Friday, February 26, 2016

More on Ken Salazar

Ken Salazar- Bottle Diggers’ Hall of Fame - Friend

I first met Ken on a fresh lot in Suisun City, about 1975, when I was just getting started with the digging part of bottle collecting.  He used to dig in the 1970’s with Ron Smith, who was my neighbor’s brother-in-law, and a legendary digger who started digging Benicia in the early 1960’s. They were both out on the lot and had just finished digging a privy that produced a cobalt Crystal soda. Being only 14, I was amazed to see that you could actually go out and dig-up something that cool!   Ron’s brother-in-law, Greg, whispered in my ear, while pointing over towards Ken “that guy is the “Soda King”.  I asked him what that meant.  He told me Ken had dug up more rare California sodas than anyone, and has them all in his collection at his house in San Francisco.  I was impressed and believed it, after having seen the cobalt soda they just found.

A couple of years later, would be the next time I ran into Ken.  Again, it was on an empty lot, this time in Benicia.  He was with Ron Smith, and had probably been digging in backyards earlier that day, as it wasn’t until afternoon that they showed up on the lot.  They had done very well digging Benicia, having found the Old Woodburn there in 1972, and a yellow Durham a few yrs later.  My brother and I were down about 9’ in a hell hole, and going thru a massive layer of broken bricks.  I’ll never forget Ken looking down from above at me in the hole and saying… “Are you sure there’s anything down there” ?? … kinda like we were crazy for digging so deep thru a ton of bricks (we really didn’t know if there were any bottles down there or not, but didn’t have any other hole we could dig and wanted to see what was under all of the bricks, which turned out to be 3 or 4 feet thick).  This was the first time he’d seen me digging a hole.  They left and then returned later when we were down 12’, and we had a dozen or so mostly 70’s sodas next to the hole (the best being a blue Pacific Congress and a blue Taylor Valparaiso),  and we also had a small-design Miller’s flask wrapped in the bucket.  I could tell by Ken’s comments to Ron, and by the look on his face that he was very impressed.  We were impressed too,,,,, not only because of what we’d found, but because us kids had just impressed the “Soda King”.

I started going to bottle shows, and saw that Ken was one of the main sellers, always with a crowd of buyers gathered at his table, eager to purchase his fresh digs.  Back in the day, when Ken was digging more good bottles, more often that anyone, he sold his stuff at very reasonable prices.  Dealers would be three deep in front of his table trying to get a bottle or two.   Ken would always ask what my brother and I had been finding lately.  By that time, we had graduated to backyard digging too, and I think Ken got a kick out of hearing how us kids operated.  He asked me for my number, and in the mid 80’s would invite me to dig in the City and Oakland occasionally, especially when he found a deep hole.  Ken hated deep ones!  By the early 90’s, I was Ken’s fulltime partner.  That’s when I got a chance to see him really work his mojo!

When it came to digging the good stuff, Ken had “bottle radar”.  He could zero-in on the house on each block that had the good glass, and leave the other houses for future diggers to scrimp from.  He wasn’t known for throwing tons of dirt, mainly because he didn’t have to.  Later, after he retired from digging, some of us coined the phrase; the “ Ken luck”, for when someone gets a good bottle almost every time they go digging.  He was also really good at getting permission, and his forte was going into the roughest, most dangerous neighborhoods to door-knock.  Most of his good bottles came from permission-digs behind old bldgs.  I once saw him tell a black lady that she’d been “watching too much Oprah”, after she tried to convince her husband not to let us dig his rental property duplexes, because we might get rich off of them !  Ken told them , “yeah, we’re going to the Bahamas “.  That Oprah remark could’ve gone either way, but lucky for us, they both laughed, and he got the permission.  We ended-up digging three olive-amber single-roll Wormser Bros flasks later that day !

  I’d heard him tell his ”Benicia stage coach stop” story at least half a dozen times over the years, where he’d gone out in this big field and probed an 1850’s pit that had blue M.R.  Sacto sodas.  So one day, about 1995, it was looking like we were going to get rained-out and sure wouldn’t  be a good day to knock on doors.  I told him about a spot that I’d been looking at in an old 1870’s atlas, where it showed a horse racetrack out of town, 4 miles from the Post Office.  I’d driven the 4 miles several times earlier in the year, trying to take the old roads leading out of town, in order to be as accurate as possible.  Each time, I wound-up at this huge field with nothing in it except for a giant tree that looked very old.  I thought when we pulled up to the lot that rainy day,  Ken would tell me that he “had more bottles in his head than that lot”, or we were going to look like “2 monkeys humping a football” (two of many Ken-ism’s), since it literally was one of those needle in a haystack type of situations.  Because…. In the past I had taken him to other spots not as questionable, that were even on the Sanborns, and he wouldn’t even get out of the truck.  So, when he eagerly hopped out of the truck this time, in the rain, and grabbed his probe,  I was sort of surprised and not, at the same time; since I knew  about his bottle radar.  We weren’t out of the truck for more than 10 mins, and he probed a pit ! Then I probed close by and hit one too. We dug those, and he probed a third one after that…… the old one.  It was nothing but sodas and whiskies, all 1870’s and early 80’s, mostly commons, except for one killer blue San Francisco Glass Works soda with a million bubbles !  I probed a fourth and final hole at the end of the day, and he said he didn’t want to dig it, stating: “ that hole and .50 cents will get you a cup of coffee”,  and for me to find someone else to dig it with.  Well, he was right.  It only had one bottle, an Asthmaline medicine,,,, and 2 or three broken sodas.  I bought the blue San Francisco Glass Works soda from him last yr,…. almost 20 yrs to the day we dug it.

Ken was very direct. He either liked you or he didn’t.  There wasn’t too much wiggle room there.  He grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco, which has always been known as one of the tougher neighborhoods in the City.  He was large and intimidating to those who didn’t know him, which served us well when we were digging in the hoods of the Bay Area, especially when behind large Section 8 apt complexes.   When you got to know him well, you’d see that he was really a funny guy who liked to joke around a lot, as long as the joke wasn’t on him.  I found that out, the hard way, on more than one occasion. His wife once told me not to let Ken get to me, that he’s just a big Teddy Bear.  Well, she was right.  Stubborn as he was,  I was still lucky to be his friend. We had many fun wknds of digging and BS-ing.   He also could be very generous.  I saw him on several occasions, give money to homeless when we were digging.  Other times, if we dug a good bottle in someone’s backyard, he would come back with a present for them, usually liquor , cigs, or cash.   One day after we dug all day on a tough tunnel-pit, and a blue Bay City soda was our best find, he decided when we got back to my house that he wanted to give it to my 4 yr old son.  Well, my son has been a soda collector ever since that day.

Ken was larger than life in the bottle world. Selling at the shows for 45 yrs.   He was out almost every wknd for over 45 yrs “wearing –out the wheels on his truck” patrolling and digging his areas in the City and Oakland.  He knew every house, and the ones he thought were good and hadn’t dug yet, he bided his time until the right opportunity, to give them ‘his spiel”.   As others have stated already, he is definitely in the Bottle Diggers’ Hall of Fame, and was one of the pillars of Western Bottle collecting. A lot of the good bottles out there would not be in Western collections if Ken hadn’t pulled them out of the ground !    An accomplished digger, a true character, and good friend.

  Ken’s son Joe, told me that per Ken’s request there will not be a funeral, and maybe sometime a little bit down the road they might have a “get together”.






  1. Thanks for enlightening us with some wonderful bottle stories,Tom. I had only one digging adventure with Ken, but it was a memorable one I will always think fondly of. Thanks for sharing.