When ordinary people wrap their minds around the possibility of digging up antique glass bottles and pottery in forgotten heritage sites outdoors, their first question is usually, Is it legal? and that’s soon followed by, How do you find the best places to dig?
These two prime questions are uniquely connected; amateur archeology on private property is legal enough, and finding the best places to dig on privately owned land (and with the permission of the owner) is the highest art of the Dumpdiggers’ subculture. For only by conducting extensive research and on-site observations, which includes probing and digging countless test pits, can a veteran digger harness his intuition (born from years of experience) and embrace the possibility of finding buried booty.
As per the Dumpdiggers’ Handbook, there are six different types of dump:
1. Town Dump – most towns have more than one dump site.
2. Privy Pit – the old latrine is considered a dump of sorts.
3. Farm Dump – farmers dump here to halt soil erosion.
4. Swamp Road – when nobody’s looking, people dump here.
5. Railway Dump – trains stop here to sweep cabin cars of debris
6. Camp Dump – Hunting, mining and forestry camp dumps
Town Dumps are generally the best and most rewarding places to dig, and that’s because they contain the highest quantity of household trash. How old can such a dump get? That’s a good question. It depends on the town, but on average in Upper Canada, and I think this is also true of many American states, the oldest town dumps date back to the 1870’s. That’s the age when the first ‘chartered towns’ recognized the need for, and legislated local property as, the Town Dump. Do you remember watching the scene in episode #8 of the first season of the HBO’s classic Deadwood, wherein Sam Bullock approves the location of the dump on one of the empty lots in the camp? The land is selected and appropriated because there’s rubbish already accumulating in what sounds like a river gulch.
Recorded minutes from century old meetings in the Town Hall will sometimes chronicle counselors voting to make a salary available for a ‘Dump Attendant’ and or perhaps detail funds for the purchase of a special ‘dumping wagon’.
The Dump Attendant was paid to watch the property on burning days and organize a weekly trash collection. Research this individual’s family and you may find pictures of their ancestor in the town dump in front of navigable landmarks that you can use to find the same location today.
The above picture details trash collection in the City of Toronto in 1903. It’s interesting to note here how two wagons work in tandem – this is a precursor to our modern recycling program. The wagon behind the sled is filled with furnace ash which has a variety of municipal applications, not the least of which is road paving material.
The sled in the foreground is loaded with sacks full of glass bottles, clay pottery and tin packaging – household waste. Notice how the garbage man wears a backpack, and I wonder what he puts inside his backpack everyday? I suspect that this individual removed local brewed beer and pop bottles that he knew were refundable – sadly, and perhaps consequently, these are the bottles that are the most collectible today.
The Health Inspector, often called the ‘medical officer’, or the ‘town doctor’ also made reports on early dumps. His primary concern was ground water contamination. There are circumstances in which he would report an infestation of rats or wild dogs at dumps. Often times he ordered the bulldozing and burning of dumps as a solution to exterminate such vermin.
Unfortunately for Dumpdiggers, even the oldest and most secluded town dumps were likely subject to burning and bulldozing at some point in their existence. It was considered civilized to burn dumps and thereby reduce ‘the spread of germs’. Municipalities used heavy machinery to compact dump sites in the early 1920’s and 30’s. Before this horse drawn ‘dump scrappers’ were used to flatten the piles. The horse’s weight and the weight of the operator helped compact the garbage to allow the next day’s wagons a hard surface on which to dump their contents. Early Dumping Wagons are themselves now very collectible because of their scarcity. One hundred years ago the Watson Bottom Dump Wagon was the finest dump wagon in America; today less than ten examples remain, and most of these are in pieces.
In 1886 David Watson moved his wagon manufacturing company to Canastota, New York where he bought what was then known as the “mop handle factory” on the west side of the town. The Watson ‘dumping wagon’ was the first and best of its kind – his vessel dominated the market in residential garbage pick-up and disposal. As testament to its versatility and reputation, it was the wagon of choice in the First World War when 15,000 units were shipped to France to help Allied Command support the men in the trenches.And finally, here’s a Dumpdiggers’ secret; every town’s first municipal dump was usually located less than a mile away from the historic main intersection, and almost always on inclined or boggy terrain, and never windward (which means North West here in Ontario).