Bottle bonanza: 3-D look at Auburn history gets rare public showing

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Old photos may tell a two-dimensional tale but the bottles in Max Bell’s collection provide a 3-D view of the Auburn area’s commercial past. For 40 years, starting in his early 20s, Bell has been digging up, researching and patiently buying bottles dating deep into Auburn’s history. Now he’s sharing some of the finest examples of bottles that bring to life in glass form not only past bottlers of adult beverages but the dairies and drugstores that once helped slake whatever thirst Auburnites were mustering. Bell will be displaying dozens of his prized Auburn bottles at Saturday’s Best of the West 49er Historical Bottle Show in Auburn. “It’s stuff people in Auburn have never seen or will see,” said Steve Abbott, organizer of the 33rd annual 49er show. Names like Aeolia Heights olive oil kingpin F. Birdsall, Downtown Auburn bottling king A.W. Kennison, 19th century apothecary shop druggists S.M Stevens and his son F.S. Stevens, hoteliers the Walsh brothers, and bygone dairies like Crockett’s and Lone Star get their historical due. And so do some of the more arcane names in the collection. Most people haven’t seen bottles for olive oil from the Keystone Ranch on Bald Hill Road, Bell said. Many fine examples of the better known Birdsall olive brand from Auburn are represented in the collection he’s showing but the Keystone Ranch glass is a rarity few know about and even fewer possess. It bottled olive oil from 1895 to 1905. Then there’s the mysterious “J&R Auburn” half-pint bottle. “We have nothing on the history,” Bell said. “It’s a soda bottle but we don’t know how it got that name. It’s a mystery bottle.” Bell said he could only speculate about a possible early and very brief partnership between early Auburn bottlers who have the same initials but there is no record of that initialed partnership ever being consummated. That leaves Bell only guessing and hoping that perhaps someone will turn up at Saturday’s show with a snippet of local history that could replace conjecture with fact. Bell, with the help of histories he has assembled on poster board, will walk visitors through some of the commercial past in Auburn his bottles help illuminate, including threads that take the community’s drugstore timeline into the 1800s. It’s clear as he shows off the Gold Rush-to-mid-20th-century artifacts he displays in his efficiently organized Auburn home that Bell has found a lifelong passion. He can recall as a 21-year-old 40 years ago finding an arrowhead in the shallow water of a lake as the start of that search. Shannon Bell said that her husband’s love for bottles and other antiques really took off when he moved to Auburn in 1973. “He got into bottle digging and in recent years has switched over from digging to metal detecting,” Shannon Bell said. “He definitely has a passion, especially for the Gold Rush era. He moved here and got hooked.” Bell said she particularly likes the advertising posters and calendars Max – a Pacific Gas & Electric line crew foreman – had found over the years. Many have been framed and some will be on display Saturday. “They’re all over the walls and have been beautifully framed by Art Accents,” Shannon Bell said. “It makes my decorating easy and unique.” -------------------------------------------- 49er Historical Bottle Association Bottle and Antique Show Where: Auburn Gold Country Fairgrounds When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday Admission: Free --------------------------------------------- Fast facts: Bottle collecting’s Holy Grail - A summer 2009 auction in Sacramento showed just how valuable an amber California Clubhouse Whiskey bottle from the early 1870s can be - Described by an American Bottle Auctions spokesman as the Holy Grail of whiskey bottle collectors, the embossed California Clubhouse bottle sold for $30,240 at auction - One of only nine known examples, it contains a fancy monogram but no whiskey - Bottles made between 1850 and 1900 are the most prized by collectors because superior embossing techniques were used Source: Antique Trader