John Shearer: New Book On Coca-Cola Features Chattanooga Prominently

Tuesday, February 27, 2018 - by John Shearer

Coca-Cola for decades has been one of the world’s most popular thirst-quenching drinks, but Larry Jorgensen found that visiting a couple of Coke-related museums near his Louisiana home actually whetted his desire for more information.

So what followed was a journey of research and interviews and other visits that ultimately resulted in the recent publication of “The Coca-Cola Trail: People and Places in the History of Coca-Cola.

To use some Coca-Cola vernacular, he hopes the book offers a refreshing look at a number of towns and cities that have been greatly influenced and shaped by Coca-Cola bottling operations and related businesses.

And yes, Chattanooga is featured prominently in the book. Not only does Mr. Jorgensen spend about eight pages telling the story of how Chattanooga became the world’s first franchised bottler and that some locals developed regional territories across the nation, but he also mentions related businesses that came about as a result.

“The Chattanooga chapter really fascinated me,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “The more I got into the chapter, the more I realized Chattanooga has more claim to Coca-Cola fame than Atlanta does.

“If it hadn’t been for (pioneering local bottlers Benjamin) Thomas and (Joseph) Whitehead….,” he continued. “That is what drove the Coca-Cola empire. They looked at each other and said, ‘How are we going to bottle Coca-Cola all over the country?’ It dawned on them, ‘Let’s sell the rights.’ It was that motivation that led other people to become involved in bottling Coca-Cola.”

As Mr. Jorgensen chronicles in detail, including by using facts not found in many of the past newspaper articles and other past chronicles about the drink, Chattanoogan Benjamin Thomas had returned from the Spanish-American War with his own thirst for both a refreshing beverage and a way to make money.

He had seen a popular bottled drink down in Cuba, and mentioned the idea of having a bottled soft drink here to his boarding roommate in Chattanooga, Sam Erwin. By chance, Mr. Erwin was a cousin of Asa Candler, who sold Coca-Cola in drug stores in Atlanta, so he arranged for a meeting with Mr. Candler.

The drink had been invented in 1886 by pharmacist John Pemberton, but was sold to Mr. Candler before Mr. Pemberton’s death in 1888.

Mr. Candler was initially not interested, but Mr. Thomas persevered and realized he needed a partner to show the seriousness of his plan. So he convinced fellow Chattanooga boarding roommate Joseph Whitehead to join him.

While still not overly confident in the bottling idea, this time Mr. Candler granted the rights. It was for $1, although some say he never bothered to collect it.

In the book, Mr. Jorgensen points out several other little-known or forgotten facts about the early days. For example, he said that the Chattanoogans tried initially to contract out the bottling operation to a Shreveport, La., firm, and that Coca-Cola had actually been bottled before in Vicksburg, Miss., and in Valdosta, Ga.

Of course, the writer also mentions how J.T. Lupton – the grandfather of former Chattanooga benefactor Jack Lupton – bought half of Mr. Whitehead’s share and became wealthy getting people to open bottling operations.

“He would a lot of times finance them,” said Mr. Jorgensen, a longtime journalist who has worked in TV, print and radio. “He would often sell to someone he knew or a relative. That’s how he became wealthy. He is the No. 1 example of someone who saw an opportunity.”

Besides the Luptons, the Thomases and the Whiteheads, other locals who became wealthy from Coca-Cola bottling included the Frank Harrison and Summerfield Johnston families and Mr. Thomas’ nephew, George Hunter, among others.

Mr. Jorgensen also mentions Mr. Hunter – who lived in the large home that became part of the Hunter Museum of American Art – in the chapter on the Indianapolis, Ind., bottling operation. He said the noted Chattanoogan, who has buildings at UTC and Baylor School named for him, was on hand along with Coca-Cola president Robert Woodruff and other officials when the massive Indianapolis plant was opened amid a grand civic celebration in 1931.

The author also talks about how some people became bottlers due to a connection with Chattanooga. He said Luther Carson opened a bottling operation in Paducah, Ky., in 1903 after he and his brother, John, were working on their uncle’s Incline Railway and became acquainted with Mr. Thomas and Mr. Whitehead, who would take the railway car to their Lookout Mountain homes.

Mr. Jorgensen also devotes several pages to some of the affiliated Chattanooga businesses that were as closely connected to Coca-Cola from a business sense as a hamburger and French fries have been in a dining sense.

These included the Chattanooga Glass Company, which provided Coca-Cola bottles around the country; the Chattanooga Labeling Company, which in later years started doing decorated Coca-Cola bottles; Chattanooga Box and Lumber, which provided wooden carton cases for the Coke bottles; and the Cavalier Company, which made refrigerated Coca-Cola machines as well as furniture.

While the history and local lore of these other businesses and the local bottlers are rich with detail, the accomplishments and other local connections have not been marketed like the drink has historically.

Mr. Jorgensen said he cannot believe there is not a museum to Chattanooga’s contribution to Coca-Cola bottling, as there are in other cities detailing those towns’ bottling histories.

“The frustration I had was telling people where they can go and touch and feel it all,” he said. “If any town should have a Coca-Cola museum, it is Chattanooga.”

One unusual Coke museum he saw was one in Cedartown, Ga., which had been opened by a young Daniel Morris in the abandoned bottling plant there purchased by his parents and featuring his personal collection of memorabilia. The plant building was built in 1920 by F.S. Barron of Rome, Ga., who had several bottling operations in Georgia, including one in nearby Dalton.

One facility that might become a museum of sorts is the abandoned and long-neglected mansion of former Coca-Cola head Asa Candler, whose financial success was no doubt aided by being visited by Mr. Thomas and Mr. Whitehead years earlier.

The structure was built in the early 1920s in the Druid Hills area of Atlanta, and owner Emory University in recent months announced plans to turn it into a boutique hotel and event space, Mr. Jorgensen writes in another chapter in the book.

It would be another reminder of the tremendous impact Chattanoogans directly or indirectly made on this popular drink over the years.

Because of what all he found out, Mr. Jorgensen said he enjoyed researching the history of Chattanooga’s connection to the drink and those of other cities.

Since the book came out, he has already been given leads on other places connected to Coca-Cola bottling not mentioned in his previous book, and he is pondering a volume 2.

He also welcomes opportunities for speaking or book-signing engagements, and said he can be reached at

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