The birthplace of the Coca-Cola bottle is now home to a nearly 7,000-square-foot mural celebrating the town’s role in the brand’s rich history thanks to an ongoing “ghost signs” restoration project funded by local bottler and distributor, Coca-Cola Consolidated. 

A three-story painted sign now covers the east brick wall of the Vigo County Historical Museum on Wabash Avenue in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, where the Root Glass Co. patented the iconic Coke bottle in 1915 after responding to the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company's challenge to design a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.”

Veteran muralists Jack Fralin and Bill Johnson spent three weeks painting the towering sign in May, as passers-by stopped to chat or snap photos.

“When you’re doing these signs, it’s a communal affair,” Fralin, who has painted dozens of murals for Coca-Cola Consolidated, told the Tribune Star. “People were driving by and honking horns and saying, ‘Way to go.’”

Terre Haute

The Vigo County Historical Museum building was built in 1895 to house Ehrmann Manufacturing. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Coca-Cola leased wall space from the company for a series of murals which were eventually painted over.

Fralin and Johnson – who sadly passed away days after finishing the projects – used historical photos of the signs were used to re-create a vintage panel on the mural’s south end, while a north section features the commemorative logo for the Coke bottle centennial.

“Our company has never painted anything larger than this in our history of over 116 years,” emphasized Todd Marty, market unit vice president, Coca-Cola Consolidated.

Coke Consolidated launched the ghost signs restoration project in 2011 to refresh old murals that had faded and bring them back to life. “They’re an important part of our history and the history of small towns and cities like Terre Haute,” said Jennifer Richmond, director of state government affairs for Coca-Cola Consolidated.

Painted wall signs were one of the earliest forms of Coca-Cola advertising, dating back to the 1890s. In 1910, the company devoted 25 percent of its total marketing budget to wall signs. Coca-Cola leased wall space from property owners to extol the virtues of its flagship product through illustrations and slogans like “Delicious and Refreshing”, “The Pause That Refreshes” and “Work Refreshed” – which served as colorful welcome mats at busy crossroads and other high-traffic areas with a birds-eye view of downtown. Murals became embedded in the urban landscape, particularly in the South.

By the 1950s, boomtowns became virtual ghost towns as residents flocked to bigger cities and businesses fled downtowns for the suburbs. Billboards gradually replaced painted signs, which were costlier to produce, and the vintage ads almost completely disappeared by the ‘70s.

Main Street began to mount a comeback in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, however, thanks to a renewed interest in historic preservation. And for many towns, bringing back the beloved murals from yesteryear has been a logical – and economical – way to recover a sense of nostalgia.