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Grail Quest

Sometimes The Holy Grails We Seek Are Right There All Along

I suspect we each have our own individual grail quests. It’s a uniquely personal endeavor, filled with passion, hope, heartbreak and peril. Holy Grails themselves can evolve over time and take many forms. For me, one of my earliest grail quest memories involves my lifelong collector’s passion, baseball cards.

The year was 1975. I was eleven years old, “going on twelve”. I had begun collecting TOPPS baseball, football, and hockey cards the previous year with my brother. We bought them at Hoffman’s Pharmacy with our weekly allowance money. They cost fifteen cents a pack. Each pack of fifteen cards came with a single, flat, powdered, rectangular stick of pink hard as rock gum.

The cards my younger brother & I collected in ’74 somehow fell by the wayside. We weren’t serious collectors. When each season was over, we got rid of our cards.

By 1975, however, I was far more mature. There were 660 cards in the 1975 TOPPS baseball card set. I was determined to collect all of them.

By mid-September, I had over 550 cards from the set, all neatly organized, by team, with each team checklist dutifully marked, in a shoebox. By late September, I was down to one card. I had 659. I was a Mets fan. I idolized Tom Seaver. However, the final card I sought for my set, the one that eluded my grasp, my first baseball card grail quest, wasn’t Tom Terrific or any member of my beloved NY Mets. No, my first baseball card grail quest was a member of the Boston Red Sox, none other than a future Hall of Fame outfielder named Carl Yastrzemski.

I spent every last dime I could scrounge buying and ripping open packs of baseball cards. I was getting nervous. Baseball season was nearly over and soon all that Hoffman’s would be selling would be football, basketball & hockey cards. Finally, on the day after my birthday, I took a gamble. I took all my birthday money and raced down to Hoffman’s. Mr. Hoffman had one full box of baseball cards left in his storeroom. I bought it.

I ran home with my prize, sat down & began ripping through packs. There were 36 packs in a box. In very short order, I had opened nearly all of them. I was surrounded by discarded wrappers. I had stuffed my mouth full of sticks of hard, stale, pink gum. My heart was racing. My hands were all sweaty. I was down to my last unopened pack. I had amassed several big stacks of baseball cards. Carl Yastrzemski’s card was not one of them.

Finally! In the form of the very last card in the very last pack, there it was, Carl Yastrzemski’s 1975 baseball card. My grail quest was complete. I still to this day have that set, and the card.

More recently, however, my grail quest efforts have focused on something other than elusive baseball cards. More specifically, captivated by their ruggedly rustic 19th century glass elegance, my holy grail has taken on the form of unique antique Saranac Lake bottles.

Specifically, bottles with the name “F. M. Bull”- Civil War veteran, Saranac Lake’s first pharmacist, one of its first four town councilmen, on them.

I know these exist, because, to date, I’ve found one. It sits on display in Historic Saranac Lake’s Museum pharmacy display. The only known one.

Since the moment I made that rare one-of-a-kind grail quest find, I’ve been convinced that there was no way F.M. Bull contracted Isaac Merkel to make him just one. So, I’ve kept searching, convinced that someday, if I searched hard enough, I might find another.

Then, last winter, my grail quest target evolved even further. Chessie Monks Kelly, Historic Saranac Lake’s Museum curator, sent me a photo.

“Dick, have you ever found a bottle like this one?”

To that point, I had not.

Late 19th century Isaac Merkel & Son bottle.
Circa 1890
(Photo courtesy of HSL Curator Chessie Monks-Kelly)

Chessie then sent me another photo, with the F.M. Bull bottle I had found next to the Merkel bottle in question. Clearly, those two bottles were vintage Saranac Lake 1st cousins.

“Saranac Lake 1st Cousins”
F.M. Bull & Isaac Merkel Bottles
(Photo Courtesy of Chessie Monks-Kelly)

So, now I had TWO Saranac Lake grail bottles to seek on my quest. I knew just where to go in my efforts to find one; my old friend, the Saranac River. My childhood stomping grounds, flowing under the trestle, past the house I grew up in.

I’d found the F.M. Bull bottle in that very spot. I decided to go back and redouble my search. The challenge this year, however, has been extremely strong currents, caused by persistently high water levels.

Despite the challenges nature threw at me, I persisted. My season’s first two grail quest dive efforts produced over a dozen vintage Saranac Lake bottles. At this point, having found over two hundred over the past several years, I still love finding them, but like my childhood Yastrzemski card quest duplicate piles, they were not the grail I was seeking. Saranac Lake’s bottle dive season is short. My forehead was sweating.

Then, lo and behold, on my third July dive, I finally found one! Not an F.M. Bull bottle, but it’s cousin, Isaac Merkel. I immediately ended the day’s dive, exited the water, dried myself off, changed back into street clothes, and drove over to Historic Saranac Lake’s Museum to share my day’s grail quest find with Chessie Monks-Kelly.

Grail Quest Find
“Dive Fresh”

I was truly excited. I had found that bottle within ten feet of where I’d two years earlier discovered its F.M. Bull cousin. Still in search of another, I resolved to return and continue my quest. I was convinced that I had pinpointed the area in which to focus my efforts.

It was by then near the end of July. This would be my fourth dive of the season, and, as Saranac Lake’s air and water temperatures begin their decline in August, I well knew, for this season at least, it might well be my last.

I parked my truck in Triangle Park, across the street from my childhood home, donned my dive gear, and trapsed down the bank to the river. The water had dropped a couple of inches since my last dive. I use a big boulder in the center of the channel as my water level gauge. I like it best when that rock protrudes at least a foot above the water. When it does, there is usually a huge snapping turtle perched on it, pulling surveillance.

On most of my dives up to that point this summer, that boulder had been completely submerged. So, to see it peeking a few inches above the water’s surface was a good sign. It meant I’d have a lot less current force to deal with and might be able to get into a few deeper pool “honey holes” that had been high water off limits earlier.

On a good day, with sunshine and warm temps, air & water, I’m usually good for about two hours in the water on each dive venture. I’ll go in for two hours, then take a break, sit in Triangle Park, hook up to my feeding tube, and take in lunch while I sit across the street from my childhood home and reminisce my way through a nap. This day was sunny, and that was my plan.

I’d been in the water about an hour and a half when I found my first Saranac Lake bottle. It wasn’t a grail, but it was a Merkel. Bottle in one hand, I continued my search. Suddenly, there it was, in my hand! Another early Merkel grail bottle, pulled up from the muck not ten feet from where I’d found the other two weeks earlier. This one had a chip out of the lip but appeared otherwise intact. For grail bottles that old, considering their eventual role on my shelf as historic display pieces, that’s satisfactory.

With a bottle in each hand and two dive hours in, my body was telling me it was time to get out of the water, so I headed for shore. I’d had a good morning. It was time for a break before I continued my grail quest.

Suddenly, somehow, as I exited the water and stepped onto the bank, my feet came completely out from under me. I was momentarily airborne. My arms went flailing. Both bottles went flying. I landed with a big “THUD!!” on my left side as my ribs met a fallen log.

I laid there on the riverbank for a second, my legs in the water. The impact’s pain stole my breath. My first thought was,

“I’m in trouble. I’m not sure I can get up.”

My second thought was,

“Oh no! My bottles!”

I spotted my bottles lying in the weeds next to each other a few feet up the bank, apparently unscathed. I’d have breathed a sigh of relief, but at that moment, even that was too painful. I slowly rolled right and made an effort to assess the extent of the damage. I thought “Well, nothing appears to be bleeding too badly and there are no bones sticking out.”

With some effort, I slowly sat up. The pain was intense. I told myself “Whatever you do, don’t pass out. Your cell phone is out of reach in your backpack and no one will find you here for hours.”

I fought through the pain and dragged myself to my feet. “At least my bottles are still intact.” I thought. Then I slowly reached down to pick them up. The entire back side of the first Merkel bottle I had found was totally smashed.

Disheartened at that realization, I uttered a few choice words before, intact grail Merkel in hand, slowly working my way along the steep riverbank, up the hill to the trestle, and across the park to my truck.

Once safely there, I put the bottle in my truck and further assessed my injury. I was pretty certain I had broken several ribs in the fall, or at least badly bruised them. Either way, breathing was difficult, and I was in pain.

I called my wife and appraised her of my circumstance. Then I hooked up to my feeding to and sat in the park, contemplating the morning’s events. I knew one thing for certain, the drive home was going to be painful.

Later that evening, after I finally pulled into the driveway and unloaded my truck, I took a few moments to take a closer look at my day’s grail quest bottle discovery. Much to my surprise, and a balm to my wounds, THIS Merkel bottle was different from the first one I’d found. Not only was it of a beautiful green glass in color, but the label was different.

Left: “Isaac Merkel & Son, Saranac Lake N.Y.”
Right: “McCloskey & Merkel, Canton, N.Y.”

Now, banged up ribs notwithstanding, I had a pair of Merkel grail finds for my collection, each different.

What further fascinated me was the realization the Merkel was apparently involved in bottling operations all across the Adirondacks. His operation began in Plattsburgh, migrated to Saranac Lake, and obviously also involved operations in Canton. I searched online and also found Merkel bottle examples, similar to those above, of Merkel bottles with Tupper Lake and Malone bottle labels. All of this in the days when the bottled beverage business was still conducted on dirt roads via horse and wagon!

I let my ribs rest for a week. It was painful. It hurt to sit down, stand up, sleep, breathe, or cough. Still, at the end of the week, I determined that I must give my season’s grail quest one final try. I’d found two Merkel grails, but still was in search of another F.M. Bull bottle. I just knew it was down there. I could hear it calling my name from afar above my favorite lifelong friend river’s rapid churned waters.

So, on Friday, August 4th, I returned to the river. It had rained quite a bit since my eventful last visit. Despite the day’s sun fed warmth, my worst fears were realized. My rock water gauge was completely submerged. The currents were churning. The river’s level was way up.

I donned gear and entered the water, but my ribs were still extremely sore. I immediately realized they were just not up to fighting that current. I nosed around the shallower water near where I had fallen. The huge snapping turtle that usually sits perched on my water gauge rock was now at my feet. We did a dance. I must have dislodged him from his submerged spot. I marveled at just how gracefully this gigantic prehistoric creature navigated beneath water’s surface in the river’s strong current.

I worked downstream a bit. The river’s current swept me up and carried me across. I regained my footing on the far side. I continued my search in the shallower water there for a bit. Several massive black bass swirled and swam at my feet. Two or three of them looked to be at least twenty inches or so, through my mask.

I soon realized that my day’s trip was in vain. I just was not up to the effort. I came up for air and took off my mask. A mink was scurrying up and down the fallen log my ribs had landed on. He too seemed to be searching for something.

I let the current carry me back down the river as I worked my way across towards my starting point. With nothing to show for my effort, I realized that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor and called it a season. I retrieved my gear and returned to Triangle Park. There I changed back into street clothes, prepared my lunch feeding, hooked up to my feeding tube, and just sat there across the street from my childhood home enjoying Saranac Lake’s early August afternoon sun.

I sat there mentally reviewing the summer’s dive season. I thought about the two grail bottles I had found, my fall on the riverbank, the pain in my ribs, twenty-inch black bass, scurrying mink and the graceful movements of a massive submerged snapping turtle.

As these thoughts drifted through my mind and my eyes found a nap, I realized something.

The grail I had been seeking all summer was right there with me, in that little park, by the river I loved, across the street from the home I grew up in, all along.


Until Our Trails Cross Again: