SPENCER, N.C. — Saying this out loud will jinx him, of course, but in his two decades of collecting old milk bottles from across North Carolina, John Patterson Jr. has yet to drop one.
Despite his good hands, Patterson still experienced some uneasiness late last year moving close to 350 bottles from his Spencer residence across town to the North Carolina Transportation Museum.
His bottles, showcased at the entrance to the Bumper-to-Bumper (old flue shop) exhibit, tie into the museum’s recent addition of a 1959 Divco Co. milk truck from the former Melville Dairy in Burlington.
“I had a lot of fun doing it,” Patterson says of setting up his temporary display, “and I’ve had a lot of comments about it.”
One side of the building’s entrance is devoted mostly to milk bottles from old dairies in Rowan and Cabarrus counties — it’s hard to believe how many there were.
Patterson also has included a good smattering of pint milk bottles from other N.C. communities, plus a corner devoted to the Biltmore Dairy Farms brand.
There are plenty of dairy-related “go-withs” on display, too. Patterson has collected calendars, advertising signs, pot-holders, milk crates, toy trucks, banks, trays, photographs — even a handheld capper used by the smaller dairies to seal off bottles one by one.
“I thought it would be neat to have,” Patterson says.
Patterson devoted the shelves on the other side of the entrance to mostly Melville Dairy and its onetime competitors in the Burlington area.
Again, it’s a good connection to the Melville milk truck on display just around the corner, and Patterson also wanted the Scott family, which donated the truck, to have a sentimental journey back to days of its dairy.
In fact, if you’re of a certain age, say 50 or older, you can’t help but become a little nostalgic when you see what Patterson has put together.
It harkens back to the home deliveries by the milkman, the days in school when milk came in pint or half-pint bottles and a time when dairy farms were big enough to bottle and sell their milk in local stores.
From Rockwell to Mount Ulla and Landis to Spencer, dairy farms in Rowan County marketed their milk, and Patterson has the bottles and other memorabilia to prove it.
As a child on Saturday mornings, Patterson used to wait on the steps to his house for the Cabarrus Creamery’s milkman. They might have a short conversation before the milkman left his bottles on the porch with Patterson.
Not long after the milkman was out of sight, Patterson would peel off a cap, lick the pure cream off the top and return the cap to the bottle.
Patterson also looked forward to Wednesday afternoons at his elementary school. A crate of milk bottles would be delivered to each class, and if the students were lucky, they might be treated to chocolate milk.
“I can still taste that chocolate milk,” Patterson says. “There just isn’t any comparison to milk today.”
His milk bottle collection started with a bang in 1994, when he bought more than 900 bottles from a single seller in Raleigh.
It took him three separate trips to transport all the bottles back to Spencer and four years of building shelves to accommodate the collection.
From the start, the purchase gave Patterson some rare bottles from across the state.
His interest in milk bottles grew from there, while correspondingly the display space at his house dwindled.
“I have had over 2,000 bottles in my collection,” Patterson says.
If Patterson isn’t the top milk bottle collector in the state, he’s mighty close. The overall number of bottles in his collection has been going down, he claims, because he has found others who wanted the bottles “a whole lot more than I did.”
For strong sentimental reasons, family members connected to old dairies often have the most interest in buying some of his milk bottles, Patterson adds.
Patterson says he now finds as much happiness in parting with bottles cherished by others as he does in obtaining them in the first place.
Patterson always hears the question: “What’s your most valuable bottle?”
He never likes to answer that question, but he does have bottles he is most fond of, such as two bottles — a quart and a pint — that came from the Enochville Dairy. He knows of only one other bottle from the Enochville Dairy in existence.
Patterson also cherishes an embossed bottle from the Rockwell Park Dairy, founded in 1890, and his hard-to-find Lomax Dairy bottles from Spencer.
“That’s a very good local bottle,” he says.
In addition, Patterson has made a point to collect cardboard milk cartons from the past, though cartons are much rarer items, because they usually were tossed out with the next day’s trash.
Included in Patterson’s display at the N.C. Transportation History Museum are a couple of artifacts from the Haynes Dairy in Lincolnton.
Founded in 1914, Haynes Dairy remains in operation and is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.
Patterson’s bottles, cartons and go-withs also reflect the war bonds campaign and cowboy promoters for dairies such as Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hickok.
Later this winter or in the early spring, Patterson will have to dismantle his milk bottle exhibit and take everything back home.
Just think of him as the milkman, making another delivery.