Given the power of human imagination the title, Greatest Find, is likely the very next find. Over the years my expectations for a bottle hunt have been on a gradual incline. Early on, I dreamed of finding another pull up stopper bottle just like the one I found the week before. What did the raised glass letters say again? Graf? Yes, Graf, how wonderful would that be? Another one of those and dare I ask God to assist me in finding one of those round bottom bottles just like my dive buddy found? How many nights did I lay in sleepless anticipation of the next day's treasure hunt with thoughts of round bottom bottles rolling through my head?
As time went on the bottle hunt target became more focused. My imagination learned to ignore the common Graf and round bottom, I would most certainly find, with hopeful anticipation of something different. Last May I knew I could find a blob soda bottle or a crazy colored bottle or super early beer bottle, I had many times. The key was picking the right spot and hard work. Any spot has potential limited only by the bottle hunter's imagination. Every bottle diver worth their compressed air knows the difference between failure and success is only a matter of inches. Looking back I can count thousands of pontiled rarities and extremely rare color variants I missed by the width of a pencil while scouring the murky depths. I can count with my fingers and toes the times I didn't miss.
Unlike many divers I don't stick to the spots someone else found or that I know have yielded bottles. I have spent hundreds of tanks of air simply covering as much surface area as possible hoping to find a spot. After basic research or suggestions from friends exploration for the refuse of years ago is embarked upon. After talking to Peter Maas six years ago I decided to try diving Silver Lake. Peter said there were a couple of old houses on a little strip of shoreline on an early map he has.
The first trip was a very cold November day. Tom Fredrick and Wayne Webber came along just to see what would turn up. They sat in the dive boat in blustering winter winds with ice forming on the shoreline. I worked up and down the slope of a gentle drop off my first tank. The shoreline was very shallow with crystal clear water. There was nothing to find near the shoreline where we typically focus treasure hunts. Tom even poured coffee in my neoprene gloves between dives to help get some feeling back in my fingers so I could do a second tank. It was near unbearably cold.
Utilizing my ‘proprietary spot find method' I covered surface area fast clawing as deep as possible into the bottom while clipping along. The method requires a plunging test hole be dug until there is absolutely nothing man made below my reach in a four foot diameter trench whenever something symmetrical or man made is touched. This method is one of the biggest differences in results at the end of a hunt. Many times, it seems to me, when I personally am unenthused or cold my result is diminished based more on effort than location. i.e. same spot next dive, better prepared, I find the good stuff.
That cold November day I did locate a few trash piles with broken bottles. I also found a dive knife... A sign of previous intrusion by divers. Nothing chills the magic of a spot like leftovers from other divers. The imagination goes from exploration of uncharted territory to drunken pirates smashing pontiled rarities as they curse and laugh at the respectable divers who will find nothing after their plunder. One broken piece of glass was intriguing enough to mark the spot worthy of future rainy day exploration. That glass was a dark teal utility cylinder with a big open pontil and a killer crude application of the lip. It was broken and considering the dive knife, this spot could wait.
Flash forward to the summer of 2009. Tom Fredrich cashed those rainy day chips in and headed out to Silver to see what the spot had to offer. Tom found an old fishing reel. We find them all the time. This reel was different. This reel was made with a very high nickel content alloy and was extremely rare. Tom sold it for a whopping $1800. Once I knew MY spot was being exploited I had to get back out there. For non divers, yes, that is how we all think... They are our spots once we find anything. Doesn't matter who was there before or after us.
Jim Koutsoures and I ripped some pretty nice streaks in the bottom of that area fall 2009. It was cold and the weather just would not cooperate. One day in particular we got back to the boat launch, freezing, to discover my dive gear was not in the boat. The very next morning, at the crack of dawn, Jim and I went out in search and rescue mode. Jim found by BCD, tank and regulator twenty minutes into our first tank in fifteen foot deep water. Right where I left it.
On one of the last dives of the year 2009 I found a box full of bottles as I was sucking my tank out of air at 25 feet. I lovingly stuffed my cumber bun full of bottles, gently felt at least a half dozen more, stuck my float handle in the mud hard and headed for the surface to swim back to the boat and get a fresh tank. Half way to the surface I felt a restriction on my assent. I was horrified to realize my fin was caught in my float line! This spot has an uncanny knack for playing this sort of trick. At that point I had no choice but to continue to the surface. When I surfaced a blustery 30 degree 20 mile per hour winter wind caught my face. My float line handle was right next to me at the surface. Disgusted and breathing freely again of surface air I reconsidered my ‘choice' grabbed my float line handle and headed down to anchor it anywhere close to MY lovely box of treasure. Biting on my regulator I flipped upside down kicked hard and started my decent. At maybe eight feet my pre-surfacing choice returned. Continue, mark my spot and establish my rightful claim to this treasure chest, or turn back, LIVE, and triangulate my position at the surface in hopes of finding the spot again. I have triangulated at the surface before... I KNEW it was the wrong option IF I wanted the remainder of the mother-load. On the other side of that coin: I had no air in my tank... NONE. Going down was taking a real chance with my life. I literally thought of my wife and kids and decided to take my chance with surface triangulation.
Insanely, because of a deceiving bottom structure, that box took me 25 more tanks to find. After multiple trips out Jim consoled me it was there just waiting for me but I could tell he was becoming convinced I was mistaken. I was overwhelmed with the possibility Jim was going to find it and place his rightful claim on MY treasure chest. The lake froze and all winter that box tormented my dreams. When I finally found it April of 2010 it was delightfully stuffed with beautiful green pickle jars (See my collection on mrbottles.com) and a wonderful eagle embossed Oconomowoc medicine bottle. As incredible as the box story is, in and of itself, the box and its contents are nothing more than an aside to this story.
Flash forward to May 2010. I went to my in-laws house in the morning to till their garden. I did it by hand in record time. I was dirty and sweaty so I headed home to shower before work. I knew Tom was going to be heading out that day for a dive. If I could make it we would hit Silver. Work could wait, I called Tom on the way and we were on.
I hit Silver for one tank before he could make it then picked Tom up at the launch. In the first two tanks I had a couple of large Race Oconomowoc medicine bottles and some interesting things including a really cool lid to a cast iron stove I had found different pieces of over many different dives (another very cool story) but nothing out of this world of its own merit. I honestly can't remember what Tom found. I do have a good reason for that;
On that third tank Tom was out deeper trying to relocate a pile of DSGC applied blob tops he had found on a previous dive. I was working my method, on a cover as much territory as possible rout, heading toward Tom. I was plowing about two feet into the soft silt when I brushed something hard yet smooth with just my finger tips where nothing should be. YES, my adrenal gland fired off heart rate increasing, euphoria inducing endorphins. Slipping my hand around the object revealed what was most likely a jar. A small odd feeling jar. This spot had yielded many un-embossed jars. This one was not familiar as so many of the less desirable bottles are. I carefully placed it in my cumber bun. I stuck my hand deep in the mud again for bearing and immediately found a lamp with a bust of a lady in perfect condition. I reeled at the prospect of having found the South Eastern Wisconsin Atocha yet there was nothing more to be had. I plowed in a circle as I always do after a find and bumped a box just as I felt the, now impossible to ignore, pull of low air in my tank that I had been trying to ignore as I found the jar moments before. I headed to the surface, put the lamp in my float, felt for then gently pulled the jar out of my cumber bun.
Not often does the adrenalin rush you feel when you touch anything deep under the silt get surpassed on the same find. In this case, seeing the jar at the surface was dumbfounding. I knew at first glimpse it was good. By that I mean it was not in the realm of normality for a dive find. It was deep blue aqua, barrel shaped, had an incredibly crude applied wax seal ‘lip thing' with wax still inside and was PONTILED! My heart was in my throat as I swam for where Tom was diving just one hundred feet away. I got there, pulled on Tom's float line and waited the eternity it took him to ascend. It is a long standing tradition to share the thrill of hunt days by showing your finds to your partners. Very seldom have I swum to a diver to show them a find while they are still diving.
When Tom surfaced I toyed with him as to what I found holding it underwater and making him guess. He knew it was something good by my expression yet in a trillion guesses he would not have guessed it. We rarely find jars and they are never good when we do. When I pulled it out of the water and showed him, Tom simply said, "WOW that IS a good one." I asked, "How good?" and he said, "At least $600." I said, "Really you think that is all?" Tom said, "Well maybe $1000 or even $2000. Would you sell it for two thousand?" I held it out toward him and said, "Is that an offer?" Tom laughed and said, "Uh no." He congratulated me, I wished him luck on the balance of his tank, turned and swam slowly back to the boat as I peeled funky wax out of the rim for fear it would heat up and damage the jar.
The jar is an extremely rare, half pint, barrel shaped (figural) Ravenna Glass Works, Air Tight Fruit jar in virtually perfect condition. Iron pontiled, beautiful, deep, rich, lustrous glass without so much as a scratch and incredibly crude. The kind of example collectors especially like.
We had no way to know what it was really worth. I called a local collector with deep national knowledge, Jeff Burkhardt, on the way home from the dive. Jeff thought it might be good but thought it sounded fairly common, like, ‘he knows they are out there.' Tom thought I should post it on the antique bottles dot net forum and let those guys figure it out. He said they love to look stuff up and figure things out.
I posted pictures and a description. The first guy said $2500. The next guy said no that is the pint not quart and it is worth $4500 and up but his Red Book on jars is pretty old. After a few hours more a guy posted it is a historic American jar and very desirable AND is likely worth double or $8000! A couple of people messaged me from the site with the definitive appraisal coming from one who said the jar is listed in Jerry McCann's 2010 fruit jar buyers guide as having a value of $7500 "and up"!
I contacted Jerry who said yes indeed it is a super rarity and an excellent example. He advised me, "If you sell do not sell it for less than $7500." He said, "It will only be worth more in the future." All I could think is $7500? WOW.
For now it is a cherished part of my collection. The only non Wisconsin embossed bottle or jar of any significance. Someday the Air Tight may find its rightful place in a fruit jar collection. For now my Ravenna Glass Works Air Tight Fruit Jar is perched front and center, a vigilant reminder, the next one I will find is a lot less likely to be my greatest find.