Wesley B. Plott’s Downtown Bottlescape

by Tim Gilmore, 7/17/2020

See also Purple Petunia Filling Station and Antique Bottle Collection

Wesley B. Plott’s Downtown Jax was a bottlescape unlike any ever painted by Winston Churchill. His downtown included Civil War munitions, the skull of a child, thousands of bottles for wine and whiskey and beer and milk. Also Indian remains. His finds connected Old St. Luke’s Hospital on Palmetto Street, the old dumping ground and hunting site called “The Pond,” from the city’s earliest days, and Jacksonville’s first public library.

Winston Churchill’s 1926 painting “Bottlescape,” courtesy International Churchill Society

Of the 5 or 6,000 books in my library, Plott’s 50 page book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida, stapled in 1980, is one of my favorites. He printed it at Kwik Kopy Printing on Cassat Avenue and charged $5.95. He included a map of Northeast Florida towns no longer shown on maps and one or two page chapters with names like “Locating Dumps,” “Known Bottle Dumps” and “Hidden Treasures Just for You!”

Wesley started collecting old bottles in seventh grade. On a fishing trip with his father, he caught no supper but unearthed a bottle. When his father told him to throw it away, he hid it, but showed his mother. Soon she removed the china from her old oak china cabinet so Wesley could display his bottles.

Sometime in the 1970s, he met an 80 year old woman in Springfield, just north of downtown, who told him about her father pulling her in a wagon when she was a little girl, pulling her to the marshy ground used as a neighborhood garbage dump along Hogan’s Creek. She showed him where they used to dump their trash, somewhere around Boulevard and West Ninth Street, and he began his own archaeological dig. He found:

42 assorted bitters bottles

125 Hutchinson Soda bottles

37 ceramic Rotterdam gin jugs

11 ceramic embossed gallon whiskey jugs

29 embossed-case black glass gin bottles

14 plain-case gin bottles

300 embossed whiskey bottles

100 round bottom soda bottles

72 pointed bottom (teardrop) soda bottles

1000s of assorted cure and remedy and patent medicine bottles

By the time Wesley and Anne Plott ran Algonquin Antiques and Auction Gallery at Purple Petunia Flower Shop in the old Pure Oil Service Station, built in 1937 in the “Tudor Revival” architectural style that sought to blend it into the neighborhood, Wesley knew hundreds of old dump sites all over Florida and Georgia, several in the dense center of the city.

In his chapter “Known Bottle Dumps,” Wesley writes, “The oldest known dump is reported to be in a sinkhole located at the foot of Newnan and Union Streets. There’s a vacant lot and a low area. Dr. Baldwin, who founded the Medical Society, had this dump covered with three feet of white sand in the year 1877. I found the white sand but the digging is too hard for me.”

A.S. Baldwin’s downtown residence and office, where the Florida Medical Association was founded in 1874, from Webster Merritt’s 1949 book A Century of Medicine in Jacksonville and Duval County

Wesley surely meant “The Pond,” the city’s original dumping ground, notorious throughout the 19th century, now buried underground around Duval and Main Streets at the center of town. Webster Merritt writes in his 1949 book A Century of Medicine in Jacksonville and Duval County, “Actually ‘The Pond’ was a swamp bounded by Forsyth, Church, Clay and Jefferson Streets, in a small area of which water stood at a depth of several feet.” Merritt’s mapping of “The Pond” gives a different location than does Plott, and both writers plot a different intersection than an 1847 map, which shows “The Pasture, formerly The Pond” at the top of “the ditch that is Pine Street,” later Main Street, between Laura and Ocean Streets. Indeed, several “Ponds” were “the” one, seeping trash and sewage through and beneath and across the northern streets of today’s downtown, filling with bottles and kitchen refuse and carcasses and cups and dishes and compost. Half of Downtown Jacksonville stands now on a previous century’s garbage.

detail of 1850s map of Jacksonville from T. Frederick Davis’s 1925 book History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513 to 1924

Wesley writes of the “Old Police Station” dump, “really at the foot of Church Street, located north along railroad.” Here, he says, he found “pottery beers, John English ginger beers, straight sided coca-colas, Attwood’s Bitters, miniature whiskey jugs, large crockery whiskey jugs, Atlantic Coast Distiller’s Sprinkle Whiskeys, blue ½ gallon size Carter’s inks and many more.”

Atlantic Coast Distilling from my own collection

He lists Springfield Park, now Henry John Klutho Park, renamed for the city’s most famous historic architect, “known dump that was filled in 1898,” where he’d found bottles for both Casper’s Whiskey and Keeley’s Cure for Drunkenness.

Hogan’s Creek, 2012

Wesley could walk Downtown and connect the dots between dozens of disappeared outhouses. As he explained in his book, before municipal sanitation services, city dwellers had to get rid of their own garbage. Even in the late 1800s, most Jacksonville residents buried their garbage behind their houses. In back yards, “the outhouse” sat atop a hole “dug to a depth of six to 12 feet, a natural for getting rid of unwanted garbage,” including bottles, broken china, toys and newspapers.

A great portion of central Jacksonville sat atop the previous century’s deposits of human waste, both bodily and household. Cities build atop cities, generations on top of generations. So much of those last lives, even now, lie just below us.

from Wesley B. Plott’s 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida

Wesley’s book included photos of his wife Anne and other members of the Antique Bottle Club of Jacksonville, filtering the earth through archaeological sifting screens outside St. Luke’s Hospital while the original brick structure still stood abandoned, its great brick wings not yet demolished.

He writes of the downtown site of the residence of “our first minister,” though whom he means is unclear. Though “he was a strict prohibitionist and would really preach about the ‘sins’ of drunkenness,” Wesley Plott found “no less than” 30 whiskey containers “dated to the time he lived there.”

from Wesley B. Plott’s 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida

Wesley warned that bottle diggers had to be patient and that diggers had to dig. It was often surprising how much the earth rose. The span of a few decades could be lost in a hill or the layer of a street. “One evening in 1968, downtown Jacksonville, I had a good bottle hole and had taken 20 or so good collectible bottles from it,” he writes. “They dated 1865 to 1875.” He’d exhumed six “three piece mold Black Glass whiskeys,” like the kinds he’d found in the preacher’s yard, and saw one left in the earth. He was tired. “So instead of doing it right,” he admits, “I put the shovel down under the bottle and pried up. The bottle broke. I had the pieces of an unlisted Steinfeld French Cognac Bitters—valued then, I would estimate, at about $300.00.”

Steinfeld French Cognac Bitters bottles, courtesy peachridgeglass.com

Chapter 16 of Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida, called “Other Buried Treasures,” contains the most stunning statements Wesley’s book offers. He writes, “When you start collecting and digging bottles, be prepared to find almost anything.”

He writes that he found:

1)    At Bay and Liberty Streets, a small empty safe buried 10 feet beneath the ground.

2)    At Duval and Ocean Streets, clay pipes, arrowheads, Civil war minié ball, Indian pottery.

3)    Somewhere on Church Street, a small child’s skull, a partial plate of gold bridgework, debris from the 1901 fire that destroyed most of the city.

4)    At Adams and Catherine Streets, between 40 and 50 pieces of china from the Windsor Hotel, pre-1900.

Windsor Hotel on St. James/Hemming Park, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

5)    At Adams and Ocean Streets, beside the 1903 Jacksonville Free Public Library building designed by Henry John Klutho, writes Wesley, “I found an Indian which had been buried many years ago.” He found the body, he says, 12 feet underground.

Jacksonville Free Public Library, image courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

He thought about what to do. He thought about what the right thing would be, the moral thing, the ethical thing, the spiritual thing, the respectful thing. Then: “I covered him (or her) back up to sleep until ? There’s a gas station on top of that site now.”

the downtown location where Wesley Plott claimed to have “found an Indian which had been buried many years ago”

Certainly Wesley’s claiming to find “an Indian” 12 feet underground seems suspicious, even without his saying that digging through three feet of white sand buried atop “The Pond” was “too hard.” It’s a shame archaeologists haven’t dug into the Timucuan past as deeply in central Jacksonville, due to the deep and dense urban disturbance of earth, as they have north and east along the river toward the ocean. Surely ancient Timucuan remains from as far back as 2,000 years ago, whether bones or kitchen middens, spread through and beneath these shifting subterranean trashpits, including the locomotive buried beneath the skyscraper, of Jacksonville’s last 200 years.

Wesley Plott’s deeply (re)buried Indian seems surely a tall tale. Surely he did not mean the Cigar Store Indian he kept standing in the Purple Petunia. And he fails to offer details. Still, why haven’t archaeologists surveyed the city’s deeper past, preserved in vestiges underground in the city center, extending back through native populations earlier than the lifetime of Jesus Christ?

detail of 1847 Jacksonville map, drawn by Webster Merritt for his 1949 book A Century of Medicine in Jacksonville and Duval County

Jesus meant nothing to the people who lived here then. Those people who live here now and measure all things against his long ago Middle Eastern life, knowing and caring nothing for the people who called this land home for so long, surely merit no valid archaeological perspective.

What do we mean by whom we raise? Our understanding can never be theirs. We dig into the ground to mine the past to interrogate ourselves, but those before us were never us. Studies of the deep past must seek to see, while realizing the task is doomed, from the eyes of that alien distance.