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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected], or by calling (518)-891-4606 during regular hours, currently Tuesday- Saturday, 10a.m. -5p.m. Supplies are extremely limited!