Remember When: Coca Cola in Andalusia

Published 3:59 pm Friday, August 9, 2019

“It’s the real thing, Coke is” was the television commercial jingle back in the late 1960s. I remember that song, because

my chorus at Laurel Hill High School sang a medley of tv commercials, and that was a favorite one of the students and the audience!

     For over 100 years, the Coca Cola business has been making history in Andalusia. The colorful postcards of “Old Andalusia” in the museum collection show some large murals on the side of several downtown buildings that were scenes in the 1920s. One such mural was painted on the side of the Andalusia Bakery on South Cotton Street and another was on the Church Street side of the Patrick Furniture Company now known as the Walker Business building. The I. Berman Department Store (later Thrifty Stores) on the corner of Pear Street and South Three Notch also featured a Coca Cola mural.

     Other old photographs in the files of the Three Notch Museum are images of a large group of school students who took a field trip downtown for a tour of the Coca Cola Bottling Company when the capacity of the new plant’s modern bottling equipment was 150 bottles per minute. This could have been in the 1940s.

     Several historians have written about the early history of Coca Cola Bottling Company in Andalusia including Dr. Bill Hansford, Curtis Thomasson, Sidney Waits, David Walters, John Tisdale, Gus and Ruby Bryan, and this writer. Old newspaper articles from The Andalusia Star and The Covington News are full of news of this lucrative business and the franchise owners as it happened back then decade after decade and year after year.

     Since the last standing downtown Andalusia building to once house the Coca Cola Bottling Company has been in the news this week, here is a summary of the business that Andalusia was fortunate to have come to town around 1905 when John S. and wife Mary Elizabeth “Mamie” Bellingrath Burnett moved from Castleberry.

     Mamie’s brothers, William Albert and Walter Duncan Bellingrath, had experienced success in purchasing franchises for major cities and areas in Alabama. The new unusual drink had been invented around 1885 by a pharmacist Pemberton originally as a patent medicine. It had been discovered by customers as a delicious drink offered in a drug store in Atlanta.  The formula for “Pemberton’s French Wine” was sold to Atlanta pharmacist Asa Candler who altered it by reducing the ratio of cocaine and adding caffeine. It “relieves fatigue,” they advertised, and soon “Coca Cola” became America’s most popular soft drink as franchises were offered to sell the syrup to licensed bottling companies such as the ones the Bellingrath family were establishing.

     The company was begun in Andalusia around 1906 in a building owned by Mrs. Anna Chapman Riley that stood on the lot of the present Covington County Courthouse on the north side of the Public Square. Each bottle had to be rinsed by hand and a couple of employees did all the work. Delivery was by horse and wagon to sites in town.

     By 1914, the business flourished under the management of John Burnett and the business was moved to a building on Church Street known as the Fletcher Building on the block where the present fire department is located today. “Motor trucks” were placed on the road, and products were delivered over a large radius of South Alabama. The drinks in glass bottles were often shipped by train since bumpy dirt roads were prevalent at the time.

     Burnett, a progressive manager, along with the guidance of W. A. Bellingrath in the Montgomery franchise enabled the business to grow. Wife “Mamie” Bellingrath Burnett, the actual franchise owner, held regular meetings with the employees, invited teachers and students to visit the plant, and did marketing for the company. Advertising was of utmost importance. “Delicious and Refreshing – A Feast for the palate as well as the eyes – 5 cents!”

     The Burnetts became leaders in Andalusia in business, civic, social, religious, and cultural circles. They encouraged new businesses in the area and financed some businesses of the day, it is remembered, including the new textile plant.

     John Burnett’s deteriorating health caused him to call in the assistance of his nephew, George Etheridge, who was quite capable himself. He resided with the Burnetts who adored him and adopted him as their own. Around 1923, the Burnetts recognizing the public’s need for ice for refrigeration and coal for heating established the Consumers Ice and Cold Storage Company.

     At Burnett’s death in 1928, Etheridge managed the business and expanded the operation where in 1930, the plant moved to a new location on Troy Street on the block directly behind the theatre housed in the O’Neal building. The plant was cited as “one of the most modern, well-equipped plants in the state with adequate machinery replacing the foot-powered process and with state-of-the-art cleaning arrangements.” In this brick structure, there was plenty of room for parking, garage facilities, and loading docks which the firm needed. It was noted that there was a fleet of 16 trucks, 10 routes out and around Andalusia and six in the city.

     The “ice house” was connected adjacent to the bottling operation and the companies grew by leaps and bounds in the new buildings designed by Architect Carl B. Cooper of Montgomery. Many employees worked at both places. Upstairs over the Coca Cola sign on the building main entrance was a modest size meeting room where local civic clubs met prior to  the completion of the Scherf Memorial Building.

     The “coal yard” property was purchased on Sanford Road adjacent to the railroad track. Both coal and ice were delivered to residences in Andalusia and the surrounding area.

     George Etheridge developed health issues and in 1939, he died at the age of 45 years. He was lauded in a newspaper article as “a constructive force within the business life of Andalusia.”

     When Mrs. Burnett passed away in 1940, the W. A. Bellingrath estate became the owner. When the Burnett estate was settled, it was among the largest estate ever settled in Covington County. The Burnetts who had been great philanthropists in Andalusia had many investments in many businesses, stocks, and properties, but their largest investment according to family members had been in Coca Cola stock. Legacies went to friends, relatives, and servants. The Burnetts who had no children are both buried in Magnolia Cemetery.

     When George Etheridge died in 1939, Joe Hilson from Montgomery who had extensive experience with Coca Cola was transferred to Andalusia to serve as manager. Hilson was the father of Mary Jim Hilson Merrill, wife of Walter Merrill, whose family was part of the Andalusia Manufacturing and Andalusia Development companies.

     By the early 1950s, a new and final physical plant was built on the corner of Church and Baisden Streets. An April 20, 1950 edition of The Covington News headlines, “Coca Cola opens $150,000. Building – Open House Slated for April 26, Hilson Announces.”

     Marianne Merrill Weber, granddaughter of Joe Hilson has some memories of her granddad. She stated, “He always wore a white shirt, laundered and starched at Mann Laundry. He left home early each morning wearing a business suit with a hat on his head. Pelham’s Walgreen on the square was his favorite stop to get his morning cup of coffee. Then he went for a shave at the barbershop and afterwards made a quick stop for a shoe shine by the boys on the sidewalk near the shoe shop. He always came home at noon for dinner (lunch)!”

     Della Reese was his efficient secretary. She was always ‘dressed up,’ and she typed on a Remington typewriter. When one of us would get sick, Granddad would bring home a small container of the thick, dark molasses-like Coca Cola syrup which we were given in a teaspoon. Soon the dose for our cough or upset stomach assured my parents and grandparents that my brother and I would be well soon!”
     “I remember it being said in the family that when the price of Coke went up from five cents to six cents, Granddaddy declared that that would be the death of Coca Cola!”

     Hilson did not live to see that prediction not come true for he passed away in 1954 having served as the local plant manager for eleven years. Coca Cola increased in popularity and eventually became bottled in cans and much later in plastic bottles.

     The Hilsons lived in a brick residence on the corner of Third Avenue and College Street. Their daughter and her Merrill family built a home on College Street adjacent to the Hilson property, the house now occupied by the Heenan Spurlins.

     F. K. Ware was sent from Montgomery to replace Hilson.  Harold Snowden succeeded him as manager, and Louie Stough next managed the plant until his retirement.

     Curtis Thomason stated in one of his columns, “The last drink to be bottled in Andalusia occurred on January 18, 1980. About that time, the Dothan franchise purchased the Andalusia franchise, and the plant was closed.”

     Again, we should Remember When the Bellingrath families brought the Coca Cola business to town when the small town was first beginning to grow shortly after the railroad lines were extended into Andalusia at the turn of the century. Andalusia was certainly blessed lest we forget that part of the town history.

     In the February 1955 edition of The Andalusia Star News, an article appeared – “Andalusia Youth Plan to Establish Canteen in Old Coca Cola Building – Plans are underway for the organization of a Youth Canteen for the youth of Andalusia. The old building is to be the site of this organization. Some work is to be done before it will be opened. One section will be used for dancing once wood flooring is installed. Two restrooms will be added. The members of the Key Club will do much of the labor on readying the building and the Anchor Club members will decorate the Canteen. The AHS Student Council will be the officers. A recreational director will be hired to run the Canteen. These plans are being made and carried out by a group of interested citizens of Andalusia including a number of  civic clubs.”

     Robert Anderson who was a member of the AHS Class of 1960 told me that the Latimer brothers, Ray and Walter, who were owners of the Gulf Naval Stores were instrumental in helping to establish the youth center.

     The entrance for the Canteen was on the east side of the building on Burnett Street. Now you readers know where that street name came from. Students from the mid 1960s enjoyed Friday night dances at the Canteen after home football games. So the youth Canteen must have lasted at least ten years. I don’t know why it finally closed. I just remember the juke box, ping pong tables, pool tables, and especially some antics by some of the teenage boys, namely Jimmy Wilson and Billy Catrett!

     The ice house and Coca Cola plant landmark property which had been an “eyesore for years” was eventually demolished in 1987 by the City during the Mayor Chalmers Bryant administration to make way for needed parking. Time marches on and new uses continue to evolve for old buildings worthy of preserving. The Andalusia City Council announced plans for the old Coca Cola building on Church Street. Yes, its history is important. Adaptive reuse is a trend that even happens in a small town as well as the big town. As the motto for the National Trust for Historic Preservation reads, “This Place Matters.”

     Dr. Bill Hansford wrote in the memoirs from his research that “The end of the Coca Cola family dynasty of Andalusia will soon become extinct in the not too distant future. Sharon Torrontor Wales and Alan Torrontor are the last of the generation of the family who started Coca Cola in Andalusia. They are the great grandchildren of Ellie Sentell and George Etheridge, the grandchildren of Frances Etheridge and Ashford Broughton, and the children of Katherine Etheridge Broughton and Richard Torrontor. The Covington Historical Society wishes to thank Sharon Wales for her generosity in sharing pictures and other Bellingrath memorabilia by gifting these artifacts to the museum.

     The next time you visit the Three Notch Museum, look for the bottle collection and see a Coke bottle with “ANDALUSIA” stamped on the bottom. Who manufactured those glass bottles? I don’t know, do you?

     As the late singer Jim Croce sang, “If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I’d like to do, is to save every day, ‘til eternity passes away…”

     Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at