Construction crews cut right through the heart of Sacramento when they built the sunken “boat section” of Interstate 5, digging up old glass bottles and discarding them like junk.
Mike McKillop often heard that moment in history recounted by his grandparents, Ed and Marilyn Lehr, a moment when the old adage about one man’s junk being another’s treasure seemed especially fitting.
“Back then, no one knew anything about bottle collecting, so the construction contractors would let people pick up the bottles off the ground,” McKillop said, retelling the tale as though he’d been there. “People were filling buckets and gunny sacks and the back of trucks full of bottles.”
Today, collectors pay anywhere from a few dollars to $250,000 for antique bottles. They bid in online auctions or travel thousands of miles to shop at special events like the collectors’ show that McKillop is organizing for Friday and Saturday at the Placer County fairgrounds in Roseville.
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McKillop, 43, said his grandparents collected bottles long before such markets existed and then paved the way for today’s trading as founding members of the American Bottle Collectors Club, now known as the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors. The I-5 treasure trove was a critical catalyst for bottle collecting, McKillop said, so coming to the Sacramento-area show is like a pilgrimage for many U.S. collectors.
“We have individuals who are part of the hall of fame of collectors who chased the history down of companies that were embossed on the bottles, where they were made, what glass factory made them, what time period they were made, the whole nine yards,” McKillop said. “They gave us this great index of history to identify the age of bottles and where they came from.”
Roughly 150 vendors will be selling items at the 37th Annual Best of the West Historic Bottle & Antique Show. The event, which benefits the 49ers Historical Bottle Association, costs $10 on Friday but is free on Dec. 6. Usually, say veteran attendees, experienced collectors pay the $10 admission to get early access to the collectibles, and the general public comes on the free day.
“Antique bottles are considered antiques if they weren’t made by an automatic bottling machine, which started in about 1920,” said Jeff Wichmann, founder and owner of Sacramento’s American Bottle Auctions. “Most people are looking for bottles made before 1900. So, really, the golden era for antique bottles is 1860-1885, only about 25 years. They were still very crude, but they were starting to include embossing on the bottles that had eagles or elaborate trademarks, especially some of the Western whiskey fifths.”
These handmade artifacts amazingly survived intact despite the Wild West’s rough-and-tumble conditions, the elements and excavations by backhoes and other techniques.
The Lehr and McKillop families are not only collectors, but they also are diggers. Very often, McKillop said, three generations would head out to ghost towns and search for artifacts.
“You get the bug when you pull a bottle out of the ground,” McKillop said. “You never know what you’re going to find. That’s what is so exciting.”
Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.