RWC Locals: An Interview with John Shroyer
John Shroyer is a local historian, bottle digger, antique collector, and maybe just one of the friendliest guys you’ll ever meet. He is also a real estate agent and has been a resident of Redwood City for almost 30 years. Over the time we have known him, he is rarely out of his uniform of jeans, a plaid shirt, and hiking boots. His personality is just as approachable, whether he is sharing stories of his bottle digging adventures, his knowledge of local history, or real estate. We recently spent an evening with John, and his dog Buck, at The Bottle Room, which houses his collection of antique bottles, local artifacts, and relics from the California Gold Rush. We chatted about everything from digging bottles in San Francisco in the 1970s to how Redwood City has changed over the years.
Would it be safe to say that you’re a local history buff? What do you find most fascinating about the history of this area?
Yeah, I think it would be safe to say that! There’s so much history here and people forget about that. First of all, California wasn’t even a state until 1850, which wasn’t that long ago. Before that was just the Spaniards and the Californios at their ranchos. And before that it was the Padres at all the missions. And Before that was just the Indians here, and a few trappers coming by here and there.
I always found the history of this place interesting and it’s such an incredible place to live. I mean how lucky were those early natives that lived here on the Peninsula? The weather was incredible, they had plenty of food in the Bay, the ocean was right there. They really had an idyllic life, kind of like we do, just in a different time. I mean we do too! We’re not worried about snow and sleet and all that. I mean, it’s pretty amazing.
So I find it interesting to think about what this area was like prior to us being here, and how many changes it’s gone through over the years. When I started digging for bottles, it really continued my interest in history because I started finding things from the past, and it was neat to hold on to them, and imagine and think about who used them and why.
How did you get into bottle digging? Where did you find your first bottle?
So I started out at a really young age liking history and kept pursuing it. I found an arrowhead when I was a kid and I wanted to know more about that, so I read up on it. I learned about the Ohlone Indians here on the Peninsula. And then I found an old bottle when I was twelve, before 280 was built, when I was hiking to the Pulgas Water Temple from my parent’s house in Belmont. I found an old dump site with a Model T4 sitting off the road. There were cans and bottles and garbage all over. Well, it turns out it was a dump for an old homestead that use to sit back in the valley there.
Before they put the lakes in at Crystal Springs, that was all private land. There was a town up there with farms and ranches all along where Crystal Springs is now. If you’re heading out Half Moon Bay on 92 and look down, there’s a little boat house still there. A stagecoach used to come up from San Mateo, stop at Crystal Spring and then go down the hill to Half Moon Bay.
I started bringing bottles in for Show & Tell at Ralston. Oh man, I used to love Show & Tell. The teacher’s husband was a bottle collector and said, “My husband would love these!” And he wanted me to take him to the site so he could go bottle digging up there. So I did!
Do you have any other memorable stories from digging bottles?
I have many that have great memories. That’s one of the great things about digging for bottles, as opposed to buying them. I did buy and trade for some of them, because they were in my wheelhouse. I know who dug them and where they dug them up. But they don’t have the same meaning as the ones where you actually have the experience of finding it and pulling it out of the mud. I’ve dug so many bottles over the years, that there are some common things you dig, where you’ve found hundreds of them, but when you find something you don’t have, it’s always really cool.
The first bottle I found in San Francisco was in 1970 underneath the TransAmerica building in San Francisco before they built it. I didn’t drive or anything so my dad would take me up to the city on the weekends. He parked the Volkswagon in this little alleyway while I climbed under the fence. I pulled a couple bottles out of the dirt and handed them to him and he put them in car. Then he climbed under the fence and was there for five minutes before a guard came and kicked us out.
Then we heard they were finding bottles in downtown San Francisco when they were putting BART in on Market Street. When they dug that trench they went through old landfill, which used to be the Bay. They found ships and all kinds of wild things. We went up there and saw collectors down in the hole digging for bottles. My dad wasn’t going to climb over the fence again though. So we found out where they were dumping the dirt. They would put it on the truck and haul it out to Oyster Point and my dad and I would go through the piles of dirt out there and find incredible things. So those are especially memorable because I found them with my dad.
All through the 1970s, I had opportunities to dig at different sites: the Embarcadero, 2, 3, and 4 buildings (they call them the Levi Strauss Buildings), the Federal Reserve Bank Building, and quite a few others. They would dig for the foundations and I would find these bottles. I even dug on a ship called the Niantic in 1978. We found champagne bottles and pottery bottles all in the hull of the ship. It was a whaling ship that came in California in 1849 and they pulled it up on shore and made a hotel out of it. They called it the Niantic Hotel. First it was a store ship, and then a hotel, and then it burned down in 1851.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your collections?
Everything I collect is either from the Gold Rush, or western glass from San Francisco and the Northern California area. Bottle collecting started to be a hobby in the 1950s, and then pretty big in the early 60s, but it really grew in the late 60s, when I was just getting interested. My dad would take me to dig for bottles and then the minute I turned 16, I got my license and would be in the city until 2:00 in the morning. I would have the best time! I also started collecting padlocks, belt buckles, coffee cans, antique furniture, among other things.
In the 1970s, where the Moscone Center is now, they tore down rows and rows of Victorian homes. No one had lived in them since the early 1900s. I would go down to the basements and find things like coffee cans and I would salvage furniture and antiques from around the house. I was kind of a scavenger in my teens. It was so fun though!
There was also a brick hotel right across the street from the Moscone Center on 4th street. It was scheduled to be wrecked in like a week. It was eight stories and the front doors were chain linked shut. So I went up with my friend, Duke, and we cut the padlock off, and put our own padlock on there so we could come and go as we pleased. We went through every floor. The windows were all broken out and there were pigeons flying around. It was totally dilapidated and every floor was full of antiques. We made eight trips in one night, loading up his van, taking it to his house in Millbrae, and going back and forth. We did that for two weeks. We found so much great stuff. It was spookier than hell in there, but we got some good stuff.
So you grew up on the mid-peninsula. What was Redwood City like when you were growing up?
I remember that Redwood City was not a destination. I grew up in Belmont and I really only came to Redwood City as a kid to go to the Fox Theater. Well, I take that back. There was JC Penny’s and Levee Brothers, which was a department store that was around for a long time. I have an old jug from Levee Brothers. They owned general stores in San Mateo, Pescadero, Half Moon Bay, and Redwood City. So they were around for like 100 years. I digress, sorry. There wasn’t really anything else here back then.
So you would come to Redwood City to go to the movies or to buy underwear. Now, you can’t get underwear, but you can get anything else you want! Wait! I take that back you can get underwear at Redwood Trading Post, my favorite store. That was the other reason I would come down to Redwood City. In high school I started buying all of my hiking and camping stuff from them, and I still shop there. I buy all my real estate clothes from them now!
How long have you lived in Redwood City and what made you want to live here?
Actually, I never really thought I would live in Redwood City. Growing up, like I said, Redwood City wasn’t really a destination. I didn’t know it very well, and I didn’t really come down here. I started real estate in 1977 and was really focused on Belmont and San Carlos, and not so much in Redwood City. So I saw our house on a Tuesday broker tour and brought Jane to see it. She was super pregnant at the time with Alex, who is almost 28 now. I thought we just had to have this house and we bought it. I remember early on when we moved here, I was shy about telling people where we lived. I would say, “We live in Redwoo [indistinct mumbling].” It’s funny, Redwood City has changed so much since then.
Now it is a destination. There is live music and good restaurants. They tried to give Redwood City a facelift in the mid-70s, but it didn’t really do anything. When they built the new theater downtown, that really changed everything. I remember a neighbor complaining about there not being any parking back then. People don’t like change, even if it’s for the good. Yeah, there is a lot of building going on, but I think it’s great. Plus, it gives me more opportunities for bottle digging!
Where are some of your favorite places to hang out around Redwood City?
My kids introduced me to Gourmet Haus Staudt, or the Biergarten. I love going there and sitting outside, and my kids love it too. So that’s what we do. We also like City Pub, Quinto Sol, Vino Santo, and Broadway Masala. And it’s great because where we live we can walk home in 20 minutes.
We go to Martin’s West once in awhile. In my early 20s Main Street was like Skid Row. Now there are Teslas going up and down that street. Back then, there were like five different antique stores along there and I would go look for stuff. Now all those antique stores are gone and all the good restaurants are there.