When I saw the sign for a Coca-Cola museum featuring “history and memorabilia,” I didn’t think much of it. Instead, I figured it was just another place filled with the same collectible Coke bottles and signs I’d seen at a dozen other museums.
But I was wrong.
The museum was more than just collectibles. It was a place where Coca-Cola history happened. It was a place where a candy store merchant filled glass bottles with Coca-Cola for the very first time and changed everything in the soda industry. It was a place I was glad I visited.
I spent two days exploring Vicksburg while road tripping along the Natchez Trace Parkway from Natchez to Nashville. I toured the 16-mile loop at Vicksburg National Military Park. I enjoyed lunch at a rooftop restaurant with a view of the Yazoo River. And I walked the decks of a massive riverboat at the Lower Mississippi River Museum.
Origins of Coca-Cola
In 1886, local pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton crafted a thick syrup that created a “delicious and refreshing” soda when combined with carbonated water. Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank M. Robinson, suggested calling it Coca-Cola because “the two Cs would look well together in advertising.” Robinson created the famous trademarked script for the logo and scribbled out the name by hand.
Pemberton took a jug of the syrup down the street to Jacobs’ Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia. The pharmacist set up a soda fountain, combined the syrup with carbonated water, and sold the first glass of Coca-Cola on May 8, 1886.
Joseph Biedenharn – Candy Store Merchant
During the first year, Coca-Cola sales averaged merely nine drinks per day. But the word of mouth and clever marketing fostered popularity, and by 1900 the drink was sold at soda fountains in every state in the country.
Joseph Biedenharn was born in 1866, the oldest son of twelve children. Biedenharn’s father and uncle owned a two-story building in downtown Vicksburg where they had established a candy store called Biedenharn and Brother – a store that Joseph eventually took over as the Biedenharn Candy Company. He took note of the popularity of Coca-Cola soda fountain drinks, realizing that people would sometimes walk for miles into town just to buy a paper cup of the refreshing drink.
He pondered a new way to get Coca-Cola into the countryside.
In 1894, Biedenharn approached Coca-Cola owner Asa Candler about selling the soda fountain drink in a glass bottle. With Candler’s approval, Biedenharn developed a process for bottling the soda fountain drink in Hutchinson bottles embossed with “Biedenharn Candy Company, Vicksburg, Miss.” He built the first bottling plant in his candy store on Washington Street and began selling Coca-Cola in glass bottles for the very first time.
In 1899, Chattanooga lawyers Joseph Whitehead and Benjamin Thomas acquired exclusive rights from Candler to bottle Coca-Cola in the South. Biedenharn, along with six of his brothers and one sister, purchased franchise rights and opened bottling plants in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, including one further down Washington Street.
The 24,000 square foot bottling plant still stands, but today it’s home to The Open Market – appropriately, an antique store where visitors can sometimes find Coca-Cola collectibles.
Did You Know? In 1924, Collett Woolman and B.R. Coad established the world’s first crop dusting aviation company in Macon, Georgia. The owners began looking for investors for Huff Daland Dusters to expand their operations. In 1925, Joseph Biedenharn and his son, Malcolm, invested in the crop-dusting company and expanded the fleet to 18 aircraft – the largest private fleet in the world at the time. That initial aviation company would later become Delta Airlines.
The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum
In 1938, the Biedenharns sold the building where Coca-Cola was bottled for the first time. The building was used for various commercial businesses over the next four decades. But then, in 1979, the Biedenharns purchased the building again, renovated it as a museum, and donated it to the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation.
A visit to the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum begins with a walk through the history of Coca-Cola, the Biedenharn Family, and the story behind Coca-Cola’s advertising and unique script logo design. Interpretive exhibits feature historical photos and lots of fascinating information to read. Displays cases are chocked full of collectibles, memorabilia, and historical artifacts.
The museum’s centerpiece is a reproduction of the equipment used to bottle Coca-Cola for the first time. Each piece of equipment includes a description of how the process for bottling Coke worked in 1894.
The self-guided tour ends in the recreation of the offices and candy store, complete with period furnishings. The wall behind the marble counter is loaded with antique Coca-Cola bottles with diamond-shaped labels, still unopened after nearly a century. Display cases beneath the counter feature bottles ordered chronologically, making it a fascinating study of the evolution of the Coke bottle.
Before leaving, get a Coke float from the old-fashioned soda machine or an ice-cold glass bottle of Coca-Cola from the cooler.