While rummaging through our offsite Archives storage warehouse a few weeks ago, I happened upon a brown, nondescript photo album. The genuine leather, string-bound book was hardly worn – yet obviously from a past era. As I began to flip through, I was struck by the first ten pages which were filled with black and white photo after photo of a devastated community, clearly due the result of a natural disaster. In fact, the 4 ¾ by 2 ¾ inch photos were not unlike the catastrophic scenes I recently saw in the aftermath of the tornado in Oklahoma. When I turned to page eleven of the photo album I saw a photo of the Gainesville, Georgia Coca-Cola bottling plant with a crudely written message on the front window that read, “This canteen will close at 9:00 o’clock”. At that very moment, I realized that the story contained within this photo album was the documented account of the April, 1936 tornado that leveled Gainesville, Georgia and the rapid response of what our Chairman and CEO, Muhtar Kent, likes to call the "Golden Triangle" of business, government and civil society. I had referenced this story of the Gainesville Coca-Cola Bottling Company working in cooperation with the city administration and relief agencies many times, but never had I seen such tangible evidence of the partnership in action.
On the Monday morning of April 6, 1936, a severe tornado swept through the city of Gainesville, leaving visuals of wreckage in its trail that filled the pages of newspapers throughout the country and the very photo album that ultimately made its way to our warehouse. One might ask why the local Coca-Cola bottling plant had a canteen message written on its window. It turns out that The Red Cross and The Salvation Army, along with other relief agencies, used the Gainesville Coca-Cola bottling plant as the first relief kitchen for the city after the storm. According to the June, 1936 issue of The Coca-Cola Bottler, when the city’s water lines were cut off, the Gainesville Coca-Cola plant’s management volunteered its facilities, including its ample storage tank full of clean, pure water. The bottling plant, which had the only source of pure water in the city at that point, was utilized by the city government to serve as a canteen, providing water and relief headquarters for local officials, agencies and citizens throughout Gainesville, which is about sixty miles north of Atlanta.
Disaster Response Partners
A few more pages into the photo album I saw a picture of a Coca-Cola truck parked just across from a Red Cross truck as associates from both associations converse in the middle of the road. Collaboration between The Coca-Cola Company and The Red Cross dates back to 1917, as evidenced by this 10th anniversary “Red Cross Roll Call” edition of The Coca-Cola Bottler in our Archives collection. This Gainesville snapshot of the Coca-Cola and Red Cross partnership illustrates the importance of leveraging the operational expertise and local knowledge of both of our organizations to effectively serve our communities. Another photo taken near the Gainesville plant shows 19 barrels of Coca-Cola syrup, part of a twenty-barrel shipment recovered and returned after being scattered all over and buried under debris from the tornado. The barrels also simultaneously function as a support holding up the flag of the Red Cross in the recovery area.
Every Artifact Tells A Story
Every item in the Coca-Cola Archives does indeed tell a story – even a random photo album found in the unlikeliest of places. As it was in 1936, so it is today. Aiding the communities in which we operate is embedded in the heritage and DNA of The Coca-Cola Company. Today, as consumers purchase Coke from local vending machines, some could see a message displayed on the digital screen on interactive vending machines encouraging them to donate to the Red Cross to support victims of the recent Oklahoma tornado and ongoing relief efforts. When “Golden Triangle” partnerships are in place, they have the potential to move society forward for the better. They also serve as flexible, cooperative networks that can provide quick help in times of need. As Muhtar Kent puts it, “By building on nearly a century of cooperation, we’re now able to do more good for more people more quickly than ever before.”
Jamal Booker is Manager of Heritage Communications at The Coca-Cola Company.