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The Bottle Farm Near Farmersville, Ohio

I grew up in the 1950's in a little town called Farmersville (population about 1000) in southwestern Montgomery County, Ohio. We lived on the western edge of town and about a mile out of town on that same road there existed a most peculiar farm called The Bottle Farm. Whenever we drove by, the most striking feature of this odd farm was that the fields bristled with poles driven into the ground at rather random locations. Each vertical pole had a series of glass bottles affixed to it at an angle to the pole, rather like very productive corn stalks with glass ears of corn and no leaves. Many of the glass bottles were of colored glass and it all glittered in the sunlight.

Scattered across the fields were heavy wooden structures that supported old church bells. To each bell's clapper was loosely wired an irregularly cut piece of tin painted flat black. Each piece of tin had some Indian words or a short phrase or saying scrawled across it in white paint. Whenever the wind blew, the pieces of tin would dance in the breeze and cause the clappers to clang the bells.

There were also some larger-than-life cutouts of Indians on horseback and similar scenes of an era long gone by, cut from tin, painted black, and supported on poles in the fields. They revealed their images in silhouette form.

Out in the middle of a field, with no fences nearby, was a garden gate standing alone by itself. It lead from nowhere to nowhere. There was a set of rusty bedsprings on display in the field. I remember large animal skulls supported on poles out in the fields.

Every Sunday morning, loudspeakers mounted high on the farmhouse and aimed eastward toward Farmersville blasted out a recording of "The Old Rugged Cross" with a particularly sour note in it that always made my mother cringe.

The whole thing was the creation of an eccentric named Winter Zero Swartsel who was intrigued with the idea of recycling discarded items. He travelled around much of the U.S.A. and even overseas, collecting odd things and having them shipped back to The Bottle Farm. I am sure he must have spent much time working on his "artistic" creations at The Bottle Farm itself but he did hire a caretaker to watch over it while he was off on his collecting trips. Much of what he collected were items that others discarded. Visitors to The Bottle Farm were afforded a tour of the place in exchange for a donation made at a wishing well near the entrance.

The caretaker was a spooky old hunchback with long scraggly black hair, thick bushy black eyebrows, and a large black mustache to match. He always looked like he had not shaved for at least a few days as he walked into town for supplies each Saturday wearing a long black coat and a big black hat. Every dog around seemed to sense his presence and barked when he was within a block or so. He would never talk with us kids.

Unfortunately, the Bottle Farm had a bad reputation for being a place where a motorcycle gang from Dayton sometimes carried on with women at night.

Eventually, in the early 1950's, Mr. Swartsel passed away. He left the entire farm to the state of Ohio, which decided it did not want it and gave it to Montgomery County, which also did not want it and gave it to Jackson Township. In those days, an active community group in the area decided to take on the task of cleaning up The Bottle Farm.

I remember when they held an auction at the site of The Bottle Farm to help raise money from any remaining items that had some value. They sold the bells, some old carriages that had been stored in the lower level of the barn, and other items that Mr. Swartsel had collected. I remember that on the day of the auction, we were permitted to walk through the first floor of the house to see what it was like inside.

In the living room there were tall stacks of newspapers and magazines. There were collections of different kinds of things around the whole house. I particularly remember there was a large collection of those little toy drinking birds each of which keeps dipping its bill into a glass of water.

In the kitchen there were numerous thumbtacks stuck into the high ceiling. From each dangled a piece of string. Along the length of string were tied many very small empty glass bottles, mainly medicine bottles. Some tall people had to dodge these as they walked through the kitchen area.

One the most bizarre things I saw that day was that the stairwell leading up to upper floor of the house had been sawed right down its middle and the half of each step farther from the wall had been removed. The half-wide steps that remained were attached to the wall but there was no longer any handrail on the other side of the stair, just open air. It was clearly a safety hazard and no one was permitted to climb to the second floor.

The upper level of the barn had been virtually stuffed with all manner of horse tack items such as reins, saddles, bridles, and so on. Most of what was there was made of leather and related materials. Then the ridgepole (the main support beam that runs along the length of the peak of the roof) had been cut in the middle so that the entire roof sagged at its center and came to rest on all the material crammed into the upper level of the barn. No one could figure out how to safely remove the material from the upper level of the barn so the barn was simply burned with its contents still inside.

It took a few years but The Bottle Farm was transformed into a large community center complete with a swimming pool (where I learned to swim), baseball diamonds, tennis courts, picnic grounds, meeting rooms, and much more. Each year it is now the location of Farmersville's town picnic called Harvest Days. The Bottle Farm was turned from a virtual oddity with a bad reputation into a very utilitarian facility with which the community is proud to be associated.

For years after The Bottle Farm was gone there still remained a sign on a telephone pole on the east end of Farmersville. It had an arrow on it pointing west and simply said, "Bottle Farm 2", meaning it was two miles to The Bottle Farm. I often wondered how many people tried to follow that sign only to find there was no longer a trace of that strange place left. For years after it was gone someone would occasionally come knock on our door and politley ask something like, "Isn't The Bottle Farm somewhere out this way?" During its heyday The Bottle Farm clearly made a lasting impression on some who had seen its strange sights.

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Updated 20110801