by Tim Gilmore, 8/9/2019
1. Holiest of Holies / Taste Test
Adele waxes mystical about old bottles. She loves sea glass. Through the years, she’s tossed probably a hundred poems out to sea in glass bottles. For years, her shrine, her Holiest of Holies, her personal and private Mecca, was the old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant on East 14th Street. These days it’s boarded up tight, her Ark of the Covenant. She used to go there both to be alone and to be with all the universe.
Gayle Cooper lived a block away on East 15th when she was a little girl. She recalls walking down the street and watching the machines through the windows. She liked watching the bottles move along the belts where they’d be sterilized, then filled with Coke, then capped. Coca-Cola sold a concentrate to the bottling company and machines mixed it with water and sweetener.
Helen Sauls, who lived nearby and graduated from Andrew Jackson High School in 1962, remembers always looking at the bottom of Coke bottles to see where they came from—Jacksonville, Miami, Savannah, Atlanta. Her friends and family did the same.
But first they would take a sip and make a guess. You could tell the difference between towns in the taste of the Coke.
“Mama always said the best Coke was made in Savannah, not Jacksonville,” Helen says. “Something about the water here.” Nine out of time times, she says, her mother could guess correctly which town bottled the Coke.
2. Urban Natural
The architectural firm Marsh and Saxelbye designed the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in 1926. Jax-born Mulford Marsh and Englishman Harold Saxelbye built more structures than any other architects in 1920s’ Jacksonville. Like buildings by Albert Kahn, or other contemporary industrial designs, the plant bears massive banks of windows, louvered for ventilation, in squares of red brick crosshatched by concrete piers.
But it’s the doorway where I want to pose my mother, or my daughters, or some other angel, and let them grow there like the verdure that completes an ancient building.
The quoins on either side of the front door rise into Corinthian capitals and a dentil’d pediment, above which stands a window with its own pilasters, capitals and pediment. Somehow this doorway manages not to look out of place in this old industrial quarter and the older it gets, the lovelier.
An artwork remains incomplete when its creator finishes it. It has to live with us and be molded and marked and colored and mottled by our living and by its own living against ours. The right architecture, when old enough, becomes as though grown from the ground, and its location evolves into a paradoxically urban natural landscape.
I trace the swerve where the main railroad tracks diverted onto railroad sidings, low-speed sidetracks. Here and there, the tracks emerge from underneath grass, concrete and road. Sidings connected train cars to workers in the days before cargo transportation relied more heavily on semitrailer trucks.
High overhead, an owl flies into the building through the empty space between iron mullions where a window used to be.
3. Neighorhood Kids
“When I was a little girl,” Katherine Hobbs Seneath recalls, “we used to go in and they would give us pencils that said ‘Coca-Cola’ on them.”
She lived around the corner at East 15th and Walnut Streets, just across from Ward’s Bakery and Tip-Top Bread near the entrance for Swisher and Son, the factory that made King Edward cigars. Each year she used free cigar boxes for school supplies.
Katherine remembers watching the assembly line at the front window. “I was amazed and mesmerized just watching the line of bottles move along,” she says.
Elementary school groups visited the plant regularly in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Every day, neighborhood kids watched through the windows. Some of them refused to stay on the other side of the glass.
James Bullock’s grandparents lived on East 16th Street and he and his brother would sneak into the bottling factory “and walk through while the machines were running and stand right next to the bottles coming through and they would give us a Coke sometime.”
He fondly remembers being “a mischievous kid,” and says, “The machines were loud and I remember the guys hollering at each other. It was conveyors with wheels. The bottles would come through and where we stood and watched was where the caps got put on. It was a little narrow walkway you had to stand on right next to the conveyors. It always made us feel good when we got to have a free Coke.”
4. Ruthless “Rascal”
Historian John Wesley Young refers to a young Charles Guth as a “slight figure in a dark suit and well-known candy manufacturer.” The same year the Coke plant opened, Guth, son of a Prussian confectioner, opened the Mavis Candies bottling operation for a new chocolate drink across East 14th Street. The Mavis plant was one of more than a dozen already running or planned, with plants in Tampa and Miami on the way. Back in Baltimore, a banker named Levin L. Dirickson, Jr., director of and principle investor in the Guth Chocolate Company, had blamed his nervous breakdown on the ruthless and disreputable “rascal.”
In 1913, the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis reported Guth had “killed his colored chauffeur in a dispute which arose because Guth didn’t want his milk delivered at the same time as his chauffeur’s.” As Young writes in “The Chauffeur and the Candy Maker: The Killing of George Murphy in Baltimore, 1913” in Maryland Historical Magazine, Winter 2011, Murphy “had been preaching a gospel of race equality” and the black community felt he died a martyr’s death. Guth claimed Murphy had come at him with an axe for firing him.
In 1929, two years after Guth began bottling Mavis across the street from Coke, Loft Candy Company bought Mavis and, the following year, made Guth its vice president. When Guth asked Coke to pay him personal concessions for Coca-Cola syrup Loft purchased for soda fountains, Coke said no. So Guth went head-to-head with Coke by selling Pepsi instead. Soon Pepsi went bankrupt. It was, after all, the Great Depression. Guth let none of these facts stand in his way. He bought Pepsi-Cola in 1931.
Ironically, when World War II finally ended the Great Depression, after Guth steered Pepsi into second place for America’s favorite soft drink, Coca-Cola took over his former Mavis plant across East 14th Street. Loft had closed it in 1930. In the two decades between the Second World War and Coke’s move into a much larger facility at Fifth and Huron Streets in 1968, Coca-Cola Bottling absorbed most of the industrial blocks just north of Springfield and east of Main Street, the district called New Springfield, and bottled Coke in smaller buildings throughout the city core.
Meanwhile, part of Guth’s legacy of ruthlessness is the legal principle now known as the Guth Rule, that “if a business opportunity is presented to a corporate officer or director in his representative capacity the law will not permit him to take the opportunity for himself.” As Richard Tedlow writes in his 1996 book New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America, Loft sued Guth for using its assets, as its president, to make Pepsi competitive with Coke.
Meanwhile, Guth purchased Noxie-Cola and started the duplicitous process all over again. When Pepsi and Loft forced him out, he left both companies with about $3 million. Loft merged into Pepsi in 1941. Guth soon launched Guth Cola, which made its namesake soft drink and Mavis Cola. Guth was president of Guth until he died in 1948. Then the company folded.
5. Music in Old Bottles
“I always thought,” Adele Cohane says, “if I could somehow collect every glass bottle ever manufactured—you know, like my mama used to tell me that all the tears you cried your whole life was stored in this lake in heaven, and I used to imagine it like you had your own lake and maybe you had this house on the lake, so all the crying you done in your life would be worth it—and I used to imagine this one enormous musical instrument you could make and every glass bottle ever made was part of it—you know that whistle you can make by blowing in a’ old bottle—and the instrument would turn slowly like a mobile—and it would be so pretty how all the different colored bottles would catch and turn the light—and the way the instrument turned would catch the wind at all these infinite angles and make this music—the music of the whole world—and all the liquids that all the bottles had ever held would flow together in this gorgeous stream of colors that circled the world like the equator.”
6. Hide and Seek and the Lake of Tears
William Compton remembers playing hide-and-seek in the old bottling company at night when his parents cleaned for extra money. It was the 1980s. The old Coke plant housed a company called CV Sales Fire Protection Equipment. William remembers the skeletons of old assembly line machines cluttering the third floor. The main thing he remembers about the second floor and its office space is that “it was mostly if not completely green.”
William and his brother rode the old freight elevator with the pull-down wooden door up and down at night. Despite how easy it was for a little boy, up in that building in the dark, to spook himself, or maybe because of that fact, there could be no better place to play. Surely things that weren’t supposed to be there moved behind the old machines. More forces join in children’s games than ever they know.
Adele doesn’t look like she’s in her early 80s. She wears her wrinkles with elegance. Her hair runs long and lissome. We step across laced spiderwebs of puddles across the street and, perhaps, Adele’s imagined infinite colors. Many of the window panes above us long ago shattered, but broken glass is, as she sees it, but an altered wave off her mother’s celestial lake of tears.
She waxes rhapsodic on Bludwine, how it was bottled into amethyst glass down on East Bay Street before the Maxwell House coffee plant expanded into and took over the Bludwine plant. Ads from the 19-aughts describe Bludwine as “Flavored like—and can be compared to—no other soft drink, because of its perfect blend of natural flavors. Rich and satisfying because of its real food properties. Not a combination of extracts—the nearest guess to the flavor of Bludwine—‘a mellow old port wine.’”
Adele started collecting bottles 40 years ago when she became friends with Wesley Plott. In June 1980, Plott printed and stapled and sold a 50-page book called “Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida.” He’d collected, stored and sold old bottles from the former “Tudor Revival”-style Pure Oil station in Riverside that he’d bought in his mid-20s in the late 1960s and called the Purple Petunia.
Cities are the scenes of countless invisible battles. Like the things that moved behind abandoned machines when William and his brother played hide-and-seek upstairs, histories and economies track the effects of forces otherwise unseen. Adele and I stand in the intersection of East 14th and Market and note the rhythms of windows in stone.
In her mother’s lake of tears flow all the broken windows, the bottles, the spirits and colas and soft drinks, and the rain that suddenly falls so hard on the old Coke plant’s sturdy exoskeleton.