COLUMBIA — Since 1970, Eugene Prince has collected at least 5,000 glass bottles, excavating nearly all of them with just a large screwdriver, a gardening scratch pad and a straight lug wrench.
When the weather cools, he begins to hunt around Columbia for more historic treasures to expand his collection.
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Prince, 70, likes to travel to abandoned properties in nearby rural areas. Armed with his tools, he examines the ground for a suitable plot to begin his search. For two to three hours at a time, he'll poke around with his screwdriver for something that might be valuable.
"Sometimes it's on top of the ground. Sometimes you have to go down 3 feet," he said.
During the last 43 years, Prince has found and sold bottles in all sizes and colors — blue, green, brown and purple. Medicine, perfume, ink and whiskey bottles are the most common finds.
"For every one I keep, I may throw 100 away," he said.
Older bottles are made of thicker glass, which has preserved them for Prince to discover. Newer ones are made of thin glass and are easily broken. Prince is often able to identify a bottle's type just by looking at the shape.
In his entire collection, only three bottles have come from yard sales. The rest he has personally discovered and cleaned.
Prince sells his wares out of two rented booths at The Market Place, where he's been doing business for 15 years. The top three shelves in both booths are crowded with about 30 neatly organized glass bottles. Some were made during Prohibition and bear the warning, "Federal law prevents sale or reuse."
"Couldn't tell you what's been here the longest," Prince said. "Having a variety of bottles helps them sell quicker."
He does hang on to some for his collection. One is a treasured glass medicine bottle he uncovered on a digging excavation that was labeled "Young" — his wife, Robinette's, maiden name.
Prince also appreciates the historical value of his bottles. For example, 20 towns in Missouri once had their own type of soda pop. Columbia had its own generic soda bottle and orange pop brand in the 1800s, Prince said.
"Every little town had its own bottle works before there were national brands," he said.
Prince's passion for history, especially the period after the Civil War and before 1900, keeps him motivated to continue collecting. It is a way for him to preserve and revive the history others have forgotten.
"Household trash isn't just trash anymore," he said. "It's antiques."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.