The Bottles Of Gargoyle Ridge
By: Bill Ladd
The landowner had mentioned in passing something about a dump on the property that we now intently searched with our metal detectors. However, our focus was strictly on the grassy field at the front of the property. In fact, it was the original reason for our stopping to inquire about permission. Visions of silver coins and relics danced in our heads as we explored the small New England mill village, but strangely, the inviting field yielded nothing but modern trash. Later we learned that re-landscaping had been the culprit. Normally the story would end here, and we’d have moved on to other adventures. Yet, one “overload” signal and three years later, unbelievably we are still digging on the same property.
As a boy, some of my earliest memories of treasure being unearthed involve watching my dad and aunt digging bottles in the woods behind her home. It’s probably what’s kept me hooked on the hobby to this day. But once metal detecting became my passion, all the bottles that my dad and I had dug over the years took a back seat to artifacts and old coins. Then, as I became involved in yearly road trips to Virginia, seeking Civil War relics, I soon learned that digging a whole bottle from a campsite was nearly on par with finding a belt plate. In fact, on one paid relic hunt, I was lucky enough to locate a stoneware inkwell while digging out a winter “hut.” When I put it in perspective and imagined soldiers dipping their pens to write letters home to loved ones, digging bottles was no longer on the back burner.
When the grassy field failed to produce, luckily my partner, Howard, and I were inquisitive enough not to give up too early. With rows of 1800s mill workers’ homes lining the street, we decided that the wooded area of the property also deserved a peek before we left. Perhaps there was an old barn foundation or something back there.
We wandered through the woods, our detectors in all-metal mode, toward the back of the site. All was silent until we ventured down a ridge and into a valley. As soon as my coil neared the soil, I got a loud “overload” tone on my Teknetics T2 that indicates a large or shallow item. Sinking my army shovel into the ground, I heard an unexpected crunch. It was glass, and as the first shovel full showed, lots of it. A barrel hoop in the midst of it had set off my detector. Nearby, Howard was witnessing the same thing, uncovering white stove ash, broken china, and glass. “We got a bottle dump!”
Several high-fives later we calmed down and walked around the valley to get a feel for how big the dump might be. We spied lots of broken or unembossed bottles right on top of the ground, and some indications of past digging. From the evidence we saw, the dump appeared to date to the late 1800s. Amazingly, it seemed to run the entire length of the valley, according to our test holes. As long as we got the go-ahead from the landowner, we could be digging here for years!
After assuring the property owner that we’d be backfilling our holes and taking most of the bottles with us, he agreed to allow us to dig. It seemed he’d once expelled some trespassers who had tried to dig without asking. Knowing that we had more than enough real estate to excavate, we enlisted the help of our buddy, John, a fellow hobbyist. The first morning we began opening up trenches at the mill community bottle dump that we now call “Gargoyle Ridge.” We conjure up silly names for all of our sites so that the competition has no clue, and this site was named after an early 1900s “Mobil Oil” porcelain sign I’d dug, featuring a red gargoyle. Unfortunately bullet holed, it predates the winged horse logo of today and looks great in my “treasure room.”
Unaware of the magnitude of the dump, the three of us just picked a spot right in the center of the valley and began shoveling dirt in a trench we would soon be connecting. One of the first things that we spied was a broken cobalt blue bottle with heavy embossed lettering. Color is everything in the world of antique bottles, and some only collect the eye-catching cobalts. We lamented the fact that it was broken, and had no idea there were multiples of these rare bottles lying in wait in the wooded valley we now walked on.
The test holes revealed a good stratification of ash and glass shards. So, we began by clearing away some brush to enlarge the initial trench. A common way to dig a bottle dump that is no more than 4-5' deep is to begin with a deep trench that everybody can fit in, then “scratch” down the sidewalls with garden claws. While carefully shoveling, John and I hit a pocket of embossed “blob top” sodas.
The blob top originated in 1840 and predated the “crown top” invented in 1892. Blob tops were basically a crude blob of glass hand-applied to the top lip of many beer and soda bottles. Since most were refilled over and over, the ones that got thrown out often have chips or cracks. Thus, perfect embossed examples and colored varieties are coveted. So, John was happy with a “Capelli, Providence, R.I.” soda, while I chipped in with a “Roger Williams Bottling Co.” blob. These would be the first of many soda and beer bottles extracted from this dump over the next year.
Howard got on the board with the first of what would be many different varieties of “Scott’s Emulsion Cod Liver Oil” bottles. Our favorites, dug later would be a type picturing a fisherman with a large cod over his shoulder. Meanwhile, John was excitedly unearthing his first-ever “Hood’s Sarsaparilla” from Lowell, Massachusetts— fairly common in New England, but a very handsomely designed aqua bottle nonetheless.
It didn’t take long to notice that we were digging, and tossing, hundreds of catsup bottles. We all were very familiar with the reason. In the pre-refrigeration era, covering up “questionable” meats with catsup was commonplace.
Next we all began to uncover brown colored, odd-shaped “John Wyeth, Philadelphia” bottles (so many, in fact, that we left some behind). A little internet research revealed that these bottles had held a malt extract and perhaps were not as common as we thought. We saw some selling for $20 each. Needless to say, we no longer leave any behind!
Howard’s next score was the first of many “Saxlehners Bitterquelle” bottles that this dump offered us. Often lumped into the famous “bitters” category, these tall green “whittled” bottles actually held a mineral water. Real bitters bottles would begin to show themselves in the form of “Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters” from Georgetown, Massachusetts, and John was happy to extract his first one ever. I felt somewhat snakebit, watching my partners seemingly discover all the good bottles, but the tables turned when I began to brush off a big find and yelled out, “Chamber pot!” However, as more of the white ash was dusted back, I was quickly corrected. My prize proved to be a clay spittoon. But was it whole?
We had seen some broken “spongeware” spittoons earlier. This one appeared to be “redware” pottery, and I saw lots of flowery designs on the sides of what sure looked intact. Finally, I pulled it out, and the mass celebrations began. It was undamaged, and a maroon glaze inside showed that it had been hand-thrown on a pottery wheel. It appears to date from the Victorian era, and after cleaning there are still traces of yellow and green paint on the flowers. It now holds a special place on one of the corner shelves of my “treasure room.”
John walked away from that first outing with what I think was the best bottle find (and no duplicates have surfaced since). It’s a scarce, four-sided “Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.” I thought this was unique, in that this dump was active in an era loaded with “quack medicines.” The 1906 Food & Drug Act would eliminate, or at least change, the wording of many strange “cures” once prevalent. As soon as I saw the words “Snake Oil,” I knew we were looking at the origins of the old expression, “selling snake oil.”
Another amazing bottle, also dug by John, in “snake oil/cure” category is an 1880s “7 Sunderland Sisters Hair Grower.” This impressive square bottle with a large number 7 logo typifies the fantasy cures and gimmicks folks were falling for back then.
Perhaps the most valuable and certainly the most colorful finds were the many sizes of cobalt blue “R. DeAngelis Chemical Co.” bottles, the broken type mentioned earlier. Also, from Providence, Rhode Island, these bottles held a popular citrate mixture for antacids. Available in many sizes, the earliest varieties had lots of embossing around a logo. Later types simply had lettering around the shoulder. On a popular YouTube video of our opening dig here, we went crazy over the first one of these dug whole. Now we each have just about every size and type.
We also dug three different sizes of “Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney Liver & Bladder Cure.” The largest, of which I found an example, is considered one of the most artistic and attractive bottles one can dig. Though not worth a fortune, the tallest of the three is a beautiful aqua color with sunken kidney-shaped panels and heavy embossing.
Bottle dumps also hold all sorts of surprise relics, and this one didn’t disappoint in that respect. We dug several varieties of clay pipes, a pistol, a pocketwatch, clay marbles, a chain-mail purse, figurines, silverware, kerosene lamps, porcelain signs, china plates and bowls, and assorted other interesting goodies discarded with the trash. We look forward to unearthing the oddball items that make their way to the dumps, and as with all forms of treasure hunting, you never know what’s about to appear next.
This is the main reason why dump digging is so addicting, and a productive bottle dump all but guarantees your going home with a bagful of valuable bottles. The glass was so plentiful here that we had to be selective and often left a number of “keepers” behind. In contrast, metal detecting offers no such guarantees, so it’s great to have a good bottle dump on the side, especially when fields are cropped or deer hunting season keeps us out of the woods.
We tried our luck in various sections of the dump, and as we moved around we’d find different bottles and also from different time periods. At the rear of the dump we began to rake through later period screw tops, but five stoneware jugs would also surface here. Howard unearthed a fantastic honey amber colored Mason jar back there, too; so, the entire dump has surely offered up its share of surprises.
We continue to dig this dump, and as of this writing the three of us are consistently adding new and different bottle varieties to our collections. We trade duplicates with one another and enjoy having “bottle wash” parties when the ground’s frozen or it’s raining outside. Various sized bottle brushes are the key to getting your bottles worth for display. We gave a few duplicates to the landowner, and he seemed very pleased as well. Anything you can do to stay in good standing with the landowner goes a long way toward allowing return visits, and of course this holds true in all types of treasure hunting.
Author’s Note: Watch this dig live on YouTube, search for “Mill Community Bottle Dump.”