Remembering…Harlan, soda pop and me
I was born in Harlan, Kentucky in 1940. I grew up there, attended kindergarten through high school and graduated from Harlan High School in 1958. Memories…I do have a few! One such fond memory involves soda pop, and I wanted to share it with you.
Old timers will recall when Coca-Cola was produced in Harlan at a bottling facility located at the corner of Central Street and Cumberland Avenue. When they needed more space they moved the operation to Baxter. If you drive out of Harlan on North Main Street after about a mile you come to the “Coal Monument” in Baxter. Today, if you turn left there you encounter a bridge which is now closed, but was for many years open and connected Harlan/Baxter with the town of Loyall, another few miles down the road. When Coca-Cola moved from Harlan it located in a new structure just beyond the Baxter bridge on the left toward Loyall. This new building was where the road turned 90 degrees to the right toward Loyall. This geography is important in a story I’ll tell you later.
During two summers when I was in high school I worked at the Coca-Cola plant in Baxter My job there was as a general flunky. In those days the trucks that carried the cases of bottled Coca-Cola were flat beds, with one bed stacked atop another. The trucks would go out early in the morning and start to return to the plant around mid-afternoon.
One of my first jobs there was to help load out the trucks as they returned each day. It was necessary to first unload the truck filled with cases of empty bottles, then replace them with cases filled with freshly bottled Cokes. In those days the bottles were 6 ounces…..the 10 ounce versions came later. The cases were wooden with four bottles across and six bottles deep (24 cokes to the case). The bottles were separated in their case by a checkerboard pattern of wooden spacers that kept the bottles from touching each other.
In order to load out the trucks, it was necessary to learn how to “throw” a case across the bed of the truck such that it landed in the proper location. This was not easy! My fellow workers were patient with me, and explained that you had to pick up a case and hold it balanced with your left hand underneath and your right hand positioned in the center on the back side. You then started the “pitching” motion. You used your right hand to propel the case forward, while your left hand held the case in position and aimed it in the direction you wanted it to go. That part was not too bad. The real trick was that you had to throw the case such that its front end landed first on the truck bed and then the back end would plop down and the bottles would all stay in the case. If you threw improperly, and the back end touched down first, then the front end would come down and propel several, if not all, of the bottles out of the case flying in all directions. When these bottles came into contact with something solid, often times the plant floor, they would explode. This was greatly frowned upon! It took me the better part of my first week to perfect my case tossing technique, and prior to learning it I learned how to sweep up broken bottles of Coke off the floor.
After a month or so of unloading and loading cases of Coke, I was introduced to the job of “inspector.” In the bottling operation, the inspection station is the last station prior to the bottles going onto a turntable from which they are removed and placed in cases. The inspector sits on a stool beside the bottling line and has the job of watching the bottles as they pass in front of a brightly lit frosted panel. The inspector can see through the bottled Cokes and can detect anything abnormal, e.g. a chipped or cracked bottle, or something foreign inside the drink, like screws, bolts, roaches, mice, toothpicks, pebbles, etc. My fellow workers told me many stories about how inspectors had found such items. On the day I was to learn how to be an inspector I was escorted to the inspection station by a coworker. When we got to the inspection station I noticed that my coworker had to punch the inspector on the back in order to get his attention. It was then that I noticed the inspector jerk and open his eyes! I realized he had been dozing on the job!! I did my very best not to doze when I functioned as an inspector. It was hard…sort of like counting sheep…all those Coke bottles rolling by, but I managed.
I was also trained to work at the turntable. This was the end of the bottling line, and the bottles, rolling off the bottling line in single file, would go onto a round table that constantly turned. Two employees normally worked at the turntable station. Their job was to get four bottles, two between fingers in each hand, and place them into a case. As mentioned before, the cases were 4 bottles across and 6 deep, each case holding 24 bottles. So at the turntable station there were two lines of empty cases on a conveyor line gravity fed, one to each operator. The operator would remove an empty case and put it on another conveyor line, fill it with freshly bottled Cokes, and then push the full case down the conveyor. This job I learned pretty quickly, about the only real trick was learning how to grab four bottles from the turntable, two between fingers on each hand, and then swing them into the case. After a bit of practice I mastered this one pretty well.
Back to the story related to the geography of the bottling plant. The front wall of the plant was all glass, so people passing by could see the bottling operation in progress. As one would look out the front window one would be looking directly down the road going to Loyall. As I mentioned earlier, the plant was located right in a 90 degree bend in the road. One of the many stories I heard about this plant involved the day that a “tornado” came down the road and hit the plant! As the story went, a couple of employees were working the front of the line where the empty bottles, after having gone through the washer, pass along the conveyor into the filling machine. It was late one spring day and one of the employees happened to look outside down the road. I’m told his face turned white as snow and he loudly screamed, “Tornado…..get out of here.” Then everyone started running toward the back of the plant just as the tornado slammed into the front window. Apparently it was just a freak of nature…..a small tornado or whirlwind, but strong enough to break the front windows out and do considerable damage to the front of the building. No one was injured, thankfully, but the day will always be remembered as the day the tornado came down the road and slammed the Coke plant!
And I recall many, many stories about times when the carbonation got out of adjustment resulting in many bottles exploding while on the bottling line. I never personally experienced this, but was told it did happen fairly frequently and when it did it sounded like World War III. The room where the bottling operation took place had very ‘hard’ walls, i.e. no sound absorption, and reverberated sound greatly. So when bottles started exploding it sounded like bombs going off.
One last story about my summers at the Coke plant. The Harlan plant was under management from Middlesboro, Kentucky, and it, in turn, was under Corporate Coke headquarters in Atlanta. One summer day when I was working representatives from Atlanta and Middlesboro showed up for an inspection. Apparently everything went well, and I recall eavesdropping on a conversation between one of the Atlanta executives and the Harlan plant manager where the Atlanta guy told our plant manager that the Cokes we produced in Harlan were the very highest quality in their entire system. He said the limestone water in Harlan was the secret ingredient that resulted in such great drinks. I enjoyed greatly my two summers working for Coke, and very fondly recall these and many other stories.
Now fast-forward about 25 years, to 1981. I’m now living in Lexington, Kentucky. I have become very good friends with a fellow named William “Wild Bill” Wilson. Bill had previously lived in Harlan and was, in fact, manager of the Belks store on Central Street when I was in high school. I’m sure many of the ole timers in Harlan remember “Wild Bill.” He and his lovely wife Lil moved to Lexington where Bill was the owner/broker of Landmark Realty Company. With our Harlan backgrounds, he and I became good friends, and had jointly been involved in several investment ventures together.
At this point I also need you to know that my father, J.B. Edwards, was manager of Mike’s Drive In in Loyall, Kentucky, just down the street a couple of miles from the Coca-Cola plant I described previously. Dad had recently purchased a piece of land directly across the street from the Drive In and had planned to use it for additional parking. On visits to Harlan I would frequently make visits to Mikes. On one such visit as I was going out of town traveling back to Lexington I stopped in to say ‘bye’ to my dad, and I got a fountain coke to drink as I left. Now I never liked ice in my drinks if they were already cold, so I ordered the cold fountain coke without ice.
As I drove down the road drinking my fountain coke I started to think about an idea. That fountain coke tasted really, really good. It was, in my opinion, every bit as good as a bottled coke. By this time, in 1981, the two liter plastic bottles of soda pop had become popular. The more I thought about this I hatched the idea of having a very small soda pop ‘manufacturing’ facility where people would drive-by and purchase two liter bottles of soda pop that were produced from scratch in the small building. The idea was that a large fountain machine would be purchased and set-up in the building and dispense various flavors of soda pop into two liter bottles. One employee would work in the building and have the responsibility to ‘bottle’ the soft drinks, place them into storage racks that were situated on one of the building walls, and then sell them to customers who would drive up to the building and purchase the two liter bottles through the drive-by window. By the time I got back to Lexington I was anxious to share my idea with Bill and Lil Wilson to see what they thought about it.
A day or so after getting back home my wife Carolyn and I invited Bill and Lil to our home to explore my soda pop manufacturing idea. To illustrate my thought that the fountain Coke tasted as good as the bottled Coke I went to a restaurant and got a large fountain coke with no ice to go. I took it home, poured it into an empty two liter bottle and sealed it, and then placed it in my refrigerator along with a regular two liter bottle of Coke. When Bill and Lil arrived and I had briefly discussed my idea we served them each two glasses of soda pop. One glass was poured from the bottle with the fountain Coke, the other from the bottle of the regular Coke we had purchased. And they didn’t know which was which…..it was a ‘blind test.’ Amazingly, both Bill and Lil said they liked the soda pop from the bottle filled with fountain product the best! And they also said that they really tasted about the same. At that point, I figured I had a really good idea!
So Bill and I agreed to be partners on our new adventure. We recruited another friend, named Stanley, and the three of us started making plans to open our first soda-making operation in Harlan…we thought we’d talk my dad into letting us put it on the property he owned directly across the road from Mike’s Drive In, and we had visions of franchising the operation. We decided on the name “Soda Stop,” because customers would be “stopping” for soda pop as they drove up to the small building with the drive-through window. My next job was to formulate the flavors for the soft drink, and along with Bill to locate a source for purchasing new empty two liter bottles, to find a suitably large fountain soft drink machine for our purpose, and to lay out the operation in the new building. Stanley’s job was to construct the building, and he also recruited a couple of people to assist him. Amazingly, after only a few months all this was accomplished. The photograph below shows the finished building in Loyall, directly across the road from Mike’s Drive In.
I had visited a business in Cincinnati that sold flavors, and had selected cola, root beer, orange, and lemon lime flavors. We had selected a fountain machine equal in capacity to those that were in use at Disney and other large theme parks. We purchased a good supply of the large stainless-steel containers into which the syrup was stored for each flavor. A mixture of water and sugar went into each of these, and then the flavor was added. Several canisters were kept for use in each flavor. The same company that supplied the “gas” for the carbonated beverages at Mikes Drive In supplied such in the tanks at the back of the Soda Stop. A very nice lady named Dixie was employed to operate the Soda Stop. After Dixie was properly trained many bottles of beverages were produced in “trial runs.” Everyone agreed that the product tasted superb! We were ready for our grand opening!
If I recall correctly, we did place one or two ads in the Harlan Daily Enterprise. I cannot recall the price we charged per bottle, but it was well below the going price of the two liter bottles available in the Harlan grocery stores. I think the first day we sold three bottles!!= And the days after that were no better. We tried distributing advertising sheets with discount coupons all around Loyall. That didn’t help either. I also don’t recall how long we lingered on before finally giving up…maybe a month or so. We had great products…just no takers! I could tell lots of other stories about the Soda Stop venture, but I’ll save those for another time. Suffice it to say that we were all disappointed, and finally decided we just didn’t know how to market soda pop. We closed down. Maybe we were ahead of our time. I still think the idea was good. Maybe someone will go with the idea in the future.
Those are abbreviated versions of some of my experiences in Harlan with soda pop. All now just memories. Many funny, many enlightening, and some sad. I think now I’ll just go pour myself a big, cold Coke and take a nap!