Bottles leave bitter memories

By Bob Huber: Local columnist

You can’t buy bitters anymore. They were all the rage during the Civil War, but their popularity petered out.

You see, armies of the North were to a large extent financed by a special wartime tax on booze, and so bitters were born. Bitters were an alleged medicine containing alcohol, which tasted awful but got you just as drunk. Naturally they were popular. But as a medicine, they avoided the special tax.

Side note: You’d have to be a rocket scientist today to finance a war with liquor taxes. Folks were a lot more patriotic in the 1860s.

But bitters popularity waned following the Civil War, because the wartime tax on liquor was lifted. A hundred years later collectors of old stuff began to lust after bitters bottles. They’ve been held in deep reverence by the collectable world ever since.

My wife, Marilyn, discovered the lure of the brown bitters bottles one day in Smyer, Texas, where we stopped at an antique shop next to the railroad tracks to see if they had any old fruit jars. We were greeted by the frailest woman in the world.

She was bent almost double and weighed about 60 pounds. Each step was a stumbling, painful shuffle. She was at least 100 years old, I figured, but she was pushing an old man in a wheelchair who we learned was — HER FATHER!

She told Marilyn, “I ain’t got many fruit jars, honey, just bitters.”

“Sounds contagious,” I said.

“They was my mamma’s,” she went on. “She saved every bottle. She favored bitters.”

“How many do you have?” Marilyn asked.

“A couple hundred,” she said, “out in the barn. I’ll let you have them free if you buy this property — a bargain at $500. Otherwise, $20 just for the bottles.”

“Would you take $10 for the bottles?” Marilyn said.

“I’ll take $17, but that’s as low as I go. Dad likes to shoot them on his good days. I toss them, and he blasts away with his 4-10 shotgun.”

The old man chuckled from his wheelchair. “Kapow! Kapow!” he said.

Marilyn shrugged, and we left, even though those bitters bottles tugged at her collectable shirtsleeve. Back home, she visited the library at our local college to look up bitters. “Who knows?” she said. “They might be worth $l7.”

Do I have to continue this miserable preamble? Must I string it out that those little brown bottles were worth hundreds of dollars — some each? Do I have to tell you that we passed up a small fortune? Again?

We went back to Smyer, but no one was home. In fact we went back two more times, and finally talked to a neighbor who said the old man had died, and his frail daughter had married and was on her honeymoon at Amarillo.

“Did she sell her bitters bottles?” Marilyn asked.

The neighbor shook his head. “That’s what killed the old man. He went on a rampage with that little 4-10 one day. Popped a bowl of popcorn and between bites blew away every last one of them little bottles. Bruised him up something awful. Died the same day. Choked on a popcorn hull.”

Driving home, I didn’t have the heart to tell Marilyn that the neighbor informed me in an aside that he’d bought the frail woman’s property for $250 and sold it the next week to the railroad for $200,000. Talk about your bitters.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.