With the care of someone handling fragile family heirlooms, Jeff LaLande gently began taking the carefully wrapped items out of the suitcase.

With the care of someone handling fragile family heirlooms, Jeff LaLande gently began taking the carefully wrapped items out of the suitcase.

He unfolded one white cloth to reveal a rusty beer can. Another yielded a squashed tobacco tin. Still another contained a rusted a half-gallon Log Cabin syrup can which had the back side snipped off so it could be used as a lantern. An old peach can emerged from one wrapped bundle.

Next came a Union Leader Plug Tobacco can in the shape of a lunch box, complete with a handle and a snap-open lid.

"You could use it as a lunch box to take to the mine or the mill," LaLande said, noting it also served as free advertising. "Each one tells a story of our history."

A patent date on a Prince Albert tobacco can is July 30, 1907. "Does not bite the tongue," it promises.

The suitcase full of old cans and bottles is one of four suitcases that Ashland resident LaLande, 61, retired archaeologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, was bequeathed earlier this year from Jim Rock, 67, of Yreka, a retired archaeologist with the Klamath National Forest.

Like Rock before him, LaLande, who continues to work as a consulting archaeologist, will use the artifacts to teach others who are not trained archaeologists how to identify historic sites through old cans.

Rock is considered a leading expert on old cans in the West, LaLande said.

"He was a pioneer in researching and developing the basic chronology in the manufacture and history of tin cans," he said. "There had been other people doing it, but he put it together in a summary fashion. He has trained literally hundreds of Forest Service and other agency people to be able to recognize about how old any particular can is."

Rock has collected more than 1,000 examples, all carefully wrapped and protected in cases.

"It is a collection of the norm," Rock explained in a telephone interview. "These are bottles and cans you would normally find in historic sites. I've been very careful to keep it that way.

"In general terms, they teach us how old they are, what people were able to afford, who was eating what," he added. "For instance, with hot sauces, you often find it used by people out on the range. When the meat got old, it would help cover the decaying."

Rock, who is overcoming an illness, said he wanted his longtime professional peer LaLande to take over the collection so the story of the cans could continue to be told.

"I've been doing it for at least 20 years — the suitcases were getting heavier," Rock said. "Jeff knows the stuff. He will continue on with it."

Both LaLande and Rock hope that Southern Oregon University's archaeology laboratory will house the collection in the future. LaLande has been discussing that eventuality with SOU anthropology professor Mark Tveskov.

"That way it would be available to the students there for comparative purposes," LaLande said, although noting it would remain available to him to take to training sessions at a moment's notice.

Anyone taking Tin Can History 101 will quickly learn the difference between condensed milk first given to soldiers during the Civil War and evaporated milk which came out in the mid-1880s. The former was thick while the latter was not.

"Probably the most ubiquitous can in the West is the evaporated milk can," LaLande observed. "With it, they made everything from flapjacks to mashed potatoes. They no longer had to have a dairy cow to have fresh milk. It was a very big deal."

Another can is easily dated by its contents. The Aqua U.S.A. can offers "Pure Drinking Water" for fallout shelters during the Cold War.

"It may seem absurd to a lot of people but even the cans of the last couple of decades which have changed so much will be an interesting part of the story," LaLande said. "However, on the other side, we are, shall we say, confounding the cultural record through recycling."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.