Sunday, August 1, 2021

Message In a Bottle

bottles on shelves

When I was a boy growing up in our house on 1 Stevenson Lane, my mom had an antique bottle collection that she kept on a shelf.  One of those bottles had a rustically intricate attached metal stopper. The engraved circular glass on the front read “ISAAC MERKEL & SON, BOSS LAGER, SARANAC LAKE.” That bottle always held a special fascination for me. I still have it.

It all began innocently enough, quite by accident really, about three summers ago as I quietly rowed my Zen boat canoe from South Creek into camp. As I crossed some shallows near the shore of an island as I entered the lake, something glistened blue, reflecting morning sunlight from the lake’s bottom.

It reminded me of a story my Saranac Lake High School best friend once told me, about swinging off a rope swing hanging from a tree on an island on that lake. He told me that when he dove down after hitting the water, he discovered a trove of old bottles, all shaped like torpedoes.  So, I knew, in that moment, just what that blue glisten was. I knew it was a bottle. I knew I had to have it.

I slid my canoe ashore and slid into the water. I dove down. Sure enough, it was a beautiful blue glass bottle, with a conjoined “AB” engraved on the bottom. I later did online research and learned it was an early Anheuser Busch beer bottle, circa 1900.

bottlesAfter off loading in camp, I returned to that island, dove down and found more, ballast bottles, antique whiskey and wine & soda bottles. I found old green glass coke bottles with raised glass labels, on the bottom was etched in the glass “Tupper Lake”. I found ornate brown glass “Orange Crush” bottles with still intact painted labels.  Painted on the back of those bottles was “Frenette Bros. Tupper Lake, N.Y.” A family name anyone who grew up in that area well knows.  I had even worked with a Frenette during my time on a DEC trail crew.

I did more online “Wikipedia research”. I discovered something else. Apparently, for a time, “Frenette Bros” had been bottling their own coca Cola without a license, until Coca Cola Inc. put a stop to it. Vintage Adirondack “Outlaw Coke” bottles! I mapped all the old great camps, studied lake maps and currents. I dove down, scouring the lake bottom.  “Outlaw Coca Cola.”  I just had to find more.

I succeeded in finding more green glass Frenette Coke and brown glass Frenette Crush. My nephew Forrest and his friends even dug up a few more in an old dump they discovered behind camp. More research revealed that some, the 6 ½ oz. green glass Coke variety, were quite rare. I donated one to the Tupper Lake Museum one summer, along with a brown glass Frenette Crush.

But alas, despite my best efforts, I could not find that “holy grail” Saranac Lake bottle label. I knew it existed, because I had my mom’s sitting at home on a shelf.

Then one day, diving the lake with my brother Ray, he came up with one, it was broken, but it clearly had etched in the glass label “Saranac Lake.” So, despite its incomplete state, he took it home and put it on his fireplace mantle as a display.

hennessey bottle

Finally, one day it happened, again by accident. It was summer chilly and breezy on the lake. It was too cold to dive, so I was patrolling the shoreline on the upper end of the lake in my Zen boat canoe. I glanced down at one point and could see, buried in the sand, what appeared to be the neck of a bottle. I got my net and pulled it up. Sure enough, there it was! Etched into the glass in a circle on the front it read “W.M. Hennessey, Saranac Lake” An intact bottle. I had finally found one.  Despite my best efforts over the course of three summers, diving every nook cranny and island off the shores of that lake, I never found another one like it.

I grew a bit frustrated and tired, diving that lake bottom was exhausting. I was running out of answers. I discussed it with my brother. We considered diving the lower lake, especially around Bluff Island, but the water is far deeper there, and the boat traffic level much higher. So, we didn’t.

Then I went home and did more online “Historic Saranac Lake” Wiki research. I discovered that from the late 1800’s through the early 1920’ there were actually TWO bottling plants in Saranac Lake!  “Adirondack Bottling Works” and “Collins Bros. Bottling”. The former looked to have commenced operations before the latter by about 20 years. Name like “Merkel”, “Starks”, “Curran”, and of course, “Collins”. I could not locate “W.M. Hennessey” initially. Then one day, thanks again to Historic SL Wiki, I finally found him.

It turns out Hennessey was a Saranac Lake hotel proprietor. He owned the Central House Hotel from approximately the late 1800’s, until the 1920’s, when it burned to the ground.  It also turns out that Ol’ Hennessey was something of an Adirondack Outlaw himself.   Again, per Historic Saranac Lake Wiki- in an excerpt from an article in the Malone Palladium dated April 2, 1903:

 “William Hennessey, proprietor of the Central House at Saranac Lake, was indicted for illegally giving away liquor on Sunday.  He pleaded not guilty and furnished bail to the amount of $1,000.”

I wondered if illegal liquor had once been the contents of my bottle.

More importantly, from that research I realized, the answer to my quest had been there for me all along. There in the river, behind the house I grew up in.

Long story short, my “Saranac Lake” bottle collection soon grew exponentially, quickly numbering over one hundred. I now likely own the single largest privately held collection of these bottles in the world. At least I haven’t run into anyone yet who disputes me.

Along the way, I have found 2 more Hennesseys, countless Merkel, Curran, Starks and Collins Bros. bottles, including numerous variations in style, size and color. Of the Collins bottles alone, I now have found nine distinct variations.

bulls bottle

But the holiest of holy grail Saranac Lake bottles I have found, is a label of which I to date have only found one. No one anywhere I have inquired claims to own, have knowledge of, or ever seen another. Until I pulled it up from the water, I myself did not even know it existed. Apparently neither did anyone else.

It is smallish, white glass, with an intact wood and glass stopper inside it. I later learned that is a float stopper. I did more research and realized that this bottle was far different from the others, even more so than I first thought. It was not a beer, liquor or soda bottle.  It was a medicine bottle. The etched in glass label on the front reads “F.M. Bull, Saranac Lake N.Y.”

I researched F.M. Bull on SL Wiki. I joined the “History & Legends of the Adirondacks” Facebook page, posted a photo of the bottle, did numerous online queries.

Again, according to Historic Saranac Lake Wiki:

     “Francis M. Bull was a veteran of the Civil War. He enlisted in Westport as a private in the 77th New York Infantry Regiment, was mustered in on October 31, 1861, and promoted to corporal within six months.  His regiment served in the defense of Washington D.C., and then was part of the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, fighting at Williamsburg and in the Seven days’ Battle. Corporal Bull was one of almost 36,000 Union and Confederate casualties suffered during this fighting.  He was discharged from the army on July 19, 1862. (credited to an article by Herbert C. Hallas in the Franklin Historical Review V. 50, 2015, titled “The Namesakes for Franklin County’s GAR Posts.”)

     Further, SL Wiki goes on to say:

“Returning to Ausable Forks, he became a veterinarian. In 1881, he started the first pharmacy in Saranac Lake… In 1887 he was supervisor of the Town of Harrietstown. In 1888 he sold a half interest in the business to Dr. Frank Kendall…”  

***Author’s Note: I have also found a “Kendall’s Pharmacy” bottle during my Adirondack bottle diving efforts.)

“Bull was one of the original four Saranac Lake Village Trustees elected in 1892, but he died soon afterwar. Bull also organized the first telephone exchange in Saranac Lake.”

            Quoted excerpts from: “Francis M. Bull – Historic Saranac Lake – Local WIKI”  

I have truly enjoyed my “Adirondack bottle diving” efforts and the collection of Saranac Lake label bottles I have amassed. I realize, however, that the history they contain is more than just mine. So I am donating the F. M. Bull bottle to the Historic Saranac Lake Museum for anyone to read.  Its contents are one small but important piece of our Adirondack heritage.

“F. M. Bull, Saranac Lake, N.Y.”

A Message In a Bottle.

collins bottles

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article’s author & Adirondack Almanack contributor has donated the F.M. Bull bottle to Historic Saranac Lake so it may be shared in one of their historical displays for everyone to see. In addition, he has donated 25 “Collins Bros. Saranac Lake” bottles (some of which are pictured here) to them to be used in their upcoming fundraising efforts. Anyone interested in owning one of these extremely hard to find, beautiful & elegantly unique antique pieces of Adirondack history should contact Historic Saranac Lake by emailing, or by calling (518)-891-4606 during regular hours, currently Tuesday- Saturday, 10a.m. -5p.m.  Supplies are extremely limited!      


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A veteran north country writer & story teller raised in Saranac Lake, Dick enjoys “Living in the Day I Am In”, and then writing about it. A severely speech impaired 3x cancer survivor, his pen is his voice. He shares many of his Adirondack Outlaw adventures & tales here. Read the rest on his blog @

14 Responses

  1. Bill Ott says:

    Thanks for your very well written article. It reads better that a Tom Clancy nove.

    • Richard Monroe says:

      Thanks for reading & commenting Bill. I sure do like Tom Clancy novels! & While I did find several old “ballast” & “torpedo” bottles down there, I think I can safely report that at this moment in time, Middle Saranac Lake appears to be free of Soviet Nuclear Submarines!

  2. ADKresident says:

    Who knew a story about “old bottles” would be a captivating read!?
    Thanks for sharing, Richards- I sincerely enjoyed it. 🙂

  3. Richard Monroe says:

    Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed it. I must admit, “Adirondack Bottle Diving” was a far more fascinating endeavor than I ever anticipated.

  4. Naj Wikoff says:

    I would think that in Upper Saranac Lake, out in front of where the hotel stood, and St Regis, in front of where Paul Smith’s hotel was located, a diver would find many such bottles and other items of interest. The sad part is knowing that there are so many bottles in the lake, which begs the question why they are there at all. I suspect people treated lakes no different than rivers, as a place they could toss whatever they wanted to get rid of; then glass, now plastic.

    • Richard Monroe says:

      Naj, 1st, Thanks for reading & commenting. While I personally, having spent very little time on the Upper Lake, am in no position to know, suspect from what you say that you most likely are right. I will say, from my experience on the Middle Lake, that I and my brother were both in some ways quite pleasantly surprised to find how FEW bottles there were. There were/was really also, on the whole, very few old tin cans and little debris. We cleaned up all we found. We did of course find old rusty fishing lures & some tangles of line, a few dropped pocket knives, etc. I even found an intact old “Blue Roc” clay pigeon in a bay near an old great camp site that I was able to date to circa 1900. I found that interesting. Most of what we did find was concentrated around old shoreline great camps, tent platforms, or current island campsites & popular picnic spots. So, I can happily report that, all in all, at least Middle Saranac Lake’s bottom is surprisingly clean. The Saranac River in town however…. that’s a WHOLE ‘nother story!

  5. Bob Meyer says:

    Again , thank you for this wonderful article!

    Also: WOW! The house you grew up in is the house in which I rented a room c. 1968 from the owners at the time, the Nehrings (sp?).

    • Richard Monroe says:

      Bob, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I suspect you may mean the Zehrings? I believe that’s who my parents bought that house from. They were music teachers I think. Small world.

      • Bob Meyer says:

        Yes, they were musicians, as am I . Not sure where they went but I think they left S.L.
        Got my chronology backwards. LOL
        Small world indeed.

  6. Charlie Stehlin says:

    What a good read this was! I was never a bottle person so far as collecting goes, though I have drawn a slight interest in them, and have even kept some that I have found over the years. I pulled a bunch of old bottles out of the woods in Blue Mountain Lake where there once was a camp evidently. I told my dad about this old camp in those woods and he knew exactly where I was talking about, and said that that was a CCC camp way back when. He was sure of this, but I’ve asked around and nobody in Blue Mountain Lake whom I’ve talked to remembers such a camp. I even went through Martin Podskoch’s book on this subject and there’s no mention of a CCC camp in Blue Mountain Lake.

    Well anyway I pulled some bottles from that camp, very few as most were in pieces. I was living in Tampa then and would go into them woods when I came up to visit. Every year was different, as I would find things I did not see the year before. This was due to the seasons and the weather and the shifting of the earth that comes with weather conditions, hot and cold and snow and rain and ice…. Things would come up out of the ground due to these changes, and one year I saw a few teeth of a two-man saw sticking up out of rusty leaves. I pulled that saw out and it turned out to be at least four feet long I believe it was. Like a fool I left it there as I wasn’t into collecting those old saws, but then afterwards I got to thinking….maybe I should have taken that saw with me. The next year when I went back up to visit I went in them woods to this old camp and that saw was gone, somebody snatched it up. Oh well!

    The only bottle I’d be interested in finding, and would maybe pay a shiny penny for, would be one that says “Peter Stehlin’s Dairy farm.” That would be a great uncle who had a farm in Westbury, Long Island from the early 1900’s to the 30’s. My dad recalled holding one of those bottles in his hand when he was a boy. The odds on finding one are nil at best I suppose. He said they threw every ‘thing’ in the Bay back then, or buried things, meaning if there are any of those bottles out there, they’re either buried or under three feet of muck in the Great South Bay. Of course I don’t really know but this would be my guess. I was reminded of this practice when I got to the part where you were pulling bottles from the water Richard. An interesting story. Evidently you have that adventurous spirit alive and well in you also.

  7. Richard Monroe says:

    Thank you Charlie! I am glad you enjoyed reading the article. Your old camp dump finds sound interesting. I’ve run into some of those myself. Similar experience- right down to the saw! I kept the one I found, along with a 2 headed axe that was with it. I cleaned up, sharpened a bit & re-handled the axe. I wood burned “Bull Rush Bay Axe” in the handle. Someday I’ll clean up & re-handle that saw too. Too rusted to use- but it will make a neat wall hanging. Who knows, I may even try to paint something on it. I suspect they may have been used in the building of that Bull Rush Bay lean-to. I also have found a really old hatchet head, which I also cleaned up, sharpened & re-handled, I carry it with me in camp. I carved “Adirondack Outlaw” in its handle. I’ve found cool bottles & other artifacts along the way- found a handgun once that I suspect someone threw off the trestle into the river. Found a leather pouch full of coins while working on the DEC trail crew cleaning up the old Livingston Pond Lean-to site. I’ve written stories around some of the more interesting items. They are all on my Blog. Some I’ve submitted here too- so who knows! You may yet see them!
    I have never. to my recollection, found a “Stehlin’s Dairy Farm” bottle. I have found “Dairy Dell” & “AC Bartz”, Plus a few other Saranac Lake farm labels. I know what you mean though, about finding one’s own family name on a bottle. Imagine my surprise when, one day diving the river, I pulled up a nice amber beer bottle, & after I quickly cleaned off the 1st layer of exterior mud, the label read “Monroe Beer”- “Monroe Brewing Co., Rochester”- in much the same style as the Collins bottles in my story! I ended up finding 3 of them. Turns out Monroe Brewery was a small Rochester craft brewer from circa 1900-1920. One never knows what treasures they’ll find unless they look! Life sure is full of adventures. And surprises.

  8. Ann Brewer says:

    I remember Bill Frenette he used to bring Utica Beer to the small grocery store my Dad owned. I believe one of his sons took apart Anne LaBastiles cabin and reassembled it at the Adirondack Museum. I enjoyed your article and several others you have written.

    I am trying to recall the name we had for those dark brown short stubby beer bottles from the 70s did we call those stubby it doesn’t feel like the right name. Miller had a tapered neck but all others were short stout with an inch tall neck. Then all at once the shot stubby beer bottles were replaced by long tall necks in the 80s.

    Does anyone remember what we called those stubby bottles.

    Thanks Richard

  9. Richard Monroe says:

    Thank you for reading Ann, and for sharing your own memories, & your kind comments. I am glad you have enjoyed reading my stories. I found a great number of different old “Utica Beer” bottles during the course of my Adirondack bottle diving adventure. I kept a few of the nicer ones for my personal collection. I also found MANY of those short dark brown bottles you are referring to. Primarily Genesee bottles, I think. Per my memory, confirmed by some quick “Wiki Research”- they were and are indeed called “stubbies”. They apparently at one time were also referred to as “steinies”. Also apparently quite popular.

  10. Jen Hartman says:

    We are on Lake Oseetah, my 13 year old is pulling out green Tupper Lake coke bottles and variety old soda and medicine bottles. I will let you know if we find a Saranac Lake bottle.

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