One century's junk is another's treasure

by Amanda Hammon, Outpost staff

Click here to view a photo essay on bottle digging by Amanda Hammon.

Some might say that treasure hunting is a thing of the past.

It's not for bottle diggers in Austin, Nev. They have no maps and the only piracy that takes place is the competition for a good hole, but it is a treasure hunt just the same.

Austin was founded in the 1860s during Nevada's silver boom era. At one time, 10,000 people lived in the small town and many of the homes that they built still stand today. What interests the common bottle digger today, however, is not the home but the privy, the latrine, the closet, or in the venacular, the outhouse.

In the 19th century, there was no garbage curb-side pick up and the outhouses doubled as the family dump. Those families probably had no idea that the junk they threw out would be worth hundreds of dollars one day.

Ruben Gallegos has been digging bottles for eight years and has several hundred bottles, making his collection worth more than $20,000. His mentor, John Shanks, has been digging bottles for over 40 years and runs the Trading Post, one of the two shops in town that sells bottles.

Gallegos and Shanks said they figure that they have probably dug every yard in town at one time or another.

"You don't just start digging the hole," Shanks said. "You have to do the work first."

The first thing you do to get started digging for bottles is to find a house old enough to have an outhouse. Then you go behind the house and look for signs away from the house like a path or indents in the ground.

Austin is a tiny town of 300 about 180 miles east of Reno. Map courtesy of MapQeust.

After you find a candidate spot, you probe the ground to find a soft spot. You have found a hole when the probe sinks easily into the ground.

You can also dig in places where you know people are likely to have dumped things, like an abandoned mine shaft. Finally, Shanks stressed, dig carefully. You don't want to risk breaking any of your treasures.

"It's such a thrill when you find an old bottle," Gallegos said. "I imagine it's like someone finding a fossil, just a great feeling."

You don't find good bottles every time you dig, Gallegos pointed out. Much of what comes out is essentially worthless -- stuff tourists will buy as a novelty item. But you also find things other than bottles.

Gallegos cites a list including weapons, pistols, marbles, locks, bedpans, dolls, coins and poison. Once, Gallegos said, they found a human skull but they just put it back in the hole when they were finished.

The most interesting discovery, he said, was a set of ivory dentures with a golden upper tooth. Digger Tony Manzini, found the teeth at the bottom of an 18-foot hole he dug behind a bar.

The bottles that have the most monetary value are bottles with rare markings or color, whiskeys, bitters, pickle jars, medicine bottles and colored inkwells.

Many bottles are sold to eastern collectors, but most diggers do not dig for the money. Gallegos won't sell any of his collection and Shanks said he considers the bottles his little piece of American nostalgia.

"By studying bottles, you can tell how people lived over 100 years ago," Shanks said. "I found two dozen bottles of shoe polish in a hole on a ranch once. You wouldn't think of ranchers polishing their shoes that much but those were the prominent bottles there. You really wonder about the people who threw them away."

In this sense, bottle digging is truly the epitome of the statement "one man's junk is another man's treasure."

Posted Nov.24, 1998
Copyright 1998 Nevada Oupost

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