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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 The Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors' 2015 EXPO Program.

Delicious and Dopeless in Tennessee

By Charles David Head © 2015

The history of Koca Nola in the Volunteer State can be traced to the early days of the company’s founding in Atlanta, Georgia in the spring of 1904. It was at that point that entrepreneur Thomas H. Austin, who had previously enjoyed success in the coal, timber and druggist trade, decided to get into the soft drink business.

The much-heralded success of the Coca-Cola Company had caught Austin’s eyes and he decided he wanted a piece of the pie. Using some of his extensive capital, he concocted a copy-cat cola drink that he named Koca Nola. The company’s headquarters were located at 1417 Empire Building, while the syrup manufacturing and bottling plant was situated at 108 Edgewood Avenue.

First promoted as a medicine in the March 15, 1904 issue of the Atlanta Constitution, Koca Nola became an overnight success. By July of that year, the company was incorporated with capital stock set at $50,000. Subscribers included Austin, G.W. Woodfin and J.T. Walker. Austin was named president, Woodfin general manager and C.L. Pettigrew secretary-treasurer.

Austin and his clerks began mailing circulars soliciting bottlers to become franchise holders. Touting Koca Nola as “Dopeless,” a tonic and as a temperance beverage really helped push the drink. But its best selling point was Austin’s promise to bottlers: “Take a trial shipment and if it does not prove a trade winner, a business increaser and entirely satisfactory in every respect, ship it back at our expense.”

The money-back guarantee worked as did providing free labels to bottlers as well as advertising, promotional give-aways and soft drink samples. Sales also increased after the company promoted the new drink nationally and in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair brochure.

By January 1906, the Koca Nola Company was boasting that the drink was being bottled in 40 states and territories and being shipped into several foreign countries (notably Mexico and Cuba). My research has confirmed franchised bottlers in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Austin’s incursion into the Volunteer State and records confirm that there are eight Koca Nola franchises of the 68 known overall.


By April 1905, the Rutledge Grocery Company located on the courthouse square in Gallatin had become a franchised bottler. The company advertised Koca Nola as “The Great Tonic Drink, combines with the exhilarating and refreshing features of the Coca leaf and the Kola nut tonic properties of great value. A nerve tonic and contains absolutely no cocain (sic).” It was sold in amber crown top bottles. In addition to the new beverage, the Rutledge Grocery Company marketed Pepsol, Peach Mellow, Cincinnatus, Ginger Ale, Lemon Sour, Cream Soda, Strawberry, Champagne Cider and other popular drinks.


By the fall of 1905, Austin had convinced Paul J. DeBlieux, proprietor of the Oliver Springs Bottling Works, to carry Koca Nola. The drink became popular with thirsty miners in the coal mines at Windrock and Oliver Springs. The bottling company also sold IronBrew, Keg Cider, Strawberry and other fruit-flavored soda waters. The company may have bottled Koca Nola in bottles from its own stock since no Koca Nolas embossed Oliver Springs are known at this time.


Next to nothing is known about the B & McK Bottling Works in LaFollette that was marketing Koca Nola in clear crown top bottles about 1905-06. Austin seems to have found success in getting small town bottlers of other drinks to add his drink, especially in areas where Coca-Cola franchises did not exist.


In April 1907, Clay Cunningham joined Lowery McCulley, Dr. Loyd Prater and Will Lawrence in purchasing the Wildwood Bottling Works in Maryville from founder Dr. John McConnell. They renamed it Maryville Bottling Works and began bottling Koca Nola, Cascade Ginger Ale and Orcherade, among other beverages, in stock Hutchinson and crown top bottles. No embossed bottles have been found, so the company probably used colorful Koca Nola labels. The one-room, wood-frame building had just enough room to house a carbonator, crown cork machine, a bottling machine and a booth for washing the bottles, but the company proved quite successful to the delight of Austin.


Instead of disparaging the line of soft drinks marketed by small bottlers, Austin encouraged them to market his drink along with the house brands. Such was the case in 1908 when he successfully petitioned Paul E. Devine, president of the Johnson City Bottling Works, to market his Koca Nola alongside of the bottler’s Hires Root Beer. Such a joint ad was found in the 1908-09 city directory, noting they were “Two of The Best Drinks On Earth.” No Johnson City embossed Koca Nola bottles have been found, so again Koca Nola labels may have been attached to stock bottles.


Austin pulled a major coup in March 1906 when he persuaded the newly opened Keen Bottling Company in South Pittsburg to carry his soft drink. The father-son duo of A.Y. and James Keen soon established bottling works at New River, Oneida and Oakdale, marketing Koca Nola from one end of the state to the other. The drink was sold in amber and clear crown tops with both New River and South Pittsburg embossed in a slug plate. The Oneida bottles were clear crown tops. The Keens operated for 25 years and bottled Koca Nola, Cascade Ginger Ale, Root Beer, Rye-Ola, Gay-Ola, Orange Whistle, Reif’s Special and Nehi, among others.

The period from the spring of 1906 to the summer of 1909 proved to be banner years for the Koca Nola Company. But storm clouds were beginning to appear on the horizon in the form of the Pure Food and Drug Act passed by Congress in 1906.

In August 1908, the Texas Dairy and Food Commission sent a representative to the Union Bottling Works in Tyler, Texas and took a sample of Koca Nola for testing. The lab results came back positive for cocaine. The bottling works stopped marketing Koca Nola. That test led to an intensive investigation into the Koca Nola Company by Dr. Lyman F. Kebler, chief of the Division of Drugs, Bureau of Chemistry, working directly under the supervision of Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, head of the Bureau of Chemistry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They were assigned the formidable task of enforcing the Pure Food and Drug Act.

On Oct. 5, 1908, a one-gallon jug of Koca Nola syrup en route to Finlay, Dicks & Co., in New Orleans was seized by federal agents. On Nov. 16, 1908, federal agents grabbed another one-gallon jug of Koca Nola syrup destined to J.F. Earnshaw in the Anacostia section of the District of Columbia. Subsequent analyses of both jugs’ contents tested positive for 1/200ths of a grain of cocaine for each eight-ounce serving of Koca Nola. So, Koca Nola was not as “dopeless” as the company’s advertising would have had one believe.

The Koca Nola Company was taken to trial on Oct. 21, 1909 and found guilty on four of seven counts for misbranding and adulteration. It was not the $25 fine (a total of $100) that crippled the company, but the tide of negative publicity following the trial.  Consumers stopped buying the drink en masse and one by one, bottlers stopped carrying the drink. The company faded from the soft drink marketplace and had disappeared by 1918. Bottles, signs, labels, calendars, trade cards, post cards, toys, watch fobs, thermometers and other relics are still in existence as silent testimony to what once was a giant in the soft drink industry.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charles David Head was born and raised in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, some 25 miles west of Chattanooga. A collector of antique bottles since 1975, he dug his first Koca Nola bottle in 1982 at South Pittsburg. Since then, he has authored more than 20 magazine and newspaper articles about the drink. After a decade of research, in 2013 he published a 176-page book, A Head’s Up on Koca Nola. The author can be contacted at KocaNolaBook@yahoo.com.