If you ask John Carlisle, owner of the old Coca-Cola building on Taylor Street in Griffin, Georgia what his first Coke memory is he’ll tell you that he doesn’t have one… and isn’t that the point? To Carlisle Coca-Cola, or “Co-Cola” as it’s softly spoken in the Southern United States, is so much a part of our lives it’s difficult to separate it from one memory to the next. “It’s been there since I remember,” he says and he’s betting he’s not alone in his experience.
This spring, Carlisle solicited Griffinites for their own Coke memories in the form of photographs. “I wanted snapshots of people in their everyday lives with a Coca-Cola in their hands or in the background,” he told Kitchen Drawer. Searching for historical, candid moments in which Coke was a part, Carlisle is creating an ongoing photography exhibit inside his building dedicated to what he calls, “The feel-good emblem of our society.”
Much like its namesake, Carlisle believes his Griffin building is an icon of sorts. And like the Great Brand, he worries we may not fully appreciate the place the two have in society. “Like so many icons I think it’s been overlooked, we’ve not fully appreciated it and Coke is that way too,” he says. “It’s a part of our lives that we don’t really recognize and value the role its played, because much like those memories, it can fade into the everyday.” To Carlisle and many younger, they can’t recall when his nearly 75 year-old building wasn’t there. “It’s easy to drive right by and take it for granted,” Carlisle says.
Once Upon a Time
The original Griffin Coke building before it relocated to Taylor Street.
A little research back at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta revealed the building’s and the company’s rich history in Griffin. Long before Carlisle was born, Griffin Coca-Cola Bottling Company was granted a charter to operate in 1907, taking over territory previously served by the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company. J.C. Vaughn managed plant operations and in its first year the bottling company produced 2,768 gallons of Coca-Cola. In 1912 H.B. Montgomery Sr. succeeded Vaughn and managed the plant until 1954 when A. Talley Montgomery was named plant manager. During its fifty years in operation, the Griffin plant moved only once. In the early 1940’s it relocated to its current address on Taylor Street. But before closing its doors, Coke recorded the bottler made nearly 35 times the volume it did in its first year, producing 96,504 gallons of Coca-Cola in 1956.
Nearly as deep as the building’s history with Coke is Carlisle’s family ties with the beverage company. His father, Ernest Carlisle was a soda jerk who would tell his son stories of the days when Coke barrels would arrive at his father’s store, Carlisle and Ward Druggists. There, inside what is now Angelo’s Restaurant, Ernest Carlisle would make Cokes at the counter for his customers. And while Carlisle might not admit to a first Coke memory himself, he vividly remembers his first encounter with the old plant he now owns. When he was a Boy Scout his troop toured the plant and watched the bottling process of Cokes coming off the line. At the end of the tour, they all left with Griffin-made Cokes and a lot of smiles.
A Coke Building and a Smile
Carlisle believes those positive connotations and feelings people have about what went on in Griffin translate to good business now. “I don’t have to try and make people have a positive feeling about this building. It’s inherent. It comes with it and that means a lot to an investor.” And it’s not just feelings—it’s location. The building is a landmark. “What’s been interesting to me is everyone knows this building” he says. In the two years he’s owned it, Carlisle has never had to give the physical address to anyone to identify where it stands. Three words—the Coke building—and anyone in town knows exactly which building he’s talking about. Good for the landlord and for the 33 businesses like Dry Falls Outfitters, Franklin and Rosemary Clothing Boutique and About Bodies Yoga Studio that all call the Coke building home. “Tenants love this building. They love the ambience, the exposed brick walls.” And he says, “It’s built like Fort Knox.”
Like many historical buildings, the Coke building came available to Carlisle for the right price at the right time. He thought it needed to be preserved, admired it as a building and a place in the community, and thought it would serve as a good business for him. As with many of our old buildings, Carlisle warns “We have to be so careful. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.” Roughly 60 miles away, the Coke building in Fort Valley was demolished to make way for a fast food restaurant. All that remains is the sign. Seeing himself as one of many caretakers in Griffin’s history, Carlisle is devoted to preserving, protecting and sharing his building.
Having opened his photography exhibit to the public, Carlisle’s hopes are twofold. He aims to solidify and expand the Coke building’s role as not only a place to do business, but a home for community events; and at the same time, he looks forward to joining fellow Griffinites in rediscovering and appreciating our everyday history with a brand that’s served as the backdrop for 127 years’ worth of memories. “What I want people to do is to recognize the role of Coca-Cola. When you order a Coke, you’re saying more than ‘I want a soft drink,’ you’re saying ‘This is a part of my life and my memories.’”