The Old Soda Works - Part #5

Day #7

Much time passed in the lives of Kyle Waters, Jim Butler, and myself after those fateful days digging. I finished my exams, and we all lived through another stress and relaxation-filled holiday season, and the entire time, thought about those bottles - thought about Mr. Taylor, or Mr. Murdoch, working away bottling the stuff in stoneware bottles in 1907. We all knew we had dug something truly incredible – truly historical, even – and we would likely never have the chance to do it again. It was incredible while it lasted, but we were all sad to see it come to an end. The nostalgic reflection had begun, and would likely continue for a long time – perhaps our entire lives, even.

What we didn’t expect was that there was, perhaps, still more to be had. Quite a bit more!

It was sometime around early to mid December when the bulldozers rolled in and knocked down Leo’s Bar, a pair of turn of the century to wartime homes with plastic siding, and eventually, spread the pandemic of historical destruction to our beloved soda works, as well as the centre lot – leaving only the last house in the row remaining, as an office for the workers to live out of while the construction was happening. They had left nothing but a 2 foot deep trench, the width and length of the houses, in the spot where each one had stood. All the areas we had dug were scooped up, and moved away to some other land, and we were reminded what a service we were doing for the preservation of these priceless relics.

It was Christmas day, 2007 when Kyle called me in the evening amidst all the family happenings at my house. He wished me an enthusiastic “Merry Christmas!” to which I responded in the same way, and then proceeded to fill me in on some “big news” he had come to acquire. While driving by one of the utility yards for a local dirt and fill dealer, Kyle had spotted 6 or 7 sizable piles of dirt containing large quantities of concrete, sand, and yellow bricks –a dead on match for the area we had been digging in. Kyle asked what I was doing Boxing day, and I responded nothing, being part of a family who looks forward to the end of the hectic holiday season as much as the holidays themselves (well, not entirely the truth, but we don’t do anything Boxing day). He said that we should meet up, check out the yard, and then head over to the site (it being a statutory holiday), and see if the workers had dug anything up. I agreed it was a good idea, and after setting the time for 1 PM Boxing day afternoon, we both went our ways to enjoy Christmas day.

The next morning I picked Kyle up, and he showed me the spot. Weary of trespassing charges, even on a day when no one would be around, we quickly dashed from the parking spot, into the dirt yard, and took a quick gander around. Certainly the dirt piles were from our site. Wooden beams, yellow bricks, concrete chunks, and, of course, large shards from R. Taylor quarts, siphons, etc, were to be found everywhere. Kyle uncovered an intact Fruit Punch Reg’d Design soda bottle from the 30s or so, but that was all we could see after about 20 minutes of walking the dirt piles. Everything was frozen solid, as winter had well set in by now, and, thus, we figured nothing would come from this spot. Besides, we were eager to check out our beloved site, or what was left of it.

We walked into the site (as they still had not completely enclosed the area in fence) with our shovels in hand, and began poking around in the area they had dug the trench. A large backhoe was parked in exactly the spot the soda works home had stood a week before, and adjacent to it, on both sides, were a pair of driveways. They had knocked the homes down, but had left the driveways located in between them standing on flat, wide, exposed columns of dirt. Dirt that, incidentally, looked very interesting. On the south side of the driveway located between the soda works and the centre house, an obviously ashy layer with large iron pieces embedded in the soil was visible. However, one second of digging indicated that working with this layer would be not only unproductive, but impossible, as well. The shovel would simply notKyle posing with the first of the day's finds, and posing next to our friend the backhoe. penetrate the ground for iron implements and the thick layer of coal by-product which cemented them together. We both agreed to spend no more time there.  We took a walk around the site. The entire thing essentially consisted of 2 or 3 acres of dirt mounds, with the occasional patch of visible grass left from one of the yards.  The crews had dug one or two footings in the far end of the lot, and visible in the sides of the footings were a couple of brick lined privies – dark soil very contrasting to the light, sandy stuff natural in this area, and bricks still in place. However, we were eager to work with the area the soda works was before coming back to the potentially unproductive brick liners (nothing was obvious in them at the time). We walked back to where the backhoe stood; having claimed victory over the home it was parked upon the former space of. Immediately upon reaching the spot, Kyle ran up to the edge of the driveway-plateau, around the area where the front edge of the house was previously – well beyond where Kyle had been digging while it was standing, and much closer to the road than any of us would have expected to find anything. Regardless, as he scratched at the side of the plateau, shards began to fall out. I began to scratch slightly farther back from the road, and sure enough, glass showed up here, as well. We hacked through the frost layer, as this dirt had been exposed for at least a week and was quite frozen. The shards, just like old times, simply poured out of the ground. We had thought it was all over, but here it was! Just like the day we started! I spotted the base edge of a ginger beer right near to the surface, just under the 6” of concrete the driveway consist of. Prying at the frozen soil, the piece fell out – an R. Taylor with just the right half of the ink stamp missing – top and left side intact, but half of the base missing. A good sign of things to come! We dug for another 10 minutes, shards continuously falling onto the shovel, and us throwing them every direction to get them out of there, and not once stopping to think about the fact we no longer had permission to dig here – the liberation of these fragile bottles was far too important for that. Kyle stuck his head under the concrete, and suddenly emerged into the day with yet another R. Taylor ginger beer with just the very top broken off! Another repairable example it seemed! Unfortunately broken, of course, but by this time we were both convinced that they would not have thrown out a perfectly functional R. Taylor ginger beer – and why would they? We would continue to believe this – and with good rationale.

It didn’t take long for us to get into some very interesting layers containing some very interesting shards. Each time anything of interest came out, we would run it to the car, parked only 40 feet away, to make sure no An amber J.Tune Quart hiding.Kyle with his newest amber quart came along and claimed it as belonging to the developer or workers on the site. I had once again encountered the beloved layer with such a thick concentration of shards that no actual soil was present – only glass, and, occasionally, porcelain. I was digging through this layer, when Kyle said he had something that looked intact. Our excavations were a mere 1 foot or so into the side of the plateau, so taking a peek into the hole Kyle was digging was quite easy. I took one such peek, and it was pretty obvious what Kyle had at least a large portion of. The characteristic rounded base edge of an Ontario soda was visible... and the glass was obviously not aqua, but something much more... amber. I told him I wanted to take a photo, but he ushered me away, claiming it would jinx the piece. I didn’t blame him, but I eventually convinced him to take a snapshot of the piece still in the ground. We both openly indicated the top was probably knocked off, as was the case with everything else, but we were both secretly counting on it being intact. And, as Kyle levered the piece from beneath with the trowel, and slid it from the ground, a plainly mint amber blob quart was more obviously than ever what he had found. As he rotated it from hand to hand, and no embossing was visible, his heart dropped thinking it was unembossed. He scrubbed the sides with his gloves, hoping and searching for that embossing and suddenly, there it was. “J. Tune” he said plainly – too excited to even raise his voice. We were both amazed. There were no words to describe how incredibleA decapitated R.Taylor ginger beer waiting to be unearthed. this dig had been so far. So many emotions about how incredible the bottle was, how we almost hadn’t come back to find it, and how each one of us had uncovered one intact, near mint condition amber Ontario quart blob soda, all flooded into both of our heads, I’m sure. Kyle looked at the bottle for several seconds, passed it to me for a gander, and then I snapped a photo of Kyle holding the piece, cramped into that tiny space between the backhoe, and the driveway from the former centre house. No one who had owned that house had had any idea of what had been buried beneath that driveway for the last 100 years. And, frankly, I was glad. We had all found our amber quart now – anything else was just too incredible! And, really - what else could there be?

I continued to dig in the pure shards layer, but had to open the hole up a bit on my right side. In doing so, I was confused by the removal of half of a ginger beer top in a straight off-white colour. Blob style, and no hint of the regular tan shade we had found on all the Taylors. I showed it to Kyle, who didn’t know, but thought perhaps a Clark Brothers ginger beer from Toronto or something the like. I had never seen one of those, so I shrugged it off. The next piece to come from the edge of that hole was the other half of the blob, and the next was, presumably, the stopper which was attached to the top. “It’s American”, I said, as the stopper was marked with a Buffalo soda works emblem by the name of “Lion” soda works, with a tiny pictorial of a Lion on it. I set the top on top of the driveway-plateau, having lost much of my interest in it. Returning to my digging, I took another easy scoop of pure shards from that favourable layer, and exposed in the edge of the hole was a large portion from a ginger beer – once again, right near the surface, mere inches from the concrete. I snapped a photo before I rolled the piece out. Yet another R. Taylor ginger beer with just the top knocked off was in my hand!  I showed it to Kyle, who congratulated me, and ran the piece to the trunk. There’s nothing worth complaining about in a rare, beautiful Ontario ginger beer in easily repairable condition!

An unusual base peeking out of Kyle's hole. What is it?A Glass Brothers quart ginger beer out of London!Funny enough, almost as I was removing the ginger beer, Kyle indicated he had something unusual in his hole. I took a look, and saw what he was talking about. A particularly wide, stoneware base was protruding from the trashy soil. White glaze was visible on the sides, and all we could imagine it being was some variety of master ink. “A quart R. Taylor ginger beer.” I suggested, jokingly. Kyle spent a hefty amount of time digging the piece out. When it finally saw daylight, it was obviously some kind of stoneware bottle, broken off at the neck, and off white in colour. Kyle brushed the dirt off the side and reported; “It’s a Glass Brothers!” The local London, Ontario pottery maker was well known in our vocabulary – we had even found a shard of stoneware with their marking upon it earlier in one of the digs. We had never seen a stoneware ginger beer bottle of their make, though. I was looking at the neck breakage, and thought about that top I had just dug out, 3’ farther back from the road, and right near the surface. I grabbed the shards, and passed them to Kyle. He brushed them off, and rotated them until... perfect! The shards fit perfectly onto the broken shoulder! Kyle had himself a complete Glass Brothers ginger beer bottle, possibly bottled by some Buffalo soda works – the shards from it buried 3’ apart under a driveway for the past 100 years!

We both continued, so well enthralled by the finds that time passed like some kind of non-renewable resource. Kyle threw more shovels full of dirt from his hole and uncovered an intact hutch soda, lying on its side in the bottom of his excavation. He gently pulled it from the dirt, and had in his hand a “CLARK BROs / TORONTO” hutch – a common piece for some, but not for a bunch of amateur diggers like ourselves. I hadn’t even dug a broken Clark Brothers before! Kyle offered the piece to me, as he already had the one from Brent’s yard, and placed it on top of the plateau. Ironically, rolling the Clark Brothers thought over my brain, one of the next shards to emerge from my hole was the first shard from a Clark Brothers hutch I had ever dug – a large portion of the base. But this shard was no normal one – this one was from an amazing screaming yellow olive green coloured Clark Bros hutch. But so small a shard, and no more pieces in sight! Oh well – at least I had my intact aqua one.

Unfortunately, the dig didn’t last much longer than that. We began to get a little too far under the concrete for us to comfortably dig. We decided we would come back on the weekend with a 12 lb sledge hammer and remove some of the concrete. We had rescued one more incredible bottle from the dirty depths, and in a spot we would have deemed both impossible and unlikely as of the last time we had dug.

We packed up our shards, brought them to the car, and drove away, nearly unable to take our eyes from the slab of concrete covering our cache of jewels, and thinking about how many days we would have to wait before bringing them from the soil to our shelves. Still, they weren’t going anywhere, as the demolition crew was not working this week, and besides, we were hungry.

Day #8

When Kyle & I got together Friday night for a movie with some friends, I, for one, couldn’t keep my mind from what was happening the day directly following. 6 of us headed into London to see one of the newest blockbuster flicks, “Juno”, and the entire time, thoughts of the R. Taylors and amber J. Tunes waiting for us beneath the thick concrete of that driveway, soon to be unearthed for all to see continued to dance throughout my mind. So much so that, while driving us back to Kyle’s place at around 12:30 AM, I continued to describe our digging endeavours in detail, along with every minute detail of their historical significance, to our unfortunate driver. We arrived home (probably thankfully by Darren, our driver), and headed to bed around 1 AM, set on rising the next morning at 6:30 to get an early start at digging.

When the alarm went off, and we sat and crawled about, unable to position our heads properly on our shoulders due to lack of sleep, we made the connection that, perhaps, 7 AM in late December wasn’t the best time to meet up for a dig... it was dark, and would probably remain so for quite a while. Regardless, we got our digging clothes together, and headed out. I bought Tim Horton’s for us, and then we parked the car just a bit south of the site, down Head street, waiting for Jim to arrive. In passing, we noticed a large portion of the fence had blown over, probably due to the strong winter winds the night before. We waited about 10 minutes in our parking spot, and then decided to take a quick walk by the site and make sure no one had been there. We checked the spot, and didn’t see any fresh dirt tossed out of the hole, and were satisfied enough to head back to the car. As we passed the last house in the row, though, and the only one still standing, I was mortified to see, out of my peripheral vision, a fellow open the door, close it behind him, and then proceed to walk over to where the fence had fallen down. He began to dismantle the fence, while Kyle & I hid behind the house and wondered about whether he was worker or just some passerby. The last house remaining was being used as a temporary homestead to house the workers who came from too far away to drive to the site each day. In all likelihood, since he had come out of the worker’s quarters, he was no civilian dismantling the fallen fence in an act of Good Samaritan interest. Ultimately, Kyle won me over for sure in his argument that he clearly worked here, and was, for some reason, working at 7 AM on a Saturday, 2 days before New Years. After taking a moment to salute his hard workmanship, we decided to head back to the car, and just wait a bit to see if, perhaps, he would head home to wherever he was from, and we could slip in and dig without anyone knowing different. We moved the car across the street from where he was dismantling the fence, and parked beside some other stationary automobiles in the parking lot of the Food Basics store there, and waited. Our first covert ops mission!

However, after 20 minutes of waiting, we were growing impatient, as light was beginning to show on the horizon, and he was still ripping that fence apart. “Maybe when Jim comes down here, he’ll have the initiative to go ask him if we can dig.” Kyle noted. That got me thinking of what the fellow would say if I asked him myself. The worst he could do would be to tell me I couldn’t, and we could just slip back on Sunday or New Year’s day and do a bit of digging when he wasn’t around, if that were the case. “I’ll go ask him.” I responded.

I gathered my gloves, my plaid jacket, and all the initiative I had, and with good wishes from Kyle, headed off to where he was now picking up segments of high-durability construction fencing and stacking them in piles. I walked up casually, and asked if he needed a hand. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem taken aback at all, and said he certainly could! After a quick explanation about the fence being blown over, and the company who installs it coming out that afternoon to fix it, we set to work, and within about 20 minutes had all the fence segments neatly stacked. While we worked, we conversed. He told me where he was from, and why he was staying in the house (it turns out he hailed from quite a distance, and was staying in the house out of necessity, as travel time from his home would be too inconvenient). I told him I was a university student at UWO taking geology, which prompted us to talk about working out west in British Columbia, which prompted us to talk about vacationing out there and other places. I discovered that this man, Greg, let’s say, was actually an incredibly nice fellow, and conversation with him flowed so well, I was tempted to just keep talking. At about this moment, however, it occurred to me that it might appear strange to such a man that a 19 year old university student would be up at 7 AM in work clothes, offering to help a construction worker pile fence into neat stacks, 2 days before New Years, and so, I decided to tell him why I was there. I mentioned that myself and two friends were bottle collectors, and amateur historians of a sort, and we were interested in retrieving some bottles we believed were buried next to where one of the houses once stood. I explained the previous application for that particular house around the turn of the century, and that we had already found quite a few bottles of immense historical significance. He seemed a tad confused, like he was thinking about something. He then mentioned that when he had first arrived at the site, him, and everyone else, had noticed a large amount of excavation at the rear of the building, including the removal of a large portion of the floor in the rear addition. I explained that it was us whom had moved most of the dirt, and removed the floor he had seen, in pursuit of relics from “the old soda works”. He laughed, and expressed that it was an impressive amount of digging. “Show me where you want to dig.” He said, and we set off towards where the house was. I pointed to the slab of concrete, still raised above the ground on a plateau of ashy, dark soil, now clearly illuminated by the early morning sun. It was obvious we had already been there, as shards of bottle, and piles of dirt lay everywhere, having already been dug out from beneath the concrete. “Sure,” he said “you guys can dig here all you want, we’re not going to be working in this area for a long while, anyways. Just make sure you don’t undermine that concrete – I don’t want anyone getting hurt!” I thanked him profusely, and explained that we had a sledge hammer we intended to use to clear the concrete away so undermining wouldn’t be necessary. He said he had some work to do, but would be around the property if we needed anything. I thanked him again, and quickly asked him which of the demolition or building crew he was from, just out of curiosity. “Neither,” he said with a smile “I’m the contractor.” I don’t believe he knew just how much that meant to me. I had succeeded in making friends with none other than the building contractor himself. This day was already going well!

I ran back to the car, retrieved the sledgehammer, shovels, backpack, camera, and told Kyle we were on, and had permission from the contractor himself to dig all we wanted. He was impressed, though we were both too eager to dwell on it, so we ran clear across the parking lot to the dig site to begin the day.

The ground was still somewhat frozen, so we worked to remove some of the dirt we had shoveled on top of the concrete the previous day of digging, and then set to work breaking up the slab. “SLAM!” went the sledge hammer, as Kyle looked about, still wondering where Jim was “SLAM!” “Man, this stuff is thick.” I thought to myself. “SLAM! “THUD!” the third slam had sent a 2 foot by 3 foot piece of the concrete falling into the hole, and tiny fragments of concrete clinked against each other as it fell with a soft thud on the dirt beneath. Digging would be a little easier today. I paused again to reflect how much more aggressive this digging was than anything else we had ever done. Ripping floor boards out, breaking up a 6” thick concrete slab with a sledgehammer – it was a lot of work in the name of an unusual, but just, cause.

After ripping the concrete apart further, and throwing the chunks far, far away from our digging spot, we set to work digging. I aimed to get an intact bottle this day, as I had not previously when Kyle pulled out his amber blob. I continued to dig in my thick layer of pure shards, which happened to run away from the road, to beneath where the driveway would have been, and, incidentally, continued past the point where the crew had already ripped the concrete away for us. We each removed a few additional R. Taylor ginger beer shards, and quite soon after starting, I pulled yet another Glass Brothers ginger beer top out of the ground, also split into two. Hopefully I’d get one of these large & majestic quart ginger beers for my own collection! “R.T.” and “M” marked quart bases continued to pour out of the hole, and both of us removed at least one more R. Taylor crown top pint with just the neck broken off, and set it aside for someone who might appreciate a bit of local history. However, for the first 45 minutes or hour of digging, we didn’t turn up anything really worth fretting about. Of course, even a shard of that black ink stamped R. Taylor marking on stoneware looks great, but by now we had found shards from at least a dozen R. Taylor ginger beers broken, and not one intact. Where were they? The thought occurred to me that none of us had found any Strathroy bottles intact thus far – at least none in the sort of condition that would have been considered useable – that is, all the bottles here were either from out of town, or had obviously been discarded due to lack of practicality by whichever soda maker it was whom owned this house. We removed a few shards from T.H.Hutchison ginger beer bottles, with awful, crude ink markings, and were pleased to see a few more shards from bottles we had never found any parts of previously.A quart York Springs in yellow green being unearthed.

I was digging away from the road, and Kyle was digging beneath the concrete slab. We were both finding lots of shards, but none of us had turned up anything intact yet. I had been following the pure shards layer, and decided to take advantage of one theorem I had developed previously – that everything we had turned up intact had been in layers other than that of the “pure shards” layer. They had all been quite isolated in sandy, unproductive soil, all by themselves. I decided to open up the hole more in a direction where it didn’t seem as likely anything would come out, as no glass was really visible in the dirt. After just a few shovelfuls of dirt being tossed out of the hole, I felt that distinctive “thunk!” of the shovel tapping against an intact bottle – a hollow feeling. As I scratched the dirt away from my new found find with the trowel, I was looking at obviously yellow green glass, in the form of a quart sized soda bottle. “I’ve got a York Springs here!” I shouted at Kyle, and continued to scratch. I wondered if it was intact, or if the top was broken off like the one York Springs we had found in the basement. The top came into sight, and that thought was dismissed. I wondered if the bottom was perhaps broken out or something the like. It seemed too good to be true that we had found easily 30 of these York Springs, all broken, and there would suddenly be one intact one. It seemed as though they had been broken on purpose – why would this one not have been? I snapped a photo, and gently pried the bottle loose. I was holding a very much intact York Springs bottle. The glass crude, covered in straw marks and folds, and filled with tiny bubbles and swirls of all sorts. It felt so good to finally pull one of these from the ground intact – the yellow olive green glass sparkling in the hazy early-morning sunlight. I had been aspiring to find one of these intact for all of a month – ever since I discovered they exist.

Almost immediately after pulling the York Springs out, I was shoveling more dirt from within the hole out onto the ground surrounding the excavation, when at a depth of about 2 ½” feet, a hutch soda came into view. I had pried it from the ground with the shovel head, and the dirt and ash just fell off the glass as it was pried upright. I picked the bottle up, and gave it a quick once over. I looked as though it was unembossed at first glance, when I noticed what appeared to be a beaver. I wiped the dirt from the front face. A Vernor’s! I shouted to Kyle. We had, once again, found broken examples, but this one was the most intact, short of a lip chip, and a rather hefty base flake from some impact. I rolled the bottle about in my palms and looked at it. Case wear, chips, mineral damage. The life this bottle must have lived since it was manufactured 120 years ago. The places it had been to wind up in Strathroy, Ontario at the bottom of a trash pit. Who had given it those chips? We’d never know the answers, but it was interesting to think about. Now to think about finding an intact R. Taylor ginger beer!

Around this time, Jim showed up, and told us he just hadn’t been able to get up that morning. Being as he works on call at probably some of the worst times imaginable, it seemed rational that he wouldn’t want to miss out on sleeping in on some idle Saturday. Either way, he was up now, and began digging promptly. I recited the story of how we had come to obtain permission to dig, all the while removing shovelfuls of dirt from the hole which was now up to my waist. I was still hitting shards. And then – “Clunk!” I hit something solid, but not a bottle. Scraping the dirt away, I found a hefty sewage or drainage pipe buried at a depth of approximately 3 ½ feet. I noticed that I had only recovered shards above and around where the pipe was, and began wondering about what the fellow who installed it had found while digging a 3 ½’ deep trench through the side yard of an old soda works.

We all dug for about 45 minutes, and none of us found anything. The occasional unmarked piece of ginger beer, and one shard from a peacock blue GEO.E.MURDOCH seltzer bottle, and the lower half from another G.E.MURDOCH / STRATHROY pint crown top soda, but broken off right in the middle of the embossing, so unfortunately not of much use.

Jim & I dug the spot where I had been working my way back from the road, to more or less where we had already dug previously, and decided to call it quits for that area. I proceeded to open up a pit closer to the road than where Kyle was digging. Chipping through the frost layer, and cracking the concrete apart, it took me easily 20 minutes to get just a foot into the side of the plateau. Jim expressed that he had to get back quite early today, and more or less just wanted to see what was going on. Since there was a limited amount of space to dig here, he was going to get going, and leave Kyle & I to our craft. We both decided we were hungry, and would rather get a bite to eat, and return later, than continue right now. We talked with Jim for a minute, and we all decided to try and meet up the next day for some photographs of the pieces we had found, and to try and establish more about whose soda works it was.

Kyle & I drove to KFC – our traditional digging lunch spot, only to find it closed. We wondered why, as we had never seen it closed around lunch time before, when we checked the time. It was still 10:20 AM – an hour forty minutes before lunch time, and we were really hungry. We decided to head back to Kyle’s place to use the lavatories, and then return afterwards to see if it had opened yet.

Unfortunately, our lavatory run didn’t take as long as we had hoped (likely the last time you’ll ever hear me say that), so we wound up eat at A & W instead. Whilst eating, I wondered about the possible productivity of digging where I had been – closer to the road than Kyle’s spot. It seemed like where he was digging, very few shards were emerging – I imagined closer to the road would only be less productive. I decided I would stick to it for a while until I could verify that nothing else of interest would come from that spot.

Returning to the site, our stomachs full of monosodium glutamate-impregnated fast food, we set to work again – starting out by removing more concrete. All along this vein, there was only a purpose to digging up to a point beneath the driveway, before one would begin digging into the same layer of pure coal byproduct and rusted metal as was visible on the other side of the driveway. Perhaps this layer was part of a blacksmith or some other trade workshop located next door at some point. Regardless, it made removing concrete from the surface a bit easier, as we knew we wouldn’t have to remove much more than about 2 ½’ of it before we wouldn’t be digging any farther anyways. I sledged 2’ of concrete off the driveway where Kyle & I were digging, and we continued working.

Where I was digging, the soil was darker than where it had been farther back from the road where the York Springs had emerged. Here it seemed to be almost pure ash with a lot of broken and intact bricks mixed in. The shards were, as they had been where Kyle was digging, very few and far between. Kyle had just recently pulled the top half of a BABY & HANRAHAN hutch soda from Windsor out of the ground, and that spelt good fortune for the area in which we were digging. We both continued to remove soil, both, I’m sure, wondering what else was still here to be had.

Is that... No, it couldn't be...The find of a lifetime.And then I hit something that resounded with that hollow “Clunk!” sound. “I think I have something”, I said to Kyle. Removing shovelfuls of ashy, dark soil from the ground, I quickly caught a glimpse of porcelain – two tone tan and creamy, off-white. “It’s a ginger beer, I think.”, to which Kyle responded “It sounds pretty hollow – it’s probably one with the top broken off.” I was definitely inclined to believe that this was what it was, and about that I was happy! Another repairable example – perhaps one with an even better marking than the only uncracked example I had. I moved some more dirt away with the trowel, and could see the “R. / TRADE / STR” half of the marking. “It’s an R. Taylor.” I said, and he peeked in the hole as I snapped a photo. I removed some more dirt with the shovel. As I was levering some soil from the left side of the bottle, I gently pried the soil. I noticed something different. The bottle moved freely in the soft, loose soil, and I was able to see the outlined form of it as it moved. The unusual part was not that it moved, but where it moved. How long the bottle appeared to be. The soil moved where the top of a theoretically intact ginger beer would be – if this were one. My heart was pounding. It could simply not be calmed at this point. I really believed strongly that this could be an intact R. Taylor ginger beer. “No, it can’t be...” I told myself, but, just as Kyle remarked that it was “probably an intact one”, I began to lose my own argument, as my shovel gently pulled on the clasp of the bottle, still attached, and out it slid from the soil. I was a hopeless emotional case now. “Don’t even joke.” I said sternly to Kyle, completely unable to do so myself at this point. I bent into the hole, and grasped the shape which was engrossing of my vision. I pulled it to the daylight. I showed Kyle an intact R. Taylor ginger beer. Very near mint condition, it was, with the original clasp and R.Taylor / STRATHROY marked stopper, still attached. The only damage was the smallest, ¼” chip off the inside edge of the lip – barely noticeable. I gently fell back onto the ground at the edge of the hole behind me, and just sat there. I actually didn’t know what to think or do, as all my senses were completely absorbed with the experience I had just, and still was experiencing - some kind of euphoria, like some kind of drug, but much more rewarding, and much more wholesome. Kyle grabbed the camera and snapped a photo. I actually had to just sit there while Kyle looked it over, and we were both aghast.

I was finally able to set the bottle down for some photos, and eventually, off to the side, lying on its side, where it couldn’t come to any harm, while we continued to dig. The euphoria lasted for a little while longer, but as soon as it began to falter, I began to feel awful that I had found the piece, and Kyle was stuck with a repairable example. We conversed, and I expressed how I felt. Eventually, we came to an agreement, digging all the while, that Kyle would keep two of the repairable examples all to himself, instead of splitting them as we were planning previously. As is always the case when one of us finds a better bottle, we also agreed that the next major find would go to his collection.

Another 20 minutes of digging brought me to the end of the ashy soil, and back to virgin clay soil, where Kyle had been for quite a while, and signaled the end of the trash pits associated with this turn of the century soda works. It was sad to see the vein end, but we had toThe only intact R. Taylor ginger, posing with the machinery that could have destroyed it.One of R. Taylor's own horseshoes, along with the artsy ginger beer bearing it's mark. think for a moment about how awful it would have been if that backhoe had have ploughed through the house and the pits beside it, without us having removed the bottles buried in them beforehand. Or, what’s worse, this pit at the front, which we would have assumed wasn’t there, even after we started digging at the rear of the house. I mean, really – who would have thought the only intact R. Taylor bottle (ginger beer, at that) in the entire place would have been buried beneath the neighbour’s driveway in the front yard? If you had have told us that while we were digging in the backyard, we would have thought you were insane. It just goes to show, as is always the case – you can never know what to expect. When we set out to explore this yard afresh back in late November, we never would have expected the sort of stuff we had, by this point, found. An intact R. Taylor ginger beer, 3 amber quart sodas in near mint condition, not to mention all those other blobs from Ontario towns, and, of course, the near to intact Taylor bottles. It’s safe to say Kyle & I didn’t see ourselves where we are now, as of any time earlier than late December, 2007. Not that that matters now, as reality is very different than what could be, and Kyle & I are, verifiably, living the reality right now – slightly richer in the diversity of our bottle collections that is... and still quite hungry. That A & W didn’t quite hold me off.



Closing Notes/Epilogue

Kyle & I did return to the site several more times after that final day digging, though nothing of the magnitude of that find was ever again uncovered. In digging the footings for the new medical clinic and Shoppers Drug Mart, the crew uncovered quite a number of small trash pits, and brick lined privies. The grand total of brick liners uncovered was 3. We dug 2 of them all the way to the bottom at about 6 feet down – one being completely devoid of anything but pure seeds, and the other having only modern 1920s and 1930s trash (but oddly enough, one R. Taylor blob top quart broken into about 6 pieces). The third was 3/4" covered by a concrete slab, and by the time we got to it, it could not be dug. We uncovered one trash pit containing 1960s garbage, and one dating from the 1890s to 1900 or so. We took turns digging the latter on a cold day in early January while I was feeling a little ill from a case of the flu. We pulled out a number of broken lamps, pitchers, and candy bowls – most of them pressed glass or cut crystal – a small, crude vial, a couple small perfume bottles, one “LIP BALM” marked ornate pot lid (our first ever pot lid), and the best piece by far being one that Kyle pulled out – a “GEORGE ORCHARD / MEDICAL HALL / STRATHROY” square medicinal bottle. A cistern was also uncovered very close to the corner of Front and Head streets, but containing nothing but modern, 1950s garbage. We dug it out just for curiosity sake, and pulled a number of cobalt blue H.K. Wampole and Phillips Milk of Magnesia bottles. Also of interest were a few pieces turned up by the equipment. In one area, Kyle & I found a bit of early, probably 1880s trash – one sheared lip food bottle, and a later Scott’s Emulsion bottle. We uncovered a vein of older (1900 era) bottle shards and ash beneath the driveway of a neighbouring house, however, nothing anywhere close to intact emerged, probably due to the sheer quantity of bricks buried there.  Closer to our soda works, some bottles were also turned up by machinery, and we were, unfortunately, unable to figure out where from. Found lying atop the ground, not far from the cistern mentioned above with 1950s trash contained within, were a pair of bottles far predating everything else to be found nearby.  One being a bottle with a tooled lip, embossed nicely within a banner “PATTERSON’s DRUG STORE / WIARTON ONT” Next to it lay a bottle I didn’t ever expect to see at this site. A Dr. Kronk-style 12-sided pint sized ginger beer bottle – unfortunately devoid of any markings, but interesting none the less.

When I returned from the holidays to residence here at the University of Western Ontario, I decided, in my abundant spare time of the first week, to explore some of the resources available in the libraries on campus – one in particular – the archival section of the Weldon library. I have thus far spent a none-too-impressive 8 hours roughly scrounging around in turn of the century business directories, fire insurance maps, bradstreet’s ratings books, and general history books on Strathroy & area, and have succeeded in turning up some interesting information relevant to our story.

Unfortunately, the only fire insurance maps of Strathroy at my disposal either predated, or post-dated the dig site during the era we were aiming for. Most of Strathroy’s maps have been revised to later dates, effectively ruining any information the earlier map may have held useful. Quite a bit of history was available via historical recounts, including one especially helpful recount entitled “Strathroy – It’s Businesses and Industries – 1832-1978”, which recounts the businesses coming and going from Strathroy right from its founding date. And, if you’re lucky, there is the occasional location to these businesses listed. One recount taken from the book indicates that the first store ever erected in Strathroy, in the year 1841, was on the very block we were digging upon – right around the area where some of the wartime houses had been knocked down. Unfortunately, the store was only located there for one year, according to this recount, and then moved to across the street – a place we’ll likely never have the opportunity to dig (the food basics parking lot). The book verifies the location of the Banghart Union hotel as being the south-west corner of Front & Head – also our site. The fire insurance maps indicate the hotel was gone by 1913, having been replaced by a skating arena, which was likely the source of the 1950s trash found in the cistern on one of the last days we dug the site.

Most interestingly, the book recounts the story of a Mr. R.G. Taylor – at least in part. Business directories of Middlesex county, paired with local lore, indicate that he went into business making soda water sometime between 1893 and 1895. One paragraph in the text indicates that in 1903, Mr. Taylor moved his soda works from his downtown Front street location, to farther east – specifically, the corner of Front and Head streets, where he set up shop in the lot to the south of the corner. That is, as precisely as it can be recounted, the exact location of the house behind and beside which we were uncovering this very large quantity of R. Taylor bottles. The evidence seems to be overwhelmingly in favour of this house having been the R. Taylor homestead, and, the Old Soda Works. Other sources indicate that Taylor went out of business in 1908, after his livery stables, and part of his shop were burnt in a fire. It is unfortunate that, after surviving such odds for well over 100 years, and preserving its golden treasure of hundreds of local bottles, the works was demolished weeks before we actually found out exactly what it was. I would seriously doubt any one appreciated the building for its history in the entire time it stood there after Mr. Taylor had moved out. At one time the building was an asset to local business – the Taylor name well recognized in the area, as the primary supplier of aerated water and flavoured sodas to almost every hotel in Strathroy and area. Now it has faded into the misty dusk of history, only more historically transparent now, by the lack of physical evidence remaining.

Very little information has been found in the order of Mr. George E. Murdoch. Future excavations and many hours in the library are in order. It is unusual the number of his bottles which turned up at this household. Perhaps large quantities of bottles marked with Mr. Murdoch’s name were returned to Mr. Taylor by his patrons, and these were shattered in order to prevent his competition from thriving.

It is interesting to note a few things, as well. First – nearly every R. Taylor bottle uncovered was of his last generation of bottle – the crown top pints and quarts – when in actuality, this variety of bottle is actually quite scarce in either size, at least comparatively to some of his earlier styles. A large number of Taylor crown top quarts and pints are known to have been destroyed in the fires previously mentioned, accounting for their comparative rarity to the blob tops well circulated in the hobby. The only reason the bottles we found remained more or less intact was the presence of damage to the upper ring of the crown top – likely from damage sustained simply from opening the bottles. This slight damage could completely prevent the bottles from being of any use, so they would be discarded. Not a single shard of his earliest generation of bottle – simply embossed “R.TAYLOR / STRATHROY” with no pictorial, was recovered. Quite a number of bottles were found with their original steel caps still attached, as well as some ginger beer tops with the clasp and stopper still sealed tightly. These pieces were undoubtedly broken before the contents were even emptied. A dropped case of bottles here, a slip of the hand here, and a full bottle would be broken, the shards then simply thrown into the current backyard trash pit. It is unusual that such a large number of Sarnia bottles were The three amber quart blob sodas. 'FARR & SHARPE / SARNIA', 'SHARPE & KIRKPATRICK / SARNIA, ONT.', 'J.TUNE & SON / LONDON ONT'recovered – showing the significance the railroad had on export and import in the area, Sarnia being just 45 minutes away by driving time. It is also unusual that none of a more common variety of Strathroy Hutchinson soda bottle, of Wm. Richardson’s mark, were recovered. A large number of soda bottles predating the age of this particular location of R. Taylor’s works were found – including a large number of broken Hutchinson soda bottles from Ontario towns other than Strathroy. William Richardson had a large number of bottles, throughout the late 1880s, some of which one would think would come into Mr. Taylor’s hands, and yet not a single shard was uncovered.

It was also discovered, after correspondence with other collectors, that some of the other bottles we turned up were much more rare than expected. Especially of note was the inconspicuous-seeming HORTON & MACGREGOR seltzer bottle from Chatham, Ontario. Although in horrible condition (decapitated, and with a large amount of cracking throughout the entire bottle), it turns out that this piece, one of the fateful first pieces out of the ground, is incidentally one of the rarest! A Horton & MacGregor seltzer bottle was not previously known to exist! There has been interest from the Chatham city museum in acquiring the piece, as it was undocumented until this excavation.

I’ve been working on throwing together a list of all the different varieties of bottle we turned up, including broken examples, just for the sake of knowing what can turn up at your average soda works in a small Ontario town. The first number will indicate the numbers which were present period, including broken examples, and the second, in brackets, will indicate the number recovered intact. Notice the wide variety of towns, including some from very far away (Kingston, Cornwall and Niagara Falls especially notable)


More Photographs:

click to supersize Pint, hutchison-style soda, blown-in-mould, light green - Front: {in oval slug plate} " M & K / WINDSOR / ONT "
click to supersize Quart blob top soda, light aqua - Front: " J.H.KILLER / TRADE [J.H.K. insignia] MARK / STRATFORD / ONT. " Base: " K "
click to supersize Pint ginger beer -  " R. TAYLOR / TRADE [horse jumping through horseshoe pictorial] MARK / STRATHROY "
click to supersize Quart crown top soda, blown-in-mould, light aqua - Front: " J.TUNE & SON. / TRADE [deer pictorial] MARK / REGISTERED / LONDON ONT. " Base: " T " CANADIAN-STYLE
click to supersize Quart crown top soda, blown-in-mould, light aqua - Front: " J.TUNE & SON. / TRADE [deer pictorial] MARK / REGISTERED / LONDON ONT. " Base: " T " EUROPEAN-STYLE
click to supersize Quart crown top soda, yellow olive green - Front: " YORK / SPRINGS " Base: " [SM insignia] "


Ginger Beers:

R. Taylor, Strathroy – 18 (1 intact)

Farr & Sharpe, Sarnia – 10 (0 intact)

Glass Brothers, London, Quart – 3 (1 complete, though not intact)

J. Tune, London – 12 (1 intact)

Stratford Soda Water Works, H. Wilkinson, Stratford – 1 (0 intact)

T.H.Hutchison, St. Thomas – 2 (0 intact)

Unknown, marked with 4 digit phone number – 1 (0 intact)

Quart sodas:

A. Robertson, Mount Forest, blob (?) – 1 (0 intact)

A.W. Brown, Brampton, blob – 2 (0 intact)

Charles Wilson, Toronto, blob – 6 (5 amber broken, 1 aqua/amber two tone broken)

Eamer & Cameron, Cornwall, crown – 2 (0 intact)

Farr & Sharpe, Sarnia, blob – 2 (one amber intact, one aqua broken)

Farr & Sharpe Soda Water Works, Sarnia, blob – 3 (0 intact)

J. H. Killer, Stratford, blob – 1 (1 intact)

J. Tune, London, blob – 8 (3 emerald green broken, 3 amber broken, 1 amber intact, 1 aqua intact)

J. Tune, London, crown – 100+ (6 intact)

James Thompson, Kingston, blob – 1 (0 intact)

Lambert & Turner, Chatham, crown – 1 (0 intact)

R. Taylor, Strathroy, blob – 50+ (including several light green examples, 0 intact)

R. Taylor, Strathroy, crown – 150+ (0 intact)

Sharpe & Kirkpatrick, Sarnia, blob – 3 (1 intact amber, 2 broken amber)

Sharpe & Kirkpatrick, Sarnia, crown – 35 (0 intact)

Pilgrim Bros, Hamilton, crown – 5 (0 intact)

T.H.Hutchison, St. Thomas, crown – 10 (0 intact)

York Springs (all yellow green), crown – 35 (1 intact)

Miscellaneous Michigan soda works – 2 (0 intact)

Pint crown Sodas:

R. Taylor, Strathroy – 50 (0 intact, 3 with only part of top crown ring missing)

G.E. Murdoch, Strathroy (round slug plate) – 12 (0 intact, one with part of top crown ring missing)

Sharpe & Kirkpatrick, Sarnia (S & K on base) – 4 (0 intact)

Pilgrim Bros & Co, Hamilton – 3 (1 green broken, 1 aqua broken, 1 clear intact)

Unknown – Lower half of letter insignia remains unbroken – TORONTO – 1 (0 intact)

Hutchinson Sodas:

Baby & Hanrahan, Windsor – 2 (0 intact)

C. Andrae, Port Huron, Michigan – 1 (1 intact, Cobalt Blue)

Clark Bros, Toronto – 5 (1 aqua intact, 1 yellow olive green broken)

Tossel & Son, Niagara Falls – 1 (0 intact)

Farr & Sharpe, Sarnia – 1 (1 intact)

Jas Matthews, Toronto – 1 (1 intact)

Jno Vernor, Toronto – 3 (2 intact)

Joseph Bilton, London – 3 (0 intact)

Lambert & Turner, Chatham – 1 (0 intact)

M & K, Windsor – 3 (1 intact)

P.C. Foy, Toronto – 1 (1 intact)

R. Taylor, Strathroy – 16 (0 intact)

Gravitating Stoppers:

J. Tune, London – 1 (0 intact)

Half Pint (split) Sodas:

R. Taylor, Strathroy – 30 (0 intact, 2 with only part of top crown ring missing)

J. Tune, London – 6 (0 intact)


Cole & Henderson, St. Thomas – 1 clear (0 intact)

Geo. E. Murdoch, Strathroy – 5 blue (0 intact)

J. Tune, London – 6 (3 clear broken, 2 blue broken, 1 blue deer facing forwards broken)

Lambert & Turner, Chatham – 2 clear (0 intact, 1 with just top knocked off)

Horton & Macgregor, Chatham – 1 clear (badly cracked with top knocked off)

Pilgrim Bros, Hamilton – 2 clear (0 intact)

T.H.Hutchison, St. Thomas – 1 blue (0 intact)

R. Taylor, Strathroy – 12 (9 clear, broken, 2 clear with only tops knocked off, 1 previously unknown   marking – missing ‘ONT’ – top knocked off and badly cracked)

Miscellaneous, Michigan – 1 (0 intact)

And there it is. As much history and information as we could recover from the incredible experience of digging the backyard of a local, turn of the century soda works. It was an experience we are unlikely to ever have again - an experience I recommend everyone try at least once, as difficult as it may be to do so. To say the least, finding a shard of a Strathroy bottle is never going to be quite the same again (let me remind you that this was the first time either Kyle or myself had recovered even a shard from an R. Taylor or G.E. Murdock soda bottle). A little research, and some initiative with your words and the blade of a shovel can get you a long way. The history has been there a long time, and will wait for you – but what’s the point in waiting for it to come to you?