By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
Recent flood-control work at the Liberty Street dam area has brought out the bottle hunters.
Several days a week, Tom Brown can be found searching the mud and muck for glimpses of glass.
“It’s nice to walk down there and see what I can find,” he said.
The 71-year-old Findlay man has dug up plenty of treasures over the years, amassing a collection of about 100 special glass bottles that tell stories of Findlay’s past.
“I’ve been doing it a long time, but I thoroughly enjoy the history of it,” he said.
Brown’s interest in the past began when he was a boy growing up in South Bend, Indiana, and first started toting home fossils found in a construction company’s rock pile. In 1962, at age 14, Brown went searching for the cornerstone of a church that was being demolished in his neighborhood.
“I had heard that cornerstones on churches, they have a box buried behind the cornerstone, and it was full of treasure, gold,” he recalled.
Instead of treasure, he found a box containing papers, newspapers, a Bible and hymnal that had been placed in the cornerstone when the church was built in 1904. Brown still has a yellowed clipping of a newspaper story written about his find.
Bit by the bottle bug
In 1963, Brown and his family moved to Findlay, which was his mother’s hometown. He graduated from Findlay High School in 1966 and was drafted to the U.S. Navy right out of high school. He served on submarine duty.
When he returned home in 1970, his brothers told him about digging for old bottles in the Findlay dump, which was located along Eagle Creek on East Main Cross Street. The boys had come across the site, Brown said, while searching for night crawlers.
“That first time I went digging with my brothers down where they were digging bottles, I was bit,” he laughed. “And I could never explain to anyone how I could still be doing it to this day.”
The area was used as a dumping ground from the 1880s until about 1901, he said, adding that he and his brothers dug the site for 14 years and discovered tens of thousands of bottles.
Bottle collecting became Brown’s passion, and learning about the history of the places they came from became his mission. He’s most interested in the bottles made right here in Findlay.
Brown’s collection includes bottles from many of the dairies that have operated in the city. He has Findlay Dairy bottles dating back to 1902, and several from Jim Edminston’s dairy that once stood on Covington Avenue. He also has a bottle that came from Thorton Bright’s dairy that was located near what is now Maple Grove Cemetery. He found that bottle while searching when the Blanchard Street bridge was replaced.
It was the discovery of natural gas in Findlay in 1886 and the resulting boom that was responsible for bringing glass manufacturing to town, Brown explained.
The site of the Karg Well, responsible for starting the gas boom, is near the Liberty Street dam.
Brown said he was familiar with the area because that was one of his fishing spots. According to his research, the dam dates back to July 1906. It was the city’s second dam, he said, with Riverside Park’s being the first.
According to series of columns written by the late R.L. Heminger, former publisher and editor of The Courier, the subject of a dam was first proposed in 1899 when a group of citizens asked City Council to take action to relieve a sanitary situation with the Blanchard River.
“The very low level of water in the river through the heart of the city produced a condition that left much to be desired, from the standpoint of health. In those days sewers were emptying directly into the stream,” Heminger wrote.
The group suggested that a dam be constructed on the west section of the river beyond what was then the Lake Erie and Western Railroad bridge. They said this would back up sufficient water in the river as it traveled through the center of the city to cover the riverbed better and keep the stream in an improved sanitary condition.
Brown and his brothers often fished at the dam, as it was one of the deepest parts of the river.
“We caught lots and lots of fish,” he said.
Later, in light of the city’s flooding problems, it was suggested that the river be widened and the dam lowered or removed.
The former Brandman site is also nearby, and once held a tire dump.
“People had been using that piece of land as a dump,” said Brown, adding that he was able to tell that it’s a newer dump by the way the bottles he found there were made.
“One of the first things I found there was a Findlay Dairy bottle,” he said. “I have a full set of them. I even have one in my collection that I found down there that I didn’t have.”
Brown said Findlay Dairy was the first one in Findlay and Daniel Child, who would start Hancock Brick and Tile Co. (now Hancor), was a partner. Brown said his good friend Joe Frey has also done research on Findlay’s dairies. Both men are members of the Findlay Antique Bottle Club.
“Between the two of us, we really know the who, what, when and where of the dairies in Findlay,” he said.
There was also a Brown Dairy, no relation. Brown met one of the last living survivors involved in the early business and showed him his collection of bottles from the dairy.
“He was just amazed,” said Brown. “He told me they made what was called a nursery rhyme bottle. So you would have your advertising for the dairy on one side, and on the back side was a nursery rhyme.”
Most were current nursery rhymes with the words changed.
“The bottle I showed him, he said his mom had written that nursery rhyme,” said Brown.
He also has a milk bottle that references World War II.
“They had a thing on the back showing support for the war effort, buy war bonds. Some of them would show tanks. Some of them would show planes,” said Brown.
He found both bottles on eBay.
“They are so scarce. They are so rare. And you would really be surprised how much people spend on milk bottles,” he said.
Brown gets a lot of his bottles at shows, flea markets, auctions and through eBay, since most of the old dump sites have been covered up or filled in. But in the past six weeks or so, work at the Liberty Street dam site has uncovered some treasures, he said.
“There’s a lot of what we call shards, so there’s a lot of pieces because they’re running pretty heavy equipment over that ground there. But there’s everything that people would have thrown away back in the day, be it a cup, a saucer, a bottle of every description, because everything came in glass bottles back in those days,” he said. “So when you’re walking around down there, you can actually see the bottles popping up out of the ground.”
If you’re lucky, you may find a complete bottle, he said.
“I try to go a couple times a week but it depends on the mud and stuff, because it is awful muddy down there,” said Brown. “But it’s an opportunity that’s soon going to pass.”
Bottles aren’t the only thing he’s found. There’s also a plethora of golf balls, guns, women’s purses that were stolen and even several safes.
“Usually I take the contents out of the purses be it glasses, rosaries, anything that they may want back, and I get ‘hold of the people,” he said. “One of the ones I remember the most was a woman. First thing she asked me was, ‘Did you find a rosary?'”
The woman had inherited the rosary from her grandmother.
“She said, ‘That’s the only thing I wanted out of the purse,'” said Brown. “She said, ‘I was so heartbroken.’ She said, ‘I cried a half dozen times about losing that rosary.’ She just kept hugging me.”
Brown said he’s enjoys the hobby and doubts he’ll ever give up the search.
“It all started at Gloria Dei Church and a 14-year-old kid thinking he was going to find gold in the cornerstone,” said Brown. “He’s still looking for treasure.”