Guest commentary: Find by four-legged ‘archaeologist’ inspires a collection

John Weil's adventurous dog, Baron — nicknamed the Archaeologist for his backyard discovery in 1987 — is pictured in 1990.

In mid-April 1987, I brought home an emaciated 6-month-old puppy. His paws were the size of winter mittens, so I knew he would grow considerably. But I never expected a four-legged Tyrannosaurus rex.

I saw him the first time at the La Jolla Christmas Parade. He had been taken there by members of FOCAS, an animal rescue organization. They told me he had been abused and was malnourished. I could see the outline of his ribs pushing against his patchy skin.

I felt sorry for him. He had been at the county animal shelter for only one day. My wife and I adopted him.

We did not know his breed until his papers arrived two months later. By that time, he had grown almost to my hips, and I’m 6-foot-2.

The papers said he was a Great Dane and Labrador mix. He was jet black with a white chest and adorable, big floppy ears. We named him Baron.

Within two months of good food and lots of love, he weighed a solid, muscular 120 pounds. His coat — maybe due to steady snacking on scrambled eggs — was glossy and stunningly beautiful.

When we left for the first time to go grocery shopping without him, he leaped up to the third shelf in our kitchen — about 7 feet high — and knocked down a box of macadamia nut candy from Hawaii. He then ate the entire box without even a burp. He tore apart two pillows and generally destroyed the house. As a result, the next time we left the house, I put him in our fenced backyard.

At that time we lived on Waverly Avenue in Bird Rock.

And that’s where this story begins. This is when I learned the meaning of the phrase “buried treasure.”

When we arrived home two hours later, we didn’t see Baron in the yard. We were concerned until we heard noise from behind the garage. I walked across the grass and there he was looking up at me from a huge hole. Behind him was a pile of dirt so high it made a ramp halfway up the fence.

Lying to the side of the hole were 17 antique bottles, broken corncob pipes, bits of metal and tin foil, a charred spoon and fork, several rusted old-style tools and dozens of other interesting items, including a large number of bones. Of course, I was perplexed. Why was this stuff buried in our backyard?

But first, I examined the bones. I’m not a forensic scientist, but they looked like chicken bones. With my mind at ease, I watched as Baron kept digging. Within moments, two dirty green globes of glass glinted in the sunlight. Baron dug them out of the ground.

I petted him, nicknamed him the Archaeologist and proceeded to clean the items as if he had discovered the tomb of the pharaohs. How this pile of junk — and some treasures — ended up buried in our backyard soon became clear after a bit of research. In fact, Baron, who lived to be 14 years old, is the reason I started collecting antique bottles after that dig in 1987.

Who buried these treasures in our backyard?

Hint: It wasn’t a pirate.

Over the past 130-plus years, American waste disposal methods have changed. Even the waste generated by society has changed. Most states and municipalities did not adopt mandatory trash pickup until after World War I. The price of pickup soared as mandated pickup forced homeowners to pay to play. Trash disposal companies that contracted with cities in many states like California took advantage until common sense took over and cities regulated pricing.

In the meantime, to avoid disposal fees, some residents continued to do what they had always done. Burn and bury trash in the backyard or a nearby field.

In San Diego, disposal methods have evolved from incineration to sealed dumps with triple and even quadruple liners. As the city’s website says, “The challenge for the city of San Diego has been to protect the health of its residents and address environmental and financial challenges.”

According to the website, between 1880 and 1908, private contractors were hired by the city to dispose of waste by incineration. San Diego companies often dumped trash in the ocean. Many residents in La Jolla preferred burning their own trash, because trash dumped at sea often washed ashore.

However, residents sometimes dumped their waste in vacant lots, causing a public nuisance. Our house was built in the 1940s, so my guess is that the first two or three owners burned their trash in the backyard to avoid paying disposal fees. In fact, someone could have been burning trash on our lot before a house was built.

Business organizations in San Diego complained about the high collection costs when the second city contractor, E.W. Anderson, raised collection fees. The city then placed a cap on hauling prices, and in 1917 Anderson declined to renew the contract.

Clearly, a lot of private burning was going on. Backyards throughout the county — at least those in existence before 1950 — are likely loaded with goodies. San Diego yards, fields and some farms could be, too.

From the 1930s and even into the 1960s in some states, whether legally or otherwise, residents and institutions across the country still burned and disposed of their own trash or used burn dumps.

By the 1950s, incineration fell out of favor. Peer pressure likely stopped backyard burning by the end of the decade.

What do I have?

As a result of trash burning — and my clever dog, Baron — I have a small collection of bottles. I like to call it a starter set.

These are some of the old bottles that John Weil's dog, Baron, dug up in his Bird Rock backyard.

The most stunning bottle from the dig — not because of any major value but because of its age compared with the age of the home — is an 1890s beer bottle. This type of heavy ceramic bottle is fairly common. But it looks great on a shelf.

The value of the bottle is somewhere between $10 and $25. I’m guessing a passerby from another area threw it into the pit, because not one nearby home was built before 1900. Of course, it’s fun to guess about these kinds of things.

After a good brushing and washing, the two big glass “globes” turned out to be telephone pole insulators. One is light green, the other is green-blue. The light green one was manufactured by Whitall Tatum Co. The green-blue insulator is a Hemingray-42.

Insulators used to be valued at about $15 to $25 each, depending on condition. But that was before the internet made them so accessible and therefore common. Now I’d be lucky to get $8 to $10 each.

Though Baron did not make me a rich man, I’m already up about 60 bucks without even visiting an antique store. Plus, I had the fun of getting them from my dog! The only work I had to do was refill the hole.

The other bottles are:

• Two common pre-1930s Bromo-Seltzer bottles by Emerson Drug Co. of Baltimore. One thick, dark blue Bromo bottle is from the 1880s to 1890s.

• An early-1950s green Vicks VapoRub jar and four 2-inch pre-1930s bottles that likely held medicine. The stems are clearly handblown. Bubbles appear like a diver surfacing the ocean. Plus there is no seam at the stems, which indicates the tops are handblown. Two bottles have turned a nice amethyst purple, another indication of age.

• One of them is 7¼ inches tall, with a handtooled crown top. This is a really nice cylinder-shaped bottle by E.R. Durkee & Co. It is embossed “Challenge Sauce” just below the stem. This bottle has some light stains and the number 324 on the base. After some minor research, it appears the bottle was made in the 1880s and would retail for about $12 to $15.

Again, I’m not getting rich from Baron’s dig. But the fun of collecting bottles is partly because most are not expensive. They are affordable. Collectively, they make a colorful display.

But before you grab your shovel to dig up the roses, think twice. Your yard might not hold a single bottle. Trash pickup came to suburban areas long before it got to the back woods.

Every time I glance at this starter set of bottles, I think of Baron the Archaeologist. I keep this little grouping separate from my store-bought bottles, even though they would look better matched with others.

I can’t imagine there are many people out there who can say they began collecting antiques because of a dog.

John Weil is a writer and longtime La Jolla resident. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country and abroad.