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.
By April 1905, the Rutledge Grocery Company located on the courthouse
square in Gallatin had become a franchised bottler.
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. T
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.”
SOUTH PITTSBURG, NEW RIVER, ONEIDA, OAKDALE
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 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.
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
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.
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.