At Dawson and Stevens Classic '50s Diner, the soda fountain stools swivel, sandwiches have names like “Splish Splash” and “T-Bird Classic,” and songs by Elvis and Chubby Checker serenade customers. But it's the floor-to-ceiling displays of Coca-Cola memorabilia that have truly put this Grayling, Michigan, diner on the world map and drawn admirers from as far away as Japan and Kenya.
Known as the Bottle Cap Museum, the collection comprises more than 12,000 Cola-Cola items, from trays, signs, and toys to specially-made bicycles and a full-size 1950s Coca-Cola delivery truck. There are syrup jugs, dart boards, antique dolls, clocks, coins, and a vending machine that once turned out cold Cokes for 10 cents a pop. About 4,000 glass bottles dating from the 1890s to the present line the shelves, carefully arranged to reflect the changes in design and shape over the last the century.
The museum even has its own curator, Marianne McEvoy, who makes sure all the items stay in pristine condition and rotates them regularly to keep things interesting. “It's kind of an adventure in itself just to stop in to the diner,” McEvoy said. “People walk in and say 'Oh my land, would you look at this place?'”
The Bottle Cap Museum has operated out of Dawson and Stevens since the early 2000s, but the collection actually had its humble beginnings more than half a century ago along the Sturgeon River in rural lower Michigan. That's when the original owner, Bill Hicks, raked up some intact Coca-Cola bottles while cleaning up outside the hunting and fishing lodge he operated.
“One of my tenants told me I could get $5 apiece for them,” Hicks said.
Instead of cashing in the bottles, though, Hicks held onto them. Before long he was adding all kinds of Coca-Cola artifacts and had a bona fide collection of hats, trays, jewelry, and toys that inspired him to operate a small museum out of his house. Anyone who came by got an hour-long tour and a six-ounce Coke, and all the bottle caps were tossed into an oversize plastic Coke bottle near the door—hence, the name the Bottle Cap Museum.
As Hicks recalls it, he'd regularly drive over to Coca-Cola collectors' conventions in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and “buy so much stuff I couldn't fit it all in my car.”
Hicks operated his museum for about a decade, attracting an estimated 10,000 visitors a year. One of them was local business owner Bill Gannon, who had just acquired a 1930s pharmacy and soda fountain in nearby Grayling. Gannon intended to buy a few vintage Coke bottles from Hicks to display above the soda fountain. Instead, Hicks talked him into buying the entire collection.
“He told me he didn't put this museum together to sell it piecemeal,” Gannon said. “He said, 'If I sell it to you, I can come down to the diner and see it whenever I want'.”
Within a year, Hicks got his wish. Dawson and Stevens reopened after renovations as a 1950s-style diner complete with chrome swivel stools and a homespun menu of burgers, pancakes, phosphates, and ice cream floats. It is a fixture in downtown Grayling, attracting school field trips, tour buses, National Guard soldiers (Grayling is home to the largest National Guard training facility in the U.S.), and loyal locals like Carol and Lacey Stephan, who got engaged while sharing lunch at one of the booths more than 50 years ago. Now the retired couple bring their grandchildren into the revamped diner or "the two of us just come in and have a pop and visit with all the girls," said Carol. Her favorite museum items are two red Coca-Cola bicycles suspended from the ceiling near the front of the restaurant.
The Coca-Cola collection helped inspire the down-home retro vibe that dominates the diner, Gannon said. “It was the museum that dictated what we did with the diner from the beginning," he said. "Coke has helped create that atmosphere.”
Now Gannon is the one who scours the Internet and flea markets for unique and interesting Coke items to add to the collection. One of his prize items is a 1950s stake bed truck that had been found abandoned in the woods in rural Minnesota. Gannon had it shipped across Lake Michigan and painted it bright yellow, and he now parks it in front of the diner on special occasions.
Another favorite comes from the original collection: a full-size red-and-white Indy go-kart emblazoned with Coca-Cola on the side. Hicks's niece won it years ago in a dollar raffle, and it sits on permanent display atop a small stage in the diner.
“I look at that every single time I walk in the diner, and it brings a smile to my face every time," Gannon said with a laugh.
Bill Hicks, for his part, still stops by the diner from time to time to see his prized collection and share stories with anyone who's interested. Like the time he bought a football made entirely of Coca-Cola bottle caps at a late-night transaction during his first Coca-Cola collectors' convention. Or the time he lent one of his prized items, a 1930s Coca-Cola baseball cap, to the driver of a Coca-Cola truck to add a little merriment to his daily delivery run.
"We've had a lot of fun," Hicks said. “It's just been a beautiful thing all the way through.”
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