John Cleland has collected milk bottles for more than four decades. His collection today has about 1,500 bottles, but at one time more than 2,000 bottles lined the shelves.
John Cleland has collected milk bottles for more than four decades. His collection today has about 1,500 bottles, but at one time more than 2,000 bottles lined the shelves.
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 bottles.

The gift sparked an interest in Cleland, a retired teacher who spent 30 years at Zionsville High School. He now has about 1,500 bottles.

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 said.

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 Purdue.

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 Lance Armstrong.

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, jcleland3606@att.net 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.