Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bottle Rush in Meaford - Part Two

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.

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