Unearthed bottles reveal a piece of Arroyo Grande history

Volunteers help to excavate artifacts at a dig at the Howard Mankins Hoosegow Park construction site in October 2014.
Volunteers help to excavate artifacts at a dig at the Howard Mankins Hoosegow Park construction site in October 2014.

When workers unearthed glass shards while renovating Howard Mankins Hoosegow Park in Arroyo Grande last June, the on-site archaeologist “kicked around some dirt” to see if anything else of interest turned up.

Nearly one year and a volunteer archaeological dig later, the city has in its possession about a dozen glass bottles, some whiteware ceramic, saw-cut bones from what appears to be a cow, pottery shards and Pismo clams — all dating from the 1920s. 

A state archaeologist found that the artifacts were not of historical significance to the state, so ownership stayed with the city. Although they may not be important to the state, the artifacts may be quite meaningful to local residents. 

“What a fantastic reminder of Arroyo Grande’s history, just looking at that,” City Councilman Tim Brown said as he surveyed the items displayed during a council meeting Tuesday. Other council members echoed his statement before deciding to donate the artifacts to the South County Historical Society.

South County Historical Society curator Jan Scott helped organize the dig with society volunteers and the city’s contracted archaeological firm, LSA Associates, which unearthed the artifacts.

Scott said the workers returned “sweaty and grinning,” after their daylong dig on a hot Saturday. 

“It’s kind of a childhood dream for many people,” said Scott, who could not attend the dig herself.  “Being an archaeologist and unearthing amazing things.”

Among the findings were a bottle and stopper from the McCaffrey Brothers in San Luis Obispo and a rare Arroyo Grande Soda Works bottle.  

According to Cal Poly professor of history emeritus Dan Krieger, who also writes a weekly history column for The Tribune, the McCaffrey Brothers business was at the intersection of Broad and Monterey streets from the 1880s through the 1920s, and sold sodas like sarsaparilla, root beer, ginger beer and flavored cream sodas. By the 1960s, the drink business had evolved into a sporting goods store.

Less is known about Arroyo Grande Soda Works, other than that it was founded by Edwin Fouch around 1905, but it doesn’t seem to have lasted much longer into the early 1900s. According to Scott, at one point a man named Eidon Ball was the proprietor of Arroyo Grande Soda Works,  and he was “bottling on a limited scale in his temporary building at the rear of his residence adjoining the J.S. Rice place” (at present day Myrtle Street).  

Because of the relatively short time it appears to have been open, the bottles from the soda works are very rare, Scott said.

“Those bottles are just not around,” Scott said of the soda bottle. “They are all in private collections around the country. They get snapped up so quick, we are really excited to have one in our collection.”

The site looks to have been a trash heap for a local business, possibly a restaurant, said Scott, who spoke at the presentation of the artifacts at the Tuesday meeting.

“When I asked (our archaeologist) how he knew it wasn’t an outhouse, he said, ‘There weren’t any corncobs,’ ” she joked at the meeting. (Historical artifacts are often found in old outhouses that were filled up with trash and garbage and sealed once an owner vacated a building; over time the organic matter decomposes, leaving behind preserved items like bottles and dishware.)

Scott said they don’t know what restaurant the trash heap could have been from, because at that time there was no trash pickup. Most businesses just dug a hole somewhere and dumped their trash there, she said.

“There could be a ton of these pits lurking around here,” Scott said. “You never know.”

Scott said the items will now be put on display at one of the society’s several museums, though it hasn’t been decided when exactly that will be.