Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 6, 2013

Farmer stuns visitors with world-class bottle collection

BY NATHAN PAYNE
npayne@record-eagle.com

---- — NORTHPORT — John Kilcherman’s not wasting any hours trying to get his pop bottle collection recognized as the world’s largest. Not when he could spend that precious time hunting for more antique bottles to adding to his hoard.

“I ain’t got time for that kind of stuff,” he told a couple of men who perused the collection during a late September afternoon. He’s too busy trying to find the next bottle to add to his collection.

Kilcherman knows his is the biggest and readily points to a previous record published in an older edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. That collector had amassed more than 6,500 different bottles.

The 10,000 glass containers included in Kilcherman’s world-class collection line the walls of a barn adjacent to his Northport home. It’s the same building where he and his wife, Phyllis, sell apples and cider to customers at their orchard, Christmas Cove Farm.

Getting the collection recognized as a world record would require countless hours of paperwork to document each bottle for Guinness officials. It’s the kind of work Kilcherman says would be great for a high school senior project, but not so much for him.

Kilcherman, 83, never passes up an opportunity to talk about the relics of a bygone era that embrace visitors from all sides as they stroll into the barn.

“You get a disease,” he said, adjusting the position of a bottle on a chest-level shelf. “You know it’s hard to get rid of it. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the world’s largest collection. Every bottle you see in this room is different.”

He’s been buying and trading the antique bottles for nearly two decades. The collection began as a project Kilcherman expected would take him a few years. He intended to gather one of each glass bottle made. Little did he know that once silk screening became popular on glass pop bottles, practically every small town in America had its own brand of pop packaged in its own custom glass bottles.

They came with names like Crass, Castle, Green County, Pep Up, Thirsty? Just Whistle and Squeeze. And in glass colors of clear, green and brown. There are even a few clay ones.

Ron Ray, a recently retired police officer, spent part of his afternoon giving the collection a once-over, trying to find a Red Rock Cola bottle. The bottle is significant to him because he remembers his grandfather, a small store owner, paying him with a bottle of the cold soda after he picked empties from roadside ditches near the store.

“I could spend a whole day here,” Ray said, craning his neck to see the upper reaches of the shelves.

“The quart bottles are way up top,” Kilcherman said.

Kilcherman’s bottles run in alphabetical order along shelves that stretch more than 15 feet toward the rafters of the building. A strand of fishing line protects each row, preventing the bottles from tumbling forward from their perches.

He can’t say which bottle is his favorite, nor can he remember where and when he got each one. He knows the most he’s paid for a bottle was $500 for a pretty rare one. And Kilcherman once went as far as Oklahoma with 60 used beer cases in the back of his pickup to procure hundreds of new bottles for the collection.

“I would say my favorite one is always the next one I’m going to get,” he said. “I don’t know, I’m always trying to get one I don’t have. It’s kind of a passion — some people are artists or musicians. It was just my passion. It’s amazing what a guy could accomplish in his lifetime.”

Phyllis Kilcherman has been pretty supportive of her husband’s hobby, going as far as giving him permission to entomb her favorite bottle, a Squeeze Soda bottle, with her when she dies.

“This is the cutest picture on any pop bottle,” she said pointing to the bottle that displays a label with a pair of children sitting on a park bench. “I think this is adorable.”

The only limit she put on the collection was a prohibition on lining their home’s walls with the bottles.

“I’m sure glad I said ‘no,’” she said shooting a grin toward her husband.

Meanwhile the collection has spilled over into a side room adjacent to the main space in the barn.

When asked if he expects to quit collecting, Kilcherman replied, “Well, I don’t know. I’m always trying to get one I don’t have.”