History comes alive during Ogden River Parkway work

Oct 2 2010 - 8:30pm

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(ANTHONY SOUFFLE/Standard-Examiner)  This shows an historic plate found during work on the Ogden River Parkway.
(ANTHONY SOUFFLE/Standard-Examiner)  This shows an historic plate found during work on the Ogden River Parkway.

OGDEN -- More than 100 years ago someone living by the Ogden River bought a jar of Keiller & Son Dundee Marmalade. It could not have been cheap since the jar came from England by boat.

They ate the marmalade and tossed the lovely off-white porcelain jar. Because Ogden didn't have garbage collection, the jar went into a hole in the backyard.

There the jar sat until Ogden decided to widen and improve the river's banks into a parkway.

A number of small dump sites in what used to be back yards have been uncovered and the jar is just one of hundreds of artifacts of early Ogden being dug up. One massive dump, at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and the river parkway, marks where the Becker brewery used to stand.

Garbage dumps make bad parkways, but they're solid gold for archeologists, who use people's trash like an illustrated, 3-D history book.

In this case, the picture book says fairly well-to-do families used to live in the area. It shows the struggles of the Becker Brewing and Malting Company, one of Ogden's major industries, to avoid going out of business when early restrictive laws in Utah, and then Prohibition, destroyed its main business model.

The Becker site is huge, half the size of a football field. A sea of broken bottles and miscellaneous brewing equipment lies under a layer of bricks and dirt.

Every bite of the backhoe tinkles and clatters as bricks, bottles, barrel hoops and oddments of steel are ripped from the ground. There is too much to try to preserve. Local bottle hounds and metal detector hobbyists are having a field day as trucks haul off loads.

Because federal and state funds are paying for the parkway expansion, archeologists are required by law to study the finds and, as much as possible, preserve them.

Sagebrush Consultants, a private Ogden archeological firm, has been hired. Principal investigator Don Southworth said he was called in a month ago when the first troves of bottles and other stuff were found.

Southworth calls what his company does "salvage archeology." Rather than painstaking, monthslong digs that uncover cities, he digs and grabs one step ahead of the backhoe.

The Ogden River Parkway project is a rich field, he said.

Before the city got municipal trash collection home-owners used backyard incinerators.

What they didn't burn they buried, usually right next to the incinerator.

Those private burial pits are a trove of broken plates, buttons, shoes, bones, bottles, you name it.

If the backyard was inconvenient, the river itself was a favorite dumping area.

"People have been throwing trash in that poor river for I don't know how long," Southworth said. "Everything has been dredged out except dead bodies."

The dumping significantly narrowed the river's bed. An early picture of Becker's original brewery on the river bank shows a wide, shallow river instead of the narrow and deeper flow there now.

Backyard dump pits yield household goods of every sort. He showed shards of a blue-and-white plate with the names of a family named Wright. It's a commemorative plate, issued in March 1916, celebrating 41 years of business for the Wright's store. "They opened a dry goods store in Ogden in the 1870s," he said.

He's got a badly rusted clock works, insulators, bones, a doll's porcelain head, and many, many bottles.

Bottles and jars that once held Gordon's Gin or that marmalade, or something produced in Hawaii, all had to be imported by sea. That tells him people living in that area were pretty well off financially.

The Becker Brewery dump has the biggest story.

Southworth is still researching the exact locations, but the Becker family built two breweries in Ogden, one in 1890 and the second about 1910.

When the first was in operation -- and he thinks it was located about where Lincoln Avenue meets the Ogden River going north -- it apparently dumped all its broken, bad and unwanted bottles off to the west, filling in what had been a wide bend in the river.

A new brewery was built west of Lincoln in 1910. When the first brewery was torn down, some of its bricks were pushed over on top of the bottles, filling in the riverbank more. Dirt on top of that created the riverbank today.

The bottles are evidence of the amazing survival of the Becker family's company despite Prohibition, the Constitutional amendment approved in 1920 that outlawed Becker's primary product, beer.

"Mr. (Gus) Becker was not a dummy," Southworth said. "He was very savvy as to what was happening and how to survive. The artifacts that we're pulling out of there kind of confirm this stuff."

Becker Brewing and Malting Company faced restrictive Utah laws before Prohibition. It built a brewery in Evanston to make alcoholic beer, and used the brewery in Ogden to make Becco, an alcohol-free beer. The Ogden plant also bottled soft drinks, water, anything and everything.

That's why there is a wide variety of beer, soda, champagne and other bottles in the dump, including products of other companies.

"He knew Prohibition wasn't going to last, so he aligned himself to bottle their products, so when Prohibition ended (in 1933) he was keyed and ready to go."

Southworth combines the bottles with a close study of old city directories and maps. For example, on a 1921 plat map of the Childs Avenue area just south of the river, he pointed to lots owned by John and Moses Browning, of Browning Arms fame.

"They're good friends with Becker," he said. Gus Becker, president of the company, was fond of shooting sports when he wasn't brewing beer.

It's all history, he said, told in bits and pieces of glass. He's working to find and preserve them "so people can see how smart Becker was when he built this."

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