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Preserving Koca Nola's History For Future Generations

Heads-Up Publications                         Charles David Head, Proprietor

(Note: The following article appeared in the December, 2010 issue of Antique Bottle & Glass Collector magazine (pp. 29-31).  Our thanks to AB&GC publisher John R. Pastor for providing an electronic copy of the article to post on this page.  For more information about AB&GC magazine, visit the AB&GC web site.) 

A Family Affair: Diving for Bottles in the Tennessee River

By Charles David Head © 2010

Photos courtesy of Eddie Bellamy


There is a pristine, secluded valley in the southeastern United States that few outside its residents have heard of.  Located in the northeastern corner of Alabama and the bottom of eastern Tennessee, Sequatchie Valley is best described as a rural paradise with scenic mountain vistas and the Tennessee River. 

Tennessee River (photo courtesy of Eddie Bellamy)

Bridgeport Bridge across the Tennessee River (photo courtesy of Eddie Bellamy)

Communities with folksy names such as Scratch Ankle, Fiery Gizzard, Jump Off, Battlecreek, Cole City, Sinking Cove, Hog Jaw Valley, Bass, Lost Cove and the Walls of Jericho are to be found in the landscape.  Few places are to be found in America that are as steeped in tradition and as rich in history as Sequatchie Valley.

Native Americans moved here as early as 10,000 years ago, making their winter home in Russell Cave near Bridgeport, Alabama.  Hernando de Soto was one of the first European explorers to pass through the area in 1540.  Sequoyah, the great Cherokee scholar, once lived in Battlecreek.  Davey Crockett hunted game near the Walls of Jericho in the valley at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau.  Several Civil War battles took place here and in 1931 the Scottsboro boys rode a railroad boxcar through the valley for an unplanned date with destiny.

The people of Sequatchie Valley are aware of their heritage and proud of their valley’s storied history.  Many make a gallant effort to preserve it for generations to come.

One of these stewards is a young man named Eddie Bellamy.  Born in 1969 and raised in the valley, Eddie got his introduction at preserving its history at the tender age of 5 when he went with his dad, Merle, on field trips to hunt arrowheads in Pelham Valley. His dad, keenly aware of his son’s enthusiasm, made each outing a history lesson and was delighted to see his son follow in his footsteps.  Within a few years, Eddie could distinguish the time in history from which most arrowheads and Indian relics came, be it the Archaic, Woodland or Mississippian period.

By the time Eddie turned 19, his interest in the Civil War saw him and his dad visit encampments and battle sites.  With the aid of a metal detector, he was able to find buttons, mini balls and other equipment used by both Union and Southern armies.  He began reading history books and learning how each implement was used.

At the age of 38, Eddie got his scuba diving certification at the Choo Choo Dive Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  His dad was already a certified diver and in order to accompany him, Eddie had to pass a rigorous course.

During their first joint dive two years ago into the Tennessee River near his hometown of Bridgeport, Eddie discovered a GLEE COLA crowntop soda bottled by the Moore Bottling Company of Birmingham, Alabama.  While not rare or valuable, Eddie said the bottle “hooked him” into collecting antique bottles.

After finding more bottles on other dives, Eddie said he didn’t have a clue as to what he was bringing up from the Tennessee River.  So he joined the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors and was soon mesmerized by the bottles depicted in the pages of its magazine, Bottles and Extras.  Numerous soda bottles found on his dives included a rare aqua John J. Ingle Hutchinson from South Pittsburg, Tennessee and a pair of New Decatur, Alabama Bucheit’s Bottling Works crown tops, including an amber script Coca-Cola.

Clear Glee Cola, Moore Bottling Works, Birmingham, Alabama; amber Bucheit's Bottling Works, New Decatur, Alabama; sun-colored amethyst Union Bottling Company, Chattanooga, Tennessee crown top sodas (photo courtesy of Eddie Bellamy)

He placed an ad in Bottles and Extras seeking to buy other north Alabama straight-sided Cokes and those from South Pittsburg and Tracy City, Tennessee.  He got no bites from the ad, but an old-time collector gave him some useful advice: specialize in one area of collecting and buy as many books on the subject as he could.  He also was urged to subscribe to Antique Bottle & Glass Collector magazine.  A copy of Ron Fowler’s Collecting Soda Pop Bottles soon followed since Eddie was determined to collect sodas.

As luck would have it, Eddie found the Holy Grail of Tennessee straight-sided Cokes a few days after placing his want ad.  Diving near the Blue Bridge at South Pittsburg, he discovered an aqua straight-sided Coke embossed REGISTERED / 6 1/2 OZ. / PROPERTY OF / COCA-COLA / BOTTLING CO. / TRACY CITY, TENN., a rare find indeed.

Tracy City, Tennessee straight-sided Coca-Cola (photo courtesy of Eddie Bellamy)

Diving in a still body of water such as a lake can be risky, but that risk is multiplied in a fast-flowing stream like the Tennessee.  It’s sometimes so murky you can’t see your hand in front of your face. So Eddie never dives alone and on those occasions when his father can’t go with him, his friend, Shawn Ashley, becomes his diving partner.

Most of the intact bottles Eddie finds are sodas, but an occasional beer bottle comes into view.  One was the Montgomery Brewing Company (with eagle), Montgomery, Ala., a Baltimore Loop Seal bottle in a beautiful turquoise shade found near Bridgeport.  Other sodas found include Lime Colas, Gay-Olas and Nova Kolas and a deep amethyst Union Bottling Co. / Chattanooga, Tenn. crown top.  An amber Twin City Bottling Works, Decatur, Ala., and a crude Morgan Bottling Co., New Decatur, Ala., also have become part of his collection.

His best non-soda discovery so far is a glass-stoppered barber bottle found while diving in 15 feet of water on the Long Island side of the Tennessee River above the railroad bridge at Bridgeport.  It is embossed inside a shield, Koken Barbers Supply Co., St. Louis, U.S.A.

As with most dry land digs, the river bottom is loaded with more broken bottles than whole ones, but Eddie brings back the more interesting shards, especially those with glass company marks.  A year ago, he retrieved two base shards embossed W. McCully & Co., Pittsburgh, Pa. (1837-1909).

Although Eddie spends most of his spare time diving in the river between South Pittsburg and Stevenson, Alabama, in search of bottles, his interest in Indian relics and Civil War artifacts has never waned.

He is employed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and finds time to serve as vice president of the Bridgeport Area Historical Association.  He maintains a display at the town’s N.C. & St. L. Railway Depot (circa 1917) restored by the community and utilized as a museum.  The depot, built in Spanish mission style, houses thousands of artifacts from the Sequatchie Valley and Bridgeport, including numerous antique bottles on loan from Eddie.

Bridgeport Area Historical Association (photo courtesy of Eddie Bellamy)

Bridgeport Area Historical Association Museum (photo courtesy of Eddie Bellamy)

But why this interest, Eddie?

He’ll tell you that he’s just following his father’s footsteps, that it’s a family tradition, and hopes that his son, Cade, and daughter, Miley, follow in his.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A few months ago, I was reading a Letter to the Editor and saw where one of my fellow collectors was lamenting about what he perceived was the certain death of the antique bottle collecting hobby because we weren’t passing the mantle to the next generation.  His opinion was that this was especially true in the Deep South where most of the collectors are gray-haired centenarians whose life insurance policies were about to become payable in full.  While some of us are indeed getting a bit long in the tooth down here in Dixie, we are not a dying breed.  There are plenty of younger folks willing and able to pick up the probes and shovels once us veterans head off to the pontil digs beyond the Pearly Gates.  A good example is my friend, Eddie Bellamy. Welcome to the hobby, Eddie!