of assorted 1920’s hackers – and this is the layer in which we hoped to find a bumpy cobalt blue ‘Not To Be Taken’ coffin poison bottles, or perhaps a Shuttleworth poison? Or maybe even a skull and crossbones Iodine, or even an amber Hertz with a heart in the glass? No. Instead we found… A POCKET FULL OF HACKERS suddenly appeared in the bottom third of the dump. Hackers? You know what I mean – there were lots of square amber whiskey flasks with amber glass stoppers, and clear glass or aqua columned medicines, always blank. There were a dozen cork top Listerine, Castoria, and Certo bottles, and two screw top cobalt blue Milk of Magnesia in the quart size, and at least seven green wine bottles, two champagne beer bottles, and a funky shaped green mineral water, all without embossing. Sealer jars – three of them, two Crown and one Gem which I kept. Ace’s antique bottle mine has lots of rusty iron relics too, like saw blades, square rusty railroad spikes, spools, broken metal files, hinges and hooks. A sifter might have yielded many more interesting smaller prizes. But the ground was clumpy, and would have demanded a dedicated ‘sifter station’. Timbits forked out a hand blown antique light bulb and checked it for Thomas Edison’s early brand signature which he says appears on the company’s early light bulbs. This bulb was as big as his hand, and black on the open end where the base had corroded away and discolored the glass. LIKE BURROWING RODENTS we tunneled for treasure. Perhaps I should explain to anyone that’s never harvested a dump, or seen a documentary on television, or read a really good blog, just exactly how bottle diggers move through a site. There’s a method in their madness, and it’s their determination to get to the very bottom of the deposit as quickly as possible that helps preserve their prizes… let me explain. Inside the digging process there are three sub-processes; 1 sinking the shaft, 2 forking the sides, 3 cleaning the hole. In this manner the Dumpdiggers are not really diggers at all – they are burrowers. The burrowing described above continues with bottles and relics being found in all stages, but the bulk of the booty is discovered inside the forking portion of the cycle. Personally, I don’t like forking the hole. I don’t care for the shoulder strain of the exercise, nor do I like the responsibility of being the first to spot and successfully ‘fork out’ valuable glass bottles without breaking them. After a while my mind aches from repeatedly puzzling over so many promising shards. The shoulders and spouts of so many worthless specimens demand dumpdiggers’ discipline and commitment; only after each piece has been removed and examined can the senior Dumpdigger dismiss it as junk. As diggers exercise their bodies physically, they are also at the same time bending their eyes and ears and ‘listening with their shovels’ to find clues that could lead to collectibles. The best diggers don’t break anything. Usually rather quiet and reserved when digging, Tim was suddenly vocal and cried out ‘Whoa!’ when he saw it – an orange glass marble rolled down across his shovel and disappeared back into the darkness. Tim scooped away the soil looking for the sphere. He knew if he didn’t secure it now, he might never see it again and it was two or three small scoops down and running fast when Tim trapped it on his shovel. But of course it too was an absolute hacker. Made around 1912, it was fashioned from clear glass and was in very rough shape – the surface looked corroded as if the glass itself has been eaten away by acid. Tim held up the marble to look for its seams, which were hard to find. ‘To bad its junk’ he declared as he threw it up to me. The marble was indeed in terrible condition – it was so badly hacked up the seam was invisible. Was it damaged before or after it was discarded? Its very presence here made me wonder about its origins and method of manufacture? Was this marble a ‘Queenie’ or a ‘knuckler’ in some child’s game in Meaford 1919? As Timbits and the Ace of Spades discussed their favourite species of collectible marbles, their conversation listed green and black clambroth, rainbow colored onion skin, ribbon core, swirl and divided swirl as being the most coveted glass pieces. Tim seeks suphides in which statues of elephants, horses and Trojan warriors sometimes appear, right inside the glass sphere. According to Tim, the oldest marbles ever found were round semi-precious stones that were buried with an Egyptian child at Nagada in approx 3000 BC. Most of the marbles used by children in late medieval times were made of fired clay. By 1600AD some water-powered stone mills in Germany were producing small polished spheres made from the local marble and alabaster that was quarried nearby. The regions near Coburg and Oberstein gave birth to the word ‘marble’ which is derived from the German term “for the rock” and has come to mean any small, round sphere of rock. Germany was the center of marble production for three centuries. In the 18th century their mills could grind agate, limestone, brass, and gemstone, at a rate of 800 marbles an hour. Glass marbles, the most common version of the object today, came into existence only recently in the history of the toy. It’s debatable whether they originated in Venice, where glassblowing was a well-developed industry, or in the mills of Germany. Historians point to an 1846 invention known as a marbelschere (marble scissors) by a glass factory employee in Germany that evidences their skill in making glass objects. This tool resembles a pair of tongs with a small cup on one end, and a slicing device on the other. A molten glass rod would be forcefully inserted into the cup, and the worker would then twist the cup, which would help form the sphere of the marble. Squeezing the tongs shut would slice off the rest of the glass. Such marbles can be identified by their pontil marks, the two tiny tags at each end of the sphere where the cooling glass was severed from the rest of the rod. The objects were further cooled inside a wooden barrel and then taken up with an iron spoon and inserted into an annealing oven, a process which yielded a tougher piece of glass not likely to break or become brittle. North American glasshouses didn’t make marbles until much later in the 19th century, and there was no mass production of these objects until the 1920s. Marble production in North America started when Martin Frederick Christensen successfully patented a machine to manufacture near-perfect spheres of steel ball bearings. He set up a factory in his barn in Ohio and was producing 10,000 (steel?) marbles a day with 33 employees in 1910, but his company’s dependence on natural gas forced him out of business during WW I. Akro Agate Company, founded in 1911 and originally based in Akron, Ohio, became the biggest marble manufacturer in America after the first world war. Once they had streamlined production and perfected their marble-making machinery in the 1920s, they dominated the American toy market right up until the popularity of marbles declined in the 1940s and 50’s. The Meaford Stash – Pic of the Picks. It was getting on past three o’clock and I was admiring the way the light shone through our stash as I lined the bottles up atop our tallest dirt pile. It was a ‘best of the hackers collection’ featuring local milks, sodas, and a cobalt blue bromo bottle, two Brovils, a tall early WISERS whisky, a couple weird liniments, one from Montreal and one from from Kingston, an amber medicine, hmm what else was there? It doesn’t matter – it was all completely worthless. Tim had just forked the hole and this time he looked different. He set his fork down and picked up his shovel and then he set that down too. He looked up at the stash of hackers I was photographing and stepped up out of the hole. Jason jumped in and started the cycle over again, but Tim was tired and every time he looked at my pile of worthless hackers he grew more tired – we still had a two hour drive home ahead of us. And of course Jason didn’t want to stop digging yet. He shoveled more energetically as he watched Tim drink from his auxiliary water supply (Tim’s first blimp was buried in a collapse two hours ago). Jay said things like ‘its going to get real old here soon’ and ‘you know I think we’re down to 1908 right here’ as he flushed out some ginger beer coloured pottery shards. Jason kept shoveling to preserve the excitement of the dig, and I joined in for a spell – but my muscles and my mind were aching, and I was ready to quit. As if sensing the moment had come, Tim snatched up his water and the hand blown antique glass light bulb, and that antique glass marble. He put his keepsakes inside his duffel bag along with his dirty dump pants and was fixing to leave… I followed his cue and gathered my belongings. I was busy wrapping up six or eight hackers to keep as mementos, when I heard Jason cry out in the rapture of discovery… ‘I’ve got a gingerbeer’ the Ace of Spades cried out from the bottom of the hole. ‘Tim, Rob! Hold up there may be more!’ Tim looked at me and smiled. He was simply waiting for Jay to finish using his fork. I don’t think either Tim or I believed that Jason was about to find anything valuable. The fact that he chose to identify his quarry as a gingerbeer was itself rather optimistic, as only the very bottom of the pottery was visible. Timbits and I watched in envious amazement however as Jason successfully removed a medium sized, A. ROBERTSON / Mt. Forest Ontario gingerbeer bottle in good condition. For once, Tim was impressed. ‘That’s a pretty good piece’ he was heard to remark. It must have broke his heart to realize he had quit the hole too soon, and now had no claim what-so-ever to this discovery. ALEX ROBERTSON & CO was a soda water manufacturer in the once booming and now ghostly Mount Forest, Ontario which can still be found at the major intersection of Hwy 6 and Hwy 89 (Queen Street) in nearby the township of Wellington north, in Wellington county. When pressed, Tim yielded more information on Alex Robertson – the company is listed in some early industry index he has as ALEX ROBERTSON – MANUFACTURER OF SODA WATER AERATED WATERS AND POP 1893-1919.Tim sent me a photo of all four known Alex Robertson gingerbeers. Starting from left to right they are valued at approximately $900, $750, $500 and $150 respectively. Jason Hayder had found #3 in this series and his prize, slightly blemished, will probably fetch between three fifty to four hundred dollars on eBay. ‘Come on guys?’ Jason was giddy as he picked up his shovel and tried to rally us again for one last push into the breach… But Tim shook his head no and turned away. Then Jason stubbornly started shoveling again and refused to climb out of the hole; he urged us to stay and watch him complete one more cycle. But we were spent. Laughing at the cruelty of Meaford dump, and the insanity of Ace’s obsession, Tim and I walked away. My duffel bag tinkled with hackers as we tripped back to his truck.
Working a productive claim in a secret ‘antique bottle mine’ just outside of Meaford Ontario, Timbits and Roberrific spent an exciting morning, and an absolutely thrilling afternoon with the Ace of Spades, Jason Hayder. If anyone else had ventured down into the swamps south of Meaford that day, like Jason Hayder did in May 2007 (or Llewellyn Moss in the movie No Country for Old Men), they would have seen a ring of diggers hiding in the rhubarb taking turns with a shovel in a fresh hole – our excavation quickly leveled the ridge, and then went down five feet through the ages into the industrial origins of this historic place. And all while Jason way saying things like ‘Here she comes. Look there, the bottles are running that way’ as if we were hunting live game. Jason is a real discovery. When this lanky guy gets into the hole he attacks the dump like a school kid in a fight at recess in front of his friends; Jason Hayder transforms into the Ace of Spades and becomes a veritable shovel flurry, moving the earth in an almost steady stream. And it’s hard to turn the machine off… When Jay spots the neck of a jug, or the base of something that might provoke caution in a more sensible digger, he speeds up on a rush of adrenaline and digs faster, smelling an imminent discovery. In the year 1837 the scattered inhabitants of St. Vincent Township petitioned the government of Upper Canada and requested that town site at the mouth of the Bighead River be reserved as a landing place for supplies and building materials. Accordingly, later that very year, a parcel of land was set aside, and therein a town was laid out in 1845 wherein two dozen lots were subsequently offered for sale. By 1841, a sawmill and a grist-mill had been built on adjoining lands and new roads had been constructed to the landing spot; a post office called “St. Vincent” was established. In 1865 this post office, and I suppose the entire surrounding village was re-named Meaford. It was right around this time that a young fellow named John Muir worked for the Trout family at their rake factory in nearby Trout Hollow. Between 1864 and 1866, John Muir, whose writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement, spent two years in Meaford Canada. John probably spent his time on a watermill powered wood lathe turning short slender hardwood rails into rake handles. He had a love of nature even then, as his writings evidence. While digging I kept wondering, ‘is it possible we could find something here from John Muir? Could we perhaps be so fortunate as to find a well preserved iron rake? That would make a really spectacular story! By 1870 the town of Meaford had become a flourishing community; connected by steamer and road with the railhead at Collingwood, Meaford grew steadily and was incorporated as a town in 1874. CLANG! Jason struck the base of a soda bottle, and his shovel sounded out another CLANG. I looked up from my camera and notes to catch Tim shaking his head in disapproval. He could see a pocket of 1920’s soda bottles on the edge of the excavation and I was surprised when Jason CLANGED the mass of glass again. This provoked a reaction from Tim, ‘Easy Ace. Slow down to half speed.’ ‘Jason do you want the fork?” I reached for the implement, but Jay cried out, ‘Oh don’t give me a fork I’ll break ‘em for sure with a fork.’ Tim laughed ‘You need a rubber shovel. Then you can just beat them out of the ground.’ The pocket yielded two 1920’s coke bottles (junk, according to Timbits who seeks only pre 1919 coke bottles with a few notable exceptions – something about a Christmas edition?) and two bottles labeled Whistle that are slender in the center and reflect the passion and style of soda pop in the 1920s. The rest of the bottles were amber and embossed CERTO. ‘Arrgh. Certo bottles! Sometimes all I find are Certo bottles. I hate them.’ Jason spat as he stepped out of the hole. I picked up a light brown amber bottle and studied its ugly screw top composition and surprisingly modern shape – it has a measuring index on the sides and the word CERTO in the glass. It was real ugly. ‘Tim what was Certo?’ ‘It’s junk.’ He answers automatically, then details an encyclopedic knowledge of pioneer fruit preservers; ‘Pectin is a white to light brown powder that occurs in nature and Certo is a man made liquid form. It’s a water thickener. Pectin is in the orange peel, or the lemon peel that your sister squeezed in your eye… I’m sure it was first isolated by Henri Braconnot in 1825. It’s mainly used in food as a gelling agent in jams and jellies.’ ‘Are you sure?’ Jason chuckled at his own joke and then scanned the dump as Tim moved more and more earth to get down into the exciting ‘forking portion’ of the dumpdigging discovery cycle again. The freshly liberated earth TINKLED with glass as Tim dug himself a perch from which he could comfortably fork the dump wall. An unusually clear glass whiskey bottle was unearthed next, and I watched as Jay put it in with the stash despite Tim’s objections and subsequent de-valuation as ‘junk’.
‘So what are you looking for Tim?’ ‘Poisons.’ Tim reasoned, ‘Some good cobalt blue coffin poisons is about all we can expect to find in a dump this age. It just doest get any older than the nineteen twenties here.’ Tim was forking the dump wall and kneeling on the grey sand of the original landscape, approximately seven feet below the lay of the land. ‘Maybe if we trench down the hill?’ I suggested. ‘Tim looked at the sand under his knees and the sand at the bottom of the stratigraphy of the dump wall… It was flat. The hill and gully visible today didn’t exist in 1920. “No we should go this way towards the road. That’s our best angle’ Tim thought about it and then turned to work that dimension of the excavation. He looked at me and said ‘You can make yourself busy taking off the top,’ and he pointed with his hands to illustrate the path of the topsoil.
Around noon the sun came out and each of us shed a sweater. Jason ate a corn beef sandwiches for lunch and in between bites gave a lengthy dissertation on Canadian army food rations of the 1980s and 90s; he described the strangest concoctions that army soldiers would create from their box rations. I found the whole subject strangely unappetizing, and Tim kept digging – Tim never eats when he digs. While Jason and I lunched, Tim found two hand-blown ‘bowling pin’ style milk bottles that were blanks (unembossed), and two machine made milk bottles with nice embossing, one was from Owen Sound Dairy and one Port Elgin Dairy which Tim thinks might be rare. We found some amber medicines from a nearby town druggist (unfortunately I’m forbidden to list the names on the slug plates at this time.) and so digging went on in cycles of excitement as we all took turns burrowing further into the knoll and deeper into the fabric of time… trying to go deeper … deeper in to the local pottery of the 1890s, and deeper still to the very dirty birth of Meaford in the 1860s. When Confederation happened in 1867, Upper Canada was a dirty smoky ‘progressive’ place as thousands of Europe’s immigrant settlers cleared land and established farming settlements. Fuel Ghoul describes Tiverton and the potash trade where it was said that pioneers never made as much money in their whole lives as farmers as they did clearing their hundred acre plots in the 1860’s and 1870s – the potash, soda and pearl ash trade was booming – Potassium carbonate, sodium phosphates, sodium carbonate were extracted from the ashes of hardwood trees that settlers burned in separate piles; the ashes were sifted and bagged or sold by the wagon load for immediate monetary reward. There was also a market for creosote and pine tar. It’s been said that when John Muir was a young man, he lived in the very center of this land-clearing activity. When placed in the historical context of a growing community, there is no doubt that John Muir must have witnessed clear cutting, forest fires, and poverty set against the serene world of Trout Hollow, the wild arbour vitae swamps where he found his beloved “Calypso”, and the awaking of a spirit of true friendship in a community that encouraged inquiry and exploration. According to the Friends of John Muir in Canada, this experience was important to the evolution of John Muir’s notions about Man, Nature and The Creator. The Canadian Friends of John Muir can be found here www.johnmuir.org/canada
This is John Muir on an American stamp, which is of course very collectible, and I believe this is properly identified as John Muir ‘USA, 32 cents, issued 9-Apr-1964’ but its very hard for me to validate that and I welcome feedback from philatelists on this tiny matter. OK, so it was getting on past 2 pm and Tim was wrenching and prying on something down at the very bottom of the hole… WHEN the ENTIRE NORTH WALL COLLAPSED but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that… The dump wall being so fragile and perforated with pottery shards and junk it had been crumbling and falling for some time, and as Tim wedged out a big metal pail with his shovel blade the wall collapsed. Poor Jason scrambled to get back in time and Tim lost his water bottle which was on top of the wall. Tim easily avoided the deadly weight of the collapsing wall by turning to one side and letting it pass – Jason’s retreat was more active. Before either Timbits or Jason Hayder could conceive any jocularity or amusement at the new development, their eagle eyes each spotted separate prizes in the newly exposed dump wall at the bottom of the hole. Tim found what turned out to be the bottom of a broken stoneware ginger beer, and Jason plucked out two amber Brovil bottles like berries on a bush….
Stay tuned for Bottle Rush in Meaford – Part Three where there’s a hole lot more digging and joking around and then suddenly it’s all worth something! Yes that’s right there’s a big twist at the end, but I won’t spoil it here.