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Today is May 30, 2020

A little piece of history in a bottle

By Brad Barr

What’s the best way to immerse yourself in history?

Find a little piece of it, according to Earl McIlwain of Oktibbeha County. Earl has done his part to uncover a little bottled-up piece of history, excavating a collection of bottles that dates to the 1800s.

The 87-year-old retired 4-County Electric Power Association meter reader has always enjoyed collecting historical items. He started with stamps, collected coins and then switched to bottles. In his travels, Earl would sometimes come across old, abandoned houses and property. After gaining permission from the owners, he would look around and, more often than not, find hidden treasures. “I found some fabulous stuff through the years,” he said. Bottles of all shapes, sizes and colors. His collection, at times, has numbered in the thousands.

The history hunter even joined a group of archaeologists from Mississippi State University, traveling around the state exploring abandoned dumping sites. The result? Stone jugs, stone bottles, medicine bottles and a bevy of soda bottles. “I’m fascinated with history,” he said.

A self-admitted jack of all trades, Earl made a little history of his own in his 43-year association (1966 to 2009) with 4-County. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. Through the years as a meter reader, Earl was often asked his name by children. “I’m Earl the Squirrel,” he replied, drawing giggles from his young audience. The name stuck. “Years later, this tall fellow with a big grin came up to me at Wal-Mart. He wanted to know if I was Earl the Squirrel. He was one of the kids I saw on my routes. That was kind of neat.”

As a child, Earl grew up working 30 acres of cotton and corn on the family farm. Hard work was a way of life in those days.

At five years old, Earl begged his father for a tricycle. “He told me that if picked a bale of cotton, he’d get one for me. I started at sunup and worked until sundown. I picked my bale of cotton and he got my tricycle.”

His father, a farmer and carpenter, turned over the farming and responsibility to a 15-year-old Earl. “It was a full-time job,” he said, adding that he was still going to Maben High School. He also drove a school bus his senior year.

“I tell people all the time that it’d be nice to go back to the old days when we could leave the door open. We didn’t have much, but we were happy,” he said.

After high school, Earl served in the Navy and was stationed in California. He later worked in the San Diego area as a plant nursery supervisor for eight years.

California was nice, Earl said, but it wasn’t home. He returned to Mississippi, settling in Oktibbeha County and went to work for I.G. “Big” Daniels at 4-County Electric Power Association.

He also worked closely with early 4-County pioneers Louis Wise and Chloe Miller.

Today, Earl and his wife of 41 years, Juanita, live on 60 acres of family land in the Self Creek area of Oktibbeha County. His wife is a collector, too, keeping an eye out for antique glass and china bells. The couple are members of First Baptist Church of Mathiston. Earl has four children, nine grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren.

Earl said he stays away from doctors (other than an annual checkup at the VA Center) and doesn’t take any medicine. “I do what I want to do,” Earl said with a twinkle in his eyes. “I just have to do it a little slower than I used to.”

Collecting can be a fun and rewarding hobby, Earl said. “I’ve made a lot of friends through this hobby. I’ve learned a lot about history. And, most importantly, I’ve had a lot of fun.”

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