Michigan Back Roads: A House Built With Glass Bottles
We were talking about riding the bus and singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, a dumb and monotonous ditty designed to pass the time away on long boring trips. The best thing about it was singing about something forbidden, for most kids anyway, beer. By the second verse, the bus driver was wishing they had a bottle of something.
Well, there’s a real-life variation of the song in the small village of Kaleva, population 470. Instead of 100 Bottles on the Wall, it’s more like 60,000 bottles in the wall---literally.
Ron Rademacher, author of Michigan Backroads explains. “One of the most unique buildings in Michigan was the result of a happy accident. The bottle house in Kaleva, Michigan, isn't a place to buy bottles or alcohol. It is one of the last remaining structures, in Michigan, that used bottles, as a primary construction component.”
John Makinen came to Michigan from his native Finland in 1903. He operated the Northwestern Bottling Works Company in Kaleva, which is near Lake Michigan between Frankfort and Manistee. Ron said the ‘happy accident’ was, that he noticed that soda pop in bottles, stored in his warehouse, didn't freeze during the cold, northern Michigan winters. It was by this observation, that he discovered the insulating properties of his bottles, and that gave him an idea. He thought there just might be a use, for the thousands of flawed and chipped bottles, that were set aside, during quality control inspections.
“Mr. Makinen was an inventive man, “said Rademacher. “He created a special cementing mixture, that could be used, to bind the bottles together into walls. With that process, he set about using more than 60,000 of his bottles, to build his home, which became known as the Bottle House. Being artistic, as well as industrious, John Makinen wove different colored bottles, into designs and words, in the walls of the house, including the words, ‘Happy Home’, on either side of the front door.”
The bottle house was popular, and neighbors had him build a few other structures around town, but they have all been torn down. The Bottle House is still there and is now the Historical Museum. The insulating property of the bottles comes in handy on a hot summer day. The 10 inch thick walls, keep the indoor temperature a good 10 degrees cooler, than outdoors.
Ron says fishing tackle buffs will also find the museum interesting. “William Makinen, John's brother, was also a manufacturing artist. He created the Makinen Tackle Company, to produce fishing lures. In 1945, Makinen Tackle sold 135,000 lures. By 1946, the company had expanded to fifty employees. The Makinen Tackle Room, inside the Bottle House Museum, is dedicated to the company he created.”
And there’s another interesting exhibit inside the museum. “Kind of hidden away in a small room, is a genuine treasure, said Rademacher. “On the walls, are six colorful murals, created by school children, as part of a Work Projects Administration (WPA) program. In addition, to being beautiful, these murals are unique, in that, they depict the Kalevala. The Kalevala is the Finnish creation story. Written records of the Kalevala, in English, are difficult to find. These gorgeous murals, show the creation of the world, populated by dwarfs, princesses, gods, goblins, and a host of other mythical creatures. The murals alone are worth the trip to Kaleva, but there is more to see. There are other historic structures, and there are large, outdoor sculptures, scattered around town, including a giant grasshopper. It all makes for a great day trip.