· Bottle Collector: Mike McJunkin
It was a joke. After seeing a lot of fascinating bottles in Mike McJunkin’s extensive collection, I asked him, “Do you have earthquake insurance?”
“No,” was his one-word reply.
When he hesitated a moment, I hoped I hadn’t created an unpleasant image for him of shards of glass on the floor. But a few seconds later he offered, “I had a good friend whose wife had been cleaning windows in the home one day when she accidentally knocked over and broke a bottle of his worth $2,000.”
It was obviously a serious, devastating event. But my inappropriate, odd sense-of-humor wouldn’t quit. “Did he get a divorce?” I asked.
“No, years later, but not over that,” replied Mike.
Mike McJunkin is a swell guy who enjoys collecting stuff, special stuff. It’s been in his blood since he was a kid, acquiring pocket knives and coins.
As an adult, he’s collected high wheel bicycles, bicycle license plates, motorcycles, postcards, and books. Recently, he bought a couple hundred bottle caps because the price was right. This led him to purchase a bottle because of his interest in the bottle cap.
There’s a difference between having the bottle caps and collecting them. Currently it’s like an audition. Mike has them but he’s still undecided if he’ll collect them. They haven’t fully piqued his interest yet.
I understand. There needs to be a connection before I commit. So many things to collect, so little time.
McJunkin showed me some embossed bottles advertising “T. J. Bixler’s Famous Carbonated Soda, Hutchinson, Kansas.”
The bottle had a local history which is important to both of us. In this case, when McJunkin was in Junior high school, he lived across the street from T. J. Bixler!
Mike explained that the Bixler family used to have a grocery store on South Main Street prior to owning the bottling business. I checked later, at one time there were two Bixler grocery stores: 400 N. Main and 1009 S. Main.
McJunkin recalled that he acquired his first group of antique bottles—they were from the late 1800’s—from Steve Miller in a trade when the later wanted a Schwein Bicycle Company painting that Mike had taken to Tumbleweed Antiques, co-owned by Miller and Jack Mullen.
Turns out Jack Mullen and Jim Hovious were two people who became mentors to Mike in his quest to learn more about bottle collecting. Hovious was “an inspiration” who did a lot of research and shared it.
While interviewing McJunkin, he stood up and retrieved a notebook for me to examine. He opened it to a page showing two men next to a biplane and identified them as Thurman (T.J.) Bixler (1888-1970) and his brother, John Bixler (1885-1967). McJunkin explained that the Bixler brothers had taken flying lessons and participated in flying exhibitions. (John studied with the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio, and earned an International pilot’s license!)
A moment later I saw another photo, this one a crashed plane at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in 1913. John had been the pilot. He survived and worked on repairing it all night in order to have it up and flying the next day.
McJunkin continued a tale about Thurman Bixler and his wife, Orleana Rabner (married April 3, 1907). They ran concessions at the State Fairgrounds. Thurman would “go up into the grandstands to sell his pop and beer.” There were times he’d return to the stand for refills and say to his wife: “Put more salt on the popcorn Mom; they’re not drinking enough.”
As I attempted to take photos of the Bixler bottles, the clear glass lettering was difficult to read. Mike handed me some beautiful, colorful labels that advertised T. J. Bixler’s famous Old Time Root Beer, Cherry and Cola, and Ginger Ale. They looked so new I thought they had just been printed, but they were original.
I reexamined one Bixler bottle and read these embossed words: “This bottle must not be sold.” That’s when McJunkin explained that due to the cost of bottle manufacturing, the companies reused the glass bottles. His comment reminded me of my childhood when I received two cents per returned bottle.
McJunkin showed me his oldest bottle. It was from the late 1700s and had no advertising on it. We examined its base and observed a circular mark on the bottom. Called a pontil mark, it indicated the bottle was made of free-blown glass.
Back then, a bottle’s contents might include anything, including molasses, medicinal spirits, or alcohol, but when the item ran low it was time to get to a store to have it refilled. Having your own container saved you money.
When I asked McJunkin if he had a favorite bottle, he looked like a man being forced to choose his favorite child. But he explained that on this particular day it was the “Lady Leg” bottles, so named because they resemble the calf of a woman’s long leg. Their design was popular in the 1870s to 1890s.
I also learned that antique bitters bottles held, you guessed it, bitters. But what are bitters? One article said that bitters amounted to herbs being added to alcohol. This allowed people to try and create the impression that they were only drinking the alcohol content for medicinal reasons. Often, in reality, the purpose was to skirt the laws, especially during the temperance movement in the US. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 effectively ended the business of products that were alcohol (or opiate) based.
Antique bitters bottles are those bottles that are embossed with the word “bitters” or the bottle has a label with the word bitters. Bottles come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. In the US the bitters trade was active from 1860 to 1906.
McJunkin showed me a valuable bitters bottle, a deep olive green, with a neck in the Lady Leg style and with the body eight-sided. Its height was 12” with a pontil scarred base, and “applied double collar mouth.” Holding the bottle, I read the embossed words: “BRYANT’S STOMACH BITTERS.”
The bottle had been recovered from a sunken ship, the Sea Lark, off the coast of Brazil. When I checked online, I was able to see a photograph of the divers discovering a case of the bottles on an unknown date. Unfortunately, most of the eighteen bottles they located were damaged. But the one McJunkin eventually purchased at auction was in fine shape.
McJunkin got my collector’s blood heated up. He had exposed me to so much information that I wanted to learn more, especially about local history. I wasn’t ready to start collecting bottles but I felt the Bixler brothers needed more research.
When I returned home I found a postcard image in my email sent by a friend. It was an exaggeration postcard copyrighted 1909 by Hutchinson, Kansas, photographer M. W. Bailey.
On the reverse side of the photo postcard, below a 1913 Hutchinson postmark, was a note signed by Helen Bixler, a sister to Thurman and John!
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
If you’re interested in learning about collecting antique bottle, McJunkin recommends A Collector’s Guide to Kansas Bottles, 1854-1925 (1974), by Johnnie Fletcher.
The Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, is an excellent organization that can be found online at https://fohbc.org/.
Mike McJunkin is a long-time member of the Kansas Territory Bottle and Postcard Club that meets monthly in Hutchinson. They are seeking new members. The club sponsors an annual free show at the Kansas State Fairgrounds each April during the first or second weekend. Call Mike at 620-728-8394 if you’re interested in visiting a club meeting or attending the show.
The postcard of T. J. Bixler, aviator and bottler, is reproduced from The Fair City: Postcard Views, Hutchinson, Kansas, Volume I (1982) by Pat Mitchell.
Jim Potter says
Lynn Ledeboer says
Nice! Love the bottles and the Bixler story is always so interesting. Mike McJunkin introduced me to glass target balls when we exhibited them in our Crazy Collection exhibit at the museum. Those are truly fascinating collectors’ items as well.
Jim Potter says
Thanks, Lynn! In one Hutchinson News article it was mentioned that John Bixler and brother Gould Bixler (not T.J.) were co-owners of the bi-plane the reporter was describing.
Too bad that in those days the women were nearly invisible to today’s researchers. The women didn’t even get their first names in a directory. As you know, when married the best they could expect was “Mrs so and so.” I wonder what that did to a women’s self-worth and identity? I know, “them were the times.”
I had a friend Barry in Denver who collected bottles. Where did he get great collections? Digging out abandoned homes outhouses. Turns out the composted potty was a great storage medium for all the old bottles people chucked down the hole. Preserved. Ha. Rock
Jim Potter says
Rock, Thanks for the comment. I asked Mike if he had found bottles at the site of old outhouses. He said he hadn’t found any good ones. Mike said he had a friend who would find great bottles near forts–and do it legally on private property.
I figured that when people went to the outhouse, sometimes it was just a place to privately have a drink or snort of whiskey. When the bottle was empty where else would you drop it but down the hole?
Jim Potter says
This was an especially charming essay. Thanks, Mary Anna
This is a colorful story about history and charming personalities who catch our attention.
Jim Potter says
Anna Bertholf says
Loved your blog referencing exaggerated postcards. Just this past week, we came across many postcards from the 40’s and 50’s while going through boxes of family photos. Some were quite bawdy for their day.
Today’s posting is so interesting and fires up one’s imagination, speculating on who used the bottles and what they may have contained. Relics, such as bottles, are amazing. One wonders about its journey to Mr. MCJunkin.
Thank you for both articles. I really appreciated learning about objects that are usually considered ephemeral items.
Jim Potter says
Anna, thanks for commenting. Recently, as you know, I’ve been promoting using postcard images as writing prompts. Since you write poetry, have you considered using the family postcards as prompts or a resource for your creative energy? Jim
H.B. Berlow says
It is collections like this (and postcards as you know) that allow us to relive pieces of history that are not taught in schools. The real stuff, everyday living that perhaps only a set designer for a period movie could appreciate.
I, for one, am glad you’re spreading this story. I would hope younger folks would embrace their personal family histories. I think they would have a greater sense of who they are.
Jim Potter says
H.B., Exactly! Rather than a dry history book, kids could study and report on their collections as part of a history unit. Maybe it’s already being done. I know for years students have been encouraged to interview older folks. But think of it, history, geography, finances, fads, art, etc.
Hal Ottaway says
Great fun reading and thinking about old bottles, postcards, and aeroplanes, and
how neat to know there are folks around who save and research these materials. Thanks for sharing all of this…Jim Potter and Mike McJunkin.
Jim Potter says
Hal, thanks! Because of you so much history has been saved. Thanks for all your teaching and helpfulness. Jim