Saturday, April 28, 2018

Things Go Better With.........More Information!

by Larry Miller

It apparently all started years ago with a huge bag of bottle caps that were intended to put the finishing touch on the just-filled Coke bottles coming off the line at the old Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in Chadron.

Seems the Dawes County Historical Museum has come by those misguided bottle caps, spurring questions about the old plant. 

"What year was it built," Budge asked.

"I don't know, but I'll bet somebody does," I replied.

That short conversation with Budge Cripps of Whitney, Nebraska – a guy who's been deeply involved with the Dawes County Historical Museum for several years – has sent yours truly off on an information scavenger hunt.

My desk is a mess, there's dirty dishes in the sink, the garage needs cleaning, and I've got a wee bit of a cold......but all is not lost.  I've found yet another diversion from doing the things I should be doing.  It's a new historical puzzlement – searching for clues that might help answer Budge's question.  No answer yet, but a few good leads.

My first thought was to contact high school classmate Tommy Sims.  After all, Tommy's dad bought the plant and moved from Kansas to Chadron in about 1957-58.  A quick call to Tom resulted in an exchange of information over lunch at the Alpine Inn in Hill City (They have really good brownies, by the way – and I expect Coca-Cola, too).  

Tom, shown here with a plaque from the plant, had some great old photos, too; alas, they were not dated.  But our "Columbo" instincts took hold when we saw a photo with baskets of flowers on the floor of the plant, like perhaps....a celebration?  Ah, ha!  A Grand Opening!  Well, maybe.

Most telling was that plaque Tom had wisely spirited from the wall of the plant those many years ago – when it went out of business.  We conjured that was probably about the time Safeway was building a new store along West Third Street in Chadron, reaching back and likely gobbling up some of the land upon which the plant sat.  (I'd forgotten – if I ever knew – that there were actually two different Safeway buildings at that location, subsequent to their earlier store I remember on the west side of First and Main).

Tom says the plaque was probably presented to the plant by the now-defunct Miller-Hydro Company way back when.  And Miller-Hydro, he says, was the manufacturer of the mechanized bottle washer in the plant.  After inspecting that plaque, we surmised that it was likely presented to the plant when it first opened.  If our interpretation of the numbers at the bottom-left of the plaque are accurate, that was probably about the 16th of June 1939.  Perhaps that was the opening date.  And maybe that's when some of Tommy's picture of the plant were taken.

Then, I thought of the late Harry Meyer,  who was known around Chadron as "Mr. Kiwanis" for more than half a century.   Born in Colorado and member of the "Last Man's Club" of World War One veterans, he was a jovial and enterprising guy I got to know in about 1958 at the KCSR radio station.  I got to know Harry pretty well.  He was in the sunset of his years, working at the station as its bookkeeper.

But Harry was also known as a Coke guy.   Or rather, THE Coke guy in Chadron.  He had run the Coca-Cola Bottling Company way back when – but just when the heck was that?  Well, according to the Pictorial History of Dawes County, Harry owned the plant from 1929 to 1953.  The next owner was George Garrison, who had it for nearly five years.

Exploring a few old Chadron city directories, I discovered that Harry and his wife, Gertrude, owned and operated the Chadron Creamery as early as 1936.  And according to ads, they were a manufacturer and distributor of dairy products, candies, Near Beer, and......Coca-Cola.

But where was the Chadron Creamery in those days?  East 2nd Street?  Second and Chadron Avenue?  I'm inclined to think that Harry and "Gert," as he often called her, handled Coca-Cola among the many other products marketed at the creamery – but I'm skeptical they were bottling Coke in those early years.  I suspect it was 1939, when the Miller-Hydro bottle washer and other equipment necessary for filling the uniquely shaped Coke bottles were purchased, probably for a new or renovated structure on the west side of Second and Chadron Avenue.  What do you think?

A picture of Harry at work, and a few other Coca-Cola related photos (courtesy of Tom Sims) are included in our Early Chadron gallery.  There's even one that suggests that "Things Didn't Always Go Better With Coke."

A bit of follow-up in the Chadron newspapers of the 1930's, and cross-checking with local telephone and city directories of that period, should help to answer Budge's question.  Until then, I'm thinking there was a plant, somewhere in Chadron, in 1939.