by Sally Colby
Earl Bennett’s home wasn’t always filled with old milk bottles, dairy signs and other dairy memorabilia. Antiques, especially dairy antiques, always intrigued him, and his hobby-turned-business began innocently enough when Bennett and his father were in the feed and grain business.
“We delivered grain to all of the dairy farms south of Boston; all the way to the tip of the Cape and the islands,” said Bennett, of Holbrooke, MA. “As the dairy farms went out of business, I asked them for a bottle to remember them by. That’s how I started collecting.”
In addition to having some rare and unique bottles in his collection, Bennett has interesting stories that go with bottles from the days of home milk delivery. He tells the story of the Quabbin Reservoir, built in the 1930s to supply the growing city of Boston. To create the reservoir, people from several towns were relocated before the entire area was flooded. One of the towns that was flooded was Prescott, and Bennett has one of the bottles from the Griswold dairy in that town. Another unique bottle in his collection is from the Richard Lamont dairy farm in Vermont, which bottled milk in an exclusive tall, round amber pyro quart bottle.
What makes a bottle collectible? Bottles that depict certain breeds, those with Indian names and bottles with farm or family names are desirable. Bottles with two-color pyro lettering and bottles with the entire state name spelled out are worth more, as are those with war slogans printed on them. Some collectors look for tin-top bail bottles that would have been used from around 1890 through 1910. Others look for creatively designed cream-top bottles, which had a reservoir for holding cream at the top of the milk. Some unique cream-top bottles have faces known as ‘cop top,’ ‘baby face,’ or ‘toothache,’ which is named for the resemblance to the bulging jaw of someone suffering a toothache.
Bennett also has goats’ milk bottles, which are smaller than traditional cows’ milk bottles. Some collectors seek the glass nursing bottles that were given by dairies to families with a new baby in the house. Such bottles often included the name of the farm and instructions on milk preparation. Bennett has some dripless milk bottles that were designed to prevent from dribbling down the outside of the bottle. Some bottles in Bennett’s collection were designed exclusively for institutions such as the Boston City Hospital. He also has square, waxed paper milk cartons for school milk programs, and unique, conical shaped individual serving containers that can be used as a pencil holder once the container is empty.
Although Bennett has amassed many milk bottles over the years, his collection isn’t limited to bottles. He has porcelain dairy signs, prints of dairy cattle and old dairy magazines along with dairy barn items such as milking stools and cast iron water bowls. He also has a collection of wooden butter churns, cream separators, farm implements and tractors, including two 1940s John Deere Ls with 2-cylinder Hercules engines. “I buy a lot of stuff to resell,” he said. “Then I end up keeping it because I like it so much.”
Bennett recently recovered a 1954 Ford Jubilee tractor that was buried in a pile of horse manure. The tractor had topped running and was discarded, and over the years, it became covered with horse manure. Bennett managed to claim the tractor just before it was to go as junk. Bennett bemoans the fact that a lot of old farm machinery is being scrapped unless it’s discovered and rescued by a collector.
Over the years, Bennett has developed a sense about where to pick up old dairy items, although he says they’re becoming harder to find. At a yard sale, Bennett purchased a Tamm udder support from the 1940s, still in the original box. He visits flea markets and estate auctions hoping to find bottles. “It’s getting more difficult to find glass milk bottles,” he said. “They’re getting scarce, especially in southern New England. I like selling bottles to collectors because I know that they’ll remain with someone who’s going to take care of them.”
Sometimes people will request a certain family bottle that Bennett doesn’t have with him, so he’ll take their contact information and check the enormous inventory he has at his home. “I have a basement full, a shed full and a barn full,” he said. “I pick a few bottles out of each box to bring with me.”
In addition to exhibiting bottles at the All-American Dairy Show, Bennett takes his collection to shows throughout New York and New England. He says that those who visit him at various events know what they’re looking for. “They’re often looking for family dairy bottles,” he said. “One lady I know is making a 50-state collection.”
by Sally Colby