Bottle collector pens unusual history of city

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Many historians rely on what people kept, but Bill Baab is more fascinated with what they threw away.

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Bottle collector Bill Baab has written the book Augusta on Glass, which examines Augusta's history through the bottles that were used in the area.  Michael Holahan/Staff
Michael Holahan/Staff
Bottle collector Bill Baab has written the book Augusta on Glass, which examines Augusta's history through the bottles that were used in the area.

"I've been underneath more old buildings in Augusta than most pest control people," he said.

For 35 years, the retired Augusta Chronicle journalist has quietly excavated dumps, basements and outhouse holes to amass a collection of bottles linked to Augusta's early history.

His new book, Augusta On Glass, uses the colorful relics to tell the story of Augusta, concentrating on the breweries, drugstores, bottled water companies and other industries that thrived along Broad Street and the Savannah River from the early 1800s to around 1920.

"Back when we had permission to dig in a 19th-century dump, we found lots and lots of Augusta drugstore bottles. A lot of them had the druggists' names - and their addresses on Broad Street," he said. "But we didn't know much more about them."

Mr. Baab used city directories dating back to the 1840s, along with genealogical material and other sources, to explore the backgrounds of the early bottle makers and their products.

In addition to the 55 druggists who used their own bottles, Augusta was also a center for soda water bottling, beer brewing and the sale of "cures" marketed in bottles as fancy as their makers' promises.

"When the Pure Food & Drug Act was passed by Congress in 1906, that agency went around and eliminated a lot of those cure-all makers," Mr. Baab said.

The area's abundant mineral water spring also made it an epicenter for the water bottling industry. Today, some of the bottles and jugs made by Windsor Spring Water Company and its contemporaries are favorites among collectors.

Finding bottles has been a pastime for Mr. Baab since the 1970s, but refining what he found into a specific collection focusing on Augusta's history was more labor intensive than years of digging.

"Over time, I've acquired a few other collections and traded to get what I need," he said. "But I also did a lot of digging in other places like Columbia; Atlanta; Aiken; Sandersville, Ga.; and even Warrenton, Ga."

In Augusta, most early families lived upstairs from their downtown businesses, and much of their trash ended up buried in the basements.

Whenever a structure was being razed, Mr. Baab would appear with his digging tools, gloves and occasionally an extension ladder to access the deepest foundation walls.

In rural areas, families usually dumped trash in outhouse holes or small dumps nearby.

"Nobody ever dumped uphill; they always dumped downhill, so you always look in ditches and creeks to find the dumps," he said.

Transforming a hobby into a historical collection took decades, and transforming the collection into a book on Augusta history took almost as long, he said.

"Other people may have just done a reference book," he said. "I wanted it to actually be the history of Augusta."

The Augusta Museum of History will hold a book-signing from 5-7 p.m. June 20.

Local historian Ed Cashin wrote the book's foreword.

"What sets Bill Baab apart from the casual collector, other than his zeal in finding objects, is the research he did to identify the provenance of each item," he wrote.

Mr. Baab, 72, still enjoys his collection but doesn't dig like he once did.

"It really is a great hobby," he said. "But the only digging I do now is into my wallet, when I need to buy something to put in the collection."

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

BILL BAAB

Nickname: "Bottle Man of Augusta"

New book: Augusta on Glass

Favorite bottle: "The River Swamp Chill and Fever Cure," with an embossed alligator

Favorite tip: "Nobody ever dumped uphill; they always dumped downhill, so you always look in ditches and creeks to find the dumps."

Book signing: June 20, from 5 to 7 p.m., Augusta Museum of History


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