Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 23, 2010

A brief history of the Chattanooga Coca-Cola Company

This fully restored 1954 Chevrolet pickup truck resembles the vehicles Chattanooga Coca-Cola used to transport its bottled drinks throughout the middle part of the 20th century. While the truck was more advanced than the horse and buggy method Coca-Cola had used several decades earlier, it was still a far cry from the air- conditioned vans and trucks the company uses today. Chattanooga Coca-Cola often features the truck in parades. (David Laprad) - David Laprad
Chattanooga is replete with history. From the Civil War battles that took place on its soil, to the Cherokee leaving Ross’ Landing on their journey along the Trail of Tears, to the city being among the first in the South to hire African American police officers, Chattanooga has been an integral part of many moments in history. But there’s one thing its residents can say started here: Chattanooga is the site of the world’s first Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
Today, people in more than 200 countries collectively consume more than 1.6 billion servings of Coca-Cola per day, due in part to the efforts of bottling companies located around the world. But there was a time when the only business putting Coca-Cola in a bottle was located at 17 Market Street in Chattanooga, where Patten Parkway currently stands.
Rick Hansard is the marketing director of the Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling Company, which today employs more than 400 people at its current home on Amnicola Highway. While Hansard could fill a small museum with the company memorabilia in his office, of particular interest is an amber Coca-Cola bottle that’s more than a century old. Unlike the famous contoured receptacle that has been a Coca-Cola trademark since 1915, there’s nothing distinctive about the bottle other than its age.
Hansard picks it up and begins to reminisce.
“The brand started out in 1886 as an elixir. A pharmacist named Dr. John Stythe Pemberton had created a syrup out of drugs and naturally occurring substances, and he would put it in water for people to drink. In time, someone put it in soda water, which tasted even better, and Coca-Cola was born,” he says.
Pemberton didn’t anticipate how popular Coca-Cola would become, and a few years later, sold the company to Asa Candler, who saw the long-term possibilities. Under Candler’s leadership, Coca-Cola became tremendously popular, in part because he put a substantial portion of the company’s profits into advertising.
In the summer of 1899, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead, two lawyers practicing in Chattanooga, traveled to Atlanta to meet with Candler. One of the attorneys had bought a carbonated orange drink in a bottle while in Cuba, and wanted to inquire about bottling Coca-Cola.
Candler thought it was a bad idea and said no.
“He didn’t want them dragging down the good name of Coca-Cola. Being lawyers, they drew up a contract that essentially said Candler could pull their franchise if they ever produced an inferior product. Since that protected him, and he saw they were serious, he signed away the rights for a dollar,” Hansard says.
Candler never collected the fee.
“He thought bottling would never take off, so he only charged them a dollar. He was a man of integrity, and didn’t want to take advantage of them,” Hansard says.
Thomas and Whitehead weren’t wealthy, so they sought financial backing. A local gentleman who’d done well in pharmaceuticals, Jack Lupton, stepped up to the plate.
“The three of them did quite well with their investment,” Hansard says.
Next, Hansard pulls up several historical photos on his computer and continues his trip back in time. The first picture is a scratchy black and white snapshot of the inside of a bottling operation that might or might not have been the one in Chattanooga. A number of men had posed for the photo, a bottling machine and stacks of Coca-Cola on either side of them.
“This was taken around 1910. I can tell because the bottles have metal caps on them. They’d seal the bottles with a manual stamper, which is archaic by today’s standards,” Hansard says.
One of the lesser-known facts about the early days of Chattanooga Coca-Cola is that Candler also gave Thomas and Whitehead the rights to franchise the bottling of Coca-Cola across most of the country. Hansard says this is where the founding fathers of the company made their fortunes.
“To determine where they needed to put another bottling operation, they used the distance a horse and wagon could go in one day and still make it back. By 1930, there were bottlers in every small town across the country,” Hansard says.
Hansard then pulls up a photo of a foundry in Chattanooga with a large Coca-Cola ad painted on its exterior.
“In those days, the company would approach the owner of a foundry and offer to paint the building for free in exchange for allowing it to put the Coca-Cola image on his building. This picture was taken before 1910,” he says.
The foundry is no longer there, but a much cleaner downtown area is.
Hansard then uses a different snapshot to show how Coca-Cola took part in major innovations in marketing, such as placing ads in ballparks and other areas where the public would gather. In the picture, Babe Ruth is taking a swing during an exhibition game, the Coca-Cola logo visible along the outfield fence.
As one of Chattanooga’s most enduring and successful companies, Chattanooga Coca-Cola has also had a profound effect on its community. In fact, many of the businesses that helped to build the city existed as a result of Coca-Cola, from Chattanooga Box & Lumber, which made the shipping crates; to Chattanooga Glass, which made the bottles; to Cavalier Corporation, which made vending machines.
Plus, as Chattanooga Coca-Cola grew, the owners began to invest in the city. Through its work with The United Way, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Hamilton County Board of Education and other organizations, Chattanooga Coca-Cola was able to improve its hometown.
“Inside every bottle of Coca-Cola, there’s a little bit of Chattanooga,” the Chattanooga Coca-Cola Web site says.
In 1992, Chattanooga Coca-Cola became part of the central division of United Packers, which also includes three facilities on Alabama. The Chattanooga division maintains a dominant market share in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.
In 1999, Chattanooga Coca-Cola celebrated its 100th anniversary by placing a historical marker at the site of the original plant. Although more than a decade has passed since then, Hansard says the goal of Chattanooga Coca-Cola remains the same: “To carry on the historic tradition of Coca-Cola in Chattanooga by providing quality products and service at a fair price. We (also) strive to be leaders in the community with competent, determined people who love their job.”
What makes Chattanooga Coca-Cola special? The answer is best summed up on the company’s Web site, which quotes Vice President Gary Davis as saying, “It’s not mortar and steel, but ... infrastructure. That infrastructure is the employees, the relationships they build in the community, and the way they value the reputation of their company.”
To learn more, visit www.chattanoogacocacola.com.