Wisconsin antique bottle and advertising club


A digging story by Bob Libbey

When we go out hunting for antique bottles, we hope to mark the spot. We hope to remember it with all of the early, rare, and crude artifacts we find. This story describes how one spot left its mark on me.

I started collecting antique bottles because of another hobby; scuba diving. While diving with my buddies, we found bottles and eventually got hooked on collecting them. There are, of course, other ways to find bottles. You can buy them or dig them from the ground. Privy digging has been refined to an art form nowadays. There are collectors who dig for bottles with machine-like efficiency. However, don't let that fool you. It is not an easy way to find things. You need a whole new skill set.

You need to be able to recognize a good place to find bottles when you see it. Next, you need to have enough people skills to convince a stranger that it would be okay for you to dig up their yard. Now you need to accurately pin down the location of a privy on the property. This is not easy! Now you need the landscaping and organizational skills to work a clean job so that the yard can be returned to its original condition or better. Then, you need the strength and stamina to dig up the privy. Last, but not least, you need enough luck that there is actually something to find in the ground there. Oh, and don’t forget to be careful not to break anything while you're digging!

When I was invited on my first real dig, I was aware that I had none of these skills. I was a novice, a newcomer, a rookie, a beginner, an amateur, a hack (You get the point). Steve and Peter, however, were still nice enough to invite me. Those two had been digging together for a while and had developed a certain a comfort zone with each other. Peter had been digging for many years. Taking stock of what I had to offer, I thought that I could work hard and have a good attitude. If they needed somebody to do a dirty menial job, I was their man.

When we (better yet, they) located a property, it wasn't long before they had probed and roped off a large privy. I'm guessing it was about eight feet long and three feet wide. We placed some large tarps on the ground, cut out whatever sod needed to be saved, and began to dig in earnest. Steve was digging hard and fast on one side while Peter was working on the other. I was awaiting my turn at the hole. In no time, they were a foot or two down. Peter was having a monumental struggle with a stubborn tree root. He was hacking it with a shovel and yanking on it, but it wouldn't budge. I jumped into action.

Steve had his back turned towards us and was piling dirt up by tossing it over his left shoulder. I dropped down on my hands at the edge of the hole like I was doing a push up. I reached down to grab and yank the tree root. Just then, Steve decided that the pile he had been making was getting too high. He swiveled and turned to chuck the dirt over his right shoulder. Just as he was about to give the extra flick that would send the soil over the top of the pile, he noticed something in his field of vision. He saw my head. There was a dull clank as the cold dirt laden shovel smacked my forehead. For me it was a white flash; lightning in my face.

It's amazing how much a head wound can bleed. We brought every kind of probe, shovel, and trowel but we couldn't find a first aid kit. To stop the gushing blood, I removed my T-shirt and held it to my head. Steve was very apologetic and concerned. He had that sick feeling you get when you know you injured somebody but you don't yet know how badly. Steve and Peter got together and began to discuss my status. Right in front of me, they argued about what to do. Steve wanted to get me checked out at a hospital. Peter wanted to stay. First of all the hole was half dug. Second, it would be a good lesson that would likely keep me out of the danger zone. Steve wanted to at least clean things up better and see how badly I was injured. As they debated back and forth, I stood right in front of them listening. I felt like I had been thrown into a Monty Python movie. "I'm not dead yet. I'm feeling much better."

After the debate, we went back to work. They resolved to continue and to keep an eye on me. My T-shirt would never be the same, but I was all right. Now I have one narrow crescent shaped scar on my forehead, but otherwise, I am perfectly fine. Heads were designed to take a few whacks and no one yet has accused me of being thin skulled. As the dig continued, I got the chance to do everything that privy diggers do. I was able to help both the digging and re-filling of the hole. More importantly, I was able to unearth several bottles myself. I even thought that I found some cobalt glass but I was informed that this is a rookie mistake and I should never say that again. (Cobalt glass is much too fickle to be found by someone who announces that every shard looks blue). Finding bottles rapidly took the focus off of any pain in my head. Results-wise, I'm sure that the trip was probably disappointing for those guys. I, however, was excited to get an antique medicine bottle from Watertown, Wisconsin. It was embossed, "H. T. EBERLE DRUGGIST WATERTOWN WIS" with a picture of a mortar and pestle on it. It was my first antique bottle dug from the ground.

In the end, I learned my lesson. You will be farther ahead if you mark your bottle hunting spot with great finds than if you find a great spot on your head marked while bottle hunting. Either way, I know I will not forget this dig. It definitely left its mark.

Author: Bob Libbey
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