From bottles to books

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WINESBURG, Ohio – One step into Lou McFadden’s home and you know you’ve got more than an amateur collector on your hands.
He’s got lights angled to illuminate the collection just right. Each piece is waxed and shined and situated with precise spacing.
The basement walls are lined with custom-made shelving that displays his more than 3,300 milk bottles and collection of dairy industry paraphernalia.
But what’s most unique about McFadden’s collection is its hometown roots: Every bottle, every ice cream carton, every toy milk truck is from an Ohio dairy.
Local interest. McFadden, who spent 40 years as a fieldman for Ohio dairies, has a special penchant for the items and says he’s been collecting them just as long.
“Ohio used to be large population-wise, and it makes sense that we had a lot of dairies,” he says.
That list includes the four who employed him: Orrville Milk Company, where he started working by washing bulk trucks and ice cream vats; Lawson Milk Co., Superior Dairy, and then Reiter; plus what turned out to be thousands of others, both large and small dairies alike.
As a collector, Lou McFadden has done his research over the years, too, to figure out just which bottles he had, which ones were missing from the collection, and which bottles he didn’t even know existed.
That led him and his wife, Sue, on a journey that crisscrossed the state multiple times. The duo kept records, photographed remnants of old and dilapidated plants, and now has more than 10,000 Ohio dairies documented on index cards alongside the collection.
Red cards mean they have a photo of the plant. Yellow cards are for dairies they know existed. Blue cards are reserved for dairies that seem to have vanished from the landscape.
Last year, the McFaddens turned their research and piles of index cards into a book, Ohio’s Dairies.
Still growing. When Lou and Sue left the farm and built this place outside Winesburg 20 years ago, he says he had only a couple hundred bottles.
In the years since, his collection has thrived with the help of live and online auctions and his dedication to seeking out bottles from every dairy that ever existed in the Buckeye State.
Many he bought for less than $10 at bottle shows, antique stores, flea markets. Today, he says, those very same bottles would fetch upward of $100 each, some double or triple that, from another die-hard collector.
Even friends who know of Lou’s search for bottles don’t truly understand the scope of his collection until they see it, he says.
“Some guys have 300 bottles and think they’re big-time. Then they walk in here and are shocked,” he says.
Challenge. Ohio milk bottles are often difficult to come by, thanks to mergers that sent truckloads of obsolete bottles off cliffs and into dumps. Bottles that were recovered – if there are any – are worth a mint, McFadden says.
“A lot of people don’t even have their own family’s bottle, and that’s a shame,” he said.
He has no favorites, but there are the ones in McFadden’s collection that are talking pieces: One from the Hoover dairy in Canton called Poheja, named after the owners’ children Polly, Herbert and Jane; or one from a nearby Killbuck-area dairy that’s pretty rare.
“I think I slept with one eye open for a couple nights after I bought that one,” McFadden jokes.
All his life. McFadden says he’s been active in the dairy industry all his life, and is sickened to see we’re down to just a handful of dairies left in the state.
Early on in his career, there were 23 or 24 dairies in Cleveland alone. Today, just Dairymen’s survives.
All told, there were more plants in urban Cleveland back then, than there are in the entire state today.
“Now days, a few big plants control everything. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it’s the trend,” McFadden said.
Bookwork. In doing all his milk bottle research, McFadden found himself mesmerized by the mere facts he discovered.
Putting them together in a book was the only way he and Sue could figure they could share their work with the masses.
The book has sections on important dates in Ohio dairy history; short histories of some of the plants and funny anecdotes about their existence; and a county-by-county listing of the more than 10,000 dairies the McFaddens located.
They also have 1,200 pictures of milk plants they found on their journey, many of them printed in the book.
McFadden says he’s “tickled” to have put the book together.
“It’s some way to give credit to the little guys for existing.
“We get calls from guys [who have bought the book] and they found their grandpa’s dairy in there. They’re really happy to see it listed,” McFadden said.
Still collecting. McFadden says he continually adds bottles to his collection, along with the ice cream cartons, cups and glasses, and acknowledges his wares have completely taken over his basement.
He never thought he’d have this many bottles, but can’t quit collecting. In fact, he carries a book with him most everywhere that lists what bottles he’s already got in the collection, so he won’t buy duplicates.
And every six months, McFadden dusts each bottle, box, toy truck or carton and rearranges them.
“I’d be stretching the truth if I said I didn’t like to show them off.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009.

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