The Elusive Amber Hutch by Steven R. Libbey
The quest to find an amber Hutchinson soda bottle goes back to the summer of 1997. That's when my brother, Bob, one of my best friends, Tom and I became bottle-hunting junkies. Since getting dive certified the year before, we were fascinated by the prospect of finding sunken treasure. The stories of slot machines loaded with silver dollars thrown into area lakes by the Feds during prohibition "Speak Easy" raids were tantalizing. Rumor has it that the Feds were too dumb to take money out of illegal slot machines before hauling them out to the middle of a lake and throwing them overboard. The bronze civil war cannon still haunts us on the occasional deep dive in Lac Labelle. Wouldn't that be a find?! The cannon broke through the ice when kids took it out to the middle of the lake and fired off a shot to celebrate the New Year back in 1840. The old timers say you can hear the ghost echo of that New Years shot if you press your head against the ice at exactly midnight New Year's Eve. It's not unusual to see dozens of people around Oconomowoc with frost bitten ears the first couple of weeks in January. The treasure laden paddle wheel steamer in Pewaukee Lake and the prehistoric dinosaur egg nest tunnels at the bottom of Nagawicka Lake elude us to this day as well.
Bob and I met at our parent's house on Pike Lake to search for sunken anchors, fishing gear and maybe a chest full of gold or two. We like diving and were out to enjoy the day as much as anything. Our routine was to drop down to the bottom, get neutrally buoyant (as we'd been taught in dive class) then swim around randomly looking for whatever treasure could be found. When I descended into the clear, cool water that day, I landed on something hard in the soft moonscape looking mud that makes up most of the bottom of Pike Lake. I pulled it up to my face as the silt billowed up all around to see a weird cylinder shaped object with a knob at one end. I almost discarded it. The object wasn't an anchor, wasn’t a fishing pole and certainly wasn't a treasure chest. I swam the ten feet to the surface where I realized it was glass. Surely it must be a container for something. But what for? I packed the thing into my wet suit and continued my hunt for valuable stuff. Bob was already a long way off doing his own search.
After we had both sucked the last fraction of a fraction of a lung full of air out of our scuba tanks, we met back on our parent's pontoon boat. Our group of dive buddies had already developed a ritual of showing each other the things we had found in ascending order. Worst to best. Show and tell was full of the usual assortment of fishing tackle and anchors. At that point, Bob was collecting cement filled coffee can anchors. Tom's parents to this day have a half dozen cement anchors along the side of their garage Bob had rescued from the bottom of Nemahbin that year. Tom's parents live on Nemahbin and Nemahbin has more cement anchors than Pewaukee Lake has bottles! I guess Bob figured if someone went through the trouble of making cement anchors, they must be valuable. It took Tom and I three years to convince him otherwise. After our review of anchors and fishing equipment I showed Bob the knob topped glass cylinder, he was in awe. Throughout our entire lives neither of us had ever seen anything like it. Our speculation as to what it could be was completely random. What we did know was that it had, "raised glass letters", on it that said, "Theo Dietzler Hartford Wisconsin". My best guess was that it contained some kind of very caustic or dangerous chemical because the glass was so heavy and it had such a weird plug. We later came to call the plugs, "pull up stoppers". Bob speculated the bottle might be part of something larger. Neither of us guessed it was old. It simply had to be something top secret or dangerous we hadn't experienced.
After finishing the day of diving, Bob and I headed back to our parent's house. Typically after a dive, we would have at least a half dozen odd objects to show people. An assortment of old engine parts or window weights fisherman has used as anchors over the years. Under water we had trouble discerning big heavy chunks of gold from big heavy chunks of cast iron. We brought back thousands of pounds of cast iron the first couple of years we were diving. Just to be sure I don't recall what else we found that day but I'm certain it wasn't much by our bottle hunt scuba trip standards of today. When my dad saw the Theo Dietzler thing he said, "I've never seen a bottle like this. Theo Dietzler was the name of a soda water manufacturer from Hartford The nearest town when I was a kid. "Dad showed a case of paper labeled quart bottles he still has in a cardboard case. My grandma had bought the soda and never returned the case of bottles probably in the 1950's or 60's.
I can't recall how we came to be certain that, "raised glass letter bottles with pull up stoppers", were antiques. I just know we quickly realized that if I had settled down randomly on one, we could find more if we were actually looking for them. Bob, Tom and I showed the bottle to others that we soon found to people at the local dive shops. We were directed to Divers Dreams in Waukesha. The guy who ran the place, Dennis, actually had bottles on display in his shop! How cool is that? I asked Dennis where he found his bottles and where we could find more. He said, "You can go to any lake and find bottles but Pewaukee Lake has the most". We made plans for the big adventure to new and virgin hunting grounds. Who knew? The vast expanses of Pewaukee Lake is where Tom, Bob and I found hundreds of bottles and other assorted treasures in the first few weeks after our discovery.
The three of us quickly became bottle zealots. Every time we went out we had contests to see who could find the most "raised glass letter" bottles but even more important to us was who could find the most "raised glass letter with pull up stopper" bottles. Yes, that's exactly what we called them. We were sure the bottles were treasure though they held no real value to us. It wasn't and still isn't unusual for us to give away bottles and other assorted finds at the boat launches after our dives to people who are curios.
One day in the fall of 1997, Tom, Bob and I were preparing for a day of diving, loading our gear into Tom's mom and dad's boat at the Pewaukee launch. At that time, if we couldn't borrow a boat, we would swim a mile or more from the Pewaukee boat launch to new spots. I even convinced my wife to swim over a mile out from the Pewaukee boat launch to bottle dive with me one day. She was so tired from the swim out and dive that I actually had to tow her back to shore! We were half way through loading up the boat at 6:30 in the morning when a truck from Illinois towing a fishing boat pulled up. It was plain to see that the boat was full of scuba gear. I walked over to the two rough looking Flat Landers Citizens of Illinois and asked if they were looking for bottles too. They wouldn't even acknowledge I had asked them. The two were sort of startled and short with me. I walked back to our boat and told Tom and Bob that they were definitely looking for bottles but they didn't want to talk about it. That was strange for us. We love to talk to anyone who will listen or even just daze off into space while we talk about bottles. Ask Draga, my wife, and our families about that! I figured they must have a great spot that they didn't want to share with us. They, like us, thought they were the only ones who knew about Pewaukee Lake. The guys from the dive shop had been out on Pewaukee but they couldn't be taken very seriously... They missed so much stuff.
Curiosity got the best of the Southern folk. The two guys, Jim and Ed, came over to see what we were up to just as we were about to head out. We told them of our latest hot spot right out in front of the condos across from the island. Jim said, "That area was a good spot but we cleaned it out years ago". The three of us laughed, we found hundreds of bottles as well as some of our most unusual and favorite bottles in that spot in the previous few weeks. Days earlier Tom had found our first bitters bottle there. That was the start of our "Bottle ego's". We figured we must be better at finding bottles if we could find so much in a spot they had "Cleaned out"! We quickly started comparing notes as to what each other had found. The big question for us was have they ever found "raised glass letter bottles with pull up stoppers"? They would say "Hutchinson?", and we would say, "No, John Graff or Theo Dietzler". It took only minutes for Jim the less patient border jumper to get exasperated over the term "raised glass letter bottles with pull up stoppers". He would insist "Hutchinson!" each time we said "raised glass letter with pull up stopper bottle". Our excited bottle chatter would only momentarily pause for us to wonder what his problem was. Jim and Ed asked "Have you found any round bottom bottles or pottery bottles or quart bottles?", as well as a dozen other assorted bottles that we couldn't understand by their terms. "Blob top, Blob soda, Blob beer, pontil, jugs, cream top, round bottom, cobalt etc", I figured their wandering ramblings and invented English were due to the crack smoking or the poor educational standards in Illinois!
Jim asked us, "Have you found a pull up stopper bottle Hutchinson in a brown color?". In a brown color, I couldn't even imagine it. Jim went on to say, "They are very rare and very valuable". That set the standard for virtually every dive from that point on.
It was getting late and the Packers were going to be beating up on the Bears later that afternoon. Bob, Tom and I were anxious to get in the water. The five of us agreed to get together and compare after our dives. The hometown group went up the shoreline from our hot spot not wanting to let the competition see exactly where our luck had been so good. The Land of Lincoln boys followed along and dove fairly close to us. Our first tank was at a spot just across from Rocky Point that didn't yield much that day. This year, in the same area, we found two target balls. The second tank we went back towards our hot spot and did pretty well. Bob found a round bottom and an aqua quart Obermann blob bottle. It was odd because we had only heard of the now dreaded round bottom super common before our dives that day from the foreigners. Tom and I each found an assortment of good stuff as well. Out of air, the three of us headed for the boat launch and the dynamic duo from Illinois were quick to follow. They were impressed by what we had found. As usual we were trying to give away things that they liked. The Southronds wouldn't take anything. Ed said, "You guys shouldn't give this stuff away until you know what it is worth." He had been burned when he first started bottle diving. We were just glad to know someone else actually dove for bottles even if they were simple folk out of the south.
Jim and Ed gave us names of authors and books we should get. They told us the Milwaukee bottle show was coming up and that it was a MUST for bottle hunters. Jim invited us to meet with them. An honor? For breakfast before the show and compare some of our better finds. Bob set out trying to find the books. Our sister actually checked a twenty year old beer bottle book out of a library that had two and gave it to Bob that Christmas. The Flat Landers gave us contact info for two other authors who had written books about Wisconsin bottles. Bob contacted them and arranged for us to get our copies at the upcoming Milwaukee bottle show.
The wait for that first bottle show was almost painful! Bob and I met the guys from Illinois in front of the hotel where the show was being held that morning. We drove to a restaurant a few blocks away for breakfast. Bob and I found our best spot, to that point, in the Rock River at Watertown in December of '97. We d-d-d-dove shivering wearing wetsuits in literally ice water that year because we were so excited about bottles! Most of the bottles I brought for show and tell were from that spot. The decision was made to go around the table, each of us pulling out a bottle for show and tell, one at a time, as we ate breakfast. The Illinois boys were impressed by our finds. I honestly can't tell you what Jim and Ed brought. Probably cobalt with strawberry puce swirls and pontiled from the Bad Lands south of the border. JUNK Bob brought some nice bottles including a beautiful Schwartz pottery beer and a Charlie Ross violin shaped cologne bottle that came from our Watertown spot, as well as, the best Hutch he had found up till then, a mint "TRENTLE AND HEITZLER." I brought a Badger embossed Hutch a cream top milk and a few others. My best was a half-pint beer bottle. It had raised glass letter embossing saying, "PHILLIP BEST BREWING COMPANY MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN STAMM AND MEYER." Laboe term of endearment for the slighter of the Flat Landers was especially excited about the Best bottle and warned me not to sell it to anyone. "This one is very valuable, collectors will try to minimize its value and buy it cheap," Jim said. That doesn't ever happen, does it?
Breakfast was over and it was time to head for the show... Bob and my first bottle show! It was unreal! I had never guessed that so many colors and shapes of bottles existed. It was a real life Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for us. I was dumbfounded. That show was the final hook that landed me in bottle collecting for good. A few steps in the door and the glass sparkle beckoned in every direction. I decided to walk the show in as orderly of a fashion as possible. Seeing the layout, it was clear that we should stay along the southern wall of the exhibit area and work our way up and down the isles. Only fifty or sixty feet in, I saw it. An Amber Hutchinson! The enchantment of it held me frozen in awe. So many times since learning of the existence of such a wondrous creature had my last words as I was going under water on a bottle dive been, "AMBER HUTCH". As much a taunt for my partners, as a promise to find, I'd never even seen, much less found a piece of one. Countless times after feeling a Hutchinson in the cold mud, before looking at it underwater, had I asked God to make it amber. He never did I stood and stared speechless in respectful amazement at the mighty Amber Hutch. I felt an overwhelming urge to shout, "They do exist!!! They do exist!!! They do exist!!!". By then I was nearly convinced they were a figment of Jim Koutsoures's imagination or even worse, a cruel hoax! We pried ourselves away from that display and walked through our first bottle show.
I would equate walking around with a bottle box under my arm that first bottle show with taking a nice relaxing bath in a tank full of starving Piranha. Dozens of people we had never met wanted to see what we brought. A few of the collectors really liked bottles we had. One in particular, Gary Weimer, collected Watertown bottles and was interested in a beer bottle that I found. We met the famous Wayne Kroll, author of the only Wisconsin bottle book we had been able to get our hands on before the show, "Badger Breweries Past and Present" Wayne looked our bottles over. He really liked Bob's clay beer and said of my Phillip Best Stamm and Meyer, "That's as good as it gets for a Wisconsin beer bottle collector". I was walking on clouds! So many obviously knowledgeable collectors were impressed with our finds. Bob showed his Trentle and Heitzler to a guy who wrote another book, Dan Gross. Bob had arranged to buy the very last copy of Dan's book before the show by calling him. Dan put the bottle in his pocket and jokingly said, "It's mine now" as he pressed Bob for where he found it. Little did he know that had Bob perceived a threat to the well being of that bottle he would have disemboweled Dan with his bare hands! Roger Peters said of the same bottle, "This is the only whole example I've ever seen". Bob was walking on clouds!
After two or three hours we were back to trying to see the amber Hutch. It was in a roped off display and we couldn't get close enough to the table for a good look. Gary who was still trying to negotiate the purchase of my Watertown beer bottle said, "I might be able to get permission for you guys to have a closer look". Bob and I followed Gary across the isle back to Dan Gross. The bottle was part of Dan's display on colored Wisconsin soda bottles. Gary asked if we could go over the rope and have a closer look. Dan looked past him at our wonder filled slack jawed gape and said, "It's not even my bottle it's a broken example propped up by a wooden dowel that I borrowed for the display". Dan made it clear he wasn't comfortable having us anywhere near it. I was crushed. I didn't like Dan much that first show! Now, he's one of my heroes I just wanted to get a closer look! You couldn't even read the name Munzinger from the isle side of the rope.
Ary and I went round and round about the value of the beer he wanted. We decided to let Wayne Kroll be the judge of value. I had tried Roger Peters but he was very reluctant to assess any dollar value. Roger did say his book was low in some cases. No way! Wayne said, "It's a nice example worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it". I was heartened to realize Mr. Kroll was a philosopher as well as an author! We bounced a couple of numbers off Wayne and all agreed $65 was fair. Gary paid up. My first bottle sale ever!
One collector, Peter Maas, looked our bottles over and offered Bob $150 for a seltzer bottle he had found in Pewaukee Lake. I figured this guy must print money in his basement if he's willing to pay $150 for a bottle! My, how things have changed Bob and I quickly agreed, as do most people who are offered money for something they found. It must be worth twice as much! I got to talking with this fellow and he seemed impressed by the bottles we had found. He mentioned that he used to scuba dive but didn't find very many good ones and that he digs old outhouses for bottles now. This was intriguing. Bottles could be buried in just any old back yard? I thought to myself that must be where the amber Hutches are! Mr. Big Bucks wanted to come over and see the bottles I had found. Gary heard us talking about privy digging and said he would like to go digging with me if I wanted. He didn't really have a partner. We exchanged contact info and agreed that when the ground thawed we would give it a try.
I sent Gary a letter expressing my interest in trying an outhouse dig. He called and we set up a day. It was a sunny spring Saturday afternoon. Gary came over to my house and we headed out. After a little thought, Gary decided our best bet would be to try Brewer's Hill. "Brewer's Hill is one of the earliest neighborhoods in Milwaukee." We jumped on the freeway and headed east. As we drove past county stadium and the beginnings of Miller Park, Gary said, "People found some good stuff when they were digging the footings for that". Again, I was surprised. Yet another way to find bottles! A mile and a half down the road Gary said, "They're adding on to the Indian casino". Not only that, he said, "When they dug the original casino an example of that exact same amber Hutchinson you wanted to see at the bottle show was found. The area was a dumpsite more than a century ago. I think they have big dirt piles that should have bottles in them right now". I asked, "Why aren't we going there?", Gary replied, "We can if you want but the Indians arrested people on the original dig so we have to be careful". He thought we might not even get a chance at bottles because security would surely be tight. That made absolutely no sense to me and we exited the freeway in hopes of easy bottles.
I pulled up on Canal Street right in front of a huge hole. Dump trucks were lined up and excavators were piling the dirt into them as fast as possible. It didn't look like we could get anywhere near the bottle laden dirt. Broken glass was strewn all about the job site. Some of the workers had even thrown bottles aside as if to keep them. Gary and I were so close and yet so very far away. We were on the wrong side of a fence and it was clear the second we got on the right side we would be asked to leave or worse. Watching the trucks pull out we noticed only half of the trucks were actually leaving the site on the road. The other half were going around behind the casino and coming right back. Gary had thought they were dumping dirt on site and now we were sure.
Gary and I jumped back in my trusty old rust bucket Ford Bronco II and drove around back. We did see the security forces. One guy in particular looked like chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I made a mental note to run fast if he approached with a pillow! No bottle is worth getting smothered over. At least most aren't! We pretended to just be casually looking for a place to park. I'm sure some of you know the routine. Drive slowly around and never look directly at the dirt pile. When the 'would be' scalper drove back toward the casino, we drove and parked near the dirt pile. I could see old bottles crushed into the ground even where we were. The dirt pile was loaded with them. This was no small dirt pile it was at least 750 feet long and one hundred feet high if it was a foot! Gary was sure we would be ticketed, arrested or shot by an arrow, if we approached the poorly fenced off dirt pile. I invested about three seconds trying to convince Gary the worst they would do is tell us to go away. Gary didn't agree, I hopped out and headed for the pile myself leaving him to face the savages alone if they showed up at the car.
On the far side of this fertile bottle soil pile a front-end loader was piling dirt into dump trucks. The trucks were lined up waiting to be filled. As soon as the loader had one truck full both drivers would jump out and the loader operator would have the dump truck driver sign a clipboard. I assumed it would be better to ask for permission than to just start grabbing bottles. I walked to where the loader was working. As I waited for him to finish the truck he was filling I picked up a couple of bottles that were just poking out of the dirt pile. A Werrbach pure Weiss beer and a different kind of Pabst blob beer than I normally found. I could see dozens of bottles just sticking out of the pile. It was all I could do to maintain my composure and resist the urge to lay on my back in the dirt pile and make contaminated dirt angels.
The loader jumped out of his truck and had the dump truck driver sign the docket. I approached and started giving him a rambling plea-request for permission to pick up old bottles that were, "Historical and practically art, and beautiful, and valuable, and just headed for a landfill anyway and, and... "He impatiently cut me off saying, "You can do whatever the $%#$^ you want as far as I'm concerned". I don't think I've ever been happier to be sworn at! With an elated grin I said, "Thank you, thank you, oh thank you so much!" then turned back to the pile and really started looking.
Gary having witnessed my talking to the operator and then going to the pile and starting to pick up bottles looked deep into his soul and found the courage to join me. The pile was sort of crescent or tomahawk shaped Gary scampered straight to me bypassing the whole pile. By the time he arrived I had six or seven bottles pinned against my body with my left arm. Gary looked at what I had found and said, "You better put them in the truck and come back out. If the security guard in the pickup truck comes back he'll make you drop the bottles or he'll take them" I tried to tell Gary we just needed some shinny brass trinkets to trade and the Indians would probably give us the dirt pile and maybe even the casino. It worked a few hundred years ago It was no use, Gary was sure the security would be brutal so we started our walk back to the truck. We walked along the pile, looking for bottles as we went. That pile was the only place where I left bottles because I couldn't carry any more. Gary walked about fifteen feet ahead of me as we made our way back to the safety of my truck staring at the pile hoping for a good one. Gary was picking up dozens of bottles and pieces of bottles, as was I. It looked like Gary would get the first shot at anything good because he was ahead of me.
About halfway back to the truck, I noticed an odd blob top poking out of the pile about four feet from the bottom and under a big chunk of cement. I grabbed it. I was surprised to find it was attached to a bottle. The blob was actually attached to a big oily clump of dirty ash/oil goop. I thought to myself this is an odd blob bottle. I knocked a big chunk of the dirt ball off against my left hand that was holding bottles against my body. Now the bottle wastaking shape. It was some sort of not familiar beer bottle. The body was small and the blob was wrong. It was amber colored though. I rubbed the bottle against my right leg to clear away the grime. I could then see what looked like part of the word Waukesha. I searched my memory for a bottle like this from Waukesha. I wiped the bottle against my leg harder this time. I could clearly read the words, "C.H. MUNZINGER MILWAUKEE WIS." I thought to myself, what the hell kind of beer bottle is this? Then it dawned on me. This is no beer bottle! This is an amber Hutch! I yelled out, "Gary I found an amber Hutch." He was a good forty yards away by then. He stopped walking turned back to me and with a tone of disbelief said, "What?" I shouted, "I found an amber Hutch." Gary in that same tone said, "No way." I looked at it again to be sure and said that I really did. When Gary finally got to me, seeing the amber Hutchinson he said, "That should have been mine. Unbelievable."
I hurriedly put the bottles in the truck now fearing the security even more than Gary. It would have broke my heart if a security guard would have made me throw that bottle back onto the pile. Gary and I searched the pile for more. We did get a couple of dozen bottles but only the one amber Hutch. Gary, Bob, Tom and I went back down to Potawatomi dozens of times that summer both together and with other people. Even though thousands of bottles were saved from Emerald Park, The Franklin contaminated waste dump, possible future dig site?, as far as I know my amber Munzinger Hutchinson was the only one found that summer.
It's a great bottle to have found. The luckiest part of the hunt for the Elusive Amber Hutch was going on so many unforgettable adventures, meeting so many fascinating people, learning so much about the history of Wisconsin and most of all making so many great friends. Thanks to you for being a part of it!
Steven R. Libbey
P.S. In the interest of making this story more entertaining I made a few exaggerations. The dirt pile really wasn't that BIG! I also poked fun at people in Oconomowoc, Native Americans, some dear friends and people from Illinois. I truly mean no offense to my dear friends, Oconomowocians or Native Americans... Don't pout mrjimk, no offense to you Southern folk either.