Local residents don't have to go far to enjoy a taste of nostalgia surrounding the world-famous Coca-Cola brand.
For example, memorabilia at the Buccaneer Gift Shop and Magnolia Grill in downtown Fort Walton Beach include 6 and 6.5-ounce Coke bottles from the old Coca-Cola bottling plant at 253 N. Ninth St. in DeFuniak Springs.
The words “DE FUNIAK SPRINGS FLA” are marked on the bottom of the little reusable glass bottles, which are shaped with Coke’s trademark curves.
The plant in the seat of Walton County operated from 1941-79, later housed a Hodges Cash & Carry hardware store and has been home to Southern PowerWorks outdoor power equipment for about the past eight years.
The building and the bottles have stories to tell. They evoke history. And for many people, they also represent feel-good Americana.
Tom Rice, co-owner of the Magnolia Grill on Brooks Street, has more than a dozen bottles from the old Coke plant, as well as some from pre-Castro Cuba.
Rice said a man brought the bottles from the old DeFuniak Springs’ plant to the Magnolia Grill after hearing Rice talk on a local radio program about long-gone Fort Walton Beach restaurants and other area history.
“They were in a brown paper sack,” Rice recalled of the donated bottles.
He wasn’t able to speak to the man about where they came from, but remembers they contained sand and smelled as if they had been plucked from the water, perhaps Choctawhatchee Bay.
Rice recently scrubbed the bottles and soaked them in vinegar, which better revealed their world-famous green tint. His bottles from Cuba used to belong to his father-in-law, early Fort Walton Beach developer Jim Starkey, but Rice doesn’t know how his relative acquired them.
He remembers the thrill of enjoying a Coke and obtaining a 2-3 cent deposit for the empty soda bottles when he was a child.
“Drinking a Coke was a real treat,” said Rice, who added that the Coca-Cola he grew up with was made with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup. “We usually drank water and iced tea.”
His wife, Peggy, remembers how she and her childhood friends found joy in seeing whose 6-oz. bottle of Coke was produced the farthest away, such as from a plant in Colorado or New York.
Jeff Ring, who owns the Buccaneer Gift Shop on Miracle Strip Parkway, said the reason why many people are fascinated with all things Coca-Cola, including old Coke bottles from near and far, boils down to one word: nostalgia.
The Coke memorabilia at Ring’s 46-year-old store consists of at least 1,000 items. One of the more unusual ones is a 1930s wooden keg that contained Coke syrup. The keg’s faded and torn label lets people know the product included additives “from coca leaves (cocaine removed).”
Other Coke-themed items include toy trucks, signs, coolers, a historic dispensing machine, bottle carriers and, of course, bottles of various ages.
“People say they grew up with it,” Ring said of Coca-Cola. “It’s nostalgia. And now for the younger generation, (the brand’s history) is being popularized by shows like ‘American Pickers.’”
Ring’s Coke bottles for sale include an unopened, 1950s one from DeFuniak Springs, as well as an early 1900s empty bottle from the Biedenharn Candy Co. in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the beverage was first bottled.
Other bottles at the store include some from plants in Panama City, Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama.
Information on the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in DeFuniak Springs is found in the 2008 book, “Images of America: DeFuniak Springs.” It was written by Diane Merkel, director of the Walton County Heritage Museum.
“Charles Rainwater and J. H. Edmondson bought the new Pensacola Coca-Cola franchise in 1924 and changed the name to Hygeia Coca-Cola Bottling Works,” Merkel wrote. “For years, the bottles of drinks were shipped from Pensacola to the warehouse on Main Street in DeFuniak Springs by rail.
“Boxcars were left in front of the warehouse, allowing workers to unload new products and reload the cars with the empties. Deliveries were made throughout the county by truck.”
The bottling plant in DeFuniak Springs opened in 1941. According to the book, the plant’s managers were Harry Robinson (1941-1946), R. M. “Shine” Sawyer (until the early 1970s), Bob Vining (until 1975), and John Poss, who managed the plant until it closed in 1979.
“As transportation became better and beverage containers of exceedingly large sizes came into use, these local bottlers departed the scene,” Tom Rice said.
Today, many customers of the old Coke building’s current occupant, Southern PowerWorks, remark on the structure’s history, Southern PowerWorks owner Trey Waldrop said.
Limestone panels containing the words “Coca-Cola” still endure on the front and sides of the two-story, roughly 10,000-square-foot building. And inside, Waldrop often admires the layout of the former bottling plant.
“We have the original blueprints of the building,” Waldrop said.
His favorite parts of the structure are its historic floors and stairs.
“You can tell they were hand-done,” he said. “Those are impressive, and the fact that it has a freight elevator, one of the first few hundred in the state, and that it still works. That’s pretty cool.”
Above the main floor of the old plant are its original office and walk-in safe, as well as an area where workers cleaned bottles. In the basement was where Coca-Cola employees would oversee an auger-fed, coal-fired boiler that provided steam to power the plant’s equipment.
“There’s still coal down there,” Waldrop said.