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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 February, 2011 issue of Antique Bottle & Glass Collector magazine (pp. 6-9).  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.) 

The Bottle Man of Atlanta

By Charles David Head © 2011

1910 Photograph of the Atlanta Big House (source: Wikipedia.com)

Construction of the United States Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia was begun in 1899 and pretty much completed by 1902, using inmate labor.  Granite was hauled in from a local quarry and chiseled out on site to make the main housing unit.  A huge wall, four feet thick, 38 feet high and four-fifths of a mile long, was constructed out of concrete around the prison to keep its unhappy “guests” in place.  For many years, the penitentiary was the largest concrete structure in the world, but was eclipsed by the Hoover Dam.

As the penitentiary and wall was being built, the construction crew began to accumulate a good amount of garbage on the grounds.  A squad of inmates was soon selected for the sole purpose of burying the waste in a ravine outside the work area.  This was, of course, a nasty chore and one that got even nastier and smellier as the hot Georgia sun shone down upon recently emptied tin cans, wooden sugar and flour kegs and glass bottles.  Often during unusually hot afternoons, inmates were treated an ice-cold soda pop to drink in the shade of a nearby oak thicket.  Then they’d resume work until dusk.

More often than not, the soda pop was Coca-Cola, a drink that originated in Atlanta, and that company’s headquarters was just down the dusty road a few miles away.  That brand of soda pop was indeed “delicious and refreshing,” as the ads claimed, to inmates assigned to the refuse burial detail.  Digging a hole in the compacted Georgia clay was no easy task.

However, it did not take long for inmates to figure out an easier method in which to dispose of a portion of the garbage.  They simply began tossing empty bottles into the wet concrete as the walls went up around the prison.  After all, the bottles were a lot heavier to carry the 300 yards to the ravine dump than were the tin cans.

Of course, one had to toss the pickle jars, catsup bottles, medicine bottles and soda pop bottles into the wet concrete on the sly lest an attentive guard should catch them at it.  Being caught meant 20 lashes and 30 days in The Hole with only bread and water.

For many years in the weather-worn walls, one could see the outlines of cork-stoppered bottles and an occasional Hutchinson soda bottle.  Few, if any, of the inmates paid any attention to this phenomenon until the arrival of inmate Carl David Hulvey, longtime chicken fighter, conspirator and antique bottle collector.  Hulvey, whose collecting specialty was antique Coca-Cola bottles, nearly passed out when he made a left at the softball field and saw as plain as day the side of an extremely rare Atlanta Coca-Cola Hutchinson embedded in the wall about seven feet up. 

Carl David had developed an interest in fighting chickens at the very young age of 5 when his pet bantam rooster named Speckle would go next door to a neighbor’s farm in New Hope, Tenn., and fight (and whip) the big game roosters of Mr. Clayton Blevins.  Carl David’s penchant for rooster fighting grew even stronger during his teens when he met the Alder boys in the Victorian Ridges.  Their family had been raising game chickens for several decades.  His interest in antique bottles came by accident one day while hunting for an old Rhode Island Red in the woods near his home.  He chanced upon an old Mason jar in a stump hole and the jar’s ground lip, ancient 1858 date and numerous bubbles in its dark green sides struck his fancy and started him in the hobby.

As his knowledge grew, Carl David realized he needed to downsize his massive collection of mostly common bottles and specialize in a particular field.  He settled on Coca-Cola bottles and go-withs because the best bottle in his collection was an aqua straight-sided Coke crowntop from Tracy City, Tenn.  He’d found that gem on the riverbank while swimming in the Tennessee River with his best friend, Kathy, a leggy raven-haired beauty from Bridgeport, Ala.  He adored her as much as his chicken fighting and bottle collection.

Kathy knew this, but would not marry Carl David because she knew someday his luck would run out and he’d end up in jail or prison for running a chicken fighting ring.  She loved her bottle-collecting, chicken-fighting man with all her heart, but could not bear the thought of raising children alone should her husband run afoul of The Law.

And run afoul Carl David did on an early May morning in 2002 when the Marion County Sheriff’s Department nabbed him and 32 other pals in the middle of a rowdy match between Speckle IX and John Hunt Morgan, a mean, long-spurred red from Huntsville, Ala.  Much to Carl David’s astonishment, the Feds picked up the case and instead of a short stay in a Tennessee pen, he soon found himself headed to The Big House in Atlanta.  Dazed and highly upset for keeping meticulous records on his home computer of his chicken fighting-gambling operation and numerous bribery pay-outs (thus the Feds’ interest), Carl David Hulvey arrived at the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta on Sept. 15, 2002, with a 12-year sentence to serve.

Within a few weeks, Carl David went to work at the prison’s Unicor factory as a quality assurance inspector in the factory’s wood-working shop.  There he inspected recently lathed table legs as diligently as he had once inspected meaty thighs on game roosters just before they made their debuts into the cock-fighting ring.  He also got acquainted with the prison’s leisure library and exercise yard, loving to read good books as much as he loved to walk around the track.

It did not take Carl David many trips around the track before he noticed the old glass bottles protruding from the concrete wall surrounding the prison.  In fact, it was the glint off a Fletcher’s cork-topped Castoria bottle that first got his attention.

A thorough but casual inspection (lest the guards in the towers get suspicious of his intentions) of the glass-studded walls soon had Carl David’s heart hammering in his chest, but when he glanced up and saw a sizeable chunk of an Atlanta Coca-Cola Hutchinson embedded in the wall, Carl David’s heart actually stopped beating for a minute or two.  There within his grasp was the Holy Grail of Coca-Cola bottles!  Not withstanding a few inches of ancient concrete, it would be his for the taking, and within a few minutes of seeing it, Carl David determined to do just that, come hell or high water.  How he would send the Coca-Cola Hutchinson home once he successfully and safely pried it out never entered his mind at the time.  That thought occurred later that night while looking at the bottle’s mate in his copy of Alan Petretti’s “Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide.”

Line drawing of the extremely rare Atlanta Coca Cola Hutchinson bottle, courtesy of Ron Fowler, www.hutchbook.com.

Photo of a badly damaged example reported sold on eBay in late 2001, for $1,108.89!

With years left to serve on his sentence, though, Carl David figured by the time he had successfully abstracted the bottle from the wall, he would have thought of many ways in which he could smuggle the prize out of prison to Kathy, who would keep it for him until he completed his sentence.  Although she was dismayed at his conviction and ultimate prison sentence, Kathy still remained Carl David’s best friend.  She kept him regularly supplied with books and magazines related to his bottle collecting hobby.  With his good prison job, regular exercise and relishing the fact that his vast and valuable collection was safe at Kathy’s house, Carl David could concentrate on freeing the imprisoned bottle that he coveted so much.  And concentrate he did.

First, he began a thrice-weekly exercise regimen that was conveniently located by the prison wall just beneath the nesting Coca-Cola Hutchinson.  He would lean upon the wall for support as he stretched his muscles in preparation for his daily fitness routine. His 6-foot-2-inch frame enabled him to reach up to the bottle with his arms and use one of the hard plastic spoons he’d nabbed from the dining hall to scrape the concrete away from the bottle.  He was quite surprised at how much the concrete had deteriorated since it was first poured more than 100 years ago and felt his task might not be as daunting as he’d thought.

Being a better than average softball player, Carl David joined one of the prison’s teams at the beginning of summer.  Playing right field for the Astros gave him yet another opportunity to work on the excavation of the Hutchinson.  The recreation yard is long but narrow.  Thus one had to hug the wall to catch balls hit against it.  If the ball hits three-quarters of the way up the wall, or over it, the batter scores a home run.  But if the ball hits below the imaginary home run line, it is considered a double.

Carl David soon noticed the imaginary home run line sparked a lot of controversy.  Nothing breaks the boredom of a lengthy prison sentence than arguing with your fellow inmates over politics, music, religion and, most of all, sports.  Instead of joining in the ensuing fracas, Carl David would shake his head, get out his spoon and work on freeing his beloved bottle.

His first softball season with the Astros was a productive one for both his team and Carl David.  The team made it to the play offs, came in second, and each player got a six-pack of Pepsi-Cola.  Carl David managed to uncover another inch of the bottle and a pal in the prison maintenance shop provided him with a small can of white paint.  He carefully painted the exposed portion of the trench he’d dug around the bottle and the bottle itself.

During his second season, Carl David benefited from an unexpected revelation when he saw a guard nailing signs onto the wall.  They read: “ALL BALLS HIT ABOVE THIS SIGN ARE HOME RUNS!”

When Kathy came to visit Carl David the week before Christmas, she was quite amazed at what she saw.  Instead of a sandy-haired, chubby middle-aged man, standing before her was a short-haired, tanned, athletic version of her beloved Carl David.  Cupid struck again when Kathy gave Carl David an affectionate hug and a peck on the cheek.  He blushed when she called him her “Adonis” and told him he looked 10 years younger than when she last saw him three years ago.  Of course, Carl David did not fail to notice that Kathy was still the shapely, graceful radiant beauty that she’d always been since they’d met more than 20 years ago.

Each visit from Kathy over the next two years inspired Carl David to work even harder to free the Hutchinson.  He could see the end of the bottle’s base and the best he could tell, the bottle wasn’t cracked or broken.  It did have some residue of concrete on its exterior and a few scratches here and there, most of which came at the hands of Carl David as he struggled to free it.

With no parole or more good time legislation pending in Congress, Carl David determined to seek early release via another route as he had already been locked up four years on his 12-year sentence.  His plan to be home in time for Christmas would have come as quite a surprise to Kathy, as well as to his roommate and the penitentiary guards.  His plans required 30 to 40 20-penny nails from the prison’s tool room at the maintenance shop and a hammer.  The nails he would easily acquire from his friend Louie (the lifter), but the hammer would be too easily  missed.  He had to settle for one half of a broken shaft from an old tractor axle purloined from the lieutenant’s office by an orderly.  The axle had been confiscated by an officer who found it hidden away behind some milk crates in the mess hall where it had also been used as a hammer to knock apart boxes of frozen chicken quarters inside the freezer.

Two days after Thanksgiving 2006, Carl David at long last had retrieved the Atlanta Coca-Cola Hutchinson from the wall.  He easily smuggled it past the guards manning the main corridor of the prison and hid it among his clothes in his locker box in his room.  He showed the bottle to nobody, not even his roommate, nor did he let anyone see him hide the nails and broken axle in the recreation yard only feet from where the Coca-Cola Hutchinson had been pried from its concrete grave.  On a cold and rainy afternoon of Dec. 24 while other inmates were clustered in the leisure room playing Bingo (for six-packs of Dr. Pepper), Carl Davis was making his regular stroll around the recreation yard just feet from the wall.  The guard in the tower never noticed when Carl David stopped walking, started nailing and soon climbed to the top of the wall with his treasured bottle stuck snugly in the front pocket of his khaki pants.

Once starting his descent on the other side of the wall, Carl David’s trouble began.  Leaning over the wall to hammer in the first nail, the bottle fell out of his pants pocket.  Its flight was only slowed when it hit Officer Childs in the head.  Childs and Officer Duncun happened to be walking the perimeter of the prison at that moment conducting their daily inspection of the wall.  As his partner hit the ground, knocked cold by the falling bottle, Officer Duncun raised his rifle and eyes toward the top of the wall, expecting another brick to come tumbling out of the sky onto his head.  At least, he thought it was a brick that had felled his partner. 

Carl David had leaped to his feet when his prized bottle fell, but when he saw it knock Officer Childs in the head, he knew the game was over.  He quickly scurried back over the wall before Officer Duncun could see his silhouette in the thickening fog.  Hoping that his luck would hold out, Carl David took the time to hammer the 20-penny nails flush against the wall as he made his descent back into the prison yard.

He was soon back in his cell, avowing never to tempt fate again, and promised the Almighty that he’d give up crime, especially chicken fighting, forever, if he’d let him pass muster in the next 48 hours if there was indeed an uproar over the Christmas eve escape attempt.

Officer Childs was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was treated for a mild concussion, then released.  Officer Duncun’s quick investigation into the incident revealed that an old bottle and not a brick had somehow come loose at the top of the wall during a rain.

The Atlanta Coca-Cola Hutchinson bottle was taken to the captain’s office.  It now rests in the front lobby of the prison entrance along with a wide assortment of contraband. 

Carl David was a model inmate the rest of his sentence and while he did occasionally bemoan the loss of his rare bottle, it was soon forgotten by the time he and Kathy were married in the little white Macedonian Baptist Church in New Hope, Tenn., within six months of his release from prison.

Photograph of the Macedonia Baptist Church, New Hope, Tennessee, at the foot of Sand Mountain on Nickajack Lake, courtesy of Merle Bellamy. 

At Christmas dinner on Dec. 25, 2012, Carl David ‘fessed up and told Kathy of his ill-fated escape attempt six years earlier in which the Hutchinson Coke and a desire to be home early with her played significant roles.

Talk of the bottle stirred Kathy’s memories and she soon dug out the bottle she had bought him at the Jasper, Tenn., yard sale for $12 from the closet.  The funny looking Coca-Cola bottle turned out to be the mate to the one Carl David had lost at the prison.

He nearly choked to death on a piece of pecan pie when she showed him the bottle, but he didn’t and they lived happily ever after.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a fictional story and, to the best of my knowledge, no inmate by the name of Carl David Hulvey ever served time behind the walls of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.  Numerous people have served time there, however, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, notorious gangster Al Capone and at least one King of Pop. Although the story is fiction, the historical information about the prison and its concrete wall are true.  Ordinary citizens and tourists are not allowed inside; therefore, if you’d like to see for yourself if there are indeed old glass bottles embedded in the concrete wall, you will have to commit a serious federal crime to do a stretch there.  I highly advise against such madness!