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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,351


This is the grave of Asa Candler.

Born in 1851 in Villa Rica, Georgia, Candler grew up pretty well off. His father owned a good bit of property and was a merchant, not to mention a former state legislator in South Carolina, so it is not surprising that he was a slaver, owning about 20 people. But he was a strong Methodist who believed in hard work so he made his children work in the fields as well, including chopping cotton. From the time he was a child, he was interested in business and had organized little business enterprises for his friends, or at least so it is remembered. Well, Candler grew up and went through the Civil War though he was too young to fight. The post-Civil War period was not good for many of the old southern elite. I am not sure how it affected Candler’s family, but he did have to work so he trained as a druggist and moved to Atlanta to get the hell out of the small town where he grew up, a place he hated.

Candler was working still as a druggist in 1888, now approaching middle age, when he met a man named John Stith Pemberton. This guy was a druggist as well. Now, a lot of these types experimented with different concoctions. Remember, this is well before the Pure Food and Drug Act, passed in 1906, and so these guys could sell whatever they wanted. A lot of what they sold were opioids, feeding the great post-Civil War drug addiction of Americans, both veterans and people who liked a little laudanum after dinner. Or before. Or when they woke up in the morning. Might like a little cocaine too. Or my special sauce that was loaded up with booze. Whatever I had to sell.

Anyway, one of Pemberton’s mixes was a new soda. This was the great era of soda in America, when all the different drugstores were developing their own sweet drinks. Most of the great American soft drinks come out of the late 19th and early 20th century South and nearly all were created by pharmacists. North Carolina is to blame for Pepsi, perhaps a greater sin on its history than Jesse Helms. Royal Crown is out of Georgia. Texas is the home of Dr. Pepper. 7-Up is a little later and out of St. Louis, which really isn’t the South but has southern connections. And as you undoubtedly know, Coca-Cola came out of Georgia. Well, Pemberton himself developed Coca-Cola to deal with his wounds after the Civil War and the morphine addiction he developed. Pemberton was however about to die and he wanted to sell the recipe to take care of his family. Candler bought it for $300.

It did not take Candler long to take the recipe nationwide. As it combined kola nuts from Africa and coca leaves from South America, it was both exotic and a good pep. And you could sell that pep. He founded the Coca-Cola Company in 1892 and by 1895, it was selling nationwide. He quickly developed a nationwide marketing campaign that included salesmen in small towns and a large advertising budget. By 1899, he was selling it in Cuba and by 1901 in Europe. Candler was very good at business, no question. He marketed the hell out of his drink. It took him awhile to believe that bottling was a good idea, and he was really committed to the soda fountain concept, building syrup facilities across the country. But his salesmen starting bottling it and he came around when he realized the potential profits. Some of his discomfort was about race and class. Going to a soda fountain was a white middle class thing to do. But to bottle it, well that cocaine laden drink could get in the hands of Black folks. And the southern papers were running all sorts of stories in this era about cocaine-crazed Black men having sex with white women. This was a serious contributor to the banning of cocaine in the 1910s. And Candler, as a strong Methodist, certainly believed all of this stuff. On the other hand, profits. You know which won.

Candler found a way around the cocaine issue. He realized he could get all the pep the drink needed without the cocaine, so he started extracting the cocaine out of the coca leaves and selling it to drug companies. In fact, the only legal coca shipments into the United States today go into Coca-Cola. I really wonder how necessary the leaves are for the taste since the denatured coca adds none of the drugs.

Candler built the largest building in Atlanta in 1906 and then built another big building named after himself in New York in 1912. These were fancy buildings too, no expenses withheld for all the fancy stonework and interiors of this era, although he was known for being kind of cheap in much of life. Candler was very wealthy by the mid 1910s and so he started dabbling in politics. He decided to run for mayor of Atlanta in 1916 and won. He was a big infrastructure guy and provided the city with a modern water and sewage system to help it continue his growth. Of course, he was going to do nothing to deal with the city’s grotesque segregation. He liked that.

Candler was a strong Methodist who distrusted basically everything about everyone. He thought that he was doing God’s work by promoting Coca-Cola, a gift from the heavens to humanity according to him. He tended to idealize women and when he found himself increasingly isolated with his own family by the early 20s, he decided to marry again after his first wife died, to a New Orleans divorce√© that outraged everyone around him. He was 70, she was 37. Did she do it for the money? I mean, sure, I suppose she did. But she caused him problems. She liked drinking, it was Prohibition, she didn’t care because of who she married, so she flaunted public drinking, found herself arrested, and the story was published in the New York Times. To say the least, this did not improve Candler’s standing with his now grown children who were running the business and the family fortune. Candler filed for a divorce the next year. His now ex wife ran over and killed a five year old kid the next year.

After his term as mayor, Candler, who had mostly stepped away from the day to day operations at Coke when he became mayor, decided to give away a lot of his money, much of it to Emory University. He suffered a stroke in 1926, but hung out for a couple more years, dying in 1929. He was 77 years old.

Asa Candler is buried in Westview Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.

If you would like this series to visit other soda moguls, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Caleb Bradham, the monster responsible for Pepsi, is in New Bern, North Carolina, and Charles Alderton, inventor of Dr. Pepper, is in Waco, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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