Sunday October 7, 2012

Pittsfield resident Larry Rotti was excavating a field in New Lebanon, N.Y., seven years ago when he heard a loud thunk.

The bucket on his tractor had struck an object sticking out of the ground. The object turned out to be an old blacksmith's anvil made by a British manufacturer in the 19th century.

In North Adams, William Barlow was raking leaves in his backyard when he discovered a chauffeur's badge that dates to 1948.

Andrew Mick, publisher and president of The Eagle, was putting in trees at his home in Richmond when out popped a bottle belonging to the former Mohawk Beverage Company of Pittsfield, which went out of business in the 1980s.

Mick also found the hood ornament for a vintage 1940s automobile while digging a flower bed.

"The joke around here is now that we've found the hood ornament, is the rest of the car down there," he said.

Given the kinds of objects that people find on their property, Mick could be right.

Those backyards and fields attached to property that people take for granted? They could contain a treasure trove of items.

In an online forum, several New York state residents have posted blurbs detailing finds that include 1920s-era dog licenses, old clocks, arrowheads, pieces of Indian pottery, and even a Will Rogers cap gun.

"Every year I find more stuff," wrote philomena z6 NY of Beacon, N.Y., on garden
web.com. "So long as there are no skeletons, I'm fine with my discoveries."

Why are so many interesting artifacts discovered in the ground?

According to bottle collectors, garbage experts and Internet sites, people were content to use their properties as dumping areas before the advent of municipal garbage collection.

Bruce Collingwood, Pitts field's public utilities commissioner, said his city has had municipal garbage collection for at least 50 years.

The United States instituted regulations for dumping waste in 1933, and the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors, which oversees private waste hauling, was founded in 1968. (The organization changed its name to the Environmental Services Association in 1996.)

"Stuff was dumped everywhere," according to Susan Strasser, a University of Delaware history professor who is the author of "Waste & Want: A Social History of Trash."

Bottles were among the most common items that people disposed of, Strasser said.

"There's wasn't as much packaging as there is now," she said. "Bottles were the kind of thing that would become trash. There was no plastic."

Rotti said he's found all sorts of items while excavating.

Virginia Barlow stands in front of her North Adams home, where her husband found a chauffeur’s badge with a 1948 expiration date while raking leaves
Virginia Barlow stands in front of her North Adams home, where her husband found a chauffeur’s badge with a 1948 expiration date while raking leaves in their backyard. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

"Years ago everybody just dumped their garbage out the back door," said Rotti, who once uncovered a bottle dump while working on a property on Jones Avenue in Pittsfield. "In a bottle dump you can find all kinds of bottles: milk bottles, elixir, liniment bottles, milk of magnesia. You get a charge out of it when you pick it up and wipe it off."

Inside Rotti's house is an amber bottle with the inscription "Father John's Medicine, Lowell, Mass."

According to bottlebooks.com, Father John's was sold by two 19th-century Lowell druggists who used the name of a local priest, John O'Brien, as a way to market the medication.

The Barlows’ chauffeur’s badge.
The Barlows’ chauffeur’s badge. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Federick Meyer V, president of the Federation of Historic Bottle Collectors, said it isn't unusual to find medicine bottles with exotic names.

"Remember, this stuff was simply trash before," said Meyer, who lives in Houston. "They weren't made as collectibles. You didn't have garbage pickup in the 1850s and ‘60s. You would just dig a hole and burn it. That's why a lot [of these bottles] have ash on them."

Back in the day, several elixir bottles actually contained hard liquor that wasn't used for medicinal purposes.

"It wasn't cool to drink for many decades," Meyer said. "A lot of liquor manufacturers hid alcohol in medicine [bottles]. A lot of husbands would go out to the privy [outhouse], drink pints of medicine, and chuck them in the privy."

In North Adams, Virginia Barlow, William Barlow's wife, said the couple have had trouble determining the origin of the chauffeur's badge they found at the home they've lived in for 16 years.

"We've asked around," Virginia said. "People think that one of the gentlemen who lived in the house that we bought drove taxis, although we're not positive."

Unlike Rotti and Mick, Barlow said the couple wasn't digging when they discovered the trinket.

"We've lived in the house for 16 years and raked leaves there for 16 years, so obviously it must have just raked away enough for us to find it," Virginia said.

In Richmond, Mick and his wife recently moved to a house built in 1925, and they're still learning the history of the site.

"We haven't done any hard research," he said. "There was a barn on the property. I'm pretty sure it was farmed for a long, long time."

After a friend told him about the history of the Mohawk Beverage Company, Mick placed the bottle in his office.

"We'll probably find more as we move forward," he said.

Rotti, meanwhile, recently painted the anvil he discovered in New Lebanon. The anvil was manufactured by Peter Wright Patent, a British company that hand-forged anvils in the 1840s and 1850s.

Peter White Patent anvils were brought to the United States shortly before the Civil War, according to Bruce Ringer, a blacksmith historian in New Jersey.

Several Peter White Patent anvils are for sale online, but Rotti's won't be one of them.

"I hit the mother lode," he said. "I've always wanted one."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
TDobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com
(413) 496-6224