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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bottle Rush in Meaford - Part One

At six thirty am on Sunday November 18th 2007 the St Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto was bustling with activity. Over the antiques tables there was a buzz in the air; the pickers listened to the dealers describe the flood of stoneware coming out of the Bruce Peninsula… Somebody was digging. Gradually the story was distilled down to the very essence of the secret. ‘A bottle digger named Ace of Spades has found the oldest dump in Meaford.
The gossip spread among Toronto’s pottery pickers like fresh pine tar on new pants. It left people wondering… who the heck is the Ace of Spades? And where the heck is Meaford?
Well of course Timbitz, who knows everyone, knows Ace personally and he knows just where all the dumps are in just about all of the historic towns in Southern Ontario… On Sunday November eighteenth Timbitz and I visited one of the oldest ports in Upper Canada. I suppose it’s fair to say we were caught up in a bottle rush and I was proud to be November digger along for the thrill of the last autumn safari. I feel privileged to be able to offer up this story as Bottle Rush in Meaford Ontario, Part One. It’s a three part adventure series that begins with a broken shovel.
Our route tripped through the very heart of Grey County, which is apple orchard country and where up to twenty five percent of Ontario's apples are produced. November is past the peak of the harvest, but even still I could see tractors with wagons stacked high with crates full of red and yellow delicious apples, and the narrow gravel lots beside the highway markets bustled with Sunday shoppers.
In the town of Meaford, Tim stopped to buy a new shovel and I had some time to look around. On the corner of the hardware store I saw a signs for something called a Scarecrow Invasion, which is a weeklong event that precedes the Apple Craft Show and Quilt Auction in late September. I remember reading about that bizarre municipal marketing event in a Toronto Star article last year - those darn scarecrows were everywhere; on mailboxes, front porches, balconies and storefronts – the whole town went scarecrow crazy.
Before the village incorporated into the town of Meaford in 1874 it was called Peggy's Landing in honour of a particularly charismatic pioneer. I would be interested to know if Peggy was a man or a woman. I suspect she was a man.
Situated on Georgian Bay, Meaford’s harbour was the center of industry and commerce, with its earliest saw mills and later factories being built close to water transport - a one day’s wagon ride south to the area’s largest markets.
An active trade developed around Georgian Bay after 1850 with fishing settlements along the shore. By 1855 a small set of locks was constructed at Sault Ste. Marie opening Lake Superior to small craft. In addition to steamers, there were dozens of schooners and small sailboats on the lakes. There were four famous steam ships in Meaford’s golden age; the names Algoma, Clifton, Ploughboy, Kaloola sound off in many local stories.
BRIEFING: In the truck Tim spelled out the particulars of the scenario. We were on our way to meet this self professed ‘Ace of Spades’, who came to Tim’s attention earlier in the summer when he sold two big crocks on eBay. Since then Tim has watched him like a hawk and even swooped down on a few superb Ontario ginger beers. Ace of Spades has been selling stoneware from all across the top of southern Ontario and recently vended a rare Thompson gingerbeer from as far away as Kingston.
But who is the Ace of Spades? I ask, unable to take the suspense any longer….
The Ace of Spades is an ex Canadian infantry soldier named Jason Hayder; he’s a full time dumpdigger with two kids in a nearby small town. His wife teaches at a nearby beauty school. Like any lucky strike he wasn’t looking for it – he was just walking his dog along the wetland trails outside of Meaford when he spotted a cork top cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottle in the mud. That was six months ago. Jason started digging full time in the summer and struck a serious goody vein in August - he sold some spectacular stuff on eBay just last Saturday night.
Jason Hayder is a remarkable fellow and I liked him the first moment I laid eyes on him. He’s a digger with a heart of gold and his passion is as wide as his eyes and he digs too fast when he gets excited.
The three of us piled into Tim’s truck and the tour continued through the industrial backside of Meaford. We were off the beaten track
‘Okay park here’ Jason said. ‘Don’t worry. You won’t get a ticket here’. Tim looked at me and laughed. There was no doubt about that – we were in the middle of nowhere with no buildings in sight.
Each of us shouldering gym bags full of fresh clothing, lunch, and two large blimps full of water – and on top of that load we each carried at least one digging implement. With Jason in the lead we hiked for about a quarter mile through scrub brush and cow pasture on the edge of town to approach the site from the west, through one fence and over another older barricade.
In a jungle of wild rhubarb, not far from a babbling brook and within sight of Georgian Bay we came upon the secret spot that Jason Hayder had found six months earlier. His digging had now pockmarked the terrain with craters lined with broken glass bottles and pottery fragments. As we walked he remembered his pontiled prizes and pointed to the places where he had found them. ‘I forked out two blue Underwood inks there, and I got some milks and a nice amber pumpkinseed whiskey under that tree… etc’
‘Where do you reckon we should dig today Jason?’ Tim strolled about looking for angles into fresh dump and I marveled at the quality of some of the hackers lying forlorn on the sides of the dirt piles.
‘I’ve been working up this end’ Jason said as he disappeared behind a wall of wild rhubarb and only after I followed did I see the knoll that was to be the day’s dig zone. It was already partially excavated and Jason was quick to describe the fruit sealer jar inscribed The Rose that he had found in this very cavity.
Tim interrupted and took command of the situation when he stepped into the hole. He immediately began picking away at the top crust of the existing hole to widen the working area. After scraping off the grass and six inches of topsoil, and then smashing down the hard gravel strewn crust below that, the brown loam of the dump appeared on all of our shovels.
“Oh its close boys’ Jason said gleefully as he attacked the ground with his long handled shovel. ‘I sometimes find medicines and amber pill jars right below this black ash so keep an eye out.’
On November 18th 2007, while digging the oldest dump in Meaford Ontario with the Ace of Spades and Timbits, Roberrific found several 1920’s relics in the first ten minutes of the excavation, and some serious prizes four feet below, in the 1880's Meaford dump.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Big Jugs in Barrie

What are you doing here? Tim asked defiantly.

I came to go digging. Didn't we say...?

'It's raining out bonehead!' Tim declared.

Well its not really raining - its just foggy.

'Get in the truck.' Tim doesn't need much convincing to go out looking for antiques, but on wet days in the winter months, he digs indoors.

On a foggy Friday afternoon I followed Timbits around the historic town of Barrie Ontario to look at rare and valuable early Canadian pottery.

Like a trapper out tending his trap line, Tim walks in a preordained pattern on each premises and keeps a pocket full of ready cash to buy any undervalued pieces he spots. Experience has taught him that most Southern Ontario antiques dealers don't know their local history or recognize the names of less prominent potters. If you want to track Tim down on eBay I believe his handle is 'Tim bottle digger' or some combination of those three words. He keeps a close eye on the newest dealer's booths in many local antiques malls, and seems to know the prices of most things without looking at the tags . Its fun to pick up something interesting and ask him what he would pay - its always less than the sticker price.

Tim is especially fond of the Barrie Antiques Centre; the high turnover inside this busy complex demands his frequent scrutiny - and the gregarious management here is also surprisingly helpful in discussing industry news, auction updates, and I suppose this friendly but informative banter is also part of Tim's search ritual.

I wish I had asked the proprietor his name. He was a nice guy, but Tim didn't want to say too much about the prices of the good pottery in front of him though... business and all.

In fact it's tough to get Tim to endorse anything expensive - for the most part he seems to reserve praise for items priced under ten dollars. But he does like salt glazed 'merchant crocks' and that place is packed full of them.

Salt glazed stoneware is created by adding common rock salt (sodium chloride) into the chamber of a hot kiln. Sodium as a flux and reacts with the silica in the clay. A typical salt glaze piece has a glassine finish, usually with a glossy and slightly orange-peel texture, enhancing the natural colour of the clay sealed beneath the glaze. I believe the process dates back to the 14th Century.

Tim likes stoneware jugs that are stamped with merchant's names and addresses from small towns in Ontario. This jug is from a wine merchant in Brantford, Ontario and that makes this piece a 'merchant's jug'. Yes this kind of detailed information on the stamp makes it possible to really accurately pinpoint the relic in time and place, and such pieces are therefore a welcome addition to any Canadian pottery collection.

If you click on and expand the image above you will more easily notice that this particular stoneware jug is 'spalding'. That means that this salt glazed pottery was carelessly stored in a damp basement, or perhaps outside in a garage or barn and, over the years, moisture has crept in under the finish. Those water molecules will over time, bubble up the glaze and ruin the skin of the ceramic. Restoration is difficult. A pottery collector could use a dehumidifier and maybe even a hairdryer to banish the moisture, but fixing the blemishes is a heart breaking exercise in futility.

I made sure I got my hands on a two gallon Flak and Van Arsdale from Cornwall, Ontario. This handsome kiln fired salt glazed beehive was made around 1874 and sold for a nickel; today's price is about $350 bucks!

At this point Timbits told me an interesting story about the blue floral designs that are always present on the early Canadian 'flower jugs' .

The potter, or in some famous cases here in Central Ontario the potter's most trusted assistant, would finger paint the same design on every piece! This primitive early branding was very important to consumers who grew to trust the vessels on which they could identify and recognize the flower. And when that proud potter retired, his son or his business partner took over the operation, and the company's signature image would change slightly... sometimes noticeably, but in many cases its still the same basic design, whether that was a flower or a bird or a horse. The new pattern would not be a significant departure from the earlier 'brand'. As I looked around the Barrie Antiques Centre, I saw many fine examples of this 'brand evoilution'. Tim pointed me toward a collection of crocks from Justin Morton & F.P. Goold. Behind them, I found a jug from a Hamilton potter named Robert Campbell. He had succeeded his father William in about 1875 - both men finger painted a flower pattern on their pieces, but Robert's decal was larger and friendlier.

A wonderful piece, this five gallon crock was made by W.E. Welding in Brantford Ontario in approx 1880. It has enjoyed a very long life as a handy storage container for a wide range of consumables such as water, soda, beer, meat, grain, jelly and pickled vegetables.

This crock could have been made from potters clay obtained in the Don river valley - there was a prolific clay pit there and its well known that Toronto teamsters would deliver that valuable white clay to potteries all over Ontario.

Tim is a true friend. He could see I was interested in learning about the history of Early Canadian Pottery and so he gave me his premier book on the subject by Donald Webster.

On page 78, I found the following census information that nicely details the rise and fall of Ontario potteries. In 1851 there were only thirty potteries in Upper Canada. But by 1861 there were forty potteries and eighty six potteries, and by 1871 there were 166 potters working eighty six potteries. The census of 1881 found seventy two potteries employed 182 potters. The decline, which was to start small and accelerate rapidly appeared first in the 1891 census where figures showed that 115 potters worked sixty potteries.

Early Canadian Pottery by Donald Webster was published in the USA in 1971 by the New York Graphic Society Limited, Greenwich Connecticut. Its broken into ten chapters:
1. The Production of Earthenware
2 Quebec - The French Period
3 Quebec - The Later 18th and 19th Centuries
4 Ontario Earthenware
5 Earthenware of the Maritimes
6 Miniatures, Toys and Whimseys
7 Salt-glazed Stoneware
8 Manufacturing - Rockingham and Yellow-ware
9 Whitewares and Porcelain
10 The Archeology of Potteries

The last chapter looks especially interesting, but I won't skip ahead to see where or how these guys are digging...