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Where’s all the beach glass gone?

The latest from Alcona County, “First of the 83,” is the return of beachcombing season.

Spring is the best time for that absorbing pursuit. Lake Huron has had another winter to dredge up objects of interest and deposit them on the beach.

A fresh supply of fossils — in particular, sought-after Petoskey Stones — and gnarled lengths of driftwood, especially former root systems, attract the attention of beachcombers.

But there is hardly any more “beach glass.”

Shards of glass tumbled by wave action and pummeled with the abrasive effects of sand lose their sharp edges and take on a dusky patina.

It is usually called “sea glass.” That term suits, since the Great Lakes are inland seas, like the Black and Caspian. But, in Harrisville, we always called it “weathered glass.” It may have been our own coinage; no one else seems to call it that.

I’ve been beachcombing since the 1960s, learning the art of scouring the shoreline from my mom, a dedicated practitioner. Over several decades and thousands of barefoot miles patrolling the surf line, we accumulated many gallons of “weathered glass.”

Where did the glass come from in the first place? Many sources.

Most of the pieces we found were of relatively recent vintage, originating as the cheap, disposable bottles that replaced heavy-duty, refillable “deposit bottles.” Lots of white glass (formerly clear), green (Sprite and 7-Up), and brown (beer, natch), with some cobalt-blue Pepto Bismol mixed in.

Less abundant were bits of those thick bottles worth a 1950s nickel, which was no mean sum back then. The easiest to ID were stylish Coca-Cola bottles, with their familiar script, curves, grooves, and greenish cast.

The most beautiful pieces, rarely large, derived from “Depression Ware,” which dated to the 1930s. The exquisite colors — pale green, yellow, rose — stood out from the pebbly background. Also called Depression Glass, it looks high-dollar, with intricate patterns, but several Ohio Valley factories produced it so inexpensively and sturdily that it was usually given away through grocery store promotions or packed into boxed products like detergent, which kept it intact in transit.

An aside: my dirt-poor Grand Rapids grandparents assembled a set of Depression Ware that was the pride of their humble domicile. My mother inherited it, treasured it, and augmented it with astonishing dedication over many years of haunting flea markets and garage sales. I’ve continued that tradition. While Mom’s chip-free, museum-quality collection is in safe storage, my rough-and-ready assemblage is in daily service.

And then there’s Really Old Glass. In the 1800s, the ingredients of glass fabrication included some iron. That’s why metal detectors can find antique bottles. The ferrous content manages to rust inside its vitreous context, leaving little brown flecks embedded there.

Really Old Glass has always been scarce, but, oddly, if one finds a decent bit of beach glass these days, it is likely to be Really Old, probably because it’s so heavy.

Just last summer, a chunk of bottle bottom fetched up that my sharp-eyed spouse detected, with “ALPENA” clearly visible, along with other markings. Googling showed that it came from a brewery, one of several that were active in the decade after the incorporation of Alpena as a city in 1871!

We can thank — or blame — the Michigan Bottle Bill for the disappearance of beach glass. That simple bit of legislation, valuing every beverage container at a dime, cleaned the formerly filthy face of the state. After its passage, civic groups turned up to pick up Michigan’s litter. As a Boy Scout, I did my part.

Thereafter, the incentive to stoop to pick up a can or bottle for ten cents has kept us as clear of such debris as any other state in the union. As a U.S. Forest Service worker, I added to my income cleaning up after campers, who littered sites with returnable containers, which translated to six-packs of Stroh’s beer and packs of Swisher Sweets cigarillos for me and my coworkers in Jimmy Carter’s Young Adult Conservation Corps and Youth Conservation Corps.

Ronald Reagan killed the YACC and the YCC. We could use them again. The forest is in shambles, the trails overgrown, the aspen openings clotted with fresh growth. But I digress.

Dedicated beachcombers claim the very few colorful remnants of beach glass that Lake Huron tosses onto its ever-changing strand.

With apologies to Pete Seeger, I will sum up the situation in verse:

“Where has all the beach glass gone,

since the 70s?

Where has all the beach glass gone,

inna half-century?

Where has all the beach glass gone?

Beachcombers picked up every one.

Now it is really rare,

like it was never there.”

Vintage beach glass makes lovely jewelry. Check out the earrings and pendants that I fashion from our collection, at Roorda-Doyle.com.

Eric Paul Roorda is a professor, historian, lecturer, author, and illustrator. He has called Alcona County home for 50 years.

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