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Bottled Treasure : Collector strikes it rich in dumps, outhouses of ghost towns. His book gives prices for such gems as Moxie Nerve Food containers.

March 16, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Michael Polak hits the bottle, it's usually with a metal rod. Polak has a collection of some 2,000 old bottles, and he got a great many of them by digging around ghost towns. He uses a rod shaped like a sprinkler key to poke around beneath the ground, and when he hears a suitable clunk, he starts digging.

"When I'm on a dig I always wonder if I'll find a body out there or something," Polak said of his excavation excursions. "I've dug up boots, spurs, old coffeepots, canteens, frying pans, spittoons, a 1900 Liberty Head nickel, interesting stuff."

Interesting, but secondary to his main interest. Twenty years ago a work-mate returned from a desert trip with similar souvenirs, as well as a couple of old whiskey and medicine bottles that caught Polak's eye. He trundled his family (he has since divorced, and his children are grown) off to the deserts of Nevada, where they unearthed some glassy gems of their own.

"And that was it. I've been hooked ever since," said the Cerritos resident.

His favorite places to go looking are still in the rustic, scenic ghost towns of Nevada, where he finds the pickings extremely good at the sites of old dumps and outhouses. (You can bet we're going to ask him more about the latter.) He also maintains that old bottles can often be dug up closer to home, that redevelopment in towns such as Santa Ana, Anaheim and Whittier makes them fertile fields.

Polak added, "There have been some great bottle digs after earthquakes. In fact, some of the bottle clubs in L.A. have already gone to the construction companies (doing the rebuilding) and asked for permission."

Bottle clubs? Like seemingly every other item and idea in this country's history, a subculture has risen around bottle collecting, to the degree that there are more than 700 bottle-collecting clubs in the United States, 107 of them in California alone. The source of this information is Polak's just-published "Bottles, Identification and Price Guide" from Avon Books.

He does a lot of writing in his job doing finances and contracts with an aerospace firm. It's not the most satisfying of writing, though, and he enrolled in a writers workshop at Orange Coast College a few years ago.

"They said, 'Write what you know about,' so I sent an article on bottle collecting to an antiques magazine," he said. "They ran it, and then I got a call on my message machine from an editor at Avon Books, asking if I'd be interested in writing a book."

That's not a bad track record: Take a writing class in '92 and get a book published in '94. Polak is even doing book signings. There will be three in Orange County: Sunday at Waldenbooks in the Mall of Orange; March 26 at Brentano's South Coast Plaza and March 27 at Waldenbooks at MainPlace/Santa Ana. All of the signings will be from 1 to 3 p.m.

*

Wonder how bottles were made in the First Century B.C.? Want to know where to dig for bottles? Wonder what that unearthed lime-green Moxie Nerve Food bottle from 1888 is worth, or that 1897 bottle of Dr. Liebig's German Invigorator? It's all in Polak's 493-page book. (Those bottles, should you happen across them, go for $125 to $175 and $50 to $100, respectively.)

He's learned a lot of things about bottles in his 20 years of collecting. For example, "You see the cowboy movies where they smash guys in the head with a bottle that breaks? You'd break a million heads before you'd break (a real) bottle," he said, handing over an old Busch beer bottle that hefted like cast iron. "I've dropped these bottles off a table onto a concrete floor and they don't break."

Western settlers didn't necessarily need to have the bottles broken over their heads to get the same effect. Polak brought out some medicine bottles he'd dug up in Nevada, stoppered and still containing some of their original ingredients. These, according to the labels, were concoctions such as "Sweet Spirit of Nitrate," bottled by the aptly named Cannon Drug and Jewelry Co., which operated out of a hotel.

"Just look at the alcohol content!" Polak exclaimed, noting that on most bottles it hovered around 92%. "You can imagine these old miners saying, 'I'm just taking my medicine.' If that was my medicine, I'd be taking it too."

He isn't especially tempted to sample any of these old nostrums now. "I leave the corks in them. To open them would ruin the value and uniqueness of the bottle. And you have to worry about something that old with labels that say '40% alcohol, 40% codeine, 10% something else.' I've heard of people who do take the corks off, just smell the stuff and get sick."

There are others, though, who drink vintage Cokes in bottles such as the full late '40s ones Polak has, and say they are not only safe, but also better than the current stuff. Polak shook one of his bottles to show that it still fizzes.

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