Outhouse Patrol looks for treasure in unlikely places

Reggie Shoeman and his dog Duke run electromagnetic imaging scans near Norris to detect foriegn objects like antique bottles buried underground. Photo by Ben Coulter.

NORRIS – When most people happen upon an old bottle, they rarely take the time to examine it further. They mostly look past it, disregarding it as a piece of trash, an obstacle to be avoided. Occasionally someone might pick it up and set it out for target practice. But rarely do people stop to look further into the glass.

Most people don’t stop to wonder where the old bottle came from. How it ended up buried in a pasture or submerged in a creek bed. Who put it there, and how long its been sitting for. Most people don’t stop to examine the detailed colors of such an antique object, holding it at different angles to carefully inspect the various ways light filters through the glass.

But when they do, often times they can learn a fascinating story. The shape and texture of the glass might reveal how old the bottle is, and what it might have contained. From light and dark browns to yellows, greens and blues, the colors and other characteristics can reveal a rich history of the container’s origin.

Enter James Campiglia and Reggie Shoeman of the Outhouse Patrol. For as long as they can remember, the two have passionately pursued collecting antique glass bottles in the most unlikely of places. They originally met through the Las Vegas Antique Bottle Club when Campiglia was just 10 years old, and they’ve been digging for bottles ever since.

“It’s history and glass, plus its colorful,” Shoeman said. “And it’s a treasure hunt. Archaeologists don’t like it, but that’s a different story.”

A collection of antique glass recovered this summer by the Outhouse Patrol from a site near Norris. Photo by Ben Coulter.

The process of digging for bottles is more complex than one might think, and Shoeman likes to start at the beginning. In Madison County, he began by tracking down historic business licenses through the Montana Historical Society in Helena for anything dating back to 1867-73. He created a database showing what the establishment was, where it was located and how long it was in business. For example, a mercantile or saloon in business for two or three years might have greater potential for antique objects that one that closed after a couple of months. But no one knows for sure.

From there, Shoeman uses satellite and aerial maps to survey the ground from above, looking for things like the outline of an old foundation, community dump or the shape of an abandoned outhouse. Anything that might have been left behind and long forgotten could be a good place to start looking for bottles.

Once they’ve determined a potentially viable dig site and obtained permission to access the property, the Outhouse Patrol goes to work using electromagnetic imaging equipment to detect changes in the earth’s magnetic field. The equipment produces a computerized, color-coded scan that highlights objects of a different chemical composition than the surrounding ground. Objects appear as a red dot on a blue screen, depending on the size of the area Shoeman scans. The equipment gives no indication what an object might be, only that there is something down there.

While it may look like a crude survey crew checking for utility lines, Shoeman jokes that he’s playing in the dirt with history, calling it a poor mans treasure hunt.

Results from dig sites can vary. Sometimes a red blip on the electromagnetic scan turns out to be an old horseshoe. Other times, it might be the remains of an object shattered into dozens of pieces. Usually, they find generic old brown bottles that aren’t worth more than a couple bucks. But sometimes, the Outhouse Patrol will find a rare antique treasure worth hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

At a dig site near Norris they’ve been working off and on over the summer, the team has dug up several interesting artifacts. A couple hundred rusted-out oxen shoes, dozens of glass fragments and a handful of hand-forged iron objects, but no real prizes so far. Not that that’s why the Outhouse Patrol continues to dig.

“I don’t always find great stuff,” Shoeman said. “But it’s fun. Old boys ain’t gonna grow up.”

For more information about the Outhouse Patrol, call James Campiglia at 805-689-0125 or visit www.outhousepatrol.com.

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