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Lightning In a Bottle: The Early Years of Coke

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 16, 2023 3:00 am

Lightning In a Bottle: The Early Years of Coke

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 16, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, why were Coke bottles green? How do Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola relate? How did a syrup that was originally sold as a patent medicine end up as the South's greatest export in the post-Civil War economy? Larry Jorgensen, author of The Coca-Cola Trail and the Return to the Coca-Cola Trail tells the story of this sugary soft drink.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Your actual range will vary. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And we love hearing your stories.

Send them to Up next, a story about a drink that we all know but might not know the back story of. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story. Coca-Cola is arguably the South's most successful export. They sell around 3 billion cases of product around the world annually, but they started out small. Here's Larry Jorgensen, author of The Coca-Cola Trail, with more on that. Well, Coca-Cola actually started out as the syrup that is now the main ingredient in Coca-Cola.

And the syrup was invented by John Pemberton, who was a pharmacist in Columbus, Georgia, and had started working on the formula. And then his time of working on the formula was interrupted by the Civil War, and he actually fought in the Civil War. When he got out of the war, he had a war injury.

You know, stories get twisted through the years. I heard it was a saber-type injury to his stomach, but whatever, it was definitely from the war, and he was looking to get some relief. Relief in the form of a morphine-free painkiller, as he was addicted to the substance at the time. He had studied, and he had learned that the cola nut would create a pretty good flavor, and the coca leaf was known for giving some relief to pain. So he developed this formula with those two items in mind, the coca leaf and the cola nut. Now, the coca leaf, as it was used in producing the Coca-Cola syrup, was not processed, and I get this all the time, it was not processed in a way that would produce cocaine. There was no cocaine in Coca-Cola. There was the coca leaf, which I guess if you broke it down far enough, you'd find common natural ingredients to cocaine.

Such as echonine, a relative, or rather a precursor, of cocaine. But it was not cocaine, it was simply the processed coca leaf that eliminated the pain to some degree, and helped create the flavor along with the cola nut of what became Coca-Cola. He moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he perfected his recipe, and actually it was on March 29th, in his backyard in a big three-legged kettle, that he made the first batch of Coca-Cola syrup. And it was, as they say, for medicinal purposes. He took it to the local drug store, and they served it. You come in, you have a pain, a headache, or whatever, they'd put a little Coca-Cola syrup in a glass and put in some carbonated water, and it worked.

But not only did it work, it tasted good. And people started requesting the drink as something that they enjoyed, not to necessarily solve a headache or something. So it really took off from there, but the irony of the thing is that the man who invented it only owned Coca-Cola syrup for about three years.

He sold the rights and the formula, et cetera, to Asa Candler. Well, Asa's thing in life was he wanted to sell syrup, and that's all that he wanted to do. And he would sell it to other drug stores and so forth, and it was for that purpose and that purpose only.

He thought that bottling Coca-Cola was, and I will quote, a dumb idea. Well, what happened, there was a gentleman in Vicksburg who owned a candy business and a soda fountain, and a very ambitious man by the name of Bedenharn. And Mr. Bedenharn was obviously selling the Coca-Cola syrup in his drug store. Well, he also would do things like he would cater parties in that. It so happened that on one July 4th, he was to cater a party, a picnic, a big July 4th picnic, and to bring beverages and everything. And what he would do then is there was a small bottler in Vicksburg who bottled, you know, lemon and sarsaparilla and orange and all those things. So he would go to that bottler and buy at wholesale some of these bottles of soda that he would take along to the event he was catering. Well, it so happened on this July 4th, there was such a demand for product that his order was not available, but yet he had the customer.

So Mr. Bedenharn went to the picnic and made lemonade for everybody, and after that picnic, he said, this will never happen again. And he went to St. Louis and he bought some secondhand bottling equipment. Now, we're talking about bottling equipment that is, you know, one bottle at a time and you push a foot lever, you know, to make it happen. And he brought that back to Vicksburg and started bottling Coca-Cola. He thought, you know, people really like this drink, I'm going to bottle it, and people in the country, you know, I can take it to them.

They don't have to come to town to get a Coca-Cola. So he set off to bottle. The story is the first two cases of Coca-Cola that he bottled, he sent them to Atlanta, to Mr. Candler, to let him know what he was doing. And of course, Candler was more interested in selling old Joe Bedenharn some syrup, and Candler, you know, wrote back to him, yeah, it's okay.

But, you know, wasn't impressed, and Joe Bedenharn said, you know, he never sent my bottles back, you know, so that was the big thing. And you're listening to the story of Coca-Cola, the South's most successful export. It had been right up until the 1860s, 70s, and 80s cotton. And thank goodness that changed for both the South and for Coke lovers across the globe, including myself, a certified Coke addict, if ever there was one.

When we come back, more of this remarkable story, Coca-Cola's rise, here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Learn more at And we return to our American stories and the story of how Coca-Cola got into a bottle. When we last left off, a man in Vicksburg, Mississippi named Joe Bedenharn had decided to, much to the chagrin of Coca-Cola corporate in Atlanta, use their syrup to bottle Coca-Cola himself.

Let's continue with the story. So for five years, Joe Bedenharn is bottling Coca-Cola. Now the only other place that was bottling Coca-Cola about two years after Bedenharn started in Vicksburg, there was a bottler in Valbosta, Georgia. So within five years of Coca-Cola being invented, there were only two places that were bottling it. Well, from there, this is how Coca-Cola takes off. We have a young man from Chattanooga who is in the Spanish-American War in Cuba.

His name was Ben Thomas. While he's in Cuba, he enjoys a beverage over there called friapinha, cold pineapple, and it's bottled. Well, he's from Chattanooga and he remembers that when he was in Chattanooga, he used to get Coca-Cola at the counter and it was really good.

He thought, that's it. I'm going, when I get out of here, I'm going back to Chattanooga and we're going to bottle Coca-Cola. So he goes back to Chattanooga and he speaks with his friend Joseph Whitehead. They were both attorneys and they shared rooms in a boarding house there and he presented his idea to him. He said, we could be partners and do this. So they chase off to Atlanta, Georgia. They get down there and meet with Mr. Candler and say, we want the rights to bottle Coca-Cola throughout the United States.

We want the exclusive rights. Well, Candler thought, no. He said this, I don't want to do that. He said, I'm worried that Coca-Cola will not have the same flavor in the bottle. He said, I'm worried about the quality. He said, to be honest about it, it's a dumb idea and I think bottling is a backstreet business. So, you know, he chased them away and they persisted and finally he said, all right, I'll tell you what.

You go back to your hotel tonight and you draw up what you think would be a contract and you bring it to me and I'll look at it. So while they're lawyers, you know, they go back and they draw up a contract that gives them the exclusive rights to bottle Coca-Cola in the United States. The next day, they go back and they meet with Mr. Candler and he looks at it and he said, well, he said, you can't have all of the United States because Joe's already doing it in Mississippi.

So I can't give you Mississippi. But he sold them the rights to bottle Coca-Cola exclusively throughout the United States for one dollar. And it was said that he never collected the dollar. He just wanted to get rid of them. And he told them when they left, I still think it's a dumb idea.

And if it doesn't work, I don't want you to come crying back to me about it. So here they go. They go back to Chattanooga. Right. The two of them, they now have the rights to bottle Coca-Cola throughout the United States.

Nobody else can do it. Well, between the two of them, they've got fifteen hundred dollars and they have this project called Bottle Coca-Cola for Everybody. So they start a little bottling plant and they said, no, this isn't going to work. You know, first of all, they weren't real good at it.

You know, the workers were wearing protective mesh over their face because the bottles kept exploding. And they thought this is not going to work. Then the light goes on and they said, wait a minute, we've got the rights. And they said, why don't we start selling territories?

That's what we'll do. So, you know, if you wanted to bottle Coca-Cola and Paducah, Kentucky, they would sell you a 50 mile territory in Paducah, Kentucky. And that would be your territory. You could set up your little bottling plant and sell Coca-Cola. And today, I think, you know, we'd call that franchising. The interesting thing, you may have paid fifteen hundred dollars or whatever for that territory, but you also were required to use the Coca-Cola syrup, obviously. So you had to order syrup from Atlanta to make your Coca-Cola. Well, every time you ordered a gallon of syrup from Atlanta, the two attorneys that sold you your territory got a commission on you purchasing that syrup.

So, you know, they were gone but not forgotten, so to speak. And they ultimately, both of them, got very rich because of being able to sell the territory and just keep the commission on the syrup that was being used in each territory. And that is how Coca-Cola took off. You, all of a sudden, you've got young, ambitious business people, entrepreneurs around the country that have scraped together enough money to buy a territory to bottle Coca-Cola. So they're out working, bottling, selling it, promoting it, doing whatever they can to promote your product. And that's what really made Coca-Cola grow rapidly in the United States.

Well, that certainly is growing a business from the consumer demand and not the desire of the owner of the business. And the interesting thing on all of that is that the Coca-Cola bottle, as we know it, didn't really happen until about 1915. You know, these bottlers, OK, now they've got syrup and they're going to make Coca-Cola, but what are you going to put it in? You know, so what happened is there were any bottle they could get their hands on.

And in the early days, you know, why do we hear it called pop? Because in the early days, one of the bottles they would get would have this rubber stopper on the top, and when you opened it, it would go pop. Well, because there was no standard bottle and bottles were whatever you could get your hands on, there also became a lot of knockoff products. People saw what was happening with Coca-Cola. So the next thing you've got, you know, Coca-Cola is spelled with two K's, you've got churro cola, you've got there were probably 60, 70 different people that at one time were making a cola beverage. So consequently, the consumer that would see a bottle and would say something about cola on it, they would presume it's Coca-Cola and they would buy it. So finally, the Coca-Cola company said, wait a minute, we have got to do something about this. And legally, they did go after a couple companies that were using the term cola, but they decided the best plan was in marketing and to have their own bottle that was the only bottle that would represent Coca-Cola and could not be used by anybody else.

It was a patented design. What they did is they challenged the bottle manufacturers to a competition and they said, all right, bottle manufacturers, you produce the bottle, we'll select one of them and that will be the bottle. It'll be patented and you will be allowed to produce that bottle for every Coca-Cola bottler in the United States. Well, the challenge was met by five bottle manufacturers and in 1915, the five manufacturers each took what they thought should be the bottle to a Coca-Cola bottlers convention in Atlanta and presented the bottles. And you've been listening to Larry Jorgensen tell the story of Coca-Cola's rise. And by the way, to read his two books on the subject, the Coca-Cola trail and the return to the Coca-Cola trail, go to your local bookstore or Amazon or the usual suspect wherever you get your book. And what a story about business, about competition, about franchising, about ingenuity and licensing, all of these business concepts that help propel ideas into the common culture and to common use as Coca-Cola has managed to do in this great country.

When we come back, more of this remarkable business story, this culture story here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from I Heart Radio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis from early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care. Every person with MG has a story to tell, and by featuring these real life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition and let those living with it know that they are not alone.

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Let's return to the story. Well, the challenge was met by five bottle manufacturers. And in 1915, the five manufacturers each took what they thought should be the bottle to a Coca-Cola bottlers convention in Atlanta and presented the bottles.

Well, one was selected. It was the bottle manufactured by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. And it was in fact the design that we all recognize now as Coca-Cola. The interesting thing on the Coca-Cola bottle, if you look at the original bottle, it has and did have for many, many years a very light green tint to it. And that, in fact, was the result of a sand that the Root Glass Company was getting its sand from a quarry about 50 miles away from Terre Haute, Indiana.

Well, that sand had, amongst other things, it had copper and some other minerals in it. So when the glass was blown using that sand, it would get a light green tint because of the minerals that were in the sand. Coca-Cola was so pleased with that that they named it, first they called it German green. That was going to be the color used in the bottle.

Well, they thought twice about that and decided they would call it Georgia green. So as time goes on and other bottle companies are given the rights to make the Coca-Cola bottle, Coca-Cola says to them, if the sand you use in developing the bottle does not contain the minerals to create the green, you must add them. So it was something that happened by accident and something that became a part of the Coca-Cola bottle for decades.

Now, yes, you can go in the store and you could buy that little six and a half ounce bottle and it's white. But for many, many decades it was light green and that's the way Coca-Cola wanted it. And I guess there's another side story we need to tell, too, about it's not Coca-Cola, it's Delta Airlines.

And everybody says, well, how does that relate? Well, I'll tell you what, Coca-Cola money created Delta Airlines. What happened was that Bedenharn, the family that were the first to ever bottle Coca-Cola in Vicksburg, Mississippi, they were doing well and they were, you know, five brothers that were ambitious. They find a bottler in Monroe, Monroe, Louisiana, that is, and they buy that bottle. And that becomes Coca-Cola bottling plant number two for the Bedenharns.

Well, that evolves. They continue to buy plants. They continue to grow. And every time they grow, another brother becomes a bottler.

He goes to whatever the next plant is. And at one time they were one of the top five independent bottlers in the United States. And Joe Bedenharn's son, Bernie Bedenharn, became sort of the leader of the pack, so to speak.

He was the youngest son. And he got interested. There was a crop dusting company in Monroe, Louisiana, which is where they were located. And the crop duster needed some help, wanted to buy some more planes.

So Mr. Bernie Bedenharn loaned him some money and in return he got some stock. And this goes on and on, needs some more planes. And all of a sudden they decide, we're going to start hauling passengers. Besides spraying crops, we'll start hauling passengers from Dallas, Texas, to Shreveport, to Monroe, to Georgia. And so they started hauling passengers. Well, it then became the Delta Airline Company based out of Monroe, Louisiana.

And once again, Mr. Bedenharn was right there to help finance them and to help them buy planes and to make it all happen. And it was in fact, for a long time, Monroe, Louisiana was the corporate headquarters for Delta Airlines. An interesting story is that at one point when Delta had gotten pretty big, they were still located in Monroe as a corporate headquarters. And they were having their annual meeting of the board and the investors in Delta Airlines. They were having it in Monroe. Well, at that point, one of the investors from a big city, maybe Chicago, who knows where, stood up and said, you know, I'm whoever I am. I'm Joe Smith and I'm from Chicago. And our airline has gotten so big, we should not be meeting in places like Monroe, Louisiana.

We need to be meeting in bigger towns. You know, I have 5,000 shares of Delta Airlines and I think as an investor we need to move on. And at that point, Mr. Bernie Bedenharn, who was obviously an investor in attending the meeting, stood up and said, I'm Bernie Bedenharn and I have 90-some thousand shares of Delta Airlines and we'll see you next year in Monroe.

So it was an interesting story how for a long time Coca-Cola money played a big role in what is now the giant Delta Airlines. The Bedenharns would also get involved in baseball, with Ollie Bedenharn building the Bedenharn Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1920s. It was there that Ollie would pioneer something that we take for granted today. The baseball park was in fact the first park to have night lights because he realized it gets pretty warm in the summertime in Shreveport, but nighttime is a good time for baseball. It's cooler, so they lit the ballpark and they did amazing things in promoting people to come to the ballpark and to have a Coca-Cola. One of the most amazing things was old Babe Ruth came to town and Coca-Cola Shreveport promoted him coming to town with his baseball team to play the Shreveport team and it was a tremendous sellout. And old Babe got up there and slammed a couple home runs, in fact one of them he hit so hard it went out of the park and landed up through the window of a streetcar that was going by.

It was just typical of what they would do and today if you go to Shreveport, Louisiana you're going to find buildings, you're going to find public hospitals, things that are named Bedenharn because of what was done then at that time for the community. And obviously to promote the product. Let's realize that we're getting the word out about the product and Coca-Cola as well is helping the community. Randy Mayo, who is a great grandson of Ollie Bedenharn, basically he said was getting a Coca-Cola franchise was like getting the key to a gold mine. I think Coca-Cola will always be here, you know 100 years from now it won't be the Coca-Cola we know now but it will be Coca-Cola owned and Coca-Cola promoted and it will be equally as important part of what a person enjoys as it is now.

You know I wish I could stick around for the next couple generations to see where they go, whatever. And the bottlers that we write about can be thankful that they are Coca-Cola bottlers. And a terrific job on the production by Monty Montgomery and a special thanks again to Larry Jorgensen. His two books, The Coca-Cola Trail and The Return to the Coca-Cola Trail are available at the usual suspects online or at your local bookstores. There's so much but ingenuity being the key and enterprise and enterprising entrepreneurs.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-16 04:20:22 / 2023-08-16 04:31:59 / 12

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