One of my customers named Mike has been following the series about bottle digging in our newsletter. I believe Mike recently joined the club. As I said, he has been following the bottle digging articles and has already had some great luck! The other day he brought some of his recent finds and I was blown away!
One is a rare sized Doctor J. Hostetter's Stomach Bitters and, after cleaning, it should be worth $300.00 +!
His next bottle is (are you sitting down?) "A.R. Thayer's Iron Bitters, Lansing Michigan!" This bottle has a tooled top and it has a little chip under the lip. It wasn't his fault. It is a nice bottle! My Auction Price Report is 10 years old, but it shows this bottle valued in 1996 at $715.00!
I may be wrong, but I think a third bottle that Mike showed me may be very rare! Doctor Kennedy, from Roxbury Mass., had two or three different products. I think Dr. Kennedy's Medical Discovery is perhaps the one we see from time to time, but I cannot find a listing anywhere for Dr. Kennedy's, Prairie Weed. It is a large unusual shaped bottle!
Mike has a friend who owns some land that had an early homestead on it. It is out in the woods where he could dig without worrying about any sod handling, which makes the job easier. Mike reminded me about something that I forgot to mention before. Just in passing, he mentioned he was digging near huge old lilac bushes. Planting lilacs near the outhouse was very popular. Supposedly, the fragrant flowers improved the odor for at least a month or so. I remember, when we were digging a privy on a vacant lot in Schoolcraft, the only plant other than grass was a lilac bush and that is where we found the pits.
When we dig, we have some rules that are very important. Remember you could be dealing with some very valuable finds. A California Bitters bottle held the all-time record at auction and, if I remember correctly, it sold for $62,000. It was found at a construction site with its twin, which was broken. The broken one was repaired and it still sold for around half of what the perfect one did!
I have a very good friend, John Pastor, who I believe is one of the top experts on antique bottles in the country. He tells me that this California bitters bottle has the record of selling for more money than any other bottle, but it is not the most valuable. He told me that the rarest, most valuable bottles have never been sold! I think that some of the rarest bottles may never be sold because they are in collections, like the one at the Henry Ford Museum.
Had Mike been digging with some other diggers, he may have been a little disappointed. There is a share-and- share-alike clause, in the bottle diggers code of ethics. Rule number one: whoever gets permission to dig from the land owner, gets first pick. If a bottle is found that is worth a few hundred dollars, it is unqualified as a first-pick bottle. The bottle must be sold and the money split up, or the finder must buy the bottle by paying the other diggers their share.
When you are getting permission for bottle digging or detecting, make sure you are speaking to the land owner. A renter does not have the authority to give you permission. If you accept the permission of a renter and the landowner catches you digging, things can get ugly real fast.
Many of my digging friends carry a portfolio with them filled with pictures of a couple digs they were on. The pictures start by showing the area being probed, the pit being dug, the pit being filled in and every step in between. The last picture shows zero evidence that any digging took place.
Make sure that your permission is current! I was invited to go on a dig in Schoolcraft; it was that vacant lot I spoke of earlier. When three or four of us are digging, we take turns in the hole. Boy, that was a day I'll never forget. It was my turn in the hole and we were at about the five feet deep level. I remember that when I stood up, my chin was at ground level. At one point, when I stood up to set a bottle on the tarp, we were all startled to see a Cadillac speeding across the field, heading right for us!
A well-dressed, middle-aged man hopped out of the car and said a bunch of stuff I cannot put into the newsletter!
"What the @#&%# are you doing?" My friend, Mark Churchill, got the man calmed down and he turned to Sonjt, and asked, "Who did you get permission from?"
Sonjt answered, "From the land owner."
"That is not possible. I am the landowner and I did not give anyone permission to dig on this land."
It turned out that Sonjt got permission to dig on this lot three years earlier and this man had owned the property for two years. Mark got the man calmed down and, before he drove off, he gave us permission to finish.
I had been seeing a doctor for a bad shoulder and I was being treated for bone spurs. The last time it was my turn go into the pit, it was about six feet deep. Instead of dropping to the ground at the edge of the hole, then slowly lowering myself in, without thinking, I stepped into the hole from a standing position. Instead of dropping about three feet, I started on a six feet drop straight down. In an instant, I realized my stupid mistake and I put my arms out to catch myself, and that was my second mistake. My arms didn't even slow me down at all. My arms flew straight up and there was the sound of cracking bones!
There I was, lying in this hole in awful pain, screaming like a kid who just got a whipping. The next day, I went into the doctor's office to have my shoulder X-rayed. To treat the bone spurs, the Doc had me doing exercises: I stood at a wall with my arm straight out, then with my fingers, I walked my fingers up the wall, trying to go higher each time.
The Doc returned after viewing the X-ray and he said, "Al, that hole in the ground removed your bone spurs. It did in one second, what my plan would have taken months to do. And the worse part is, most likely that hole in the ground won't bill your insurance company!"
Be careful! People die digging bottles! The greatest killer is cave-ins Some pits need to be shored-up with wood, in order to be safe. It is always best to dig with a partner. Have an escape plan and a small ladder is smart.
When you get west of Allegan and then all the way to Lake Michigan, you have dangerous ground to dig, because it is so sandy. What is true now was true in the 1800's. They simply could not dig an ordinary hole in the ground, then position the outhouse over it. They had to dig a huge hole and then go down in the hole and construct a wood or brick lining. After that, they would backfill to the outer walls of the lining. That was a lot of work so, when most people dug a new privy, these were simply cleaned out.
Usually those people, knowing that the outhouse would be cleaned out, did not discard trash there. Sometimes I find that old country farm house privies are not always productive The farmer had 40 acres and somewhere there was a place that he could not plow or plant. That location became his dump.People in town did not have that luxury and, usually, it's within the city limits where the best bottle digging took place. The president of the bottle club, Chuck Parker, and his digging partner, Scott Hendrickson, had the number of two hundred bottles from one hole beat. Chuck said that they recovered three hundred and fifty whole bottles from one privy!