Digging down to unearth history

Mark Youngblood started finding old wares about 3-4 feet down. Photos by Derrick Knutson

Brian Mann’s business card has his name, contact information and the phrase “bottle digging” printed on it.

Bottles are what he and fellow digging enthusiast Mark Youngblood are primarily looking for when they approach homeowners around Minnesota and Wisconsin, asking them if the duo can tunnel down into their properties to unearth some history.

Last Tuesday the pair came to North Branch, looking for an affable owner of an old home who would let them dig on his or her property.

Resident John von Lange, who owns a home off Elm Street built in the late 1800s, saw Mann and Youngblood walking around his neighborhood consulting a map.

Curious, von Lange asked them what they were doing.

Mann said he explained to von Lange that he and Youngblood are bottle collectors and history enthusiasts, who, as a hobbie, dig up areas they think might hold an assortment of old wares.

They were using the map – a 1904 parchment copied from the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul – to determine good potential areas in town to dig.

After hearing their shtick, von Lange decided to let the two dig his property to see what they could find.

Digging deep

Mann, a Zimmerman resident and Youngblood, a White Bear Lake native, have nearly 60 years of combined digging experience, so they’ve developed a system to scout out areas before they put shovel to earth.

The two use long, metal rods they skewer the ground with, and Youngblood said after a number of years one can attain enough expertise to tell if an area of earth might be hiding some collectables.

“It takes some experience to reading what you feel on that rod,” Youngblood said.

Mann said they usually start finding artifacts 6-8 feet down.

The deepest he’s ever dug is 23.5 feet behind an old saloon.

On the deeper holes, Mann said the two take precautions, like building wooden cross bracing to make sure the holes don’t collapse.

At von Lange’s house, Mann estimated the hole would be about 12-13 feet deep because the area they were digging was likely an old well.

Mann added he and Youngblood call power companies ahead of time before they dig anywhere.

“There’s a lot of buried power,” he said. “You only hit one of those in your lifetime.”

Brian Mann and Mark Youngblood, who have been digging sites for years in search of bottles and other collectables, recently dug on John von Lange’s property in North Branch. One historic item they found under von Lange’s land was a turn-of-the-century Edison light bulb.

Unearthing old wares

It didn’t take much digging before Mann and Youngblood started finding intact artifacts.

One of the first items they discovered was an Edison light bulb, which Mann estimated was made sometime around the turn of the century.

An assortment of old glass soda and ketchup bottles came next, followed by a graniteware plate and bucket.

Mann and Youngblood have found countless items on their adventures around Minnesota and Wisconsin, but they don’t keep everything they find.

Mann said when he first started digging around 1993; he kept almost everything, but quickly filled up an entire barn with old bottles and other timeworn wares.

Now, the duo gives away most of the items they find, mainly to the owners of the property where they’re digging, who are often fascinated by what they’re unearthing.

“We just like the thrill of the hunt,” Mann said.

Brian Mann showcases a graniteware bucket Youngblood unearthed on von Lange’s property.

Finding sites to dig

Mann and Youngblood said they find areas to dig in numerous ways, and they were lead to North Branch after digging a site in Harris and finding a broken bottle that had “North Branch” etched into it.

Not having an intact bottle from the city in their collection, they decided to make a trip to North Branch.

Finding people who agree to have their yards dug up isn’t always easy, however.

“I would say my batting average is about 50/50,” Mann said.  “It usually helps if I can get a hold of the people and kind of convey what I’m doing. If somebody has a yard that looks like a museum, or they get mad if a squirrel runs across their grass, you’re not going to win.”

He added, “What I try and appeal to is that usually the people who live in older homes want to connect to the artifacts we find. We give so much of the stuff away when we do find it.”

Mann also shows the homeowners pictures of past holes they’ve dug and filled so they know what they’re getting into.

He and Youngblood take care to preserve grass so they can place it back atop filled holes, making the area hardly noticeable.

The pair said they’re always looking for more places to dig, and are taking another trip to North Branch again soon.

“If you see these guys walking around North Branch with a map looking confused, they’re not robbers,” von Lange said.

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