INDIANAPOLIS — Milk bottles fill the basement shelves at
John Cleland’s home in Indianapolis. The bottles ranging in sizes, shapes and
designs represent countless dairies across Indiana, as well as out of state.
Cleland’s love for collecting milk bottles began 43 years
ago, when his academic adviser at Purdue University, Blaine Crowl, gave him two
The gift sparked an interest in Cleland, a retired teacher
who spent 30 years at Zionsville High School. He now has about 1,500
Through the years of attending auctions and visiting antique
stores, he eventually narrowed his interest to collecting creamery memorabilia
from Indiana dairies.
Until three years ago, Cleland wouldn’t sell any of his
bottles. He finally took three bottles, only ones he had duplicates of, to a
bottle show in Muncie. Within minutes, he received $1,000 for all three bottles.
“I felt like I was selling one of my children at first, but
later on when I was driving home that $1,000 felt pretty good in my pocket,” he
Cleland promised his wife, Judy, once he retired he’d begin
selling some of the bottles, and since that first sell, he has been able to part
with the bottles more easily.
Collecting milk bottles was a way for Cleland to connect to
the dairy industry. Cleland grew up on a small grain farm in Rochester, and
although his family didn’t have dairy cattle, he knew several neighbors who did.
His involvement in the farm led him to eventually study animal sciences at
With a grim cancer diagnosis in 1973, Cleland knew he
wouldn’t be able to farm at the time. He decided to try a new kind of
chemotherapy and eventually started to improve.
Cleland later found out he was only the third person to try
the treatment and the first to survive. The drug eventually went on to treat
Cleland decided he would get his certificate to teach and
taught biology at Zionsville for 30 years. Although he wasn’t able to be around
a dairy farm physically, he dug in to not only collect more bottles, but to also
learn about the history of Hoosier dairies.
His interest in the history of the dairy business has grown
because of how much it has changed over the years, Cleland said.
“Part of the past is being lost,” he said. “A lot of people
don’t appreciate and don’t realize how large creameries were.”
The time researching the items led Cleland to self-publish
two books on Indiana dairy history. The first book documents the different
styles of milk bottles that were once in circulation through the state.
Early bottles were embossed with the names of creameries,
while later ones were painted, Cleland said.
The book includes “rubbings” of hundreds of embossed bottles
that Cleland makes from crayons and tracing paper he carries with him. He adds
more rubbings to the list each time he finds a new one.
The second book of Now 3,461 Indiana Dairies is a listing
by city of Indiana creameries. The list is constantly growing and being updated
as he finds more dairies.
Sales from this book, which costs $15, are donated to the
Purdue Department of Animal Sciences for educational purposes.
To get a copy of the book, contact Cleland at 8308 Thorn
Bend Dr., Indianapolis, IN 46278, firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-873-4312.
Although he has moved on to the history of the dairies, he
still gets a thrill over finding milk bottles.
“I’m always looking for that rare bottle,” Cleland said.