Coca-Cola Bottling came here in ‘05

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 26, 2011

In 1905 John and Mamie (Bellingrath) Burnett moved to Andalusia from Castleberry to Andalusia to establish a Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Mamie’s brothers, William Albert and Walter Duncan Bellingrath, had been successful in purchasing franchises for major cities in Alabama. They also generously offered partnerships to their close relative; thus, their sister Mamie and her husband, John Burnett, were given the business opportunity in Andalusia.

Imagine discovering the refreshing taste of such an unusual new drink, Coca-Cola, in the early 1900s. It was invented in 1885 by a pharmacist, John Pemberton, of Columbus, Ga. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine and claimed, “It cured morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache and impotence.” It was actually sold for the first time on May 8, 1886, at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta.

Pemberton sold the Coca-Cola formula in 1887 to Atlanta pharmacist Asa Candler and a few others for $2,300. The new owners continued to produce the drink until 1905 with the same content, which was rich in cocaine, caffeine and kola-nut. Candler altered the formula by reducing the ratio of cocaine to one-tenth the original amount, but he still advertised it as “Relieves Fatigue.” Even by 1890, Coca-Cola had become America’s most popular soft drink, and sales increased by 4,000 percent within the next 10 years. In 1903 cocaine was removed from the formula and the percentage of caffeine was increased. At this point, franchises were offered to sell the syrup to licensed bottling companies such as the ones the Bellingrath family were establishing.

In their book, Covington County History—1821-1976, Gus and Ruby Bryan described the beginning of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in Andalusia. It was begun in the rear of a building owned by Mrs. Anna Riley, which formerly stood on the site of the present courthouse. The equipment used included a foot-powered bottling machine, a small soaker and a horse and wagon. Each bottle had to be rinsed by hand. Two employees, an adult man and a boy, did the work of the bottling and delivery to sites in town. Any drinks sent to other locations had to be shipped by rail, since roads were so rough.

During the early years of the operation, the business was quite limited due to the area being that undeveloped. However, the progressive and able management of J.S. Burnett on site and the guidance of W.A. Bellingrath in Montgomery enabled the company to prosper. Burnett was there from the beginning in 1909 and continued to manage it until his death in 1928. In 1914, the company was moved to the Fletcher Building, which at one time was known as the Milligan Building and located on Church Street at the site of the current Andalusia Fire Department Building. During the same year the “motor truck” was placed on the road, and it was the first such “conveyance to ever be used in this section for delivering products.

During his tenure, Burnett saw the business expand into a “thoroughly equipped and modern operation.” During his last years, Burnett’s health required that he cutback on his activities, so he relied more and more on his nephew, George M. Etheridge. George was able to relieve his uncle of many of the tasks required in managing the business. At Burnett’s death in 1828, the company continued under the management of Etheridge until his own death in 1938.

By this date of 1930, operations had been moved to a new location on Troy Street directly behind the Martin Movie Theatre. It was cited as “one of the most modern, well-equipped plants in the state with adequate modern machinery replacing the foot-powered bottling process, the cleaning arrangements, etc.” The firm continued to grow from a single product to a multiple product company in producing 25 or more packages. This writer recalls a tour in the 1940s for an elementary grade at Carolina School to visit the site, where they were shown the complete bottling process and treated to a sample. They also visited the adjacent icehouse and were impressed with how the large blocks of ice were formed.

Upon the death of Etheridge in 1938, Joe Hilson of Montgomery came to manage the business. He served in this role until his death in 1954. At that time another Montgomey businessman, F.K. Ware, was elected to head the Andalusia office. Also, during the early 1950s, a new and the final physical plant opened on the southeast corner of Church and River Falls Streets. Ware retired in 1975, and Harold Snowden of Andalusia succeeded him as manager. Snowden served until his retirement in 1980, and Bill Palmer who had worked with Snowden was named manager for about a year. The last drink to be bottled in Andalusia occurred on January 18, 1980. Louie Stough was sent from Montgomery to manage the plant. He continued in this role until his retirement, and about this time Coca-Cola Enterprises of Dothan purchased the local franchise. They then closed the business.

Andalusia was blessed by the Bellingrath family bringing the Coca-Cola Company when the town was first beginning to grow. This family had settled in the Castleberry community of the neighboring County of Conecuh in 1880/1881. They came from Atlanta, Georgia, where they had lived since 1860. Prior to this date, they had lived in Cumberland, N.C., where Leonard Bellingrath was married to Catharine McMillan. Leonard was born in 1832 in Lennrp, Germany, and had immigrated to America in 1854 or 1855.

When the Bellingrath family resided in Atlanta, Leonard worked as a plumber and gasket fitter. When he moved to Castleberry, he homesteaded in 1883 79 acres, which he cleared and farmed. At the time, he and Catharine had the following children: Edwin Cambell, Mary Elizabeth “Mamie,” Theodore Leonard, William Albert, Walter Duncan and Catherine Jean. A daughter, Catherine, had died in 1871. The Bellingraths were neighbors to the Burnetts, Castleberrys, Etheridges and other families of the area.

In 1902, Leonard Bellingrath and his wife along with their son, William Albert, and daughter, Mamie, and her husband, John Burnett, all moved to Anniston, Alabama, where they engaged in a general mercantile business. Leonard died there that year, and the rest of the family continued to operate the business until 1902. At that time, John and Mamie Burnett returned to Castleberry, and William Albert Bellingrath became manager of commissaries for the Alabama Woodstock Coal and Iron Co. At Woodstock, William Albert noticed the growing demand for the new Coca-Cola beverage by the hot, sweaty workers. Upon investigating, he learned that franchises were being offered to establish companies, which could buy the syrup and bottle the drink.

William along with is brother, Walter Bellingrath, who had remained in Castleberry to work as a Morse Code teletyper for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, set out to purchase a Coca-Cola franchise. In 1903, they finally secured enough funds to acquire a franchise in Montgomery. Their business was instantly successful, so they purchased the Mobile franchise in 1905. Walter then removed to Mobile to run that business and was married in 1906 to Bessie Mae Morse of Mobile.

Another brother, Theodore Leonard Bellingrath, left Castleberry and moved to Talladega where he was employed by Talladega Gas and Water. He was married in 1892 to Maude Smith. He also partnered a Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which was located in Little Rock, Ark. Even after his death in 1919, his family continued to run that business.

The Bellingrath brothers prospered quite well with Coca-Cola, and they involved numerous family members. In 1905, William Albert formed a partnership with their sister and husband, Mamie and John Burnett, who moved to Andalusia along with their nephew, George Etheridge. John served as president and manager, and George served as bookkeeper. John and Mamie were unable to have children of their own, so they informally adopted this young nephew who lived with them.

Additional information is available on the Burnett family and their stately home in Andalusia. It is hoped that this will be featured in next week’s column.

The sources for this writing included an article, “Stories to Remember: Coca-Cola Bottling Comes to Andalusia, Alabama, 1905,” written by Bill Hansford of Birmingham, and published in Volume 42, Fall/Winter 2010, Alabama Genealogical Society Magazine. Also, Gus and Ruby Bryan’s Covington County History, 1821-1976 was a source for some of the early history of the local plant. In addition, interviews with Louie Stough, former manager, and Juanita Windham, former secretary and multi-tasked employee, were very informative.

Anyone who might have any corrections to the above or additional information is requested to contact this writer, Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-222-6467; or e-mail: