When Ashley Guerra of J2LR General Contractors in Indianapolis wrote to tell me of her company’s 87 year old message in a bottle discovery, I was dumbfounded. You see–they didn’t find their message in a bottle on a beach. Instead, their crew found it while digging up a construction site at 10th and Emerson in Indy.
The tiny bottle contained a single piece of paper inscribed on both sides. The front side is hard to read. It appears to simply be a “work ticket”. It shows the business brand and logo, but the handwriting is faded beyond readability:
It’s hard to make out even if you zoom in:
Center Cleaners cleaned clothes–they were essentially dry cleaners.
The back, however, reveals an entire world:
Look at that beautiful old-timey handwriting! It’s like artwork!
I’m not totally certain, but I think it says:
This building being constructed May 20, 1930 Am placing not[e] in bottle on above date as the Center Cleaner had a store of w[h]ich I was M’g’r. Store #13. Carl L. Ott.
So the message was left in 1930. Who on earth was Carl L. Ott? I mean, this was an old message. Surely I would never be able to find him… Right?
Amazingly, as I searched, Carl L. Ott’s life unrolled right before my eyes, like I was watching a movie about him. Incredibly, he appeared in newspapers frequently throughout his life! I want to tell you about the man behind the bottle now. It’s not a brief story, but it’s a fascinating one. There’s romance, fierce politics, and near-death experiences. There’s war and trains and cars and, well, grandchildren.
So strap in, folks. You’re about to meet Carl Lewis Ott.
Our story begins in the 19-teens, when Ott was fiercely active in politics. He was a respected and well-known member of the Indianapolis Socialist party, where he fought for workers’ welfare, health, rights, and expansion and improvement of city rail systems, and he sympathized with the Suffragist movement (women’s right to vote). He even ran for office a few times (including for City Council) but I don’t think he ever won election. In fact, Carl Ott’s first appearance in the news that I could find was in The Indianapolis Star on June 11th, 1910, when he ran as the Socialist candidate for State Congressman of his district:
Ott next appeared in the news on September 27th, 1911, where it was revealed that he had lost his bid for President of the Indiana Federation of Labor:
Just a couple months later, Ott made the news again when he caused a dustup within the Central Labor Union. You see, Ott was a member of the Indiana Central Labor Union, and also a Socialist. People often confuse these things–but just to be clear: Most of the people in the Indiana Central Labor Union were not Socialists. So the reason the following story was newsworthy was that Ott wanted to nudge the Union in a more socialist direction. You might notice, too, that this story sounds familiar…Basically, Ott contends that money and corporations should not be granted any special consideration by the Union. Sound like the Citizens United case of our times? Well, it should! Ott’s basically saying that money and corporations are not people, and therefore the Union should not treat them as such. This is a long article, so feel free to skip it and read my summary at the end. This appeared in The Indianapolis Star on November 14th, 1911:
If all that is confusing, lemme break it down: Basically, the Central Labor Union says something like, “We don’t want to cause trouble for business or capital (i.e., money / goods which create profit from labor), we just don’t like it when they behave inappropriately”. But Ott thinks this is a weak and unjust position, and responds with a deeply philosophical point about capitalism. The article says, “Ott in fiery language took exception to the part of the [Union’s] constitution that recognizes capital and corporations. He declared the clause in question is not appropriate because labor in reality is opposed to capital.” And to be frank, he’s right. At least, technically speaking, the very idea of “capital” is this: Capital is basically anything that can be resold at a profit. So: if I buy a chunk of wood for one dollar, for example, how do I make a profit from it? Well, I pay someone a wage–say, $9–to carve it into a beautiful statue which I resell for $20, at a profit of $10, which goes to me and not the person who labored to transform the wood into a sculpture. So Ott’s point is basically that the very idea of capital takes advantage of the working class. In fact, the article goes on to say that Ott wants to replace that part of the Union’s constitution with a paragraph stating that the Union’s main goal should be: “the emancipation of the working class from degrading conditions.” If you read that and think, “I, too, believe the working class should be free from degrading working conditions,” well…surprise! You might just be a Socialist! 😉
The next time he appeared in the news was on June 11th, 1912 in The Indianapolis Star. This time, he was trying to get better street car / rail service throughout the city, especially during rush our. As explained below, his plan was basically to use a sort of “sit-in” style of protest on street cars in hopes of persuading management to take action. We also learn here that he was part of the Cigarmakers’ Union. That makes sense–he managed a cigar factory.
Ott’s next appearances in the news may seem a bit funny or surreal to us nowadays, but, well, he went to war with house flies! Yes, house flies! Remember, this was a long time ago–before antibiotics even. So fear of serious diseases was a daily reality. We still knew relatively little about how diseases were transmitted. But scientists had figured out that flies had the ability to spread some nasty diseases, including typhoid–in fact, the house fly was known in some areas as the “typhoid fly”. Other diseases they were thought to spread included cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, spinal meningitis, infantile paralysis, and infantum (AKA Roseola). So, this article details Ott’s efforts to build and distribute brightly colored fly traps, about the size of a modern trash can.
As a special treat, we get to see Carl for the first time here! Drumroll please! Here he is in The Indianapolis Star on June 8th, 1913!
Basically, Carl spearheaded a campaign among the Cigarmakers Union, of which he was a member, to build 100 traps to catch flies and “Save the Babies” as his slogan said. Most of the diseases they hoped to prevent with the traps affected babies most of all, thus the slogan. His union spent $300 on building the traps which were to be given away to local businesses.
But Carl Ott was not through waging war on disease and pestilence! Just over a month later, he popped up in the news again, urging the Central Labor Union to wage war on the city’s rats this time, which were known by then to spread the bubonic plague:
Shortly after the fly and rat campaigns, Carl Ott ran for the second district seat of the City Council in November, 1913. He was on a roll!
Ott’s next appearance in the news was of a much more serious nature. In April 1914, things were happening in the world that upset Ott immensely. First, America invaded Veracruz, Mexico, for reasons Ott considered unjust (and he was kinda right…this invasion is a large part of why Mexico later refused to fight alongside the US in the first World War). Second, the Ludlow Massacre happened on April 19th, in Colorado. The Ludlow Massacre happened when the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company attacked a tent camp of 1,400 striking miners, killing 24 people, including miners’ wives and their children. Why were the miners striking? Well, in part, they wanted enforcement of an 8-hour work day, and they also wanted to be paid for what was called “dead work,” like laying track. Yes, you read that right: The miners were NOT being paid to do the back-breaking work of laying tracks for the the coal carts. Apparently, the Central Labor Union agreed with Ott that they should take action about “the Colorado situation” but they did not share his outrage over America’s unjustified invasion of Mexico. So, when the Union voted down his resolution to take action on both issues, he tore the resolution to pieces and let it fall to the floor. He then promptly resigned from the Union.
But, like many who have passionate political beliefs, Carl Ott couldn’t stay out of the fray for long!
Ott returned to the headlines as he kept the pressure on the city to make better use of street cars and rail lines. Years after his first attempt, he was back at it in this article from The Indianapolis News on September 28th, 1920. Basically, it says that as a member of Indianapolis’s Central Labor Union, he served on a committee that “appear[ed] before the city council to urge that the street car lines of Indianapolis be rerouted and cross-town lines established”.
Three years passed before Carl Ott appeared in the news again. This time, sadly, it was due to the untimely passing of his brother, Herman W. Ott, from “heart trouble”. Here we see a picture of Herman W. Ott in his obituary, in which Carl L. Ott is featured, from The Indianapolis News, July 24th, 1923. It even tells us where Carl L. Ott lived!
Herman, or H.W. Ott, was well known. Not only had he served in multiple wars, he also ran a filling station in Indianapolis. Interestingly, this next obituary (from The Indianapolis Star) explains that he served in the World War. Because, of course, in 1923, there had only been one such war. He would not live to see the second World War.
Also intriguing is this next obituary for H. W. Ott, which mentions that he spent “several years with the Monon railroad”. In other words, Carl was not the only one with a close connection to railroads–even his brother H. W. Ott had spent time in the railroad industry.
Just over a year later, on Christmas Day, 1924, Carl L. Ott witnessed a rail accident in Indianapolis. For this reason, he appeared in the news the next day.
Here, we learn that Carl assumed ownership of his brother’s old filling station. Remember: H.W. Ott, after years of military service and years in the rail industry, opened a filling station in Indianapolis at 2801 Massachusetts Avenue.
Apparently, a “Clark auto” had rolled onto train tracks where it was struck by a passing train.
Carl L. Ott was one of several witnesses who “said they thought they heard cries coming from the front of the train as it sped eastward”. Ott also told the police that he “heard screams as the train passed Rural Street and Massachusetts Avenue”.
Incredibly, less than two weeks later, on January 6th, 1925, Carl L. Ott himself was hit by a train! He was hit by a train barely a mile from where he witnessed a train smash into a car just twelve days before!
And so, once again, because of rail, Carl L. Ott ended up in the news (and the hospital, this time). Here’s the article of January 6th, 1925 from The Indianapolis News:
The Indianapolis Star elaborated on the crash, explaining that a police car speeding to the scene ran into a parked car and tore through a wooden fence:
After surviving these calamities, life seems to have settled down a bit for Carl L. Ott. In fact, he seems to have done quite well for himself, as proprietor of his brother’s gas station. Here’s an ad he ran in 1929, in The Indianapolis Star. Note that he kept the filling station named after his brother, though he became the proprietor after H.W.’s death:
Just after this ad, Ott must have gotten involved with Center Cleaners and opened the 13th branch, which he managed, and where he hid his message in a bottle.
Ott’s branch was Branch 13, and it was located at 5064 E. 10th Street in Indianapolis. As you can see in this Center Cleaners ad from June 1930, Branch 13 didn’t exist yet–there were just 9 stores:
Carl Ott had just written his message in a bottle a few weeks before the above ad ran, and hid it somewhere in the building that was under construction.
Meanwhile, business was expanding, and just a few months later in December of 1930, Center Cleaners had opened 3 more locations, bringing the total number of branches to 12.
Now, we know from the date on Carl’s message (May 20, 1930) that his branch was already under construction by this time–but it hadn’t opened quite yet.
However, Center Cleaners was forced to “reorganize” between 1930 and 1932. After doing so, the company held a banquet to celebrate, at which Carl Ott spoke!
Later the same year, Center Cleaners had great news to report: business was booming!
The above 1932 article is the first to list Ott’s branch, located at 5064 East Tenth street. So, now we know: The building was under construction beginning May 20th, 1930, and sometime between then and October 1932, Branch 13 of Center Cleaners–Carl L. Ott’s branch–opened for business and helped make Center Cleaners stronger as a company.
Business was going so well for Center Cleaners that the next month, they got a huge feature story in the paper, including photos of their operations!
Just for fun, here are a couple Center Cleaners ads from the early – mid 1930s, some mentioning Carl’s branch at 5064 E. 10th Street:
So that’s what was going on with Carl L. Ott and the Center Cleaners in the early 1930s.
But let’s back up the tape for a minute.
Remember when Carl Ott was hit by the train back in January 1925? Well, after surviving that accident, the next time he appeared in the news was in the “Society Pages”. You know–the old-timey thing newspapers used to do where they would share updates about folks who were well-known. Basically, these were analog “status updates”. Here’s a series of updates about Carl L. Ott from the late 1920s, right before he opened Branch 13 of Center Cleaners, and on into the early 1930s, when he was managing the branch:
Imagine getting mentioned in the newspaper simply because you traveled from Indianapolis to Washington, D.C. and Newport News, VA! Fascinating!
How about having your return from a friend’s house mentioned in the paper?
Or, you know…Just let the whole city know that you are about to take a “motor trip” to visit Chicago and Milwaukee:
It seems funny to us now, but I guess this is just what folks did back then!
Like–imagine that you had had friends over for dinner recently… Better get the word out!
This next announcement from 1938 is my favorite by far–one of their two daughters was getting married! Woo woo! <3
Amazingly, Carl L. Ott made it over ten years before he appeared in the news again–he didn’t get smacked by any trains, he didn’t witness others getting run over…life was just quiet for him, it seems. Then, we learn the happy news that he and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, as reported by The Indianapolis Star on Jan 23rd, 1949. Just think: that means they married in 1899! The article mentions that Carl is retired from managing Center Cleaners’ Branch 13–the exact store mentioned in his message in a bottle!
If you were looking for concrete confirmation that this message in a bottle is from THIS Carl L. Ott–well, there you have it. At the time of the above article, the bottled note had already been hidden under Branch 13 of Center Cleaners for over a decade.
We also learn that Carl and his wife now have two grandchildren: Samuel Carl and Margaret Jane Pete. Remember these names…
Carl’s next appearance in the newspaper was bittersweet. On the one hand, he was now celebrating his 57th wedding anniversary with his wife (the bottle had been hidden for two decades now); on the other hand, he had been stricken with a “six-week illness”.
Sadly, later in 1956, Carl made the news for the final time. On September 26th, 1956, The Indianapolis Star reported that Carl L. Ott “departed this life” at the age of 81.
I can’t help thinking of that final phrase–“Friends invited”.
With a life as long and accomplished as Carl L. Ott’s, with his various jobs and community connections (his time in unions and politics, time with the filling station, the Center Cleaners branch, his decades with the Masons, his cigar factory), “Friends” must have included a whole lot of people.
Carl’s name appeared one last time in The Indianapolis Star, when his family wished to acknowledge the sympathy shown them by friends, family, and the community after Carl’s death.
This, my friends, all of this, is what Ashley Guerra and the J2LR Construction crew unearthed when they discovered Carl’s bottled note among the debris as they excavated to build a new building. Not just a bottle, not just a note, not just the crushed remains of an old building. No. What they found was this: A whole life, preserved in a bottle. A war hero for a brother (H.W. Ott), a wife, children, grandchildren, and road trips all over the country with them; a death-defying, narrow escape from a train running him over; service in a labor union, a popular filling station business, and, of course, the Center Cleaners building in which he hid his bottled note, where it lay undiscovered for 80-something years.
And, just like that, everything went silent. Carl was gone.
But I couldn’t stand the silence. I had to find his grandchildren!
I did a bit more digging and called a number that I hoped belonged to Margaret, and left her a message. The next day, she called me back!
“He was kind of a unique person,” Margaret said of her grandfather, Carl. “He spent a lot of time with my brother and me while we were growing up.”
That made sense to me–I could tell Carl was big on family.
“We spent a lot of time in the summers playing euchre with him, and pinochle, and listening to baseball games on an old fashioned radio that looked like a TV set,” Margaret told me, “They had a house with a big porch on it with swings and chairs, so it kind of felt like an extra room.”
As Margaret noted, they didn’t have a lot of technological gizmos back then, so, other than the radio, they pretty much had to entertain themselves.
“There was a grocery store near his house,” she went on, “And one summer, my brother and I went every morning down to the store with him. We got the wooden crates that they shipped the oranges and citrus in, and we took them back to his house. Well, he took them apart and we built a playhouse out of the wood in his backyard! We put a roof on it–it had a door and a lock and everything. It was a beautiful little house and we made it in one summer. And every once in a while when my husband and I are in Indianapolis, we drive by his old house, and that playhouse was still standing back there up until a few years ago. It was a unique project. People just couldn’t believe we had built that house out of those crates!”
Margaret and her brother Samuel got to spend some truly wonderful time with Carl when they were young. Sadly, Carl did not live to see Margaret’s marriage, which happened just 6 years after his death.
Margaret and David Harkins went on to have children of their own, and their son and his wife had children of their own.
When I told J2LR General Contractors the full history of Carl and his note, and about Margaret, they did the right thing! They invited Margaret to the office to give her the message in a bottle her grandfather had hidden before she was born.
And so, at last, Margaret has received her grandfather’s final letter:
Personally, I know very little about my great-great-grandparents. It would be a dream come true if someone would dig up a message in a bottle from them. I know that I would want the message to bring them “to life” for me–I would want to know the whole story behind the message.
And so, this post is dedicated to all of Carl L. Ott’s descendants. Y’all have an extremely interesting ancestor. I have shared these stories about him to help illuminate the message in a bottle he left–to breathe some life into it. And I also hope the stories I’ve shared here help everyone who reads this see him not just as a memory, but as a vibrant, passionate man who cared deeply about the well-being of others, who dedicated his life to treating people fairly and loving his family, who spoke out against injustice, and who helped his grandkids build the best backyard playhouse there ever was…
In the end, I guess the “message” from this bottle is pretty darn simple, for me: Be more like Carl. Be kinder, be braver, be more loving, more hard-working. Stick up for the vulnerable. And, once in a while, just relax and play some card games. If you’ve lived like Carl, then by God, you’ve earned it!