· 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.