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Red, White & Wheeling

Coca-Cola’s History in Americana Has Local Connection

Photo provided from the collection of engineer Mike Stahl of Wheeling Like many cities of notable population, Wheeling began bottling prepared Coca-Cola when the soft drink made its way out of exclusive drugstore distribution. This Main Street plant operated from 1930 until the early 1950s

WHEELING — The words “local food” bring to mind denim and kale sold from bushel baskets. “Supply chain” — at least in the post-COVID era — conjures up empty shelves and odd shortages of everything from life-sustaining baby formula to garage doors. (Seriously, garage doors.)

But — in spicy-sweet irony — the Americana-styled soft drink that will appear at many holiday celebrations this weekend and at beaches all summer long — was once a food product so local its supply chain was shorter than even the distance between a backyard garden and the kitchen table.

And, Wheeling — the manufacturing powerhouse that it was when Coca-Cola first rocked the Victorian world — was a critical link in the early days of that teeny-tiny connection.

ON TAP

In its beginning, Coca-Cola was mixed on-site at drugstore soda fountains — the first such drink being concocted by an Atlanta pharmacist in 1886, according to The Coca-Cola Company website. By 1896, the spice-laden beverage had an interesting Wheeling connection, a company spokesperson noted.

By then a fledgling soft drink company, Coca-Cola began “loaning” highly decorated urns to a spreading network of drug stores that mixed and sold Coca-Cola by the glass. The urns — now considered a capstone to any extensive collection of Coke memorabilia — were made by the Wheeling Pottery Co., according to the spokesperson.

A maker’s mark bearing the company name inside a leafy wreath can be found on the urn itself — which is often discolored as the cola syrup seeped into the porcelain over time. It is also on the porcelain stand.

The urns, according to the company, were displayed on soda fountain counters and dispensed one-ounce portions of cola syrup into each glass. Store employees added five ounces of carbonated water and ice chips and simply handed the drinks to customers on the other side of the counter — supply chain complete.

BOTTLED UP

As Coca-Cola began to move into portable, bottled form, Wheeling continued to play a role in keeping it local. As happened in many cities of notable size, Coca-Cola (and other soft drinks) was bottled where it was consumed.

Exactly which Wheeling glass plants were involved remained a mystery at the time this article was researched — even to The Coca-Cola Company, which would have been working with hundreds of glass companies even then. But, the spokesperson confirmed bottles were locally made as well as filled, distributed, cleaned and refilled in a continuous loop that began in the early 1900s.

Initial bottles — which include a block-lettered “WHEELING, W.VA.” around the bottom edge — had straight sides until about 1915 and were sometimes amber-colored.

One amber specimen offered on eBay was found in 1999 by a construction worker inside the wall of a building being torn down in Center Wheeling — presumably left there by another construction worker about a century earlier — according to the seller.

In contrast, Wheeling historian Margaret Brennan has one of the latest bottles with confirmable Wheeling production in her collection. This bottle is a more robust version of today’s “hobble skirt” design given intentions of heavy reuse. It was produced in 1961, according to its markings. “WHEELING, W.VA” is printed on its bottom.

In the early 1960s, The Coca-Cola Company stopped including city names on its bottles, except for a handful of iconic locations including the drink’s Atlanta hometown and Cokeville, Wyo., according to the company website.

FIZZY MEMORIES

Mike Stahl, engineering specialist for the city of Wheeling and a major history buff — found his family has a personal connection to Coca-Cola’s local loop. (A side note: Local bottling was part of the former regional Cameron Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Washington, Pennsylvania.)

Stahl said his great-grandparents’ home on Main Street was torn down to make way for a bottling plant in 1930. His extensive collection of historic photos includes one of the plant’s front and two delivery trucks.

A 1947 brochure from the Center Wheeling Business and Professional People’s Association (Ohio County Public Library Archives) lists that plant and an associated garage at 2217 Main St. While the address of a building standing at approximately that location is different, Stahl believes what is now Dean’s Water Service and The Pump Store is sited in at least part of that former bottling operation.

Another personal connection confirms that the operation relocated in the early 1950s to the Claytor neighborhood — to the building that now houses the city Operations Center. Brennan, the historian, said her father served as construction accountant for the project, which was done by the now-defunct Engstrom & Wynn Co.

She tagged along to the grand opening and said her strongest memory of the bottling facility is a souvenir she took away from that event.

“They gave out these little Coca-Colas — a whole bunch of bottles in a crate,” Brennan said. “They were darling — little plastic bottles in a little plastic box.”

She remembers playing with them but hasn’t seen the set for long enough that she fears it — unlike the 1961 bottle that she keeps with a larger collection — fell prey to a cleaning spree.

Steve Johnston, who works in the former Claytor plant as operations superintendent for the city, also has a childhood memory of its soda pop days from the 1970s.

“It was still a bottling plant when I was a kid and a friend of my father’s worked here,” Johnston said. “I went in a couple of times to watch.”

He was intrigued to see the process, which he said included both short and long bottles. “They would bring in the empty bottles after they were returned to grocery stores. They were cleaned and refilled and capped.”

The cleaning part of the local loop caused a cacophony, he remembered. “They would ring,” he said of the bottles. He didn’t remember the filling or the capping as being as noisy.

“There’s still an old deposit box here,” Johnston said of the only remaining artifact from the building’s bottling days, which ended in the 1970s.

He noted that multiple other soft drinks were bottled in Wheeling at various times. The library archives confirm Dr. Pepper was bottled on 28th Street. Johnston said his dad drove a delivery truck for local 7 UP operations after World War II and may also have delivered Orange Crush.

“Pepsi was bottled down in Moundsville,” Johnston said. “Pepsi was a big favorite around here. If you wanted a Coke to taste like a Pepsi, the secret was to add a little lemon.”

Ending on that foodie note, here is a super-simple recipe for readers who would like to try their hand at a Southern-style Coca-Cola cake. Combine one boxed chocolate cake mix with one can of cola and nothing else — as in no eggs, no oil. Bake as directed.

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