The old cellar hole was barely visible, just a sunken rectangle in the forest floor. Over the decades, trees and underbrush had crowded in, filling the home’s foundations. Deep in the woods of Chester, Maine, the site — like many old homesteads in Maine — had been reclaimed by nature and forgotten.
Then came Jay Robinson, a lifelong resident of the Katahdin region who’s fascinated with the past, and more specifically, digging it up.
Since childhood, Robinson has been uncovering the locations of old settlements, sporting camps and farms. And once he finds them and obtains permission, he excavates, searching for relics that will transport him back in time.
“I’m an amateur archaeologist,” said Robinson, 62, with a chuckle.
Of all the artifacts he’s uncovered over the years, his favorite are the glass bottles, which held everything from cure-alls to whiskey to ink. At his home in Woodville, these old glass containers, many dating back to the mid-1800s, line his shelves and windowsills. He estimates he owns at least a few thousand.
“Now some people would find this real boring, but not me,” said Robinson as he sat on a cushion in the middle of the forest, probing the soil with an old screwdriver. “I like history. And like I said, I’ll get digging here and find this and that and I’ll look at it and think, ‘Gee whiz, ain’t that something. I wonder what they used that for, I wonder what the times were like back then.’”
That morning, Robinson was at the old Chester homestead, where he’s been digging for years. With a clunk, the end of his screwdriver struck a hard object buried in the soil. Leaning in close, he gently nudged the object again.
“Metal,” he said, recognizing the sound and feel of the material.
Where there’s metal, there’s often bottles, broken crockery and other discarded objects. Robinson, who estimated the Chester homestead to date back to the 1890s based on the items he’s found, said that back then, people often threw unwanted items into piles. And what was one man’s trash pile is now Robinson’s treasure heap.
Using a gardening rake, he started to dig, breaking through plant roots and feeling around with gloved fingers until he caught hold of the buried relic: a rusty end of a garden hoe. Laughing at the irony of digging in the dirt for a garden hoe, he tossed it aside and continued his search.
“I like the history of the area,” Robinson said. “I want to know more and more about it. And so I like to go to these places and just sit on the ground … and I start digging, and even if I don’t find a bottle, it’s just fun for me to get out.”
A Millinocket native, Robinson worked for the town’s paper mill for 32 years until it shut down 2014. He’s a Master Maine Guide and spends a lot of his time in the woods, hunting and foraging. Digging for bottles is just another way he can spend time outdoors while learning more about an area of the state that he has deep ties with.
The hobby started when he was 11 or 12 years old, when he found a tiny blue bottle of “Grovin’s Syrup for Babies” in an old cellar hole on his family’s property in Millinocket. The bottle, he learned, was from the 1800s and used to hold a concoction meant to soothe teething children. Oddly, the mixture included morphine.
Over the years, Robinson would come to learn that medicines with strange and often dangerous ingredients were common back then. In fact, many of the old bottles he’s unearthed are cure-alls, such as Warner’s Safe Kidney and Liver Cure and Dr. Porter’s Liniment, two remedies that date back to the late 1800s and contained a high percentage of alcohol.
To collectors of old bottles, one of the most exciting places to find is the location of an old privy, where people would often chuck empty bottles, especially alcohol bottles.
“Lots of times, the man of the house — or anyone so inclined to take a nip — would hide a booze bottle in the outhouse to imbibe out of the prying eyes of others less inclined to the devil’s water,” he said. “I’ve found some interesting things in these [privy] holes. Jewelry, wedding rings, coins and lots of liquor bottles.”
Often nothing is left of these old privies but a depression in the ground, and because they’re 100 years old or more, any trace of human waste in them has long since decomposed.
“Actually the soil would be quite rich,” Robinson said, with a laugh.
Many of the bottles Robinson has uncovered in the Katahdin region have some local connection. He has “Not-A-Bite Black Fly and Mosquito Lotion” made by Ora W. Knight in Bangor, Maine, and old Bubble Up soda, bottled by Fritz’s Beverages in Houlton. Each bottle has its own story, which Robinson does his best to uncover using online sources.
He’s also learned that certain features on a bottle can help him determine its age. Certain seams and marks on bottles are left from equipment used in manufacturing during specific timeframes.
“Right around the turn of the century, they had perfected the art of making whole bottles in a mold. But before then, they could only make it say — up to this seam right here,” said Robinson, pressing his finger to the neck of a bottle. “They’d put on the rest by hand.”
Many of the bottles he has found at the Chester homestead are from that time, he said.
He’s been returning to the old foundations for years, and from the many boot parts he’s uncovered on the property, he suspects a past inhabitant was a cobbler.
Robinson said he digs for bottles at about two dozen properties scattered throughout the Katahdin region, cycling between them. And just when he thinks he’s cleaned a place out of all it’s bottles, he finds one more. Such was the case on this day.
Penetrating the soil with a long metal probe, he felt his way around a boulder until he heard a “thunk.” He then kneeled down and wiggled his screwdriver into the ground and found the object again. The screwdriver scraped across its surface, which felt smooth, he said, not rough like a rock would be. Excited it might be glass, he began to dig.
The rectangular bottom of the bottle emerged, and Robinson slowed his movements, gently scooping the soil away from the glass. All at once, it was out. Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp-Root Kidney, Liver & Bladder Remedy. The large, blue-tinged bottle dated back to the late 1800s, and it was unscathed, buried for decades under the leaves and mulch.
“I like the medicine bottles like that. They interest me,” he said, dusting the caked dirt from the embossed lettering on its surface. “I don’t think it’s cracked at all.”
Nine times out of 10, the bottles he finds are broken, and he rarely keeps those anymore. He’s been collecting for so long that he’s become choosy with what he keeps. Most of what he uncovers he leaves in the forest.
The Dr. Kilmer’s bottle, in perfect condition, would be added to his collection. He could sell it online for between $20 and $100, but he’s not interested in that.
“I’m really not into that. I don’t sell my bottles because they’re mine,” he said. “They’re kind of personal. I dunno. I like ‘em.”
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