Can You Dig It?

Ohio City's Open Air Market

DirectedBy: Gil Junger Starring: Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Larisa Oleynik WhoWhat: Ten Things I Hate About You
Dan Gill, claustrophobic treasure hunter, takes his work underground.
Dan Gill, claustrophobic treasure hunter, takes his work underground.
At the bottom of a tight hole that dropped fifteen feet into history, treasure hunter Dan Gill blindly reached into some loose soil in a shadowy corner of the pit and pulled out . . . a human heart.

Perfectly preserved in a jar of formaldehyde and dating back to a Civil War hospital that once sat on this downtown site, the cardio keepsake became another addition to Gill's quirky collection of Cleveland artifacts. By descending in and around the city's buried past, he has helped to unearth the significant (and not-so-significant) items of an earlier time.

In his fifteen or so years as an urban treasure hunter, Gill has noticed an increase in people's curiosity about the past when he sells some of his finds at the Open Air Market. It's grown along with the city's renewed civic pride, he says. "Now when you approach people that have moved back into the city, they typically have an affinity for the history of the neighborhood."

The way to get to that history is dependent on getting down to basics: "You've gotta find the outhouse," says Gill. "One hundred and thirty years ago there were epidemics and no real city services, so the outhouse digs were where people threw their trash. Plus, a lot of the pipes, guns, and liquor bottles we find are from the Temperance Era. You had to sneak off to the outhouse for a drink or to hide your gun."

Gill doesn't have a degree in archaeology, just a passion for it. He and a small group of other history-minded collectors concentrate their efforts in Ohio City backyards and construction sites. "We find ourselves running all over the place, convincing people to let us dig before they pave over a lot," he says.

Every Saturday in the summer, Gill sells some of his finds — mostly bottles of all sizes and shapes. At first glance, the bulk of his display appears unremarkable, until a closer look reveals the likes of "Dr. Hooflund's German Bitters," a locally made nineteenth-century concoction. "We have found artifacts from over 140 Cleveland druggists and dairies, and it's really exciting when we find a match for a local descendant," says Gill.

He's also unearthed century-old beer bottles from local breweries such as the Diebolt, Leisy, and Forest City brewing companies. On a recent Saturday, local home-brewer Tony Majc looked through the latest acquisitions on display. "My wife's father was the local brewmaster for Schlitz, and I like to check out what's been found."

"The majority of my customers aren't bottle collectors," admits Gill. "This market attracts the people who enjoy the aesthetics of the pieces." Janice Smith picked up an 1890s cork-top bottle inscribed with "Father John's Medicine from Lowell, Mass." to decorate her windowsill. Another customer arrived with a well-worn bottle of "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound," wanting to know its history. Gill had an answer for her. "It was supposed to help women with monthly cramps and things," he grinned. "It took care of them, because it supposedly contained 80 percent alcohol, which would take care of just about everything."

Gill, who has traced rummaging relatives back to the Alaskan Gold Rush, prefers the label "treasure hunter" to "urban archaeologist" — only because his hobby was born of curiosity, not advanced studies.

For all Gill's rooting around in Cleveland dirt pits, the irony falls on his aversion to tight spaces. Even discussing it makes him jumpy as a mole rat. "There's really nothing I can do about it, and it's not fun sometimes," he says. "I just make sure I dig my own holes, and that somehow makes me feel better." — Tim Piai

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