Monday, January 13, 2014

On Old Beer Cans: Artifacts Of The Trail

Mike-Jarboe-600x3193On Thursday I skied to Burntbridge Pond deep in the Cranberry Lake Wild Forest. About four miles from the road I came across a historical artifact: an old Black Label can hanging from a branch.

It reminded me of a humorous essay by Mike Jarboe, “Happiness in a can,” that we published in the Adirondack Explorer in 2000. Mike wrote about scavenging for old beer cans at a dump below Death Falls near Raquette Lake.

Black-Label-100x1503“Ah, nature: the crisp, invigorating Adirondack air, the sound of Death Falls roaring behind us, and mounds of 40-year-old Utica Club and Carling’s Black Label cans,” Mike wrote. “The Black Labels were so common that we were unable to walk without crushing dozens of the little keepsakes underfoot. It must have once been the beer of choice for visitors to this wonderful spot.”

After the story appeared, we received a letter from the state Department of Environmental Conservation notifying us that collecting beer cans in the Forest Preserve was illegal. The cans, we learned, were historical artifacts.

So I resisted the temptation to put the rusty can in my backpack. It remains hanging on a branch beside the trail for others to admire.

Click here to see a vintage “Mabel, Black Label” television commercial.

Photo: Mike Jarboe and his beer-can collection in 2000 by Richard Lovrich.

Note: The post On Old Beer Cans And History appeared first on Adirondack Explorer.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

29 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Are you serious? Leaving garbage in the woods is illegal? What a strange law. Guilty as charged. I pick up lots of old beer cans on the state land around my property. BTW what is “old”?

  2. Paul says:

    Sorry that should read “removing” garbage is illegal? Not “leaving” it, of course that is!

  3. bill quinlivan says:

    Old dump sites I can understand. In the Moose River Plains there is a spot where there was apparently a spot where they serviced lumbering trucks and there are a good number of old Esso oil cans and pieces of trucks. There are even old lumber trucks that have been just pushed off the road and left to deteriorate. They appear to be from the 30’s and 40’s. Up until a few years ago they were visible even in the summer months on the left side of the road while driving from Indian Lake to Inlet.

    But, when camping, hunting, fishing, etc. the cans and other debris you bring in with your need to be packed out and not left to litter roadsides, forest and especially not shoved down privies. Have a little respect for the places you propose to love and keep them litter free and “natural” for those to follow. Bottom line on my part is show respect or stay out.

  4. Paul says:

    “collecting beer cans in the Forest Preserve was illegal. The cans, we learned, were historical artifacts.”

    Apparently it is no litter it is “historical artifacts”? I am still laughing from this morning. Phil, seriously?

    Are car batteries historical? That and tires seem to be well represented in some areas.

    I can see for something like the Titanic but come on!

  5. Bill Schneider says:

    Maybe DEC can go around & pick up all of these “historical artifacts”, put them in a museum & label them as to where they were found.

  6. John Warren says:

    What everyone here is failing to appreciate is that these beer cans have no less value for the historical record than the remains of an old logging camp. Historians and archaeologists do not attempt to qualify the material culture of the past under categories like “garbage” and “real artifact.”

    Some day, there may be an interest in how places like this were used over the years. Archeologists today prefer to leave artifacts in the ground, in situ it’s called, rather than put them in a box in the back room of a museum.

    You can bet that there is more history under the ground and in the area than just these cans. You can’t tell people not to disturb that history, and then tell them it’s OK to disturb a “trash” pile. In actually, the trash pile (called a midden in archeology) is probably the most historically important feature of this spot.

  7. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I suppose the question is how long does an empty beer can have to be on the ground before it becomes culturally significant?

    This is certainly a topic that I have mused upon myself a few times while hiking. Something that was recently discarded is “litter,” and we are ethically obligated to pick it up and remove it if possible. However, if that object remains on the ground for X number of years it transforms into a culturally significant artifact, perhaps even protected by law.

    I have never quite bought into this argument, because it basically says that the passage of time not only excuses past misconduct, but venerates it. If the object was disposed on state land illegally, then no amount of time should reverse its status to an object of protection. What does a discarded object say about our society? That among us there are a few slobs. We don’t need to start adding rusty cans of Schlitz to the Adirondack Museum collection to remind us of that.

    The implication is that ANY manmade object that remains in a single place for a certain amount of time is automatically protected by law and/or regulation as an historical artifact. Say that threshold is 50 years; the beer cans at Death Falls that Phil mentioned were only 40 years old. That would mean that a lean-to built in 1964 — which last year was a derelict structure in a poor location that DEC was obligated to remove — was now a historical structure that needed to be restored, and perhaps even rezoned to ensure its preservation in situ.

    We’ve already seen this happen with fire towers, which were created as utilitarian structures, aged into obsolescence, deteriorated with neglect, only to become venerated by people who found them nostalgic.

    There are undoubtedly some culturally significant historic sites in the Forest Preserve, such as tanneries and old farms, for instance. And lots and lots of old middens, many of them from cabin sites that were torn down when the state bought the land. As recently as the 1980s it was standard DEC procedure to burn down a cabin and leave the metal hardware on site; only within the last 10 – 15 years has DEC started hiring contractors to remove such buildings from new acquisitions.

    Therefore there needs to be more thought into what is considered historical and what is not. If that can of Black Label was something you’d report to the state museum as something they should excavate and catalog, then go for it.

    Otherwise, it is trash.

    • John Warren says:


      Yes, there needs to be more thought about what is historical and what isn’t. The issue here is that someone hiking down the trail is not in a position to decide for the rest of us and for all time, the answer to that question.

      The appropriate thing to do would be to survey these areas, record what’s on the ground, and remove what’s unnecessary or non-compliant.

      I personally did not agree with the recent fire tower decisions, and I’m not one to believe that an old hotel on Forest Preserve land that was burned down in the 1960s is necessarily a great loss to the historical record (mostly, because they are both well-represented in the record). But, these are complicated questions that are neither the right nor responsibility of the individual hiker, or even hiking group or state agency, to decide alone.

      So until those decisions are made in appropriate forums (if that even exists, historians or archeologists are rarely consulted), the right policy is to treat “stuff” on state land as the people’s property and not remove it, no matter how little value you might think it has.

      John Warren
      (Wearing My Historian Hat)

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      But if we’re regarding objects that were casually discarded by our parent’s generation as “artifacts” — potentially worthy of archaeological scrutiny — then we are burdened by too much self-consciousness. It’s sort of like refusing to clean my house, because every object I’ve ever owned might someday be an exhibit in the Bill Ingersoll Museum.

      Junk is junk. A beer can discarded at a random place in the woods is almost completely without context.

      It might be interesting to follow up with the Death Falls site, because that was also the septic system leaching site for the Golden Beach Campground, or something like that. I recall there was also an old car rotting away there. A few years ago DEC removed the non-conforming uses, since it was part of the Blue Ridge Wilderness; and when I was last there much of the trash was gone.

      This is what DEC said about the site in the BRWA UMP:

      “The implementation of the trail proposal would require that a number of issues be addressed. The campground septic system was constructed in 1966 and was included
      within the BRW by mistake. Originally considered for reclassification, the system recently was discovered to need rehabilitation. When funding becomes available, a new
      system will be constructed on the north side of Route 28, the existing system will be disconnected, and the site will be restored. Until the septic system project is completed, the first part of the road will continue to afford administrative motor vehicle access to the
      septic system.

      “Beyond the septic system clearing is a former gravel pit where, in the past, concrete fireplaces removed from the campground at the end of their useful lives were deposited. There are a number of abandoned cars along the former road, and not far from the falls a substantial amount of refuse is visible throughout an area of what appears to be an old landfill. To the extent possible, the various types of solid waste should be removed. The
      consolidation and burial of the fireplaces on site would conform with solid waste disposal regulations. The landfill area has been disturbed by people illegally digging, probably searching for antiques. Though the refuse appears to be no more than fifty years old, its
      historic value would be determined before a disposal decision were made. The complete removal of the contents of the landfill could require major excavation and the removal of a significant number of trees. Therefore, only the material near the surface should be removed. After the proper disposal of the fireplaces, cars and refuse has been completed, a boulder barrier with sufficient space for the passage of wheelchairs will be placed
      across the road at the wilderness boundary.”

      So the “refuse” was removed; the question is whether any of it was of value.

      • John Warren says:

        What has happened has little bearing on the essentials of my argument that it’s not up to you or me, or DEC, or ADK, or any one person or organization to decide what has historic value and what doesn’t.

        Junk is not junk. In fact, it’s the junk – the refuse – of cultures that remain the most important artifacts.

        The view that “junk” has no historic value is why our common historical narratives almost entirely fail to appreciate the contributions of the least among us.

        You can not place a date on what is history and what is not – that would be, in my mind, the height of self-consciousness. I refer you to the Viet Nam War, or 9/11, or an online museum of boombox culture.

        What is not considered important to us can have great importance to others, and to the wider understanding of the longue durée of history.

        There’s a balance with the Forest Preserve which I’m fully aware of, and which we probably agree about. But on the ground, it’s entirely correct in my view for DEC to tell people not to disturb potentially historic sites and artifacts.

      • Bill Ingersoll says:

        So let’s take a hypothetical glass Coke bottle found on the trail to Long Pond, which by its style and condition I can assume was discarded by some previous visitor in the 1960s.

        What aspect of this object makes it special?

        Is it the physical attributes of the bottle — its design and method of manufacture? If that’s the case, then as a mass-produced object there must be much finer specimens elsewhere.

        Is it the site location where I found it? Because the only insight I can glean is that the decade before I was born, some careless person stood in that same spot drinking Coca Cola.

        Is it the insight that I can gain into the culture that created this bottle of Coke? Because I already know that it was produced by a consumer culture that still exists, made up of people capable of minor thoughtless acts, such as throwing an empty Coke bottle into the bushes. The only difference between 1964 and 2014 is that Coke bottles are now made out of plastic.

        So pardon me, but I’m pretty sure I don’t need a PhD to figure out that a mass-produced consumer item from the 20th century that was discarded in the woods somehow has more historical value than the identical item sitting in a city landfill. The Coke bottle that I found in the woods doesn’t tell me anything that I couldn’t find on wikipedia.

        To be of historic value, an object needs to be unique or scarce. A Coke bottle is not an arrowhead or clay pipe. It is certainly a curiosity, but it has no unique historic value.

        • John Warren says:

          That’s a straw man argument Bill. Of course a single bottle from the 1960s, or 1990s, should be removed on the basis of the Forest Preserve principle. However, log headers, old hunting camps, an enormous pile of 1950s beer cans, is something that needs more consideration and is certainly worthy of recording.

          I’m a bit surprised to hear you argue that “you don’t need a PhD” to make a determination of historical value. In fact, yes you do, and not that it matters to my argument, but that’s why the rule is there. So that people qualified to determine if a potential historic site is worth saving are consulted before you just cart it away.

          And no, an object does not need to be unique or scarce to have historic value. It’s exactly opposite of that. Your criteria is the definition of collecting, not historic interpretative value (which in any case is fluid, what we see as unimportant today, may be seen as critical to understanding tomorrow).

          Material culture – the stuff created and used by us – is interpreted in dozens of ways that go beyond the object itself. Objects have an art history, a symbolic history (as you’ve interpreted the coke bottle), a cultural and social historical (as represented by this debate), functional, structural, even environmental histories. We might ask for example why people still thought it was appropriate to throw away that coke bottle in that spot? and why a coke bottle rather than another equally ubiquitous object?

          These are questions that help us understand why the Forest Preserve is worth preserving as well.

        • Bill Ingersoll says:

          But unless you read a different post than I did, this was about a discarded can of beer, not a treasure trove of logging equipment from the 1930s left where it was abandoned. So don’t change the subject and accuse me of straw arguments.

          As a **consituent member** of the society that left the pile of beer cans–whether it be the 1950s, 1970s, 1990, or 2010s, consumer culture is still active and ongoing — my primary concern is **not** the grad students from the future who are going to picking through our garbage trying to understand our brand preferences.

          • John Warren says:


            I addressed the situation of the individual can in my first remarks and was moving on to a more nuanced interpretation of the issues at hand.

            I understand from your off-hand comments about graduate students and not needing a PhD that you don’t value the role of history in helping to put parameters of understanding on our environmental legacy. That’s your prerogative.

            For my part, I’m not willing to encourage hikers to pretend to be experts on a subject which they know relatively little and take it upon themselves to remove objects from public land which may hold value for which you, they, and I are unaware.

            I assume you wouldn’t want everyday hikers determining what’s appropriate for trail construction, or species protection, or making a determination on whether or not climate change is real – they should defer to informed deliberations by competent authorities. Why then you don’t hold the same respect for other kinds of knowledge – here archeology and history, among others – is beyond me.

            In my view the best understanding of the importance of the Forest Preserve comes from a multitude of disciplines that help explain why preservation is important. That includes history which can’t be told in its fullness without what’s on and in the ground, and its relationship to the wider world.

            Nothing I’ve said here is incompatible with wilderness ethics. Record first and then remove, unless it’s of extraordinary value. Of which I can only think of one, the blast furnace at Adirondac, although there is possibly a handful of others. None of them would be piles of old cans.

            • Paul says:

              John, I think you have it right here. Thinking of myself as someone who can also appreciate history and what it can teach us I will side with you. My comments above were a bit crass. The whole idea of a beer can, no matter the age, just seemed so bizarre to me. I get what you are saying, makes sense. I will still continue to take liberties with some of the beer cans I see in the woods. I think it is a safe bet if the 12 pack box has yet to deteriorate that it is safe to remove the contents from it that are scattered in the same vicinity? But other older looking stuff will stay where it is. It also is important for such trail markers as “the bottle in the tree” and the “old tea pot on the stump” that helps some of us navigate certain areas when in the woods!

          • Bill Ingersoll says:

            This is how you addressed the beer cans in your first response:

            “What everyone here is failing to appreciate is that these beer cans have no less value for the historical record than the remains of an old logging camp. Historians and archaeologists do not attempt to qualify the material culture of the past under categories like “garbage” and “real artifact.””

            So you’re trying to convince me that beer cans are the equivalent of logging equipment, which obviously does have a unique connection with its environment, and which I’m not likely to stuff in my backpack and walk away with.

            Regardless of what decades the beer cans are from, they are not from some extinct society. They are from the culture that I consider myself a part of. The people who discarded them were not from some lost Amazon tribe, but people who may still be alive, for all I know. So as I said, it would require an overwhelming amount of self-consciousness on my part to not see the pile of trash for what it is–as a sin committed by own culture–but instead as something of scientific value for people who haven’t even been born yet.

            So when I see a mass-produced consumer item sitting in the woods, I see an item of misplaced trash. When practical, I can and do remove them, or move them to a less visible place. Beer cans, fuel bottles, tarps, whatever. I have no interest in what future researchers will care about.

            The question you’re getting at is the intersection of historical preservation and wilderness preservation–when they contradict each other, which one trumps the other?

            Say the state bought a piece of land in 1914 that was logged, and the loggers left a bunch of equipment behind. For years these objects were merely curiosities. Then in 2014 a historian decides that these objects are the only ones of their kinds in existence, and that if not preserved they will be lost forever.

            So what do we do? Do we extract them from the woods? Do we preempt the wilderness preservation by rezoning the land to “Historic Area,” allowing an on-site preservation effort to occur? Or do we continue to allow nature to take its course, as we did for the prior 100 years, allowing the wilderness preservation effort to preempt the historical concerns?

            It’s not that I don’t find some satisfaction knowing that these older items are out there in the woods, telling stories of days gone by. But what you’re asking me to accept that trash left by my parent’s generation in a place where it shouldn’t be has scientific value, and I apparently lack the wistful imagination to accept that argument. Sorry.

            • John Warren says:

              You call it “trash left by my parent’s generation in a place where it shouldn’t be”. I’m telling you, and it’s not just me, but the wider understanding of the discipline, that yours is an outdated understanding of what history on the landscape is. Right now, the regulations are clear. If you think you know better and prefer to violate them, that’s your decision. I think it’s irresponsible to announce to the world that stuff you find in woods is junk and trash and should be removed.

              My view on what hikers should do when encountering old things is not inconsistent with wilderness ethics. If you find something, leave it alone. Your view is generally inconsistent with historical ethics.

              I’m not suggesting that you don’t pick up trash. And because I weigh the value of the Forest Preserve, I’m not arguing for special classifications, or to broadly keep artifacts on the landscape. I’m suggesting that you should weigh the value of historical knowledge, and yield (as you would in other areas of science) to professional assessment by informed authorities. These items – technically assemblages – should be recorded by competent authority and removed. That is the professional standard by which competent historians work and which they encourage among cultural resource custodians. As a member of the public, you have a custodial responsibility as well – that should not include destroying on your own decision what others may value.

            • Bill Ingersoll says:

              If you think my understanding of trash vs. historic artifact is outdated, then I invite you to investigate what happened to the beer cans that started this discussion: the ones at Death Falls.

              As I indicated earlier today, DEC cleaned up this site several years ago. Ask them what became of the beer cans. Turn theory into practical experience. Otherwise I would suggest that you’re taking my opinions–which I originally addressed rhetorically, to no one in particular–much too personally.

              If you want to know about the culture that created that pile of cans at Death Falls, you don’t necessarily need to dig through a makeshift landfill. It was created by people who went camping on the weekends and drank beer in cans. Go to Golden Beach this summer and you will probably find that not much has changed.

  8. Phil Brown says:

    These are tough questions. Perhaps DEC would distinguish between a random beer can and a bunch of cans in a middens. With a middens, there may be a concern with disturbing other objects and/or the chronological order of layers of refuse. I’m sure many hikers have encountered old logging equipment, rusting trucks, etc. in the Forest Preserve. There’s one spot in the Moose River Plains region that is a veritable museum. Some think such artifacts detract from the wilderness, but they do add interest to a hike and serve as a reminder that these woods were not always “forever wild.”

    • John Warren says:

      I doubt DEC would ticket someone for picking up a random beer can. I’d think the rules are designed to prevent the theft of historic resources such as pot and bottle digging.

      With those items in the Plains I would want the same thing. Survey the remains, establish their uniqueness and the uniqueness of the site, and unless they are unusual, remove those that are visible, but provide also some way to interpret them at the trailhead, in promotional materials, at local museums, etc.

      Historians face these questions all the time. For example, it’s common practice for municipal archivists to remove a sample of old government records and destroy the rest. This can be a real problem with something that has unforeseen future uses, like old criminal records, for example. Archivists see this as a necessity because they can’t manage and house every single historic record / artifact – likewise with historic sites on the Forest Preserve. We need not save every log header, but we should make smart informed decisions about how we treat them – not just leave it up to individual hikers who see nothing but junk. Junk, is not a word used to describe material culture by historians.

      The real problem as I see it, is that no one with an understanding of the relevant historical considerations is concerned about, or represented in, these issues. Joe Martens told me DEC has a historian, while standing in front of a DEC historic interpretative sign that was a mockery of historical understanding of the site where we stood.

      • TiSentinel65 says:

        Every pile of junk in the forest has a story to tell. Every time I cross it in the woods, I always stop and take stock of what is there and try to piece together its history. Some of it is well known. Some not known at all. A perfect example is the remains of a sea plane that took off from Huletts Landing. It failed to make it over Deer Leap and crashed in the saddle just yards off the hiking trail. The only parts left are the crankshaft with connected pistons and a few wing supports. The hedgehogs ate the rest. Many people walk by it without ever knowing it even exists.

        • Bill Ott says:

          When a piece of junk like a crashed plane sits in the woods for such a long time, and you know about it, it becomes part of the woods to you. I have two such places in mind, and am jealous of them, not wanting them disturbed. They are not legally protected. Perhaps a steel beer can (with no pop top, Vietnam War era) should be in that category, but not for me. However, the idea of the park is to preserve the woods, not the history or any junk that we hold so dear. Let the woods triumph over all else – they will anyway!

          Bill Ott

  9. DM says:

    “The view that “junk” has no historic value is why our common historical narratives almost entirely fail to appreciate the contributions of the least among us. “

    Is the forest the area to ensure that our historical narrative is appreciated in this respect?

    I completely understand your point, and in some respects agree with it, but to take it to the extreme, are we currently “failing” by NOT leaving our current beer cans for future generations?

    How can something that would be deplorable today, be revered based solely on the time period when the action took place?

    Is there a place for this nostalgia? Sure.. but it is not along a hiking trail.

    • John Warren says:

      Short answer, yes, the Forest Preserve is, in a very few instances when no other examples, or few other examples exist, a place where the historical narrative also belongs.

      However, as I’ve said, I would not have declared any of fire towers worth saving. We have plenty of examples, and there is a rich historical record.

      Admittedly, I’m holding on to a pure ethic here. I doubt very many sites or things found in the forest preserve would meet the criteria to remain. So, most items, including piles of 1950s beer cans, should be surveyed and recorded before visible signs are removed.

      In years to come, the existence of these “dumps” could tell us a lot about the history of land use, the efficacy of environmental policies, historic preservation policies, DEC land management, and all kinds of things.

      Simply carting them off is, in my view as a historian, short-sighted.

      • Bill Ingersoll says:

        “In years to come, the existence of these “dumps” could tell us a lot about the history of land use, the efficacy of environmental policies, historic preservation policies, DEC land management, and all kinds of things.”

        In years to come, the REMOVAL of these dumps would speak volumes about how our society tried to take care of our wilderness resources.

  10. Rc says:

    and all these years I’ve been cursing the lazy bums who can’t clean up after themselves. Little did I realize they were historically caring individuals.

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