Q: When was Coca-Cola first bottled in Dothan?
A: According to Larry Jorgensen’s new book “Return to The Coca-Cola Trail, More People and Places in the History of Coca-Cola,” the drink was first bottled in Dothan in 1906 in a small plant at East Adams and North St. Andrews.
The location was expanded several times during the bottling days. The entertainment facility “The Plant” operates on the four-acre site today.
Jorgensen’s book says the history of the bottling plant includes the names of two Alabama families – the Elmores and the Bellingraths – remembered for their achievements in the early days of Coca-Cola bottling as well as their contributions to state history.
John Archer Elmore, at the age of 14, fought in the Revolutionary War. He was born in Virginia but moved to Alabama in 1819.
Elmore County was named in his honor when it was created in 1866. John’s son, Albert Stanhope Elmore, served as Alabama secretary of state. A daughter, Sarah Elmore, became the wife of Gov. Benjamin Fitzpatrick. Another son, Physic Rush Elmore, was appointed a federal judge in Independence, Kansas.
The judge’s son, Nesbitt Elmore, had two children, Stanhope Elmore and Mary Nesbitt Elmore. Nesbitt wanted his children to be educated in Alabama, and Mary moved to Montgomery in the early 1900s. In 1906 she met and married William Bellingrath, who had become a Coca-Cola bottler with his brother Walter a few years earlier.
“The Bellingrath brothers, William and Walter, began their journey into Coca-Cola history in 1903 with the purchase of territory and the start of bottling in Montgomery and then Mobile,” according to Jorgensen’s book. “Their belief in the business of Coca-Cola bottling continued as they went on to establish several more locations, including the plant in Dothan.”
Other family members got involved as the Coca-Cola business expanded. However, the Dothan ownership initially did not include another family member.
William selected a Mobile Coca-Cola salesman, Marvin Lewis, to become the managing partner. Lewis received a 25 percent share of the business.
“A legal business notice in the Dothan Eagle newspaper in 1909 was signed by W.A. Bellingrath and G.M. Lewis,” the book says. “The notice described the wording on the bottle with Coca-Cola identification as ‘Bellingrath’ and ‘Property of W.A.B. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Dothan, Ala.’”
Those early days were a challenge for Lewis as he reported the grape, orange and other flavors of soda were outselling Coca-Cola, the book says.
“To help promote the new beverage, he began adding a few bottles of Coca-Cola to the cases of flavored drinks,” the book says. “This was a common marketing tactic for many bottlers in those early days.”
Growth came quickly, and an article in 1923 in the Dothan Eagle reported “One of Dothan’s most valued industries and one that takes its place as a leader in its field in all of Alabama is the Dothan Coca-Cola Bottling Company.”
For 50 years the company charged 80 cents for a case of 24 6.5-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola. The case price was increased to 96 cents in 1956. A 10-ounce bottle was introduced in 1960.
Lewis’ son Marvin Jr. started working at the Dothan plant during the summers while attending school in Chattanooga from 1931 to 1935. He became employed full time as advertising director in 1935. His father died in 1946.
In Montgomery, the Stanhope Elmore family had been growing with the birth of five children, including Stanhope Jr. In 1947, young Stanhope became manager and partner in a plant his father had acquired in Independence, Kansas. Five years later his father urged him to move to Dothan, again to assume a management and ownership role.
Dothan became the home for the Stanhope Elmore Jr. family for the next five decades. He managed the plant until retirement in 1986. He died in Dothan in 2002.
The Andalusia plant was closed and merged with Dothan in 1980. Bottling was stopped at the Dothan plant in the early 1980s, with Coca-Cola products being received from Montgomery.