Collection Obsessions

Utahns who have found treasure

Valuable whiskey bottles, rare marbles and coins are just a few of the finds by Gordy Johnston


 They dig and they sweep while on there knees, what are they looking for beneath the breeze?


Everyone has heard a bonanza story. The stories begin, “They say,” and continue spinning a tale of pirate treasure stashed in a coastal cave, or of the cache from a stagecoach robbery hidden in hills, or lost gold that’s, well, lost. Stories of epic treasures circulate in Utah’s history, but until those fantastic legends are realized, the tales remain relegated to folklore. Still, there is treasure to find in Utah.
“Sometimes the treasure is in being with a person and finding something, and then you no longer have that person to be with,” the Johnstons agree.

Gordy and Barbara Johnston have created a lifetime of meaningful memories through treasure hunting in the West. Their Salt Lake home looks like a Utah pioneer museum with floor-to-ceiling displays of tastefully showcased antique collections, which include crockery, marbles, dolls, bottles, and glass lamps.
“What you see,” Gordy imparts, “is a cross section of things we enjoy because of family. These things aren’t just things. They’re our life.”

Gordy Johnston

Barb’s Paragonah, Utah relative sparked Gordys interest in early-American relics by giving him a pioneer oil lamp. That interest, he laughingly says, developed into “a sickness.” He and his brother-in-law began metal detecting locally, anywhere and everywhere. Detecting morphed into digging and the men kept an eye out for active construction projects that might yield treasure. One of their typical finds was old bottles. When they took their stash to a swap meet and realized the artifacts’ value, they hunted even harder. Through research, Gordy educated himself on rare finds, including handblown whiskey and drugstore bottles.

So many place’s to hunt for treasure, where to start?

“We’d dig every chance we could get; at the fairgrounds, out here in Morton Meadow, out behind the stockyards. We dug in Park City a lot,” he says. “Before that big wooden Silver King Mine elevator burned, we’d go up there.” At that site, Gordy’s friend found a bar of silver and a jar of Indian head pennies.
A book about western ghost towns changed the couple’s focus, and Gordy and Barb started planning family road trips with their children and friends, adventures charged with the thrill of treasure hunting.
“We must have worn out five trucks in all the years we dug,” Gordy recalls. When the group reached their destination, they would fan out across the area, each hunter outfitted with a homemade, T-shaped metal probe, testing the feel of the dirt. “When someone hit on something they’d yell, ‘Show!’ and then everyone else came over to help dig.” At the end of the day they would flip a coin for first pick of the day’s booty. Every summer’s end the friends would sell their loot at the bottle show in Vegas. The Johnstons made enough money to pay for their trip, or maybe buy an antique to augment their growing collections.
Though the things that fill their home have impressive monetary value, the meaning that emerged for the Johnstons in treasure hunting resonates with the expression, “Life is not about the destination, but about the journey.”
“The hours, the time,” Gordy emphasizes. “The love we had for each other. The fun was incomprehensible. You couldn’t put a price on that.” §

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