In March of 2009, grandson Nathan and I took our kayaks out to the Pedernales River in central Texas. Despite the Texas drought, this stretch of the river at the U.S. 281 crossing is dammed and it provides a suitable small lake for us to paddle on. Nathan was seven at the time, but he easily handled his own kayak as we explored the river for turtles, fish, and birds, and enjoyed the Texas spring sunshine.
We didn't find arrowheads, gold coins, or early bottles, but there were pieces of rusty barbed wire, interesting rocks, raccoon tracks and deer droppings – also known as "smart pills" – yes, I shared that old joke with the grandsons years ago.
Nathan was busy filling his pockets with suitable rocks when he found something else. "What's this, Pops?" he asked, as he handed me his most recent find. It was a piece of broken crockery or pottery, and a nice one, because it had part of a name imprinted in the clay. It was about two and one-half inches from top to bottom, and the readable letters were "Wm" on the top line and "CROB" on the second line. The outside was a nice mottled tan glaze and the inside had a shiny brown glaze.
I looked at lists of early Texas potters on the internet hoping for a hit, and I tried to figure out words or names that might fit the letters we had, but I didn't have much luck. Then I emailed a scan of the piece to two friends, Fraser Harris, a potter and collector of early crocks, and Larry Jones, another collector.
It was only minutes later that Larry emailed back and said the piece was part of an old pottery jug that once held Wm RADAM'S MICROBE KILLER, a patent "snake oil" medicine created in the 1880s by William Radam, a Texas nurseryman who had previously invented several potions to kill blight and fungi on plants. Right on the heels of that email came one from Fraser, who had come to the same conclusion and found a similar jug in a book on early Texas pottery.
So, the mystery was quickly and easily solved, and the story was facinating – William Radam had concocted and sold a patent medicine which he claimed would cure most any human illness.
After working for 20 years at his own nursery business near Austin, Radam came down with malaria, and he theroized that he might cure human diseases the same way he had been curing the diseases of plants. He tried several concoctions, and after 6 months of drinking the potions, declared himself cured. Radam claimed the potion was a complex process that used sulfur, sodium nitrate, manganese oxide, sandalwood, and potassium chloride.
The first Microbe Killer jugs appear to have been salt-glazed stoneware manufactured by Meyer Pottery in Atascosa, just south of San Antonio. It seemed that Nathan had found a piece of one of those and the jug had probably been thrown into a trash dump on or near the bank of the river.
Below is a stoneware jug that is similar to the the one that which Nathan's pottery sherd was originally a part of.
Thanks to Nathan's keen eye, we both ended up with something for "Show and Tell." He took the the pottery sherd and it's story to school, and he allowed me to write about his find in this blog entry.
For more information on Wm Radam's Microbe Killer or early Texas pottery the following websites might give you a start: