Mike Cavanaugh takes his kayak out into the waters near his East Rockaway and Gilgo Beach homes in search of the bottles. He then researches their history to compile stories for a website he created. Credit: Newsday/Chris Ware

Mike Cavanaugh’s kayak takes him into the Great South Bay, Hewlett Bay and Reynolds Channel, but the antique glass bottles he finds there take him through bygone eras as far back as the 1800s.

Cavanaugh, 67, of East Rockaway, has become a collector of vintage bottles that he finds near the shore. The retired engineer then researches the history of the bottles, many embossed with the names of now-defunct bottling companies on Long Island. Cavanaugh takes the threads of information he finds and weaves them into stories for a website he runs.

“If some research preserves a little bit of history that otherwise wouldn’t have been found, then it’s worth it,” he said. 

Cavanaugh finds bottles by kayaking close to shore or sometimes standing...

Cavanaugh finds bottles by kayaking close to shore or sometimes standing in knee-high muddy marshes, and by the time he retired in 2015 he had amassed a collection of more than 200. Credit: Chris Ware

Cavanaugh was working at a Manhattan engineering consulting firm when he and his wife bought a summer home in Gilgo Beach in 1999. He began kayaking out into the Great South Bay and one day found a very old-looking, plain brown bottle in the mud. His curiosity was piqued.

“I started asking ‘where did it come from, what were people doing out here 100 years ago,’ ” he said. “When I retired, I started to answer those questions.”

Cavanaugh found more bottles by kayaking close to shore or sometimes standing in knee-high muddy marshes, and by the time he retired in 2015 he had amassed a collection of more than 200. It was then that he started poking around online to learn more about bottling.

“You get the stories of the people who produced these bottles and most of them have a pretty interesting story,” he said. “Some of them are crooks and criminals and some of them are just hardworking mineral water manufacturers.”

A bottle collection of Mike Cavanaugh, of East Rockaway, is shown at his home. He is seen kayaking at Hewlett Point Park. Credit: Chris Ware  

Babylon Town historian Mary Cascone — who called Cavanaugh’s site a "great resource" — said antique glass bottles are “one of the few lasting artifacts of local businesses.” 

Cascone said the bottles are often the result of century-old garbage piles. In the time before residential garbage pick up, people put trash in their backyards. Howie Crawford, president of the Long Island Antique Bottle Association, said local farmers, needing the land for their crops, would often toss it into nearby waterways.

His research is phenomenal, I constantly point people to his site.

-Howie Crawford, president of the Long Island Antique Bottle Association

Cavanaugh is far from the only local bottle enthusiast but his dedication stands out, said Crawford, 56, of Manorville, who has been collecting bottles since he was 13.

“His research is phenomenal, I constantly point people to his site,” he said.

The more than 260 bottles posted on his site were manufactured from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, either handblown or machine-made, and typically once contained milk, soda, beer or mineral water. But during a time before mass production of plastic, the bottles also held cod liver oil, shoe polish, tooth powder and a myriad supposed ailment cures.

A bottle collection of Mike Cavanaugh, of East Rockaway, is...

A bottle collection of Mike Cavanaugh, of East Rockaway, is shown at his home last week. Credit: Chris Ware

A green-hued bottle embossed with “olive tar” on one side was heavily advertised in 1855 publications, including one called “Working Farmers,” Cavanaugh informs readers. An ad touts olive tar as a supposed cure for "diseases of the throat and lungs." 

The bottles are often embossed with company names because patrons would bring them back to be refilled and companies could be fined for refilling another brand, Cavanaugh said.

On his site he provides detailed accounts of companies and owners and tries to deduce a manufacture date.

A bottle from a dairy in Freeport, he notes, is a “machine-made quart. It exhibits some sun-purple coloring indicating the presence of manganese dioxide that was predominantly used as a decolorizing agent prior to 1920.”

Cavanaugh searches for bottles in the warm months, finding them — sometimes after stepping on them — on the bottom of the bays where erosion has shifted them from marshy shores. In the winter he begins his research. Like any good historian, Cavanaugh scours every resource he can find, from census and trademark records to news articles, obituaries and wedding announcements, as well as phone directories, advertisements and trade publications. He peppers the stories with photos of articles and images he has unearthed.

You’re looking into a bottle from 1912 and all of a sudden you stumble upon a story about the Titanic.

-Cavanaugh

The stories Cavanaugh compiles often include quirky tidbits, like the Roosevelt dairy owner who was arrested for putting false labels on his bottles, or the Rockville Centre bottler who in 1920 celebrated his 80th birthday by “taking up automobiling.”

Then there was Frederick Sheide, who in addition to running Lindenhurst’s Sheide Bottling Co., was a Babylon Town supervisor and state assemblyman. Cavanaugh writes that Sheide was later arrested for supplying beer to a club he managed during Prohibition. 

Cavanaugh has been contacted by family members of the bottlers, who thank him and send him additional information and even photos of their relatives.

The more Cavanaugh researches, the more excited he finds himself going down the rabbit hole of history.

“It takes you back to that time when the bottle was produced,” he said. “You’re looking into a bottle from 1912 and all of a sudden you stumble upon a story about the Titanic. It takes you places you didn’t even know you were going.”

Some of the Long Island companies Cavanaugh has researched

A.J. Lamb & Son, Rockville Centre

Amityville Creamery, Inc./ Evans-Amityville, Amityville

Atlantic Dairy, Bedell Bros., Freeport

Bay Shore Bottling Co., Bay Shore

C. H. Dahl & Sons, Sweet Clover Dairy, Roosevelt

George Hendrickson, Willow Dairy, Wantagh

Hardscrabble Farm Dairy, East Hampton

Hawkins & Weeks, Bayport

Henry Landgrebe, Valley Stream

Hicksville Bottling Co., “Roxy”, Hicksville

Lynbrook Bottling Co., Lynbrook

Reader’s Reliable Pharmacy, Cedarhurst

Schnaderbeck & Runge, Farmingdale

Sheide Bottling Co., Lindenhurst

W.Z. Ketcham, Hempstead

Source: baybottles.com