One of the early pioneers in bottle digging and collecting, a friend to all who knew him and a great ambassador for the hobby died on Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at the age of 79. He was also the proud father of and mentor to "bottle digging legends" - the Sierras Brothers: Arnold Junior, Robert, Fino & Vince!
I will never forget the first time I saw and met Arnold Senior "in action." It was the 1970s; I was a teenager who stumbled upon a bunch of bottle diggers going at it alongside the 101 freeway in Redwood City, CA near where the old Frank's Tannery stood from the 1880s until it burned down in the 1960s. It was also next to a broad slough which, from the mid 1850s, transported flatboats - loaded with freshly cut and milled redwood lumber - from the peninsula to build the exploding "gold rush" town of San Francisco. It was prime "old bottle" dumping grounds. Not knowing of this wonderfully crazy hobby, I stood there in awe as people dug holes in the ground and pulled out "glass treasures" - one after the other. There were clear medicine bottles and food bottles; some even had writing on them. Suddenly I heard one digger exclaim - there's Arnold Sierras. I watched as this handsome and energetic man hurried across the site and went right to work, working his probe to pick "his" spot. He quickly dug down his hole faster and deeper than everyone else around him. Before too long, I saw him disappear into the bottom of his hole and reappear holding a beautiful ornate amber embossed bitters bottle - a broad smile across his face as he held it up to the sun!!! Several diggers came running over to check his find - and I remember them saying something about the luck this guy Arnold has digging bottles. Yes there certainly is a large component of luck that goes into finding "great bottles but as his sons will tell you, there is much more: passion, research,hard work, and perhaps a spiritual "bottle energy" that attracts them to you. Arnold Senior had all these in spades and over the years, when he dug, it seems that the "great bottles found him". I certainly was bitten by the bottle bug that day because of Arnold Senior's incredible find, but more to the point was how open, warm and friendly he was to me and everyone else. He was respected and admired others. When I called Dell Kenyon, founder of the San Jose Antique Bottle Collectors Association (one of the first bottle clubs in California), to tell him of Arnold Senior's passing, his first words were, "I used to dig in San Jose (good 'ol days) with Arnold...he sure was a nice guy! And that truly sums up his character...he was one of the best! You couldn't hope to meet a nicer person than Arnold Senior!!
He was born in Fresno, in the Central Valley of California. He grew up in a farming community, served in the armed forces, and came to the Bay Area in search of a better job, in the late 1940s. He became a carpenter and expert layer of hardwood floors - a profession into which his sons followed as well. He freely gave himself - was a soccer coach for many years, and a devoted family man who took the time to be with and raise his family well!
He first started digging up bottles in 1958 in San Jose, CA. In those early days, old bottles weren't worth much money - for Arnold Senior it was simply a great hobby. "Digging was about having fun and he truly appreciated finding these handmade works of art," said Arnold Junior. He instilled these exemplary values in his boys at an early age and they too caught "the bug!" Arnold Senior was also a pioneer of both digging techniques and tools. He taught many diggers the art, and experimented with different types of steel for making probes. He also devised one of the first "hammer probes" so necessary for getting through hardpack, asphalt etc. And Arnold was blessed to have dug in all the great spots: San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, CA and Nevada over the years. In 1971, the San Jose Bottle Club awarded and nicknamed him "The Dumbarton Kid" because he scoured the San Francisco Bay at low tide (near the Dumbarton Bridge) finding just about every old bottle imaginable! Everyone knows of the famous "Big Dig in San Francisco in 1998. You could find Arnold Senior there filling in the holes as fast as his sons dug them! Arnold Jr. said he will never forget the smile on his Dad's face there as so many fantastic bottles were unearthed. And to be there digging with his sons was a tribute to his lifelong love...his boys were now his legacy!!! To rival that famous dig, and perhaps even greater, was the Virginia Street "Old City" Dump (San Jose, CA) in the late 1960s. Many rare globby whiskeys, and several Cassin's Bitters etc. came from that site...and Arnold Senior was there getting more than his fair share! Also during this time, Arnold Senior found the Russell City Dump in Hayward, CA. where gigantic box pits were excavated in the bay mud in the 1800s into which nearby hotels, saloons, and brothels dumped their trash. Arnold Junior told me that 85% of the bottles that came out of those pits were globby whiskeys...the majority of them "whole" - truly AMAZING for any seasoned digger to imagine!!! He also dug at the famous Embarcadero, San Francisco sites in the 1970s, punching through concrete basements of demolished buildings near the Transamerica Pyramid, in what was originally the wharf area for the clipper ships jamming our gold rush shoreline. They scored boxes full of fantastic graphite pontiled soda bottles. In 1989 he dug many historic sites in and around Oakland after the Loma Prieta Earthquake and buildings were demolished to give him access to "the booty" which lay below To summarize his lifelong passion and hobby, if there were bottles to be found, you can bet Arnold Sierras was there!!
Some of Arnold's spectacular finds over the years were: a super rare green Kreiss Beer with an embossed goat from Redwood City, CA, a Durham Whiskey, Old Woodburn Whiskey, a Kentucky Gem, many super bitters bottles including the ultra-rare amber Cassin's Bitters, many pontiled blob sodas including one of San Francisco's earliest and rarest a cobalt CC&B, early SF beers with embossed figures which, American Bottle Auction's Jeff Wichmann calls "scarce as hen's teeth," colored Wonser's Bitters, Gold Dust Whiskeys, and many green fifths some of which he dug and others which he traded for...one can only imagine such finds!!!
In Arnold Senior's later years, when he couldn't dig much, Arnold Jr. told me that they would get back from late night digs at two or three in the morning...as they opened the garage door, Arnold Sr. would jump out of bed and run out to greet them, excited like a kid on Christmas morn, calling out with a "What did you find?" My friend and fellow digging buddy, Grant Bacon, who frequently digs with the Sierras brothers also told me that he saw Arnold Senior just a couple days before he was hospitalized. He said he was out in the backyard happily washing up the newest batch of his son's "finds." And finally, in a poignant salute to a fulfilling life of fun and adventure, shared amongst us diggers and collectors, Arnold Senior's dying words to his son Robert were to, "Keep on digging!" Arnold you were truly a class act, we will all miss you dearly!!!