By Christina Schmidt
SHERIDAN — If you live in one of several areas of historic Sheridan, you might get an unexpected knock at your door this spring. Followed by the knock will be an unusual question posed by historic bottle collector Warren Borton – “May I search your yard for an old outhouse?”
“I just knock on the door and ask people permission,” Borton said. “I’ve had various responses over the years. I have early maps of the town, and I’ll show you your house on it and I’ll explain what I want to do and offer to share the bottles. Some people want some and some people want you the hell gone. But most people are pretty nice about it. They understand you are legit and aren’t going to cause any harm.”
Borton, an expert on historic bottles of Wyoming, has searched ghost towns and historic parts of current towns in Wyoming for more than 40 years. His strategy is to search for and dig on sites of old outhouses, which served not only as restroom facilities before the days of indoor plumbing, but as a catch-all for a variety of refuse.
“If you think about it, back in the turn of the century, if you wanted to get rid of your trash you had to load it in a wagon and take the wagon and horses out of town,” Borton said. “That’s why they just went out back and threw it down the outhouse hole or dug a trash pit and threw it down there.
“There’s an old joke that we are PhDs,” he continued. “That stands for privy hole digger. I think we are bottle hounds and history hounds. The best way I describe my hobby is that when I dig in these holes it is like being 6 years old and on Christmas morning going down and finding these things. You have no idea what will be in these holes.”
Borton, who grew up outside Lander but now lives in Utah, began digging in the Sheridan area in 1990. He estimates he has dug more than 100 privy and trash pits in Sheridan and more than 300 in the Dietz, Kooi and Carneyville areas. From those areas and others in the state, he has pulled thousands of bottles from the ground.
“You can find guns and coins and bottles and dishes,” he said. “You name it and I have found it in a hole. Literally everything of the period ended up tossed in there. I find guns fairly often — old Winchesters, pistols and revolvers. I think sometimes they misfired and they just threw them down there to get rid of them. Or who knows, maybe they murdered somebody and buried it.”
Borton said many people initially question the cleanliness of his pursuit, but he notes that after 100 years or more, any organic material from the trash pits and outhouses has been reduced to compost and dirt.
“It is just dust and rust and broken glass and rusty cans,” he said. “It looks mostly like dirt. A lot has been mixed with ash and what not.”
Though Borton sometimes has old maps to assist in his searches, his most important tool is a metal rod that he uses to probe the ground as he walks, feeling for slight differences in the soil to tell whether an area has been disturbed and is loose, versus intact soil. The rod has a carbide tip on the end of it and is the same one he has been using since 1976.
The majority of bottles Borton finds were mass produced by large glass manufacturers in Denver and Illinois. Saloons, pharmacies and other businesses that used bottles regularly would make large orders of generic bottles and have paper labels affixed.
“A lot of what you dig is not necessarily money valuable or historically valuable,” he said. “Think about today — you go out and have a beer and you throw it away. How many millions of beer bottles do you think are buried in this country?”
But Borton said on some occasions, businesses would have their name embossed in the glass and these are the bottles that are special for historic reasons. For example, he said at one time Rock Springs had 37 saloons, however, only a handful of embossed whiskey bottles with saloon names have been found.
“This is my theory — I think they ordered 160 whiskey flasks that were paper labeled and if you did that you got 10 personalized flasks and you gave those to preferred customers that came back all the time,” he said.
Borton said he can unearth up to 500 bottles in one privy or trash pit, but only 30 to 100 might be undamaged and in good enough shape for collecting.
In his collection, he estimates he has at least 50 crock jugs, 60 soda bottles, 40 whiskey flasks and hundreds of pharmacy bottles in various sizes.
“I have one from Sheridan that is, as far as I know, the only one and that is Fred Littleton of Sheridan,” he said. “He was a whiskey merchant. It seems like he got in a little trouble. He had gambling in his saloon and the city got after him and eventually he gave up and moved somewhere else.
“One of the interesting things I found out there was a trade token and it had a woman’s name on it and turned out it was brothel token,” he continued. “She was a prostitute, and I did a newspaper search and found out she was arrested for prostitution in 1910. I think her name was Eva Young. I am not exactly sure what one of those tokens bought you at the brothel house.”
Borton said while his collection is large, he obviously cannot keep every bottle that has interest or value, so he gives bottles to landowners who allow him to dig on their property and also shares with friends and family. On some occasions he sells some of the bottles and other items in order to help recoup some of his traveling expenses. But he plans to continue digging, always searching for the new, previously undiscovered treasure.
“Every bottle has a little history to it,” he said. “They all got a story. I guess that’s what fascinates me.”
One man’s trash is Borton’s treasure.