NPS interns labor over antique bottles

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

NATCHEZ — Early last century, someone at Melrose had a fetish for whiskey, hair ointment, Welch’s grape juice and clock oil, and decided to store all of the bottles in the house’s attic.

Holding one of the whiskey bottles up to the light in an outbuilding on the Melrose grounds, National Park Service intern Kaitlyn Mayfield examined the label, which wrapped around the bottle diagonally.

“It doesn’t say anything about a brand, but it does talk about the medicinal quality (of whiskey),” Mayfield said.

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A Natchez native, Mayfield is one of four park service interns who are cleaning and cataloguing the hundreds of bottles from the Melrose attic, some of which were in boxes but others which were on the floor or tucked away on beams.

After cleaning and measuring each bottle, the interns examine whatever label it has and look for distinguishing marks.

The process is tedious, and the interns complete approximately 20 bottles a day apiece, said Christina Arflack, who recently graduated from the University of Memphis with a masters degree in history.

“You have to go into a lot of detail for someone who is just looking for (the bottle) on a computer database,” Arflack said.

Once the bottles are cleaned and catalogued, they are stored, and could be loaned for temporary exhibits, Natchez National Historical Park Curator Cheryl Munyer said.

“This collection might be a really important resource one day,” Munyer said. “They also will help us learn about the people who lived at Melrose.”

Some of the bottles in the attic still have liquid in them, and Munyer said the park is waiting to hear from its regional office to hear what to do with them.

“We haven’t determined what these liquids are, and we want to protect our own health and safety, and of course the integrity of the (bottles) themselves,” Munyer said.

Intern Scott Johnson, a graduate student at the University of Illinois — Springfield, said the cataloguing assignment has been an ideal learning experience.

“I like the idea of preserving objects,” he said. “The chance to touch it, feel it, play with it — that’s something I get to do here.”

University of Missouri — St. Louis graduate student Katherine Haugatter said she wanted to come to Natchez and work because a steamboat captain who had a boat in Natchez built her parents’ house, so she has always wanted to come to the area.

“I also wanted to see what life down here was like,” she said.

The four interns were chosen from 40 applications, and Mayfield — a Natchez native enrolled at Mississippi State University — said she appreciated the chance to work at Melrose.

“I have always been interested in Natchez history, and I have always wanted to see what was behind the scenes,” she said.

And the park service is glad to host the interns, Munyer said.

“They are very self-motivated and really eager to work and dive in,” she said.

“They are doing a great amount of work that would not get done otherwise.”