Treasure hunting in South Dakota

Sarah Ebeling | Managing Editor
sebeling@ncppub.com

Being a treasure hunter sounds a bit like a fairytale. Traveling the countryside, looking for treasures buried deep underground, not knowing what might be hidden.
One such pursuer of the past is archeologist Tom Askjem.
Askjem, who started unearthing things when he was only 14, at his home in Buxton, N.D., said he dug his first pit behind his parents house and was hooked. And so, Askjem has spent the last 14 years digging and searching in about 1100 different pits.
“This is just a hobby that has turned into a career I invented,” he said.
The thrill of discovery that keeps Askjem going is what led him to Parker.
Always on the hunt for the oldest bottle, intact, that he can find, Askjem hit gold recently in Yankton.
While on a dig, looking for bottles from the Dakotas and surrounding states, Askjem came across a bottle that he thinks is from the late 1800s. The bottle, which says W.H. Heselton, Parker, D.T. is believed to be from the Dakota Territories, before South Dakota became a state. Research brought him to Parker after he concluded that Heselton moved from Yankton to Parker in 1879 to open a saloon and bottling works company.
Askjem explained that when searching for bottles he uses old maps of a community and looks for the old saloon properties. Once located, he maps out where the old pits would be and upon receiving permission from the land owner, starts digging.
Last week Wednesday, Askjem started to dig in his first pit just off Main Street in Parker and found about 30 bottles ranging in date from 1880-1920. His second dig, at another pit nearby, brought in about 130 bottles and his third dig procured him dozens of smaller bottles thought to be elixir bottles.
“It’s the thrill that keeps me going,” he said.
When not on the hunt, Askjem keeps busy writing. He has written two books about bottles, Nebraska Soda Bottles, 1865-1930 and the History on ND Bottling Operations.

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